John Roughan: Time for all of us to take a bow

When nominations were called for the Herald's New Zealander of the Year, my nominee was not an individual. The most remarkable achievement of the year, it seemed to me, belonged to us all.

The sum of the decisions we made at the September election was on reflection astonishingly good. By a narrow majority we resisted the twin temptations to disempower a national minority and take more tax cuts than we could probably afford. At the same time, we pulled the ship to starboard, ensuring government would be negotiated with parties on the right.

We left executive power deservedly with a party that has presided over economic stability but will not be able to indulge its left in what is likely to be its final term, and we lifted the Opposition to the point that it must moderate its attitudes in preparation for power.

In the electorates, Maori installed a new independent party which could change our politics, while Epsom ensured we wouldn't lose a character as delightful and dedicated as Rodney Hide and Tauranga called time at last on that imposter Winston Peters.

At every level it was a subtle and far-sighted set of decisions, a credit to collective common sense expressed through an electoral system that, for all its faults, permits such finely honed results.

Hence my nominee for New Zealander of the Year was the New Zealand Voter.

Once we got around a table, I realised the superior case for those who brought us the Rugby World Cup. I remembered being surprised at my surge of excitement that morning when we awoke to the news from Dublin.

Hosting the cup had seemed a mixed blessing when I counted the cost of that joint proposal with Australia a few years ago. But having the whole tournament here suddenly brought immense possibilities. It could be a total national experience in a way that even the America's Cup was not.

Every corner of the country loves rugby. If I was planning this event I would make the most of the happy coincidence that the country is divided into five regions for professional rugby purposes and the World Cup is normally divided into five groups for the first phase.

Within each group there are four teams, one of the best five and several who would not ordinarily attract a crowd. Imagine if small towns that seldom see first-class rugby were invited to host one of the less likely teams, perhaps Argentina, Romania or Georgia, for the weeks of the round-robin phase.

The towns would take "their" team to heart, hosting them as warmly as only small towns can. And if at least one of the team's matches was played in its "home" town, tourists and television crews would be drawn deep into all regions and every part of the country would have a rare chance to participate intimately in an international event.

The possibilities are enthralling, quite apart from the spur it will give to the growth of stadiums, hotels and transport infrastructure between now and 2011.

The leader of the team that has brought us these possibilities is undoubtedly the individual who has done most for the national good this year. But that collective decision in September deserves a toast.

Maybe it is the season, but when I assess that state of the country these days it is hard to resist a certain euphoria. Work is plentiful, money is available, prices are stable, incomes are rising, business is good, welfare is generous, and if poverty persists we haven't heard much about it since Labour came to power.

For the past couple of years it has been hard to find an external explanation for the strong economy. The low dollar and high commodity prices of Labour's first years have long gone. So has the subsequent immigration wave. Yet the housing and consumption sparked by that immigration just keeps booming.

The problems we face are the problems of success. Foreign savers and fund managers have so much faith in us, the NZ Reserve Bank cannot convince them the interest rates they are getting will eventually stop us borrowing and the dollar will drop.

High exchange rates are hurting our exporters, which is something we should worry about. But that is because our exports are still pretty raw commodities, and as time goes by it is hard to worry about that too.

We have had an open economy with market-led investment for 20 years now. If more sophisticated exports were profitable to produce here it would be happening. Fairly raw food and fibre are probably our natural means of support, at least until the day we vote for a much larger population.

I would vote for that right now, but I am in a tiny minority. Polls suggest that open space and a pristine environment are more important to most than a bigger economic base. We could possibly double the population and still have plenty of open space but that is a debate that still awaits its day.

Meantime, we are doing fine living with one of the largest current account deficits in the developed world. We have been living well on the faith of foreign lenders for so long now that we must be doing something right. They simply see here a safe, stable, well-governed society that pays its bills. For that stability and quality we have ourselves to thank. Take another bow, New Zealand voter.

... and have a happy Christmas. This column will take a break for three weeks.

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