Still Number One: Five years after his election as New Zealand's 38th Prime Minister, John Key is still New Zealanders’ first choice as leader and his party consistently polls ten clear points ahead of its nearest rival. This would be a remarkable feat under the old first-past-the-post electoral system, it is nothing short of astonishing under a system of proportional representation. Love him or loathe him, John Key remains the indisputable master of New Zealand's political domain.
IT IS FITTING that my New Zealander of the Year should be a politician. Not only is politics this columnist’s bread and butter but, like ‘em or loathe ‘em, politicians are the people who affect us most directly. They write the rules of our daily lives. They hold the ring in which we struggle to make a living. In the twenty-first century just about everything we encounter, except the weather, is the product of social organisation. And wherever you find social organisation, there also you will find politics - and politicians.
My first thought for New Zealander/Politician of the Year was the new Leader of the Opposition, David Cunliffe.
Mr Cunliffe had, after all, begun the year as a disgraced and despised (at least by a majority of his caucus colleagues) back-bencher, and is ending it as his party’s leader. That sort of come-back is, if not unprecedented, then, at least, highly unusual. A great many talented politicians simply would not have bothered to stick around after being treated as shabbily as Labour’s caucus treated Mr Cunliffe.
Charles Chauvel, for example, walked away from his political career after being told by the supporters of Mr Cunliffe’s predecessor that his steadfast support for the Member for New Lynn would cost him a seat at any Cabinet Table presided over by David Shearer.
In Mr Chauvel’s case, Labour’s (and New Zealand’s) loss was the United Nation’s gain. There can be little doubt that Mr Cunliffe’s highly marketable skills would have been snapped-up just as quickly had he, too, decided that the game of politics was no longer worth the candle.
The morale of his supporters certainly flagged following the outrageous treatment meted out to him following the 2012 Labour Party Conference at Ellerslie. Not since the darkest days of Rogernomics in the late-1980s had Labour Party members witnessed such a venomous display of factional back-biting. But the member for New Lynn’s faith in his political destiny never wavered. Throughout it all, Mr Cunliffe conducted himself like one who has seen already the faces of Dame Fortune’s cards - and knows he cannot lose.
Runner-Up: David Cunliffe staged a remarkable comeback in 2013, but in his first 100 days as Labour leader failed to capture the electorate's imagination as completely as John Key did between December 2006 and February 2007 .
And so it proved. Quite out of the blue Mr Shearer folded his cards, gathered-up what was left of his stake, and left the table. From that point on Mr Cunliffe’s victory was assured. Only the most rank skulduggery could have robbed him of the victor’s crown - and when it came to digging skulls his opponents simply did not know where to sink their spades.
But, winning the leadership of the Labour Party is a long way from winning the confidence of the country. To do that one must not only have a story to tell the country, it must also be a story the country is wanting to hear.
Now, you might object that Mr Cunliffe has barely been 100 days at the helm of the Labour Party, and that a great many more days than that are required to open the ears of the electors. My answer to that objection would, however, be a blunt as it is bleak: 100 days was all the time Mr Cunliffe had.
One year out from an election most voters have already made up their minds. To have any chance at all of changing those minds a new leader has to hit the ground running with a message he knows the electorate is longing to hear.
And that brings me to the man who, I believe, must once again step forward to claim the title of New Zealander of the Year.
John Key became Leader of the Opposition in November 2006, and by 6 February 2007 he had the country’s full attention. His visit to McGehan Close, a poor street in Labour’s Auckland heartland, marked him out as a National Party politician of a very different sort - a man quite unlike his flinty-faced predecessor, Dr Don Brash. His invitation to take one of the street’s residents - a young girl named Aroha - to the 2007 Waitangi Day celebrations (an invitation she eagerly accepted) only added extra icing to the cake.
Seven years on, Mr Key remains New Zealanders’ overwhelming choice as “Preferred Prime Minister”, and his party continues to poll in the high 40s. This would be a remarkable feat under the old first-past-the-post electoral system, it is nothing short of astonishing under a system of proportional representation.
Nothing that has happened in 2013: not the GCSB controversy; not the partial privatisation of state assets; not Kim Dotcom; and certainly not David Cunliffe; have been able to make even a sizeable dent in Mr Key’s apparently impregnable political armour.
For holding our attention - and our affection - for yet another year, I cannot forebear from naming John Key, New Zealander of the Year.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 December 2013.