John Key left no doubt about the new government’s priorities when he announced his cabinet on Monday — it’s the economy.

The incoming prime minister has grouped his most senior ministers around it and their task is to take New Zealand safely through a recession and international turmoil.

Below Key in the second, third and fourth positions are Bill English, Gerry Brownlee and Simon Power. Between them they carry responsibility for finance, infrastructure, economic development, energy, commerce and state-owned enterprises.

“The growth outlook is weak and international and domestic difficulties abound,” Key said.

“This government will concentrate on boosting economic growth because that is what will lead us through these challenging times.”

Key has also taken the unusual step of promoting an MP who has just been elected, Steven Joyce, to a cabinet position.

Ranked 14th, the successful businessman is in charge of transport, communications and information technology. That includes rolling out the $1.5 billion ultra-fast broadband project which Key considers essential to economic growth.

His 20-member cabinet, three ministers holding portfolios outside it and the five ministers created through agreements with minor parties will be sworn in on Wednesday.

The cabinet will meet for the first time straight after that and Key will set out his rules.

“I expect high standards from my ministers,” he said.

“If they don’t meet the standards I set, then obviously I will take action if necessary.”

Key has designed the executive so it is no bigger than those that have been appointed since 2002. On a percentage of seats held by National, it is smaller.

There are 14 men and six women, and 14 of the 20 ministers are new to cabinet.

Most of the portfolios are in line with those held by senior MPs before the election but there was a surprise — Paula Bennet, a second term MP, has been given the $20 billion budget social development portfolio.

“We have put in her a great deal of trust and faith,” Key said.

“We think Paula has the communications skills, she’s demonstrated a work ethic. She has the ability to be a very good minister, she has empathy, we think that will be very important.”

Bennet, 39, was a solo mother on the domestic purposes benefit who struggled through to gain a degree.

The biggest loser was Maurice Williamson, the long-serving MP who was National’s front bench transport spokesman before the election.

He has been relegated to junior minister status outside cabinet.

“I felt the position … best reflected the role I thought he should play,” Key said.

“I think he will make a real contribution but I wanted the top 20 places filled by other names.”

When Key explained his choices at a press conference, he put heavy emphasis on skills rather than any consideration of previous rankings.

“I’m going to reward people if I think they’ve got the skills,” he said.

“I don’t see them as a risk. I’m prepared to back them.”

He said he had no plans to change the cabinet before the next election and he expected it to be judged by New Zealand economic performance.

“It depends on how well we’ve done relative to other countries,” he said.

“The way forward is higher economic growth.

“We’ve campaigned hard on trying to close the wage gap with Australia and on a smaller exodus of people overseas.

“If we don’t address that issue, then we’ll end up being a giant education facility for Australia and that’s not an ambition I have for New Zealand.”