Revitalised Nick Smith hopes for a Key role

BILL MOORE
Last updated 15:00 19/01/2013

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A refreshed Nick Smith says while his time on "gardening leave" has been good in parts, "my advice to the prime minister is 'the garden is done'."

The Nelson MP, who resigned his ministerial portfolios just days after introducing a major local government reform package last year, won't go into specifics but made it clear this week that he would love to return to the Government's inner circle.

"Anybody involved in politics knows that the real action occurs in the Cabinet room, and I can do best for Nelson, and in terms of my areas of expertise, by being in the Cabinet," he said.

Smith has vast parliamentary and Cabinet experience for a politician of his age.

At 48, he has been in Parliament since 1990 and has been minister of conservation, education, ACC, corrections, environment, local government and climate change issues. He's also a former associate minister of immigration, Treaty negotiations and social welfare.

Despite being demoted from sixth to 10th in Prime Minister John Key's reshuffle after the 2010 election, the National MP began the term on a high note, in particular tackling his local government portfolio with gusto.

It all came crashing down a few months later when he was drawn into the Bronwyn Pullar ACC controversy.

Smith resigned from Cabinet in March last year after he was found to have written a letter on ministerial letterhead supporting Pullar, a former close friend and National Party activist.

His self-imposed exit brought a $116,000 pay cut and a return to the back benches, where he has languished ever since.

At the time he stepped down, all Smith would say about his future was that he was "absolutely committed" to being Nelson's MP for the remainder of the term. Now he says he's ready to rejoin the Cabinet.

However, he stressed that he did not see it as a foregone conclusion.

"If the prime minister wishes to have me back in his Cabinet as a minister, it would be a tremendous honour.

"But ultimately, this has got to be a choice for the prime minister. I don't envy his role in having to work through the skills of his 59 caucus members and determine who should and should not be part of his Cabinet. It's the job from hell."

He also refused to be drawn on which portfolios he would prefer, except to say "natural resource issues have always been my passion and where I think I can make a contribution nationally".

"It's my professional background as a civil engineer, but also the area I've put the most work in as a member of Parliament."

That general heading could cover climate change, the environment, conservation, and even issues around infrastructure and local government.

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Like everyone else, he was waiting on Key's decision, Smith said.

"I've had no discussion with the prime minister at all, and I've got no comment to make on any speculation."

Key's office was also unwilling to say anything about the scale or timing of the inevitable Cabinet reshuffle which has to come as a result of Lockwood Smith's move from the Speaker's chair in Parliament, so he can become New Zealand's high commissioner in London.

A spokeswoman for the prime minister said it would be premature to speculate on any potential changes.

"However, as previously stated, the prime minister holds Nick Smith in high regard."

Key will nominate a new Speaker, tipped to be Primary Industries and Local Government Minister David Carter, when Parliament resumes on Tuesday, January 29.

He could name his new Cabinet before or after then.

- The Nelson Mail

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