In a bruising year of federal politics, who emerges with the least bark taken off? We kick off the 2012 Crikeys by crowning Australia’s politician of the year — and name the frontbenchers who got the most done, and the ones who really dropped the ball …

Most effective minister: Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten gets the gong for the passage of the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms in the face of mindless obstructionism from the Coalition and a deeply, cynically misleading campaign by the deadenders of the financial planning industry to prevent any reform that benefits consumers. Even in its compromise form, struck after Shorten negotiated with key industry stakeholders and the crossbenchers, FOFA will be a key legacy of this government, generating growing benefits for Australian superannuants in the decades to come.

Honourable mentions: It’s been a good year for Wayne Swan. His fiscal policy has permitted the RBA to slash interest rates even as unemployment remains low. The Australian economy has survived a slowdown in China and has so far stood up to the Aussie dollar becoming a reserve currency. Australia’s tax:GDP ratio has remained admirably low and far below the level bequeathed by the Howard government. And Kim Carr copped demotion on the chin and has taken to Human Services with enthusiasm and reformist vigour, rather than sooking. Others, like Joel Fitzgibbon, might heed his example.

Least effective minister: Nicola Roxon

Nicola Roxon isn’t actually that poor a minister. But after Robert McClelland, we needed an Attorney-General prepared to stand up to the obsessive instincts of her department to relentlessly extend state surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers. To her credit, Roxon established a parliamentary committee process to examine a huge wishlist of new powers being demanded by intelligence and law enforcement agencies that had significant implications for privacy, freedom of speech and a free press. But her department’s contribution to that process was dreadful, a discussion paper that actually needed both Roxon herself and the department to issue clarifications and explanations while the committee publicly complained about the lack of detail around proposals.

Roxon also oversaw the passage into law of the draconian cybercrime legislation that establishes a mechanism for foreign governments to demand the storage of data on Australian users. The impression left is of a department that hates having to justify its relentless assaults on basic rights and regards its minister as a cipher for those efforts — and of another Labor minister unwilling to disabuse them of the notion.

Honourable mention: Joe Ludwig’s handling of the vexing live exports issue has, impressively, yielded unrelenting criticism both from opponents of the trade and from the industry, with no one regarding that as a sign that he’s got the balance right. The matter will continue to plague Labor.

Most effective shadow minister: Scott Morrison

Like him or loathe him, Scott Morrison has delivered in spades for the Coalition this year. As the man charged with exploiting to the maximum extent possible Labor’s political difficulties on asylum seekers, he has performed his role ruthlessly. Whether it’s been warning of asylum seekers bringing typhoid to our shores, or justifying blocking the Malaysian solution on the basis that the Coalition is concerned about the rights of asylum seekers, or complaining about the cost of implementing the very policy the Coalition has long insisted Labor introduce, Morrison has demonstrated a willingness not to let consistency, facts or common sense interfere with prosecuting the case against the government.

And, whether you like it or not, it has worked. The great majority of Australians don’t think the treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru is cruel; far more are likely to regard Labor as “too soft” on refugees despite an embrace of the Howard government’s most controversial policy. Morrison’s exploitation of asylum seekers is a big part of why the Coalition retains a handy polling lead at the end of the year. And by that time, he was trailing his coat outside his portfolio and being mentioned as possible leader in the event Tony Abbott falls under a bus.

Honourable mention: Simon Birmingham (although, technically a ringer because he’s a parl sec). Alarmingly, Birmingham brings evidence, reason and quiet authority to his role as understudy on water to Barnaby Joyce, his polar opposite. Birmingham’s was a quiet, measured but well-informed South Australian voice on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. He continues to repeatedly show up more aggro Coalition senators at estimates.

Least effective shadow minister: George Brandis

Step up George Brandis, an average Brisbane lawyer who rates himself as one of Australia’s finest legal minds. The alternative Attorney-General tries to impress with his barristers’ bag of tricks, but there’s a reason John Howard kept him on the backbench until the dying days of his government and then gave him the most junior portfolio in the shop, and it wasn’t because of “lying rodent”. On three issues this year, Craig Thomson, the AWU smear campaign and James Ashby, Brandis has tried to imperiously weigh in, offering his own judgment on the issues. Each time he has been shown to be wrong, sometimes humiliatingly so, raising questions not merely about his political judgment but about his supposed legal acumen.

