Today the Herald on Sunday published my predictions of which politicos will dominate New Zealand politics in 2011. Putting aside the various party leaders who can be assumed to be constantly in the news and making a big impact, I gave the newspaper a list of five politicians and powerbrokers who, despite not necessarily being household names, will be extremely important in shaping how we think about parliamentary politics during the year: Steven Joyce, Hone Harawira, David Cunliffe, Guyon Espiner, and Kevin Taylor. You can see my explanations within the article Crystal ball gazing into 2011 on the Herald website, or else in the blog post below, which includes the full text that I submitted, along with some details of those ‘influentials’ that I considered but kept off the list. [Read more below]
1) Steven Joyce – the Government’s campaign strategist
He might only be a first term parliamentarian, but Transport Minister Steven Joyce has not only shot straight into John Key’s Cabinet, but has also become one of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers, and is there because of his extremely valuable strategic skills and nous. Joyce is likely to be the National Party’s election campaign manager this year, just as he has been for the last two general elections, where he has performed extremely well. Despite a very short history within National, Joyce is trusted by both the organisation and John Key as an extreme pragmatist, a safe pair of hands and a very able political strategist. His internal critics see him as an ‘autocrat’, his allies see him as the power behind the PM, and the voters who meet him find him down-to-earth and likable. Gazing further into the political crystal ball, Joyce could also be seen as a future Minister of Finance and even a Prime Minister.
2) Hone Harawira – the pivotal force in Maori politics
2011 will be a crucial year for the Maori Party, especially as it navigates what is likely to be the biggest policy issue of the year – the replacement legislation for the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. As well as dealing with this crucial piece of legislation on which the party is deeply divided, the party also has to chart out its political and ideological trajectory going into the election – looking at coalition options, as well as the upcoming leadership transition. At the centre of all of this will be the renegade MP Hone Harawira, who will increasingly be the pivotal force within Maori politics. Harawira has already split the party by making himself a lightening rod for Maori discontent over the new Coastal and Marine Area bill. Now control of the party is his to inherit, and he will then have significant kingmaker powers in deciding which parties and politicians will govern the country. Also there’s a very real chance that if he doesn’t get his way in the Maori Party, he will defect to establish a new Left Party involving Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten, which will aim to retain his Te Tai Tokerau Maori electorate, thereby avoiding the need for the party to reach the all-important 5% MMP threshold. Such a party would be a serious shake up for the party system.
With party leader Phil Goff languishing in his role of regenerating Labour’s ideology, brand, and credibility, this task is increasingly falling to the ambitious opposition finance spokesperson. Regardless of how well Labour does in 2011, it will be David Cunliffe who will increasingly be seen as the key figure in Labour, and the future of the party. Incredibly talented, Cunliffe might just be able to achieve Labour’s current ambition of appealing to moderate, centrist voters while also managing to differentiate itself from a rather centrist National Party.
Every three years political parties and their candidates put themselves up for election to Parliament, trying to convince the public of their suitability for office and the merit of their plans for running society. Their messages are filtered through the mass media, who have to decide how to report these and what messages we need to be aware of. In New Zealand, the person that has the most responsibility for this is the political editor for the most popular television news channel – Guyon Espiner for TVNZ. More than anyone else, Espiner will decide what stories get to be aired, who is interviewed, how the leaders debates occur, and generally what becomes a political issue. This makes Espiner a powerful figure – if he thinks an issue is significant, much of the media will follow his lead. Although other journalists like the New Zealand Herald’s John Armstrong are incredibly influential on elite opinion, it’s Espiner who will be giving his interpretation of politics on an almost daily basis in half the country’s living rooms.
Of all the backroom staffers advising John Key and the National Government, the most powerful is Kevin Taylor – the Prime Minister’s Chief Press Secretary. Previously a New Zealand Herald reporter, Taylor is now the top spin doctor in New Zealand politics, and is credited with helping to keep Key’s popularity at all time highs. He’s done this by filtering out most of the radical and unpopular policy proposals within the current government – his nickname in the Beehive is ‘Captain Panic Pants’ because of his extremely risk-averse nature. In 2011 Taylor will therefore be making sure that John Key and the Government don’t put a foot wrong before the public go to the polls. Just as under the last Labour Government, Helen Clark’s chief of staff, Heather Simpson, was said by political insiders to be the second most powerful - albeit unelected – person in New Zealand, Kevin Taylor wields considerable influence over what this government does and does not do.
Beyond these five, I also considered some other politicos: Duncan Garner, Sean Plunket, Winston Peters, Andrew Little, Grant Robertson, Trevor Mallard, Matt McCarten, and David Farrar.
In particular, Guyon Espiner’s rival, Duncan Garner at TV3, might also prove to be especially influential if the election campaign turns out to be dirty and negative. Garner has a greater instinct for covering – and digging for – scandals, gaffes and other malign horse-race type stories. These days elections do not tend to be about policy issues but about personalities and politician behaviour, and in this area Garner is the king.
His side-kick on TV3’s programme The Nation, Sean Plunket, might also prove very influential during 2011. Plunket has left Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, but will star on the weekend TV politics show, will host Wellington NewstalkZB’s morning radio, write a weekly newspaper column as well as a monthly magazine column on politics. He’ll probably blog as well. Thus by putting himself across all five mediums, Plunket’s views on politics will be everywhere.
Winston Peters might end up being very influential, but its far from certain; Grant Robertson is far from reaching his peak and I don't think he's going to be all that influential just yet (but he may end up being one of Labour’s campaign strategists), and Andrew Little just isn't "top 5" yet.
I also considered including Lyn Provost (the Auditor General) and Hon Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC (the head of the newly-merged Electoral Commission), because although New Zealand politics has not traditionally been characterised by political corruption scandals or problems with electoral law, such issues are now a central feature and could end up drawing these two individuals into crucial decisions that will impact on the election campaign.
Cameron Slater is already taking issue with my selection of Kevin Taylor as an 'influential' here.