Friday, October 21, 2016

Ross Bremner and the great mental health experiment

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, October 19).

The American economist Milton Friedman once said it was a great mistake to judge things by their intentions rather than their results. I was reminded of that quote when I read about the tragic series of murders perpetrated by the Waikato man Ross Bremner.

Bremner, you may recall, stabbed his mother to death and left his father critically wounded. He then drove to a remote settlement on Kawhia Harbour where he killed a harmless and helpless elderly couple, apparently at random, before taking his own life.

Obviously, Bremner was very seriously disturbed. He had been treated for schizophrenia at Waikato Hospital. His mother had called mental health services for help only two weeks before she died at his hands.

People who knew Bremner, including a neighbour who had worked in mental health, were worried about what he might do.

Presumably a coroner will investigate the circumstances of the four deaths.  If there was a failure of the system, as seems pretty clear, the people responsible must be held accountable.

In the meantime, we are entitled to ask some questions, such as: why was a man as disturbed as Bremner not in care, for his own wellbeing as well as the safety of others?

That brings me back to Friedman’s quote.  Until the 1980s, mentally ill people in New Zealand were mostly looked after in hospitals. Older readers will remember the names of these institutions: Tokanui, Sunnyside, Lake Alice, Porirua and Kingseat, to name a few.

They tended to be drab, depressing places where patients were managed rather than treated. I know this because my brother-in-law, who was schizophrenic, spent years in Porirua. I also once had an opportunity to observe things from the inside when mental health nurses went on strike and I responded to a call for volunteers to help.

It was an imperfect system, but patients had a roof over their heads, three meals a day and a warm bed to sleep in. They had companionship and nurses to ensure they took their medication. Their families didn’t have to fret constantly about whether they were okay.

Perhaps just as important, the mentally ill were sheltered from the stressful world outside the gates. The word asylum, after all, means a place of shelter and protection.

The nurses and orderlies seemed dedicated and caring and did the best they could in less than ideal circumstances. They were certainly not the stereotype sadists personified by the vindictive Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But those hospitals no longer exist. Well-meaning reformers decided they were inhumane. Mentally ill people deserved to live independent lives in the community.

This suited the government bean-counters, because it relieved the state of the cost of maintaining all those big institutions with their expansive grounds and endless maintenance demands.

Closing them down and flogging them off also fitted the ideology of the time, which favoured cutting back the state sector. “Community care” was a convenient excuse to spend less on mental health – a perfect confluence of touchy-feely idealism and hard-headed fiscal management.

The transition happened with indecent haste and there were a lot of casualties. As in so many things, we lurched abruptly from one extreme to another. And we still haven’t got it right, as the recent events in the Waikato show.

The reforms worked for some patients, but many ended up living in squalid flats and boarding houses where they were left to fend for themselves. The least fortunate ended up on the streets.

In theory, someone was still supposed to make sure that those living on their own looked after themselves and took their medication. In practice, it doesn’t seem to have worked like that.

Bureaucrats and politicians love to waffle about providing “wrap-around support” for vulnerable people but it’s more preached than practised. Under the mantra of “community care”, the state was able to wash its hands of day-to-day responsibility for the mentally ill while maintaining the pretence that they were living more rewarding, fulfilling lives. 

I know that when my brother-in-law was living independently, he was essentially left to himself. When there was a problem, it was almost impossible to find anyone in “the system” who would take responsibility or even provide information to the family.

Mental health care became highly politicised. The Privacy Act was used not only to keep patients’ families in the dark, but as a shield to prevent scrutiny of the sector and to disguise its failings. 

I remember being angrily heckled by mental health professionals at a conference where I spoke as a journalist about the importance of transparency in the sector. At the time there had been several violent deaths caused by rigid adherence to privacy codes that prevented people from being told about potentially dangerous patients living in the community.

As recent events have reminded us, not all the casualties of the reforms were patients. They included ageing parents who felt forced to provide a home for unstable and often unmanageable adult children. It seems Ross Bremner’s hapless parents fell into this category.

What a dismal way to spend the last years of your life, desperately trying to care for unpredictable and potentially dangerous offspring and unable to get professional help when it was most needed.

Community care remains a good idea in principle. But if judged on its results rather than its intent, it has been, at best, a costly experiment in human terms. The people who died at Ross Bremner’s hands are the latest evidence of that. 

