Commuters wearing face masks at Wellington's train station (Getty Images)

The Bulletin: The news that will matter in 2021

Good morning and welcome to the final Bulletin of 2020. In today’s edition: A wrap of some of the issues that will matter in 2021, and a reflection on coming out of this tough year with hope. 

For the final Bulletin of the year, we’ll once again look ahead to the next one: Some people might think 2020 was uniquely interesting, with correspondingly serious issues playing out in the news. But I don’t think it’s going to work out like that – 2021 will have some major stuff going on. Here’s a selection of issues that will likely matter, both for New Zealand and the wider world.


Housing: The market is currently out of control, so look out next year for measures to bring it back into line. Some of these will come from the Reserve Bank – for example, reimposing loan to value ratios on investors. The government is likely to nudge the scales a bit on behalf of first home buyers, perhaps by increasing the grant available to them. But overall, prices are likely to continue to rise, because cities especially still aren’t getting on top of the supply needed to meet extremely high demand. See also, the ever-inflating waiting list for social housing, and the consequences that has for the life outcomes of those on it. Expect a lot of news on this in the local government and urban planning spaces too.


Inequality and poverty: This is highly related to housing, but goes beyond it, to more fundamental questions about what we want our society to look like. 2020 saw those with plenty of wealth increase it, while whole swathes of people with little fell further behind. The political consequences of this could be profound. It could also really shake the government’s base of support.


Meanwhile, the pandemic continues. A lot of countries in Europe and North America are currently heading back into strict lockdowns, or suffering immense case and death numbers. This doesn’t all stop just because we’re in summer, or because the calendar ticks over to a new year. Apart from the possibility of a travel bubble with Australia and select Pacific nations, don’t expect borders to be anything near open over 2021, if not for longer. There’s always the possibility of future lockdowns again in New Zealand – another level four is unlikely, but can’t be ruled out. But more than that, it’s very hard to see life going back to the pre-pandemic normal in 2021 – it’ll almost certainly still be a huge part of our daily lives.


The politics of the Covid vaccine: Who gets it first? Who has to wait? Will the promised shipments arrive on time? We had some more news yesterday about the government’s vaccine strategy, but internationally especially these will all be major questions, particularly as demand will likely far outstrip supply for a long time. As an example of how badly this could all play out, have a look at this Reuters story about wealthy countries refusing to waive intellectual property rights for a vaccine so poor countries could have improved access.


Climate change: Really, what is there to say about this that hasn’t already been said? The world is warming, weather patterns are being disrupted, emissions keep rising aggressively (despite a minor blip from Covid lockdowns and reduced fossil fuel demand) and the world is not remotely close to bringing them under control. New Zealand is performing poorly on this front, with a huge gap between rhetoric and reality. The Climate Change Commission will have an important role next year on consultation and giving the government advice about how to improve – the question is whether ministers actually listen.


Trade and supply chains: We’re a set of small islands a long way away from anywhere else, and we’re not fully self-sufficient for everything we need. Trade and maintenance of supply chains will be crucial for New Zealand getting through the next year. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva has had a look at the current state of trade protectionism, and how there could be breakthroughs in 2021. Or perhaps not.


An all-powerful Labour party executive: We haven’t seen any single party be this powerful in a parliament for more than a generation. But Labour’s absolute majority means they can basically do whatever they want. Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan has written an insightful piece about how parliament will (or maybe won’t) work over the coming term, with opportunities to hold the government and ministers to account likely to be scant.


A new US president: Barring something deeply unusual and unlikely happening, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next US president in January. His incoming administration has signalled it wants to do more to re-engage with the world, but he’ll still be at the head of the world’s dominant military empire, so it remains to be seen whether the turn back to multilateralism really happens. Major areas of interest will be around the US getting back into the Paris Agreement on climate change, and whether tensions with Iran cool enough to restart the scrapped nuclear deal negotiated while Biden was vice-president.


Brexit, and the consequences: This section will be deliberately left vague, because really nobody has any idea what’ll happen. But there are not totally unfounded fears of things like food shortages, leading to the rise of Brexit Preppers – the Independent had a report on them recently. Here’s hoping it’s not that bad.


Australia’s spat with China: These are probably the two most important countries to New Zealand economically, and they’re seriously at odds with each other right now. The Guardian reports that as a result of that importance, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta has offered to negotiate a truce, if not a full peace treaty, and the detail of that story suggests it’s not much more than offering to host a cup of tea.


A quick correction: Yesterday’s Bulletin referred to Matatā residents having to move out because of debris flows, but the way I described it was inaccurate. However, it is not the whole town that has to move as part of the managed retreat process, only those on the Awatarariki fanhead.


