Comment

Bridges’ ego-juggling challenge

If Simon Bridges manages to pull off an election victory, his next headache will be choosing his Cabinet from a somewhat uninspiring line-up, writes Peter Dunne

Every election year there is a call to use the election as a chance to refresh Parliament and get rid of at least some of its experienced MPs. After all, Parliament, like any vibrant organisation, should be frequently refreshed so that it remains relevant to its purpose and the needs of the time.

On the whole, the New Zealand Parliament does pretty well in that regard.  For example, 52 of our 120 MPs have been in Parliament for five years or less. Only 10 of our MPs were first elected before 2005, and two of them are standing down at this coming election.

Indeed, since New Zealand's first Parliament was elected in 1853, no more than 20 MPs altogether have served for more than 30 years in the House. The average length of service of an MP in New Zealand is estimated to be around six years, or just over two terms. Long serving MPs are by far the exception, not the norm, with ultra-long serving MPs a rarity.

With governments changing on average just under every ten years since party government first became recognisable in 1890, the likelihood of new governments containing many fresh faces who have not held ministerial office previously is very high.

No-one in the 1935 Labour government had held Ministerial office previously, or even been in a government party before. The 1949 National government contained no previous ministers, although some had been backbenchers in the pre-1935 coalition government. Norman Kirk's 1972 Government contained only one former Minister. Since then, there has usually been a sprinkling of former Ministers in incoming governments - in the current Government, for example, four ministers had served in previous governments, and the chief whip is also a former Minister.

However, should Simon Bridges be in a position to form a government after this year’s election, he is likely to have an abundance of former ministers to choose from when selecting his Cabinet.

....even the well-known names might in some cases be seen to be too much of a throwback to be credibly refreshed as new and forward-looking faces for the future.

Assuming any government he forms would have the ACT Party leader in a support minister role, he will be most probably appointing a Cabinet of 20 ministers, with a further five ministers outside the Cabinet. He is likely to have 16 former ministers in his caucus. Assuming all are available for re-appointment as ministers, there will be little room for promotion for backbenchers in the 2014 and 2017 intakes who might be fancying their chances. However, already Anne Tolley has signalled her wish to become Speaker of the House, and there have been questions around whether previous senior Key/English Ministers like Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee want another stint in office.

Even so, Bridges’ challenges in putting together a Cabinet will remain significant. Although he will have the luxury of a large number of experienced former Ministers, only a few of them of were in senior portfolios in the previous government. (Consistent with the frequent turnover theme, already eight ministers from the last government have left Parliament or will be leaving at this year’s election.) With the exception of former deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, Nick Smith, Gerry Brownlee, Judith Collins, and Nikki Kaye, most of the remaining former ministers are not names well-known to the public, nor were all necessarily stellar performers in office.

In that respect, previous experience may not necessarily be to Bridges’ or National’s advantage. And to add to Bridges’ problems, even the well-known names might in some cases be seen to be too much of a throwback to be credibly refreshed as new and forward-looking faces for the future.

The 2014 and 2017 intakes of National MPs – from which most of the new names would likely come – do not inspire as especially talented.

Here is where the back bench becomes relevant. If Bridges were to base his ministerial selections around competence and ability to get the job done, there could be a dozen or more new places available in his potential line-up. But this is not without a challenge either. The 2014 and 2017 intakes of National MPs – from which most of the new names would likely come – do not inspire as especially talented. (Conversely, and somewhat frustratingly for Bridges, National’s likely 2020 intake looks far more impressive, offering some justification for his claims that National is the party of talent.)

Todd Muller – often touted as a future leader – and Chris Bishop from the 2014 intake, along with Nicola Willis from the class of 2017 stand out as the star performers likely to quickly be effective and capable ministers, but beyond them, the pickings seem a little thin.  Whips Barbara Kuriger and Matt Doocey come into contention, as well as perhaps Dr Shane Reti and Andrew Bayley from 2014. Even if Christopher Luxon follows the course of Steven Joyce and is catapulted straight into Cabinet without previous Parliamentary experience, Bridges would still have another half dozen places to fill to complete his Ministry.

Of course, there would be surprises. Any new Cabinet always contains surprise appointments – MPs either not well known to the public or not previously noted by commentators as having been ones to watch. They are usually the solid performers within caucus, respected by their colleagues for their consistency and reliability. There are, presumably, such people within the current National Party caucus.

Putting together a new Cabinet is a testing task for any leader, especially so in a multi-party environment, as the formation of the current Government showed. There are always competing tensions and egos to be considered, but even then, it is somewhat of a gamble. As the present cases of Phil Twyford and David Clark show too painfully well, strong performers in Opposition do not always perform nearly as well in the pressure-cooker environment of government and can quickly become liabilities.

In that regard, Bridges has more freedom. Unlike the Labour Party where the caucus selects the ministers, with the leader left to allocate their portfolios, the National Party lets its leader both select the ministers and allocate portfolios. But while that means a National leader is better placed to put together a ministerial team that is more congenial, it also means the leader is more directly in the firing line when their selections fail to live up to any promise held for them.

However, Bridges cannot afford to be looking too far ahead at this stage. There have been many unfortunate past examples of politicians counting their electoral chickens, long before they have hatched, and being left to rue in the leisure of another term in Opposition what might have been. While the problems of Cabinet selection are real and will not go away for the National Party, they remain contingent on Bridges successfully campaigning to lead the next government. Only if he achieves that will this next political headache confront him.

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