"Deck the halls with flags and folly...." a look back at 2015

10:00 am on 19 December 2015

Power Play - Over the past year John Key has become embroiled in a number of controversies.

Clockwise from top left: Winston Peters, John Key, Te Ururoa Flavell, David Seymour, Andrew Little and Peter Dunne.

PARTY LEADERS: Clockwise from top left: Winston Peters, John Key, Te Ururoa Flavell, David Seymour, Andrew Little and Peter Dunne. Photo: RNZ

Ponytail gate, sending troops to Iraq, spending $26 million pushing for a new flag and accusing opposition MPs of supporting rapists and murderers are among them.

But none of that has had any major impact on public support for him or his government.

National started the year polling at about 46 percent and that is about where the governing party is sitting as Parliament wraps up for the Christmas break.

Even ending the year in a cage with a radio DJ making jokes about picking up the soap is unlikely to harm him much in the immediate term.

Mr Key actively cultivates a blokey persona and it has served him well in the eyes of many voters; part of a broader media strategy to reach past those who are actively engaged in politics to voters who appreciate his more laid back approach.

That does not come without risk however. He has skated close to the line with the prank where the joke was framed around prison rape, but that has been quickly dismissed by his office as a joke in the spirit of Christmas, exhorting anyone who might take offence to view it as light-hearted.

More serious for Mr Key was when he was accused of repeatedly pulling a waitress's pony tail at his local cafe.

There were no such attempts by his office to justify that behaviour, instead a hasty apology was issued as soon as the matter became public.

Mr Key and minders quickly recognised that story had the potential to damage his strong, personal brand. The National Party relies on that brand far too much to allow it be tainted.

While that was of a more personal nature, Mr Key has actively fronted some major policies this year - most notably sending troops to Iraq on a training mission and as the driving force behind changing the national flag.

The Iraq deployment has been carefully timed to finish before the 2017 election, even though it has relatively good public support at the moment, Iraq is a volatile environment and National will not want to run the risk of that mission going sour as it seeks a fourth term.

The Prime Minister also has a lot of political capital riding on the result of the flag referendum next year.

But if New Zealanders vote for no change Mr Key can brush that off as the public having been given the chance to have their say; notwithstanding that the campaign to change the flag has been driven by politicians, not the voting public.

Under the leadership of Andrew Little, the Labour Party has edged up into the 30s from its post election slump.

His has been a slow and steady approach after a tumultuous few years.

Mr Little has not exactly set the political world on fire, but the caucus now seems much calmer, more focused on targeting government ministers than ripping each other apart.

It has also been a year of clearing the decks of policy Labour believes contributed to its resounding 2014 election defeat.

A specific capital gains tax, talk of changing superannuation entitlements and the New Zealand Power policy are all off the table, but the hard graft will come next year as the party attempts to strike a balance between creating policies that will not alienate voters, and differentiating itself from the centrist National Party.

Housing affordability, child poverty and tax reform may provide fertile ground.

The government's support parties have had a solid year, with ACT leader David Seymour providing moments of levity and surprise law changes.

Not that that has done the party much good, with ACT rounding off the year below 1 percent in most political polls.

Te Ururoa Flavell has been a solid, if a somewhat uninspiring, party leader and minister, while Marama Fox has proven willing to be outspoken in her criticisms of government policy, most notably over New Zealanders being detained and deported under tougher new migration laws in Australia.

United Future's Peter Dunne is the thoughtful kaumatua of Parliament, happy to comment on almost any story and to criticise National Party ministers when he thinks they have gone astray.

It has done him no favours with voters with United Future's party vote struggling to even register in the polls.

And that leaves Winston Peters and New Zealand First which has been on cruise control for much of the year on about 7 percent.

The win over the National Party in Northland at the start of the year not only handed National an unexpected electoral defeat, but changed the fine balance of votes in Parliament, making it harder for the government to progress some legislation.

And it has certainly put a spring in Mr Peters' step.

Even when irritated by journalists' questions, the trademark grin is now more likely to be aimed at the media pack than the snarl of years past - but the parliamentary term is still young.