Expect to hear this line a lot in the next four months: Jacinda Ardern's government has two or three competent performers , but another "17 empty chairs" around the Cabinet table.
Newly minted National Party leader Todd Muller used that line a couple of times, flanked by an interesting line-up of the National team he will take to the election on Sept. 19.
To his right was alleged Simon Bridges loyalist Paul Goldsmith, who must be counted lucky to be confirmed as the party's finance spokesman.
Muller had been mulling a replacement.
To Goldsmith's right were Hutt South MP Chris Bishop, one of the younger up and comers whose career was on the line if National failed to do better than this week's ghastly poll results, and Shane Reti, one of the smartest tools in the National box.
Also on the stage apart, of course, from new deputy leader Nikki Kaye, were Judith Collins - presumably to demonstrate the loyalty of the most widely tipped pretender to the leadership over some years - and Gerry Brownlee, one of the last survivors of the John Key era and a nod to the South Island on a stage full of northerners. On the far side, naturally, stood party president Peter Goodfellow, as inscrutable as ever as he presided over the latest twist in the party's long history.
In the absence of proof to the contrary, it's tempting to view Goldsmith's survival as an indication that Muller needed to promise things to be sure he had a majority in National's 55-MP caucus. That's an unwieldy number of people to corral at the best of times when their only job is to be in Opposition. In a leadership bid, it pays to be sure of your numbers and the final count may never be reliably known.
Not present? Amy Adams, who has announced her resignation from politics but is now strongly tipped by the Politik newsletter to change her mind.
Nor Bridges's deputy, Paula Bennett, who has been the party's campaign chair until now.
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How did Muller perform? After all, the last time a major political party changed leaders just before an election, it was Labour dumping Andrew Little for Jacinda Ardern in 2017.
On that day, Ardern's performance was such a revelation in confident positivity that seasoned political journalists were swooning. From nowhere, a mildly under-performing backbencher had appeared like a bolt of leadership lightning. The rest is history. But that was after nine years of Labour failing to find the right person.
To expect the same, after just one parliamentary term, of a 51 year-old conservative Pakeha was always going to be a bit of an ask, and Muller knew it.
However, he made a good fist of it. He has clearly been practicing in the mirror at looking prime ministerial and, by comparison with Bridges, seems more genial and comfortable in his own skin. Faced with the Press Gallery's inevitable shoutiness, he had a nice line in calm hand-waving to control the flow of questions and a self-deprecating humour.
The weakness observable in panel debates in previous elections was not to be seen today.
He left opaque the potential to work again with New Zealand First. Particularly if Winston Peters retires, his heir apparent Shane Jones would far rather team with National than Labour. Bridges would have none of that. Muller has opened the door a crack, which in politics is a yawning gulf.
Mostly, he was talking up his experience in business and in his team.
He knew how to read a profit and loss statement and knew "a good one from a bad one", he said, channeling a spot of the John Key captain of industry trope. Muller spent time in the senior management teams at both Zespri and Fonterra, so has seen both good and bad P&L accounts, respectively, as a result.
There is a part of the electorate that will never support him because, as a practicing Catholic who by his own admission hasn't always followed "all the rules", he is anti-abortion.
But he turned that as deftly as possible by pointing that his deputy, Nikki Kaye, holds the opposite view.
Like Jim Bolger, who backed him, Muller is a country boy and he made much of his rural upbringing and his school years as a lone pakeha kid in a Catholic Maori school in the Bay of Plenty. A Dad with three kids, his wife Michelle, was beaming in a slightly shell-shocked way off to the side.
The best Muller can hope for at this election is to lose well. He may have spiked the guns of other challengers until after the 2023 election if he can achieve that.
And to close observers, he has demonstrated savvy political judgement in winning this week. Heaven knows how Radio New Zealand chose repeatedly to use lobbyist Matthew Hooton as a commentator on Muller's challenge this week, when most journalists know that Hooton has been working on Muller's behalf to help achieve this outcome. But Muller is untainted by that, at least so far.
Most significant in his inaugural press conference was a passage in which he talked about the challenge for New Zealand as it recovers from the global economic wreckage of covid-19, and the weakness of the government's team for achieving that.
Ardern and "two or three heavy hitters" were doing the heavy lifting, he said.
"When you look behind them, it falls away very quickly."
Around the Cabinet table, 17 of the 20 chairs were "empty" - that line again. Muller, by comparison, is a relatively blank slate. That can be a strength or a guarantee of oblivion, depending on how he plays things now.
"The choice for New Zealand is who has the best team and the plan to deliver," he said.
The current government had got the country through the health part of the Covid-19 crisis admirably, but the economy and communities were now "shattered."
He questioned whether a government that had "failed on every measure of accountability" - a nod to KiwiBuild and other disappointments - was right for the rebuild ahead.
It's unlikely to be enough - and it's essentially the line that Simon Bridges would have used.
The difference is that, fairly or unfairly, the phone was off the hook for Bridges. Muller has a chance to restart the conversation - but no more.