Saturday, July 24, 2010

Birthdays can get you thinking

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 21.)

It was my grandson’s second birthday last week. For a birthday treat he was taken to Wellington Zoo, though the experience was a bit of a disappointment – for the adults in the group anyway.

Half the enclosures were empty and even where there was a creature lurking in the undergrowth, it was often hard to see. Not that that mattered much to Barnaby and his four-year-old brother Gabriel, who seemed largely indifferent to the animals but had a great time roaming and exploring the unfamiliar territory. They reminded me of the kid who’s given an expensive toy but finds the packaging more fascinating.

But this column isn’t about a trip to the zoo. One consequence of having grandchildren (I have only two at this stage, with another soon to arrive) is that you think about the future a lot more than you otherwise might.

You find yourself wondering what sort of world your descendants will grow up in and what sort of life they will have. If you’re one of those people who think there’s not much they can do about it anyway, this isn’t terribly useful; but even fatalists must find it hard to avoid fretting about whether their grandchildren will enjoy the happiness, freedom and prosperity that we fervently want for them.

One thing we can safely assume about the world 20 or 30 years hence – if “safely” is the appropriate word in this context – is that it will be very different from the one we inhabit. At no stage in human history have events moved so fast.

In the space of a few years we have observed a potentially epochal shift in economic power from West to East. The United States, so long the world’s economic powerhouse, is suddenly in danger of relinquishing that role to China.

America’s critics – of whom there is no shortage in New Zealand – regard her sharp decline as a fitting punishment for unbridled greed, hubris, militarism and rampant consumerism. But it would be rash to write the US off so soon. It is a country with massive reserves of resilience and dynamism, and it remains unchallenged as the world’s pre-eminent military power.

Its morale may have taken a hammering but it has the potential to bounce back. We should all hope that it does, because for all its faults, America is still a democracy, and I would feel a lot more confident about my grandchildren’s future in a world where America retained the power to act as a check against any expansionist ambitions China might harbour. (I should stress here that my comments are entirely concerned with the Chinese communist state and are not intended to reflect on the Chinese people.)

For all its embrace of capitalism, China remains a totalitarian state with little regard for democratic freedoms. I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to grow up in a country that was subservient, either directly or indirectly, to the repressive central politburo in Beijing. Yet this prospect can’t be entirely ruled out, especially if American economic and military power declines. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.

We need to keep these things at the back our minds even as our government snuggles up to China in the hope of leveraging off its economic wealth. As Woody Allen once wrote, the lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep. For the lamb, read us.

If you factor in global population pressures and fears about climate change, the crystal ball becomes even more fret-inducing. New Zealand, with its relatively sparse population, temperate climate, fertile soil, rich seas and abundant fresh water, might look very alluring to an aggressive foreign power with no respect for our sovereignty.

On a more positive note, we inhabit a smaller and more intimate world than ever before. One of the consequences of globalisation, jet travel and the communications revolution is that they have broken down many of the nationalistic barriers over which people once eyed each other with enmity, envy and suspicion.

I can’t confirm whether it’s true that no war has ever been fought between two countries where you can buy McDonald’s hamburgers; but it does seem reasonable to assume that people are less likely to go to war against a country that they have visited as tourists, or with whose citizens they have attended international conferences and exchanged emails, than against a country of which they are completely ignorant. (Admittedly, Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s butchered people who had been their neighbours for centuries, which slightly undermines my theory – but I’m still optimistic enough to believe it generally holds true.)

The instant worldwide availability of information, via the Internet and the satellite dish, also helps. Tyrants and despots find it much harder than they once did to keep their people in ignorance, bombard them with propaganda and whip them into paranoid frenzies against imagined enemies – though the leaders of North Korea and Iran do their best.

Religious zealotry, the cause of so many horrific wars in the past, is generally on the wane too. The one exception, of course, is Islamic fundamentalism, from which we are, thankfully, largely immune in New Zealand.

None of which, I’m afraid, completely eases my nagging concerns about the sort of lives my grandchildren will have. We can only pray that civilisation continues its erratic upward trajectory, and that the next generation is as blessed as mine has been.

A morale booster, but the travesty continues

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 20.)

IT WENT unnoticed by the media, but Justice Minister Simon Power recently issued a press statement announcing that Dr Rosemary Fenwicke had decided not to seek re-appointment to the Abortion Supervisory Committee.

