Saturday, September 29, 2012

Kim Hill's fascination with tired old rock musicians

When she’s not fawning over fashionably left-wing writers and academics whose views she accepts unquestioningly, the other people Kim Hill loves to interview are faded rock musicians. And what appears to enthrall her most about them are their tales of drugs, debauchery and outrageous behaviour, which – judging by the way she eggs them on – she finds admirable.
One of her guests this morning was Dick Taylor, once moderately well known as the lead guitarist for 1960s band the Pretty Things, and still dining out on that group’s reputation for wickedness. But let’s be clear: their reputation for wickedness was about all the Pretty Things had going for them. Without it, they would have been just another among the dozens of British rhythm and blues groups, mostly consisting of middle-class art students plagiarising working-class American blacks, that briefly flourished during the British beat boom. Musically the Pretty Things were always second-tier, attracting attention mainly because their hair was even longer than that of the Rolling Stones and their general appearance more unkempt. It was the proud boast of their singer, Phil May, that he had the longest hair of any man in Britain, which generated interest from a British press still getting to grips with pop stars who didn’t look like Cliff Richard and the Shadows. It also amounted to an admission that his hair was the most noteworthy thing about him. The Pretty Things had two top 10 hits in the UK, which were probably as much attributable to their wild reputation as to their talent, and their popularity soon waned (although in fairness, I should acknowledge that they issued a single in 1974 that made it to No 104 on the US chart).

In New Zealand the Pretty Things are remembered mainly for a 1965 tour that shocked a deeply conservative press unaccustomed to attention-seeking publicity stunts by pop groups.  But the reports at the time were almost certainly exaggerated (much to the band’s delight, no doubt) and have become even more so with time. And here’s a tip for Hill: when she asks Taylor about an outrageous act supposedly perpetrated on that tour and he pauses as if taken aback before saying he’d rather not comment, that could mean the incident was just too appalling to discuss; but more likely, he just doesn’t want to admit that it never happened. The myths must be preserved.
Taylor today sounds like a pleasant enough but rather dull, ageing Englishman who’s probably thrilled and flattered to have an opportunity to recall his brief moment in the spotlight 47 years ago. But what puzzles me is that Hill, who would have been 10 years old at the time of the Pretty Things tour, seems endlessly fascinated by tired old stories about the excesses (which actually were remarkably mild by today’s standards) of has-been rock musicians, even to the point of sounding awe-struck. Very weird.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sabotage is not too strong a word

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 26.)
During Maori Language Week in July, my wife and I attended a kapa haka concert followed by a hangi at our grandson’s school.

It was a charming event in which the whole school performed. We were impressed with the way even the younger classes had memorised the words and actions of the songs.
The kids obviously enjoyed themselves, yet I came away with a nagging feeling of unease.

It is not a Maori school; in fact there are relatively few Maori pupils. It serves a suburb with an ethnically diverse population.
To have mastered all those songs and actions must have taken a lot of classroom time, and I had to wonder whether there were other things the children might more usefully have been learning.

It’s good that they are exposed to Maori culture, because that’s part of what it means to be a New Zealander. The kids obviously love it and I’m sure the teachers find it much more enjoyable – easier, too – than dreary stuff like writing and spelling.
But it’s all a question of degree and proportion. Knowing a lot of Maori songs isn’t going to help those children get ahead in a world that’s likely to be a lot more challenging than the one I grew up in. 

That kapa haka concert was just one tiny example of a cultural sea change that has taken place over the past three decades or so.
Humanity has a wonderful propensity for lurching from one extreme to another, and so it is with New Zealand’s embrace of Maori culture.

We were exposed to very little of it when I was a child. Although there was a substantial Maori population in the town I grew up in, there was only one Maori family at the convent school I attended. A member of that family told me a couple of years ago that it hadn’t even occurred to her and her siblings that they were Maori. As far as members of that family were concerned, they were the same as everyone else. (And of course they were, in every respect but their skin colour.)
That couldn’t happen now, because a massive shift has taken place in which Maori are encouraged to focus on their Maori heritage, often to the complete exclusion of the European ancestry which virtually all of them share. They profess to treasure their whakapapa, but strangely overlook that part of it which has left so many of them with European surnames such as Morgan, Durie, Sykes, Jackson, Paul and Rankin.

At the same time, Maori have moved from being almost invisible, at least politically, to the point where they now exert a great deal of political and economic power.
This has come about largely because politicians decided the Treaty of Waitangi had been ignored for too long. Historical grievances had to be corrected and Maori granted their proper place.

Their intentions were good, but I wonder whether they even began to understand the genie they were letting out of the bottle.
At first the shift was low-key and gradual. We were puzzled by demands that nursing students undergo courses in something called cultural safety. People scratched their heads when they attended events not remotely connected with Maoridom and had to sit through long Maori orations that no one understood.

We tolerated feel-good tokenism such as the display of Maori signage in public places and the coining of new Maori words for things like cellphones. We watched as government departments, hospitals, schools and universities rushed to embrace Maoriness, employing Maori consultants, incorporating Maori tikanga into their practices, adopting highly prescriptive policies for engaging with Maori – as if their needs were fundamentally different from those of their fellow citizens – and sending bemused staff on overnight marae visits.
We wondered why, in a modern, secular society, people stood in  reverent silence while tohunga removed tapu on new buildings, and we thought it ridiculous when public works projects were held up by Maori concerns that a taniwha might be disturbed, but we didn’t raise too much of a fuss. And we were persuaded that Treaty settlements of up to $170 million were just and fair compensation for the wrongs of the past, even when a few lonely voices protested that compensation had already been paid.

