The 2013 political year in review

TRACY WATKINS AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 08:26 14/12/2013

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It has been yet another turbulent political year - one dominated by spooks, leaks, Novopay and four ministerial scalps - interspersed with moments of drama, high farce, and even a dash of spaghetti western-style showdowns. 

The leadership of both Labour and the Maori Party has changed after David Shearer and Pita Sharples were forced to step down in the face of overwhelming evidence they no longer had the support of their colleagues or the wider party.

Bill English delivered his fifth Budget and while he is not back in surplus yet, he will probably get there next year and may even have some loose coins to throw around for the first time since he took over as finance minister in 2008.

Prime Minister John Key started the year showing he meant business, meanwhile, by sacking underperforming ministers Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson.

But it has hardly been plain sailing for National - it gained and lost troublesome MP Aaron Gilmore for being a self-confessed ''dickhead'' after a drunken night out; its handling of the critical education portfolio - coupled with the Novopay debacle - looks questionable, and its unpopular asset sales programme was a flop, even by its own yardstick.

An increasingly grumpy Mr Key had to sack his two support party ministers John Banks and UnitedFuture's Peter Dunne and the common theme for many of his woes during the year was German wrecking ball Kim Dotcom.

Meanwhile, National's rapidly shrinking list of allies means it has had to start casting further afield for friends and it has been forced to talk up Colin Craig's Conservative Party - despite many senior Nats privately believing its leader may be one huge liability.

Through it all, however, the economy has continued to pick up pace and National and John Key's poll ratings remain gravity-defying.If 2014 is anything like 2013, we are in for a roller coaster election year that kicks off with the Right and Left blocs virtually neck and neck.

2013's FIVE BIG THEMES

KIM DOTCOM AND SPOOKS

''Why are you going red prime minister?''

''I'm not. Why are you sweating?''

Cue the sound of duelling banjos and jangling spurs. Kim Dotcom and Prime Minister John Key went head to head during a select committee hearing into legislation overhauling international spy agency the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Dotcom hoped to plant the seeds of a future scandal by confidently asserting he had the smoking gun to prove Mr Key knows more about the big German than he has ever let on.

Mr Key laughed off Dotcom as full of bluster and told him to put up or shut up.

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But the trail of scalps left in Dotcom's wake - either directly or indirectly - shows he can not be taken lightly.

ACT leader John Banks will spend some of 2014 in the dock over allegations he filed a false electoral return in relation to donations from Dotcom and SkyCity.

The GCSB has had a massive shakeup, meanwhile, after being outed by Dotcom's legal team for spying on him illegally during an investigation into copyright charges.

The shake-up included the first ever public hearings fronted by the heads of GCSB and SIS after an overhaul of spy laws.

But Mr Key was dogged by questions throughout the year over his handling of the GCSB, including over how much he knew of the appointment of old school friend Ian Fletcher at its head.

And amid the fallout over an inquiry which found the GCSB may have spied on many more people illegally, Mr Key was forced to sack support minister Peter Dunne over suspicion he leaked details to a Fairfax journalist.

More trouble may be on the horizon, meanwhile, when the full extent of New Zealand's role as part of the international five-eyes spy network is revealed by documents obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

A TALE OF TWO DAVIDS

The year started with David Cunliffe on the back bench and in virtual disgrace after what was seen as his disloyalty to David Shearer at the party's annual conference.

It ended with him being anointed as leader with the overwhelming support of the unions and party members - though not his own caucus - especially in Auckland.

Mr Shearer eventually faced up to the inevitable; that he just didn't have the presentation skills or speed of wit necessary for a modern political leader; and stepped down in the face of a rebellion among his own MPs - although their preferred option Grant Robertson lost out to Mr Cunliffe.

The straws that broke the camel's back for Mr Shearer were his handling of the so-called ''man-ban'' and the awful symbolism of his decision to wave two dead fish around in the House.

But they were the final symptoms, not the cause.The leadership ''primary'' to replace him gave the party a ready-made platform to lift its profile and the polls responded, although by year's end they were sagging again putting a victory for the Left in 2014 no better than even money.

GAY MARRIAGE

Everyone predicted Louisa Wall's gay marriage would be cause for a re-run of the divisive Civil Union debate in 2004.

But there was more celebration than anger when the legislation passed with the backing of a majority of MPs, including Mr Key.

