Bryce Edwards’ Political Update: The Sound and fury of politics in 2015

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Bryce Edwards: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” could sum up the year in New Zealand politics. Many political commentators have noted what an unusually turbulent year it has been for the politicians. But few can point to much substance in political debate or change in the fortunes of the parties.

Political Update by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

The year in politics has seen plenty of colour and controversy, but very little substance. The verdicts and summaries of the political year suggest little of importance changed in 2015. 

“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” could sum up the year in New Zealand politics. Many political commentators have noted what an unusually turbulent year it has been for the politicians. But few can point to much substance in political debate or change in the fortunes of the parties. 

Tracy Watkins’ end-of-year column has a very good overall summation of the year of the majors and minors in politics – see: Politicians in search of goodwill to end the year. Watkins says “2015 has been yet another turbulent political year – think ponytail-gate, resignations, pork barrel politics, the shock Northland by-election loss, another baby formula scare, secret trips to Iraq, yet more spying allegations, the “rapists” backlash, Saudi sheep deals, a polarising flag debate, the bizarre Colin Craig train wreck, leadership surprises and an economy buffeted by plunging dairy prices and a housing crisis.  So what’s the sum of all that?  Maybe that the more things change, the more they stay the same.” 

Watkins also emphasises the sound and fury in her column with Vernon Small, Political week – A year of it:  “2015 was the year no one saw coming. It was supposed to be a breather after a tumultuous election campaign and torrid couple of months. A period of consolidation. Time for National to square aware its legacy with a predictable third term agenda, and a solid majority in the House. A chance for Labour to lick its wounds after – yet another – humiliating election result and to rebuild under – yes, yet another – new leader.  So much for the script.”

See also Stacey Kirk’s Political lessons learnt should benefit us all, right? She says it’s been “a fairly major political year. And there were some bumpy moments – boy, was there some turbulence.”

The lack of change during 2015 is also picked up on by Rodney Hide, who concludes, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” in his end-of-year column, Things will change…but stay the same. He says “Throughout the year, we were told it was all about to change for Key and National. I might have been guilty of saying that myself.  But it never did. The great ship of National steamed on, no matter the troubled water. Even losing the true-blue seat of Northland didn’t rattle the cutlery or spill the tea.”

Audrey Young says it’s been a low-key year in politics, and explains why: “The temperature of the political year was also a result of the Opposition not yet being in top gear.  Andrew Little has been settling in his first year as Labour leader, but has had such a stabilising effect on a previously fractured party that he has to be a contender for Politician of the Year.  The Greens were necessarily distracted for much of the year with their own leadership issues. It took the first six months to elect James Shaw as male co-leader for Metiria Turei and the second six months for them to reorganise the Greens’ office to their mutual liking.  Peters’ win in Northland has meant a period of adjustment by him back to the demands of a constituency MP and less focus on point-scoring in Parliament” – see: Politician of the Year: Top performers across the spectrum.

Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan draws attention to the fact that little of substance has occurred, but says this suits a new age of media-savviness amongst politicians. In his blog post, Kathryn Ryan sums up 2015 in NZ politics, he quotes the RNZ broadcaster’s overview of recent political shenanigans: “Politically there’s a complete policy vacuum. Some of the stuff we’re going to talk about today – pony-tail pulling, Colin Craig – frankly it’s just barely worthy of the public’s time. And yet what we’re seeing is a very effective management by the incumbent government of a new media environment”.

Mclauchlan elaborates on similar themes in his post Notes on politics in 2015. He says “It wasn’t a very inspiring year” and gives brickbats to both main party leaders: “Andrew Little appears to be (another) uninspiring Labour leader”; “John Key’s role as Prime Minister seems to be mostly ceremonial.”

But his bigger point is that the decline of the media, combined with the rise of politicians chasing soft news coverage, means we are going to have serious political wrongdoing undetected, while vacuous but polished performers rise to the top. As an example, he argues “The resignation of Murray McCully over the Saudi sheep deal should have been the biggest political story of the year.”

Stable political fortunes and problems

The Government’s buoyant popularity in 2015 was an important end-of-year observation for many, and this reality is in conflict with so many politicians and commentators pronouncing National’s decline and disconnect. This is brilliantly pointed out in Liam Hehir’s column, Polls show Government not as ‘out of touch’ as claimed

Why has National remained so powerful? Duncan Garner explains it by reference to Key’s strong pragmatism: “For now at least John Key clearly wants a fourth term. And he ends this year still firmly in control of the centre and with National still polling in the high 40s. As a National MP told me this week, when others in the caucus are agitating for Key to be tougher on welfare or Maori issues, he reminds them that some of these people voted for National and deserve loyalty in return for their vote.  Key continues to straddle the centre like no other prime minister in this country’s history” – see: Forget Crusher, Paula Bennett is National’s next leader

Similarly, Phil Quin argues to an Australian audience, “voters remain consistently happy with John Key as long as he presides over a resolutely moderate, do-little, basically Labour Party agenda.  They do not think the country is going to hell in a hand-basket, and no amount of Labour insisting otherwise will change that. Such doomsaying makes Labour, not National, look ‘out of touch’.” – see: Malcolm in the middle is a strategy for success