Many people were even convinced that New Zealand had a shameful race relations record, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Yes, shameful things were done, but they were more than balanced by efforts to treat Maori fairly and honourably.)
We went along with all this because New Zealanders are essentially tolerant, liberal people who respect Maori and appreciate Maoridom’s unique contribution to our sense of national identity. We are easily persuaded to do the right thing.

But I detect a distinct change of mood in recent weeks: a stiffening resistance to the rising clamour from Maori voices seeking to embed a two-tier system in which they would control crucial assets and resources.

New Zealanders are passive people (a friend reckons lazy is a better description) who will put up with a lot before deciding: no, this has gone too far. They have now reached that point because of greedy, opportunistic and divisive claims from Maori leaders who have been humoured for so long – by courts, politicians and tribunals – that they think their waka is unstoppable.
The goodwill that exists between Maori and Pakeha is being stretched to breaking point. People are not impressed by the posturing of the Maori king, who has none of his late mother’s mana or dignity, or of his right-hand man (eminence grise might be a better term), Tuku Morgan.

We are entitled to be sceptical about their motives. While privileged tribes accumulate riches and pull political strings, we continue to be reminded every day of an entrenched Maori underclass that shows no sign of having enjoyed economic trickle-down from the well-heeled iwi elite.
It’s true that the government has managed its asset sales programme ineptly. Yet I have no doubt that if John Key were to call a snap election over the Maori attempt to derail asset sales, he would win overwhelming support – not because people are in favour of asset sales (they’re not), but because of the bigger principles at stake.

Will it happen? I can’t see it. It would simply be too divisive. The government would worry, quite rightly, that the fracture between Maori and Pakeha would take years to heal.
But something has to happen. The ultimatums emanating from some figures in Maoridom are a direct challenge to the national interest at a time when the country is in its most vulnerable state since World War II. Sabotage is not too strong a word.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A milestone for the Press Council - perhaps its last

The Press Council celebrated its 40th birthday in Wellington last night by staging a public forum with the theme: Looking Forward, Looking Back and the Constant Immutable Truths. Council chairman Barry Paterson QC, a former High Court judge, explained that the council had decided to make the most of its 40th birthday because there was no guarantee that it would make 50 – a reference to the fact that its days may be numbered, since the Law Commission has proposed a new single media regulator to replace the council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
Paterson briefly canvassed the council’s origins, recalling that it was set up by newspaper publishers to forestall calls from the Labour Party for statutory control of the press. Its founders took the view (these are my words, not Paterson’s) that the best way of defending the press against political interference was by maintaining high standards through self-regulation – hence the council’s main function of hearing and ruling on complaints against newspapers.

Paterson pointed out that former Justice Minister Simon Power had asked the Law Commission to review the regulatory regime covering New Zealand media not because of the ethical scandals engulfing the British press, but because of the emergence of the unregulated, “new”, digital media. Paterson emphasised that whatever changes were made as a result of the review, it was vital that the press remained free of government regulation.
Judge Arthur Tompkins of the District Court presented an idiosyncratic but scholarly history of free speech that encompassed religious reformer Martin Luther, Picasso’s famous painting depicting the bombing of Guernica and the signing by Churchill and Roosevelt of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which spoke of a world free of want and fear. The linking theme was that ideas matter (Luther), words matter (the Atlantic Charter) and images matter (Picasso). Tompkins told the disappointingly small gathering that the new regulatory framework covering the media must not sweep away the good along with that which had outlived its usefulness.

APN (aka The New Zealand Herald) Digital editor-in-chief Jeremy Rees and former Stuff social media editor Greer McDonald (who confided that she had grown to hate the term “social media”) talked frankly and insightfully about the impact of online media. The overall message was that it was an exciting and satisfying field to be working in, but it was evolving at breakneck speed and sometimes in unexpected directions.
Rees said everything he had been told about digital media five years ago turned out to be completely untrue (“we thought citizen journalism would take over – it didn’t”) and he couldn’t hazard a guess as to where things would go from here, although he thought there would be much greater differentiation between the type of content provided on different online platforms.

He reinforced one of my concerns about a possible adverse consequence of the shift away from traditional print media. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially he said that online providers would increasingly tailor content according to the preferences – including political preferences – of the user. In other words, a consumer with a history of seeking right-wing content (or left-wing, or whatever) will be fed information that complies with that preference.
Of course this is happening already as a result of users exercising their own choice, but if Rees is correct the trend will accelerate. This has implications for civil society, because one of the great virtues of “broad church” mainstream print media such as we have in New Zealand is that it exposes readers to a wide range of material. In the process they may come to consider ideas and opinions that are contrary to their own, and possibly even concede that they have some validity – surely no bad thing. This isn’t going to happen if online readers see only content that reinforces their existing prejudices.

