Spreading the Christmas cheer before he takes time off to finish his next book, Jon reviews 2008's stand-out political performances, for good and ill,

This is my last column for the time being as I have a book to finish. I have enjoyed the opportunity of writing for Pundit and believe Tim and Eleanor’s site has proven a quality addition to on-line punditry. My intention, during the campaign, was to keep as clear of ‘the game’ as my temperament allowed and focus, instead, on the issues ahead of us while always being cognizant of where our politics had come from.

My other intention was to positively contribute to a more adaptive political discourse than is the norm in our village’s blogosphere. Aside from the odd lapse – my angel-swine gigaloo kicked in once or twice – I’m satisfied that I achieved this.

What follows, then, are my awards for the year:

Politician of the Year

John Key is my politician of the year. Once Dr. Brash fell, the last impediment to National winning power was removed. Key’s softer edge, his repositioning of National into the centre of our politics, and his more engaging personality resonated widely with a public who relationship with the incumbents had become stale. He connected with female voters in a way that Brash could not, at least at the mass level of engagement. Labour had long since lost the majority of male voters. Once Key gained more or less parity amongst women voters, Labour’s electoral die was cast.

Key has some real but as yet unrealized leadership potential in my view. His ideological flexibility and more solution-focused outlook, as well as his  calm equanimity, provide him with a solid platform for his prime ministership. His challenge is to be the best that he can be.

In these uncertain times, we need him to be.

Politician of the Decade

The first decade of the 21st Century has been Helen Clark’s. I suspect that future history will see her ranked very near our top five prime ministers. I locate her very closely to Keith Holyoake, a hugely competent manager during generally prosperous times. Holyoake may have won a fourth term but Clark’s post-MMP environment provided a complexity ‘Kiwi Keith’ never had to face.

Additionally, Clark representation of New Zealand’s face to the world was superior in every which way. Amongst we first explainers of the Clark years there appears to be universal agreement that she has been our most skilled prime minister on the global stage since Peter Fraser.

I believe Clark lost the 2008 election more than three years ago. Rejuvenation amongst her closest inner circle, as well as in her wider caucus, was needed. Instead, we had three more years of recycled electorate MPs and Heather Simpson. By the end, everyone, inside and outside parliament, had had enough.

Clark’s decision to resign as Labour leader on election night was dramatic, selfless, and represented a fantastic final clue about this remarkable politician. For leadership scholars like me the nature of a leader’s exit is the final jigsaw piece to explain the nature of their ambition and their attitude towards power. Clark defied all those mindless critics who likened her to Mugabe. She showed grace, judgement, and applied learning. We have seen the result, a seamless transition to Labour’s new leadership team.

I was also personally happy that Helen Clark rightly walked out the front door of parliament. She deserved to.

Comeback Politician of the Year

Bill English has a solid claim to this award. On election night 2002, Bill had to front his party’s response to its worst ever electoral performance. If that wasn’t horrible enough, a little over a year later he was further humiliated when novice Don Brash won a divisive caucus vote to replace him as leader. Through it all English kept his own counsel, kept performing, and when the Brash leadership collapsed, he played his one card, an ace. Key immediately understood a better hand when he saw it and the pair of them have grown together to offer a balanced leadership team; liberal and conservative, intuitive yet studied, novice and veteran.

However, given my view that New Zealand politics has been in a prolonged 24-year period of consolidation Roger Douglas’ return to parliament makes him my comeback politician of the year. I spoke at an ACT regional conference back in July and my analysis of ACT’s opportunities in ’08 came to pass. The late shift happened, as all there thought likely.

Next to Clark’s resignation dramatics on election night, Douglas’ truly bizarre ‘Apocalypse Redux’ recital was the night’s other special treat. It allowed those of us who have never experienced an acid flashback to gain some insight into the 1960s at the height of the LSD wave.

My trusty Encyclopedia of Psycho-active Substances explains the hallucinogenic qualities of LSD as “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense kaleidoscopic play of colours.” Douglas' performance and Hide’s yellow-jacket-enhanced tan made me wonder whether it was them or me who were on drugs. The next term should clear this up.