Looking at the state of Labour this year, Vernon Small emphasises a lack of change and dynamism: “Torpor. Stasis. Treading water.  It’s the story of New Zealand politics at the moment and it ought to be keeping Labour’s strategists awake at night.  How on earth do they inject some excitement, let alone disruption, into the political discourse?” – see: NZ politics 2015; wake me up when something changes

In fact Labour, along with the rest of New Zealand’s political parties, seems immune from the rising radicalism occurring in politics around the world this year, which is well expressed this month by Stephen Mills’ in his article, Fringe politics new world order. But he warns that not all New Zealanders have been satisfied with what’s on offer in parliamentary politics in New Zealand. His research shows that 68 per cent are “generally satisfied” with the political party options, while 25 per cent – especially younger New Zealanders – “would like to see a new party or some new parties emerge before the next election”.

On retiring from the parliamentary press gallery this year, the then political editor of RNZ, Brent Edwards, penned a farewell column, What’s wrong with the way politics in practised in NZ? He explained New Zealand politics is all about being hard on people, but soft on issues. Accordingly, “In the atmosphere which exists at 1 Bowen St the political game and how it is played becomes all important.  It is exemplified in how political leaders are judged. Most leaders are not judged on the substance of what they say but how they say it.”

Similarly, see James Ritchie’s Why have politics in NZ become so timid?and Rodney Hide’s It’s polls, not policies, that count in politics. Hide says that political decision-making is guided more than ever by pragmatism rather than principles, and this is “a recipe for the status quo and stagnation.”

Two politicians who seemed to epitomise New Zealand politics in 2015 – with all its variations of pragmatism, principle and media-savviness – were Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins. For an interesting dialogue between the two stars of 2015 see Simon Wilson’s Metro feature, Jacinda Ardern V Judith Collins

Issues of the year

For a recap of “most of the big political stories for 2015”, see Simon Wong’s 2015’s biggest political stories. These amount to: Hair pulling, the flag referendum, the Judith Collins comeback, the Serco shambles, the Christmas Island detainees, the TPP debate, and Russel Norman’s replacement by James Shaw as Greens co-leader. 

Similarly, watch Andrea Vance’s five minute TV One news item, Take a look back at the emotionally charged year in politics, which emphasises “a year of screaming u-turns”. See also Vance’s Government’s end of term report: Must do better

Patrick Gower provides his list of best and worst political moves in The Beehive’s best, worst and weirdest. This includes his award to the Government for best political move in sending training troops to Iraq – a “First-class foreign policy decision-making by the Prime Minister.” His worst political move award is shared by John Key with his “Rapists and Murderers” argument and the Labour Party with their “Chinese-sounding names” campaign: “Labour used an algorithm to launch a racist attack. This really needs no explaining. The principles were poor but the strategic execution even worse. Laughable if it wasn’t so sad.” Overall, Gower scores John Key’s year as 7.5/10 and Andrew Little’s as 7/10. 

Many commentators assert that housing was the biggest political issue of the year. This is well discussed in Sam Sachdeva’s Rising housing prices in 2015 put pressure on politicians

Politicians of the Year awards

The politician with the most awards for “politician of the year” is Winston Peters. Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small gave him the award, saying “No one is as invigorated as Peters by the prospect of utu. He took a political gamble and backed himself to win. And in the process, the by-election rejuvenated both Peters and NZ First, which has a new purpose as the voice for provincial New Zealand” – see: Political week – A year of it

And Patrick Gower says, “Winston Peters drove a bus into Northland and crashed it into John Key’s political reputation, doing some serious damage” – see: The Beehive’s best, worst and weirdest

Willie Jackson argues “Like wine, he’s getting better with age” – see: Why Winston Peters is MP of the year. See also Liam Hehir’s Winston Peters is the real Politician of the Year

But there are some reasons to doubt Peters’ total dominance of 2015. For example, Danyl Mclauchlan asks: “Can anyone name a single policy achievement of Peters this term? Or the last one? Something put into the mainstream that changed the debate or how things operate? I can’t. His team is an absolute failure, a collection of quiet losers, and he has demoted his strongest player (Martin) to the wilderness” – see his blog post, Kathryn Ryan sums up 2015 in NZ politics.

Similarly, Patrick Gower says “Marks off for Peters because he hasn’t actually done anything with the power he has achieved and probably won’t.”

Bill English was the politician with the second most nominations for politician of the year. Chris Trotter explained his decision: “the politician I have in mind is the one who labours away in the engine-room of Key’s Government. The one who keeps the wheels of the economy turning, and international investors smiling.  Solid achievements, both, but I am more disposed towards him because, unlike his boss, he has been giving long and arduous thought to the plight of the weak and unfortunate among us. More than this, he has been thinking about them in a new and intellectually challenging fashion.  His approach has been called actuarial, because his calculations are all about the risk and the cost – both individually and collectively – of not making the weak stronger and their misfortunes less determinative; of not organising the right sort of state intervention at the right time” – see: My surprise pick for politician of the year

Audrey Young was also very impressed by English and gives three reasons why he should be at the top of the list, concluding that “Bill English’s social investment project is his biggest achievement” – see: Politician of the Year: Top performers across the spectrum

Patrick Gower gives English his “Runner-up” award, saying he is “the Conrad Smith of the Government. Steady, stable, keeping formation and very rarely failing defensively” – see: The Beehive’s best, worst and weirdest

Kelvin Davis also received plaudits for his strong role in dealing with prison and detainee issues.

