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Chris Ford: Year in Review 2014

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Here's my review of the year just done and dusted, 2014. Many commentators and journos have already assessed it as being a pretty dark year overall. A slew of airline disasters, new and continuing wars, disease and more than anyone's fair share of pestilence dominated the headlines last year. However, there were some moments of joy too. And let's not forget that 2014 in New Zealand was an election year - and what an election year it turned out to be!

Now here are my top ten stories of the year - and they are:

1.) Dirty Politics and the 2014 Election: yes, it was the campaign that could have come straight from the writers of the American version of House of Cards. Alleged corruption and misdeeds on the part of National Government ministers and the Prime Minister's Office. I have to say that Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics was the must read tome of the year - all 130 odd pages of it! National's New Right supporters (led by the book's target, blogger Cameron Slater) flailed Hager for writing the book based on stolen emails leaked to the writer by the mysterious hacker, 'Rawshark.' I and many others on the left initially expected it to blow the election campaign out of the water and cause an unexpected defeat for National which was, at the 2014 election, seeking a third term. Then that expectation dampened as early public reaction was shaped by the public seemingly being told that there was 'nothing to see here' and that 'everyone in politics does it - nothing new.' Still the mainstream political media suddenly woke up after six years of acting as National's megaphone and began to dissect every word of John Key and other ministers on this issue. After the media started asking questions, public opinion began to shift, albeit, minutely. That shift in public opinion was reversed though after the disaster that was Kim Dotcom's 'Moment of Truth'. Dotcom's bringing in of American whistleblower Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald was truly inspiring as they blew apart the Government's claims that it was not as closely involved in metadata spying operations with the Americans. However, the night (along with the centre-left's chances of coming close to National or even equalising with them) were blown apart by Dotcom's poor handling of the alleged Warner Brother's email which purported to show that Key had conspired with executives from that company to entrap Dotcom in New Zealand in order to facilitate his extradition to the States. That claim sounded a little too far fetched (even if the email still, in my view, needs to be investigated and verified or non-verified as the case may be) for many New Zealanders and especially for those Tories who were planning to otherwise stay home in protest at Dirty Politics. Consequently, these soft National voters turned out in droves to re-elect Key and National and stun centre-left election candidates (of which I was one) and activists in one of the biggest election victories for any party so far under MMP. And that stunning victory capped off one of the most dirty, nasty and bizarre election campaigns in our history. 

2.) Rise of Islamic State: the most stunning development of the year was the rise of Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. In fact, it shouldn't have been a surprise for the Americans at least as I read in a Guardian Online article recently that their Emir Al-Baghdadi and some of his comrades had gotten together practically right under the American's noses while detained inside US prison camps in Iraq during that country's occupation. Practically, IS was born as an anti-American and anti-Iranian Al-Qaida splinter group, dominated by Sunni fundamentalists, which arose to fight the US occupation and also Shia groups (backed by Iran) inside Iraq. They extended their remit to Syria when civil war broke out there in order to fight President Bashar al-Assad's forces (with the Assads being Iranian-backed Alawi Muslims) as well as western-backed anti-Assad rebels. Their successful takedown of the Iraqi city of Mosul back in July put them in clear reach of Baghdad and this development troubled the Americans and their Western allies greatly. Mostly, they were concerned by not only the rapidity of their advance and the fact that they effectively (and embarrassingly) unmasked the ineffectiveness of the US-trained Iraqi Army but by their brutality. Of course, the US and others around the world were rightly troubled by the massive human rights violations being conducted in the name of IS against rival ethnic and religious groups. However, the US should have recognised that IS was a typical example of 'blowback' where radicalised forces emerge within security vaccuums created by failed imperialist-style invasions (as the American invasion of Iraq was). Besides, the US and their allies did point out the savage brutality of the mass beheadings of hostages and prisoners taken by IS but still don't protest the same style of execution as practised regularly by another Sunni-dominated state, namely, Saudi Arabia. Still, these small and inconvenient facts didn't stop the US from leading the charge by engaging in another war, this time against IS. It's clear that war doesn'st stop terrorism as using conventional military force to defeat terrorism is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. As 2014 ended and 2015 began, some mainstream media reports suggested that the battle between IS and the West had become stalemated.

3.) Ukraine Crisis: where those supposedly bad, bad Russkies went in and seized the Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine in the wake of the overthrow of former Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych by pro-EU and pro-western demonstrators in early 2014. Really, this struggle for Ukraine is just another superpower tussle as the country lies in a very geostrategically important location. Most importantly, Russia has been concerned for a number of years (as it has always been) about Western encroachment, expressed in the last 20 years in the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia. President Vladimir Putin and his government do have some justification for their concerns on this count given the express US committment (made by George Bush Senior to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 25 years ago) that the US would not encourage NATO enlargement after the fall of the Communism in Eastern Europe. However, the US broke this promise and, in so doing, have served to intensify the paranoia of the Kremlin leadership. Furthermore, Russia is wanting to re-assert itself as an equal in order to act as a counterweight to the hyperpower that has been the US up to this point. As 2014 turned into 2015, Russian-backed fighters still remain engaged in sporadic battles with Ukrainian forces while the US and Russia tussle over Ukraine and both at the expense of the ordinary people of that country who should be able to freely determine their own destiny.

