Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: A year of downfalls, fiascos and failures

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Colin Craig has been named Politician of the Year by Jane Clifton as she says his ability to keep his MP-less party in the headlines has been remarkable. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Colin Craig has been named Politician of the Year by Jane Clifton as she says his ability to keep his MP-less party in the headlines has been remarkable. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was a tumultuous and colourful year in politics, littered with downfalls, fiascos and failures. The large number of politicians and other political figures who suffered embarrassments and scandals provided rich pickings for political commentators and especially satirists. In his end of year column Steve Braunias reflects on a year in which politicians made his job easy: 'It was a vintage year for low farce and high foolishness in New Zealand public life, for shameful acts and disgraceful behaviour, for sheer stupidity and evil doing, and I was very grateful' - see: The secret diaries of 2013. An introspective Braunias marvels at his quarry: 'They offered no resistance. They came quietly. They were already ridiculous; it was as though they wrote the diary themselves'.

Tracy Watkins says that 'if 2013 should be known as anything, it is the The year of the fiasco - of which there were many'.

Aimee Gulliver also looks at the politicians and other public figures who had A memorable year - for all the wrong reasons. And Matt McCarten list his Sinners and saints on both sides - but really it's the 'sinners' who stand out as significant.

Len Brown, John Banks, David Shearer, Peter Dunne and Aaron Gilmore appear on everyone's list, as do issues such as the troubled asset sales programme and the Fonterra botulism scare. But the issue that ran all year was the GCSB and spying, spanning a number of scandals.

Political humour

Commentators and bloggers use a variety of different metrics, marks and 'awards' to convey a sense of the political year. If it can be done with humour as well as insight, it's even better. Jane Clifton's Listener roundup - Politician of the Year Awards (which has been unlocked on the Listener site for anyone to view) displays Clifton's talent for irreverence, humour and insight that makes it a must read.

Clifton gives out 'The Jim Anderton Fellowship for Belligerence Studies and Rob's Mob Official Muldoonist Internship' award to Russel Norman for ironically displaying similar policy and personality traits to the former PM. But Clifton's most interesting award was 'Surprise Liberal of the Year': Asenati Taylor for inadvertently endorsing political journalists' polygamy.

The Fairfax parliamentary gallery also adeptly combines the satirical and serious in The Annual Polly awards. The 'Edward Snowden award for services to Big Brother' is given to 'David Henry and Paula Rebstock who snooped on people's private emails, phone and swipe-card records without even needing a warrant'.

The 'Bermuda Triangle award' goes to 'Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Alfred Ngaro, Ian McKelvie, Moana Mackey, Rajen Prasad, David Clendon, Raymond Huo, Jacqui Dean and Rino Tirakatene'. Jane Clifton gave her 'Most Obscure MP award' to Tim Groser, but her finalists included Katrina Shanks, Cam Calder, Shane Ardern, Shane Jones, Jo Goodhew, Chris Tremain, Nathan Guy, Sue Moroney, Iain Lees-Galloway, Nania Mahuta, Kennedy Graham, Denis O'Rourke, Rajen Prasad, and Andrew Williams.

Some politicians are now trying to get into the round-up game and Winston Peters has blogged his own awards on The Ruminator, handing 'The "getting off my high horse gracefully" award' to Peter Dunne for proclaiming his innocence over the GCSB leak.

In a clever round-up Toby Manhire has produced The essential gift list for those in the public eye (). For example: 'For Metiria Turei, a commission of inquiry into Father Christmas. For Russel Norman, the collected works of Rob Muldoon. For Judith Collins, the collected works of Steven Joyce. For Steven Joyce, the collected works of Judith Collins. For David Cunliffe, the collected works of David Cunliffe'.

Matthew Hooton sums up The year from A to Z (paywalled). Starting off at "A", Hooton says 'A is for Aaron, as in Gilmore, the self-declared dickhead who actually proved to have some local support, at least compared with Matthew Doocey, the National candidate in the Christchurch East by-election'; ending with 'Z is for zoo, and Auckland's will have a new elephant, by far the most substantial ever outcome by any prime minister at a CHOGM'.

Claire Trevett has two humorous summaries: Politicians sitting ducks for cracker jokes and Of musical chairs and other absurd carryings-on. The latter makes some interesting awards, especially regarding insults, for which Shane Jones and Judith Collins reign supreme: 'The freedom of Twitter saw Judith Collins replace Paula Bennett as champion of the blunt insult, sledging her opponents with zeal, including a commentary on how Metiria Turei's social conscience fitted in with her affection for Adrienne Winkelmann jackets'.

In terms of political humour, it's worth mentioning the nomination of a political satirist for the Herald's annual grand title - see David Fisher's New Zealander of the year finalist 2013: Ben Uffindell.

