2019: the year of action at Parliament?

After an at times chaotic 2018, MPs will be hoping for a more settled year in politics. But with just a year until the campaign trail starts to beckon, both the Government and Opposition have plenty of hard slog ahead, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

In a witty and at times cutting valedictory speech before the end of last year, outgoing National MP Chris Finlayson offered up what he deemed an “inevitable lecture” on how to improve Parliament.

Perhaps the most immediately appealing was his suggestion of a move to a four-year term.

“A longer term will make for an effective Parliament,” Finlayson said - and it’s hard to argue looking at the challenges for MPs in the year ahead.

With government and opposition politicians having had a year to get used to their roles, and only a year (if that) until the election planning for 2020 begins in earnest, there is precious little time for the actual business of governance.

Having an extra year up the sleeve would seem a no-brainer - but without that luxury, there will be plenty to keep both sides of the House occupied in 2019.

A stream of working groups

For Jacinda Ardern’s Government, the biggest task may be dealing with the stream of reports and recommendations that start to come in from the various working groups it has set up since taking power.

Derided by National as an expensive abdication of responsibility and defended by the Government as necessary work after years of neglect, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

What is undeniable is that the cost of running the groups will be eclipsed by the dollar figures attached to the recommendations that they make.

While the books are in healthy condition, Finance Minister Grant Robertson has already signalled to the Labour faithful that fiscal prudence is a guiding principle - an understandable position given accusations of economic vandalism hurled at left-wing parties, but one which could lead to disquiet if the governing parties are seen to be falling short of their voters’ expectations.

2019 may be the year when the public gets a better sense of whether the Government will be as truly transformational as Ardern has suggested, or if it may fall short of the hype (although it will be years or decades until we know for sure).

The Prime Minister must also address questions of personnel as well as policy, with ousted ministers Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri yet to be replaced in the executive.

Ardern has few obvious options for a large-scale reshuffle given the relative inexperience of much of her backbench, but promoting some of the MPs with potential (such as Deborah Russell) and giving bigger roles to proven performers like Kris Faafoi (currently a minister outside of Cabinet) would seem a relatively safe bet.

National's leadership question

National and its leader Simon Bridges face similar issues, albeit from a position of far less power.

The party has spoken about keeping its powder dry ahead of the next election, but if it is to deliver on its talk of delivering the policy heft that Labour failed to while in opposition, then Bridges and his team will have to turn their listening tours into proposals that get real cut-through.

Bridges’ biggest personnel question mark relates to rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross and whether he will return to Parliament or step aside after his kamikaze bid to sink his leader.

If Ross does return and continue to lob grenades from the cross benches, then the party would have to give serious consideration to using the party-hopping legislation to oust him - as unpalatable as that particular dead rat would be.

Of course, Bridges himself is not entirely stable in his position atop National, with the party’s fairly solid polling providing some cover for his poor preferred PM rating - for the moment, at least.

That gap will surely start to close before the end of the year, and if it is the party falling to meet Bridges then there are more than enough ambitious MPs who could start to think about a leadership spill.

Minor parties making headway

The Greens and New Zealand First face the same challenge as all minor parties who find themselves in government - maintaining their identity within the coalition without being accused of sowing division or seeing their polling plummet.

Both parties have grounds for some optimism after the last year, albeit with a few bumps along the way, but will have to carefully walk a tightrope to keep their supporters happy while maintaining political stability.

As for ACT’s one-man band, David Seymour is a long way off the optimistic vision of rejuvenation he outlined before the 2017 election - and it seems unlikely a party rebrand will provide much assistance.

After a fairly brutish and tiring year, all MPs will likely be hoping 2019 offers something different.

If not, we may not need Finlayson’s four-year limit for the parliamentary term to feel just as long.

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