One of the daftest and most entertaining bits of pageantry at the opening of Parliament sees the Speaker of the House dragged by MPs to the chair.

The New Zealand version is generally tamer than the same event at Westminster, presumably because there is less distance from the tradition's origin: back in the day the Speaker would relay parliamentary debates to the monarch, and if the monarch was displeased, there was a risk they might express that displeasure via the medium of beheading.

I kept thinking of this ritual — the dragging to the chair, not the decapitation — during the New Zealand general election of 2017. The leaders of the two main parties had both, essentially, been dragged to their tasks.

Bill English, in his element as deputy and finance minister to John Key, had said a number of times that he didn't see himself returning to the National leadership, and I don't doubt that he meant it.


When Key surprised just about everyone by resigning (Winston Peters knew it was coming, obviously, but he didn't like to say), rearranging the stage for an election year, English took some persuading.

Jacinda Ardern had for a good while been mentioned as a future leader of the Labour Party. At the year's start she scored victory in the Mt Albert byelection. After that came promotion to deputy leader under Andrew Little. She said the top job didn't interest her, didn't quite suit her sensibility, and I don't doubt that she meant it.

When Little and Labour stared down the barrel of a succession of low-20s polls, she was the Hail Mary. At that point it was a save-the-furniture scenario — the idea of a Labour prime minister at Christmas was unthinkable.

Gamechanger is a terrible word and should be used as sparingly as possible. This was a gamechanger.

As the unexpected rivals Ardern and English squared up in the weeks before September 23, their previous ambivalence made both more appealing — and probably endeared them to one another, too. Burning ambition is sometimes just a fire risk.

Neither leader, critically, came across as ambivalent once they'd taken the task on. Ardern's leadership chops were dazzlingly clear from the first press conference after her caucus elevation. The surprise then, and since, is not the empathy or optimism, but the quickness of wit, the decisiveness. That underestimation, probably, belies a flick of both sexism and ageism.

Certainly, the generational shift is palpable — a shift confirmed rather than contradicted by the fact that Ardern was anointed by Parliament's elder statesman. For that reason, even the spritely English who so impressed and outperformed expectations in the campaign seems ill suited to lead the National Party into a 2020 election.

The seasonal sport of picking politician of the year, then, is over before it begins. Anyone nominating other than Ardern is a blazing contrarian or drunk.


God knows she has her work cut out keeping three parties, their preoccupations and egos, on course. But the year, undeniably, is hers.

One of the most telling impacts of that Ardern vs English tussle was on the smaller parties. As the Greens entered crisis mode, Labour's new leader showed no mercy in courting their supporters. National's leader took every opportunity to declare the contest a "drag race", and the message to blue voters dallying with NZ First was unambiguous.

The result of it all was the old establishment parties hoovering up 81 per cent of the vote — the highest such concentration in eight MMP elections.

None of the small parties is a sure bet to return to Parliament in 2020. The perennial tension in the Greens between idealists and pragmatists surfaced again this week in the form of a leaked letter from disaffected staffers.

NZ First leader Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
NZ First leader Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The co-leader contest looms as a critical event for the party in 2018: a chance to broadcast distinctive values, just as long as that doesn't get subsumed in the public airing of festering enmities.

The wider challenge for support parties is written across the MMP graveyard. NZ First knows that from bitter experience, and their efforts to flex will be an ongoing fascination over the next few years.

National, meanwhile, is staring at an empty dance card, and searching around for a new Tory outrigger. David Seymour is doing a tremendous job with the assisted dying bill, but ACT is a miserable husk of a thing. National should cut the life support.

At the very least ACT should rename — you'd think that the titans of business who bankroll ACT might recognise a contaminated brand when they see one. The Opportunities Party is attempting to salvage its brand with a leadership change. The Māori Party faces an existential crisis of its own.

And who'd be a start-up party? Colin Craig, Kim Dotcom and Gareth Morgan invested millions, ultimately achieving not a lot beyond a welcome stimulus to the satire community. What a trio of personalities, though. A dream dinner party. To be more specific: a televised dinner party on a desert island with nothing but feral cats and Styrofoam cutlery.

A very bad year, then, for the small parties, and a resounding reminder that the MMP threshold of 5 per cent is set much too high. Strangely marooned as the biggest party in Parliament, National No Mates should rue the decision to summarily trash the Electoral Commission's recommended MMP reforms in 2013.

A quick postscript before tidying the place for Christmas carols: having spent a little time in Australia and the United States this year, I'm more alert than ever to the calibre and character of our own legislators.

God knows they're not all angels, but if Winston Peters is our closest analogue of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, then bless him forever. There isn't much exciting copy in it, but New Zealand's politicians, on all sides, are overwhelmingly decent and approachable and not-terrifying people, and I wouldn't swap them for a second.