Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind

The British government clearly thinks New Zealand should have been more forthright in supporting condemnation of Russia for its involvement in the Novichok poisoning scandal. Britain’s minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, reportedly said in an interview that he hoped the Labour-NZ First coalition would issue an “unequivocal” statement backing Britain’s position. By implication, Winston Peters’ action in merely “accepting” the conclusions reached by the British investigation into the poisoning wasn’t enough.

Now National’s foreign affairs spokesman, Todd McClay, has taken up the call. According to McClay, New Zealand risks falling out of step with “our closest friends and allies” unless it makes a statement unequivocally condemning Russia. It was clearly not good enough, in McClay’s view, for Britain to be “left guessing” over our support.

But hang on a minute. Cast your mind back to the Rainbow Warrior bombing by French government agents in 1985. That crime had direct parallels with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. It was a hostile act carried out by a foreign power in the territory of another country with whom it had supposedly friendly relations.

McClay huffs and puffs that the Novichok incident was “an appalling, violent breach of the sovereignty of one of New Zealand’s closest friends”. Those exact same words could have been applied to the Rainbow Warrior bombing.

If anything, the Rainbow Warrior outrage was even more egregious, since it had fatal consequences and was carried out by a supposedly friendly power. But was it condemned by Britain, the country thousands of New Zealanders died for in two world wars?  

Nope. On the contrary, Britain's silence implied condonation. Official papers released in 2005 showed that Margaret Thatcher refused to sanction official criticism of France even after the French government had admitted responsibility for the bombing. She sided with the then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, against colleagues in the British cabinet who wanted the government to take a firmer line against the French.

It was no secret at the time that Thatcher heartily disapproved of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand and viewed this country as impertinent for having the effrontery to undermine the Western defence alliance. For all we know, she might have privately applauded France’s action.  

The British government had no sympathy for us then, and it's a bit rich to expect unquestioning allegiance from us now that it finds itself in the same predicament. The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind. If I were Peters, I’d be asking my officials for a polite diplomatic translation of the phrase “Blow it out your ear”.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Remembering the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu

It's 150 years today since the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu. This is a column I wrote last November.

We New Zealanders are not very good at celebrating our unique and turbulent history.

This was brought home to me last week when, during a trip through Taranaki, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit an historic site with a connection to my family.

Te Ngutu o te Manu (“the beak of the bird”) was the scene of an attempt by colonial forces to seize a fortified South Taranaki pa occupied by the formidable Ngati Ruanui chief Titokowaru in 1868.

It didn’t go well for the colonials. A first attack was abandoned and four soldiers were killed in the second skirmish. But Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas MacDonnell, perhaps unwisely, persisted.

On the third attempt, MacDonnell and his 350 men were lured into a trap. Although outnumbered six to one, Titokowaru’s defenders, many of them concealed around the edge of a clearing in front of the pa, mowed the attackers down.

When the smoke cleared, 20 of the attacking force lay dead or dying. They included the colourful Prussian adventurer Major Gustavus Von Tempsky, the leader of an irregular force known as the Forest Rangers.

Among the wounded was my great-grandfather, John Flynn. Irish-born, he was not a regular soldier but a member of the Taranaki Volunteers. Shot through the left thigh, he was carried to safety by his comrades during an arduous seven-hour retreat through the dense bush, harried every step of the way by Titokowaru’s Hauhau warriors.

Flynn eventually made a full recovery and went on to spend many years driving the mail coach that ran between Hawera and New Plymouth. Paradoxically he got on well with local Maori and spoke the language.

Some might think it unwise to admit having a forebear who was, not to put too fine a point on it, part of a military force whose job was to enforce the seizure of Maori land, but I feel neither proud nor ashamed of my great-grandfather and refuse to judge him. He was acting according to the prevailing values and beliefs of his time, just as we are free to see the actions of that era through a different lens.

The battle site is marked by a memorial listing the names of the dead soldiers. There is no mention of the Maori casualties, confirming Winston Churchill’s famous statement that history is written by the victors.