Political Loser of the Year

Sure, scribes everywhere will finger Winston, and for good reason, but I’ll leave it to others to vent one more time on Winnie because for me there can only be one. Gordon Copeland. I think it likely that he achieved absolutely, stony-cold nothing during his entire parliamentary career. Abject failure is my measure and Gordon easily meets it. He won’t be missed.

Political Event of the Year

Most will think the election I suppose, but for me the runner-up was the Privileges Committee hearings into Winston Peters’ conduct. It was a political show of both high and low theatre and for a couple of days it was the only place to be in town. The nett result of its proceedings saw Winston fatally compromised heading into the campaign. Utu was achieved and the last potential obstacle to a change of government had been cleared away.

However, despite this being an election year in New Zealand the political event of the year has to be the amazing primary and general election victories of Barack Obama. His was a campaign for the ages. The first true 21st Century election saw Obama harness the powerful potential of the information age to mobilize, persuade, and inspire tens of millions of his fellow Americans.

We learned through all of this that Obama has some serious game. Let’s all hope he can successfully overcome the hugely complex set of problems he faces as America’s 44th president, that his presidency heralds in an American renewal and rejuvenation, and that it all ends in triumph and not tears. That’s my dream for 2016, to be inspired by Obama’s farewell address.

Adios amigos.

Comments (28)

by Micheal Warren on December 22, 2008
Micheal Warren

Good article Jon... Completely agree with your picks although Gordon Copeland already had nothing to loose so him being the loser of the year was not revolutionary! New Zealand First would definately have to be the loser of the year.


Have a great christmas and good luck with the book! When is the launch?

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Cheers Michael - Keep the milk flowing bro...

Not sure when the launch will be. I should have the manuscipt in the can by the end of February, writing permitting, so maybe the launch can be around April Fools Day.

Have a good Christmas.


by Steve Barnes on December 22, 2008
Steve Barnes

Jon - I think you've opened a can of worms with the Political Loser of the Year...

Since you opened the competition up to the globe, I'd like to put in an honourable mention for Stephen Harper. Not only did he totally misread the mood of the Canadian electorate in calling an unwanted election, but then overplayed his hand and is now facing the very real prospect of his government collapsing in the new year. Indeed, he had to beg to the G-G in order for it not to collapse this year. Bugger.

My second nomination would be for Sarah Palin, but I can't decide if she should be Political Loser of the Year or Politician of the Year. Sure, she helped the Republican collapse to become even more spectacular than one could ever have hoped, but wasn't she fun?

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Steve - I note that the mother of Palin's daughter's boyfriend has just been busted for drug offences. I wonder how that will go down with the Republican base? Surely there is a white trash threshold of sorts that will eventually kick in, but who knows...

Harper had negative achievements, shitloads of them by the sounds of it, but he still achieved. I can't think of one thing Copeland did, unless perhaps one developed the case that he elevated the plight of some goats in the Sounds. Perhaps he could live among them...

Merry Xmas  



by Waikanae Kid on December 22, 2008
Waikanae Kid

Great article Jon, but I think you might have added one further item-"Dumbest piece of legislation passed by the last Administration."

To me the clear winner would be Sue Bradford"s Anti Smacking bill. A piece of inane legislation that stands head and shoulders above all else.

Two polls clearly showed that the vast majority of New Zealanders did not want this piece of idiocy. When challenged with these results Clark replied that the majority of MP's had voted for it so yah boo sucks rats to you all, or words to that effect.

The majority did vote for it but only because Clark told them to as she was shoring up Green support for other matters.

Unfortunately this also demonstrates that the majority of MP's did not listen to/care about, their electorates views. They were simply obeying Auntie Helen's orders.

It is the type of thing that worries me when, in between Kilkenny's, I play with the notions of MMP and democracy.

And what result has this brain dead bill produced? Nothing, zilch, zip, zero. Just read the current news as we have yet another poor baby in Starship.

Finally Jon, you and PJ have a great Christmas and we will see what 2009 brings!!

by Conor Roberts on December 22, 2008
Conor Roberts

Key immediately understood a better hand when he saw it and the pair of them have grown together to offer a balanced leadership team; liberal and conservative, intuitive yet studied, novice and veteran.

Ummm - explain to me how John Key is a 'liberal'? He doesn't seem to have a very liberal voting record, or a history of speaking for liberal causes...

