Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Union lobbyists good, business lobbyists bad

In Orwell’s Animal Farm, it was “four legs good, two legs bad”. In the New Zealand Labour Party, some of whose MPs seem capable of Orwellian reasoning, it’s union lobbyists good, corporate lobbyists bad.
Only a week after Green MP Holly Walker’s Lobbying Disclosure Bill passed its first reading in Parliament, Labour has had an attack of the collywobbles.

Walker’s bill would require parliamentary lobbyists to go on a register, disclose which politicians they meet and sign up to a code of conduct to be written by the Auditor-General. It appears to have broad cross-party support and even the lobbyists themselves, or at least those who have given their views on the bill, seem relaxed about it.  There’s a lot of work still to be done on the legislation – even Walker accepts that – but there’s broad agreement in principle on the need for greater transparency.
But what’s this? The New Zealand Herald reports today that senior Labour MP Charles Chauvel, in a bravura display of special pleading, has proposed an amendment seeking an exemption for trade unions. Chauvel argues that the bill is too broad and should apply only to people who lobby for a commercial purpose rather than not-for-profit groups. His amendment would exempt unions, charities, churches, NGOs and sports bodies.

In other words, transparency’s all very well when it’s wicked professional lobbyists and corporates who are under scrutiny, but Chauvel thinks people like Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly and secretary Peter Conway – two of the lobbyists outed last week as having swipe cards giving them special access to Parliament – should be allowed to continue flying under the radar. They are, he says, “less sinister” than the other sort of lobbyist. Well, he would say that, given Labour’s need to protect its friends and benefactors in the unions.
But hang on. Either we have transparency or we don’t. Chauvel wants us to believe that union lobbyists are all honourable people with unimpeachable motives, so can be relied on to go about their business without scrutiny, while anyone representing business is by definition “sinister” and cannot be trusted. Good luck with that, as they say. He also expects us to assume that all charities, churches and NGOs are by definition beyond suspicion when many of them are highly politicised and should be subjected to exactly the same rules of transparency as everyone else.  

The trouble with Chauvel’s panicky back-pedalling is that it immediately creates the suspicion that Labour and the unions have something to hide. The public are not stupid: they will think it very telling that Labour and the unions are the only people baulking at the Walker bill.
It also hints at the tensions that would inevitably arise in a Labour-Greens coalition, where the well-intentioned idealism of Green MPs like Walker would sit very uncomfortably alongside the murky realpolitik practised by Labour.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Damn. Where will we go for dinner now?

Wendy and Jim Campbell served their last dinner on Saturday night. Their regular customers – and there were quite a few of them – will be bereft.
Wendy and Jim ran The French Bistro in Martinborough. The genial Jim was the front-of-house man and Wendy did the cooking (and in the early days, before they could afford staff, the washing-up too).

The French Bistro won the Cuisine award for best regional casual dining restaurant in 2008 and once earned the rare distinction of a glowing mention in the New York Times by the late R W Apple Jr, an associate editor of the paper and noted traveller and bob vivant.
As the name implies, The French Bistro served French-inspired cuisine based on local, seasonal produce. The menu, elegantly hand-written by Jim, changed constantly, depending on what was fresh.

The food was exemplary. Some of the most enjoyable dinners my wife and I have had were eaten there. But after 10 years of hard work, Wendy and Jim (that’s their son John on TV3) have decided it’s time to ease off.
They closed without fuss or fanfare. They will be missed not just by their many loyal supporters in the Wairarapa but also by weekenders from Wellington for whom dinner at The French Bistro was the high point of a visit to Martinborough.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What would Baron de Coubertin think?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 18.)
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the 2012 Olympic Games start next week in London.
There was a time when this would have excited me. After all, the Olympics are supposed to be the ultimate sporting spectacle.

During the Games of the 1970s and 80s I would spend every non-working hour in front of the TV set. Even the Winter Games could be riveting: who can forget Eddie the Eagle, the hapless British ski-jumper who finished last at Calgary in 1988 and came to symbolise heroic failure?
But the older I get, the harder it becomes to whip up any enthusiasm for the Games. This could be attributed to the onset of terminal cantankerousness, but there’s more to it than that.

The Games used to be a celebration of all that was supposed to be ennobling about sport. For one thing, the International Olympic Committee was paranoid about professionalism intruding on what was supposed to be a strictly amateur domain.
Avery Brundage, the American who presided over the IOC from the 1952 to 1972, was an idealist who saw the amateur athlete as embodying all the finest virtues of sport. For much of his IOC career he was preoccupied with protecting the Olympic movement’s purity.

