Thursday, December 23, 2010

Just another lunchtime at the food court ...

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 22.)

The scene is a food court in a busy shopping mall. It’s lunchtime and the food court is crowded.

You can see that it’s the Christmas shopping season. As a video camera pans around the mall a woman in a Santa Claus hat is playing Jingle Bells on a clunky old piano.

The camera then settles on an attractive young woman who rises to her feet from one of the dining tables. She appears to be talking on a cellphone.

The ringing notes of an organ are heard and suddenly the young woman bursts into song. “Hallelujah!” she sings. It’s the instantly familiar opening of Handel’s famous chorus from The Messiah. Her powerful soprano rings out through the mall, stopping the lunchtime diners mid-mouthful.

“Hallelujah!” a tall young man roars back in a deep, rich bass from the other side of the food court.

Within moments, others have risen to their feet and joined in the singing – dozens of them, scattered all around the food court. Some stand on tables and chairs. Shoppers look on in delight and astonishment. Children are wide-eyed with wonder.

The Hallelujah Chorus lasts nearly five minutes and it is performed with great gusto and élan. When the singing has finished, shoppers applaud and cheer. Then everyone goes back to their lunch and normalcy returns.

It’s a marvellous example of the modern phenomenon known as a flash mob, in which a large group of people assemble suddenly in a public place, perform some sort of unusual act, then melt away as quickly as they appeared.

In this case the venue was the Welland Seaway Mall in Ontario, Canada. The singers were from a local community choir – an extremely good one, I might add – and the mall management were in on the secret in advance.

Eight weeks of planning and rehearsal reportedly went into the event, which was captured by seven video cameras strategically positioned around the food court. The footage, which was skilfully filmed and edited, was put on the video sharing website YouTube and quickly went viral, as they say. (If you enter the words “Christmas Food Court Hallelujah” into Google, you should find it straight away.)

The choir staged its flash mob on November 13 and when I last looked at the video three days ago, it had been seen more than 22 million times. However that doesn’t mean that more than 22 million people have seen it, as many people would have watched it more than once.

I certainly did, and quickly overcame the natural journalistic scepticism that made me wonder whether it was some sort of commercial stunt. I noted that there was no conductor in evidence, for instance, which might have made things difficult for an amateur choir used to being led by one. But I could see no sign that it was a hoax, and in any case, what would be the point?

I’ve viewed the video three or four times now (I’ve sent it to several other people too) and it’s impossible to watch without feeling emotional.

What makes it so moving? Several things. First, and obviously, it’s the power of the music itself. The Hallelujah Chorus is said to have so moved King George II the first time he heard it that he rose to his feet in admiration, thus giving birth to a tradition followed by audiences to this day.

But there’s more to it than that. There’s the obvious joy of the singers too; they are smiling and their eyes are glowing. And then there are the expressions on the faces of the onlookers: some puzzled, but most beaming with pleasure. Many record the experience on their cellphones, as if to prove to themselves later that it wasn’t all a figment of their imagination.

Now here’s my point. There is something about the Hallelujah Chorus that is irresistibly uplifting. You cannot hear it without feeling inspired.

Where does this come from? What Muse propelled Handel to write a piece of music so stirring that it still enthrals people nearly three centuries later?

I’m not what you’d call a deeply religious person, but it seems to me that great works of art such as The Messiah are a powerful argument that some sort of divine force is at work. I feel the same about scenery so magnificent that it leaves you groping for words. Such phenomena surely don’t happen by accident or random circumstance, or arise out of a vacuum.

It’s not just the power to create profound music that suggests some sort of divine inspiration. The gift of creating music, such as Handel possessed, is something given to very few, yet nearly all of us have the capacity to appreciate such music and be moved by it. Where does that powerful emotional response come from? It seems arrogant to assume that it has come about through an almost mechanistic process of evolution. There must surely be some deeper explanation.

There is a rarely used word that can be applied here. The word is numinous, which can broadly be defined as awe-inspiring, profoundly spiritual or characterised by the sense of a deity’s presence. It’s a word that describes some things that are beyond human understanding.

There is something numinous about spiritual music like The Messiah, although these days we hear very little Christmas music that could be so described. The songs that bombard us on the radio and in department stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas are almost wholly secular, as are most of the Christmas cards on sale.

Yet many people do get at least a vague sense of the numinous at this time of year, if at no other. That’s why Christmas church attendances are far higher than at any other time. More than any other Christian festival, Christmas seems to resonate with people who otherwise have little place for religion in their lives.

One thing is certain: I get a strong sense of numinous forces at work when I watch that YouTube video. Check it out and see for yourself.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bring us more caviar, waiter

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 21.)

THE RECENT Treasury update reminded us that the economy is in a parlous state. The Budget deficit is expected to top $11 billion, $2.4 billion more than was forecast only a few months ago. The government continues to borrow a staggering $250 million a week - some say more - to keep things ticking over.

These are figures to make your eyes water. Yet the country remains in a state of denial, partying as if the illusory boom of the Clark-Cullen years never faltered.

Economist Kerry McDonald, chairman of the government’s Savings Working Group, warns that we’re still spending too much and saving too little. Unless our high foreign debt is cut, he says, we risk a “sudden and destructive economic shock”.

Yet a timid National government refuses to ease the pressure by selling state assets, modifying our unaffordable super scheme or axing inherited Labour election bribes such as interest-free student loans and Working for Families.

On the contrary, it’s throwing even more money around, such as the extra $3.8 million in sports funding announced last week. Talk about mixed messages.

Perhaps the ever-chirpy John Key knows something we don’t. Maybe there’s a secret offshore oilfield about to come into production and wipe the national debt overnight. If so, he should tell us – that is, once he’s dealt with more pressing matters, such as singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town with the breakfast DJs on The Edge.

Meanwhile, the national sense of entitlement continues unabated. Secondary teachers are threatening to strike again next year for higher pay and some arts organisations are indignant at being asked to supply more information to Creative New Zealand – the impertinence of it! – before they get their annual taxpayer handouts.

This serves as a reminder that it’s one thing for governments to buy support by doling out money when times are good, but quite another to claw it back when the going gets tough. Even when everyone knows the economy is taking, no one wants to take a cut.

On the property market, we’re told that demand remains strong for “high-end” houses and apartments in central Auckland and Wellington. It’s surely a mark of our capacity for self-delusion that yet another “premium” apartment development, this time in the former Overseas Passenger Terminal, will come on the market early next year. Just what we needed.

Perhaps the most bizarre symptom of the national mood of denial, at least among those who spend other people’s money, was the announcement that Wellington City Council has given a $10,000 grant to cover the cost of an outdoor exhibition of lesbian art called All the Cunning Stunts.

Crisis? What crisis? Let’s have more caviar, waiter. Just put it on the card.

* * *

TWO WEEKS after her encounter with John Howard, in which she treated the former four-term Australian prime minister as if he were only marginally preferable to a Nazi war criminal, Radio New Zealand host Kim Hill interviewed Don Letts, a peripheral figure in the British punk and reggae movements of the 1970s.

It was interesting to note the contrasting tone of the two interviews. With Howard, Hill relentlessly went for the jugular; but with the undistinguished Letts, whose politics seem firmly stuck in the 1960s protest era, she was chummy and empathetic to the point of being ingratiating.

His wistful lament that Brits no longer rioted in the streets like they did in the good old days – just one of several juvenile statements that a sharp interviewer might have asked him to elaborate on – passed without so much as a questioning eyebrow.

A tigress with Howard, Hill purrs like a kitten with anti-establishment figures like Letts. The inconsistency is striking.

* * *

IT’S A common complaint about America that it’s so big, Americans don’t understand there’s another world outside. They don’t need to.

I am made aware of this every time I try to order a Christmas or birthday present online for my son and daughter-in-law, who live in California. I have yet to find an American retail website that recognises any address other than an American one.

They rub salt into the wound by allowing you to go through every step of the process – selecting your gift, choosing a card to go with it, composing a message – then thwart you at the last hurdle, when you’re required to enter your personal details.

Resorting to subterfuge last week I tried to enter my son’s US address as my own, but even that didn’t work. The system obviously spotted an anomaly between my credit card details and address, and disallowed the transaction.

I’ve had similar problems with Australian retailers’ websites, but have learned how to deceive them into thinking New Zealand is part of Australia. Unfortunately the defences of US websites are much harder to crack. They refuse to recognise that there’s any country outside America – or if there is, that anyone from such a godforsaken place could possibly want to do business with them. So much for the global economy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another word for Denis's list

In his weekly slot on Kathryn Ryan’s programme yesterday, my old (sorry, former) colleague Denis Welch ran through some of the media clichés, buzzwords and neologisms that got on his nerve in 2010.

Today I emailed Denis to suggest that next time he compiles such a list, he might want to include the word “inked”, as in “When [Sonny Bill] Williams inked a deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union”, which I saw on the back page of today’s Dominion Post. This was the second time I’d seen this usage in a matter of days.

Sports reporters seem more prone than most to fatuous clichés, but it has taken them a while to latch on to this one. I seem to recall that it was part of the house jargon of the showbiz paper Variety as long ago as the 1970s (along with such terms as “skedded”, as in “the series has been skedded to screen next fall”).

As Denis says, these terms are used to make stories seem more racy or momentous than they really are (or to “sex them up”, to use another neologism) – but I agree with him that they quickly wear thin.

King Tuheitia's just not up to it

Here’s my take, for what it’s worth, on the current upheavals in the Tainui tribe. I stress that I claim no expertise in this area and have no inside knowledge. However this doesn’t prevent me (or anyone else, for that matter) from reaching my own conclusions based on what I read and hear.

King Tuheitia is not up to the job. He lacks the mana, the dignity and, dare I say it, the integrity of his late mother, who would doubtless have been appalled at his use of the f-word when abusing members of his own tribe on the marae last Saturday.

