2008 redux: Farewell Awards

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.