Perhaps instead of repeating this maxim, someone could ask him about his attitude to current liberal causes? Restorative justice, adoption by gay couples, separate Maori justice system, decriminalising marijuana, protection of civil liberties, etcetera.

So what’s his current record: voted against civil unions, against decriminalising prostitution, for increasing the drinking age.

He’s hedged his bets on republicanism. Apparently changed his mind on global warming (although it seems ACT and his caucus are changing it back). And was for the war in Iraq.

I’ll grant you he voted for euthanasia, came to the party late on section 59 (yet campaigned against it), and against defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and he said in a TV debate he was for current abortion rules (although perhaps the issue will need to be revisited given the high court’s decision on the Abortions Review Committee).

But it seems the media has uncritically labelled Mr Key with a ‘liberal’ tag from the moment he took office as a way of defining him against Don Brash. This all seemed to come from the endorsement of the status quo on the nuclear free policy and not much else. Predictably the media has said this allowed Key to “appeal to Labour-lite voters in the inner-city”.

However overall he doesn’t seem very liberal to me.

If you’re going to use them, then definitions matter and I’d argue that John Key is more conservative than liberal.

Of course the media has labelled him “pragmatic” too. I’d say more populist than pragmatic – but that’s another story.

by Conor Roberts on December 22, 2008
Conor Roberts

P.S Best new political blog start up of 2008: pundit.co.nz

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Conor - Yeah, I hear you. You make several good points. I'm taking a punt on his 'liberal' credentials, to be sure, and rest assured I follow no matras. In my view he has both liberal and conservative strands and it might take us all a while before we can discern which philosophy comes to define him over the long overhaul. The evidence so far is, as you say, rather spotty. 

WK - Along with the EFA, the Sec. 59 legislation went down like a bucket or warm spit. It defied all common sense. Thanks for your contributions to my columns mate, I've enjoyed them. PJ is sunbathing as I write this and, believe it or not, I'm the only one drinking. Madama must be sick. Hope to see you soon buddy.


by Bruce Thorpe on December 22, 2008
Bruce Thorpe

Good column but I do not think this should be John Key's year. His contribution  will be much clearer in 12 months time.

The real winner was the National Party, and the laurel wreath must go to the successful general of that campaign, the right honourable Steven Joyce.

This guyI understand took over the National publicity and election management six years ago, and has moved the party via Brash, Orewa,  the Iwi/Kiwi billboard campaign, the very large financial assault that traumatised the Labour Party electoral machine in 1995, followed after that election by the totally acceptable face of John Key, a totally victorious strategy of constant bombardment of nanny state squibs and no real confrontation od issues .

By the same token the big loser of the year has to be  Mike  Williams

by HIlary Stace on December 22, 2008
HIlary Stace

I strongly disagree with you about section 59. It is one of the most significant pieces of legislation in recent decades - on a par with Fran Wilde's Homosexual law Refrom Bill. It marked a major shift on how we see childhood and children. However, the effect of the change might take a generation.

I hope it will be studied by many future students too - from a variety of perspectives  - such as the media treatment, or for the political compromises made (eg the last minute joint commitment by Helen Clark and John Key for a bill that was the initiative of another party). Most importantly, it made a societal line in the sand that said children are not for hitting.

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Cheers Bruce - I sort of agree with you, and Stephen Joyce has undoubtedly helped professionalise the Nat organisation and its campaign. 

I always carried this image of the Nats as a turtle during the campaign. It slowly crawled toward the finish line, with Key's head tucked well in and Labour's attacks all bouncing harmlessly off the shell.

Unless he was wooing children in shopping malls - and I did wonder whether he needed a licence to interact with so many of our young - Key was the smallest of targets.

But, if your think about the nine years of failure and the three failed leaders who immediately preceded him, Key did enough to finally bring his party back into government. I think, in those circumstances, it would have be churlish of me not to acknowledge Key as politician of the year.  

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Hilary - We don't disagree at all. I supported the legislation and totally agree with its import. It was never about now but was always about the next generation of NZ parents.

But, the framing of the bill was so woefully inept that the dumb, the ignorant and the wilfully stupid won the battle of framing. And any time Garth McVicar appears rational on television you know liberals have screwed the pooch. So it did with Sect. 59.