Is Lowell Goddard a victim of post-colonial prejudice?

I wouldn't profess to have a clue what the truth is behind the controversy over Dame Lowell Goddard in Britain, but one thing I do know is that the English don't like having to defer to colonials. In their eyes this is a reversal of the natural order of things.

Rupert Murdoch discovered this when he bought The Times. The English media never forgave the Aussie upstart for taking over one of their most illustrious institutions. Never mind that Murdoch outwitted the unions that had been rorting Fleet Street proprietors for decades, and by doing so, dragged the British newspaper industry into the 20th century.

On another level, you can see this English resentment of colonial success reflected in the way choleric British rugby hacks like Stephen Jones rage over the fact that we routinely humiliate them at the sport they invented. (He was at it again only this week.) 

The English still carry a lot of nationalistic baggage dating from their glory days as a great imperial power, and I can't help wondering whether Goddard is, at least to some extent, a victim of the Poms' unwillingness to accept a New Zealander sitting in judgement on them. 

The snide Times headline 'Disaster from Down Under' was telling. The sub-text was that no good was ever likely to come from hiring someone from a godforsaken colonial outpost to sit in judgment on her cultural superiors. Goddard may have been on a hiding to nothing from the outset.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

If anything, New Zealand Rugby should hail Aaron Smith as a role model

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 14.)

The tut-tutters who clucked their tongues over All Black Aaron Smith’s tryst in an airport toilet must have been startled by the number of voices raised in his defence.

The Mother Grundys were almost outgunned by Smith’s defenders, who recognised that this affair was different in vital respects from other recent furores involving delinquent rugby players.

Public outrage should be reserved for incidents that justify it, such as the vicious assaults perpetrated by the rising rugby star Losi Filipo.

Smith’s airport encounter involved no violence or coercion. As far as we know, the woman was a willing partner.

The incident also differed crucially from the Waikato Chiefs’ end-of-season revelry involving a stripper. Although the stripper appears to have been a consenting party, at least initially, she was a lone woman surrounded by men – big, intimidating men. It was hardly what you would call a level playing field.

So: Smith’s liaison involved no nastiness. And it was one-on-one – a case of two adults indulging in consensual behaviour behind a closed door. A victimless crime, in other words.

There was no public display and the only people entitled to feel offended were the disabled people queuing to use the dunny – except there weren’t any.

What made it unusual was the unconventional venue and the fact that one of the participants was an All Black wearing his touring uniform. This latter aspect might have made it an issue for New Zealand Rugby, but I fail to see how it was the business of anyone else, other than Smith’s unfortunate partner.

If anyone’s behaviour was questionable it was the tell-tale sneaks who, for goodness knows what reason, decided to dob Smith in.

That triggered what has now become a wearisomely familiar ritual in which New Zealand Rugby hit the apology button. Cue “role model” blah blah …. “made a bad decision” blah blah … “let himself down” blah blah.

Give us a break. Is there anyone apart from NZR and its risk-averse spin doctors who take these grovel-fests seriously?

Badly behaved sportsmen are an issue, certainly. The irony is that despite the hullabaloo over his supposed indiscretion, people like Smith are not the problem. He engaged with a female partner on equal terms. For that, you could almost call him a role model.

The Chiefs are another story entirely. There is something deeply disturbing about the dynamics of a group of men panting over a stripper.

I admit I don’t understand the weird pack mentality that makes men want to gang together to see a women get her clothes off. Are they so uncertain of their ability to deal with the opposite sex that the only way they can handle it is in a large group?

That’s how it looks. There’s a group male dynamic which, in its most benign form, manifests itself in Masonic lodges, where blokes band together for … what, exactly? I have no idea, but I suppose it’s harmless enough.

At the uglier end of the spectrum, you get stag parties like the Chiefs’ Mad Monday end-of-season pissup, where drunk males behave like dogs around a bitch on heat.

Take it a step further again, and you get pack rape. It’s all on the same spectrum.

Unattractive as it is, this group dynamic seems to be embedded in New Zealand male sporting culture. In the 2014 documentary The Ground We Won, the Reporoa rugby team celebrated their end of season by hiring a stripper, just like the Chiefs. It was not an unedifying spectacle.

Things are probably even worse across the Tasman, where rugby league players are regularly carpeted by the NRL’s integrity unit (rugby league and integrity - was there ever a more delicious oxymoron?) for gross behaviour at bucks’ nights, the Australian term for stag parties.

When I lived in Australia I was struck by the fact that many of my male workmates’ closest, most intimate relationships were with their male mates. Women were for breeding, cooking and looking after the kids. The less they intruded on the lives of their men, the better. Mercifully, the cult of mateship isn't nearly so marked over here.

And don’t get me started on the baboon Donald Trump. Here’s a man who appears to get a thrill from grabbing women’s private parts, which is something 12-year-old boys do in swimming pools. Most grow out of it, but Trump obviously never did.

There’s something seriously twisted about a man who appears to get pleasure from inflicting discomfort and humiliation on women. But then I suppose you could say much the same about one who enjoys pulling waitresses’ ponytails. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Don Brash's own-goal

Don Brash is an ideas man. He has never been politically adroit.

As National leader, he allowed his minders to talk him into spectacularly ill-judged photo opportunities. Presumably it was thought that news footage of him teetering awkwardly on a gangplank or trying to squeeze himself into the confined cockpit of a speedway racing car would show him as a man of action. In fact all it did was make the bookish Brash look ridiculous. Television delighted in replaying the footage ad nauseam with the clear intent of making him look buffoonish.

Oh, and he had secret meetings with leaders of the Exclusive Brethren. That came back to bite him big-time.

Later, as Act leader, Brash almost destroyed the party’s credibility by anointing John Banks – rightly seen by many as an unreconstructed Muldoonist, and therefore anathema to Act purists – as the party’s candidate in Epsom. It’s a marvel that the party survived.

Brash has now once again shown lamentable political judgment by allowing the Hobson’s Pledge website to include rhetoric that’s almost comically colonial in its sentiment and could be construed as anti-Maori – an accusation he’s been careful to avoid in the past.

Intentionally or otherwise, the website conveys the impression that at least some of the people behind Hobson’s Pledge pine for the days when we all stood for God Save the Queen at the movies and sang Anglican hymns at school. It also expresses sympathy for a visiting Danish politician who objected to being confronted by a half-naked man shouting and screaming in Maori (that is to say, doing the haka).

I’d be very surprised if Brash wrote this stuff himself. In fact I suspect I know who did. But in allowing it to be published on the website, Brash has played into the hands of critics who are keen to portray Hobson’s Pledge as a bunch of sad old curmudgeons who yearn for a return to the comfortable 1950s, when Maori knew their place and the whites were in charge.

It’s a spectacular own-goal because it deflects attention from Brash’s core message, which is a principled one about democracy and equality before the law. But it confirms his reputation for having bizarrely insensitive political antennae.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The gang-up on Don Brash

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, October 5.)

It’s hard to recall a more concerted gang-up against a public figure than the one that followed last week’s launch of former National Party leader Don Brash’s Hobson’s Pledge movement, which wants an end to race-based preference.  

The mild-mannered Brash is no stranger to public kickings, but even he must have been taken aback by the sheer venom of the backlash.

Maori broadcaster Willie Jackson said he was crazy. Labour leader Andrew Little called him racist (now that’s original). Prime minister John Key, Brash’s successor as National leader, belittled him by saying he sounded like a broken record.

Almost without exception, the media reaction was contemptuous. One political editor dismissed Brash as a jack-in-the-box – “wind him up and out he pops, shouting ‘boo’ over race relations”.

Columnist Toby Manhire suggested Brash and his supporters should start a colony on Mars. Hone Harawira labelled him a redneck – the default option for Maori activists stumped for a proper argument.

Media interviewers, including Radio New Zealand’s Mihingarangi Forbes andTV3’s Lisa Owen, were openly hostile. There was no pretence of the journalistic neutrality once required of broadcasters. No surprises there.

Some of the media coverage verged on dishonest. A headline on Radio New Zealand’s website, for instance, proclaimed that the Act Party rejected Hobson’s Pledge. This would have been damning, given that Brash is a former leader of Act and it’s a party that has consistently opposed entrenched privilege.

Only thing is, the headline wasn’t accurate. Act leader David Seymour faulted the way Brash’s group had gone about things, but he reaffirmed his party’s opposition to race-based parliamentary seats and other appointments – the issue at the heart of the Hobson’s Pledge campaign

In any case, it was in Seymour’s interests to distance himself from Brash. Act may once have been a party that challenged the status quo, but Seymour’s precarious place in the political power structure depends on him not getting too uppity.