There’s a story behind this. Dr Fenwicke, a member of the three-person committee since 2007, is an abortion certifying consultant who earns fees by approving the termination of pregnancies. She is also a former medical director of the Family Planning Association, a major abortion referral agency. She was nominated for the committee by the Labour government of Helen Clark, whose pro-abortion sympathies are well known.

The appointment seemed not only an unconscionable conflict of interest, but a calculated insult to the many New Zealanders who regard abortion as deeply repugnant. Were they really expected to believe the government couldn’t find someone suitably qualified who didn’t have a material stake in the abortion business? (Certifying consultants were paid $5 million in 2008, and even pro-abortionists acknowledge it’s a lucrative business.)

The very nature of her professional activity suggested Dr Fenwicke was anything but neutral on this divisive issue, yet Parliament rejected an attempt by then MP Gordon Copeland, a staunch opponent of abortion, to overturn her nomination. (It was supposedly a conscience vote but Labour MPs were instructed to support Dr Fenwicke, meaning her appointment was assured.)

The issue didn’t excite much interest at the time. Even MPs with misgivings about abortion have little stomach for debates about it and probably wanted to get the matter out of the way with as little fuss as possible. Besides, they don’t want to be reminded that the administration of the abortion law is a travesty – a point I believe was borne out in a High Court judgement by Justice Forrest Miller in 2008.

New Zealand effectively has an abortion-on-request regime, something Parliament never intended when it passed the Sterilisation, Contraception and Abortion Act in 1977. The abortion supervisory committee’s annual reports show that more than 98 percent of abortions are approved by people like Dr Fenwicke on the spurious basis that the mother’s mental health is at risk.

That Dr Fenwicke should have been appointed to the committee charged with ensuring the Act is upheld demonstrated what a grotesque sham the administration of the abortion law has become.

Fortunately, anti-abortionists refused to let the matter rest. They lobbied against the renewal of Dr Fenwicke’s appointment and the government appears to have recognised the force of their argument.

Mr Power’s statement that Dr Fenwicke had decided not to seek re-appointment is usually a coded way of saying she was told it was not in the government’s interests for her to continue. Whether this indicates a change of the political mood on abortion, or is simply an acknowledgment that Dr Fenwicke should never have been appointed in the first place, isn’t clear.

Either way, although her resignation is a morale booster for the anti-abortion lobby, it does nothing to resolve the bigger issue: namely, the fact that the C, S and A Act is being brazenly flouted. Regardless of personal views on abortion, no one who values respect for the law and the integrity of government processes can be happy with this continuing charade.

IN THE meantime, the abortionists remain busy. Statistics New Zealand says 17,550 foetuses were aborted last year. That’s an awful lot of mentally unstable women.

For 37 percent of those women it was not their first abortion. More than 4000 women were having their second, 1364 were having their third and 19 had had seven abortions or more. Haven’t they heard of contraception?

Yet nearly 18,000 abortions are apparently not enough for Labour list MP Steve Chadwick, who wants abortion to be made a matter for the mother to decide – no one else. This would remove even the flimsy figleaf of legal constraints imposed under the present law, which requires (though no one takes any notice) that consideration be given to the rights of the unborn child.

What’s more, Ms Chadwick is canvassing support for a change that would allow abortions up to 24 weeks – that’s six months into the pregnancy, a point at which babies are capable, with intensive medical care, of surviving outside the womb. Under existing law the limit is 20 weeks, though exceptions can be allowed if the mother’s life is at risk or there is a danger of serous permanent injury.

This part of her proposed Abortion Reform Bill is making even pro-abortionists nervous because, as pro-choice columnist Dita de Boni has written, it will stir up passions associated with late-term abortion.

I regard Ms Chadwick’s proposal as monstrous. She appears to be one of the last standard-bearers for an extreme brand of 1970s feminism that places ideology over humanity.

I can’t imagine Labour leader Phil Goff – or any of Ms Chadwick’s parliamentary colleagues, for that matter – will thank her for putting this unexploded bomb on the political agenda. Yet there is unfinished business here that needs to be dealt with. Looking the other way, as the politicians have done for the past 33 years, isn’t good enough.

Footnote: The Dominion Post subsequently published a piece by Rosemary Fenwicke responding to my column. I can’t find it on Stuff but it can be read here:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

About bloody time

Most of the attention given to the government’s proposed labour law reforms has focused on the widening of the 90-day “probation” period for new employees and the new requirement that people taking sick days may have to produce a doctor’s letter. But if you ask me (and admittedly, no one has), a couple of the other proposals are every bit as significant.

