Friday, June 15, 2018

Even Northland didn't want him, but now he's going to be our acting PM

(First published in the Dominion Post and on stuff.co.nz, June 14.)

So we’re going to have Winston Peters as our acting prime minister for six weeks. Not bad for a politician who was rejected by his own electorate at the last election after failing to complete a single term.

Not bad either for a politician whose party won only 7 per cent of the vote and which, judging by recent polls, would struggle to scrape back into Parliament if an election was held tomorrow. 

This is democracy New Zealand-style, in which the rewards – the baubles of office that Peters once insisted he wasn’t interested in – go not to a politician who commands broad public support, but to a crafty minor player who has learned how to game the system and manipulate the bigger parties.

We should all be ashamed at this travesty. But in the welter of media excitement over Jacinda Ardern’s impending motherhood, we’ve somehow overlooked the embarrassing fact that the most powerful office in the land is being placed in the hands of a politician with no popular mandate.

Perhaps we have short memories, so allow me to help. The Peters party lost three of its seats at the last election, including Peters’ own. Its share of the vote dropped from 8.6 per cent to 7.2 per cent – hardly a resounding endorsement.

We don’t know, and may never know, exactly what happened in the subsequent negotiations to form a coalition government, because the politicians prefer to keep all that stuff secret. Transparency? Pffft.

What we do know is that Peters largely controlled the process because his party’s puny share of the vote gave him the balance of power.

We also know now, although no one knew then, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly instituted legal action against senior National Party figures over the alleged leaking of details about the overpayment of his national superannuation.

This made it highly improbable, to say the least, that he would agree to a coalition with National. But both major parties continued to negotiate with him in good faith, each believing it was in with an equal chance and each trying to outbid the other for his favour.

With the benefit of hindsight, the negotiations can be seen as a charade with only one likely outcome. Both major parties were played for suckers.

We eventually learned what Peters’ price was. Not only did he emerge as deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, but four Cabinet seats were allocated to NZ First – twice the number it would have been entitled to if Cabinet appointments were proportionate with the party’s poll result.

Of course all these inconvenient details are swept under the carpet now, because they reflect badly on our flawed electoral system.

Rather than ask awkward questions about the murky circumstances in which the Labour-led coalition was formed, we’re expected to marvel at what a good job Peters is doing as foreign minister.

Well, of course he is. After all, it’s hardly the most taxing gig in the Cabinet. And who wouldn’t relish a job that involves hob-nobbing with world leaders in exotic locales?

It’s perhaps telling that his one serious misstep so far was his misplaced enthusiasm for a trade deal with Russia. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vladimir Putin is the type of leader Peters admires.

We’re also assured that Peters will do a great job as acting prime minister – but again, why wouldn’t he? He’s onto a good thing and he must know it. He probably considers it due reward for a long and tumultuous political career which now, please God, must be nearing its end.

But we should also remember that this is Winston Raymond Peters we’re talking about. And where Peters is involved, the potential for mayhem and debacle is never far away.

We’re encouraged to believe everything is hunky-dory in the coalition and that it will be business as usual – Ardern’s phrase – when Peters steps up. But only this week Peters humiliated Justice Minister Andrew Little by derailing Little’s plan to repeal the Three Strikes law.

He also provocatively re-activated the legal action over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment, in which one of the defendants is his Cabinet colleague David Parker as Attorney-General.

This is classic Peters. The timing could hardly have been accidental. He can’t help himself.

But I’m picking the real test of Peters’ new-found statesmanlike mantle will come when he has to deal with journalists. Almost alone among New Zealand politicians, Peters has never quite accepted that accountability to the public, via the media, goes with the territory.

Will he be able to suppress his natural antagonism toward journalists in his new role? The sheer improbability of it conjures up Dr Johnson's famous image of a dog walking on its hind legs. But it might be fun to watch.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

So it's true then - pop music HAS become boring


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

I did something last week that I almost never do. I watched an item on Seven Sharp.

This particular item had been previewed during an ad break in the 6 o’clock news and it aroused my interest. It asked the provocative question, has pop music got boring?

So I watched the item, and the answer reporter Tim Wilson gave was: Yes, it has.

Ah, so it’s not just me then.

