31 Dec 2019

The year in news reviewed, part three: Stories that shaped 2019

9:55 pm on 31 December 2019

In the final part of our look back at 2019, RNZ revisits the big stories of the last four months of the year.

After a tragic year for many New Zealanders, 2019 had one last nightmare for the country to endure, as an explosive eruption on Whakaari/White Island claimed the lives of 19 people.

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Photo: RNZ

There were also moments of hope and triumph among the tragedy however, and there's plenty more to look forward to...


The political month began with the government announcing a reset of its Kiwibuild programme, and that New Zealand history would be compulsory in all schools by 2022. Meanwhile, today's students marched for a better tomorrow with tens of thousands striking around the country over climate change.

Wellington Climate Strike 190524

Young people march in a climate strike in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The Prime Minister also went on a world tour, meeting US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at the UN General Assembly, opening the UN Climate Action Summit, and announcing significant new backing for the Christchurch Call. But back home, she had to deal with the mishandling of a slew of complaints by her most senior party officials, while the Green party had its own issues, as an opinion article about trans rights party newsletter sparked outrage and resignations.

RNZ reporters broke some big stories, including Guyon Espiner's story on multiple cases of patients having seizures after switching to a generic form of epilepsy drug, while Wellington reporter Ben Strang uncovered multiple cases of bullying in the police force and Gill Bonnett looked at the growing problem of sex tourism and online sex abuse in the Philippines, finding New Zealanders were some of the perpetrators.

The biggest stories of the month involved the country's visa and immigration issues, with the government announcing a new employer-led work visa system, although a group representing migrant workers said they failed to remove a clause that meant they could be treated like modern day slaves, and some employers also had concerns.

Months after the March attacks, New Zealand was still dealing with the repercussions, with police ruling that AR15 rifle parts used in the mosque attacks ruled were illegal, while the victims of the attack still struggled to rebuild their lives.

Mike McIlraith is the officer in charge of the Arms Act service delivery group with an AR15 military style rifle.

Police inspector Mike McIlraith displays an AR-15 during the select committee stage of the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines and Parts) Amendment Bill. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

In the United States, an impeachment inquiry was launched against president Donald Trump. North of the border, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's history of dressing in blackface costume was put under the spotlight, while in Saudi Arabia, an attack on two oil facilities saw a spike in worldwide fuel prices.

The Rugby World Cup also kicked off, with New Zealand beating South Africa and an incredible win for Japan over Ireland. But Spark Sport was the big loser of the opening rounds, with multiple complaints about the failure of its video stream.


The skies over central Auckland darkened in October, when a major fire broke out at the SkyCity International Convention Centre. The blaze took several days to bring under control, forcing the closures of several major central roads and cloaking the streets in smoke. The flames eventually died down, but questions remained about the cause of the fire, as well as the question of where 8 million litres of water would go.

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Firefighters work to put out a fire burning at the SkyCity convention centre, which was still under construction when it caught alight. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The All Blacks' 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign came to a shuddering stop in the semifinals, when they were outplayed by England. After the worst typhoon to hit Japan in decades saw the New Zealanders' final pool game against Italy called off, they demolished Ireland in the quarter-finals, but were "thoroughly outplayed" in the semifinal.

Tragedy struck in Dunedin when 19-year-old Sophia Crestani died and others were injured after hundreds of people tried to flee a flat party on Dundas Street. And as the second case of a student's death going unnoticed at a university hostel was revealed, the father of 19-year-old Mason Pendrous, whose body was found at a Christchurch student hall of residence weeks after he died, told Checkpoint the company running the residence was still pursuing the family for bills.

The Green Rush series from RNZ's in-depth crew reported on a number of issues in the forestry industry, including a look at the full impact of vast new pine forests; a foreign-owned forestry company being given a free pass to buy thousands of hectares of land without applying to the Overseas Investment Office, and a listing of the country's top 50 private landowners. Meanwhile, Ben Strang's ongoing investigation into bullying in the police force told the story of an Armed Offenders Squad member who was told he could be the victim of an accident during a firearms training session he was leading.

Plantation pines in Tararua district

Plantation pines in Tararua district. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

The results of the local government elections were revealed on 12 October, with some of the mayoralties in NZ's biggest cities changing hands. Phil Goff was voted mayor of Auckland for a second term, and Lianne Dalziel also retained the mayoralty in Christchurch, but Andy Foster narrowly edged ahead of Wellington incumbent Justin Lester, while Dunedin went green with Aaron Hawkins taking the top title.

NZ's ever-changing media landscape shifted again in October, with Mediaworks confirming it was putting its TV business Three up for sale, after axing and scaling back shows, withnews boss Hal Crawford calling it quits later in the month.

Finally in October, an Auckland butchery won the award for New Zealand's top sausage; and NZ First MP Shane Jones told members of the Indian community disgruntled with immigration policy changes to get on the first plane home. The most read story on rnz.co.nz by far however was Christchurch reporter Eleisha Foon's story on the Barbershop movement urging abusive men to tackle their traumatic pasts.


The Grace Millane murder trial came to an end with her killer being found guilty of murder. The 27-year-old murderer - who can still not be named for legal reasons - killed the British backpacker after a Tinder date on the night of 1 and 2 December last year. But the ongoing issues raised by the tragic death of the British backpacker are not going anywhere.

RNZ's in-depth team broke big stories and took a much closer look at life in 21st-century New Zealand, including revelations that a mysterious foundation was loaning New Zealand First money and the Now We Are Five Million series, which asked questions like who is the average kiwi; how are NZ's dying towns faring; and what does climate change means for those who will inherit the earth.

