“Safety first” seems to have been Bill English’s guiding principle in designing his election-year Cabinet reshuffle. Even though there were some major changes to be made, they’ve been done in a fairly conservative way that will surprise no one.

What does yesterday's Cabinet reshuffle say about where the National Government is going? Not a lot, really. But it does reiterate that Prime Minister Bill English will continue to govern in his general conservative manner. He's not one for shaking things up too much, even when faced with large challenges such as the departure of two senior ministers, as well as the need to stamp a fresh look on his administration. Nonetheless, there are some interesting elements to the Government's refresh.

The Brownlee gamble in foreign affairs

Gerry Brownlee was promoted to the foreign affairs portfolio. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Gerry Brownlee was promoted to the foreign affairs portfolio. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The most adventurous decision was the promotion of Gerry Brownlee to the foreign affairs portfolio, with some associated big changes for the regeneration of Christchurch.
Of course, Brownlee was really an obvious decision, and he was seen as the frontrunner for the hefty portfolio. Many commentators have stressed Brownlee's seniority, competence and experience as key factors in making him the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. For example, Audrey Young has said that "Brownlee was not the only choice English had for Foreign Affairs but he was the safest: Brownlee spent 12 years on the back bench and in Opposition before being made Leader of the House and serving in the heart of Government for almost nine years" - see: Gerry Brownlee may have little time to make his mark on the Foreign Minister's job.
Young also claims "Brownlee will bring an array of political skills, endearing sense of humour, and personal attributes to the job, although finesse and patience are not chief among them. He has mastered the art of bluntess, impatience and intolerance of inadequate officials while he was overseeing the Christchurch earthquake rebuild." But she also questions whether the new minister really does have the necessary diplomatic character for the job.
Writing prior to the announcement, Matthew Hooton also saw Brownlee as the obvious choice: "McCully's obvious successor is Gerry Brownlee, who has earned the prize, having helped keep the National Party together through the Brash years, loyally vacated the deputy leadership to make room for Bill English in 2006, knocked heads together sometimes publicly and brutally to drive the Canterbury recovery and demonstrated skilful behind-the-scenes diplomacy as defence minister. Mr Brownlee's experience and seniority is needed at a time of dreadful global uncertainty" - see: Brownlee has earned foreign affairs prize (paywalled).
Also writing in the NBR, Rob Hosking challenges some of the criticisms often made of Brownlee's character by his opponents: "That has already led to some jeering about his often undiplomatic manner and choice of words, some snobbish comment about his work history as a woodwork teacher, and also some tasteless speculation on the impact all that flying and banqueting will have on the not-particularly-svelte-like Christchurch MP. Mr Brownlee might not be the sleekest intellect in Parliament but he has a tonne of unadorned raw intelligence and rat-like cunning. It's not a bad combination for foreign affairs" - see: Cabinet reshuffle: Bill battens down hatches for election year swells (paywalled).
However, Hosking did think there was another more adventurous option for the foreign affairs portfolio: Nick Smith. He argues that although Smith has been a liability in the housing and environment portfolios - because Smith is intellectually capable, but "not good at this sort of retail politics" demanded of those roles - he is still very popular with the National Party base, and has much to offer.
Hosking argued: "So why not make him Minister of Foreign Affairs? It's one of the most senior roles in any government - or should be, anyway. It's a complex job, but Dr Smith has the intellectual capacity. It involves more of what might be called a "wholesale politics" role - foreign ministers deal with the cognoscenti rather than the wider public. Dr Smith might be rather strong stuff, on a personal level, at times, but the world's diplomats are used to that. It would be a significant shift but a sensible, if somewhat daring, one" - see: Cabinet reshuffle could resolve the Smith issue (paywalled).
Many writers are stressing the difficult new global environment Brownlee will now have to deal to with. And some aren't convinced that he is up to this task. For the strongest critique of his suitability, see Chris Trotter's Moving beyond good and evil: Can Gerry Brownlee get past America's moral absolutes?. Trotter suggests that "Brownlee will have to stop looking and sounding as if he considers himself much too busy to think."

National's Christchurch regeneration portfolio change

The Christchurch regeneration portfolio is being handed over to Nicky Wagner. Photo / Dean Taylor
The Christchurch regeneration portfolio is being handed over to Nicky Wagner. Photo / Dean Taylor

