Paula Bennett wowed the National Party faithful in her speech warming them up for leader Simon Bridges yesterday. Tim Murphy watched a breakout performance.

If her political enemies were hoping to destabilise National deputy leader Paula Bennett by telling her to watch her back in her party, she was having none of it yesterday at the National Party conference.

Bennett, a shadow of herself physically after having bariatric surgery following National’s loss at last year’s election, produced an acclaimed performance at the podium which blended her career-long westie schtick with a new show as a “stateswoman”.

It was full of praise for her leader Simon Bridges, which is par for the course in a curtain-raising speech, but also of two of his, and her possible leadership rivals in Judith Collins and Amy Adams.

It confronted criticism by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters of Bridges and Peters’ comment that she, Bennett, should watch her back because the “jackals” would first come for the weakest and replace her as deputy before toppling the leader. But unlike others at the conference on day one, she did not fire back personally against Peters, a telling restraint.

“Isn’t it interesting how hard the other parties and government are going against Simon,” she said. “There’s barely a day where their staffers are not at the media trying to run Simon Bridges or me or others down. Mr Peters had a go. Must be pretty worried, eh? Why put that much energy into us. They will try to divide us. They see our unity and it worries them. Well they cannot quite see our unity because they don’t recognise it [in their own parties].”

Thumping the podium a full four times, she declared: “We will not let them divide us.”

Bennett said she hadn’t realised Bridges had been thinking about the leadership for a long time before Sir Bill English retired. “Probably ever since he was a 16 year-old” when he joined the party.

“I knew he was smart and ambitious and hard working. I had seen it in cabinet. The fact I didn’t know of the extent of his ambition, I think is testimony to his integrity. 

“The fact he had thought about it meant he has come in…. ready for the job, not taking time to find out what he’s for and what he stands against.”

She spread the love. “Simon is smart enough to surround himself with smart women. Amy Adams, Judith Collins. Need I say more? Don’t you wish these two were ministers now, handling their portfolios. They are both deep thinkers.”

As the party’s spokesperson for women, Bennett had an unconventional take on her own advancement in the party and the role of men in helping women succeed.

“I want to thank John Key, Bill English and Simon Bridges. John Key not only opened the door for me, he held it open. When I had those conscious steps, when I doubted in the early days my ability to take on those workloads he backed me.

“I want to recognise these men who support us to be the absolute best we can be and contribute in this country. John Key made a conscious effort to make sure we as women were heard, that our opinions as women were brought in. He appreciated we have a different perspective. Bill English was a bit the same.”

If unorthodox to hear a prominent woman highlighting males’ assistance in their advancement, it went down well with those at the conference. 

Bennett said that did not eliminate the challenges for women. “I can still get upset about the level of domestic violence happening against women, the sexual violence that we see. These are  constantly on our minds.”

But she contrasted those concerns with calls for quotas for women directors on boards. “By the way, no.”

She believed women who got up at 3 in the morning to take on cleaning jobs were those who “I lose sleep for. They for me are really where we should be putting our energies.”

“People ask me : ‘Is Parliament sexist?’ and honestly, no. We are getting equal pay, equal opportunity. It is hard to be a mum given the hours, but it is also hard to be a dad.”

The party president, Peter Goodfellow thanked Bennett for ‘an amazing, amazing presentation” and Key – her mentor – said later it was the best speech he’d ever seen her give.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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