The first is the radical proposition (I’m being sarcastic here) that employers should be allowed to communicate directly with their workers, rather than only through a union, during collective bargaining. When I was a newspaper editor I thought it outrageous that during disputes with the journalists’ union – which were not infrequent – we (that is, the company) were prohibited from talking to our staff about the issues in dispute. The union was free to put whatever lopsided, misleading spin it wanted on things (and often did). It struck me as grossly inequitable that while the union could bombard its members with inflammatory propaganda, the employers were required by law to remain meekly silent. National should have jettisoned this provision immediately on taking office.

The second proposed change, which is even more significant, is that the Employment Relations Act will be amended so that employers who sack people are judged by the overall fairness of the dismissal process rather than on the basis of pedantic technicalities. This is a breakthrough that has been a long time coming. I’ve lost count of the cases I’ve read about in which employees have behaved abominably yet been reinstated, and their employers heavily penalised, because some minor and often inadvertent procedural flaw has been identified. Process repeatedly triumphs over what most fair-minded people would consider natural justice.

The dice were so hopelessly loaded against employers in dismissal cases that companies inevitably became gun-shy about taking on new staff. Why take the risk when even the dishonest, the lazy, the drug-addled and the incompetent can’t be fired without risking costly legal recriminations?

In this respect the proposed reform of the dismissal laws dovetails neatly with the extension of the 90-day probation period. Both moves will give employers new confidence about hiring staff, and job applicants will have nothing to fear provided they are willing and able to do the work expected of them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A striking ad - but I don't believe it

There was a striking ad on the back page of the latest Your Weekend, the colour magazine that comes with the Saturday edition of The Dominion Post, The Press and The Waikato Times. It shows an anxious-looking woman sitting in a café. All the people sitting at the tables around her have their eyes fixed on her, and when you look closely you see they all have the same face. It is the scowling, menacing face of a man.

The ad’s caption says simply: “1 in 3 women need your help. Because living in fear, isn’t living.”

Setting aside the predictable ad agency solecisms, it’s a very effective ad, visually at least. The woman is haunted by fear; she imagines everyone in the café is the man who has presumably been beating her and is now stalking her.

As you’ve probably guessed, the ad seeks donations to the annual appeal of the women’s refuge organisation. But what got my attention, once I’d taken in the graphic image, was the suggestion that one in three New Zealand women live in fear. I was sufficiently curious to email the national collective of women’s refuge organisations and ask where that statistic came from. I promptly got an anonymous reply that said: “Hi, 1 in 3 women suffer violence in nz, hence live in fear, during their life time”.

Hmmm. Not promising. But this morning I got a second email, still anonymous, that read: “Hi Karl. Here’s the research – sorry didn’t have it on me last night:

“33-39% of women experience intimate partner violence (physical and sexual) in their lifetime (Janet Fanslow & Elizabeth Robinson, Violence against Women in New Zealand; Prevalence and health consequences. New Zealand Medical Journal. 117(1206) 2004) ”

I could find only an abstract of this report online and here’s what it said, inter alia:

The study population was women aged 18-64 years in Auckland and north Waikato. A population-based cluster-sampling scheme was used, with face-to-face interviews with one randomly selected woman from each household. Analyses included calculation of prevalence rates and logistic regression models to determine associations.

The overall response rate was 66.9%, n=2,855.Fifteen percent of participants in Auckland and 17% in the north Waikato reported at least one act of physical violence inflicted by non-partners in their lifetime. Sexual violence by non-partners was reported by 9% and 12% of women in Auckland and Waikato respectively. Among ever-partnered women, 33% in Auckland and 39% in Waikato had experienced at least one act of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

So we have a survey which revealed that more than 33 percent of women in Auckland and Waikato said they had experienced at least one act of physical or sexual violence from their partners. Now that’s an alarming statistic, and I don’t mean to play down violence against women, which is abhorrent; but the implication I took from the ad is that at any given time, one in three New Zealand women live in fear of assault from their male partner, so need our help.

Put another way, it accuses one-third of New Zealand men of being wife-beaters - hardly a winning way to solicit public support. Not only would most New Zealanders (including women) regard the claim as preposterous, but it’s not what the Fanslow/Robinson survey says. The survey states that one in three women have experienced an act of violence at some time – a very different thing from saying that one in three women live in a constant state of fear, which is what the ad implies.