When the bill was passed I ran into Katherine Rich and more pity her I gave her the biggest hug. I was never confused about the purpose of the bill Hilary, just the mind numbing incompetence of those trying to advance it.   

by Tim Watkin on December 22, 2008
Tim Watkin

I must say I agree with Conor re Mike Williams. Perhaps the election was won and lost well before this campaign, but with a couple of weeks to go there did seem to be some momentum back towards Labour. It only needed a couple of points for a "five-headed monster" to be viable. Then Williams stuck his head up, reminded people of the party's purported power lust and bang, that was all she wrote.

And re Key - at this stage I tend towards the view that he's an old fashioned conservative... maybe even a little bit of the noblesse oblige about him. Although it's too soon to say.

Where I'd disagree is the 'dumbest piece of legisltion' point. I think the country will pay a high price for hauling the ETS (and other environmental initiatives) back into the swamp of political debate. We had some brand success going as a green country (even if, as Key rightly pointed out our acutal emissions haven't ben dealt with well), and that's been butchered.

I see Obama making more progress on climate change today and think what might have been here.

by Conor Roberts on December 22, 2008
Conor Roberts

I must say I agree with Conor re Mike Williams.

- That was Bruce Thorpe.

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Tim - Yeah, the ETS passed as the mists of Winston's pall obscured its SOP-ridden passage, but I wouldn't be surprised if Key wakes up before its all over. Public pressure would guarantee it, in my view, but we shall wait and see...

Regarding Williams, I completely agree with your analysis. Two weeks out it was getting interesting but two days coverage of Winston, followed by three more of the H-fee fiasco put paid to Labour's comeback.

However, I put Williams in the same box as Steve Barnes' suggestion about elevating Stephen Harper's numb hubris. Negative achievement trumps no achievement in my mind, so I'll stick with Copeland although I'm happy to grant Williams a dishonourable mention.


by Steve Barnes on December 22, 2008
Steve Barnes

Fair call on Harper and Williams making negative achievements, but I'm still not quite sold on Copeland.

If I may quote Dylan: "If you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose..."

by Rob Hosking on December 22, 2008
Rob Hosking


Thought of you on election night - I remember you musing over a cigarette over a year ago there would probably be a late surge to Act if National looked like forming a govt. 

Congrats on the Fulbright.




by Graeme Edgeler on December 22, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

for me there can only be one. Gordon Copeland. I think it likely that he achieved absolutely, stony-cold nothing during his entire parliamentary career. Abject failure is my measure and Gordon easily meets it.


I think I'll put the full tax rebate for charitable giving (up from a maximum of I think $630) down to Gordon Copeland. Yes, it was National policy before the 2005 election, but when Brash adopted it Labour had derided it as Tory charity. About a year later it was Labour Government policy, and I am going to put that down to Copeland. He was pushing that policy within United Future, and it was an excellent sop to his core constituency - those who tithe.

Far far short of nothing.

by Raymond A Francis on December 22, 2008
Raymond A Francis

It will be very interesting to see just how history judges Helen Clark, it s a bit soon for that

Personally I liked her style and the face she gave New Zealand but her worst moments (in my eyes) was her clinging to Winston, her disbelief that National just would not go with him if required and of course then there was the "trust us" and the finacial black holes  left behind

How these will be judged when looking at the whole picture I will leave to future historians



by Dr Jon Johansson on December 22, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Raymond - On the matter of history, well, its always provisional, always. Subsequent explainers of Helen Clark's leadership will have the virtue of distance and more empirical data in which to inform their analyses.

When I did my Muldoon/Lange study I had that benefit, to some extent. But there is something of value for later analysts to absorb the opinions of people who made their analyses at the time, without the advantages of hindsight, based on whatever frameworks they employ. 

That's why I take seriously recording my impressions of Clark. I've read a couple of highly acclaimed analyses of leaders which explored the different explanations provided across time and they reinforce the certainty of doubt, and provide an absolute richness, which reinforces the idea that truth is a multi-faceted phenomenon.

Rob - Cheers. Aye, when I spoke to the ACT crowd in July I was struck by how locked into their opportunity they were.

Graeme - Thanks for offering some evidence to the contrary. I guess we could both examine this one further coz I don't know whether Copeland's contribution to that policy trumped Labour coming up with some response to Key and National Party policy.

