Michael Woodhouse has become Dunedin’s first ever National Party Government minister (albeit currently outside of Cabinet). He’s also a right-wing success story in Dunedin for another reason – at the 2011 election, National beat Labour to win the party vote throughout the city. Woodhouse can take some credit for this historic accomplishment, as he’s worked since 2008 as National’s only Dunedin (list) MP. [Keep reading my monthly column for Dunedin's DScene newspaper below]
The new minister is well suited for success in this traditionally left-wing city, mostly due to the fact that he’s no radical right-winger. Instead, he’s more of an old-fashioned conservative with some strong socially liberal tendencies. For example, in last year’s vote on the alcohol purchase age, Woodhouse voted to keep it 18, while his Dunedin North counterpart, David Clark, chose the more conservative option of 20. Furthermore, Woodhouse is relatively liberal on environmentalism (e.g. opposes lignite mining) and social issues.
Woodhouse is closely aligned with Bill English and Nick Smith, and as such is relatively economically moderate. In fact he’s in the National mould of his Dunedin predecessor, Katherine Rich – being neither economic dry or socially conservative. And it has to be remembered that the second-term MP is actually a wharfies’ son from a Labour-voting South Dunedin family.
So is Woodhouse destined for greater achievements? He’s made big inroads in Labour’s previously loyal voter base, and so it might be thought he could eventually win Dunedin North. This is very unlikely. Similarly, he might be seen as a future National frontbench minister. Again, not likely.
Woodhouse certainly does have the talent to go further. He will probably do better in next year’s contest for Dunedin North. He’ll undoubtedly have an even higher list placing as well. And he’s likely to move into Cabinet in a future reshuffle, picking up more weighty portfolios – after all, he’s valued as a safe pair of hands, and has become well known as a ‘quiet achiever’.
Yet despite the solid and reliable qualities that Woodhouse exudes, it’s not clear that he has the political star-factor required for significantly higher things. There’s a reason that he’s remained largely unnoticed by the electorate at large – he’s more of a backroom organiser than a political leader. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s mediocre or bland, but he’s no radical innovator.
Although Woodhouse can celebrate his reshuffle success, he’d be wise to note what happened to two other ministers regarded as ‘quiet achieving’, and moderate ‘safe pairs of hands’: Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley failed to make their mark and now their political careers are effectively over. The lesson is that politics sometimes needs politicians that rise above the mundane and do something special.