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Chris Ford: The Year That Was 2012 - Time for a cuppa and a breather

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

This is a long blog recounting 2012 as seen through my eyes, but here it goes...

After the year when the news never stopped (2011), it was the year (to paraphrase the late David Lange) when the news had a cup of tea and a breather.

But the news, both domestic and international, had its moments throughout the year. The thread of some stories that began in 2011 continued to play out in 2012.

The people of Christchurch began clearing away the rubble of their ruined city and started rebuilding. But it wasn't a rebuild without its problems. One problem was ongoing insurance issues as some homeowners continued to struggle to secure pay outs. There has even been a critical book published about this. Then Education Minister Hekia Parata added to the rebuild stress by proposing to close numerous Christchurch schools in a decision that could still (among others) witness the end of her Cabinet career. And Jim Anderton made a comeback (of sorts) as he spearheaded a successful campaign that has temporarily seen the suspension of demolition on Christchurch Cathedral. However, the problems associated with the rebuild were blamed on the good people of Christchurch themselves by none other than Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry (Bulldozer) Brownlee, who told some of his fellow Christchurchians to effectively stop carping off on Facebook. These moves made the good people of Christchurch re-think their temporary love affair with National that was consumated at the 2011 election. It seems that the shift in the opinion polls could be somewhat down to National's dictatorial stance towards the people of Christchurch. Watch for this love affair to further unravel in 2013.

The Arab Spring was another 2011 event that continued into 2012. The battleground of the Arab people's determined fight for greater democracy shifted to Syria. President Bashar al-Assad and his family have torn the country up in their fight to stay in power. Their unabashed greed has seen them fight tooth and nail to retain control over a nation that they have ruled for the last 40-odd years. Recent reports suggest, though, that this could be the last Christmas that Assad and his family spend in power as the rebels edge slowly closer to victory. But the price of toppling Assad could be the country becoming an Islamist state. And the place where the Arab Spring really gained momentum, Egypt, could be looking at just such a prospect. This year Egyptians, in their first free elections for over fifty years, elected the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Morsi as their new leader. In the last month, the Egyptian Revolution has gained new life as Christian, liberal, socialist and secularist forces took to the streets to oppose a new constitution which could mark the beginning of that country's descent into becoming an Islamist state. Libya (probably due to Western intervention) elected a 'moderate' government in its first free elections while Tunisia (where the Arab Spring actually began) seemed the only relatively stable place in the region. In other regional centres, such as Bahrain, the revolutionary struggle continues while in Yemen, President Saleh gave up office in favour of his deputy. The Arab Spring looks set to continue into 2013.

Another significant international event was the Queen's Jubilee. Yes, Her Ma'amship has been on the throne for sixty years and already suffering taxpayers, across Britain and the Commonwealth, helped pay for the party. We helped pay for Camilla's hairdresser to come to Aotearoa at a time when schools are being closed and public services are being royally screwed over. Meanwhile, it was revealed just recently that Prince Charles complained about his onerous taxation arrangements to British Cabinet Ministers at a time when disabled and sick Britons are being kicked off benefits in an austerity driven cost cutting frenzy. If that wasn't enough, the Royals got indirect free labour courtesy of the British Government's workfare scheme to help staff their Royal Jubilee boat pageant. And the year ended when Her Majesty attended a British Cabinet meeting for the first time in her life where she supposedly sat back and "observed" rather than actively participated. What a good constitutional monarch we have. To top it all off, British Ministers gave her a set of 60 table placemats which will look really good at the next lunch the Queen throws. And don't forget the media obsession with Wills and Kate continued into 2012 after their lavish wedding last year. This obsession also, tragically, indirectly claimed the life of British nurse Jacintha Saldhana who answered what turned out to be a prank call placed by two Australian disc jockeys. It hasn't been an Annus Horribilis for the Royals but the end of tragedy certainly calls into question the huge attention that the media and public devote to a hugely wealthy family.

Speaking of the link between the hugely wealthy and the pursuit of power, that pretty much sums up any American presidential election campaign. 2012 proved to be no exception. The Republican electorate put up Mitt Romney, the fantastically wealthy corporate executive and former Massachussetts governor against incumbent President Barack Obama. Some of my left-wing friends criticise Obama but the one thing they might even say in his favour is that he came from a struggling middle class family. Romney, on the other hand, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. This and his dismissive comments about the "47 percent" of Americans who are "dependent" upon government and the unemployment creating ways of his former employer Bain Capital contributed to his defeat at the polls. But it was a pretty close run contest as after the first debate (where Obama fell asleep at the podium it seemed) it could have been the scary prospect of a Romney presidency. However, Obama woke up for the next two debates where he trounced his rival once and for all. While Obama ain't perfect by any means, at least America and the world has been spared another troublesome Republican presidency.