His commitment to amateurism wasn’t inherited, however, by Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympic supremo from 1980 till 2001. Samaranch wanted a financially sound Games, and if that meant giving way to professionalism – well, so be it.
Call me a woolly sentimentalist, but I think the Games lost something when the amateur ethos was abandoned. There was a certain romance in the Games back in the days when athletes could reach the pinnacle of their chosen sports without the benefit of corporate sponsorship or government-funded sports institutes. The latter were the speciality of the Soviet bloc and were generally regarded as incompatible with Olympic ideals.

The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the first of his two Olympic gold medals in the marathon running barefoot, but a barefoot runner at the London Games is about as likely as New Zealand winning gold in the Greco-Roman wrestling or Eddie the Eagle making a triumphant comeback. Adidas, as one of the all-powerful sponsors, would make sure it wasn’t allowed.
Peter Snell, arguably New Zealand’s greatest Olympic athlete, trained while studying for a qualification as a quantity surveyor. If he were competing today, his every waking moment would be planned for him by a handler at the grandiosely named High Performance Sport New Zealand – the very type of institute we took such a dim view of when the Soviet bloc used them to turn out assembly lines of champion gymnasts, shot-putters and weightlifters.

Between them, business and government have irrevocably changed the nature of elite sport. The glory of competing has been largely subordinated by commercial and political agendas.
Corporate sponsorship has become obnoxiously intrusive: a columnist in the English magazine The Spectator recently lamented that when he took his children to see the Olympic torch relay pass through a nearby town, they had to wait for an endless procession of sponsors’ buses to pass before they finally saw what they had come for.

So much rides on the Games, politically and commercially, that it has become wide open to corruption. Ten members of the IOC were expelled for accepting extravagant “gifts” – you and I would have called them bribes – from the backers of Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2002 Winter Games. The 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, were similarly tarnished. I doubt that this is what Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, had in mind.
For business, sport is an opportunity to sell more goods. Sport needs lots of money and business can provide it, but the price for its support is that sport must accede to sponsors’ demands. If a company is going to stump up millions to have its name attached to an event such as the Olympics, it wants guarantees that no competitor will queer its pitch – hence the paranoiac insistence on “clean” stadiums and advertising-free zones surrounding them.

We saw this played out to ludicrous extremes in the Rugby World Cup and the same is happening in London. Such is the commercial value of an event like the Games that enforcers crack down ruthlessly on anyone misappropriating the Games symbol, as 81-year-old Englishwoman Joy Tomkins found out when she was ordered not to sell a doll’s outfit she had knitted for a church fundraising sale because it was embroidered with a tiny “GB2012” logo and Games symbol.
Anyone who dares to misuse the word “Olympic” in Britain during the next few weeks will risk arrest. Ordinary people are repelled by this fascist-style heavy-handedness.

For governments, sport is not about profits but national branding, patriotic pride and the feel-good factor, which politicians hope will translate into votes. What the Soviet bloc states were condemned for doing in the 1960s and 70s, every country now does – or at least those that can afford it.
But government funding distorts sport and tilts the playing field in favour of rich countries. Affluent governments pour funding into sport, allocating it largely on the basis of medal prospects. Sports with the best medal chances get the money, which explains why so much funding goes into non-mainstream sports: international competition in those sports is weaker, and the chance of a medal therefore higher.

As a strategy for lifting a country’s medal tally, it’s hard to fault; but it’s hardly in keeping with the noble tradition of the Olympics, where medals are supposed to be won by ability, determination and hard work, not by the amount of government money invested in the competitor. It also means poorer countries are at a disadvantage against those that can afford intense training programmes and financial support for “elite” athletes. In fact the very term “elite sport” is telling, since elites by their nature tend to be disconnected from ordinary people.
Add to all these factors the paranoia over security (I’m sure Baron de Coubertin never imagined rocket launchers on the roofs of apartment blocks) and you have to ask whether it’s all worth it.