The acts of violence experienced by many of those women may have been momentary, unpremeditated and very likely a cause of instant shame and remorse on the part of the perpetrator. They may never have been repeated. Does that excuse them? No. But there is a world of difference between a momentary lashing out and the sustained, deliberate, brutal, sadistic spousal abuse that leads some desperate women to seek the help of refuges.

I think the caption is dishonest, which is unfortunate because the women’s refuge movement, as far as I’m aware, does admirable work. It has done itself a disservice by perpetrating a canard like this. Perhaps it should keep the ideological propaganda separate from its appeals for donations.

I’m reminded of the row that broke out over the advertising for the 1988 Telethon which made the patently outrageous claim that one in four daughters were sexually abused by their fathers. That did nothing for the credibility of feminist campaigners against sex abuse. Similarly, the women’s refuge movement won’t do itself any favours by playing fast and loose with domestic violence statistics.

Having said that, I’ll donate to the appeal – not only because I object to violence against women, but for the sake of children from violent homes who desperately need a sanctuary. But I will look askance at any claims made by the women’s refuge organisation in the future.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's Gillard's secret?

If I were Anne Tolley, I’d be jumping on a plane to Canberra to seek advice from Julia Gillard. Media reports have generally presented the new Aussie PM as a bit of a leftie, but the Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher makes a persuasive case that she’s anything but. Among other things, he writes:

As education minister, she confronted the unions, and the Australian Education Union, the big left-wing umbrella public-school union, in particular. She outwitted it, out-campaigned it, and out-manoeuvred it. She got what she wanted – a national curriculum, with mandatory national testing, and a public disclosure of school performances on the My School website. Her agenda was pro-student and pro-parent, and it left the union angry and badly battered.

If a Labor Party minister could force the stroppy Australian teachers to swallow the twin dead rats of national standards and the hated “league tables”, surely it can’t be too hard for a centre-right government here?

Hartcher's piece can be read here:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Politicising the disabled

In a column in The Dominion Post in February 2008, I wrote that a law change requiring intellectually disabled workers to be paid the legal minimum wage was a triumph of human rights ideology over common sense. My column attracted a response from Ruth Dyson, then the Minister for Disability Issues, who told me in an email that in fact it was a triumph of fairness and common sense over ideology.

I remained unconvinced, and two years later decided to take a closer look at what had happened following the Labour-led government’s repeal of the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion (DPEP) Act in November 2007, which in turn led to the closure of 76 IHC sheltered workshops. What I learned, from speaking to parents of intellectually disabled persons and people working in the disability sector, confirmed my initial impressions. If anything, things were worse than I imagined.

In an article published in the latest issue of The Listener, I report that intellectually handicapped people who previously gained a sense of fulfilment and camaraderie from going to work each day in IHC sheltered workshops now spend much of their time in empty, purposeless non-activities euphemistically labelled “community participation”. This often consists of walks, going shopping or going to the pool – none of which is any substitute, parents say, for the work they used to do.

I spoke to parents of disabled adults all over New Zealand who felt betrayed and angry over the changes imposed in 2007. I use the word “betrayed” because the law change was enthusiastically supported by IHC – the very organisation those parents looked to for support. And although the government and IHC insisted there was widespread consultation beforehand, the parents I interviewed, many of them long-standing members of IHC, refute that. One said parents were shellshocked by the announcement that IHC’s sheltered workshops were to close. Another had heard only rumours before the changes were announced and said she suspected that the people consulted were a vocal group of the “higher-achieving” disabled who didn’t speak for those with intellectual disabilities.

One mother told me that her fit and active adult daughter, who had previously worked in an IHC team doing outdoor jobs that provided a constructive outlet for her energy, had suffered behavioural problems since IHC terminated her job and was now subject to a court order. A man who ran an intellectually disabled crew that did lawnmowing, firewood and garden work says his former crew members, deprived of the stimulation of daily work and thrown back into the company of people who were more seriously impaired, have regressed since IHC pulled the plug on their employment. There are hundreds of similar stories.

