COMMENT:

If the Politician of the Year were based on this week's performance there would not be many outstanding contenders among the leading figures.

Jacinda Ardern was forced to abandon her prime ministerial distance from the case of imprisoned Czech drug-smuggler Karel Sroubek.

She admitted she had received a text from a mutual acquaintance of hers and Sroubek's commending her on the decision to let him stay in New Zealand (since reversed).

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It confirmed a connection between her and the case, albeit a tenuous one, that National had clearly had a whiff of some weeks ago.

Winston Peters did nothing to distinguish himself domestically this week although he named the Racing Ministerial Advisory Board before leaving for high-level meetings in Washington.

Simon Bridges trucked on in customary fashion, receiving no recognition for doing a reasonable job as Leader of the Opposition.

Greens co-leader James Shaw attended a climate change conference in Poland.

Credit is due, however, for three outstanding political events that happened well down the political food chain and each involving a longstanding issue.

First, a resolution to the weeping wound over Waitara leasehold land was passed in Parliament with substantial cross-party collaboration and goodwill.

Second, something has finally been done to address the scourge of poisonous synthetic drugs which have been killing people on a large scale for nearly 18 months.

The plan outlined by Health Minister David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash's may have come too late for the 60 or so Kiwis who have died in that 18 months, but at least they have come up with a plan that may save lives.

The third high point is less important than the life-or-death measures but is nonetheless important for New Zealand's education and its long-term place in the world.

It was the news that Education Minister Chris Hipkins had agreed to support a member's bill by former Education Minister Nikki Kaye to advance second language teaching in primary schools.

With any luck, it will become the norm for all kids to learn both te reo Māori and a foreign language at primary school.

There is a long way to go before that becomes a reality, as much as 10 years. But an Opposition MP winning the support of Labour for a bill with such momentous and positive outcomes means it has a high chance of becoming a reality.

For that reason, Nikki Kaye is my Backbencher of the Year (runner-up is Maureen Pugh for her meteoric rise from obscurity).

The fact Kaye is on National's front bench does not disqualify her. She is as powerless as the rest of her caucus. She has chosen to do something ambitious and positive with life in Opposition.

Like him or loathe him, the NZ First leader is the Weekend Herald's Politician of the Year. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Like him or loathe him, the NZ First leader is the Weekend Herald's Politician of the Year. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

That is not to say that Oppositions must be positive. Her colleague Paul Goldsmith has done an outstanding job in turning the provincial growth fund into the Shane Jones slush fund for the re-election of New Zealand First.

Judith Collins' needling of Phil Twyford has turned KiwiBuild from a state-sponsored building programme for the masses to a raffle for preferential treatment for the middle-class.

It has been hard for the Opposition to find fault with Andrew Little, however, the best-performing minister this year. He is decent, has clear values and convictions, and is never afraid to front up as he showed with the Destiny march in pursuit of justice policy that works.

Immigration Minister Iain Lee-Galloway has not fared so well. Sroubek has been the undoing of his reputation.

The case has been important to National on many levels, not least because it gave it a focus in the wake of the tumultuous meltdown of former front bencher Jami-Lee Ross.

It has had four of them on the case: Bridges, deputy Paula Bennett, law and order spokesman Mark Mitchell and immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse.

The connection admitted by Ardern this week justifies their pursuit of the case, mainly because of the way she confirmed it - very reluctantly.

Having exhibited a similar reluctance to reveal relevant texts between herself and Derek Handley before he was appointed Chief Technology Officer (since reversed), it is clear she does not always meet her own ideals of being open and transparent.

Ardern came to the top job with squeaky clean credentials. Jacinda Ardern always tells the truth, one might have said.

Now it might be said: Jacinda Ardern always tells the truth - eventually.

Sroubek, however, has not defined Ardern's year. Motherhood has. All but the uncharitable could not help but admire the way she has combined the most demanding job in Government with being a first-time mother.

She has been a source of pride for many women, particularly as New Zealand celebrated the 125th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, but also internationally as well.

Ardern, who was my Politician of the Year last year, has made plenty of mistakes as Prime Minister - her handling of the Labour summer school scandal and the lack of process over the ban on new offshore exploration and the downgrading of the Crown's relationship with iwi leaders to name a few.

But one outstanding area of success has been in managing Coalition relations with New Zealand First and Winston Peters, its famously prickly leader.

And Peters is my Politician of the Year for several reasons. He has effectively demanded and been given a real partnership in the Coalition - to the extent that "Labour" is a word rarely heard. In return he is utterly loyal to the Coalition.

You might not like what he does with his power but he has given the Greens a lesson in how to use it - as the budgets of Mfat and the Provincial Growth Fund and Labour's diluted workplace reforms demonstrate.

You might not like what he is doing to New Zealand's foreign policy, but he is having an impact as it moves closer to the United States and Australia and away from China, all through the umbrella of what he calls a Pacific Reset.

He served well in the job of Prime Minister for six weeks, and he and his party celebrated 25 years this year as a party.

Despite endless and sometimes mindless speculation about his health, in a political career that began in 1979, Peters is more powerful now than he has ever been.

That is some accomplishment.