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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Gloom sets scene for tumultuous 2013

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Stuff-up-prone Govt faces an Opposition gaining in cohesion.

Russel Norman's money-printing talk ended his Politician of the Year chances. Photo / APN
Russel Norman's money-printing talk ended his Politician of the Year chances. Photo / APN

Forget 2012's froth and bubble, the toil and trouble caused by a cast of characters as variously polarising, fundamentally incompatible, hopelessly egocentric, at times unfathomable and more than a touch unlovable as Hekia Parata, Kim Dotcom, John Banks, Brendan Horan, Michelle Boag, David Cunliffe, the spooks from the GCSB, the managers from ACC and the IT staff from Novopay, plus, of course, Paula Rebstock, who was everywhere as National's Ms Fix It this year.

Would you want to be crammed into a locked room with that bunch and the iron-faced Rebstock holding the key? Scary, eh? And creepy too. John Key had to deal with most of them - even if at barge-pole's length. No wonder his brain went into memory shutdown on occasion.

Forget the award for Politician of the Year. The past 12 months have witnessed enough political folly and blunder to fill several lifetimes. The shotgun traditionally reserved for shooting oneself in either or both feet simply ran out of cartridges.

Nobody met the standard of past winners, although Russel Norman, Key's recommendation, came close until he started talking about printing money, thereby handing National a stick with which to beat the Greens and (by association) Labour from here to election day in 2014.

But some politicians deserve plaudits. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has kept the lid on a pressure cooker called Christchurch. Describing the local newspaper as the "enemy"of the city's recovery was not the smartest thing to say. But at least Brownlee has a sense of humour. Unlike the Finns.

Tony Ryall gets precious little recognition for keeping health off the front page. Imagine the wonders he could do for National in education.

Paula Bennett also deserves a mention in dispatches for a solid year in what is another difficult portfolio.

The Backbencher of the Year award is shared by Labour's Andrew Little and David Clark. Little gets it in part for his assiduous targeting of Nick Smith and then Judith Collins over ACC and in part for adapting with ease to the often arcane and tedious aspects of Parliament - a comedown those with prior celebrity status often find hard to handle.

Clark, Dunedin North's MP, simply has all the goods required to make it to the highest levels. Is he Labour's version of John Key? Both MPs are certainties for promotion in David Shearer's coming reshuffle. As should be Sue Moroney, who had Bill English very much on the back foot over paid parental leave, and who would have been parading Parata's head on a pike staff long before now had she not been unjustly dumped from the shadow education portfolio.

Mention must be made of David Parker. Labour's finance spokesman might not have made anyone's short-list as politician of the year for 2012. That does not matter too much. For Labour's sake, however, he has to be among the front-runners in 2013.

That Parker steps up a gear or two and performs is almost as important as David Shearer not only maintaining, but building on his impressive late-year emergence from the Opposition shadows.

Parker's first year in the key shadow portfolio has been marked by an increasing assertiveness in pushing Labour's more interventionist approach to economic policy. He still has to really start communicating with the average punter by talking wages, prices and (increasingly) jobs or the lack of them.

The balance of payments deficit may be calamitous but no one won an election fought on the state of the current account.

Parker has to step up because next year is going to be about three things: the economy, the economy and the economy.

By year's end, voters must be able to picture Shearer and Parker as the Government-in-waiting. Voters must have a fair idea what Labour would do differently - and why.

With the latest GDP figures showing the economy basically at a standstill, Parker has a rare chance to present a fresh and enticing approach to economic management. No pressure, Mr Parker.

He is up against a National minority Government that will fight tooth and claw to hang on to power. Barring continued micro-economic reform, however, National seems nonplussed about what to do.

Much now hangs on Steven Joyce's new Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment to start delivering. No pressure, Mr Joyce.

A slight sense of desperation was evident in National's reaction to this week's release of the Treasury's latest forecasts.

National is not going to let anything stand between itself and its Holy Grail of a return to Budget surpluses within the next three years.

What was once merely a target now seems to be an obsession. The reason is straightforward. Some major economic indicators are starting to confirm anecdotal impressions of an economy close to tipping into recession,

National is therefore clinging ever tighter to the increasingly vain hope of balancing the books by its target date of the 2014-15 financial year.

Meeting the target is all part of National's branding as the party of sound economic management. Failure on that front would be a major blow to its credibility.

Success, however, may be nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory. It will require screwing down government spending even more than is already the case.

At a time when the economy is in serious need of a stimulus, National is instead adding contractionary elements to the mix.

If that were not enough, National is now using some questionable means to reach Budget surplus.

That was amply illustrated by Tuesday's fiscal forecasts.

Those forecasts projected a $66 million surplus in 2014-15 - the first such surplus since the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes wreaked havoc on the Government accounts.

The figure was down on the $197 million projected in last May's Budget, which in turn was lower than the $370 million forecast of six months earlier.

Never mind. A surplus is a surplus ... except this one wasn't.

The forecast surplus was only reached thanks to a hike in petrol excise duty and road user charges announced that very morning.

National is punting that reaching the target will get enough applause to drown out those quibbling about the means by which it has been achieved.

But such fiscal tinkering is something to be expected of a Government in the last year of its third term, not one just completing the first year of its second one.

Therein lies the current paradox in New Zealand politics. National has the poll ratings of a fresh-faced first-term Government; it behaves like a third-term one trying its best to shed those ratings.

A cursory reading of the polls might suggest nothing has changed in the past 12 months. Wrong. Everything has changed. And mainly to National's disadvantage.

Act is for all intents and purposes Parliament's Dodo. Extinction beckons.

The polls are now pointing to the possibility of a Labour-Greens coalition in charge post-2014.

National's saving grace as governing party is that it isn't hated. Not yet, anyway.

That is largely down to the Prime Minister. However, he cannot afford another year when at times it seemed the real John Key had been captured by aliens and a robot surrogate with several circuits gone AWOL had been sent down to Earth as a replacement.

The scene is thus set for a tantalising political year in 2013.

A Government which does not seem able to stem a never-ending plague of stuff-ups and distractions yet remains consumed by power is up against an Opposition hungry for power and really starting to get its act together. A real ding-dong battle of more or less equals is in prospect.

One last prediction - and the easiest to make. John Tamihere will not get within a sniff of securing a Labour Party candidacy which gives him any chance of getting back to Parliament or a viable slot on Labour's list.

A decade on from his exit from the institution, Tamihere is still engaging mouth before brain. He seems to be stuck in a shock-jock's rut. Labour long ago moved elsewhere.

Debate on this article is now closed.</i>

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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