Week in politics: Police minister under fire as National steps up policing campaign
Analysis – Should Police Minister Poto Williams keep her job? National doesn’t think so, and it’s putting the government under increasing pressure over gang violence. Parliament passes health restructuring legislation and embarks on Three Waters as the Prime Minister heads to Sydney to meet Australia’s new Prime Minister.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon this week called for the replacement of Police Minister Poto Williams. He said so in three different media interviews, citing the wave of gang shootings and saying that Williams just wasn’t up to the job.
“She’s clearly overwhelmed, things aren’t getting better,” he said on Morning report. “There have been 23 shootings in two weeks, violent crime is up 21%, gang membership is up 40% – that’s the reality New Zealanders are facing.”
On Newshub Morning show on the same day, Luxon gave a similar interview. “The reality is that Poto Williams is in trouble and she now needs to be replaced,” he said. “I’m sure she’s a good person, but she’s struggling…the frontline police don’t feel supported.”
On TVNZ Breakfast it was the same story. Luxon had obviously decided to up the ante on gang violence before going on air that day.
He took the lead from national police spokesman Mark Mitchell, who also gave Williams a hard time in parliament. National clearly thinks it’s a weakness for the government and Williams is an easy target.
The minister rejects claims that the government is soft on crime.
“I just delivered the police a budget of $562 million…that means we think as a government the police need the resources to do the tough mahi that’s in front of them,” Williams said. to the media.
“I have to say to Mr. Luxon, it would be really nice if he had some ideas rather than just throwing away those disposable lines.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern backed Williams, saying she had “full confidence” in her, RNZ reported. This trust was based on what she had delivered to the police.
“An increase in numbers…a doubling of the organized crime unit, the gun prohibition orders, the work we’re doing on the proceeds of crime,” Ardern said. “These are all advances that end up making our police forces better prepared, albeit in a very challenging environment for them.”
It came as a surprise when Ardern appointed Williams to the post after the 2020 election. She was a minister in the previous government but had no experience in this type of portfolio.
In April of this year, the New Zealand HeraldAudrey Young wrote an article about Williams. In it, she said that if Labor was to have any hope of regaining control of the law and order agenda, Ardern needed one of its best ministers in the post.
Young explained why she thought Ardern cast Williams, despite the MP not being “a natural fit” for the role.
“In labor or national, the portfolio has gone to people who are naturally the hard-core type,” she said.
“Ardern clearly chose Williams precisely because she didn’t fit the stereotype. Her expertise was in community health and wellness and domestic violence.
“For a government that was looking for a culture change in the police, perhaps the appointment of a social justice advocate would have had symbolic meaning instead of reappointing Nash (former police minister Stuart Nash).”
Young said what Ardern did not foresee at the time were the dramatic changes in criminal offending and the political flashpoint the portfolio had become.
And this was written before the latest spike in gang shootings.
Young concluded that Ardern would not have much choice to replace Williams: “For an issue that will be so potent in an election year, Williams staying put would be a big risk for Ardern and she is almost certainly considering the alternatives.”
Young suggested the alternatives were Megan Woods or Chris Hipkins, Ardern’s two remedial ministers. If they were too busy, then Nash could be reappointed.
This will almost certainly be a significant issue next year. National has only just begun tackling gang violence and law and order in general. As the election approaches, it is likely to become a full-fledged campaign.
And the government will almost certainly respond, probably before the end of the year. It’s already doing the job, explained in “RNZ Gang Law Options Considered as Shootings Continue”.
Williams said all options are on the table.
Williams is unlikely to save the next time Ardern reshuffles his cabinet. The Herald’Political editor Claire Trevett, put it this way: “Lately, one of the National Party’s most valuable assets in its attempt to turn law and order into an election issue has been the Minister of Police, Poto Williams.
Trevett described Williams as “a liability in a portfolio that quickly becomes very political.”
Luxon has overseen a remarkable turnaround in National’s polls since becoming leader, and if you want to know what’s driving him, read Guyon Espiner’s in-depth RNZ article “How Christopher Luxon is Rebranding the National Party”.
Here’s a taste: “He’s white, male, bald, wealthy, but he also stood up for gender pay equity and the rainbow community, worked to end human trafficking and environmentalists are evaluating its climate change credentials. National to victory in the next elections?
Tuesday was a big day for Health Minister Andrew Little. Parliament passed the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill, which is the legislative framework for replacing 20 district health boards with a single agency, Health New Zealand, and the Maori Health Authority.
It comes into effect on July 1.
“This is historic health reform in Aotearoa New Zealand and is essential to righting the wrongs of inequity and unacceptable health outcomes that have been suffered by too many people for too long,” said Little.
“Removing the lottery from postcodes to put patients and communities at the heart of our healthcare system is what the reforms are about.”
Opposition parties were skeptical about it.
National health spokesman Shane Reti said it would do nothing for the 360,000 people waiting four months to see a specialist.
“They only see ideological health reform in the midst of a pandemic, and at a time when New Zealanders are still dying from Covid every day. The timing is terrible,” he said.
ACT health spokeswoman Brooke van Velden said it would do nothing to improve outcomes.
She faced cries of ‘shame on you’ from Labor MPs as she said the legislation was ‘all to do with co-governance’, Stuff reported.
With this big bill on the way, the government has introduced the second of its “transformational” bills to Parliament.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta introduced the first reading of the Water Services Entities Bill, which could be called the Three Waters Bill.
When it is enacted, the water assets held by the communes will be transferred to four huge entities which will be responsible for their financing and management.
Mahuta has come a long way to get where he is and the bill is still hugely controversial.
And, depending on the outcome of next year’s election, the transformation may never be fully realized. The National’s first speaker in the first reading debate, local government spokesman Simon Watts, said his party would repeal it.
Ardern announced at her post-cabinet press conference on Monday that she would fly to Sydney on Thursday to meet new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. There was an informal dinner on Thursday and formal talks will take place today.
All of the questions focused on two familiar issues that Ardern described as the cause of “friction” between the two governments – the 502 deportations and the rights, or lack thereof, of Kiwis living in Australia.
She said she would raise the two with Albanese and hoped progress could be made.
Look at this website to find out how it happened.
*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s Press Gallery, with 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven years as NZ Newswire’s Parliamentary Bureau Chief