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Politician of the Year Awards 2018: And the winner is...

Cartoon by Chris Slane/Listener

As MPs hunker down for the holidays, we dole out our annual awards, from Thriving Immigrant of the Year to the John Key​ Memorial Cup for Being Relaxed.

For lasting a year à deux, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and deputy Winston Peters deserve to win television’s Married At First Sight. Two virtual strangers with little in common decided one night to tie the knot and set up a Government together, all on live television – amid hasty vows to reform the entire capitalist system and end child poverty, with the whole country practically running a sweep on when “hubby” is going to pull the pin. Because, of course, Winston has form in leaving past political partners in the lurch, and long-unresolved issues about never having got the top job.

Amazingly, he did hold the fort while Ardern went off on maternity leave – the arrival of baby Neve being surely the decider in this MAFS victory – and managed to keep his temper for six weeks, even with the media.

This is the more remarkable since our politics has, since his arrival in it in the late 1970s, been a case of “no show without Punch”. Unless Winston has been in there putting a bit of stick about, New Zealanders feel uneasily that Parliament is, although less rowdy, somehow incomplete.

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Although our Punch is back headlining again, he’s having to do it without his usual props and gags. He’s not allowed to hit Judy, and he’s certainly not allowed to drop the baby. He can’t even give the crocodile a good thumping with his stick, because it’s Green. Winston’s now stuck in a #MeToo-era Punch and Judy show: no beating, no shouting, no giving cheek to the Constable – and even the string of sausages is subject to country-of-origin labelling and may possibly be vegan.

Two’s company

So far, so good. The marriage just celebrated its paper anniversary. But, as a famous royal once said, “There are three of us in this marriage.” The Greens have been doing their share of the chores, steeling the coalition’s spine on issues such as oil exploration, conservation, climate-change leadership and cycleways. Much good it’s doing them. They, like New Zealand First, are still well below 10% in the polls – NZ First hovering at the margin of error.

The public still prefers National, which remains as popular as it was on election night – though that Bonnie Prince Charlie glamour has yet to rub off on Simon Bridges, whose personal rating remains around his ankles.

But he, like many other newsmakers, can console himself with an award from the Listener for his year’s efforts.

Cartoon by Chris Slane/Listener

Thriving Immigrant of the Year

Competition was particularly fierce this year, with strong performances by myrtle rust and Mycoplasma bovis. Scoring high for intrepidness was the brown marmorated stink bug, which continued to hitch rides to New Zealand on import shipments. But, frankly, they all needed to try harder. In the end, single-handedly, the kick-boxing drug smuggler Karel Sroubek pipped the pests at the post. He won’t cost the nation a fraction of the money of the other three, but for industrial-strength gall – especially in asking for another chance after thanking the country that bent its rules to let him live here by importing drugs – takes the cake. Speaking of which …

The Great Bake Off Gold Rolling Pin

To the Government for policy development that is modelled closely on the TV cooking contest. Each party picks what it wants to stick in the oven, and everyone tries to look as though they’re happy to help whip it up. Then NZ First stops the beaters by brandishing the coalition agreement, which has attained the holy status of the Edmonds Cookery Book, and refuses to cook anything that’s not in it. A lengthy food fight ensues.

The John Key Memorial Cup for Being Relaxed

To National leader Simon Bridges for his ceaseless repetition of, “I sleep well at night.”

The Clarke Gayford Big Fish Prize and the Oscar for Best Performance in a Character Role

To Judith Collins, for her sustained run as the Jaws of our politics.

Best Actor in a Costume Drama

To former RNZ executive Carol Hirschfeld, who wore a gym-kit disguise for her fancy-meeting-you-here! breakfast with Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran. Hirschfeld repeatedly failed to tell the truth about the meeting to her boss, and, alas, Curran didn’t stick to the script, having made a diary note to meet the journo, despite not disclosing the meeting as required in the Cabinet Manual.

The Gareth Morgan Memorial Award for Grace Under Fire and the St Sebastian Medal for Self-Basting Martyrdom

To Curran, who after repeating her secret-meeting gaffe while recruiting a new information-technology tzar, was fired. Did this elicit a “Sorry”? and “I’ll try to learn from these mistakes”? A “Silly me”? No such soppiness. “The pressure has been intolerable,” she huffed. “It’s been a traumatic time for myself and my family.”

Cartoon by Chris Slane/Listener

The Marie Antoinette Institute Diploma for Letting People Eat Cake

Honourable mention to Shane Jones, after several hundred thousand tree seedlings went into the mulcher because someone forgot to do preparatory scrub-cutting. He took full responsibility, but immediately redeemed himself in the eyes of the institute’s assessment panel by noting, “It’s only the cost of a backbencher’s salary.” Also highly commended: Speaker Trevor Mallard and National’s House leader Gerry Brownlee, who accepted a Foreign Affairs schmoozing and boozing mission to Japan to host dignitaries for a rugby test, and expected people to feel sorry for them having to give up their weekends to do it. But star graduate is Mike Hosking. Because, honestly, people, if he can run his Maserati without even having to downgrade his wine cellar, what on Earth is all this fuss about the cost of petrol?

