The year of the big ball's up

by Denis Welch / 29 December, 2007
Another year, another high Kiwi dollar. As if we didn't have enough to worry about already. This year, we worried about global warming, the trustworthiness of our police, interest rates and saving for retirement - and whether Graham Henry was still the right person to coach the All Blacks.

Pride goes before a fall, they say, but in New Zealand's case this year it went before a ball: a ginormous rugby ball erected in front of the Eiffel Tower for all the world to see.

The ball, which could hold up to 200 people, with videos projected onto the ceiling and walls, was opened by Prime Minister Helen Clark with much huzzah just before the Rugby World Cup got under way in Paris in September.

The message was loud and clear: New Zealand kicks ass when it comes to rugby. Watch out.

Pause for reflection.

In the end, then, the difference between the excitement of "The big ball's up!" and the post-Cardiff deflation of "The big balls-up" turned out to be an apostrophe and a hyphen. On such tiny details the character of a year hangs.

While the world grew increasingly twitchy about global warming, and the war in Iraq ground on, and the US economy wobbled alarmingly, New Zealanders probably got more wound up about the All Blacks' quarter-final failure than anything else.

The only three domestic issues to match it for media mileage were the great smacking debate, the Electoral Finance Bill and the infamous "anti-terrorism" raids launched by the police principally against Tuhoe. Given that those arrested face charges of, at most, illegally possessing portable firearms, it seems that we can enter the New Year reasonably confident that al-Qaeda has not infiltrated the Ureweras.

The personal story that probably shocked the nation most was that of South Auckland woman Folole Muliaga, who died after the power was cut to her home - because of an overdue $168 Mercury Energy electricity bill.

Muliaga, obese and with respiratory problems, had been using an oxygen concentrator to help her breathe. Despite her family's pleas, Mercury went ahead with the disconnection; she died three hours later.

Parent company Mighty River Power eventually apologised - and changed its policy to ensure that never again are vulnerable consumers disconnected - but the Muliaga family are seeking compensation. Whether they get it depends on the inquest in 2008.

Politically, though bits kept dropping off, and the exhaust fumes got toxic at times, the Labour government somehow held the road, kept there by the steely grip of Helen Clark's hands on the wheel and Michael Cullen's savvy with the maintenance costs.

The National Opposition, meanwhile - to mercilessly change metaphors here - ran a tight ship with John Key on the bridge and Bill English in the engine-room, and was rewarded with opinion poll leads that left everyone else (including, unfortunately, its own potential coalition allies) sputtering in its wake.

The year had the feeling, however, of a phoney war before the real battle starts in election year. National pulled some of its punches (even tax cuts slipped down the agenda) while Labour tried to clear the decks of controversial stuff - only to end the year with a pile of doo-doo called the Electoral Finance Act on the Cabinet carpet.

Unemployment hit a record low, and the Kiwi dollar hit a record high, but moneywise the biggest day of the year was probably July 1, when KiwiSaver finally kicked off. Of all the changes and innovations in 2007, this was the one that will most affect future generations. By the end of October more than 260,000 people had signed up - three times as many as had been predicted.

The year was blighted, however, by a series of finance company collapses, bringing the total over the past two years to 13, including such big names as Bridgecorp and Capital & Merchant Finance. Expect some serious consolidation of the sector, as the wagons are drawn in a circle.

In education, the government unveiled changes to the controversial NCEA assessment system - changes that seemed to go some way towards mollifying critics. By the end of the year, however, in a further body blow to NCEA's integrity, more and more major schools were starting to offer the alternative Cambridge International Exams.

The educational year ended in further uproar, as tertiary institutions began to feel the pinch of the new policy that puts an end to funding based on student numbers alone.

The police, meanwhile, must wish they could file the past three years in a musty vault, label it CASE CLOSED, dust their hands and walk away from the seemingly endless round of scandal, shame and historical horrors triggered by Louise Nicholas's accusations of rape and sexual assault.

The ripples from those accusations continued to run right through 2007. Though Assistant Police Commissioner Clint Rickards, along with former police officers Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton, was found not guilty in 2006 of raping and sexually abusing Nicholas in Rotorua 20 years ago, all three were back in court again this year. They were cleared again - this time of kidnapping and indecently assaulting a teenage girl - but it was publicly revealed for the first time that Schollum and Shipton were already in jail for other rapes anyway.

In March, the long-awaited report of Dame Margaret Bazley's inquiry into police culture found, among other things, 141 sexual assault complaints with sufficient evidence to lay criminal charges or take disciplinary action against police officers. Bazley called for urgent changes to police disciplinary procedures - all of which, Police Commissioner Howard Broad assured the Listener in September, had been or were being actioned.

Then came the unhappy case of former Rotorua CIB head John Dewar, who was jailed for four and a half years for perverting the course of justice by deliberately mishandling Nicholas's original accusations; and Rickards, suspended from duty but on full pay since February 2004, finally quit the police rather than face a disciplinary tribunal.

Phew. Sure, it's mostly stuff that has come out of the woodwork since the 1980s - "an isolated incident from an era some time ago," according to Police Association president Greg O'Connor - but it's not really the kind of image the thin blue line would wish to see perpetuated through incessant bad publicity.

