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The Year That Was - It Was All About The Economy Stupid!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Politically, the year 2009 was (to paraphrase an old Bill Clinton campaign adage) all about the economy, stupid!

Domestically, the new National Government didn't introduce austerity measures (at least not straight away) but nor did they reflate the economy Keynesian style. As things went, it was all about keeping the economic ship steady while it sailed through stormy waters. Therefore, there was to be no deviation away from the free market economic policy settings of the last 25 years but there was no violent lurch to the right either.

Keeping things on an even keel is the main reason as to why National has managed to retain its lead in the polls this year. This is an historic achievement in itself as John Key and his new Tory team have gone against the grain. This has been the case as past Tory Governments have become deeply unpopular soon after their election to office. Clearly Key was wanting to avoid making the same mistakes that Rob Muldoon and Jim Bolger made by introducing austerity measures so soon after being elected to office. Both Key and Finance Minister Bill English appear to be more patient men who are prepared to wait before unleashing unpopular policies. They want to do their public relations groundwork first in convincing the electorate to swallow unpalatable policies like, for example, a hike in GST in order to pay for personal and company tax cuts down the line. That's why the 2010 Budget is being touted by both men as a tougher document than the 2009 one.

Hence that's why National has spent 2009 building up its stock of political capital. In a year when side shows like the Hone Harawira email fracas, Richard Worth's sexual shannanigans and various allegations of parliamentary allowance misspending came to light, National has still come out shining when everything could have gone pear shaped. This is not to say that National didn't introduce some regressive policies into the mix either. These policies could have spelt electoral death if introduced under say a Don Brash premiership post-2005 but 90 day hire and fire labour laws, cuts to training incentive allowances for beneficiaries, ACC levy hikes and service cuts as well as more funding for private education have all been introduced without any negative ramifications by the John Key led National Party.

It does say something then for John Key's political skills that all is still well in the land of National. I have to say that his public relations and presentational skills are second to none and pale in comparison to those of Phil Goff. Key could sell igloos to Eskimoes (and very convicingly) with his practised and ready smile, charm and wit. Indeed his ability to risk everything by appearing on the David Letterman Show or sing an out of tune Christmas carol on live radio shows his desire to be viewed as an ordinary Kiwi bloke. Of course, his PR team within the Prime Ministers Department will have been working overtime to massage the old image too and so far, they have done a great job.

But 2010 will really test all of the skills that Key and his media minders possess. They will have to sell a tough Budget at a time when the economy will be coming out of recession. People will be asking (correctly) as to why they are being asked to sacrifice more when all is coming right again. Whether voters will swallow the spin about the need to catch up with Australia or rein in the deficit is another thing altogether.

On the plus side for National, though, is Labour's continuing poor performance in opposition. In short, 2009 has been a shit year for Phil Goff and his party. Apart from claiming the scalps of Richard Worth and Melissa Lee, not much else has happened. Labour has failed to gain traction due to Key and his government not turning out to be as ogreish as was first feared. Besides, many people (particularly those who were around during the 1980s like me) have long memories of Goff being a firebrand Rogernome in the Fourth Labour Government. In 2009, this has created image problems for Goff who is now amazingly projecting himself to be the great arch enemy of the free market. I would suggest that in 2010, Labour should do itself a favour and get rid of Goff. If it did that, the party would still lose the 2011 election but perhaps not as disastrously as it might do under Goff.

For the Greens, it's been a year of change at the top. Earlier in the year, Jeanette Fitzsimons announced that she was quitting the co-leadership and this launched a vigorous contest to fill her shoes. Given that the Green Party constitution mandates gender balance within their co-leadership, it was to be a contest for the girls. And two of the party's most feisty women, Metiria Turei and Sue Bradford, stepped up and fought out the leadership contest in the best non-pacifist traditions of the party. If I really believed in public relations bullshit like that, then I would surely believe that a UFO did land in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The reality is that the leadership contest was fought out in the best backbiting bitchy style of the reality show New Zealand's Next Top Model. If any evidence of this were needed, then Sue Bradford's stunning resignation from Parliament in October provided it. Sadly, Bradford, one of the few genuinely left-wing voices in Parliament was defeated by an electoral coalition of right-wing and moderate Greens who want to see the party become a genuine 'swing' grouping  that could go into government with either Labour or National. One sign of this emerging strategy was the Greens decision to establish a memorandum of understanding with National over the government's home insulation programme. In 2010, I believe that the Greens will continue to swing further to the right in order to position themselves for an expected National win in 2011.

For Rodney Hide and Act, it was the year of living dangerously. Back in June, Rodney and his squash playing girlfriend Louise Crome took a taxpayer funded jaunt out of the country. Supposedly this was so that Rodney  could do some research on the impact that super city amalgamations have had on places like Los Angeles and London. Strangely, Los Angeles is very close to a certain fantasy world destination called Disneyland and London was certainly close to the location of Ms Crome's brother's wedding held at around the same time. Once the story got out that Rodney and Louise had enjoyed a wonderful holiday on the taxpayer, Act's credibility as the party of minimal government and in particular Hide's reputation as perkbuster in chief came undone. For a short while, it looked as if Act's existence as a party was on the rocks as Hide refused to apologise for his misdameanours and pay back the money. After about a week (and with the PM probably having hinted that he might call an early election to get a clear majority for National) Hide saw the writing on the wall and backed down. Not to be outdone, the party's founding father and ideological guru Roger Douglas defended his own private taxpayer funded trip to the UK but he soon saw the light as well and paid back some dosh to us too.

As for the Maori Party, they almost came undone as well and this all began (as was the case with Act) over an overseas jaunt, this one to Paris by Hone Harawira. Harawira bunked off with his wife to the great global capital of romance in the midst of leading a parliamentary delegation to Europe. Unlike Hide, Harawira did not claim this portion of the trip on the taxpayer but he did clearly dodge his duty to lead the parliamentary delegation on the day he decamped to Paris (when he pulled a sickie to do so). When Harawira returned to Aotearoa, the revelation of this unapoproved side trip caused Maori consultant and treaty claims negotiator Buddy Mikaere to fire off a testy email to his old acquaintence. The reply has now become etched into the annals of Kiwi race relations and it caused Hone to be severely rebuked by the Maori Party. But not before the fissures within the party came to light as its left faction (headed by Harawira) and right faction (led by Tariana Turia) duelled. In 2010, the Maori Party will still have the same problem on its hands - what do we do about Hone? Expect this question to overshadow the triumph of having the foreshore and seabed law repealed in 2010.

And what about the other players you might ask?

Winston Peters popped up every now and again to protest that New Zealand First was still alive. United Future's Peter Dunne was soldiering on as the last survivor of his party. Jim Anderton - need you ask? When will that bastard retire? This year he announced that the Progressives would no longer contest elections as a list party and told its members that they could bugger off back to Labour if they wanted to. Otherwise, he intends to be in Parliament as a Progressive/Labour MP post-2011.

Despite all the sideshows and shenanigans, 2009 was still the year that the economy dominated all political discourse. And National was certainly not stupid enough to forget that.

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