Friday, March 28, 2014

Speculations on the unknowable

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 26.)

Charlotte Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, L’Wren Scott: three dynamic, talented, apparently well-loved people, dead in the prime of life, and all in the space of a few weeks.
Two, Dawson and Scott, took their own lives. Hoffman didn’t; he died with a heroin needle stuck in his arm. But he must have known that death was a likely consequence of his drug habit, and he took the risk anyway. So in a sense it was self-inflicted, even if he didn’t intend to die.

It’s hard to imagine the level of despair that takes some people to a dark place where even the knowledge that others love and care for them is no longer reason enough for them to go on living.
Dawson and Scott must have reached that point. Hoffman, perhaps not. But his lifestyle was self-destructive, and being a highly intelligent man (as he must have been, to be such an outstanding actor), he must have realised it.

We can only surmise that his will to live wasn’t as powerful as his addiction. The end result was the same.
All three lived their lives in the public eye, to a greater or less extent, so it’s our natural inclination to look for possible clues to what might have made them so unhappy that they saw no point in living.

Here we get into uncertain territory, because even those closest to them clearly didn’t sense what was going on inside their heads. But we can speculate on the basis of what we know.
Dawson had money troubles and wondered how she was going to pay the rent on her exclusive apartment. Scott, too, was reportedly in financial trouble: her fashion business was deeply in debt and according to some reports, she was too proud to accept her boyfriend Mick Jagger’s offer to bail her out.

Dawson and Scott had at least two other things in common. Both were adopted. As far as we know they had happy, secure childhoods and were close to their adoptive families. But is it possible that for some adoptees, there’s a void that can never quite be filled, even though they have been brought up in a loving and nurturing environment? 
I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems a reasonable question to ask.

Dawson and Scott were also childless. As a male I’m venturing onto dangerous ground here, but I read a thoughtful article in the New Zealand Herald by the writer Charlotte Grimshaw, who had known Dawson in her youth.
Grimshaw wrote, essentially, that having children can save women from feeling they must stay eternally beautiful and youthful.

“The addition of a dependant,” she wrote, “brings the urgent need for self-preservation. It’s what all parents know: that children not only enrich life beyond anything you’ll ever experience, they save you too. You can no longer party hard. If you do, the unit will begin to fall apart.
“Sometimes having babies makes women want to kill themselves, but once you’ve got them and survived (and sorted out the post-natal depression), the kids can be the best anchor to life you can have.”

We know that Dawson wanted to have children. In her 2012 autobiography she wrote with painful honesty about having an abortion to humour her then-husband, the ratbag Australian swimmer Scott Miller, for whom a baby would have been a distraction from his preparation for the Sydney Olympic Games. Dawson described it as a horrible, sad time.
Reading of her grief over that abortion, I was reminded of an Otago University study published in 2006 which found that 42 per cent of women who had had an abortion subsequently experienced major depression and even suicidal behaviour. This was nearly double the rate of those who had never been pregnant and 35 per cent higher than those who had chosen to continue a pregnancy.

Needless to say, the finding was controversial – so much so that several academic journals refused to publish it.
Dawson never got pregnant again, as far as we know. Grimshaw wrote of her: “Charlotte Dawson stayed eternally beautiful and youthful; it was her blessing and possibly her misfortune to remain untouched by domestic drudgery.” That phrase “and possibly her misfortune” is the telling one.

I wouldn’t argue for a moment that all women need children to make their lives complete. Many women are happy and fulfilled without them. But in the light of what we know about Dawson, it’s possible her childlessness weighed heavily on her. In the end she was left with only her beauty and vivacious personality – and in a shallow celebrity world in which appearances count for everything, its currency was diminishing as she aged.
It seems L’Wren Scott wanted kids too. She once told her adoptive sister, a Mormon mother of seven, that she envied her for her family and quiet domestic life. But it seems Jagger either didn’t want, or couldn’t have, more children.

Granted, it’s sheer conjecture on my part to suggest these may have been factors. Even the closest friends of people who kill themselves often fail to see it coming and profess to have no idea why they did it.
But you have to wonder, too, about the demands of the celebrity lifestyle. Models, actors and TV celebrities inhabit a vacuous world of air kisses, superficiality and insincerity. The fashionably chic first name Scott adopted (she was christened Luann) seems symptomatic of its preoccupation with appearances.

All that unremitting shallowness, and the pressure to live up to an image, must take its toll. For Dawson, this was doubtless exacerbated by her apparent inability to disengage from the viciousness of online social media, even as Internet trolls were doing their best to destroy her.
Her craving for attention evidently outweighed the damage she must have realised her exposure on social media forums was doing to her – just as Hoffman’s need for drugs was greater than his instinct for self-preservation.

