Politics review: Oh, what a year it's been

By VERNON SMALL

A watershed election? A turning point in New Zealand politics? Well, they say that about every election, don't they? But for once the cliches may have some degree of accuracy.

Labour thinks so. It can't complain. It's in the box seat. As the political year winds up, Labour is again hitting 50 per cent in the polls. Its opponents on the other side of the spectrum are fragmented, with four parties fighting over the same narrow patch of turf.

As Parliament empties, the legacy of this year's election should prompt some serious contemplation on the centre-right over the summer break.

Act cannot work with New Zealand First. NZ First is a law unto itself. And voters still have not got the foggiest notion what National stands for despite that party having had three years in Opposition to regroup.

National's awful, awful year indicates flaws in the way it and Act have adjusted to MMP - flaws which could shut the two parties out of power for some time.

National was a broad church under first-past-the-post. It remains so under MMP. Too broad, perhaps. It is at once trying to appeal to wealthy liberals on the North Shore and country conservatives in Oamaru.

This may explain why Bill English is floundering. By trying to appeal to everyone, he is appealing to no one. The vacuum is being filled by NZ First and United Future.

National may have to decide whether it wants to be a big-city party or one in tune with the provinces, its traditional heartland but where Labour is taking control.

Likewise Act. Richard Prebble's party should be maximising the centre-right vote in metropolitan areas. But its policy prescription is too narrow - and too wedded to the legacy of Sir Roger Douglas.

At times, its caucus resembles a collection of hobby-horses looking for a jockey.

Meanwhile, Labour has cemented its grip on the political centre by doing as little as possible by way of anything that annoys voters.

It did not secure the absolute majority it sought. That was probably a good thing. Single-party rule may have been a fast-track to ruin. Minority government imposes more discipline on ministers.

Ruling as a single-party minority government with the backing of smaller parties on confidence motions was always Helen Clark's next preference, rather than formal coalitions. Technically, she is still in coalition with the Progressive Coalition's two MPs. But for all intents and purposes the July election produced a minority Labour Government unencumbered by the demands of a coalition partner.

It also served up a stability-enhancing support party on Labour's right - United Future. No longer is Labour hostage to parties to its left.

Labour's strategy is to run an essentially conservative Administration which acts as cover for its occasional twinges of radicalism but shuts out the centre-right.

How National and Act counter this will be the hot topic at summer barbecues. And, of course, whether Bill English can cut it.

Enough of such musings. Here are this year's winners and losers.

Politician of the year: Winston Peters. Love him or loathe him, the Tauranga terror has defied political gravity with an astonishing comeback which makes Lazarus look slothful. New Zealand First is now the third largest party in the House and seeking to supplant National. Peters barnstormed the country, delivering a lesson in how to generate political momentum through an election campaign. It wasn't pretty stuff. But it was darned effective. He applied the "keep it simple, stupid" principle with a three-fingered salute on immigration, law and order and the treaty "gravy train".

Peter Dunne deserves a mention. Not so much for the almost accidental way in which United Future levitated from obscurity to capture eight seats. No, Dunne deserves points for recognising Labour's realpolitik and quickly stitching up a deal with Clark which kept the Greens out of government.

Backbencher of the year: The Greens' Keith Locke. As a committed leftie, he has an agenda. But he kept his head as others got swept up with gung-ho backing of the so-called war on terrorism. Locke became an unofficial civil liberties watchdog, exposing the Government's shoddy attempt to rewrite New Zealand's counter-terrorism laws in secret. He also shed light on SAS operations in Afghanistan, making a mockery of the Government's blanket "no comment". Quite simply, he was doing the job an Opposition MP should do. Praise also to new Act MP Deborah Coddington who took to Parliament like the proverbial duck to water.

Plodder of the year: Bill English in a fight for life with George Hawkins.

Biggest casualties: Michelle Boag, Laila Harre, Ross Armstrong and Kelly Chal, United Future's 17-day MP. And Alliance president Matt McCarten. A decade's work destroyed.

Biggest blunder: The Greens' promise to bring down a Labour Government which lifted the moratorium on the commercial release of genetically modified organisms. Bottom-lines are bottom-lines. But this one turned the election campaign into a referendum on minor party influence - and the Greens suffered accordingly.

Biggest charade: Helen Clark citing infighting in the Alliance as her reason for calling an early election.

Biggest embarrassment: Jim Anderton denying week after week that he was in breach of the law he helped to write banning party-hopping.

Biggest disappointment: Anderton's lacklustre election campaign.

Best campaign: Winston "Bob the Builder" Peters; Act's slick messaging kept the party relevant when it might have sunk under the shadow of the incompetence of National, its natural coalition partner.

Worst campaign: National made it three in a row, adding 2002's horror to the limp efforts in 1999 and 1996.

Biggest fuss: Corngate.

Biggest fuss about nothing: Paintergate.

Best speech: English's acid attack on the Prime Minister's integrity had every delegate at July's National Party conference gasping for more.

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