So what is next? How this year will define 2019
By Richard Harman (author)
By six o'clock tonight it will all be over; Parliament will rise and not sit again till February 12 next year.
This comes after what has seemed like an almost continuous Parliament that began sitting in January 2017.
Labour’s 100 says of action after it was elected, coming as it did straight on top of the election campaign and coalition negotiations, has not only left many of its Ministers exhausted but those who serve them as well.
It might also be argued that the whole programme derailed the government and that it was another reason that even now, not everything seems as organised as it could be in the Beehive.
But if this year has shown anything, it is that experience counts for a great deal in politics.
Thus Ministers like David Parker, Damien O’Connor, Nanaia Mahuta and – yes – Winston Peters and Shane Jones were able to get into their portfolios a lot quicker than some of their colleagues who were in the Beehive for the first time.
That was true of the Opposition too where Judith Collins, Gerry Brownlee, David Carter, and Nick Smith have all demonstrated that they know how to press a case against the Government.
But for all that it was the year of Jacinda’s Stardust.
What the success of John "selfie" Key and Ardern demonstrate is that in the digital social media age, "who" a politician is, is just as important as what they stand for and how they operate.
James Shaw understands this which is why he believes it is so important for the Greens to field candidates who look like the typical Green voter; young, urban, educated and – yes – hip.
It is a question that National MPs might care to address as they anguish over whether their leader, Simon Bridges, is capable of making the emotional connections with the electorate that he will need to do if he is ever to become Prime Minister.
Though an increasing number of MPs, party supporters and members are answering “no” to that question; there is no evidence that any of the potential candidates – Judith Collins, Paula Bennett, Mark Mitchell or Todd Muller – have the numbers to become an uncontested leader of the party.
National’s leadership will be a work in progress next year.
Labour’s will not.
There was a moment during Labour’s conference in Dunedin when Party President Nigel Haworth was trying to pin one of Labour’s legendary gold badges on to the jacket of a union secretary.
These are formal moments in Labour’s conferences when it honours its past and its party faithful.
Haworth was fumbling.
From somewhere in the front rows up on to the stage bounded Ardern looking for every bit the enthusiastic young woman her supporters so much admire.
She quickly pinned the badge on and then just as quickly left the stage for her seat.
Not even Helen Clark and certainly not Geoffrey Palmer or David Lange or Mike Moore would have been that relaxed at a party conference.
Labour is now her party, and it has become a different party in the process.
For a start, it has broken with its tortured past. Though they may spend hours debating neo-liberal economics on the Standard website, the reality is that the government has moved into a post-neoliberal era of economic thinking.
It obeys two of the fundamentals of Rogernomics; a tight fiscal policy and an independent (albeit slightly modified) central bank.
At the same time it remains adamantly opposed to privatisations; it is not afraid to intervene with funding into the economy, and a re-energised Commerce Commission is becoming more assertive in its policing of unfair trade practices.
But the big change is yet to come.
While the report of the Tax Working Group which may or may not contain a Capital Gains Tax which Grant Robertson may or may not greet enthusiastically will dominate economic debate early next year, the big change will be the Budget.
It is not just that the Budget will measure everything against the Living Standards Framework, but it is what will happen to implement the decisions that it contains.
Grant Robertson has repeated constantly that the Wellbeing approach to Government budgeting is dependent on a substantial change to the structure of the state.
Thus towards the end of next year Chris Hipkins' review of the State Sector Act will contain some radical proposals for change which will aim to make it easier for Government agencies to work together to solve the kind of problems the Living Standards Framework will define.
The other big legislative challenge for the Government next year will be whatever David Parker ends up concerning water allocation as part of his programme to make rivers swimmable.
Parker has set "by 2020" as his target to get agreement from iwi, local authorities and farmers on a new National Environmental Standard on freshwater along with necessary changes to the Resource Management Act.
It is a big ask,
Meanwhile, Nanaia Mahuta will have to confront parochialism, particularly from South Island Councils as she tries to get an aggregation of local bodies to be able to replace and update existing sewage, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure.
Opposition to her proposals will be ramped up next year because it is a local body election year.
Also on the environmental front will be the next steps on climate change.
Two of the most reasonable MPs in Parliament, James Shaw and Todd Muller, are working on this with the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, providing some interesting advice from the sidelines.
The question will be whether Muller can keep carrying the rural community and the National caucus into any plan that calls for more than a stabilisation of methane gases by 2050.
His potential to become possibly the next leader of the National Party is at stake.
And then there is Phil Twyford.
A retired Minister from the Clark Government told POLITIK during the Northcote by-election that Twyford's problem was that he had misunderstood Helen Clark’s famous aphorism: "under promise and over deliver" and had got it around the wrong way.
Twyford has promised much for Kiwibuiild, but as Judith Collins keeps showing during Question Time, he is delivering less.
And his wholesale adoption of a non-car driven transport policy carries grassroots political risk.
During the Mt Albert by-election last year, Jacinda Ardern was campaigning in the early evening on the corner of Mt Albert Road and New North Road.
Cars were stacked up on each of the four roads leading into the intersection.
Drivers saw her with her megaphone and wound down their windows. Their shouts were consistent: “Fix the f*****g traffic!”
Those shouts may come back to haunt both Ardern and Twyford.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the Government this year has been the apparent cohesiveness of the coalition partner, NZ First and the confidence and supply partner, the Greens.
But there may have been less to that than met the eye.
NZ First has been difficult. One Maori Minister tells of proposing a Maori social programme which they proposed have a Maori name; Winston Peters would agree only if the name were also in English. Stories like that are repeated from floor to floor across the Beehive.
NZ First has held up the Employment Relations law changes; stopped various Green initiatives designed to regulate the fishing industry; sparked the creation of a Forestry Ministry and influenced any number of appointments but apart from the Provincial Growth Fund it has actually achieved not a lot.
And the problem with the Fund is that after the press conference to announce the outlay of some money, nothing much visible happens. The lead-times on the Provincial Growth Fund projects are long; too long for the three year New Zealand electoral cycle.
How NZ First decides next year to maintain its support base at above, five per cent will be the key factor that determines the stability of the Government.
The Greens, on the other hand, do have some big wins – the end to offshore oil exploration, the end of large-scale irrigation, the Climate Change Commission and the transport and conservation initiatives being presided over by Julie-Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage.
This is giving them the confidence to consider going into coalition with Labour after the next election. Many in Labour would welcome that.
Any credible suggestion that might happen and how NZ First might react is another point of potential instability.
And that brings the discussion back to National.
Unless it can find another centre-right party capable of getting more than five per cent, its only long-term hope of regaining Government must come with it either seducing NZ First or winning over its voters.
It appears to have decided to crowd out a vestigial ultra-right movement starting up in Auckland called Right Minds by simply adopting its opposition to the UN Compact on Migration.
At the same time it appears to have decided to win the voters and thus drive NZ First below five per cent and boost itself to near 50%. That way it might, thanks to the peculiarities of the arithmetic around MMP, lever itself into Government as a single party with a narrow majority.
It is a sort of political equivalent of praying for rain to save the game.
The fact is that until Winston Peters retires, NZ First is highly unlikely to do a deal with the current National leadership.
But equally, NZ First’s supporters have a coherent philosophy and are a very different party than the original grey power grumpies that set it up 25 years ago.
It is morphing into a provincial red neck party; a sort of New Zealand equivalent of the Australian Nationals.
Its members are more likely to feel at home with the Nats than many in Labour.
NZ First MPs are inherently distrustful of Labour’s supporters who they consider urban elitists.
So not only will National’s next leader need to be able to make an emotional connection with the electorate; they will also need to be able to restore relations with NZ First.
Until National can find someone who can do that; Jacinda Ardern is absolutely safe, and Simon Bridges will be more or less safe. He just won’t be able to win government.