Greer McDonald, who has just taken up a new appointment as digital editor of the Manawatu Standard (a fine newspaper – they print my column), talked about the impact of social media during the Christchurch earthquakes but noted that people still turned to the traditional media for reliable information. At one point a rumour spread via Twitter that the Riccarton Mall had collapsed – a furphy* that Fairfax journalists were able to extinguish by using the traditional methods, in other words picking up the phone and asking the people who knew.
The sceptical Luddite in me silently cheered at a couple of points McDonald made. She noted that there were only about 70,000 Twitter users and said journalists shouldn’t get excited or distracted by what was being said among such a small minority. And she rightly scorned the “race mentality” – the obsession with being the first to report even trivial information online, which she described as a sideshow. Bravo. (I touched on the same phenomenon here a few months ago.)

The council’s executive director, Mary Major, presented a slide show covering the council’s history and touching on celebrated skirmishes from the past involving such notables as Robert Muldoon and morals crusader Patricia Bartlett. (The former case, which followed Muldoon’s decision to cut off the flow of information to The Dominion, was a rare case of a complaint being brought by journalists against a politician, rather than vice-versa).
The evening wound up with a spirited speech by Sir Geoffrey Palmer in which he ranged across Milton’s Areopagitica, John Stuart Mill, the pernicious sedition laws (getting rid of them was the law reform of which he was most proud, although he had to wait until he was president of the Law Commission to achieve it), climate change (Justice Venning’s analysis in his recent finding against climate change sceptics was “devastating”) and the failings of television news (“a disaster”).

Palmer - the son of a newspaper editor - said he was not impressed by arguments that there was a crisis in journalism. The crisis, if it existed, was in the way journalism was delivered, but he was confident the problems would be overcome with creativity, determination and innovation.
I hope he’s right.

* Furphy: a false report or rumour. Wagons made by an Australian company called Furphy carted water behind the front lines on the Western Front during World War One. They became synonymous with misleading gossip about what was happening on the battlefield. It's a term widely used by Australian journalists ("I checked it out, but it was a furphy").

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Another one bites the dust

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 21.)

A MOMENT’S silence, please, while we mourn the loss of yet another good word.

“Majority” means the greater number, as in: “A majority of MPs voted in favour”, or “the majority of New Zealanders support retention of the monarchy”.

It is specifically related to numbers. Yet increasingly, we hear and read such solecisms as “the sun shone for the majority of the day” or “the majority of the work was done by nightfall”.

Does it matter? Yes, because the English language depends on precision. Our laws rely on it, because interpretation of the law hinges on the words used. We rely on it to hold our politicians accountable, since we judge them by the statements they make. The moment meanings become blurred, the language is robbed of clarity.

Then again, if you define the world by the latest exploits of Jaime Ridge or who proceeds into the finals of New Zealand’s Got Talent, the degradation of English is probably of no consequence whatsoever. Why worry?

* * *

TIME WAS when a test match between the All Blacks and the Springboks was a veritable Clash of the Titans – an encounter eagerly anticipated by rugby fans in both countries.

But they were the days when tests between the two countries were rare occasions, occurring at intervals of several years. The infrequency served only to heighten the tension and excitement when the two sides came together. Fans would sleep overnight on the footpath to ensure they got tickets.

It’s hard to imagine anyone bothering to make that sort of sacrifice today. Test matches are now so common that even rugby journalists struggle to maintain the pretence that they are anything special.

Responsibility for the degrading of test rugby can be laid at the feet of rugby’s greedy corporate masters, who insist on wringing every last dollar from the sport. Perhaps they haven’t heard of Aesop’s fable about the goose that laid the golden egg.

* * *
MY FELLOW columnist Terry Hall drew attention this week to the fact that the private hospital group previously known as Wakefield Health has a new name: Acurity.

What is this pretentious, made-up name supposed to represent? Your guess is as good as mine. What was wrong with the old one? Nothing, as far as we can tell. Wakefield was a name with strong historical associations, but Acurity means nothing.

The fashion for gimmicky corporate names began in the 1980s when the Bank of New South Wales and the Commercial Bank of Australia merged to form Westpac, which sounded for all the world like a meat processing company.

Later in the decade, the L D Nathan Group launched the retail chain DEKA, a name with all the poetic resonance of an acronym for a Soviet tractor factory. Several stores formerly owned by James Smith, a company name regarded with great affection by generations of Wellingtonians, were among those that suffered the indignity of being rebranded.

Since then the trend has gathered momentum. National Mutual became AXA, Broadcast Communications Ltd became Kordia (derived, we’re told, from “accordia”, meaning “harmony”) and Norwich Union became Aviva (a pleasant name that also happens to be the name of my daughter-in-law, but what’s it got to do with insurance?).

According to its website, the former Wakefield Health changed its name to Acurity “to better reflect its own unique identity as owner of three private surgical hospitals and its investment in other health related organisations across the country”.

Which would be all very well if there were such a word as acurity, but there isn’t. We are left to conclude the board of Wakefield Health was smart-talked into the name change by a clever advertising agency or PR firm, which no doubt trousered a handsome fee for its trouble.
* * *

CLINT EASTWOOD was rightly lampooned for his bizarre speech at the Republican presidential convention.

There’s a lesson here. Unless they’re prepared to put themselves on the line by actually standing for office, as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger did, actors and other celebrities should stay well away from politics.

It’s a misuse of power for people to exploit their popularity as actors, writers, artists or musicians in order to exert political influence over impressionable fans. Eastwood is no more qualified to comment on politics than hairdressers and cab drivers.

We are not immune to the Eastwood syndrome here in New Zealand, although our own celebrities invariably line up in support of the Left. An example is the “We’re better than that” campaign currently running against a government bill aimed at deterring people smugglers from bringing their human cargoes to New Zealand.

This has attracted the support of such luminaries as Dave Dobbyn, Michele A’Court, Jeremy Elwood and Oscar Kightley, who seem not to grasp that discouraging asylum seekers is actually a humanitarian act, given the number who have drowned trying to get to Australia.





Saturday, September 22, 2012

Kim Hill reveals her warm, fuzzy side

I hadn’t consciously heard of Caitlin Moran until this morning, but when I listened to Kim Hill’s gushing intro to her interview with the British writer and columnist, I knew we were in for a love fest. And so it turned out.
Hill cooed with unabashed adoration for her guest. And of course she would: Moran is the sort of interviewee she likes – fashionably left wing, a feminist and a socialist (I didn’t know this before, but I do now); the type of guest whom we’ve learned from experience can expect a cruisy ride from a host noted for her take-no-prisoners approach with people she dislikes.

The famously incisive interviewer purred with delight as, between the two of them, they picked off some easy, predictable targets: David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Mitt Romney. No hard questions; no attempt to probe beneath Moran’s glib, faux-proletarian politics. (One simple question I’d like put to all these self-avowed socialists: give us an example of a socialist society that has worked. I’ll die waiting.)
The contrast with the hostile treatment given to guests such as John Howard, Owen Glenn and the American journalist Thomas Friedman couldn’t be more striking. Hill didn’t ask how much this champion of the working class earns (apparently in the vicinity of £250,000 a year), though she thought this a relevant question when she interviewed Friedman. There’s an obvious difference of course: establishing that Friedman was a wealthy man would have confirmed that he was just another greedy capitalist cheerleader, whereas it's so obvious that Moran gives all her money to the poor that the issue needn't be brought up.

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. I don’t mind being exposed to the views of people like Moran, no matter how much I might disagree with them. She’s clever, witty and articulate; what’s more, I accept that Cameron, Johnson and Romney are men who richly deserve to have their vanity and pomposity punctured.
What I object to are double standards and abuse of power. There’s a double standard here because Hill interviews left-wing guests far more often than conservative ones, but more to the point she adopts a markedly different approach with the latter than with the former. She fawns over guests whom she finds ideologically and politically simpatico (I swear at one point I heard her declare to Moran, “I love you!”), but takes a relentlessly aggressive line with people like Howard.

It’s an abuse of media power because Hill consistently uses her programme to promote views she approves of and attack those she doesn’t like. That would be acceptable from a privately owned radio station, but Radio New Zealand is owned by the taxpayers and has an obligation – recognised in its charter – to provide balanced and impartial coverage of current affairs. It does not exist to provide a platform for the views of a smug Wellington elite.
The bias even extends to the choice of music. The Moran interview was preceded by the latest satirical song from Randy Newman, darling of the condescending American intellectual left – a song entitled I’m Dreaming of a WhitePresident.  

I’d love to see the ratings figures for Saturday Morning with Kim Hill. One of its defining qualities is that Hill seems to assume all her listeners think just like her, but I wonder how many such people exist outside Green-voting inner-city ghettoes like Aro Valley and Grey Lynn. Most people I know, from across the political spectrum, look at me with a mixture of pity, wonderment and alarm when I mention that I still occasionally tune in.
Footnote: I’ve just read that Moran had her third child aborted, an experience she wrote about with what Diana Wichtel in the Listener described as industrial strength insouciance – “not a moment’s guilt, remorse, self doubt”. (Perhaps Moran felt she couldn’t afford another baby on her menial income.) To me this revealed far more about Moran than anything I learned from the Hill interview.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

That post-Vladivostok shootout

I've been following with interest the spirited online debate triggered by a column in which New Zealand Herald political commentator John Armstrong had a whack at bloggers Gordon Campbell and Bryce Edwards. Just back from covering Apec in Vladivostok, Armstrong unburdened himself of some deeply felt grievances over criticism of the mainstream media, and in particular political reporters, in the left-wing blogosphere. Labelling Campbell and Edwards a couple of "old school, Aro Valley-style socialists", Armstrong advised them: "Get off our backs".

What wounded the veteran political journalist were "cheap-shot accusations" that New Zealand reporters in Vladivostok concentrated on trivia, interviewed their laptops and meekly parroted the government line. He went on to bemoan the hardships of such overseas assignments: getting stuck in traffic jams, having to get by with little sleep, coping with technological hiccups, meeting awkward deadlines and clambering on and off buses in 35-degree heat. He went on to argue that, contrary to claims made by Campbell and Edwards, there had been thorough coverage of the Trans Pacific Partnership. He finished by observing that most blogsites depended on the mainstream media for their information and he accused them of being parasites, enjoying a free ride while attacking their hosts.

Armstrong seemed particularly sour about Edwards, an Otago University political scientist whose daily online wrap-up of political news and comment is hosted, as it happens, on the Herald's website. In a cryptic observation, he wrote that Edwards' blog was "starting to develop a much more political dynamic that is unlikely to please National".

It was provocative stuff and all the more notable for seeming to be out of character. Armstrong is normally one of the more detached political commentators, not given to over-the-top pronouncements, and I couldn't help wondering whether it was written while he was suffering fatigue and jet lag from his trip. My own feeling is that it was a lapse of judgment by a journalist who's generally regarded (certainly by me) as being considered, balanced and authoritative. And I wonder whether his comment about the "political dynamic" of Edwards' blog, which naturally was interpreted by most critics (including Campbell) as suggesting  Edwards shouldn't be upsetting the government, was simply clumsily worded, and that Armstrong was simply trying to say the blog was taking on a more noticeable anti-National tone.

