Saturday, January 28, 2012

Memo to Bill English: perhaps you could start here

THE GOVERNMENT insists that it’s trimming the flab from the public service, yet I keep seeing advertisements for pseudo-jobs such as “Chief Advisor, Maori Development” for the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

It was a wordy, long-winded ad but after reading it I had little idea what the job actually entailed. This is par for the course with executive positions these days, in the private as well as the public sector. The ad was written in impenetrable HR-speak, with liberal use of vague phrases such as “focused strategies and policies” and “building connections throughout New Zealand’s science and innovation systems”.

Here’s a sample: “The Chief Maori Advisor [note the capital letters] will be the visible champion within the organisation to ensure that MSI gives priority to the Vision Matauranga policy, including through cross-government work in support of Maori economic development. The role will provide iwi with a primary point of contact and also support the CE and Senior Management [those capitals again] team by providing appropriate advice and cultural support for all significant engagements with Maori.”

It finished with a flourish, advising that the successful applicant would have a genuine opportunity [as opposed to a fake one?] “to make a difference to Maoridom by linking, influencing and driving economic development through research and development”.

I’m suspicious of flatulent language like this because it can mean anything and nothing. The description of the position advertised is so vague that I concluded it’s just another stab at feel-good bicultural tokenism. If a vacancy can’t be described in words that actually mean something, it’s probably not worth filling.

If Bill English is really determined to cut out wastage and feather-bedding in the public sector, perhaps he could start here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is free speech too cheap?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 18.)

One of the claims made for the internet is that it has opened up public dialogue on a scale never experienced before.

And it’s true. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection – or indeed any of the myriad devices now available that enable users to communicate online – can enter cyberspace and contribute to the discussion of the day, whether it’s about sponge cake recipes, the relative merits of different dog breeds or the war in Afghanistan.

They can start a blog, as I did, or they can contribute to the comment threads (as they’re known in Net-speak) that allow people to respond to blog entries with their own opinions.

On news media websites, too, readers can submit comments responding to published opinion columns. These comments are usually moderated – in other words, vetted before publication – but the moderation is typically light-handed. Only the most outrageously defamatory or offensive language is filtered out.

Never in history has so much opinion poured forth largely unchecked in public forums. In the old days, for example, anyone wanting to take issue with a newspaper columnist had to sit down, write a letter to the editor and sign it with his or her real name and address.

There was no guarantee it would be published and even if it was, it might be abridged because of space limitations in the correspondence columns. (Human nature being what it is, the bit edited out was always the one the letter writer considered the most vital.)

You can still go through this quaint, old-fashioned routine, but there’s a much more effortless way to have your say. You can submit a comment to the paper’s website. It’s virtually instantaneous, you can say as much or as little as you like, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

What’s more, you don’t have to put your name to it. You can use any enigmatic, vaguely menacing or downright silly pseudonym you choose. Only a few commenters on websites and blogs use their real names.

Some newspaper websites attract hundreds of online comments. Depressingly, the opinion columns that provoke the strongest reactions are often about sport – for example, the column by Australian sports writer Paul Sheehan criticising the All Blacks’ Kapa O Pango haka, which so infuriated New Zealanders that 868 responded. (Question: what conceit makes commenter number 868 think anyone is going to read his or her contribution?)

The best-read blogs, such as Kiwiblog and Hard News, also routinely attract hundreds of comments, whereas I consider I’m doing well if my modest effort gets five or six.

All this is held to be liberating and good for democracy – and so it is, up to a point. No one can complain any longer that newspaper editors (or talkback producers, for that matter) are the gatekeepers controlling entry to public opinion forums. Now anyone can have their say, at any time and from anywhere on the planet.

But while the sheer volume of comment on the issues of the day has increased exponentially, no one could pretend that there has been a commensurate rise in the standard of debate.

In fact, quite the contrary. Far from being the stimulating, uplifting marketplace of ideas fondly envisaged by free-speech idealists, the internet and blogosphere is a seething, toxic cesspit of jeering, name-calling, vulgarity, bile and mendacity.

Its dominant characteristics are malice, rage and ignorance – a lethal combination that extinguishes any hope of civilised, intelligent dialogue.

Anyone scanning the comments sections of media websites and blogs soon notes recurring patterns. The first is the sheer volume of personal abuse – the tool most frequently resorted to by those who disagree with other people’s views, and deployed with equal ferocity by those on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The strategy is to intimidate one’s opponent not with force of argument but with vituperation.

