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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsDecember 21, 2021

NZ politics in 2021: We pick the champs and the flops

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A pantheon of politics watchers appraise the winners and losers of 2021.

Every year since the distant past (2016), The Spinoff has assembled a pantheon of politics watchers to appraise the 12 months past and cast a gaze ahead at those to come. To kick us off in a year of Covid, multiple National leaders and more Covid, the champs and the flops of 2021. 

Gabrielle Baker


1. The claimants in the first stage of the Waitangi Tribunal’s inquiry into health services and outcomes

They got a Māori Health Authority on the agenda, then did work to engage with Māori and describe how it would look. And now it is government policy and a happening thing. Amazing.

2. Māori and Pacific health providers

Vaccination has become political, so I have to acknowledge the kaimahi out there vaccinating and working with communities to keep us all as protected as possible against Covid.

3. Te Pāti Māori

Honestly, within parliament, Te Pāti Māori has been doing the work. And I’m not just saying that because I think Jordans are flash shoes, and appropriate business attire (but they are).


1. Cabinet’s decisions on the vaccine sequencing framework in March this year 

Which went against basically all advice and set the eligibility criteria at 65+, disadvantaging Māori and Pasifika whānau.

2. Government monitoring and accountability

Most recently this is seen in housing, with the auditor-general report showing the impact is that some people are left in (expensive) unliveable accommodation through MSD.

3. I feel like I should say the National Party leadership tussles

Assuming they’re done.

Gabrielle Baker is a health policy expert.

Alex Braae


1. The Extended Hendyverse

Once again public health experts had a massive and influential role in the course of political events.

2. Tina Ngata

And many others whose names I don’t know, who did everything they possibly could to fill glaring gaps in the vaccine rollout in remote and poverty-hit areas.

3. Rachel Morton

Ever wondered why Act got a relatively large share of media coverage this year? The party’s communications director worked extraordinarily hard to make Seymour the alternative leader of the opposition.


1. Every party that didn’t have a leadership coup.

Come on, don’t pretend you don’t love them.

2. The anti-vax movement

Not at all a commentary on their beliefs or their full right to hold them, but look at the numbers – they lost the hearts and arms of middle NZ.

3. Original-flavour Covid

Simply looks weak and pathetic in the face of delta, and again, the numbers in NZ prove it.

Alex Braae is executive producer of TVNZ’s Q+A and former editor of The Bulletin.

Linda Clark


1. Dame Juliet Gerrard, Sir David Skegg, the team at Te Pūnaha Matatini, Michael Baker

And others who have tirelessly provided the government with good science on how best to manage Covid non-stop for two years now.

2. John Tamihere, Hone Harawira, Efeso Collins

And so many other Maori and Pasifika leaders who have led the campaign for vaccination by understanding their communities, advocating hard and galvanising grassroots support.

3. Newbie Ayesha Verrall

Folic acid in bread, fluoridation of water and a smoking ban for a generation of New Zealanders. Never seen a new minister roll off so many quick and radical wins with so little fuss.


1. Judith Collins

It really is the hardest job in politics and she made it look even harder.

2. The misinformationists

Guys, 90%+ of all eligible New Zealanders are now double-vaxxed. That’s simply incredible.

3. The haters

The prime minister is still hugely popular with voters, the economy is still growing, unemployment is still (relatively) low, we aren’t living in a dictatorship and if the possibility of Lorde singing at the PM’s wedding is really upsetting you then actually (deep breath), you’re alright, Jack.

Linda Clark is a former political journalist and a partner at Dentons Kensington Swan.

Hone Harawira and Tai Tokerau border control on December 15, 2021 (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Andrew Geddis


1. Jacinda Ardern

Another year of Covid has taken some of the shine off her premiership, yet finishing that year as our most popular political leader by a mile and (most importantly) with only another 20-some deaths from the virus cannot be gainsaid.

2. Christopher Luxon

It’s said being opposition leader is the worst job in politics, but it puts you one election away from being PM. Luxon may not get to take that step in 2023, but already he looks like the leader National has needed.

3. Hone Harawira

Sure, the Tai Tokerau Border Control primarily is about protecting vulnerable people from the threat of Covid. But it’s also a tangible expression of tino rangatiratanga, and Harawira’s actions have forced the Crown authorities to recognise that claim.


