Comment

Goodbye to a year of stagnation and tragedy

2019 was an unsatisfactory and unsettled year, dominated by awful tragedies and missed opportunities, says Peter Dunne in his final column of the year

This is the time of year when columns like this usually nominate a politician of the year. However, I will not be doing that, because to do so would be to perpetuate the myth of celebrity that has so trivialised politics in New Zealand and elsewhere in recent years.

Politicians should be judged on their achievements, not their appearance, turns of phrase or witticisms.

Running a country is a serious business after all, not the equivalent of a television game show, and we should assess our politicians on what they do, rather than how much they entertain us. So, focusing on the celebrity side of politics through a sort of political Academy Awards show merely entrenches the superficiality that sadly now characterises contemporary politics the world over.

That in turn does nothing to foster public confidence that the political system is able to cope satisfactorily with addressing the demands of today’s circumstances.

Indeed, that mounting focus on the trivia at the expense of the substantial is contributing to much of the rising disillusionment across much of the world about the capacity of contemporary leaders to respond effectively to today’s challenges, like climate change.

Therefore, singling out a politician of the year as some sort of superstar simply fuels that vacuity. Rather, the focus should be on the progress the country has made during the year under review.

In short, are we in better heart than we were at the start of the year, and has our emotional, social, and economic prosperity been advanced?

The sad reality is that as 2019 comes to an end, New Zealanders can look back on a rather unsatisfactory and unsettled year, dominated by awful tragedies and missed opportunities.

Despite our legendary resilience, called upon too often it seemed this year, we end 2019 no further ahead than we were at the start of it.

Our national momentum took a severe shock with the March 15 terrorism attack and its subsequent realisation that our hitherto impervious cocoon of smug complacency had been torn apart forever.

And last week’s Whakaari White Island tragedy was a further grim reminder that the rugged beauty of our land is frequently interrupted by the devastating power of its natural forces that we have no control over.

...optimistic deadlines for various projects were constantly announced, and then steadily pushed further back as reality struck.

They are the events that mark New Zealand in the international consciousness, and linger long in the memory, defining the world’s view of our country and the nature of our people.

What was touted boldly at year’s start as the year of delivery slowly but surely morphed into the year of whimpered excuses. The failure of KiwiBuild is the most dramatic example – achieving only about 3 percent of its projected first year target, making only the slightest dent in the demand for affordable first homes.

Elsewhere, optimistic deadlines for various projects were constantly announced, and then steadily pushed further back as reality struck, with decisions on the planned TVNZ/RNZ merger deferred being but the latest to join the ever-lengthening lists of delays.

Looking beyond these circumstances, the picture is no rosier.

Economic growth is about half what it was a couple of years ago, with the weak excuse proffered that we are still growing ahead of our trading partners, whose growth has dropped right off.

Job growth hovers between being stagnant and negative, with little on the horizon to suggest significant improvement any time soon. Household budgets have been hit hard by rising fuel costs, as government taxes bite more deeply, yet proposed changes to the retail fuel market are unlikely to have any impact on that.

Meanwhile, although traffic bottlenecks are increasing in many towns and cities, no new roading projects have been announced, even though nearly $7 billion more is now being promised for improving roading infrastructure. At the same time those new roading projects that had been proposed previously have been dismissed as no more than “ghost” roads.

Public transport services in our major cities remain inefficient and under-utilised, or non-existent. On the social services side, the picture is just as disappointing.

Too many timebombs are ticking, faster than ever.

Child poverty and social dependency levels are increasing; the state housing list waiting has soared to record levels, and we face a major vaccination crisis with the measles epidemic. Suicide rates are at record levels, and, despite a boost in mental health funding, no new programmes have been announced to reduce those unacceptable high rates.

School class sizes remain high; the teaching profession disaffected, and too many children are still leaving school with few qualifications. Most District Health Boards have unsustainable financial deficits, which the Government will not be able to keep bailing out indefinitely, and health professionals remain overworked.

Too many timebombs are ticking, faster than ever.

The pressure on our environment remains as acute as ever. The passage of the Zero Carbon Act is positive, but it will take time for its provisions to have significant impact. In the meantime, our carbon emissions profile remains problematic, and the challenges of resolving the conflicting demands for ownership of and access to water are still unresolved.

Threatened marine species and flora and fauna remain endangered, with few significant initiatives being planned to address those.

For all these reasons, 2019 is not a year to celebrate as one of our best. Certainly, in these circumstances, it is no time to laud any politician as politician of the year for having been part of this year of stagnation.

If there is a silver lining in this gloomy cloud, it is the fact that next year there will be a general election. The pressure will be on every politician – those in government today, the wannabes in opposition, and those trying to break into the system from outside – to articulate coherent, achievable plans to address all the failings of 2019.

More important, the challenge will be on every voter to look beyond the media stunts and other soft inducements, at what all the parties are proposing and how their plans line up with their expectations as voters. The proposition is simple – what are they proposing, will it work, and how soon can it be achieved – and voters should be relentless and unforgiving in demanding the political parties address it.

That is the best way to move on from the failures of 2019.

But, in the meantime, the Christmas Season and the summer holidays immediately beckon. This is the time to put to one side our daily cares and woes, and focus on those closest and dearest to us, our families and our friends.

At the same time, let us spare more than a passing thought for those who will be alone, afraid or otherwise suffering this Christmas that they will receive comfort and solace.

Overall, best wishes to all of you for the Festive Season ahead, and for a 2020 that lives up to your hopes and dreams.        

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