Friday, September 13, 2019

Quote of the day

On Morning Report, from a Piha resident complaining about the lack of action to remedy local pollution: “When all is said and done, a lot more has been said than done.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Zealand: shining light, or breeding ground for violent extremism?

You may not have heard of the Somalian refugee Guled Mire. He was in the news last month when he appeared before a parliamentary select committee urging the government to remove what he described as a racist restriction on refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

He was referring to a policy introduced in 2009 which requires refugees from those regions to have existing family connections in New Zealand in order to be resettled here.

Speaking in support of a World Vision petition asking for the restriction to be lifted, Mire said it was an unnecessary and racist requirement that shut vulnerable people out.

It wasn’t the first time Mire had spoken out about the supposedly racist society that provided a sanctuary for him, his mother and his eight siblings after they fled civil war in Somalia 22 years ago.

Only days after the Christchurch mosque massacres in March, Mire said on TVNZ’s Breakfast programme that he had experienced racism almost daily in New Zealand. 

The Christchurch attacks, he said, were no surprise. “I think it’s time that we stopped living in denial about the very form of racism that has existed in this country for such a long time. It’s nothing new to us.”

He struck a similar note three months later when he was interviewed for a moralistic Australian-made documentary shown on Al Jazeera television. New Zealand’s Dark Days questioned this country’s reputation as a harmonious, peaceful place and said warnings about rising Islamophobia had been repeatedly ignored.

Mire, who has worked as a government policy adviser and is described on a public speakers’ website as an activist and writer, challenged the “This is not us” speech given by Jacinda Ardern in Christchurch after the shootings.

“This ‘This is not us’ idea is denying our lived experiences,” he told the interviewer. “That racism, that hatred that exists in this nation, is us.” He said the Muslim community in New Zealand had been calling out “violent extremism” for years.

This view aligned with a persistent far-left narrative that surfaced following the Christchurch atrocities. According to this alternative narrative, the slaughter of 51 innocent Muslims was the inevitable consequence of all-pervasive race hatred and white supremacist attitudes. This view overlooked the inconvenient fact that the alleged killer was not a New Zealander and evidently acted alone.

Mire was in the news again on Radio New Zealand this week, when he took exception to National leader Simon Bridges’ dismissive comments about the Ardern-initiated “Christchurch Call”.  Responding to Bridges’ statement that the government should concentrate on problems such as homelessness and the measles epidemic, Mire said: “It’s the same sort of rhetoric used to basically marginalise us people from minority backgrounds again and again. We’ve always felt as though we’re not accepted as New Zealanders and comments like that affirm it.”

But hang on. New Zealand gave Mire and his family refuge after they fled a dangerous, violent country. It also gave him an education and the right to speak his mind, a freedom few people enjoy in the part of the world he comes from. Surely that must count for something.

And before anyone dismisses that statement as the typical racist bigotry of a privileged white guy, perhaps we should take note of the “lived experiences” of other Muslim immigrants, some of which are strikingly at odds with the impression conveyed by Mire.

For example, there’s Gamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor Mosque, where 42 worshippers were shot in the March killings.  Speaking in Dunedin this week, the imam said New Zealand had been a shining light to the world following the shootings.

He recalled that when he first came to New Zealand after 9/11, he was initially afraid to walk in the streets in his religious robes for fear of being attacked. His fear began to subside after he was greeted by a stranger with the unfamiliar words “Hello, bro’”.

He said he was now proud to be a Kiwi. “This is my land. It is the place of my family and my children. It is my turangawaewae. I love this soil. I love us because we are one” [the italics are mine].

The imam noted that there was still hatred and division and people needed to speak out against racism. But otherwise the tone of his message could hardly have been more at variance with that of Guled Mire.

Then there’s Abbas Nazari, an Afghani who was among the Tampa refugees given a home in New Zealand in 2001 after being refused entry to Australia. Then seven years old, Nazari settled in Christchurch with his family and this year won a Fulbright Scholarship after graduating from the University of Canterbury with first-class honours in international relations and diplomacy.

He told The Guardian earlier this year that he recalled his family being given a warm welcome by a huge contingent of locals when they arrived at Christchurch Airport and said the warmth and acceptance they experienced then set the tone for the family’s new life.

He went on to say: “I can’t recall any instances of racism, and that’s the same experience for the vast majority of my family and community. I can’t recall any instances where I was marginalised or I was on the receiving end of a whole heap of crap at all.

“We wove naturally into the fabric of New Zealand society. So when I hear stories of prejudice and racism, I know for sure that it exists but my experience in New Zealand has been amazingly warm and welcoming.”

It doesn’t sound like the same country Guled Mire describes. And then there was the story this week about the Hutt City council election candidate Shazly Rasheed, an immigrant from the Maldives, whose billboards were defaced with swastikas and racist messages.

That Rasheed’s election advertising was targeted, presumably because of her skin colour, is despicable. But on the plus side she said she had lived in New Zealand for 20 years and only once been racially abused, by skinheads in Hamilton.

Even a single instance of racial abuse is one too many, but otherwise Rasheed’s “lived experience” seems at variance with Guled Mire’s too.  You have to wonder whether the problem is with him.

I think back too to the dignified response of the Muslims who survived the Christchurch attacks. Their reaction was not one of anger, but of sadness that this terrible thing had happened in a country that they thought of – and still think of – as inclusive and welcoming.

I remember the Christchurch Muslim woman who told the BBC she and her family had come to New Zealand because it was safe and that she had never felt threatened here. And I recall the thousands of New Zealanders who showed their solidarity with the Muslim community by attending public vigils, setting up tribute sites and donating millions to a Givealittle appeal. I find it hard to reconcile all this with Guled Mire’s view of New Zealand.

Which image of New Zealand is the more accurate: the hateful, racist one, or the tolerant, inclusive one? I’ll go with the latter, thanks. It’s pointless to deny that racism exists in New Zealand, but that doesn’t make this a racist country. It seems to me that Guled Mire is himself guilty of the divisive rhetoric he accuses others of.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Every Life Matters? Really?

The government has chosen an unfortunate slogan for its commendable campaign to reduce suicides. If "Every Life Matters", as we’re now being told, how come the same government wants to liberalise the abortion laws?

More than 13,000 abortions were performed in New Zealand last year, indicating that there are few barriers to the procedure even under existing law. How many more abortions will be carried out if those few barriers are removed, as the government intends, is anyone’s guess.

We’re constantly told that the current abortion law is archaic and no longer fit for purpose, but one thing hasn’t changed. The 1975 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion accepted expert evidence that life begins at conception. The science hasn’t changed, even if the prevailing ideology has.

Any point after conception that is claimed as the starting point of life is an entirely arbitrary one, adopted for convenience.

That royal commission (appointed, incidentally, by a Labour government) also found that the unborn child, “as one of the weakest, the most vulnerable and most defenceless forms of humanity”, was entitled to protection.

That hasn’t changed either. If this government truly believed that every life matters, it would apply that principle to abortion as well as to suicide. Otherwise it stands accused of adopting a glaring double standard. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Okay, now let's hear the other side of the story

Susan Strongman’s recent Radio New Zealand hatchet-job on Pregnancy Counselling Services has achieved exactly what I believe was intended.

Tauranga-based Sun Media picked up and pursued Strongman’s ALRANZ-enabled story about PCS, a pro-life counselling service, receiving public funding through the community organisation grants scheme (Cogs) administered by the Department of Internal Affairs.

Sun Media reported that the minister responsible for Cogs, Poto Williams, had “gone to ground” over claims that grants to PCS broke rules forbidding money going to services or activities that promote political or religious activities. PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and takes a pro-life position.

The use of that loaded phrase “gone to ground” is interesting. It suggested Williams was either unable or unwilling to defend the grants, which in turn gave the impression there must be something shonky going on. But the explanation from Williams’ press secretary was a standard one in such circumstances: ministers quite properly don’t get involved in individual grant decisions, which are left to local committees to determine.

According to Strongman’s story, which she wrote after putting out a call for information on the Facebook page of the abortion rights activist group ALRANZ, PCS has received $335,000 of taxpayer money over 15 years.

Pro-life groups believe – and I’m certain they’re right – that the purpose of the story was to choke off public funding of PCS. Certainly the tone of the piece was hostile and set off what looked suspiciously like an orchestrated response.

Right on cue, other abortion rights activists came forward, such as Professor Liz Beddoe of the University of Auckland, who questioned why PCS should get funding when there were plenty of other organisations providing information about pregnancy. It offends these people mightily that PCS makes pregnant women aware of other choices besides termination.

As I say, the tone of Strongman’s piece was hostile. However there’s still a chance for her to salvage her damaged credibility and reputation as an impartial journalist. All she needs to do is exhibit the same investigative zeal by finding out how much public money has been swallowed up by Family Planning, the government-subsidised pro-abortion agency that facilitates a large proportion of the terminations undertaken in New Zealand.

It’s dollars to donuts that the amount of public money spent on aborting babies dwarfs the sum that has gone to a small organisation committed to trying to save them. If Strongman believed in editorial balance, she would have included this information in her story. Even now it’s not too late for her to find out and tell us, in the interests of a properly informed debate. But I’m not holding my breath.

Bad news for Grey Power Electricity: I think I'll stick with them

On Friday morning I got a phone call from a marketing person at Grey Power Electricity, of which I’m a customer. She was responding to my email three days earlier in which I complained that I’d wasted a day because I wasn’t advised in time that a scheduled power outage that was supposed to affect my property had been cancelled.

To recap: I’d been advised weeks earlier that the outage would take place from 9am till 3pm last Monday. As I work from home I put in time over the weekend to complete the work I would normally do on Monday. My wife and I ended up going to Palmy for the day – not because we needed or wanted to, but because it would have been pointless sitting at home with no power. But at 1.55 pm, nearly five hours after the power was supposed to be switched off, I got a call on my mobile from GPE telling me that there had been no outage after all.

My email to GPE last Tuesday morning, which I posted on this blog, asked for (a) an explanation and (b) an offer of compensation for the time wasted and inconvenience caused. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I received neither.

What I got from the GPE representative who phoned me was a chronology of events which showed that Powerco, the lines company that was supposed to be doing the job that got cancelled, didn’t notify GPE of the change until 10.21am. So as I surmised, Powerco’s incompetence was the starting point for the screwup.

However, that was compounded by GPE’s slack response. According to the timeline given to me by GPE, it was 12.30 before they started phoning affected customers. So, a two-hour delay. Why? That wasn’t clear.

All affected customers were contacted by 2pm, I was told, as if this was a satisfactory outcome. I must have been one of the very last customers to get the call. But given that it was five hours too late, why even bother?

I asked how many customers were affected, but she wasn’t sure; perhaps “a couple of hundred”. Neither could she tell me whether Powerco had explained the reason for cancelling the outage, or why it apparently sat on its hands for nearly an hour and a half before it occurred to someone that perhaps the customers should be notified.

More than once she “sincerely apologised”. She also said these things happened often – to which I responded that if that were the case, you’d expect the company to have systems set up to deal with them. She then corrected herself to say these things happened “from time to time” – but the same applies.

I asked whether GPE would consider any form of reparation, to which she replied, “Not at this stage” – which kind of implied that they might do so at a future date, which I think is about as likely as a herd of wildebeest stampeding through my backyard. It was the response I expected, since any olive branch extended to me would need to be extended to other disaffected consumers too, and GPE wouldn’t want to set a precedent.

She also noted, with what I thought was a faint tone of disapproval, that I had blogged on the subject, and subtly let it be known that she hoped I wouldn’t so again, as if this should be our little secret. 

But here I am doing exactly that, and for a very good reason. In the grand scheme of things, one day’s inconvenience is a mere bagatelle. I’m mindful that there would very likely have been other consumers far more put out than I was, such as elderly or disabled people stranded at home. However I’m writing about my wasted Monday because consumers too often feel powerless when they get dicked around in myriad small ways. They are entitled to use every tool at their disposal to expose poor service and to shame slack companies into lifting their game. Negative publicity – even if it’s just a blog post from a solitary kvetcher in the provinces – is one thing risk-averse, image-conscious corporates hate.

Of course I always have the option of shifting to another electricity retailer. But while that might give me some moral satisfaction, it would likely be a pyrrhic gesture. Grey Power Electricity is hardly likely to mourn the loss of one customer, and in any case I’m not confident that other suppliers are necessarily any better. I think the better course is to stick with GPE and make a nuisance of myself.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Activism disguised as journalism

Radio New Zealand continues to exhibit utter contempt for its obligation of impartiality.

In a story published on the RNZ website yesterday under the headline NZ's right wing turn up in force for controversial free speech case, reporter Matthew Theunissen painted a lurid picture of “notable right-wing figures” turning up at the Auckland High Court, where the Free Speech Coalition was challenging Auckland Council’s right to deny a public speaking venue to Canadians Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux.

Theunissen reported that Don Brash, “the man behind the Orewa speech”, made an appearance and Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers’ Union was listening intently in the gallery, “a few seats down from a man wearing a MAGA (Make Ardern Go Away) hat”.

He added that “old” Conservative Party leader Colin Craig (I think Theunissen meant “former”, but hey – who expects journalists to have a command of correct English?) “poked his head around the door at one point”.

There you have it, then: as sinister a collection of shadowy right-wing rogues and conspiratorial schemers as you could wish for. Theunissen seemed intent on making it sound like a clandestine meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, or perhaps a reunion of old Nazis. I'm not sure they turned out 'in force', as the headline said, which implied a room full of menacing men in brown shirts and jackboots, but let's not get too picky. 

Theunissen went on to describe one of the applicants appearing in support of the Free Speech Coalition's case as “would-be Dunedin mayor, climate change denier, Donald Trump supporter and rare books dealer Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle” (whose name Theunissen misspelt, but hey – who cares about getting names right when it’s the sneering tone that matters?).

The relevance of Moncrieff-Spittle’s views on climate change and Donald Trump wasn’t clear, but never mind; the important thing was to convey the impression that this was a court action brought by a bunch of crazy and possibly dangerous old men.

Even Jack Hodder QC, who represented the Free Speech Coalition, didn’t escape. Theunissen’s assiduous research had established that Hodder also acted for the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners in opposing aspects of the recent changes to the gun laws.

No further evidence needed, then. It was left to readers of Theunissen’s piece to conclude that the disreputable figures congregating in the Auckland High Court were racists (Brash – ref. the Orewa speech of 2004), religious cranks (Craig), champions of heartless free-market capitalism (Williams) and probably white supremacists (Moncrieff-Spittle). Oh, and possibly gun nuts too (Hodder).

The unmistakeable purpose of the article was to denigrate those involved in the Free Speech Coalition’s case and by doing so, to discredit the court action.  Never mind that the coalition’s motivation is to defend the freedom of speech that Theunissen and his colleagues – all funded, incidentally, by the taxpayer – depend on every day for their livelihood.

RNZ followed that up today with the results of an obviously laborious investigation (pun not deliberate) into Pregnancy Counselling Services, an organisation that offers support to pregnant women facing a choice between having an abortion or carrying their baby to full term.

It’s no secret that PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and tries to encourage women to at least consider having a baby rather than immediately taking the abortion option, so that was hardly a “stop the presses” exclusive. RNZ reporter Susan Strongman concentrated instead on portraying PCS as dishonest in the way it promotes its services and highlighting the fact that it has received modest financial support under the government’s Community Organisations Grants Schemes (Cogs).

Trouble was, Strongman’s credibility as an impartial journalist was fatally compromised when she was sprung collaborating with pro-abortion activist group ALRANZ. As reported on this blog last month, Strongman used the ALRANZ Facebook page to seek information from women who had sought counselling from PCS “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

Strongman’s post on the ALRANZ page introduced her as a “friendly journalist” and said that “Terry [Terry Bellamak, president of ALRANZ] can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist”. Prospective sources were told “you can get my mobile number off Terry”.

It’s one thing for journalists to use contacts to go on a  fishing expedition for information, but another to align themselves so closely with one side of a divisive and contentious political debate, especially when the reporter is working for a state-funded broadcaster with an obligation of neutrality.

Certainly, pro-life groups were convinced that Strongman was out to do a hatchet job on PCS with the aim of cutting off an important source of funding. Reading Strongman’s 3400-word article does little to dispel that impression, although I can’t help wondering if it was toned down once she realised she’d been rumbled.

It includes, for example, an interview with the chair of the PCS board of trustees, but there’s no concealing the article’s partisanship. As with Theunissen’s piece on the Free Speech Coalition’s court action, it can only reinforce concerns about the increasing incidence of activism disguised as journalism, and further undermine public confidence in Radio New Zealand as an impartial source of information on matters of vital public interest.

NZ First ministers and their hats

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, September 4.)

What is it about NZ First ministers and their hats?

There’s Ron Mark, the Minister of Defence, who’s rarely seen without his trademark cowboy hat.

This might be explained by the fact that he’s a country music fan. But not being a tall man, it’s also possible he deduced a long time ago that wearing a distinctive hat ensured people noticed him.

He certainly likes to be seen. Years ago, when he was mayor of Carterton, I observed him working the crowd at a local country music festival that he helped organise.

It was almost embarrassing to watch. Mark was the MC for the day, and when he wasn’t on stage he paraded around the venue in a cringeworthy display of grandstanding. 

He got up and sang too – and to be fair, he has an okay voice, although no more than that.

I admit I’m in two minds about Mark. I used to appear with him occasionally on my brother’s radio show in Wellington, in a segment in which we discussed the events of the week.

I liked him and respected his clear thinking. It probably helped that we agreed on a lot of things. I would never doubt that he’s sincerely motivated by a desire to do the right thing for his country.

I also admired him because he came from a disadvantaged background but rose above it.  He would be the first to give his foster-parents credit for that, but it must have been due to his own efforts too.

Perhaps that background explains his determination to prove himself. He has something of the character of the bantam rooster about him – a quality that sometimes comes to the surface in parliamentary debates, where he has occasionally lost control of both his tongue and his judgment.

He makes much of his military background, of which he’s very proud, although I’ve heard mixed reports about how he was regarded by his army colleagues.(Of course that could be the tall-poppy syndrome at work.)

To give him his due again, he appears to have been an unusually effective Minister of Defence. On Mark’s watch, real progress has been made in replacing scandalously outdated Defence Force equipment.

That presumably reflects NZ First’s sway within the coalition government. The party has a degree of influence that’s unearned and undeserved, but which occasionally delivers good outcomes nonetheless.

But there’s still that troubling self-promotion shtick. At the Featherston Booktown festival earlier this year, I went to a well-attended session about Paddy Costello, the brilliant post-war New Zealand diplomat who was suspected of being a Soviet spy.

Mark was there and apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity presented by a captive full room. At question time he took the floor and talked for a good 10 minutes about the things he was doing as Minister of Defence. There was no connection whatsoever with Costello but the audience listened politely because that’s the sort of people New Zealanders are.

But back to those hats. The other NZ First minister with a penchant for headgear is, of course, Shane Jones, whose preferred styles are the fedora and the pork pie hat.

When these are worn in combination with a heavy overcoat, as they often are in Jones’ case, the visual effect is worryingly gangsterish. I’m waiting for him to complete the image by carrying a violin case, as was the habit of the notorious 1920s Chicago Mafia hitman Samuzzo Amatuna.

According to legend, Amatuna, who was an accomplished violinist, used his instrument case to conceal a tommy gun with which he would assassinate rivals. I’m not suggesting Jones is a mobster, but he does seem to take pleasure in cultivating a certain gangsterish swagger which sits uncomfortably with his propensity to play fast and loose when it comes to matters such as perceived conflicts of interest.

Jones’ other political trademark is his verbosity, with which he mesmerises journalists. He’s adept at using his loquacity to avoid giving straight answers to awkward questions and seems unable to decide whether his role model is Winston Churchill or Al Capone.

Yes, he’s a colourful, outspoken and charismatic character in a political arena where colour, charisma and risk-taking are in short supply. But are these the qualities we want from a minister charged with spraying $3 billion of public money around in the most undisciplined spending spree in New Zealand history?

The Provincial Growth Fund that Jones controls lacks contestability, transparency and accountability. It’s a recipe for political patronage, pork-barrelling and vote-buying on an unprecedented scale.

Colour and charisma are all very well, but I think most New Zealanders rate integrity as a more desirable attribute.