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Political Roundup: New Zealand’s worst performing politicians

by Dr Bryce Edwards

For obvious reasons, Jami-Lee Ross, Clare Curran, and Iain Lees-Galloway gathered the most negative ratings in the end-of-year reviews. But there was also some cutting commentary on the disappointing performances of the likes of Simon Bridges, Kelvin Davis, David Clark, and Amy Adams.

Former National Party MP, and current independent Member of Parliament, Jami-Lee Ross.

Following on from yesterday’s aggregation of who pundits picked as New Zealand’s top politicians, this roundup looks at the worst performing politicians, or at least those who disappointed in 2018.

By general consensus, the most disappointing politician of the last year seems to have been Clare Curran. Certainly, when the Spinoff polled fifteen pundits on the biggest “flop” of 2018, seven chose Clare Curran, followed by Jami-Lee Ross (five), Simon Bridges (four) and Shane Jones (three) – see: 2018 in politics: who were the champs and the flops?

Here’s how the Spinoff pundits justified Curran’s place in their list of “flops”:

Linda Clark: “she went up, then quickly down. She won’t go up again”

Peter Dunne: “Promoted far beyond her worth, and fell at the first hurdle.”

Laila Harre: “What a sad waste of the apprenticeship completion ticket.”

Madeleine Chapman: “Hard to perform worse than performing yourself out of a job. Holding your resignation press conference in what looked like a shopping mall walkway is also very funny.”

Emma Espiner: “The former minister of broadcasting, Clare Curran. This time last year, RNZ’s future was looking golden. Twelve months later, the promised $38 million became a sheepish $15 million including that awkward $6 million contestable fund that nobody really knows what to do with. And all of this on top of leading one of the few Māori women in senior leadership in the NZ media to her (thankfully short-lived) demise.”

Many other end-of-year commentaries quoted Curran herself, in order to sum up her bad year: “to the best of my recollection, um, ah, ah, I haven’t, um, I haven’t used my, um, I’ve answered um OIA, ah, ah, OIA responses and personal, um and parliamentary questions correctly and to the best of my recollection, um ah, you know, that, that has, that’s what I’ve done”.

For this statement in Parliament, Heather du Plessis-Allan awarded Curran “quote of the year”. Similarly, in their review of 2018, 1News put Curran at the top of their list of Five who fell from grace. They explained her drawn-out downfall as “a horror show” culminating in this “final straw” of “an inept display in the House”.

Stuff’s political journalists also awarded Curran an end-of-year award for this performance: “The living nightmare award for biggest brain fade: Labour MP Clare Curran, for her Question Time meltdown before falling on her sword after one too many controversies in her ministerial portfolios” – see: The best and the rest: Stuff’s 2018 political awards.

But in a sense, John Armstrong says, her decline was somewhat devoid of meaning: “Her sacking from the Cabinet and then the ministry as a whole was — in the end — much ado about not very much.”

Despite Curran’s fall from grace, the Otago Daily Times reports that “she has started her return to the fold” and a rehabilitation of some sort is on the cards – see Mike Houlahan’s Will 2019 be the year of Curran’s comeback?

It speculates that Curran might benefit from a possible Cabinet reshuffle early in the year, especially since Labour has fourteen male ministers and only five women, despite a commitment to get to 50:50 gender equality. Houlahan points out that “there is clear precedent that transgressing ministers can be rehabilitated. That requires appropriate contrition and manifest hard work though, and there are signs Ms Curran is making the effort.”

However, in his end-of-year evaluation, long-time Labour Party activist and commentator Shane Te Pou characterises Curran as being an inevitable “series of awkward press conferences waiting to happen” – see: Marking the politicians of 2018. He argues making Curran a minister was a mistake in the first place: “appointing her to Cabinet in the first instance was a lapse of judgment – over a long apprenticeship in opposition, the Dunedin MP had simply not demonstrated the requisite temperament or smarts.”

Shane Te Pou believes that the Government is beset by many other disappointing ministers, such as the beleaguered Iain Lees-Galloway. He even singles out Grant Robertson as needing “to carry a bigger load”, suggesting he “has hardly set the world on fire” in his finance role.

One of the worst performers, Te Pou says, is Kiwibuild minister Phil Twyford, who he gives 2/10, suggesting “For Kiwibuild to move forward, Twyford should be moved to less onerous duties at the next reshuffle.”

Overall, Te Pou argues, “you would expect a stronger showing from the frontbench next year and beyond. The public’s patience will run out otherwise.” Similarly, in Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins’ scorecard of the year in politics, a number of struggling Labour frontbenchers don’t even get a mention (Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins, Carmel Sepuloni, David Clark, Nanaia Mahuta, and Stuart Nash) – see: After a huge year in politics, one politician stands out.

