The year of the gutsy grandmother

It’s been a year of flags and forelock-tugs. John Key so reveres the Union Jack he gave us back knights and dames. Then he runs the tino rangatiratanga flag up the pole alongside his quaint vestige of empire.

Meet the bifurcated Prime Minister, part-ancient, part-modern. He said the iwi flag is a symbol of the Treaty of Waitangi as the nation’s founding document — a historical relic. He also said the meaning he takes from it is “potential and hope” — a signpost to the future.

Won’t it upset the historical relics in his party, the Union Jack and sirs/dames brigade? In years to come, future-man Key said, people won’t see it as a protest flag. He’s banking they will forget that Hone Harawira, past and future protester, ran the selection.

The modern Key is feeling his way to a new politics, in which his white-middle-class-male party reflects ethnic diversity, especially Maori. The ancient Key has a way to go: flatly rejecting dedicated seats for iwi on the super-Auckland council and expunging them from polytechnic boards is not the marrying of two political systems, iwi and general, Pita Sharples has been talking up.

Key is both promise and puzzle. Unusually accessible, acceptable, unifying and plausible, he could have deployed his vast political capital to map a route to a promised land and started down it. Most would have followed him, few questions asked. But he has mostly opted for home territory.

He says the cabinet duck has been paddling fast under the surface — ministers and officials are talking up an economic growth agenda, to be expounded in February — and that we should judge longer-term intentions by the 2010 budget. So the accolade must wait.

His deputy has been the one to stretch the envelope, on tax, capital markets and new ways of running government services. Bill English has driven much of the cabinet’s work — all the more important, since the economy is No 1 priority. His speeches have been among the heftiest.

But English forgot the Caesar’s wife rule: in politics appearances are (nearly) everything. MPs must not only play by the rules but be seen to be playing by them — including politics’ many unwritten rules.

In the grand scheme of government, English’s sins were minor. But they stained the government and used up valuable prime ministerial political capital in his defence.

Speaker Lockwood Smith stained his own otherwise excellent year by suggesting he might deregister Press Gallery members pursuing MPs over expenses and instead register them as “lobbyists” (presumably lobbying for the taxpayer).

Without that lapse he would have been my politician of 2009 for good sense in the chair and insistence that in question time ministers occasionally offer opposition MPs something that might, at a stretch, be construed as an answer. That has been sorely needed for a couple of decades.

To Smith’s left in the Chamber is a party in transition to the next generation but with a leadership from the outgoing one. Phil Goff is struggling for air under the blanket of Key’s popular charm and debating one-liners. The new blood which will form the sixth Labour government in due course — watch Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson — will not significantly influence policy for some years.

The Greens completed their leadership remake. Metiria Turei is work in progress. Russel Norman has injected sharpness into economic policy and an edge into the Greens’ traditionally polite debating.

But Green MPs still often come at issues from a 1980s or older perspective and are not yet in tune with under-40s’ more differentiated songsheet. Neither, yet, are National and Labour but both have backbench MPs of an age and disposition to sing along eventually.

ACT also often parks itself in 1980s thinking. But Rodney Hide gets points for his significant influence in general regulatory policy, pushing National much further than it would have gone unprompted. At his worst, Hide is caricature. At his best, he is one of the most effective small support party leaders since 1996.

But Hide spent taxpayers’ money on personal fun. He can’t be politician of 2009.

The Maori party’s Harawira also spent taxpayers’ money on personal fun, in Paris. Confronted, he reverted to Hone the abusive teenage protester. For that he earned a grandmother’s fierce disapproval.

That gutsy, determined kuia five years ago held off Labour’s heavy hitters and earned their fury for what they saw — and see in exchanges as late as last week — as duplicity. She went solo and now has four MPs alongside her. The party’s future is far from secure and many National policies are anathema to its voters. But it is in the game and winning points.

In that game it is Tariana Turia who anchors the party. Whacking Harawira quarantined a threat to its important third constituency (after two sorts of Maori): an intrigued and respectful white middle class which ungrudgingly (so far) concedes the points the party wins.

Turia is my politician of the year.