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The Now We Are Five Million series looked at what life is like in New Zealand as it nears a population of five million - as well as where it has come from and what more is in store. Photo: RNZ/Ana Tovey

Ongoing issues with visa and immigration issues remained in the headlines, as Immigration NZ took so long to process visas it made immigrants overstayers. It also released new guidance on how it will assess visa applications by partners of New Zealanders, after the government asked for immigration changes to be reversed back to the status quo. The situation was not helped by NZ First MP Shane Jones' comments that if the Indian community wasn't happy with the changes, they should get on the first plane home.

The news didn't stop coming in November, with major issues with a NCEA Level 2 Maths problem; a man shot dead following a Tauranga siege; the death of well-respected Māori actress Nancy Brunning; a tornado carving 'a swathe of damage' through Christchurch; and the government moving to replace RNZ and TVNZ with a new public broadcaster.

There were also concerns over New Zealanders' inability to afford decent dental care; predictions that the police force's new armed units would see more people with mental health issues getting shot; and an entire generation taking offence at a younger generation's use of a two-word phrase.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaking in parliament and responding to heckling with 'okay, Boomer'.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaking in parliament and responding to heckling with 'okay, Boomer'. Photo: NZ Parliament TV / Screengrab

Still, after another grim month, visitors to RNZ's website were also looking for some light relief, and the most read stories of the month included a review of U2 live in concert, and the vital Bird of the Year result.


As the year drew towards a close, New Zealand suffered one last tragedy, with the eruption of Whakaari / White Island claiming the lives of 19 people. The island erupted at 2.11pm on 9 December, when 47 people were on the island, with a group of tourists on a boat and private helicopters coming to the rescue in the immediate aftermath. The scale of the disaster became clear several hours after the eruption and some of the wounded survivors will need ongoing treatment for their burns for months to come.

Images taken from a boat close to White Island shows a damaged helicopter and survivors of the eruption waiting to leave the island at the edge of the water.

White Island erupts. Photo: Twitter/Michael Schade

There was tragic news in Samoa, where a measles epidemic claimed dozens of lives, mostly young children. The fightback against the disease saw the nation go into shutdown, although the campaign by anti-vaxxers to send vitamin A to the island nation was seen as less helpful. A cartoon by an Otago Daily Times cartoonist also drew criticism for making light of the disaster, and while the artist defended it as a 'simple, innocuous joke', his work at the newspaper has been suspended pending a review.

The political year ended with the government announcing details of the new cannabis legislation that the public will decide on at a referendum next year, and that the minimum wage will be increased by $1.20. Winston Peters threw his support behind major changes in New Zealand's news media scene, while an inquiry into the allegations of sexual assault made by one Labour member against another cast major doubts over the accuracy of the main complainant's story.

In the United States, President Donald Trump became only the third president to be impeached, and now faces a trial in the senate next year, while in the UK, Boris Johnson's Conservative Party notched up a big win in the pre-Christmas election.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech outside 10 Downing Street in central London on December 13, 2019, following his Conservative party's general election victory.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech outside 10 Downing Street in central London after his Conservative party's general election victory. Photo: Adrian DENNIS / AFP

In other news, business tycoon Sir Ron Brierley was charged with possessing child abuse material; it was revealed Arthur Allan Thomas was facing historical rape and indecent assault charges; there were concerns over plans to collect data by putting sensors in thousands of state houses; and RNZ's Insight programme looked at the merits of the low-carb, high-fat Keto diet.

Australia's bushfires crisis continued to devastate the country, with one potter hiding inside a kiln he had built that afternoon from a firestorm that destroyed nearly all of Balmoral. The country's Prime Minister Scott Morrison was criticised over his government's lack of action on climate change, and for continuing to holiday in Hawaii as the fires raged.

New Zealand's own PM also faced criticism - although perhaps 'faced' is the wrong word, as critics took to flipping or obscuring books and magazines with her image. The man who started the #TurnArdern campaign told RNZ it was because people were sick of all the fluff articles, although writer Michelle Duff - who wrote the book on Ardern - said it was a result of a group of men feeling threatened by a powerful woman.

One of New Zealand's most famous athletes, middle distance runner Sir Peter Snell, also died just days before his 81st birthday.

Peter Snell after winning Gold. He won Gold in both the 1500m and 800m races. Tokyo Olympic games, 1964.

Peter Snell after winning Gold. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

As Christmas neared, an orca was spotted dragging a cray pot line which was cutting deeper into its fin with the potential to kill it, as it cried out to its family. It evaded rescuers until after boxing day, when a team snagged it with a "kegger line" and finally managed to free it.

Sticking with the theme of animals, In-Depth reporter Kate Newton dug up some interesting stats on popular dog breeds and names in Auckland, including some truly unique names - like "Choppy McChopsalot Choppalopagus" and "Lucky Burrito".

And with that, the year comes to an end.

Next year also promises to be busy news-wise, with an election in New Zealand along with referendums on recreational cannabis and euthanasia. The US will have impeachment hearings before its own elections, with Presidential votes also in Taiwan, The Dominican Republic and Bolivia. New Caledonia will vote on independence from France. Tokyo will host the Olympics, Brexit may finally actually happen, Nasa is expected to begin its mission to see if Mars could be habitable, and the T20 Cricket world Cup will be held in Australia.

And those are just the things we know about. Here's to 2020.