Often the anonymous commenter fails to see, or more likely pretends not to see, the central point of the other side’s argument, preferring to introduce extraneous issues, thereby diverting the debate from the central issue under discussion. Another tactic is to wilfully misconstrue what has been written or wildly extrapolate it so as to justify derogatory conclusions about the author.

If the tone of online debate wasn’t so deeply depressing, some aspects of it might be almost amusing. A typical pattern is for the first few comments to be reasonably lucid and relevant, then for the thread to rapidly spiral downwards into a deepening well of viciousness and rancidity that steadily becomes further removed from the subject supposedly under discussion.

By the time you get to about the 30th comment, the participants have totally forgotten what started it all and are intent only on insulting each other.

It’s tempting to draw a comparison with a sharks’ feeding frenzy. It takes only one commenter to draw blood and then it’s all on. In short order the thread is splattered with entrails and severed limbs.

Another analogy is with the troublemaker who throws a punch in a crowded, bad-tempered bar and then quietly slips out the door as the place erupts in an all-in brawl. By the time the premises have been trashed and the last bodies carried out, no one remembers or cares who or what started it.

And here’s something else I’ve noticed: the same pseudonyms crop up time and time again, denoting an abundance of angry and bitter losers who have nothing better to do than trawl the net all day looking for someone to “flame” (another internet buzzword). Often the combatants know each other well from previous encounters.

As a low-grade spectator sport, it’s like a stock car demolition derby – something of transient appeal to people of limited intellect. Not even the most ardent champion of the Internet could argue that these venomous and cowardly outpourings have elevated public debate.

I now wonder whether the choleric tone of debate on the internet has begun to contaminate wider public discourse. A friend who hosts a radio show remarked to me recently that the emails and text messages sent to his programme have become noticeably more vicious and vindictive over the past couple of years.

I don’t think it’s because his show has deteriorated (it has a large and loyal audience). It’s just that people now feel they can get away with abusive language that was once considered beyond the pale. Cowards and bitter ranters who previously fumed in private have licence to vent their bile publicly under the cloak of anonymity.

The sad conclusion is that perhaps free speech now comes too cheap.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Dropped in it" - NZ on Air and that Bryan Bruce documentary

New Zealand on Air, which funded the politically loaded Bryan Bruce documentary on child poverty that screened three days before the November election, is now considering a new rule that would prevent the funding agency from being “dropped in it” – NZOA chairman Neil Walter’s phrase – again.

Critics are alleging political interference, and on the face of it, they have a point: Stephen McElrea, the NZOA board member who raised the issue – as revealed in documents obtained by media commentator Tom Frewen – is John Key’s electorate chairman.

McElrea is also a former TVNZ producer, so has professional credentials, but the fuss that has blown up over Bruce’s Inside Child Poverty documentary shows the messy situations that can arise from the time-honoured New Zealand practice of appointing people with political connections to public bodies. In this case it has given oxygen to Labour’s broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran, who is able to insinuate that NZOA’s decision to seek legal advice on a rule change is politically motivated. Rightly or wrongly, McElrea’s appointment undermines the public perception of NZOA as an impartial funder.

But all that aside, there’s no getting around the fact that TV3’s decision to schedule the pseudo-documentary four days before the election, in a prime-time slot usually given to cheap reality shows, was at the very least mischievous and provocative. And I have to take issue with John Drinnan from the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand media commentator Colin Peacock, who have suggested that the programme wasn’t overtly political.

It was a politically charged statement, to use Neil Walter’s description, from start to finish. I choked on my toast when I heard Bryan Bruce on Summer Report this morning declare, hand on heart, that his one-hour polemic didn’t favour one political party over another.

As I wrote in this blog at the time, the programme couldn’t be construed as anything but a deliberate attempt to tilt the political playing field in Labour’s favour. “That couldn’t have been clearer than when the host – who clearly aspires to be New Zealand’s answer to the sanctimonious John Pilger – genuflected, metaphorically speaking, before the Michael Joseph Savage monument and reminded us of Labour’s proud historical commitment to feed, clothe and house the poor. Another overtly political moment occurred when Bruce asked rhetorically: “Who builds state houses? Labour. Who sells them? National.”

The question now is whether this warrants a new rule restricting what can be shown on television in the leadup to an election – which media lawyer Steven Price has described as too broad and heavy handed – or whether it can be dealt with under existing Broadcasting Standards Authority provisions requiring broadcasters to be fair and balanced.

