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Chris Ford: This Was the Year That Was - 2013

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

It's that time of year again when both social and traditional media do their end of year story wraps. And I thought I would entitle it as I have with a play on the name of a popular BBC satirical comedy show from the 1960s, This Was the Week That Was - a programme fronted by David Frost who, incidentally, passed away this year.

And it was truly a year for significant passings from this world. Locally, Sir Paul Holmes was the most significant New Zealand personality to die this year. He passed away only weeks after being knighted in the New Year's Honours List, a last award given him in recognition of his years of service to broadcasting. Sometimes controversial, somtimes irreverant, Holmes's arrival on the media scene in 1989 symbolised the introduction of unfettered free market forces into what had, until then, been a largely public service-oriented sector. His infotainment style of journalism saw the end of old style news broadcasting focused on objectively informing the public about the news of the day to one where personalities dominated and also one where infotainment-generated news gained greater weight.

The desire of New Rightists and libertarians alike to slowly edge out public service broadcasting could not have come about if the political and economic environment had not been conducive to it. And one person alone led the charge towards free markets and a renewed sense of social conservatism in the 1980s - Margaret Thatcher. Her death in April did not signify the end of a era but rather the end of a person who had ushered in an era of unparalelled inequality, financial market convulsion, and a diminuition of the role of the state in British and international public life. Her election in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of Keynesian Social Democracy and its replacement by laissez-faire market driven economic and social policies whose historic roots lay deep in the nineteenth century. Just five years after her historic election victory, the New Zealand people were surprised and stunned that it was to be a Labour Government that would implement many of her policies within a local context.

On an opposite ideological trajectory, Nelson Mandela had fought a long liberation struggle out of which he hoped that his South African people would live in an an alternative society where social justice, equality and freedom would reign. Disappointingly, Mandela would not feel able to completely stay the hand of the free market in a post-apartheid South Africa but he, at least, stayed the hand of armed conflict and further division in that land. However, the world remembered Mandela's achievements following his death in December at the age of 95 which truly marked the passing of an era in Africa's history - that of the freedom fighter. While other freedom fighters (notably among them Robert Mugabe) have transformed themselves into hideous, autocratic dictators, Mandela bucked the trend by at least staying on the path of liberal democracy, even if social democracy proved harder to attain in the New South Africa.

At home, John Key's National Government continued to tamper with the notion that we live in a purely liberal democracy. Early on in the year came the revelations about the GCSB and its potential role in spying on innocent New Zealanders. These concerns culminated in huge public protests against the GCSB Bill which introduced greater powers for that agency to spy on ordinary New Zealanders. And this change was prompted by the agency's biggest mistake - in illegally spying on that now famous German fugitive, Kim Dotcom. Indeed, the 'Kim Dotcom Show' (as predicted by me last year) continued to roll on in 2013 through claiming more political victims along the way. These included the Government's two key support partners, namely, ACT's John Banks and United Future's Peter Dunne who were forced to resign their portfolios after effectively becoming ensnared in the Dotcom web. Moreover, there were other victims as well including the head of Parliamentary Services and others who fell on their swords as a result of their mistakes in handling the multitude of inquiries which transpired from the Dotcom spying fiasco. My best guess is that the Beehive would now very much like to see the back of Dotcom - but in 2014, maybe that they won't get their wish or maybe they just might - all depending on what the courts say, of course.

However, it wasn't only Dotcom and his supporters that were causing the Govenrment headaches. One Saturday night at Hanmer Springs, an unknown National backbench MP, by the name of Aaron Gilmore, became well known for once - for all the wrong reasons, that is. Notably, he let out the year's biggest political gaffe in the form of 'do you know who I am?' to poor, harried waiters at one of the resort's many lodges after they refused to serve him alcohol. Consequently (and not after a few Tory knives had been lodged in his back), Gilmore agreed to go for the sake of not only his reputation but National's. 

