If I had to name the most important political commentator in the country, it would be Colin James.
For starters, he has longevity on his side. I first met him when he was No 2 in the Dominion's press gallery team behind Keith Hancox.
That was in 1969. James makes even the Herald's John Armstrong and Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper look like johnnies-come-lately.
That gives him a wider and, dare I say it, more mature perspective than most others covering politics. He's able to evaluate political trends and events within an historical and cultural context that escapes younger journalists.
That's part of what makes him so valuable, but the other factor is that he floats above the daily political drama and takes in the big picture. While other political journalists are reporting from the skirmish lines, amid the blood and severed limbs, James is on a strategic ridge several kilometres back, coolly surveying the scene through binoculars and taking in the broader implications.
For a typical example, check out his latest column in the Otago Daily Times. Other political writers are totally absorbed with Labour's leadership tensions, but James gives them only a passing mention. He's more interested in the latest report of the Land and Water Forum, which has largely been ignored by the rest of the media but may have far more significant long-term ramifications than David Cunliffe's bungled leadership aspirations.
James doesn't write with the flair and wit of a Jane Clifton. Reading his columns requires a mental change of gear, since his style is dry and can be somewhat oblique. But his insights are always interesting and you sense that his judgment is sound.
He's also fair and even-handed. James is one of those political journalists who carries purity to excess (in my view) by choosing not to vote, but in any case it's hard to discern what his personal leanings, if any, might be. Given the intensely partisan nature of much political commentary since the emergence of the blogosphere, that only reinforces his credibility.