COMMENT:

Simon Bridges has begun the political year with a largely sensible reshuffle and an innovative role for deputy Paula Bennett that should reduce the chances of party infighting over drug reform policy.

In the choices he has made, Bridges has gone for experience over other options.

The referendum on the personal use of cannabis at the next election presents an opportunity and a potential liability for National.

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National will not take a party line on it, leaving to the conscience of each MP.

But with the caucus straddling the spectrum from lock 'em up hardliners to the liberal likes of Chris Bishop and Nikki Kaye, the potential for conflicting or confusing messages is real.

The same fault lines sit within the parties of Government with the hardliners in New Zealand First and the liberals in the Greens, but that makes it easier for Labour to look like the moderate ones between two extremes.

Bennett comes from the liberal side of the party, and Bridges from the conservative.

Bridges took a strong interest in medicinal cannabis as a new leader in 2018 when his MP Shane Reti drafted a detailed bill setting out a regulatory regime that officials had not been given time to do by an incoming Government in a rush.

But the issue of personal use of cannabis is too politically potent to leave in the hands of the relatively inexperienced Reti.

Paula Bennett has been given the job of running the complex politics around, including highlighting the unknowns as much as the knowns.

That will mean deciding when to make it a health issue, when to make it a law and order issue and when to make it a Government competency issue.

That will mean asking relevant questions such as what restrictions there would be on who could produce and sell cannabis, would it exacerbate mental health problems in young people, and how would it be taxed.

That will mean exposing poor policy planning without appearing to be unconstructive.

Reti's solid work last year has been rewarded with an extra new responsibility for tertiary education, shed by Bennett.

Another good performer from 2018, Chris Bishop, was one of only three contenders alongside Amy Adams and Judith Collins for Shadow Attorney-General to fill Chris Finlayson's vacancy.

But Bridges has gone for the more experienced hand in Adams and the candidate who is most likely to adapt to the bipartisanship often demanded in the role.

The most contentious part of Bridges' reshuffle was his decision to give Crown-Maori relations to former Conservation Minister Nick Smith, who was responsible for an egregious failure of the Crown to properly consult Maori in his rush to have John Key announce the Kermadec Island sanctuary at the UN.