It’s a confusing time of year for our politicians. Suddenly the country is in thrall to a way-too-old guy in a hoodie who trashes all the important political messages our party ideologues spend all year trying to instil in us.
Depending on one’s ideological lights, this desperado carries off home invasions the length of the country with no action from the police whatsoever; or he redistributes wealth from one member of the community to another in a pointlessly economically stimulatory fashion, displacing productive and foreign exchange-earning activity, thus further confounding the Reserve Bank Governor; or he perpetuates an unhelpful dependency on subsidies, grants and a sense of entitlement, inculcating this most intensively in the very young.
Further incitements: he enslaves reindeer, ignores biosecurity regulations and wears animal fur. He is a global obesity evangelist. And he does it all blatantly sporting Labour colours.
Heaven only knows how New Zealand First’s Asenati Taylor, tireless would-be re-regulator of prostitution, feels when she hears his rallying cry, “Ho ho ho.”
It’s a dismaying season, too, of gloaty year-end round-ups of achievement when our politicians realise afresh that the only thing they will probably ever win is an election or two.
Somehow, the Nobel jury has again overlooked every one of them. Our teenage girls can take out golf opens and dominate the global music charts; a few years older and they’re cleaning up the Man Booker. Yet these are trophies that elude the most senior of our elected leaders.
If they so much as win their electorate fund-raising meat-pack raffle, they’re expected to donate it to charity.
So here again, time to give our leaders and their hangers-on their due. The Listener’s Politician of the Year Awards (sponsored by the Emergency Nose Peg Company).
The Gareth Morgan Prize for Achieving Name Recognition Irrespective of Merit: Goes to Aaron Gilmore. The erstwhile National list MP rewrote the manual on how to become a household name from utter obscurity by parlaying a simple wine order and a single sentence of instruction to a waiter – “Do you know who I am?” – into virtually limitless publicity.
The “Elephant, What Elephant?” Silver Bowl for Elective Self-Deceit Against Astounding Odds: A big step up was required for contenders this year, given the heroic achievements of last year’s joint winners, John Key and John Banks, in repeatedly failing to spot the industrial freezer-sized multimillionaire Kim Dotcom. Could any political player so comprehensively override his or her own cognitive function again this year?
Astonishingly, yes. It was a classy field. There was Chorus for erasing from its consciousness the inevitability that the Commerce Commission was going to ping it for overcharging for copper; Solid Energy for omitting from its business plan the inevitability that coal prices, having gone up, could come down again; and the Government for maintaining an opiate-worthy faith that it has the housing affordability crisis on the run.
But for unbroken delusionalism, there could be only one supreme award: to Energy Minister Simon Bridges, who managed not only to place his thoughts elsewhere any time reasonable concerns were raised about the safety of offshore oil drilling, but to consistently maintain that New Zealand has a cheap, efficient and wildly competitive electricity system. The judges cannot explain how he managed this, but we will test him further by asking him about chem trails, moon landings, Elvis and whether the Earth is really round next time we see him.
The Lord Lucan Prize for Unexplained Disappearance: The Labour Party’s policy on exempting fruit and vegetables from GST. It has vanished, officially presumed dead, but no one can say how, when, where or why. Last seen shoved behind a cushion in Annette King’s office, next to an old draft of a Fat Tax policy.
The Guyon Espiner-Duncan Garner Bromance of the Year Prize: To former Solid Energy chairman John Palmer and chief executive Don Elder, for dewy-eyed defence of one another’s brilliance before an extremely hostile select committee, even while enacting the SOE equivalent of the hanky scene from Titanic. The ship went down and both were bobbing about in perishingly frosty waters, but to each other they forever remain Kings of the World.
Surprise Closet Liberal of the Year: This was going to go to Maurice Williamson for his world-resonating “rainbow” speech in favour of the Marriage Equality Bill. But he was pipped by a bolter, NZ First’s Asenati Taylor, who, after the Len Brown affair, took to Twitter to demand that journalists, too, be required to disclose their “marital affairs”. Told by a kindly fellow tweeter that marital affairs are the ones you’re allowed to have, she responded in a flash that they be forced to disclose their “extra marital affairs”. When a further tweet tactfully suggested there might be a hyphen missing, she gave her would-be helper a flea in the ear for being pedantic. So there it stands on the record: an implicit endorsement of polygamy.
The Greek Chorus of Disapproval Trophy: Amy Adams, who, just to handicap her in case her star was rising too fast, has landed both the Resource Management Act “reform” and stewardship of the Chorus ultra-fast broadband crisis. Both are equivalent to being made goalie, only to find out later you will be expected to play in concrete Ugg boots.
