The government ended the year on the political mountain top thanks to a lot of luck and bucket full of caution... And my belated pick for minister of the year
And just like that, it was over. 2010: A pretty miserable year done and dusted. Sadly, dust was an all too literal part of the year, what with the Canterbury earthquake and our need to learn more about coal dust than any of us really wanted to, after the Pike River mine explosions.
In politics, however, ill fortune can – as horrible as it sounds – serve governments well. There's nothing like a disaster beyond your control to show a leader in a good light and to turn people's minds away from any failings or controversies. Especially if you have the sort of feel for public opinion that John Key unerringly displays.
In that regard, with two major public tragedies, 2010 was a very lucky year for National and the Key administration.
Napoleon supposedly once said that he didn't want good generals, he wanted lucky ones, and in Key, National seems to have found just that sort of man. His great fortune, good antennae and (quite) good calculation sees the government end the year utterly dominant in the polls, and Key even more dominant within his own caucus.
The Prime Minister has hardly been pitch perfect. He let control of the Schedule 4 debate slip, flip-flopped on foreign investment, lost more ministers in one year than any PM should, saw just about every review or legislative reform come in late, offended Tuhoe and too many other Maori for comfort... the list goes on. But his immense public popularity means he has grinned his way through it all, unquestionably the paramount political force in the country this year; almost imperious.
Toss in ongoing economic woes that can also be claimed to be beyond your control, and you really have a bespoke year for this government. All that misery meant the public mood was very conservative and cautious – perfect for a cautious, conservative government. And that's exactly what this government confirmed itself to be in 2010.
Yes, looking back, it's hard to see much that will be remembered in years to come. That reads like a criticism, but given the world's continued economic turmoil in 2010, it's not necessarily a bad thing. As Duran Duran wisely said, "high time is no time for deciding"... or for radical political reform. Sure, there's a lot to be done, but it's all too easy to forget the advantages we have as a nation in this post-credit crisis world and so to over-react. Steady as she goes ain't so bad right now.
Still, whether you think it for good or ill, the government did little that was terribly wrong last year, but nothing either that was terribly right. It's not a year likely to win the attention of historians.
The exception, perhaps, is the tax switch. Those on the right, echoing Bill English, say it will "rebalance" our economy. I say people's new-found fear of debt was doing that anyway. Those on the left say it hobbles the poor and is a gimme to the rich. I say it certainly leaves the poor contributing a higher proportion of the nation's tax take – and therefore for me was an unfair and unwise move – but it also took financial pressure off the middle classes in tough times and was a statement of confidence to global markets in a world where tax increases are soon to become de rigueur.
But that tax switch also cuts to the heart of what we learnt of the Key administration's character this past year. With a prime opportunity to confront our obsession with property ownership and the way it handicaps our economy, the government buckled.
With a public screaming out for robust action, a working group offering the fiscal justifications and opposition parties in partial or total support, the government refused to consider a land or capital gains tax. This, it seems, is its nature.
At nearly every crucial point of decision, it took the path of least resistance.
Would National stick to its convictions and mine Schedule 4 land? Er, no. Would it make the hard calls on liquor reform? Perhaps one or two, but it'd hold off on the less popular bits. Would it take a definitive stance on the ETS or race relations? Nah, better to have a bob each way. Time to have a grown-up look at constitutional issues? Nope, better to delay for nine months, release the terms of reference under the cover of Christmas and stall.
Where did it stick to its guns? The tax switch and state sector cuts, of course. Smaller government is, after all, the beating heart of centre-right politics and the polls were supportive... National Standards, safe in the belief that teachers have been suitably demonised... And The Hobbit debacle, when it suited their political purposes. You might be able to offer some more, because of the high profile decisions this year, that's all I can remember.
National was at its best in the form of the quiet, considered ministers Simon Power and Wayne Mapp. Power is widely recognised as the legislative grunt of the government, and with thought and some cross-party cooperation made progress in all his numerous portfolios.
Financial regulations, electoral law, liquor laws, court procedures have all improved, or are set to improve, due to his diligence last year. Yet again, he typified the government's caution by going so far and no further, but in Muldoonian terms, his work has made the country no worse off than he found it when he entered government, and almost certainly a little better.
What's more, he took his chance to appoint many of the country's wealthy and influential to board positions in the state sector, something that will do him no harm at all when he seeks the party's leadership after Key leaves!
But it's Dr Mapp who had the best year of all government ministers, to my mind, capped off with his announcement that he will make a dignified exit at this year's election.
Mapp handled two crucial reviews in 2010, in defence and science. Neither gave into ideology, nor over-reached. Both showed real nous.
The defence white paper got our future focus about right in terms of naval and regional priorities and didn't compromise our growing independence in foreign policy while keeping us close to Australia.
And if there's that the government did in 2010 that will benefit to country in the long-term, it's the reform of our Crown Research Institutes, which moved their energies away from competing with each other and back to science and ideas. The changes to how we do science here were over-due, could genuinely boost our economy, especially growth and innovation, in the medium-term and were "ambitious for New Zealand".
In the next few days I'll look back at how the other parties did in 2010 and what we might expect this year. Just how quickly I do that may depend on a) the weather and b) how quickly I can paint.
Happy new year y'all.