By Peter Dunne*
In keeping with the beauty parade approach many of our commentators take to reporting politics – I could hardly say analysing, because so many of them are incapable of doing so – this is the time of the year when they accord their accolade to the “Politician of the Year”. Generally, their awards go to politicians who have made the most noise, provided the most entertainment, or been the greatest media favourite. Rarely does the politician who has made a real and constructive contribution to improving governance, or enhancing the conduct of public affairs generally, get a look in.
If the latter yardsticks are applied, there are three definite candidates, and possibly two others, worthy of consideration this year. In no particular order they are Jacinda Adern, Bill English and Andrew Little, with James Shaw and Te Ururoa Flavell in the latter category.
For many, Jacinda Ardern will be the stand-out candidate. After all, in the space of 10 months, she has gone from being a relatively obscure list MP, to her victory in the Mount Albert by-election, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, then Leader of the Opposition, and finally, thanks to favourable coalition mathematics, the country’s youngest Prime Minister. Along the way, she rescued the Labour Party from a near terminal state and evinced a certain star quality. An impressive year, to be sure, by any standards, diminished a little by the so far unsteady start her Government has made.
For Bill English, this has been a bitter sweet year. His successful transformation from long serving Deputy Prime Minister to Prime Minister in his own right, a position for which he seemed forever destined but somehow never able to achieve, was smooth. He fought a superb election campaign on behalf of the National Party, leading them to almost the same numerical position they were in 2011 and 2014, a remarkable outcome after three tough terms of government. But he fell at the last hurdle because of National’s lack of viable partners, so returns to Opposition, although with the consolation knowledge of data in recent weeks showing that his vaunted social investment policies are starting to have a positive effect on the most vulnerable in our society.
And then there is Andrew Little, the man who saw his stocks as Labour’s leader fall so low, he felt obliged to stand aside just a few weeks before the election in what would normally have been a death knell for his party, but instead heralded the dawn of Jacindamania. Rather than lick his wounds and retreat to oblivion, he seemed to take it all in his stride, and has now re-emerged in key Ministerial roles, and is likely to become the leading face of social reform under the new Government.
James Shaw is also a contender. After all, his rescue act of the Green Party after the Turei fiasco was remarkable, although as co-leader he has to accept a measure of the blame for the inept way in which the whole situation occurred and was handled subsequently. Also, he appears to have passed up a potentially historic opportunity to re-position the Greens as a credible long-term party of influence on both Labour and National by refusing to entertain the possibility of working with National in a National/Greens coalition after the election. However, he has made a solid and mildly impressive start to his Ministerial roles and will remain one to watch.
Finally, there is Te Ururoa Flavell, a gentle, dignified man with a deep-seated passion for Maori development, with much to be proud of in terms of his and his Party’s contribution to government over the previous nine years. He is a genuine quiet achiever, who felt his loss in Waiariki incredibly deeply. Parliament will certainly be the worse for his absence, with Maori likely to be the biggest losers, but that is the reality, which counts against him.
So, it comes down to Ardern, English or Little. Ardern, despite an incredible year, remains basically untried, while English is too tried and tested. That leaves Andrew Little as politician of the year – a selfless man of dignity, humility and an ultimate commitment to the greater good, someone whose contribution to good governance is likely to be significant (and substantial) over the next few years.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister.