Pressures on Govt this year less onerous than previously

The international fight against Isis has provided bookends to John Key's political year but it is a year that has proved remarkably mild on the domestic front compared with the turmoil of recent years.

It started with the formal announcement by Mr Key to send troop trainers to Iraq and ended with a request from the United States for a bigger contribution, an issue set to dominate early next year.

Disappointingly, the Government revealed the US request only when Defence Secretary Ash Carter said he had sent a letter more than a week ago to coalition partners.

Otherwise Mr Key and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee would have sat on it over the holidays with the public none the wiser until the Government had rehearsed some lines for January.

No deployment is without risk and they could have expected some erosion in the public appetite for the deployment.

But the increasing barbarism of Isis-inspired attacks has probably led to more support for New Zealand making a contribution, albeit a small one.

Political events in between the Isis bookends have caused upset, offence, interest, intrigue, allegations and inquiries but the Government has not faced the pressures of last term - not unless Nicky Hager has a surprise book for the Christmas stocking.

Mike Sabin resigned as Northland MP in January, but the resignation itself has been eclipsed by Winston Peters' victory there.

It has been a year of largely disciplined and becoming conduct by our MPs.

Judith Collins' comeback to the ministerial benches is not likely to change that either, unless she has learned nothing from her year in Siberia.

The parliamentary year ended on a conciliatory note, the mutual apologies by Mr Key and Labour leader Andrew Little detoxifying the poisoned atmosphere that had built up in the House over Labour's insults to the Speaker and Mr Key's claim Labour supported murderers and rapists.

Labour's decision to apologise to the Speaker had already been made when Mr Key called Mr Little on Tuesday after a meeting of the intelligence and security committee, on which they both sit, with a deal he could have refused.

But it suited them both to draw a line under their unparliamentary comments.

The temperature of the political year was also a result of the opposition not yet being in top gear.

Mr Little has been settling in in his first year as Labour leader but has had such a stabilising effect on a previously fractured party that he has to be a contender for politician of the year.

The Greens were necessarily distracted for much of the year with their own leadership issues. It took the first six months to elect James Shaw as male co-leader for Metiria Turei and the second six months for them to reorganise the Greens office to their mutual liking.

Mr Peters' win in Northland has meant a period of adjustment by him back to the demands of a constituency MP and less focus on point-scoring in Parliament.

But the by-election was so significant, he too is a contender for politician of the year.

His victory was a kick in the guts not just for Mr Key, who predicted Mr Peters' failure, but a humiliation for the party's chief election strategist, Steven Joyce.

It has also created an electoral beachhead for New Zealand First into the rural vote that will change Government thinking about the regions for the rest of the term.

Mr Key has finished the year with his popularity only marginally dented in opinion polls.

The risk for a leader after seven years is that familiarity will breed contempt. He is some distance from the ‘‘contempt'' end of the ratings spectrum but his overfamiliarity has been an Achilles heel this year.

Already privy to his vasectomy (he announced it at a post-Cabinet press conference in 2010), the public now knows about what he does and doesn't do in the shower, and his former propensity to pull ponytails. And, we hear from Australian journalists who can afford five-star accommodation at Apec, the PM is willing to pad across a hotel lobby in his bare feet, wearing only his togs and bathrobe.

Please, please, Prime Minister ... no more intimate details unless it is a health problem that affects your job - then text me first.

Ministers really proving their worth to him this year included Amy Adams in Justice; Chris Finlayson as spy agencies overseer; and Anne Tolley, who pushed through big changes to the Child, Youth and Family.

The two ministers under greatest pressure this year were Workplace Relations Michael Woodhouse over health and safety legislation, and Murray McCully over his unorthodox Saudi farm deal, which was designed to repair diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

Mr Woodhouse blighted his own record for good management. For Mr McCully, one of Mr Key's most trusted ministers, he will leave the verdict in the hands of the Auditor-general. Mr Key blushed when he heard what the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, says about him privately thanks to a switched-on mic at a TPP meeting, and it's even more flattering than what he says publicly - ‘‘a wonderful guy'' is how Mr Obama described Mr Key to Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.

But that endorsement is not enough to win him a nomination for politician of the year.

The title this year goes to his deputy and minister of finance, Bill English, for three reasons.

He delivered on the target of getting into surplus in 2014-15; his raising of social welfare benefits for families with children beyond CPI adjustments was the first in 43 years; and he is the driving force of a major and logical change in the way the public sector funds the provision of social services - the social investment approach, which at its essence means paying more for policies that work, and are shown to work.

But Bill English's social investment project is his biggest achievement. It sounds so logical that you'd think it had always been done that way - paying for what is proven to work.

But it hasn't always been.

It now provides a clear incentive for the public sector to find out with greater clarity what works and what doesn't.

If it becomes embedded, it will be a lasting change for good in the lives of the least fortunate.

Audrey Young is political editor of The New Zealand Herald.

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