Although in this case the Ngati Ruanui won the battle, their story is invisible. The bigger war was ultimately won by the Crown, and part of the reward was to lay exclusive claim to the account of what happened.

But what struck me most was that you can drive past the site of the Te Ngutu o te Manu memorial and not know it exists. The stone cross stands in a large grassy clearing surrounded by native bush, concealed from the road.

There’s no sign at the entrance, nor at the nearby turnoff, and there’s nothing back on the main highway to indicate that you’re just five minutes’ drive away from a significant battleground. I found it only because I was given precise directions by a helpful woman at the Hawera information office. (For the record, the battle site is just a stone's throw from the Kapuni natural gas plant.)

The same is true of another historic Taranaki site. For most motorists speeding on the Surf Highway between New Plymouth and Opunake, the AA road sign marking the turnoff to Mid Parihaka Rd would flash past in a blur. But it’s up this quiet country road that 1600 troops invaded the pacifist Maori settlement of Parihaka in 1881 and arrested community leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.

I have a family connection of sorts with Parihaka, too. My uncle, the left-wing historian Dick Scott, published The Parihaka Story in 1954 and followed it up with the more comprehensive Ask That Mountain in 1975.

It’s fair to say that Dick brought the Parihaka affair to the attention of a Pakeha public that had previously known nothing about the Parihaka community’s campaign of non-violent resistance to European encroachment on Maori land.

The story is pretty well known now, but there are no signs directing travellers to the place where it unfolded. That may be the choice of today’s Parihaka residents, since it’s still a functioning community and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their rustic tranquility being disrupted by streams of cars.

Still, it strikes me as sad that we do so little to cultivate awareness of our own fascinating history. It wouldn’t happen in Australia, where Ned Kelly and the rebellious gold miners of the Eureka Stockade, to give two examples, are feted in the public memory, and where the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a major tourist attraction.

It’s not just in Taranaki that historic sites are overlooked. I wonder how many people drive past the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Orakau, near Te Awamutu, without realising it’s where Rewi Maniapoto made his famously defiant last stand in the Waikato Wars.

Is this, I wonder, another manifestation of the so-called cultural cringe – the self-deprecating New Zealand conviction that nothing of interest has ever happened here?

The Churches' desperate search for relevance

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, September 6.)

The Venerable Dr Peter Carrell was recently announced as the new Bishop-elect of the Anglican diocese of Christchurch. A statement said the Venerable Dr Carrell (churchmen do love their titles) was humbled by the confidence the Anglican community had shown in him and excited by the road ahead.

“With respect to Christchurch city,” he was quoted as saying, “I look forward to working co-operatively with Mayor Lianne Dalziel and the city council on matters of mutual interest and concern, especially challenges facing our city around homelessness, poverty and climate change.”

Of God and salvation, which some Christians still quaintly regard as being at the core of their faith, there was no mention. There was, however, a brief reference to the need for long-term healing of spiritual and mental health crises in the community.

In the same week, Morning Report ran a story about the director of the Anglican Advocacy Unit calling for stricter rules to control deceitful and manipulative property managers. Nothing about saving souls there, either.

Meanwhile, in the Vatican, Pope Francis was addressing business leaders on the need to stop the world’s oceans filling up with plastic waste.

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” the Pope said. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”

I had to read that last bit two or three times before I figured out what he was saying (or at least, what I think he was saying). But hey, at least God got a look in.

Now I’m no Bible-bashing, repent-or-burn-in-Hell evangelist – far from it. The only time I go near a church is to attend funerals, which I do far too often.

But the examples above strike me as evidence of the mainstream Churches desperately searching for relevance in an increasingly secular world, and of deluding themselves that they will find it by pushing fashionable political barrows.

Another example was the statement distributed to New Zealand Catholics by their bishops prior to the 2017 election. Predictably, it adopted voguish soft-Left positions on taxation, affordable housing and “caring for our planet”.