I’m no lawyer, but I find it hard to imagine how a new rule could be drafted that didn’t threaten to stifle perfectly legitimate pre-election coverage of controversial political issues. Yet NZOA can hardly be blamed for reacting the way it has.

Interestingly, the only silent party in this row so far is the one that created it: TV3 itself. The papers released to Frewen show that the network expressed its regret to NZOA for the timing of the programme and gave an assurance that it wouldn’t happen again, but I’d be far more interested in an explanation of why it did it in the first place.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Memo to police: spare us the lectures

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 17.)

WHEN did the police decide that their role extended beyond preventing crime and apprehending lawbreakers?

Clearly, a new generation of officers is under the delusion that they have a remit to provide moral guidance and matronly advice to the rest of us on how to lead wholesome lives.

Last week the head of the Canterbury police alcohol strategy and enforcement team, Sergeant Al Lawn, was publicly tut-tutting over the granting of an alcohol licence to a new Christchurch supermarket.

With respect, Mr Lawn should pull his head in. The law allows the police to have their say when submissions are heard on liquor licence applications and once the decision is made, that should be an end to it.

Obviously not satisfied with this state of affairs, and probably smarting because the decision didn’t go his way, Mr Lawn seized the opportunity to lecture supermarkets on their supposed moral responsibilities.

He doesn’t think supermarkets should discount alcohol because it supposedly encourages binge drinking. But I know lots of people who are happy to buy discounted wine and beer from supermarkets and they couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be labelled as binge drinkers.

Mr Lawn went even further, suggesting that stores should reduce the price of milk, fruit and vegetables to attract customers “in a way that is also good for the community”. What pompous moralising.

Out of curiosity I googled Mr Lawn and on the basis of what I saw, I concluded that he has well and truly crossed the line between objective law enforcement and political activism. He makes emotive statements about liquor industry “drug pushers” and condemns politicians for not getting tougher on alcohol.

He is entitled to those views as a private citizen, but to push them as a police officer is an abuse of his position.

If he feels so strongly, he should run for public office. With his propensity for interfering in other people’s business, Labour or the Greens would welcome him.

* * *

MR LAWN’S pronouncements are consistent with a growing tendency for police officers to lecture the rest of us on how to live.

Just before Christmas, Wellington district road policing manager Peter Baird was wagging his finger at drivers who had enjoyed a couple of drinks at end-of-year lunches. Even if they weren’t over the legal limit, he was concerned that they were “taking risks”.

In other words, it’s no longer enough to stay within the law. Mr Baird should have been congratulating the Christmas revellers for knowing when to stop drinking.

These uniformed nags represent an unwelcome new style of policing – one that could soon test the tolerance of the public who pay their salaries.

It is not the function of the police to act like Mother Hens, treating us as incapable of making sound decisions without their patronising guidance. If we want sermons, we can go to church.

* * *

WHEN will someone admit that sex education, at least as it’s practised in New Zealand schools, is a cruel hoax?

We have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the developed world. In the past decade, teen pregnancies have been trending upward – as has the abortion rate for the same age group.

To complete this ugly trifecta, there has been a steady upward trend in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. The per capita rate of STDs in New Zealand is estimated to be twice that of Australia and Britain.

All this has coincided with highly explicit sex education in schools, mostly funded by the state. It has demonstrably been a failure, yet the champions of sex education insist the solution to teen pregnancies and STDs is – wait for it – more of the same.

We are the most sexually aware society in human history. To pretend the problem is that we don’t know enough about sex is laughable.

Admittedly, teenage pregnancy and STDs can’t be blamed entirely on what’s taught in schools. Sexual promiscuity has been normalised by television, videos and the Internet. But sex education, rather than countering those influences, has compounded them by promoting the ruinous notion of sex without consequences.

Perversely, a high priestess of sex education and abortion, former New Zealand Family Planning head Gill Greer, was recently honoured with a CBE in Britain for her work on “sexual health” while leading the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation.

That she should be honoured by a Tory-led government shows how industriously the champions of the disastrous sexual revolution have infiltrated the halls of power.

The heartening thing is that teenagers see through all the fraudulent bullshit. In a recent survey of 600 young people, undertaken for Family First, 34 percent of respondents wanted values, abstinence and consequences (such as pregnancy) taught in sex education classes – nearly twice the proportion who supported the simplistic “safe sex” message currently emphasised.

