National's opponents beware.
This week's shock sackings of Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson
from the Cabinet provided instant and ample proof of one
sure-fire thing: the authentic version of John Key is back
and very much in charge.
The prime minister most definitely means business in 2013.
Utterly unapologetic about axing steadfastly loyal
colleagues, Mr Key displayed no discernible symptoms redolent
of the occasionally out-of-sorts, at times seemingly
indifferent and abnormally memory-challenged character who
occupied Premier House through 2012.
This week witnessed the return of the composed, confident,
communicative and assertive Mr Key who, before last year's
string of calamities, had carried all before him. At times
during 2012 - particularly with regard to his and his
officials' farcical stumbling over Kim Dotcom - Mr Key seemed
to be playing something akin to Russian roulette with his
prime ministership. The conclusion drawn from this ultimately
self-destructive behaviour was that he was bored or tiring of
the job and its unrelenting demands.
That would no longer seem to be the case. This week's Cabinet
reshuffle was clearly the product of some considerable
thought over the summer break. There was a sharp intake of
breath by media at Tuesday's press conference, as they
realised the expected minimalist reshuffle necessitated by
the change in Parliament's Speaker was something more akin to
a Night of the Long Knives.
Mr Heatley and Ms Wilkinson never saw the axe coming. But
then there was no reason for them to be wary. Even a prime
minister as openly scornful and mocking of ministerial
incompetence as Helen Clark never sacked anyone for failing
to do their job, for fear she would make unnecessary enemies.
While hardly setting the world on fire, neither Mr Heatley
nor Ms Wilkinson were making a mess of their respective
Unlike Hekia Parata. The Education Minister, however, has a
major ally in Bill English.
Mr Key has also invested a fair amount of political capital
in her ultimately being a success in her extremely
The highly dysfunctional and teacher union-driven Ministry of
Education has, instead, become the scapegoat within National
for her mistakes. Add the dynamic of Ms Parata being one of
the few high-ranking Maori within National and it becomes
clear why she survived.
Amazingly, Mr Heatley, at least publicly, bought Mr Key's
story that he had to be fired because it was the duty of the
leader to refresh his Cabinet and keep the party rejuvenated.
With 32 of his 59 MPs without a formal role other than
chairing a select committee - and only a handful of them
lucky enough to enjoy that status - Mr Key had to signal to
his backbench that promotion to the executive was still a
Tossing Mr Heatley and Ms Wilkinson on the political
scrapheap has set a surprising, though long-overdue precedent
in terms of flouting the normal conventions of loyalty. But
the pair's departure was also absolutely vital in giving the
reshuffle real cut-through. Mr Key sees the mid-term year of
the electoral cycle as critical in determining National's
likelihood of winning a third term in power. Voters may wait
until election year, the election campaign and even the week
before polling day to finally make up their minds.
But their thinking as to which way they will go will start to
crystallise this year. Almost subconsciously, voters will
thus be assessing whether National still has something to
offer or whether the Government is running out of steam.
The reshuffle was designed to inject a new sense of urgency
into the Government, which Mr Key hopes will be picked up by
the public. National cannot afford a repeat of the string of
distractions and sideshows which dominated politics in 2012
and which made the Government look like it was bogged down by
the trivial and the irrelevant. As it is, second-term
governments are always fighting against a natural erosion of
In Mr Key's case, he is also fighting an Opposition which is
starting to benefit from issues it can fight on its terms,
rather than on National's.
In particular, Labour is winning the argument about housing
National can try to persuade people that Labour's bold plan
to build 100,000 homes over 10 years, at a cost of $300,000
each, is not feasible in Auckland, where section prices are
through the roof. The pulling power of Labour's scheme is
that while people may question the credibility of its
component parts, they want to believe it can happen.
National's other Achilles' heel is jobs.
Mr Key knows that only one indicator matters - the
unemployment level recorded by Statistics New Zealand's
household labour force survey. National is likely to invest
considerable effort in policies aimed at driving that figure
On that score, his economic scene-setter speech in Auckland
yesterday focused on the need to attract investment - local
or foreign - as the necessary precursor to creating jobs.
National's argument is that while Labour and the Greens talk
about investment creating jobs, those two parties do their
utmost to block it.
Mr Key also cheekily flagged significant alterations to the
modern apprenticeship scheme, which Labour views as very much
its territory. Mr Key's speech was thus designed to spike at
least part of David Shearer's address tomorrow to Labour's
annual summer school.
Mr Shearer also views the midterm year as the critical time
to make Labour relevant again to a wider cross-section of
voters than was the case in 2011. But National has one
advantage: governments can do things. Oppositions can only
talk of doing things. Expect National to be doing lots of
things this year.
John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political