The job of Opposition is twofold. First, and most obviously, it is to unsettle the Government through trenchant and telling criticism. Secondly, it must present itself as a competent alternative, with policies that will become compelling when the electorate begins to lose confidence in the incumbent.

Two polls, most recently that of TV3, which had the National Party rising to 51.4 per cent, have suggested that time is yet to arrive.

Nonetheless, John Key was, more than likely, being realistic yesterday when he predicted next year's election would be a "very, very tight race". In that context, there was more than usual interest in David Shearer's pre-election reshuffle of portfolios.

When the Labour Party leader announced his first line-up 14 months ago, he made it clear that strong performers who made inroads into the Government's popularity would be rewarded. It went without saying that those who had failed to land substantial blows could expect to exit the front bench. Mr Shearer has proved as good as his word. This has led to major changes in health, education, housing and jobs, areas of high public interest where ministers are prone to strike trouble and where Labour spokespeople can expect to be in the media spotlight.


Annette King returns to the front bench to take health, after some time in the middle benches following her resignation as deputy leader. Inevitably, this will be seen by some as a step backwards. But the options available to Mr Shearer have always been limited by the shallowness of Labour's 2005 intake. As such, it makes sense to turn to Ms King, a politician of undoubted effectiveness and one who is well prepared to make life far more difficult for Health Minister Tony Ryall.

Her predecessor, Maryan Street, becomes the environment spokeswoman. That is an area of some importance, given the Greens' inroads into the Labour vote, and one more suited to her more studious approach to politics.

Other major changes see Labour's deputy leader, Grant Robertson, receive the lead role in making jobs a key election issue. With the shadow cast by the global economic recession continuing to show only limited signs of lifting, this is an obvious area of concentration. The redundancies announced at the likes of Telecom and Mainzeal merely reinforce the potential for Labour to gain traction.

There is also a logical change in education, which is taken by senior whip Chris Hipkins. He replaces Nanaia Mahuta, after acting in the role while she was on maternity leave. His handling of the Christchurch schools restructuring made life substantially more uncomfortable for Education Minister Hekia Parata. Previously, she had been largely the agent of her own misfortune on issues such as classroom sizes. Labour knows her position is extremely vulnerable in the event of further mishap.

Noticeable among Mr Shearer's other promotions are that of first-term Dunedin North MP David Clark, who jumps to number 12 in Labour's ranking and takes on economic development, and former party president Andrew Little, who gains the justice role from the departing Charles Chauvel. Such moves have enabled Mr Shearer to describe his shadow Cabinet as "a mix of new talent and experienced hands".

The blend is a little different from that of his first line-up, where the emphasis was, understandably enough, on fresh faces and youthful energy. Over the past year, Mr Shearer has had the chance to gauge this team, notably where it has failed to make an impact against a Government that should be finding its second term harder going than its first. His response lays the groundwork for a more credible Opposition.