I suspect the king isn’t very bright and leans heavily on advisers like Tainui chairman Tuku Morgan. I’m not sure that Morgan is terribly bright either, but you have to credit him with a degree of cunning and political nous, to say nothing of ambition. A former hack journalist and utterly undistinguished MP, Morgan has adroitly manoeuvred himself into a position of real influence and power not only within Tainui but in Maoridom at large. (People forget that Morgan was one of the so-called waka jumpers who quit New Zealand First for the Mauri Pacific Party, formed by his equally opportunistic brother-in-law Tau Henare. After Mauri Pacific was deservedly annihilated in the 1999 elections, Henare fled to National - and was disgracefully rewarded with the chairmanship of the Maori Affairs select committee - while Morgan set about building a power base within Maoridom. )

Tainui has a complex hierarchical structure and has been bedevilled for years by power struggles. These were documented in the New Zealand Herald yesterday in an article by Dr Rawiri Taonui, who described Morgan as the puppet master behind the throne.

Morgan is up to his eyeballs in the current furore because Tania Martin, the woman King Tuheitia summarily sacked as the head of the tribe’s representative body, was making waves over spending by the executive board which Morgan chairs.

A critical report written by Martin alleged that during the past seven months, board members had received $546,000 in fees and spent $314,000 on travel and $467,000 on legal fees. The report also claimed that a 10-day trip to Australia by Morgan and two Tainui staff cost the tribe $25,000.

Morgan and the king say the report is inaccurate, but Morgan does appear to have a taste for the good life; in 1997, as a director of Aotearoa Television, he spent $4000 of public money on clothes, including $89 on a pair of designer underpants.

Tania Martin’s dismissal has since been reversed. Her position was an elected one and it appears that the king and his inner circle have been forced to accept that her sacking was unconstitutional.

What we are witnessing in Tainui is a classic conflict between a privileged, hierarchical leadership that appears to resent being called to account – that much was obvious from the King’s abusive language last weekend – and a democratically elected representative body which, while still respectful toward the hereditary leadership, wants some answers. A bit like the old Tonga, really.

Is it anyone else’s business? Yes it is, because Tainui is numerically one of the biggest iwi and traditionally has had the ear of government. It is also one of the wealthiest tribes, thanks partly to the $170 million Treaty settlement of 1995, and is a major economic force within the Waikato region. It’s also represented (by Morgan, of course) on the powerful iwi leadership group which is helping shape government policy on such crucial issues as the foreshore and seabed and the ownership of minerals.

Given its influence in national affairs and its potential contribution to Maori economic wellbeing, what happens in Tainui is everyone’s business – though I imagine King Tuheitia and Tuku Morgan would forcefully argue otherwise.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thanks for setting it out so clearly, Tuku

In today’s Dominion Post, Tainui iwi chairman Tukoiroirangi "Underpants" Morgan obligingly provides all the reason anyone needs to be deeply suspicious of the foreshore and seabed legislation.

Commenting on the announcement that Labour had withdrawn its support for the government’s Marine and Coastal Area Bill, Morgan reiterated that the legislation still had Tainui’s backing.

The biggest issue with the bill, he said, was that it set the bar too high for iwi to prove customary use of the coastline, and thus establish customary rights.

He then said that the main difference between National’s proposed legislation and Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 was that the National bill enabled iwi to go “head to head with the minister in relation to determining its customary rights and interests”.

Precisely. That is the bill’s most odious feature.

It’s one thing for Maori claims to customary rights to be properly tested in open court, but quite another for iwi leaders such as Morgan, representatives of a privileged tribal elite, to do sweetheart deals with the Minister for Treaty Settlements, Chris Finlayson, behind closed doors.

The good news is that thanks largely to a sustained campaign by the Coastal Coalition, support for National’s bill is rapidly unravelling. This is evident from Finlayson’s increasingly shrill attacks on opponents, whom he has labelled “clowns” and “paranoids”.

Only one more MP needs to do a flip-flop before National and the Maori Party lose the numbers to push the bill through. Rumblings of discontent in the National caucus are being reported almost daily. Even Labour has belatedly come around to the view, promoted by ACT and favoured by National when in opposition (in other words, before political expediency persuaded it to cosy up to the Maori Party), that the only place to resolve claims over ownership of the foreshore and seabed is in the courts.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The current system works - end of story

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 8.)

I can think of few things that excite me less than a royal romance, so I was unmoved by the announcement that Prince William was to wed his long-term girlfriend, Kate Middleton.

Of course the engagement triggered a feeding frenzy among the trashy women’s magazines and the hypocritical British tabloids. There’s only one story that thrills them more than the announcement of an impending royal marriage, and that’s the breakup of a royal marriage. The very same publications that gushed over the royal engagement would feast gratefully on any rumours that the relationship was coming unstuck.

In New Zealand, the announcement brought a predictably low-key, phlegmatic response. We no longer display the demonstrative enthusiasm for royalty that characterised previous generations.

My guess is that most New Zealanders would quietly approve of the match between William and Kate, because both seem basically likeable people without any black marks against their names, but that’s about as far as it goes. I don’t think the talkback lines were running hot with excitement when the marriage was confirmed, and I certainly didn’t see any joyous outbursts of flag-waving patriotism.

Does this apparently lukewarm response imply that support for the monarchy in New Zealand is flagging? I certainly wouldn’t make that assumption.

New Zealanders are perfectly capable of making a clear differentiation between a purely sentimental attachment to the royal family and a pragmatic appreciation of the monarchy’s constitutional role. They are two quite distinct things.

The sentimental attachment has certainly waned over the years. There is still a lot of respect and admiration for the Queen, but the highly publicised antics of her immediate offspring have shattered any public delusions about royalty.

These days only the most naïve, diehard royalist places the House of Windsor on a pedestal. They have been exposed as flawed human beings like the rest of us – and none more so than Prince Charles, who seems increasingly likely to be bypassed in favour of his son as the next king.

Yet the place of the monarchy in our constitutional arrangements appears to remain secure, despite a tireless campaign by a noisy (if small) republican movement.

This is because most New Zealanders are smart enough to recognise that the monarchy as an institution is much bigger than, and separate from, the personalities of the royal family.

Former Australian prime minister John Howard had a perfect rejoinder when Kim Hill, in an interview on Radio New Zealand recently, imperiously demanded to know why Australia hadn’t become a republic. Howard could have pointed out that Australians had voted against republicanism in a 1999 referendum (something you’d expect Hill to know), but he had an even better answer. The current system works. End of story.

It works well for us, too, and for Canada. We all retain the British monarch as head of state not because of some anachronistic sentimental attachment, but because it’s an arrangement that suits us.

Whatever its origins, it is now a pragmatic arrangement rather than an emotional one. It gives us a head of state who is above politics and it leaves us free to determine our own policies and directions in accordance with whatever our elected government determines to be in the national interest.

To me, that’s the beauty of the monarchy: it gives us an apolitical head of state who has what are called reserve constitutional powers that are only vaguely defined and that everyone expects will rarely, if ever, be used. In some ways it’s a constitutionally fragile setup, based on conventions and understandings - nods and winks, almost - rather than a formal, prescriptive document; yet it’s remarkably robust at the same time.

It has served us well, and most people are rightly wary of any republican alternative that could place yet more power in the hands of the political elite by way of an elected president. No matter how that president was to be elected, it would be a political position; there’s no getting around it. And we should have learned from bitter experience that, given the chance, the politicians will shaft us every time.

I have to laugh when republicans portray their opponents as swooning royalists held captive by sentiment and by grovelling loyalty to the “Mother Country”. Because invariably, the arguments the republicans themselves fall back on are sentimental rather than rational.

Most often, they make an emotional appeal to our desire to “govern ourselves” rather than be ruled by a distant head of state who may deign to visit us once every few years. But in every respect we do govern ourselves. Can the republicans point out any occasion in recent decades when our autonomy was compromised, or when the Queen interfered in matters of state?

Australians can cite the Governor-General’s sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975, but even with that experience – and with their convict heritage, which gives them far more reason than us to resist any hint of subjugation by the British – our Aussie cousins still choose to have the Queen as head of state in preference to someone put forward by the political class.

As for New Zealand, I’ve racked my brains and can’t think of any time when we were forced into any decision inimical to our interests simply because the Queen was our head of state.

It’s true than until the 1980s the government frequently deferred to the Brits in matters of trade and foreign relations, most notably when Sir Robert Muldoon gave indirect support to Britain during the Falklands War; but that had nothing do with influence or pressure from Buckingham Palace. Those were judgments made by our elected leaders in accordance with their perception of where our political interests lay at the time, in the same way as a more recent government made a contentious decision to send troops to Afghanistan.

The truth is that in most respects we function as a republic already, with the obvious difference that we have no president. Political rhetoric about having an elected New Zealander as head of state may have a shallow emotional appeal, but a republican New Zealand wouldn’t be any more independent or autonomous than it is now – and to suggest otherwise is dishonest.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Has Chalkie left the building?

Is this a first?

The Chalkie column in the business section of today’s Dominion Post has a footnote identifying the writer as finance journalist David Hargreaves.

The Chalkie column has been around for many years, in more than one publication (it was previously in the late Warren Berryman’s Independent), but to the best of my knowledge, has always previously been anonymous. The column appears to have been modelled on The National Business Review's Shoeshine, which goes back even further.

The general assumption seemed to be that Chalkie was someone directly involved in the sharemarket who, for obvious reasons, didn’t want his or her identity revealed. It was read for its inside knowledge and often irreverent tone rather than for the quality of its writing.

With today’s column, however, I detect a distinct change of tone. Hargreaves writes like a journalist. Chalkie never did.

My guess (and I stress it’s purely a guess) is that the real Chalkie has left the building and Hargreaves has taken over. If I’m right, the column will almost certainly be written in a more orthodox journalistic style – but will the information be as good?

A ruinous and oppressive ideology

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 7.)

I NEVER cease to be amazed by the number of intelligent people who proudly declare themselves to be socialists, as if this were a badge of honour. A recent example was Gary McCormick, a man I otherwise admire, who proclaimed his socialist leanings on Jim Mora’s radio programme.

Socialism has been disastrous wherever it has been tried. It is oppressive politically and ruinous economically. Why would anyone align themselves with such a failed ideology?

In the case of people like McCormick, it can only be because of a sentimental desire to be seen as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the underdog. (It shouldn’t be forgotten that McCormick is a Titahi Bay boy, and therefore a product of the Labour heartland.)

