Opinion: Patrick Gower's Politician of the Year
Tuesday 9 Dec 2014 2:54 p.m.
In a political year defined by a general election, Dirty Politics, Judith Collins, Kim Dotcom and a revolving door of Labour leaders, 3 News political editor Patrick Gower dishes out his annual Politician of the Year awards.
POLITICIAN OF YEAR: JOHN KEY
There could simply be no other. John Key was out on his own this year for one simple reason - he won.
Yes, the Prime Minister's performance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
In fact, Key went from the crème-de-la-crème to the crème-de-la-crap at times.
But Key won. He got National across the line. It was an incredible victory. It defied the political gravity of a third-term and was against the odds of the campaign.
The record speaks for itself - a third term, 47 percent of the vote, 60 seats in the Parliament, effectively a majority thanks to its lapdogs.
Translated: it is called real power. It is what politicians crave. There is no real handbrake. Key and National basically get to do what they want for another three years.
To get that was far from easy for Key. The Dirty Politics scandal could have destroyed other campaigns and finished off other leaders.
The election campaign was weird. It was dark too. And it was incredibly brutal for all those involved.
There is no doubt that Dirty Politics knocked Key over at first - National lost control of its campaign.
Yet Key survived. He stood his ground. In the words of son Max, he "manned up".
It was like Key absorbed all of the negativity directed at him, and then, like some kind of comic book character, spewed it all out again as some kind of positive force.
There was unpredictability everywhere: Whaledump, Rawshark, Winston, Colin, rappers, hacker(s), Dotcom, Eminem, Cortex and don't forget Speargun.
National and Key's defence was simple - they had a plan, and they stuck to it.
"The plan" is a grinding, relentless strategy based on simple messaging and a self-belief that the Key juggernaut can eventually ride out almost anything.
It has been proven time and time again, and this time was proven on the biggest stage (an entire election campaign) facing the greatest degree of difficulty (an entire book of scandal).
Key's politics this year was a potent combination of on the "macro" level, stubbornly sticking to strategy, and on the "micro" level, being what's called a "clutch hitter" or "big game player" who rises to the occasion.
Key made big moves at a strategic level and stuck to them, and he made big calls in day-to-politics that worked for him too.
On the macro level, one part of the plan that worked well this year was Key's semi-upfront declaration of his potential coalition partners at the start of the year.
Looking back, it really was a masterstroke - it gave voters a clear picture of how a National Government would work.
Key also gave himself the space with the decision about giving Colin Craig a electorate seat deal and even more space when it came to working with Winston Peters.
In the end, he ruled out a seat deal for Craig because he looked too crazy and wanted him at arms-length. It was a big call but a good call - imagine if Key had been apologising for Craig on the campaign trail as well as dealing with Dirty Politics.
With Winston, Key kept him at arms' length. But by not ruling Peters out, he always kept himself in the game, it always looked like National could form a Government no matter how bad the polls got.
Key's and National's strategy included a bedrock of policies tailored for the centre voter, and conservative political management. They then turbo-charged this with an overload of "Brand Key" marketing.
Key used these to keep his vice-like grip on the centre-ground, and if he has that - National wins.
On the micro level, it is worth noting that Key is more than happy to get down and dirty and turn political street fighter when it suits him, and he did that to good effect this year.
While much of "Brand Key" is built on the nice guy image, it is worth noting that Key can be ruthless and absolutely vicious.
The attack on Cunliffe over the secret trust is in a case in point: Key sure had an opportunity to nail his opponent, and he really went for it.
The same with Donghua Liu - Key floated rumours about how much the donation to Labour was, rumours that were wrong.
This frightening "go-for-the-jugular" streak was seen again at the Christchurch Press debate, when Key went after Cunliffe knowing full well the aggressive side wasn't being watched by a big audience.
Key was ready for Glenn Greenwald, playing the politics to his advantage, dismissing the Pulitzer Prize winner as "Dotcom's little henchman", who was "on Dotcom's payroll". Anyone who hadn't really heard of Greenwald instantly wrote him off, no matter whether Key was right or wrong.
In short, Key gave as good as he got.
It was quite a ride. Key got rid of Collins at the last available opportunity and he rode the wave from the Dotcom flop home to victory.
Steven Joyce's recent admission that National was polling at 44 percent in the final week and might have needed Winston to govern shows just how different it could have been.
Another factor often overlooked about Key is how well he is performing on the international stage.
Key's opponents tend to dismiss him as a greaser and name-dropper and to my mind this is incredibly short-sighted.
Let's get real: the Hawaii golf game with Barack Obama was huge.
The strong personal relationship with China's Xi Jin Ping is equally massive.
Key put his shoulder to the wheel on the successful Security Council bid - another global biggie.
Going to the G20 may have been lucky, but still a bonus.
He's built a network of international leaders, and despite dropping his "quarterly clangers" like the Philip John Smith lunch call, Key acquits himself incredibly well out in the world and this term's goal will obviously be to turn traction into results.
But let's face it: Key's end of the year was a disaster zone. He handled the Whale Oil issue appallingly, he looked arrogant and it looked like he was lying. He looked like an ordinary politician.
Key's trademark "defensive crouch" became more like a toddler's tantrum.
He tried to make the whole SIS report really complicated and confuse the hell out of everyone. His luck deserted him, and the story turned into something everybody could understand - telling porkies about texting Whale Oil.
The Key juggernaut came off the rails; the plan didn't really work.
And although the summer break is upon us and he has probably ridden it out, Key looked the weakest he ever has. To add to it, Andrew Little got one over him. The unbeatable Key looked vulnerable - he looked beatable.
It was a rare sight and only for a fleeting moment - Key looking weak and the Opposition looking strong. It could be a turning point.
But for the rest of the year it was the other way around - Key was strong, and the Opposition were weak.
This was a year where a majority of the time Key was "in the zone". He managed to get right in the zone at just the right times.
And when Key is in the zone he is unbeatable.
That's why Key and National won.
And that's why John Key is my politician of the year.
RUNNER-UP (OPPOSITION POLITICIAN): ANDREW LITTLE
Only two people can be Prime Minister in 2017 - and Andrew Little is one of them. A remarkable rise for someone who lost his seat and nearly didn't make it into Parliament on the list.
He won the leadership thanks to the Union vote, but hey - who cares? This is about politics, it is about winning. Little used the tool that was available to him and he won the leadership.
Little has the great benefit of low expectations. But it has been a flawless start so far - and Kiwis love an underdog.
He did what no Labour leader has done and knocked Key over in the House. If he achieves nothing more, he will always have that.
But it is much bigger than that. Little made Key look beatable.
Little took a political moment and turned it to his advantage - exactly what Key is good at doing.
RUNNER-UP (BACKBENCHER): KELVIN DAVIS
Kelvin Davis stood up to Kim Dotcom and stopped him. This included annihilating Hone Harawira's political career in an upset victory in Te Tai Tokerau that few pundits expected.
The great irony of this incredible victory is that the gormless Labour Party hierarchy didn't want Davis to do it.
And instead of making a virtue of Davis taking on Dotcom, Labour tried to ignore it.
Davis now has a name for himself in middle New Zealand and there are few, if any, Labour politicians who have that.
Davis is even talked about as a potential Labour leader. I say that is unlikely - but deputy may be possible.
RUNNER-UP ("POLITICAL NON-POLITICIAN"): A three-way tie
Remarkably, much of the political impact this year was made by people who aren't politicians, so Political Non-politician of the Year replaces the Minor Party Politician of the year award this year. The Conservatives, Maori Party, Act, United Future and Mana simply had no real impact.
Dotcom's influence was like some kind of cyber-boomerang, he took out his own people - Hone Harawira being a huge loss and travesty but all of Hone's making. But Dotcom took down Laila Harre too.
But Dotcom's biggest influence was on National. He helped his enemy Key get his massive win. Kiwis were scared of Dotcom, they got out and voted against him. Talk about a perverse outcome for Dotcom.
Perverse outcomes for Whale Oil as well as his boomerang came back and took out his hero Judith Collins.
Whale Oil also inflicted one of the biggest "hits" (to use his terminology) on John Key, another perverse outcome.
Dirty Politics without doubt had a huge impact, and will continue to do so. The fallout is still going and so is the police case against the hacker.