4.) Ebola outbreak in West Africa: if anyone ever wondered what the intersection between climate change, poverty and a nearly non-existent public health system can produce, then last year people could look no further than West Africa. In the three nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, thousands succumbed to this horrifying disease which (so far) has no known cure - although it's now being worked on. However, despite the horrifying nature of the disease, there was an overreaction in some western countries when the few humanitarian medical workers who had been infected returned to their home countries. Politicians and bureaucrats inflamed fear that Ebola patients had infected thousands of innocent people whereas the reality was that the disease can only infect those who exchange bodily fluids or come into close physical contact with sufferers. Many Africans overreacted too but they didn't have the necessary infrastructure to protect themselves from the disease, hence it's spread from ordinary patients to medical workers in the affected nations. As 2014 closed, aid had made some difference to the situation but as 2015 opened a battle still loomed to completely close down the spread of the disease.

5.) The downings of MH370 and MH17: it was a hell of a year for Malaysian Airlines. First came the mysterious disappearance of Flight 370 on March 8 with the loss of 239 people on board which generated a lot of theories as to its loss given that no plane wreckage has been found to date.  It most likely went down in the Southern Indian Ocean, at least 1000km or so from Perth, Western Australia. Second Malaysian flight MH17 was accidentally shot down over conflict torn eastern Ukraine on July 17 with the loss of 298 passengers and crew. For one thing, I don't believe that the Russian-backed forces shot it down deliberately. I listened to the intercepted communications of rebel commanders played on television and it appears that they were stunned and panicked by what had happened. I don't believe that, for all Putin's faults, that he should have been threatened with being 'front shirted' by Australian PM Tony Abbott for this. Quite simply, the Russians appear to have been embarrassed in the same way their Soviet predecessors had similarly been when a South Korean airliner was mistakenly shot down near Sakhalin Island in September 1983. At least, the Russian-backed fighters should own up to their mistake and have the Russian Government pay compensation to the affected families on their behalf but the Malaysian plane should have been instructed to stay clear of the war zone as well. All the same, the loss of these aircraft made for a significant story for all these reasons.

6.) Visit of Kate, Wills and George: yes, in April, the distracted masses of New Zealand and Australia were instructed to bow down to the couple whom Royal Family propagandists said were the best thing to hit the monarchy since sliced bread - or, at least since their parents/parents-in-law Charles and Diana. Down Under taxpayers forked out millions for this huge jaunt which kept mainstream media hacks breathlessly commenting about Kate's dresses (in a very sexist way) and about Wills devotion to duty. Baby George kept the royalists of two nations entranced as to whether he would utter goo goo, ga, ga in front of the media throng. All I could think of the whole time is how much of a convenient distraction this tour was for John Key who unofficially used it to bolster National's credentials in election year and for Tony Abbott whose government was about to butcher the Australian welfare state.

7.) The rise and rise of Lorde: in amongst last year's gloomy news, the high spot had to be the rise of Lorde. Going from virtual unknown to almost international superstar status and a first Grammys win in only the space of a year was an amazing outcome for the young woman from Takapuna. It also broke the hoodo spell that had beset most Kiwi musicians attempts to successfully break into the lucrative North American and global markets. Her unique sound and stage presence wowed fans of all ages from New York to London to Dunedin. As 2014 ended, her rise continued unabated with new tracks released for the Hunger Games movie and a new album on the way.

8.) Vale: last year saw some prominent people depart this world with one exiting in the most tragic way imaginable. Three deaths from last year stand out for me. One was Tony Benn, former British Labour MP and Cabinet minister and a man who switched from being a social democrat to a socialist while serving as a Cabinet minister in the 1970s UK Labour Governments. He is a hero of mine for his stance and his belief in conviction politics. RIP Tony. The second major death for me was that of British comedian Rik Mayall, of The Young Ones fame. Many a late Friday night were spent as a teenager watching Mayall and his Comic Strip comrades perform their unique, alternative and anarchist style of comedy on that programme. Later he teamed up with best friend Adrian Edmondson in the hilarious comedy about loveless life on the dole, Bottom and starred in his own satiric take on British Thatcherite Toryism in The New Statesman. He also starred in many other comedy programmes alongside his Comic Strip colleagues including Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, Niger Planer and Alexei Sayle whose satire is often aimed at questioning class and social attitudes in Britain. But Mayall was the leading light of this group and he will be sorely missed by many of the 80s generation. RIP Rik! Lastly, another comedian, perhaps internationally better known than Mayall, passed on last year. Of course, I refer to Robin Williams whose zanyness projected itself a million times onto our screens, first as the mysterious alien Mork in Mork and Mindy and then onto cinematic roles which included his memorable role as the teacher in Dead Poets Society, as a children's nanny in Mrs Doubtfire and as a questioning armed forces radio dj during the Vietnam War in Good Morning Vietnam. His sad, untimely and tragic death due to suicide robbed the world of a true comic genius. RIP Robin.

As you can see, apart from a few highlights, last year was an exceptionally gloomy year where disease, pestilence, poverty, corruption and death garnered huge headlines. Many of you will say that they always do in any given year. You're right. But 2014 marked a serious turning point for New Zealand politics which just got darker. For the myriad conflicts that engulf sections of the planet that became more complicated and uglier. For the spread of virulent diseases yet unconquered by humankind. For the entrenchment of a privileged family's status at a time of rising inequality. While last year had its high spots, 2014 was the year that things just got darker in many places. Will 2015 mark the beginning of light within them?


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