An interesting, and perhaps surprising, nominee is Act leader David Seymour. Many picked him for politician of the year, including Kiwiblog readers – see David Farrar’s 2015 Kiwiblog Awards Winners

But one commentator took issue with awarding Seymour this prize. According to Liam Hehir, “It’s hard to think of a better example of the disconnect that exists between New Zealand’s political commentators and the voters” – see: Winston Peters is the real Politician of the Year

Hehir’s argument is that while Seymour might have impressed pundits with his genuine achievements, “one thing David Seymour has singularly failed to achieve is improving the standing of his party with the people who really count – ordinary voters.”

There were plenty of poor performances to focus on in 2015. Patrick Gower gave his “Worst politician” award to Michael Woodhouse: “He tried to outlaw worm farming as a health and safety risk; he tried to outlaw mini putt too. This is laughing stock stuff, even the Prime Minister called it ‘worm-gate’.” His runner-up was Sam Lotu-Iiga – see: The Beehive’s best, worst and weirdest

Colin James gave his “Politician of the year” award to Labour’s Phil Twyford, saying, “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” – see: The year of a man with firm thrust and good humour

But this doesn’t wash with former Labour Party activist Phil Quin, who blogs about Why Phil Twyford’s Failed Racist Ploy Shouldn’t be Forgotten — or Forgiven. And many NBR readers seem to agree with him – Twyford was voted worst politician by 43% – see Chris Keall’s Your worst-performing politician of 2015

Other dishonourable mentions included David Carter, Sam Lotu-Iiga, Murray McCully, Gerry Brownlee, Colin Craig, Maggie Barry, Clayton Cosgrove and Nanaia Mahuta. See also Keall’s Your best-performing politician of 2015, won by Bill English.

Duncan Garner rated his best MPs like this: Kelvin Davis 9/10 (“He made a noise. Stood for something. Labour take note.”), David Seymour 8.5, Bill English 8, Winston Peters 8, and James Shaw 7 – see: Top 5 politicians of the year. See also Duncan Garner’s top 5 political losers of 2015

If such lists are too male-dominated, Stephanie Rodgers has a counter-list with only female politicians: Metiria Turei, Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins, and all the women who stood up in Parliament to speak about their experiences of sexual abuse – see: My top 5 politicians of the year

Similarly, see Scott Yorke’s My Politician of the Year for 2015

Mihingarangi Forbes conveys the experts’ views on A year of mixed fortunes for Māori MPs. Plaudits are given to Kelvin Davis, followed by Marama Fox and Marama Davidson. Commentator Annabelle Lee is quoted as saying, “Marama Fox has completely outshone [Māori Party co-leader] Te Ururoa Flavell, who seems to be completely MIA since the election.” But no mention is made of Winston Peters or Paula Bennett.

See also Martyn Bradbury’s TDB top 5 best and worst politicians of 2015. The criteria for these, he says, is “based on what MPs have actually done for those with the least”: Chris Finlayson, Marama Davidson, Kelvin Davis, Metiria Turei, and Sue Moroney. His “Enemies of the People” are: Sam Lotu-liga, Tim Groser, Louise Upston, Anne Tolley and, of course, John Key (but not for “his policies or politics but his personal behaviour”). 

But do any of these rankings really mean much? There was a reasonable amount of publicity for the Trans-Tasman’s rankings for the year – see Tracy Watkins’s Trans-Tasman roll call – the best and worst of the 2015 political year. But this year those verdicts caused a lot of disagreement. For example David Farrar analysed the results and declared: “I have to say that the number of ratings they have given which I think are totally detached from reality is higher than normal” – see: The 2015 Trans-Tasman Ratings. And another blogger argued that “beltway trash lists like this do a disservice to the public” and he called on the media to pay less attention to them – see Joe Nunweek’s The Kill List

Rankings and ratings were crowd sourced in The Spinoff’s features, 2015 in Review – 24 Politics Watchers on Party Fortunes, Economy, Media & More and 2015 in Review – 23 Politics Watchers Name the Year’s Big Losers

Possibly the best single roundup of the year is Tim Watkin’s My year that was, in which he gives awards to Winston Peters, James Shaw and Tim Groser, amongst others. He draws attention to the dodgy Saudi Sheep deal, underfunding of the public service, housing problems, strong foreign policy moves, and general short-term thinking that seems to afflict all political parties at the moment.

Finally, for end-of-year satire, see Steve Braunias’ Secret Diary of 2015 and Secret Diary of Christmas, Toby Manhire’s Presents of mind for country’s A-listers and Top dog in annus hangoveris is … and Scott Yorke’s The 2015 Imperator Fish Awards

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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