By ETHAN GRIFFITHS

As 2018 draws to a close, we can’t help but look back and reflect on what a crazy year it has been in the world of politics. Sexual assault scandals, affairs, secret recordings, newborn babies and a tumultuous first year for the new government – here are our top five of the biggest political stories, in no particular order, which we saw in 2018.

Bill resigns, Simon rises to the top

Just out of nine years in government, the face of the National Party completely changed after former PM Bill English, who failed to woo Winston Peters to form a government in 2017, resigned. It triggered a seemingly not-so-publicly-competitive leadership election, where every member of the National Party in Parliament was entitled to a vote. Many well known faces ran, including Amy Adams, Judith Collins and Simon Bridges. English refused to name the person he supported to take over the leadership, and most assumed the race was mainly between Bridges and Adams. While the finalised votes were never released, it’s widely accepted that the race was close. However, Simon Bridges pulled through, becoming the first National Party leader with Maori ancestry.

Simon Bridges. Sourced from International Transport Forum

Bridges entered Parliament in 2008, the same year Jacinda Ardern did, and also the year John Key came to power as Prime Minister. Four years later in 2012, Bridges became a minister, first outside Cabinet and eventually inside. Bridges has always been seen as a conservative member of Parliament. He voted against the 2013 Marriage Equality bill which allowed same-sex couples to marry, and he voted against the End of Life Choice Bill, which would give the legal right for terminally ill people to have a doctor support them to end their lives. He’s also consistently signalled his opposition to decriminalising abortion and marijuana.

Since coming to power as the leader of the National party, he has failed to gain popularity. In the latest poll at the end of November, 39% of voters preferred Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, while only 7% supported Simon Bridges holding the role, meaning the risk of Simon being rolled as the leader by a disloyal member of his party remains a very likely possibility in early 2019.

Young Labour Sexual Assault Scandal

It broke in early March this year, with the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern going into damage control after Newsroom broke a story alleging four young party members under the age of eighteen were sexually assaulted at a Young Labour Summer Camp at Waihi in February. Attendees described “mountains of alcohol” and intoxicated young party members. The Labour Party leadership knew about the assaults, but didn’t offer victims support until almost a month later, and were criticised for not informing parents of victims or the police. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern consistently denied she knew about any of the allegations, despite speaking at the camp, as no one in the party had told her. The party’s General Secretary and 2017 election campaign manager, Andrew Kirton, apologised to the victims and the public, and later resigned to take a position with Air New Zealand.

PM Jacinda Ardern speaks at Young Labour Summer Camp. Facebook/Young Labour

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives birth

Yes, it was the likely the highlight of our Prime Minister’s year, welcoming her newborn daughter alongside partner Clarke Gayford. Ardern announced her pregnancy in a shock press conference outside her Auckland home in January this year, sending the world’s media into a frenzy. The PM stayed at work for the duration of her pregnancy, only heading off on maternity leave days before the birth. Deputy PM Winston Peters was to take over as PM for 6 weeks after the arrival, while Ardern planned to recover and spend some quality time with the child.

Finally, the day came. Neve arrived on the 21st of June to a raft of headlines around the world announcing her arrival. Jacinda Ardern was only the second world leader to ever give birth in office, with the first being Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, coincidentally also born on the 21st of June. Jacinda and partner Clarke later made headlines once again after sitting with Neve on the floor of the UN General Assembly in New York, the first child to do so.

The risk of the PM heading off for another seven weeks in 2019 is slim, however. In an interview this week, Ardern ruled out having any plans for a second child any time soon, instead opting to focus on the job.

Prime Minister’s Leadership Tested

It was a tumultuous first year for the new government and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when her strength was tested after two of her Ministers ran into trouble. It all started with Minister of Broadcasting Clare Curran, a Dunedin-based MP who found herself in serious trouble after failing to be transparent, and later lying about a secret meeting she had. Curran met with RNZ Senior Manager Carol Hirschfeld in December 2017 at a cafe in Wellington. She failed to record the meeting in her diary or tell her staff, and when the meeting was subsequently revealed, she lied saying it was a “coincidental” catch-up when text messages later revealed it was fully planned. Hirschfeld resigned from her position at RNZ and Curran got off lightly, being given a warning by the PM, despite the National Party calling for her sacking.

It didn’t stop her. In late August, the PM eventually sacked Curran from Cabinet anyway, after discovering she had held another secret meeting with entrepreneur Derek Handley while she was considering offering him a high-paid government advisory position. Curran apologised and resigned from her posts as Minister of Government Digital Services and Minister of Open Government. Unfortunately for Curran, the National Party kept questioning her more, discovering she used a personal and therefore entirely private and unsafe Gmail account to conduct sensitive Ministerial business. Curran inevitably couldn’t stand the heat, resigning from all of her portfolios on the 5th of September, saying she could “no longer endure the relentless pressure I’ve been under”.