So what’s going on here? How come IHC, an organisation supposedly committed to the wellbeing of the intellectually disabled, was party to a law change that seems to have greatly disadvantaged many of the very people it purports to help? The answer, as I write in my Listener article, is that IHC has been captured by a rights-based ideology that politicised the treatment of the disabled. In the process, it has distanced itself (in fact alienated itself might be more accurate) from many parents with intellectually handicapped children – the very people who have traditionally been its most loyal and supportive members. The depth of feeling against the IHC that I encountered, both from parents and IHC caregivers (though the latter wouldn’t dare be identified for fear of repercussions), was striking. The impression I got was of an organisation out of touch with its grassroots. In fact a secondary thread in my article touches on the dangers that arise when former voluntary charities such as IHC morph into large, politicised bureaucracies that depend on the government for funding (as IHC does, receiving more than $200 million a year from the state).

As one parent pointed out to me, a conflict of interest occurs when the organisation charged with lobbying the government on behalf of the intellectually disabled is also beholden to the government for money. The pressure to fall into line with government policy – in fact, to effectively become a de facto arm of government – is obviously formidable.

Before I go any further, some background. The DPEP Act, passed in 1960, exempted sheltered workshops run by IHC and other providers of services for the disabled from having to pay the legal minimum wage. The act was founded on the assumption that the disabled were not productive enough to justify being paid a proper wage. Most parents supported the arrangement because it provided the intellectually disabled with productive daily activity in a safe, supportive environment. And though the sheltered workshop employees were generally paid only a token amount for their work, parents and caregivers insist that money is of little meaning to many intellectually disabled people. As Southland Disability Enterprises manager Ian Beker put it to me, self-esteem and comradeship are far more important.

In the face of a rising clamour for disabled people’s rights, however, none of that seemed to matter. Labour came to power in 1999 bent on freeing the disabled from the shackles of discrimination. Cheered on by disabled activists, it created an Office of Disability Issues and appointed Dyson as the first Minister.

As with many ideologically driven changes, the new approach involved a redefining of language. According to the Disability Strategy issued by the Labour government in 2001, “Disability is not something individuals have. What individuals have are impairments.” Disability, the strategy said, was what happened when other people created barriers that prevented the impaired from enjoying a full life. A similar ideology held sway at the Human Rights Commission, which proclaimed: “Disability is seen as a result of how society treats its citizens.”

Under this new philosophy, sheltered workshops were seen as exploiting a vulnerable minority. Green MP Sue Bradford went further, describing them in Parliament as a form of “systemic oppression” underpinned by a “paternalistic” charity model.

The Disability Strategy was followed by another document called Pathways to Inclusion, which outlined how the new philosophy would affect vocational services for the intellectually handicapped. In it, Dyson said people with disabilities had told the government they wanted to determine their own futures and be treated as valued members of society.

The IHC bureaucracy in Wellington embraced the new rights-based approach and lobbied in favour of the act’s repeal, as did trade unions and the Disabled Persons Assembly, an articulate lobby group which purports to represent all people with disabilities. IHC’s director of advocacy, Trish Grant, wrote: “Times have changed. We now understand that people with intellectual disabilities have the same needs and aspirations as anyone else.” The attitudes reflected in the DPEP Act, she wrote, were discriminatory and contravened the Human Rights Act.

Grant claimed that IHC had talked to thousands of intellectually disabled people and their families, “and they have told us consistently that they want opportunities for real work and they want real pay for the work they do.” Strangely, none of the parents I spoke to recalled being consulted. Some of them suspect the consultation was mainly with the Disabled Persons Assembly, which they say is dominated by well-educated, articulate people with physical and sensory rather than intellectual disabilities.

Under the new legislation, the automatic exemption from the minimum wage laws was wiped. In the interests of creating a “fully inclusive society”, disabled workers were to be granted the same rights as everyone else, including the right to earn the minimum wage, join unions and take annual holidays.

Everyone working in sheltered workshops was to be individually assessed. Those deemed capable of working in mainstream employment would be helped to find real jobs on the open market while those not capable of earning a minimum wage would be able to apply for an under-rate worker’s permit – effectively an exemption from the minimum wage law – and be paid according to their productivity.

One result of the change was that a new layer of bureaucracy was imposed on the disability sector in the form of Labour Department inspectors who must now individually assess each disabled worker every year. Providers of disability services say the increased administrative burden has added greatly to their costs.

But a much more significant consequence was that IHC, which operated 70 percent of the country’s sheltered workshops, decided they were no longer compatible with its vision of a “fully inclusive” society and closed them all down. Chief executive Ralph Jones said IHC’s primary role was to support people with intellectual disabilities, not run business enterprises for them. Instead, IHC would concentrate on supporting its service users into “mainstream” employment.