At the end of it all, we’re left to consider one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.
A powerful urge to live keeps some people going even when their lives seem utterly hopeless. Others kill themselves when they seem to have so much to live for.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Isn't it time they got over it?

There was a telling line in a Dominion Post article this week about Victoria University English professor and poet Harry Ricketts. He told reporter Diana Dekker that he had left England for New Zealand in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher was in power. He didn’t want his children growing up there.
It’s funny how this obsession with Thatcher is still fashionable in certain circles 30 years down the track. It’s regularly trotted out by Brits of a certain age as proof of their socialist credentials.

I’m no admirer of Thatcher, but the inconvenient truth is that Britain was on its knees when she came to power after years of weak, ineffectual Labour government. Its economy was moribund, its people were demoralised and its industries were in the grip of thuggish trade unions. Thatcher rescued the country from irrelevancy and gave the British a reason to be confident again.  
Nonetheless, an enduring hate industry – films, books, television dramas, journalism – sprang up, based on the premise that she was a ruthless oppressor of the working class and an agent of greedy, heartless capitalists.

If you ask me, by far the worst consequence of Thatcherism is that it encouraged droves of sad-arsed, disaffected lefties to flee Britain and take refuge in countries like New Zealand. Many ended up in academia, where they were of course welcomed with open arms. And decades later, they’re still bleeding (or bleating - take your pick).  
The Dom Post article included a poem from Ricketts’ latest collection which includes the couplet: “Wellington is a city that’s dying,” says the man with cold snapper eyes – an obvious reference to John Key. We can assume from this that he’s probably no more a fan of Key than he was of Thatcher.

Ricketts of course is entitled to think Thatcherism destroyed Britain – even if it means remaining in denial of all the evidence to the contrary – and that Key is as cold-blooded as a fish. But it’s all so drearily predictable.  The needle has been stuck in the same groove for the past 30 years, just as it is with New Zealand lefties who still rail impotently about Rogernomics.
The encouraging thing is that no one is listening, beyond the narrow, incestuous circle of inner-suburban lefties who attend poetry readings and buy Landfall and Sport. They’re talking to themselves while the world moves on around them.

I think W H Auden had it about right:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper

Easy-going, or just defeated?

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

WE’RE generally an easy-going lot, we New Zealanders. Problem is, I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad.
I recently attempted to catch a Saturday morning train from Masterton to Wellington. It didn’t turn up. The word among the 30 or so people waiting at the station was that the train driver had called in sick.

Eventually a bus came, more than an hour after the train had been scheduled to leave.
There was a cricket test and a music festival on in Wellington that day, so a lot of people were heading into the city. By the time the bus had stopped at all three Masterton stations, passengers were standing in the aisle.

What struck me was the good-natured resignation of my fellow travellers. Doubtless arrangements had been mucked up and inconvenience caused, but it was accepted in good humour.
I didn’t know whether to be proud or exasperated. On the one hand some might think it charming that we’re so laidback. On the other, I couldn’t help thinking there were parallels with godforsaken Third World countries like Haiti or Tanzania, where citizens are so inured to institutional incompetence – for instance, failing to ensure backup for a sick train driver – that they consider it futile to protest.

I experience similar feelings when Air New Zealand flights are delayed, which seems to be most of the time. I often seem to be the only passenger seething with frustration, not just at the inconvenience but the apparent indifference of the airline’s ground staff (who, incidentally, could learn a thing or two about customer relations from the Tranz Metro employee who accompanied our bus to Wellington).
On a much graver level, I marvel at our complacent reaction when politicians and unaccountable bureaucrats launch outrageous assaults on our rights.

In Auckland right now, Len Brown’s council is considering a draft plan that would force thousands of property owners to seek something called a “cultural impact assessment” from local iwi before they can undertake work such as earthworks or vegetation removal.
Private property rights have long been a cornerstone of our legal and economic system, yet here they are being usurped by newly discovered pseudo-rights arising from ill-defined (but politically voguish) notions of cultural sanctity.

It’s easy to see where things might lead if, as proposed, 19 iwi are given power to determine whether property owners can proceed with even modest development proposals. I can imagine koha being paid to clear away obstacles.
But are the people of Auckland marching in their thousands on the Town Hall? No. Probably too busy polishing their BMWs.

* * *
I WONDER whether Judith Collins ever learned the biblical adage that pride comes before a fall.
You can get away with being supremely cocky as long as events are running in your favour, but when you eventually get your comeuppance you’re likely to fall further and land harder.