Here I was wondering whether I was alone in harrumphing over the monotony of 21st century pop.

I had rebuked myself for doing what people have always done when they get to a certain age – namely, shake their heads at the incomprehensible tastes of the young. But here seemed to be at least partial confirmation of my view that pop music has become drearily predictable and insipid.

Wilson interviewed Auckland musician and arranger Godfrey de Grut, who lectures in popular music studies at the University of Auckland. De Grut comes with plenty of music industry cred, having worked with the likes of Che Fu, Brooke Fraser and Boh Runga.

Admittedly de Grut is no teenager, and neither is Wilson. But they’re a lot younger (and cooler) than I am, so I took heart from their assessment that mainstream pop music has become, in de Grut’s words, bland and homogeneous.

De Grut was able to explain in simple terms what it is about these songs that makes them l sound so similar. They use the same song structures and the same sterile technology. Often they’ve been crafted by the same songwriter. To me it all sounds pre-packaged and bloodless – the aural equivalent of junk food.

The Seven Sharp item seemed to confirm the impressions I’d formed on a recent car trip, when I couldn’t find any of the radio stations I usually favour and ended up listening to a pop station.

I started listening because there was nothing else available, but I stayed tuned out of curiosity and fascination at the sheer relentless sameness of the music.

Song after song followed the same pattern: simple, repetitive, almost childlike melodies – they reminded me of nursery rhymes – over an insistent, pulsing electronic beat.

It struck me as being fashionably gender-neutral. The voices were almost asexual, even androgynous, to the extent that it was sometimes hard to tell whether the singer was male or female.

I have no idea who the performers were, but I recognised the songs as being representative of a genre that’s heard everywhere in hotel lobbies, cafes and airport terminals. You can’t escape it, no matter how desperately you might want to.

It’s the same music that I’m forced to listen to when I’m put on hold while waiting to talk to my internet service provider/bank/insurance company/whatever. I assume it’s their way of persuading you to give up and leave them alone.

I even hear it if I wake early and tune into NewstalkZB’s Early Edition to get the first news of the day. For some reason there’s always a pop song playing behind the host when she comes back on air after the 5.30am bulletin.

Listening to this stuff, I find myself wondering whether pop music has exhausted itself and retreated to the same safe space it inhabited before rock and roll.

I’m just old enough to remember the dull, anodyne pop that emanated from radios before Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. It was the era of The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane by the Ames Brothers, Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity by Perry Como and How Much is that Doggie in the Window, by Patti Page. 

Rock and roll arrived in the nick of the time. If it wasn’t for Presley, Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, we would have succumbed to the stupefying effects of an obesity-inducing musical diet that consisted wholly of white bread, doughnuts and marshmallow.

With the advent of rock and roll, popular music acquired not only a raw energy but an edgy, almost menacing quality. At the moment I’m reading an excellent book called 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, in which British writer Jon Savage analyses the culture and politics of that year through the prism of pop music.

By that time the epicentre of the pop world had shifted from America to London. It was the golden era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks – bands that produced their own distinctive sounds and could never have been mistaken for each other, unlike today’s sound-alikes.

Savage’s book is also a reminder that the sullen, pouty, rebellious stance of bands like the Stones and the Who was seen as a potent threat to the conservative establishment.

It occurs to me that no one could take offence at today’s mainstream pop, other than on aesthetic grounds. Perhaps that’s its problem.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Comments update: they're working on it

In my last post I mentioned that I was no longer receiving email notifications of comments submitted to this blog. I thought I had fixed the problem, but no. Even the dozens of comments that I posted three days ago (after finding them languishing in my "awaiting moderation" folder) have disappeared. I now discover that the same problem has been experienced by other bloggers. Google says it's aware of the problem and is working on a fix.  Sigh.

Monday, June 4, 2018

To all those who wondered what happened to their comments, now you know

A friend alerted me yesterday to the fact that a comment she had tried to post on my blog hadn't appeared. How the blog normally works is that when someone submits a comment it comes to me as an email. I can then click "publish" or "delete" (normally the former, as it goes without saying that my blog typically attracts a superior grade of comment) and it duly appears (or disappears, as the case may be). But my friend's alert prompted me to check my blog settings, and in the course of rummaging around in the bowels of blogger.com I discovered literally dozens of unpublished comments, some of which had been languishing there since early last year. None of them had come to me as emails, so I was unaware of their existence. On the basis of better late than never, and in a desperate attempt to keep faith with my blog readers, they have now belatedly been published. My sincere (and rather embarrassed) apologies to all those commenters who thought I'd snubbed them. I now know not to assume that I'll receive email notification of comments.