August became an even more problematic month for the Prime Minister when she had to ‘stand aside’ and eventually fire her Minister for Customs Meka Whaitiri. An allegation emerged that Whaitiri had assaulted one of her staff members, and while she strongly denied the claims, an investigation was launched. The lawyer who conducted the investigation later reported that “on the balance of probabilities” Whaitiri likely did assault her staff member. However, Whaitiri continued to deny these allegations, and while the report wasn’t entirely conclusive, PM Ardern said she had “lost confidence” in Meka Whaitiri as a Minister, and sacked her.

Jami-Lee Ross goes rogue

Needless to say, this would be at the top of the biggest stories in New Zealand politics this year. It was a political scandal involving everything you could imagine; secret recordings, anonymous text messages, police investigations, sexual harassment and unrivalled embarrassment. We did an in-depth explainer on the Jami-Lee Ross scandal here, but it wouldn’t be a politics in review article if we didn’t cover it off here too.

Earlier this year on August 13th, an anonymous source gave insight to Newshub that new National Leader Simon Bridges spent over $113,000 of taxpayer money on limousines and hotels in just a few months. The public was outraged by the alleged big spending by the MP, but Bridges defended the rather large expenses bill by telling media he’s been “working incredibly hard to get out and around New Zealand regionally”. Everyone quickly began to wonder, who was the anonymous source? Only National Party MPs had access to the document containing the $113,000 figure, meaning the leak had to have come from within the party. Simon Bridges contracted a private investigating firm to figure out who leaked the figures.

Jami-Lee Ross. Jami-Lee Ross/Facebook

A month later, Simon Bridges sent an email to the media, informing them that the results of the investigation into who leaked his expenses would be announced at a press conference later that day. Everyone expected a “we know who it is but won’t tell you” answer from Bridges, but that was far from what we got. Only minutes before Bridges was about to front a huge pack of media, National MP for Botany, Jami-Lee Ross who was on sick leave at the time, tweeted that Simon was about to “pin the leak” on him and that he wasn’t actually the leaker. Not only did he deny being the leaker, but he also came out saying that Simon Bridges had broken the law, by filing a ‘false electoral return’, a serious crime for an MP, and could carry a prison sentence of two years.

Simon Bridges looked baffled at his press conference, but alongside his deputy, Paula Bennett, remained calm and collected. He strongly denied any of what Jami-Lee Ross was alleging, and at that point, no one really had any details on what the allegations were, other than what was in the tweets. Simon Bridges said his caucus (all the National MPs) would meet and decide the future of Jami-Lee Ross in the party. He didn’t rule out completely expelling him from the party, or just a suspension. The ball was now in Jami-Lee’s court before the 11 am caucus meeting the next day, to prove if he had dirt on Bridges or not.

The next day, Jami-Lee Ross held a press conference at Parliament, and it was a bomb. He called his leader, Simon Bridges “corrupt” and accused him further of breaking the law. He promised to go to the police to provide them with evidence that Bridges had broken the law. He even went as far as to admit that he’d had an affair with another married National Party MP, who he refused to name.

Minutes later, Bridges held his own press conference, telling media that his party had unanimously voted to expel Ross from the National Party. In response, Jami-Lee Ross released secret phone call recordings of Bridges on Twitter, where Bridges called one of his own MPs, Maureen Pugh, “f**king useless” and said about some of his MPs “we just want them to go”. It kept getting bigger. The next day, Newsroom journalist Melanie Reid published a story she had been working on for six months alongside former staff of Jami-Lee Ross. They accused him of bullying and sexual harassment, and labelled him an “awful human”. Suddenly, Jami-Lee Ross went quiet, and no one heard anything from him. Days later, it was confirmed he had been taken into mental health care, after serious concerns for his mental health were raised. Since that point, no one has seen or heard anything from Jami-Lee Ross, other than a few unconfirmed sightings of him at the Auckland Taylor Swift gig and one public appearance at the opening of a new mental health unit at Middlemore Hospital. He is expected to return to Parliament next year as an independent MP.

Well there you go! It’s been another crazy year in politics. Ardern’s found her feet in her first year as PM and as a mother, meanwhile, the Nats have dealt with their biggest scandal in years. With what looks like a storm brewing for the National Party, and a government heading into their second year where things really start counting heading towards an election, there’s no doubt 2019 is going to be huge. But for now, MPs head off for their Christmas break, plotting the year ahead over their summer BBQs. It’s certainly going to be a year to watch.

ETHAN GRIFFITHS is TEARAWAY’s Political Editor. Young, passionate and a wannabe babysitter for Neve Ardern, Ethan won’t stop talking about politics. Likes a bit of cricket, wearing trendy ties and is in love with Jeff the purple wiggle.

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