So, does Brownlee have the right temperament to be a diplomat? He's hasn't been particularly "statesmanlike" in his Christchurch rebuild role according to Martin Van Beynen, who has put together a useful retrospective on Brownlee's character, achievements and failures - see: Brownlee already in diplomatic mode.
But even better is Michael Wright's profile, Gerry Brownlee exits Christchurch a controversial, contrary figure. He says that "one of the more remarkable tenures in New Zealand politics is over", and "no Brownlee character assessment was complete without a parade of synonyms on his personality - brash, blunt, forthright, combative". See also, Joel Ineson and Joelle Dally's Christchurch reacts to Gerry Brownlee relinquishing rebuild job.
Brownlee's Christchurch regeneration portfolio is being handed over to Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner, and there's some uncertainty about the wisdom of this. Writing in the ODT today, Dene Mackenzie points out: "English will have downgraded the importance of the rebuild, in the eyes of many, by transferring Mr Brownlee's duties to Nicky Wagner who is a Minister outside Cabinet. Mrs Wagner is Christchurch Central MP and has been working with Mr Brownlee on the Greater Christchurch Regeneration. However, she will not have the same gravitas at 21 on the list as Mr Brownlee had at number four" - see: English reshuffles, safely.
But Matthew Hooton sees Wagner as the appropriate person: "As shown by her successfully uniting the sometimes-intractable disability sector behind the Enabling Good Lives programme, Ms Wagner is a people person.  Mr Brownlee's legacy is that six years after the February 2011 earthquake the period for his tough decision-making style is behind Christchurch and the city is now ready for Ms Wagner to work more gently with mayor Lianne Dalzell and the community for a return to normalcy" -see: Brownlee has earned foreign affairs prize (paywalled).

Housing demotion for Smith; promotion for Adams

Amy Adams has now been given control over the National-led Government's plans to build tens of thousands of homes in the next decade. Photo / Andrew Warner
Amy Adams has now been given control over the National-led Government's plans to build tens of thousands of homes in the next decade. Photo / Andrew Warner

Commentators and opponents have been calling for Nick Smith's head for ages, due to his performance in the housing portfolios. And despite Bill English's diplomatic denials yesterday, it finally happened, with Smith only remaining housing role being "consolidated" into the hands of rising star Amy Adams.
Few commentators saw this as anything other than a necessary and sensible sacking. Patrick Gower was the bluntest about this: "Bill English has subtly and delicately taken the knife to his old mate Nick Smith by stripping him of major housing responsibilities in his latest reshuffle" - see: Bill English delicately knifes Nick Smith.
Gower stresses, however, that it's a subtle sacking: "It is a clever political move by Bill English as he does not give the media or opposition a "head on a plate". Because it is not an outright sacking, he also preserves his friend Nick Smith's dignity - and he is still a Minister too."
According to Isaac Davison, Adams was chosen as she "is a highly capable, confident minister, and perhaps most importantly a good communicator" - see: Adams rises, Smith falls in Cabinet reshuffle. He says English has recognised "that National is bracing for an election-year fight on housing and that Smith wasn't fit to lead it."
But Davison says that Adams now has "a huge workload. On top of her housing roles, she maintains the large justice portfolio, and is also responsible for the newly created social investment agency." Her urgent challenge is "to do what Smith couldn't and at least give the impression that National has the situation under control."


A pragmatic new Education minister?

Nikki Kaye is the new Education Minister after the Cabinet reshuffle. Photo / Dean Purcell
Nikki Kaye is the new Education Minister after the Cabinet reshuffle. Photo / Dean Purcell

Will educationalists be happy with their new minister, Nikki Kaye? It probably depends on how much they want "more of the same" - see Simon Collins' profile, New Education Minister Nikki Kaye plans to 'modernise' education.
Yet Kaye is painting herself as less ideological than Hekia Parata. Collins reports: "Kaye, 37, will be the youngest female Education Minister in New Zealand's history and says that as part of the "millennial" generation she comes without the ideological "baggage" that previous National Party ministers have brought to the role - especially in their frequent battles with teacher unions."
In another profile, Nicholas Jones stresses that there is still plenty of controversy on the way for the sector under the new minister: "Kaye is well regarded by those in the sector, but education will be a major battleground in election year and comes with guaranteed controversy and fierce lobbying from education unions. And the baton being passed from Parata is heavier than normal - this Government is midway through the biggest education reforms since 1989. While some changes have passed into law many of the biggest are still to come, including replacing the decile funding system with a new model that pays a per student amount depending on how many 'at risk' students a school has" - see: Nikki Kaye the right choice for Education Minister but challenges ahead.
The NBR's Rob Hosking sings her praises though, saying that she "carries considerable hope with her. Even with her recent serious health scare, the Auckland Central MP is still a force to be reckoned with and education is an area critical to National's long-term programme for both social and economic growth. Ms Kaye has a reputation as a dynamo, even among people who would themselves be workaholics by many other people's standards. Her drive is - most of the time, anyway - tempered by a strong political nose for trouble, even if that electoral olfactory nerve is not foolproof" - see: Cabinet reshuffle: Bill battens down hatches for election year swells (paywalled).
Of course, there have been other promotions in the reshuffle, and these are best dealt with in Caitlin Moorby's Cabinet reshuffle sees Waikato get two more minsters, and Isaac Davison's Prime Minister Bill English reveals new-look cabinet.
Finally, for the tastiest commentary on the reshuffle, see former National Government spin-doctor Ben Thomas' Spaghetti, pineapple and cheese: Bill English's tasty cabinet reshuffle. He says that Nikki Kaye's appointment to Education Minister is like protein-filled, predictable cheese"; "The spaghetti on top - the delightful surprise - is Brownlee's replacement as Defence Minister, 2011 MP Mark Mitchell"; and The announcement of Gerry Brownlee as foreign affairs minister is like pineapple on the pizza. Not to everyone's tastes, but a heartland New Zealand favourite."