Tuesday, October 20, 2020

An alternative narrative

Derek Daniell is a Wairarapa farmer who runs the internationally respected Wairere Romney stud. He is also a tireless and articulate advocate for pastoral farming, a sector that’s under sustained political attack at a time when the New Zealand economy has never been more reliant on it. I’m posting this link to Derek’s latest commentary because it’s important that people realise there is a counter-narrative to the one promoted by the mainstream media.

A golden opportunity missed

So Tova O’Brien sat down with Jami-Lee Ross for a Newshub Nation interview that has reportedly “gone viral”. This was a golden opportunity missed: the two most unpleasant people in New Zealand politics confined together in a Newshub studio. Couldn’t someone have quietly locked the door and tip-toed away?

Monday, October 19, 2020

At least there's no argument about who won the right to govern

Tell you what (as Judith Collins likes to say): there’s at least one thing I welcome about the election result. It’s that there can be no doubt about its legitimacy, and hence about Labour’s right to govern.

It was a clean win, an emphatic win. Even if it wasn’t the result many of us wanted, we were left in no doubt about who were the winners and who were the losers.

More specifically, I welcome the result because we’re likely to be spared the grubby, opaque post-election manoeuvring that has tarnished so many elections since New Zealand adopted the MMP system in 1996.

I’ve always maintained that we replaced one imperfect electoral system with another that was even more deeply flawed. The most egregious of MMP’s many defects is that once the citizens have cast their votes, they relinquish all control over what happens. The politicians disappear behind closed doors and indulge in horse-trading that we can neither see nor influence.

All bets are off. Never  mind what the parties campaigned on or what promises were made; pretty much everything is on the table in these coalition talks, and what emerges is rarely what people voted for.

The great irony is that we were sold MMP on the basis that it made politicians more accountable, when the exact reverse is the case. It’s the very antithesis of transparency.

We saw it at its worst in 2017, when Winston Peters leveraged his party’s puny 7 percent share of the vote into the assumed right to dictate the arrangements under which we were to be governed for the following there years – the apparent starting point being Peters’ insistence on his own appointment as deputy prime minister, for which there was no skerrick of a mandate.

All of which was bad enough. But what made things even worse – infinitely worse – in that instance was the realisation, after the event, that the coalition talks were an elaborate charade. Those participating assumed National and Labour were negotiating for Peters’ favour in good faith from positions of equal strength (as did the hapless voters trying to peer through the impenetrable smokescreen). It was only later that we learned Peters had quietly instigated legal action against senior National cabinet ministers over the supposed leaking of his superannuation over-payments, and was thus no more likely to enter a coalition with National than to announce that he was renouncing politics and entering a Trappist monastery.

Peters’ deception meant he was able to extract commitments from Labour that they might not have made had they realised he was bound to do a deal with them anyway. So we ended up with a Labour-led government that was established in shonky circumstances and whose legitimacy remained tainted throughout its term.

No one can say the same about the Ardern government Mk II. It commences its triennium free of any doubt about its right to govern.  

That leads me to the other thing I welcome about the election result. Mr Seven Percent became Mr 2.7 Percent on Saturday night, and so was consigned to richly deserved political oblivion. Thus a man who has been a mostly malignant, vindictive presence in New Zealand politics for more than four decades has been banished at long last. I couldn’t help but think of Oliver Cromwell’s ringing words to England’s so-called Rump Parliament in 1653: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will enter some sort of governing arrangement with the Greens, but it’s hard to see why they should. As things stand, Labour will have 64 seats in the new Parliament, which is more than enough to govern alone.

Labour doesn’t need the Greens, and from a pragmatic standpoint would be better off without them. As both Helen Clark and Michael Cullen have reminded Labour in the past 24 hours, New Zealand elections are won in the political centre. Labour triumphed in this election by persuading voters they had nothing to fear from a second Ardern government. It’s clear that a large number of National voters switched their allegiance to Labour for one reason: to keep the Greens out of power. Labour will already be looking ahead to 2023 and will want to lock in those centrist votes, knowing it’s likely to face a far better-organised National opposition than it did this time. So it must weigh up the appeal of buddying up with the Greens, and thereby keeping faith with the hard-core left, against the risk of scaring off all those new converts to Labour.

Bear in mind too that Ardern pledged in her victory speech to govern for every New Zealander, and will be held to that. It’s hard to see how she can fulfil that promise while aligning herself with a radical left party that commanded only 7.6 percent of the vote. She will have to make a choice, and history suggests she will tack pragmatically just as previous Labour leaders have done (remember Clark and the Foreshore and Seabed?), and as she did herself when she ruled out a capital gains tax.

