OPINION: Midway through last month, Nick Smith told the Nelson Mail that, while he'd made the most of a break from Cabinet, the "gardening was done".
Not too subtle, perhaps, but it was obvious to all and sundry that his backbench rehabilitation was nearly at an end and he was nigh on certain to return as a Cabinet minister. Given that he would not have spoken that way without a wink and a nudge from on high, the only remaining point of interest was what his portfolios might be: Local government? Environment? Climate change? Education (given Hekia Parata's poor performance)?
Dr Smith first entered Cabinet in 1996 as a Minister of Conservation, so being handed that task again makes sense. So, too, for various reasons, does his other main responsibility, housing. With the Labour Party signalling that affordable housing will be a key issue for them in next couple of years, Prime Minister John Key has shown that he expects greater traction in this area than was coming under the former minister Phil Heatley.
Dr Smith, who fashioned a bright pre-Parliament record as a civil engineer and was also a director of his family's construction company, has all of the tools to shape change in this complex area. He also got rather too close to a housing issue when in 2005 he spoke out against a timber product, T1.2, and faced a huge defamation case in the High Court.
In an article on this page setting out his priorities for the two quite separate portfolios, Dr Smith makes it clear he is relishing the challenges while not taking them lightly. The main players in housing and conservation can expect plain speaking, pragmatism and the expectation of fast progress from the new minister, particularly on home affordability.
Dr Smith enters the arena at an interesting time. The Auckland housing market has been running rampant recently; many other parts of the country have been quite the opposite. However, there have been encouraging signs in Nelson over the past couple of months that a rock-bottom slump in new home building consents is ending. Housing is a key economic indicator for the regions, and increased activity in Tasman and Nelson is very encouraging.
Dr Smith signals that the price of land is a key factor. Like most commodities, it is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Another likely target of the minister is the Resource Management Act and the way it is being applied by some local authorities. Lower to middle-income families who have watched the Kiwi dream of home ownership slipping away over the past two decades will be expecting the minister to move quickly. How much can be achieved in the balance of the current term, and how quickly such measures will trickle down into home affordability, remain to be seen.
The rebuild of Christchurch is also lumbering into gear, and Dr Smith has pledged to get up to speed quickly with issues related to his portfolio there. Getting that right is among the biggest challenges a government and its partners could ever face. Dr Smith has a keen and inquiring mind, and his return to Cabinet was the right move for a team that looked flat-footed at times in 2012. How he responds will play a part in determining National's prospects in 2014.
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