Two common threads ran through the overwhelmingly disparaging response to Hobson’s Pledge. The first was that Brash’s critics seemed determined to muddy the water with extraneous issues – anything to deflect attention from his core message. None of his critics made a serious attempt to engage with the substance of his arguments.

Little, for instance, raised the shameful matter of 19th century land confiscations and unlawful detentions, but that’s no argument for separate Maori seats in Parliament or on councils. There are other ways of atoning for historic injustices than by subverting fundamental democratic values that guarantee equal rights for all.

Besides, as Brash pointed out on radio, people of Maori descent have demonstrated time and time again that they’re perfectly capable of getting themselves elected to Parliament and councils on their own merits. It’s patronising to assume that the only way they can succeed is through designated Maori seats or the creation of non-elected positions that take power out of the hands of voters.

The other common line running through the anti-Brash invective was that he should shut up and pull his head in because no one’s listening anymore – at least according to the critics.

But New Zealanders were listening in 2004 when Brash’s “one law for all” speech to the Orewa Rotary Club triggered such a dramatic resurgence in National’s popularity that Helen Clark’s Labour government came within a whisker of being toppled at the next election.

I heard one academic on TV3’s The Nation last Sunday contemptuously suggest that the people who supported Brash then are a dying minority. I suppose that’s one way to marginalise people whose views you don’t like. But have public attitudes changed so markedly since 2004?

I don’t believe so. In recent years, voters in several places – Nelson and New Plymouth among them – have overwhelmingly rejected proposals that would have created special Maori wards.

In any case, Brash isn’t expounding some fringe extreme-Right idea, as his detractors would have us believe. All he’s doing is affirming the importance of equality before the law. This isn’t something that changes according to whatever happens to be ideologically in fashion. It’s a fundamental principle of liberal democracy.

But make no mistake: Brash’s attackers want you to believe that we’ve “moved on” since 2004 and that Brash is just an irritating anachronism.

They all have their own reasons for wanting to shut him down.

For Key, the India rubber man of politics, it’s all about political practicalities. The Maori Party, whose existence depends on Maori seats, are National's allies.It’s only a few years since National officially favoured the abolition of Maori seats in Parliament, but ssshhh – we’re not supposed to remember that. 

For Brash’s Maori critics, the sentiment expressed by Captain William Hobson on the original Waitangi Day – “now we are one people” – must be resisted because if it caught on, it could undermine Maoridom’s increasingly pervasive exercise of political power through the back door. 

As for left-wing Pakeha, their bitter dislike of Brash can be attributed to blind adherence to the prevailing ideology of the day, which elevates fashionable identity politics over long-standing democratic fundamentals that guarantee equal rights for all.  

Footnote: A few days ago I cast my votes for the Masterton District Council. I made my choices partly on the basis of which candidates opposed giving unelected Maori representatives decision-making powers on council committees. 

Sixteen percent of the Masterton population identify as Maori and there are people of Maori descent here who would have got my vote had they put themselves forward for election, but none did. If Maori wish to participate in governance then they should do it the way everyone else does - by contesting elections. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Spot the difference

Here’s a link to a column I wrote recently:

And here’s a commentary subsequently posted online:

Can you spot the difference?

I’ll give you a couple of clues.

■ The writer of the first piece is identified. In fact his name is in the phone book if anyone wants to ring and abuse him (no one ever does). There is no clue to the identity of the second writer. This is par for the course. He (and I’m guessing it’s a he) makes a show of being bold because he’s anonymous. In fact he’s spineless – an invertebrate.

■ The writer of the first piece puts forward arguments which, although some people are bound to disagree with them, avoid personal abuse and are expressed in generally moderate terms. He attempts to introduce balance by conceding there might be some merit in what the other side is saying. His main point is that we need to be careful about reform of the drug laws – hardly an extreme position – and he cites two authorities, a former coroner and an academic, in support of that view. The writer of the second piece – the anonymous guy – is splenetic and abusive. He resorts to puerile insults, which suggests that he has anger management issues. He tries to discredit the writer of the first piece by portraying him as a booze-sodden apologist for the liquor industry, all of which is provably wrong and therefore plainly defamatory. No newspaper would publish his bile for exactly that reason; but this is the internet, where anonymous, hate-filled cowards can rant with impunity. They exploit the right of free speech but are too gutless to accept the corollary, which is that if an opinion is worth expressing – particularly when you’re attacking someone’s reputation – then you should be prepared to put your name to it.