All that aside, from a purely democratic standpoint there’s another compelling reason why the Greens should not be in government, and it comes back to that 7.6 per cent. It’s a measure of how our thinking has been distorted by MMP that a party with so little popular support assumes it’s entitled to exercise power.  Since 1996, New Zealand has experienced tail-wagging-the-dog politics because the system gave it little choice; no party won enough votes to govern on its own. Now that a party is emphatically in a position to do so, it should act on the mandate voters have given it.

A few other thoughts about the result:

■ There will be a huge burden on David Seymour and his nine novice ACT MPs, who will probably have to do the heavy lifting in opposition to proposed hate speech laws – the crucial political and ideological battle of the next three years – and other woke initiatives. ACT shouldn’t count on receiving much support from National, which will be busy either settling scores or licking its wounds, and in any case has rarely shown much commitment to the fight against neo-Marxism.

■ Congratulations to the new “real” MPs: i.e. those former list MPs who now represent actual electorates and are therefore accountable to real people rather than to party apparatchiks. Chloe Swarbrick in Auckland Central is one; Kieran McAnulty in Wairarapa and Jo Luxton in Rangitata are others. The question for all of them is this: which comes first – loyalty to the party or duty to the electorate? It becomes especially pertinent in predominantly rural electorates where government policies could be inimical to farmers, especially if the Greens get into positions of power.

■ Kelvin Davis has rightly been excoriated for his oafish, churlish speech on election night – the one grating note during a generally good-hearted night when losing National Party candidates (Nick Smith, for one) were applauded for turning up at Labour celebrations to concede personally to their opponents, which was an example of New Zealand politics at its benign best. Any thought of the tone-deaf Davis remaining Labour’s deputy leader – or heaven forbid, becoming deputy prime minister – should have been extinguished right there and then.

■ Chris Luxon – really? If he’s the answer, then people aren’t asking the right question.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to "John" Luxon.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

What no one's talked about during this election campaign

 In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a celebrated book with the extravagant title The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued (I’m quoting from Wikipedia here) that the triumph of Western liberalism marked the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.

The rationale was that the Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of its own tyranny and sclerotic inefficiency. The decades-long Cold War that defined the post-war era was over and free-market economics (Reaganomics in the US, Thatcherism in Britain, Rogernomics in New Zealand and similar variants elsewhere, including Australia under Bob Hawke) had prevailed throughout the democratic West.

It seemed at the time that the epochal struggle between Marxism and capitalism had been emphatically resolved. There was a mood of smug triumphalism (guilty, your Honour) among advocates of what came to be termed neoliberalism.

Ha! We (and Fukuyama) could hardly have been more wrong. The supposed “end of history” turned out to be merely a brief, anesthetising lull. Far from the ideological contest between left and right being decided once and for all, the contest broke out anew in an insidious and potentially even more lethal form.  No one saw this coming; or perhaps I should say no one on the right side of politics.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Western civilisation and Western democratic values are under attack as never before in modern history. The breadth, intensity and viciousness of this attack is breathtaking.

Where it will lead is impossible to say. That will largely depend on whether society recognises what’s at stake and has the will to dig in and resist it.

At the moment, there’s little sign of that happening. Tragically, the only world leader putting up any sort of fight, Donald Trump, is a politician whose values are so bereft of any ethical coherence that if anything, his stand gives the woke left an illusion of moral credibility.

As yet there seems to be no settled term for the amorphous ideology driving this attack on Western capitalist values. It’s variously described as cultural Marxism, neo-Marxism, post-modernism, identity politics or, more colloquially, wokeism.  It has its ideological roots in Marxist theories about power structures and the oppression of supposedly disadvantaged minorities – people of colour, women, LGTBQ people, Muslims and immigrants, to name a few – by a privileged white elite. Its adherents see society not as a cohesive body of people with mutual interests but as an agglomeration of marginalised and victimised identity groups struggling to break free of repressive norms.  

Having realised decades ago that that the fight between capitalism and classical Marxist economics was lost, the extreme left opened a new front. They attacked liberal democracy’s soft underbelly: its values, conventions, institutions and philosophical foundations.

Suddenly a whole range of bedrock values, from the right to free speech to belief in fixed biological gender, was under savage attack. The underlying purpose is to destabilise society and therefore render it amenable to radical change.

Our supposedly shameful history and heritage also stand condemned. If we can be persuaded to be ashamed of our past, how much easier it becomes to persuade us that the society that grew out of it is deeply contaminated too.

As I wrote in a column in 2018: [Neo-Marxism]  grows out of the assumption that Western civilisation, and all that goes with it, is fundamentally rotten and therefore must be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.

 In the cockeyed illogic of the neo-Marxists, we should feel guilt and shame at having inherited a civilisation that has lifted untold millions of people out of poverty and introduced them to democratic government.

