The year in politics: The highs and lows of an intense political year

12:01 pm on 27 December 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The main parties are ending the political year with their support levels delicately poised and there's no certainty Jacinda Ardern's government will win a second term in the 2020 election.

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Photo: RNZ

After a year of successes, scandals and failures Labour and National are holding their support at levels not much different to election night 2017. The figures show the government can't take a second term for granted.

December's 1News Colmar Brunton poll gave National 46 percent (44.4 percent on election night) and Labour 39 percent (36.9 per cent on election night). The headlines said that on those figures National could form a government, but that didn't take account of New Zealand First. Labour's coalition partner didn't feature because it has been running at less than 5 percent and would have no seats - an unlikely election result given its track record of picking up support during the campaign.

Both main parties held their support through to year end despite suffering setbacks which they struggled to contain.

National began 2019 before Parliament had returned from recess, unveiling a plan that promised to align tax brackets with cost of living increases, putting an end to "bracket creep". The government announced it was scrapping KiwiBuild's interim targets, avoiding further humiliation by failing to meet them.

In February there was a blip in relations with China. The GCSB refused to allow Huawai to be involved in the G5 rollout, the opening of the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism event was postponed and arrangements for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to visit Beijing appeared to have been put on hold. There was no lasting damage - the event eventually took place and Ardern visited China.

In March National's Jami-Lee Ross nightmare back to haunt the party when the police handed its election donation inquiry to the Serious Fraud Office. Ross had claimed a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman had been split into smaller amounts so the donor's identity did not have to be revealed. The investigation is ongoing. In October 2018 Ross made serious accusations against party leader Simon Bridges, including that he was a corrupt politician, but did not deliver any evidence. The MP left the party to become an independent, vowing to retain his Botany seat in the next general election. That's highly unlikely, and late in the year National nominated former Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon as its candidate.

The Tax Working Group released recommendations which included a capital gains tax, and National began an intense campaign against it. That was gaining momentum, but on March 15 the Christchurch mosque attacks eclipsed politics and cast a dark shadow across New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern at a local community meeting in Christchurch

Jacinda Ardern at a local community meeting in Christchurch Photo: RNZ / SIMON ROGERS

Ardern's heartfelt reaction won international praise, and she vowed the change the country's gun laws. She did, and the bill outlawing semi-automatic weapons swept through Parliament. By year-end the gun by-back scheme had largely achieved its objectives, despite strong lobbying by owners.

In May, the government capitulated on a capital gains tax and it was taken off the table. "Not because I don't believe in it but because I don't believe New Zealand does," Ardern said. Her announcement raised questions about whether the government had ever intended introducing it. Winston Peters didn't claim credit but hinted NZ First had been involved in the decision. "We heard, we listened and acted," he said.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson presented his Wellbeing Budget in that month, putting billions of dollars into mental health services and indexing benefits to wage increases amid a raft of social policy changes.

Unfortunately for Robertson, publicity around his good deeds was overshadowed by a furious row with serious implications. In the lead-up to the Budget, Bridges scored National's hit of the year. He revealed budget details without saying where they had come from, and Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf reacted by saying his department's website had been systematically hacked. It was a meltdown moment, and Robertson joined in. "We have contacted the National Party to request that they do not release any further material, given that the Treasury said they have sufficient evidence that indicated the material is a result of a systematic hack and is now the subject of a police investigation," he said.

Bridges was outraged and demanded Robertson's resignation. He knew, although Robertson at the time didn't, that there had not been any hacking. The information had been wrongly uploaded on Treasury's website and had been legitimately discovered. Treasury abandoned the hacking claim and announced the police were no longer involved.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Makhlouf had made a mistake and was in an invidious position. He was due to leave and become the head of Ireland's Central Bank. In Ireland there were opposition calls for the appointment to be put on hold, but he went on to get the job.

In May Parliament experienced one of its strangest weeks. Speaker Trevor Mallard told Morning Report that there could be a rapist in the precinct. Fear swept through the corridors and horrified MPs said they felt they were under suspicion. It transpired that a woman had laid complaints against a parliamentary staffer, who was stood down. Mallard assured everyone Parliament was a safe place to work in, admitting that he could have handled the situation better.

In April National faced a potentially destabilising problem. Speculation began about Bridges' leadership after Newshub reported: "Before the Easter break MPs approached Newshub with concerns about Bridges' leadership abilities, with one saying the numbers were firming up for Judith (Collins)." Similar reports began emerging from other media outlets and Bridges was regularly besieged by reporters asking questions about an imminent caucus coup. National's leader did his best to shrug it off but did deliver a message to his caucus about the importance of unity. After a few weeks it became apparent there were no challengers, and the speculation fizzled out.

Mid-year favoured the government. Ardern announced troops would be pulled out of Iraq by June 2020 and Defence Minister Ron Mark delivered a $20 billion military shopping list signed off by Cabinet. National supported both initiatives. Ardern reshuffled her cabinet and put Megan Woods in charge of housing, leaving behind Phil Twyford's KiwiBuild train wreck. Woods was heading a team of ministers who would "recalibrate" the affordable housing scheme.

The Farm Debt Mediation Bill was launched, which went some way towards alleviating the growing concerns about agricultural sector debt.

But the tide of political fortune was soon to change. A young woman revealed details of an alleged sexual assault by a party worker and media coverage was intense. The young Labour activist, and others who said they had laid complaints against the same staff member, claimed they had been ignored when they approached the party hierarchy. The buck stopped with Ardern, a champion for women who won international acclaim for her "Me too, We too" speech at the United Nations. For weeks, there was no clear air for the prime minister as she was persistently questioned about the scandal. Party president Nigel Haworth resigned and Maria Dew QC was appointed to investigate and find out what really happened. Her report was released on Parliament's last sitting day, and it concluded the sexual assault allegation could not be substantiated. RNZ reported it cast major doubt on the accuracy of the complainant's story. Dew had discovered the complainant and the man had been in a consensual relationship for eight months before the alleged incident.

In November the End of Life Choice Bill was passed by Parliament, 69 votes to 51. ACT leader David Seymour drafted it and worked through numerous changes to gain a majority. At NZ First's insistence, it will only become law if it is supported by voters at a referendum to be held at the same time as next year's general election.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

It won't be the only referendum to take place on that date. Voters will also be asked to make a decision on the legalisation of cannabis, a Green Party initiative. In December Justice Minister Andrew Little had his first stab at drafting a bill, and he has a lot of work still to do before it can be put to a referendum. Unlike the End of Life Choice Bill, it will have to wait until after the election for the incoming government to put it through Parliament - if that is what a majority of voters want.

As Parliament's year drew to a close, National began setting its election year stage with a tough law and order policy featuring "Strike Force Raptor" to take on gangs. The party promised that under a National-led government "law and order will be done differently."

The government did the same, with Robertson unveiled a spending binge that cut across the Greens' dislike of road-building. The government, he said, would spend $12 billion on infrastructure over the next four years with $6.8m going on roads. It didn't escape National's attention that some of the previous government's Roads of National Significance projects were being resurrected after being put on hold.

Those initiatives are just a taste of what is to come as Ardern's coalition government prepares to show voters why she's worth a second term and National, still the most popular party in Parliament, looks for ways to defeat her.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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