This merely goes to confirm my lack of digital savvy. If running a blog could be compared with driving a car, I'd be displaying an L-plate in my rear window.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

If there was a train across the Pacific, I'd take it


(First published in the Nelson Mail and on stuff.co.nz, May 30.)

God, how I loathe flying. Everything about it irritates me.

This realisation struck me forcefully as I sat in a crowded Sydney Airport waiting for a connecting flight home after a 14-hour trip from Los Angeles.

I like to think of myself as an amiable-enough sort of bloke most of the time, but when I’m travelling I become a cranky misanthrope. Cooped up in oppressively close proximity with my fellow human beings, I develop a strange aversion to them and become sharply aware of their quirks and foibles.

I find myself muttering under my breath at people who take too long at the check-in counter or try to stuff too much into the overhead baggage locker.

I harrumph over gimmicky, infantile in-flight safety videos that go on for far too long – I’m with Bob Jones here – and I bristle at bossy flight attendants, although most try to be personable and helpful.

I resent being bombarded with clutter – blankets, headphones, pillows, plastic cups – that there’s no room for, and I curse the ever-more rigorous airport security screening procedures.

Most of all I seethe when dopey or inconsiderate passengers hold everyone up. At LAX, hundreds of us sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half because someone had checked in their suitcases but failed to take their seat, which meant their bags had to be found and unloaded. 

I regard the modern airport as a vision of hell, the more so when I’m stuck in one for hours because my flight is held up, as it so often is. Delays are endemic in international travel, and airlines are very good at avoiding responsibility for the consequences. Just watch the ground staff magically disappear when there’s a departure lounge full of disgruntled travellers wondering where the hell their plane is.

Other airport irritants include scruffy backpackers – a 21st century global contagion – who spread themselves across several seats or sprawl across the floor, obstructing others. In my curmudgeonly state of mind I imagine many of them are travelling on round-the-world fares paid for by over-indulgent parents.

In Sydney I observed another phenomenon of modern travel: I was surrounded by zombies, all blankly fixated by their “devices” in what appeared to be a case of mass Facebook hypnosis. I’m not just talking about millennials here: “senior” women too were mesmerised by their phones and tablets. Not for the first time, I wondered what could be so riveting as to demand their total attention.

In the toilets, I had to listen to men noisily hoicking. Why do males apparently feel the need to do this when women don’t? And what is it about airport toilets that triggers this nauseating habit – or do these slobs do the same at home?

To get to the departure lounge, I had to pass through duty-free outlets where I was assailed by hucksters – polite, attractive hucksters, but hucksters nonetheless – trying to sell me perfume and liquor that I can buy cheaper elsewhere.

Fliers once had the option of bypassing duty-free. Now they have no choice. It’s a racket, pure and simple, but there was no shortage of buyers. Somehow the idea has been implanted in travellers’ heads that duty-free shopping is always cheaper than elsewhere. This has enabled airport companies and duty-free operators to enter a very lucrative conspiracy aimed at exploiting the gullible.

The flight from LAX to Sydney had been arduous, as long-haul air travel always is for me. Some people happily pass the time watching movies, but something strange happens to my brain when I board an aircraft. Though I rarely sleep, I lose all interest in watching movies or listening to music, and even reading palls after a time.

On this occasion I forced myself to watch a movie and chose to see Dunkirk for the second time – a dumb choice. All movies are greatly diminished on those tiny screens and tinny earphones, but Dunkirk – which depends heavily on its spectacular cinematography and sound effects – more than most.

The rest of the time I did what I invariably end up doing on long-haul flights: I gritted my teeth and imagined that by sheer force of will, I could somehow make the time pass more quickly. In the process I almost lost the will to live.

