Justice Minister Andrew Little is NZResources.com’s Politician of the Year, standing head and shoulders above a sea of mediocrity which is the Coalition Government.
Little could have led Labour to one of its worst ever defeats in 2017. Instead, he did what others feared to do, stepped down voluntarily in favour of his deputy Jacinda Ardern who went on to lead Labour to an unlikely position of being able to form the current Government.
As a Minister, Little has impressed by being forthright and blunt on issues he feels passionately about.
One of the most difficult tasks was deciding to go ahead with re-entering the Pike River coal mine site where 29 miners lost their lives in 2010 following an explosion.
Little was head of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union when the explosion occurred and he was criticised by many for the union not doing enough to ensure the safety of the men involved.
But as Justice Minister, he pushed through with an independent inquiry and received approval to spend about $23 million on the re-entry, something most of the still grieving families agree with.
“The re-entry method I have approved is the simplest and safest plan,” he said.
The Pike River Recovery Agency recommended a course of action to enter the drift, using the existing access tunnel, as the safest option.
Also as Justice Minister, Little is ushering in some major changes to New Zealand’s criminal justice system. The Government has scrapped National’s mega prison plans and is considering different thresholds for bail and imprisonment.
Little is also working on ways to lower the Maori population in prison, something which has become an acute embarrassment for every recent government.
As Treaty Negotiations Minister, Little has made progress, carrying on the excellent work of former Treaty minister Chris Finlayson.
Like Finlayson, Little has reached an impasse with Nga Puhi after the tribe rejected a mandate of its settlement. Leading up to the vote, Little led a roadshow across the country and in Australia promoting the new mandate. But it was voted down by 73 hapu to 31 in support. The individual vote was 51% in favour and 48% against but it needed 75% in favour to pass.
Little said he was disappointed but the best thing was to “take a bit of a breather.” He is not giving up.
Just this week, Little confirmed a referendum on recreational cannabis use will be held at the 2020 election and it will be binding. It is part of the Labour-Green Party confidence and supply agreement.
Little is in a hurry to achieve his goals and needs to be recognised for both his work and the fact he has yet to put a foot wrong, unlike colleagues ahead of him on the pecking order.
Health Minister David Clark comes a close second to Little as a Minister who gets things done. New Zealand’s health system is close to collapse in some areas of the country.
Though National increased health spending every year it was in power, health costs have got out of control. Higher wage claims from nurses and doctors mean the Government has to find extra spending, but Clark has stayed strong and focused on the outcomes for patients.
Health is one of the least sought after jobs in New Zealand politics and though he has made mistakes, Clark is at least addressing some of the fundamental issues.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern still attracts international media attention by being young and liberal and in charge of a country. However, her reputation at home is starting to fade as Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters rides roughshod over the Government’s official foreign affairs policy.
Ardern is also caught up in some damaging text message revelations and is now changing her phone number.
For National, shadow leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, is the top politician of the year. With his extensive and detailed knowledge of Parliament’s rules, he is ensuring National has plenty of wins in the House during question time.
He also sacrifices himself by arguing with Speaker Trevor Mallard – and getting thrown out of the debating chamber – to ensure attention turns from a National blunder to the media focusing on his ongoing butting of heads with Mallard.
The most ambitious National politician is Judith Collins. While she does not yet have the numbers to challenge leader Simon Bridges, Collins is making every post a winning one in her questions in the House to her work around the country.
Be very afraid.
*Dene Mackenzie is a Dunedin political commentator.