If I were Catholic, the presumption that I needed the bishops’ guidance on who to vote for would have irritated me even more than the pious platitudes.

But it’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans who have fallen into the trap of taking activist political positions. Even the Salvation Army, for decades a citadel of robust, practical Christianity and evangelisation, seems to have been politicised.

Its social justice advocates are regular fixtures on Radio New Zealand. I reckon the RNZ newsroom has Major Campbell Roberts, the Sallies’ director of social policy, on speed-dial.

Some will say it’s the duty of the Churches to speak out on issues such as climate change, inequality, racism, homelessness, immigration, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism – and yes, plastic waste too.

Fair enough, but that seems to be all they speak out on. In doing so, they often give the impression they’re currying favour with the activist Left.

The striking emphasis on secular issues in ecclesiastical pronouncements also suggests that Church leaders have decided that since God isn’t getting punters into the pews anymore, they need to try something different.

Maybe they called in the marketing gurus, who suggested they change their branding to something more in tune with a public that has turned away from religion – something that conspicuously signals virtue and compassion, even if it doesn’t come up with solutions. 

Certainly the statistics look bad for the mainstream Churches. Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of New Zealanders claiming no religious belief rose from 30 to 42 per cent.

It’s fair to say this has coincided with a collapse of the Churches’ moral authority – in Catholicism’s case, largely due to its scandalous record on sexual abuse. Just look at the way the formerly compliant Catholic Irish have taken the phone off the hook.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. But the Churches need to understand that they’re competing in a very crowded sector. In pursuing political causes, they risk being just another lot of voices amid the clamour from a vast and ever-proliferating body of strident advocacy groups demanding that the politicians do something.

To put it in marketing terms, they risk losing their vital point of difference – namely, saving souls.

I’m sure most of the people who still faithfully go to church on Sundays, along with the priests and vicars who minister to them, are concerned with more transcendent matters than plastic waste and evil property managers, important though such things are.

So why do Church leaders so often resort to hand-wringing political advocacy? Is it an admission that God just doesn’t cut it anymore? Have the Churches given Him up as a lost cause? It sometimes looks that way.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The neo-wowsers never let up

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and stuff.co.nz, September 5.)

So – the latest word from health researchers is that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe.

Let’s set aside the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with health and diet studies which frequently contradict each other – to the extent that many people are inclined to disregard them all – and take this latest one at face value.

Superficially, the results of the survey, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, look persuasive.

The researchers found that while alcohol might be beneficial in some circumstances, the benefits are outweighed by risks which increase regardless of how little is consumed.

Not surprisingly, they found that the risks start out small with one drink a day, then increase as people consume more – hardly a stop-the-presses revelation.

Their conclusion: going teetotal is the only sure way to avoid the risk of harm.

Okay then. Now let’s apply the same test to a range of other human activities.

Travelling by car, indeed any form of transport, carries the risk of injury or death on the road. Does that mean we never go anywhere? No.

Getting married carries the risk that the relationship will end in an ugly and painful divorce. Does that mean people stay single? No.

Playing sport carries the risk of injury and disability. Does that mean we would be healthier if we were a nation of couch potatoes? No.

Investing money carries the risk that the investment will go belly-up and we’ll lose financially. Does that mean we hide our savings under the mattress? No.

Travelling to exotic places carries the risk of life-threatening illnesses from eating dodgy food or cutting our feet on poisonous coral. Does that mean we stay at home? No.

The point is that life would be unbearably dull – even pointless – without the pleasure, satisfaction and achievement that come from doing things that entail an element of risk.

Most people manage that risk by taking sensible precautions. They weigh the risks against the rewards and act accordingly.

We don’t drive fast in cars with bald tyres and munted brakes. We try to choose the right life partners and do our best to resolve any conflict that arises in the relationship.

If we play rugby, we wear mouth guards and avoid head-high tackles. If we ski, we stay on the designated slopes. If we push beyond those (relatively) safe limits, we accept the risk and take responsibility for the possible consequences.