You can see Marx’s influence in neo-Marxism’s hostility to capitalism, its contempt for supposed bourgeois values – the family, for instance – and its emphasis on class and division.

But neo-Marxism takes classical Marxist analysis a whole lot further, examining every issue through the lenses not only of class but also of race, gender, sexual identity and any other potential point of difference that can be leveraged into a grievance.

It marches arm-in-arm with identity politics, seeing society not as a cohesive whole, sharing common interests and aspirations, but as a seething mass of oppressed minorities struggling for liberation – hence the ever-increasing number of aggrieved groups clamouring for special recognition. The result is polarisation and fragmentation.

Neo-Marxism also sets out to create a sense of continuing economic and social crisis, using this as justification for ever more intrusive state intervention and control. And it seeks to undermine our most basic understanding of human nature and society. How we see and interpret the world is dismissed by neo-Marxists as a social and political construct, a product of our conditioning. 

Nothing is fixed, not even the sex we are born with, and nothing has any objective value. Every belief and every value, no matter how soundly based in human experience and observation, is up for attack.

Paradoxically, while the neo-Marxists assail some belief systems as oppressive – Christianity for example – they make excuses for others, such as Islam, although it’s infinitely more controlling. But don’t go looking for ideological consistency in neo-Marxism; you’d be wasting your time.

Some woke ideas (most notably the belief that sexual identity is a mere societal construct, “assigned at birth” as if by some conscious and arbitrary human intervention) strike most New Zealanders as demonstrably barking mad, but that hasn't stopped them being  embraced by radical zealots and championed by sympathetic polemicists in the news media.

The speed with which all this happened caught what might loosely be termed the right off guard. The neo-Marxists have captured most of our key institutions: universities, schools, the media, the health sector, the churches, the public service, the arts and, to some extent, the courts. Even sport has succumbed (hello, Israel Folau).

Resistance to the woke agenda has been strangely subdued, enabling the activists to characterise those who openly oppose them as an extreme right-wing fringe. Note, for example, how the New Zealand media routinely stigmatises groups such as the New Conservatives as “far right” but never attaches equivalent labels to parties on the far left such as the Greens, preferring to treat them as mainstream. In doing so, the media have succeeded in creating the convenient illusion that the political centre has shifted sharply to the left.

Not only that, but by relentlessly focusing on the grievances of small, disaffected and highly vocal minority groups, the media present a warped and distorted image of society. The playwright Arthur Miller famously observed that a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, a metaphor that can be extended to all the media. But these days it’s a conversation dominated and largely controlled by left-wing political and ideological elites, and one in which the mainstream of the populace plays little part. The image of New Zealand that’s frequently presented in the media – that of a country sharply divided between a privileged white ruling class and a seething mass of the oppressed – is a gross caricature of one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies.

WE HEAR frequent reference to the "culture wars", but this is a misnomer. “War” implies two opposing sides, but in fact the offensive from the left has encountered little resistance – not because of any compelling force in its arguments (there usually isn’t any), but because the people who should be leading the counter-charge are cowering in their foxholes. Politicians who profess to adhere to conservative values have been missing in action, intimidated into silence by the sheer volume of white noise from the activist media. They apparently forget the old management adage that what you accept, you approve.

Corporate institutions have capitulated even more cravenly, scrambling to demonstrate their woke credentials by re-branding products to appease ideologically driven complainants. (A notable example was the renaming of Australia’s Coon cheese brand, a consumer favourite established in 1935 by Edward William Coon.)  Fear of boycotts is usually the driver.

A key part of the woke left’s strategy is to deny that any of this is happening, or at least that it’s part of any grand plan. On Wikipedia, the idea of cultural Marxism is dismissed as a “far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”. The Wikipedia entry goes on to characterise it as an idea peddled by religious fundamentalists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

This is a variant of the line taken in the 1950s and '60s by New Zealand Marxists who scoffed at claims of communist influence by ridiculing fears of “reds under the bed” (to which Catholic trade unionist Tony Neary, who staunchly resisted communist infiltration of the union movement, riposted that the Reds were sitting up in bed and having breakfast brought in).

As I wrote in that 2018 Dominion Post column: And how do the neo-Marxists respond when anyone resists their nihilistic theories? Typically, opposition is howled down as hate speech or met with sneering and ridicule. There’s no room in the neo-Marxist world for dissent or freedom of expression. 

The tragedy is that neo-Marxism is triumphing because the institutions of liberal, democratic government are too weak, too naïve, too complacent or too uncertain of the worth of their own values to put up a fight.

Neo-Marxism has now extended its influence far beyond universities, reaching deep into government, schools, the media, the arts and even the churches. The result is a society that is losing confidence in itself, which is precisely the neo-Marxists’ aim – because a society that has lost confidence in itself is easier to intimidate and control. 