But having said that, I know I’ll have a lump in my throat along with everyone else when the first New Zealander ascends the winner’s podium and God Defend New Zealand is played.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Another Funk Brother has played his last note

Bob Babbitt is dead. The name will mean nothing to most people, but you’ve almost certainly heard him. Babbitt was a bass guitarist – one of two – in the Motown studio band during the Detroit record label’s glory days. He died in Nashville on Monday, aged 74, from brain cancer.
The Funk Brothers, as the Motown band came to be known, laid down the backing tracks for the extraordinary string of hits that emanated from the Motown studios at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard (now known as Berry Gordy Jr Blvd, in honour of the label’s founder) during the 1960s and early 70s. The musicians were mostly black but included several whites, Babbitt being one.

He played second string, to coin a phrase, to James Jamerson, still considered by many to have been the greatest bass player in pop history. Listen to any Motown track and you can usually tell which bassist was used on the session. Jamerson’s playing is dazzlingly fast, fluid and slippery, joyously and effortlessly bouncing all over the place (listen to Stevie Wonder’s For Once in My Life for a classic demo of the Jamerson technique).
Babbitt’s style was more conventional, but he could still cook. That’s Babbitt playing on Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Tears of a Clown. Some of his best playing was on non-Motown tracks: check out Gladys Knight and Pips’ Midnight Train to Georgia and the deliciously funky bass line on Band of Gold by Freda Payne.

Jamerson failed to adapt when Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972. Long troubled by alcoholism, he parted company with the label in 1973 and died 10 years later, almost a forgotten man. He eventually got the recognition he deserved with the release of the excellent 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Babbitt fared better post-Motown, scoring work with artistes as diverse as Jim Croce, Frank Sinatra and Alice Cooper. But he struggled to find work in Nashville after moving there in the 1980s. According to an obituary in the Washington Post, Babbitt told the Nashville Tennessean his “groovy rhythm and blues” (I wonder, was that really the phrase Babbit used?) wasn’t suited to country music.

If I had it to do all over again, I would have moved to Nashville and used Kreinar [his birth name] as my name and not tell anybody anything about Motown,” he told the Tennessean. “I’d just be a bass player in town.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Are we one people, or what?

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 17.)

THE BIG question raised by the Maori claim to water rights is this: are we one people, or are we not?

 A common theme of Maori claims is that Maori have rights and interests that are separate and distinct from those of mainstream New Zealand. The risk is that the pursuit of those rights and interests will imperil the wellbeing and progress of the entire country, potentially to the detriment of Maori along with everyone else. Many would say that point has already been reached.

That risk is heightened when the Maori agenda has been driven in recent years by the iwi leaders group, which speaks for tribes with substantial business interests and seems less concerned with enhancing the wellbeing of Maoridom overall than with using its political influence to secure business opportunities that will further enrich its own members.  

The Maori Council, which took the water rights claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, is now making a belated attempt to wrest back some of the influence it has lost to the iwi leaders.

The council purports, unlike the iwi leaders group, to represent all Maori, including the large body of Maori who have no active tribal affiliations. But while it might seem promising that a nominally more representative Maori body is now asserting itself, the attitude of the council’s leaders – particularly its belligerent co-chairman Maanu Paul – gives no reason for optimism. Mr Paul seems determined to drive a wedge between Maori and Pakeha New Zealand, treating their interests as mutually exclusive.

The irony is that the Maori leaders who rail against Crown injustices have European blood as well as Maori. They have chosen to align themselves with their Maori side and are entitled to do so. But no matter how much they might wish to, they can’t disown part of their own heritage.

Their Pakeha forebears were complicit in the injustices suffered by their Maori forebears which they now demand redress for. They should accept that for better or worse, we are an indivisible people. Genetically, there’s a bit of European in virtually every Maori and culturally, there’s a bit of Maori in most Pakeha; you can’t grow up in New Zealand and not absorb it.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself could not stand. To translate that into New Zealand terms, we are all in the same waka and should be paddling together.

* * * 

A PERSON of my acquaintance is about to have a new house built. He tells me that one of the costs incurred is $1200 plus GST for something called roof edge protection.

This is a new rule that requires scaffolding to be erected around the perimeter of the roof while a house is being built so that workmen won’t fall off.

My informant has been in the building trade for nearly 50 years, most of that time as a builder himself. In all that time he has never known a tradesman to fall off a roof.

The roof on the house to be built for him has a slope of 8 degrees. It would have to be coated with coconut oil for someone to slide off. No matter: the law still insists on edge protection.

Now, consider this. The roof on my house has a slope of about 20 degrees, yet there’s no law to prevent me clambering around on it while I clear dead leaves from the spouting, even though I’m far more likely to lose my footing than an experienced roofer.

