National's battle to move on from John Key

Paula Bennett says social investment could be the National Government's defining policy. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw.

National has been riding high in the polls for nine years, but Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett knows the party has a fight on its hands to win a fourth term. As part of Newsroom’s election coverage, Bennett talks about the challenges of getting out of John Key’s shadow and whether she respects Jacinda Ardern.

How do you move out of the shadow of one of New Zealand’s most successful and popular prime ministers?

As political problems go, there are worse to have - just ask Andrew Little or Metiria Turei - but it has been a challenge nonetheless for Bill English and Paula Bennett.

Compared to Little’s virtual disappearance, John Key still looms large over National: he formally became Sir John at an investiture ceremony this week, while his thoughts on new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and the upcoming election made headlines on a number of news sites.

Yet Bennett says the transition has been easier than she expected, with the strength of the post-Key caucus a sign of his success while in power.

“If you’d said to me, 'he’s going to leave quite suddenly and you guys are just going to have to pick up the reins'...I would’ve wondered how we would do that, but actually the transition was remarkably easy and I do credit him with a lot of it.”

Comparing the two leaders is impossible to avoid, and Bennett says she has noticed an increase in the intensity of policy making under English.

“He won’t accept work that hasn’t been well thought out by other ministers and by officials quite frankly, he will challenge in a different way than perhaps the previous prime minister would have, just because he probably knows so much more.”

"We’re not sort of tinkering at the edges of that, we are fundamentally changing the way that our public service services the public.”

One critique of Key’s time in charge was the lack of a legacy, of reactive rather than proactive politics.

Social investment, English’s baby, is shaping up as the policy which could fill that void - if National gets time to see it through.

Bennett is reluctant to talk about leaving a legacy - “it sounds really arrogant” - but believes the plan will fundamentally change how government agencies care for the most vulnerable Kiwis by better targeting where funding goes.

“That will be for decades actually, because we’re not sort of tinkering at the edges of that, we are fundamentally changing the way that our public service services the public.”

The next term, if they get one more, is about turning the principle into practice: “More of how it truly delivers into the home of a family who are worried about teenage suicide, kids that are not attending school, how they’re going to pay the bills that day, family violence that’s going on, multiple police visits.”

Could more have been done earlier? Bennett says she’s been working on it since 2009, in the form of her welfare reforms, while it was also a matter of data and technology catching up with their plans.

“This is people’s lives, and actually our most vulnerable New Zealanders’ lives, so the people that are least resilient and actually if we get that wrong, it’s not a whoopsy daisy - it could be absolutely catastrophic.”

“One of the main challenges he’s [English] had as Prime Minister is every time he’d go to walk through a door, he said he was so used to always waiting for other people, because that’s just his nature."

In New Zealand, a Government’s third term has so often been the time when it falls apart, as arrogance and complacency begins to creep in.

Bennett says English has been quick to stamp that out, sharing an anecdote about his humility (albeit one that may worry those preparing him for the leaders’ debates).

“One of the main challenges he’s had as Prime Minister is every time he’d go to walk through a door, he said he was so used to always waiting for other people, because that’s just his nature - he’s a gentleman you know, it’s just what you do.

“Then he said everyone else would wait for him to walk through the door, so as the Minister for Women he came to me and [said], ‘So what do I do?’...

“I said to him, ‘Walk through the door Bill, no woman will think that you’re being discourteous’.”

English doesn’t accept any sense of entitlement, she says, while even at Labour’s lowest ebb there was a sense that everything was up for grabs.

“The Greens were right up...you add those numbers together and it still was - I’ve always said to people, it’s sort of three to five per cent, and that is not many, yeah?”

'The person matters, but so does the team'

Any residual complacency that remained has been shaken loose by the rise of Ardern, accompanied by a bump in the polls for Labour.

Bennett points out (rightly) that Labour’s rise is for now a result of “the left eating each other’s vote”, but seems wary when talking about her impressions of Ardern.

“I just think that she’s a smart woman that’s leading a really - she’s got a huge job yeah? Just a massive job, and so I think she will be tested in that, because you can sort of see they haven’t got the most united caucus, they haven’t genuinely got a team approach where it genuinely is ‘your success is my success is New Zealand’s success’ kind of thing.”

When Ardern was chosen as former leader Andrew Little’s deputy, National MPs portrayed her as a lightweight, with Nikki Kaye dismissing her promotion as a “superficial, cosmetic facelift”.

That line of attack has been notable by its absence in the last fortnight, which Bennett attributes to a political etiquette of sorts.

"The way democracy works well in this country is that there is a certain level of respect for the leader of the opposition, and sometimes you get it for the position, let alone the person.”

Does she respect Ardern as a person?

“I don’t know her well enough, but I certainly respect her in the leader of the opposition and the job she’s doing - I have no reason to not respect her, put it that way.”

English has been downplaying the importance of personality to voters, perhaps concerned by how his stacks up against Ardern’s, but Bennett says that doesn’t mean he’s not up to scratch.

“The personality does [matter] because you're looking for a leader and a prime minister, someone that can make huge calls and has the capacity and the capability to do that, so in all of those respects actually, the person that’s vying to be the next Prime Minister of New Zealand, the person matters - make no bones about it.”

She’s quick to defend her boss against any suggestion he doesn’t live up to his predecessor, particularly when it comes to the retail politics that is vital during a campaign.

“He cares less about how he looks and how he’s presenting it than the depth of what he's doing for New Zealanders - so if that’s not retail at times, he’ll probably make no apologies for doing it, because it’s the substance behind it and nobody ever doubts that.”

Equally important as the PM, she adds, are the people behind them, the Cabinet that makes big calls around policy and the issues of the day.

“I don’t think we are at all sort of changing our tack, but I just suppose it’s not one person that’s going to do all the work - come the 24th of September it’s going to be a team.”

Population pressures piling on

But how has that team performed in the last nine years?

Much of the pressure coming on the Government - in health, education, transport, housing - seems to be the result of a rising population, leading opponents to suggest it’s been behind the curve in planning for the boom.

Bennett pushes back against the suggestion National has been asleep at the wheel, saying the pressure is in part a result of New Zealand handling the global financial crisis better than expected.

“If you looked back in 2008, what we were heading into, my God, I was the brand new Minister of Social Development and we were talking about going well into double figures of unemployment, we were talking about literally hundreds of thousands of people going onto the benefit, we were gearing up for the worst of times…

“I think we’ve done an outstanding job against the odds of where we were and the circumstances that came with us, and most of them are the circumstances of success.”

Social housing, a particular interest of Bennett’s, was “a mess” before they came in and has taken time to turn around, she says.

“It’s never quick enough - you want to click your fingers and it all be done tomorrow and perfectly, but the real world says that it’s a process and that it does take time.”

While Labour and others want a breather on immigration, “say that they haven’t got the ideas to cope with it and it’s all a bit too hard”, National wants to push ahead and catch up with the demand on the system.

“I can see it in the way that we move around, you can see it in some of those big infrastructure projects: man, going around Auckland and you’ve literally got housing projects of thousands coming up...it is just incredible as to how it’s moving.”

Whether it has moved fast enough, and whether Kiwis trust that National can catch up, is set to determine whether Bennett, English and their team can hang on to power.