AS I WRITE this, we are in the last days of an election campaign. If the opinion polls are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt them, Jacinda Ardern will be New Zealand’s prime minister for the next three years. The only real uncertainty is whether Labour will govern alone or in coalition with the Greens.

Either way, there will be nothing to stand in the way of a re-energised neo-Marxist agenda. New Zealand First has served as a restraint on the government since 2017 but the brakes will be off after Saturday if, as the polls predict, the Peters party fails to win a seat. (Disclosure: I held my nose and voted for Peters in the last election precisely because I reasoned – rightly, as it turned out – that NZ First could curb the ideological excesses of Labour and the Greens, but I can’t bring myself to vote the same way again. No one has done more to bring politics into disrepute in my lifetime than Peters, and even my fear of a left-wing juggernaut in government isn’t enough to justify supporting him a second time. I’ll be voting ACT, though not with whole-hearted enthusiasm.)

What might a Labour or Labour-Green government deliver? We have already had a foretaste in the form of one of the world’s most permissive abortion regimes and the proposal to legalise cannabis. Expect much more under a re-invigorated and unrestrained Ardern government, starting with laws to curb so-called “hate speech”. The putative justification – that the Human Rights Act doesn’t protect people from attacks on the basis of their religion (for which read Islam) – can be easily fixed by a simple amendment adding religion to the existing protections against discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, nationality and ethnicity. But don’t expect the government to stop there. Using the Christchurch mosque massacres as a pretext (a false one, since the absence of restrictive speech laws didn’t cause the shootings and the introduction of tough new ones wouldn’t prevent a similar occurrence), the government is likely to crack down on any speech regarded as offensive by members of supposedly vulnerable minority groups. Egged on by provocateurs in the media, an Ardern government might decide not only to lower the threshold at which speech is considered harmful, but to extend protection to other groups demanding special treatment – for example, trans-gender people.

We hear a lot from such groups about the need to embrace diversity, but the one diversity they don’t tolerate is diversity of opinion. Yet free speech is the currency of liberal democracy. Once we accept curbs on our right to engage in free and robust discussion of contentious issues (but stopping short of advocating active discrimination or incitements to violence, which present law rightly prohibits anyway), we risk becoming what might be called an illiberal democracy: one in which we may still be free to vote for the politicians of our choice, but without our votes being informed by full and open debate. Putin-style democracy, in other words.  

But it’s not just transformational legislative change that advocates of liberal democracy should worry about under a new leftist government. Even where it doesn’t take the initiative itself by passing radical or oppressive new laws, a Labour or Labour-Greens government will provide a political environment highly conducive to the advance of the woke agenda. Expect more agitation for separate institutional arrangements for Maori (including non-elected positions on councils), more unilateral adoption of Maori place names (fine, but let’s do it by referendum), more condemnation of supposed white privilege and white supremacy, more hysteria over so-called cultural appropriation, more humiliating, Salem-style public denunciations (accompanied by mandatory attendance at “cultural competency” courses) of people who refuse to toe approved  ideological lines, more pressure on companies to pander to exaggerated minority sensitivities (and grovelling apologies when they are perceived to have fallen short), more politicisation of the police, more judicial activism by courts incorporating tikanga (Maori custom) in common law, more virtue-signalling by academics and writers who proclaim themselves as socialists (and therefore unashamedly align themselves with a sorry history of tyranny, repression and economic ruin), more arrogant interference with people's freedoms by activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, more social media bullying of dissenters and more instances of “cancel culture”, where organisations are intimidated into abandoning legitimate speaking engagements for fear of disruption.

All of this is happening already, of course, but it’s likely to acquire far greater momentum with the encouragement, tacit or otherwise, of a government that doesn’t have to worry about humouring a socially conservative coalition partner.

The striking thing about the current election campaign is that barely any of this has been mentioned. It’s only slightly melodramatic to say there’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the country, but there has been little hint of this other than in New Conservatives campaign billboards calling for free speech. National, the party that supposedly represents mainstream conservative values and therefore should be manning the barricades against the neo-Marxist takeover, is timidly tip-toeing around it and pretending not to see it, possibly because it’s terrified of incurring media antagonism. Covid-19, the government response to it and the likely economic consequences have so dominated people's attention that the woke agenda has been allowed to proceed virtually unchallenged.  New Zealand in three years’ time could feel like a very different place, and not in a good way.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

It's not just the Labour Party that Collins is fighting

First up, a disclaimer. I am not, and never have been, a National Party supporter. While there have been rare occasions in the past 50 years when I’ve voted National, they are outnumbered by the times I’ve supported Labour. National won’t be getting my party vote next week, though I may yet decide to support the party’s Wairarapa candidate. (For the record, I voted for Labour’s Kieran McAnulty last time.)

