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BY ETHAN GRIFFITHS
OPINION: This decade in politics has been absolutely monumental for New Zealand. The 2010s have seen three different Prime Ministers, two different governments, three elections, and four major historic moments with Pike River, the Canterbury earthquakes, Christchurch Mosque Attacks and the recent Whakaari/White Island tragedy. The faces at the forefront have been our leaders, taking us through some of our darkest and brightest moments as a nation. Here’s my picks, with input and advice from young voters, political journos and communications graduates, for the top ten most influential and consequential politicians of the last decade.
10 – Bob Parker
Chances are you’ve never heard of Bob Parker. The sixty-six year old’s career first started in broadcasting in the 80s and 90s for TVNZ, but in the early 2000s, he took a punt at politics, becoming Mayor of the Banks Peninsula District in Canterbury. In 2007, he went urban, and stood successfully for the Christchurch Mayoralty, beating out now Labour MP and Housing Minister Megan Woods. By the time the next campaign came up in 2010, he was polling behind his main rival, former Deputy PM Jim Anderton. But before the election, Christchurch and the country changed forever after the September 4 earthquake. Parker’s steady but strong leadership proved incredibly popular, and he was re-elected with an increased margin. However, the biggest test was the February 2011 earthquake which killed 185 people, where he fronted almost all of the media coverage and became the reassuring face in the midst of tragedy. Now retired, Parker set the standard for all local government leaders who face the sad realities of disaster and tragedy, and his remarkable leadership earned him a knighthood in 2014.
9 – Chlöe Swarbrick
At the start of this decade, Chlöe Swarbrick was sixteen. By the end of it, she is one of the most notable and respected MPs in our Parliament. Another politician who started her career in broadcasting this time at the student radio station bFM, the bright and young “high school dropout” first got into politics as a 22 year old, who, uninspired by the lack of exciting candidates in the 2016 Auckland mayoral election, decided to throw her hat in the ring. She came third, with almost 30,000 votes, a feat heralded by the media and members of the public. After the local election, she joined the Green Party. Unexpectedly, Swarbrick was giving a strong list placing of number 7, above even sitting MPs such as Mojo Mathers, which polling at the time indicated would almost guarantee her a seat. She was elected to Parliament at the 2017 election, and at age 23 became the youngest person to enter Parliament since Marilyn Waring in 1975. She became the Green’s voice on drug reform, working hard to secure a referendum on legalising recreational cannabis with the Greens deal with Labour, and has also been very vocal on climate change and youth issues, as well as electoral reform, and has most certainly positioned herself as one to watch closely come 2020.
8 – David Seymour
The twerking libertarian has quickly become an icon of New Zealand politics, whether you like him or not. He entered Parliament in 2014, becoming the MP for Epsom. Since then, he’s made a name for himself unlike any other MP in our Parliament. He has been incredibly vocal on typical libertarian issues, and his work around the End of Life Choice Bill giving terminally ill patients the option to choose when they die has been nothing short of remarkable. His twerking on Dancing with the Stars got him further in the show than anyone expected (not exactly a political achievement), he is seen on both sides of the house as one of the hardest working electorate MPs, and he was the sole opposition on big votes such as gun reform, child poverty and climate change legislation. Despite being the butt of many jokes, Seymour is seen as one of the best examples of how our politics isn’t just blue and red, and is widely respected across the divide.
7 – Phil Goff
Phil Goff is like one of those kids at school who was incredibly smart, the chair of the student council, on practically every committee, and also won the speech finals every year. He is one of those names in New Zealand politics that has held practically every role possible. He was the Minister with the most portfolios in Helen Clark’s government, and after Clark’s defeat in 2008, he entered this decade as the first of what was to be many different leaders of the Labour Party we’ve seen over the last ten years. He took on John Key in the 2011 election, and despite early polls suggesting he might have a good chance at tossing the Key government, he ultimately came out second best, and not exactly by a small margin. He stood down as leader right after the election, but stuck around in Parliament until 2016, when he had a crack at another one of the nations most prominent leadership positions; the Auckland Mayoralty. He managed to beat out his closest rival by almost 80,000 votes, one of the largest margins in the country. When re-election came around this year, some thought he might have a tough battle against his former Labour Party colleague John Tamihere, but it wasn’t even a battle at all. Goff managed to get about 100,000 more votes than Tamihere, becoming Mayor for a second term. Phil Goff started the decade in a fight to become Prime Minister which he miserably lost, before closing out the decade as a practically undefeatable mayor.
6 – Andrew Little
When we were looking towards the 2017 election, it looked like another bland battle between two middle aged white men. But the decision of one of those men completely changed New Zealand and even the world’s political landscape like no one could have possibly imagined. Andrew Little became leader of the Labour Party in October 2014, after one of Labour’s worst election defeats against John Key. He was Labour’s face through National’s third term, and when Key stepped down in 2016, despite his best efforts, he just couldn’t connect with voters. Eight weeks out from the 2017 election, the party received disastrous poll results which almost every commentator was attributing to Andrew’s leadership. Despite not being pressured by his party at all, Little did something practically unheard of in politics; stepped down for the good of his party. He nominated Jacinda Ardern to take the leadership, and as we know, the rest is history. Since Labour formed a Government, Little has made waves as Justice Minister, pushing through issues such as drug reform and liberalising abortion law, all without any stuff ups or public gaffes. He is undoubtedly one of the, if not the most steady hand in this government (likely alongside our next pick), and has really proved his worth.