My wife and I had paid extra for exit-row seats, which at least meant I could stretch out. I don’t think I could have lasted the flight squeezed into a standard seat, which these days seems designed for people with the bodies of teenage Olympic gymnasts.

At least I’m relatively thin. How large people manage is beyond me, to say nothing of the miserable wretches who have to sit beside them. And how the hell do obese passengers get on in the aircraft dunnies, where there’s barely enough room even for people of normal size?

I recently read that airlines earn nearly one-third of their revenue from the 5 percent of passengers who fly business class, which kind of puts everything in perspective. Corporate travellers and the rich must be kept happy – the rest of us not so much.

What it all boils down to is this: airlines have made flying a whole lot cheaper by packing more and more people in, but there’s a trade-off in terms of comfort and enjoyment. Only a mug could believe that flying is still the pleasurable and exotic experience that it once was.

It has become an ordeal, pure and simple. If I could take a train across the Pacific I’d do it, even if the trip took a week.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Male, pale and stale - a despised minority


(First published in The Dominion Post and on stuff.co.nz, May 31.)

I am writing this column as a member of a despised minority. I will be 68 next birthday. I’m fair of skin and male of sex.

To put it another way, in the language of “progressive” millennials and people who, with no sense of irony, describe themselves as liberals, I’m male, pale and stale. 

There is no more crushing condemnation in the 21st century political lexicon. To be male, pale and stale is to be racist, sexist, bitter and selfish. Don Brash and Sir Bob Jones are prime examples of this wretched form of humanity. I am too, albeit of a lower order of celebrity.

It goes without saying that I can’t help being old. I can no more control the ageing process than I could dance the prima ballerina’s role in Swan Lake. Neither did I have any say over my ethnicity or sex.

Perhaps if I’d been born six decades later I might have been encouraged to decide for myself what gender I wanted to assume and to alter my sexual identity at will, regardless of physiology. But I’ve been a bloke all my life and it’s a bit hard to re-invent myself at this point in my life cycle.

Having said that, I’ve been happy being a male and never felt any desire to have it any other way. Nor have I felt ashamed about it, which is not to say I’m not regularly appalled by the behaviour of some of my fellow blokes.

Moreover, I don’t hate or fear women and have never felt that I was in competition with them, still less perceived them as a threat. So I’m not sure that I deserve the implied accusation that men like me are by definition misogynistic.

The women who have been closest to me throughout my life have been stroppy and strong-willed. If I preferred women to be submissive, I’ve been either desperately unlucky or spectacularly unwise.

But never mind all that. I’m stuck with being a bloke, just as I’m stuck with my skin colour and my inexorably advancing age. Yet I, and others like me, now find ourselves regularly being pilloried for having the temerity to express an opinion about things. It seems we’re expected to shut up.

Let’s unpick that phrase “male, pale and stale”. The first thing you notice is that it explicitly criticises people on the basis of their skin colour.

Ah, but that’s okay, because we’re white. And as I heard a moronic talkback host assert recently, only minority groups – i.e. non-whites – can be subject to racism.

You can forget all that warm, inclusive talk on the Left about celebrating diversity. The embrace of diversity mysteriously stops short of ageing white blokes. We’re the one demographic cohort against whom it’s permissible – in fact fashionable – to display undisguised and often venomous bigotry.

In any other context, attacking people on the basis of their age, sex and skin colour would be labelled a hate crime, but no one should expect the Human Rights Commission to take up our cause.

Being white and male, we are seen as being in a position of power and therefore unscathed by discrimination and immune to insult. And if we are discriminated against, we’re expected to suck it up because … well, because we deserve it.

Ageing white males are considered fair game because we’re seen as having enjoyed privilege for too long. Now the tables have turned and we’re expected to pay the penalty by keeping our supposedly rancid opinions to ourselves. 

This treats freedom of expression as a zero-sum game where one person’s right to speak can only be achieved by silencing someone else. But that’s not how free speech works.

In any case, if white males dominated newspaper opinion columns in past decades, as has been alleged, then any imbalance has been more than redressed. The media today is awash with comment that uncritically embraces the “progressive” agenda (there’s another word that’s used with no sense of irony) and sneers at anyone who stands in its path.