It’s important that I get that declaration out of the way, because otherwise what I’m about to write will be dismissed by Labour camp followers as sour grapes from a disgruntled Tory. (That’s bound to happen anyway, but I need to spell out my position regardless.)

Now, to the point of this post. In recent weeks I’ve watched with mounting disbelief as the network formerly known as TV3 has conducted what appears to be a sustained offensive against the National Party.

Initially I gave Newshub and its political reporters the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps the run of events was against National and over time the playing field would be levelled. But that hasn’t happened, leaving me convinced that Newshub is functioning as Labour’s unofficial propaganda arm.

I shouldn’t be completely surprised, because it’s happened before (I wrote about it here). But nine years on, the bias is even more explicit and infinitely more mischievous.

No one who believes in the importance of fair and impartial news media can accept this is right. Fair, accurate and impartial journalism is never more important than during an election campaign. Some of us can remember when in every newspaper newsroom, someone was assigned to tot up the daily column inches given to each of the major parties to ensure no one was given an unfair advantage. But Newshub doesn’t appear to care about maintaining even a pretence of neutrality.

You could choose virtually any night at random to illustrate this, but let’s examine Tuesday night’s bulletin. It started with political reporter Jenna Lynch – eager-beaver apprentice to chief stirrer Tova O’Brien – asserting that National was in crisis mode following leaks to Newshub by MPs reportedly unhappy with Judith Collins’ leadership.

Taken in isolation this would be unexceptionable, but context is everything – and this story meshed neatly with an ongoing Newshub narrative portraying National as a party in disarray – a “death spiral”, in O’Brien’s words – and not fit to govern. A write-off, in other words, and not worth wasting a vote on.

“The cracks are getting wider and the wisecracks nastier,” opined Lynch – except that the wisecracks she was referring to appeared to relate not to the election campaign or Collins, but to totally unrelated grudges dating from the National leadership takeover by Todd Muller five months ago.

There was also a sneering reference to “fawning MPs” clustering around Collins on the campaign trail. But fawning MPs are a staple on the political circuit, and certainly not confined to National. Why should Collins be singled out for derision when it’s long been a bizarre convention that when party leaders appear on camera, they must be surrounded by sycophantic MPs and ministers furiously nodding in agreement at whatever the boss is saying? Because it fits the Newshub narrative, that’s why.

Lynch went on to make the unsubstantiated claim that Collins was “on the ropes”, then linked this supposed crisis to a bitchy Twitter exchange (is there any other kind?) between Muller’s former PR adviser Matthew Hooton and deposed deputy leader Paula Bennett. But the Twitter sniping appeared to have nothing to do with Collins; it was about the circumstances in which the ill-fated Muller took control back in May.  

It apparently didn’t matter that there was no connection, because it served the purpose of providing a pretext to cross to Winston Peters, who wisecracked that it explained why Collins had been shown praying (which, in turn, served as a cue for Lynch to remind us that Collins was accused of politicising her faith); and then to Ardern on the campaign trail, so that we could observe for ourselves the stark contrast between the National leader – white-anted by disloyal caucus members, according to Lynch, and looking defensive in the face of Lynch’s insistent questioning – and a relaxed and smiling prime minister untroubled by caucus disloyalty or awkward questions from hectoring reporters, surrounded by adoring fans, posing for selfies, accepting gifts from awe-struck children (“Oh, is that for me?”) and patting dogs.

I mean to say, who would you prefer as the country’s leader: Agatha Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Glinda, the Good Witch of the South from The Wizard of Oz?  No contest.

Newshub invited Ardern to put the boot into her opponents over their internal friction but she declined. After all, why risk being seen as indulging in petty schadenfreude when Lynch was doing the job for her?

But Newshub hadn’t finished with Collins and National. Next we crossed to political editor O’Brien, who pronounced the party was in turmoil (hadn’t we just spent three minutes hearing Lynch say much the same thing?) and that the writing would be on the wall for Collins if National lost the election (as it is for most major party leaders who lose elections, but hey, here’s a radical suggestion: why don’t we just wait and see?).

We then segued into an unrelated item about politicians criticising the media, the main purpose of which seemed to be for Newshub’s political journalists to pat themselves on the back for irritating people like Peters, David Seymour and Gerry Brownlee, as if getting up the noses of politicians is how the efficacy of journalism should be measured.

Since it was stripped of any explanatory context, the item would have made no sense to anyone other than the most obsessive political junkie. In most cases it wasn’t clear what the politicians were talking about, or to whom. This was not about imparting useful information to the public, which is supposedly the purpose of journalism. The purpose seemed to be to satisfy some other agenda known only to those involved.