I could go on, but you get my drift.

Now, back to alcohol. Most New Zealanders drink responsibly. They understand that excessive consumption carries risk.

Even the so-called experts, who never miss an opportunity to lecture us on the perils of alcohol, grudgingly accept that the great majority of people drink in moderation.

Alarmists in the health sector like to focus on the 20 percent of alcohol consumers whom they classify as “heavy” drinkers, but their definitions are questionable.

The “safe” drinking limits that guided British alcohol policy for years weren’t based on any hard data, but were plucked out of the air by a Royal College of Physicians working party which didn’t really have a clue how much alcohol was safe.

In the United States, a female heavy drinker is now classified as one who has eight or more drinks a week. Is it a good idea to regularly have eight or more drinks a week? Probably not. But to claim that anyone who does is a heavy drinker seems over the top.

I know lots of healthy, sober women who would exceed that limit at least occasionally. They would be shocked at the thought that they were officially considered heavy drinkers.

But of course that’s the aim: to scare people into cutting back or giving up altogether.

The publicly-funded neo-wowsers are on a moral crusade, and they never let up. They don’t trust ordinary people to make sensible decisions about what’s safe.

Another problem with alarmist studies such as the one mentioned above is that, as a recent editorial in The Listener pointed out, the scare-mongers never take into account the beneficial aspects of alcohol, both social and economic.

In Western civilisation, alcohol has been regarded for centuries as a means of socialising, relaxing and celebrating. You’d think that might count for something, but no.

Oh, and one other thing. According to one analysis of that recent American survey, it means that in a population of 100,000 people aged 15-95, 918 people are at risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related conditions in a year if they have a drink every day, against 914 people who are at risk of developing the same problems if they never drink at all.

I don’t know about you, but they’re odds that I’m prepared to risk.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

There's more than one thing about this story that's Groundhog Day-ish

Auckland Council has got itself in a helluva mess over botched building consents after it misinterpreted its own confusing rules. The consents relate to building alterations in “character” suburbs such as Ponsonby and Devonport and will probably have to be applied for again, at huge inconvenience to the home owners and expense to the ratepayers, since the council will meet the costs and may have to pay compensation as well.

Radio New Zealand interviewed a planning lawyer who said the cockup showed how complicated the council’s planning rules were. It all seemed wearisomely familiar, but that wasn’t the only reason the Radio NZ news item sounded a bit Groundhog Day-ish. They also interviewed the council’s resource consents general manager, who turned out to be an Englishman.

Am I the only one who’s struck by the number of bureaucrats in local and central government who speak with a Pommy accent? If I was less lazy and more methodical, I would keep a record of the number of times they pop up in the TV and radio news.

I don’t want to be dragged before the Human Rights Commission and accused of racism (I actually like most Poms), but it seems to me that a quite disproportionate number of the officials who enforce nitpicking rules and regulations in New Zealand are English. Is it because they’re gifted managers, or is it that they’re naturally officious and attracted to jobs that involve telling other people what to do? Cases like the Auckland Council consents row suggest it’s unlikely to be the former.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What on earth was Woodhouse thinking?

I could scarcely believe my ears yesterday when I heard that National Party immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse was urging the government to ban the American whistleblower Chelsea Manning from entering New Zealand to give two speeches. For heaven’s sake, did this Womble pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep through the recent debate about free speech?

I was pleased that the Free Speech Coalition, of which I’m a member, promptly spoke out in favour of Manning’s right to come here and be heard. Our credibility would have taken an irreparable hit if we had remained silent.

Over the past 24 hours Woodhouse has taken a richly deserved hammering from commentators on both the left and right. There’s nothing left to be said, other than to make the point – as political scientist Bryce Edwards does today in an excellent opinion piece for newsroom (pro.newsroom.co.nz/articles) – that the attempt to shut down Manning should be a lesson to the illiberal lefties who wanted to keep Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux out of the country. Having argued that the Canadians should be barred, they are in no position to object when the same intolerance is exercised against someone they want to hear.