5 – James Shaw
James Shaw is a name you’ve probably heard a lot of this year. The former banking consultant entered Parliament in 2014, and less than a year later was made the co-leader of the party alongside Metiria Turei. By the time the 2017 election rolled around, Turei was embroiled in scandal after admitting committing benefit fraud when she was a young mother. Turei fell on her sword, and Shaw solely led the party through its most tumultuous campaign when votes on the left were being completely sucked up by Jacindamania. He then led the party to form government for the first time in its history, making issues like climate change and welfare reform core to government policy. This year, Shaw worked tirelessly to push through the governments landmark climate change legislation, the Zero Carbon Bill, while also somehow managing to get the entire Parliament (bar David Seymour) to support it. Shaw is one of the most universally respected members of Parliament on both sides of the house, his approachability and status as one of Parliament’s nicest blokes, and his hard work and dedication is nothing short of remarkable.
4 – Bill English
Bill English was the second of the three Prime Ministers we have seen since the turn of the decade, and despite his title as “Boring Bill”, he has been the bread and butter of New Zealand politics over the last ten years. But interestingly, English is more respected as a Finance Minister rather than a PM. English was the steady hand behind National’s very careful spending under the Key government, and his leadership through the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch Earthquakes have been applauded by economists worldwide. When John Key stepped down unexpectedly in late 2016, Bill fought off opponents like Steven Joyce and Judith Collins to become the 39th Prime Minister of New Zealand, leading National into the 2017 election. He managed to keep National at the top, despite the threat of Jacinda Ardern, but still required Winston’s blessing to stay as Prime Minister. As we know, he couldn’t manage it, and left Parliament soon after.
3 – Winston Peters
74-year-old “Old naughty” Winston Peters is someone you just can’t get rid of. He’d been an MP since 1979, but at the start of this decade, Winston wasn’t even in Parliament after being booted by voters in 2008. No one expected a realistic comeback. But he proved us wrong (as he often does), roaring back into Parliament in 2011, and was often lauded as one of the best opposition members – even better than most in the actual Labour opposition. When 2017 rolled around, everyone pretty much knew he’d have the balance of power, and after the election, he was indeed king or queenmaker. After what felt like a drawn out process, he crowned his queen, citing the need to “return a human face to capitalism”. Since 2017, he has been Deputy Prime Minister, bringing his quick wit and sometimes outrageous oratory ability to the house. With that amount of power and such a record of political tomfoolery, Winston is one of the most known and historically consequential faces of NZ politics.
2 – Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern is one of the few faces in New Zealand politics that frankly, need no introduction. At the start of this decade, she’d been an MP for just two years, but was already a rising star in the Labour Party. She tried and failed to win Auckland Central twice, facing National’s Nikki Kaye in both 2011 and 2014, in what was controversially dubbed by commentators the “Battle of the Babes”. In 2015, she began to make appearances in preferred Prime Minister polls, at one point having 2% of New Zealanders thinking she’d make a good PM. But by 2017, she entered the year as a powerless but high ranking young opposition MP. 10 months later, after winning a by-election, becoming deputy leader and then shockingly the leader of the party, she was Prime Minister, one of the fastest and most unexpected rises to the top job in history. She’s been in the job two years, cementing herself as one of the worlds most progressive and empathetic leaders. Her leadership through the Christchurch Attacks couldn’t be reasonably criticised by anyone (despite some valiant efforts), and her position as a strong young woman has sparked dreams for young girls worldwide. In a world of increasingly right wing and populist politics, she’s a glimmer of left-wing sunshine, and if re-elected next year, has the opportunity to position herself as one of New Zealand’s most influential leaders, alongside the likes Norman Kirk and Michael Joseph Savage, if she chooses to spend some political capital.
1 – John Key
Number one for this list was practically indisputable. I think it’s fair to say, Key always had it in the bag. John Key entered this decade in a similar position Jacinda Ardern is now; two years into the job, trying to solidify his leadership with the public leading up to a looming election. Key nailed it. His commanding election victories in 2011 and 2014, despite major scandals like the “Dirty Politics” fiasco and Kim Dotcom saga, put Key in a position where he could do practically anything and still sit comfortably in the polls. Unlike previous Prime Ministers who made decisions that changed New Zealand dramatically (Lange with Rogernomics and nuclear issues, Clark with prostitution reform, Kiwibank, Iraq War refusal), Key never really did anything too major. He had a crack at changing the flag, but attempted to do it via a referendum, which as we know didn’t exactly go his way. However, he led New Zealand through two of its toughest ever economic challenges, being the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch Earthquakes. Through this remarkable economic leadership, New Zealand somehow maintained its position as one of the strongest and most successful economies in the OECD, consistently stronger than Australia, the UK and the US. When Key announced he was stepping down in 2016, no one could believe it. He was on track for a commanding victory for a fourth time, a massive political anomaly in New Zealand. But he turned it all down to “spend more time with my kids”, leaving his legacy of eight years of strong economic leadership and political invincibility that will be tough to match.
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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