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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Smiling Assassin sets his bar for competence

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The two now-former ministers were told they had made a great contribution to Key's government. Photo / Alan Gibson
The two now-former ministers were told they had made a great contribution to Key's government. Photo / Alan Gibson

After the last couple of days, the message that the Prime Minister is on the phone will now inevitably send at least a brief twinge of nervousness up and down the spine of John Key's Cabinet colleagues.

His surprise phone calls to Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley on Monday night and yesterday morning respectively were a "From John" letter rather than a "Dear John" letter. But the message was exactly the same.

The two now-former ministers were told they had made a great contribution to Key's government over the past four years. But they were no longer wanted.

In wielding the axe, Key is not yet uttering the demented "Here's Johnny" cry of Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining.

But he is nothing short of ruthless. He was not called the Smiling Assassin for nothing by fellow dealers during his job-cutting at Merrill Lynch's foreign exchange operations.

Regardless, the two now-former ministers sit atop the political scrap heap.

Their fate is unprecedented in recent New Zealand political history. Cabinet ministers are usually demoted to lesser portfolios when their competence has been questioned - rather than being dumped altogether.

Wilkinson and Heatley may well also ask how Nick Smith's return from 10 months' penance refreshes Key's line-up. They will ask why they are being singled out when Hekia Parata is not.

The difference is that Parata has had just a year in the Education portfolio. Wilkinson and Heatley have had four years to make a difference.

Key is said to be looking for more energy and urgency this year. Neither Wilkinson nor Heatley were seen as offering that. They were expendable.

Their sacking reflects Key's latent power as leader, and some rather pressing political realities.

Key needed far more oomph in Heatley's Housing portfolio. Wilkinson is seen in the Beehive as lacklustre and politically accident prone.

It may be brutal. It may set a precedent in terms of ministerial competence. But that is no bad thing.

- NZ Herald

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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