29 Jun 2020

National MP Paula Bennett leaving politics, eyes up the business world

5:47 pm on 29 June 2020

National MP and ousted deputy leader Paula Bennett has announced she will not be standing at the upcoming election.

Paula Bennett announcing her retirement from politics.

Paula Bennett said she would be taking her skills to "the business world". Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

Bennett is stepping down immediately from her number 13 party ranking and all portfolio responsibilities.

The Upper Harbour MP says she has had an incredible time in politics and was looking forward to her next career - in business.

Bennett said she had always wanted another career after politics and now was the right time to do that.

She said she would be taking her skills to "the business world".

"I think it's time for me to put me first, and I think that means a new career. This is me being really selfish for the first time in 15 years and saying what do I want out of life?

"Obviously there's been some reflection for me over the last three or four weeks... I always felt that I'd been contributing to the country and the National Party but as I say for the first time in a long time, I got to not think about a leader and not thinking about a political party and instead think about what I wanted."

Talking about her time in politics, Bennett said while she was thrilled to be chosen to take the Waitakere seat in 2008 and later the Upper Harbour seat. She said she believed Jake Bezzant - the current candidate for Upper Harbour - would do an outstanding job and wished him all the best.

She said she had many people to thank and credited her success to the people she had worked with.

"You know, the 17-year-old solo mum who dropped out of school ended up being deputy prime minister of this country, and when I looked at that and what I'd achieve I knew that I could draw a line very proudly and comfortably under that and move on to my next challenge."

She said she was particularly proud of her work as social development minister and child youth, and family for six years.

"I became the minister as we were feeling the brunt of the Global Financial Crisis, vulnerable families and communities needed our 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 more help was available for them.

"Many think being a minister is a hands-off role, I loved being hands-on.

"Interestingly, it has been in the last two-and-a-half years that I have probably learned the most.

"The whole thing though has been a hell of a ride and I have loved it."

Missed the announcement? Watch it here:

On the controversy around her role and time as social development minister, she said: "I get that people won't agree with everything that we did, but we were ambitious and I believed in people and their abilities, and I do despair at the moment that there's an expectation that a lifetime on welfare can be an option for people and it almost feels encouraged, whereas I think it should be a backstop."

But she said she had no regrets. "It's better to stand for something and some people not agree than to achieve nothing and have everyone say 'well she had a nice time and earned her wage'."

In 2012, Bennett was labelled a "hypocrite" by then-Mana Party leader Hone Harawira over the government's changes to benefits.

Harawira said Bennett, who was once a a solo mother on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, was cutting all of the privileges she enjoyed as a beneficiary.

She brushed off the criticism and rejected accusations of beneficiary bashing over the the National government's welfare reforms.

Two years earlier, she was at the centre of a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner that was then referred to the Human Rights Commission.

The complaint was lodged by a beneficiary after Bennett publicly revealed details of the state assistance given to two women in 2009.

Bennett said she was open to opportunities and was not tied up with anything as of now.

Bennett was first elected to Parliament in 2005 as a list MP, and served as the MP for Waitakere from 2008 to 2014, and was first elected MP for Upper Harbour in 2014.

In her 15 years in Parliament, Bennett has held 14 portfolios including social development, state services, associate finance, climate change and police, and also served as deputy prime minister between December 2016 and October 2017.

National Party reacts to Bennett's news

Bennett was rolled as the party's deputy leader and campaign chair in a leadership coup carried out by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye last month.

Paula Bennett has announced she will not be standing at the upcoming election.

Paula Bennett. Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

Following the coup, Bennett publicly supported the new leadership team, after they came under fire for the lack of diversity following a caucus reshuffle.

Bennett was cited several times by Muller as an example of a Māori MP on the party's front bench.

At the time, Bennett said she thought the new leadership line up had done a "remarkable job to start with".

"We have a proud history of the work we've done with Māori in this country and I reckon that these guys, and we can, continue to do that; judge [us] on the actions of what we do, not actually the overall ethnicity of some of those on the front bench."

Discussing the upcoming election, Bennett said the new team had a good shot.

She said she intended to keep her National Party membership alive and the party had told her there was always a place for her.

She said Muller had expressed his gratitude for her and her work, and told her she would be missed.

Muller said he did not think Bennett's decision was a sign that the party was still divided about his leadership.

"Not at all, as Paula said herself she's reflected, she wants now to move into a different direction, and I'm sure it will be phenomenally successful," he said.

Bennett's announcement comes two days after East Coast MP Anne Tolley announced she would also be retiring at the election.

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National Party leader Todd Muller. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Muller said these things happened at "natural junctures" in politics.

"People contribute, and in the National party's case often very significantly and then there's, you know, a time to reflect as they both have in terms of what they'd like to do next", he said.

Muller said a reshuffle was now on the cards.

"I've got the opportunity over the next few you know, obviously with Paula stepping down, drug reform and women's affairs now both get freed up.

"We've got 55 talented people in the National Party and of course this does now give me and the National Party board some now time to reflect in terms of who we might replace Paula with."

When asked whether he would parachute someone from further down the list up so that there would be more Māori representation he said he would "see how the next couple of days unfold".

In a statement after her announcement, Muller thanked Bennett for her service to the party and New Zealand, saying that it "deserves acknowledgement and recognition".

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National Party leader Todd Muller. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

He said she had been a stalwart for the party for a long time, and a staunch advocate for West Auckland.

"As Climate Change Minister, Paula signed the 2016 Paris climate change agreement in New York, which committed to delivering New Zealand's 2030 emissions reductions target.

"She significantly reformed the welfare system to make sure it focused on supporting people as they got off welfare and into work, helping thousands in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis."

Muller said Bennett would also be remembered for her advocacy for women and victims during her years in Parliament.

Senior National MP Judith Collins said she was not surprised Bennett was retiring from politics.

Collins said she did not know Bennett had decided to stand down, but her decision last year to vacate her Upper Harbour seat ahead of the election was a sign she was considering her future.

"You never know what's going on in someone's mind actually and when I heard she was standing down from her electorate I wondered then if she was looking at alternatives, not that she told me that but I just wondered," Collins said.

Bennett had contributed a lot to the party and would be missed, Collins said.

"She's been in the role for ... 15 years, she's contributed a big amount to the National Party and to the country, so I wish her well," she said.

A short summary of Bennett's political career

  • First elected 17 September 2005 as a list MP
  • 2008 - 2014 MP for Waitakere
  • Appointed Minister of Social Development, Employment, Disabilities, and Youth Affairs
  • 2014 - 2017 MP for Upper Harbour
  • 2016 - Deputy Prime Minister
  • Other ministerial portfolios held: Women, police and state services, climate change issues, tourism, social housing, local government
  • 2017 - 2020 National Party deputy leader, opposition spokesperson for women, drug reform, children, social investment and social services, tertiary education, skills and employment

Bennett's profile on the National Party website states: "Paula entered parliament in 2005 as a list MP, and her maiden speech in the House outlined many of the values she continues to fight for today, in particular, her desire to see New Zealanders succeed and thrive... She steered some major reforms through these challenging portfolios in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis, including innovative social welfare reforms that aimed to put Kiwis back in the driver's seat of their lives...

"Outside of Parliament, Paula lives in West Auckland with her husband, cat and various children and grandchildren all of which seem to come and go as they please. Since becoming a celebrant, she has added wedding officiation to her range of hobbies, which include fishing, cooking, music, and a cold chardonnay."

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