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Hold the line, please

2004 saw police popularity hit an all-time low, the words seabed and foreshore become forever linked and Don Brash tackle race relations as a way of getting National a rise in the polls. In the Year of the Argument, who else, besides Helen Clark, called the shots?

It was a bad year for the police, puritans and Pitcairn Islanders, but a good year for the government, gays, phone companies and customer service representatives who were going to be with us as soon as possible because we were in a priority queue and our call was important to them but they were unavailable right now so please hold. Some people held till it hurt.

The year started for the police with allegations of pack-rape by Rotorua officers, got worse when the Employment Court ruled that former superintendent Alec Waugh had been wrongfully dismissed, and went belly-up with the fiasco over botched or unanswered 111 calls. In a final humiliation, charges related to dangerous driving were laid against five officers involved in the Prime Minister's infamous motorcade dash in July.

A sign of plummeting police credibility came in November with the publication of three letters to the editor of the Dominion Post after Masterton police had expressed dismay that nobody stopped to help a police officer being beaten up at the side of the road.

"What do they expect?" asked one correspondent. "Public feeling toward police since their over-zealous and, at times, petty purges on speeding has finally got to this very non-reaction." And "Why am I not surprised?" asked a former policeman, saddened by the force's decline. Someone has to say it, sighed the third correspondent: the police are "one of the most disliked and distrusted gangs in the country".

Twenty, even 10 years ago, the response to the initial report would automatically have been sympathy for the cops mixed with outrage at anyone daring to attack them. Is this a straw in the wind, a whole haystack or what?

Not that the government seems to care. Believe it or not, there is a Police Minister in Cabinet but, on the evidence of 2004, you wouldn't know it.

Police woes are not unconnected with the fact that the government, after some early wobbles, had a very good year and steams into 2005 in top shape. Helen Clark will be unwrapping her prezzies this Christmas in a merry old state of satisfaction. When the economy is going well, as it has all this year, the generalised sense of grievance (GSG) that many people feel against the government of the day tends to be displaced onto other targets. This year's recipients of displaced grievance have included not only the police but Maori, recent immigrants, All Black selectors and even NZ Idol judges. There was a fair amount of GSG washing around, looking for a home, when Don Brash made his now-famous Orewa speech on January 27. Suddenly it had somewhere to go.

The story of the impact of Brash's speech is just about the story of the year. Looked back on now, the warnings he gave - warnings of a "dangerous drift towards racial separatism" and a nation "with two sets of laws, and two standards of citizenship" - seem faintly ludicrous. The fact that the mood they exploited soon ran out of puff suggests that they were ludicrous. Yet, they had some powerful consequences. It is arguable that the speech led not only directly to National's poll surge (and decline) and the formation of the Maori Party, but also indirectly to Jewish graves being desecrated later in the year. It fostered a climate of deeper racial division - the very thing Brash had railed against.

It did not last, however, partly because of its inherent implausibility and partly because the government took pains to remove from the contentious foreshore and seabed legislation any suggestion that Maori were being favoured. There may be a long-term price to pay for this, but the short-term cost (Tariana Turia's resignation and the Maori Party) was clearly one that Labour felt it could bear. The poll trend since then indicates that they got it right, if only as far as the next election.

Significantly, National made no serious attempt to reinforce the Orewa argument with hard facts and further proof - presumably because there was none - and spent the rest of the year slipping down the polls. They are now a party entering an election year in big trouble. Brash may have to be digitally remastered before being re-released for next month's return to Orewa.

Overseas, it was pretty much business as usual. No geopolitical power shifts, no major governments toppled, no discernible meaning to the "war on terror", still billions more spent on war than on fighting poverty and disease. The grisly occupation of Iraq dragged on (see page 21): notwithstanding American hype, a Nobel Prize in Optical Precision should probably be awarded to anyone who can spot the difference between the state of affairs in Iraq last January 1 and the state of affairs there now. Some tall chap - what was his name again? - ran against George Bush and lost; John Howard comfortably retained power in Australia, as did Vladimir Putin in Russia.

