What are the words that captured the year in a few syllables and defined 2014? Read on...

Massey University today reported its 'quote of the year' for 2014 is an outburst from blogger Cameron Slater. Except it's a dumb choice.

To be honest, it's not even Slater's best -- or at least most telling -- line of the year. Voters in Massey's poll gave the award to "I play politics like Fijians play rugby. My role is smashing your face into the ground". Which is certainly indicative of the man and the year. But I thought the more timeless line he uttered, more than once, was "I always give back double". It's pithier, tells you as much about the person and the year and would look much better on a t-shirt. It even has legs, because he hasn't really given back double to anyone yet, except perhaps John Key by maintaining a textual relationship (one of the other contenders for Massey's award, hat tip: Lloyd Burr).

For me the political quotes that had more impact this year, and which had greater implications or told more truth were threefold. First, there was another contender in Massey's list. David Cunliffe saying "I'm sorry for being a man".

Yes, people in the room said it was an emotional moment. The irony is that if he was genuinely moved by the stories he'd just heard and let his heart rule his head, it was one of the few genuine moments of his leadership and was especially ill-judged.

However it does sum up Cunliffe's time in the leadership of Labour. He's a man of some significant ability, but proved himself the wrong man at the wrong time. He was tone deaf and out of touch with the wider audience. The comment just jarred with wider New Zealand, felt inauthentic and laboured, and was only ever going to alienate large chunks of voters.

There's a story told of Live Aid back in the 1980s. Performers were told to stay on stage for the audience to see, but U2's Bono leapt into the pit between the stage and the audience where no-one in the stadium could see him; he was invisible to tens of thousands in the stadium. But a camera followed him and he gave the many millions watching around the world an intimate moment as he met with a single fan in that no man's land. The point: He knew who his audience was. Not the thousands on site, but the millions at home. Labour didn't figure that out until after the campaign, and still has some way to go.

Andrew Little's "cut the crap" is an antidote to Cunliffe's quote; it sums up much of the year and the growing suspicions of some soft National voters about this government. But it's a baby step.

Talking about National, the other year-defining quote was one John Key used a few times. That is: "nothing to do with my office". It's a striking quote, at odds with the Gwyn report and, well, reality. The evidence suggests it's simply not true, yet Key has stuck to that line doggedly. In stand-ups and interviews he has been challenged and questioned, told that comment has no validity. Yet he still clings to it and the political damage is still limited. Will he be able to contain it indefinitely? We'll see.

The other telling part of that quote is that he has had to use it at all, and so often. It shows a Prime Minister on the defensive despite an impressive victory at this year's election. Key and National benefited from an election campaign that debated incredibly important issues, but which proved to be issues voters cared little about and found too complicated and contested to absorb. Or, they understood perfectly and didn't care. It's hard to know which and which you choose tends to depend on your own politics.

But the point is that an incredibly popular Prime Minister spent much of the year on the back foot. Some voters will side with him as a decent bloke unfairly damned. But in the mid to long term it's not where he wants to be and the defensive crouch he's been forced to assume could well damage him if he next year can't get back on the front foot and be the charming, happy chappy of which voters are so fond. 

Finally, the biggest truth quote came from Kim Dotcom: "The brand Kim Dotcom was poisoned," the internet businessman said after the election. And it was the truest review of any politician this year. Yes, you might argue Dotcom was no politician. Indeed at one point this year I had a party official telling me "he's just a solo dad". But that's nonsense on many level. He was in many ways a conduit, a zeitgeist, a cultural icon.

Dotcom went from Robin Hood to Sheriff of Nottingham in less than a year and that quote shows that he was smart and honest enough to see it.

So for me those were the quotes of 2014. Oh, and a personal favourite... I'm biased because it comes from my own TV programme. In the 'Deputies Debate' between Bill English and David Parker that we held just before the election, we asked English to give us one new idea for the New Zealand economy.

It was a question we almost left out. But we asked and it was 'a moment'. Lisa Owen asked the question and asked it again. After three attempts she finally said she'd give English one more chance before she moved on to give a single new idea. The Finance Minister kept saying that we're on the right track.

That could well be the most telling comment -- or lack of comment -- of all. With the economy sagging and still dogged by its dependence on commodities, it demands some new ideas. 'Steady as she goes' English found favour in the hard times, but if he can't come up with some innovation in the new year, the country may may the price for conservatism and complacency. And National may pay a political price as a result, either at the hands of history or a restless electorate.

Or it could yet continue to defy political gravity for another year. Heck, maybe the quote of the year is the chant John Key faced on election night: "Three more years". It was in terms of real politik, despite the criticism and cracks, a strikingly successful year for National. A third term with a commanding majority. That, at the end of the day, is how the political contest is scored.

Comments (7)

by Andrew Geddis on December 20, 2014
Andrew Geddis

"...but U2's Bone leapt into the pit between the stage and the audience..."

A perfect malapropism ... .

by Tim Watkin on December 20, 2014
Tim Watkin

Not a fan then eh? Philistine... But if the straightjacket fits... Anyway, I will attend to the error forthwith.


by Alan Johnstone on December 21, 2014
Alan Johnstone

IIRC Bono jumped off the stage to pull out a girl that was being crushed.

It had nothing to do with the TV cameras or global audiences. It was just a 15 year old girl in trouble. It also screwed up their set plan, they had to drop "Pride" which was their breakthrough single in the US.

If you want a political metaphor, do what's right and forget about how it looks and it'll probably work out ok,

by Andrew Geddis on December 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis


I think you're recalling Bone's version of events there ... here's how Rolling Stone describes what happened in its account of U2's performance:

6:50 Melanie Hills is extracted from the scrum by security guards in bright yellow vests. (Years later, Bono would suggest that he was trying to help fans who were getting crushed, but his primary motive seems to have been finding a moment that would elevate U2's set beyond the mundane.) Bono keeps gesturing broadly, like he's playing charades with a slow-on-the-uptake partner. He's now pointing at the girl who was standing next to Melanie: her sister, Elaine Hills. Apparently, he's hoping that security will hoist her up onto the apron with him, but they're not doing it.

And further on:

Bono later admitted, "I'd gone AWOL to try and find a television moment and forgot about the song."

by Alan Johnstone on December 21, 2014
Alan Johnstone

It was from my own recollection of the events (I feel old just writing that), but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a stunt given his later behaviour.


by Tim Watkin on December 21, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan, it seems there are all sorts of reports about your version of events, you picky bugger. I can't remember where I'd read it now, but I only knew the other version. Either way and whatever the motivation it still makes the point about the different audiences.

by John Hurley on January 08, 2015
John Hurley

PROF PAUL SPOONLEY - Massey University


Well, we'll be much older, but we'll also have a much higher proportion of immigrants, and so the things that stand out are the ageing population and the fact that our growth is going to have to come from overseas.


JESSICA Are we growing as fast as we should?


PAUL No, we're not, but then all countries in the Western world are in decline, and we are what's called premature ageing. So not only are we getting a lot more older people - that's in size - but as a proportion of the population they're growing because, of course, we're seeing quite a few young people leave the country.


JESSICA – Let’s talk a little bit about that population spread. Why are so many people moving to Auckland?


PAUL – Well, Auckland – there’s an agglomeration effect, so the bigger Auckland becomes, there more attractive it becomes. It becomes more attractive economically, but it also becomes more attractive as a place to live. And so we’re seeing the sort of perimeters of New Zealand, the regions, beginning to flat-line, so they’re not growing, and we’re now beginning to see the first of regions beginning to decline.



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