The minister for tough tasks

MPs head off for Christmas tomorrow with fattened wallets. Time for some awards.

First to the numerous MPs who consumed House time at taxpayers’ expense on the introduction of the signally uncontroversial Land Transfer and Cadastral Survey Legislation Bill just to muse upon the word “cadastral”: an order to rescind their wage rise. For the record, cadastral means “for a register”.

To Steve Maharey, tertiary education supremo: an E for his undergraduate coupling of Boys Own Annual and Dr Pangloss in boosterish responses to questions and teeth-on-edge peons of praise to this best-of-all-possible governments.

Improbably, to Rodney Hide, the House’s Mrs Malaprop: the award for bon mot of the year for his acute description of the interminably stonewalling Mark Burton as an Easter island statue.

To Speaker Jonathan Hunt, once known as “wine and cheese minister”: the wooden spoon for the serving at parliamentary functions of Timara wine — a New Zealand label, to be sure, but often containing wine from Australia and Chile.

To Jim Anderton and Matt McCarten jointly: detention in electoral limbo for overbidding a hand. But to Anderton a let-off for an after-dinner, off-the-cuff but on-the-record self-deprecation: “We tried some of those ideas — small group, no consultation — in the Alliance and they didn’t work too well.”

To Bill English: a “show’s promise” notice. This guy is a slow-burner but he is laying the policy fundations and will burn in, given time. Question: has his party got the patience?

To Jenny Shipley: a gold watch for an exemplary dignified exit.

And so to Shipley’s nemesis, Helen Clark, who is becoming by degrees presidential, levitating above the muddles, errors and mini-scandals of her ministers, the most commanding Prime Minister for decades.

The public likes her brusque competence, her delivery on her pledges (mostly), her rejection of the theory-driven policy of the 1980s and 1990s, her attention to the centre.

Next she will outline an earnest economic growth strategy in her February 12 annual statement to Parliament that will aim to give a sense of forward momentum. She underpins her prime ministership with dogged policy work in the backrooms.

But can she excite and inspire? Can she engender in ordinary folk something bigger than their everyday lives? Can she provide true national leadership?

That requires a creative imagination. An instinctive national leader would have evoked a national spirit and goals in her eulogy for Sir Peter Blake last week. That is what a hero epitomises and stirs, after all.

Norman Kirk could do that, alone of the 10 Prime Ministers I have watched. Limited in many ways by era, background and personal demons, he nevertheless every now and then lifted us out of ourselves with a phrase or an action. Clark can’t do that — though this woman has evolved so much in office that I dare not rule it out.

But, if so, that is the future. This year my pick is the minister who, with Trevor Mallard, stands on a distinct second rung between the presidential Clark and a bench of four or five ministers who are on top of their portfolios, their constituencies and their opponents.

This person has a stack of intellectually complex and/or administratively difficult portfolios that tires one just to read them out, let alone doing them, and on top of all that two major government projects to manage.

Yet he takes time to listen, to sponge up information, to debate and to argue, almost always courteously and almost always playing the ball, not the person. His speeches are conversational. In a trade crammed with professional overstaters, he understates.

He has his critics — those opposed to his particular policy directions, of course, but also, more relevantly, some who see a project slipping off the pace amidst the welter of his activities. But he has respect among most of his critics and overall he is sure-footed, decisive and productive. He is a sitter for the troubled health portfolio after the next election.

His name is Pete Hodgson — vet, party organiser and strategist, conservationist, occasional scientist, austere-looking bearded fellow with a disarming twinkle in his eye, a tough mind, a palaver-free zone. Every party should have one.