Am I pleading for sympathy here? Not a bit. We curmudgeonly tuataras can look after ourselves. All I’m doing is highlighting the double standards of social justice warriors who shriek with outrage at any perceived slight against a favoured minority group, but pile in for the attack when it’s an old white bloke who’s on the ground getting kicked.

One last thought. Today’s angry social justice warrior has a funny way of turning into tomorrow’s crusty reactionary.

One day the people who rant about ageing white men will themselves become old, and they can’t discount the hideous possibility that they too will morph into conservative dinosaurs, because by then they might have learned a few things about life, politics and the human condition.

Monday, May 28, 2018

To anyone hoping for impartial coverage of the abortion debate, these are not promising signs


This afternoon on National Radio I heard Jesse Mulligan interview a spokeswoman for a group of Irish Wellingtonians who backed the “yes” vote in Ireland’s abortion referendum.

It was a soft interview, as you might expect of a light, chatty afternoon show. The interviewee told how her group gathered at a Wellington bar on Saturday night to watch the referendum result come in.  There were heart-warming scenes of joy and happiness, she said, when the “no” campaigners – the people who opposed liberalisation of Ireland’s strict abortion laws – conceded defeat.

The tone of the conversation was celebratory. A visitor from a distant galaxy would have had no trouble concluding that the right side had won the argument.

(As an aside, I accept that the referendum result was greeted as a triumph for women’s rights. Nonetheless I find it grotesque that people should rejoice at the prospect of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of unborn babies having their lives snuffed out. It strikes me as a triumph of warped ideology over humanity - but that’s just me.)

Mulligan stopped short (just) of congratulating his guest on the outcome, but he did feed her an obliging cue by effectively inviting her to say that New Zealand now lagged behind Ireland in terms of restrictions on abortion – the implication being that we should get our skates on if we want to catch up.

This followed an interview earlier in the day on Morning Report in which Susie Ferguson questioned Abortion Law Reform New Zealand president Terry Bellamak about the implications of the Irish referendum result. That was a soft interview too, although Morning Report professes to be a hard current affairs show.

Like her afternoon colleague, Ferguson fed her guest a sympathetic question (“Is it acceptable that you have to lie to get an abortion?”) which seemed to give a pretty clear idea of her own position on the issue. And like Mulligan’s guest, Bellamak seized on the Irish result as an argument for reform of New Zealand’s own abortion laws. After all, who wants the embarrassment of having the most conservative abortion regime in the English-speaking world? We can expect this to become a recurring theme from pro-abortion activists as pressure mounts for repeal of the abortion provisions in the 40-year-old Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. It’s a weak argument (after all, the fact that other countries have wide-open abortion laws doesn’t make them right), but that won’t stop them.

Earlier, Ferguson had tried repeatedly to corner National leader Simon Bridges with the same “Why should women have to lie to get an abortion?” question, clearly implying that the law is bad and should be overturned. I wonder, what prospect is there of the abortion debate getting fair and impartial coverage from Radio New Zealand when the presenter of its top-rating current affairs show so plainly displays her personal feelings on the issue?

This is no idle question. Abortion liberalisation is likely to be on the Labour-led government’s legislative agenda next year, and those old enough to remember the turbulent passage of the 1977 legislation will know how bitter and divisive the debate could be. In that case Radio New Zealand will be expected to report the issue fairly and impartially – an expectation made all the weightier because it’s a state-owned broadcaster with a special duty of neutrality. But I wonder what the prospects are of that happening, given what I heard today.

As far as I can tell, Morning Report carried no comment from anti-abortion groups on the Irish result and its implications, if any, for New Zealand. Why go to one side and not the other?

Granted, journalists generally take a “liberal” stance on abortion. That was clear from media coverage of the Irish referendum, which was generally framed as a clash between the “old” Ireland of fossilised reactionaries, still under the baneful influence of the discredited Catholic Church, and a heroic new, younger Ireland determined to cast off a long legacy of oppressive theology. Small wonder that most journalists thought the right side won, and reported it accordingly.

But just as prosperous white middle-class people are instructed to “check their privilege” – meaning we should be aware of our inbuilt class-based assumptions before we judge others – so journalists need to be reminded to check their prejudice.  When they have strongly personal held views on issues, they should be doubly diligent about ensuring the other side have their say too.