Forgetting, fumbling and forging ahead

This was the year our most forgettable resident, Kim Dotcom, a small, insignificant, undemonstrative, law-abiding, eighth-acre suburbanite, skipped out of the Prime Minister’s and ACT leader’s consciousness.

Their brain fades about spooks’ briefings and trifling $50,000 cheques locked Key and Banks into a tight embrace that made last year’s tea party look chaste.

Banks will take ACT out of Parliament in 2014. Till then (the Maori party having gone into opposition in all but formality) he is Key’s majority. So Key became curiously incurious about an inconvenient police report on Banks. Legal technicality sufficed. Ethics can be niggly.

With that incuriosity added to Key’s devolved governance, last term’s political management slip-ups this year grew to stuff-ups.

Key’s personal rating on TV3’s poll dropped from a 49-55 per cent range in the last half of 2011 to 37-43 per cent over the past six months. Handling his job well: from 68-76 per cent down to 52-59 percent. Honesty: from 49-64 per cent to 42-49 per cent. National: from 50-55 per cent to 46-51 per cent.

The levels are still pretty good but the direction is not.

That masks Key’s recent sharpening: much better briefed at media conferences; exactly the right tone and substance in response to the galling Pike River report (until needled by Labour); active involvement, even down to annotating papers, in some policy areas. An executive Prime Minister lurks under the jokey, blokey ex-trader.

And he has leeway. Labour’s opinion poll party support is just back to its 2011 electorate vote of 35 per cent, its real support then.

The Greens are also where they were a year ago: stable polls and ambitions to be a not-so-junior partner with Labour. That emboldened Russel Norman — a standout media performer of 2012 — to stake out economic policy territory too far outside the mainstream for Labour which is hunting middle-ground traction.

Worse for Labour, Ministers talked up Norman as the real opposition leader in an “anti-growth” “Greens-Labour” combine. They could do that because David Shearer was media-inept and David Cunliffe couldn’t resist a self-harming media splash at Labour’s conference en route to a coup attempt in February. Ministers made fun of all that.

The downside of that fun was its manner: teenage barracking, led by Key, debased Parliament’s question time. Paula Bennett took first prize by provoking Speaker Lockwood Smith to snap on August 16 that she was “showing less discipline than a 3-year-old child”. Bennett’s courtesy and gravitas did not flag: on November 29 she told Jacinda Ardern to “zip it, sweetie”.

Smith is off to the diplomatic corps. He has been one of the best Speakers. But even he could not tidy up after the teens.

Labour’s problem was the plausibility in the ministers’ fun.

Shearer still lacks enough knowledge of policy, politics and the country and has yet to convey much of his inner substance.

Labour has latched on to a slogan with potential: “active government”. It has promising MPs — David Clark is my new MP of the year — but no stars yet. It has done some policy rethinking, notably on aspects of monetary, economic development, social support and health policy. But it has a long way to go.

So for 2012’s standout politician, turn to National. (No one in the tiddler parties qualifies.)

Amy Adams settled fast into the cabinet. Nikki Kaye showed initiative in education on the back bench. Paul Hutchison’s gutsy, dispassionate speech on Louisa Wall’s gay marriage bill was small-c conservatism at its best.

Chris Finlayson fully earned very high praise for innovations and energy on Treaty of Waitangi claims, most notably getting the Tuhoe deal at last through the cabinet and making the Whanganui river a legal person.

But his guardianship of the constitution from Key’s and others’ insouciance was wanting. And, while he is a man of fine culture and elegant charm, he is too often snooty and snarky.

Bill English is still the cabinet’s anchor. Without him, it would be strategically adrift. But this year he was not quite the superminister of the first term.

The cabinet’s engine was its other superminister, the minister for GDP growth which he has made National’s dominant theme, trumping other interests.

He is often too linear for the tortuous trade he is now in. He is short on political history: “voodoo economics”, his putdown for Labour’s monetary policy, was a 1980 phrase describing what became the very orthodoxy, current since 1989, he was extolling — an orthodoxy last week chipped at by two high priests of money, Ben Bernanke and Bank of England boss-to-be Mark Carney.

But he gets the cabinet’s business done. His hardball management has made him seem at times to be the government, swatting aside nuisances in public and behind closed doors and dousing whiffs of green with GDP air freshener.

Only four years an MP, Steven Joyce is the cabinet’s operator, across swathes of politics and policy. He is my pick this year.