Cutting cabinet: why New Zealand needs leaner government

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
7 November, 2023

New Zealand will soon have a new government following the final 2023 election results. It will comprise three parties: National, ACT, and New Zealand First. Like all new Governments, the parties promise a change of direction from the previous administration.

What will not change, however, is New Zealand’s unwieldy structure of ministerial portfolios.


Australian readers may be surprised that there are some 70 distinct ministerial portfolios under New Zealand’s current system. These are carved out into micro-portfolios such as ‘Disarmament and Arms Control’, ‘Racing’ and ‘Food Safety’.

It means that most of the two dozen or so politicians holding ministerial responsibilities will each have three to five ministerial and associate ministerial responsibilities – often unrelated to each other.

This is not just an administrative inconvenience but a substantive obstacle to effective governance.

Though well-intentioned in its pursuit to give due attention to specific issues, the tradition of micro portfolios has inadvertently led to siloed decision-making and diluted accountability.

Consider the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE). In the last government, MBIE served 14 different ministers – and, between them, 18 different portfolios. These included everything from Economic Development to Housing and Energy and Resources to Tourism.

That does not just sound crazy. It is crazy.

In theory, it might provide comprehensive oversight. In practice, though, it leads to convoluted reporting lines and muddled responsibilities. There is one departmental chief executive, yet multiple ministers setting the agenda, which can often lead to cross-purposes and conflicting priorities.

New Zealand would be well-advised to restructure the plethora of portfolios into a more manageable framework. A more strategic and integrated approach to policymaking would be possible by consolidating related areas under fewer umbrellas.

For instance, a future Minister of Defence taking on the additional responsibilities of veterans and disarmament would ensure that the full spectrum of defence-related issues is addressed in a coordinated and cohesive manner.

Similarly, a Minister for Families could holistically tackle the interconnected challenges of women’s rights, child poverty, youth development, and senior welfare.

This is not just about administrative tidiness; it is about enhancing the democratic process itself.

Clearer responsibilities lead to clearer accountability. When ministers are responsible for broad but related sets of issues, they can develop more comprehensive strategies, and the public can better understand and engage with their work.

Moreover, a single minister dealing with a single department reduces the need for coordination between various ministers.

The benefits of such a reform would be manifold. It would enable the government to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens, better equip it to handle the complexities of modern governance and make more efficient use of public resources.

It would also allow for a more rational distribution of portfolios within the coalition, preventing the over-extension of some ministers and ensuring that each area of government receives the focused attention it deserves.

We can learn from international experience. The German federal government, for instance, operates with a clear and concise cabinet structure. In Berlin, there are only 17 defined portfolios served by 17 ministers. Each minister leads precisely one ministry. And vice versa, each ministry is led by precisely one minister (who, incidentally, is also the chief executive of that ministry).

Such a streamlined model allows for a focused approach to policymaking and governance, with each minister becoming an expert in their broader field.

By contrast, in New Zealand, ministers are often shuffled around according to their perceived ability to “get things done” or “be a good minister”. Whether they have the specialist knowledge required to manage the portfolios effectively tends to be regarded as a bonus.

Australia has similarly embraced a less fragmented approach to its executive arm. With around 30 portfolios, Australia’s ministerial structure is more consolidated than New Zealand’s, suggesting a middle ground between broad responsibility and practicality.

Consolidation of ministerial portfolios would have five clear advantages.

  • Enhanced policy cohesion: With a single minister responsible for a cluster of interconnected issues, policies can be developed that address the root causes of problems, rather than just their symptoms. This cohesion can lead to more thoughtful policy interventions.

  • More transparent accountability: When a minister is responsible for a broad yet related set of issues, it becomes easier for the public and parliament to track performance and hold the minister to account.

  • More effective use of resources: A consolidated ministerial portfolio means that the supporting department can be more effectively staffed, with expertise concentrated and shared across related issues, rather than spread thinly over disparate areas.

  • Reduced bureaucracy: Fewer ministers and portfolios mean fewer layers of bureaucracy, leading to quicker decision-making and reduced costs.

  • Improved public engagement: When the public understands who is responsible for what, they can more effectively engage with their government, leading to greater civic participation and trust in the political process.

The path to reform is never without its challenges. There will be debates about which portfolios should be merged and how to ensure that no issue loses necessary visibility or funding.

An initial step could be establishing a reform commission tasked with reviewing the current ministerial structure and proposing a more streamlined alternative. This commission should have a clear mandate to prioritise coherence, accountability and efficiency.

A phased implementation would be the most pragmatic approach, allowing time for adjustment and refinement. Some portfolios might be merged straight away, while others may require a more gradual integration to ensure continuity of service.

It is unlikely that New Zealand’s new government will be able to consolidate portfolios immediately. Bringing three different parties together will be challenging enough for incoming Prime Minister Chris Luxon.

But in the longer term, curbing New Zealand’s obsession with micro-portfolios would offer a promising way to improve the quality of its governance.

To read the article on The Australian website, click here.

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