Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Raymond Chan

I was terribly saddened to hear of the death on Sunday of the Wellington wine writer Raymond Chan. Raymond finally succumbed to cancer after determinedly keeping the illness at bay, with the  unflagging support of his partner Sue Davies, for many years.

Raymond won an enormous circle of friends with his cheeky humour and zest for life. It was a measure of the respect and affection he enjoyed in wine circles that in 2016, friends and associates chipped in to pay for treatment with the very expensive immunotherapy drug Keytruda.

Underneath that infectious wit, which remained irrepressible even when he was experiencing the roller-coaster ride of cancer treatment, Raymond was an extremely serious and knowledgeable wine judge and critic. He wrote about the subject with eloquence and great authority, never resorting to the pretentious excesses of winespeak.  Wine industry events won't be quite the same without him.

Joelle Thomson has written an obituary for Raymond on the Regional Wines website here.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Labour and NZ First: a shared fondness for pork-barrel politics

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., February 7.)

In a memorably pungent turn of phrase, former Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said of Maori support for Labour in the 2017 election that it was like a battered wife going back to her abuser.

Okay, she was bitter at Maori voters turning against her party. Sour grapes, her critics would have said. But you could see where she was coming from.

Labour has traditionally commanded support from Maori, dating back to its alliance with the Ratana Church in 1936.

It’s one of the stranger quirks of New Zealand politics that Ratana is still regarded as exerting powerful political influence, to the extent that even National MPs routinely make the dutiful pilgrimage to Ratana pa every January for the event that kicks off the political year.

Few commentators bother to ask why Ratana is still deemed so important when the Church commands a relatively small following. At the time of the 2013 Census (I won’t embarrass Stats NZ by asking where the 2018 results are), Ratana had just 40,000 followers.

Neither does it seem to strike people as odd that politicians pay homage to Ratana despite the general consensus that that religious belief should not intrude on political affairs. The Catholic Church would be told where to get off, and rightly so, if it suggested that political parties send representatives to Sacred Heart Cathedral every year to give an account of themselves.

Be that as it may, the Ratana connection still works for Labour. But Fox wasn’t the first Maori politician to make the point that Maori haven’t always done well under Labour governments. Mana Motuhake in 1980 was formed out of a similar sense of frustration that Labour took its Maori support for granted.

Labour created the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 but it was National in the 1990s, under Jim Bolger and Sir Douglas Graham, that drove through the first big treaty settlements.

In that same decade, Labour lost its hold on Maori voters when New Zealand First, still in its infancy, won all of the five Maori seats then in existence. Labour has been trying ever since to woo them back and finally succeeded by securing the seven Maori electorates in 2017 – although Fox, who has experienced a string of adverse events since losing her seat, obviously didn’t think it deserved to.

All of this came into sharp focus in the events leading up to Waitangi Day.

Next year is an election year, and Labour will be anxious to consolidate its Maori support. This dovetails neatly with the desire of its coalition partner, NZ First, to build its reputation as the saviour of the regions and to atone for its acquiescence in government policies – notably the signing of the highly unpopular United Nations Compact on Global Migration – that are seen as a betrayal of its supporters.

Jacinda Ardern has pronounced 2019 the Year of Delivery, which suggests she realises that at some stage the public will expect the government to translate last year’s plethora of reports and working groups – presumably set up to buy time while the coalition parties adjusted to the shock of finding themselves in power – into action.

Over the past few days, a few clues have appeared as to how that will be done. In the best Labour tradition, it will involve spraying a great deal of money around – a lot of it in Northland, and targeted either expressly or by implication at Maori.

Last Sunday, flanked by Winston Peters and Shane Jones, Ardern announced a $100 million fund to help Maori landowners develop unproductive land. She followed that on Monday with details of an $82 million regional employment scheme. Both will be paid for out of Jones’ $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, which with every passing day looks increasingly like the Peters and Jones re-election campaign chest.

Americans call this pork-barrel politics: the funding of local projects in the hope that voters will reward their benefactors at election time.

Pork-barrelling is a traditional Labour weakness, but Peters – perhaps taking his cue from Robert Muldoon, a socialist in National disguise and the man Peters appears to have modelled himself on – is favourably disposed to it too.

The announcements will have played well in the regions and to Maori, especially in Northland, where Peters and Jones have their roots. And Jones, in his blustering champion-of-the-people mode, will advance grandiloquent arguments about having to make up for nine years of National Party indifference.

Not since David Lange has a New Zealand politician been able to weave such meandering, elliptical sentences, presumably in the hope of leaving his interrogators cross-eyed. Just don’t ask Jones any inconvenient questions about accountability and transparency – or if you do, don’t expect a straight answer.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Random thoughts on Waitangi Day

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz on February 6.)

■ The British were relatively humane, enlightened colonisers, certainly by comparison with other colonial powers such as Belgium, Spain, Portugal and France. New Zealand was colonised not by force of arms but by agreement with the established inhabitants. In that respect we are rare, if not unique.

■ As far as we can tell, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with honourable intentions and genuine respect for Maori. It was only later that settler greed for land and general Pakeha villainy caused things to turn dirty. But it should be acknowledged that some Maori tribes were dispossessed of their lands by their own chiefs.

■ Colonisation had a devastating effect on Maori health and society and is increasingly blamed for problems which dog Maori today, such as educational under-achievement, unemployment and high imprisonment rates. But colonisation brought benefits too. Pre-European Maori life was hardly idyllic. Tribal warfare was a constant threat and slavery, violent death and cannibalism were endemic.

■ The Treaty can be seen in hindsight as a hopelessly insubstantial document on which to base the governance of a complex 21st century country. Hastily written and even more hastily translated, the Treaty has strained to breaking point under the enormous weight placed on it. It doesn’t help that there were two versions, leaving the courts to come up with sometimes fanciful imaginings of what the signatories intended.

■ Unlike Australia, whose first white settlers were convicts, New Zealand was settled by people who came here of their own free will, looking for something better. This was probably just as true of the original Polynesian arrivals as it was of the Europeans who followed. My own family stories are typical: my father’s forebears left Denmark to get away from Prussian invaders and my mother’s left Ireland to escape poverty and repression. My wife’s parents were victims of Nazism who were rendered stateless by World War II and remained so until New Zealand accepted them in 1965.

■ As the debate over immigration threatens to become more rancorous, we need to remind ourselves that we were all - Maori included - once immigrants who were able to take advantage of what this country offered. Most New Zealanders probably welcome the more vibrant society that has resulted from increased immigration and cultural diversity, but it has the potential to become problematical if not handled carefully. The real issue is how to manage immigration without destabilising society and facilitating divisive demands for special treatment of select ethnic and religious groups.

■ We still don’t know nearly enough about our incredibly rich and colourful history. In fact we have two rich histories, one of which – pre-European Maori history – is overlooked altogether because Maori had no written language with which to record it. It survives only in oral story-telling.

■ Taika Waititi was justified last year in ticking Pakeha New Zealanders off for not bothering to pronounce Maori names properly. But does that make us a racist country, as he suggested? I don’t think so. The “racist” tag is greatly overplayed and too often used to close down legitimate discussion. There is racism in New Zealand, undoubtedly, but you can’t condemn a country as racist just because people persist with the pronunciations they’ve grown up with. “Racism” to me implies a belief that some races are intrinsically superior to others and that discriminatory treatment is therefore justified. I can’t see how lazy pronunciation, which is usually the product of a lifelong habit rather than any desire to demean or belittle Maori, crosses those thresholds.

■ New Zealand is a pragmatic, practical country that prefers to do what works rather than allow itself to be captured by ideology. Extremist causes almost never gain mainstream political traction. We thus tend to be spared the ugly and intolerant extremes of Left and Right that characterise politics in some other countries.

■ We’re also a small, intimate society with two degrees of separation, which means we can’t help bumping into each other in the street, the supermarket and airport lounges. It’s harder to hate people when you have to deal with them face-to-face as human beings. How many countries could put together a parliamentary rugby team with players from opposing parties, such as the one that’s playing against former rugby greats in a curtain-raiser to a pre-season Blues-Hurricanes match this weekend?

■ And finally, we have much to celebrate. We live in one of the world’s most civilised liberal democracies. Global surveys consistently rank us among the top 10 countries in the world on measurements such as freedom, human rights, quality of life, education, health and tolerance of difference. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing lots of things right. Happy Waitangi Day.

Friday, January 25, 2019

It's true then - the past is a foreign country

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., January 24.)

I was enjoying a New Year drink with an old friend and discussing some of the things that have changed in our lifetime. Soon I found myself mentally making a list.

It’s a totally random, off-the-cuff list, compiled in an idle mood on a lazy day. It doesn’t purport to make a profound statement about the state of society. It’s just a reminder that, in the words of the author L P Hartley, the past is a foreign country where they do things differently.

For what it’s worth, here it is:

I remember paying mortgage interest rates of more than 20 percent.

I remember when a milkman delivered milk to a box at your gate, in glass bottles that you washed and returned for re-use.

I remember when the government went to inordinate lengths to prevent the pirate station Radio Hauraki from challenging the state broadcasting monopoly.

I remember when towns had stock routes so that mobs of sheep and herds of cattle could avoid the main street.

I remember when secondary schoolboys wore caps.

I remember standing (or not standing, depending on how rebellious I felt) for God Save the Queen at the movies, which we used to call the pictures or the flicks.

I remember railcars.

I remember when schoolkids were issued with Post Office Savings Bank books to encourage thrift.

I remember when most cars had three-speed transmissions operated by a gear lever mounted on the steering column.

I remember when every town had a dosing strip where dogs were tested for hydatids.

I remember the fathers of my school contemporaries dying in their 40s from heart attacks.

I remember when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation banned harmless protest songs.

I remember Peter Pan and Frosty Jack ice cream.

I remember when TV transmission started at 5pm and finished at 10.

I remember when there were only four women MPs.

I remember when the film censor decreed that the movie version of James Joyce’s Ulysses had to be shown at separate screenings for men and women.

I remember McWilliam’s Marque Vue and Montana Cold Duck.

I remember when the most popular meeting-place in Wellington was under the James Smith clock at the corner of Cuba and Manners Sts.

I remember when city council chief executives were called town clerks.

I remember Cona coffee.

I remember when the police drove black Humber Super Snipes.

I remember when Catholic and Protestant schoolkids exchanged religious taunts on their way to and from school.

I remember when people got their pay handed to them in cash, in little manila envelopes.

I remember when a try in rugby was worth three points.

I remember when a diagnosis of cancer was regarded as a virtual death sentence.

I remember when new cars didn’t come equipped with heaters or radios.

I remember bodgies, widgies, milk-bar cowboys and beatniks.

I remember when young men in country towns belonged to Jaycees.

I remember morning assemblies at my state secondary school where we sang English hymns and songs like There is a Tavern in the Town.

I remember when no Pakeha New Zealanders - and not many Maori either - had heard of Parihaka.

I remember when New Zealand Truth was the only paper that covered sex cases and was kept out of sight in respectable homes.

I remember when beer was sold in flagons.

I remember when union membership was compulsory.

I remember when The Flintstones was shown in prime time and everyone watched it because TV was a novelty and there was only one channel.

I remember when the first McDonald’s outlet opened and people thought it was weird that their burgers contained a slice of gherkin.

I remember when New Zealand shut down at weekends and there was no television or radio advertising on Sundays.

I remember when “mixed flatting” was frowned upon as improper.

I remember when travelling by air was an occasion for which people dressed in their best clothes.

I remember Suzy’s Coffee Lounge, the Casablanca, Roy’s hamburger joint, the Majestic Cabaret, the Bistro Bar and the Downtown Club.

I remember traffic cops.

I remember a time before bureaucrats decided it was unsafe for New Zealand kids to do early-morning paper rounds.

I remember when people fiercely resented being required to wear seat belts.

I remember when “coming out” was something respectable young ladies did at debutante balls.

I remember when there were TV reporters over the age of 40.

I remember when everyone in New Zealand recognised the names of the president of the Federation of Labour and the chairman of the Meat Board.

I remember when everyone smoked at work, then went to the pub and smoked some more.

Is society better now, or worse? To be honest, I can’t decide. It’s just different.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Pardon me for not getting excited about this thing called 5G

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz., January 23.)

I see the technology industry is readying itself for something called 5G – geek-speak for the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications.

I can’t wait. I’m jumping out of my skin with excitement.

I jest, of course. I’m an IT agnostic who has learned not to trust technology. If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it’s that supposed innovations and improvements come loaded with fishhooks and frustrations.

We’re told 5G will provide “high data rate, reduced latency, energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity and massive device connectivity”.

Translated, I suspect that means there will be incremental gains in terms of speed and capacity that most everyday users probably won’t even notice. Just like the people who invested in ultrafast broadband and later wondered why they bothered.

Oh, and there will be teething problems. There always are. So expect a lot of hype when 5G is launched, but expect to be disappointed too, because the history of the IT industry is littered with false promises.

It’s an industry that depends heavily on credulous consumers who are always ready to be sucked in by the illusion of a technological nirvana. Just witness the queues that form outside Apple retail outlets whenever a new iPhone is launched.

Improvements on the previous models are often minimal or largely cosmetic. But there’s a good reason why Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company:  it took the notion of planned obsolescence, which was originally associated with the car industry, and refined it to the max.

Planned obsolescence means that even as a new product is launched, the makers already have a better version on the blocks. Apple’s marketing department knows there are millions of suckers out there who are willing to believe the latest Apple device represents a quantum leap over the previous one and that life would be unbearable without it.

The flip side of the Apple story is that there are legions of users who tear their hair out with Apple products and vow never to use them again. But where can they go – to Microsoft? It’s probably the one company with more frustrated users than Apple.

That computer users are effectively at the mercy of these two grotesquely profitable companies is almost enough to shake your faith in capitalism. It’s a case of market failure on a massive scale.

Most punters would be happy just to have technology that works – something that’s consistent, user-friendly and doesn’t let them down. But IT users have been conditioned to accept a failure rate that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry.

Even when a company delivers something you actually like, be prepared to have it taken away from you or changed into something different.

I won’t bore readers again with my story of how, when I wasn’t looking,  Microsoft uninstalled the only version of Windows that I ever liked and gave me a new one that I didn’t want and didn’t ask for.

Suffice to say that it was like waking up one morning to find that the car I’d been driving for years, and which performed to my satisfaction, had been snatched away and replaced with an updated model that bore little resemblance to the previous one and drove like a pig.

More recently, a similar thing happened with Skype. For years I was a contented Skype user, enjoying face-to-face conversations with people in the most unlikely places. Then something happened.

Skype suddenly looked and felt different. The settings were unfamiliar. I couldn’t make it work. Christmas passed without the usual video conversations with family overseas.

I heard the same complaint from other users, including Generation X-ers whom I regard as totally tech-savvy. So it wasn’t just me.

The finger of blame was pointed (surprise!) at Microsoft, which owns Skype and which (I’m quoting from Wikipedia) “redesigned its Skype clients in a way that transitioned Skype from peer-to-peer service to a centralised Azure service and adjusted the user interfaces of apps to make text-based messaging more prominent than voice calling”.

I think what that means is that Microsoft took a product that worked to people’s satisfaction and stuffed it up. As it does.

The bigger issue here is that society has become totally beholden to information technology, with all its failings. Like it or not, we’re all passengers on a train that’s hurtling at increasing speed toward an unknown destination. And meanwhile the so-called digital divide, which separates those who are at ease in this new world from those who can’t keep up, grows ever wider.

I can think of no other technological revolution that has so completely penetrated people’s lives or influenced human behaviour, and I’m less confident than ever that this is a good thing. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Is this debate about drugs, or capitalism?

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., January 10.)

Oh, dear. Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, after years of agitating for relaxation of the drug laws, is fretting that liberalisation might open the way to corporate domination of the cannabis trade.

Hmmm. Perhaps he should heed the old saying about being careful what you wish for.

Bell has long advocated a permissive approach to so-called recreational drugs. His argument is that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than criminalised. So you’d expect him to be thrilled that the government has promised a binding referendum on decriminalisation of cannabis.

A crucial first step has already been taken with the passing of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, which essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness.  

You can take it as read that the activists’ ultimate goal is decriminalisation of the drug altogether, and perhaps other drugs too. That’s how advocates of “progressive” social change advance their agenda: incrementally.

It’s a strategy that relies on a gradual softening-up process. No single step along the way, taken in isolation, is radical enough to alarm the public. Change is often justified on grounds of common sense or compassion, as the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill people certainly can be.

But each victory serves as a platform for the next. Once change has bedded in and the public has accepted it as the new normal, the activists advance to the next stage. The full agenda is never laid out, because that might frighten the horses.

In this instance, presumably to reassure us that Labour and the Greens aren’t totally soft on drugs, the passage of the medicinal cannabis bill was closely followed by an announcement that the government will crack down on dealers of the synthetic cannabis that has been causing mayhem.

But there should be no doubt that what we’re observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which the National Party gave as its reason for not supporting the medicinal cannabis bill.

Now, back to Bell’s misgivings about where the cannabis referendum might lead. 

It’s not decriminalisation that worries him. Why would it, when for years he’s been using his taxpayer-subsidised job to lobby for exactly that outcome?

No, what upsets him is the thought of the drugs trade being contaminated by the profit motive. A liberal drugs regime is all very well, just as long as the trade doesn’t fall into the hands of wicked corporate capitalists.  

Bell’s vision, obviously, is of something much purer and more noble, although it’s not entirely clear what model he has in mind. A People’s Collective, perhaps.

It will surprise no one that Professor Doug Sellman, the director of the National Addiction Centre, has expressed similar misgivings. Sellman likes the idea of legalising cannabis but doesn’t want companies making money from it.

I suspect Sellman and Bell are at least partly motivated by hostility toward capitalism. They certainly share a dislike - which in Sellman's case could be classified as obsessive - of the capitalist liquor industry.

Given that cannabis and alcohol are both potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs, why do both men display a more forgiving attitude to the former than to the latter? In my opinion the reason is at least partly ideological. It’s the capitalist business model, as much as anything, that they object to.

But (news flash!) New Zealand is a capitalist economy, and it generally works pretty well. It’s not perfect, but no one has come up with a better alternative.

If Bell wants the cannabis trade made legal, what difference does it make whether the drug is marketed by DopeCorp Inc, operating from a Queen Street high-rise, or by a dreadlocked stoner from Golden Bay?

It could be argued that a public company, subject to corporate and consumer law and with directors who are accountable for what they grow and sell, might be a safer purveyor of cannabis than a backyard dealer.

To put it another way: if a safe, regulated cannabis market is the way to go, and corporates are best-placed to deliver that outcome, what’s the objection? It can only be ideological.

The much bigger issue, of course, is whether we should decriminalise cannabis use in the first place. There are strong arguments running both ways.

The parallels with alcohol are obvious. Both can cause great harm to a minority of users, although activists like to play down the adverse consequences of drugs other than alcohol.  We don’t hear much, for example, about the devastating effects cannabis can have on the young or the mentally unstable.

But if we're going to have an honest national debate about cannabis, the important thing, surely, is that it should focus on social wellbeing rather than being distorted by covert ideological agendas.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The bias you have when you don't know you have it

(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, January 9.)

At the end of each year, dictionaries like to highlight significant new words or phrases that have entered the English language over the previous 12 months.

The Collins English Dictionary declared “single-use” its word of the year for 2018, a year when disposable plastic supermarket bags became a symbol of wasteful consumerism and environmental harm.

Observant readers will note that “single-use” is actually two words, but then so was “fake news”, which was Collins’ word of the year for 2017.

The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017 was “youthquake”, which was defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”.

Oxford’s lexicographers chose it because of the role young voters played in that year’s British general election, which nearly delivered an upset victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn’s brand of cloth-cap socialism struck a chord with the impressionable young, who are not old enough to know that socialism always turns out badly.

Oxford’s choice for the year just ended was “toxic”, a word that cropped up in a variety of contexts. We had toxic relationships, toxic cultures, toxic waste, toxic chemicals and “toxic masculinity” – a feminist label for appalling male behaviour as perpetrated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

It can be seen from the above examples that the word of the year typically reveals something about the mood of the times. Others included “Brexit” (Collins, 2016) and “post-truth” (Oxford, same year).

Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to my own word of the year – except that, like Collins, I’ve cheated and gone for a phrase that consists of two words.

My phrase of the year is “unconscious bias”. This is something you’re guilty of if you’re white and middle-class, and more so if you’re male, able-bodied and heterosexual.

If you tick those boxes, you are automatically considered to hold an unconscious bias against people who are none of those things – in other words women, people of colour, people who identify as gay, lesbian or trans-gender, and those with disabilities.

At least this is what we’re told by people who promote the concept of unconscious bias. And we just have to accept that they must be right, because the essence of unconscious bias is that you don’t know you have it.

Most New Zealanders may think of themselves as fair-minded, tolerant and full of goodwill toward their fellow human beings, but those who accuse them of unconscious bias know better. They know that beneath our smug complacency, most of us seethe with malice and are determined to maintain our status in society by crushing those less privileged.

The genius of the phrase “unconscious bias” is that people who are accused of harbouring it can’t deny it, because by definition they’re unaware of it. They are expected to stare shame-facedly at the floor and admit they’re guilty even though they never realised it.

In fact the act of denying guilt may serve to confirm it. At a seminar on hate speech last year, I heard one speaker assert that “the heartbeat of racism is denial”. In other words, if you deny you’re racist, you probably are. In this topsy-turvy, Kafka-esque world, you’re condemned either way.

While logic dictates that there probably is such a thing as unconscious bias, I believe its grip on society is grossly overstated, the aim being to heap guilt and shame on white middle-class people so that they meekly comply with activists’ demands for special treatment of supposedly oppressed minority groups.

Of course, unconscious bias wasn’t the only new term we had to get our heads around in 2018. Another was the adjective “woke”, which derives from “awake” and came into common usage as a result of America’s Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re “woke”, you’re alert to racism and social justice issues.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the political insult du jour is to call someone a gammon.  An English term for ham, gammon is used to refer to pale-skinned men on the conservative side of politics who supposedly resemble pigs.

“Gammon” is closely related to the phrase “stale, pale and male”, which was also frequently heard in 2018.  All other stereotypes based on sex, age and skin colour are strictly forbidden, but older white men are the one demographic group that it’s okay – in fact almost mandatory – to disparage.

But at least this ideological contradiction throws up the occasional humorous irony, as exemplified by the impeccably “woke” Auckland columnist who wrote a furious rant about pale, stale males only months after turning 60 himself.

Either it was an unconscious expression of self-loathing, or he somehow imagines he’s been sprinkled with fairy dust which renders him magically exempt from the label.