The year in politics

by Jane Clifton / 25 December, 2010
'Tis the week before Christmas, and all through the House, there are plenty of creatures stirring - but fitfully. This is the parliamentary Christmas party season - but not as we have traditionally known it. The political road to Christmas and the holidays is usually littered with chardonnay empties, taxi chits and credit card receipts. But thanks to the MPs' perks scandals, which managed to generate more column inches and air time than the recession, climate change and the royal engagement combined, a new spirit of Calvinism is abroad.

There are still parties. But this year we can rest assured: none of the grog consumed will later appear in a parliamentary or ministerial expense audit.

This concept of getting merry at one's own expense is taking some getting used to among us politicos. It's as disorientating as finding out Santa has signed up with Jenny Craig.

But when even the premiere political shindig, the Press Gallery party, is declared BYO owing to lack of funds, you know the natural order of things has undergone a profound change.

Whatever next? Will the Labour Party research unit be donating booze to the gallery rather than nicking it?

Still, some traditions never change. After nine years of putting Parliament into urgency in the run-up to Christmas to ram controversial legislation through, Labour has issued the traditional bitterly worded statement deploring National's abuse of urgency at Christmas to ram through controversial legislation. And after nine years of issuing bitterly worded statements about Labour's abuse of urgency at Christmas to ram through controversial legislation, National has for the third successive Christmas ... put the House into urgency to ram through controversial ­legislation.

Only a churl would call this hypocrisy. In Parliament, it's as traditional a set-piece as the school nativity play.

And on the subject of the nativity, in any parliamentary version there is at least one dog in the manger, and it's usually Hone Harawira. But this year the role has been appropriated by Labour's retiring Manurewa MP, George Hawkins, who is unaccountably objecting to Labour's traditional practice of rigging candidate selections in advance.

Why he thinks Manurewa alone should be favoured with democracy, no one can explain.

But he should know better, as Labour is officially out of sorts with democracy, having been devastated by the bizarre result of the Mana byelection. Against all precedents, the safe Labour seat was reduced to a marginal, leading some Labour MPs to issue statements blaming the Government and faulting the voters for the result.

Such annoying creatures, voters - as Kerry Prendergast also observed when Wellington failed to re-elect her. They clearly hadn't known what they were doing with the complicated STV voting system - under which she was, obviously also accidentally, elected the previous two times.

Still, there was nothing accidental about the first super-city result. Len Brown, who showed us it was possible to be a New Age headbanger, won by a convincing margin and thanked the people of Auckland by appointing to key positions a slew of his campaign cronies and candidates who had failed to be elected onto the local boards. It's taking the NCEA Not Achieved concept a little further: it's best to reward losers or they might get upset.

In a similar spirit, the outgoing Auckland councils treated senior staff to a slew of expensive leadership courses - even though, with the lot of them soon to be made redundant, there would soon be no one to lead, or indeed, to follow.

It was a nosey old year, 2010, in which, thanks to well-meaning but politically disastrous gestures of openness by the Speaker and Prime Minister, we learnt more than we ever dreamed of knowing about the habits of our MPs, including - ahem - what they get up to in the evening. Shane Jones revealed a penchant for watching a grubby movie - or two - while staying in hotels. Still, at least he wasn't smoking in there. The expenses audit trail showed that Winston Peters once set fire to a bedspread in Estonia. See, you wouldn't want to make him angry.

We also learnt some MPs are quite highly strung. Ministerial credit cards are only to be used for personal items "in an emergency". To Mita Ririnui's tender sensibilities, taking advantage of a bargain sale of golf clubs while in Sydney was a life-or-death situation. It's all right, he's fine now.

In the spirit of Christmas Calvinism, perhaps it's time to recycle some of the year's oddest political phenomena. There are no prizes for the following awards, for obvious fiscal reasons, but the judges' decisions are final only insomuch as the timely delivery of a bottle of decent chardonnay might be enough to secure a politician's removal from the following roll of honour:

The Winston Peters Cup for Outstanding Grooming in the Field: Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, who - in tailored business suit and high heels, no less - cycled around the capital's wild south coast to meet United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the airport, and arrived not looking as though she had done so.

