The big political countdown is on - are you ready?

2018-11-23 16:17:40

OPINION: Sit back in your seats, grab the popcorn. Parliament is back next week for the final run to the end of the year. If it's anything like the last 12 months of politics, it will be a helter-skelter affair.

So who will be glad to see the back of 2018, and are there any big political moves still to come?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Ardern finishes 2018 far stronger than she started it. There were doubts that she could make her three-headed Government work. But she has. The Labour-NZ First-Greens hybrid ends the year looking surprisingly solid.

The fear factor that sent business confidence into freefall has started to look more like an over-reaction, given the constant stream of economic good news.

Labour's programme has largely been implemented, even if there have been some hiccups along the way. There is also Ardern's international stardom, of course, and the way she made juggling motherhood and the job look easy.

But the true test of Ardern's mettle has been her handling of disasters like M. bovis and errant ministers. She fumbled her initial handling of former broadcasting minister Clare Curran, but had learnt her lesson when Meka Whaitiri became embroiled in bullying allegations. On crises like M. bovis, meanwhile, Ardern has shown herself to be a safe pair of hands.

But she is still carrying too many underperforming and novice ministers and, seat for seat, National has more grunt. If not for Ardern, the coalition would be looking pretty average right now.

The pressure on Ardern to perform, and to constantly front up, has been immense. The pressure on her staff has also been huge, and the year ends with some big gaps in her lineup. Strategist Mike Jaspers has announced his resignation, and  press secretary Julie Jacobson is the second to quit Ardern's office since the new Government was sworn in.

Ardern will be looking forward to a break and some family time with partner Clarke Gayford and baby Neve. But there may be time for one more big move yet.  Cabinet reshuffle, anyone?

National leader Simon Bridges

It is never healthy for a leader when the prevailing wisdom that you are a dead man walking takes root. That seems to be the consensus verdict on Simon Bridges, and it will be hard for him to shake it off now, if only because everything he does will be interpreted in the context of his leadership being doomed.

It is an astonishingly short time for the drums to start sounding on his leadership. Bridges was only elected in February and hasn't even ticked off his first anniversary. But he can't take much comfort from that. Whirlwind is the new normal in politics. Jacinda Ardern addressed her first Labour Party conference as leader only a few weeks ago. She has been prime minister almost as long as she has been party leader.

Bridges has certainly given new meaning to the term "baptism by fire". But even before the Jami-Lee Ross disaster, questions were being asked about whether he had what it takes to lead National through to the 2020 election. Yet it's not because National has been doing badly. The opposite, in fact. The National machine has been highly effective in opposition, and made some big hits.

But despite that – or maybe even because of it – Bridges' attempt to rebrand the party as a fresher, next-generation take on the Key-English years has fallen short. National looks more like a grumpier version of its former self than a party of ideas. Frustration has kicked in, and Bridges has become that thing National used to laugh at in Andrew Little and his predecessors: an angry man.

Bridges needs to finish the year strongly, and he needs a big gesture that makes voters take another look. He and Ardern are understood to have been meeting behind the scenes on a bipartisan approach to climate change. Striking a deal with Bridges would be a big win for Ardern, but Bridges needs it more. It would inject some freshness into National's platform, put a stake in the ground on the environment, showcase a new direction under Bridges, and show that he can be prime ministerial.

But will it be enough to stave off his MPs taking leadership soundings over the Christmas break?

Probably not – and it could even hasten his end. Just ask former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

His efforts to rein in Australian's carbon emissions set off a war in the Liberal Party and lined him up against conservative elements in his caucus.

Is it a coincidence that Bridges' one-time rival Judith Collins is quietly positioning herself against any push to make National greener?

Speaker Trevor Mallard

Mallard's umpiring style of running Parliament sounded like a good idea at the time, but yellow-carding the opposition by docking their questions has done nothing for good relations in a fractious debating chamber. Feelings were already running deep over the election result and National's anger over NZ First siding with Labour, and tempers got so frayed that National was on the cusp of calling a no-confidence vote in Mallard.

He might be hoping the long summer break will restore everyone's sense of humour. Realistically, however, the can of worms opened by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross dishing the dirt on MPs' private lives means it's likely to get even uglier.

Kelvin Davis

It's been a tough year for the Labour deputy, who initially floundered under pressure from the Opposition and media. But he appears to be growing into the role and his quiet reforms in the corrections portfolio are winning him kudos. Davis will be hoping the end of 2018 draws a line under the questions about whether he's up to the deputy leadership.

Grant Robertson

The finance minister has every reason to look forward to 2019: he is set to deliver his first "wellness" budget, which the Government is signalling as a significant departure from the traditional focus on the fiscal numbers alone, and the numbers keep rolling his way.

But for that reason Robertson may also be sorry to see 2018 come to an end. Unemployment is at historic lows, the economy is growing faster than almost anywhere else in the world, the housing bubble has slowly deflated, rather than burst, and the size of the surplus keeps growing.

Winston Peters

It has been a good year for Peters – his big Pacific "reset" looks to have been particularly prescient as Australia, Japan and others also follow his lead in stepping up their efforts in the Pacific against China's increasingly aggressive diplomacy in the region. He was also applauded for his time in the hot seat as prime minister while Ardern was on maternity leave.

But 2018 hasn't treated Peters too kindly in the polls. NZ First's call to go with Labour burned off some of its conservative constituency. Peters will be looking ahead to 2019 and leadership strife in National as an opportunity to bring them back.

Judith Collins

Collins won't be so much glad to see the back of 2018 – she's had a very good year – as excited by the potential of 2019. Recent speeches have sounded increasingly like Collins laying out her plan for winning the election: inspire voters, stick to simple messages (she references Australia's "stop the boats" campaign as an example of a winning strategy) and flying an unashamedly conservative flag.

Watch out for the first polls that put National's support in the danger zone of around 35 per cent. It will be all on. But the stakes will be high – the next fight over the leadership will be as much about the heart and soul of the party as it is about personalities. It will get ugly.

The National caucus

"Losing" the election, Jami-Lee Ross – it's been a tough year for the Nats. But see above for the reasons why 2019 could be a whole lot tougher.

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