The political year belongs to a man of quiet strength

This political year is ending with the same topic uppermost as last year: the Treaty. Then taniwha were spooking the pakeha. This year has been Tangaroa’s turn.

In an eventful year — Iraq, GM, TranzRail, electricity shortages, Ahmed Zaoui, to name a few events — the Appeal Court’s foreshore/seabed decision in June was a sensation. In essence conservative in its narrow frame and venerable foreign precedents, it was also revolutionary for overturning existing law and raising spectres of tribes controlling beach and foreshore access.

Dealing with the aftermath has stretched Michael Cullen’s many talents. His solution will be a major test of the government over the coming year.

National’s alternative — legislate the decision away — would have returned us to the ugliness of Bastion Point, the Raglan golf course and Moutoa Gardens. And so, still, might Labour’s solution.

The hoo-ha has already cost the government. Since the court decision the four government-side parties’ lead over the three opposition parties has halved.

But Bill English got no poll traction for National out of it. Instead, the leadership fell vacant.

English did not have the authority to lead the party out of the swamp it got into in the 1990s. He had the bad luck to be opposition leader in an economic mini-boom. He had the historically correct message — remake National as liberal-conservative to challenge Helen Clark’s left-conservatism — but that was too subtle for the electorate and the party’s backers.

Now liberal-conservatism is postponed while Don Brash, new in politics, learns his trade — MogaDon, as Labour MP Jill Pettis labelled him in the parliamentary bon mot of the year. He is better than the quip but he has a lot of proving to do.

Can English come back? Unlikely. Simon Power and John Key are in the wings for after 2005. English’s choice is another career or elder-statesman status — best done (like Alexander Downer in Australia) in foreign affairs, in which he made some of his worst cockups but for which, with study, his suppleness suits him.

Key: there’s a man to watch. Since he first sought a seat in early 2001 he has gone about learning politics as if on a university course. He is up to stage 2 and getting top grades. Self-made, he combines charm with incisiveness, folksiness with brains.

Now Brash’s deputy in finance, Key is the clear and away the star new MP from 2002.

A bouquet, too, to United Future’s class of 2002. By Parliament’s harsh unwritten rules, they should now be a fractious, fractured rabble. Instead, they have acquired a degree of dignity and respect. Their good fortune was to have as tutor Peter Dunne, the most impressive support-party leader since MMP came in.

New Zealand First’s new MPs have handled themselves well, too. They are not world-beaters, as Dunne’s are not. But they have not mucked up, as did the 1996 lot. That has helped give their party reason to hope to be kingmaker in 2005.

It is the opposite for ACT’s new MPs. Heather Roy is a gritty achiever. But Deborah Coddington is a comet, trailing a tail from her past life. That and Donna Awatere-Huata’s huge damage have put ACT once more in the 5 per cent danger zone. Brash, who fishes in ACT’s pond, will likely need to throw ACT a seat.

The Greens played genetic modification capably. They greatly influenced land transport law. They earned credit for sticking to principle, a habit which infuriates Labour bedmates. But they, too, end 2003 just above the 5 per cent danger zone.

In Labour it is Margaret Wilson who most keeps principle in focus. She provokes certain men to trade commonsense for fury and causes no end of trouble between the cabinet and business. But a cabinet benefits from a principled minister because it gives true believers reason to go on believing.

John Tamihere also stirs strong feelings. National wishes it had thought of him first, failing to understand that he represents disadvantaged Maori not rightwing welfarism.

Tamihere has emerged as an important figure in the cabinet, a challenger of Labour and Maori shibboleths. The Prime Minister takes him seriously.

He has huge faults. But he stands out as able to imagine a future for a divided nation. And gradually he is influencing others — among them, Parekura Horomia, now improving after a period as dunce-minister.

But I think this year belongs to a deceptively polite backbencher.

Few backbenchers make major change. Fran Wilde’s homosexual law reform was one.

Yet more complex and painful in the moral and social issues it raised and in the deeply held convictions of advocates on all sides was prostitution law reform. Set aside personal views (as I do mine here): even with the Prime Minister’s help, to have piloted such a ferociously contested bill through the eruptive emotions of a Parliament at boiling point bespeaks coalition-building of a high order.

Tim Barnett, openly gay MP and a man of style, did that with dignity. He is my politician of 2003.