1. Judith Collins

There was no alternative to her as National’s leader… until there was. And then she wasn’t.

2. Brian Tamaki

It’s one thing to get your followers to believe God wants them to make you very rich. Telling them that “Covid is yet to be proved” and so they don’t need to get vaccinated is another level of wrong altogether.

3. Todd McClay

From number six on National’s rankings, down to number 22 under Luxon’s new regime. No, I don’t know what he did wrong, either. 

Andrew Geddis is a law professor at the University of Otago.

Associate health minister Dr Ayesha Verrall (Photo: Getty Images)

Lara Greaves


1. Dr Ayesha Verrall for policy gains

Verrall has been chipping away at important health policy issues where many have failed over the past couple of decades – fluoridation, folate in bread, banning smoking/vaping in cars with kids, cervical self-screening, smoking, and more – the list is huge.  

2. David Seymour and Act for political strategy

In 2021 Act managed to capitalise on a weak National Party, hold an inexperienced caucus together, and garner media attention for messaging that gained them supporters from different parts of the electorate (eg, making a serious play for farmers’ votes). 

3. Māori groups for persisting on Covid-19 equity, coming together, and using whatever mechanisms they could to hold the government to account

Including: Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, the New Zealand Māori Council, many iwi, Māori TV and other Māori journalists, and Te Pāti Māori.


1. Labour on housing policy

For house prices, quality and affordability.   

2. Judith Collins

In unsuccessfully using marginalised groups for political gain. Notably, stirring controversy around He Puapua, attempting to use #MeToo-style rhetoric to oust Bridges, and using the Conversion Practices Bill to put liberal caucus members in their place.  

3. Peter Goodfellow

Just move on, mate.   

Lara Greaves is a lecturer in New Zealand politics and public policy at the University of Auckland and associate director (policy inc) at the Public Policy Institute. 

Leonie Hayden


1. Te Rōpu Whakakaupapa Urutā and co-leader Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen 

For fronting the fight to prioritise Māori health needs in the pandemic.

2. Te Pāti Māori

For continuing to be a pebble in the Air Jordans of Westminster politics.

3. Kiri Allan

For showing both vulnerability and leadership during her cancer treatment and recovery.


1. Judith Collins

For the embarrassing and racist attempts to stoke fears of separatism around the He Puapua report.

2. David Seymour

For the embarrassing and racist act of releasing a priority code for Māori vaccination to the public.

3. Every Ministry of Health and DPMC official who ignored expert advice from Māori health professionals on strategies for the vaccine rollout

Leonie Hayden is The Spinoff’s Ātea editor.

Liam Hehir

1. Christopher Luxon

Started the year as a new MP with some sceptics in caucus. However, he quietly built a support base in caucus and the broader membership and is now leader of the opposition. This is famously the worst job in politics, of course, but is usually an important stepping stone to the best.

2. Jacinda Ardern

Finishes another year as prime minister. While support has slipped since the last general election, there is still daylight between her Labour Party and the opposition. Her “bad” polls remind me of how we used to feel about test matches against Ireland where we would say it was “close” because we “only” won by 11 points.

3. Simon Bridges

Began the process of rebuilding his career from the ruins of 2020. Ended up one of National’s most influential MPs and someone who had to be accommodated by Luxon in the leadership shake-up. As finance spokesman, he now has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Bill English as a National Party Lazarus.


1. Judith Collins

Obviously. Tried to take out Simon Bridges with a grubby scandal and failed, hastening her own defenestration.

2. The Green Party

Remember when these guys had all the energy and idealism on their side, as well as the most favourable media narratives of any political party? While James Shaw continues to be a quiet achiever, his party seems determined not to focus on the issues important to those without Twitter accounts.

3. The National Party

While it does feel like a corner has been turned, let us not forget that the party spent a lot of time talking about itself in 2021. This subject is, of course, very dear to the hearts of all people in the National Party. But for everyone else it was a real turnoff.

Liam Hehir is a political commentator.

Annabelle Lee-Mather


1. Just one big one

The vaccinators, testers, MIQ workers, cleaners, contact tracers, hauora providers, nurses, doctors, orderlies, food bank kaimahi, kaiako, border kaitiaki, essential workers and everyone who contributed to keeping us safe and sound all around the motu. E mihi ana ki a koutou katoa.