Whatever the explanation, the column brought forth a blizzard of online comment, most of it denouncing Armstrong - often in savage personal terms - and suggesting that both he and and his paper are supine National Party mouthpieces (which I find amusing, given that many right-wing blogs are just as convinced that the Herald has been captured by the left). The Herald eventually had to shut down the debate and when I last checked, only the first 10 comments were still readable.

Inevitably, both Campbell and Edwards responded. I thought Edwards was admirably restrained and forgiving. He even confessed that he regarded Armstrong as New Zealand's top political journalist (boy, does he know how to make a guy feel bad). Campbell's response was more trenchant, as you might expect, but it was thoughtful, passionate and articulate (again, as you'd expect). Campbell may be less than convincing when he tries to disavow ideological bias (his weekly political columns in Fairfax community papers once made an effort to appear neutral but gave up that pretence long ago),  but no one could ever accuse him of lacking intellect or commitment.

So where does all this leave us? My own thoughts, for what they're worth, are that press gallery journalists covering a major overseas political event involving New Zealand present a soft target. I haven't been in that situation myself, but I can understand the limitations. They have to meet tight deadlines, they have limited resources and they are probably largely dependent, for better or worse, on information from people attached to the official New Zealand delegation. They don't have the resources of the Guardian or Wall Street Journal, two of the papers whose coverage Campbell held out as an example of how things should be done. (On the Hard News site, Russell Brown refers to a Reuters report from Vladivostok that was compiled by seven journalists, and comments that New Zealand reporters would look at that sort of resourcing and weep.) Besides, a journalistic variation of the Stockholm syndrome kicks in; whether they're covering sport, politics or whatever, New Zealand reporters on overseas assignments tend to absorb and reflect the "official" New Zealand line, as if it's noble little New Zealand against the world.

On the other hand, it was inevitable that Armstrong's piece would be seen as a little too self-serving, even self-pitying. That's why I think he would have been well advised to sit on his hands, no matter how resentful he felt about blogosphere criticism.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Banks is a disgrace

The media are reporting that John Key is under pressure to sack John Banks, but he shouldn’t have to. If Banks had any sense of honour (ha!), he would save Key the trouble by resigning. He must realise the game is up. Any good Banks may have done in public life – and I admit I’m scratching my head trying to think of an example – has been negated by the scandal over political donations. He is a disgrace to the electorate he professes to represent and to the party whose reputation he has destroyed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Intoxicated by a cocktail of power and entitlement

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 12.)

The partial privatisation of state assets, the flagship policy of the National-led government’s second term in office, is looking like a train wreck.
For this, National must shoulder a large part of the blame. Even when the MOM (“mixed ownership model”) emerged as the defining issue in last year’s election, National failed to sell the policy to voters.

Granted, it was never likely to excite political passion, other than from opponents; but still, the government could have done a lot more to explain why and how the country was going to benefit.
Thus, although prime minister John Key could reject calls for a referendum by insisting National won the biggest referendum of all (“it’s called an election”), public support for the proposal never seemed more than lukewarm.

Even as the deadline for the float of shares in Mighty River Power neared, vital details such as how shares would be allocated – and how the government would ensure they ended up in the hands of New Zealand mums and dads rather than foreign corporate interests – still seemed vague. “Half-cocked” barely begins to describe it.
Perhaps more damningly, the government appears not to have anticipated the Maori Council’s application to the Waitangi Tribunal to block the sale. That they didn’t see it coming suggests National placed too much faith in its cosy relationship with the iwi leadership group, which represents the Maori tribal elite.

Presumably the government thought any Treaty issues could be resolved with iwi leaders behind closed doors, as has become the pattern. Inevitably this would have involved guaranteeing iwi some sort of preferential treatment when shares were allocated.
But in the background, a power struggle was bubbling away within Maoridom. The long-quiescent Maori Council, resentful at being supplanted by the iwi leadership group as the supposed voice of Maoridom, decided to reassert itself and did so spectacularly, by shoving a stick in the government’s spokes.

Mr Key was justified in calling the council’s action opportunistic, yet it should have come as no surprise. It was entirely predictable that the Maori Council – a statutory body created to advise the government on Maori issues, and which purports to represent all Maori, not merely the wealthy tribes – should feel irritated at being usurped by the iwi leadership group, which has no status in law.
That’s not to say the motives of the Maori Council are pure, because I don’t believe they are. But we can come back to that issue later.

The net effect of the council’s action and the Waitangi Tribunal’s decision in its favour is to create doubt and uncertainty around the asset sales. That has the potential to greatly reduce the value of the assets, since investors don’t like uncertainty.
As if that weren’t enough, other factors largely outside the government’s control have contrived to take the shine off the asset sales programme.

Solid Energy, another of the state companies lined up for partial sale, recently reported a $40 million loss and is talking job losses and mine closures.  
More worrying still is the uncertainty over the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, New Zealand’s biggest electricity user and the key customer of another state company being lined up for sale, Meridian Energy. Tiwai Point’s owners want to review their electricity contract because of falling demand for aluminium, with potentially serious implications not just for Meridian’s profits but for power prices generally.

