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.

Comments (15)

by peasantpete on January 07, 2011
peasantpete

It was always going to be thus.  This government always said it would not upset the natives in the their first term.

In their second term who knows what will happen.

If National secure a safe majority we can look forward to a right wing onslaught on to our social fabric.

The governmemt is trading, in part, with disillusionment, within the electorate, with the previous administration.

This electorate disillusion will be replaced with an equal disillusion with the current administration as the reality of the "smoke and mirrors" tax cuts hit home.

Under mmp, as of today, the electoral outcome in 2011 looks foggy.

Given our mmp environment I suspect more "softly, softly catchee monkey" approach from a National government, post 2011.

by Brendon Mills on January 07, 2011
Brendon Mills

2 things of note in the next couple of months. 1) The Welfare Working Group's recommendations, and 2) The annual decision on whether the minimum wage will incraese, or not.

What the government will do in regard to those 2 things will give some indication of the direction it plans to go in, and will have a direct impact on living standards across the board.

by Andin on January 08, 2011
Andin

"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!"

As the kid in the ad sez "No surprises there eh!"

So overachiever, never appears to have questioned his conditioning, wants to be a PM, and probably believes he has a sky daddy. What could possibly go wrong.

by Tim Watkin on January 08, 2011
Tim Watkin

Brendon... Be patient, I'll get to 2011 shortly! But you're right, they'll both be useful indicators. English will also give his 'state of the economy' speech in February, another big pointer.

It was interesting to note a wee story in the Herald this week – support for a new flag has dropped significantly in the past year. Now why would that be? I take it as a sign of a cautious, inward-looking, change-wary electorate, and perhaps one that's not very Maori-friendly, given the Maori Party's power... Continued caution from all parties would be politically wise, I think...

by stuart munro on January 09, 2011
stuart munro

I don't think we need to wait to identify the forthcoming policies, it's been obvious since the GST decision. Having scuttled the tax base with the ill-conceived GST & tax cut package, the government was 'forced' to borrow $300 million a week to keep things running. This will presage a series of heroic cuts to social spending that will further depress the economy, creating more reasons to borrow, with further assaults on state spending to come. It's the classic World Bank shuffle - and we've seen it all before.

As for this government's report card - I'd give them a solid F. They did not even try to come to grips with any of New Zealand's significant economic problems. No plan, it seems, but to sit on their hands and build up the parliamentary superannuation. They might as well be Labour, for all that they have a more charismatic figurehead. 

This government is vacillating; it is Hamlet - we need one that will take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. That is, if we ever want comparable prospects with Australians. And why should we have to settle for less?

What's more, whoever signed off on the variously .6 or 1.6 billion lost in regulatory failure that accompanied the Hubbard takeover has still not been sacked! Apalling. It would never happen in the private sector.

by Andin on January 09, 2011
Andin

" I take it as a sign of a cautious, inward-looking, change-wary electorate, and perhaps one that's not very Maori-friendly, given the Maori Party's power... Continued caution from all parties would be politically wise, I think..."

This leads me to wonder which is the cart and which is the horse. Is the "cautious change wary electorate" thats driving the political parties in this direction or the other way around.

Either way it doesnt seem to be a good prospect and the more delay the problems will slowly build while ignored.

Sometimes I wish there was a god who would appear in the skies and tell us what to do, (and not through a meat mouthpiece) cause then there would be no question.

But we have to work it out ourselves and at that I despair sometimes.

by Mark Wilson on January 09, 2011
Mark Wilson

You have to laugh at the left.

You couldn't stop dribbling over Clark who over 9 years wasted the best economic conditions ever, yet Key comes in in the worst conditions since 1929 and uses his real world experience to save the economy and ensure all you state employed or unemployed beneficiaries (basically the same thing) didn't have to get a real job and you still slag him off.

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. 

by Andin on January 09, 2011
Andin

You certainly know how to spoil a conversation Mark.

Happy new year!

by stuart munro on January 09, 2011
stuart munro

@ Mark - I was never a fan of Clark as it happens - but dig up some facts - if Key is good for anything besides photo ops you ought to be able to point to some.

From where I'm standing though, 20  billion in the hole and no plan to get out? Key is Labour.

by Mark Wilson on January 09, 2011
Mark Wilson

[Ed: The post is about NZ domestic politics. Off topic comments about US vs China prospects for the future are irrelevant and constitute trolling.

Get on point, or stay out of the conversation.]

by DeepRed on January 10, 2011
DeepRed

Somehow, Key's fiscal restraint doesn't apply to pork-barrel motorways and mismanaged finance companies.

by Pete Turangi on January 11, 2011
Pete Turangi

"...Key comes in in the worst conditions since 1929 and uses his real world experience to save the economy and ensure all you state employed or unemployed beneficiaries (basically the same thing) didn't have to get a real job"

Is it just me or is everyone thinking "huh?"

- real world experience = money trader

- saved the economy - I don't know where to begin...

- ensure all you state employed or unemployed beneficiaries (basically the same thing) didn't have to get a real job - again, huh?  How does this bear any relation to anything in the post or comments thread?

Oh, and happy new year Tim, and welcome back - you have (all) been missed.

by stuart munro on January 12, 2011
stuart munro

Key comes in in the worst conditions since 1929 ...

Mark is of course referring to Michael Joseph Key, the architect of the decent society, and a politician universally respected because he paid his dues and served his people to his last breath.

The modern John, a pallid reflection of this paragon, has been spending too much time indoors, especially closeted withTreasury hacks and members of the Exclusive Brethren.

The sincerity of John's love for New Zealanders will ultimately be reflected in their love for him. Given the company he keeps it seems he is two-timing them with fiscal conservatism. So this relationship will likely end in tears.

by David H on January 19, 2011
David H

@mark Wilson

"You couldn't stop dribbling over Clark who over 9 years wasted the best economic conditions ever, yet Key comes in in the worst conditions since 1929 and uses his real world experience to save the economy and ensure all you state employed or unemployed beneficiaries (basically the same thing) didn't have to get a real job and you still slag him off."

Yep I will Yes labour had good economic conditions but waste them? How do you figure that out?  Even Blinglish said the books were in a good condition to cover the 'rainyday' that had arrived.  However he gave it all away to his rich mates in Tax Cuts.  WFF helps to stop our children suffering from malnutrition (or is that your ideal child) and other nasty diseases.  Then there was the PEDA debacle again swept under the carpet and Don't forget Pansy Wong, Or Gerry Brownlee laughing at the mine saftey thing.

Now from reading your hate filled rants at beneficiaries and the poor in general,  I can only assume that you are either a Rich Mate of Shonky's, who's been sucking at the teat of the government, or you are a boss that hates his workers, and expects them to work for nothing so you can get even richer???

But there is a glimmer of hope Hone has opened a can of worms, and Winston has fired up again then ther's Matt Mcarten starting up ALL these people are masters at the media game so I think that Shonkey Jonkey is not going to have it all his own way this year. AND he does not have a clue when the real questions will be asked. JK is just an Airheaded walking Photo op,  All flash but NO substance.

by on September 26, 2011
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