The year of the stratospheric cruiser

Carmel Sepuloni would be in Parliament and Paula Bennett relegated to the list if Sue Bradford hadn’t stood in Waitakere. That says something about the tactics of the left-of-the-left.

Bradford could argue that if Labour was strong 322-odd votes to a micro-party candidate to its left would not matter — 611 mini-party Conservative votes to Bennett’s right didn’t stop her.

But Bennett’s win — and Nicky Wagner’s in Christchurch Central — potentially pose National a problem. Their wins did not change National’s overall general election seat tally. But if a mishap to either were to force a by-election Labour would surely win and National’s seat tally would drop by one.

That would make National dependent on the Maori party, now badly depleted and with succession problems, and undo the gain from the artifices in Epsom and Ohariu which put in a National man representing a separate party and a man whose party vote was only 0.2 per cent clear of an overhang.

Sepuloni’s axing takes out a promising Pasifika MP. The consolation for David Shearer, starting his mission to pull Labour out of its hole, is that her loss doubled Labour’s Asian MP quota to two by letting Raymond Huo back.

Labour used to scoop up the great majority of Asian votes into its ethnic minorities bucket. Now many Asians, who generally value education, work, enterprise and thrift, vote in National’s columns. National now has three Asian MPs.

Contrast John Key’s missed opportunity last week to strengthen National’s pitch to upwardly mobile Pasifika. He passed over for a ministerial post Samoan Sam Lotu-Iiga, a highly-educated lawyer who lifted his electorate majority, and appointed three backbenchers whose majorities fell in a National up-year. One, former chief whip Chris Tremain, topped the losses with a 9018-to-3701 fall in Napier.

Labour still has three Pasifika MPs to National’s two.

But that is small consolation to Labour in a year in which it started far behind, fell further when Phil Goff misjudged the politics of taking a decent line on Darren Hughes’ indiscretion in March. Labour was thereafter dogged by recurrent leadership coup rumblings. Add in Goff’s trouble with numbers during a campaign in which he showed pluck but not finesse.

Still, last week Labour scored positive publicity in making Shearer leader. He is a quintessentially unknown quantity in politics. But he is a known quantity in international hotspots, with a compelling story to tell, and his palpable genuineness stamps him as “not-Wellington” in a year when voters turned off politics in droves. He got a bigger vote share in the Mt Albert by-election than Helen Clark had in the 2008 general election.

Shearer, with Grant Robertson as deputy, sets up a political teaser for 2012. Labour is starting to point to the future.

Also pointing to a future were the Greens, without whom Labour cannot expect to form a government in the near term. Their positioning through the year and in the campaign reflected astute leadership and presentation. From left and right it is common to hear respect for Russel Norman, whose stature is approaching that of Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Still, some of the Greens’ 11.1 per cent was a reversible Labour fallout. So was much of Winston Peters’ 6.6 per cent, also pumped up by Key giving him air late in the campaign.

Peters was probably also helped by a deep unwillingness in the electorate to give any party plenipotentiary power, evidenced in the vote for MMP in 1993 and its retention this time. If super-popular Key could not get there it is unlikely anyone will, except in reaction to a cataclysm.

One of Key’s under-reported star performers did avert a cataclysm — a full breakdown of climate change negotiations — a few days back in Durban. Groser chaired one of the two crucial negotiating tracks. Former climate change ambassador Adrian Macey chaired the other.

Back on earth Gerry Brownlee generated the political phrase of the year when he said something was “blindingly obvious” but then could not say what it was. (But he got something right: the swing to National in Christchurch was near double the average.)

Key had the runner-up phrase with a hint of hubris in “I am the centre”. That suggests command. Actually, he proved brittle at times under pressure or when embarrassed, strikingly so in mishandling the tea party aftermath in the election campaign.

He has yet to morph from chairman-Prime Minister to executive-Prime Minister, to more fully complement executive-Deputy Prime Minister Bill English. The first term’s policy groundwork has set up a greater opportunity than since the early 1980s for an executive-Prime Minister to reshape policy debate and substance for the 2010s/2020s.

But that is for 2012. Last week the easy smile and banter were back. He was again the empathetic unifier who has cruised in stratospheric poll ratings since 2007 and this year lifted his party to a record high MMP vote.

John Key is my politician of 2011.