John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Forget the economy, watch the lemmings

Photo / Thinkstock.
Photo / Thinkstock.

The Year of the Tiger? As far as the New Zealand Parliament goes, 2010 might be better remembered as the Year of the Lemming.

A seemingly endless queue of MPs tumbled off the edge of the cliff in a string of bizarre, but nonetheless spectacular falls from grace.

In some cases, the behaviour was so self-destructive, it spoke of a political death-wish.

Chris Carter's apparent pleasure at torturing the party he had loved added a new dimension to the term "maverick" and invited the punishment he got from the Labour hierarchy. Deep down it is unlikely he was enjoying it all one little bit.

Likewise, the factional warfare within Act became so vituperative and counter-productive to the cause it seemed the caucus might have made some secret political suicide pact.

"Nonentities," groaned one long-time political hand when this year's unusually long casualty list - Chris Carter (going), Pansy Wong (gone), David Garrett (gone), Shane Jones (recovering) and Phil Heatley (recovered) - was mentioned during the press gallery's annual party on Wednesday night.

It was a fair point. The scandals involving these minor players certainly fed the media's increasing appetite for personality-based politics at the expense of more serious discussion about policy.

It meant the real story of 2010 - an under-performing economy and what on earth to do about it - was obscured by politics akin to soap-opera story-lines.

But it is not quite that simple. The downfall of four of those five politicians - Garret being the exception - flowed one way or another from the public exposure of the perks enjoyed by Cabinet ministers and ordinary MPs.

It is incredible that the opening of the shutters on pay, allowances and entitlements has taken 18 months to run its course.

That so many of his colleagues have been caught exploiting their privileges to the max may one day come back to bite the Prime Minister, who has largely driven efforts to clean up this unholy mess.

The media simply made all the hay it could while the sunlight shone into the murky recesses of such powerful, but secretive institutions as the Parliamentary Services Commission.

But the fun is about to end. First, the Government has accepted the Law Commission's proposal for MPs' and Cabinet ministers' salaries, allowances and other entitlements to be taken out of politicians' hands and given to an independent body, such as a beefed-up Remuneration Authority, to determine.

Second, politicians should have realised that they may now be caught out - although Phil Goff's embarrassment this week over his continued ownership of a Wellington apartment while he pockets a taxpayer-funded allowance to live elsewhere suggests even the more astute of the breed are still to get a grip on what the public now finds acceptable. Enough said. Having last week given John Key the title of Politician of the Year, it is time to hand out some other awards as the year draws to a close,

Rising stars: Hekia Parata. Unlike Pansy Wong, who she replaced in the Cabinet, Parata looks to have the goods to rise higher up the rungs. Two other National MPs from the 2008 intake - Amy Adams and Michael Woodhouse - have emerged as candidates for promotion. Labour's David Parker performed strongly. David Cunliffe is starting to make big waves. Backbencher Brendon Burns is fast becoming a classy all-rounder.

Quiet achiever: Tim Groser's long experience and many contacts in the rarefied world of trade negotiations continue to pay big dividends for New Zealand.

Best speech: Winston Churchill it wasn't, at least in delivery. But John Key - or his speechwriter - found the right words to unite a shocked nation on the night all hope evaporated for the Pike River miners.

Best speech in Parliament: MPs sat spellbound listening to Amy Adams' harrowing personal account of the morning the Christchurch earthquake struck.

Most extraordinary speech: Heather Roy's "black swans" address to Act's annual conference. Has any deputy leader of a party displayed such disloyalty to her leader as Roy dished up in Rodney Hide's presence?

Wrong speech: A mix-up results in Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman reading a speech introducing a piece of legislation when the House was discussing a completely different bill.

Mission Impossible Award for Salesmanship: Bill English for getting the public to swallow an increase in GST with hardly a murmur of complaint.

Mr Bean Award for Complete Absence of Salesmanship: Gerry Brownlee and his mining in national parks policy.

Complete Lack of Political Bottle Award: Steven Joyce and John Key for not lowering the blood-alcohol limit for drivers.

Gone but not forgotten: Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Gone and already forgotten: Act's David Garrett.

Foot in Mouth Award: Phil Goff for referring to his finance spokesman David Cunliffe as "David Caygill", a Labour finance minister in the 1980s.

Stunned Mullet Award: John Key for not ticking off former TVNZ Breakfast host Paul Henry for his unseemly remarks about the Governor-General.

Kim Jong-il Award for Self-Glorification: Chris Carter.

Tammy Wynette "Stand by your Man" Award: Pansy Wong for demonstrating what she thought of her role as Minister of Women's Affairs by putting her husband, Sammy, first, her career second.

Oscar for Worst Performance in a Supporting Role: The Council of Trade Unions for its attempts to help actors and other workers involved in the production of The Hobbit.

Whatever happened to: John Key's invitation to the White House, land tax, public-private partnerships.

We've heard enough of: John Key forever "kicking the tyres" of something or "moving on" from somewhere, the foreshore and seabed.

We're bound to hear more of: The foreshore and seabed, any minor change to something being a "paradigm shift".

- The Saturday politics page will return when the country's politicians do likewise.

- NZ Herald

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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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