It wasn’t a question of IHC’s sheltered workshops no longer being economically viable, because other providers of similar services, having obtained the necessary exemptions from the minimum wage, continue to operate.

The insensitivity with which aspects of the change were handled by IHC is extraordinary. In one town, intellectually handicapped people apprehensive about what the new regime might mean were assured that it would help them get jobs that paid much better money. This went down very well, I was told, until they asked what sort of jobs they would be getting. The list included “restaurant worker”, “library worker” and “pool attendant” – occupations that a caregiver described as “spectacularly inappropriate”.

In Blenheim, parents were astonished when their intellectually handicapped children, who worked in an IHC-owned garden centre, were given a jargon-laden memo advising them that they would become “self advocates” running “micro enterprises” and would have to set up bank accounts and negotiate payments with clients. Some of those given the memo could neither read nor write. (The garden centre, incidentally, was subsequently bought by a hastily formed trust after IHC, to the indignation of the local community which had supported the business for 25 years, announced it was going to be closed and sold.)

IHC’s critics concede that many higher-achieving intellectually disabled people have benefited from the change. They have found mainstream jobs and are earning better money. But the repeal of the DPEP Act has not been so kind to the many former employees of IHC sheltered workshops who are incapable of “real” work and are now, since the closures, effectively idle. They have borne the cost of the IHC’s determination to pursue a rights-based philosophy.

Even for some who found “real” jobs, the outcomes have not always been ideal. Maori Party MP Hone Harawira told Parliament in 2007, when the transition to the new regime was already well advanced, that some intellectually disabled employees were teased and bullied in their workplaces. In Invercargill, parent Marion Miller estimated that 50 percent placed in jobs soon resigned because they couldn’t handle the pressure.

The idealistic theory behind the changes was that intellectually disabled workers would be scattered around the community. But as one mother said to me, intellectually disabled people greatly value the camaraderie that comes from being among their peers with caregivers who understand their needs. Only the most capable are comfortable working in a “normal” environment.

Moreover, as an experienced caregiver explained to me, many intellectually disabled people need emotional, physical or behavioural support and some take a daily cocktail of powerful medications. “If a dose is skipped, changed, lost, muddled or forgotten, the roll-on effects can be dangerous.” It was safer and much less hassle, the caregiver said, for an employer to hire a student or retiree for the same money.

Much of this, however, seems to have been overlooked by IHC in its headlong rush into a brave new world where everyone enjoys the same rights.

There are parallels here with the mental health reforms of the 1990s, when thousands of people suffering psychiatric illness were unceremoniously bundled out of institutions – often disregarding the concerns of their families – on the pretext that it was their right to live independently in the community. The result was that mental patients who had previously had the benefit of a secure environment in which they were fed, clothed, medicated and given a warm bed were let loose, effectively to fend for themselves. It was no coincidence that in the years following de-institutionalisation, the country was appalled by a spate of horrendous crimes perpetrated by severely mentally ill people who had previously been under proper supervision.

In the case of the changes affecting the intellectually disabled, the sad irony is that the people I wrote about in The Listener are now much less engaged in their communities than they were previously. This is the opposite of the effect intended.

Intellectually disabled people who mowed lawns and gathered firewood, for example, were out and about in their communities every day. An intellectually disabled woman who worked in an IHC business unit that provided ironing services in Taupo would help do the banking and got to know people along the route. When her parents walked down the street with her they were amazed at how many people greeted her by name. Now, in the brave new post DPEP regime, many of these people are ghetto-ised in day care facilities.

The irony doesn’t escape George Tyree, who ran an IHC outdoor work team in Levin. He refers to the government policy so eagerly embraced by IHC as “pathways to exclusion”. It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that for many intellectually disabled people, the “rights” conferred by the 2007 law change have come at the expense of their quality of life.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why I've fallen behind on my reading

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Evening Standard, July 7.)

Television is not a big part of my life. I watch the TV3 News most nights, having failed in an attempt to conquer the habit. The evening news bulletin is an addiction that’s almost as hard to shake as nicotine, and only slightly less damaging.

But apart from that, I’m generally content if I get just 30 minutes of satisfying viewing in an evening. This I usually manage, thanks to programmes as diverse as the stalwart Country Calendar, Father Ted (currently being re-run for the umpteenth time) and The Big Bang Theory (though the latter, like many clever American comedy series that start full of promise, is already wearing thin).

