The first measure of a new Opposition leader is what he does with his colleagues. Normally what he can do is limited by the debts he owes supporters and the need to repair the damage his challenge has done to caucus cohesion. Andrew Little was unusually free of those obligations when he announced his lineup yesterday. As the least experienced MP of the four leadership contenders, and the one with least caucus support on the first ballot, he won on support from outside. Consequently, he has been free to reshuffle Labour's MPs largely on his own assessments of them after three years in Parliament and three years previously as the party president.
The one exception to that freedom was Grant Robertson, preferred by a clear majority of MPs in all three rounds of balloting. Mr Robertson, now twice disappointed in leadership bids, has been deputy leader before. He had to be given another important role. Finance is the only other one available. It is not one many would have picked for Mr Robertson. Economics has not featured in his background or his speaking roles in Parliament so far, but that was true of Finance Minister Michael Cullen when he became Labour's spokesman in opposition.
It is encouraging that Mr Robertson, unlike Mr Little, wanted to keep Labour's policies on capital gains tax and increasing the retirement age. But the new finance spokesman's position on broader economics will need to be watched closely. He will be assisted in finance by Dunedin MP David Clark, who has been promoted to the front bench and given economic development as well as associate finance and health roles. Clearly Mr Clark is going places.
Others that Mr Little rates highly are Kelvin Davis, who is coming on to the front bench to be the spokesman on police, prisons, Maori education and domestic violence, and Carmel Sepuloni, who will be Labour's new speaker on social development while remaining its junior whip. They are Mr Little's only notable promotions.
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The rest of his choices are cautious. His deputy leader for the time being will be the sensible, popular, experienced Annette King who is probably nearing retirement. He is leaving Phil Twyford and Jacinda Ardern in their familiar roles on the front bench. Likewise Nanaia Mahuta who had to be highly ranked after contesting the leadership on behalf of Labour's regained Maori electorates. When she was defeated on the first ballot her supporter MPs went to Mr Little. The only contender who has not fared well is David Parker, demoted to the second row to be spokesman on trade and Treaty negotiations, reinforcing the impression he does not want to stay in Parliament much longer.
Sitting alongside him will be a line of rejected leaders: David Cunliffe, David Shearer and Phil Goff. Mr Cunliffe will be disappointed after pulling out of the leadership contest and publicly supporting Mr Little but Mr Cunliffe deservedly carries the can for Labour's worst electoral loss. Mr Shearer has more right to be disappointed. He has performed with more assurance of late, particularly on foreign issues, and could be worthy of a return to the front bench. Labour cannot afford to have too many seats occupied by long-servers who have passed the peak of their career. Sitting near the previous leaders are Trevor Mallard, Ruth Dyson, Damien O'Connor and, newly demoted from the front bench, Clayton Cosgrove.
Mr Little has time on his side. He plans to review his lineup after a year and any changes he makes at that point will still have two years in a shadow portfolio before the next election. His initial selections show him to be cautious but capable of some bold moves. It is a good start.