The year of a man who's been around a while

Today the Treasury will likely publish fiscal figures less rosy than those Bill English managed into a “surplus” at budget time. Last week John Key took us another step from free nation to fearful huddle.

English is no macho-politician. In the election campaign he did not talk up tax cuts. As dairy prices have gone on sliding since election day, defying Key’s breezy forecasts, English has acknowledged the surplus challenge.

Actually, back on budget day his surplus included a sleight-of-hand classification of some road spending as a loan to the Transport Agency — which can repay the loan only out of future funding.

English faces pressures in the next three budgets as hospitals miss fiscal or service targets and other pips squeak more loudly and/or some programmes grow slowly or stall and/or some services devolved to outside agencies are tight-reined (which shifts the blame).

But generally English is a cut above nearly all past treasurers and nearly all current counterparts abroad. Moreover, he encourages lateral and longer-range thinking and values imagination and aspiration.

So, rarely for a third-term government, this one has a programme of big things still to do. That is mostly English’s doing. In that sense this government is the English government.

It is also the Key government.

Key, our auto-immune macro-personality, rode out Nicky Hager’s revelations about his office’s nefarious carryings-on and his own dealings with Cameron Slater.

A close-knit-family man, oozing smiles and empathy and mobbed for selfies, he scored a signal election win (with an unplanned bonus from the faustian duo, Hone Harawira and Kim Dotcom).

Add his reported authority in cabinet committees, his pre-election easing out of a swag of MPs and his chumminess with Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, David Cameron and other foreign leaders — even Tony Abbott who a few years ago was scorning us.

No wonder some reckon Key politician of the year.

But mateyness with big guys does not equate to strategic conduct of foreign relations, for which one searches in vain in such as his rambling speech to the Institute of Foreign Affairs in July.

His United States-like buildup of the muslim terrorist threat chips another slice off liberty (though to be fair, with Labour in tow). Notwithstanding Sydney’s drama yesterday, we here are at more risk from random death-deliverers on the roads.

And his Slater chumminess was a serious misjudgement which poses wider questions.

So drop a few places down the cabinet past English (my pick last year so he can’t be in 2014) to Chris Finlayson.

Finlayson at his worst is grudging and contemptuous, not even acknowledging the existence of anyone he has ruled offside. (Specific examples include a prominent Maori leader and a well-regarded MP.)

But there is also a best Finlayson: a man of erudition (he can converse in Latin), a fine lawyer and a blue-liberal who understands te ao Maori and is sorting Treaty of Waitangi grudges at speed and mostly with sensitivity.

I reckon his speech at the Tuhoe-Crown settlement on August 22 among the finest by a politician this year.

Cross Parliament’s floor to Andrew Little, hesitant all year about running for leader until suddenly going on the race card and winning, then not the slightest bit hesitant on the attack against Key.

Underestimating opponents is a hazard for third-term governments. In Little’s case, that goes for stick-in-the-muds on his side, too. He understands the need to rebuild the organisation and policy and is tough enough from his union days to see both through.

Grant Robertson won the party and caucus but lost the race to be leader by a whisker. Yet he ends the political year smiling and energised, not as the party’s lead flag waver but as its crucial lead thinker.

Two places down at No 5, Phil Twyford earns a mention in despatches as one of Labour’s more consistent performers on housing, transport and Auckland.

Russel Norman came out best of the leaders of significant parties in the campaign. But the vote stood still. Since then he has been more grump than guru.

The bright new Green splash is James Shaw, a potential star. His maiden speech was the pick of this Parliament’s big new crop.

Young ACT flag-bearer David Seymour was impressive in his maiden speech. So was National’s Todd Muller. This may be National’s most able intake since 1990 or even 1978.

But potential is for the future. My pick for politician of 2014 has been around a long while, so long he may be nearing retirement.

He has a strong sense of right and wrong inculcated in his upbringing, which has won some able people to his side. He can be a clown in public but has been responsible in office and on national security issues.

And, critically, he has for two decades soaked up potentially destabilising populist tendencies in the electorate and stored them safely in a manageable place.

That’s Winston Peters.

* Last week I said the Tamaki housing project is near-stalled. The Housing Corporation insists it is not.