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A weird and wild political year

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 29/12/2014 Peter Wilson, Political Writer
John Key delivering his victory speech after winning the election. © Getty Images John Key delivering his victory speech after winning the election.

Politics was weird and wild during 2014, and no one can remember an election campaign like the one that gave National a third term on a record vote.

Labour was thrashed, but by year end had dealt with its demons and installed a leader who could be its saviour.

The caucus is healing and Andrew Little, unwanted by most of his MPs, is showing a confident decisiveness his predecessors so evidently lacked.

John Key, still a phenomenally popular prime minister, brushed off accusations of dirty politics that splattered the campaign.

And if ever a political strategy backfired, it was Kim Dotcom's "moment of truth" which used foreign whistleblowers to reveal the activities of the government's spy agencies.

The government countered the claims and National's supporters, outraged by outsiders being used in an attempt to influence the result, turned out in numbers to make sure they didn't.

And while that was happening, the allegations in Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics, disrupted campaign agendas and eclipsed policy debates.

Key won the election partly because voters believed him when he dismissed the claims as a baseless left-wing plot to discredit the government.

They weren't all baseless, as post-election inquiries proved, and Key didn't end the year unscathed.

And his refusal to cut loose Cameron Slater, despite the harm caused by the Whale Oil blogger's relationship with former Beehive staffers, was, and still is, inexplicable.

Key was accused of misleading parliament and the media over his ongoing contact with Slater, and fumbled through the worst two weeks of his career as he tried to extricate himself.

Those two weeks coincided with Little's first two weeks as Labour leader, and gave him a dream start that ran through to parliament's summer recess.

The election gave National 47 per cent of the vote and 60 seats, better than its 2008 and 2011 results.

With ACT, United Future and the Maori Party returned, Key was easily able to stitch together a majority without needing NZ First.

Winston Peters increased his party's seats to 11 but faced another three years on the opposition benches, something which greatly disappointed him.

The balance of power he craved, and which opinion polls had shown was within his grasp, had been snatched away.

The question that will haunt parliament for the next three years is whether Peters, who turns 70 next year, has the determination and the stamina to run again in 2017.

If he doesn't, NZ First will almost certainly be history and the political landscape will dramatically change.

Its votes will be spread among others, with Labour and the Greens the only parties that can challenge National.

They couldn't do it on their own in the last election.

Labour crashed to its worst defeat in nearly a century, returning with 32 seats, while the Greens couldn't increase their tally and came back with 14.

Throughout the election, the polls had shown that only a Labour/Greens/NZ First coalition had a chance of beating National and with Peters sitting on the fence there was no assurance those parties would hold hands.

It was the prospect of an uncertain, three-way coalition that spooked many voters and helped ensure National's victory.

Between now and the next election, the opposition parties must get their act together if they're to have any chance of presenting themselves as a credible alternative government.

Key must counter that by running a competent, scandal-free government for the next three years.

Going for a fourth term, he won't get away with voter-unfriendly policies like asset sales or messy crises such as the Slater scandal which ended Judith Collins' ministerial career.

National knows popular prime ministers don't last forever and that in 2017, after nine years in office, its most dangerous enemy will be the "it's time for a change" voter attitude that can transcend policies and squeaky-clean records.

IN 2015 WATCH OUT FOR:

* Andrew Little strengthening his position as Labour leader and the party's poll rating improving

* At least one of Labour's former frontbenchers deciding it's time to move on

* Bill English announcing a budget surplus, despite Treasury's deficit forecast

* Judith Collins in the news again

* The teacher unions trying to pretend they're not doing what the government wants

* Te Ururoa Flavell making a much better job of Maori affairs than his predecessors

* Opposition parties targeting Sam Lotu-Iiga at question time

* Ron Mark causing strife in the debating chamber

* John Key being very careful not to mislead anyone

* Amy Adams proving she's got what it takes to be a senior minister

* ACT and United Future failing to get their ratings on the radar

* Winston Peters exposing a major scandal

* Annette King's interim tenure as Labour's deputy leader being extended

* The government firming up tax cuts in 2017

* Charter schools running into trouble.

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