The stars, the safe hands and disasters

Who will win Election 2020? Shane Te Pou picks over the political talent and gives his view

OPINION: The great New Zealand historian Michael King concluded his landmark Penguin History of New Zealand with the words: “Most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism seen in other parts of the world. They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country’s future.”

At the start of this election year, the good news is that we can trust that Kiwi voters are generally good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. The question is, which bunch of politicians is most likely to display those traits? On that measure, the Labour-New Zealand First Coalition, and its Green Party support partner, have an edge. But we’re lucky as a country that the National-ACT Opposition is not too far behind.

In fact, across all the leading figures in the main parties, only Phil Twyford displays none of the traits necessary to be a successful minister. His management of KiwiBuild turned it into the most humiliating policy failure in the New Zealand Labour Party’s history but it is soon to be eclipsed by the Auckland light rail shambles. But the Twyford problem is easily fixed. The Prime Minister must know her own reputation depends on her sacking him altogether early in 2020.

Jacinda Ardern will also want to make sure a closer eye is kept on Iain Lees-Galloway, who has overseen a massive blowout in immigration delays for people who might be of benefit to New Zealand but seems never to have met a criminal he didn’t want to let stay here. She must know that while the Green Party’s Julie Anne Genter is popular among the public transport crowd, her aversion to roads has delayed major projects for years, and questions still remain about her role in the strange story of Wellington’s multi-billion-dollar transport package.

Green co-leader James Shaw should similarly remind Eugenie Sage which party she represents and tell her to stop just applying the law on things like foreign investment and get on and change it.

But across the Government as a whole there are more safe pairs of hands – practical, commonsensical ministers – than incompetents, unlike talk from those painting a picture of a “Coalition of Losers”. While the media focuses on stars like Ardern, or dogged survivors like Simon Bridges, these are the people who run a Government day-to-day.

The standouts

The Minister for Everything, David Parker, is the top dog in this group. Whether it’s negotiating the TPP compromise, slowly but surely sorting out water pollution or protecting South Auckland’s precious horticulture soils, Parker can be trusted to take on a difficult issue, manage it without causing a political fuss, and move it in a progressive direction.

But he’s not alone. New Housing Minister Megan Woods took over the KiwiBuild disaster and quickly brought it under control. We don’t hear any problems out of Christchurch. Even the oil and gas ban – which wasn’t her doing – is at least off the front pages.

Similarly, Kris Faafoi took over Clare Curran’s disaster in broadcasting. It’s a measure of how well he is now regarded that he was given the benefit of the doubt when his so-called “mate”, the singer Jason Kerrison, made allegations against him. If anything, it turned out he hadn’t done anything improper to help his family friend.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters can also be confident they have practical and commonsensical ministers across social policy. We don’t hear all that much from Health Minister David Clark, Education Minister Chris Hipkins, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni or Employment Minister Willie Jackson. It helps that Finance Minister Grant Robertson has loosened the purse strings, especially in mental health and school maintenance, but it is still to their credit we don’t hear as many scandals in these areas as we might.

Hipkins even got through the teachers’ strike that everyone seems to have forgotten, and was smart enough to stand with parents, not bureaucrats, and keep boards of trustees. Tracey Martin is popular across the political divide and has not let the uplifting babies scandal hurt the Government more than it deserves to.

Elsewhere in the Cabinet, Labour’s deputy leader Kelvin Davis gets mocked sometimes for not being able to perform as well as Ardern, Peters or Robertson in the circus of parliamentary question time, but is making steady progress in modernising Corrections, while Stuart Nash has worked well with outgoing Police Commissioner Mike Bush to modernise and expand the police. Davis and Nanaia Mahuta also deserve credit for their roles in looking after the Crown-Māori relationship and overseeing the often controversial Ministry Te Puni Kōkiri.

Farmers and soldiers are often disgruntled with Labour-led Governments. Given how radically the Government wants to change land use and farming practices in New Zealand, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor is holding his own against National high-flyer Todd Muller. Ron Mark is a soldier’s Defence Minister. We have no idea what 15th ranked minister Jenny Salesa does, so we can assume she hasn’t done anything wrong.

If there is any criticism of any of this lot, it is that we need ministers who are more than safe pairs of hands if the coalition is to deliver its promise to be transformational. Hopefully they have built their confidence as ministers and can deliver more in 2020.