Watkins also agrees on Twyford’s poor performance, and awards him 6.5/10, saying “He’s got Labour’s flagship KiwiBuild policy resting on his shoulders and it should be a political winner, but he’s struggling to sell it as a success story at the moment.” (Similarly, Peter Dunne says this about Twyford: “Many promises, but lacks any substance or ability to deliver.”)

Watkins also gives Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis a mark of only 5/10: “Davis’ performance is a tale of two halves. As corrections minister, he has been quietly effective. As acting PM in the absence or Ardern and Peters, he has been woeful.”

In contrast, political scientist Bronwyn Hayward has chosen Davis as one of her “champs” of the year, especially for his Crown Māori relations role. She is scathing of those marking him down: “his work is below the beltway of gallery commentary – he is often criticised for his parliamentary performance but outside the Wellington bubble, he has been everywhere – visiting marae, listening rebuilding trust”.

Given that she was fired by the Prime Minister this year, Meka Whaitiri is generally near the top of most commentator’s lists of worst performing MPs. The political journalists at Stuff, for example, gave her a special award: “The Malcolm Tucker award for office management”.

The same article also draws attention to one of the least visible Cabinet ministers: “Jenny Salesa, who should have a lot to do with her building and construction portfolio, but mostly just puts out meaningless press releases. At one of her big press conferences this year her remarks were so rambly that barely any outlets directly quoted her.”

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway is also on Stuff’s list of poor performers – receiving “The Bounced Czech award”. And Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper even awarded him his top “prize” – see: Here’s the 2018 Politician of the Year. Soper explains that Lees-Galloway deserves it because he “was audacious in the defence of himself over the infernal Karel Sroubek affair. The unravelling of his decision was pure theatre.”

According to Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien, “Lees-Galloway’s admission that he had not read the full report when deciding whether to grant Karel Sroubek residency in New Zealand qualified him for this award” of “most useless” member of the coalition government – see Alice Webb-Liddall and Tova O’Brien’s Political superlatives 2018: Tova O’Brien reviews the political year.

O’Brien also thought the Minister of Health, David Clark, deserved to share the award, because he announced the Mental Health Review “with absolutely no detail about what the Government’s going to do”.

In the Spinoff, Simon Wilson also declared David Clark as one of the “flops” of the year: “Clark should be focused on improving mental health care, improving primary health care to those most in need, and rethinking health services delivery for the 21st century. He seems disengaged with all of it.”

In the National Party opposition there were also some woeful performances and disappointments. By consensus, at the top of the list stood Jami-Lee Ross. Tracy Watkins scored his performance this year as 1/10. But his truly colossal impact on the year deserves a Political Roundup of its own.

National Party leader Simon Bridges figured in many pundits’ lists of disappointments. Watkins scored him as 6.5/10, saying “as a rookie leader Bridges made some disastrous judgment calls in his handling of the Jami-Lee Ross saga and they will keep coming back to haunt him.”

Shane Te Pou awarded Bridges a mark of only 6/10, noting it is only so high because of National’s latest poll result of 46 per cent.

Tova O’Brien awarded Bridges the prize for “worst political performance”, and Barry Soper did similarly. But, perhaps even more scathingly, John Armstrong summed up Bridges’ year like this: “He has instead become the butt of jokes told by just about every comedian in the country. That might seem a crude measure of Bridges’ chances of remaining National’s leader beyond the short term. But the laughter generated by cracking jokes at his expense is a strong indication that most people no longer treat him seriously and that they have written him off.”

Similarly, 1News concluded: “Bridges is still National’s leader but enough damage had been done to wonder if he’ll be in the same position at the end of 2019.”

Yet, Bridges wasn’t judged the worst performer on National’s frontbench. Many writers have singled out the party’s finance spokesperson, Amy Adams, as a great disappointment. Tracy Watkins rated her as 6/10, noting “she lost a lot of kudos among her colleagues when she accepted a Europe junket rather than stick around to lead the charge against Robertson’s first Budget. Since then Adams has failed to land any big hits on Robertson in the House and hasn’t lived up to the high expectations.”

The Stuff parliamentary gallery journalists gave her the “Fanta award” for the year, “for so far being a fizzer in the finance role. It’s taken the fun out of Question Time, that’s for sure, with the exchanges between Adams and Finance Minister Grant Robertson some of the most boring out there.” And Duncan Garner gave her the “missing in action” award for 2018.

Finally, for the most idiosyncratic and opinionated summary of the year in politics – including awards for the “Most Useless Minister” and the “Biggest Prick in NZ Politics” – see blogger Martyn Bradbury’s three-part awards series: TDB Political & Media Awards 2018 Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

MIL Analysis+Reportage – EveningReport.NZ