Strangely, it remains unfashionable to pronounce oneself unashamedly to be a capitalist. Yet all of the world’s freest and most prosperous countries are capitalist democracies – and usually with a Christian heritage too, although it’s even less fashionable to point that out.

Unbridled capitalism is a bad thing. Even the father of capitalism, John Stuart Mill, saw the need to curb its excesses and inequalities. But history has proved that the combination of a capitalist economy and a liberal democratic state provides the best possible conditions for freedom, human rights and economic progress.

This is confirmed by the masses of people from repressive socialist states who have risked everything to migrate to the capitalist democracies of Europe and North America. They clearly recognise that capitalism works for underdogs as much as for anyone else.

* * *

SITTING down recently to watch a DVD of the award-winning Australian film Jindabyne, I was struck by a warning notice to viewers. “Members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are advised that this film may contain images and/or voices of deceased persons”, it said.

This seemed to open up limitless possibilities. If the makers of all films and TV programmes were to issue warnings about who might be offended, where would it end? Just about every film contains images or dialogue that might upset someone.

Roughly 90 percent of what’s screened on television is offensive to me, for a whole lot of reasons, but I don’t expect an advisory notice (“The following programme will render you brain-dead”) at the start of every show.

The question, then, is why should a specific warning be issued to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders about the contents of Jindabyne, which revolves around the discovery of a murdered Aboriginal woman’s body in a remote river?

I don’t recall ever seeing such a “cultural” warning on a film ever before. So what makes Jindabyne different?

The implication is either that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders’ sensibilities are more deserving of protection than other people’s, or that these two ethnic minorities are too fragile to be exposed to the artistic freedom of expression that everyone else takes for granted.

Either way, the warning seems an example of condescending political correctness of the most cringe-worthy type.

* * *

I AM MORE convinced than ever that the people excitedly talking up the benefits of social media such as Twitter are a noisy, evangelistic minority – eager adopters of whatever is deemed the Latest Big Thing.

They deride non-adopters as technologically challenged dinosaurs. But to put this idea to the test, I questioned my own offspring and their partners – all of them in the age group that supposedly embraces Twitter, and all of them comfortable in the digital world.

There are seven of them aged between 26 and 40 and not one uses Twitter. A daughter-in-law said Twitter just seemed like a great time-waster, which was exactly my impression.

Another daughter-in-law commented: “It falls into my ‘why would anyone think up something so annoying?’ category.” And one of my daughters said that in her circle of friends, only one has a Twitter account, and then only because it’s a requirement for a media studies course she’s doing.

The social media evangelists like to give the impression that anyone who doesn’t tweet or have a Facebook page is a loser, but in fact it’s social media users who are the minority. At a presentation in Auckland recently I heard a speaker from one of the country’s leading advertising agencies, which closely monitor social trends, dismiss social media as “10 percent talking to 10 percent”. But you wouldn’t guess it from all the attention they create.

* * *

LAST Tuesday night, in prime time, four of the five free-to-air channels were screening food programmes. Is this some sort of bizarre record?

At 7.30, TV Two had My Kitchen Rules, TV3 had The Kitchen Job and Prime showed Nigella Kitchen, starring that woman with a figure like an overstuffed sofa who seems to be every ageing Englishman’s wet dream. Prime then screened River Cottage at 8.05 and TV One had Jamie’s Food Escapes at 8.30.

I like my tucker as much as the next bloke, but this is madness. The food porn fad is out of control.

Monday, December 6, 2010

As Fleetwood Mac once sang, Oh well ....

The latest edition of the Wellington-based glossy magazine FishHead is out. It includes an article by me about Wairarapa wines, entitled Wairarapa 101.

Unfortunately the first paragraph was inadvertently omitted. This is disappointing because without it, the paragraphs immediately following it don’t make any sense.

For the record, the article was supposed to start: Think of Wairarapa wine and the name that’s likely to spring to mind is Martinborough, a once sleepy farming town that seemed headed for oblivion until it re-invented itself as a fashionable wine village on the strength of its exceptional pinot noir.

If you bought FishHead and scratched your head over the puzzling start of the article, now you know.

Apparently the magazine’s designer revised the layout of the article at a late stage and in the process, dropped the crucial sentence and no one noticed.

You can either rage or sigh in these circumstances. I’ve got to the point in my life where it’s easier, and more life-prolonging, to sigh.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why didn't anyone think of this before?

A few days ago, The Dominion Post published an opinion piece by former Labour cabinet minister Steve Maharey, now vice-chancellor of Massey University. It was quite late at night when I read it the first time and it didn’t seem to make much sense. So I read it again this morning, when my mind was clearer, and it still didn’t make much sense.

Maharey is a past master of the fuzzy, impenetrable marshmallow-speak we heard so much of during the years of the Clark government. He doesn’t like what the government’s Welfare Working Group is up to (surprise!) so he proposes an alternative that is kinder to beneficiaries. But if you analyse the verbiage, which is not easy because it’s so glib and imprecise, what Maharey seems to be arguing for is the continuation of the status quo, dressed up as something new called “social development”.

Maharey writes: “What we need is an approach that will harmonise social policy with economic development and identify social programmes that make a contribution to economic growth.

“I call this alternative social development because it provides a justification for redistribution by advocating resources be put into social investments that will impact positively on the economy."

We’ve heard all this before; it’s classic New Labour “Third Way” stuff. We were bombarded with it by Labour’s spin factory between 1999 and 2008. But as is so often the case, Maharey is conspicuously light on concrete proposals. He prefers to deal in vague, utopian prescriptions that place a caring, paternalistic state at front and centre.

“Social policy would be seen as investment that makes a contribution to individual and collective prosperity,” he writes. “There is also a link in the other direction because economic growth is able to be harnessed to social ends.

“As we know, left to itself economic growth can lead to very unsatisfactory outcomes like poverty, social division, crime and conflict. A social development approach advocates strategies that increase employment, lift incomes and make a positive contribution to the life of the community. Once a social development approach is adopted, a policy programme readily takes shape.

“Instead of focusing on income transfers and maintenance programmes, the focus becomes one of investing so people can participate in the productive economy.”

Goodness me, he makes it all sound so easy. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

Rather than being stigmatised and vilified, Maharey says, beneficiaries need practical assistance to gain skills and find employment that pays a living wage. He then reels off a textbook example of airy-fary New Labour mumbo-jumbo:

“Social development wants more than people in jobs. It wants higher levels of education, individuals and communities building assets, communities working together to improve their lot, and support to start small businesses. It wants to see social programmes that do not make a difference closed and existing programmes carefully monitored for effectiveness.

“It wants a social support system that is about opportunity instead of maintaining people on a benefit. More broadly, social development is about making sure that no matter what a person’s background or circumstances are, they get a chance to get on with life.”

In other words, if we all hold hands, close our eyes tightly and think positive thoughts, everything will be grand. The dead weight of welfare dependency that has sandbagged the New Zealand economy for decades will magically be eliminated. We’ll thrill to miraculous stories of personal transformation as lifelong beneficiaries, inspired by caring social workers, cast off their drug habits, cease their indiscriminate rooting, enrol in life-changing tertiary courses and end up making taxpayer-funded hip-hop videos for New Zealand On Air.

Maharey thinks all children should have a KiwiSaver-style account established for them at birth. He suggests that superannuation should be made compulsory and part of the savings made available for more small business start-ups. It’s the social democrat’s vision of the perfect world: more big government, more bureaucrats meddling in the private sector where they have no business and less expertise, more tertiary institutions offering useless courses, and more jobs for third-rate lecturers and teachers (who can, of course, be counted on to vote Labour for fear the gravy train will be derailed).

The social democratic states of western Europe are currently unravelling largely because of this naïve belief in the virtues of big government, but Maharey remains a true believer. If his thinking is representative of the Labour Party at large, it suggests they have learned nothing and still can’t be trusted.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More discouraging news for the neo-wowsers

Police report that in the latest weekend drink-driving blitz, on the North Shore, more than 10,000 drivers were stopped. Of those, 61 were over the legal limit.

That equates to 0.61 percent. I find this interesting because I worked out the percentages of over-the-limit drivers following two other recent blitzes and they were remarkably similar: 0.58 percent and 0.60 percent.

Now it can be argued that this still is too high, but that’s a hopelessly utopian view. The significant thing is that these figures are not only strikingly consistent, but are entirely at odds with the myth promoted by the anti-liquor panic merchants that our roads are swarming with murderous drunks.

The figures suggest to me that the sustained advertising campaign against drink-driving has been effective, and that more than 99 percent of New Zealand motorists are careful not to consume too much before getting behind the wheel.

This is discouraging news for the hysterical anti-liquor lobby, so don’t expect them to draw attention to it.

The other interesting thing about the North Shore blitz is that some drivers were two or three times over the legal alcohol limit. Senior Sergeant Brett Batty was quoted as saying it was disappointing that so many drivers were “so far” above the limit.

This seems to confirm that the real risk on the roads is posed by a tiny minority of seriously heavy drinkers, not by drivers with alcohol levels of between .05 and .08 – yet it’s this latter group that the neo-wowsers are demanding that the government crack down on.

An APB for Customline Ford

The most entertaining story in today’s Dominion Post (well, in the edition that circulates in the Wairarapa, at least) is a single paragraph at the foot of the page 3 briefs. It reports that police are looking for a 21-year-old Wairarapa man who has breached bail conditions. His name is Customline Ford.

My guess is that he has ties to the Mongrel Mob. I remember reading many years ago that in Mob culture, the V8 Ford is revered as a modern-day version of the waka, or Maori war canoe. Customline (a model that Ford USA brought out in the mid-50s, and which my father once drove) would be an inspired fit for someone born into a Mob family with the auspicious surname of Ford. Admittedly it's a bit of a mouthful, but it could be conveniently abbreviated to Cuzzy. Perfect.

