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Clash of the kiwis

New Zealand

The boats are hosed down, the kids are back at school and the holidays are well and truly over in the southern hemisphere, so now New Zealanders are bracing themselves for a year of political blood sport. An election must be held no later than mid-November.

In one corner, the mountain-climbing leader of the minority Labour government, Helen Clark, prime minister since 1999. Kiwi political analyst Colin James ­describes her as “battle-scarred and battle-ready… Of all the 10 prime ministers I have watched, she is the ablest.”

In the other corner, the fresh talent: smart ex-merchant banker and multi-millionaire John Key, who, though not God-on-wheels, is close to it in the eyes of the main opposition National Party, which appointed him leader in November 2006. Since then, the National Party has consistently and comfortably led Labour in the opinion polls.

In terms of political experience, Key can’t hold a candle to Clark. He entered parliament in 2002; she’s been there since 1981. She served as a minister in David Lange’s radical 1980s Labour government, and spent six years as opposition leader in the 1990s before getting the top job in December 1999.

At 57, Clark is fit and healthy and famed for her steady pragmatism. She has already seen off some seasoned performers – her last scalp was Key’s predecessor, Don Brash, a former governor of the Reserve Bank.

But Colin James suggests that Clark’s latest adversary is better tuned to a generation looking for a more customised, less monolithic society. Key is youngish (46) and personable. He relates well to middle New Zealand, something Clark has always had to work at. He learns fast, doesn’t repeat mistakes and is decisive – all desirable qualities for a prime minister in waiting. The Labour Party’s spin is that Key is a straw man. “It thinks that it will unmask Key, and who knows, it might do,” says James. “If that happens, Clark will get a fourth term.”

Election year issues

Tax cuts
National has promised them across the board, and Labour is playing catch-up.

Affordable housing Climbing interest rates and an over-heated market are playing havoc with the great Kiwi home-ownership dream.

Climate change Suggestions that the country slackens off its clean, green lead and run with the pack rouse high emotions.

Economic management
Who do you trust? Labour’s track record is good, but business and National have been allies for longer.

Social inequality
Under-performance in education is at the sharp end of the debate.

Election watch

Tonga

When will it happen?
24 April 2008.

Who are the frontrunners?
Tongans will elect nine people’s representatives to their 34-seat parliament. Akilisi Pohiva, controversial leader of Tonga’s pro-democracy movement, is expected to seek re-election. Pro-reform incumbents are poised as frontrunners.

And the outsiders?
Auckland-based lawyer Sione Fonua launched Tonga’s first modern political party, the Sustainable Nation-Building Party last August. Expect it to field moderate reform candidates.

What are the key issues?
People power for the near-feudal kingdom. The big question is which brand of democracy for the “new Tonga”?

Will anything change?
Not till 2010, when reforms come in.

Animal magnate

Australia

Australia recently gave farmers an extension until 2017 to continue the ugly practice of keeping pregnant sows confined to cramped metal stalls. A strong agricultural lobby keeps animal welfare low on the political agenda, but support for animal rights is coming from unexpected quarters.

Sydney-based investment wizard Brian Sherman and partner Laurence Freedman started the EquitiLink fund management group in 1981 and sold out for A$152m (€92m) in 2000. With time on his hands, Sherman took a closer look at his daughter Ondine’s cause – animal liberation – and at a US animal rights conference in 2003 he was converted. “He was shocked and traumatised; he didn’t move for a while,” says Ondine. “But once he started moving, we created Voiceless.”

Bankrolled by Sherman, Voiceless has a generous grants programme (A$750,000 given away since 2004) and an education programme. Actor Abbie Cornish is the face of a national network of school-based Animal Clubs, which is now also recruiting university students. “They are young enough to feel,” Sherman says. He means business.

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