Ms Collins needlessly made things more painful for herself by trying to brazen her way out of the Oravida controversy, thinking her customary imperiousness would get her through. After all, it’s worked for her in the past.
But that only made it all the more humiliating when she finally had to acknowledge she was wrong. Her fall from grace was all the more pronounced because it was from such a lofty height.

There are some lessons here. The first is that no politician is bulletproof – not even one who revels in the sobriquet of “Crusher”.
The second is that the media will take even more exquisite pleasure than usual in bringing down a politician who is perceived as arrogant and haughty.

It’s not too late for Ms Collins to catch up on her bible studies. She’ll find the relevant verse at Proverbs 16:18.
* * *

SO MORTGAGE holders face a slight upward adjustment in their interest rates. Pass the tissues while I sob in sympathy.
You’d never guess, from all the fuss over the Reserve Bank’s raising of the official cash rate, that mortgage rates will still be low by historical standards. In the 1980s they were running at more than 20 per cent.

And what’s overlooked is that far more people will benefit than will be penalised. That’s because far more New Zealanders are savers than borrowers – by a ratio of five to one, according to the ANZ bank. 
These borrowers have suffered in silence since interest rates crashed when the global economy tanked in 2008. In contrast, people with mortgages have never had it so good.

All that’s happening now is a very modest and long overdue levelling of the playing field in favour of savers and investors.
Why is this positive news so conspicuously ignored? It can only be because most of the journalists reporting on interest rates have mortgages.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Bitten in the bum by the Human Rights Act

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 12.)
SURVEYS consistently show that New Zealand is one of the easiest countries in the world in which to do business. But I wonder if the researchers take into account the difficulties of sacking unsatisfactory employees, and the way the dice appear loaded against companies accused of wrongful dismissal.

Published reports suggest that any employer taken to the Employment Relations Authority by a disaffected ex-employee is on a hiding to nothing. No matter how outrageously the sacked worker has behaved, he or she is usually held to have been wronged because of some perceived procedural failure – often minor – by the employer.

The focus always seems to be on the process rather than the substantive issue that led to the sacking. This leads to some seriously wonky and unfair outcomes.

The ERA is so endlessly inventive in its efforts to identify procedural flaws that employers must now fear that it doesn’t matter how carefully they navigate the minefield laid for them. The authority will come up with some hitherto unidentified requirement that renders the dismissal unjustified, even if it means overlooking the reason for the sacking.

The obvious lesson is that it’s easier for an employer to put up with a lazy, dishonest or unreliable worker than to risk the humiliation of losing an employment case and being landed with an inflated penalty.

The prospect of an employer winning a case before the Human Rights Review Tribunal is equally bleak, judging by the $27,000 penalty recently imposed on meat processing company Affco.

The employee in question wasn’t prepared to work on Saturdays – his Sabbath – because of his religious beliefs, but the tribunal’s decision indicates he didn’t make this known when the company employed him.

Even when given the opportunity to state his religious objections to Saturday work, he didn’t. On the contrary, he said he was willing to work overtime, which the company not unreasonably assumed would include Saturdays.

When the company found out his religion forbade him to work on Saturdays, he was told to go. Had he declared his unavailability on Saturdays, Affco said, he would not have been employed in the first place.

Despite this, the tribunal found that the man was the victim of religious discrimination. Affco was held to be at fault for not explaining that he might be called on to do Saturday work.

Is it reasonable, I wonder, to expect a company with 3000 employees of multiple religions, and operating in an industry where there is intense pressure to process livestock at peak periods, to adapt its roster to suit the religious beliefs of an individual employee? I suspect most people would say no.

The company told the tribunal that, commercially, it was not possible to accommodate someone unable to work on Saturday. Clearly, this cut no ice.

Reading the evidence, it’s clear some disputed details could have been interpreted either in favour of the company or the employee.  The tribunal gives the impression that it was over-eager to opt for the latter.

It forgave the plaintiff for not revealing that he wouldn’t work on Saturday, but it didn’t excuse the company for not making it clear he might be required to (although Affco disputed failing to do that).

The plaintiff was “humble, modest and diffident”. On the other hand, the key witness for the company, the production manager who did the hiring, was “dogmatic”, “inflexible” and possessed of “tunnel vision”.

There was implied criticism of the production manager for not being aware of the company’s obligations under the Human Rights Act. Presumably, then, any manager placed in a hiring and firing position should be required to have a law degree, or at least a working knowledge of the HRA, the Employment Relations Act and all the other miscellaneous statutes that might jump up and bite a company in the bum if a disaffected ex-employee decides to take a personal grievance case.