The Lions vs Christians Shield for Increasing Participation in Democracy: As reality TV teaches us, biffo is a sure-fire way to get an audience. The shield is thus jointly awarded to David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones for subjecting themselves to a month’s blood sport “for the good of the party”. People joined and rejoined Labour in their hundreds, if only to see three viscerally opposed candidates attempt to rip one another’s gizzards without being seen to do so overtly. Best of all, during this period when the party was leaderless, Labour went up in the polls.
For Services to Punning, Salacious Twitter Hashtag Games and the Furtherance of Schoolboy Humour, the News of the World Memorial “We Didn’t Even Have to Make This Stuff Up!” Diploma of Excellence: The Downtrow Len Brown affair. Forget Mad Men, Homeland, Nothing Trivial and all the rest: this is the Emmy Award shoo-in for best ensemble cast in a long-running television entertainment: Auckland Mayor Len Brown, his erstwhile mistress Bevan Chuang, mayoral rival John Palino and love rat extraordinaire Luigi Wewege kept the twists and cliffhangers coming thick and fast. Too fast, said Bevan – but she would say that, wouldn’t she? From the Berkeley Cinema carpark in Mission Bay to the Ngati Whatua room in the council chambers, seldom have four ill-assorted players ad-libbed so much entertainment for the masses. Pity about the sales of Chloé perfume, but who now says local body politics is boring?
For Insouciance Beyond the Call of Euphemism, the Sir Humphrey Appleby Cup for Obfuscator of the Year: We could all die wondering what on earth it is that embattled Education Minister Hekia Parata is trying not to tell us – and that’s her genius. During early controversy over mergers and closures of Canterbury schools, she said negotiations were growing “ever more finely grained”. Who knew that would turn out to mean “ever more overturnable by the courts”?
Following the OECD’s shock downgrading of New Zealand student achievement, she countered with the advent of extra “student achievement function advisers” and “Learning and Change Networks”. The judges strongly doubt that either of these new entities are “teachers”, but were so comprehensively stumped as to what else they might be, the Obfuscation Cup was Parata’s by unanimous vote. Special judges’ note: Judith Collins’ left eyebrow gets a Sir Humphrey Certificate of Merit for its ability to make her look insouciant and opaquely menacing while making the blandest of statements.
The Nelson Mandela Memorial Citation for Healing by Inclusivity: To Prime Minister John Key, for failing to invite a single ’81 protest veteran on his delegation to Mandela’s funeral.
A “How Would You Like It?” Demerit Point: To all those who insisted Key should have included that ray of sunshine John Minto on the long flight to Johannesburg.
The Richard Nixon Memorial Award for Avoiding the Cliché of Resigning Graciously: David Shearer, who eventually cleared up any confusion about his apparent humility in resigning the Labour leadership by saying he found politics’ game-playing and intrigue “boring … I found it beneath me and I wasn’t very good at it because of that. Other people thrive on it, they love it, I mean that’s the thing they love about the arena of politics. To me, I found it below me.”
The America’s Cup Fair-weather Friend Badge: To John Key, for saying the Government would consider reinvesting in Team New Zealand – if it won.
The Downton Abbey Silver Spoon for being Well and Truly Duchessed: To America’s Cup innocent Steven Joyce. From being lukewarm and blasé about his pending trip to San Francisco, this landlubber came home in a Mr Toad-like foam of enthusiasm, ensuring that even though they lost, Team NZ would indeed be funded again.
NCEA Not Achieved, But Here’s a Bronze Medal Anyway: For Te Ururoa Flavell. No 3 in a caucus of three, of whom the other two are both retiring – and he’s still not leader or even leader-designate.
The Dude, Where’s My Party? Roll of Honour: a Record Double-Citation: Peter Dunne, whose United Future was declared defunct for lack of verified membership. Heroically stumping up the requisite 500-plus warm bodies to get his vehicle reinstated, Dunne followed up with a decisive show of strength: a party conference attended by 30 people. The unkind contended the Dude has lost his car yet again. Perhaps in this rare case, it would be tactful to invoke the calculation pest exterminators make: that for every one you can see, there are bound to be 10 more around here somewhere.
Judges’ note: John Banks (right) was a finalist for this award, but we were unable to decide whether Banks had lost Act or Act had lost Banks, and after a few beers, it seemed not to matter either way.
The Jim Anderton Fellowship for Belligerence Studies and The Rob’s Mob Official Muldoonist Internship: Never before have these been awarded to the same MP in the same year, but Green co-leader Russel Norman’s adamantine, all-knowing, enemy-withering stewardship with public debate has made him both an Anderton for our time and a Muldoonist of the future. Norman modestly tried to deflect the latter mantle onto John Key, but the judges asked themselves which of the two they could more easily imagine reprising the National Development Act or the Economic Stabilisation Act, and the answer was obvious.
