The year of a man of faith, ideas and political practice

On May 4 the Herald reported a road incident which led the police, the Herald said, to lay a charge of “wreckless” driving. Don Brash might have wished for such a transit through 2006.

Instead, his political career, which had been on a high only 14 months earlier, ended in a train wreck of a publicised affair, shadowy dealings with a vindictive religious sect and persistent lapses of political skill.

He deserved to treat himself better — to have learnt politics before doing it, to have accorded his public actions with his personal beliefs and to have boned up on major policy. Brash himself, not his opponents nor the media nor a self-important and inventive conspiracy theorist, killed his political potential.

Brash’s legacy (aside from his party’s vote doubling while he was leader) will be to remind the deep-leather-armchair know-it-alls on one side (and the woolly-jersey-and-jeans moralists on the other) that an idea (however pure) plus marketing gimmicks (however impure) are not enough.

Politics is ideas and marketing, yes, but, more than those, politics is practice. There are rules of engagement.

Which is where Phillip Field went wrong. And also Helen Clark, on the parliamentary spending issue. And several lesser beings inside and outside the ministry.

It has been a year of scandals, some true, some imagined, some of no consequence and one entirely false, which triggered what must be the world’s first resignation by a minister for something he thought he might conceivably have done but turned out not to have.

That minister, David Parker, is one of the few to end 2006 with reputation enhanced. David Cunliffe is another, Clayton Cosgrove, despite his self-importance, a third. Michael Cullen ends 2006 stronger than he began it, articulating more assertively and persuasively the ideas that cohere his economic programme.

It has also been the year of decadal anniversaries: the tenth of MMP elections and the twentieth of the royal commission which dreamt up this strange arrangement; the twentieth of GST, the world’s best-designed consumer tax; the seventieth of National, feeling power in its grasp but still at its conference hiding from open debate; the ninetieth of Labour, in sprightly fettle at its conference.

And a quarter-centenary: 25 years since the street battles against visiting Springboks, when the British past and the Aotearoa-New Zealand future collided and separated. Historians 25 years hence who look for events to mark transitions may well cast that tour and its anguishes as a pivotal marker in the emergence of this nation, still blinking today, into the light of independence.

The Maori party, still blinking, too, in the headlights of opportunity, is one of the currents in the delta downstream from that cataract of change. This new grouping has had a good year, paddling through Parliament’s perilous shoals, though its real tests lie ahead and the lower-than-expected Maori electoral option warns of limits to its ambition in the majoritarian world in which it must do its work.

Of all the parties, the Greens have had the best year. A year ago they were mourning the irreplaceable and irreplicable Rod Donald. He is still missed but the Greens’ central mission is now being taken up by the government and, in minor key, even by the National party. Alone among small parties, the Greens have averaged more than 5 per cent in the polls.

It has been the year of climate change. January sceptics have mostly become December converts to necessity. The Greens are for the first time on the rim of respectability.

Respect spread to another unlikely quarter, the shadow-world of journalism. Al Morrison, one of nature’s gentlemen and a fine former political journalist, was made CEO of the Department of Conservation.

And it was a year for worms to turn. At the Management Top 200 awards on November 23 John Campbell gushed over Sir Roger Douglas’s huge part in economic reform. In the 1990s Campbell declared he voted for the anti-reform Alliance.

A much bigger worm turned down the same tunnel. Who said this on November 8: “Our open economy has really walked the talk and is an outstanding example of the benefits of an open and liberalised world”? That champion of “New Zealand first”, Winston Peters.

So who is politician of my year? Not (yet) John Key, the man who has nearly everything. He is still learning. Last week he put petty politics ahead of the hugely important trans-Tasman relationship in opposing the joint Therapeutic Products Authority.

My choice is a man who rolled the stone back from the mouth of his political tomb, who can’t spell “pidgin” but is National’s most telling debater in the House, who combined grace, toughness and leadership in that tight weekend in November when the best available top team for his party was put together with exemplary discipline. He is a man of faith and thoughtfulness, who does politics as practice and ideas.

He is Bill English.