Here's a trawl through the year in politics and what stood out for me
Well, will you look at the time? The House has risen, weather's improving and Christmas is nigh. And heaps of newspapers, websites and journalists of all shapes and sizes have debated their best, worst, winners, losers and more as they try to make sense of what's been a year of recovery, reinvention and rebound after the crazy events of 2014.
Who am I to resist the trend of creating lists to try to make sense of the news and political development? No-one, that's who. So here we go:
I'm taking this one literally this year. Winston Peters created the greatest political upset of the 21st century (in NZ), but winning the Northland by-election when most (John Key included) wrote him off. I'm kinda amazed at those who went past him in their considerations. He changed the balance of parliament and upset a sitting government, which for me is on another level from a few good headlines (sorry, Kelvin).
Second, there's James Shaw, who upset Kevin Hague to win the Greens co-leadership. He slid into the job so effortlessly that it's easy to forget how few people thought the first-termer was ready to lead. He ran a canny campaign (he risked pontificating on rights for snails, but roughly knew the unemployment rate!) and already seems key to the Greens' chances in 2017.
Third, Tim Groser "won" the TPP and his US ambassadorship so looks the pick of the Cabinet. Judith Collins "won" her way back in, while Phil Goff "won" his way out. Bill English was so 'yes we have', 'no we won't' about the surplus it sucked much of the political value out of what is largely a political target, so I'm not inclined to give him many points. But his 'social investment' approach is the only example of long-term thinking this government is showing and the benefit increase in the Budget (while not as good as made out, given most benefits get less than the headline $25/week figure) was genuinely smart politics, so he deserves a mention.
Again, I'll take this literally. Sam Lotu-Iiga lost his job, which came as no surprise for a smart man who was regardless the worst performing minister. It's been a long time since I've seen a minister exposed as much as this. A shocker.
Colin Craig lost his party, which is hell of a clumsy. From a (second largest) potential coalition partner to, well, an ex-politician in one year is quite a fall.
Government's best bits:
Foreign policy and some parts of the economy. I'm wary to give a lot of points given the woeful position taken in Paris, but John Key has improved immensely on the world stage and the government earns kudos on two fronts. First, relevance. It's one of the most important issues a country at the bottom of the world faces, and this year we took a seat on a the Security Council, played a significant role in the biggest trade deal in the history of the world and the Prime Minister earned respect amongst numerous foreign leaders. These are vital for our country's evolution and place in the world. Second, peace. We have to be very cautious in how we respond to Islamic State, both its war in the Middle East and its attacks in the West. We're on the verge of giving into fear and giving them what they want. While few see it this way, I think John Key's government gets this and is keeping us determinedly on the farthest edges of this new 'war on terror'. Sending in the trainers is almost literally the least we could do; it may make little long-term difference as tribalism and religion shapes events in the region, as they always do... but it's a sensible contribution and one that keeps allies sweet whilst minimising the risk. Remember, even Helen Clark didn't put a time limit on her contributions in Afghanistan; Key has.
Government's worst bits:
Policy-wise, housing has been their biggest failure. Sure, prison management has been pushing the headlines, but that's mostly due to a contractor and doesn't matter as much to New Zealanders and the long-term good of the country. Auckland housing is a mess. Even while National trumpets its success in hitting its consenting targets and announces another SHA somewhere, it's going backwards. The housing shortage in Auckland (around 25,000) is bigger now than it was at the start of the year and growing. Prices may be plateauing, but they're plateauing at insane, unhealthy levels. Then there's social housing. In one of the government's few remaining ideological convictions, it has given up on Housing New Zealand and is trying to sell state houses. The policy has unravelled in parts this year, as it was clearly not properly thought through and is dragging out; meanwhile too many people don't have an affordable home. Despite three ministers and lots of effort, housing remains National's biggest weakness.
I'd also like to note short-termism. It's a marker of this government that will see history thinking less of it. From housing to super to education and more, National is thinking about political management over three year terms, not building for the good of the country. (With the exception perhaps being Waitangi settlements). Poor.
The Saudi sheep deal has been forgotten from many lists of the year, but is one of the government's worst bits of work. A cynical and dodgy deal, it may yet hurt this government, perhaps when the Attorney-General reports. Second, the 'more with less' mentality that Bill English established during the Global Financial Crisis has gone from mildly virtuous to downright destructive. The stories have been fragmented and the big picture hasn't really been pulled together yet, but from DOC to Pharmac to CYFs to Police and on and on under-funding is starting to have a detrimental impact on people's lives. While National has so far sold it as 'tightening the belt', it's a fine line to 'cuts to services' and that too may hurt the government soon.
Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler pointed to it yesterday: The government could be doing so much more to boost infrastructure in Auckland. they talk about it a lot, but at a time when international borrowing rates have been so, so low, National has not seized the chance to build, baby, build. Maybe Christchurch is part of that story, but to look at Auckland in the past few years is to see so many 'could have beens'.
U-turn of the year:
So many to choose from. The stand-outs are the refugee intake, red peak and the flag referendum and canning "exceptional" Serco's contract. For sheer gall, and out of respect for Aylan Kurdi, the refugee intake probably wins.
I've probably forgotten some, but potentially Anne Tolley's work on CYFS, assuming the long-overdue money and staff come as part of the Rebstock-inspired changes.
The cyber-bullying changes made for a pretty poor piece of law that will require tweaking. But it's hard to go past the high-risk worm farms and, more seriously, the willingness to ignore the evidence around workplace deaths and not do more on health and safety. It seems National's commitment to "evidence led" law stops when it comes to read meat for its political base.
Yes, the ponytail pulling was one of the weirdest political yarns ever and cannot go unmentioned. It also led to one of the weirdest quotes: John Key telling Patrick Gower his hair-tugging was the opposite of an abuse of power:
Gower: Yeah and when you accept you got that wrong do you accept you misused your power?
Key: No because I didn’t deliberately intend to do that it was the opposite. I intended to be in a much more informal sort of setting so I put people at ease and we could have a bit of a laugh and have a bit of fun so it was really the opposite...
For me, the first part of next year is likely to be dominated by weather and whether. First, El Nino and the hit it will make on an already troubled rural sector. This could cause some real harm to growth and employment, so pray for rain. As for the whethers... whether the second flag referendum will fizz or not, whether Labour and the Greens will come together in some fashion, whether the TPP will make it through the US House, and whether the cut in interest rates will see Auckland house prices move up again in the new year.
But it occurs to me that for the first year in many, we approach Christmas with National weaker than it was a year ago and Labour stronger. The parties are still a million miles apart and National remains incredibly dominant after seven years in power. But then this is MMP, so it's closer than it looks. The question is whether the Opposition parties can look as credible and competent next year as National has for so long. If they do, fatigue with the current lot is going to start to count for something. And then, Winston comes into play. And then, who knows? Watch next year.