No year can be judged in isolation, of course - for a start, each is very much a product of actions taken in previous years. Specific moves made 10, 20, 50, even hundreds of years ago (remember 1840?) have a way of coming back and biting you on the bum. In 1987, for instance, it was decided to merge the autonomous traffic police department with the main police force. Seventeen years on, the police may be regretting that: all their good but less visible work on real crime is being undone by their worsening public image as the ruthless and unrelenting scourges of any motorist reckless enough to let the speedo needle surge up to 55kph in a 50kph zone.

Time alters judgments, too. Ten years from now, it may well be that the most significant New Zealand story of 2004 was not Don Brash disagreeing with the government over racial issues but agreeing with them over the super fund. Major-party agreement on superannuation? That's one line most people would be happy to see held.

A Christmas Fantasia

It was Christmas Eve 2004 and my friend Maybury and I were wandering down by the sea. As we ambled through the dunes, kicking up sand and disturbing the occasional smoker, distant sounds of revelry could be heard. Climbing to the top of a dune we peered through the marram grass and saw to our astonishment an extraordinary scene. Thousands of people were milling around on the beach. The tide was out and Maori were exercising their customary rights. The cries of happy children came from the achievement recovery tent. Black-shirted Destiny Church members were marching around a bonfire. Gay men and women were dancing together in bridal wear.

"Good God," I said softly to Maybury. "It's the New Zealanders."

"They're partying," he whispered back in an awed tone. "It may just be the light, but they look like one big happy family."

"Not sure about that," I said. "Look." I pointed to the bonfire, on top of which something recognisably human had just caught alight.

"I think they're burning an effigy of David Benson-Pope," I said.

"I think it is David Benson-Pope," said Maybury, as a thin scream reached our ears.

We turned away. Things were starting to look ugly. We thought about dialling 111, but had to be somewhere in three hours and couldn't spare the time. Emerging from the dunes we regained the main highway but straight away were almost knocked over by a speeding motorcade. Three cars hurtled past us and vanished down the road within a nanosecond, leaving only the fleeting memory of a grim-visaged passenger in the back of the first car and a hoarse cry of "Faster, faster, you dogs!"

"Who was that?" said Maybury, visibly shaken.

"Sssh." I put my finger to my lips. I had just noticed an SIS agent under a rock. "Let's get out of here. In fact, we should leave the country tonight. It's not safe around here any more."

"But where?" cried Maybury, visibly stirred. "In a world of stricter border controls and terror alerts, who would have us?"

"Don't worry," I said. "There's always Algeria."

Shifting sands

Who owns the foreshore and seabed? The government thought the Crown did. The Court of Appeal thought other-wise. It ruled that native title had not been extinguished and that, albeit in rare cases, Maori may be able to establish customary title to parts of it through the Maori Land Court. What astonished Maori was the need for the argument itself - many had assumed they had always owned it.

So began the debate billed as a defining moment in the growth of the nation. With hindsight, the government might have been better leaving things as they were: the court, after all, held out little hope to Maori claimants. But the government was wary of the "fester factor", aka a public simmering over the spectre of lost public domain. And many wrongly thought they were to be shut out of the beaches. The government thought it better to reassert public ownership and, navigating alliances like shifting sands, in November produced a new law.

The Crown is now legally charged with "protecting" the foreshore and seabed in perpetuity, while Maori with strong claims can apply to become guardians of some areas, and even win customary rights. The foreshore and seabed remain in public owner-ship, but, notwithstanding the concessions made to them, Maori have not been mollified. Many see it as another confiscation.

Has it defined anything in the nation's growth? In the end, wins were thin and losses heavy. Maori lost something they thought they had. The government was embroiled in a controversy that did it no good, especially not with Maori voters: Helen Clark's electorate office was attacked with an axe. The debate helped widen a hole in race relations, already worried like a bad tooth by National leader Don Brash. And the public? One loss has yet to be fully understood: the government deliberately legislated to remove a common-law right from some of its people. Whether the end justifies the means remains to be seen.

