After being rolled as deputy leader and losing the spot running the campaign, the National MP and former deputy prime minister is quitting parliament after 15 years.
In August 2019, when it was announced that Paula Bennett would be going list-only and taking on the role of chairing the National Party campaign, it was a safe bet that this provided a smooth exit strategy: were National to fail to make up the numbers and form a government, she could slide out of parliamentary politics without triggering a byelection.
At the end of last month, however, as Todd Muller deposed Simon Bridges as leader, Bennett lost not just the deputy leadership to Nikki Kaye, but her position running the campaign to Gerry Brownlee. She was bumped down the shadow cabinet ladder from second to 13th. And with less than 12 weeks to go, she’s had enough. She’s done.
After the Muller-Kaye coup, Bennett said she had been “hit pretty hard”, but that “honestly I can put a line under it and move on into what is a bigger purpose, and far more important than an individual … I’m totally backing this team 100 per cent, and I’ve got a role to play and I want to do it.” She wasn’t thinking of quitting, she told the Herald: “I’m in. I love it and I have got something to offer. There’s still a bit of a stroppy Māori westie here who will keep doing her thing.”
What’s changed since?
In a statement (scroll to end for the statement in full), Bennett offered little clue, saying simply: “The whole thing though has been a hell of a ride and I have loved it. Now it is time for the next chapter. I am excited to take the skills I have out of Parliament and into the business world. I have always wanted another career after politics and now is the right time for me to go and pursue that.”
Speaking to media in Hobsonville this morning, Bennett said she thought the “new team have got a really good shot” at winning the election, but that it was clear that if they did she wouldn’t again be deputy prime minister. She said Muller had her support as leader and she wished him the best.
Far from being pushed, said Bennett, she was “being really selfish for the first time in 15 years, and saying, what do I really want out of life? I really want another career. I really want to go and do something out of politics.”
The leopard-skin “westie” brand was an important part of Bennett’s pitch over the years – a former beneficiary (and former leftie), she presented herself as an ordinary New Zealand type, butting up against the elites. Her backstory was a National Party classic: the solo mum who proved that through hard work and sacrifice anyone could make it to the top.
A favourite of John Key, who catapulted her straight into cabinet in 2008, Bennett earned a reputation as an efficient and no-bullshit minister, and drove polarising benefit reforms through as minister of social development. Her lowest moment came in July 2009, when she released the private information of two beneficiaries who had been publically critical of her reforms.
She became lampooned, sometimes but not always affectionately, by Tom Sainsbury in a Snapchat spoof series. Within a few minutes of her announcement today, the Sainsbury version of Paula was online announcing her retirement from politics. If that seems suspiciously quick, the special guest in the dance sequence at the end might explain why.
As tangata whenua, Bennett leaves an even bigger diversity hole in Muller’s shadow cabinet. Bennett – who visibly delighted in the cock-up that saw Kaye and Muller mislabel Paul Goldsmith as Māori, talked about her cultural roots in her maiden speech in 2005:
I proudly call myself Māori. I proudly call myself European. But I most proudly call myself a New Zealander. I am of Tainui descent, but consider myself urban Māori. A lot has been said over the past few years of the “browning” of New Zealand. There are many different shades of brown. I am very proud of my heritage. I grew up with a picture of Tāwhiao on the wall, and later in life I gained, via my grandmother, knowledge of our Māori history. I was raised as a New Zealander. I did not grow up using Māori language or really understanding tikanga Māori. However, under the guidance of my parents I grew up with a strong sense of self-responsibility, and a sense that one was master of one’s own ship; that the true measure of a person was not only how he or she handled himself or herself day to day, but perhaps more important, how he or she dealt with adversity and the many challenges that life seems to throw our way.
For Labour, which has taken extensive measures to plug the leaks that emerged in the isolation and quarantine system, the return of attention to the National Party is a godsend. Just as Todd Muller was beginning to get a grip on the Toughest Job in Politics™, fate plays a three-card trick: finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith getting his maths in a muddle; Judith Collins dusting off skeletons and settling scores; and now, Paula Bennett throwing in the towel.
Paula Bennett’s statement in full
Today I am announcing that I will not be standing at the next election.
I have had an incredible time in politics for the past 15 years and now I am looking forward to my next career.
In 2005 I entered politics on the National Party list. I was absolutely thrilled in 2008 when the people of the then seat of Waitakere chose me as their electorate MP, I served them for six years until that seat no longer existed. I then went on to win the seat of Upper Harbour where I have served for the past six years. Being an electorate MP and working on behalf of constituents has been a privilege and it is work I have really enjoyed. I believe Jake Bezzant, the current candidate for Upper Harbour, will do an outstanding job and I wish him all the best in the upcoming election.
After just three years as an MP, I became a Cabinet Minister in 2008. I have held 14 portfolios, each bringing their own challenges and achievements. I have many people to thank, too many to rattle off here, but I believe that much of my success has been due to the incredible people who have worked with and for me. I am particularly proud of my work as Minister for Social Development and Child Youth and Family for more than six years.
I became the Minister as we were feeling the brunt of the Global Financial Crisis, vulnerable families and communities needed our immediate help and I ensured they had it. But they also needed hope of a better future for them and their families. I set about reforming the welfare system. With more emphasis on what people could do, increasing our expectation on people to get work ready and look for a job and changing the system so that more help was available for them. The number of sole parents on benefit dropped by more than 30,000 and the number of teen parents effectively halved. This meant tens of thousands of people no longer dependent on the state and living independent lives
Many think being a Minister is a hands off role. I loved being hands on. I implemented those reforms, drove the change and the daily execution, and most importantly saw people’s lives and livelihoods improve.
I then served as a senior Minister from 2014 in the John Key and Bill English kitchen cabinet and held portfolios ranging from State Services, Associate Finance, Climate Change and Police and I was Deputy Prime Minister when John left and Bill took over.
Since the last election until recently I have been the Deputy Leader of the National Party and Campaign Chair. Interestingly, it has been in the past two and a half years that I have probably learnt the most.
The whole thing though has been a hell of a ride and I have loved it.
Now it is time for the next chapter. I am excited to take the skills I have out of Parliament and into the business world. I have always wanted another career after politics and now is the right time for me to go and pursue that.
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