A guest post by Jonathan Darby:
The upcoming final part of Bill English’s cabinet reshuffle brought about by the retirements of Education minister Hekia Parata and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully needs to be a carefully managed piece of political choreography with an eye to the General Election in September.
It is a near certainty that Nikki Kaye is lined up to replace Parata as Education Minister. Kaye has returned to work following her leave for breast cancer treatment and is keen to get on with the job.
The replacement for McCully in Foreign Affairs is less clear. A number of names have been suggested, Mark Mitchell, Chris Finlayson, Jonathan Coleman and Gerry Brownlee. In her opinion article, Audrey Young dismisses the chances of Mitchell given that his elevation to the Ministry is only recent and therefore he is too junior in terms of ministerial experience for a role with such a high profile. It is possible though that he could be offered an Associate Foreign Affairs role. Young also questions whether Finlayson is a viable option given that he is highly regarded for his work in Treaty Negotiations, a role that he would likely have to give up if he were to take Foreign Affairs.
This leaves Coleman and Brownlee as possibilities. As we know, the General Election is less than six months away and Bill English will want to minimise the swapping of portfolio’s as much as possible, especially those highly visible roles that play a major part in election campaign discourse.
This is where Coleman’s chances take a dive. If he were to take over, he would have to surrender the Health portfolio, potentially to Michael Woodhouse, leading to a redistribution of some of Woodhouse’s portfolios. Would English be happy to make this change in a portfolio like health, especially staring down the barrel of September 23? I’m doubtful.
This leaves Gerry Brownlee, in my opinion the most likely option. Changes could be kept to a minimum and lessen disruption. Brownlee’s Greater Christchurch Regeneration portfolio could be cleanly transferred to his associate Nicky Wagner. She already has a profile in the portfolio and is well placed to pick up the full role. The full role would likely bring with it a promotion to Cabinet to fill the slot vacated by the departures of Parata and McCully. The Cabinet was extended to 21 Ministers following John Key’s resignation; this brings it back to the normal 20.
Assuming Brownlee keeps Defence, there would only be the small matter of transferring his Leader of the House responsibilities, most likely to Simon Bridges and his Earthquake commission and Civil Defence portfolios to other Ministers. Civil Defence and one of Nicky Wagner’s portfolio’s, possibly Customs could be handled by a new Minister outside Cabinet which will also form part of the announcement.
All in all this would be a tidy reshuffle, which does what needs to be done, but no more. A significant reshuffle at this point in the cycle could be electorally risky and that is a chance that Bill English just does not need to take as he looks to lead National into battle to secure a fourth term.
We will find out on 1 May.