And just to prove that problems come in threes, another big electricity consumer, newsprint manufacturer Norske Skog, is planning to halve production at its Kawerau newsprint mill. That will have an impact on Mighty River Power’s books and add to a looming electricity surplus.
Given all these factors, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Finance Minister Bill English. The continuing convulsions caused by the global financial crisis are making National’s showpiece economic policy look less attractive with every passing day.

Yet as problematical as these issues are, they are minor compared with the massive challenge looming in the background, and which the government shows no inclination to confront. This relates to fundamental questions about who governs New Zealand, and for whose benefit.
The Maori Council’s challenge over water rights is symptomatic of a much wider grab-a-thon in which “Maori” interests are aggressively asserting rights to assets and resources with little regard for the common good.

Tribes are almost falling over each other in their haste to lay claim to everything from aquifers to wind. In Auckland, a Maori statutory body, unelected and apparently accountable to no one, is demanding that ratepayers spend $295 million on a wish list that includes compulsory te reo in schools and bilingual street signage.
Some of the people behind these claims give the impression of being intoxicated by a heady cocktail of power and entitlement. Nowhere do they acknowledge that we have a shared history, a joint stake in the land and a common interest in its future.

The process is aided by a Waitangi Tribunal whose makeup is fundamentally flawed. Twelve of the tribunal’s 24 members have iwi affiliations and most of the others either come from academic backgrounds – hardly a guarantee of neutrality, given the political leanings of most academics – or have a history of legal advocacy on behalf of Maori. It would be unnatural if this didn’t predispose them to sympathise with Maori claims.
What is perhaps most striking about this unseemly scramble for assets is that it’s based on the false premise that New Zealand consists of two races, “Maori” and the rest.

I use those inverted commas deliberately, since there is no legal definition of a Maori. Under a law change in 1974, “Maoriness” became a question of cultural self-identification. If you feel you are Maori, then you are.
Many of the most belligerent activists have European surnames (or did, until they created Maori versions) and decidedly European features.

The intriguing question is why so many people with a mixture of European and Maori blood choose to identify exclusively with their Maori forebears. No matter how much they might wish to, there’s no escaping the fact that their European ancestors were complicit in the injustices suffered by their Maori ancestors for which they now demand redress.
This inconvenient irony goes unmentioned in the endless race debate that saps New Zealand’s energy, sets the minority against the majority and constantly distracts politicians from the crucial business of ensuring a prosperous future for all New Zealanders.



Monday, September 10, 2012

Will they volunteer to help collect the bodies?

Q+A yesterday had TVNZ's least impressive interviewer trying to skewer the government's least impressive minister. It was painful to watch.

Okay, perhaps that's a little harsh. I've seen Greg Boyed conduct workmanlike interviews in the past and immigration minister Nathan Guy may simply need a bit more media time to polish his skills. But if the purpose of a current affairs interview is to elicit useful information and illuminate issues, this one missed the boat - which is not an entirely inappropriate metaphor, since the subject under discussion was a government bill aimed at deterring boat people from arriving en masse in New Zealand seeking asylum.

The primary fault lay with Boyed, who seemed bent on finding out how many different ways he could ask the same question, namely: if no boatloads of asylum-seekers have arrived here before, why bother passing legislation that threatens them with detention if they do happen to turn up?

The answer should have been relatively simple. It's a pre-emptive move. New Zealand hasn't had to deal with boat people in the past and we don't want to now. The government also needs a process for dealing with them if they do arrive.

The obvious reason why boat people haven't set out for New Zealand is that Australia is much closer for them (and also much harder to miss if the crew's navigational skills aren't too flash). But the Gillard government, having completely cocked up its policy on asylum-seekers, recently executed a humiliating U-turn and reverted to the much tougher stance of the former Howard government, which insisted that boat people be sent to detention centres outside Australia. That policy flip-flop greatly increases the likelihood that asylum-seekers and the unscrupulous people smugglers who profit from their plight will now turn their attention to New Zealand.

That all seems fairly straightforward, but Boyed and Guy went round and round in circles for what the clock told me was 13 minutes but seemed infinitely longer.

It wasn't helped by the beetle-browed Boyed's over-excited questioning. He needs to understand that the purpose of an interview is not to claim a scalp or make a politician look like a dork, but to leave viewers with a better understanding of an issue. He should also learn to quit when the line of questioning leads nowhere.

As for Guy ... well, he's either had too much of the wrong type of media training or needs more of the right type. The most polite way I can put it is that he didn't come across as the sharpest knife in the government's drawer. They were halfway through the interview before Guy got around to making the point (which I would have thought pretty crucial) that the Australian policy change will inevitably make New Zealand a more attractive option for asylum seekers - that is, unless the government acts. 

Guy could have gone further and pointed out that asylum-seekers are queue-jumpers, using money to gain  an advantage over the tens of thousands of people languishing in refugee camps and patiently waiting for the UN repatriation process to take its course. For some reason he chose not to.

He could have gone further still and pointed out that discouraging people from risking their lives in unseaworthy boats is a humanitarian act, given that hundreds have drowned trying to get to Australia since the Labor government in Canberra relaxed the previously strict attitude toward illegal immigrants. This is a point lost on the New Zealand show business figures who currently feature in a hand-wringing YouTube campaign against the government's bill.