It was also the occasion for some of the most moving and sensitive speeches of the year - particularly among Parliament's ''white conservative middle-aged males'' like Chris Auchinvole who spoke out in support of the legislation.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson even became a (fleeting) gay icon after his moving speech was repeated worldwide because of lines like this: ''One of the messages that I had was that this bill was the cause of our drought.Well, in the Pakuranga electorate this morning it was pouring with rain. We had the most enormous big gay rainbow across my electorate''

ASSET SALES

National always knew its asset sales programme would be unpopular, but it has turned out to be ill-fated as well, although ministers are still bravely labelling it a success.

The Government campaigned on the plan at the last election and claimed a mandate to press ahead. The anti-asset sales referendum delivered the expected ''no'' vote but that was the least of the Government's troubles.

First coal producer Solid Energy fell over and then off the list of partial privatisation.

A disappointing number of new retail investors took up the offer of Mighty River Power shares, while the Labour-Green single power buyer policy depressed energy company share prices, as did the threat by Meridian's biggest customer, the Bluff aluminium smelter, to close down.

That prompted Finance Minister Bill English to fork out a $30m subsidy to keep it open in the interim.

Meridian's share price joined MRP ''underwater'' below issue price and the number of mum and dad investors was even more disappointing than in MRP.

The selldown of Air New Zealand shares was arguably the bright spot, although its shares quickly sagged below issue price, adding to general disappointment among investors in the programme.

At year's end there was a question mark over whether the final offering, genesis Energy, would go ahead despite continued upbeat comments from Mr English and other ministers.

However there were clear signs National will not repeat the exercise by promising more asset sales in next year's election campaign.

HOUSING

The year ends with house prices still soaring and interest rates poised to rise from as early as March -  twin headaches that will offset the good news on economic growth and haunt the Government through 2014 and into the election campaign.

As the housing market went ballistic in Auckland and soaring prices pushed houses out of reach of most first home buyers, the Reserve Bank's tough-love approach hit them even harder, by rationing credit and forcing up the size of deposit for many.

To make matters worse, low deposit buyers now face paying an interest rate margin on their loans, as banks respond to the new regime.

The Government fought behind the scenes to soften the impact on first home buyers but failed to sway governor Graeme Wheeler - though pressure from builders did persuade him to ''tweak'' the policy by exempting new builds from the credit ''speed limit''.

That has left Mr Key and his ministers arguing unconvincingly that the policy will mean lower interest rate rises than would otherwise be the case, but that will begin to look hollow once interest rates start heading north next year.

The Government's desperate attempts to free up land on the Auckland fringes for affordable housing is a sign that it knows it is vulnerable on an issue that resonates across generations - it's not just first home buyers who are disaffected by a housing market that seems skewed against them, it's their mums and dads and grandparents as well

THE FRONT BENCH FACE-OFF

The Fairfax political bureau delivers its verdict on the year's best and worst  performers.

THE GOVERNMENT

John Key 7.5/10

As always, the Government's most potent weapon, and has started reinventing himself with less (but still some) clowning around. But signs of arrogance starting to show through with his dismissive replies to questions as diverse as spying, his stance on the Springbok tour and the Chorus/ultrafast broadband fix.

Bill English 8/10

Steady as usual, and impressive at times. He can hardly claim credit for the Christchurch rebuild or the improving global economy, but unemployment is falling and the economy is billed as a ''rock star'' among developed nations. A disappointing outcome for the asset sales programme, however.

Gerry Brownlee 6.5/10

Christchurch East was a referendum on the Government's handling of the earthquake recovery in the worst affected suburbs. Insurance issues are still festering and the rebuild has a long way to go. Is it too big a job for one man?

Steven Joyce 5.5/10

While Mr Joyce still holds the ear of the prime minister and is the go-to for a crisis, his star may be fading. A strong performance resolving the Novopay debacle was offset by revelations of cavalier deal-making with the SkyCity convention centre. Problems with the UFB deal could have been resolved with a better contract, which Mr Joyce negotiated. He is fast gaining a reputation, meanwhile, as the Government's No1  micro-manger.

Chris Finlayson 6/10

Still making good progress on Treaty settlements and did God's work on media rights during the privileges committee report into the use of instructive powers around Parliament. Mistakes nastiness for wit.  

Paula Bennett 8/10

National's secret weapon, who still has her feet firmly on the ground. Has just lost her press secretary to the prime minister's office to fill a maternity leave vacancy, which is a sure sign that she is firmly in charge of her portfolio and seen as a safe pair of hands

.Judith Collins 7/10

Set about dismantling her predecessor's legacy in the justice portfolio with the same mix of ruthlessness and ambition that she has applied to her campaign to eventually succeed John Key. If you want an insight into her soul, follow her on Twitter. 