Blunt force trauma

Amazing how a nation with the most extensive and expensive intelligence resources on Earth can screw up a war so badly. Year's end drew near with the US still deeply embroiled in Iraq, and no sign of honourably extricating itself, despite constant blather about self-government and "Iraqisation". President Bush still talks of prosecuting the "war on terror", but it's no longer clear who is terrorising who. Much has been made of the fact that 1000 US personnel have been killed during the postwar occupation, but far less of the fact that, according to a US research team, as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have perished in the same period.

Nor have Bush, Rumsfeld et al been called to account for the sadistic torture and murder of Iraqi detainees at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. The blame for these outrages is still being pinned on a few low-ranking soldiers, even though the chain of responsibility clearly leads to the Pentagon and the White House. One Iraqi prisoner tortured by US soldiers died of what the medics called "blunt force trauma complicated by compromised respiration". It could be a description of the entire American invasion.

Freedom fighters

You say let him in, I say keep him out. In a legal struggle reminiscent of the Great War - in terms of its grinding attrition and the armies of volunteers involved - 2004 saw the case of Ahmed Zaoui inch painfully through the courts. As a test case, it was always going to be a tortuous process, but few would have predicted that it would bring down SIS Inspector-General Laurie Greig - forced to resign in March after the Court of Appeal found that he had shown bias during an interview with the Listener's Gordon Campbell. Justice Paul Neazor stepped up to replace the fallen Greig.

(The Minister of Immigration who began the year overseeing the Zaoui case, Lianne Dalziel, also resigned, albeit over a different immigration matter. She was caught in a lie over the leaking of legal documents pertaining to the deportation of a sexually abused Sri Lankan girl. Dalziel went, but so - despite a vigorous campaign on her behalf - did the girl.)

July saw revelations that the government was using the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to procure criticism of last year's Refugee Status Appeals Authority decision (the one that ruled that Zaoui was a genuine refugee). The High Court also ruled that human rights considerations must be applied in Neazor's deliberations (the Crown is appealing), and the UN expressed concern that the government's handling of the case breached the Convention Against Torture.

In December, in only the second case heard by the newly minted Supreme Court, Zaoui was released on bail. Supporters hoped this move would enable him to mount a defence from more comfortable surroundings than Auckland Central Remand Prison. The 44-year-old Algerian had spent two years behind bars without charge.

By the year's end, musicians ranging from Don McGlashan to Goldenhorse and Chris Knox had thrown themselves into the trenches alongside veterans like Keith Locke and firebrand lawyer Deborah Manning. Maybe tomorrow Zaoui will be truly free, but don't bet the farm on it.

Never mind the Bollards

It is emblematic of these boom times that the only national argument holding real heat is whether Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard is too cautious in keeping the official cash rate high at 6.5 percent.

Oh, and tax-cut spats, with even Jim "Christmas past" Anderton urging Michael "Ebenezer" Cullen to share some surplus largesse.

Rising mortgage rates and a softening housing market are the only blots on the economic landscape, one that is verdant with blooming job, productivity and trade and industry growth. And given that Bollard is keeping the cash rate high, ostensibly as a means of controlling inflation, it must mean the bank expects the good times to continue.

Those good times make quite a litany: New Zealand's GDP growth places it in the top tier of the OECD, while share prices have soared in this environment, with the NZX50 briefly hitting 3000 before dropping below the record high. (But it's expected to surge again.) Unemployment is at a 17-year low of four percent and there is still no evidence that the tight labour market is stymieing productivity growth - which, while not massive, has been consistent for the last five years.

Commodity prices are high, with farmers expecting further big payouts, and there is increased expansion in the manufacturing sector. The only threat on the horizon is the predicted freefall of the US dollar - and even the fallout from that, which will hit our Asian neighbours badly, is not expected to be so bad here.

