Judith Collins’ hopes of maintaining a united front for the National Party have had an early setback with the departure of two senior MPs – but the new leader’s first reshuffle was fairly adept, Sam Sachdeva writes

So much for a “minor” reshuffle.

In fairness, the scale of new National leader Judith Collins’ first major job was taken out of her hands somewhat by the retirements of Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye, two of the key members of her predecessor Todd Muller’s ‘Kitchen Cabinet’.

As Collins herself noted, while the pair’s respective decisions may be a disappointment to the caucus they are not exactly a surprise.

Adams had already announced her retirement in mid-2019, only to change her plans after Muller’s ascension to the leadership (and perhaps as importantly, Bridges’ removal from the job).

Even then, her return was predicated on a wide-ranging, strategic ‘Covid recovery czar’ role that she was never likely to keep under Collins, or almost any new leader, and it is understandable she would turn down returning to a more mundane, albeit high-ranking, role.

Kaye is in a slightly different position, having shown no signs of leaving political life before this week.

But as Muller’s deputy, seen by some as instrumental in both his rise and the mistakes that peppered his short reign, Kaye seems to have felt self-imposed pressure to step away entirely.

The Auckland Central MP also referred to her battle against breast cancer in the last term of Parliament as a factor in her decision, and it is understandable that after 12 years in politics – more than half of those as a minister – she would take the opportunity to move onto something else.

Nikki Kaye has long had a reputation for a prodigious work ethic. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Both are losses, but Kaye particularly so: she was seen as the standard-bearer for the party’s liberal wing and an MP with a prodigious work ethic (although that desire to be across everything has not always been a positive).

It will certainly be difficult for National to find a replacement who can hold onto her Auckland Central electorate, a Labour fortress for the best part of a century (with a one-term Alliance interlude) until Kaye flipped it blue in 2008.

Their resignations were largely beyond Collins’ control, but they nevertheless took some of the gloss off what was otherwise a relatively well-managed reshuffle in the circumstances.

Former leader Simon Bridges was promoted to fourth spot and retained his foreign affairs portfolio, while also picking up justice from Mark Mitchell.

Mitchell seemed guilty of sitting on his hands at points with what should have been a meaty role, which explains in part his fall down the rankings, and Bridges’ pledge as leader to smash the gangs fits with Collins’ smashmouth style.

Muller made it onto the front bench at number eight with the trade portfolio – a smart move given the role carries a certain sense of gravitas and fits his business background, yet is unlikely to come to the fore during the election campaign (sorry, trade tragics).

There were promotions too for key Muller lieutenants Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis, an important display to the party’s more liberal MPs that they would not be sidelined by the regime change.

And the previously announced decision to give the health portfolio to Shane Reti both addressed some of the concerns about Maori representation (not that Collins would admit to diversity being a problem) and the issues with Michael Woodhouse’s involvement in the Covid-19 patient data scandal.

That’s not to say there weren’t some head-scratchers, however.

Agriculture spokesman David Bennett somehow made it onto the front bench; among his ‘highlights’ of 2020 are encouraging his Hamilton East constituents to panic buy during the Covid-19 crisis, and responding to a correspondent telling him to roll then-leader Bridges: “Yeah working on it” (funnily enough, his email made its way onto Newshub‘s 6pm bulletin).

All in all, though, the reshuffle showed “Crusher” Collins has the ability to apply a deft touch when needed.

But bringing people into the tent doesn’t guarantee what they will do once inside, and the caucus as a whole will need to display much more discipline and common purpose if they are to have any show of convincing voters they can be trusted in government.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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