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Get Ready To Rumble: New Parliament No Place For Faint Hearts

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Wellington, Nov 23 NZPA - New ministers and their opposition shadows are getting ready to face each other in the debating chamber, and Parliament looks like being a lively place.

Labour's new leader, Phil Goff, waited until Prime Minister John Key had announced his cabinet before making final decisions about his own front bench.

Goff was looking for weaknesses he hopes Labour can exploit, and the first was easy to spot.

It is Paula Bennett. The rookie minister holds the social development portfolio, control over all the welfare payments and policy around a budget of nearly $20 billion a year.

Welfare is a beast of a job. Things go wrong, people fall between its cracks, there are families that have been on benefits for three generations, the system is attacked from the left and right of politics.

Labour's senior MPs have seen it all before and Annette King, the deputy leader, has been chosen to take on Bennett.

King has held hard portfolios in the past, including health which is arguably as difficult as welfare. She has ministerial experience that goes back to the 1984 Labour government.

Bennett is a second term MP who hadn't been in the Beehive until this week. But she's got coalface welfare experience, she was a solo mum on the DPB.

"Aspiration and believing in yourself, with a huge dose of hard work, can make anything possible," says the feisty MP who seems to have unlimited optimism and confidence in what she can do.

It's going to be a razor sharp contest between those two, and law and order isn't far behind.

The new Justice Minister is Simon Power, fourth-ranked high-flier in the cabinet who tormented Labour when it was in office. Judith Collins, considered too flinty-faced for the welfare portfolio, has police and corrections.

Labour's law and order spokesman is Clayton Cosgrove, the pugnacious MP who has been promoted to the front bench and is ranked sixth in Goff's lineup. With the promises National made about cracking down on crime, he's going to have a cracking time holding Power and Collins to account if they don't deliver.

Health isn't going to be easy for Labour. New Health Minister Tony Ryall is a seasoned professional, one of the few on the front bench who was a minister in the previous National government.

He's been health spokesman for the last three years, time to lay the foundations for his portfolio and get ready for the job.

Up against him is Ruth Dyson, who hasn't handled health before but she's a combat-hardened MP who doesn't take prisoners.

Climate change is going to be huge next year, and probably for the next three years. The review of the Emissions Trading Scheme will be highly controversial and Nick Smith is in charge of it.

Smith was National's climate change spokesman in opposition and he knows the ropes. Labour has chosen the relatively untested Charles Chauvel as its climate change spokesman, and he also has energy. Chauvel is going to need to be at the top of his game to take on Smith.

There are other intriguing contests to be held, and one of them is local government. ACT leader Rodney Hide has the portfolio, and a history of attacking councils for profligate spending. On Labour's side is Shane Jones, a loudmouth who loves a fight.

And there's Pita Sharples, the Maori Party co-leader who holds the Maori Affairs portfolio under a support agreement with National. He has a lot to learn when it comes to handling a ministry and Parekura Horomia, who had the job in the last Parliament, isn't going to let him get away with anything.

The good thing about the new Parliament is that Labour in opposition has the numbers and the personnel to be effective. With 43 seats it isn't going to be drowned in a sea of blue, it will fight the Government on issues where there is a clear difference between the two sides.

At the top tier of government those differences are not so sharp because John Key, Finance Minister Bill English and Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee are going to be focused on getting New Zealand through a recession.

Goff has said Labour isn't going to oppose for the sake of opposition, he knows there's too much at stake to try to score points while the Government grapples with a severe economic downturn and its impact on jobs.

There's likely to be some degree of bi-partisan effort going into that and Labour's new finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, won't be trying to blow holes in the Government's rescue strategy.

And when it comes to debating chamber strategy, Labour has two really important people behind the scenes. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, who effectively ran the government for nine years, are staying on.

They're likely to keep a low public profile but their experience and expertise is going to be invaluable to Goff and his team.

Clark is Labour's spokeswoman on foreign affairs, which she knows a lot more about than new minister Murray McCully, although National and Labour don't have any deep disagreements in that area.

Cullen, however, is going to be seen and heard in the House. Gerry Brownlee is the Leader of the House, responsible for setting Parliament's agenda, and Cullen is the shadow leader. The positions are often used for attacks, and they're both good at that.

So it's going to be a show worth watching as the new government finds its feet and Labour does its best to trip it up.

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