Steve - Forget Dylan man, try Dire Straights and 'Money for Nothing.'  



by Tim Watkin on December 22, 2008
Tim Watkin

You're right about history always being provisional, Jon. You can never know how long is long enough when you're looking for the right time to judge achievement. The example I've kept thinking of recently is Bob Woodward's book a few year's back on Alan Greenspan. He went with the prevailing wisdom and titled it Maestro. Bet he wouldn't now!

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 23, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Tim - Yeah, that's a screamer by Woodward.

Two books that take sophisticated approaches to the analysis of leaders, if you can get hold of them, are Ron Rosenbaum's 'Explaining Hitler' and David Greenberg's 'Nixon's Shadow.' Rosenbaum's study is a history of Hitler explanations, across time, from the original Berlin journalists who tried to out the evil one to the latest theories of Hitler specialists.

Greenberg analyses Nixon through the eyes of different groups, such as 1950s liberals and so on. For two leaders who have attracted incredibly voluminous scholarship, the approaches of Rosenbaum and Greenberg were brilliant and offered insights that more traditional approaches lack.

I have a MA student who has adapted the Greenberg approach to Robert Muldoon and if he ever completes the thesis (and then turns it into a book) it will make for a fine new perspective on Muldoon.   

by J Keenan on December 23, 2008
J Keenan

Certainly not on a global or probably even national level would my pick for "Political loser of the year" have merit, but personally it sure does.

My pick is Stephan Franks failed bid for the National Party to win Wellington Central (and his low party list placing). 

I was bombarded with mail, signage and even loudspeakers by this man and his supporters. 

And you know what? All he had to do was put his name back on the ACT party list and he would be an MP once more.

Instead not only has he failed to become an MP (you could see how badly he wanted it) and achieved nothing, he went to a lot of time and expense to do it.

It was my election night silver lining. 

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 23, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

J Keenan - Ah, you sneak under the radar with such an inspired alternative choice. I'd still give it to Copeland, coz he received a lot of taxpayer support for his inane political career, and Franks not, but your choice runs a very close second.

When I explained Clark's decision to stand by Winston during the P/C fiasco I said Clark was wedded to the notion of natural justice. Mr. Franks pinged me on his blog and asked whether I'd heard of Occam's razor.

I wondered at the time what his reflections would have been if Franks applied Occam's razor to his own list placing by National's brains trust, because I agree with him, the simplest explanation is always the best one.

by Jon Knox on January 21, 2009
Jon Knox

I have just been listening to David Skilling on Radio NZ talking about the "peloton effect" in terms of NZ falling further behind other developed nations in terms of economic circumstances and then attempting to reconcile this with the pick for 'Politician of the Decade'.

I too think Ms Clark was a very good leader, but can't help but think perhaps we missed an opportunity when the going was comparatively good.



by Peter Dunne on January 21, 2009
Peter Dunne

I cannot let Graeme's view re Copeland's contribution on taxation of charities go unchallenged. I can assure you that at no time between 2005 and 2008 did I ever discuss this issue with him. The tax intiatives that were introduced in 2007-08 were entirely those developed by me, in consultation with IRD officials. Michael Cullen and I signed off on them in March 2007 - before National announced similar policies, and with no reference to the hapless Mr Copeland. So, I agree with Jon's original assessment.

by Dr Jon Johansson on January 21, 2009
Dr Jon Johansson

Graeme - Well, I'm happy to defer to Peter Dunne's superior knowledge about Gordon's (nil) contribution on the tax rebate front so he's still up there as biggest loser unless someone out there can add a new dimension to Stephen Franks' candidacy.

Jon Knox - Thanks for your thoughtful contribution. Skilling may well be proven right, but I don't think one should ignore the drastic reduction of public indebtedness, the dramatic fall in unemployment, most particularly amongst Pacifica and Maori populations, as well as the last government's preventative work on primary health care (which will take a generation to reveal its full benefits).

Secondly, my view would be that education is the key to permanently moving up the pelaton and while Labour didn't move anywhere near as far as I would like, National's promising even less, so I sort of feel plague on both their houses.

by Dr Jon Johansson on March 18, 2009
Dr Jon Johansson

I see Gordon Copeland is taking his 2008 form into 2009: http://www.odt.co.nz/news/politics/47962/copeland-named-kiwi-party-president


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