Tony Ryall 6/10

In terms of keeping health stories off the front page, Mr Ryall would probably score 11 out of 10, with the portfolio staying conspicuously drama-free for another year. But as state-owned enterprises minister, he also oversees the asset sales programme and Solid Energy, a seemingly never-ending gift for the Opposition.

Hekia Parata 3/10

Still failing to achieve, and the year ended badly with the Pisa test results showing New Zealand's educational ranking plummeting. Has so far survived being reshuffled out of the portfolio, but is it just a matter of time?

 Jonathan Coleman 7/10

A surprisingly effective minister. Made the toughest comments of any minister over the Chinese flying zone in the East China Sea, managed the withdrawal of our troops from Bamiyan with dignity, and further ''normalised'' military relations with the United States with little fanfare.

John Banks 1/10

The puppies have spoken, for his work on animal welfare, but beyond that a shocker of a year.

Peter Dunne 4/10

Slowly rehabilitating himself after getting sacked for defying the prime minister. Showing just enough independence, by opposing resource management changes and any legislative fix for Chorus, to remind the PM how handy it would be to have him fully back on side as a minister. 

Tariana Turia 4/10

Heading out of Parliament and keeping her head down within it. Not a distinguished year.

Te Ururoa Flavell 6/10

Has finally got his way on the co-leadership and now slowly building his profile, but has an uphill battle to ensure the Maori Party does not lose ground - and seats - in 2014. 

LABOUR:

David Cunliffe 8/10

A year ago he was the political equivalent of dog tucker, rejected by his colleagues as disloyal, and banished by his leader. He has restored the party's morale, dampened public signs of division and lifted Labour's poll ratings enough to make a difference.

David Parker 7.5/10

Still the engine room of the party's policy and the biggest brain in the caucus. Is holding the line on some of Labour's more controversial policies, including increasing the pension age. 

Grant Robertson 5/10

His tilt at the leadership, which started from a solid majority in the caucus, fell flat and, after relinquishing the deputy leadership, he is now looking to rebuild his career.

Clayton Cosgrove 6/10

While there has been no knockout punch on the Government from either Solid Energy's near-collapse or the underwhelming asset sales, Labour's state-owned enterprise spokesman has landed a series of body blows. Tends to sound like a broken record.

Chris Hipkins 6.5/10

Survived the subtle retribution by Mr Cunliffe against his opponents. Continues to impress in the education portfolio.

Annette King 4.5/10

A return to the front benches adds much-needed experience for Labour, but the Mother of the House has landed only glancing blows on Health Minister Tony Ryall.

Shane Jones 7/10

Enhanced his standing as the third wheel in the Labour leadership contest. Works tirelessly at getting stories into the media in a way his colleagues could learn to emulate. Provides a rallying point for the blokes and the green-sceptics in the party.

Jacinda Ardern 5/10

Once the fast-rising star of the Labour Party, she backed the wrong horse in the leadership race, which may account for her being shifted out of the social development portfolio.

THE GREENS:

Russel Norman 7.5/10

Deserves a lot of the credit for the Greens reaching a new plateau of support above 10 per cent. Lost some momentum after Mr Cunliffe took over Labour's leadership at a time when he was out of the country for an extended period. Still a go-to politician for the media when they are looking for a pithy line from the Opposition.

Metiria Turei 6/10

Again overshadowed by her co-leader, has had another steady year.  The fact that the Greens stayed in the news while Russel Norman was overseas shows she is co-leader in more than name only.

Kevin Hague 5/10

Didn't make such a strong impression as in 2012, when his sensible approach to ACC gave him a good platform.  

NZ FIRST:

Winston Peters 6/10

Nailed Peter Dunne during the controversy over who leaked the Kitteridge report to the media. Is still a force to be reckoned with, despite the pinch going on his vote from the Conservatives, Labour voters returning home and National still holding him at arm's length.

Tracey Martin 3/10

Won the deputy leadership of NZ First, but otherwise has made little impact and is a relative unknown among the voting public

MANA:

Hone Harawira 6.5/10

Made a splash with his push for food in schools. Took the bull by the horns with his decision to go to Nelson Mandela's funeral to represent anti-tour demonstrators from 1981, in the face of a one-dimensional  delegation picked by John Key.

THE SPEAKER

David Carter 6/10

Improving - but still more room for improvement.

- Fairfax Media

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