National one year on: She's strong, sometimes wrong but 'is one of us'

By Simon Collins

The public rates Paula Bennett as the third-most-effective minister after John Key and his deputy, Bill English. Photo / NZ Listener
The public rates Paula Bennett as the third-most-effective minister after John Key and his deputy, Bill English. Photo / NZ Listener

If John Key's Cabinet picks a year ago were bets on the Melbourne Cup, then giving a critical job to Paula Bennett was a gamble on a complete outsider.

A year later, in political terms, the bet has paid out handsomely. Despite her official Cabinet rank of 16th, voters in Saturday's Herald/DigiPoll survey placed Ms Bennett third in the most-effective-minister race after Mr Key himself and his deputy, Bill English.

In policy terms, judgment has to be more reserved. The Herald is analysing the performance of the National government one year on as part of an investigation.

Ms Bennett's public popularity stems from the very qualities that made her a wildcard - the teenage solo mum, soon revealed to have a daughter who was a young mum herself with a jailed partner. Not the kind of privileged pedigree that arouses resentment.

She broke up a fight in Henderson in January, put Christine Rankin on the Families Commission in May, and hit back at two women who criticised restrictions on the training allowance in July by releasing details of their personal welfare files.

The last two of these were divisive. But they all made her look like a down-to-earth "bad girl" who plays tough and dirty when she has to. She is strong and sometimes wrong, but she is "one of us".

She was catapulted into the job of Social Development and Employment Minister in the midst of a global financial panic.

Responding to that crisis has rightly been her top priority, largely pushing aside the longer-term challenge of what Mr Key has called our growing "underclass".

She quickly implemented her party's promise of short-term help for redundant workers. She gave social service agencies a surprise pre-Budget $40 million boost to cope with the recession. She played a key role in an August youth package which brought back job subsidies for young people.

Apart from the recession, Ms Bennett has said that she went away at Christmas and thought, "How do I want to measure myself at the end of this period of my career?" She thought about our appalling child abuse statistics and decided her test should be "that I made a positive difference for children".

She "started talking to as many people as I could" - people like Dr Patrick Kelly at the Starship hospital. In September, she delivered much of the experts' agenda: a pilot project and an advertising campaign on not shaking babies, another pilot to intervene when domestic violence occurs in families with infants under 2, more social workers at hospitals, and multi-agency plans for abused children leaving hospital.

"It's small but significant steps," she said later. "It gets really frustrating because I'm a 100 per cent girl and 'Let's go!' I have to slow myself down and just go step by step by step."

It was the same with summer holiday camps announced in August. Someone, possibly Children's Health Camps head Fiona Inkpen, had told her her biggest frustration was seeing parents and grandparents who just needed a break. "It just kept on playing in my mind. So that's when we said, 'What can we do to put more into that respite?"'

Driving such initiatives is not easy. Ms Bennett's Labour predecessors talked about a "single core benefit" for nine years but never managed to implement it. On this count, she deserves an above-average mark as an effective minister.

All these initiatives also help to chip away at Mr Key's growing "underclass". The job subsidies, too, flag an unstated recognition that the last National Government's strategy of bludgeoning the unemployed into work by cutting benefits actually fuelled multi-generational dysfunction.

This time round, there is more emphasis on opportunities than on penalties.

Yet in all this chipping around the edges, there has not yet been a full frontal attack on what Mr Key described in his 2007 underclass speech as the "exclusion" of many from mainstream working society. At last count 5 per cent of working-age non-Maori women, and 22 per cent of working-age Maori women, were on the domestic purposes benefit alone.

A frontal attack on exclusion requires hard thinking about how taxes and welfare rules drive young couples apart and then trap parents on benefits.

It requires across-portfolio policies such as regearing education to produce tradespeople as well as academics, lifting low-end wages, making home ownership affordable, and providing accessible parenting and life-skills advice through places young parents go such as schools, preschools and doctors.

Ms Bennett has yet to rise to the challenge of using her Social Development Ministry's policy grunt to lead this assault across the Government. For that reason, she has to be marked down in terms of ministerial effectiveness to just above average - 6 out of 10.

But it is early days, and as the recession clears, this horse may yet see the prize that awaits her if she can focus on the winning post.

- NZ Herald

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