The Beehive, Executive wing of the New Zealand Government.
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Dr Bryce Edwards.

The verdicts are in on how New Zealand’s politicians performed last year. The end-of-year columns evaluating the MPs have been almost unanimous in their praise for Jacinda Ardern, who is seen to have navigated a difficult year superbly. But there are also some surprising verdicts.

The Spinoff website has compiled their pundits’ picks for the best and worst performing politicians – see: New Zealand politics in 2019: we pick the champs and the flops.

Of the 13 pundits, 9 cite Jacinda Ardern as one of their “champs” of the year, followed by Simon Bridges with 5 nominations. Two minor party leaders also do very well: James Shaw gets picked by 5 pundits, and David Seymour by 4. Six of the pundits name Phil Twyford as the “flop” of the year.

From the left, Morgan Godfery sums up a view shared by many on Ardern’s strong year, saying: “No one can match Jacinda Ardern’s quick leadership, her crisp communication, and her sheer compassion and care for ordinary people and the victims of extraordinarily vile things. She is already a historically important prime minister, and is increasingly precious to the world.”

From the right, Liam Hehir concurs, saying the PM “Lit the way through our darkest hour and will always be remembered for that.” Hehir also praises the performance of National leader Simon Bridges, and explains why he was one of the “champs” of 2019: “Was being written off by all and sundry at the start of the year but has kept his cool and, if polling is to be believed, now has the Beehive within striking range.”

Bridges’ strong performance in 2019 is also confirmed by a number of other observers who consider him the more surprising success story.

Herald political editor Audrey Young says Bridges is her runner-up for the top politician of the year, saying “Bridges has had an excellent year. At a time when his MPs could have been getting bitter about being in opposition, he has held them together, got policy under development under way, maintained high support for his party, kept Judith Collins at bay and improved his own communications skills” – see: And my politician of the year is… (paywalled). She says, “Bridges is finally getting some of the recognition he deserves for doing a reasonable job”.

Young is in no doubt that the top award goes to the PM: “nothing had the same impact as Ardern reflecting both the anguish and strength of a broken-hearted country. Most leaders rise to the challenge during a crisis. Others may have managed remarkably well. But she did it. She helped New Zealand come to terms with what had happened. She not only rescued New Zealand’s reputation internationally, she enhanced it. She united a world in grief and in the process etched an unforgettable place for herself in it.”

She also singles out the following MPs for their strong performances: David Seymour, James Shaw, Chris Hipkins, and Tracey Martin.

Stuff political reporters agree with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition being the top dogs – they collectively award Ardern “politician of the year” and Bridges “party leader of the year” – see: Stuff’s political awards for 2019: The best and the rest.

The Stuff journalists name National MP Nicola Willis as Backbencher of the year, as they did last year, and special mention is made of James Shaw getting “bipartisan support for his Zero Carbon Bill”.

Shaw is also credited by John Armstrong for his achievements in 2019, as is Ardern – see: A year of remarkable highs and awful lows for Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges. On Ardern’s post-Christchurch leadership, Armstrong draws special attention to her campaign against the use of social media by terrorists, saying it’s “worth stressing that the Prime Minister’s Christchurch Call amounts to a stunning diplomatic triumph for the leader of a country with a population of barely five million people. Ardern accordingly deserves far more credit for harnessing the opportunity to stem cyber-linked terrorism than her countrymen and women have given her.”

Armstrong also has strong praise for Bridges: “It would be overstating things to suggest that there has been a reversal in the respective performances of Ardern and Bridges compared with 2018. There is a hint of that. But Bridges has lifted his game. He landed a massive hit on the Government with his capitalising of the Treasury leak. He has refocused and reoriented the National Party’s basic policy positioning away from the centrist stance of John Key and Bill English during their stints as National’s leader. He has seen off Judith Collins’ simmering tilt for the leadership. She is no longer a threat. It is rare for a Leader of the Opposition to deliver a performance as adept, effective, capable and authoritative as Bridges is managing.”

TVNZ’s Katie Bradford puts Bridges’ performance on a similar level to the PM – see: White Island tragedy likely to shape Govt policy as much as Christchurch terrorist attack did. Here’s the key bit: “Bradford ranked Ms Ardern and National leader Simon Bridges equally this year – Ms Ardern for her split internationally and domestically, and for Mr Bridges, who had been widely criticised and was expected to be rolled, for ‘hanging in there’.”

Similarly, summing up the year in politics, former RNZ political editor Richard Griffin gives the National leader credit: “Simon Bridges appears to have refocused his objectives from the more scatter-gunned approach he brought to the difficult role at the beginning of his tenure. And he also appears to have effectively dealt to those in his ranks that fancied their chances just 12 months ago” – see: Turbulent political year sets up a fascinating photo line finish in 2020.

Griffin also points to the fact that Ardern “excels in managing international relationships and human dynamics”, and gives credit to her “capacity to empathise with the distraught and reflect the trauma of a nation in shock was an extraordinary example of raw emotion from a young mother in the face of evil barbarity rather than a calculating political leader.”

For Jamie Mackay, host of the radio show The Country, the PM doesn’t get the top award because she, “the definition of a woke politician, is a superstar on the world stage but less so on the domestic front”, and instead gives that award to Bridges. Mackay says that even though he is “sometimes somewhat dorky”, Bridges “staved off the enemy from within and landed some real hits on the accident-prone government” – see: The good, the bad, the ugly – and my wrap of 2019.

Mackay also gives a special award to David Parker, the Minister of Trade and the Environment: “my ag person of the year goes to a man who stamped his authoritarian authority on farming in 2019 like no other, and whose actions in 2020 could change the face of farming forever.”

In contrast, Parker only gets a “B” mark in Duncan Garner’s end-of-year report card, with the note, “I don’t know what he does and can’t remember the last thing he did or said, and I’m not sure he is being used in the right role, given his genuine competence” – see: School’s out and here is their report card.

In fact, most of the Government ministers only get Bs in Garner’s report. The best performing are Jacinda Ardern (“Has empathy in spades and is easily Labour’s best weapon”) and Winston Peters – both get a B+. But Iain Lees-Galloway gets a “D”, and Phil Twyford an “E”. On the latter, Garner says: “I can’t recall another minister who had such huge plans, only for the country to realise no-one had put any work into them. KiwiBuild = a huge disappointment.”

On the left, blogger Martyn Bradbury lists his Top 5 MPs of 2019: Chloe Swarbrick, Jan Logie, Willie Jackson, David Seymour, and Andrew Little – see: TDB 2019 Politics Awards. In terms of Little, Bradbury justifies his place in the list: “One of the most righteous Minister’s in the Government. His leadership on a range of Justice issues marks him as a real champion for progress. Best Prime Minister NZ never had.”

On the right, broadcaster Mike Hosking gives credit to David Seymour, for getting his End of Life Choice bill passed. Hosking says what the Act Party leader “achieved this year is not just the year’s most significant piece of law, but a law for the generations. Once a country passes such a law they do not go back. Seymour has changed this country forever. Even more impressive is the fact he did it largely alone” – see: David Seymour, my politician of year (paywalled).

Finally, for some very different awards for the politicians, see John Armstrong’s none-too-serious Christmas gift suggestions for some of the country’s more prominent MPs.

Tomorrow’s Political Roundup looks at the political failures of 2019.