Two versions of Blanket Man

I sometimes get the odd feeling, reading the Dominion Post, that I’m reading two entirely separate and distinct newspapers.

Take today’s edition, for example. The editorial offers a bracing antidote to some of the sentimental maundering that has attended the passing of Ben Hana, aka Blanket Man, the Wellington street identity who finally paid the sad, inevitable consequence at the weekend for years of self-neglect.

The editorial rightly observed that there was nothing to celebrate about the way Hana chose to spend the last years of his “sad and tormented life”.

“He was not, as some regarded him, a happy-go-lucky vagabond cheerfully thumbing his nose at the establishment and living without a care on the streets of Wellington. Rather, he was a broken man, mentally unwell, haunted by personal demons, chronically malnourished and with a serious drug and alcohol problem that caused him to waste away before the eyes of those who genuinely tried to help him.”

The editorial went on: “The near-glorification of him by some as a symbol of liberty and non-conformity, a ‘Wellington icon’ or, even more grotesquely, a tourist attraction to be pointed out and photographed like a circus freak, is said to have contributed to his refusal to accept the help he was offered and so desperately needed.”

Right on the nail. I wonder if the editorial was read by the compilers of the Capital Day page in the same paper, where an item on Hana’s death exemplified the mushy romanticism that the leader-writer deplored. It reported that locals “mourning the loss of Wellington icon Ben Hana” had taken to the web – that first resort of the inarticulate and emotionally incontinent – to share their memories of him.

“I will miss your presence on Courtenay Place, it won’t be the same without you”, one commenter was reported as saying. Another expressed the hope that Hana would “always bathe in the light of the sun.”

The item went on to say that many people lamented that more wasn’t done to find Hana a safer place to stay. On a similar note, elsewhere in the paper, local Labour MP Grant Robertson – clearly not one to let a chance go by – is quoted as saying (let me guess: Twitter): “RIP Ben Hana. Let’s make his memorial addressing homelessness in Wgtn and its causes, esp access to mental health and addiction services.”

In fact it’s been reported that Hana repeatedly rejected efforts to help him. The life he led was of his own choosing, as is often the case with street people. As the editorial noted, “Hana came to believe that his Blanket Man persona gave him a public identity that was more important to him than his health and wellbeing”.

The need for the media to create and nurture its own myths too frequently overcomes sound journalistic judgment. We saw this recently with the exaggerated tributes to the late Carmen – a colourful character, misrepresented in death as an indefatigable campaigner for human rights – and we are seeing it again with Hana.

Of the two contrasting pictures of Hana’s death presented in today’s Dom Post, I think I know which was the more accurate.


Singer Hollie Smith was reported to have posted the following tribute: “RIP Ben Hana AKA blanket man. Had good times listening to music gettin’ high with you fa long time ago.”

Says it all, really.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The satisfaction of having one's prejudices confirmed

Every time I start to wonder whether I might be missing out by not being on Twitter, something happens to reassure me that my original assessment of it as an essentially useless novelty, embraced by compulsive early adopters who are suckers for any new technology regardless of its value, wasn’t far wrong.

Today the reassurance came from an unlikely source: Kim Hill’s producer Mark Cubey, who has appeared regularly on Summer Report (the holiday substitute for Morning Report) to give us the benefit of his wisdom and insight on … actually, I’m not quite sure on what. You’d have to ask RNZ.

Anyway, there he was this morning, boasting about how many followers he’d acquired on Twitter and how he was, like, only 300 followers short of Morning Report’s total. (Wow. I’m not sure I’d want to admit on national radio that my self-esteem was related to the number of Twitter followers I had, but there you go.)

Cubey predicted that 2012 could be a “huge” year for Twitter and went on to talk about how the social networking service appealed to “technologically savvy”, “cutting edge” people (like himself, by obvious implication) who were “really on to it”, “up with the play” and liked being first with the news.

Then, as if to prove his argument beyond all doubt, Cubey pronounced triumphantly that he had heard about the death of the Wellington street identity known as Blanket Man on Twitter “before it was on the news”.

The Summer Report host didn’t think to ask Cubey what seemed a highly pertinent question – namely, how is the common good of humankind (or indeed anyone) advanced by hearing about the death of a tragic derelict five minutes, half an hour or even half a day before it was on a radio news bulletin or news website?