But the building trade is a soft target. It’s relatively simple to impose nitpicking requirements on builders, the cost of which then gets passed on to their clients. Do-it-yourselfers like me, though far more likely to incur injury, are a much tougher proposition.

Now, multiply the $1200 that my informant has to pay for roof edge protection by the number of houses under construction (about 20,000 in an average year) and you have a $24 million impost on new home buyers – great for the scaffolding business, but a dead weight on the economy otherwise. No wonder building costs are far higher in New Zealand than across the Tasman.

* * *

THE straight-talking politician sometimes seems an endangered species. Government ministers in particular seem reluctant to speak their minds for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. So it was refreshing to see super-Minister Steven Joyce spelling out home truths in Northland last week when he said people couldn’t keep saying “no” to mineral exploration and in the same breath, ask where the jobs were. 

Mr Joyce’s message was blunt: Northlanders can either help remove barriers to job creation at home or they can watch their families fly off to Western Australia. 

John Key was equally firm in standing his ground on the water issue. A bit more straight talking like that and people might be less inclined to dismiss him as the smile-and-wave prime minister.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

News flash! Academics side with teachers

The least surprising news item in today’s Dominion Post was the one revealing that more than 100 academics have written to the government opposing primary school league tables. I hesitate to question the judgment of the Dom Post’s news editor, but the fact that academics are lobbying to preserve the right of their friends in the teaching profession to withhold information from parents about the quality of schools is not news. There is a common thread to every position taken by the teachers’ unions and their supporters in academia, whether it’s opposition to national standards, paranoia about league tables or the recent petulant call for schools’ decile ratings to be kept secret. It’s all about withholding information from parents and taxpayers – the people who use and pay for the education system – so that the unions can continue to exercise control; and it’s presented under the guise of concern for the wellbeing of pupils when it’s really about protecting teachers and schools from critical scrutiny.
There was a similar “so what’s new?” quality to an opinion piece in today’s paper attacking the charter schools experiment. It was co-written by Trish Grant of the IHC – a once-respected organisation that has been captured ideologically and consequently lost much of its credibility – and Ian Leckie of the primary school teachers’ union, the NZEI. The vehemence with which opponents are pursuing their offensive against charter schools is telling. It’s only a trial, and on a very modest scale at that, yet the charter schools experiment is clearly seen as a threat to the status quo. We can expect a constant barrage of alarmist propaganda against the charter schools initiative as reactionary sector groups seek to protect their positions, again under the guise of concern for children.

Monday, July 9, 2012

All it needed was a one-word text message

One News wasted more than four minutes of prime bulletin time last night on a shrill beat-up about a banned gambler receiving text messages from SkyCity “coaxing her back”.
The messages, promoting $50,000 sweepstakes draws, were sent to the cellphone of Selina Watson, who had been barred from the casino after she and her husband gambled nearly $50 million, $5.5 million of which wasn’t theirs. The husband is now in prison for theft.

Reporter Lisa Owens breathlessly reported this as if the text message was a deliberate, nefarious act of enticement on the part of the casino when it seemed far more likely that Mrs Watson’s name had been included among the recipients as the result of a careless mistake. I mean, why would SkyCity issue a trespass notice to someone, then send them text messages inviting them back?
Mrs Watson was said to be “appalled”. She was making a new life for herself, Owens declared indignantly (the journalist as advocate), and wanted nothing to do with the casino. “It brought everything right back again,” Mrs Watson whined.

We were clearly supposed to feel sorry for her. I didn’t. Anyone would think SkyCity had coerced her into gambling $50 million in the first place.
What especially intrigued me was that we were repeatedly shown the text message received by Mrs Watson, at the bottom of which were the words: “Txt STOP to stop SKYCITY txts”. In other words, all Mrs Watson needed to do was send a one-word message back to SkyCity and she wouldn’t have been bothered again. End of story.

Instead she chose to have herself presented in the media as a helpless victim, a highly fashionable status these days, and in the process drew the nation’s attention to an episode in her past that most viewers would have been unaware of, and that most people in Mrs Watson’s position would probably prefer to conceal. I can’t help wondering why.
I also can’t help wondering why a reporter, still less the TVNZ news editors, would have thought there was a story in it.

