John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Ryall has done his time

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Health Minister Tony Ryall has announced his retirement.
Health Minister Tony Ryall has announced his retirement.

Tony Ryall is and has always been the archetypal, solid-to-the-core National Party MP who believes that loyalty to one's party is paramount regardless of whether the party is right or wrong.

He is someone who understands that no individual is or can ever be allowed to become bigger than the party. That attitude is reflected in his surprise decision to retire from politics at this year's election after 24 years in Parliament. He has done his time. The party needs to regenerate. It is time for a new face as the Bay of Plenty electorate MP. Ryall is still of an age - 49 - to have time to do something different in the private sector. To him, it is simply the right time to go, even if National's enemies will claim his exit is based on the fear of ending up on the Opposition benches.

John Key benefits big-time from the freeing-up of a senior Cabinet post and front-bench seat, thereby helping him to refresh his Cabinet if National is still in power following the election.

All this makes Ryall the antithesis of Winston Peters, someone for whom Ryall has little regard but who Ryall would sit alongside at the Cabinet table if circumstances so dictated that it was in National's interests to do so.

That is something that Ryall no longer has to worry about.

Throughout his career, Ryall has been the kind of no fuss, dependable, discreet, reliable and trustworthy MP that every party leader wishes he or she had more of in his or her caucus.

Ryall was blessed with four vital attributes necessary to sustain a lengthy parliamentary career - an intellect, which challenges prevailing thinking, political nous, basic common sense plus the antennae to keep tabs on what is troubling people in National's "heartland" - rural and provincial New Zealand.

He has been the kind of Cabinet minister every prime minister wishes he or she had more of in his or her Cabinet. Give Ryall a job to do and it gets done. Moreover it gets done properly. Simple as that. For more than five years he has managed the difficult and energy-sapping health portfolio - a political graveyard for many a minister - with barely any protest or complaint from the hospital sector. He did so by building relationships within the sector in Opposition while at the same time setting priorities for things like elective surgery. The current Opposition has certainly failed to gain any traction while he has been the health minister. Ryall has left Labour punching at air in one of the major social portfolios - the others being education and social development.

Ryall's success in the portfolio was built on bitter experience, however, as was the downsizing of the public service under his watch as State Services Minister post-2008.
As new boy in National's 1990 intake, Ryall and the other members of the so-called "Brat Pack" - Bill English, Nick Smith and Roger Sowry - watched the Bolger Government attempt to overthrow the Welfare State only to retreat with its tail firmly between its legs following a public backlash of truly hostile proportions and which almost cost National the 1993 election.

The lesson was that if the ends are the same, gradual reform is preferable as the means to those ends, rather than revolutionary change where that change might not stick.

English, Ryall and Smith - Sowry left Parliament in 2004 - subsequently had nine long years in Opposition to cogitate on how better to undertake major reform.

Alongside that enforced period of frustration, Ryall's tenure has also been marked by the relative failure - in his capacity as Minister for State Owned Enterprises - of the partial privatisation of the country's remaining state-owned electricity generators.

The possibility that the Government might now sell as little as 30 per cent of Genesis Energy is an effective admission that National overestimated the demand for shares in Mighty River Power and Meridian Energy. The sale of part of the latter should have been delayed until the share market could swallow it , along with the Genesis float to boot.

National, however, has pushed ahead with the asset sales as it needs the proceeds for its Future Investment Fund - something which opponents consider to be a barely-disguised National Party election-year "slush fund" from which the Government is able to fund capital spending on various projects, like new hospitals, which would not otherwise go ahead in the current tight fiscal environment.

National has arguably put its political self-interests ahead of the national interest. But Ryall will not be losing any sleep over that whether now or after he departs for good. After all, the party comes first.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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