Cubey’s telling comment reflected a common preoccupation among Twitter evangelists: a peculiar, childlike desire to be first just for the sake of being first, regardless of the intrinsic importance of the information conveyed or the value of hearing it ahead of others. It seemed to confirm that Twitter is essentially a forum for vacuous chatter, rather like the chirping of birds after which it’s named.

All my prejudices having been reinforced, I remain a contented Twitter sceptic.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

From France to New Zealand via Denmark

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 4, 2012.)

We grow up in a vacuum, many of us.

After my father died in 1984, I realised I knew virtually nothing of his early life. He hardly ever spoke of his childhood or upbringing, still less of our family history.

Born in 1907, he was of a generation that focused on the present and the future. Life was something you got on with; dwelling on the romantic past didn’t put food on the table or a roof over our heads.

Both Dad’s parents had emigrated from Denmark (though his father was of French descent), but we grew up largely ignorant of any cultural heritage. His knowledge of Danish, as far as we were aware, was limited to a few words.

It was almost as if the du Fresne family had magically sprung into being fully formed in the Manawatu, where Dad was born. Our deeper origins went unacknowledged.

In this respect, the du Fresnes were typical of many New Zealand families with non-English roots who were subtly discouraged from keeping alive their cultural traditions. There was pressure to conform and assimilate: to learn English, knuckle down and not make waves.

The several thousand Scandinavian migrants who settled in the lower North Island in the late 19th century – my grandparents among them – quietly complied. They rolled their sleeves up, went to work and learned to become New Zealanders (much as Dutch immigrants did several decades later).

For them, the past literally was another country – one they left behind psychologically as well as physically.

It’s often the following generation that seeks to recapture what has been lost, and so it turned out with my family. In our case it was my cousin Yvonne du Fresne who immersed herself in the family history.

The oldest of my generation by some margin, Yvonne grew up amid the Danish community in Palmerston North , the older members of which still spoke their mother tongue, at least in private. An observant and precocious child, she soaked up their language, their songs, their food, their traditions and their stories.

The experience of being among these people shaped Yvonne’s life and her later career as a writer of novels and short stories, which drew heavily on her Scandinavian heritage and on the experiences of migrants struggling to preserve their identity in an Anglo-Saxon society.

The rest of us cousins, it must be said, showed little interest. We had our lives to get on with and would sometimes roll our eyes, figuratively speaking, when Yvonne talked, as she frequently and earnestly did, about our Danish and French connections. But it has become clear to us in recent months that we owe her a great debt.

You see, the first-ever du Fresne family reunion will be held next month in Nelson. To coincide with this occasion, a family history has been written (also a first). Had Yvonne not accumulated such a body of knowledge about our past, the publication would have been … well, perhaps not impossible, but certainly not as complete.

Largely as a result of her efforts, we have been able to piece together a narrative that traces our family’s origins back to the birth of Lambert Dufresne (as the name was then spelt) in the town of Warquignies, in what is now southern Belgium, in 1688.

The Dufresnes were French Huguenots – Protestants forced to flee religious persecution by Catholic France. They initially resettled in Prussia but in 1720 found permanent sanctuary, at the invitation of Denmark's Protestant king, in the Danish town of Fredericia. There they remained part of a tight French Huguenot community, on good terms with their Danish neighbours but determined to preserve their distinct identity.

My grandfather, Abraham Heinrich Dufresne, a master builder, emigrated to New Zealand in 1890 and made for the Manawatu, where his cousin, Reformed Church pastor Abraham Honoré, had settled years earlier. There my grandfather met and married Anna Clausen, youngest daughter of a family that had arrived from Denmark in 1875.

Like the Dufresnes two centuries earlier, the Clausens had been displaced by the turbulent currents of history. When the Prussian army invaded Denmark in 1864, bent on reclaiming the region of Schleswig, the decisive battle was fought on the Clausen farm near the town of Dybbol. The graves of Danish soldiers, buried where they fell, still surround the farmhouse today.

After the Danish forces were routed, thousands of families emigrated rather than live under Prussian rule. The Clausens chose to come to New Zealand because the Lutheran bishop Ditlev Monrad, a former Danish prime minister, had spent time in the Manawatu and returned to Denmark promoting New Zealand as a destination.

The Clausens remain a well-known family in the Manawatu (and stalwarts of the Lutheran Church) to this day. And evidence of my grandfather’s skill as a builder survives in the form of Kaingahou, the magnificent homestead that he built for Bishop Monrad’s grandson on the main highway just south of Palmerston North.

