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Bryce Edwards
Bryce Edwardshttps://democracyproject.nz/
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

Bryce Edwards: Labour’s terrible 2022 has been National’s opportunity

Politics 2022 news

Political commentators and journalists have nominated their politicians of the year, and it’s telling that the three main nominees are all from the political right: Christopher Luxon, Nicola Willis, and David Seymour.

The brickbats, in contrast, are almost universally for Labour Government Ministers – especially Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, deputy Grant Robertson, Nanaia Mahuta, Willie Jackson, and Andrew Little.

Whether this indicates that the media and commentariat have turned against Labour is an interesting point. But it certainly does reflect that it’s been an awful political year for the incumbents, and an encouraging turning point for the Opposition.

Labour’s annus horribilis

Writing today in the Otago Daily Times, Chris Trotter says that 2022 really can be labelled an “annus horribilis”, especially for the Labour Government. He says Labour’s year has been blighted by struggles with “Covid, Co-Governance and Climate-Change”. He argues that the controversy over co-governance has been most evident in the flagship Three Waters reforms, where “there is more than a whiff of totalitarian indifference to public opinion in the Labour Caucus’s blunt refusal to change course”.

Trotter contrasts Labour’s intransigence over Three Waters to climate change initiatives where the Government is willing to change course and capitulate in the face of any opposition to change. The problem, according to Trotter, is a lack of staunch environmentalists in the Labour Party: “Maybe, if Labour possessed an environmental faction as strong as its Māori faction more progress might have been made on Climate Change.”

More sympathetic commentators have explained that Labour’s bad year has been because Labour went into 2022 with a backlog of legislation and policy reforms that had been held back by Covid – especially health reforms, the climate change emissions framework, the RMA overhaul, and Three Waters. Unfortunately for Labour, none of these were vote winners in 2022.

Even pro-Labour commentators are lamenting Labour’s terrible year. Shane Te Pou concluded Labour had been a “flop” in 2022, saying his party experienced, “Bad week after bad week. As a supporter, I’m not sure what the circuit breaker is. This government is looking like it has run its course.”

Similarly, the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire says: “On a host of issues, but three waters above everything, the narrative has been not so much lost as incinerated.” Ben Thomas named Ardern as one of the worst performing politicians of 2022, pointing out that: “Labour has lost around a third of its support since 2020 and looks directionless.”

Labour was also blighted by lots of unforced errors in 2022. One of the most glaring was Michael Wood’s surprise announcement of a new car-free Auckland harbour bridge with a price tag of $700 million. It was soon axed. The Government also very quickly jettisoned David Parker’s proposed “KiwiSaver tax”.

Although Labour hoped that their reforms in health would be a popular, transformative and landmark legacy for this term in government, it hasn’t gone well at all in 2022, and health minister Andrew Little has had a terrible year. The health portfolio is always tough, but commentator Danyl Mclauchlan says, “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a minister so bitterly at war with their own sector.”

Similarly, Tova O’Brien singles out Little – along with Immigration minister Michael Wood – for condemnation in her end-of-year account: “For not putting their two significantly bright but pigheaded minds together to fix the nursing crisis – even failing to recognise that it is a crisis.”

In a year that has been dominated by the economy, some have pointed to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson as falling short. Liam Hehir says he’s been a “flop” this year for Labour because he “lost control of the economic narrative. Despite being pretty capable and still a real asset for the government, the Minister of Finance simply has no credible message to sell on the cost of living crisis.”

In contrast, the Stuff parliamentary press gallery announced Robertson as their runner-up for Politician of the Year, saying he’s “one of Labour’s most skilled political operators – Robertson has done more to keep the show on the road this year than is publicly visible. Despite being less than successful in crafting a new post-Covid economic narrative, he has been the glue that has held the Government together this year.”

They point out that “financial markets consistently think his fiscal plans are credible.” Similarly, commentator Morgan Godfery argues in his end-of-year column that Robertson has achieved great things in the economy and should be celebrated for his cautious style as a classic social democrat, delivering in health and education spending.

Godfery says Ardern’s performance this year has been “passable”, on a level with Christopher Luxon’s, but he singles out Willie Jackson as the top performer for Labour, arguing “he’s working away quietly in the background” achieving progress for the Government, and that Labour needs to focus more on Jackson’s achievements in 2023 to win the election.

Godfery uses the example of the media’s negative portrayal of Jackson’s work on the RNZ-TVNZ merger as a sign that they are now “dead set against his government and its ministers”.

The Spinoff’s Stewart Sowman-Lund says in his end of year wrap up that Jackson “was the absolute worst salesperson for an already unpopular policy.” Sowman-Lund gives praise instead to rising Cabinet star Kiri Allan: “Allan has worked very hard to take up the title of ‘fixer’ in 2022, closing loopholes relating to political donations, dealing with the drama of hate speech legislation, tackling crime and wielding the biggest stack of bills in government.”

Similarly, the NBR’s Grant Walker has pronounced the Justice Minister as his “Labour politician of the year”, describing her as “a very confident and competent minister.”

