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Why Paula Bennett is trouble for the National Party

Noted.co.nz Opinion

It's time for Paula Bennett's humblebragging to stop. Photo / Getty Images

Is the Deputy PM becoming a liability for National?

As soon as Jacinda Ardern was made Labour’s deputy leader in March, the knives came out. Commentators on the right said Ardern was going to pose a terrible problem for Labour and Andrew Little because she would soon overtake him in the polls.

They were right about Ardern’s popularity. She has featured regularly in lists of preferred prime ministers, regularly beating Little, and her popularity means Labour’s election campaign billboards feature the Little-Ardern combo.

But nobody guessed in December when John Key slunk off into the night and Paula Bennett became Deputy PM that she would turn out to be a far bigger problem for National’s new leader, Bill English, than Ardern is for Little.

Bennett barely rates in the preferred prime minister polls, and her record since she became Deputy PM has been lacklustre. When she makes the news, it’s often for distractions such as recommending tipping, or joking about her $950 shoes at the National Party conference, much like a modern-day Marie Antoinette. And, of course, for her ham-fisted attempts to justify the government’s failure to house the homeless.

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But now her public profile is being dominated by speculation about her former life as a young beneficiary and whether she lied about her circumstances to welfare officials. It didn’t help when she told Duncan Garner on The AM Show that she had never deliberately” misled the department.

Bennett is not keen to talk about that chapter in her life but the questions keep on coming. Journalist Tony Wall reported on the Stuff website on Sunday that Bennett declined to be interviewed “about what she had told Social Welfare officials when she was on the benefit”.

When he asked if she had claimed the DPB while in a relationship, or while living with her then-boyfriend (now husband), Alan Philps, Bennett replied through a spokeswoman: “I was on and off a benefit during my teens and early twenties but I did not receive support that I wasn't entitled to.”

Wall also noted that “some people we approached said they’d been asked not to talk to the media”.

Nevertheless, these questions are not going to go away and what is certain is that Bill English can not afford to have Bennett share billboard space with him until they are answered satisfactorily.

Photo / Getty Images

In the meantime, National’s image consultants need to urgently make over Bennett for the run-up to the election because she has other problems as National’s Number 2.

First up, someone should persuade Bennett to drop her Sergeant Schultz routine of “I know nothing”. Leaders need to be well briefed across all their portfolios, especially when they are taking $326,697 of taxpayers’ money each year as Bennett is.

When she became Deputy Prime Minister, Bennett took on a punishing range of portfolios — climate change issues, police, state services, tourism, women — which surprised some insiders familiar with her capabilities. It’s quite possible, of course, she adopted such a huge workload recklessly, gambling on “I don’t know” being an adequate response to questions about almost everything.

In December, two days into her new job as deputy, she evaded Jack Tame’s questions on Breakfast about child poverty, saying she hadn’t yet read the Child Poverty Monitor 2016 report that said there were 90,000 children living in poverty in New Zealand. It also showed that 295,000 children (28 per cent) were in low-income homes.

She wouldn’t be drawn by general questions about the topic either. Yet, as Minister of Social Housing from 2014-2016, she must have a fairly good idea about how many children are living in poverty. If she doesn’t, what exactly was she doing during her time as minister?

When it was pointed out later that month that the government was on track to spend $30 million a year on housing the homeless in motels (rather than the $2 million budgeted), she expressed surprise at the scale of the problem: “We just didn’t know!”

How could she not know? The news reports about people living in cars and garages and on the streets have been relentless since The Nation exposed the problem in May 2016.

Prime Minister Bill English chose Bennett to be his deputy in December. Photo / Getty Images

This month, Bennett was still expressing surprise about the homeless when it was revealed that the cost of motels and other emergency housing for the homeless was going to blow out to $50 million a year.

We had no idea how much it was going to cost,” Bennett told Duncan Garner on The AM Show.

She also said she couldn’t give “actual numbers” on the government’s emergency housing building programme because she “didn't know we were going to talk about it this morning. I haven’t looked at it for about a year.”

Bennett’s profession of ignorance has become a consistent pattern but it never stops her having a strong opinion. After Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s Hit & Run about SAS raids in Afghanistan was published in March, Bennett immediately backed the Defence Force for their dedication and integrity while acknowledging she didn’t know anything much about the allegations. In one seven-minute interview with Guyon Espiner on RNZ, she said five times that she hadn’t read the book. She also said she had no immediate plans to read it and described Nicky Hager as a left-wing conspiracist.

She wouldn’t be drawn further despite Espiner reminding her repeatedly that, while he understood she hadn’t had time to read the book, she did have officials who briefed her. He also repeatedly reminded her she was the Deputy Prime Minister, implying it was part of the job to have an informed opinion.

Admitting to knowing nothing is hardly a winning political formula for a deputy prime minister, and particularly not for one who imagines herself leading the party, if not the country, at some point. Being the bogans’ darling in leopard-skin prints who’s tough on beneficiaries obviously holds a certain appeal to her Upper Harbour electorate, but not knowing the details of your portfolios is pretty limiting for an ambitious, high-flying politician.

Second, someone should encourage her to stop the endless humble-bragging. In an interview shortly after being voted in as Deputy Prime Minister in December she said: “When I was a 17-year-old solo mum holding a baby, I never thought I would be here [in Parliament], let alone deputy Prime Minister.

It’s been going on for a while now. When Toby Manhire from The Spinoff asked in March 2016 if she might be leading the National Party in 2018 or 2022, Bennett replied: “[Those questions] are flattering. Ten years ago no one would’ve thought I’d be a minister, let alone thinking that I might be in contention and having to deal with questions like this.”

This month, she praised New Zealand as a country that would give people second chances. New Zealand is so remarkable — it gives people second chances. How else can someone like me who was a single mother at 17, dream of being the Deputy Prime Minister of the country?”

Bennett humblebrags so often I expect her at some point to break into song and a tap-dance routine: “Golly gosh! Who would have thought little old me would be so successful?”. But if she is genuinely surprised at her own rise, she’s not alone. Honestly, so are we, and her own professions of wonderment at her advancement only pour fuel onto everyone else’s — especially given her woeful performance in the social housing portfolio, which has helped give New Zealand the worst homelessness figures in the OECD.

Bennett may survive the questions about her past, whether the fog of suspicion lifts or not. After all, Bill English is now the Prime Minister even after he was entangled in a messy accommodation allowance arrangement in 2009 that saw him eventually pay back $32,000 of taxpayers’ money. He is still occasionally called The Double Dipper from Dipton, but, as Bennett has noted, New Zealanders often give people second chances.

If she does survive, however, the least she could do to earn her $326,697 salary is to start mastering the details of her portfolios and stop telling us so often that her career is a modern-day miracle.

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