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English makes reshuffle look easy

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 15/12/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

Bill English © Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images Bill English MP Murray McCully © Getty MP Murray McCully

Cabinet reshuffles on the scale Bill English is engaged in can be painful and damaging, but so far the new prime minister has handled his task with skilful delicacy, says Peter Wilson, NZ Newswire political writer.

He's creating the English government which will take over from the Key government, and on it will hang National's chances of winning a fourth term.

English won't make any big changes to a winning policy formula - National has won three elections and its poll ratings are still around 50 per cent - but he has to make the personnel look fresh, energetic and attractive for an election year.

He announced the appointment of Steven Joyce as finance minister first up, because it's important to avoid uncertainty in the markets.

Joyce swiftly gave an assurance that the government's economic and fiscal management wouldn't change.

"We'll continue to keep a tight rein on spending to drive growing surpluses and reduce net debt to around 20 per cent of GDP," said Joyce, keeping it simple.

English isn't giving anything away on the other appointments he'll announce on Sunday, but he's been busy making room for newcomers.

Junior ministers Sam Lotu-Iiga and Craig Foss have announced they won't stand for re-election and will give up their portfolios.

They both explained those decisions by saying the usual things about having been in parliament long enough and wanting to spend more time with their families.

The reality is that English almost certainly told them it was time to go and gave them a way to leave gracefully.

The relatively minor portfolios they hold offer good experience for eager rookies and English can bring in two or three.

Among those being mentioned are Alfred Ngaro, Todd Muller and Chris Bishop.

Murray McCully is another matter.

The foreign minister announced on Thursday he wasn't going to stand for re-election but he didn't say he intended giving up his job.

McCully's statement was a fine piece of obscure have-it-both-ways diplomacy.

He mentioned the "unique partnership" he had with John Key for eight years and referred to foreign policy achievements during that time, which could be taken to mean it was time for someone else to take over.

He then said he wanted to ensure a "smooth transition" from the Key government to the English government.

"How I might best contribute to that process is a matter for the prime minister," he said, which could be taken as an offer to stay on.

If English does appoint a new foreign minister, it's tipped to be Jonathan Coleman, the health minister.

That could disappoint Todd McClay, the current trade minister and associate foreign minister.

He was looking good until the Chinese steel fiasco, and isn't likely to rock the boat if Coleman gets the job.

Because Joyce will hold a single portfolio, English will be re-allocating those he's giving up - economic development, employment, tertiary education and science and innovation.

There's speculation Transport Minister Simon Bridges, due for promotion, will be given economic development.

Education is another big portfolio to fill.

Hekia Parata isn't standing for re-election and until her associate Nikki Kaye was diagnosed with breast cancer she appeared to be the obvious successor.

English could decide to wait until Kaye is back at work before making the switch.

All the prime minister will say right now is "wait till Sunday", but whatever the outcome it doesn't seem likely there will be any significant sackings or ministerial meltdowns.

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