The point is that the right of free speech must apply across the board, ideologically, or it’s meaningless. Or as I put it in a blog post two weeks ago, an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s. 

Unfortunately the National Party has demonstrated that its support for free speech runs out the moment there’s a risk of upsetting an important ally. And this is the party that champions individual freedom? Pfft.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Warwick Roger, journalist

(This obituary was published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, August 25.)

Warwick Roger, journalist. Born 21 August 1945, died 16 August 2018

Warwick Roger was the most influential New Zealand journalist of his generation.

He is remembered primarily as the audacious founder of Metro, the glossy Auckland monthly that reshaped New Zealand magazine publishing and steered indigenous journalism in a new direction. Partly modelled on the American magazines Esquire and New Yorker, Roger’s magazine dared to publish articles of a length never before seen here in a mainstream publication: 10,000 words and more.

It was technically known as long-form journalism and Roger had faith that the market was mature and sophisticated enough in 1981 to welcome it. He also had unshakeable confidence in his own judgment, even when many of his peers were predicting – in fact openly hoping – he would fail.

Where others would have lost their nerve, the stubborn, combative Roger refused to be swayed by detractors. Neither was he deterred by the reluctance of advertisers to come on board. And ultimately he proved the doubters wrong, even if it meant, according to one former colleague, wildly overstating Metro’s circulation figures in the early days as he struggled to attract advertising support.

By the mid-1980s, Metro’s golden era, the magazine had a circulation of 45,000, sometimes ran to 350 pages and was eagerly read far beyond its intended catchment of metropolitan Auckland. Piggybacking on its success, sister title North & South was launched in 1986 and applied the same journalistic formula to the national market, taking on the long-established Listener.  

Between them, Metro and North & South changed the face of New Zealand magazine journalism. But they had a lot more going for them than simply the length of their articles.

Roger was an astute spotter and nurturer of journalistic talent. He generally avoided hiring newspaper reporters and graduates of journalism schools, dismissing them as hacks and hackettes trained to write formulaic news stories. Roger preferred to recruit unproven writers with a flair for a freer, less stylised and more creative form of journalism, one that borrowed some of the techniques of fiction writing. He was a master of the style himself, though often parodied by his critics.

Roger’s protégés, who could have wallpapered  their houses with the journalism awards they won,  included Carroll du Chateau, Nicola Legat, the late Jan Corbett, Deborah Coddington and Robyn Langwell, who was to become his second wife (and founding editor of North & South). Roger also hired art director William Chen, who gave Metro its bold, stylish appearance.

Roger pushed the boundaries. He wrote savage restaurant reviews.  He created the scurrilous gossip column Felicity Ferret (partly inspired by the satirical English magazine Private Eye), which delighted in mocking the silvertails and high-flyers of Remuera and Parnell while simultaneously promoting an image of an Auckland that was glamorous, sophisticated, racy and cosmopolitan.

But most important of all, Roger courageously published big, complex and high-risk stories – none more so than The Unfortunate Experiment in 1987, which chronicled the deliberate non-treatment, with fatal consequences, of cervical cancer patients at National Women’s Hospital. The article, by health activists Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, led to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, led by Judge Silvia Cartwright, and a subsequent overhaul of patients’ rights.

It was a high-water mark for investigative journalism in New Zealand. Yet it was typical of Roger’s ornery streak that in 1990, Metro published an equally explosive exposé by Jan Corbett entitled Second Thoughts on the Unfortunate Experiment, in which the Cartwright inquiry was branded a radical feminist witch hunt. The second article came about after Roger was presented with evidence that led him to suspect his magazine had been used to advance an ideological agenda.

Roger would tell his journalists that their job was to investigate the bad smell at the back of the cave that everyone else pretended to ignore. Anyone in power was considered fair game, which may explain why Roger was passed over several times for inclusion in the honours list. He was finally made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008.

