OPINION: The mini-reshuffle of the Cabinet announced by the Prime Minister, John Key, yesterday was less than spectacular. The ground had been well prepared for the return of Nick Smith to the Cabinet and it had been no secret for some time that David Carter would relinquish the primary industries portfolio to replace the departing Lockwood Smith as Speaker. But while the reshuffle might have lacked fireworks, some moves, such as the promotion of the young MPs Nikki Kaye and Simon Bridges, and the demotion of Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson to the backbenches showed some forward thinking. The Cabinet has been refreshed with a little new blood and subtly reshaped to deal with weaknesses in what will be major issues on the political agenda this year.
Smith's return to the Cabinet had been expected once he had served an appropriate time in the wilderness for his mishap as ACC minister. His foolish signing of a letter that appeared to advance the cause of a friend who had a grievance against ACC was one of those brainstorm moments with which his career has been punctuated. But few doubt that Smith, who is still only 48, was a capable minister. More importantly, he is also an accomplished performer in the House and an effective advocate for his policies.
Smith will take over as minister of housing from Heatley, who has been almost invisible in the role. Housing is an intractable issue, a "crisis" in the view of some, and particularly prone to populist quack fake cures. The leader of the Labour Party, David Shearer, has already indicated that he wants to make it a central campaigning issue for Labour this year.
Despite Key's kind words yesterday about his performance as minister, Heatley has been notably weak in the portfolio, with the Minister of Finance, Bill English, often putting the Government's case more persuasively. The promotion of Smith should give the Government more firepower on the issue.
Many in Christchurch will be disappointed that Hekia Parata has survived as minister of education. After the debacle with the launch of the post-earthquake changes to schools in Canterbury, Key's expression last week of his high regard for Parata's communications skills was bewildering. Come February and beyond, when the final plan for schools is revealed and implemented, those skills will certainly be tested. Key will be hoping this gamble on Parata will pay off.
To help towards that, Key has replaced the lacklustre Associate Minister of Education, Craig Foss, with the high-flying young Auckland MP Nikki Kaye. Foss was responsible for the ministerial oversight of Novopay and after that disaster must consider himself lucky to have survived in the Cabinet. At 32, Kaye, who has degrees in science (genetics) and law, brings both youth and brains to the Cabinet, along with the political nous that enabled her to defeat a Labour candidate in a safe Auckland seat. Novopay, however, has become the responsibility of the Government's all-purpose fixer, Steven Joyce. Anyone connected with that disaster might be wise to rethink their career options.
The changes to the Cabinet are not wholesale, but then that was not necessary. They do, however, put a couple of younger faces forward, with the promise of fresh energy and vigour. For a Government in its fifth year in office and running the risk of becoming tired and overfamiliar, that is an important consideration.
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