Talking of knives in backs, Labour leader David Shearer had been, at the beginning of the year, walking around with more than a few. By and large, his caucus colleagues seemed happy with him and wanted him to remain. Conversely, there were one or two within Labour's caucus and, moreso, within the wider party who didn't want to see him hang around with the main back stabber being one David Cunliffe. In late 2012, Cunliffe lodged the first huge knite into the other David's back at that year's Labour Party conference. In 2013, Cunliffe, seeing that the polls were unfavourable towards the other David, uttered 'et tu, Shearer', albeit, through the unlikely person of Maryan Street. This prompted a leadership contest that, at first, National gleefully welcomed as a great chance for Labour to air their dirty washing in public. In fact, the tables were slightly turned against National (at least on this prediction) as the contest prompted renewed public interest in Labour which saw its stocks rise in the polls. As expected, Cunliffe won the party and affiliated union votes but not those of the caucus. By year's end, I think that Cunliffe has stabilised Labour in the polls but his elevation hasn't spectacularly lifted them into the lead over National either.

But where Labour needs to be in is in bed with if it's to have any chance of power is with the Greens. This year I made the small political jump from the Alliance to the Greens. I left the Alliance with every respect in the world to my friends and political activist colleagues who remain in what is now, sadly, a shell of a party. But the real political zeitgeist is with the Greens who had a spectacular political year this year. The co-leadership team of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei were able to keep the party's poll ratings above 10-11 percent on average (about roughly where the party polled at the 2011 election) due to being played a good hand on issues including deep sea oil drilling, climate change, the increasing debate on child poverty and inequality and the government's handling of the GCSB issue. On all these issues, the Greens played to their strengths in being a party which believes in both ecological and social justice which, at times, has enabled the party to which I nowbelong to take some soft left votes off Labour. I personally expected there would be a softening of support for the Greens once Labour's leadership woes had been settled but, so far, this has largely not transpired. These factors are why the Greens are in such good shape heading into 2014.

Let's not forget, though, that the Nats are still in surprisingly good form at the end of 2013. After a year featuring all of the above (and an electorally-administered slap in the face via the assets sales referendum), John Key and National are still polling in the mid-40 percent range - and this is all the more astonishing after nearly five years in government. Mind you, National is way down on the stratospheric 60 percent plus ratings they enjoyed during their first term in office. Consequently, I note that many Nats are now watching the electoral tide slowly go out on them and, therefore, I expect that in 2014, while they might hold the most number of seats in the House, they will still be looking for coalition buddies. And it will be the lack of coalition buddies that might seal their fate and see John Key return prematurely to his favourite residence, his beach home on Hawaii, post-2014.

Internationally, the year was dominated by one man - Edward Snowden. In a year when domestic concern about illegal spying mounted, the global community became more concerned at the intelligence actions of the United States and, in particular, its global electronic spy agency, the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden, at great risk to himself, essentially defected from the United States and gave his story of the dirty double dealings of that country to the UK Guardian newspaper. His revelations upset relations between the US and some of its most important allies including Germany, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. Some of these relationships (especially those with Germany following the revelations that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile was targeted) will take time to repair.

And the person needing to carry out those diplomatic repairs, US President Barack Obama, had a nightmare year. Not only did he face opprobrium over the spying issue but over his hawkish stance regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons. While the Syrian regime of Bashir Al-Assad was very likely the belligerent party which used these heinous weapons against innocent civilians this year, the American administration wanted to practically do another Iraq by bombing Syria in retaliation. This nonsensical move was luckily halted at the last minute due to massive public opposition which played out in a dramatic House of Commons no vote in the UK and which even swept up into the White House itself where First Lady Michelle Obama became an unlikely peacenik. All this pressure caused Obama to back down at the last minute in favour of a Russian plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons under international observation. For once, Vladimir Putin (who has practically impaled Russian democracy to the wall) rescued the world from witnessing a wider and more bloodier Middle Eastern war.

And it was a little forgotten conflict in the Russian Caucasus - namely, in Chechnya - that originally brought two alleged terrorists to the United States in the form of brothers Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. These brothers allegedly planted the bombs that produced the Boston Marathon Bombings back in April. This attack, the first serious terrorist incident on US soil since 9/11, had not been warned about by any of the police or intelligence agencies. In fact, they were probably too busy spying on innocent Americans and friendly world leaders to notice! Anyway, this incident highlighted that the so-called War on Terror has failed to produce any tangible gains apart the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in US drone strikes and the wrongful imprisonment and illegal renditioning of thousands more.

