The year in politics

by Jane Clifton / 20 December, 2012
For our politicians, 2012 may have been a case of two steps forward, two steps back, but at least we can’t accuse them of being boring.
Winston Peters and John Banks
Less than an hour after blasting John Banks on Radio NZ, Winston Peters, left, ended up sitting next to John Banks on a flight to Wellington, photo David White.

The year 2012 will go down in the history books – although possibly not – as one in which, all of a sudden, nothing happened.

It has been a hurry-up-and- wait sort of year, in which it seems a thousand political tyres got stuck spinning in mud. The partial sale of state energy companies has been the classic. We have spent all year watching them elaborately not happen. It’s not that they’re not happening, they’re just not happening yet, in ever more complicated states of inertia: Maori court action, inclement forecasting of the returns, market colly-wobbles, endless public handwringing about mandates, protest action and public opinion censure.

The Labour Party leadership is another example of massive expenditure of energy for no measurable progress. David Shearer’s leadership is not happening, but neither is the coup of his challenger, David Cunliffe. A coup did seem to be on the cards, but it didn’t take place, and all those associated with it retrospectively declared it non-existent. Brendan Horan’s expulsion from the New Zealand First caucus has happened, but to no net effect, as Horan is still in Parliament, and NZ First is now one MP short.

We had the almighty review of MMP, and again, although a range of conservative changes to the system were recommended, even those minor tweaks have yet to be scheduled. There isn’t even a schedule for when the Government will take the decision to schedule them.

Not to suggest for a nanosecond that we’ve been bored or, heaven forfend, underemployed inside the beltway. Could anyone ask for more time-consuming, if unproductive, diversions than those offered by the Kim Dotcom debacle?

This is a political event in an indefinite holding-pattern, as first the courts must determine issues like the remedy for the illegality of the police raid on his home, the legality of the covert surveillance on the internet tycoon and his entourage, and the niceties of the United States’ case for extraditing him. Even when all these are ticked off, there is a long haul to finality, as the pending US test case against him will decide massive things about the future of the internet, so it will be a marathon and many of us will die not knowing what the hell happened.

Meanwhile, the Government got itself heavily enmeshed in an affair that, but for an irrelevant accident of geography, is none of its doing or business. Act leader John Banks, who played footsie with the exuberant and strategically generous new resident during his mayoral campaign, risibly claimed to have forgotten the whole encounter. Notwithstanding helicopters, giraffes, rhinoceroses, a Coatesville mansion decorated like The Rocky Horror Picture Show set after a tweak by Tim Burton on an acid trip, two fat donation cheques and the fact that Dotcom is the size of an industrial freezer and extremely charming.

Then John Key sought to distance himself from the affair by being vague about his knowledge of Dotcom – even though the mansion has generated surely two-thirds of the GDP of Key’s very own Helensville electorate. Other ministers involved with Dotcom’s immigration and residency status had peculiar out-of-body experiences when questioned in Parliament. And the impression has been left that police and security officials, if not politicians, were so keen to ingratiate New Zealand with the US that Dotcom’s treatment is now comprehensively legally challengeable.


Bill English
Bill English, photo David White.

Also stalling is the economy. It’s not not growing, but just so slowly you’d need the Hubble telescope to see it move at all. Unemployment was going down, but then it was going up, so no conspicuous net change there. And the deficit/surplus is still subject to, as Finance Minister Bill English characterised it, a series of revised guesses that don’t seem to be advancing us, although generally the fiscal position isn’t getting noticeably worse.

Ways of wheedling, scaring, bribing and simply ordaining the value of the New Zealand dollar down were debated, but the only consensus reached was that the need to do it was urgent. As for the means – the politicians have yet to get back to us on that.

What does a Government do in a stubbornly sulking economy? It can’t force businesses to invest and expand, and though it has succeeded in browbeating households into saving and reducing debt, too much of that and the economy stalls further. What else to do but redecorate? Chiefly under the aegis of Business Development Minister Steven Joyce, new plans, acronyms and buzzwords poured forth from the Beehive and public service.