Most Constructive Suggestion: Outgoing Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey, asked about the increasingly erratic behaviour of outgoing North Shore Mayor Andrew Williams: "I don't think right now that he's causing anybody to lose sleep. He should join a men's drumming group in a sweat lodge. That would do him the world of good."

The Marriage Guidance Award for Not Wasting Anyone's Time Seeking Counselling: Rodney Hide and his ex-deputy Heather Roy, whose attempt at a reconciliation press conference also secures them honourable mention in the Worst Acting category. They sat together on Rodney's sofa like two people with a pressing case of diarrhoea, and flew apart like positive and negative ions before half an hour was up.

The Sack Cloth and Ashes Prize for Penitence: A strong field here. Shane Jones's mea culpas went on for days after he was outed for watching porn videos, and Phil Heatley comes close to the summit, resigning his ministerial job for one of the most petty of credit card infringements - to the point where the Prime Minister considered him a big girl's blouse. But for sheer commitment to the moment of shame, you can't beat Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who smacked himself about the head and wept and apologised.

The Cirque du Soleil Prize for Backflips: Phil Goff, who has espoused five different positions on the foreshore and seabed legislation without so much as pulling a hamstring.

The "Elephant? What Elephant?" Award: To the Government, for announcing a constitutional review without reference to whether we should retain the monarchy or not. This is like trying to take a bath without getting wet.

Unluckiest MP: Jim Anderton, who had the Christchurch mayoralty in the bag until the big earthquake and aftershocks ravaged the city, thrusting the unpopular incumbent Bob Parker into the Good-Guy limelight.

The "Hey, Wait a Minute, I KNEW There Was Something I'd Forgotten" Citation: To the voters of Christ­church, who re-elected Parker on a wave of earthquake solidarity, only to recall a few months down the line when developer Dave Henderson was declared bankrupt that the reason they were determined to dump him before the earthquake was his decision to help Henderson out by having ratepayers buy a gazillion-worth of property from him.

The Hillary Clinton Hard Dog to Keep on the Porch Award: Michael Laws, about whose florid love life we all learnt more than we ever dared imagine. If only the US cyber-assassins trying to shut down WikiLeaks could spare some attention here.

Best White Elephant Idea: John Key's suggestion for what the nation might give Wills and Kate as a wedding present: his and hers Skyhawks.

The "A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away" Award: To all those MPs - Chris Carter and Nanaia Mahuta among them - who gallantly let their staff take the fire for credit-card misspending.

The Maggie Barry Prize for Horticulture: Stiff competition for this, given the number of MPs who took gardening leave this year: Pansy Wong, Phil Heatley, Heather Roy, David Garrett. But Chris Carter's "stress leave" was time enough to start a commercial market garden - even if sour grapes has been the only crop thus far.

The Perils of Pauline Trophy: Heather Roy, whose forearm was practically glued to her forehead as she tried to persuade the nation she had been bullied and brutalised by leader Rodney Hide - a proposition rather negated when she proceeded to vandalise the party, to the point of possible electoral oblivion. Roy also wins the Who Me? Award, as just days after her dumping, her PowerPoint presentation detailing the evils of Rodney just happened to leak, and the Dolly Did It Prize, as just after that, hey presto, another mysterious leak put paid to the career of non-Heather-supporting Act MP David Garrett.

The Liberace Dressing to Maim Rather Than to Kill Award: To Health Minister Tony Ryall for his viciously warring shirts and ties. Yes, he does it deliberately.

The Michael Cullen Memorial Prize for Charm: Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, whose waspish wit can strip nail polish at 20 paces. And that's just in caucus.

The Gordon Brown Chair in Martyrdom: Awarded to Phil Goff for doing the most thankless job in New Zealand, and occasionally even managing to fake looking as though he's enjoying it.

The Cheshire Cat Medal: To John Key, whose smile is so immense that it has its own seat at the Cabinet table.

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