A time to die

The debate over euthanasia refused to die. It gained fresh intensity when Lesley Martin, arrested last year for the attempted murder of her terminally ill mother, had her case come before the Wanganui High Court in March.

"This is unjust!" she cried after the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Sentenced to 15 months' prison, when the maximum penalty was 15 years, Martin sought home detention. The courts ruled, however, that she did not accept that her actions were wrong. In December she finished serving her time at Arohata Women's Prison. Martin's book To Die Like a Dog, chronicling the life and death of her mother, was turned into a play that premiered in May. (Michael Laws, now Mayor of Wanganui, took the part of narrator.)

After Martin's conviction, NZ First MP Peter Brown said he would resubmit his Death with Dignity Bill - which was defeated in 2003 by a slim 60-57 vote - for consideration after next year's election. And as the year wound to a close, the euthanasia debate took another twist when a Nelson father was found not guilty of murdering his severely brain-damaged baby daughter, despite a video-taped confession to police. This argument lives.

Could do better

We haven't stopped arguing about NCEA since it was launched in 2001 - and if 2004 is any indication, there's a heap of arguing left to go. Some say that this standards-based assessment system is the only way forward for secondary school students. Others say it's a wrong turn that discourages effort and rewards failure. The debate seemed to come to a head in July, with claims that Cambridge High School - whose 100 percent NCEA pass rates were the wonder of the land - had been bending if not breaking the rules to achieve those rates. After two weeks of mounting controversy, high-profile principal Alison Annan was forced to resign. The most damning count against her? That the school had an "achievement recovery room" - located, ironically, in the old school library, which Annan had closed down - where students who had failed to get top marks the first time round were helped to get them after all.

In its October report, the Education Review Office described the achievement recovery room as a disaster (students who got credits that way have since had them revoked). It also said the school board had failed to provide a safe working environment, which impacted negatively on staff morale. A new team now runs the school, but in nine months' time ERO returns to evaluate how much progress has been made. No other school - so far - has got into the same kind of trouble: either they're cleverly foxing ERO or they've learnt the lesson of Cambridge. The question still unanswered is whether the Cambridge debacle happened because of or in spite of the way NCEA is designed.

Up the creek

The New Zealand film industry had its own Apocalypse Now-style meltdown this year when Vincent Ward's River Queen, a long-nurtured personal project, became a magnet for accidents and bad news. There was an alleged Maori curse, a wretched run of weather, a foreign celebrity (Samantha Morton) vilified as a prima donna in the local media - unfairly, surely, as plenty of other Morton films have proceeded without incident. Ward was removed and the film's cinematographer, Alun Bollinger, directed the rest of the shoot. But Ward is likely to be involved in post-production, and it's far too early to write this one off as a failure.

A year without a Peter Jackson film felt that much slighter, so the big-hitter was Brad McGann's In My Father's Den. By late November it had taken $1 million at the New Zealand box office - making it seventh highest grosser ever, not bad for a film that always looked more like a critics' darling than a popular success. It capped a great six months for Den, since the rare honour of opening the Sydney Film Festival in June. Another honour that signifies a big future: Taika Waititi got his short Two Cars, One Night into Sundance and - closer to home, and less seriously - cleaned up in the Wellington finals of the 48-hour Film Competition with a mad short that ran on Barry Humphries-style characterisations. He's a real talent.

Dearly beloved

The was standing room only on the grassy knoll of righteousness, while the level of public discourse proved more fitting for the gutter. Gay recruitment, cried National's Brian Connell; destruction of a sacred institution, wailed the churches; politically correct claptrap, fumed Act's Deborah Coddington, who performed an 11th hour flip-flop and voted in favour; all-but legalised poly-gamy, insisted the Maxim Institute, the conservative ginger group, which seemed a little confused over what bill it was objecting to.

