The year of the steel magnolia

The Parole Board delivered the National party this year a New Year present: murderer Graeme Burton. At year’s end it has sent a Christmas present: pack rapist Peter McNamara.

In between the justice system showered gifts on National’s Simon Power. And the police gave radicals a free hit by mis-hitting “terrorists”.

The impression was mayhem. The actuality was a 99 per cent peaceable country in which new parole arrangements should reduce mishaps and injustices, escaped prisoner numbers are way down and the police are gradually getting better.

But the government, like the All Blacks, ends 2007 in the dogbox. For whatever reason, coach or themselves, the All Blacks played below potential. So did the government.

Ministers fell into mostly avoidable holes: one was fired, another demoted and a third compounded the errors of the other two. Etcetera.

Of course, things go wrong and in a third term the bungles are more noticeable and more credibly blamed on the government.

But this year the government iced the cake. Early on it confounded decent folk bothered about the smacking ban with bigoted child-bashers and had to be rescued by a National initiative. It ended 2007 dismissing disquiet among decent folk at the implications of a bizarrely drafted, then confusingly redrafted, law to deal with the National-Exclusive Brethren antics in 2005 and contrived to leave a general public impression that it is attacking free speech.

“Crash through or crash” works only if the outcome is the former. The government (and it allies) crashed and thereby lost an argument it should have been able to win. Speech is not free if it is paid for. Speech is not free if it is not open.

As for its other stumbles and own goals, blaming enemies or incompetents, real or imagined, doesn’t explain them.

So I can’t agree with my colleague, John Armstrong, that Helen Clark is politician of the year.

Yes, she is head and shoulders — and torso — above her team, of whose party she is set to become the longest-serving leader in 2008. Yes, she does an outstanding job abroad, vital in a joined-up, interdependent and unbalanced world. Yes, she is always formidably well briefed. Yes, she is everywhere, tirelessly. Yes, she is amazingly accessible to journalists despite the media’s consuming need to entertain. Yes, she navigates by a clear value-set. Yes, she has claimed climate change to give Labour a forward-looking feel. Yes, she has got some regeneration in her party.

But the regeneration is one election cycle too late. The value-set that matters in elections is the voter-land median and she pushed that median to the limit with civil unions in 2004. And ultimately, if things go wrong in a government the buck stops with the Prime Minister.

Expect Clark to travel abroad less next year and refocus on political management. In fact she has started by putting Michael Cullen in to get Treaty of Waitangi negotiations back on the rails, which he is doing, and Phil Goff, star of the cabinet this year and her successor-in-waiting, in to detox law and order, which he is doing.

If Clark does tie up frayed ends, a fourth term cannot be ruled out. But after this year’s slide, that is a big “if”.

But has National earned power yet?

With John Key as leader it has come a long way. There is discipline, morale, a focus on the centre where the next votes are, better relations with small parties and the beginnings of policy. Key’s tone is tactically correct. A very good first year. For Bill English, too (mostly).

And there are some good demolitionists: Power (though he has yet to deliver on competition and regulation policy), Tony Ryall in health (though offset by his doctors fees gaffe), Nick Smith with his constant, accurate reminders of Labour’s first seven years’ drift on climate change.

But National’s hands are muddied in the electoral law fiasco, too. The “free speech” crusade stalled at the rent-a-crowd rally against the Electoral Finance Bill at Parliament in November.

A video on YouTube depicts the crowd shouting down Jeanette Fitzsimons and at one point someone bellowing: “Turn the microphone off.” Voltaire, quoted by National’s Lindsay Tisch in the House last Tuesday, would have been aghast. Yet none of the many National MPs present (including Tisch) saw the irony and intervened.

So National cannot supply a politician of the year.

Turn instead to the small parties. Note Peter Dunne for his positive work on tax. Note the Maori party for continuing to mark out a distinctive position without large mishaps.

But best have been the Greens: almost always positive and principled, patiently scoring points and this year getting some significant bills passed (Sue Bradford, Sue Kedgley) and getting (at long last) action on energy efficiency.

I single out their very long-serving co-leader, gracious, generous, fair-minded and, under all that, toughly persistent. Rod Donald used to call her the “steel magnolia”.

Fitzsimons is my politician of 2007.