I also remember once reading a death notice in which several members of the deceased’s family had names such as Galaxie and Zephyr. When you think about it, the possibilities are almost limitless: Fairmont, Falcon, Futura (for a girl?) and Zodiac, to name a few. Thunderbird and Mustang seem even more suited to gang culture. Sadly, more recent Ford model names such as Mondeo and Fiesta seem a tad wimpy and metrosexual.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sydney needs to look over its shoulder

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 24.)

The first time I went to Australia, in early 1972, it was like travelling to another planet.

Melbourne’s then-new Tullamarine Airport terminal (where I landed in a Lockheed Electra, last of Air New Zealand’s turbo-prop airliners) was vast and ultra-modern after Wellington’s scruffy converted hangar.

On the freeway into the city I was struck by the unfamiliar preponderance of orange brick houses. For lunch on that first day I was taken to an up-market Chinese restaurant where the menu included exotic dishes I’d never heard of, still less eaten.

Pub conversations with my new Australian workmates were a challenge. They seemed to speak a different language.

Australian seemed brash, racy, cosmopolitan and sophisticated after isolated, insular New Zealand. It was a society that had clearly taken its cue from the rampant capitalism of America rather than the relative austerity of Britain, which served as New Zealand’s model.

The Aussies had Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut when takeaways in New Zealand still meant fish and chips. Restaurants were classier and infinitely more varied, the clothing was more stylish, the cars were newer and there were four TV channels. I felt like a bit of a yokel.

How things have changed since then. Australian houses are still made of brick while most of ours are made of timber, but in virtually every other respect the cultural gap has narrowed to the point where it’s almost imperceptible.

Downtown Brisbane or Sydney seem not too different from Auckland or Wellington. The people are no better dressed, the cars are no flasher and the pubs and restaurants are certainly no more sophisticated. Even the names on many of the shops in the giant malls are the same – evidence of the homogeneous global economy.

One of the most conspicuous contrasts in the 1970s was the preponderance of immigrants across the Tasman, but even that point of difference has largely been eliminated. In Auckland in the 2006 census, a staggering 39 percent of the workforce was born overseas – one of the highest figures of any city in the world. (For New Zealand as a whole, the figure was an only slightly less staggering 24 percent.)

In other words we’ve caught up with Australia, at least superficially. Today you could fly from Wellington to Melbourne for the first time, just as I did in 1972, and not notice anything conspicuously different. In fact I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that in many ways the average New Zealander is now more worldly and sophisticated than his or her Australian counterpart, particularly once you get beyond the city fringes.

So what, if anything, still sets them apart from us?

The economic disparities are well known. The income gap is growing ever wider, despite half-hearted attempts (and lots of largely empty political talk) about narrowing the gap. More than half a million New Zealanders now call Australia home, including one of my own sons and several nieces and nephews.

Depressingly, none of the expat New Zealanders I spoke to during a recent three-week visit to Australia expressed any urge to return. They like the climate, the lifestyle and the affluence.

You can’t help but notice the all-pervasive Australian sense of self-confidence. It’s evident in sport, in the media and in popular culture. They really do believe they are the Lucky Country, and I wonder whether this winning attitude is one of the defining differences between us.

We tend, by contrast, to be a bit of a hang-dog nation, acutely conscious of our chronic economic under-performance (though we simultaneously celebrate, with almost desperate eagerness, our success stories such as the All Blacks and Sir Peter Jackson). There’s a grain of truth in the way Australian satirist Barry Humphries placed mousy, timid Madge from Palmerston North in the shadow of the magnificently ebullient and self-assured Edna Everage from Moonee Ponds.

In some respects each country carries the legacy of its history. Australians display traits that can be traced back to their convict heritage: for instance, their larrikinism, their suspicion of authority and their disregard for what others think of them. By contrast we were settled by idealistic middle-class migrants and remain anxious to do the right thing and fretful about how the rest of the world sees us.

This is not altogether bad. For one thing, New Zealand remains uncontaminated by the institutional corruption and venality that infest Australian politics (and nowhere more than in the scandal-plagued New South Wales Labor Party, which seems determined to emulate the worst excesses of New York’s infamous Tammany Hall political machine).

Similarly, even the most trenchant critic of New Zealand trade unions would have to concede that organised labour here conducts itself impeccably compared with Australia, where the line between trade unionism and outright gangsterism is sometimes alarmingly blurred. (The convict heritage again, perhaps?)

Speaking of gangsterism, Australia has an entrenched criminal sub-culture with its origins in urban slums and clannish ethnic minorities. Organised crime there has a far longer history, and exists on a much larger scale, than in New Zealand.

But there’s a refined side to Australia too. I spent hours in Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, which has a spectacularly good collection that encompasses contemporary Australian art (including Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly paintings), French impressionists (Monet, Cezanne) and 20th century masters such as Jackson Pollock and David Hockney, along with some fine works by colonial-era Australian artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton.

I recall the Whitlam government creating an uproar in 1973 when it paid more than $1 million for Jackson Pollock’s famous abstract painting Blue Poles, but seeing it now, I think it was a good buy.

Incidentally, Canberra doesn’t entirely deserve the bad press it gets. A recent article in the Australian edition of Spectator magazine called the city of 320,000 a waste of a good sheep paddock, while a New Zealand friend of mine unkindly describes it as “Waiouru with trees”. Yet even Canberra has its appeal. While it lacks the character of older cities and is frequently mocked for its blandness, it’s relaxed, well laid-out, family-friendly, easy to get around and endowed with vast areas of open recreational space.

The other revelation for me on this latest Australian trip was Melbourne, which I hadn’t visited for 20 years. Once relatively staid by comparison with Sydney, the Victorian state capital has transformed itself and now seriously threatens its traditional New South Wales rival for charisma and visitor appeal.

Melbourne will never have Sydney’s great natural asset, its magnificent harbour, but it uses every man-made trick in the book to present itself as a vibrant, colourful, spectacular and supremely confident city. Its adventurous architecture, particularly along the fringes of the Yarra River, makes a very bold statement.

If I were one of Sydney’s city fathers, I think I’d be looking nervously over my shoulder.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Identity politics and the medical profession

Radio New Zealand today reported a speech in which Hutt Valley paediatrician Dr Leo Buchanan lamented the small number of Maori child health specialists. Dr Buchanan, who is himself part-Maori, said that of New Zealand’s 292 paediatricians, barely six had any known Maori affiliations. Child health services should be provided by Maori for Maori, RNZ quoted him as saying.

Am I alone in finding this peculiar? To the best of my knowledge, Maori children are physiologically the same as children of European, Indian or Chinese lineage. Does it matter if the doctor treating them is named Ropiha or Muru rather than Jones, Chan or Krishnamurthi? The answer surely is no - yet it seems a campaign is underway to convince people that only a doctor of the same ethnicity can treat them properly.

New Zealanders of all cultures and skin colours are routinely treated by doctors of Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese and Middle Eastern origins without protest, and without suffering any adverse effects. Surely it’s the availability and competence of the treatment that counts, not the ethnicity of the medical professional.

Is this where identity politics – the socio-political phenomenon whereby minorities define themselves primarily by their ethnicity, and insist on being treated differently from their fellow citizens – has led us?

Howard deserved more balanced treatment than this

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 23.)

WHEN I heard that Radio New Zealand host Kim Hill was going to interview former Australian prime minister John Howard last Saturday, I held out a naïve hope that this might mark a departure from the usual leftist thrust of her programme. Howard, after all, is emphatically a conservative – a political breed rarely heard on Hill’s show.

More fool me. Hill wasn’t remotely interested in finding out what had made Howard the second longest-serving prime minister (after Sir Robert Menzies) in Australian history. She was simply looking for a scalp to dangle in front of her admiring audience.

The interview was relentlessly adversarial from the word go. Hill revisited the same tired old political controversies that have already been worked over ad nauseam by her kindred spirits in the left-leaning Australian media, who despise Howard and are nonplussed and bitter over his popularity with the voters.

Why wasn’t Howard prepared to negotiate a treaty with the Aborigines, Hill demanded to know. Why didn’t he apologise to them (as if Howard was personally responsible for their historical mistreatment)? How did he justify getting involved in Iraq? What about the disgrace at Abu Ghraib (as if Howard stood by and did nothing when Iraqi prisoners were being tortured)? Why did he still support the monarchy? (Never mind that the Australian people voted against republicanism in a referendum.)

I waited for her to get around to the controversy over the Tampa refugees in 2001. Sure enough, that got worked over again too. It’s hard to believe that Hill genuinely thought she was going to extract some fresh revelation after all this time – perhaps a grovelling mea culpa? – but doubtless it played well to the chardonnay socialists who make up her core audience.

All her questions were delivered in the smug, condescending and judgmental tone that has come to exemplify media elitism. For good measure, Hill threw in one or two gratuitous insults – such as “I’m trying to make sense of your thinking” [on Iraq], as if her guest was some sort of imbecile. Howard was remarkably tolerant of her provocations but the interview was prickly, at times teetering on the brink of outright acrimony.

Hill finished by baiting Howard, again gratuitously, with a strange remark to the effect that he probably hadn’t enjoyed the experience of being interviewed by her. In other words, she seemed to be saying, hadn’t she done well to give him such a roasting? Howard was understandably nonplussed by the comment but somehow managed to remain civil.

I’m no cheerleader for Howard and wouldn’t argue for a moment that former politicians should be treated with kid gloves, but he deserved more balanced treatment than this.

After all, he must have done something right, since he won four elections in a row (to the despair of leftist commentators, who repeatedly made fools of themselves predicting he would fail). What’s more, he led a country that consistently out-performed New Zealand in almost every sphere, and with which we are now vainly and pathetically trying to catch up.

Nowhere in Hill’s interview was there any acknowledgement of this. A Martian listening to it would have concluded that Howard’s prime ministership was an abject failure. In fact more than that – a moral disgrace.

Just as well for democracy that politicians are ultimately accountable to the voters, not to media egos who enjoy the luxury of exercising – in Stanley Baldwin’s famous phrase – power without responsibility.

* * *

WHEREVER you go in the world, backpackers look the same – bored, jaded and uninterested in their surroundings.

I was reminded of this while travelling from downtown Auckland to Mangere airport on a shuttle bus recently. A young European couple in front of me barely glanced up as we drove through the suburbs. They wore an expression of blank indifference common to backpackers everywhere.