Guy could also have said that it's the fundamental sovereign right of any country to decide who comes in and under what circumstances. While it can be argued that the government should accept more than the current quota of 750 asylum-seekers a year, a carte-blanche policy - such as the YouTube campaigners seem to favour - could be disastrous. I wonder, would they volunteer to help collect the bodies when they start washing ashore on Ninety Mile Beach?


Saturday, September 8, 2012

One in the eye for the neo-wowsers

(First published in the Dominion Post, September 7.)
PARLIAMENT’S decision to keep the liquor purchasing age at 18 was not only enlightened but courageous, given the deafening barrage of anti-liquor propaganda to which politicians have been subjected.
The vote was a resounding defeat for a determined neo-wowser coalition whose motivations range from legitimate concerns about health to a consuming hostility toward business.

The immediate reaction of Professor Doug Sellman, the most vocal of the neo-wowsers, was telling. “The people who are making money out of the heavy-drinking culture will be celebrating,” he said. Prof Sellman seems determined to view alcohol as a rapacious capitalist plot against the helpless and gullible.
Yes, New Zealand has a binge-drinking problem. But overall, our alcohol consumption remains modest by world standards (lower than Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia), and Parliament is right not to be panicked into adopting the “we know best” solutions advocated by control freaks in the universities.

It’s easy to understand the disappointment of people who are on the front line in dealing with alcohol abuse, but their perspective may be distorted because they see all the negative consequences close up.
Politicians are able to take a more balanced view, recognising that most people enjoy alcohol in moderation and with no harmful effects. The crucial issue is whether responsible drinkers should be penalised because of the misbehaviour of the minority.

* * *

NOW THAT the dust has settled over Stewart Murray Wilson’s relocation, what has been achieved?
Wanganui has revealed itself as fearful, insular and vengeful. Is this really what the mayor, Annette Main, and her council wanted? The hysterical over-reaction is likely to be far more damaging to the city’s image than any association with Wilson. In fact it had the bizarre effect of making some people start to feel sympathetic towards him.

What Wilson did 20 years ago was despicable, but he has paid the penalty imposed by the law. It’s ironic that in wanting to hound him out of town (to where, for heaven’s sake?), the outraged citizens of Wanganui exposed their own dark side.
That’s the disconcerting thing about mobs: they seem to rejoice in the discovery that there’s someone even lower than they are.

* * *

TWO RECENT events show how entrenched the welfarist mindset has become.
Labour leader David Shearer was pilloried in the left-wing blogosphere for making a speech in which he made it clear he disapproved of people claiming a benefit when they were fit to work. Yet his attitude is entirely in line with the views of the Labour politicians who created the social welfare system in the 1930s.

They were harshly intolerant of welfare “loafers”. The colourful public works minister Bob Semple, a former union leader, is said to have once thundered in biblical tones: “He who shall not work, neither shall he eat.”
That Mr Shearer was condemned within his own party shows how the entitlement mindset has distorted attitudes to the point where dependency on the taxpayer is viewed as a valid lifestyle choice.

More recently, the government’s proposal to drug-test beneficiaries has been condemned, predictably, as beneficiary-bashing. But if the state is going to pay people the unemployment benefit, it’s only fair that the recipients demonstrate good faith by being ready and available for work. In many industries, that requires them to be drug-free.
There’s a moral dimension here too. Why should law-abiding taxpayers subsidise the illegal drug habits of the unemployed?

The government’s advisers did their best to find reasons why drug-testing shouldn’t be mandatory, but the public is capable of cutting through all the equivocation. When a poll on TVNZ’s CloseUp asked whether beneficiaries who refuse a drug test should have their benefit cut, 90 per cent of the 16,000 respondents voted yes.
* * *
I AM NOT a cricket fan, but I find the never-ending melodrama around the Black Caps hugely entertaining.

They partly redeemed themselves this week, but the question remains: has there ever been another sports team so psychologically fragile, or whose failures were so painfully analysed over and over again?
Come to that, has there ever been another cricket team that needed to be constantly reminded that the purpose of its batsmen was to score runs, the purpose of its bowlers was to get the other side out and the purpose of its fieldsmen was to catch the ball?

These are things that even I know. So why does it often seem, when the Black Caps and their ever-changing retinue of minders publicly agonise over their erratic performance, that they’ve forgotten what the game is about? Has the psychological self-absorption become so all-consuming that the basics have been lost from view?
The endless self-analysis would be excruciating if it weren’t so comical. If words won test matches, the Black Caps would be world-beaters.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why Gillard should talk to the Christian right

In her weekly slot on RNZ’s Morning Report this morning, Australian political commentator Kerry-Anne Walsh discussed prime minister Julia Gillard’s decision to pull out of a speaking engagement at the annual conference of the Australian Christian Lobby. Gillard cancelled because she objected to “offensive” comments made by the ACL’s leader Jim Wallace, who had suggested that the health risks posed by homosexuality were worse than those caused by smoking.
Walsh commented that she thought it strange that Gillard had agreed to address the ACL in the first place, given that she’s an atheist, to which host Geoff Robinson suggested a possible explanation: “votes”.

Well, no. For a start, whatever Gillard might have said to the ACL, she’s never likely to win the Christian right over to her side.
But far more important, both Walsh and Robinson seemed to overlook the fact that as prime minister, Gillard is answerable to all Australians. Members of the ACL are as affected by government policies and actions as any other Australian citizens, and it’s entirely right and proper that Gillard should have agreed to speak to them.

