New Zealand shrugs off 2015

Adam Dudding catches us up. Cartoons by Rod Emmerson; above, a Prime-Ministerial scandal PonytailGate, as John Key is exposed with a ponytail fetish, April 24, 2015.

It was the year New Zealand looked in the mirror and got a bit anxious about what it saw. It worried that its flag looked too much like its neighbour’s, that its houses were too expensive, its poor too poor, its rich too rich, its children’s books too rude and its rugby players too cocky – until they actually won that tournament and it turned out they’d been great guys all along.

Man Booker-winning author Eleanor Catton kicked off the soul-searching in January when she spoke at an Indian lit-fest about her discomfort at being cast as an ambassador for her country, seeing it was currently being run by “neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians” who didn’t care about culture. She reckoned ours was a nation that didn’t respect intellectuals.

The intellectuals of talkback went nuts, especially the broadcaster who said she was ungrateful and should shut up because she got a government arts grants once. New Zealand’s third-term prime minister John Key (personal wealth: NZ$55 million) dismissed her political insights by pointing out she was only a “fictional writer”.

Other evidence suggesting the PM is a numpty included the revelation that he’d habitually tugged a waitress’s ponytail, allegedly because he found it “tantalising”; and his admission on radio that he’d been known to wee in the shower. Both stories earned incredulous coverage on John Oliver’s The Daily Show, which made us oddly proud, as there’s nothing we like more than being noticed abroad.

Yet after the wall-to-wall insanity of the 2014 election, political life in 2015 seemed relatively tame. Key got to work on his legacy, launching a process to choose a new flag, ideally one without a Union Jack. The nation rose to the challenge, offering up 10,929 alternative flags, including a line drawing of a deranged cat raking a garden, before a panel of bores chose a shortlist stacked with variants on the silver fern (favourite flora of the All Blacks who, by the way, won an important game in the UK). After public outcry an additional non-ferny option was added to the flags shortlist.

The NZ national flag design competition was narrowed down to 40 designs, with this one not amongst them. Rod Emmerson, Oct. 12, 2015.

The NZ national flag design competition was narrowed down to 40 designs, with this one not amongst them. Rod Emmerson, Oct. 12, 2015.

Other items in Key’s in-tray included secret negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, deployment of 143 Kiwi troops to a “non-combat” mission in Baghdad, and having a chat to Malcolm Turnbull about Australia’s treatment of the New Zealand-born criminals who’ve been banged up on Christmas Island pending deportation back here, though his public statements on the matter make one suspect he’d be quite happy to see Malcolm fling the lot of them into the Indian Ocean from a trebuchet.

The deported criminals are deporting the criminals - Australia's ghastly history surfaces with the detention centres. Rod Emmerson Nov. 12, 2015.

The deported criminals are deporting the criminals – Australia’s ghastly history surfaces with the detention centres. Rod Emmerson Nov. 12, 2015.

His government also passed a law increasing taxation of capital gains on housing, in an attempt to stifle speculation in Auckland’s gravity-defying housing market, where recent price rises have left homeowners wondering why they bother going to work when their house just sits there collecting leaves in its gutters yet earns more than they do each day.

Even hard-working four-bedroom Auckland houses, though, didn’t have as much cash to splash as the privileged members of the Ya Ya Club, a social club for kids who pack Christian Louboutins, Audis, Moet and iPhone 6s, which came to the public’s attention in a Sunday newspaper article. These kids (Key’s son Max is one) were a symbol, said inequality researcher Max Raxbrooke, of something wicked that’s still quite new to New Zealand: extreme economic stratification.

Meanwhile schools in poor areas were digging into their teaching budget to provide breakfast for kids turning up hungry, and an estimated 260,000 children were living in poverty. To widespread surprise the May Budget did something about it, boosting payments to beneficiary families and pulling the rug out from under the tepid Labour opposition.

As the average Kiwi rushed to judgement on these weighty matters, actual judges were busy, too.

In June, a woman who was dying of a brain tumour sought a High Court ruling to let her doctor help her die. The judge ruled the law didn’t allow it and she died the next day, but campaigners say it was a significant step in the march towards legal euthanasia.

In October, the extradition hearing finally began in the case of Kim Dotcom, the German internet entrepreneur who was arrested in an FBI-led raid – with helicopters and guns and everything – on his vast country mansion in 2012 and who in the intervening three and a half years has founded a major (now defunct) political party, released dreadful pop singles, split from his wife, tweeted a lot and generally made an interesting nuisance of himself.

PM John Key takes some convincing over the Christmas Is Detention Centre fiasco. Rod Emmerson, Nov. 11, 2015.

PM John Key takes some convincing over the Christmas Is Detention Centre fiasco. Rod Emmerson, Nov. 11, 2015.

The big Kiwi trial, though, was in London: cricketing legend Chris Cairns defending himself against charges of perjury arising from the successful libel lawsuit he took against Indian cricket official Lalit Modi, who’d accused him of fixing games. Betrayal, greed, hubris, stacks of cash and diamonds – this case had it all.

What else? Some British royals popped by and all media outlets churned out unendurably dull coverage of every tedious moment. Lorde – far more regal – released a new single. A Christian group tried to get a young-adult book, Into the River, banned because it had a scene involving semen, but they failed.

Reality TV contestants were found to have pasts that included making porn, committing manslaughter and being convicted of fraud, but no-one was as surprised as they pretended to be. A philandering couple who had sex in their office in Christchurch without pulling the blinds that would have shielded them from the people in the bar across the road learnt that the wages of sin is social-media notoriety.

It was the year New Zealand looked at itself in the mirror and decided that, sometimes, the best response is a nudge and a wink – or a shrug.

Adam Dudding is a senior writer for Fairfax NZ. Twitter: @adudding Rod Emmerson is the editorial cartoonist for The New Zealand Herald.