Actually, the other side of the debate on the Civil Union Bill, which sought to equalise other kinds of relationships with traditional marriage, was just as bad. It seemed that all you had to do was take the words fundamentalism, homophobia, puritanical, God-botherers, Bible-bashers and moral minority, and assemble them according to whom you wished to insult. From Nandor Tanczos's bizarre contention that Catholics were trying to reimpose papist political control to the wag who insisted that the bill was a cunningly disguised recruitment drive for right-wing conservatism, it was all rather tiring.

The biggest surprise was the sensible and statesmanlike stance taken by that most anonymous MP, Clem Simich, a Catholic without a lapse: "This is Catholicism in action and that is being fair to everyone and not discriminating." Mr Simich, the moral high ground is all yours.

Natural law

Mother Nature picked a few arguments with us this year. Manawatu was the first to feel her wrath, in February, with the worst storm in 40 years. It inundated 20,000ha of pasture, but a tale of hope came with the rescue of dairyfarmer Kim Riley - swept away in the swollen Manawatu River - by cow 569. After international coverage of the story, and fame for the cow, 569 gave birth to a bull in September.

The Bay of Plenty got clobbered in July, cliff-faces sliding away, dropping homes and front lawns into the ocean. About 250mm of rain fell in 48 hours. A Taranaki tornado wrecked a house, killing two people, in August; two more died near Hastings in November when strong winds hurled a tree at their car.

There were ominous signs that global warming means more than balmy summers and rice paddies for Stewart Island. (NIWA's Jim Salinger pointed in these pages to a link between rising temperatures and storm severity.) Cyclone Heta took Niue apart as the new year began; Florida was hit with four hurricanes in five weeks; and although 114 died as a result in the US, the same storms killed upwards of 2500 in Central America. Bangladesh was two-thirds flooded in July. Typhoon Nanmadol struck the Philippines in December, killing at least 1000: mudslides exacerbated by illegal logging wiped out three towns.

Although Australia and the US decided to stay out of the Kyoto protocol, the Farmers Federation of Australia broke ranks with their New Zealand counterparts and expressed disquiet at the effects of climate change. It even put the wind up the Queen, who asked Downing St to lobby the US after observing the alarming impact of changing weather on her estates at Balmoral and Sandringham.

Trouble in paradise

At first, people thought the British were finally getting even for the Bounty mutiny. Many of the remaining adult men on Pitcairn Island - seven in a population of fewer than 50 - were charged with rape and other sexual assaults, sometimes on very young girls. Despite that, many islanders - including some women - were resentful: the British had neglected them for years, Pitcairners didn't know what they were doing was wrong, it was an island tradition, and if they jailed the able-bodied men who manned their lifeline, the longboats, the community could not survive. But the three judges shipped in with boatloads of lawyers and officials sent Mayor Steve Christian and three others to jail - if they can resolve legal argument next year over Britain's authority on the island. Where that will leave the ageing community is an open question. Younger people, not surprisingly, have chosen to live elsewhere. Another six men living in Australia and New Zealand face trial next year.

Sorry saga

Iraena Asher wasn't the only victim of the sad saga that was the 25-year-old's last desperate 111 call for help. The affair - which saw the police call centre dispatch a taxi to the wrong address -- also claimed the 16-year marriage of Melanie and Jason Stewart. It destroyed the Asher family's faith in police, dented public confidence in the profession and may lead to major changes in the way the emergency service is administered.

The student and model, who has bipolar disorder, went missing on October 10 at Piha, West Auckland, after calling the police, who sent a taxi (not even a police car) to Paihia Rd, Onehunga, instead of Piha Rd. Details of her three conversations with call-centre staff were leaked to TV3, and the ensuing media storm saw police apologise for their bungled handling of the case.

Particularly damaging were the reports of the derogatory remarks made by call-centre staff about Asher, who is presumed dead. TV3 reporter Hannah Hodson, now at TVNZ, in turn gave the fax to police, allowing authorities to track the source of the leak to call-centre employee Melanie Stewart, who discovered that her husband had leaked the document. With two children aged eight and 13, the Stewarts split: "It was betrayal," said Melanie. "I could never trust him again." He said, "I thought the media protected their sources."