Analysis: New year, new Government, and a new political chess board. 1News digital political reporter Felix Desmarais rounds up some of the most interesting people to watch in politics this year.
New National MP James Meager won the Rangitata seat at the election, taking it back for his party from Labour’s Jo Luxton. Meager — who has worked as a National Party staffer in the past — impressed the press and public with a resolute and articulate maiden speech. In it, the self-described “part Māori boy” spoke of a challenging upbringing that taught him his values of personal responsibility, reward for hard work and limited government. He also took aim at opposition parties on the left, saying they did not “own” Māori, the poor or workers.
The speech had Parliament abuzz with the phrase “future prime minister”, which can be as much a curse as a compliment.
Meager will turn 37 in August and is a confident and chipper presence around Parliament. He is likely to be keen to prove his mettle to ascend from his backbench status swiftly. Having made such a splash on his debut — which comes with a weight of expectation — he will do well to be able to shut out the noise (good and bad), stay focused, and further impress this year.
Another bright spark in the “class” of 2023 — the new intake of MPs. Tākuta Ferris caught the attention of the wider political world when Te Pāti Māori sagely put him forward to represent it in the Press Leaders’ Debate. He more than held his own against veteran politicians such as Winston Peters and David Seymour.
Ferris had been considered before the election unlikely to take Te Tai Tonga from Labour’s Rino Tirikatene — who held the seat for 12 years — but managed to do so with almost 3000 votes to spare. This was no mean feat, along with Te Pāti Māori’s sweep of five other Māori electorates. Ferris is incisive, a persuasive speaker and is bound to make waves and gains for his party in 2024.
Not a new face anymore, but an increasingly recognisable one. The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick has consistently rated in 1News Verian Polls in the preferred prime minister stakes. While an at-times polarising figure, there’s little doubt Swarbrick perhaps most clearly and unabashedly flies the flag for her party and communicates its values and policies.
First elected in 2017, Swarbrick manages to maintain her freshness and appears to have managed to avoid drinking the beltway elixir, as it were. She mostly avoids the riddles and rhymes of politico-speak and gets to the heart of an issue — so often half the battle in politics.
While she’s previously been open about a reluctance about life in politics. She said in a 2020 documentary that politics was “f***ed”, “toxic” and in 2022 told The Spinoff she regularly considers quitting. But Swarbrick is a likely contender should the Greens require a new co-leader. In many ways, some may argue she is already a defacto leader, more recognisable than Marama Davidson and James Shaw.
Changes to the party’s constitution in 2022 mean the party no longer requires a male and female leader, but rather a female co-leader and another co-leader of any gender. The move was aimed at affirming leadership opportunities for non-binary and intersex people. As the rules include that one of those leaders must be Māori, Swarbrick would have a good chance of taking over from James Shaw, if he stands down. That would be down to a vote of delegates, who placed Swarbrick at number three in party rankings last year.
In any case, now an experienced politician with a high profile, Swarbrick is likely to be a powerful opposition voice in 2024.
A dyed-in-the-wool ACT member (he joined the party at its inception), new MP Todd Stephenson has already shown he’s getting stuck in, flinging out press releases at a rate even impressive for the publicity-prolific party. Clearly identified as a talent for the party, he was given a virtually-guaranteed spot in Parliament at number four on the list. A law graduate, Stephenson grew up in Southland and worked in pharmaceuticals in Sydney prior to running for office.
He’s the party spokesperson for health, justice, and finance — and is showing he’s keen to get the classical liberal voice on those issues on the agenda.
If that energy is to be sustained, Stephenson is likely to make a real impact, despite not yet holding a ministerial portfolio. It may well just be a matter of time before he does.
Cushla Tangaere-Manuel is perhaps the unintended benefactor of former Labour minister Meka Whaitiri’s explosive defection to Te Pāti Māori. In a series of ministerial challenges under Chris Hipkins’ leadership, last May Whaitiri announced her defection and her renewed candidacy for the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti seat, albeit under the Te Pāti Māori banner.
Based on the vote, the electorate rejected that defection and placed its faith in Whaitiri’s Labour party candidate replacement: Tangaere-Manuel. It was the only Māori electorate Te Pāti Māori didn’t win.
While a headache at the time, Labour is likely to see the whole affair as a blessing, gaining the sharp and confident talent in Tangaere-Manuel. A former broadcaster for Whakaata Māori and TVNZ, she also held leadership roles such as the chief executive of the East Coast Rugby Football Union and as the Māori Rugby Programme Manager for the NZRU.