Several not necessarily related or intersecting departments were melded into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and a slew of plans were drawn up for it and other departments: a six-point “Brighter Future” plan with 41 actions, National’s 120- point action plan, the “Four Priorities” in the Speech from the Throne, the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, Steven Joyce’s eight-point plan, Nick Smith’s eight-point plan, Bill English’s “Five Themes” for Government priorities and the “Better Public Services” charter with 10 “Result Areas”.

Joyce gives weekly progress instalments about these plans, which are not as eagerly anticipated as the Hobbit series, but anyone who wonders where Sir Peter Jackson got the idea of extruding the modest book into a trilogy need look no further. Nor did we solve the conundrum over land sales to foreigners: could we restrict them without being xenophobic and depressing locals’ land values? After an almighty series of rows – in which Winston Peters ended up in the same corner as his arch-foe Sir Michael Fay – a Chinese conglomerate was allowed to buy the Crafar farms.

In other non-kinetic news, Parliament did not re-raise the drinking age, public-private partnerships did not prove themselves the money saver the Government expected, the Canterbury rebuilding revolution did not get under way, new measures to compensate leaky-homeowners did not speed up payouts and the Maori Party, which threatened to quit the coalition over asset sales, did not go anywhere.

To be fair, a few policies did achieve a bit of torque and could be described as “things that happened” – for better or for worse. The Government auctioned a much-needed new convention centre in Auckland by allowing SkyCity to pay for it – in return for being allowed to install more gambling machines. As this went against the tide of Parliament allowing local communities to curtail gambling machines, even this has an element of policy standstill to it. Local bodies were put under legislative notice to rate and spend less, but despite sweeping reform, none show signs of such restraint, so no change there.


John Key in his office in May as then deputy chief of staff Phil de Joux fields a call
John Key in his office in May as then deputy chief of staff Phil de Joux fields a call, photo David White.

Various politicians got into scrapes, which is always a “happening” thing. Nick Smith lost his ministerial job after he succumbed to a lengthy badgering by an old friend and wrote a letter to ACC – his ministry – on her behalf. His successor, Judith Collins, got herself embroiled in the saga, in the course of which ACC privacy breaches were compounded by leaks of email correspondence involving Smith’s friend.

The Prime Minister volunteered to the media that he’d asked Collins twice to confirm she wasn’t the leak source, and the issue ended up the subject of a defamation case she brought against Labour MPs Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little. This was eventually settled with Clayton’s apologies from the men. Though all parties were gagged as part of the settlement, their supporters claimed each as the victor. So again, all of a sudden, nothing much happened.

Mallard earned the epithet Trade Me Trev after being sprung selling unwanted concert tickets to hard-up students for a profit. Education Minister Hekia Parata was forced into a humiliating backdown over a plan to reduce student-teacher ratios after it turned out the figures were wrong, and was overturned by the High Court when she tried to close a specialneeds school.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully moved into the dogbox practically full-time after his departmental restructuring caused wholesale revolt from diplomats, leading him to publicly override his chief executive to blunt the harshness of the cuts, which somewhat perversely made him look even meaner. But around $12 million had already been spent – not even including redundancy payments – on the change planning, including for consultants who advised ditched diplomats to take a hot bath, pray, do yoga or get a pet “because their love is unconditional”. And for probity consultants to advise on whether the hiring of so many consultants was ethical. Gerry Brownlee managed to insult the blameless and hitherto non-hostile nation of Finland after going a bit far in mocking Shearer’s invocation of the Finnish as examples to us in innovation and growth.

And Key, who deserves his own special category for verbal infelicities, described football star David Beckham as “thick as batshit”, called a DJ’s red shirt “gay”, said his Buckingham Palace lunch was “fulsome” (because he was full after it), called US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “President”, and joked about being eaten by the Tuhoe tribe. He also told his party conference he would lead the next Labour Government.

Well, we knew what he meant. Sort of.
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