Abraham and Anna produced an interesting family. In the 1930s they moved to Eastbourne, near Wellington, where the du Fresne home was the venue for lively left-wing political discussions and celebrated musical soirees attended by Jewish refugees from Europe.

My apolitical father bemused his radical family, and caused consternation in the Danish Lutheran community of Palmerston North, by marrying a girl from a staunch Irish Catholic family and converting to Catholicism.

Dad’s youngest sister Elsie and her husband, the journalist and historian Dick Scott, were members of the Communist Party at a time when involvement in left-wing politics carried considerable risks. (Both quit the party in protest at the Soviet Union’s brutal putdown of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.)

Nelson figures prominently in the family story too. My father’s two younger brothers settled there in the post-war years – Viggo at Ruby Bay and Chris at Mapua. Viggo became the first licensed commercial winemaker in the South Island, pioneering viticultural techniques (such as planting classical European vines in unforgiving stony ground) that have since become the norm.

Chris was one of the earliest Nelson potters and later campaigned tirelessly for official action over the highly contaminated Fruitgrowers’ Chemical Company site at Mapua. Often dismissed as a stirrer, he was ultimately vindicated long after his death when the government took over the site in 2004 and instituted a massive cleanup. (Ironically, the decontamination project was supervised by Chris's daughter, my cousin Jenny Easton.)

Pulling these stories together in a coherent family history has been richly satisfying for my cousins and me. The sad irony is that Yvonne, who did so much to make us aware of our heritage, won’t be around to enjoy the forthcoming celebrations. She died last March, aged 81.

A propos of nothing in particular ....

I wish to place it on record that my wife makes the finest sausage rolls in Christendom. If a Boeing 747 were to fall on my house at this moment (admittedly an unlikely prospect, since the only aircraft around here are topdressing planes), I would die the world's most contented man.

Could someone please tell us what's going on here?

I’m intrigued to see that the Labour Party and at least one Green MP (Steffan Browning) are having second thoughts about legislation governing food safety standards.

The New Zealand Herald reports today that the Food Bill is under fire because of its possible impact on community growers, farmers’ markets and small food traders.

As the Herald says, the bill was reported back from a select committee more than a year ago with broad cross-party support, but Browning now says he will push for further amendments to exempt small traders from having to comply with unnecessary red tape. Browning has also labelled proposed new powers for food safety officers as excessive.

Meanwhile, Labour’s primary industries spokesman, Damien O’Connor, is quoted as saying: “We will not be giving our support to this bill unless a number of areas are clarified, including areas affecting small growers.”

But hang on a minute. This bill went through the select committee process. Presumably it’s the same bill now as it was then. So why have Labour and Browning, having earlier indicated assent, now decided they don’t like it?

Presumably the bill’s flaws were pointed out in submissions. Weren’t the Labour and Green members of the committee paying attention, or have circumstances somehow changed since the bill was reported back? I think we’re entitled to an explanation.

The select committee system removes legislation from the gladiatorial arena of the parliamentary debating chamber and is often cited as an example of parliamentary co-operation and scrutiny at its best. But clearly there’s something wonky about the process if a bill that everyone was happy with a year ago is now deemed to be unsatisfactory. What’s happened in the interim?

I know little about this bill and have no opinion on it either way – it’s the position-changing that interests me.

At the back of my mind, there’s a persistent little voice asking whether this might have something to do with the fact that the media generally no longer report select committee proceedings. Until relatively recent times, parliamentary debates and select committee hearings were reported in some detail, most conscientiously by the now-defunct NZPA. Media coverage often alerted the public to contentious legislation before the House, giving people time to mobilise in opposition. But nuts-and-bolts reporting of day-to-day parliamentary business is today deemed unsexy and has largely been abandoned by the Press Gallery in favour of the controversy du jour.

I wonder whether, as a result of this, flawed legislation is sometimes presented to the public as a fait accompli – passed into law before people know it exists.

In the case of the food bill, is it possible the centre-left parties are having second thoughts because word of the bill has only now belatedly seeped out to the people affected, and flaws that should have been picked up at the select committee stage are finally being pointed out? If so, could this be at least partly a consequence of the way the media now reports (or more precisely, doesn't report) parliament?

Just a thought. There may of course be darker political factors at work here of which I’m innocently unaware, in which case I’ll be happy to pull my head in.

