National Party leader Judith Collins has rewarded allies and demoted former leaders in a new caucus line-up with a significant gamble in the finance role (or roles), Sam Sachdeva writes

There must be something in the water at Parliament.

On the heels of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s striking reshuffle of her ministerial lineup last week, it was Judith Collins’ turn to make some moves that are either bold or foolhardy.

The National leader did not change as much as her Labour counterpart, primarily because she does not have as many options at her disposal.

But Collins’ decision to cleave the finance portfolio in two – and give the more senior of the two roles, a ‘shadow treasurer’ position, to the mild-mannered (bordering on nondescript) Port Waikato MP Andrew Bayly – is a curious decision to say the least.

With Bayly joining newly appointed deputy leader Shane Reti in National’s top three, the detail-oriented policy wonks are taking over, perhaps a reflection of the criticism directed towards the party for its relentless negativity and lack of fresh ideas.

Bayly worked closely with Collins on National’s proposals for a national infrastructure bank and tech sector investment, and seems to have earned the trust from his leader that Goldsmith clearly lost after his fiscal botch-ups.

With a decade of experience as a merchant banker before entering politics, Bayly also has the financial grounding to reassure members of the business community who now trust Labour over National when it comes to managing the economy.

In principle, splitting the finance role is entirely logical and even sensible given the likely emphasis on economic issues over the next three years – but in reality the lines may become much more blurred, and it will take both careful coordination and goodwill to avoid either MP stepping on the other’s toes.

Attempting to erase that business confidence deficit also appears to be behind the curious decision to split up finance.

Bayly will be joined by Michael Woodhouse, up to fourth spot and out of the dogbox after his role in the Michelle Boag Covid-19 privacy breach drama, in a more traditional finance role.

The idea seems to be that Woodhouse – the more ‘political’ of the two – will take the fight to Robertson in the House and at other set-pieces, while Bayly carefully crafts policy behind the scenes and manages relationships in the business sector.

In principle, it is entirely logical and even sensible given the likely emphasis on economic issues over the next three years – but in reality the lines may become much more blurred, and it will take both careful coordination and goodwill to avoid either MP stepping on the other’s toes.

Collins said she was not particularly concerned about who was the more senior finance spokesman, although Bayly does sit above Woodhouse in the party’s rankings and Australian governments have typically placed the treasurer as the more important of the two roles.

It will certainly help if, as Collins claimed, the pair are “quite joined at the hip”, and they did appear in good spirits as they jostled hips alongside her.

But there is clearly the potential for things to go awry, judging by Simon Bridges’ decision to swerve an offer of the finance role in the new configuration (Collins would not confirm that was the case, although Newsroom understands it to be so).

Simon Bridges’ decision to pass on the finance portfolio could be a sign of future headaches to come for Judith Collins. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Tauranga MP could prove a headache for Collins in the coming months, even though he has kept a high caucus ranking and retained the significant justice portfolio.

Returning to Parliament a new man after his post-leadership stint in the yak-filled wilderness, Bridges hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind, as demonstrated by his election-night criticism of National’s non-existent campaign strategy.

So far, that hasn’t stretched into outright sedition, and he has disavowed any designs on another run for the leadership.

But plans can change, and with the sense that Collins is a placeholder for the party, there is little to lose for Bridges in pointing out when he feels she has gone astray.

Todd Muller, the man who forced Bridges out of the leadership, has taken a tumble down the rankings, but would seem less likely to make trouble given the undeniable failure of his brief stint in charge and the desire to look after his mental wellbeing.

Another ostensible rival to Collins, new Botany MP and former Air New Zealand chief executive Chris Luxon, has been kept out of the spotlight and on the back benches, instead of an ascent like that of Labour’s Ayesha Verrall.

Luxon has taken on the local government and iwi development portfolios; important topics, for sure but not likely to draw the same amount of media attention as some of the roles mooted for him by pundits.

But with such a small talent pool for Collins to draw on, Luxon and others will have more than their fair share of opportunities to rise up the ranks.

That may be heightened by the open space for attack dogs, given neither Reti nor Bayly are particularly likely to fill that role (although with Collins in charge, there should be more than enough fight on National’s side of the House).

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

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