Hooton on McCully’s replacement

Talk is starting to firm up around the departure of Murray McCully, and word has it it will be around Christmas time.

People are already positioning themselves for selection if that does occur, though I think a by-election is unlikely given Key’s disdain for them after the debacle in Northland by Steve Joyce and Vic Crone’s campaign manager Jo de Joux. It is likely to be a more managed departure, but if McCully does go and no by-election is called then expect a general election inside 6 months of McCully’s leaving.

Meanwhile Matthew Hooton is flying some kites on his replacement, though they match the rumours I’ve heard too.

It was all going to be so easy.

To refresh John Key’s government before the election, a neat side-shuffle was envisaged.

Sir Lockwood Smith would return to New Zealand to take some academic governance role at his beloved Massey or Lincoln universities, Speaker David Carter would get his gong and head to London as high commissioner, and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee would be elevated to the Speaker’s chair.  Mr Key would then be able to promote a next-generation Cantabrian, perhaps Justice Minister Amy Adams, into his inner circle.

It was never clear if the plan was consciously designed in Mr Key’s own mind (or even if he ever agreed with it) or merely evolved out of the chatter of parliament and the punditariat. Nevertheless, it involved a certain elegance.

The problem was that, with the exception of perhaps Sir Lockwood, whose life-long interest has been agricultural science, none of the senior figures required to make it work was interested.  Whether anyone ever spoke to him about it, it turned out Mr Carter didn’t want to move to London.  And Mr Brownlee made clear that the tradition a new Speaker be reluctantly dragged to the chair would need to be more than ritualistic: he would need to be personally carried from the cabinet room across to the Speaker’s apartments.

And given the size of Big Gerry that might prove impossible for the more feeble members of National’s caucus. It is of course a dreadful shame because word has it the staff in the Speaker’s office were looking forward to an improvement in the standard of pies and sausage rolls around parliament. But parliament’s loss is Foreign Affairs gain.

Mr Brownlee’s important position in the government is not really understood by most North Islanders but it is by Mr Key.

Although he has let himself down over the years with occasional oafish behaviour, the defence minister is in fact highly intelligent.  Nevertheless, no one would argue, let alone he, that he got where he is today because of his ability to debate the finer points of econometric analysis with pimply Treasury officials.  Mr Brownlee is an expert in people skills and that has allowed him to first dominate the Canterbury National Party, to develop huge loyalty in the cabinet and backbench and to turn what used to be called the People’s Republic of Christchurch into a National Party town.  His is connected with the Christchurch community in a way Ms Adams probably never will be.

Mr Brownlee’s career so far has been symbolised by the Christchurch earthquakes.  He has never really publicly told the story of the devastating effects of the earthquakes on his own home and family.  Despite the trauma he and his family personally faced, he remained calm through the initial crisis and has generally kept his cool with all the difficult challenges since.  Whatever the media say, Christchurch voters seem to have rewarded him.  His most important work was probably negotiating with international insurance companies to remain supportive of New Zealand when they wanted to drop cover to avoid further losses.

In economic development, Mr Brownlee is perfectly willing to let his successor Steven Joyce take all the credit for the Auckland Convention Centre deal.  But Mr Brownlee does not resile from, and is very proud of, the lead role he took to boost tourism in the controversial negotiations to keep The Hobbit in New Zealand.

His negotiating skills have also been crucial as leader of the House in working with Act, United Future and especially the Maori Party to ensure the government has maintained its majority for its legislative programme.


Also increasingly likely is that there will be – or should be – a vacancy in the foreign minister’s office in the very near future.

It is now nearly 10 months since the Auditor-General announced her investigation into Murray McCully’s dodgy Saudi sheep deal, which documents reveal her office doubted was even legal.  Few Auditor-General inquiries have ever taken this long.

Based even just on what is already known publicly, there is little doubt she must find the deal was corrupt, incompetent or both.  Mr Key has previously not shown any tolerance for either.  If he were to allow Mr McCully to continue in the face of an adverse Auditor-General’s report, it would suggest his government has entirely lost any moral compass in its third term.

It is not quite as elegant as the original plan but, along with the managed retirement of, say, Nick Smith, Nathan Guy, Sam Lotu-Iiga and perhaps Maggie Barry, sacking Mr McCully would free up five seats in the cabinet for Mr Key to demonstrate his government is clean, refreshed and ready for a fourth term.  And Mr Brownlee is perfectly capable of representing our country on the world stage.

I suppose this is one way of increasing NZ’s impact on the world stage…by several hundred kilos. Matthew Hooton ignores though the likely retirement of Maurice Williamson so there is even more renewal likely.



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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.