A man who turned luck into good management

The political jibe of the year was surely Winston Peters’ “black widow spider” taunt to Helen Clark as she savaged her political mate, the Green party, in the election campaign.

The snap election had got mired in the bog of genetic modification, the Greens’ cause celebre. Labour’s support fell by a quarter. Clark blew her top. The Greens got eaten.

Fair enough, too: the Greens were not playing by the rules of parliamentary politics, which is a numbers game — and the numbers make it clear they go nowhere without Labour. So their dream of 12-plus seats rapidly biodegraded.

But, understandable as Clark’s reaction was, it exposed her rough and nasty side. That is not an election winner. Nor was her failure to paint a picture of the nation she wants her very busy government to help its citizens build. One can divine direction in her actions but not (yet) destination. She is not yet the complete Prime Minister.

But she continues to grow. She has an impressive and developing command of the complexities of government and subtleties of diplomacy. She has many of the ingredients of a consummate stateswoman.

And she won. This year is littered with losers.

The Alliance demonstrated an even dimmer comprehension of the numbers game than the Greens. It paid the ultimate price.

But its loss was nothing beside National’s plunge to a 100-year low vote for a major party. That made Bill English this year’s biggest casualty.

English, bred to lead the great party National was, remains tantalisingly pregnant with promise. But Clark’s sting has paralysed the promise in the womb.

And does he have judgment? Last summer he took a long holiday, the dead wrong choice heading into election year. This year, reacting to bad press over that, he is taking a shorter break — though the election is three years off and the psychological battering he took (and, impressively, survived) in July would suggest a long therapeutic holiday. So does the frenetic bandwagoning of his past three months.

He has yet to chart clearly a path back to major party status.

Another who seems to need a holiday is Richard Prebble. He got ill in the election campaign and in November began imagining things: a Michael Cullen challenge to Helen Clark and an impending change to the anti-nuclear policy.

His party, however, can look back on a year in which it escaped the oblivion it feared. Its finances lifted and it recovered a sense of its political soul from Prebble’s and Rodney Hide’s populism. Now it calls itself “liberal” and may even change its name in March accordingly.

Peters also escaped oblivion, though by far more than seemed likely even to his party before the black widow campaign and National’s disintegration opened up space for him.

His research director, Graham Harding, came up with a brilliant and simple theme: Bob the Builder. Peters ran it with flair. He’s back.

And black. His serial, repetitious points of order have been a prime contributor to reducing Parliament’s showpiece question time to a democratic disgrace.

Outside the House Peters has too tightly narrowed his and his party’s rhetoric. Asian immigration is not the stuff of the 30 per cent party he talks of. Next year’s test for this ageing buccaneer will be to get the public to think he stands for the broad range of policies he claims.

From age to youth: of the new MPs National’s John Key stands out. Investment banking, a one-track-mind trade, is an unpromising apprenticeship for politics. But Key learns with military determination and very fast. He is operating like a pro, inside and outside the House — and like a potential future leader.

My other picks of the new MPs: ACT’s Deborah Coddington, quick to show up in the House; National’s Judith Collins, a lawyer whose tongue could slice prison bars; Labour’s Darren Hughes, the oldest 20-something I have met; and the seven United Future tyros who have weathered withering fire from opponents with grace.

But their accolades lie in the future.

My top politician this year has for a decade had a well-formulated view of a role he could play. It is a role of moderation, of attention to real folk, of rationality and commonsense.

This is a man who for eight years sucked those who joined his party and those parties who merged with his into a black hole of 0.5 per cent support. A man who nevertheless stuck to his guns with an unspectacular, non-populist message in a crowded field when modern political wisdom says noisier sorts get the headlines, the starring television spots — and the spoils.

A man who, nevertheless, touched a nerve with a television studio audience, got a stunning headline and then a fairyland result. A man who then set about meticulously assembling this sudden parliamentary caucus into a creditable semblance of a team. A man who has not put a foot wrong this year on the slippery dance floor of politics.

He is many years away yet from proving his point. But few politicians are up to emulating Peter Dunne.