2016: Hero & anti-Hero of the year

Who stood out for me this year? I want to talk about two people who changed the conversation, for better and worse

I've got half written Key/English blogs to finish and post, but before Christmas I desperately want to share my hero and anti-hero of the year; our better and worse angels.

At this time of year, I remember a holy child born to parents who didn't have a roof over their heads at a precious yet fearful time in their lives; a family looking for a place to call home when there was no home to be found. It's a 2000 year-old story, yet it's also for me been the most powerful story of New Zealand in 2016. It's a heart-breaking thing to have to write, but homelessness was the number one issue in New Zealand this year, and, as with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, it was families in need.

Regular Pundit readers will know the story was broken by The Nation's Mike Wesley-Smith. What you won't know is how the story came about. When Mike first came to me, as boss of The Nation, wanting to do a story on homelessness, I demurred. If this was a story about 100-odd people - mostly addicts or abuse victims - sleeping rough around Auckland, well, that's a well-worn story. I told him I was only interested if there was a new angle. He went and talked to a few people, most notably Labour MP Jenny Salesa, who took him to Bruce Pullman Park in Takanini. And that changed things.

There he found the row of cars, where families were sleeping every night, conveniently close to some public toilets. At the weekend, as many as 50 cars parked up there full of people for whom there is no room at any inn. It was a tragic, transient, yet kind community of people who - for many different reasons - found themselves unable to afford to live in a house. Or even a garage. (Because the other angle we reported, was the emergence of a garage property market in south Auckland, where garages were being rented openly, and often illegally - for as much as $400 a week)

And it was at Bruce Pullman Park Mike met my hero of the year, a man I know simply as Rim. Despite the shame and hopelessness felt by those living at the park, Rim agreed to speak on camera to Mike. It was a brave thing to do. But in doing so, he made the story possible and gave a voice to, as we were to learn, too many New Zealanders who called their cars home.

Rim also introduced Mike to a family living in another car in the park; a family with two kids and a father who worked full-time. They had moved to find work, just as the unemployed are so often urged to do, but could now not afford a house. This was a new type of homelessness. Despite the government's spin that 'the poor have always been with us', the truth was entire employed families living in cars was a new low for this country.

Rim was the first person in this story to the plight of these families "a shame". He also had the grace to say he wanted home for the kids, not people like him.

The good news is that government agencies were shamed into action and many of those families got homes. The last we heard, Rim had a job and a house. Here's hoping that's still the case this Christmas.

The anti-hero is easy. He's the man who used a divisive, mocking message of race-baiting, fear, fake news, fake faith, climate change denial, abuse and lies to win the US presidency. Sometimes, when I hear news reports of Donald Trump having won the election, it still shocks and horrifies me. 

The message this victory sends to many minorities is scary enough, but, as I wrote at he time, it's also tragic how he - like the scorpion biting the frog half way across the river because 'it's my nature' - will betray so many of the people who voted for him as an act of protest and desperation.

Who knows which promises he will keep and which he will break. It will be a muddle of both. His cabinet on one hand is a bunch of outsiders and deal-makers and breakers. An uncabinet, if you like. But on the other, it is a group of one percenters who will surely act in the interests of the very elite so many Trump supporters loathe. 

I still fear what may happen as he comes to confront other countries on the world stage. I don't think it will be a good couple of years for Muslims or Mexicans in America. And I pray for the health of the Supreme Court judges, or women's rights are likely to take a hit as well. But who knows where his butterfly brain (and ego) will land?

One of the over-arching messages from his campaign is to be wary of change for change's sake. Things must, and do, evolve. I'm not arguing for stagnation or that many of our institutions aren't in need of significant upheaval. But.

But, be careful what you wish for. But, be careful of change without a clear alternative. I wonder whether over the next two years, for example, we might learn to love 'the swamp'. There is lots wrong with Washington DC, but an imperfect public service that at least tries to be independent and isn't completely compromised by business interests may suddenly be seen to be much more precious than it does now.

That same could be said for the mainstream media. For all its failings, surely we must appreciate now how vital it is that it remains vital. Not any particular organisation or company, but  rather a belief in fact-checking, skeptical reporting and rigorous questioning. 

This year has be a salient one for all those gleefully applauding the decline of 'old media' and arguing that it can and will be replaced by the wonderful democracy and transparency of the internet. I've argued for years that the internet is not the salvation of news, that 'citizen journalism' and blogging has serious flaws and that the so-called MSM is much more precious than we realise.

Now we know that - even allowing for bias and human failings - journalism is worse than nothing without rigorous standards, ethics and professionalism. Online media can go completely rogue and is easily fakeable. The internet isn't as transparent as some claimed and algorithms leave journos for dead with it comes to perpetuating bias.

So this Christmas, let's appreciate what we have, remember those who have less, and hope for a better 2017 and beyond.