Admittedly Auckland’s not Paris or San Francisco, but still, you’d expect them to show some interest.

These affluent Generation Y kids troop listlessly from one adventure tourism attraction to the next, their MP3 headphones blotting out all ambient sound. The brief adrenalin rush of the bungy jump, luge or jetboat ride jerks them into a state of alertness only briefly before they shuffle back onto the bus and head off in search of the next buzz.

I can’t help wondering why they bother to travel at all. They might as well stay at home and watch TV.

* * *

I RECENTLY booked two flights with Air New Zealand online and printed out the flight details.

The first sheet of paper contained all the information I wanted: flight numbers, times etc. So what was on the superfluous second sheet of paper that my printer spat out quite needlessly?

The words: “Good planets are hard to find – please think of the environment before you print this email.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What drives men like Eastwood and Murdoch?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 10.)

I see from a recent TV news item that Clint Eastwood, at 80, has just begun work directing a new movie.

Two things struck me about this. The first is that it seems almost inconceivable that Eastwood could be that old. It doesn’t seem so long since he was playing the idealistic, hot-headed young cowboy Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, or the rule-breaking San Francisco detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry.

The second is that he still has the fire and energy to make films. Something keeps driving him – but what? It’s not as if he has anything left to prove, after a 50-year career during which he picked up five Academy Awards as a director and a People’s Choice Award for “favourite all-time movie star”.

You might think that, having attained octogenarian status, Eastwood would be happy to sit back in the California sun and reflect on a full and rewarding life. But no, there are projects he needs to complete – the latest a film biography of the late FBI director J Edgar Hoover (a figure so controversial and intriguing that it’s amazing no one has made a movie of his life before).

Eastwood gave a clue to his work ethic in a recent interview in which he said it had always shocked him that famous directors from Hollywood’s golden era, such as Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, retired when they were still capable of making films. “I always thought, ‘Why aren’t these guys still working?’ I figure your best years should be at a point when you’ve got a lot of so-called knowledge.”

Myself, I’m with Capra and Wilder. Presumably they regarded work as something you did mainly because of economic imperatives – wives and families to keep, alimony to pay, mansions to buy in Beverly Hills or Malibu. Once you’d made your pile, why keep pushing yourself?

Men of my generation probably have a more balanced attitude to work than those of my father’s era. Most of us, having grown up in a more affluent society, treat work as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself; a way of financing a lifestyle in which we can enjoy family and leisure.

This is especially true in a country like New Zealand, which is noted for its laidback approach to life. Economists sometimes complain that one reason New Zealand isn’t more prosperous is that most Kiwi business owners are happy just to acquire the “Three Bs” – bach, boat and BMW. They don’t feel compelled to build the type of international business that can transform an economy.

But obviously there are people, like Eastwood, for whom work is about much more than making money so they can eventually retire in comfort. Something else propels them.

It’s not hard to think of other examples. Winston Churchill was 65 when he became prime minister of Britain – an age when many men are retired and pottering in the garden.

Churchill had packed more into those 65 years than a lesser man could hope to achieve in several lifetimes. Yet he not only saw Britain successfully through World War II – an extraordinary feat of leadership, requiring unimaginable levels of energy, resilience and determination – but still had enough gas in the tank to come back in 1951 for a second stint at No 10 Downing Street. He was then 76.

He didn’t retire from politics until he was 85 (too late, many said), and he lived till 90 – proving that pressure and hard work are no impediment to a long and full life.

And look at Rupert Murdoch, who is pushing 80 yet remains a dominant figure in the world media scene. He passed the point long ago when his ambitious global expansion could be logically explained by a desire to accumulate more wealth. There’s a limit, after all, to how much money any man can spend.

So what motivates him? His critics would say power, given Murdoch’s apparent use of his media interests to influence politics. Others might suggest his desire to create a dynasty. Even so, you’d think he might now have reached a stage in life when such matters ceased to be so important – but apparently not.

There are examples in sport, too. Take Sir Alex Ferguson, the dour Scottish manager of Manchester United football club. Okay, at 69 he’s a relative youngster, at least compared with Eastwood and Murdoch. But here’s the interesting thing: Ferguson is the most successful manager in the famous club’s history, having won 26 major honours since he took over in 1986. There’s no significant title Man U hasn’t won under his guidance. You’d think his desire to win might have started to fade. After all, what has he got to prove? Yet Ferguson still approaches every game as if his future depends on it.

Then there’s the Australian horse trainer Bart Cummings, still as determined as ever, at 82, to add to his Melbourne Cup tally. Cummings’ great rival, the late Tommy Smith, was also still training at 80.

New Zealand’s own Bob Charles was still playing on the international golf circuit at 74, despite presumably having earned more than enough for a comfortable retirement.

In literature, there’s John Le Carre – still cranking out spy thrillers at 79, though the royalty cheques from his 20-odd novels, not to mention movie adaptations, must have made him a very wealthy man. New Zealand author James McNeish, who is the same age as Le Carre, is also still active (his latest novel was published this year).

Politics seems a particularly hard habit to kick. Just look at Robert Mugabe, still clinging doggedly to power at 86. A more benign local example is Jim Anderton – so addicted to public life that at 72 he was eager to become the mayor of Christchurch while maintaining a parallel career as an MP.

While politicians’ long careers can be explained either by the desire for power (as in Mugabe’s case) or the conviction that they still have something to offer (as in Anderton’s), the reason why others such as Eastwood continue to work into their 80s may be no more complicated than that they simply love what they do.

Many men define themselves by what they do for a living. Their work gives their life purpose and often sustains them into old age.

The sad irony is that others spend their lives grinding away in humdrum jobs that give them no pleasure, yet don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement and often die within a few years.

More pressing questions for our times

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 9.)

How come, when tragedy strikes a small town, it’s always described in the media as a tight-knit community? Are there no loose-knit communities out there?

Should Hone Harawira be getting counselling for anger management?

Why do so many New Zealanders drive grey cars, and what does that say about us?

Why does the government spend millions on aviation security when all a terrorist has to do to create mayhem is set off a bomb on a suburban bus?

Fed up with new products and services being “rolled out”? Isn’t that what you do with pastry and barrels?

Was your life made complete when you finally found out who the anonymous test driver known as The Stig was, or did it take all the fun out of watching Top Gear?

If the answer to either of the previous questions was “yes”, do you still have all your old Matchbox toys lovingly arranged on your bedroom shelves, and does your mother still choose your clothes for you?

Why does Phil Goff (like Helen Clark before him) seem to have a permanent smile, even when he’s talking about something serious?

Why do police rarely, if ever, intervene when large, intimidating Maori men in dark glasses illegally occupy private property and deny access to the rightful occupiers? Do we have a rule of law or not?

Remember when the word “offshore” meant an island or a reef, and foreign countries were “overseas” or “abroad”?

Why is it apparently essential for fashion models to be not only emaciated, but knock-kneed and pigeon-toed as well?

Can anyone think of a good reason why the head of the Transport Agency is paid more than $550,000 a year?

Given up watching television yet?

The world’s meanest streets: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; Detroit, Michigan; Manukau, South Auckland?

Why is it so difficult, even in classy bars, to buy one of New Zealand’s many excellent craft beers? (Actually, I know the answer – it’s because the old brewery duopoly still stifles competition.)

Why are shooting victims always reported to have been “gunned down”? Doesn’t anyone just get shot anymore?

Was the election of a left-wing mayor in the Auckland super-city the voters’ unsubtle way of telling Rodney Hide they don’t entirely trust him?

Why does the government treat the shadowy Iwi Leaders’ Group – a tribal elite with no democratic legitimacy or mandate – as the voice of Maoridom?

Has the heat has gone out of the global warming debate?

When will someone stumble on the secret graveyard where all the television reporters over 40 are buried?

Confused by a government that keeps telling us public spending has to be curbed, yet seems to have no trouble finding grants for non-essentials such as literary awards, high-performance sport, new museums and suchlike?

Fed up with voice-prompted “help” lines that provide an option for every problem except the one you’ve got?

Wellington Airport’s chief executive proudly describes his new terminal building as “edgy” – but isn’t it possible to be edgy and aesthetically pleasing at the same time?

Tired of hearing silly expressions like “game on” and “from the get-go”? Can anyone even explain what the “get-go” is?

Has anyone in government thought of instituting a nocturnal emissions trading scheme?

Paul Holmes and cheeky darkies, Paul Henry and Mrs Dikshit – what is it about television hosts with the initials PH?

Lain awake at night worrying that you might have missed something important because you’re not on Twitter?

Has TVNZ finally realised it has alienated its most loyal audience by screening wall-to-wall trash, and does this explain the re-appearance of quality drama in prime time on Sunday nights?

Further to that last question, is it way too late?

Do political journalists make the mistake of assuming the public shares their fascination with whatever political scandal du jour is exciting the press gallery?

Further to that last question, does politics become less important the further you travel from Wellington?

Why are there no great female rock guitarists?

Do Sir John Anderson and Dame Margaret Bazley, New Zealand’s Mr and Ms Fixit, ever lose track of what boards and committees they’re on?

Grateful to accept $13 an hour for your cleaning job at Fonterra, knowing that 2547 of the company’s executives get more than $100,000 a year?

Does anyone still believe anything the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society says?

Are once-respected brands such as BMW and Moet-et-Chandon now hopelessly contaminated by association with the ostentatious nouveau-riche who judge everything by its label and price?

Is a flash flood one that looks smart?

Puzzled by emails from people who sign off with the words “talk soon”, even though you’re not a close friend and hardly ever see them?

Fed up with road signs that advise you to slow to 50kmh because of non-existent road works?

Does modern weather forecasting technology simply mean, as a cynical friend of mine says, that the MetService now gets it wrong faster?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The bad and good of Islam

Kim Hill this morning had an interesting interview with Tim Winter, a.k.a. Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad, an erudite and articulate English convert to Islam. I didn’t hear the entire interview but his basic thrust seemed to be that Islam is greatly misunderstood in the West – hardly a new line, but quite persuasive when it’s argued as cogently as it was on this occasion. He said moderate, mainstream Islam is far removed from, and undeservedly tainted by, the extreme, militant political expressions of the faith as epitomised by organisations like Al Qaeda.

