Photo: Liana Pantaleo
As yet the nation still doesn’t know what to make of its new leadership team. Last weekend’s Cabinet shuffle of the same old names around a few different chairs didn’t tell us much. Given the chance to innovate, Bill English chose instead to leave the future captaincy of the health system, the education system and our foreign policy apparatus up in the air for the next six months. Whatever else that is, it isn’t leadership.
One’s heart goes out to the beleaguered diplomatic corps with the news that Attorney-General Chris Finlayson may be interested in the Foreign Affairs portfolio when Murray McCully can be finally induced to exit the building on May 1st next year. Having survived one whimsical grudge-bearing martinet convinced of his own genius, MFAT seems about to have another one foisted upon it. In the meantime, one is left to contemplate whatever it is that Michael Woodhouse and Louise Upston might have done to merit them being the big winners in last weekend’s p.r. exercise. Their gifts are not apparent.
On a wider level, at least the Cabinet shuffle managed to bring 2016 to an anti-climatic end. Trump, Brexit and the resignation of John Key had already just about exhausted the public’s appetite for the unexpected. What we got instead was a useful preview of the steady-as-we-go approach we can probably expect next year from Chairman Bill. Clearly, National intends to sleepwalk to victory next year. Literally.
The Cabinet non-event also meant that everyone could get on with preparing for their own Christmas/New Year family encounters without having just seen English take his old family friend Nick Smith aside for a last goodbye, before having him shot at dawn. At a time of peace on earth and goodwill, Smith’s Cabinet expulsion – however well merited – would have been the political equivalent of putting down the family pet. Maybe, it just wasn’t the right time of year for it.
It may be time though, for Labour to do something about Annette King, and the health shadow portfolio. Not surprisingly with an election year looming, Jonathan Coleman is staying where he is for now as Health Minister where – like Tony Ryall – his “success” has been measured purely by his keeping a lid on a portfolio area where Labour really should be getting more traction than it is. Perhaps King needs a quiet reminder to move on, even if that did put Labour’s hold on Rongotai at further risk. That’s Labour’s dilemma: should it cling on to King’s personal following in her electorate, or put someone more effective (Jacinda Ardern?) into a policy area where Labour really needs to connect better with public and professional concern.
What other turkeys might be needing to contemplate their future over Christmas dinner? By now, it should be clear even to Judith Collins that, in the view of those currently running National’s parliamentary party, her political career peaked quite some time ago. From here alas, its downhill. Obviously, last weekend’s shuffle removed the previous platforms (Police and Corrections) Collins had for her to bang the populist drum on law’n’order. To add insult to injury, she’s been handed the leftovers from Simon Bridges (energy) and Peter Dunne (revenue). Her faint and future leadership hopes hinge on requiring National to lose the next election, which would still leave her in the opposition wilderness for years Maybe it’s time for her to pursue a career with Oravida and its ilk, full time.
And what about 2017? One can see the logic of an election next July. Ironically, Helen Clark also sprung an early poll (in July 2002) upon then-opposition leader Bill English. Similar election timing in 2017 could well be in the wake of a May Budget likely to contain a $2-3 billion package of tax cuts. Clearly, National would prefer to seek an election mandate for a tax cut package made possible by an uptick in (a) construction activity and (b) dairy receipts, both of which have fortuitously arrived at just the right point in the political cycle. Much better an election fought on those terms, rather than over the government’s apparent tolerance of nine years of unmet need in housing, health, education and child poverty.
The English/Bennett tag team has been devised to deliver policy continuity with the Key era. As every man, woman and their dog have already pointed out, the leading duo do (theoretically) complement each other on a number of fronts : rural /urban, introvert/extrovert, social conservative/social liberal and on gender grounds as well. What’s lacking is any prospect of genuine policy innovation. (Even tax cuts would be a throwback to the formula of 2010/2011.) We have yet to see how the leadership balance on paper works out in practice. It is quite easy to imagine a scenario where Boring Bill and Perky Paula wear out their welcome rather quickly.
Footnote: Annette King has of course already signalled that she isn’t standing in Rongotai – put that lapse of mine down to a Christmas season brain fade – but the question of whether she will remain (on the list) as the Health spokesperson remains a live and more important issue.
Songs for the season
This bizarre 50s oldie by Patti Page argues that the balance between winners and losers can readily tilt, and the hunter can be captured by the prey. When it came to sexual politics, the 1950s could be such a weird decade…
Talking of strange…it is Christmas time. From the Bahamas here’s the great guitarist Joseph Spence offering his own distinctive take on “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.”