Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Politician of the Year: Top performers across the spectrum

Kudos to English for sailing through sea of deficit and social project.
The title this year goes to John Key's deputy and Minister of Finance, Bill English. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
The title this year goes to John Key's deputy and Minister of Finance, Bill English. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

The international fight against Isis has provided bookends to John Key's political year, but it is a year that has proved remarkably mild on the domestic front compared with the turmoil of recent years.

It started with the formal announcement by Key to send troop trainers to Iraq and ended with a request from the United States for a bigger contribution, an issue set to dominate early next year.

Disappointingly, the Government revealed the US request only when Defence Secretary Ash Carter said he had sent a letter more than a week ago to coalition partners.

Otherwise Key and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee would have sat on it over the holidays with the public none the wiser until the Government had rehearsed some lines for January.

No deployment is without risk and they could have expected some erosion in the public appetite for the deployment.

But the increasing barbarism of Isis-inspired attacks has probably led to more support for a New Zealand contribution, albeit a small one.

Political events in between the Isis bookends have caused upset, offence, interest, intrigue, allegations and inquiries, but the Government has not faced pressures of last term - not unless Nicky Hager has a surprise book for the Christmas stocking.

Mike Sabin resigned as Northland MP in January, but the resignation itself has been eclipsed by Winston Peters' victory there.

It has been a year of largely disciplined and becoming conduct by our MPs.

Judith Collins' comeback to the ministerial benches is not likely to change that either, unless she has learned nothing from her year in Siberia.

The parliamentary year ended on a conciliatory note, the mutual apologies by Key and Labour leader Andrew Little detoxifying the poisoned atmosphere that had built up in the House over Labour's insults to the Speaker and Key's claim that Labour supported murderers and rapists.

Labour's decision to apologise to the Speaker had already been made when John Key called Andrew Little on Tuesday this week after a meeting of the intelligence and security committee, on which they both sit, with a deal he could have refused.

But it suited them both to draw a line under their unparliamentary comments.

The temperature of the political year was also a result of the Opposition not yet being in top gear.

Andrew Little has been settling in his first year as Labour leader, but has had such a stabilising effect on a previously fractured party that he has to be a contender for Politician of the Year.

The Greens were necessarily distracted for much of the year with their own leadership issues. It took the first six months to elect James Shaw as male co-leader for Metiria Turei and the second six months for them to reorganise the Greens' office to their mutual liking.

Peters' win in Northland has meant a period of adjustment by him back to the demands of a constituency MP and less focus on point-scoring in Parliament.

But the byelection was so significant, he too is a contender for Politician of the Year.

His victory was a kick in the guts not just for Key, who predicted Peters' failure, but a humiliation for the National Party's chief election strategist Steven Joyce.

It has also created an electoral beachhead for New Zealand First into the rural vote that will change Government thinking about the regions for the rest of the term.

Key has finished the year with his popularity only marginally dented in opinion polls.

The risk for a leader after seven years is that familiarity will breed contempt. He is some distance from the "contempt" end of the ratings spectrum but his over-familiarity has been an Achilles heel this year.

Already privy to his vasectomy (he announced it at a post-Cabinet press conference in 2010), the public now knows about what he does and doesn't do in the shower, and his former propensity to pull ponytails. And we hear from Australian journalists, who can afford five-star accommodation at Apec, that the PM is willing to pad across a hotel lobby in his bare feet, wearing only his togs and bathrobe.

Please, please, Prime Minister ... no more intimate details unless it is a health problem that affects your job - then text me first.

Ministers really proving their worth to him this year included Amy Adams in Justice, Chris Finlayson as spy agencies overseer and Anne Tolley, pushing through big changes to Child Youth and Family.

The two ministers under greatest pressure this year were Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse over health and safety legislation, and Murray McCully over his unorthodox Saudi farm deal, designed to repair diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

Woodhouse blighted his own record for good management. For McCully, one of Key's most trusted ministers, the verdict is in the hands of the Auditor-General. And it would have to be an appalling verdict to affect McCully's job, given that the legal division of Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet signed off on the deal.

Key was not required to expend political capital on either minister.

After seven years of leading the country, there is barely a tingle let alone an itch.

He blushed when he heard what the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, says about him privately thanks to an open mike at a TPP meeting, and it's even more flattering than what he says publicly - "a wonderful guy" is how Obama described Key to Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.

But that endorsement is not enough to win him a nomination for Politician of the Year.

The title this year goes to his deputy and Minister of Finance, Bill English, for three reasons.

He delivered on the target of getting into surplus in 2014-15; he has increased social welfare benefits for families with children beyond CPI adjustments for the first time in 43 years; and he is the driving force of a major and logical change in the way the public sector funds the provision of social services - the social investment approach which at its essence means paying more for policies that work and are shown to work.

Since 2011, English's Budgets were forecasting a surplus in 2014-15.

He set the goal not only for fiscal discipline within Government but in his own words, as "a symbol for responsibility" for voters.

The only Budget in which it was not forecast was this year's in May when falling dairy prices and low inflation affected the tax take and forced an adjustment to a $684 million deficit.

Andrew Little's description of it as "one of the biggest political deceptions of our lifetime" was perhaps one of the greatest political lessons in hyperbole that he could have had.

Especially when the final figures for the year were published in October, and English brought home the surplus.

Benefit rates for families with children will rise from April next year, by $25 a week, and Working for Families support for low-income families will increase from between $3 a week to $24.50.

But Bill English's social investment project is his biggest achievement.

It sounds so logical that you'd think it had always been done that way - paying for what is proven to work.

But it hasn't always been. It now provides a clear incentive for the public sector to find out with greater clarity what works and what doesn't.

If it becomes embedded, it will be a lasting change for good in the lives of the least fortunate.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

Read more by Audrey Young

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 24 Oct 2016 09:31:21 Processing Time: 385ms