The item included a brief clip of Brownlee, who in July was the target of repeated Newshub attacks accusing him of indulging in conspiracy theories over the government’s response to Covid-19, delivering an extraordinary rant to someone off-camera in which he said: “Your [presumably meaning Newshub’s] people give me the shits. You’re bloody lazy as buggery.”

Again, there was no explanation of what this was about. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that the audience is left out of the loop; it’s all about point-scoring. But the item did serve as the cue for yet another cross, this time to Greens co-leader James Shaw, who was presented as the voice of moderation and reason. Politicians on the campaign trail get tired, intoned Shaw solemnly, “but that’s no excuse for rudeness”. The take-home message: there are wise and civilised politicians like Shaw, and then there are feral bullies like Brownlee.

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget the long-suffering journalists who bear the brunt of these nasty attacks by politicians when all the heroic hacks are doing is trying to get to the truth of things. “Political journalists get used to it,” said O’Brien (oh, nail me to the cross), before noting with satisfaction that Brownlee had apologised “unreservedly” for swearing at the unnamed Newshub reporter. Vindication, then, and shame on the politicians for getting down in the mud, where high-minded journalists refuse to go.

O’Brien’s patronising advice to the politicians: “Chill, guys, just chill.” Not surprisingly, she said nothing about the endless baiting and provocation politicians have to put up with from scalp-hunting reporters. Politicians are not an easy class of people to feel sorry for, but political journalists sometimes make it possible.

Whatever this is, it’s not journalism as I understand it. It’s a continuation of a long-standing trend whereby journalists see themselves not as mere observers and reporters of the political process, but as active players and agitators.

Duncan Garner pioneered this style of journalism at TV3 when he was political editor and each of his successors – first Paddy Gower, now O’Brien – has taken the approach a step further. O’Brien is the worst, constantly setting out to generate conflict and controversy by catching politicians out, goading them, tripping them up and asking loaded questions that she hopes will generate headlines for the six o’clock bulletin.

There was a good example of her approach recently when Newshub led its bulletin with a story quoting Ardern as promising a crackdown on hate speech. This wasn’t a pre-planned policy statement on the government’s part; rather, O’Brien used Ardern’s unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Al Noor mosque, and an emotive statement from the local imam, to press the prime minister for an impromptu commitment on whether hate speech would be outlawed if Labour won a second term unencumbered by the killjoys of New Zealand First (who previously vetoed it).

On one level, this was an enterprising journalist seizing the moment, but it was also a significant breakthrough for the woke agenda – one that O’Brien immediately took a step further by encouraging Ardern to agree that as well as outlawing hate speech against religious groups, Labour would also apply the law to speech relating to sexual orientation (which could make it illegal to say mean things about trans-gender people), age and disability. It seemed a prime case of journalism intersecting with ideological activism.

Intriguingly, the same Newshub that sanctimoniously took Collins to task this week for supposedly making up policy “on the fly” over a promised review of Auckland Council apparently thought it quite unexceptionable that Ardern did precisely the same on hate speech, despite it being an issue with infinitely graver implications for democracy. Make of that what you will. 

There was more in similar vein in last night’s bulletin. We saw Ardern being mobbed by rapturous fans in Dunedin (O’Brien, without a hint of sarcasm, called it Ardern's people’s princess vibe) and we were again invited to contrast this with scenes of Collins getting a distinctly cool response, other than from obvious National Party plants, in the forlornly empty streets of Ponsonby. (But hang on: what party doesn’t attempt to ensure a few strategically placed sympathetic faces when the leader goes out in public? Ardern’s handlers did it too when she was in the Wairarapa recently.)

It’s impossible to convey in words the striking disparity in this coverage. It’s relentlessly positive toward Ardern – fawning isn’t too strong a word – but strives tirelessly to nobble her main rival with stories of caucus disloyalty and belittling scenes from the campaign trail. On top of all this, O’Brien had the chutzpah last night to make sympathetic noises about the ordeal Collins is being put through. To paraphrase a quotation from Robert Muldoon when talking about his bete noire The Dominion: with friends like O’Brien, who needs enemies?

I detest this style of journalism. It attempts to place journalists at the centre of the action rather than on the periphery, where they belong. They abuse their power by seeking to influence events rather than simply reporting them in a fair and balanced way and allowing the public to make up their own minds. They are every bit as guilty of abuse of power as the most despised press baron. 

And while some journalists insist on seeing themselves as morally superior to politicians, it can be argued that the reverse is true. As devious and self-serving as some politicians may be, they can still claim the moral high ground because ultimately they are accountable to someone: namely, the voters, to whom they must answer every three years. No journalists have to submit to that judgment.

I’ll finish this post by repeating what I said at the start. I’m not a National supporter and it won’t concern me in the slightest if National loses the election. In fact I’d go further and say they’ve done nothing to justify winning it.