1. The travel bubble with Australia 

The viral version of an underarm bowl.

2. The vaccination rollout for Māori

Let’s hope lessons have been learnt.

3. Demand the debate

AKA the strike force raptor of 2021.

Annabelle Lee-Mather is the executive producer of Three’s The Hui and a third of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime.

Minister for emergency management Kiritapu Allan with prime minister Jacinda Ardern, followed by director general of health Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Marty Melville)

Toby Manhire


1. The vaccination super squad

Whatever the misgivings, whatever the shortcomings, 90% of eligible New Zealanders fully vaccinated is a goddamn triumph, and everyone involved at every level is a hero, especially those who stepped up around the country to make it happen, down to individuals who persuaded a friend or family member that it was the right thing to do.   

2. Kiritapu Allan

Incredible to think that the tsunami and earthquake response fronted by Allan was in 2021. Her performance as a new minister was impressive, but it also came in a year in which she faced a cancer diagnosis, extensive treatment and now, it seems, has been given the all-clear. An uplifting story for an exhausting year.

3. David Seymour

Yes, Act’s performance was in part thanks to National’s misery, but it’s also thanks to his relentlessness, management of a novice caucus and tactical smarts.


1. The Coromandel mayor

I forget her name, but the one who didn’t like to scan, didn’t want the Pfizer and didn’t know how to be a leader.

2. The National Party

The last couple of weeks have returned a welcome semblance of calm and coherence, which serves to underline just what an omnishambles it was for most of the year.

3. The so-called “yellow” light


Toby Manhire is The Spinoff’s editor-at-large.

Danyl Mclachlan


1. Chris Hipkins

The cliche is that opposition leader is the worst job in politics, but it seems like a pretty easy gig compared to Chris Hipkins’ role as minister for Covid response. That looks like a truly horrible job, but after a very bumpy year we still have a low fatality rate, low case numbers, a high vaccination rate and an intact health system.

2. Nicola Willis

It’s too soon to designate Chris Luxon a champ. He might spend all of 2022 being a truly terrible leader – we just don’t know! It’s much easier to recognise that his deputy Nicola Willis managed to negotiate a housing accord with Labour while simultaneously breaking a series of embarrassing stories excoriating the government for botching policy and implementation in that same portfolio, and finishes the year as her party’s second-ranked MP.

3. Chris Bishop

If I’m naming Hipkins the politician of the year I should probably acknowledge his tireless rival, Chris Bishop, who spent the years pointing out the flaws, inconsistencies and failures of the Covid response. Almost all of which Hipkins airily dismissed as nonsense while rapidly adopting them. The adversarial system works!


1. Judith Collins, of course

There’s something tragic about her downfall. She was so committed to playing the role of “Crusher” Collins, and projecting strength, that she spent her tenure as leader terrorising her own caucus, because they were the only people she had any power over. With the obvious consequence that they took that power away to protect themselves.

2. Grant Robertson

Maybe a contrarian choice since the economic forecasts look fantastic – but it looks as if fiscal and monetary policy under Robertson will lead to a significant increase in New Zealand’s wealth inequality.

3. The state

The interim report from the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care – released during the pre-Christmas period, a traditional dumping ground for bad news – has revealed that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, many Māori, disabled, children, often all three, were tortured and abused by state- or faith-based institutions, and that the state spent decades trying to cover it up to minimise legal liability.

Danyl Mclachlan is a Wellington-based writer.

Craig Renney


1. Supermarket workers, bus drivers, nurses, other essential workers

Facing a new strain of virus and protecting us all so we can stay safe. Heroes.

2. Aucklanders, Covid vaccinators, MIQ workers (joint award)

Aucklanders saw the lockdown out, and helped keep delta as contained as it could be. Vaccinators and MIQ workers have helped lessen the impact of future outbreaks and got most of the country to 90%. Bravo.

3. Living Wage Aotearoa

Helped win the living wage for contractors in the core public sector this year and saw many new employers join up as accredited living wage employers. More of this, please.


1. The public sector pay freeze

Let us never speak of this again.

