Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.
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Political Roundup: New Zealand’s top politicians

by Dr Bryce Edwards

The verdicts are finally in, and there’s a consensus that 2018 was a huge year for New Zealand politicians. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received the most nominations for politician of the year, but there was a real variety of opinion about the other stand-out performers of 2018.

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern speaking to the United Nations general assembly.

The Spinoff polled fifteen pundits on their top three champs and flops of the year – see: 2018 in politics: who were the champs and the flops? Nine chose Jacinda Ardern as their champ, followed by Andrew Little (four) and Chris Finlayson and Winston Peters (three).

The most coherent and extensive score-card comes from Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins, who controversially gives an overall rating of only 6/10 for the Labour Party frontbench MPs, while awarding the National frontbench 7.5/10 – see: After a huge year in politics, one politician stands out.

Watkins praises National’s hard work as an opposition: “National’s team has been firing on all cylinders this year and Bridges deserves credit for that. He runs a slick back-office machine and – with the jarring exception of former whip and senior MP Jami-Lee Ross – his front bench has operated as a highly disciplined team.” She singles out National’s strongest performers as Judith Collins, Mark Mitchell and Michael Woodhouse, all scoring 8/10, followed closely by Paul Goldsmith.

The Government’s strongest performers are Winston Peters (8.5) Grant Robertson (8.5), and David Parker (8). But when it comes to politician of the year, Watkins says it’s “No contest. Jacinda Ardern has had the year of her life and redefined perceptions of politics and leadership. 2018 is her year.”

Watkins awards the PM 9.5/10 and sums up Ardern’s year like this: “The prime minister is at the height of her powers and has barely stumbled in her first year on the job. Her international cachet is huge and don’t underestimate the value that adds to the NZ Inc brand. Ardern’s brand on the domestic front is even more potent. She has done for Labour what John Key did for National – successfully reclaimed the political centre ground while also managing to reassert Labour’s dominance on the left”.

Herald political editor Audrey Young names Winston Peters as politician of the year, because he’s more powerful than ever, has asserted himself strongly and positively in the government’s coalition partnership, and made an important impact on international relations.

Young also sings the praises of Judith Collins (for highlighting problems with KiwiBuild), Paul Goldsmith (similarly, with the Provincial Growth Fund), and Andrew Little: “the best-performing minister this year. He is decent, has clear values and convictions, and is never afraid to front up”. Also, Young says, “Nikki Kaye is my Backbencher of the Year”.

Plenty of other commentators saw Ardern as the standout performer of 2018. RNZ’s Guyon Espiner explained: “Jacinda Ardern is Labour’s greatest asset… But arguably her work behind the scenes is equally important. She has managed a coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First. That’s a simple sentence. Benign even. But that task was considered impossible by many prior to 2018. It hasn’t always been smooth but it could have been a lot worse” – see: Politics wasn’t all scandal and leaks this year.

Espiner elaborates on Ardern’s difficult role, and notes other strong performers in her government: “Labour wasn’t expecting to govern and early on it didn’t look ready to govern. Ministers were ill-prepared for government or ill-suited to it. Two were sacked. But Labour finishes the year looking more stable and coherent. Ministers Andrew Little, Kris Faafoi and David Parker have performed strongly. But the core of a government is the bond between finance Minister and prime minister.”

He also has some praise for the performance of the Opposition: “National has largely done what an opposition is supposed to do. There has been scrutiny where it was needed, with Czech drug smuggler Karel Sroubek, the Provincial Growth Fund and KiwiBuild. It’s been constructive at times too, as with MP Nikki Kaye’s bill on second language learning in primary schools.”

Espiner also gives strong credit to the role of the two minor parties in government. For example, “Winston Peters, is more influential than ever. His party prised billions from Treasury for foreign affairs and the Problem Gambling Foundation. On foreign policy Peters faltered badly over the Russia FTA but has largely been solid in his second stint in the portfolio.”

Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper also thought Winston Peters had a standout year: “In this Government as the deputy to Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister, Peters is his own man and he’s flexed his muscles like never before. Essentially Peters has got most of what he wanted, from hard-fought changes to Labour’s previously sacrosanct workplace laws to a stack of cash for the Pacific and Foreign Affairs, not to mention the billion dollars a year he’s secured for the Provincial Growth Fund” – see: Wily Winston Peters has dominated the political year.

Also at Newstalk ZB, Heather du Plessis-Allan has argued the case for Judith Collins as politician of the year: “For her surprise creep up. Judith shouldn’t be sitting at 6 per cent in the preferred PM ratings. She’s not even officially in the running to take over as National Party leader. She’s just a rumour” – see: What a year that was.

But for du Plessis-Allan, it was Ardern’s presence that will be recalled for a long time: “You know what we will remember? Photos of a pregnant Prime Minister in a korowai walking through the majestic courts of Buckingham Palace. Or the footage of a world leader delighted to see her baby at the United Nations. Or even the simple news that a woman was expecting a child. And that woman was the Prime Minister of New Zealand. And that woman was unmarried.”

Plenty of other pundits emphasised the unique role Ardern played in New Zealand last year – especially with her focus on “kindness”. Christchurch Press columnist Martin van Beynen perhaps put this best: “this has been the year of Jacinda Ardern, who took her baby to the United Nations and told the gathered states, many of them basket cases, that a good starting point in the face of isolationism, protectionism and racism was kindness and collectivism. Maybe 2018 will be seen as the year of naivety and misguided hope. But maybe it marks a small step to a better society” – see: 2018 – the year of quiet revolution.

Other politicians have been rewarded with high-praise this year. For example, Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien has focused on Justice Minister Andrew Little as a stand-out performer: “Recognition for ‘best performance’ went to Andrew Little, who O’Brien said went above and beyond this year. She said his work on the Pike River mine re-entry, abortion law reform and working with Ngapuhi were ‘bold calls’. ‘He’s one of the most competent ministers in this government so he’s holding a hell of a lot of portfolios,’ said O’Brien” – see Alice Webb-Liddall and Tova O’Brien’s Political superlatives 2018: Tova O’Brien reviews the political year.

But there’s been one politician who has received an extraordinary amount of both praise and criticism in the end-of-year evaluations – New Zealand First’s Shane Jones. Writing in the Spinoff best and worst article (above), Trish Sherson says: “It’s been a tip-top year for Matua – clearest view of his political kaupapa, constituents and knowing how to play to them.”

In the same article, Liam Hehir pronounces Jones as both one of the “champs” and “flops” of 2018. On the one hand, Hehir says: “Through unprecedented control of the provincial growth fund, he has, for somebody in his position, amassed unprecedented personal political power.” But, on the other: “What’s happened is all very satisfying for Shane Jones. It is a path that leads nowhere good for New Zealand, however. And probably not for NZ First when all is said and done.”

Rightwing commentator Brigitte Morten even awards Jones the top prize: “if you’re looking at who’s delivering for his party and who’s playing the politics game it’s absolutely him. He’s out in the regions, he’s delivering the things they want – you know the roads, the airport extensions” – see the NBR’s Shane Jones politician of the year (paywalled).

Veteran political commentator John Armstrong seems to agree, saying “New Zealand First’s self-proclaimed ‘retail politician’ finally stepped up to the plate and delivered big time” – see: Like him or loath him, Shane Jones delivered big time in a drama, intrigue-filled 2018.

Armstrong also praises the prime minister, saying Ardern “is an insurmountable obstacle to National returning to the Government benches after the next election in 2020”. And after praise for Andrew Little and Eugenie Sage, Armstrong singles out Kris Faafoi for special attention.

Here’s his summary: “The Mana MP is surely top of Ardern’s list for promotion. Has made the most of some minor portfolios such as Consumer Affairs and Civil Defence. Smart, calm and measured. Has the Broadcasting portfolio relinquished by Clare Curran to keep him occupied for now. As a safe pair of hands, he is surely destined to get his mitts on much bigger things.”

Finally, for a very good eight-minute mashup of the year in politics, watch Newshub’s Politics in 2018: The year in review.