Rejuvenation

Had an interesting chat to Mike Hosking on radio this morning about Simon’s decision to retire. Hosking said that it may be partly an age thing – just as younger workers routinely swap jobs every five years or so, you also have younger MPs who don’t want to spend their life in Parliament. They want to do 12 – 15 years and then go onto other things. The thought of doing a Phil Goff and joining a political party at age 15, standing for Parliament at age 28 and still being there when you are close to 60 is exactly what they don’t want to do.

Power became an MP at age 29 and is leaving at age 41. A big contrast.

Hosking asked me if anyone other MP has got out when they so obviously had a Ministerial acreer ahead of them, and my answer was Katherine Rich – a close friend of Simon’s. And it is quite possible that Simon has observed how absolutely happy Katherine has been since she left Parliament – a theory shared by Duncan Garner.

But there is one upside to Simon’s decision – it does make rejuvenation easier for , and indeed the decisions of both Simon and Wayne Mapp should serve as a wake-up call for other Ministers that no-one is there for ever.

Soon after National won the 2008 election, I pondered what National needs to do to have a lengthy Government – three or even four terms. There’s a lot of factors which are situational – policies, economy, issues, response to scandals etc. But there are also some factors which tend to be almost always true – that the public are loath to keep re-electing the same old people into Government.

So a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a long-term Government is to rejuvenate. And this has to happen not just in your third term, but throughout. Helen Clark did some useful rejuvenbation in her third term, but by then it was too little too late.

National has 23 Ministers at present. For the sake of easy maths, we’ll pretend they have 24. To maximise chances of a third or even the holy grail of a fourth term, one has to go into your third election with half your Ministry being new, and to get a fourth term, almost your entire Government needs to be new – including arguably the Prime Minister.

So in the rejuvenation plan I sketched in my head, one would have the following rejuvenations:

  1. Six Ministers retire at end of 1st term (2011), and new Ministers appointed at beginning of 2nd term
  2. Six Ministers retire around a year before end of 2nd term (2013), and six new Ministers appointed prior to general election
  3. Six Ministers (including most of the senior leadership) around halfway through the third term (2015), and six new Ministers appointed, plus more junior Ministers step up into the senior portfolios

Helen Clark found out the hard way that NZers are reluctant to give a PM and an almost unchanged frontbench a fourth term. Likewise John Howard made the mistake of going for a fifth term, when he could have retired with greatness after four.

It is important to stress that Ministers should retire and allow rejuvenation not because they are bad Ministers, or because their replacements will be necessairly better than them. Often a new Minister will take time to come up to speed. But without rejuvenation you burn off public support (and you end up with frustrated backbenchers).

So far in this term, we’ve had two Ministers resign (Worth and Wong) and three Ministers announce their retirement (J Carter, Mapp and Power). I think there is a reasonable chance of one more retirement before the election, so by coincidence the number will be six. Of course two of the spots have already been claimed by Nathan Guy and Hekia Parata.

Winning a second term doesn’t tend to be about rejuvenation – more about the performance of the Government (and Opposition) only. So that is why you tend to keep Ministers in office until the election and have their sucessors become Ministers after the election (if you win).

In the second term, it is different. You want to go into that election for a third term with actual new faces – around half the Ministers should be different from the beginning of the first term. So one would expect the PM to do a significant reshuffle around a year before the 2014 election. Leaving it until after the election is too late.

What this means, is that most (that is not the same as saying all) of the Ministers who were also Ministers in the former National Government of the 1990s should be thinking seriously about retiring at the 2014 election, with a step down from the Ministry at the end of 2013. You will have had five years as a Minister and of course your previous ministerial experience. Your experience has been invaluable to stabilising this Government, but rejuvenation will be essential to maximise chances of a third term or beyond.

And if National does manage to win a second and thrd term, then I do think that John Key could do what no other Prime Minister in NZ’s history has done – and get out while on top. I don’t think he wants to set a record for longest serving PM in power as Clark did. I think he will feel that 7.5 to 8 years as PM and 9 – 10 years as National Leader is a pretty good run, and he’ll let new leadership emerge for that elusive chase of the 4th term. And if people see the National Government seeking a 4th term as a very different beast to the National Government that came into power in 2008, it may be possible.

Now you may think I’m getting ahead of myself thinking about third and fourth terms, when a second term is yet to be won. Well as I said, the second term doesn’t tend to be an issue of rejuvenation. But rejuvenation is an issue you have to be candid about well in advance. It is unfair on Ministers to have them think they will continue forever, and then after an election they find out they’re a backbencher again. Then you just get a surly backbencher for three years.

It is important to make sure rejuvenation expectations are known well in advance. That way Ministers can announce that they will retire at the next election, before any reshuffle, so that they are seen as retiring, not as being forced out. One should always try to preserve dignity.

So fow now, the level of retirements is about right. But if re-elected, some Ministers should give careful consideration (in my opinion) to retiring in 2014. Not because they are doing a bad job. Not because they are not valued. But because you don’t win if you don’t rejuvenate.

The actions of both Power and Mapp in retiring long before they were due to be pushed, should serve as an example to others.

It’s also an example some Labour MPs could follow.

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