The year of a young leader on the rise

It’s been a year of shock-and-awe — an earthquake, a mine disaster — and shock-horror-probe — micro-scandals about a chief executive’s spending on mince pies and a minister’s on bottled water and actual scandal, unseating a minor minister. Lots of scope for good and bad politics, local and national.

Local was good for Greens: Celia Wade-Brown mayor in Wellington (where vandals have torn up Manners Mall); the Green vote maintained in the Mana by-election.

Local was good, too, for Auckland’s moderate left: Len Brown trounced John Banks for mayor, with campaign help from young Labourites Conor Roberts and Kate Sutton.

That got Brown close to my pick as politician of 2010. But he has yet to prove himself: to command the cabinet respect his new role formally invites he must swap treacly speechifying for making functional the labyrinthine politics and complicated administration Rodney Hide bequeathed him and begin to manufacture the “world-class, internationally competitive city” the Beehive airily desires.

More important than super-Auckland, Hide will leave behind him reform of regulation-making which National would not have done unprompted and which is likely to survive changes of government. But his miscues have seriously divided and weakened his party.

The Maori party ends 2010 with wins and a headache. The big win is whanau ora, which, run well, offers significant gains in social assistance, though getting it to run well poses daunting management challenges.

Repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act is a win but at a cost. It has divided iwi and poses the Maori party a dilemma similar to the one the Labour Maori caucus faced in 2004 at the passing of the hated act. To deliver repeal, the two leaders and their two MP supporters must accept tests for customary title in the Marine and Coastal Areas (Takutai Moana) Bill that fall short of iwi expectations and on which National is most unlikely to budge.

Labour pretends a better bill can be drafted and pass Parliament. In fact, even if the bill passes with just a one-vote majority, it is likely to lie undisturbed on the statute book for a good long while.

So to the Greens and to Sue Kedgley who scored another win with the decision by David Carter, who has had a good year, to ban sow crates, thus prompting pig farmers to recognise, as dairy farmers have yet to do, that their future lies not in a commodity but as “fresh-safe-natural”.

Kedgley is not a sandal-wearer — more cashmere and coiffure. But she fits in a party which alone among the minors has cemented itself and is pretty much set to clear 5 per cent in 2011 for the fifth election in a row.

Less secure is Phil Goff, seeking traction against the most saleable Prime Minister since David Lange. He has lurched — at times catching colleagues unawares and unhappy — into populist positionings: ban land sales to foreigners, take GST off fruit and vegetables, dump the Takutai Moana Bill.

Goff gaffed at the start of the Mana by-election, declaring it would be “a judgment on John Key and National’s failure to make the future better”. In the event voters gave National a bigger vote share.

Goff’s revitalised deputy, Annette King, made the point about populism by way of counterpoint: her child-centred social policy is the most significant reframing of a major Labour policy since the 1980s. It is one element in a deeper reworking of policy foundations, with outside input, than is usual for a party recently out of power. Goff’s positive legacy as leader will be to have backed that reworking even where it revisits his own past positions.

So to Goff’s nemesis. John Key is getting a firmer grip on his job at home and abroad. In Canterbury and on Pike River he was connected and unifying. But he is not quite yet the in-command Prime Minister. (More on that here early next year.)

In behind him is the cabinet’s conservative anchor: architect of a coherent and longish-sighted macroeconomic policy, a key figure in a diverse range of other policies (in the past week alone alongside Paula Bennett launching social services “mapping”, then Pita Sharples launching the constitutional review). Key says Bill English does much “heavy lifting”.

English is no media star — and he did wrong with his property trust. But for that and but for his having been my politician pick in 2006, he would be this year.

So to someone who, as a candidate in 1999, saw English as a model; someone with gravitas far beyond his 40 years and a huge work capacity; in charge of the single economic market with Australia; unafraid to take on the establishment where it is most established, in the law; scoffed at as naive or callow by his critics but valued by small investors for his determination to fix laws which allowed the Feltex shenanigans and finance companies’ misdeeds; a family man and genuinely nice guy; declared a young global leader by the World Economic Forum and off to Harvard briefly in March.

Simon Power is my politician of 2010.