The year of the Southland drawl

Peter Dunne got the boot for chatting too profusely with a woman journalist. John Banks got the boot for being judged into a trial the police had avoided. The National party’s rogue-right savaged Len Brown for too intimate a connection with an adviser.

Is that the year that was: trivia and side-issues?

Dunne and Banks lead micro-parties flirting with extinction. Brown won a landslide for navigating Auckland towards a new normal and patiently and skilfully managing a hostile Wellington cabinet into accommodation.

He might have been politician of 2013 but his post-election humiliation has taken a slice off his authority. (Might it also tone down his high-flown speechifying?)

Wellington’s Celia Wade-Brown saw off a challenge from the right and brought with her a swag of Greens, attesting to that party’s strength in the city. In the 2011 general election they beat Grant Robertson on the Wellington Central party vote.

After that Robertson decided he wasn’t ready to go for Labour’s top job. By mid-2013 he thought he was ready but in fact was still not. David Cunliffe — who, like Brown, combines bombast with wiles — easily outpointed Robertson despite having been disloyal to David Shearer at Labour’s 2012 conference.

Cunliffe was a capable minister in the Clark government. He sorted a telecommunications regulatory tangle and made a start on fixing the health portfolio. He has energy and charm and is organised. If he wins next year he would likely prove a capable prime minister.

But there are questions: policy inconsistencies, glib one-liners, some of which rebound, some abrasive personal relationships, the fact that he came second in the caucus vote.

Cunliffe has yet to earn real unity from the party.

Win or not then, Cunliffe is for now clearly leader of the opposition, which Shearer was not because Russel Norman was more media-savvy. Norman had a mixed 2013, strong in the first half but later over-reaches chipped at his wider credibility.

He and the Greens have yet to work out how to be more than a niche party. They have expanded the niche but their challenge for 2014 will be more to hold on to than to grow their 2011 score of 11 per cent.

Winston Peters’ 2014 job is to get over 5 per cent for the balance of power. He took out Dunne but was not quite the master of standing orders of old. His looming question is a dignified exit — Sir Winston, High Commissioner in London? — if voters don’t retire him first.

Dignified retirement is near for gritty Tariana Turia. But 2013 was not a year of dignity for her Maori party: a poor result in the Tai Rawhiti by-election and second to Labour in Maori electorate-vote opinion polling as a whole. Pita Sharples was dumped for Te Ururoa Flavell, whose language is far more Labour than National.

National has been dumping lesser performers (though not yet the dark-force MP for East Coast Bays). The cabinet has a clear policy focus: GDP growth above all. Crochety Chris Finlayson continues to excel on Treaty settlements. Tim Groser is vital in trade, though has not built a Trans-Pacific Partnership consensus and climate change policy is anaemic.

But there were mistakes, muddles and panics (for example, over housing) plus over-reach on some policy, especially resource management and labour. Last week’s Rebstock witch-hunt is another stain. Occasional brain fades, lash-outs and an ill-judged inquiry into the spy report leak diminished a sometimes inattentive John Key, culminating in a New York paper’s “unidentified person” caption of him at the Mandela wake — but he has kept his broad appeal.

The cabinet middle was pedestrian. Younger ministers had flashes but were outshone by the backbencher of 2013, Paul Hutchison, who got cross-party agreement on a fine parliamentary report requesting policy to give all kids a good start in life.

But there was cabinet innovation: 10 quantitatively targeted cross-government outcomes which require public servants to make an actual difference, not tick “output” boxes and which, while maybe diverting resources from other necessities in the short term, could be developed for wider use longer-term.

Who in the cabinet drives this thinking? Who pushed an actuarial/investment approach to social policy, limited in scope and application but the government’s most important policy innovation so far?

Who backed the Land and Water Forum which has won consensus on a devilish issue? Who pushed the public service to think how to do more with less without austerity? Who is the policy wonk who looks for deeper and longer-term options?

Who, despite the earthquake, got fiscal consolidation on track and is admired in Australia and Hong Kong (though also calculated wrongly on Cullen fund contributions and the SOE floats)?

Who anchors a sometimes wayward and radical cabinet within sight of National’s moderate conservative tradition?

A man rooted deep in that tradition. A man with a Southland drawl and manner. Bill English is my politician for 2013.