And the private lives of the rich and (almost) powerful even filtered into the nation's courtrooms this year. The usual parade of finance company no gooders had their day in court. But it was the Scott Guy murder trial that riveted the nation to a family which was straight out of Dynasty and Dallas. Two multi-million dollar farming families, the MacDonalds and the Guys seemingly battled it out for their side in court. Ewen MacDonald stood accused of murdering his brother-in-law Scott Guy on their Feilding farm in mid-2010. For almost two weeks, the country sat glued to their TV, computer and mobile phone screens as the latest twist and turn in the case came out. As we now know, it all end with MacDonald's acquittal for murder (but not on other charges) following an excellent defence led by the late Greg King. And in a surreal postscript, Anna Guy (formerly MacDonald) looks set to have a glittering media career. 

As high profile murder cases go, however, you can't go past the ongoing saga of David Bain. Cue just right before Christmas and it pops up again, courtesy of Canadian Judge Binnie's findings that Bain is innocent beyond reasonable doubt and should get compo. But the Cabinet's own tough girl Judith Collins quibbled and ordered another review of the review. The Bain case just keeps on giving and it won't stop until the Government does the right thing - pays out Bain.

And speaking of the National Government and money it just says there isn't any. But this year one expensive crisis piled up on another.

First up was the Kim Dotcom saga. The police raid on his Auckland mansion as part of their execution of an American extradition warrant was clearly over the top. Dotcom merely did what many Kiwis do (albeit, illegally) on a daily basis - file shared films and music. However, the American authorities (reportedly at the behest of Hollywood) took his website down and targetted him as they would a terrorist. Of course, violating copyright is wrong but the U.S. Government wanted to make an example of Dotcom to deter others. Instead, they brought a fight with Dotcom that could cost New Zealand and American taxpayers millions of dollars. In the process, Dotcom's presence became a nightmare for the Government and a gift that kept giving for the Opposition. While in prison, Dotcom sought out his old friend, former Auckland mayor and current ACT Leader John Banks. Dotcom thought that Banks would help his old chum at his time of greatest need but, alas, that was not to be told. Consequently, Dotcom snitched on Banks regarding a series of supposedly "anonymous" donations that Banks, during his infamous "cabbage boat" moment on live national television, said he knew nothing about. Dotcom produced the evidence, a police investigation ensued, with the end result that Banks only escaped prosecution based on a technicality. John Key continued to back the man who is effectively the Government's majority by not sacking or even telling off Banks. Key suffered for this error when it emerged that Dotcom had been illegally spied upon by the Government's spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau. Apparently, according to Key, someone at the agency had a "brain fade" when they forgot to check Dotcom's residency status as the Government's foreign spy agency can't spy on New Zealand citizens or residents. Revenge turned out to be a dish served cold when agency insiders tipped off the Labour Opposition about Key's visit to the GCSB in January where a picture of Dotcom and verbal references were made to him by the agency's spooks in a briefing they gave to Key. The PM, after initially denying all, retracted and said that, yes, he had been present when Dotcom was mentioned at the said briefing. At year's end, Dotcom has become an unlikely national hero while Key has been reduced to making a dick out of himself  in an attempt to increase his flagging popularity by dancing Gangnam style on a commercial radio show.

The second expensive mistake came when Bronwyn Pullar, a prominent Tory activist, exposed what every long-term ACC client in New Zealand has known for the last 20 years - that the Corporation exits them in order to meet fiscal targets. ACC's decision to come clean followed Pullar being sent a sexual abuse client's ACC files "erroneously" in what appeared to be a systemic disregard for privacy at the corporation. Indeed, it signified that the Corporation didn't give a damn about the needs of its clients. The fall out was immense in that then ACC Minister Nick Smith resigned after signing a letter on ministerial letterhead in support of his old friend's claim. Following Smith's resignation, the ACC board was cleared out by new Minister Judith Collins. The ACC chief executive's scalp was also claimed during the exercise. Labour hit men Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little were sued by Collins over the affair too when they made allegations in the House about the new Minister's supposed ordering of the release of an email from former National Party president (and Pullar's friend) Michelle Boag.  Towards year's end, the case was inconclusively settled. Currently, the new ACC board (under National's favourite fixer Paula Rebstock) is tasked with improving customer service within the corporation but it will be pretty much business as usual as the corporation's new openess now extends to the publication of long-term claimant exit targets, which were once a state secret.