But on the brighter side, at least Obama exchanged the first words that any US leader has spoken in 30 years with an Iranian leader, in this case President Hassan Rouhani. Also, towards year's end, he exchanged direct words with Raul Castro, the Cuban president and brother of the even more famous Fidel.

Still, the hands of diplomacy were yet to reach out and smother the raging conflict that was and is the Syrian Civil War. This year, the United Nations and other agencies reported that an estimated 200,000 or more people had been killed in that country. More disturbingly, nearly a quarter of the country's population have fled abroad with some (particularly those seeking refuge in Europe) facing hostile receptions. As this is being written, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has written to Pope Francis expressing his desire for peace talks - something that he better well desire for the sake of not just his country but the entire Middle Eastern region.

And speaking of Pope Francis, who would have thought that at year's beginning the Vatican would have a new head by it's end - and one that could be refreshingly radical? I and no doubt others would not have guessed that the new pope who was elected to replace only the second pontiff to retire ever - Pope Benedict XVI - would not be in the same conservative mould as his predecessors! In fact, I thought (as did others) that Pope Francis I would be as reactionary and conservative as many of his predecessors had been and that he was putting on a real public relations-inspired show for the cameras. However, I (and others on the left) have been very pleasantly surprised by this pontiff, a man who has turned out to be the first radical social democratic, left-leaning holder of the office ever. A man who has come out, unreservedly, against unfettered free markets and on the side of the poor. A man who has suggested a greater role for women in the life of the Catholic Church. A man who has said that he essentially doesn't care if gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered or intersex people seek out God. A man who has canvassed far reaching and much needed reform of the church's byzantine institutions and structures which, if carried out fully, could see Pope Francis outdo John XXIII in this regard. For all these reasons, I think that Time magazine was right to name him their Person of the Year - a much deserved honour even at so early a stage of his papacy.

Obviously, it was to the heavens that the crowds in St Peter's Square, Vatican City, turned the day that Pope Francis was elected. But during 2013, many billions more turned to the heavens and wondered what the forces of accelerated climate change would bring next. And for millions around the world it brought chaos and, in some cases, destruction. Aotearoa experienced its worst ever drought season in 2013 with one of the hottest summers ever recorded. There were intense bushfires in Australia, especially in New South Wales, just in the last month. But the biggest storm of the year was undoubtedly Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines. This storm could trigger the re-writing of wind scale calculations given that the storm unleashed up to 300 km/h winds across the islands it affected. Haiyan left a trail of destruction which will take many years to repair and in a country whose people suffer wretched poverty in the main.

This has been a long blog so I will summarise the rest of the main events of 2013 more quickly now. The Fonterra milk powder scare certainly gave New Zealand's agricultural industry a fright this past year - but it survived given that it was only that - a scare - and perhaps a timely one to remind people of the limits of market deregulation. Prince George's birth and all the hoopla surrounding it signified to me as to how many Kiwis still haven't completely cut off the umbilical cord to a rich family who live thousands of kilometres from us. And who could forget the Len Brown scandal? I don't think Len Brown wants to remember it alongside the badly treated Bevan Chuang and Shan Inglis, the amazingly named Luigi Wegewege, and anyone else who became ensnared in the trap. I don't think Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater won't want us (or the people of Auckland) to forget the Len Brown affair but at some point they might just have to give up if Brown digs his toes in and says he's isn't standing in 2016 but is still going to be mayor until then. And what about Lorde, Eleanor Catton and Lydia Ko? The cutural and sporting successes of these young Kiwi women lifted our collective spirits this year and look set to do so in 2014. And what of the America's Cup? I couldn't give a damn about it this time as no one outside America gives two stuffs about it, frankly. I think that the likes of Lorde, Catton and Ko were sufficient enough to raise our profile in 2013!

There you have it - the year that was 2013!

I hope you and your families/whanau have a wonderful New Year! Also a belated Merry Christmas to you all! I look forward to providing more commentary as we head into a crucial (and potentially close) election year in 2014.









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