Brandis topped off a spectacular year by calling Julia Gillard a “crook” behind the protection of parliamentary privilege and then, when invited to repeat the claim outside Parliament, blathering on (inaccurately) about the Glorious Revolution. To be mediocre is one thing, and Brandis can’t be blamed for that. But to be a coward — that’s something rather different.

Best parliamentary and/or media performer: Julia Gillard

For years we’ve endured the reduction of Parliament to a rather shabby Punch and Judy show, while question time has been transformed into a particularly painful form of kabuki. Rare has been the parliamentary speech that has cut through to the public. Many MPs have given fine speeches — Malcolm Turnbull’s speech three years ago on why he was crossing the floor to vote for the government’s revised CPRS package was outstanding; his speech on the death of Robert Hughes in August was a wonderful, rich tribute to the man. But none penetrate the walls of Parliament to resonate with voters.

But Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech cut through. From seemingly nowhere, she produced one of the great parliamentary speeches of recent years when Tony Abbott made the mistake of trying to exploit Peter Slipper’s obscene text messages as the basis for sacking him. That the press gallery almost completely missed the impact of the speech oddly served only to demonstrate its effectiveness — this was the speech of a Prime Minister communicating directly with voters, of a leader speaking most particularly to women about all the shit they have to endure as a routine part of their working lives.

That the Prime Minister also twice invited the press gallery to stand and deliver over the AWU smear campaign, and twice bested them, also stood in dire contrast to her opponent, who continues to prefer to avoid extended, rigorous media scrutiny.

Honourable mentions: Apart from the perennial Turnbull, Tony Windsor deserves a nod for conveying the sense that, no matter what absurdities are taking place in the House of Representatives, there’s at least one wise and thoughtful adult around.

Biggest media tart: Barnaby Joyce

Look, let’s just give this one to Barnaby Joyce in perpetuity. It’s not merely Barnaby’s availability to the media that makes him so prized, it’s the sheer weirdness of the content of Joyce’s media statements and appearances. Last week, Joyce issued a press release complaining about … well, it’s not entirely clear, but it was something about water irrigation and the carbon price. It contained the left-field phrase: “You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out the dilemma.”

Who knows what he meant. But as Freud himself observed, sometimes an irrigation pipe is just an irrigation pipe.

Worst political gaffe: Kevin Rudd

There were many moments of poor judgment, dud tactics and shocking errors during the year. The Coalition’s wildly-overhyped campaign against the carbon price was left exposed after July 1. Labor managed to take a seemingly unexceptionable economic issue — its new process for enabling mining projects that were struggling to attract sufficient labour — and transform it into an unseemly internal brawl. Julia Gillard’s “line has been crossed, but I can’t tell you what the line is” handling of the Slipper and Thomson sagas in April was her worst moment. Bill Shorten’s pre-emptive agreement with the Prime Minister will remain a staple of political satire for years to come. And then there was Tony Abbott’s 7.30 appearance.

But none will have longer-lasting consequences than Kevin Rudd’s error in allowing himself to be goaded into an early leadership challenge. By losing patience and going in February, Rudd ensured he would fail and, having fired the one shot in his locker, be forced to the backbench. If he’d waited two or three more months, as Gillard’s standing with voters fell even further, he’d have likely been returned to the Prime Ministership, despite the immense dislike of many senior figures within the party. And if he had, most likely we’d have had an election by now.

Rudd may yet return to the leadership if things go pear-shaped for Labor next year, but that would require Gillard giving up. Good luck there.

Politician of the year: Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard began the year as she ended 2011, prone to poor judgment and mistakes, loathed by voters and looking increasingly like roadkill before the gathering onslaught of Rudd. She ends it with Rudd confined to the backbench; she is substantially higher in voters’ esteem than Tony Abbott and has found her voice as Prime Minister.

Ever since she ascended to the leadership, Gillard has struggled to offer a clear, effective political persona, only really coming to life in deepest adversity. During 2012, she finally stopped needing someone throwing grenades at her to make her communicate with the sort of cut-through effectiveness that Labor MPs so hoped for when they gave her the top job.

Some of the recovery by Gillard can be put down to better management by her communications director John McTernan, who has ruthlessly imposed discipline on the government to not merely cut out the constant mistakes but to establish a coherent big-picture agenda that the government can take to the next election. But the key change has been within Gillard herself, who is less and less performing like what she thinks a Prime Minister should be, and more and more being herself. And she has done so in the face of a ferocious campaign by her opponents in the media, in her own party and in the opposition.

The Prime Minister won’t lie down and die, Abbott told his colleagues in May. He was right on the money.