2. Employers scratching their heads about skill/staff shortages while paying less than the living wage

It’s funny how the market stops working when it works more in employees’ favour than the employers.

3. Brian Tamaki

If being arrested to show that you shouldn’t get a vaccine is your goal – then you’ve probably missed a couple of points along the way.

Craig Renney is ‎economist and director of policy at the ‎New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

Brooke Stanley Pao


1. Auckland Action Against Poverty

I’m going to go full biased and say the org I work with, cos they’re a community of volunteers who fight with a fierce love for the kaupapa of a poverty-free Aotearoa, despite being gaslit by political fuglies on the regular. They deserve all the love and money please and thank you.

2. Iwi and hapū around the country

For the way they responded with deep care for their communities, along with all the frontline organisations and essential workers who have carried us through Covid. They also deserve all the love and money please and thank you.

3. All the disability orgs and people with disabilities/their families that fought tirelessly and often invisibly to get a Ministry for Disabled Peoples.

4. Unemig and Aunty Anu Kaloti

For all the work they do on the ground for our migrant communities, as well as the Sikh community for always pulling up with love.

5. Protect Pūtiki, Te Ara Whatu and Pacific Climate Warriors

Cos these Goat guides continue to fight for the love and protection of Papatūānuku and remind all of us that we’re nothing without her.

*Special mention to Ricardo Menendez March, Tamatha Paul, Te Pāti Māori and everyone who campaigned to ban conversion therapy in Aotearoa. 

*We let Brooke have more than three.


1. Labour

Because at least National are aware they perpetuate systemic racism.

2. National

Because they perpetuate systemic racism.

3. Act

Because they’re Act.

Brooke Stanley Pao is the co-ordinator for Auckland Action Against Poverty.

Shane Te Pou


1. Jacinda Ardern

Tough year but looks like we will ride this out OK. Few deaths, low hospital and ICU admissions. Europe will also make us look good. 

2. Christopher Luxon

Right person, right time.

3. Judith Collins

Couldn’t save herself but she may have saved the National Party. Also she got to go on a long paid holiday.


1. David Seymour

Lost a third of his support in one poll.

2. Simon Bridges

The leadership was only a breath away.

3. All parties

We have consigned our kids and mokopuna to generations of not being able to own a house and paying crazy rents.

Shane Te Pou is a former candidate, campaign manager and executive member of the Labour Party.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon and deputy leader Nicola Willis (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Ben Thomas


1. David Seymour

Although Act’s gravity-defying polling took a hit with the steadying of National’s ship under Christopher Luxon, the party and Seymour himself continue with extraordinary support. Most impressively, Seymour has managed to steer a 10-person caucus of political ingenues away from controversy while developing their individual skills into a formidable team.

2. Nicola Willis

Brokered (from opposition) a parliamentary grand coalition on densification of housing, giving Labour political cover to make positive change, and, through hard and impressive policy work, overcoming suspicion about her political instincts (after backing Todd Muller) to be elected deputy leader in a reinvigorated National Party.

3. Hone Harawira

The second-highest-performing Ngāpuhi tāne in New Zealand politics this year, Harawira continues to demonstrate why he is better suited for extra-parliamentary politics, by brokering rangatiratanga in action in the Northland checkpoints.


1. Judith Collins

Collins fatally ran down National’s and, more puzzlingly, her own strong political brand through a lack of focus, and ultimately forced a revolt with intolerable and somewhat capricious caucus loyalty tests. A huge and somewhat inexplicable waste of talent.

2. Kris Faafoi

From cabinet’s Mr Fix-it to cabinet’s Mr “Ah, fuck it”, the endlessly likeable Faafoi’s woeful performances in the detail-heavy portfolios of immigration and justice apparently trace back to being reluctantly convinced to sign on again as a cabinet minister after he had lost interest by the end of 2020.

3. Winston Peters

Peters has, like the singer from 90s pop band Eve6, been trying to spark a career comeback via Twitter. His one incendiary scoop this year – a false story about Mongrel Mob lifer Harry Tam in Northland on live TV, resulted in a hasty backdown and disappeared, like Peters’ chances in the face of a strong Act and resurgent National.

Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant, former National government press secretary and one-third of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone by Lunchtime.

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