And for a reminder of how much good material there has been this year for humour and satire, see Simon Wong's Top 10 political gaffes of 2013. Included are Aaron Gilmore's whole 'Do you know who I am?' farce, the snapper bag limits backlash, Simon Bridges' infamous 'oil blowout', Richard Prosser's Islamophobic insults, the Greens' 'Hey Clint' moment, and John Key committing New Zealand to war against North Korea.

Also of great comedic value this year was the exchange between the Prime Minister and Kim Dotcom: 'Why are you going red, prime minister?' 'I'm not, why are you sweating?' There are more gems in Massey University's Top 10 quotes of the year, as reported in Isaac Davison's MP's 'Gay rainbow' quote the favourite. Other top political quotes include: Winston Peters on John Key: 'What didn't he know and when didn't he know it?', an anonymous social media slogan: 'The GCSB, the only government department that will actually listen to you' and of course Maurice Williamson's speech in favour of gay marriage. The Davison article reveals more about the origins of Williamson's speech, and its ongoing fame, 'including 1.5 million views on YouTube'.

Russell Brown announces the Public Address Word of the Year 2013: Metadata. The spy-related word fought off competition from 'Big Gay Rainbow' and 'Wewege'. Brown explains that metadata 'encompasses some of the most important questions of the year: what kinds of information are our intelligence agencies collection about us, how and why?'

Serious evaluations of the year

Not all end of year summaries take a whimsical path. Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small provide an excellent serious summary of The 2013 political year in review, outlining the big themes of the year and handing down a verdict on the best and worst performers amongst frontbench MPs. The highest scores of 8/10 go to Bill English, Paula Bennett, and David Cunliffe. Notable lower scores go to Steven Joyce (5.5; 'his star may be fading), Hekia Parata (3), Tariana Turia (4), Grant Robertson (5), Tracey Martin (3), and John Banks (1). The most perceptive advice relates to Judith Collins: 'If you want an insight into her soul, follow her on Twitter'.

For an evaluation of the whole Parliament, the Transtasman news service provides an annual in-depth and authoritative report on who has performed and who hasn't. The results of the Transtasman evaluation are best conveyed by Tracy Watkins report English the star performer in Parliament's class of 2013, which highlights the most interesting elements of the report card. For a numeric analysis of the report, read David Farrar blogost The 2013 Trans-Tasman Ratings, which shows how the parties have performed, which MPs scored highest, lowest or improved or decreased their scores the most since the previous report.

Other strong political evaluations are John Armstrong's Grim Reaper piles up political scalps and Colin James' The year of the Southland drawl.

Politicians of the year

In a surprise move, Jane Clifton has made Colin Craig - a non-MP - her 'Politician of the Year' (Politician of the Year Awards). She says that Craig's ability to keep his MP-less party in the headlines has been remarkable, especially given his bewildering mixture of policies.

Clifton's runner-up for the award is David Cunliffe. For John Armstrong, Cunliffe 'has to be judged the Politician of the Year if only by virtue of him seeing off the other challengers to gain the prestige of leading one of the two major parties. Since taking over from David Shearer, David Cunliffe has not put a foot wrong' - see: Grim Reaper piles up political scalps. The Fairfax parliamentary journalists also declare Cunliffe to be the 'Winner of the Year', saying 'his rise to the Labour Party leadership within a year of being exiled to the back benches and written off as a political prospect is an extraordinary political comeback' (The Annual Polly awards).

Chris Trotter says David Cunliffe has a strong claim on being not only politician of the year but New Zealander of the Year, but in the end Trotter chooses John Key over Cunliffe - see: New Zealander of the Year.

A number of commentators name Finance Minister Bill English as the Politician of the Year. For instance, the rightwing Transtasman report says 'He is restoring the Crown Accounts to surplus, getting the economy "set to fly" and he does more than his fair share of the heavy lifting on policy' (Tracy Watkins: English the star performer in Parliament's class of 2013).

Patrick Gower shares this opinion - saying that even on the asset sales flop English has managed to prevent the issue being an absolute disaster for National, and he led the fightback over the housing problem - see: Politician of the Year - Bill English.

Colin James also strongly backs English as Politician of the Year, pointing to his policy innovation role combined with tight management skills that have kept his governing erring into radicalism - see James' very good column, The year of the Southland drawl.

But there's one dissenting voice on this issue. Tim Watkin blogs that the improving economic situation cannot all be credited to English's financial management: 'But... there are some big buts. It also in large part stems from the Christchurch rebuild and the political good fortune of terrible misfortune. It also stems from high commodity prices. And on the flipside figures around youth unemployment and child poverty, for example, remain stubbornly awful. And just as frankly, the government's flagship economic policy for the year, the partial state asset sales, has been a disaster tantamount to economic vandalism. While English will next year get credit for hitting his surplus promise, this year he ends having failed on his $5-7 billion profit almost-promise. So I just can't seriously call him politician of the year' - see: The last post... for 2013, polls update & moments of the year.