The paucity of my viewing experience is demonstrated by the fact that many of the hit shows of the past two decades passed me by completely. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a complete episode of Seinfeld or Friends. I know nothing about cult shows like Lost and The Wire apart from what I’ve read about them, and I can’t tell one American crime show from another.

The only episode of Shortland Street that I ever watched right through was the very first, though bits that I’ve seen by accident since then suggest it’s a pretty well-made programme of its type; and though I’ve looked in on the highly successful Outrageous Fortune from time to time, I’ve never been temped to persevere.

There’s a swag of programmes I refuse to watch on principle, including America’s Next Top Model and anything with the word “survivor” in the title.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve been forced to pay a lot more attention to television because I’ve been filling in for the regular TV critic for The Listener , Diana Wichtel, while she was overseas.

I’m still trying to work out whether not having previously been a compulsive viewer was a blessing or a curse in this role. Naturally I would prefer to think that any disadvantage I might have suffered was at least partly offset by the fact that I came to the job with a fresh pair of eyes.

So, after 10 weeks of watching as much TV as I would normally consume in six months, what are my impressions? In no particular order, they are as follows:

● Public service television, aside from Maori TV, was effectively dead and buried long before the current government announced it would abolish Labour’s well-intentioned but ineffectual charter. But then we all knew that anyway.

● The choice of programmes on Sky TV (which The Listener kindly arranged for me while I was filling in) is so great that it’s like trying to drink from a firehose. Much of it is junk, of course, but only the pickiest viewer can’t find one or two programmes a night worth watching.

● It’s no surprise that Sky has trebled its market share since 2000 and now has 800,000 subscribers, or that TVNZ’s market share over the same period has declined from 40 to 25 percent. TVNZ, traditionally the dominant player, has driven viewers into Sky’s arms by relentlessly dumbing down its programming.

● Serious current affairs programmes like Q+A (TV One) and The Nation (TV3) attract pitifully small audiences, but in scrutinising the processes of government and holding our political leaders up to the light, they serve a vital purpose in creating an informed democracy. If one accepts that free-to-air television has an obligation to fulfil this function (as newspapers do), then these programmes deserve better than to be ghetto-ised in godforsaken timeslots.

● The only free-to-air channel that consistently conveys a sense of “New Zealandness” is Maori Television, which helps explain why an astonishing three-quarters of its two million viewers are non-Maori. Maori TV has energetically seized some of the ground vacated by TVNZ.

● While the dominant public broadcaster bombards its viewers with freak-show programmes about grossly overweight people and women with unnaturally large breasts, Maori TV is quietly producing important current affairs programmes like the recent one about the deprived Taranaki town of Waitara, whose 6000 inhabitants – a large proportion of them Maori – have been denied a sewage treatment scheme while their district council spends up large promoting New Plymouth as one of our most vibrant, visitor-friendly cities. The item was entitled Taradise Lost, a play on New Plymouth mayor Peter Tennent’s fondness for referring to his province as Taradise, but I would have called it Taranaki’s Dirty Secret.

● Some of the most absorbing programmes on television are ones that arrive without any fanfare. At its best, Who Do You Think You Are? – in which well-known figures explore their ancestry – was fascinating. And I stumbled entirely by chance on a charming series called American Pickers: not a programme about bluegrass music, but one in which antique collectors fossick in out-of-the-way places for fascinating items of Americana.

● Forced to choose between Close Up and Campbell Live, which slug it out nightly on one of the toughest fronts in the ratings war, I usually opt for the latter. Close Up’s Mark Sainsbury is a thoroughly decent and capable host but the deciding factor, for me, is John Campbell’s mischievous sense of fun. Campbell and his crew have obviously decided that if the show is on borrowed time, as is sometimes speculated, they’ll at least go down enjoying themselves.

● I often despair at the quality of the TV news but can’t quite bring myself to forego it, due to the nagging fear that I might miss seeing something important. I choose TV3 in preference to One for a range of reasons, but principally because it’s less driven by gimmickry (that silly wall-sized touch screen aside) and not as cloyingly ingratiating with its audience. I don’t want Simon, Wendy, Bernie, Sav and Jimmy to be my friends; I just want them to tell me what I need to know. But TV3’s news has its faults too – among them a tendency to pander to a young demographic group with non-news items that are of no interest, and possibly even incomprehensible, to the older age group that forms the core news audience. And both channels are notable for the disproportionate number of telegenic young female reporters whom one suspects have been chosen largely on the basis of their looks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Given a choice between Budweiser and a mini-skirt, I'd wear the mini-skirt

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 6.)

