Toby Manhire: Has National Party leader Chris Luxon shuffled up a winning pack?

Originally published by The Spinoff

After a hectic week for National, the new shadow cabinet has been unveiled. Toby Manhire assesses its strengths and weaknesses.

For the first time in a long time the most anticipated political announcement of a Monday has centred on the opposition, rather than the Labour-led Government. Equally unfamiliar is the fact that the National Party leader fronted today to present a constructive picture.

At the hallowed 1pm parliamentary press conference came the news that there are 33 new positive cases of focused, upbeat National MPs in the community. Just don’t call it a new variant. Chris Luxon has spent a good part of the last six days insisting that the party has turned a new leaf. Let’s call it the new chapter.

There might have been a different feel about the event had National’s latest leadership tussle gone to a vote. Eleventh-hour talks between Luxon and Simon Bridges – whom to no one’s surprise has since been announced as finance spokesperson and third-ranked caucus member, behind Luxon and deputy leader Nicola Willis – obviated the need for such a showdown.

Speaking alongside Willis this afternoon, Luxon named a shadow cabinet of 20; the remainder get roles, too, but they’re not ranked. Why not? “It makes no sense and it’s largely irrelevant,” Luxon told a press conference.

The winners

Nicola Willis and Simon Bridges we knew about already. It was no surprise to see Chris Bishop move up to fourth, retaining the Covid role and regaining the shadow leader of the house position that Judith Collins confiscated from him when she sent him to his room after it emerged he hated the whipped vote on conversion therapy.

The biggest surge, however, is Erica Stanford. She jumps 18 rungs to No 7, and adds education to the immigration role in which she has proved tenacious and conscientious. (Disappointingly, she has not been given Corrections, meaning that the “Stanford prison experiment” headline must be saved for another day.) Education is an area Luxon has pinpointed as a priority, along with productivity and social investment. He’s underlined the importance of the Bill English approach by assigning it to his No 2, Nicola Willis.

Matt Doocey jumps to the front bench, reflecting his quiet effectiveness on mental health; a similar boost for Simeon Brown, who gets transport, which will be an altogether different test to being police spokesperson, a role that Mark Mitchell, a former cop, grabs.

The losers

The most dramatic fall is, of course, Judith Collins, but we’ll come to that in a minute. Her deputy, Shane Reti, drops, too, but no further than was inevitable, and will remain an important cog in the machine, retaining health and gaining Māori-Crown relations and Pacific peoples.

Todd McClay plummets from sixth in Collins’ last shadow cabinet to the swirl of the unranked. He has trade and tourism, however, which makes his unranked status puzzling.

After a short stint in the nebulous role of shadow treasurer, Collins ally Andrew Bayly falls 12 spots to 15, but has a grab-bag of significant roles including small business, manufacturing, commerce and revenue. Bayly’s double-act with Michael Woodhouse was a total fizzer; the former finance spokesperson is left clinging on to a top-20 role, down 14 to 18th.

Another staunch Collins supporter, David Bennett, hangs on to the shadow cabinet by the skin of his teeth, coming in nine places lower at No 20, losing transport, where he’s been mostly invisible, and gaining regional economic development. And spare a thought for Jacqui Dean, who had an old experience exploited in a “political power play” and now finds herself booted from the shadow cabinet. She was 18th in Collins’ caucus, now she’s swimming amid the great unranked.

The ex-leaders

According to my data journalism division, more than 21 per cent of the current National caucus either is now or has been the leader or deputy leader of the party. With Simon Bridges not just in the tent but holding up a corner as finance spokesperson and No 3, what of the other two former leaders in the group, Todd Muller and Judith Collins?

The new leader had promised to involve them in significant spots. He didn’t really mean it. Judith Collins drops 18 rungs to 19th, and she gets – checks notes – research, science, innovation and technology. “Judith has a real passion for the portfolio she’s been offered there … She cares very deeply about it,” said Luxon, unconvincingly.

Luxon held the equivalent role (research, science and manufacturing) when ranked 30th in Collins’ last lineup. He had three other jobs. It’s her only one. It’s a ranked spot, yes, just, but sends a pretty clear message: you’re many orbits out from the centre of my universe.

As for Todd Muller, speculation that he might be reborn and given the climate change position that he’d previously excelled in was scotched. He’s outside the top 20, with oceans and fisheries as well as Internal Affairs. That’s still a promotion, however, given he wasn’t even attending caucus under Collins. There may yet be a path back, and revealed today that he’s changed his mind about resigning. “I know he wants to come back and be part of our team,” said Luxon.

The big match-ups

“I have deliberately selected a shadow cabinet of 20 members to match the Government’s cabinet,” said Luxon. “I’m confident that when you put any of National’s shadow ministers against their Labour counterparts, you’ll see that National’s MPs have the deep experience, the political skills, the work ethic and the intellectual grunt to come out on top every time.”

Existing clashes on Covid (Bishop vs Hipkins), housing (Willis vs Woods), social development (Upston vs Sepuloni) and health (Reti vs Little) will continue. Which of the new head-to-heads are the ones to watch?

Chris Luxon vs Jacinda Ardern Well, obviously. The new dynamic is launched at 2pm tomorrow in question time.

Simon Bridges vs Grant Robertson It’s hard to remember the day when people wondered whether Robertson was ready to be finance minister; he’s made it his own. But Bridges is a seasoned campaigner and a former crown prosecutor; he presents a new challenge.

