Bennett a sharp politician beneath a bogan persona

5:07 pm on 10 December 2016

Power Play - Paula Bennett not only has a big laugh and raucous personality, but a back story to rival John Key's.

Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett Photo: RNZ /Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Her path to politics, and now to her new job as New Zealand's second female Deputy Prime Minister, is is almost as well known as the outgoing Prime Minister's.

At 17 she became a single mum, she held jobs including truck stop waitress before taking on tertiary study. After working as electorate secretary for the National Party minister and back room dealer, Murray McCully, Mrs Bennett was elected as an MP in 2005.

Mrs Bennett plays up the bogan image but beneath that is a sharp mind and a determined politician - one who does not shy away from confrontation.

And she has been one of John Key's favourites.

He rocketed her into Cabinet after National's 2008 election victory, giving her the important social development portfolio - a move that surprised many.

For Mr Key, himself brought up by his mother in a state house in Christchurch, it was a risky appointment as National prepared to embark on sweeping welfare reforms, which included new work obligations for single parents.

The fact Mrs Bennett had been in that position herself exposed her to perhaps more criticism than she otherwise may have faced; people accused her of taking advantage of a opportunities she was denying to others.

She strongly denied that was the case, arguing it was no good for a parent, or a child, to have a family existing indefinitely on a benefit.

Another major focus for Mrs Bennett as minister was looking at how to improve the situation for children in poverty or in violent households.

Mrs Bennett is Māori but does not identify strongly as such, and while responding to the withdrawal of Simon Bridges as her sole rival, played down the significance of her being the first, Māori woman to hold the position of deputy in the National Party.

"I bring all of who I am to the job.

"Yes I'm a Māori woman and that would be new as well and one of the first... it's a whole of things of who I am and I hope I do it proud."

Paula Bennett visits Te Puea marae

Paula Bennett tours Te Puea marae to discuss homelessness. Photo: RNZ

But it has not been a smooth path to the top for Mrs Bennett.

She provoked outrage when she released the details of two beneficiaries who had spoken out about cuts to a tertiary training allowance in 2010, which opponents described as a gross breach of privacy and abuse of power.

Mrs Bennett also apologised to the Prime Minister after it was revealed she had written letters of support for the father of her daughter's child, a convicted gang member, while an opposition MP, and not told Mr Key about it.

But a story that did her and her "Westie" image no harm was about her breaking up a fight between a group of teenage girls outside a West Auckland mall, skills that may come in handy as deputy leader.

In the last few years however, Mrs Bennett has made an obvious effort to take on heftier portfolios (including climate change that she cheerfully admitted she knew nothing about), and associate finance, where she has worked closely with the presumptive Prime Minister Bill English.

She also has the social housing portfolio and admits herself it hasn't been easy year, as part of the group of senior ministers, alongside Mr English and Nick Smith, grappling with housing unaffordability in Auckland in particular.

Mrs Bennett's finely tuned political antennae may have quivering as John Key's tenure drew on, and the realisation that in the coming years a new leadership team would have to be decided.

No one, least of all Mrs Bennett, expected it would come so quickly.

While she says she is "confident" her position will be formalised by the caucus, she is taking Mr English's lead and deferring any talk about the future under their leadership until formally installed.

But over the glass of champagne she says she will be enjoying, Mrs Bennett will very much have her eye on the future.

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