Footnote: The other intriguing aspect of this bill is that it clearly introduces a new level of bureaucratic intrusion and red tape into the food sector. Am I alone in thinking it seems bizarre that a supposedly centre-right government is promoting more Big Brother legislation, and that the left are the ones complaining about excessive powers being given to clipboard-wielding busybodies? Cheesh.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bitten on the bum by MMP

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 3.)

HOLD everything!

Dismiss the government. Call another election.

The John Key-led coalition government has no legitimacy and no mandate to do anything. This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from the non-stop wailing emanating from those still smarting over the election result.

Labour and the Greens insist the government has no mandate for the partial sale of state assets. As Labour stalwart and marijuana law reform activist Phil Saxby explained it in a letter to this paper, parties supporting partial asset sales won only 48.98 percent of the vote. Because parties opposed to asset sales won an infinitesimally greater share (50.29 percent), he seems to suggest, the government is morally obliged to abandon its plan.

But if that’s the case, the Left can surely argue that none of National’s policies were endorsed by a majority of voters. It follows that the party must abandon everything in its manifesto.

There would therefore be two choices: hold another election (and just see how the voters like that), or go into a state of suspended animation for three years during which nothing would happen.

But let’s back up for a moment. In the general election of 2005, Labour and Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party formed a centre-Left coalition with a combined share of only 42.26 percent of the vote. Funny, but I don’t recall the democratic purists of the Left protesting then that the Clark government had no mandate.

The truth is, of course, that it’s mightily difficult for any party to secure an absolute majority under the MMP system. If National can’t even do it with 59 seats to the combined 48 seats won by the two main centre-Left parties, chances are that no party will ever pull it off.

This is the very reason so many anti-MMP campaigners complain that the system can lead to political paralysis.

Of course it suits the Left to argue, now that we have a centre-Right government, that it has no mandate. It must be a bitter disappointment that MMP, which the Left saw as a way of weakening the National Party’s traditional dominance in New Zealand politics, has let them down.

The exquisite irony is that Mr Saxby was one of the original promoters of MMP, but cries “unfair!” when the system delivers a centre-Right coalition. Well, he asked for it.

* * *

ARE GREYING rock fans being played for a bunch of suckers?

In recent years a steady procession of reformed 1960s and 70s bands has passed through New Zealand on the concert circuit, hoping to capitalise on nostalgia for the glory days of rock.

Some are still capable of “doing the business”, as they say. But with others, you get the impression that things are a bit – well, desperate.

Ads for the forthcoming “Creedence Clearwater Revisited” tour trumpeted the fact that the band includes original Creedence Clearwater Revival members Stu Cook and Doug “Cosmo” Clifford. But anyone familiar with CCR knows that the heart, soul and creative brain of the band was John Fogerty, who wrote and sang the band’s songs as well playing lead guitar.

Promoting the tour on the basis that it features Cook and Clifford (the original CCR bass player and drummer) is like announcing a reunion of the Beach Boys featuring David Marks and Ricky Fataar, or the Bee Gees starring Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney.

Of course you’ve never heard of these individuals. They once played in those groups, but no one remembers them.

That the faded remnants of CCR continue to tour, even after Fogerty tried to prevent them from using the name Creedence Clearwater Revisited (which cleverly retains the initials of the original band), is testament to the public’s enduring fascination with the music of rock’s golden era. But a decent pub covers band could probably replicate the CCR sound just as well.

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ALL MY LIFE, the word “fatality” has been pronounced with the stress on the second syllable: fa-TAL-ity. But in some radio news reports on the holiday road toll, the emphasis has mysteriously shifted to the first syllable, so that it comes out as “FAY-tality”.

A similar fate has befallen the word “flotilla”. Traditionally it has been pronounced as flo-TILL-a. But when Israeli commandos boarded a fleet of Turkish relief ships approaching Gaza in 2010, television and radio newsreaders decided this was all wrong. Suddenly it became FLOW-tilla.

Similarly, broadcast reports on the Foreshore and Seabed Act often referred to the public DO-main, rather than do-MAIN. This quaint pronunciation is reminiscent of parts of the American South, where people call the POL-lice when someone’s causing trouble.

Why these peculiar inflexions? It can only be ignorance. A new generation of journalists and newsreaders appears not to have encountered these words before, so makes up whatever pronunciation feels right. Then it starts to spread virally.

Sadly, resistance is probably futile. This is a language in flux – a process as unstoppable as the phases of the moon.