(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 2.)In the week before Christmas I was invited to take part in a radio programme where we were to discuss, among other things, the good and bad of 2012.
Worryingly, I had to scratch my head to think of anything that had happened in 2012. I put this down to my many years as a daily newspaper journalist, a career which revolves around the event of the moment. Once a story has been written and published, it’s expunged from the memory bank to make room for the next one.
It follows that casting one’s mind back over an entire year was a tall order. But I duly went back through my files and slowly, little by little, it all came back to me.Here, then, is my highly selective resume of 2012.
It was a year in which, bizarrely, a large and buffoonish-looking German named Kim Dotcom became a national celebrity and caused enormous political embarrassment.Buffoonish-looking he may be, but Herr Dotcom is a very shrewd customer with a natural flair for public relations. He cleverly turned the controversy arising from an over-the-top police raid on his home near Auckland to his advantage, in the process becoming something of a folk hero.
Public support for Herr Dotcom (even his adopted name sounds like something created by a Hollywood scriptwriter) arose largely from the perception, not entirely unjustified, that America, determined to put him on the mat for alleged copyright infringement on a massive scale, had told the New Zealand government to jump and the response had been, “how high”?Public unease at this perceived grovelling to the Americans would have been accentuated by controversy over the government’s sweetheart deal with the Sky City casino company and, going back further, to the furore over The Hobbit, which saw prime minister John Key swiftly moving to placate Warner Brothers to ensure production remained in New Zealand.
In each of these instances, the government’s opponents were able to portray the National Party as a pushover, ready to sell New Zealand’s soul.There was a time, decades ago, when many New Zealanders accepted that we had no choice but to bow to powerful outside interests (usually British, in those days), but all that has changed. Since Britain abandoned us for the EU and we fell out with the Americans over Anzus, we have acquired a taste for asserting our autonomy.
The problem is that we are a small, vulnerable economy, often at the mercy of external forces. The government must seize what opportunities it can without appearing to compromise our sovereignty. Getting that balance right will present a continuing challenge for the government’s political management skills, which looked distinctly ragged in 2012.It was a year in which Mr Key seemed to forget the words of the magic incantation that protected him against political damage during his first term, but whether he has learned anything is a moot point. His final act of the political year was to indulge in juvenile clowning on a radio station – not a good look when the education sector was in turmoil.
Herr Dotcom’s other significant achievement was that he effectively destroyed the Act party, although not without a great deal of help from the pathetic John Banks and the man who unwisely installed him in Epsom, erstwhile Act leader Don Brash.Mr Banks had been happy to accept Herr Dotcom’s generous help when he ran unsuccessfully for the Auckland mayoralty, but ungraciously disowned the German the moment he looked like becoming a political embarrassment. Herr Dotcom took his revenge by publicly exposing Mr Banks’ duplicity, and fair enough. Now Mr Banks’ reputation is in tatters and so is Act’s. (In fact the more I think about it, the more I'm forced to conclude that, given Mr Key's radio antics and Mr Banks' embarrassing attempts to wriggle out of his predicament, buffoonery may have been the defining quality of 2012.)
Many people will rejoice at the prospect of Act being obliterated at the 2014 general election, but I’m not one of them. It was a bold, radical and idealistic party – as idealistic as any party on the left – but like many idealistic parties, it suffered from a surfeit of talented but idiosyncratic and often undisciplined personalities. Dr Brash’s ill-conceived takeover of the party sealed its fate.But back to 2012. There was ACC and the Bronwyn Pullar fiasco, which claimed more victims than a cluster bomb. Yet I still refuse to buy Ms Pullar’s portrayal of herself (with a huge amount of help from TV3’s disgracefully partisan Sixty Minutes) as an heroic whistle blower. It’s my opinion she was driven from the start by pure, undiluted self-interest and adopted the mantle of crusader only after her attempt to exploit her highly-placed connections failed.
There was a sensational murder trial that resulted in an equally sensational acquittal. Ewen Macdonald, who was accused of murdering Scott Guy, shows every sign of becoming another cause celebre in the tradition of Arthur Allan Thomas, David Bain, David Tamihere and Scott Watson, with the obvious difference that those cases resulted in convictions whereas Macdonald will walk free. It’s as if New Zealand has developed a craving for murder cases that fail to produce, at least in the public mind, a satisfactory and definitive conclusion.There was The Hobbit: all two hours and 50 minutes of it, and there are still (spare us!) two films to go. Sir Peter Jackson is the new Ed Hillary. Whatever one thinks of his films, he has done more than anyone since Hillary to put the country on the world map and make New Zealanders feel good about themselves. Even the late Sir Peter Blake was never this big.
There was an unholy mess in education – the result of an inexperienced but headstrong minister pushing too hard? – and mounting unease about child poverty and income disparity, with no shortage of suggested solutions (increased welfare payments, a higher minimum wage, meals in schools, more cheap rental housing) but a conspicuous failure to explain how a struggling economy could afford them.There was noisy agitation for alcohol law reform and same-sex marriage. Parliament emphatically rebuffed campaigners on the first issue – not that that will silence the taxpayer-funded wowser lobby for long – but it remains to be seen how much traction the marriage reformers will get.
And then there’s potentially the most troubling and divisive issue of all: race, biculturalism and the Treaty. Of all the issues that bubbled away in 2012, this is the one most likely to change the face of New Zealand fundamentally and permanently. And it’s one on which the political consensus in Parliament seems entirely out of step with the mood of the electorate.