The Grand Designs Construction Project of the Year Award

To Housing Minister Phil Twyford – very few actual new houses under his belt, but that new Housing and Urban Development Authority is one stonking big, state-of-the-art, ground-breaking super-ministry. Never before have the design elements of old underperforming bureaucracies and sweeping new powers been brought together in quite this bold way. To furnish the new edifice with the entrails of local government after a blatant power grab was the final innovation that just knocked the judges’ socks off.

The “I Am Spartacus (But Does It Have to Be Right This Minute?)!” Award

To the National Party caucus, who followed their leader’s protest walk-out from Parliament, after he had a row with the Speaker, in about four, increasingly hesitant shifts, which rather undermined the theatrical impact. Unless you collapse question time, you’re really not doing it right.

The Walk the Talk Award

To Maggie Barry. She’s the inaugurator of the War on Weeds campaign, and just to be consistent, that turns out also to be her policy towards staff and officials. And, having also brought us Predator-Free New Zealand, she extended the policy right into the National Party caucus, where she took a vigorous part in the eradication of Jami-Lee Ross.

The Sometimes You Have to Save the Village in Order to Burn It Down Citation

To NZ First. Having strained coalition relations and credibility by insisting on legislation to prevent waka-jumping, it then threw a life raft to the very first MP to jump wakas, Jami-Lee Ross. Yes, by accepting his proxy vote, it’s helping keep afloat an MP who has turned his back on those who elected him as a National MP, and, yes, it is enabling him to distort people’s will as to the proportionality of Parliament. But such principles are puny compared to the NZ First prime mission statement of getting up the National Party’s nose.

Cartoon by Chris Slane/Listener

The Sir Geoffrey Palmer Prize for Not Taking Oneself Seriously Enough

To Jami-Lee Ross. The longtime whip went postal after he was denied the jobs of chief party pollster, campaign manager and leader of the House. He only got promoted to the front bench. Being a modest, unassuming sort, he took this oversight in good part. Until he didn’t.

The Retirement Commission’s Silence is Golden Trophy

This is given to the person who, upon retiring from public life, willingly or otherwise, maintains a dignified air of remove. The shortlist: Sir John Key, for strict self-rationing of public comments and appearances; Kim Dotcom, but an occasional visitor to Twitter. Disqualifications: Peter Dunne – the Ken Barlow of the New Zealand Parliament simply can’t keep off the telly; Helen Clark, who continues verbally to back-seat drive not just the Labour Party and the Government, but local government as well. The surprise winner: Gareth Morgan. The TOP leader was for years a veritable fountain of instruction and invective, but stormed off last election saying voters were too dumb to appreciate his wisdom. Since then: not a peep. He’d make a Trappist monk seem chatty. In case he’s waiting for his public, or indeed anyone, to beg him to return to the public stage, the judges wish to make it clear that for obvious precautionary reasons, this award is never made via public ceremony. It is conferred postally. Well, eventually. In which vein …

The Good Housekeeping Award for Doing a Chore So Badly, People Will Eventually Stop Asking You to Do It

NZ Post has hogged this prize for nearly three decades now. It really is unbeatable. When it finally realised neither stripe of Government was willing to relieve it of the tedious chore of delivering mail – on the flimsy grounds the obligation was rather embedded in its name, NZ Post – the state corporation began a campaign of so reducing the efficiency and frequency of postal services, and its accountability even to customers whose businesses depend on timely deliveries, that it may by now be cheaper and quicker to deliver a letter or periodical on foot, or if less urgent, via a squad of untrained wombats between bouts of hibernation.

The Al Gore Citation for the Most Promising New Bio-Fuel

Donald Trump, who survives on a boundless supply of self-generated hubris, fatuity, grandiosity and spite. It’s a highly efficient, if polluting, mix, but has yet to be successfully duplicated in the laboratory.

Bully of the Year

Yes, all the bookies were picking Harvey Weinstein for his sustained sexual coercion of actors. But even he couldn’t match the scale of this year’s winner: the European Union, for bullying Britain to a potential standstill, and not doing its other members any favours either. It flipped Britain the bird over the question of EU reform, and rather than trying to preserve existing and mutually beneficial trade, it has made Brexit as ugly and expensive as possible. Talk about “don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out”.

They said it

National’s Mark Mitchell, asked whether he had killed people as a professional soldier abroad: “I’m not going to talk about numbers.” Make that a yes.

“I stand by all the positions I’ve taken on this issue.” Simon Bridges remains multilateral on the Jami-Lee Ross saga.

“Sometimes you make statements that make perfect sense at the time.” Employment Minister Willie Jackson updates the famous 90s adage from Labour’s Steve Maharey: “That’s the kind of thing you say in Opposition, but not in Government.”

“That’s why I’m the minister – and he’s not.” Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare has the last word after Jackson defended a Māori authority’s pocketing of grant money.

“Overall, it is not clear whether the current investment allocation is optimal in generating strong returns and well-being outcomes.” Treasury strains for tact in a special report on the Government’s balance sheet.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford launching a housing stocktake in his customary self-effacing way: “It’s a pleasure not to be the most ambitious person in the room for a change.”

National’s Jacqui Dean on the party’s leadership ballot. “Oh, I think we’ve got to choose the right person.”

Candidate Amy Adams on National’s leadership ballot: “I’m not frightened of Judith.”

Candidate Judith Collins on National’s leadership ballot: “No more PC virtue-signalling needed.”

Judith Collins on politics: “It’s not turn-sies time.” 

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.