English gets the leadership over drinks
By Richard Harman (author)
Bill English got the numbers to take the Prime Minister’s job yesterday after meeting the National Party's 14 MPs who came in in 2014 at their weekly drinks partyon Wednesday night.
The MPs asked Judith Collins, Jonathan Coleman and Bill English to each come to the drinks and give them a 20-minute address on what they would do if they won the leadership.
After the speeches the 14 MPs more or less agreed on English as Leader but were apparently divided over the deputy leadership between Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges.
English apparently convinced them that he was willing to “refresh” the Cabinet and to open up other Government positions such as the Whips and Select Committee chairs.
But it appears that he was unwilling to budge on moving the core inner Cabinet --- Paula Bennett, Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce --- out of their Ministerial offices.
However, he did undertake to run a more inclusive Government where opinion from the backbench would be listened to.
Politics is said to be the art of the possible and for the backbenchers who wanted “generational change”, while these concessions did not go as far as they might have liked, have obviously made sufficient gains to keep them on side.
Perhaps the biggest gain is that they stopped what looked like being a "coronation" with English simply slipping into the leadership on the nomination of John Key.
And though an MP close to English tried to convince caucus waverers by a leak on Wednesday night that the contest was over; POLITIK understands that it was not till after the backbench meeting that support swung from Coleman to English.
Yesterday morning the backbenchers began to issue a procession of statements backing English.
The first of his opponents to pull out, just after mid-day, was Judith Collins who had little support to begin with.
Coleman was to be next and he was non committal going into the Chamber for Question Time.
But when he rose to answer a question it was certainly clear that the leadership was on his mind when he wryly answered a question from the Greens on a sugar tax by referring to a “newly launched research and consultancy group”, the “four amigos” --- the name that has been applied to National MPs, Alfred Ngaro, Chris Bishop, Todd Muller and Mark Mitchell who were the architects of the call for “generational change” --- in the leadership election.
Shortly afterwards he came out of the Chamber and withdrew his nomination.
There are now questions about the future of both Collins and Coleman. There are certainly Ministers who believe Collins is far too divisive and Coleman’s bid is said to have “pissed off” the inner Cabinet.
Now the backbench is focussing on the deputy leadership and the campaigns there are stepping up.
Both campaigns last night said it was very close and each said they thought they could win.
Bennett’s attraction is that she is a proven campaigner, widely popular in the party and as a Maori woman from Auckland she offers a real contrast with English.
Her campaigning skills might help win her votes since the party now faces a by-election early next year in Mt Albert with the retirement of Labour’s David Shearer to return to the UN to run its operation in South Sudan.
English has sponsored her rise within the Cabinet, and she is said to be his preferred deputy.
By the way, she was talking yesterday she had obviously picked up on the caucus desire to see change at the top of the Government.
“I’m certainly someone who believes in change,” she said.
“I’m a bit of a change agent myself. That’s what I do.
“I ‘ve certainly made changes in any opportunities I’ve been given particularly in the social welfare portfolio.”
And she was keen to make the point that she was only three years ahead of Simon Bridges in coming into Parliament.
Bridges is also Maori thus making the deputy leadership contest a first time that two Maori have competed for a senior leadership position in on of the two main parties.
Aged 40 and with a real enthusiasm for new ideas and technology, Bridges has been handling some some very challenging portfolios – transport and energy --- which puts him at the forefront of both the infrastructure and climate change debates.
More than Bennett he looks and sounds “young” with a serious interest in the big issues National will need to address in the future.
Regardless of who gets the job, the backbench is adamant that the Cabinet has to build a new relationship with the Caucus.
But if the Caucus was hoping for any big changes in overall Government policy they may be disappointed.
Unveiling the half-yearly fiscal and economic update yesterday, Finance Minister English, committed to only $1.5 billion of new expenditure each year till 2020 and indicated there was little room to bring forward the start dates on any of Auckland’s big infrastructure projects as had been proposed by defeated leadership contender, Jonathan Coleman.
As for Judith Collins’ calls for a review of the Resource Management legislation’s iwi participation provisions; that Bill finished its time at the Local Government and Environment Select Committee yesterday without those changes and now is off to get its final drafting.
Her questioning of any post-election relationship with the Maori Party will be ignored on the 9th floor of the Beehive. English has already talked positively about repeating the coalition with the Maori Parrty after the next election.
The big issue though that the backbench want to be fully discussed within the Caucus is tax cuts.
And the language in the Half Yearly Fiscal and Economic Update was much more equivocal than some recent comments from former-Prime Minister John Key.
Though the HYEFU said the $1.5 billion in new spending could be used for “a combination of revenue and expense initiatives”, the Government also has available to it rapidly rising surpluses which go as high as $8.5 billion in 2021.
Part of the reason for the surpluses is “fiscal drag” when inflation drags income tax rates up as wages and salaries increase.
But English said the discussions on tax cuts "are all ahead of us."
“We need to absorb the impact of the Kaikoura earthquake which while not nearly as large as Christchurch is still significant at $2 - $3 billion potentially and we’ve got to focus on paying down debt so that sets constraints on other choices.”
The Caucus may want to use its new influence though to push for tax cuts which they may feel they will need as a campaign tool next year to make up for the loss of the political super-salesman, John Key.
And with Steven Joyce named already by English as his Finance Minister, Treasury will find they will be dealing with a much more political Minister than English.
Surprisingly Joyce says he intends to keep his role as National’s Campaign Chair even while he is the Finance Minister.
“I’ve done campaigns a few times, I sort of know how they work,” he told POLITIK.
"The Minister of Finance thing will be new but I've been the Associate Minister of Finance for eight years, so I know how Bill's office operates so I think I can handle it."
The last four days have seen history made in Wellington.
A back bench rebellion has forced the National Government's leadership to retreat from the Presidential - Corporate style of operation favoured by Key.
Asked if he thought it would work, one back bencher simply crossed his fingers and held them up.
If it doesn't, the backbenchers have now found their voice and would seem very willing to make themselves heard again --- if required.