The year of a man with firm thrust and good humour

After 2014’s election in a bubble, 2015 has been a year in political suspension.

Opinion polls shuffled: National only a couple of dips from high 40s, Labour just back over 30, Greens 11-12, New Zealand First around 7, the rest in tiddler territory.

There was a frisson in March when National bumbled the Northland by-election. Winston Peters’ win gave electoral voice to many provinces’ muttered assertions of government neglect.

Paula Bennett stirred worse than mutterings in many council rooms with her high-handed speeches and witch-hunt for “loopy rules” — then turned out to be Minister of Loopy Rules: a legacy of her social welfare rule was work testing cancer sufferers. Last week John Key relieved her and councils of her local government portfolio.

Instead, Key stunned media and some ministers by giving her climate change, a portfolio stoked with numerical, scientific, environmental and political complexities, among them the emissions trading scheme review and post-Paris adjustments. Is he putting her another step up the ladder to succession to him or testing her to destruction?

Meanwhile Northland cost National its automatic National-ACT majority for a radical Resource Management Act refit to gear it to its “business growth agenda”. Nick Smith had to grovel to Te Ururoa Flavell. National could have got through pretty much the resultant bill in 2013: Labour broadly agrees processes need streamlining and updating.

Peter Dunne gained with Flavell a pivotal policy position. He keeps Key in office but this year continued the migration he began in 2014. His thoughtful weekly emails sound closer to Labour than National. Well, he has been in two Labour-led and two National-led governments.

ACT’s David Seymour had a good first year.

Overall Key’s cabinet was less sure-footed. There were judgment errors and oversights. But so far its third-term-itis is mild and treatable. In fact, the symptoms eased in the fourth quarter.

Through it all Bill English continued his strategic “incremental radicalism”, mainly in social “investment”, housing and (though he owed his “surplus” to some nifty manoeuvres) fiscal policy.

That would have made English my politician of the year but he was in 2013 so can’t be again yet. When some day I write up my politician-of-all-my-time he will be in strong contention.

Meantime, next year will likely test his economic management. The dairy price plunge has slowed fiscal progress, for which today’s half-yearly update will be an intriguing marker. A range of potential initiatives have been suspended or slowed. Health finances have worsened.

The economic outlook is not dire. But the bulls have wandered off. The Reserve Bank estimates this year’s GDP growth per capita at zero — that is, no rise in average real incomes.

Labour stalled in polls and middle-New Zealand estimation. Effete social liberals were dismissive, even after November’s cheery and united conference, which elected energetic young Virginia Andersen vice-president.

Behind-scenes Labour tightened its party administration under presentable president Nigel Haworth and tightened its parliamentary management under 1990s Alliance boss Matt McCarten, according to MPs one might have expected to be sceptical.

McCarten’s tentacles have reached into some places Labour needs to reach, including to old-mate Peters.

New policy is sparse. Labour (correctly) wants to rework policy ground-up, which is Grant Robertson’s “future of work commission’s” job. He will hold a conference in March and aims to have the policy foundations by late 2016.

Tellingly, he is not on a socialist cloud: he has involved a range of people, including from offshore and business.

So who gets the prizes?

Non-politician of the year is Tim Groser, escaping to Washington to deploy his engaging intellect, showmanship and unparalleled networks in a befitting milieu. Groser likes trade a lot. He didn’t like politics but had to see through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then the landmark, at-least-a-start Paris climate deal.

Political dung-beetle of the year is Murray McCully for his Saudi slinter.

Political young-gun of the year is Annette King, mention of whose age earns a ticking-off but who has more energy and verve than many MPs 20 years her junior.

Political up-and-comer is James Shaw: a superfast rise from brand new MP to Greens co-leader. Shaw has many ingredients of a future politician of the year,

So in some eyes does political pin-up of the year Jacinda Ardern, stunning in cover-story model-photos in Next and demure in Women’s Weekly cover-story photos with parents in Niue. She can also think and she is tough.

But Ardern, like Shaw, has a way to go.

My pick is an opposition MP who has had his main cabinet opponent on the back foot all year, who generates ideas and is open to ideas from others, including business, and who does his job with a firm thrust but also good humour, too often lacking in politics.

My politician of 2015 is Phil Twyford.