INEVITABLY, saturation media coverage of the Fifa World Cup has led to arguments in pubs and workplaces over the relative merits of football and rugby.

Such debates are pointless. Loyalty to particular sporting codes arises from a complex, emotive mix of nationalistic, tribal and cultural factors and doesn’t necessarily stand up to logical scrutiny.

Like most New Zealanders, I greatly admire the All Whites and their coach, who have been exemplary representatives both on and off the pitch. But I still favour rugby because it’s the game I’m familiar with. If I knew more about football, perhaps I’d become as obsessed with it as others are.

The one thing that non-followers of football have difficulty understanding is the hysteria that surrounds the game. Fans no doubt put it down to passion, but to non-believers it simply looks like infantilism.

The over-the-top behaviour starts on the pitch, where players go into paroxysms of ecstasy every time they score, leap on each other in unseemly displays of homo-eroticism and writhe in theatrical agony if an opposing player so much as brushes past them.

These histrionics clearly have a contagious effect on fans, encouraging them to indulge in behaviour that even children would regard as undignified. They shriek with excitement, they weep inconsolably, they hug each other and they chant primitive, incomprehensible tribal mantras. And of course they like a brawl, too.

You don’t see these juvenile displays from fans of golf, tennis, athletics, swimming or motorsport – or rugby, for that matter. Football fans tend to look down on rugby as a brutish sport played by oafs, yet rugby crowds behave with impeccable decorum compared with followers of the round-ball game.

Football alone seems to release the inner child in its supporters – the secret part of them that never wanted to grow up. How else can you explain the childlike delight that thousands of fans seem to take in blowing on tuneless vuvuzelas?

And speaking of tuneless, what about the singing? One of the revelations of the Fifa World Cup is that football fans the world over all sound the same when they sing.

Actually, “sing” is hardly the right word. It’s more a gormless drone that dairy farmers would recognise as being similar to the lowing of distressed, unmilked cows. And the extraordinary thing is that this is true whether the fans come from a musical country, such as Italy, or from a country where sporting crowds take a perverse pride in being unable to sing, such as New Zealand.

MORE INTERESTING to me than the football was the controversy that erupted when a bunch of eye-catching, orange-clad female spectators wearing a discreet Dutch brewery logo at a match in Johannesburg upset the tournament’s official beer suppliers, Budweiser.

In a heavy-handed reaction, Fifa had the two women ringleaders arrested for “ambush marketing” – a criminal offence in South Africa while the World Cup is on.

This is a foretaste of what we can expect next year during the Rugby World Cup. As in South Africa, Parliament has passed a set of ridiculous laws to prevent unapproved advertisers cashing in on the event – laws that go far beyond what is reasonably required to protect the interests of official sponsors.

Among other things, the Major Events Management Act requires transport routes within five kilometres of RWC venues to be swept clean of offending billboards. Anyone foolhardy enough to contaminate these “clean zones” with non-official advertisements will risk a criminal conviction and a fine of $150,000.

In South Africa, undercover enforcers patrol stadiums to ensure no one breaks the rules. Even innocent umbrellas bearing unapproved logos are seized.

We can expect the same absurd carry-on here next year, when judges will be on call to deal with offences against the Act and enforcement officers will be able to execute search warrants and issue “cease and desist” orders.

Not the least objectionable aspect of this is that the taxpayer will pay for these Gestapo-style officials to do the sponsors’ dirty work while the corporate big shots schmooze over canapés and Veuve Clicquot in the VIP suites. (You can get bet more than a few politicians will have their snouts in the hospitality box troughs too, as a reward for their complicity.)

This will be the closest New Zealand has come to a totalitarian state since the draconian emergency powers adopted during the 1951 waterfront dispute. Advertising is a form of free speech, after all, and a government that gets away with banning advertising might be tempted to extend the idea to the suppression of other things it doesn’t like.

The irony, of course, is that the arrest of the ambush marketers in South Africa attracted international attention and ensured the rogue Dutch brewery got far more media coverage than it would have if Fifa’s sponsorship police had looked the other way. In the end Fifa was shamed into withdrawing charges and the women went free.

As for me, I’d wear a skimpy orange mini-skirt too if the only alternative was to drink Budweiser.