Bold new lineup

01:43, Jan 31 2009

The critics will note some very familiar faces: Murray McCully, Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, David Carter, Tony Ryall, Georgina te Heuheu and Nelson's Nick Smith, all of them National cabinet ministers nine years ago and back from Wednesday, The Nelson Mail said in an editorial on Wednesday.

The optimists will feel they got the change they demanded in this month's general election, especially with the rapid elevation of solo mother Paula Bennett who has been entrusted with the $20 billion social development and employment portfolio. The cynics see the potential for tension and odd pairings ultimately causing the new government of National and its three disparate support partners - labelled the four-headed taniwha - to disassemble itself in spectacular fashion. The faithful see it as offering a dream-team blend of enthusiasm and experience, breadth and balance, pragmatism and promise.

There is, then, something for everyone in John Key's Cabinet, sworn in on Wednesday so the new prime minister can attend an Apec economic summit in Peru. In particular, it offers something for Labour, which will be as keen to get stuck into the newbies as it is to paint the experienced hands as relics from the not-so-good old days.

Clearly, Mr Key expects to name another cabinet in three years, and may well do some tinkering in the meantime. He has sufficient numbers and talent outside of his 20-strong inner circle to ensure there is no need to suffer non-performers, and he will demand high standards. With the economy in recession and unemployment on the rise, Mr Key and his Cabinet will have to hit the ground running.

There will need to be some rapid learning and relationship-forming if the new ministerial lineup is to function smoothly. Steven Joyce begins life as an MP as a minister, in charge of transport, communications and information technology. New Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples will be outside Cabinet, while his associate, Mrs te Heuheu, is part of the inner sanctum. Also outside Cabinet, ACT leader Rodney Hide has been tasked with introducing "regulatory reform", which should see him attempting to slash his way through all sorts of ministerial patches.

Local government can also expect an interesting three years with Mr Hide at the helm. At the least, tough action is likely against councils seeking to increase rates by exorbitant amounts, given ACT's push last term for rates rises to be capped. Mr Hide's appointment will also raise the hopes of single council advocates in this region, assuming his gaze extends beyond Auckland.

There will be keen interest here in Dr Smith's handling of the high-profile environment and climate change portfolios. He remains on the front bench as one of the experienced hands Mr Key is counting on to guide the newcomers, subdue the opposition and, more importantly, chart the nation's response to grim and challenging economic times predicted over the next 12-18 months. As a former conservation minister, the driver of National's "bluegreen" initiative which calls for a cross-party push for clean air and water within one generation, and his party's climate change spokesman, Dr Smith was the logical choice to take on these responsibilities.

Attempting to balance environmental and economic demands in the midst of tough times will be challenging, and Dr Smith can also expect close scrutiny if a signalled reform of ACC does take place under his lead. He takes over the accident compensation portfolio from Labour's Maryan Street, which will increase the tension between the rival candidates for the Nelson electorate, who are set to meet again in 2011.