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National was in danger of floundering this year if Mr Key failed to act now. He had two opportunities this year to promote MPs into the inner circle and to reallocate portfolios.
The decision appointing Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce to take on the responsibility of fixing the beleaguered Novopay as quickly as possible, while retaining Education Minister Hekia Parata at No 7 in ranking indicates several things that need to be carefully considered.
Mr Joyce, although ranked fourth in Cabinet, has quickly become the fix-it man for Mr Key. The two enjoy a close relationship after Mr Joyce, also a self-made millionaire, successfully oversaw two election campaigns for the Prime Minister. If Mrs Parata, and her former associate Craig Foss - the man to carry the blame for the botched introduction of the pay system for teachers - had the courage to step up and sort out the problems before Christmas, Mr Joyce would not have been called upon.
Secondly, Mrs Parata was long-touted as a future National Party leader but her star started to wane after several bad calls, then backdowns over Christchurch schools, and their proposed mergers, and other school closures proposed but not implemented because of opposition ranging through to court action. Mr Key needs a Maori MP at the top of the party list and Mrs Parata, also known as Hekia Lady Gardiner if she chooses, provides the mana necessary to keep National looking and sounding like a multi-cultural party.
Mr Key sacked Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson from Cabinet. Mr Heatley had left previously over an expenses issue but was rehabilitated. His performance as housing minister was not strong and Labour was allowed to snatch the initiative on affordable housing. Ms Wilkinson, who finally won Waimakariri off Labour at the last election, pays the price for the Pike River tragedy and her basically ineffectual performance as Labour Minister.
Although unusual for electorate MPs to be dumped as ministers unless they had committed major gaffes, Mr Key has replaced them in the Cabinet line-up with Nikki Kaye (Auckland Central) and Simon Bridges (Tauranga). Ms Kaye held off Labour star Jacinda Ardern and Mr Bridges substantially increased his margin at the last election. Their younger faces will be welcomed by the voting demographic they represent.
As expected, Dr Nick Smith returns to Cabinet as Housing and Conservation Minister. His analy- tical brain has been sorely missed around the table and he will be anxious to get started in his new roles.
It is worth considering where the priorities of the new Cabinet now lie. Undoubtedly, the focus is on business and commerce with Mr Key, Finance Minister Bill English, Canterbury Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee and Mr Joyce clearly involved in the rebuilding of Christchurch and the floating of state-owned assets. Tony Ryall remains State Owned Enterprises Minister but it is Messrs English and Joyce making the hard calls on the prospect of sales.
With former primary industries minister David Carter stepping down to become Speaker, primary industries slips down the list to 16. The Labour Ministry goes down further to 22. National has long been seen as the party for and of farmers. That is no longer true. Labour relations take a back seat to the wishes of business.
A wild card in the middle of the year could be the departure of Trade Minister, and list MP, Tim Groser, who is seeking a World Trade Organisation posting, with the support of Mr Key. If he leaves, Mr Key will have another opportunity to promote someone new and that is likely to be Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse, who is now a minister outside of Cabinet.
By December, Mr Key will be thinking about the MPs he wants as the public face of National leading into the 2014 election. To win a third term, Mr Key will need to convince voters the mistakes of last year are behind the Government for good. The reshuffle yesterday was the first step in that process.