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Newbie to head social development

Published: 6:20PM Monday November 17, 2008 Source: ONE News/NZPA

There is a surprise package in John Key's Cabinet line up.

In just her second term National MP Paula Bennett has been made Social Development Minister.

"We're coming into some pretty tough economic times and our most vulnerable people that are depending on benefits feel it the most. So we've got some challenges but I'm ready for it and I can't wait to get my teeth into it," says an enthusiastic Bennett.

The solo mother of one has been catapulted from the backbench to the Beehive with the Prime Minister-designate charging her with leading ministries with annual budgets of nearly $18 billion.

But it is a branding coup for Key, who is keen to put a softer face on the welfare portfolio.

"We have put in her a great deal of trust and it's a belief that she will perform extremely well as our new Minister of Social Development. She's also taken the journey of being a solo mother herself and now to the Minister of Social Development," Key said.

As social development minister, Bennett will also be tasked with working closely with Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia, who has been given an associate role with responsibility for Child, Youth and Family.

The 39-year-old will be well known to TV viewers through TV ONE's Breakfast show.

The regular morning TV slot gave the West Auckland MP a profile that made many colleagues jealous but she's got the top job and there is no looking back.

"Being a solo mum and raising my daughter on my own and on and off benefits and jobs and all the rest of it, is all part of my make up and gives me a sense of determination and a belief I will individually stick up for every beneficiary and believe they can do something better," says Bennett.

And with Bennett's new responsibility comes a quarter of a million dollar salary package.

A self described "Westie"

Like Key, Bennett's life story is one of pulling herself up from humble beginnings.

Bennett says she has been on the DPB on and off for the first five years of her 21-year-old daughter Anna's life.

"I was definitely living day to day and struggling financially and emotionally, and I worked out that the only way I was going to get out of that trap was to get into meaningful paid employment."

She moved from Taupo to Auckland where she worked as a nurse aid in a resthome while studying part time.

"It took me four-and-a-half years to get that degree and that was the catapult for me."

Her degree is in social policy, but ironically she has not used that until becoming an MP and one of three National associate families spokespeople in 2005.

In between she was an electorate worker for National MP Murray McCully, before moving into human relations and recruitment. By the time she left to become an MP she was managing a recruitment business.

Bennett says she did not mind being the poster girl for National's welfare policies as long as people recognised there is more to her than just that.

"I'm a woman, I'm a mum, I'm Maori, I've got tertiary education and business experience and a lot of life experience in different areas."

Entering via National's list in 2005, Bennett - a self described "Westie" - also worked hard to take the previously safe Labour west Auckland Waitakere seat at the election.

National's strong showing in west Auckland where it engineered a reversal of Labour's dominance in the party vote is partly credited with dominant election night result.

Bennett says she is a firm believer in opportunity and hard work.

"Aspiration and believing in yourself with a huge dose of hard work can make anything possible."

Bennett made a name for herself in the last parliamentary term scoring multiple hits on the then government with her attacks on Labour's 20-hour-free early education policy.

But she says she is not opposed to more support for childcare costs, but the discrepancies in the policy, the exclusion of playcentres and kohanga reo, and its incorrect branding as "free".

In 2006 she gave delegates at National's annual conference a lesson on what it was like to raise a child alone.

She told the mainly older delegates that mums on the DPB should not all be lumped together.

She said there were some solo mums who needed to be persuaded back to work through "mutual obligations" such as work testing and training.

But about a quarter of mums are off the DPB within a year and another 37% are off within four.

For most of these mums welfare was only a temporary backstop they are keen to leave behind.

"There are many that if we gave them the opportunity and if we gave them the inspiration and belief in them and showed them the way then they actually would be getting off more."