Taking the Taleban as an example, Winter likened them to tribal village hillbillies with little grasp – and a very warped grasp at that – of orthodox Islamic teaching. He also made the point that most Muslim immigration to Britain, which has become a wellspring of Islamic extremism, was from illiterate Pashtun villages in the more backward regions of Pakistan, where the version of Islam practised is (I’m paraphrasing here) a primitive local perversion of what credible Muslim scholars teach.

The problem is, as he pointed out, that the version of Islam we are confronted with in the media each day is the militant, extreme one that wants to exterminate all infidels. This has distorted our understanding of Islamic teaching and led to the fearful, anti-Islamic sentiment exemplified by opposition to the proposed Muslim cultural centre in downtown New York (not to mention European proposals to ban minarets, which ironically call into question our commitment to freedom of religion).

Even as I’m writing this I can hear people saying, “Yeah, yeah – we’ve heard all this before from apologists for Islamic extremism”. But at the very least, we have to acknowledge that Islam, like Christianity (Judaism too, for that matter), is not monolithic. Just as Christianity encompasses all manner of good and bad followers, from loony right-wing fundamentalists to neo-Marxists (both bad, in my view – the good Christians are somewhere in between), so the expressions of Islam range from the fanatical oppression of the Taleban and grotesque fringe groups like Somalia’s al Shabaab (reported today as having executed two illiterate teenage girls by firing squad for “spying”) to the civil, conciliatory variant personified by Hill’s guest this morning – and by some of the New Zealand Muslims whose reasoned and moderate letters I occasionally see in the papers.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Phew! Thank God for The Hobbit

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 27.)

The government must be grateful that the country was distracted last week by the media frenzy surrounding The Hobbit, because it overshadowed two damage control exercises that might otherwise have received much more aggressive scrutiny.

The first related to (then) Supreme Court judge Bill Wilson, who took the unprecedented step of resigning rather than face a protracted judicial inquiry into alleged misconduct arising from an undisclosed business association with a Queen’s Counsel acting in a case on which he was adjudicating.

Much of the publicity surrounding the resignation of Mr Wilson (as he has now become) focused on his estimated $1 million compensation package. This may have suited the government, the judiciary and perhaps even Mr Wilson himself, since it diverted attention from more serious issues.

Acting Attorney-General Judith Collins spun the payout as “good value” for the taxpayer, saying the costs might have been far higher if the inquiries into Mr Wilson had continued. And it’s true that, from a narrow legal perspective, the government could be said to have got off cheaply, since Mr Wilson’s appointment to the Bench had several years to run.

But what Ms Collins didn’t say, though she may well have thought it, was that paying Mr Wilson off also served the purpose of putting the issue to bed and, therefore, neatly pre-empting an inquiry which might have shown the judiciary in a poor light.

Here was a rare opportunity for some searching public scrutiny of the rarefied world of our top judges, two aspects of which have long been a cause of unease.

The first is the process by which judges are appointed and promoted, which has always been cloaked in mystery. Even senior lawyers profess to have only a vague understanding of how and why appointments are made. Occasional promises of greater transparency have never been fulfilled, and there remains a perception that it’s all done by nods, winks and shoulder-tapping.

Nelson lawyer Sue Grey, who represented the losing party in the Court of Appeal case on which Mr Wilson sat, hinted in a radio interview last week that there were questions to be asked about Mr Wilson’s own rapid rise through the judiciary, which saw him elevated from being a QC to a Supreme Court judge, via the Court of Appeal, in less than a year.

The other, perhaps bigger, issue relates to conflicts of interest. It has been often been said that New Zealand’s judges are selected from a small and exclusive pool. In a society as intimate and inter-connected as ours, personal and business associations are hard to avoid and scrupulous care must be taken to ensure ethical standards are not compromised.

You don’t need to look far for evidence of these connections. Mr Wilson not only shared interests in horse racing with Alan Galbraith, the QC who appeared before him in the Court of Appeal, but both men reportedly had racing connections with Chief Justice Sian Elias and her husband, Hugh Fletcher.

The closeness of the top legal fraternity was further demonstrated by the fact that Attorney-General Chris Finlayson stepped aside from involvement in the Wilson affair because he had worked with Mr Wilson and knew him well.

All of this reinforces, yet again, the folly of relinquishing the right of appeal to the Privy Council in London, where important cases were determined by British judges untainted by any suspicion of conflict of interest arising from friendships or business associations with litigants or their counsel.

Throughout the Wilson case there has been speculation behind the scenes that a public inquiry might bring to light other potentially compromising relationships between judges and lawyers and expose something of an old boys’ club, in which case there may well be relief in legal circles that Mr Wilson has fallen on his sword.

A veil will now be conveniently drawn over the whole affair and normal service will resume, though probably with a keener awareness of the need to declare possible conflicts of interest (not that that should be necessary, since it hardly took a top legal mind to spot an ethical problem in Mr Wilson’s undisclosed association with Mr Galbraith).

Avoiding an inquiry also means Mr Wilson is denied the chance to remove a stain on his reputation, when many of his associates say he has done nothing wrong. All this seems rather unsatisfactory.

Perhaps the most disturbing statement in the affair was Ms Collins’ remark that not ending the matter now would have caused “incalculable damage to confidence in the judiciary”. That carried the implication that whatever came out of the inquiry would have been embarrassing.

Does that mean, then, that we should close our eyes tightly and pretend it didn’t happen? Leaving important ethical issues apparently unresolved could surely have an even more corrosive effect on public trust in the integrity of the courts. It has unfortunate connotations of a cover-up.

The other damage control exercise last week was the decision by police commissioner Howard Broad to merely “review”, rather than re-open or re-investigate, the Crewe murders of 1970. On the face of it, this suggests the police will simply take another look at the same flawed police files that have already led to New Zealand’s most infamous miscarriage of justice.

If Mr Broad thinks this “gesture” (crusading journalist Pat Booth’s term) will finally put to rest 40 years of public doubt and agitation, he’s mistaken.

Two aspects of the Crewe case cry out for justice. The first is that no one was ever called to account for the planting of the bogus evidence that led to Arthur Allan Thomas’s wrongful conviction. The other is that the real killer of Jeannette and Harvey Crewe remains unidentified and has gone unpunished.

This may be the first time I’ve agreed with Peter Williams QC, who acted for Thomas, but Williams is right when he says this is a boil that must be lanced, and he’s also right when he says the job should be done by a distinguished judge from overseas. It cannot be left to the police to investigate themselves, because their record in this capacity inspires no confidence.

My late mother was convinced Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty, because she had implacable faith in the New Zealand police (her brother was an assistant commissioner) and in the fairness and good sense of New Zealand juries. I never argued the point with her, but I believe she was wrong on both counts.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Solomon breaks silence on domestic violence

Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon has given a courageous lead today by urging Maori to confront domestic violence in their whanau. In an interview with Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand, ahead of his keynote address to a conference on family violence, Solomon said: “If we all start speaking out, there will be change.”

This is an encouraging departure from the customary silence of iwi leaders whenever killings and bashings in Maori households make the headlines.

Solomon may have been prodded into action by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, who recently gave tribal leaders lists of abused children from each of their iwi and challenged tribal organisations to pay for their care, rather than expect the state to go on picking up the tab. Or he may have taken his cue from the gutsy Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, the former head of Women’s Refuge, who spoke at the recent inquest into the death of Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie and challenged Maori leaders to “get out of the Koru Lounge” and do more about child abuse within Maoridom.

On the other hand, Solomon may well have been thinking about this issue long before those prompts. Though not among the biggest tribes numerically (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungunu are among those that substantially outnumber it), Ngai Tahu has a reputation as being forward-thinking, economically resourceful and well-organised – and less inclined to blame Pakeha for Maori problems.

Solomon made the point on Ryan’s programme that domestic violence is not exclusively a Maori problem. Of course it’s not. Yet the worst cases, the ones that cause the most public horror and revulsion (Nia Glassie, the Kahui twins, Delcelia Witika, Craig Manukau, Hinewaoriki Karaitiana-Matiaha, James Whakaruru), tend to be.

Solomon is one of the most influential of the new generation of Maori leaders. Let’s hope his speech to today’s Jigsaw conference in Christchurch resounds throughout Maoridom.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Defying the tut-tut culture

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 26.)

WHY DO young men die thinking they can outrun the police? Why do they risk their lives drag racing?

Teenage testosterone provides only part of the answer. Young men have always felt the need to prove themselves, but not with the fatal consequences we commonly see now.

I wonder if it’s because the current generation of young males – the so-called cotton-wool kids – grew up with little concept of risk.

Previous generations of boys climbed trees, explored the countryside on long bike rides, swam in rivers and hunted possums or rabbits. As a boy, I would disappear from home on a Saturday morning, as would many of my friends, and not return until dinnertime.

Often my parents had no idea where I’d been all day. It wasn’t that they were irresponsible or uncaring; far from it. It’s just that like most parents, they give us freedom to roam and accepted that we would sometimes get into mischief. It was called growing up.

Here’s the point: if you went swimming and got caught in a deep hole, if you got stuck up a tree because you’d climbed too high, or if you hitch-hiked somewhere and got picked up by a dodgy driver and wondered whether you’d get out of the car alive, you learned about risks and consequences.

A few sharp whacks with a cane also served as a sharp reminder that there were penalties for overstepping the mark, though I’m not necessarily recommending the re-introduction of corporal punishment in schools.

I know this sounds like a bit of misty-eyed “good old days” nostalgia, but compare that with the generation growing up now.

They play in parks where the ground is padded so they won’t hurt themselves if they fall. (Lesson? There’s no pain penalty, such as a broken arm, for over-reaching yourself.) Rough-and-tumble boys’ play at school is discouraged, if not outlawed, as is tree-climbing. Children are even prohibited by law from having early-morning paper rounds.