On top of all that, the "anti-terrorism" raids in October didn't exactly help the cops' cause, as it became clear to the public that not only had the Terrorism Suppression Act been used inappropriately but also the Act itself (we have the Solicitor-General's word for it) is a crock.

The one good piece of news for cops was the finding by the Independent Police Conduct Authority late in the year that the long investigation into the allegations by Nicholas and other women (alleged by Rickards to have been a "shambles") had been carried out in exemplary fashion.

Now, if they could just solve the Waiouru medal theft case and get those Victoria Crosses back ...

The term "carbon footprint" moved into common parlance bigtime in '07.

History will show that this was the year when, finally, most of us in the western world grudgingly accepted that possibly, just possibly, we each have an individual responsibility to do what we can in our own little way to tread more lightly on the Earth and think about the way we, well, you know the rest. You'd better.

In January, Prince Charles sought to set the tone for the year by cancelling his regular skiing trip to Switzerland, but alas, in the same month he and 12 staff flew to Philadelphia to pick up an environmental awareness award, emitting 20 tonnes of carbon in the process. Way to go yet, Charlie. By December, he was sending holograms of himself to international conferences.

As signalled by the Listener in its March 3 cover story, "food miles" became a stick for European producers to beat New Zealand exporters with: the latter will have their work cut out to show that their produce actually leaves less of a footprint, despite being shipped halfway across the world. But we're all thinking more carefully now about what we eat, where it comes from and what it costs - in all senses - to produce.

Nature rammed home the point that the ever-more-influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been banging on about: the Arctic icecap shrank to a skeletal record low, the Northwest Passage was ice-free for the first time in recorded history, and Greenland began melting three times faster.

In October, oil prices hit a record high of $US90 a barrel, and we got an ominous preview of peak oil.

Here in (still relatively temperate) New Zealand, the government's much-heralded Emissions Trading Scheme has put industry on climate-change notice. Under a rolling schedule starting next year, greenhouse gas emitters - foresters, energy generators, transport - will have to start paying for their pollution.

But agriculture gets off scot-free: farmers are effectively licensed to pollute for another seven years while the rest of industry knuckles down.

New Zealand also flunked a United Nations survey of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. It reported that our emissions have grown by 12 percent since 1999 compared with Australia's eight percent and the United States' five. Britain actually reduced its emissions by two percent.

On the way: a vehicle emissions technology standard that will ban Japanese imports built before 2000. But sales of gas-guzzling cars like SUVs rose sharply in the second half of the year.

As years go, 2007 wasn't too bad in terms of natural disasters. Nobody died from floods, gales, cyclones or earthquakes. The worst weather hit Northland in March, when parts of the region were deluged with once-in-100-years rainfall. The North copped it again in July, around about the time that Taranaki was subjected to a flurry of freak tornadoes. As the year closed, eastern regions of both islands were getting twitchy about drought, but there's no sign yet of anything exceptional - unless you count the fact that Wellington has been unusually tropical.

It was (see above) a forgettable year in sport, with the most excitement being generated by a past-his-peak English footballer playing exhibition matches; and an even quieter year for the arts, with the most excitement being generated by our fourth most popular folk-comedy duo (see Diana Wichtel's TV highlights, p28) and the robust opinions of Hamish Keith.

Dynamic new forms of human activity continued to breed on the internet, however, with Facebook, Bebo and YouTube all becoming as familiar as CNN, the BBC and TVNZ. Even news stories are beginning to break on these social networking sites.

Finally, it wasn't such a good year for the following:

Gordon Copeland, the United Future MP who struck out (in both senses) as an independent and, as John Armstrong memorably observed in the New Zealand Herald, "in the space of a single, rambling press conference ... catapulted himself from political obscurity to political oblivion".

Grant Dalton, who strove to regain the America's Cup for New Zealand but came home empty-handed again.

Michael Fay and David Richwhite, offshore Kiwi entrepreneurs, who had to cough up $20 million to the Securities Commission in order to settle - without admitting liability - a charge of insider trading when Richwhite was a director of Tranz Rail.

Richie McCaw. Don't ask.

Trevor Mallard. Don't even begin to ask.

It was, however, a much better year for:

Ahmed Zaoui, Algerian refugee, who was finally allowed to walk free in New Zealand after five years of Kafkaesque proceedings against him on the grounds that he was a threat to national security.

Darren Hughes, red-headed Labour politician, the fourth youngest MP ever when elected to Parliament at 24 in 2002, who, not yet 30, became a minister outside Cabinet in Helen Clark's October reshuffle. Does this make him the nation's most powerful ginga? No, he told his party's conference, that honour still goes to Heather Simpson.

John Banks, who rose up from the electoral grave in which Auckland voters had laid him three years ago to re-emerge, somewhat quieter and more chastened, as Auckland's mayor again in October.

Kevin Rudd, button-down Australian politician, the man who led the Australian Labor Party back into power after 11 years of John Howard rule.

Michael Fay and David Richwhite, who pocketed something like $60 million - three times what they had to part with (see above) - when they sold off their shares in a British rail company in December. Choo choo.

Meanwhile, in other breaking news, the population of the South Island passed one million for the first time.

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