2012's highs and lows

18:33, Dec 25 2012
SBW fever
CHIEFS MANA: Sonny Bill Williams.

Tracey Cooper remembers some of the events, good and bad, that have shaped this year for the people of Waikato. 

As far as a beginning to a new year goes, 2012 had a fairly familiar ring to it.

For a start, it rained. Eighteen people died on the roads during the holiday period and there was a dramatic rescue at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula.

The rain should have come as no surprise, as December 2011 turned out to be Hamilton's wettest and dullest December on record. Good for the farmers, who started the year in much higher spirits than they finished it, but not so good for anyone wanting a tan.

Still, no-one could stop the smiles on the faces of Tokoroa couple Aleisha Tangimetua and Tuaine Tuaine, who welcomed their daughter Louisa into the world at 12.35am on January 1, 2012.

It only took one more day of 2012 for the rumours about Chiefs star signing Sonny Bill Williams to start.


Funnily enough, the word that he would return to rugby league after just one season in Hamilton proved accurate several months later, by which time the man known simply as SBW had become a fan favourite and Hamilton had become an SBW favourite.

Who can forget him as he leaped into the arms of the adoring fans after scoring in the final?

Want another SBW rumour? He'll be back in Hamilton in 2014 and will go on to become a Chiefs legend.

SBW went on to dominate the news both off the field and on it, winning the New Zealand heavyweight boxing title against Clarence Tillman at Claudelands in Hamilton in February and proving a massive drawcard for the Chiefs as he helped them to their first Super Rugby title in July in what turned out to be one of the great years for Waikato sport.

The Magic, the Chiefs, Northern Districts cricket, Waikato rugby, netball and badminton all performed above expectations and a host of rowers and riders made the July Olympics in London one of the country's most successful.

But it wasn't all rosy on the sporting front.

Opposition to the planned velodrome at St Peter's School near Cambridge continues unabated - even after construction has started.

And it took until late in the year for the Chiefs to extract themselves from their financial mire. And until Waikato won the Ranfurly Shield from Taranaki and successfully defended it against Hawke's Bay, Waikato rugby's season was looking dire.

There was more angst at the title-winning Magic netball franchise, with chief executive Sheryl Dawson not even making the shortlist for a newly created job as Netball Waikato-Bay of Plenty Zone boss, losing out to Aucklander Tim Hamilton.

But there were plenty more successes in other fields, with former Hillcrest High School student Kimbra winning a pile of awards in New Zealand and Australia - and getting a Grammy nomination just to top the year off - and wowing audiences all over the world.

On the business front, Tainui Group Holdings continued its good form and The Base continued to grow, sparking the usual fears about the impending death of the central city. But even Tainui got embroiled in a dispute with residents over plans to create an inland port at Ruakura.

There was the perennial rumour that Wendy's burger chain was about to open in Hamilton. In February, it said it would be open by July and in October, it said it would be early next year - meaning any day now. Don't hold your breath on that one.

It was also a year noted for mass layoffs and industrial action. The 12-week lockout at Affco Horotiu - costing workers about $1.5 million in wages - was only settled in May after the intervention of iwi helped broker a deal between the Talley family, Affco and the union.

Eighteen jobs were cut at Carter Holt Harvey in Tokoroa in November, the same month 14 people lost their jobs with the closure of New Zealand Credit Union offices in the region. Hamilton City Council is expected to axe about 60 jobs, including nine at the Waikato Museum. About 20 workers at Newmont Waihi were down the road in September as the company looked to cut costs. KiwiRail also got rid of workers, as did SCA Hygiene Australasia, which announced up to 140 Waikato workers would lose their jobs when it closes its Te Rapa plant. Half a dozen administration jobs with the Waikato police were cut, Tourism Holdings axed 60 jobs from its motorhome division and a Thames Coromandel District Council staffing review threatened 40 jobs. In Paeroa, a bottling plant closed, leaving 25 workers with no jobs and 27 workers at Hamilton planemaker Pacific Aerospace were laid off, along with about 60 people who lost their jobs at Solid Energy in Huntly in October.

Out on the farm, Fonterra's Trading Among Farmers caused plenty of debate - which shows no sign of abating - within the dairy industry, which had an up and down year, with good weather but lower payouts and forecasts. Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden announced he was standing down, then it was revealed he would stay on the dairy co-op's board for "a few extra months".

The other big farming issue of the year was the fate of the 16 Crafar farms, which eventually ended up in the hands of Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin, finally ending a three-year battle led by unlikely hero Sir Michael Fay and iwi.

On the subject of iwi, it was sad to see Tainui going back to the future and imploding once again, with calls to dump elected members and simply have King Tuheitia appointing board members.

It was that sort of behaviour which led to messy, and expensive, litigation more than 10 years ago.

Iwi were also at the forefront of the fight against Government asset sales, with a national water hui held at Turangawaewae failing to make much of a difference to the National-led Government's stance.