There’s a widely held view that these scuttling cockroaches should be ignored – that by acknowledging them, you only give them oxygen. But the flip side of that argument is that you embolden them by letting them get away with it. They need to be exposed and held up to the contempt they so richly deserve. 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The backlash against immigration

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 30.)

Internationally, the anti-immigration Right is on the rise, and the only surprise is that anyone should be surprised.

Donald Trump in the United States, Pauline Hanson in Australia, the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) Party in Germany, the triumph of the Brexiteers in Britain’s EU referendum … all point to a backlash against the liberal multicultural consensus that has dominated Western politics for decades.

It’s happened with a speed that has left the political establishment reeling and blindsided the predominantly liberal opinion-shapers in the media.

Consider the following:

● The British government is being forced to back-pedal on EU immigration policies that allowed freedom of movement within Europe. In the EU referendum, the United Kingdom Independence Party very effectively exploited a growing feeling that the British had lost control of their own country.

● In Germany, Angela Merkel is paying a high political price for throwing the doors open to one million migrants from the Middle East. Merkel not only played into the hands of despicable human traffickers in the Mediterranean but has given oxygen to the right-wing AfD, which recently defeated her Christian Democratic Union in her home state and now looks likely to become the third-largest party in the German federal parliament.

● In the US, Trump – a classic demagogue and political outsider – has confounded seasoned pundits by coming heart-stoppingly close to winning the presidency on a platform of anti-immigration and protectionist rhetoric.

● In Australia, the woman liberal Australians most love to hate, Queenslander Pauline Hanson, is back in Parliament, where she used her maiden speech in the Senate to tell Muslims who are unwilling to adapt to the Australian way of life to “go back where you came from”.

All over the democratic world (France, Austria and Italy too) politics is in a state of turbulence and uncertainty as the old political order unravels. Former British prime minister David Cameron is the most conspicuous casualty of the disruption, but he may not be the last.

The common denominator is immigration. While it might be the natural inclination of compassionate Western European countries to shelter millions of desperate refugees fleeing instability and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, it was only a matter of time before Islamist terrorism provoked a backlash.

After all, what sort of person repays his hosts’ hospitality by trying to kill them?

The ideal of multiculturalism, long an article of faith in liberal western democracies, is now under intense pressure. But if the mood has turned against refugees, it’s largely because having risked their lives fleeing from corrupt and tyrannical Muslim regimes, some of those refugees then perversely and illogically set out to destroy the civilised and tolerant societies that have given them sanctuary.

Small wonder that attitudes against immigration from Islamic countries are hardening. Europe has experienced the worst of it so far, but America hasn’t escaped and even Australia isn’t immune, as Hanson’s comeback attests.

The liberal Australian media can barely disguise their horror that Hanson, whom they thought had been seen off after her last foray into federal politics in the 1990s, is back – and totally unrepentant.

Hanson tests liberal Australians’ tolerance of free speech to the limit. Green Party senators staged a theatrical walkout rather than listen to her.

But here’s the thing: Hanson is in the Senate because a substantial number of Queenslanders like what she says and voted for her. They are just as entitled to a voice in Parliament as the inner-city Sydney and Melbourne progressives who vote for Labor or the Greens. It’s called democracy.

All of this prompts an obvious question. Who will be the political beneficiary if the anti-immigration mood spreads to New Zealand? It can only be Winston Peters.

It hasn’t happened yet, but that’s not to say it won’t.

New Zealand has been spared the terrorist outrages experienced in Europe and the US. Any anti-immigration sentiment here arises not because of terrorism fears, but from anxiety about the impact on the cost of housing and – increasingly – competition for jobs.

Otherwise, most New Zealanders seem relaxed about multiculturalism. Many (I, for one) welcome the demographic transformation of recent decades as providing vibrancy and diversity that was lacking in Anglo-Saxon New Zealand.

Will we remain cosily insulated from the pressures that are building over immigration in other countries? The government's inclination, as in all things, is to assure us that everything's sweet; no cause for alarm. But only a fool or an incurable optimist would ignore the lessons from overseas.