Over-protective mothers won’t allow children to make their own way to school for fear they’ll be abducted or molested. Most of their entertainment is of the indoor variety, where the worst that can happen, if they get something wrong, is that they are terminated on a PlayStation screen. And they don’t ride bikes, either because it’s uncool or seen as dangerous.

Children of the current generation grow up with little chance to test themselves and learn their limits. It’s small wonder that, as a consequence, they cut loose as soon as they’re old enough to exercise freedom. Trouble is, they then explore their limitations driving high-performance Subarus and Mazdas, often bought for them by indulgent parents, rather than on push bikes.

They don’t seem programmed to calculate risk. The warning light that should start flashing in their brain when the speedometer needle hits 140 khm has been de-activated. How else can we explain the fact that young men choose the possibility of a violent death in a high-speed crash over the temporary inconvenience of a traffic ticket?

The same explanation may apply to binge-drinking, particularly by teenage girls. Auckland academic Michael Duncan reckons the reason so many young women get plastered is that they come from middle-class homes where they were brought up on a diet of safety.

Raised by obsessively risk-averse parents, they rebel by living dangerously. “Drinking sessions for them are a high-wire act, full of exhilarating fear and unanswered questions,” writes Duncan. Brought up on safety, they hunger for risk.

Now I admit these are just theories. I can’t cite authoritative academic studies to back them. But does anyone else have a better explanation?

* * *

FORTUNATELY there are pockets of stubborn resistance to the prevailing cotton-wool culture. I was thrilled to see a poster in my Masterton doctor’s surgery advertising a “take a kid hunting” competition, sponsored by a rural Wairarapa school.

Intrigued, I checked out the school’s impressive website and learned that the competition is open to everyone down to pre-schoolers, who are invited to shoot rats, mice, magpies, possums, rabbits, hares and turkeys. For older kids the range of eligible game is extended to include wild boars, deer (stags only) and billy goats, or they can enter a “3 bag combo”.

Entrants are required to be accompanied by an adult but must participate in the hunting themselves. Prizes include an overnight guided pig hunt. Marvellous!

This is a magnificent gesture of defiance against the po-faced, pursed-lip, tut-tut culture of preciousness that threatens to swamp us all. It shows that the traditional spirit of rural New Zealand is alive and well. I amused myself for hours imagining the reaction if the “take a kid hunting” poster had appeared on the wall of a school in Wadestown, Kelburn or Island Bay.

You’re probably curious to know the name of the school but I’m not telling, because I know there would be a convoy of protest vehicles winding over the Rimutakas before you could say Barry Crump.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I'll buy you a beer, Raybon

It’s interesting the way the neo-wowser lobby sets out to discredit its opponents by insinuation. Wellington alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking, in a recent letter to The Listener, suggested that as someone who occasionally writes about wine, I have a vested interest in promoting alcohol. In a subsequent letter, someone else who objected to my recent Listener article questioning the current wave of anti-alcohol hysteria described me as an alcohol industry apologist. And I see in the latest issue that Professor Doug Sellman, taking a second shot at me after already having had a substantial letter published, comments that it’s big of me to “admit” my vested interest in trying to downplay the extent of New Zealand’s alcohol problem. This was in reference to a brief letter I had written in response to Brooking, in which I acknowledged that I occasionally write about wine (there’s hardly any point in denying it) and added that the amount of money I made from it was extremely modest by anyone’s standards – a statement The Listener was kind enough to reiterate in a footnote to Sellman’s letter.

In fact I’d go further than that and say the money I make from writing about wine, or commenting on it, is risible. The only thing that prevents me from disclosing the amount is embarrassment at how little I am prepared to accept in return for my efforts. It’s sufficient to say that it makes up an inconsequential portion of my income, which itself isn’t exactly stratospheric. And I can say with absolute certainty that I earn a lot less defending the right of New Zealanders to drink responsibly than Professor Sellman makes trying to panic politicians into interfering with our freedom of choice. (And what’s more, unlike Professor Sellman, the money I earn doesn’t come from my fellow taxpayers.)

But that’s not the point. What’s significant is that the neo-wowsers are so desperate that they will seize whatever red herring or innuendo they can find to smear their opponents, while simultaneously avoiding substantive discussion of issues on which their arguments are weak.

They don’t seem interested, for instance, in discussing the inconvenient fact that per capita consumption of alcohol in New Zealand is below the OECD average, and well below the figures for many Western European countries. They pretend not to hear when it’s pointed out that in recent drink-driving blitzes, the number of drivers over the legal limit was about 0.6 percent, which rather undermines their claims that drunks are causing mayhem on the highways. And they are conspicuously short of hard evidence to support their shrill insistence that reducing the legal blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05 will make a dramatic difference to road deaths, most of which are caused – if alcohol is involved at all – by drivers who are way above the 0.08 level.

No, they would rather smear their opponents as having “vested interests” – because they make a bit of pocket money on the side writing about wine – or being alcohol industry “apologists”, because they insist that most New Zealanders are moderate drinkers who are perfectly capable of making sensible decisions about their liquor consumption. Perhaps, in their simplistic, moralistic way of looking at the world, the only way the neo-wowsers can make sense of anyone who opposes them is to assume ulterior motives.

It gets tedious having to repeat this, but not only am I not an alcohol industry apologist; I actually share some of the neo-wowsers’ concerns about the way alcohol is promoted and sold. It is probably the only point on which we are on common ground, at least to some extent. I have several times criticised the way some liquor industry interests deliberately promote and exploit the moronic cult of the pisshead, which I probably find as distasteful as the Sellmanites do. But at its core, this debate is not about the behaviour of the people who make and sell alcohol; it’s about the freedom of responsible individuals to make their own decisions. Strident propaganda about wicked booze barons is a sideshow; a way of manipulating the emotions of the impressionable.

Having got that out of the way, let’s turn to the Herald on Sunday's absurd “Two Drinks Max” campaign, launched last Sunday. On one level, it’s hard to argue with. If people want to restrict themselves to two drinks, who could possibly object? It’s a worthy goal.

But what makes the Herald on Sunday campaign ridiculous, to the point of almost negating all its credibility, is the barrage of simplistic, alarmist and emotive propaganda that accompanies it. Like other media outlets, the APN tabloid appears to have unquestioningly swallowed the lurid, shock-horror claims of the neo-wowsers. Either that, or it’s a cynical marketing exercise by a paper eager to win readers with a shallow, populist crusade.

As proof of its serious intent, the Herald on Sunday presented us with the carefully considered opinions of several recognised authorities on the liquor question. They included actresses, models, fashion designers, TV presenters, radio hosts and a celebrity real estate agent. As an example of their compelling arguments, here are some excerpts:

[Herald on Sunday to model Nicky Watson] Why do you support lowering the limit?

Because it is clear that we need to there are still so many accidents on the road and from my own personal experience if I had two glasses of wine I wouldn’t drive. [This is exactly as Watson’s statement appears on the paper’s website.]

[Herald on Sunday to real estate agent Michael Boulgaris] Have you had personal experience of drink driving accidents?

No but I do have a drink drive conviction, that is why I am so passionate about what you are trying to do.

What was that like?

It was a nightmare. It was very embarrassing. When you go overseas and they ask do you have a criminal record you don't know what to say. When you go to renew your insurance, your premium goes up. People have to realise the consequences. It's just frowned upon.

[Herald on Sunday to Colin Mathura-Jeffree] Do you support lowering the drink/drive limit to 50 mg – already in place in many countries and recommended by NZ police, MoT and Alcohol Healthwatch?

Yes, it’s about safety. We need to look after each other. People who use the roads are at risk from drink drivers every time they get into their car or onto their bike or even when they use the footpaths.

Come on New Zealand, safety first. Don't drink and drive, just don’t do it.


Have you or your friends or family been involved in a drink driving crash or been a victim of one?

Yes a friend of mine was the drink-driver in a crash. No-one was hurt but it’s too easy to end up hurting someone else. Regret and hindsight are the saddest things.
We need to sort it out. It doesn’t have to happen in the first place.


[Herald on Sunday to New Zealand’s Next Top Model host Sara Tetro] Will you pledge your name to the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign?

Sure!

Why do you think it's important to get behind the campaign?

Anything that's going to keep every member of society safe on the road has got to be a good thing. This is one of many things that needs to happen. Anything that might work is worth a try.

Well, I ask you: how much more proof do you need? I’m convinced. Where do I sign up?

Seriously, there’s much more in this vein, and even worse. You can read it here:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10682690

I was delighted to see that my old colleague Raybon Kan, approached by the HoS to register his dismay and horror at the mayhem wreaked by alcohol, slipped in a subversive contribution that no one at the paper seemed to recognise as a bit of a pisstake. It included the following:

Do you support lowering the drink/drive limit to 50 mg – already in place in many countries and recommended by MoT, ALAC and Alcohol Healthwatch? Why?

For what it’s worth, I agree with lowering the limit. I think “Two drinks max” is good too – a rule of thumb should be catchy. It ought to be easy for drunk people to recite. In fact, make it a jingle. Drunk people enjoy little songs. But I can't help thinking someone drunk might just say, “Stop calling me Max”.

Will you pledge your name to the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign?

Yes. Are the drinks free with the newspaper?

Go Raybon. I’ll buy you a beer next time I see you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beautiful all right, but who goes there?

Is there any place on earth where people won’t find a reason to oppose wind turbines?

The Environment Court was told this week that Contact Energy’s proposal to build more than 50 turbines in the Puketoi Range, in the northern Wairarapa, would interfere with a lush, pastoral landscape that was “frozen in time” and epitomised the scenes that sell New Zealand tourism to the world.

I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. The Puketoi Range is quite dramatic – high, wild and lovely.

But here’s the point. How many people know the Puketoi Range even exists, let alone how to find it? Tucked away in the rugged backblocks east of Woodville and Pahiatua, it must be one of the most sparsely populated places in the North Island. It’s beautiful all right, but few people go there.

(You can get a feel for the landscape by taking the road from Pahiatua to Pongaroa. It’s well worth the drive and you won’t be hassled by traffic. The road passes through Makuri, a charming little settlement nestled in a pretty valley that gives the feeling of being cut off from the outside world.)