ACT’s David Seymour has saved his party through trivia like Dancing with the Stars and the most serious imaginable issue of assisted dying for the terminally ill.

National, too, can be confident it has a decent bunch of practical and commonsensical potential ministers.

The party owes much to old hand Gerry Brownlee and its new strategist Todd McClay for keeping the ship on track during leadership wobbles and provocations from Jami-Lee Ross. Paula Bennett hasn’t done much wrong either. Her big test in 2020 is as National’s new campaign chairperson, replacing Steven Joyce.

If Judith Collins doesn’t blow her whole career when she publishes her book, she is capable of taking on a wide range of difficult portfolios in a National government like Parker does for Labour. Mark Mitchell, Michael Woodhouse and Louise Upston will never set the world on fire but are safe hands.

So who are the stars that will really make the difference? The parties all have some of these too.

ACT’s David Seymour has saved his party through trivia like Dancing with the Stars and the most serious imaginable issue of assisted dying for the terminally ill. He joins the likes of Fran Wilde, Tim Barnett, Sue Bradford and Louisa Wall – and his heroes Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson – as actually having achieved something in Parliament. His party support has doubled and he will be back in 2020 with at least one more ACT MP, and perhaps more.

In National, Simon Bridges earns his place among the stars for his resilience. Who but he and his family would have imagined in late 2018 and early 2019 that he starts 2020 with a 50:50 chance to be prime minister by Christmas? Despite no one much liking him, including in his own party, he may end up the Jim Bolger of his generation and make the top job without strong poll numbers. National and New Zealand could do worse.

His right-hand man, Paul Goldsmith has had a strong start as Shadow Finance Minister. On the right of the party, he is said to have nevertheless been pivotal in getting National’s dries to accept the need to move beyond austerity.

Todd Muller also makes the list for his work first in climate change and now in agriculture. If Bridges misses out on the prime ministership, Muller will be Leader of the Opposition by the end of the year.

Nikki Kaye remains the indispensable liberal voice in National and Chris Bishop can also expect a leading role in a future Bridges or Muller Government. Both these two are getting National on the right side of issues like infrastructure development, including that required for the big Auckland port move.

Historic achievement

On the Government side, Green leader Shaw made history last year with his Zero Carbon Bill. For all Ardern’s talk of her nuclear-free moment, it is Shaw alone who made that happen. In contrast to the far left of his party, he has actually achieved something radically important and assured its return later this year, another historic achievement.

New Zealand First will also return, off the back of stopping the capital gains tax, pushing the Provincial Growth Fund, and leading the port project and all the new infrastructure to make it happen. Thanks to the star power of Winston Peters and Shane Jones, it remains on track to also pass the 5 percent threshold.

In a way, Labour is too easy. Jacinda Ardern is its indispensable figure. We could not ask for a better-hearted leader. After the Christchurch terrorist attack, she brought our country together and showed the world that that is not us. But her star power does not diminish that of two others on whom Labour’s re-election and legacy depend. 

Grant Robertson now has the business community, the foreign exchange dealers and the ratings agencies comfortable with Labour. Last year, he managed to get business leaders and the right-wing media demanding he do what he and his left have wanted him to do all along – break free of the out-dated budget responsibility rules and invest in the new infrastructure New Zealand needs. As those projects are announced, Labour will position itself as the party of the future.

But there is one New Zealand politician who most displays Michael’s King’s virtues of being good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant, and that is Andrew Little. It was he who allowed Labour to triumph in 2017 by stepping down. Now, as Justice Minister, he is leading under the radar a major shift from the punitive and failing system left to us by Phil Goff and Tony Ryall to a genuinely restorative one, with proper investment in rehabilitation.

Little is taking historic steps and investing in solving family violence. He has had the courage to confront the issues with more difficult Treaty of Waitangi settlements after his predecessors have picked all the lower hanging fruit. He is leading a sensible discussion on free speech, between the woke liberals and the right-wing extremists who usually dominate that debate. As head of the spy agencies, he has given them new powers to keep us safe, while also bringing them under proper civilian control, perhaps for the first time ever.

It is this work for which Labour deserves to be re-elected. And if it is not, it is this work to which historians will be able to point as an actual legacy from the Sixth Labour Government.

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