Tracy Watkins: After a huge year in politics, one politician stands out

2018-12-14 18:30:58

OPINION: The finishing line is in sight and the relief on the faces around Parliament is palpable as politicians stagger toward the final week before the summer break.

This has been a huge year in politics and Christmas can't come soon enough for most.

But don't expect there to be much festive cheer around the corridors of power in the final countdown. The atmosphere in the debating chamber these days is toxic and the front bench square-off has been a hard and bitter slog.

So who ends the year in pole position and who is politician of the year? Here's our score-card for 2018.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

A lot of people said it couldn't be done, but Ardern has proved them wrong so far. The unlikely coalition of Labour, NZ First and the Greens is looking locked in. That's all down to Ardern.

The prime minister is at the height of her powers and has barely stumbled in her first year on the job. Her international cachet is huge and don't underestimate the value that adds to the NZ Inc brand. Ardern's brand on the domestic front is even more potent. She has done for Labour what John Key did for National – successfully reclaimed the political centre ground while also managing to reassert Labour's dominance on the left, after years of losing disillusioned supporters to the Greens.

Domestically, Ardern was criticised for not being decisive enough with underperforming ministers but much of that may also be about adjusting to her different style of leadership and "brand", which has emphasised kindness and compassion over the qualities more usually prized in politics, like ruthlessness.

Score: 9.5/10

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters

Peters has been a canny foreign minister; he shrewdly put New Zealand at the head of the curve with his Pacific reset, which, while criticised by the Opposition, cleverly anticipated the diplomatic pushback against China in the region by traditional allies, the United States and Australia.

His invitation to meet US Vice-President Mike Pence in the United States is a reflection of his standing. But Peters' blind spot on Russia has been a source of frustration in Labour and a black mark in his portfolio.

Peters' stint as acting PM earns him top marks, however – he proved he is the No 2 to Ardern on merit, and not just as a coalition sop. Even his flashes of capriciousness as NZ First leader have served their purpose in reminding Labour it can't act like a first-past-the-post government.


Finance Minister Grant Robertson:

Robertson has not yet fully emerged from his leader's shadow as a force to be reckoned with in the same way that former finance ministers Sir Michael Cullen and Sir Bill English managed.

But much of that is to do with his focus on wooing the business community and getting out and around the country to shore up Labour's credentials as a safe pair of hands at the economic tiller.

Helped by some rosy economic data, Robertson is winning respect for his pragmatic approach, despite the unrelentingly gloomy business confidence surveys.

Next year should be Robertson's year, when he takes a big step away from tradition and unveils Labour's first Wellness Budget.


Worth noting:

Kelvin Davis: Davis' performance is a tale of two halves. As corrections minister, he has been quietly effective. As acting PM in the absence or Ardern and Peters, he has been woeful.


Trade Minister David Parker: Technically not on the front bench but if his position was commensurate with the power and influence he wields in the Government he would be right up there. He's the minister for everything big, complicated, and potentially messy, and hasn't put a foot wrong. Can be overly ideological, however, and may almost be too busy – his profile is buried by his workload.


Housing Minister Phil Twyford: He's got Labour's flagship KiwiBuild policy resting on his shoulders and it should be a political winner, but he's struggling to sell it as a success story at the moment.


Justice Minister Andrew Little: Got ahead of himself on three strikes and was deservedly slapped down by Peters. His justice summit, meanwhile, was a flop and deserved the criticism it got. But he has otherwise been one of the standout performers in Labour.


Climate Change Minister James Shaw: The Green Party co-leader is revelling in his portfolios but needs to be more visible before the next election.



Leader Simon Bridges

National's team has been firing on all cylinders this year and Bridges deserves credit for that. He runs a slick back-office machine and – with the jarring exception of former whip and senior MP Jami-Lee Ross – his front bench has operated as a highly disciplined team.

But as a rookie leader Bridges made some disastrous judgment calls in his handling of the Jami-Lee Ross saga and they will keep coming back to haunt him.

Bridges' bigger problem, however, is that the public just don't like him. His leadership rests on him shaking off his negative public image by showing voters another side to himself, and by kicking off 2019 with a big and visionary speech.


Deputy Paula Bennett

Bennett took a low-key approach to her role early in Bridges' tenure, understandably as he needed time to establish himself in the public eye as the lesser known of the two. But she has become more visible lately, and 2018 has seen something of a renaissance in her fortunes. She is one of National's best scrappers and a powerful weapon in the House. But her colleagues will be questioning her judgment in publicly raking up Jami-Lee Ross' extramarital affairs and opening Pandora's box.


Finance spokeswoman Amy Adams

Adams had a big reputation going into Opposition and was graceful in defeat after losing the leadership contest to Bridges.

But she lost a lot of kudos among her colleagues when she accepted a Europe junket rather than stick around to lead the charge against Robertson's first Budget.

Since then Adams has failed to land any big hits on Robertson in the House and hasn't lived up to the high expectations.


Worth noting:

Housing spokeswoman Judith Collins: The joke goes that Collins could count on one finger the number of votes for her in the last leadership contest. Twelve months on, she is seen as the most likely successor to Bridges if his leadership fails. That's an extraordinary turnaround for the woman who has had more political revivals than Lazarus. Love her or hate her, people know who she is.


Justice spokesman Mark Mitchell: A dark horse in last year's leadership contest, Mitchell has risen in stature during the year. With Michael Woodhouse he has embarrassed and harried the Government over the decision to grant convicted drug smuggler Karel Sroubek residency.


Woodhouse: The former ACC minister has shown how Opposition should be done.


Paul Goldsmith: Is getting under Regional Development Minister Shane Jones' skin with his forensic examination of schemes funded under NZ First's flagship provincial growth fund.


Independent MP Jami-Lee Ross: He will be back but his career is in tatters after he went rogue on the National Party.


Best overall front bench

Too many of Labour's front bench are yet to shine and they are leaning heavily on Ardern, Peters and Robertson. National's front bench, in contrast, has been a machine, picking up in Opposition where they left off in government. They have consistently scored hits against the Government, have run hard on issues and scandals, and have made question time a 'must watch' again after years of irrelevance.

In short, National is fielding the best Opposition front bench we have seen in years and if it wasn't for the Jami-Lee Ross train wreck, would get a near perfect score. But it's hard to look past the fact that Ross was a key member of the front bench. The only reason National hasn't been docked more points is because of the speed with which the caucus has recovered and moved on.

National 7.5/10. Labour 6/10

Politician of the Year

No contest. Jacinda Ardern has had the year of her life and redefined perceptions of politics and leadership.  2018 is her year.

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