Bonus content: One of the quirks of Substack’s backend is that it saves and displays the headlines of Bulletin drafts that don’t end up being sent out. One day in particular, there was a glitch, and as a result this is what I’ve spent most of the last year looking at every morning.

Reads best as an internal monologue

Turns out, it was a pretty prescient headline, which should hold until next year.

Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

The six cousins behind the Protect Ihumātao campaign, from left, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Pania Newton and Waimarie Rakena McFarland. (Photo: Jos Wheeler)

Right now on The Spinoff: Two pieces from the remarkably good Justin Latif to share: The first is a deep feature into the long struggle at Ihumātao, in particular covering the experience of leader Qiane Matata-Sipu. And students at Māngere College sat down with him to talk about how they made it through 2020, a year that caused particularly acute troubles for many South Auckland communities.

Also, Jane Yee processes the Shortland St cliffhanger after three years away from watching it. And a group of us sum up the year in politics in a sentence. Look out for more of these group roundups over the next few days.


Today brings my third year of doing The Bulletin to a close. It’s fair to say it has been the most relentless of them for me personally, though I know I’m hardly unique in having an unusually difficult 2020. Truth be told, I came pretty close to quitting the newsletter. I’d had enough of the grind, but two things changed my mind. The first was getting out around the country and meeting people where they were, and being reminded of why doing that matters. And the second was to still be around to write an essay to close out the year, like I have for the last two. I wanted to write about hope.

Last year’s essay was deeply pessimistic about our society’s ability to handle a crisis. Strangely enough, it mentioned the outbreak of a virus, and the pulling up of drawbridges around the world, even if the context was completely different to what ended up happening. It’s hard to remember exactly what it felt like at the time, but I couldn’t escape the sense that disasters would cause us to fall apart in animosity and enmity.

About a month ago, two people very dear to me were in a car crash. They’re OK, and it wasn’t their fault – some idiot swerved in front of them on a blind corner, before fleeing the scene. This story isn’t about that guy though. It’s about everyone else. While my two people were waiting to be taken off in an ambulance, about a dozen strangers stopped to help, or ask if there was anything they could do. Some could offer something tangible, others just a kind word and a smile. The emergency services personnel who arrived were supportive and professional. And the overriding impression I got was that people just behaved like it was totally normal to care for someone in distress.

I spent the last weekend of things being vaguely normal, way back in February, in the tiny King Country town of Ohura. Even then, the rush on toilet paper was starting up in Auckland – an understandable reaction to an unknown and rapidly developing situation. A few people in the Ohura Cossie Club had a good chuckle about it, without necessarily being too worried about what was coming. I went back in October, just to yarn to a few people I had met the first time around, and asked how lockdown had been. I was told they just got on with it, neighbours helping neighbours, making sure everyone had enough to get by. I’d imagine there would be uncountable similar stories from communities big and small.

During the election, I sat in a lot of rooms filled with people in bitter opposition to each other. They had – let’s say this euphemistically – some robust exchanges of views. But they walked out of those rooms still as opponents, and not enemies. In a year of extremes, our democratic system delivered a result that was peacefully accepted by pretty much everyone, and would have been no matter what that result ended up being.

In 2020, I saw something in this country that I really never expected to see. My impression of New Zealand had been of an increasingly atomised society, individualised and sickly. And you could still point to examples where that is the case – we are still people, and all people can have selfish tendencies. But I think the defining significance of this year is that people were happy to make personal sacrifices for the collective good. We accepted difficulties and challenges to save the lives of people we will never meet. It felt like there was a reawakening of a long-dormant idea, that we are much stronger together than apart.

The challenges that faced us at the end of 2019 still exist, and if anything are more acute. But the end of this year feels much less hopeless. I still have little faith for our salvation to come from governments, businesses and markets. But that doesn’t necessarily feel like the point any more. I have faith in the wisdom and caringness of the people, whether I know them or not. And it is much easier to face an uncertain future when you have trust and affection for the people by your side.

To finish here, some thanks. To my friends and colleagues at The Spinoff, I continue to be immensely proud to sit among you. To our partners at Z Energy, thank you for making this publication possible. To everyone in journalism whose work I’ve linked to this year, it has been a privilege to read and share it. To the readers of The Spinoff and The Bulletin – especially our beloved Spinoff Members – it remains a pleasure to write for you. To my family and friends who have been there when I needed them, my thanks will be in sticking by you when you need it.

And thank you deeply to my partner. We’re off next week to drive around the country together for a while. I don’t want to jinx it or anything, but I think it’s going to be a really good summer. I hope yours is too.

Mā te wā,

Alex


That’s it for The Bulletin for 2020. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme




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