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.