Marking the politicians of 2018

Newsroom contributor Shane Te Pou rates the major individual political success stories and failures of 2018

As the year winds down, now’s a good time to review the performance of New Zealand’s top political actors. Have they been naughty or nice, or maybe -- if they’re really good -- have they managed to blend elements of both in strategically advantageous ways? 

First a quick overview. 

The Coalition Government will enter the holidays in reasonably good cheer.  The economy is humming along nicely, Jacinda Ardern’s leadership is rock solid, the coalition exhibits few signs of distress, and the government has avoided any catastrophic scandal. 

That said, the road hasn’t been without bumps -- most, if not all, of which can be attributed to a problem that, in theory, should dissipate over time:  inexperience. 

In personnel terms, Ardern was forced to act against Claire Curran and Meka Whaitiri for their respective misdeeds.  In the case of Curran, appointing her to Cabinet in the first instance was a lapse of judgment -- over a long apprenticeship in opposition, the Dunedin MP had simply not demonstrated the requisite temperament or smarts.  The episode that led to Whaitiri’s downfall was no less troubling, but way less predictable (and therefore less avoidable). Curran was seen from the outset -- even, perhaps especially, by insiders -- as a series of awkward press conferences waiting to happen. 

As for the Karel Sroubek scandal that imperilled  Iain Lees-Galloway’s career, I think Ardern was right to give him another chance. He won’t need to be told he can’t afford to put a foot wrong next year. Overall, you would expect a stronger showing from the frontbench next year and beyond. The public’s patience will run out otherwise. 

As for the National Party, they end the year on a polling high after the final Colmar Brunton survey showed them on 46 percent.  But the shrewder among them won’t be too cockahoop. The party brand clearly remains strong after a mostly successful stint in office, but the more the Key and English years recede in the Kiwi memory, the greater the risk of the kind of polling dip that typically afflicts first term oppositions. 

Given their heady numbers, it’s amazing how few people inside and outside their party give Simon Bridges even an outside shot at ever becoming PM.  Above all, perhaps, the Nats still lack potential coalition partners so any number below 45 is perilous for them. 

Both the Greens and New Zealand First appear to be holding on to the bulk of their support, always a challenge for minor parties in government.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the more experienced NZF has navigated coalition politics more astutely than the Greens, who will need to score some major policy wins to avoid trouble from their restive base. 

ACT, meanwhile, remains steadfastly irrelevant. 

Here’s some standout performers, for good or ill, this year. 

By and large, Jacinda Ardern made a decent fist of her first full year as PM.  Her exposure internationally is an undeniable boon for New Zealand. It’s tempting to make fun of her government's propensity for reviews and working groups, but it’s unfair to blame Ardern for the abject failure of her predecessors as Labour leader to do the grunt work that may have allowed her to hit the ground running. Indeed, when the PM opted to throw caution to the wind -- on offshore drilling --  it produced a shabby policy outcome. The public will want more concrete outcomes next year, or the stardust could start to dissolve. She needs her inner circle to carry a bigger load, particularly Grant Robertson in finance who has hardly set the world on fire.  7/10

David Parker is a standout, the policy heavy-lifter every government needs. His constructive relationship with the business sector is a big asset. Parker gets on with the job across varied and substantive portfolios.  7/10

Love him or otherwise, Shane Jones is all over regional New Zealand. He cops plenty of criticism -- some of it fair -- over his execution of the billion trees plan and the Provincial Growth Fund, but he is second only to Winston Peters as a counter-puncher. Elites will never warm to Jones, and he likes it that way.  7/10

Carmel Sepuloni is a quiet achiever who, like the PM, comes across as genuine, compassionate and smart. If she’s put a foot wrong thus far in her tenure, she’s done so quietly. 8/10

As Foreign Minister, Winston Peters’ Pacific Reset and reinvestment in our diplomatic corps has strengthened NZ’s place in the region and beyond. His radical shake up of the racing industry, a reform that could bring down lesser politicians, went without a hitch. \The government’s strongest performer in the house, and Teflon in the media.  Experience counts. 9/10

The government’s signature policy of Kiwibuild is a mess under the stewardship of Phil Twyford: 18 homes built by a developer who would have sold them anyway. Twyford also managed to expose the programme’s poster couple to ridicule along the way. For Kiwibuild to move forward, Twyford should be moved to less onerous duties at the next reshuffle. 2/10

James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter have both impressed. They avoid the university common room brand of politics that often permeates their party, offering a considered and commonsensical approach.  8/10

Meanwhile, National leader Simon Bridges has toyed with disaster but come out mostly unscathed after a year when internal caucus leaks, not the government’s failings, were his signature issue.  Still polling at 46 percent at this stage of the cycle is no mean achievement.  For that -- and that alone -- he earns 6/10

Judith Collins was bound to be a big hitter from the Opposition, and hasn’t disappointed. She had Phil Twyford on the ropes early over Kiwibuild, and rarely missed a target. The party faithful love her far more than her caucus colleagues, but as long as she’s in Parliament, Collins will remain one to watch.  7.5/10

From the backbench, strong performers include Labour’s Kiri Allan and Marja Lubeck National’s Denise Lee and the Greens’ Jan Logie. 

Anei ra te mihi mahana ki a koutou e hoa ma i tenei wa harikoa o te wa kirihimete.  Warm greetings and salutations to you friends at this time of enjoyment and festivities

Ko te tumanako kia whakapiki ake tou wairua, tou tinana hoki i waenganui i te whanau whanui, I hope this time will allow you to replenish your spirits and reinvigorate oneself amongst your family and peers

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