New PM's first day fits the Bill

6:56 pm on 12 December 2016

Power Play - Bill English looked as if he could not believe his own luck when he emerged from the special caucus meeting confirming him as leader.

Flanked by his new deputy, Paula Bennett, Mr English declared he wanted to be a "positive" prime minister, and one who shared the economic largesse among all New Zealanders.

It was a confident performance and one he used to start marking himself out from his predecessor, John Key.

Mr English describes himself as an "active Catholic" but says that does not define him as a person or a politician.

That said, many of his views are still in line with his religious beliefs; he is a social conservative compared with the much more liberal Mr Key.

But Mr English has changed his mind on gay marriage, which he opposed in the 2013 vote, saying it has proven not to have undermined the institution of marriage, and he has seen the positive impact on society as a result of allowing gay couples to marry.

But his stance on abortion and euthanasia remain the same - Mr English says if the member's bill on assisted dying comes before Parliament he would vote against it, but would still allow MPs a conscience vote.

No doubt mindful of the fact New Zealanders are wary of mixing politics and religion, Mr English says he will not use his position as Prime Minister to agitate for social changes in line with those views.

He has also talked about a policy stock-take, which will be his opportunity to differentiate himself from Mr Key.

That is a process the Cabinet, and more broadly the caucus, would have gone through as they prepared for election year anyway, but this gives the new Prime Minister the chance to step away from entrenched policy positions, in particular the age of entitlement for superannuation.

When elected in 2008 as part of National's "inoculation" plan, aimed at easing voters' fears over a range of different areas, Mr Key vowed he would quit rather than allow the age to be raised.

Hekia Parata. 6 December 2016.

Mr English will have to decide whether to leave Hekia Parata with her education portfolio or install a new minister. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Mr English says that was a sound move at the time, to give certainty to an electorate staring down the barrel of the global financial crisis, but he has now taken that pledge off the table.

That is not to presume he is actively considering raising the age, but it does give the party a bit more room to start having that debate.

His first main task as Prime Minister, however, is to decide on his new Cabinet line-up and executive.

National has a self-imposed limit on its number of ministers (there are currently 27 including ministers from support parties) and Mr English says that number will not increase.

He will have to keep faith with his 59-strong caucus, which delivered a strong message during the leadership contest that they expected some new faces in that line-up; MPs likely to be promoted include Mark Mitchell, Alfred Ngaro, Chris Bishop and Todd Muller.

By necessity, that means vacancies will have to be created.

There is Mr Key, of course, and Education Minister Hekia Parata has already announced her intention to leave Parliament at the next election. The question for Mr English is whether to leave her in that portfolio until her departure, or install a new minister now.

John Key

Mr Key advised his replacement to "trust his gut" as leader. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

There may also be discussions about the future of long-serving ministers such as Nick Smith and Murray McCully.

One of the contenders during last week's leadership race, Jonathan Coleman, has indicated he would like the foreign affairs portfolio currently held by Mr McCully, and all signs suggest he will be promoted within the Cabinet.

Simon Bridges, who bowed out of the deputy race over the weekend against Mrs Bennett, is also likely to be given a more senior position.

In terms of the timing, Mr English says it could be this week, but will definitely be before Christmas, giving himself a little more time if he cannot nail the changes down in the next few days.

And the last word goes to Mr Key, who swept down the front steps of Parliament with wife Bronagh through a guard of honour of National MPs, to the Crown car waiting to take him to Government House.

His advice to Mr English: "Trust your gut."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs