Friday, October 18, 2019

We're big enough to look after ourselves

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 17.)

A long time ago – 1978, to be precise – I wrote an article for The Listener that began something like this: “A funny thing happened at the Department of Maori Affairs recently. They put a Maori in charge”.

The article was about Kara Puketapu, who had the distinction of being only the second Maori to be appointed as head of the department charged with looking after Maori interests.

Today it would be unthinkable for Te Puni Kokiri, as it’s now known, to have a non-Maori in the top job. To appoint a Pakeha would be seen as an intolerable affront to Maori and a throwback to the days of patronising colonialism.

It would be argued that only a Maori could properly understand Maori needs, advise the government on policies affecting Maori and, perhaps most crucially, identify with the people he or she was supposed to represent.

You might well wonder, then, why New Zealanders continue to meekly accept the appointment of non-New Zealanders to the highest levels of both the public and corporate sectors. Surely the same arguments apply.

We haven’t had a British governor-general since the 1960s and we abandoned the right of appeal to the Privy Council 15 years ago. This suggests we feel capable of looking after ourselves. Yet we continue to see a stream of overseas appointees to powerful positions – a notable recent example being the naming of an Australian, Caralee McLiesh, as the secretary to the Treasury, a job that places her at the very heart of economic policy-making.

McLiesh replaced another outsider, the Englishman Gabriel Makhlouf, who left under a cloud after being roundly criticised by the State Services Commission for his handling of an embarrassing Budget leak earlier this year.

The appointment of a virtually unknown Australian raised eyebrows around Wellington. Blogger Michael Reddell, a former top official of the Reserve Bank, found it disturbing that twice in succession, an outsider with no knowledge or experience of New Zealand had been recruited to fill what he described as the premier position in the public service.

Reddell said he didn’t think it was appropriate to recruit foreigners, especially ones with no experience or background knowledge of New Zealand, for such critical roles.

Even more disturbing was the appointment of the British academic and left-wing activist Paul Hunt as Chief Human Rights Commissioner.

At the time Hunt’s appointment was announced, I wondered what on earth Justice Minister Andrew Little was thinking. I’ve now come to the conclusion that it was a calculated act of political mischief. I believe Little had an agenda and selected Hunt as the man to carry it out.

The human rights role is a particularly sensitive one because it calls for someone with an intuitive understanding of our unique heritage and values. It’s inconceivable that an English academic, and a highly politicised one at that, was the most suitable candidate.

Similarly, you’d think we might have recruited locally for the position of CEO at Te Papa, an institution that supposedly reflects what it means to be a New Zealander. Yet we’ve now had two British appointees in the job, both of whom have created disruption and resentment by pursuing their own vision of what Te Papa should be.

That leads me to another danger with overseas appointees. Many have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-standing commitment to the country. They are free to screw things up and move on without so much as a backward glance, leaving whatever damage they have done for someone else to clean up.

This is equally true in the corporate sector, where Fonterra, the ANZ Bank and Fletcher Building have all had to mop up after high-flying but seriously flawed CEOs recruited from the Netherlands, Australia and Scotland respectively.

In academia, too, we have had to suffer the consequences of questionable appointments from overseas. I’m thinking in particular of Massey University’s vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, who deservedly copped a backlash for assuming powers of political censorship on campus. What right did an Australian veterinary scientist have to dictate what opinions New Zealanders should be exposed to?

Another intriguing phenomenon, which I suspect is related, is the high proportion of foreign-born activists at the forefront of radical politics in New Zealand. Examples include the career peace protester Valerie Morse, the abortion rights advocate Terry Bellamak, the anti-poverty campaigner Ricardo Menendez-March and the vociferous Guled Mire, who keeps complaining about our supposedly racist immigration policies.

Such people bring with them an ideological fervour that is alien to New Zealanders, who are essentially a complacent and contented lot. Because we tend to be passive and polite, we make it easy for shouty, highly motivated outsiders to push their way to the top. But they don't speak for us.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Captain Cook and the consequences of colonisation


(A slightly shorter version of this column was published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, October 16.)

Gisborne is one of my favourite places. It has a distinctive character formed partly by its isolation – it’s a long drive to get there, through wild country that leaves you in no doubt that you’re off the beaten track – but also because 45 per cent of its population are tangata whenua, considerably more than any other New Zealand city. 

An old friend, a Pakeha who has lived up that way for a long time, once said to me that when you get north of Wairoa, you’re in “their” country – meaning it’s a part of New Zealand where the Maori presence and influence is all-pervasive.

That’s part of Gisborne’s appeal. No city beats it for sheer New Zealandness.

My wife and I were last there last year.  We strolled on Wainui Beach in the bright winter sunshine, had lunch with the aforementioned friend at the Tatapouri Sports Fishing Club (a Gisborne institution), enjoyed a tasting at the excellent GisVin winery, and marvelled at what must surely be one of the most impressive supermarkets in the country (hint: It’s a big yellow one).

Oh, and we drove to the top of the Kaiti Hill, which brings me to the point of this column.

The view over Poverty Bay from the top of Kaiti Hill, or Titirangi as the tangata whenua call it, is magnificent. But Kaiti Hill was, until recently, the site of a controversial statue – now relocated to Tairawhiti Museum – of Captain James Cook.

I read the plaque on that statue last year, and although I don’t recall exactly what it said, I remember recoiling at what would now be regarded as a very Eurocentric view of our history. It may not have credited Cook with discovering New Zealand, in so many words, but that was the implication.

Since then, of course, the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first landing at Poverty Bay has served as the catalyst for a reassessment of our history and Cook’s place in it. And it’s probably fair to say that we’ve emerged from the ensuing debate with a more nuanced and balanced understanding of our past than was the case in 1969, when the statue was erected.

As a thoughtful Stuff editorial observed, Cook’s landing was an event that had to happen. In an age of imperial expansion, New Zealand was bound to be (re)discovered.

The editorial wisely went on to say that the benefits and the harms that resulted can't be separated from each other, and that we should resist demonising or sanctifying either party in that historic encounter.

In other words, colonisation produced good and bad consequences, and both Pakeha and Maori should be honest in acknowledging all of them.

Cook has been described as a white supremacist. Well, of course he was. He was a man of his time - a product of his society and culture. To judge him according to 21st century sensibilities is pointless.

In any case, who could have blamed him for thinking European society was superior to the one he encountered in Poverty Bay? Compared with many indigenous societies, Maori culture was relatively advanced. But to a man brought up amid the trappings of Western civilisation – great cities, science, literature, music, cathedrals, universities – it would have seemed primitive.

That didn’t stop Cook from recognising the admirable aspects of Maori culture. In a strictly literal sense he may have been a supremacist, but he was also, by most accounts, a humane man who treated Maori respectfully.

And while much is made of the fact that nine Maori died in that first encounter, we shouldn’t forget that pre-European Maori knew all about conquest. They lived by it.

Neither should we delude ourselves about the culture Cook encountered. Heretaunga Pat Baker’s 1975 novel Behind the Tattooed Face, which was based on the author’s knowledge of his own tribe’s oral history, depicted a society in which savage tribal warfare was the norm, along with slavery and cannibalism.  

In the very first chapter, a slave is buried alive with a massive corner post for a palisade – a post that took 20 men to lift – implanted on top of him.

And that’s just the start. Naked, bound bodies are thrown alive onto red-hot hangi stones. The blade of a taiaha is thrust into a captured warrior’s chest and his still-beating heart is plucked out and ritually cooked on a fire.

Women and children are bound and thrown to the ground before being impaled alive on spears thrust through their bodies at the navel. A chief is beheaded and his tongue is skewered with a sharp stick.

Much of this is done amid triumphant hakas, chanting and sadistic joking.

It’s fashionable to talk of the lasting damage done to Maori by colonisation; Justice Minister Andrew Little did so in a breast-beating speech at the United Nations last January. But Baker’s book was a reminder that life could be merciless and precarious for pre-European Maori.

Colonisation brought benefits that included education, medicine, a written language and, above all, the rule of law and democratic government. But we must acknowledge that it also had serious negative impacts on Maori in the form of introduced disease, alienation of land, cultural decline and the gradual but irrevocable loss of control over a land where Maori once exercised exclusive domain.

Some of that is now being addressed, but it’s not hard to sympathise with claims that it’s often too little, too late.

On the positive side, each culture has absorbed some of the best qualities of the other, resulting in a society that has evolved into something unique and internationally admired.

Maori and Pakeha are inextricably intertwined. There is a bit of Pakeha in virtually all Maori, even if the activists prefer to disregard that inconvenient part of their heritage, and a bit of Maori in most white New Zealanders, even those with no Maori lineage.

You can’t grow up here and not absorb at least some Maori culture. It’s one of those things that sets us apart, and it should be celebrated.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Jim Flynn: a hero of free speech

Further to my recent post (October 9) on academic freedom of speech, Stuff's Your Weekend has an excellent piece by Yvonne van Dongen on Professor Jim Flynn's refusal to kowtow to leftist authoritarianism:
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/116443386/the-complicated-issue-of-hate

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

News flash! Academics defend freedom of speech


This was by far the most important thing in my Dominion Post – in fact anywhere in the New Zealand media – this morning:


It’s a resounding defence of free speech, and the heartening thing is that it comes from university academics.

Less heartening is the fact that the six signatories to this article are a courageous minority. Their championing of Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn stands in stark contrast to the chillingly censorious open letter signed last week by Auckland University academic staff demanding that the university silence an attention-seeking fringe group accused of promoting "white supremacy" - a phrase which appears to encompass everything from Nazism to simple pride in the values and achievements of Western civilisation.

Ask yourself: who presents the greater threat – an anonymous group (for all we know, it might just be one person) putting up stickers around the Auckland campus, or the pompous high priests of academia and their herd-like acolytes who seek to outlaw any opinions they hold to be “unsafe”? George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about suppression of free speech, would have been proud to have coined that particular term.

It's now obvious even to blind Freddy that academic freedom and the contest of ideas, two of the key values underpinning liberal democracy, are under sustained and determined attack. Ask yourself: who are the bigots here? Who seeks to impose a new style of totalitarianism? Who's calling for the enforcement of rules prohibiting secular heresy? Ironically, it’s not the supposed white supremacists. They’re not trying to silence anyone.

Another irony is that Flynn, the eminent Otago University professor who now finds himself at the centre of a censorship controversy, has impeccable leftist credentials. Sadly that wasn’t enough to protect him from leftist totalitarianism that has taken hold to the extent that Flynn's British publisher got cold feet over his latest book, which promotes – irony of ironies – free speech on university campuses.

Meanwhile, the Free Speech Coalition is calling for donations so that it can appeal against a High Court decision last week which effectively gives risk-averse municipal functionaries and their political masters carte blanche to deny the use of public venues to any speaker whose views might cause political offence or trigger protests. It’s a frightening decision which must not be allowed to stand. You can donate here: https://www.freespeechcoalition.nz/donate?utm_campaign=fsc_funding_for_appeal&utm_medium=email&utm_source=freespeech

Monday, October 7, 2019

In praise of the Remutaka Hill

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 3.)

There’s a man named Graeme Farr who’s standing for the mayoralty of all three Wairarapa councils. He’s using his candidacy primarily to promote a road tunnel under the Remutaka Hill.

I can’t see a tunnel happening, because the economics don’t stack up. But I have a sneaking suspicion my wife voted for Farr, contravening my strict instructions. She’s Polish, and genetically programmed to disregard orders.

No doubt there are others living in the Wairarapa who, like her, don’t much care for that steep, winding road over the hill, and many more who believe that a tunnel would unlock (to use a vogueish word) the region’s untapped potential.

But as for me, I want a Remutaka road tunnel about as much as I want a third nostril.

I like the hill. I like the sense of geographical separation from Wellington and the Hutt Valley. When I go to Wellington, it’s always a pleasure to get into the car at the end of the day and point it in the direction of home.

I especially relish the drive back over the hill, which has the almost mystical sensation of passing into a different realm. There’s a point about halfway down the northern side where the Wairarapa valley suddenly comes into glorious view.

It’s always bathed in golden sunshine, no matter how foul the weather on the Wellington side. (Okay, perhaps not always, in fact very rarely at nighttime, but often enough to make me feel smug.)

John Hayes, a former Wairarapa MP, once tried to whip up public interest in a tunnel and approached me for support in the tragic misapprehension that, as a columnist, I might wield some influence.

I politely told him to bugger off. I didn’t want the Wairarapa being invaded by the masses then, and I still don’t. No offence to my friends in Wellington, but I love the fact that there’s a big, formidable barrier to deter interlopers.

I’ve seen what happened to the Kapiti Coast when it morphed from being a pleasant and sleepy seaside retreat to a choked, claustrophobic extension of suburbia.

We lived at Raumati Beach in the 1980s and I knew the rot was setting in when the council insisted on laying a footpath along our street, which had previously had the charming feel of a country lane. We sold up just before they built a housing subdivision in the paddock where our kids used to play.

Since then I’ve watched Kapiti’s infrastructure vainly struggling to catch up with its burgeoning population. It can only get worse when Transmission Gully kicks in.

There’s a lot of growth here in the Wairarapa too, but there's room for it, and it’s manageable.

New subdivisions are going up all over the place and the traffic has intensified to the point where, in what passes for rush hour, you can get stuck at a roundabout for … oh, maybe 20 seconds.

But the Wairarapa still has the distinction of having no traffic lights. How long would that remain the case with traffic pouring through a tunnel?

We can tolerate weekend visitors, with their convoys of motorbikes and classic cars streaming across the hill in search of wide blue skies, open roads, rural pubs and charming rustic scenery, just as long as they head back home at the end of the day.  

We’re okay too with those refined, affluent types from Wadestown and Kelburn who buy weekend retreats in Greytown and then decide it’s so nice that they can do without their house in Wellington. That’s the sort of place Greytown is.  But who knows what impact a tunnel might have on the town where I live?

One of Masterton’s charms is that it’s still a traditional farming town. I like the fact that when you drive into town, you run a gauntlet of agriculture machinery dealers.

I love hearing topdressing planes flying out at first light from Hood aerodrome and returning home at dusk, and I like the tractors and stock trucks that constantly rumble past our place.

I like the friendly and obliging shopkeepers and tradies, and I like the fact that when I ring a plumber he’s pulling up outside before I hang up the phone. (Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration too.)

I don’t want any of this put at risk by intensified urbanisation and more people, which would be the inevitable result of a tunnel. So my message to Graeme Farr is the same as it was to John Hayes.

On the other hand, if Farr promised to lobby for a high-speed bypass around Carterton, which is surely the world's most boring town to drive through (though only by a slim margin over Dannevirke), he might get my vote in 2022. A flyover would be better still.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

The rise of militant veganism

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, Oct 2.)

My wife and I don’t always agree about things; just choosing a paint colour for the bathroom can take months. But we celebrated a moment of instant accord over breakfast recently.

In front of us was a newspaper account of the black-clad vegan protesters who formed a line in front of the meat shelves in an Auckland supermarket. Shoppers who were prevented from buying meat reportedly lost their patience, lashing out at the protesters.

My wife’s reaction was the same as mine. We agreed that if we’d been there, we probably would have been among those doing the lashing out.

I respect the right of vegans to renounce meat, and I’m certainly not insensitive to concerns about inhumane treatment of animals. But protesters are inviting a backlash when they arrogantly assert the right to obstruct people going about their lawful business.

This has nothing to do with the respective merits of carnivorous and vegetarian diets. It’s a matter of respecting people’s right in a free society to make their own choices within the law.

The right to protest is an essential item in the democratic toolkit, and one I’ve taken advantage of myself. But I’ve never assumed that my beliefs were so sacred that they took precedence over the rights of others – which is why, although I marched against the 1981 Springbok tour,  I avoided taking part in protests that tried to prevent fans from getting to matches. It’s also why I get mad when I see activists trying to bar people from attending political events they disapprove of.

Unfortunately, the thing about zealots is that they become so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that it overrides all other considerations. Thus we are now witnessing the rise of militant veganism, as was evident in the meat section of the Countdown supermarket in the Westfield St Lukes Mall.

Food has been well and truly politicised, and with that has come a rising level of strident militancy – hysteria, almost – and denunciation of anyone who doesn’t fall into line with the “meat is murder” agenda.

It’s all part of the so-called culture war – the clash between traditional liberal values (and I mean genuinely liberal, as in tolerant of people who differ) and those promoted by the radical and increasingly assertive authoritarian Left.

A significant recent development was the convergence of two of the great secular theologies of our age: militant veganism and climate change alarmism. The two came together in fist-pumping union nine months ago with the publication of a report purporting to link climate change with supposedly unhealthy global food production systems.

There you have it: two moral panics rolled into one – pure gold for the ideologues who endlessly lecture us on the supposed failings of capitalism and Western civilisation.

Published in the British medical journal The Lancet, the report – written by a team headed by our own Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University, a high priest of wowserism – claimed that food production systems, controlled and manipulated by profit-crazed global business interests, are not only driving climate change but propelling us toward early graves.

How this squares with statistics showing steady worldwide improvements in life expectancy wasn’t explained, but hey – why nitpick?

Swinburn and his accomplices even came up with a fancy new term for this looming apocalypse. They called it a Global Syndemic, or a “synergy of epidemics” interacting with each other to produce “complex sequelae” – a bit of Latin always looks impressive – which ultimately threaten the planet.

There should be no mistaking the purpose of such reports. They are aimed at frightening people into meekly accepting adopting radical changes imposed by those who insist they know what's best for us.

Neither should there be any doubt about the real target of the reformist zealots. They may not say it in so many words, but their goal is to dismantle international capitalism. That’s the agenda that underpins almost all the moral crusades currently being waged in Western societies.

I recently watched the New Zealand-made documentary film Capital in the 21st Century, which was inspired by a best-selling book written by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty.

The film is a very slick piece of propaganda. It uses every trick in the film-maker’s repertoire to convey the impression that greedy capitalism is responsible for pretty much everything that’s wrong in the world.

Of course capitalism is imperfect. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But like most works of propaganda, Capital in the 21st Century is significant for what it chooses to leave out – such as the inconvenient fact that the world’s freest, most open and most prosperous societies all have capitalist economies. 

And here's the other thing: the film doesn't say what better system might be installed in its place. Either the crusaders against capitalism don't know, or they're not telling us. Either way, they're not to be trusted.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

I missed one

Exhibit C (see previous post): Greta Thunberg and the attendant media circus.