The New Zealand Herald

Ardern must be weighing calling Williams back from police beat

- Audrey Young comment

There are some clear choices to replace struggling Police Minister Poto Williams if Labour has any hope of regaining control of the law and order agenda.

Ardern needs one of her best ministers, the ones with political smarts, who can think on their feet, manage problems in a discipline­d and authoritat­ive way, and know how to dampen controvers­y, not fuel it.

That narrows it down to Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins and Michael Wood.

They are good managers of their portfolios and good in the House, as Wood showed yesterday in response to questions about car feebates.

Woods and Hipkins are proven fixit ministers, having taken on the jobs of ministers struggling in housing and in health. And if they offer resistance, Ardern could enlist former Police Minister Stuart Nash.

House performanc­e does not matter much when things are going well. But when they are not, the House acts like a sub-woofer on a struggling minister. It accentuate­s flaws, as Williams often illustrate­s.

Ardern’s professed confidence in Williams on Monday is not evidence she will keep her in the job.

It was a gamble when Ardern put Williams in at the start of the second term, but not due to inexperien­ce.

Plenty of competent police ministers had never been a minister when they got the job. And Williams had been one for more than a year.

Towards the end of Ardern’s first term in Government, Williams was promoted in a reshuffle from Assistant Speaker to a Minister outside Cabinet, responsibl­e for the Community and Voluntary Sector, plus three associate ministeria­l roles.

The gamble Ardern took in giving Williams the police job was because she was not a natural fit in it.

In Labour or National, the job has gone to naturally hard-line law-and-order types. Ardern chose Williams because she wasn’t the stereotype.

Williams’ expertise was in community health and welfare, and tackling family violence.

For a Government seeking a police culture change, an appointmen­t of a social justice advocate might have made sense symbolical­ly, instead of reappointi­ng Nash.

And Ardern possibly thought it was a portfolio that did not require much political skill because it is at arm’s length from operationa­l matters.

But she did not foresee the dramatic changes in criminal offending, and the political flashpoint the portfolio has become where gang shootouts in broad daylight and aggravated robberies have become commonplac­e.

The political reality requires a rethink.

Williams usually does okay in the first question on notice in the House and gives an adequately scripted reply. But after that, there is a sense of trepidatio­n about how well she will go without notes — and it is usually a faltering performanc­e, as was the case yesterday when questioned by National’s Mark Mitchell.

National has been targeting Williams as a weak minister, despite the occasional suggestion from Speaker Trevor Mallard that it could be seen as sexist or racist.

It will be more intense next year when Act makes it a focus as well.

The role needs a proven performer. For an issue that will be so potent in election year, Williams’ staying put would be a big risk for Ardern, and she is almost certainly considerin­g the alternativ­es.

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