She’s a quick study and a no-nonsense type — and those types tend to get things done. Whether or not that’s true in Tangaere-Manuel’s case will be revealed this year.
A former Hobson’s Pledge spokesperson, New Zealand First’s Casey Costello has an extensive background with the police. She’s also formerly been involved in the Taxpayers’ Union and the ACT party, including running as a candidate.
Of Māori descent, she’s passionate about a different approach to the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori issues, saying in a 2017 blog post that “Māori ancestry is used more frequently as an excuse for failing rather than a motivation to succeed” and that “everything that is wrong is blamed upon a history long since passed that is distorted so significantly that it bears almost no resemblance to fact but is very useful in justifying a grievance industry”.
Leader Winston Peters has spoken highly of her and his faith in her is perhaps illustrated by not just her presence in Cabinet as a first term MP but also with the Seniors portfolio — one very dear to New Zealand First. Third on the list, Costello may well be part of the party’s succession plans for future leadership. What she does in her first year in the House of Representatives may be a hint of her future political impact.
New Zealand has its first Mental Health Minister in National’s Matt Doocey. The Waimakariri MP — who National leader Christopher Luxon often jokes is his doppelganger (both men adopting the low-maintenance hairstyle of eschewing one entirely) has a background in social policy and healthcare management. He’s also actually worked in the mental health area in his career, meaning he’s seen what it’s like on the ground, rather than just in theory or through anecdote.
The new portfolio has been welcomed by the Mental Health Foundation, but critics have expressed scepticism about whether a Minister in charge of the area —which has galling statistics in New Zealand — will make a real difference.
That’s likely to be all down to what Doocey does with the role, so it will be fascinating to watch and see what he delivers.
Former National leader Judith Collins may well be the living embodiment of 1997 Chumbawamba hit Tubthumping. She gets knocked down, but she gets up again. Despite the Oravida scandal and leading National in one of its worst election defeats ever, she’s got up again with the most extensive ministerial portfolio in the new Government.
She’s the Minister of Defence, Digitising Government, Space, the Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), the Minister Responsible for the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), the Lead Coordination Minister for the Government’s Response to the Royal Commission’s Report into the Terrorist Attack on the Christchurch Mosques — and Attorney-General.
There have been mutterings in the beltway that this is all about Luxon keeping Collins busy, but defence, space and tech are all particular areas of fascination and/or passion for Collins, and she’s described the role as Attorney-General as a “dream job”.
She has an opportunity to make a real mark on the flavour of the Government in these roles, so it will be interesting to see whether she sinks or swims with such a massive workload.
Either way, as the song goes, you’re never going to keep her down.
Brooke van Velden
Brooke Van Velden’s ascent has been breath-taking. From a party staffer, to deputy leader, to now a minister with her own electorate — Tāmaki. They’re massive achievements for the 31-year-old.
She’s worked away fairly quietly in the background, not grabbing any kind of serious limelight, but achieving nonetheless. That she is not as high profile as her boss, ACT leader David Seymour, is not a coincidence — despite the larger caucus in the last term, Seymour still dominated as the spokesperson on most issues. That helped for cohesion of image and voice for the party, as well as possibly being simply the most expedient way of supplying quick and clear messaging of ACT’s perspective to the media.
It says a lot that, despite not benefiting from as high a profile as perhaps she might have been as deputy leader, she still managed to persuade Tāmaki to shift further to the right. Those on the ground say her campaign was energetic and she worked for every vote. It paid off.
But now van Velden is a minister, taking her to the lectern in the theatrette, and we’re likely to hear more from her as the Workplace Relations Minister in particular, as the Government sets about its centre-right agenda (she also holds Internal Affairs). Some may consider the party has reached a new level of maturity now also through her winning another electorate seat for the party, which comes with a level of prestige. Watch and see whether and if so how she uses that power and position.
Like Chris Hipkins, Ayesha Verrall, the former Health Minister, seems energised and impassioned in Opposition. That’s in no small part due to the Government’s moves to halt some anti-smoking initiatives from the previous Government — such as a sinking lid on the purchasing age for tobacco. Verrall has really stepped up to the plate since Labour was toppled from power and hasn’t wasted any time in transitioning to Opposition while some colleagues may still — as many former governments do — be stuck in minister mode.
It perhaps reveals a work ethic and maturity exceeding her years in Parliament.
Her colleagues would do well to follow her lead.