It's no help to National that there’s a whiff of desperation in the way Collins is conducting her campaign, as evidenced by the cheesy shots of her praying, presumably in a late play for support from the Christian right. But it’s hardly surprising that she’s looking desperate when she has journalists like O’Brien and Lynch enthusiastically charting every stumble and writing her off before the voters – the only people whose opinions ultimately count for anything – have had their say. Collins isn’t competing with just the Labour Party; she also has to reckon with journalists who are clearly willing her to fail.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Hood aerodrome: unanswered questions

The following article, which the Wairarapa Times-Age published this morning under my byline, began as a letter to the editor and just sort of grew. It's unlikely to be of much interest to readers outside the Wairarapa.

From the outset, there have been unanswered questions surrounding the proposal to spend $17 million upgrading Hood aerodrome. It wasn’t clear who was driving the initiative and we weren’t told, at least initially, how much money Masterton ratepayers were expected to contribute.

As time has passed, some answers have been provided. It took several days before Masterton District Council chief executive Kath Ross told the Times-Age the council would contribute $7 million on top of the $10 million coming from the government. Information subsequently provided to me by Ms Ross’s office suggests the council’s actual commitment will be $4.2 million, with an additional $2.75 million to be sought in the form of “grants, fees, charges and co-investment” – whatever that may mean. 

Not only does it all seem a bit woolly, but ratepayers are entitled to wonder why these figures weren’t disclosed at the start. After all, the people of Masterton will effectively be paying twice for the upgrade, both as taxpayers and ratepayers. And the key question which remains unanswered is: why?

Unfortunately the council remains evasive. Concerned that no convincing case had yet been made publicly for the Hood upgrade, I made an Official Information request to the council for documentation relating to the project.

My request sought all relevant information, including any business case prepared in support of the upgrade.

What I initially got was a letter providing some additional superficial detail about what the council proposes to do, but conspicuously omitting any cost-benefit analysis or substantiation of the project’s promised economic benefits.

Not satisfied with this response, I sought further information. I asked specifically for minutes of council discussions relating to the upgrade and for budget forecasts covering projected returns and/or deficits. Under the disclosure provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, this information should have automatically been provided in response to my first request, but wasn’t.

I fared slightly better, but only slightly, on my second attempt. This produced the disclosure that there were no minutes relating to the decision to seek Provincial Growth Fund money for the upgrade, for the strange reason that councillors never formally adopted the proposal.

I was told the draft application to the PGF was “shared” with councillors in workshop sessions (how thoughtful of council officials to keep elected members in the loop). But not being regarded as official meetings, workshops happen out of the public view. So we have no idea what (if any) debate took place around the council table, or how rigorously (if at all) the proposal was assessed.

This seems an odd way to conduct council business, given that Masterton ratepayers will be required to contribute at least $4.2 million. That’s a lot of footpaths.

There was further discussion during a “Zoom briefing” of councillors under the Level 4 lockdown in April, but again no record was provided of what was said. It’s almost as if the lockdown was used as an excuse for the lack of transparency and due process.

The material provided to me by the MDC further revealed that councillors considered an item relating to the Hood development in a public-excluded session last year. All detail of that discussion was withheld on the ground that it might prejudice the council’s commercial operations.

Similarly, in its previous release of material to me, the council provided a briefing document supplied to local MPs and councillors, but blacked out all relevant figures relating to council investment in the project on the basis of “commercial sensitivity”. That document “conservatively” estimated economic benefits of $248-307 million from the Hood upgrade but didn’t explain how those figures were arrived at. For all we know, they could have been plucked out of the air.

As part of the second release of information I was also provided with a poorly written “executive summary”, of anonymous authorship, outlining the supposed costs and benefits of the upgrade. As with previously disclosed information about the project, this document was heavy on optimistic assumptions and positive-sounding buzzwords, but light on substantive data.

The executive summary concedes that the benefits of the upgrade are “uncertain” and positive outcomes are “not guaranteed”, in which case one might ask why the council is committing millions of ratepayer dollars to the project. Commercial risk is the realm of the private sector, where people gamble with their own money.

Most conspicuously, the documents fail to reveal who will use the improved aerodrome/airport and where the projected financial returns, assuming there are any, will come from. The projections rely heavily on the hope that scheduled air services will resume – but there’s no indication that any airline is eagerly waiting for Hood to be improved, and nothing to suggest that upgrading the aerodrome will magically make it profitable. Not one of the cheerleaders for the project has identified a single new user.

All we’re left with, after going through the documents released by the council,  are several mysterious references in the executive summary to “facilitated projects” at Hood, all detail of which was blacked out – again, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

We can conclude from this that the council is probably involved in negotiations with an undisclosed party or parties regarding some form of commercial activity at Hood, not necessarily related to passenger services, and has been persuaded that it’s the best if the public is kept in the dark.

