Changes send clear signal Shearer intends to reclaim Opposition rather than leave it to Greens and NZ First.

It was the week in which the good ship HMNZS Annette King snared that precious second wind in her sails and sallied forth. The rise of Annette King back into the health portfolio and onto the front bench got the predictable reaction about Labour recycling one of the same old faces. King is 65 and has been an MP since 1984, with a 3-year break between 1990 and 1993.

One young political onlooker from the left of the spectrum tweeted that one thing that could never be said about King was that she would "bring youthful exuberance and new ideas to Labour's frontbench". He added he was born seven years after King became an MP in 1984.

Apart from the arrogance of such a statement, he conveniently ignored the fact that it was from King that Labour's one new idea of the term so far came: its affordable housing policy, while we are still waiting to hear the new ideas of the younger MPs such as Jacinda Ardern.

It is an odd characteristic of New Zealand politics that defeated political parties must prove they have "rejuvenated" by performing a public execution of all those associated with the era which has ended. Indeed, others who had been around for less time than King found Shearer had programmed Goneburger Street into their SatNav machines.


Shearer did take steps to insulate himself from criticism that his reshuffle did little to renew the party, balancing out the promotion of King with the demotion of other old hands in Trevor Mallard and Lianne Dalziel and bringing in three of the 2011 intake into his shadow cabinet.

But he also showed he recognised the value of experience and was basing his decisions on competence. Opposition reshuffles are a balance of hoping to impress voters with a look at an alternative Government while still mounting an effective enough Opposition to actually get there. King is one of the few MPs who can do both equally well.

The reshuffle marks a watershed moment in Labour's time in Opposition - the changes to put Chris Hipkins into education and King into health send a clear signal that Shearer intends to reclaim the Opposition rather than leave it to the Greens and NZ First. So for perhaps the first time since it lost government in 2008, the Labour team has started looking and talking like an Opposition party.

King was first out of the blocks. She announced she was going hunting - for stories. The stories she is looking for are the stories that will embarrass the Government in the health portfolio, the stories of patients and workers who have somehow been treated unfairly by the Government's health policies. King will target areas that affect family health: dentistry, diabetes and the like. Midwifery services was the first example she came up with this week.

They are the kinds of stories that Tony Ryall himself used to great effect when he was Opposition health spokesman so he knows how devastating they can be.

King has a better chance of achieving this than her three predecessors in the role, although even she may find it difficult. Part of Ryall's success was his recognition that the sector was suffering from reform fatigue. So his changes have been incremental and tightly focused rather than broad sweeping reform.

He set targets in the areas which had been political hotspots and made sure he achieved them. Emergency Department waiting times, elective surgery waiting lists, free after hours doctor visits for children. King's mission is to find the overlooked holes and turn them into hotspots that will be very uncomfortable for Ryall. Her job is to again make health the election year hot potato it always had been before Ryall neutered it for National.

It is little wonder that after four long years of failing to get a hit in health, Shearer has opted for experience. King escaped the same fate as her "Clark-era" colleagues because what matters is not the length of time a person has spent in Parliament, but whether they suffer from that common affliction of longevity: staleness.


If King's crusts started curling a bit during the almost obligatory period of reflection after she and Phil Goff stepped down from the leadership following Labour's trouncing in 2011, it didn't take her long to iron them down again.

The reason for her promotion was, as Shearer put it, because she was "formidable". She may be Clark-era and, before that, Mike Moore-era, but as King also put it, in a tongue-in-cheek boast when asked why she wanted to stay on, "I just keep getting better and better."