Analysis – Nanaia Mahuta’s appointment as foreign minister makes headlines around the world, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern chooses her most capable ministers to handle her “overarching priorities” and sets out the government’s programme from now to Christmas.

Nanaia MahutaSome international media commented on Nanaia Mahuta’s moko kauae. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The international media doesn’t usually take much notice of New Zealand but it did this week after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she had appointed Nanaia Mahuta as the new foreign minister.

“Jacinda Ardern appoints Maori MP Nanaia Mahuta as foreign minister”, London newspaper The Times headlined its report.

“New Zealand’s prime minister has named what she called an ‘incredibly diverse’ cabinet including an openly gay deputy prime minister and a female foreign minister who has a prominent Maori tattoo on her chin,” the paper said.

CNN reported: “New Zealand has appointed its first indigenous female foreign minister to represent what’s shaping up to be one of the most diverse parliaments in the world.” The network also mentioned Mahuta’s moko kauae, describing it as “a traditional tattoo on her chin”.

Germany’s tabloid Bild ran the story and asked a question in its headline: “Why does the foreign minister have a tattoo on her chin?”

There were many other reports by newspapers and networks around the world including Al Jazeera and Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The news even reached the Dominican Republic.

Mahuta will not be anticipating overseas trips for a while, but when she does she will be a target for photographers.

She has much to learn. Taking questions after Ardern’s announcement, Mahuta wisely avoided comment on issues such as China’s intentions in the South Pacific. That was something she would be getting advice on, she said.

Ardern didn’t make a big deal of the appointment in her speech at a press conference on Monday.

It was well down the list, under the heading “other key appointments” in the official transcript.

“Nanaia Mahuta will become the Minister of Foreign Affairs – the first woman in the nation’s history to hold the portfolio,” she said. “She brings the experience of being an Associate Trade Minister in the last cabinet. She will hold on to Local Government, continuing the work started on three waters and will pick up an Associate Māori Development role.”

That was how she announced the “bolt from the blue” as RNZ’s Jane Patterson described it in her Power Play.

The prime minister’s mind was on other things that day. She opened by saying her new cabinet would have two overarching priorities – continuing to keep the country safe from Covid-19 and driving the economic recovery to “build back better”.

The MPs she has chosen for those priorities are clearly considered to be her most capable ministers.

Chris Hipkins, who held the health portfolio after David Clark stepped down, is now Minister for Covid-19 Response. That puts him in charge of testing, border management, managed isolation facilities and right through to the details such as flights carrying returnees.

The way it’s been organised is similar to the policy National put forward which envisaged a separate agency to handle border security under a single minister.

Ardern named Grant Robertson as her deputy, continuing as Minister of Finance and also becoming Minister for Infrastructure. “Grant has been given the seniority and portfolio mix required to drive our economic recovery,” she said.

It’s a huge task and Robertson will be under intense opposition scrutiny for the next three years.

Robertson told Morning Report he saw his position as a role model for the rainbow community. “I think what is important is that I do the job well… but I also think it’s important for young people in the rainbow community to know that their sexuality is no barrier to their progress.”

Andrew Little had been tipped for foreign affairs but instead he’s the new Minister of Health, a vote of confidence from the prime minister. Ardern said she had realised one minister couldn’t handle the Covid-19 response and the health portfolio as well.

Little’s job will include pushing through major reforms to the public health system while he keeps services running. He’ll be closely watched by National as well.

Ardern is in a position of power unprecedented under MMP. Her Labour government can do what it wants, pass legislation it chooses, without having to seek the agreement of any other party.

She can, if she wishes, be a transformational prime minister in her second term.

So far, however, there have been no indications of radical changes ahead. The tax system is locked in for three years through the campaign promise that the only change would be implementing the new top tax bracket.

Ardern won the election by gaining votes from the centre, and she’ll want to hold onto them. Labour will want to work closely with the rural sector to lock in those gains, and hopefully keep its grip on them through to 2023.

On Thursday Ardern outlined the government’s plans through to Christmas. She focused on the economic recovery, saying the Small Business Loan Scheme would be extended to three years with the interest-free period extended to two years.

Its scope would be widened to allow businesses to borrow to invest in new equipment and digital infrastructure.

To help job creation the government will prioritise the roll out of the flexi-wage scheme before Christmas. An additional $311 million will go into it to increase the average subsidy paid to employers to take on a worker. Ardern said an additional 40,000 unemployed people would be able to take advantage of the scheme.

Ardern said in her speech to Business NZ that Environment Minister David Parker intended to “progress work through the House” on Resource Management Act reform in the first half of next year.

That’s a tight time frame for what’s going to be a complex and controversial process.

Extending sick leave from five days to 10 is also in the work programme, with draft legislation expected before Christmas followed by a full select committee process. Ardern said she hoped to build consensus around it.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.