Those with suspicious minds might wonder whether the council has been sweet-talked into bankrolling an ambitious, aviation-related project in which ratepayers could end up carrying the commercial risk – in which case we’re entitled to know what our officials are signing us up for.

Otherwise the rationale for the upgrade remains unclear. A cynical explanation is that taxpayers and Masterton ratepayers are bankrolling a Labour Party strategy to win the Wairarapa seat back from National.

Mayor Lyn Patterson’s column in the Times-Age last week did nothing to clarify things. Presented with another opportunity to mount a convincing case for the Hood upgrade, Ms Patterson resorted to more airy, feel-good platitudes about putting Masterton on the map.  

We’ve still seen nothing to indicate the upgraded aerodrome will generate an economic return and thus justify the investment of ratepayers’ money that might be better spent on other services or facilities. And perhaps even more disturbing is the impression that councillors have been passive spectators in whatever is proposed.

Best-case scenario: the council is secretly talking to a prospective Hood user who promises an economic bonanza but wants the ratepayers to pick up the tab. Worst-case scenario: both the council and the government are taking a massive punt with our money and we can only cross our fingers and hope for the best. Either way, the facts should be put before us. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Is the public bankrolling Labour's bid to reclaim Wairarapa? It certainly looks that way

Jacinda Ardern spent Friday campaigning in the Wairarapa. Labour is targeting the National-held seat and is confident it can win.

The party’s candidate, list MP Kieran McAnulty, is an ambitious, energetic local with a high profile. In 2017 he got within 3000 votes of the sitting MP, the lacklustre Alastair Scott, and this time he faces a first-time National candidate, farmer Mike Butterick, who is not well known.

Although it’s essentially a rural electorate, Wairarapa has been held by Labour before – most recently by Georgina Beyer from 1999 till 2005 – and an influx of new residents, many of them from the Labour stronghold of Wellington, could help tilt the scales in Labour’s favour.

Ardern’s charm offensive on Friday gives context to the otherwise puzzling announcement in July that the government will invest $10 million in an upgrading of Masterton’s Hood aerodrome, a facility currently used mainly by topdressing planes and recreational flyers. That sum will be augmented with a multi-million-dollar contribution from Masterton District Council. (I say multi-million because the actual sum isn't clear. Council chief executive Kath Ross told the Wairarapa Times-Age in July that the council would contribute $7 million, but information subsequently released to me by her office indicates the actual commitment will be $4.2 million, with an additional $2.75 million to be sought in the form of "grants, fees, charges and co-investment". Make of that what you will.)

The announcement of the Hood upgrade came out of the blue and makes sense only when seen as an enticement to vote Labour. In other words, it’s a prime example of the old-fashioned pork-barrel politics most of us thought had been consigned to history decades ago.

The entire process behind the government’s decision to fund the upgrade, and the buy-in by the district council, has been strikingly opaque. It’s not clear where the initiative came from and no substantive business case or cost-benefit analysis has been made public. The probable reason is that none exists.  

Masterton ratepayers have seen nothing to indicate the upgraded aerodrome will generate an economic return and thus justify the investment of ratepayers’ money that might be better spent on other services or facilities. As I pointed out on this blog in July, not one of the various cheerleaders for the project – neither McAnulty, Grant Robertson (who announced it), Ron Mark nor Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson – has identified a single new user of the upgraded aerodrome.

Scheduled air services in and out of Masterton have been tried twice in the past 20 years. In both cases they were abandoned because they made no money.

In an attempt to establish the economic rationale (assuming there is one) behind the Hood project, I twice sought information from Masterton District Council under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. The responses added little to what was already known, reinforcing my suspicion that both the government and council have committed public money to the upgrade based on airy assumptions that are not backed by any substantive business case.

Among other things, the council provided me (but only after I approached them a second time, after a totally inadequate response to my first request) with a poorly written “executive summary”, of anonymous authorship, that was heavy on positive-sounding buzzwords but had all the substance of candy floss.

The documents fail to reveal who will use the improved aerodrome/airport or where the projected financial returns, assuming there are any, will come from. The projections rely heavily on the hope that scheduled air services will resume – but there’s no indication that any airline is eagerly waiting for Hood to be improved, and nothing to suggest that upgrading the aerodrome will magically make it profitable.

Perhaps most disturbingly, there’s nothing to indicate that Masterton district councillors subjected the project to any rigorous analysis or even detailed discussion. No minutes, no formal resolutions: zilch.

I can only repeat what I wrote on this blog on July 20: in the absence of any compelling case for the upgrade, we’re left with no other conclusion than that it’s a brazen vote-buying exercise - one that Masterton ratepayers have been suckered into subsidising by a council that displays little regard for responsible financial stewardship and even less for transparency.