One of National’s most prominent MPs has pulled the pin on her career just months before the 2020 election. Alex Braae was there to see Paula Bennett say farewell.
In the end, it was a somewhat muted departure for an MP who spent 15 years demanding to be heard.
Paula Bennett, former deputy PM, former minister for social development and a dozen other portfolios, and the most prominent Westie in politics, has announced that she won’t be standing again in 2020. The announcement came on a rainy Monday morning at Fabric cafe in Hobsonville, surrounded by a cohort of media, her electorate team, and a room full of slightly bemused coffee drinkers.
She greeted a few people on the way in, including the party’s next candidate for Upper Harbour, Jake Bezzant. He stayed off to one side for the whole press conference, only briefly being pointed out by Bennett. It was a warm mention, but this was her moment.
For Bennett, the year has seen a rapid reversal in political fortunes. In February, she was the deputy leader of a party riding high in the polls and a campaign manager with a very real shot at making Simon Bridges the next PM of New Zealand. When his leadership collapsed amid a challenge from Todd Muller, all of that rapidly melted away.
She didn’t end up on the backbenches like Bridges did, being put into the 13th spot on the list in Muller’s reshuffle. But she said today it was clear that she wasn’t going to be deputy PM.
Some will be very happy to see her go, especially anti-poverty campaigners on the political left. Her tenure as social development minister included some deeply controversial reforms, which even led to some giving her the nickname ‘Pull-ya Benefit’.
At this morning’s media conference she addressed that head-on, pointing out she had taken on the job at the start of the Global Financial Crisis. “I set about reforming the welfare system, with more emphasis on what people could do, increasing our expectation to get people work-ready and look for a job, and change the system so that more help was available for them.”
She said she was proud that the number of sole parents on the benefit, and the number of teen parents generally, dropped dramatically while she was in the job. “This means tens of thousands of people no longer dependent on the state, and living independent lives.”
As a solo mother at the age of 17 herself, Bennett’s life story was a powerful symbol of what could be possible in a meritocratic society. Her critics would say she took advantage of a more generous era of welfare, and then pulled the ladder up behind her.
Did she have any regrets about her time as social development minister? Not at all, said Bennett. “I loved thinking about what we could do to positively change people’s lives. I get that there are some people who won’t agree with everything we did, but I believed in people and their abilities, and I do despair at the moment that there’s an expectation that a lifetime on welfare is an option for people.”
Bennett was the first Māori woman to hold the job of deputy PM, and says that was a reflection of National being a party “that never looks at what you can’t do, but what you can do”. Her departure means that the almost overwhelmingly Pākehā front bench is now even more so – not to mention that she was also the most high-profile National MP from a working class background.
Bennett’s career reached its peak during the final term of the last National government, with John Key promoting her into his “kitchen cabinet” inner circle, and the party electing her into the deputy leadership role when Bill English took over. She held that role when Simon Bridges won the leadership, and was seen as a hugely important power-broker within National.
But why stop there? Why not ever make a run at the top job? She never wanted it, she said. “There were probably times I could have stepped up, and put my hand up. But sometimes you can make a bigger difference in the role that is suited to your skills. And for me, that was in a deputy leader role. I love the organisation, I love the hands-on.”
Bennett’s departure comes just a day after East Coast MP Anne Tolley also announced she would retire at the election. Tolley was one of the few National MPs to really put their cards on the table during the leadership challenge, saying it was “nutty stuff” and backing Bridges to the hilt. She was also in line for a top job were National to win, being their most likely candidate for the role of parliamentary speaker.
With two high profile departures from the defeated faction, is this a case of National cleaning house? “I’m a National party supporter, yeah?” she said. “So I support the leader. I supported Simon who is quite frankly a great guy, and someone I really admire. But I support the party first and foremost, so I just don’t characterise it like that.”
Can National still win? Bennett confirmed that she hadn’t seen any National internal polling recently – ironically, one of the charges against Bridges and Bennett was that they were hiding that information from the caucus. She was confident that the party could still win, saying there were just a few percentage points in it.
It was perhaps a telling detail that she chose to do the press conference in Auckland, rather than among the parliamentary gallery reporters with whom she had many battles with over the years. The conference was also made away from the rest of the National caucus, and she reportedly only told Muller it was happening at 9am this morning. That was in contrast to comedian and impressionist Tom Sainsbury, who learned about the retirement over the weekend.
She didn’t say whether Muller pushed her out, nor whether he had fought for her to stay. “They’ve been really generous, they’ve certainly told me that there’s a place for me, that I’m obviously welcome, and I intend to keep my membership alive. But I was very clear that this is my decision, and my time.”
Bennett will now head into the business world, saying that she really wants to have a post-politics career. “It’s me probably being really selfish for the first time in 15 years, and saying ‘what do I want out of life?'” She wouldn’t be specific about whether there was anything already lined up, saying she was “open to opportunities, as they say”. It had been a “whirlwind month”, as she put it.
As she finished up the press conference, Bennett took a moment to have a word with her electorate team, and offered a quick apology to the cafe’s patrons. “Sorry for disturbing your quiet coffee,” she joked.
It was perhaps a fitting way to go, after a career in which she was never one to stand around silently. And for good or for ill, there is no doubt that she left a permanent mark on New Zealand’s politics.