Her decision to cancel smacked of political convenience. It may have been prompted by fear of a backlash from the gay lobby, whose votes are important to her (especially in view of the battle between Labor and the Australian Greens for the support of left-leaning inner-city dwellers).
But all political leaders should make a point of confronting those who oppose them. It demonstrates that they believe in what they’re doing and are prepared to defend themselves before a potentially hostile audience. It also forces them to explain themselves more convincingly than they might in front of a fawning crowd of supporters. That’s surely good for democracy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Same-sex marriage: a step too far

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 29.)
Few political issues in my lifetime have been more divisive than the Homosexual Law Reform Bill of 1986. It didn’t quite cause the violent convulsions that shook New Zealand during the 1981 Springbok tour, but the debate was almost as polarising.
To many people, legalising homosexual acts seemed a radical, dangerous step. Yet 26 years later, only a hard-core minority would still insist the country made a terrible mistake.

Even many of those who opposed the bill in 1986 now accept that it was wrong to treat someone as a criminal for being attracted to the same sex. The ability to form intimate relationships is essential for a complete life and it seems almost medieval that for so long, homosexual men (not lesbian women, oddly enough – the law didn’t recognise their existence) were denied this right. 
Now fast-forward to 2004. That was when Parliament passed the Civil Unions Act, giving same-sex couples the right to formalise their relationship in a legally sanctioned ceremony that was effectively marriage in all but name.  

A companion bill removed discriminatory provisions based on relationship status, with the result that all couples – whether married, de facto or joined in a civil union – had the same rights and obligations, with the one exception that non-married couples were not allowed to adopt children.
Considering the furore that had gripped New Zealand in 1986, the Civil Unions Act passed with relatively little fuss. Of the mainstream Churches, only the Catholics put up much resistance. Otherwise most opposition came from Pentecostal-style Churches – notably the Destiny Church, which organised the memorable, black-shirted “Enough is Enough” march on Parliament.

And that was that, or so most people thought. All done and dusted.
Certainly, senior Labour politicians gave that impression. Prime minister Helen Clark was at pains to stress in 2004 that marriage was “only for heterosexuals” and that the Marriage Act would remain unchanged. Her statement was clearly intended to reassure people that civil unions would not be a precursor to gay marriage.

Gay MP Tim Barnett said in Parliament that civil unions were an acceptable alternative [to marriage] and that “marriage can remain untouched”. Cabinet ministers Margaret Wilson and David Benson-Pope gave similar assurances that traditional marriage would be protected.
Yet here we are, eight years down the track, and Parliament is about to debate a bill permitting same-sex partners to marry. You could conclude that Ms Clark and Co were being duplicitous in 2004, but it’s just as likely that the gay agenda has since taken on a political momentum of its own.

I suspect that notwithstanding the reassurances in 2004, same-sex marriage was always the long-term goal of gay activists who were politically savvy enough to realise that their agenda could only be achieved incrementally – that as politicians and the public were conditioned to each liberalisation of the law, they would become more receptive to further reform. That’s pretty much how it has turned out, with opinion polls suggesting the public is relaxed about gay marriage and even the prime minister declaring his support.
And many would say, where’s the problem? Few social institutions are static and immutable. Without change, society could never progress.

The counter-argument, however, is that change is not always for the better. And when radical change is being proposed to an institution as fundamental as marriage, a compelling case needs to be made. I don’t believe such a case has been made.
Consider this: all rights except the right to adopt and to use the word “marriage” were granted to same-sex couples in 2004. Like Helen Clark, I thought that settled the issue, but clearly it wasn’t enough. Gay activists weren’t content with marriage in everything but name; they wanted to confer on same-sex relationships the ultimate legitimacy that only the word “marriage” could provide.

This smacks of “you’ve got it, so I demand it too”. And many would say, where’s the harm in that? As John Key says, his marriage isn’t threatened by allowing same-sex couples to marry. But while that may be true in a personal sense, what about marriage in the broader context, as a social institution? Could it be diminished in value and importance?
Propagandists for same-sex marriage argue that marriage has taken different forms in different times and places and that what we now call marriage is a relatively recent concept. Therefore, they reason, why get agitated if it undergoes further change?

But this is at best specious and at worst dishonest, because the constant factor that has set marriage apart from other relationships throughout history, and across all cultures, is that it has involved people of opposite sexes.
That is its essence. Change that and marriage becomes something else. Many would argue that its uniqueness would be destroyed and its importance fundamentally and irrevocably diminished. And while I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I can see why some traditionalists see same-sex marriage as part of a broader attack on the family and traditional morality.

I’ve also seen it argued that marriage has historically been about economic convenience and security rather than love, as if to say “what’s the big deal anyway?”. Again, this is an argument that seems designed to diminish the worth of marriage by playing down love, fidelity, companionship and commitment.
The intent, it seems, is to convince us that marriage was always a bit of a sham anyway, and thus hardly worth bothering to preserve it in its present form. But if that’s the case, one might ask, why are same-sex couples so eager to share its benefits?

On many social issues, I’m conservative by instinct. I am not rigidly opposed to change, but we need to be convinced of its merits.
I have no desire to see gay people denied the right to a full and happy life, but I believe they achieved that with the Civil Unions Act. We were told so at the time.

Nothing has changed, except that gay activists demand to go a crucial step further. In doing so they will gain little, yet irrevocably change something that is unique and fundamental to our social structure. Why risk it?