Topping the news list for 2012, though, has to be roads, whether it was people dying on them (far too many: the Waikato road toll was in double figures by March and by November, Waikato roads were officially rated the country's most dangerous) or being stuck in traffic jams and facing diversions and huge delays.

Ring roads, bypasses, roundabouts, traffic lights, expressways, bridges, intersections, new road rules and driver licence regimes. . . You name it, roading dominated the news in ways it hasn't done in years.

In March it was roadworks in Pukete, in May it was gridlock on Wairere Dr, with drivers stuck in traffic for up to 45 minutes. Just last month, delays were up to an hour around Te Kowhai Rd.

New roads opened, old roads closed. Roundabouts turned into traffic lights and bridges had clip-ons added to them to increase their capacity.

Driving to work often became an adventure into the unknown for many city commuters.

Most people quickly, and safely, adapted to new road rules but teenagers struggled with the new driver licence regime, designed to make our roads safer.

Mostly, the new roads have proved of great benefit, but it's worth remembering there is still a long way to go before we see the end of roading delays.

It's hard to keep up with the running tally on what the city's new roads have cost so far, but a chunk of it has come from city council coffers, which is remarkable given the increased focus on financial prudence.

However, the tally of people killed on our roads continues to appal and this year seemed to take a particularly high toll on foreign drivers.

In February, Canadian Michelle Smith was killed at the Waitomo Caves intersection. In May, three American students were killed when their vehicle crashed near Turangi. In June, four Argentinians died in a crash at National Park. In September, American Kenneth Stithem was killed at the Waitomo Caves intersection while honeymooning with his wife, Kirsten Steinke, and in November, Canadian triathlete Catherine Clarke died on SH25.

A crash from 2011 is still making waves: the shipwreck Rena continued to make headlines in 2012 after hitting Astrolabe Reef in October 2011.

She eventually broke apart, sending more flotsam on to beaches, and even after its owners had coughed up more than $20 million, taxpayers are still left footing a $20 million plus cleanup bill.

The captain and navigation officer of the grounded cargo ship admitted a total of 10 charges and were jailed for seven months.

On the council front, it was a year many elected representatives would probably prefer to forget, as councils slashed costs wherever they could, mainly by cutting jobs or services and flogging assets, with the city's Municipal Pools just one of many in Hamilton earmarked for closure.

Also on the block in Hamilton were pensioner housing, the YMCA, Meteor Theatre and other properties, along with naming rights for Waikato Stadium and Claudelands.

Interest groups kept banging the drum about council mergers and unitary authorities but nothing much is likely to happen soon on that front, although talks continue among the region's mayors.

The Hamilton City Council considered changing the way members are elected from an east and west ward system to a city wide vote, but ultimately left things the way they are.

The Waikato Regional Council voted to introduce two Maori seats at the next election while a poll in the Waikato District firmly rejected such a move there.

The South Waikato District Council, meanwhile, has clocked up about $100,000 in legal bills over a dog named Jimbo, with the long-running saga ending up in the High Court, and there's still no resolution in sight.

With the global financial crises still in full swing, a tight grip on finances is a no-brainer for councils in the current climate, but many people began to think the cure was becoming worse than the illness.

There was even the possibility that charges would be introduced for visits to Hamilton Gardens.

Speaking of fiscal responsibility, the final V8 race came and went and the event was promptly picked up by Auckland, where it will be held at Pukekohe from now on. Good luck with that one.

A host of new developments were unveiled for the city, including hotels, office complexes, shopping precincts and housing, but aside from the seemingly unstoppable developments at the north of the city, about the only visual sign of progress in the CBD has been the carving up and removal of the Hamilton Club and some work around the planned Citygate development on Anglesea St. It's hoped more work starts soon.

During the year Waikato Hospital celebrated the 125th anniversary of the first operation carried out there, expansion continues at the hospital on the hill, with a constant upgrade programme making every visit different. A bridge was opened across Pembroke St, the new atrium was opened, as was a new renal centre to cope with the country's burgeoning diabetes epidemic, and other new facilities began working.

And, of course, late in the year, The Hobbit came to our screens; Matamata's Hobbiton was rebuilt and the Green Dragon Pub opened for business. With two more movies to come, expect Hobbit fever to continue for some time yet.

As always, the weather is what people talk about and there have been the usual run of droughts, floods, tornadoes, storms and everything in between during 2012.

There were even a couple of volcanic eruptions, although not the one scientists had predicted. Ruapehu showed signs of blowing and the warning level was upgraded but it was Tongariro that erupted, twice, in August and November, causing a fair bit of excitement but not a lot else.

Now we're looking forward to 2013 and what that might bring.

The weather predictions for summer include words such as ‘long' and ‘hot' but there's one thing you can bank on, the weather - like the year that follows it - will be as unpredictable as ever.