To complete the silliness, I see SkyCity has now apologised. So the cycle has been completed and television’s appetite for fake morality tales has once again been satisfied.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Quote of the week

From Sergeant Terry Garnett of the Tokoroa police, revealing that police hope to identify three assault suspects from fingerprints left on discarded bourbon and cola cans: “Hopefully this should speed things up, but sadly we are not CSI which does things in 55 minutes including advertisements.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Greens should be careful what they wish for

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 3.)

I AM NOT a supporter of the Greens, but part of me longs for the day when they find themselves in government.
They are enjoying a dream ride right now, confidently sounding off on every issue from mineral exploration to state asset sales and teacher-pupil ratios.

They are well organised, adroit at using a sympathetic media and blessed with a front line of fresh, articulate MPs who combine earnest idealism with sharp political instincts.
But the Greens have never really been tested in combat. They have never had to balance their worthy ideals against the political realities of being in government.

That’s when the pressure goes on and principles get compromised. Pragmatists and purists find themselves at odds and cracks start to appear.
It’s happened to every minor party from Social Credit (which started to fall apart when its then leader Bruce Beetham did a deal with Robert Muldoon) to Act. It’s likely to happen to the Greens too, should they eventually find themselves in coalition with Labour.

One of the paradoxes of MMP is that the acquisition of power, which is what all politicians aspire to, has been the kiss of death for minor parties. This lends a special piquancy to the old saying that you should be careful what you wish for.
For now, the Greens can take the moral high ground on virtually everything because they have never been exposed to the pressures of office and the compromises it demands.

They are unencumbered by previous form in government and have no shoddy record to defend. They are as pure as they would like our lakes and rivers to be.
I find their self-righteousness tiresome at times. Co-leader Metiria Turei can appear particularly smug. I relish the thought of their self-assurance melting if and when the heat goes on.

* * *

THEY SAY that rugby is a thugs’ game played by gentlemen and football is a gentlemen’s game played by thugs.
I would amend that slightly. Rugby is a thugs’ game watched by gentlemen and football is a gentlemen’s game watched by thugs.

In rugby, violence is confined to the field of play. You hardly ever hear of a brawl breaking out in the stands. Rugby crowds are models of good behaviour. But football seems to bring out the basest instincts in some of its followers.
In the 1980s and 90s, European football was blighted by appalling thuggery, much of it perpetrated by organised mobs of English supporters.  When they couldn’t take their aggro out on the Dutch or the Italians, the English would practise on each other.

The 1985 Heysel stadium disaster, in which 39 spectators died, was a direct consequence of aggression by Liverpool fans and resulted in a European ban on English clubs. Even the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy (96 dead) was indirectly due to hooliganism, since it arose from police efforts to keep Liverpool and Nottingham Forest fans apart.
English hooliganism has subsided since then, but the recent European Championship showed that football still provides an outlet for brutish nationalism and crude racism. Polish and Russian fans engaged in vicious street brawls, Russian fans attacked stewards and racist chants were directed at black players. 

Often, football thuggery is aligned with extreme right-wing nationalism and helps perpetuate old ethnic rivalries. It’s a surrogate form of warfare.
What makes football fans behave like this? Why does the so-called beautiful game have the ugliest followers?

Cricket fans can be yobbos, but they don’t normally attack each other. Tennis spectators are impeccably well-mannered even when the players behave appallingly. And although the Olympic Games are the ultimate arena for nationalism in sport, I don’t recall the Games ever being soured by the nastiness that routinely occurs in football stadiums.
“Monkey” seems to be the taunt-du-jour for racist fans trying to unsettle black players, but you have to ask: who’s more advanced on the evolutionary scale?
* * *
THE VATICAN wasted no time accepting the resignation of Monsignor Fernando Maria Bargallo, the Argentinian bishop who was filmed frolicking in the surf with an attractive, bikini-clad woman with whom he later admitted an “amorous” relationship.

According to one Vatican source quoted in the media, “either he had to resign or be would be sacked, so he decided to get in first and hand in his notice”.
Contrast this decisive response with the scandalous reluctance of Church officials to take action against priests known to have abused children.

Rather than disowning him, the Catholic Church should have adopted Monsignor Bargallo as its poster boy. It could do with some positive PR, and he seems just the bloke.
He may have broken his priestly vow of celibacy, but at least his relationship was with a consenting adult woman. This presents the Church in a much healthier light than the hundreds of priests who preyed on vulnerable minors.