Erica Stanford vs Chris Hipkins Stanford has shone a clear and consistent light on the Covid-derailed immigration response, making life difficult for Kris Faafoi. She’ll add his namesake to her target list – Chris Hipkins has had colossal weight to carry as Covid response minister while retaining another massive portfolio: education. Paul Goldsmith has struggled to get cut-through here, and Stanford will look to more effectively tell the stories of frustrated schools, parents and students. That said, I’d be surprised if Hipkins is expected to continue with such a workload (he’s also leader of the house) into the next parliamentary year.

Simeon Brown vs Michael Wood A contrast in styles on transport.

Mark Mitchell vs Poto Williams The police minister has looked less than rock solid so far this term; an opportunity for a National MP who is consistent across a range of areas (including withdrawing from leadership contests).

Simon Watts vs Nanaia Mahuta There was a chance here to put pressure on the Government over the Three Waters reforms being led by Nanaia Mahuta, but Luxon has chosen not to give local government, a role he previously held, to a ranked MP in the shadow cabinet. Seems like a mistake.

The range

Seared into the retina of New Zealand politics is the infamous first-day omnishambles of the Muller opposition, in which Paul Goldsmith was briefly revealed to be Māori. Luxon can boast a relatively reasonable diversity across the top 10, including two Māori and four women. Across the top 20, it’s not so good: only six of the 20 are women, and it’s a white Christmas with the exception of three: Simon Bridges, Shane Reti and Melissa Lee.

The CEO

The ultimate flex would be for the new leader of the National Party to have assigned a range of portfolios to Chris Luxon, Christopher Luxon, and, of course, Mr C Luxton, but he has taken a more cautious approach. Where John Key gave himself tourism and Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern both took arts and culture, there is no symbolic self-assigned portfolio for Luxon.

If there’s symbolism, perhaps, it’s that he is focusing on managing the group, very much in the CEO mould. “I want to be able to float,” said Luxon.

“The lineup I’m announcing today is based on merit and matches people to their strengths and skill sets,” he added, in full chief executive mode. I’d love to review the KPIs, sit in on the performance reviews. “In the vision of performance, we will have another little review inside ourselves in 12 months.” He wants to float. He wants us to look inside ourselves. May the force be with you.

National spokesperson roles and caucus rankings

• 1. CHRISTOPHER LUXON Leader, National Security & Intelligence (up 28)

• 2. NICOLA WILLIS Deputy Leader, Housing, Social Investment (up 11)

• 3. SIMON BRIDGES Finance, Infrastructure (up 1)

• 4. CHRIS BISHOP Covid-19 Response, Shadow Leader of the House (up 3)

• 5. SHANE RETI Health, Māori-Crown Relations, Pacific Peoples (down 3)

• 6. LOUISE UPSTON Social Development & Employment, Child Poverty Reduction (up 3)

• 7. ERICA STANFORD Education, Immigration, Associate Ethnic Communities (up 18)

• 8. MATT DOOCEY Mental Health, Youth, Associate Health, Associate Transport (up 12)

• 9. SIMEON BROWN Transport, Public Service (up 10)

• 10. BARBARA KURIGER Agriculture, Biosecurity, Food Safety (up 4)

• 11. SCOTT SIMPSON Climate Change, Environment, Associate Transport (down 1)

• 12. PAUL GOLDSMITH Justice, Workplace Relations & Safety (unchanged)

• 13. MELISSA LEE Broadcasting & Media, Digital Economy & Communications, Ethnic Communities (down 4)

• 14. MARK MITCHELL Police, SFO, Counter-Terrorism (down 1)

• 15. GERRY BROWNLEE Foreign Affairs, GCSB & NZSIS, Emergency Management (down 1)

• 16. ANDREW BAYLY Small Business, Commerce & Consumer Affairs, Manufacturing, Building & Construction, Revenue (down 12)

• 17. STUART SMITH Energy & Resources, EQC, Viticulture (no change)

• 18. MICHAEL WOODHOUSE SOEs, ACC, Statistics, Sport & Recreation, Deputy Shadow Leader of the House (down 14)

• 19. JUDITH COLLINS, Research, Science, Innovation & Technology (down 18)

• 20. DAVID BENNETT Economic & Regional Development (down nine)

And the rest (not ranked)

• JACQUI DEAN Assistant Speaker, Conservation

• TODD MCCLAY Trade & Export Growth, Tourism

• IAN MCKELVIE Seniors, Forestry, Racing

• SIMON O’CONNOR, Corrections, Customs, Arts, Culture & Heritage, Associate Foreign Affairs

• TODD MULLER Oceans & Fisheries, Internal Affairs

• MAUREEN PUGH Community & Voluntary Sector

• HARETE HIPANGO Māori Development, Whānau Ora, Children/Oranga Tamariki

• CHRIS PENK Shadow Attorney General, Courts, Associate Justice

• TIM VAN DE MOLEN Defence, Veterans, Horticulture, Associate Agriculture

• NICOLA GRIGG Rural Communities, Land Information, Animal Welfare, Women, Associate Agriculture

• JOSEPH MOONEY Treaty Negotiations, Water, Space, Associate Tourism, Associate Agriculture

• PENNY SIMMONDS Tertiary Education, Early Childhood Education, Disability Issues, Associate Education, Associate Social Development & Employment

• SIMON WATTS Local Government, Associate Finance, Associate Infrastructure

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