The Most Obscure Member of Parliament Award: This field remains as crowded as a Where’s Wally? puzzle in which pretty much everyone is Wally. In touching emulation of Gilmore, a slew of National MPs have selflessly sought to remove themselves from eligibility from the Obscurity Roll of Honour by announcing their retirements, thus ensuring that for the first and only time in their careers, there was a headline story solely devoted to them. Katrina Shanks, Cam Calder, Shane Ardern and other hitherto incognito MPs whose names we … er, hummm … forget again just now have disqualified themselves thus. But this left an at least equal number of mystery MPs still eligible. The judges decided to whittle the finalists down to those who had maintained obscurity despite steep odds.
Early favourite was Shane Jones, who despite talent, career achievement, likeability and perennial leadership mumblings seemed destined to retire unremarked. But he hurled himself into the Labour leadership contest with such brio as to make himself unfit for Obscurity. Then we considered those who have risen without trace: ministers like Jo Goodhew, Chris Tremain and Nathan Guy and David Cunliffe’s rising stars in Labour, Sue Moroney, Iain Lees-Galloway and Nanaia Mahuta. Who are these people, we asked, and what did they do all day?
We nearly settled on the eloquent and knowledgeable Green spokesman on climate change, Kennedy Graham, who was so frustrated at not being able to get media coverage about the planet’s most important issue that he issued a statement complaining about not getting media coverage. Alas, the statement about getting no media coverage did get media coverage, so he was knocked out of the heats.
A sentimental favourite each year is Rajan Prasad, unheard of since he swapped the Race Relations Conciliator gig for Parliament. And what of Winston Peters’ supposed shock troops, the former local body terror Denis O’Rourke, and demon dead-of-night texter and lemon-tree irrigator Andrew Williams? Not a peep. Good going, we thought – a joint crown, perhaps?
But in the end, one candidate swept all before him. Not only is he a senior minister muscling his way into a void traditionally exclusive to backbenchers, but he is secretly in charge of two issues that could make or literally sink this country: the Trans-Pacific Partnership and climate change policy. Yet do we hear boo from Trade Minister Tim Groser, even on the rare occasions he’s in the country? Do we bollocks. He has maintained such an eerie radio silence on the TPP in particular that he truly is an international man of mystery.
Drum roll for our Politician of the Year …
POLITICIAN OF THE YEAR: RUNNER-UP
So many colleagues said “over my dead body!” would he become Labour leader, but he did and he hasn’t tripped over a single martyred corpse. Cunliffe’s decisive win has, contrary to widespread and avid anticipation, settled Labour’s aggrieved factions. Suddenly, the term “barbecue” really does mean a jolly do in which blokes overcook sausages rather than a ritual knife-sharpening.
Cunliffe has prudently managed to live up to neither his vainglorious reputation nor his supporters’ certainty he would lead a glorious new socialist revolution, excoriating National in the polls. With a bold cry of “when fiscal conditions allow”, Cunliffe is laying the groundwork for a leftward policy correction that won’t startle the markets and an appearance of orthodoxy that won’t disappoint those supporters whose favourite conversations begin, “First up against the wall will be …” He is playing a blinder.
But here the judges had further recourse to the sponsor’s industrial-grade nose pegs because, to their dismay, they were forced to concede there was a more deserving candidate for the ultimate accolade:
POLITICIAN OF THE YEAR
More in bewilderment than sorrow or anger this time, we have to admit that Craig’s success in maintaining his Conservative Party brand on the mainstream political agenda has been truly remarkable. He raised his profile last election on the back of two hopelessly inaccurate, unscientific electorate polls, but that exposure did the trick. That he can still scare up 3% in the polls where infinitely more seasoned players struggle is impressive.
But that he has done so despite the most random dolly mixture of policies the judges have ever seen is a feat unsurpassed. Socially conservative – advocating the smacking of naughty children and the shaming of women who have sex outside marriage – the party is wildly socialist economically, advocating the forced development of land where housing is needed, irrespective of the property rights of the land’s owners. It opposes state asset sales, yet disputes the need for climate change mitigation. It is a party like no other, determined to deal with policies issue-by-issue and to hell with the tyranny of philosophical consistency.
Craig seeks to make a virtue out of keeping an open mind about such things as whether the Moon landings were faked and whether malign forces unknown are covertly dosing the human race via aircraft vapour trails. For this alone, he will get grateful votes from conspiracy theorists, for they get to vote, too. Or do they?
We can debate whether Craig is shrewd and calculating or simply refreshingly naive. But much cleverer, more seasoned players than he would sell their souls for his profile. The Government has pencilled him on its potential allies list, and the Opposition can’t name-check him enough. This truly is the land of opportunity.