ROGER grew up in the Auckland suburb of Greenlane, the youngest son of a butcher. His father, whom he described as the meanest man he’d ever known, died when Roger was only 11. His mother was left virtually penniless and had to take in boarders.

He went to Auckland Grammar School, studied to become a primary school teacher and spent two years teaching before deciding that what he really wanted was to be a journalist like the Auckland Star columnist Noel Holmes, whom he greatly admired. He joined the Waikato Times in 1968, only a few weeks after the late Michael King, who was to become a long-standing friend. That was also the year when he married his first wife Anne Batt, with whom he had two children.

By the early 1970s Roger was working in Wellington at the Sunday Times under the editorship of the late Frank Haden, who implanted in him the radical idea that a reporter should do more than simply regurgitate quotes and recite sterile facts.

It was at the Sunday Times, and later its sister paper The Dominion, that Roger began to refine a style inspired by the so-called New Journalism of the time as practised by the American writers Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe – writing that combined reportage with literary techniques borrowed from fiction.

The late Jack Kelleher, then editor of The Dominion, was a sympathetic boss who gave him the time and space he needed to research and write long, in-depth stories that sometimes ran over two or three days. Perhaps the most memorable was Roger’s detailed reconstruction of a shocking 1975 crime in which an irascible but harmless 70-year-old drunk was beaten to death by two street kids in Wellington’s Hopper St.

It was ground-breaking journalism, but it aroused a mix of envy and hostility from many of his colleagues who regarded Roger as pampered, elitist and self-indulgent. Not that hostility ever bothered him; in fact he seemed to thrive on it. He and kindred spirit Spiro Zavos, who was to become a lifelong friend, formed a tight, defiant team of two in the Dominion’s newsroom.

Roger was to encounter the same antipathy from colleagues at the Auckland Star when he moved back to his home town. Even the Star’s editor, Keith Aitken, a newspaperman of the old school, objected to the space that was lavished on Roger’s Saturday feature stories. For his part, Roger seethed with resentment at the changes made to his copy by sub-editors.

Rather than go on chafing with frustration at the constraints imposed on him by people unsympathetic to his ideals, Roger put his money where his mouth was. He launched Metro in partnership with investor Bruce Palmer and from day one, imposed his own uncompromising personality on the publication.

Never a man to make things easy for himself, Roger made an art form of getting offside with people. Even those closest to him admitted he had a cranky, vindictive streak. He pursued vendettas with a vengeance and was acutely sensitive to criticism. Intimidating letters from lawyers were treated with contempt.

The low point of his editorship came when Metro was sued by Sunday Star-Times gossip columnist Toni McRae in 1994 over a snide reference to her in the Felicity Ferret column. Broadcaster Brian Edwards, one of several to give evidence against Metro, later reportedly said of the trial that never had so many scores been settled in such a short time.

The court awarded McRae damages of $373,000, almost an unprecedented sum. The amount was later reduced to $100,000 plus costs, but Roger took the defeat badly. He stood down as editor later that year, having evidently lost much of his enthusiasm for the job.

Roger reverted to simply writing for Metro under the title of editor-at-large. Two years later he assumed the same role at North & South, where Langwell was editor. The two had married in 1986, two years after Roger hired Langwell to write for Metro. They had two children.

His move to North & South came in the same year that Roger was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the neurological disorder that progressively robbed him of his power of movement. He resisted the illness with the same stubbornness he had exhibited as a journalist, continuing to write, run, swim and play cricket even as he gradually lost control of his limbs. He eventually gave up full-time writing in 2004.

His determination to continue swimming almost led to his death in 2012, when his daughter found him face-down in the water at Cheltenham Beach, close to his Devonport home. He was resuscitated at the scene and eventually recovered, but lost all memory of the time leading up to the incident. He died aged 72.

FOOTNOTE: I wrote this obituary at the Dominion Post's request in 2012, when it seemed possible Warwick would not survive his near-drowning. It probably says something about him that it took six years to be published.