When the foreshore was just somewhere you played cricket

19:31, Mar 21 2010

This is my 372nd column as a political reporter. It's also my last. It will be eight years ago next month that my editor at The Press in Christchurch asked me to write a weekly column on politics. It seemed a good idea at the time.

Eight years isn't such a long time, but looking back on all those weekly columns is a sobering reminder of just how much has changed. When I arrived in the parliamentary press gallery the Alliance was still in Parliament. So were NZ First and Winston Peters. Bill English was the leader of the National Party and Don Brash was the governor of the Reserve Bank.

Rod Donald and David Lange were still very much alive, Richard Prebble led ACT, the Maori Party was simply Labour's Maori caucus, Helen Clark was prime minister and John Key was just a wealthy upstart carpetbagger freshly returned from London and Merrill Lynch.

No-one knew what a Paintergate was, let alone a corn one. Shane Ardern had yet to test the steps of Parliament with a tractor, the foreshore was just something you played beach cricket on, and no-one paid any attention to the Exclusive Brethren. Or Bob Clarkson's testicles.

One of the luxuries of hindsight is seeing what you wrote that turned out to be right – and what you got wrong. I dismissed ACT leader Rodney Hide's chances in Epsom, and he's never let me forget it. I anointed former ACT MP Deborah Coddington as the party's next leader, and he's never let me forget that, either.

I did, however, manage to pick Mr Key as New Zealand's next prime minister as early as December 2006 (hardly prescient, you might say) and Paula Bennett as the next social development minister.


Any political correspondent learns from their audience, however, and I am indebted to the readers who took the time to keep me on the straight and narrow – in particular, the tireless efforts of J Macbeth Dann, of Christchurch, to alert readers of the letters column to the dangers of my "ceaselessly blue-tinged" commentary. "Colin Espiner's article on the US elections is one of the most thoughtful and balanced he has written all year," Dann wrote of a piece I filed from America in October 2006, adding: "You could leave him there and replace him with a less-biased political editor."

There's a popular view that journalists are cynical and bitter; press gallery journalists doubly so. Yet I've found I've become less so over the years. When I started writing about politics I thought all politicians were venal and self-serving. Now I believe only some of them are.

Most of the 122 MPs who sit in Wellington each week at your expense genuinely want to make the country a better place. They may be misguided, sometimes silly, occasionally foolish. But very few are genuinely bad.

The silliest of the lot, for my money, was the independent MP Gordon Copeland, of UnitedFuture. He once argued in favour of a form of what could only be described as perpetual motion by suggesting surplus water from hydro power stations be pumped uphill again to make additional electricity. He also got conned out of the leadership of his own political party and overlooked voting on the very piece of legislation over which he left it – Sue Bradford's child discipline law.

Picking a loser from my years of watching politics isn't as easy. There have been countless embarrassments, numerous ministerial resignations and several MPs who ended up in jail. But the one who stands out for me is Dr Brash. He left a lucrative and well-respected post at the Reserve Bank to walk the plank of politics; a life for which he was eminently unsuited.

Nonetheless, his polarising views on race relations and welfare, and his schoolmasterly style, just about made him our most unlikely prime minister, before a combination of hubris, some humiliating gaffes and the earnest efforts of the Exclusive Brethren did him in. He left politics with his private and public life splashed through newspapers and has spent the years since in a bid to reclaim the respect in which he was once held.

My winner? It's such a cliche to say Miss Clark, but who else can such an accolade be awarded to? She dominated politics during my time at Parliament, alongside probably only Mr Peters and Dr Brash, and she was more successful than either.

Few party leaders can claim three straight election victories and, love her or loathe her, she altered the paradigm of New Zealand politics. She forced National to the political centre, introduced most of the social policies this government now promises to keep, and elevated political management to an art form.

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She got the relatively rare opportunity to leave politics on her own terms, rather than those of her party's executioners, and fooled us all with her denials that she was interested in a job at the United Nations. Turns out there was a plan B after all.

Special mention must go to the supporting actors: Michael Cullen, who paid off the country's net debt, whatever you think of his politics; former Green co-leaders Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons, for proving green politics could be mainstream; and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, for getting up again every time he's been knocked down.

The story of Mr English's political life is still being written, but few politicians have gone through quite so many highs and lows before their 50th birthday. As leader of National he was awful, but he's somehow managed to crawl his way back from a bloody leadership spill to within touching distance of the ultimate prize – the premiership. Will he ever make it? I personally doubt it, but in some ways he is more influential where he is.

Mr Peters was the most mercurial politician I came across. He could be very rude. He once called me a moron. He could also be incredibly charming. He would argue till death that black was white, and vice versa, usually after a drink or two. He was easily the most talented politician I saw, but also the laziest. The results were therefore never dull.

He was hated, respected and feared in equal measure. He was such a political colossus that it took until months after his demise to accept that he was really gone. Or is he?

I shouldn't leave out UnitedFuture's Peter Dunne. After all, he's the only MP to remain leader of the same political party throughout my time in the press gallery. And he's done so without any changes whatsoever. Same party, same views, same hair. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

I've left Mr Key till last. Although he's been in Parliament the entire time I've written on politics, he hasn't dominated political life until relatively recently. He's been a work in progress; an understudy, a relatively blank canvas still being painted.

He has been successful – so far – by observing what worked for Miss Clark and what didn't. By compromise, everyman appeal, self-deprecation, humour and humility. He is bright, business-like, and prefers the big picture to details. He doesn't suffer fools or sweat small stuff.

He could yet be a great prime minister. The question is whether he wants to be. He hasn't got Miss Clark's hunger, which might be a good thing. I wonder whether he'll tire of politics before it tires of him.

All politicians want a legacy, but few manage to achieve one. Most, like those who write about politics, get forgotten pretty quickly. That's probably as it should be, as there are too many political retreads around already. There's nothing as ex as an ex-MP, Michael Laws once said, and he should know.

If today's news is tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper, goodness knows what that makes today's political journalist. But I reckon I know some politicians with a few suggestions.

The Dominion Post