New PM and deputy like chalk and cheese

2:19 pm on 13 December 2016

First Person - As the new Prime Minister and his deputy were sworn in by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and the crowd at Government House applauded yesterday, Bill English kept eyes front.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett and Prime Minister Bill English, who were officially appointed this afternoon.

Paula Bennett and Bill English are sworn in at Government House on Monday. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Paula Bennett, though, couldn't resist whipping her head round to grin at her family.

Her nine-year-old granddaughter, sitting in the front row, was a flash of fluorescent pink.

In the row across the aisle sat a phalanx of pin-neat English children, five sons and a daughter; uniformly tall, uniformly composed, with just a single pair of polka-dot socks breaking up the rank of sober suits and ties.

With the resignation of John Key - Minister of Selfies, the nation's embarrassing dad - the prime minister and deputy dynamic has been flipped on its head.

At a news conference to announce the leadership immediately after caucus met, Mr English couldn't hide a smile, but his statement was measured - he didn't say he was excited for himself but "excited … to be leading a strong team of MPs full of ideas".

The humour was chalk-dry.

On the possibility of a knighthood for his predecessor: "Well, it's not as if he's never asked."

On his Catholicism: "No guarantee of virtue or perfection."

But then someone asked Bennett - the cheesiest of grins on her face - what it was like, once a teen mum, to be standing there as deputy prime minister of the country.

Unlike English, she couldn't hide how personal the achievement was.

"There's certainly been moments over the last couple of days when my husband and I … and my family have kind of reflected on where I was and where I am now," she said.

"There was a moment when I was a 17-year-old Māori solo mum in Taupō ... and I didn't have a job and it looked pretty bleak, actually."

Bill English and Paula Bennett outside parliament

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Last week, while Simon Bridges was still in the race for the deputy role, Bennett's former National Party colleague Tau Henare questioned whether she was the right person for the role.

"I hope she doesn't take it the wrong way," he told RNZ, "[but] what you want in a deputy prime minister is someone in the shadows."

Paula Bennett isn't really a shadows kind of person.

She has been one of the most recognisable National MPs since she was first elected in 2005, hooning about west Auckland in a leopard-print car and sporting a technicolour wardrobe.

Her well-trodden backstory is inspiring to some and proof of her ruthlessness to others, who have accused her of pulling up the ladder behind her after she drove through a series of welfare reforms.

Bill English, in his role as deputy prime minister for eight years, was the head-down straight man - "steady", he reckons; "boring", others say.

Both he and Bennett will be playing against type now - yesterday Bennett said she saw herself as being in "very much a support role".

The leopard doesn't change her spots too easily though: "Not necessarily more serious - but I do take this job very seriously."

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