John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: 'What if' is something to ponder before future starts

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New Year is a moment, the only moment, when the present feels like the future, says John Roughan.

Every New Year a group of us does something a little strange. Always the same thing. We get up at dawn, go to a nearby beach with a clear view of Rangitoto and watch the sun come up.

Cloud willing, it is a sparkling sight. A sliver of sun peeps above the mountain's shoulder and a moment later a single ray of light falls on the sea. Everybody has their own ray.

Then, as the sun climbs, the whole scene turns golden. Yesterday we had a double sunrise. A high cloud bank threatened to cut it short but instead the concealed sun produced one of those skies with shafts in every direction before giving us a second burst.

Beautiful, but we could do this any day. I don't know why we feel the urge at New Year. We might all have different reasons for all I know. We don't talk about them. We talk about anything else.

One or two of us don't talk much at all, especially if we've seen midnight. We huddle in the slight chill, sharing a bottle of wine and the breakfasts we've packed, toasting this craziness and longing to get back to sleep.

Some of us have been doing this since the millennium, when it seemed important to see the first light, and we keep coming back.

I'm never sure I'll do it again until a day or two beforehand when I know I will.

Why? Time is the fascination, I suppose. I'm a sucker for anniversaries, history, old buildings, big trees, anything that links the present to the past. New Year is a moment, the only moment, when the present feels like the future. For a golden moment there is nothing happening, nothing to say, everything that has happened was last year.

Happy New Year. Two digits clicked over, happy new decade. Obama's decade maybe, Key's here. What difference might they make?

The only wisdom uttered yesterday was that predictions are bound to be wrong. The best we can do is graft the new on to the past and imagine how different it could have been.

Imagine if Obama had been in the White House for the defining event of the decade now passed. When the Twin Towers fell he might have dithered as he did over beefing up US forces in Afghanistan last year but that would have been preferable to what did happen.

I doubt he would have spoken and acted in a way that elevated a band of Islamist malcontents into a mythic force of global terror.

He could have pointed out that culprits on that clear New York morning could never repeat their success. Airline passengers will never again sit and hope for survival at the hands of hijackers they would now assume to be suicidal.

Planes could not again be turned into flying bombs with people on board, not unless they were commandeered with weapons more easily detected than knives or boxcutters.

A better President would have cleaned the culprits' camps out of Afghanistan but he might have hesitated to remove that country's Taleban government entirely. He would have been more concerned at his country's lack of intelligence in the known haunts of rootless mujahadeen who had turned their obsessions on the West after it helped them drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

Cooler heads than those commanding the United States after 9/11 would have pursued Osama bin Laden covertly and probably more successfully than the clumsy military operation he evaded.

They would have been alert to the risk of turning him into an inspiration for every Islamic nationalist sect from Britain to Indonesia. They would not have pretended Al Qaeda was a threat on a scale that warranted a "war on terror" and they certainly would not have exploited American fear to launch a war of shameless aggression on Iraq.

It is even possible that in a calmer climate after 9/11 US monetary managers might not have loosened the reins for as long as they did. Without such cheap money flooding the country the decade might not have seen the asset price bubbles and unsecured lending that fuelled the long boom and the big bust. Under an Obama the decade would have been quieter, less prosperous but the US would be in better condition today.

The same cannot be said of this country, had John Key been in power. Budget surpluses would have been given back in tax cuts long before the boom ended. We would be looking at much worse fiscal deficits now.

His Government would have also been borrowing for infrastructural upgrades and other projects he believed capable of moving the national wealth up a notch. That is what he used to contemplate before the recession. And it might have worked, might yet work. It is something to ponder in these precious days before the future starts.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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