Watkin also points out the shortcomings of other Politician of the Year nominees - for example: 'Key's defying of poll gravity is impressive, but he's been out of the country a lot and his performance this year has been his worst as Prime Minister thus far. Cunliffe came back from the dead and looked the real deal in phase one, but then stuttered to launch phase two. Colin Craig? Well, he's done the business for his party, but his story is still all about potential. Nothing has been achieved yet'.

The Political Moments of the Year

Tim Watkin argues that to understand the political year we are better served by looking at the issues than personalities, and he nominates the Three Political Moments of the Year: 1) Key opening the door to Colin Craig, 2) Labour's leadership contest, and 3) the Marriage Equality legislation being passed. Watkin backs this up with some insightful points.

The five big themes of the year in Fairfax's The Annual Polly awards are said to be: 'Kim Dotcom and spooks', 'A tale of two Davids', 'Gay marriage', 'Asset sales', and 'Housing', and these are also backed up with strong reasoning and analysis.

The New Zealand Herald sums up what it considers its most important issues of the year: 'Five issues of public interest dominated the news and attracted our attention repeatedly in this column - the housing bubble, spying and privacy, the asset sales programme, Auckland's Unitary Plan and the Auckland mayoralty' - see the editorial 150 years of guarding the public interest.

The Government's year

The most serious and informative summary of the National Government's year is by Newswire's Peter Wilson - see: Govt gets through bad year in good shape. Wilson says that the 'Government has been through a year when nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong but it still managed to hold its support against opposition parties'. He then goes through all the things that have gone wrong (and right) for National.

TVNZ's Corin Dann also emphasises National's bruising year and marvels that although the Government has been 'clearly rattled and struggling to respond' it has retained its strong popularity. Dann puts this down to John Key's strengths and the economic recovery - see: The year in politics. Gordon Campbell appears to be in agreement, saying 'Ultimately, everything leads back to Key, and to his enduring (and mystifying?) run of popularity' - see: National survives the year unscathed.

In his attempt to answer the apparent paradox, John Armstong refers to the theory of 'the remoteness of politics' where 'For the great bulk of the people, politics does not matter most of the time. They have other things occupying their lives' - see: Year ends on a high note for National. Armstrong says that 'In order to ping Key, Labour has become far too consumed by the minutiae of day-to-day political conflict which largely passes most people by'. Meanwhile, the National Government has been paying attention to the 'things which really do matter to people' and getting those things right, even if it means making highly pragmatic deals as the recent Avatar film subsidy.

The state of the economy is seen as a huge asset for National going into election year. For a more detailed examination of the economic year, see Paul Macbeth's White gold emerges triumphant from Fonterra stumbles.

Some commentators see Steven Joyce as having been central to the Key Government in 2013. The Transtasman report commended Joyce, saying 'If it's too hard for anyone else, give it to Joyce and he'll fix it'. Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan thought this was worth challenging: 'That's certainly the way Joyce is sold to us, and its obviously set in the concrete-like conventional wisdom of the press gallery. But what, exactly, has Joyce 'fixed' over the last two years? The Sky City convention center? His dysfunctional new super-Ministry? Chorus and the UFB roll-out? The rapidly dying screen-sector? Shouldn't this read, "Give it to Joyce and it'll become a hugely damaging endless fiasco?".' - see: Mr Fix-it.

And for those of you who think MPs don't do enough, the Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee has issued the details of this year's parliamentary productivity, trumpeting 'a 45 percent increase in bills passed into law' - see: Newswire's Parliament's busy year. In terms of legislation, Brownlee says that '145 passed their third readings compared with 99 in 2012. Another 57 passed their first readings and were sent to select committees. Parliament sat for 31 weeks, ministers answered 1059 oral questions and the number of written questions went up from 11,899 in 2012 to 16,946'.

Much of the legislation passed was also highly controversial. According to the NBR's Penny Pepperell 'This past year has also seen a large number of fiercely contested legislative measures ranging across the spectrum. Infrastructure and development (Land Transport Management, RMA, Crown Minerals); social engineering (housing, charter schools, welfare entitlement changes, marriage equality); state sector streamlining and cost cutting (state sector reform, family courts, heritage); and, in a special category of its own, the Sky City convention legislation which also attracted an Auditor-General's report' - see: A Spy Year (paywalled).

Finally, to see one MP's political summary of the year in song, see the 4-minute video Denise Roche sings. It begins with the lines 'O come, all ye faithful, all ye politicians; O come ye, o come ye, let's reflect on this year' and goes on to voice all that is good and bad in the Green worldview. Let's hope this singing summary doesn't catch on with the rest of Parliament in 2014.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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