And Rebstock also had the misfortune to be the new chair of the Work and Income board when that agency experienced the government's third costly mistake of the year - the Work and Income kiosk privacy breaches. Fellow blogger Keith Ng exposed the shortcomings of Work and Income's computer kiosks which positively spewed private information on some of the agency's clients. Ng exposed these shortcomings on his blog which necessitated an investigation. However, unlike the ACC fiasco, Rebstock, Minister Paula Bennett, and Ministry of Social Development Chief Executive Brendan Boyle didn't lose their positions but came as close to the political sun as it gets. At year's end, the Ministry is committed to fixing the issues identified in a review of the system and Bennett (unlike Smith) lives to fight another day.

The fourth most expensive mistake for government has been the ongoing sagas within education. One person has been responsible for them - Education Minister Hekia Parata. Her Budget plans to increase class sizes proved to be the biggest threat to National's popularity since it came to office in 2008. She was forced to backtrack on that by a very nervous John Key. Then she blundered again by mishandling the Christchurch schools restructuring process (as discussed earlier). Another epic fail has been the Novopay system which has seen thousands of teachers and school staff throughout New Zealand out of pocket. Then came the Salisbury School decision when the processes around closing a school for young women with intellectual impairments weren't followed correctly. She also admonished angry teachers for supposedly not making any effort to pronounce Maori and Pasifika children's names properly. To top off a bad year, her Education Ministry CEO Lesley Longstone walked out the door leaving the taxpayer with the prospect of forking out some pretty hefty compensation. Unlike Bennett (and the soon to be re-promoted Nick Smith) her future in Cabinet doesn't look secure beyond 2014. While it's likely that she will still remain in Cabinet until the election (to placate Bill English and his Brat Pack faction), she will be demoted to a backwater portfolio like Internal Affairs or Customs. However, woe betide the next poor chief executive who has to face her!

And let's not forget the Labour Opposition who had a relatively bad year too. While their poll numbers climbed slowly, it was the slowness of the climb at a time when they should have been out in front that had some party members worried. And all that, in the view of the dissidents, came down to David Shearer's poor performance. Last month, David Cunliffe made a bad move in that when he should have professed undying loyalty to the leader and kept his coup plans secret until February, he didn't declare such loyalty giving the Shearer forces the perfect opportunity to strike. While Cunliffe (in the strictest sense of the word) was not launching a coup, he merely provided Shearer with the excuse he had been looking for to demote him. Shearer, in dumping Cunliffe from the front bench, made himself look more authoritative which surprisingly bolstered Labour and his personal standings in the last opinion polls of the year. Cunliffe made a very poor tactical mistake but Shearer might equally have made an even bigger one by meting out severe punishment to the former Cabinet minister. Next year, I think that Cunliffe might launch a play to take the leadership but he might do so with the real intention of getting himself made finance spokesperson and with some sort of Tony Blair/Gordon Brown secret pact thrown into the bargain. If this becomes the case, then Shearer will be safe as leader going into the election and much needed peace will break out in the Labour Party with the prospect of returning to power looking increasingly likely.

At year's end, then, 2012 has not turned out to be the Year from Hell that 2011 was. But it's had it's fair share of moments. I mustn't forget too about the fact that Greek voters almost elected a genuinely socialist government that could have ended the austerity that has faced that country for many years now. In France, they actually did elect a Socialist President who promised an end to austerity but reimposed it, albeit, in a way that targeted the rich as well. The world economy, overall, didn't improve too dramatically in 2012 but it began showing some signs of life, particularly in the U.S. There were some bright spots too, most notably at the Olympics and Paralympics where our athletes turned in the best performances in decades and lifted our spirits during late Winter.  2012 has had it's share of sad losses too with astronaut Neil Armstrong, singer Whitney Houston, sitarist Ravi Shankar, rugby legends Sir Fred (the Needle) Allen, Bob Scott and Sir Wilson Whineray, children's writer Margaret Mahy, Dallas actor Larry Hagman, and physicist Sir Paul Callaghan.

Speaking of having a cuppa and a breather, it's time for me to do that as well for this year. Before I do, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. This is my last blog for at least a fortnight. Thank you to those regular readers of this blog and this website. I wish you and your families a good festive season. I will be back with more controversial thoughts in 2013!

(NB: And the End of the World tomorrow? Nah, I think it's a safe bet that we will all be here to see 2013!)




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