Chris Hipkins took over the Police portfolio from Poto Williams this year. And the Stuff press gallery have been impressed with his performance, awarding him the prize of “Fixer of the year”, saying he’s “proven to be a nimble operator.”

Other rising stars in Labour identified in the end-of-year political columns include Arena Williams, Deborah Russell, Barbara Edmonds, and Rachel Brooking.

Despite Labour’s woeful year, there are some commentators who point out that any incumbents would have had a terrible 2022, as the Government has had to deal with the dominant issues of Omicron, a cost of living crisis, and serious crime and housing problems. For these reasons, Herald political editor Claire Trevett says, “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deserves more credit for the year just gone than she will ever really get.”

National’s improving year

Both the Herald and Stuff newspapers have awarded Politician of the Year to National Party leaders – Claire Trevett to Christopher Luxon, and Stuff to deputy leader Nicola Willis.

In terms of polling, National’s support has risen by nearly a third. By some accounts, the overall centre-right has gone this year from being 25 points behind the centre-left to now being about 7 points ahead. This is a significant turnaround in just one year.

Much of this is down to Labour’s poor performance, but National’s new leadership can take some credit. In announcing the National Party (and Act) as his political “champions” of the year, Danyl Mclauchlan says they have transformed in 2022 “into a highly effective opposition”.

Similarly, Ben Thomas says Luxon is one of the top performers of the year because he “brought National from basket-case to favourite for 2023 within one year of his leadership and barely two years in parliament.”

Most commentators also point out that Luxon hasn’t had a perfect year. There have been many stumbles and gaffes, and he’s still struggling to portray his vision for the country.

National’s deputy Nicola Willis is actually getting a lot more praise in the end-of-year summaries. For example, the Herald’s Claire Trevett says Luxon would not have succeeded this year without Willis as his deputy, and she is the more substantive politician, giving weight to National’s economic approach.

In awarding Willis their Politician of the Year, the Stuff press gallery say Willis has “succeeded in carving out a compelling economic narrative”, and has been highly adept at “boiling down economic issues to simple lines that appeal to voters”.

Here’s Stuff conclusion: “She is often cleaning up small gaffes Christopher Luxon tends to make, often explaining his position on various issues better than he does. Internally, she also works to fill in the gaps in Luxon’s political knowledge, sometimes limited by his years abroad. She is a nimble orator – much more so than her leader. A considered and skilful politician. She is also ruthless.”

Numerous other commentators have picked Willis as the top politician of the year, sparking increased speculation about a possible future as National Party leader.

Another rising star who has appeared in the end-of-year commentaries is National’s Education and Immigration spokesperson, Erica Stanford. In the Spinoff website’s collection of pundit awards, Stanford was pronounced as a stand-out politician of the year by Toby Manhire, Lara Greaves, Stewart Sowman-Lund, Tova O’Brien, Anna Rawhiti-Connell, and Ben Thomas. O’Brien cited her for her “Tireless and effective work on immigration”.

Of course, not all National MPs are doing well. And there have been plenty of brickbats for Sam Uffindell and Barbara Kuriger.

Other parties

The Act Party have been the clear third force in politics this year, with plenty of commentators citing David Seymour’s over-sized impact on the year. Some have awarded him the Politician of the Year award, even saying he’s the real Leader of the Opposition.

The Stuff press gallery anointed Seymour as their “Opposition MP of the year”, saying he’s had “another stellar year”. And writing on the Spinoff, Andrew Geddis also picked Seymour as one of the “champions” of the year: “Hate him or only mildly dislike him, he helms the most disciplined team in the house and looks to have established the Act Party as a major-minor component of the next government.”

Act MP Karen Chhour has been singled out for praise for her performance this year, with Stuff awarding her the prize as “Backbencher of the year”, explaining that the first-term MP is “the most vocal opposition MP on child welfare” and has achieved “widespread respect across Parliament”.

Deputy leader Brooke van Velden has also done well this year, and Grant Walker of the NBR says he considers her the Politician of the year.

The Greens have had a very quiet year, but are doing well in the polls. Of course, the Greens always do well as the default receptacle of leftwing voters disappointed by the more centrist Labour Party.

The Greens’ biggest episode of the year was the very damaging coup attempt against co-leader James Shaw, which ultimately just showed that the Greens were internally divided. They also have the blessing and curse of having an MP, Chloe Swarbrick, who is more popular than the party leaders, fuelling continued speculation about the future leadership of the party.

Te Pāti Māori have had a solid year. Both co-leaders have been high-profile and impactful in debates. And at the end of the year, there are plenty of predictions that the party will only grow more powerful during 2023, and do even better at the election.

Most columnists and journalists have made special mention of the increasing political divisions in 2022. There are fears of growing intolerance and toxicity in our politics. And, of course, it was the Parliamentary Protests of February and March that were the single biggest event of the political year. Having come almost out of nowhere but also quickly ended in flames, and not to be revived anywhere, those protests are a reminder of how much flux there is in New Zealand politics and society, and how much things might still change in 2023.

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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