If we must have wind turbines (and I gather there’s still a vigorous debate going on about the economics of wind generation), then I would have thought an out-of-the-way place like the Puketoi Range was a pretty good place to put them, provided the locals don’t object.

But then I thought the remote hills above Makara, west of Wellington, were the ideal site for a wind farm too, and look at the hysteria they created there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

So this is what scientific scepticism looks like

How appropriate that when Kim Hill took a day off, Radio New Zealand should rope in Finlay Macdonald to fill the gap on her Saturday morning show. It obviously wouldn’t do to startle Kim’s listeners, who I would guess are generally of a soft-left political persuasion, by bringing in a host who might challenge their world view.

And how appropriate too that one of Macdonald’s interviews should be with Australian climate change alarmist Tim Flannery, who promotes the apocalyptic view that the world is going to hell in a handcart and unless we urgently change our profligate ways – and by this he means within the next couple of years – we’ll all be toast.

“The science is dire,” Flannery pronounced. “We need to act now.” Just as we did, presumably, with acid rain, world starvation, nuclear war, over-population and all the other threats that were supposed to wipe us out during my lifetime.

When someone like Macdonald stands in for Hill, you just know you’re not going to hear an interview with a climate change sceptic (a word I use in preference to “deniers”, the loaded term the alarmists use to denigrate their opponents). This would go against the grain. And in the highly unlikely event that a sceptic was invited onto the show, you can be sure the questions would be a lot tougher than the ones put to Flannery.

Here was a reminder of what Radio New Zealand used to be like across the board: left-leaning hosts asking left-leaning guests soft questions, in the comfortable assurance that like-minded listeners would all be nodding their heads in agreement. How cosy and self-reinforcing it all was.

Thankfully RNZ seems to have tried hard in recent years to shed its image as a platform for left-wing views. Both Morning Report and Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon strive to be neutral and balanced (I can’t speak for Checkpoint because I never hear it, Mary Wilson’s graceless interviewing style having driven me away years ago). On Jim Mora’s afternoon panel discussions you hear a range of views that would have been inconceivable when RNZ was a citadel of the left.

Left-wing views that used to irritate the hell out of me on RNZ no longer bother me because although we still hear plenty of them, they are mostly balanced by other opinions that reflect the political diversity of the New Zealanders who own and fund Radio New Zealand. I don’t mind listening to left-wing ideologues as long they don’t have the state broadcasting apparatus to themselves; in fact I welcome it, since there are few things more boring – or dangerous – than hearing only views that echo your own.

But pockets of the traditional bias remain in RNZ. No one will ever die wondering what Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw’s politics are, and there’s rarely anything on Hill’s programme that challenges leftist orthodoxy.

That Macdonald agreed with Flannery was implicit in his line of questioning. It was taken as a given that climate change is a real and immediate threat. When sceptics were mentioned, it was in a dismissive and incredulous tone. Since it seemed to be assumed that the audience shared this stance, there was clearly no need to waste their time or disturb their certainty by questioning the dubious science and dodgy statistics underlying much of the climate change hysteria.

In fact Flannery assured listeners that “all scientists are sceptics”, as if to say he and his fellow believers wouldn’t be pushing climate change theories unless they were certain that the science was rock-solid. So I had to smile when, only moments later, he earnestly expounded what many scientists would dismiss as a downright loony theory – a variation of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – in which he predicted that earth in the near future (sometime this century, in fact) would function as one whole organism, with a brain, self-consciousness and a nervous system.

Speaking as if Gaia already existed, Flannery theorised that this super-being was approaching puberty and in time might even reproduce. He added that it also needed to form a brain, but the internet and mobile phones might enable that to happen (exactly how wasn't explained). Only squabbling nationalistic governments, he suggested, were preventing the flowering of “global consciousness and unity”.

Whoa – what was that again? This didn’t exactly sound consistent with the hard-boiled scientific scepticism Flannery had been talking about a couple of minutes earlier. Even Macdonald seemed slightly taken aback and suggested Flannery was getting into the realm of science fiction. But if it occurred to Macdonald that this excursion into the outer reaches of New Age fantasy raised doubts about his guest’s credibility, he didn’t show it. And why would he, since the whole interview would have been negated if Flannery had been exposed as a complete flake. Better to move on and pretend it hadn’t happened.

Interestingly, Flannery revealed that he had been brought up Catholic. Though no longer practising, he gave the impression this background had left a lasting imprint. This led me to think about the number of Catholics who have renounced the faith but then embraced quasi-religious ideologies with an almost evangelistic fervour. Some of the staunchest socialists I know are ex-Catholics, which leads me to suspect that people brought up in a strong belief system, which they have later rejected, feel the need to find something to take its place. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Technology has caught up with Kitt

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 13.)

Back in the 1980s my children were fond of a TV programme called Knight Rider.

No doubt you’ll remember it. The star of the show, supposedly, was David Hasselhoff, but what really fascinated young viewers was his car, a tricked-up 1982 Pontiac Firebird called Kitt.

Kitt was essentially a super-computer on wheels, able to drive itself and equipped with special features such as a turbo-boost that enabled the car to leap over obstacles. It could even withstand explosive blasts and small arms fire.

When he was in a tight spot, Michael Knight, the crime-fighter played by Hasselhoff, could summon Kitt much as cowboy heroes in previous generations whistled up their faithful horses. Kitt could even talk, using a voice synthesiser.

Watching Knight Rider with my kids all those years ago, I never imagined how quickly real-world technology would catch up with Hollywood fantasy – but it seems car manufacturers are starting to produce models that come creepily close to emulating Kitt.

I recently read, for example, that it’s theoretically possible to drive the latest top-of-the-range Audi A8 through the centre of a busy city without having to do much more than steer it.

Like Kitt, the new flagship Audi can “see”. It has front-mounted radar sensors that scan the road ahead and ensure the car remains a safe distance from the vehicle in front. If the vehicle in front stops, the Audi’s “stop and go” mechanism will bring the car to a halt with about four metres to spare. The driver doesn’t have to do a thing.

If the stop is only brief the Audi will move off again, without any prompting, once the car in front has proceeded. Spooky.

But wait, there’s more. The car has a night vision function that uses a thermal imaging camera to detect people on the road in front – very handy if any yokels are staggering home from the pub after closing time – and will highlight the person in red and sound a warning if anyone strays into the car’s firing line.

I couldn’t help thinking this would be a useful device in the Australian Outback, where night-time collisions with kangaroos are a constant hazard. (Once, travelling on an overnight bus from Adelaide to Alice Springs, I discovered when we stopped briefly in the opal mining settlement of Coober Pedy that a big grey ’roo had been collected along the way and was wedged, well and truly dead, under the front bumper. I assumed the unfortunate animal would be removed before we continued on our way, but no; it remained there, scraping along the highway all the way to Alice, 700 km further on.)

But I digress; back to the Audi.

There’s a touch-sensitive control pad on the car’s central console on which the driver can enter a phone number or destination simply by tracing the letters or numbers with a finger. The car will do the rest, dialling the number or automatically entering the destination into the GPS system and letting satellite navigation take over.

If the car anticipates a frontal collision, it closes the windows and sunroof, activates the hazard warning lights, tensions the seatbelts and slams on the brakes – all in roughly half a second. Kitt would be impressed and possibly even envious, given that he had quite a sensitive ego.

All this comes at a price, of course. The Audi A8 will set you back $240,000. But if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of decades, it’s that technological innovation starts out being affordable only to the most wealthy but soon becomes commonplace. Early adopters have learned this to their cost.

Just consider the automotive features, now taken for granted, that were once considered to be at the very cutting-edge of technology.

It seems extraordinary now, but 50 years ago it was possible to buy a new car that had neither a heater nor a radio. One of the reasons Japanese car makers made such inroads into the New Zealand market in the 1960s and 70s was that they incorporated, as standard equipment, features that complacent British and Australian manufacturers (which enjoyed market dominance only because preferential tariffs made them cheaper than the competition) treated as luxury extras.

Reversing lights and power steering were virtually unheard of then. You needed the forearms of Sylvester Stallone to wrestle the heavy tanks of the time around corners or into parking spaces.

Automatic transmissions were still a novelty too. Most cars had clunky three-speed manual transmissions with gear levers mounted on the steering column. In about 1961, when the father of a boy in my harriers’ club got a brand-new automatic EK Holden, the first Holden to boast such a feature, we all wanted to be his friend so we could ride in this wondrous machine to our Saturday races.

Safety features were not a priority then. Primitive seat belts started to appear only in the 1960s, radial tyres didn’t replace cross-plies until the 1970s and disc brakes didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s.

The thought that in the future we would be able to lock and unlock cars by remote control, or that cars would have computerised electronic stability control systems and parking sensors that beep when you get too close to the vehicle behind, would have seemed the stuff of pure fantasy. Heck, I even remember getting excited when I acquired my first car with an intermittent windscreen wiper function and a knob for dimming the dashboard lights (it was a Fiat – Australian and British cars didn’t boast such features until years later.)

Car radios didn’t become standard items until the late 1960s, but the car I drive now has a six-CD stereo that I can operate without taking my hands off the steering wheel. What’s more, the volume automatically adjusts depending on how fast I’m going. How smart is that?

My car has features I’ve never used, despite having owned it for nearly three years. Cruise control, for example. Frankly, I could never see the point of it. And I’m yet to be convinced of the merits of keyless locking, which still regularly confounds me.

Next month, on a trip to Australia, I’m going to use a satellite navigation system for the first time. I don’t think I'll need it, having found my way around Australia without such aids in the past, but my brother lent me his TomTom and assures me it’s the way to go, so I’ll give it a try. I'm no tech-head, but I'm still curious.

However I won’t be able to avoid thinking about the Aussie couple who arrived in Christchurch in the middle of the night a few years ago, tried to find their way to Nelson using their rental car’s sat nav and ended up stranded on the Rainbow Road, a four-wheel drive route through the remote Spenser Mountains. They were found the next day and guided to safety by a shepherd.

No doubt the $240,000 Audi comes equipped with a foldout motel unit, complete with queen-sized bed, spa pool and espresso machine, in the event of such emergencies.