But the tribunal had that covered. It ordered that to “assist” Affco – note the patronising language – the company must implement a training programme focused on its duties under the Human Rights Act.

Memo to the Human Rights Review Tribunal: this is a meat processing company we’re talking about. Its business is killing livestock and selling meat, thereby creating jobs and prosperity. Ordering it to provide human rights courses because one man’s religious rights were supposedly breached might provide officious tribunals with a thrilling sense of power, but it’s an expensive distraction from what Affco needs to be doing.

Running a large, complex business and keeping people employed, especially during a global economic crisis (this happened in 2010), is demanding enough.

Doing it knowing that your actions may be later be judged by a lofty panel of second-guessers, eager to wag their fingers in your face and hold you to account for not giving due weight to the Human Rights Act, must make it damned near impossible.

Then there’s the separate issue of the penalty imposed: $12,118 for loss of wages and a staggering $15,000 for “humiliation”. For heaven’s sake – the man was employed as a casual and worked there for only a few days. The damages award can only be seen as punitive: an attempt to make an example of Affco for not showing sufficient religious sensitivity.

The plaintiff initially sought $2000 in damages for humiliation. Perhaps he got a whiff of the way things were going at the hearing, because he subsequently revised his claim (humbly and modestly, no doubt) to $15,000, which was granted in full.

Naturally the tribunal was able to cite a vast body of statute law and judicial precedent as support for its finding. That’s part of the problem. People running businesses are governed by a constantly proliferating thicket of employment and human rights law that most of them are unaware of, but which can trip them up at any time.

Obviously we need employment laws to protect workers from exploitative and unscrupulous bosses. It’s a matter of striking a fair and realistic balance between the rights of employees and the right of employers to conduct their business efficiently and profitably – thus providing jobs and keeping the economy ticking over – without being unreasonably obstructed or punished for not measuring up to some arbitrary notion of human rights.

Judging by this tribunal’s decision, we haven’t got the balance right.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Feeling sorry for Australia? Yeah, right

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 7.)
IT MUST BE tough being Australian right now.

Think about it. They’re shutting down the factories that produce the Holden and the Ford Falcon – cars that, for generations, have helped define what it meant to be Australian.

The Holden and the Falcon are Australia on wheels, but the country’s guilty secret was that the two automotive brands were able to survive only with massive taxpayer handouts. Economically speaking, they were crocks.

Australian governments spent an estimated $30 billion over the past 16 years propping up the car industry and the workforce it employed. Now Tony Abbott’s government has decided the subsidies must end – a bold move, given the Holden’s sacred status in Australian culture.

It’s worth pointing out that New Zealand went through this painful process more than two decades ago, when our politicians realised it made more sense for cars to be built in their country of origin.

The phasing out of protection for the domestic vehicle industry is one reason why a new car in New Zealand now costs the equivalent of 30 weeks’ salary rather than 90 weeks’, as was the case in the 1980s.

In this, we were ahead of the Australians – but then we often are, though the average Aussie would sooner undergo multiple limb amputations than admit it.

Arguably even more traumatic for patriotic Australians than the collapse of the car industry is the crisis engulfing Qantas – Australia’s best-known brand internationally, and hence an even more potent nationalist symbol than the Holden.

Last week, on the same day as Air New Zealand celebrated a record half-year profit, Qantas was announcing a $271 million first-half loss and the shedding of 5000 jobs.

This was accompanied by renewed wailing from Qantas about the unfairness of competition. It seems the first instinct of the Australian carrier when it’s in trouble is to run to Mummy government complaining that the playing field isn’t even.

Australians are famous for their swaggering self-confidence, but you have to wonder whether, underneath that tough veneer, they are actually fearful and insecure. Just look at how they fought to keep New Zealand apples out of the Australian market on spurious pretexts, and how they recently stripped New Zealand products from their supermarket shelves.

Perhaps reality is starting to bite for the Lucky Country. The mining boom helped insulate Australians against the global financial crisis and may have convinced them they were invincible – a view to which the typical Ocker is highly susceptible.

Don’t you feel sorry for them? No, I don’t either.

* * *

WATCHING the rebirth of ACT, and in particular the performance of its new leader Jamie Whyte, is like watching a high-wire artist crossing the Niagara Falls.

Mr Whyte is an intelligent man who, unlike the impostor John Banks, believes in ACT’s original credo and promises to take the party back to its ideological roots.

His big problem is that he seems honest. Once journalists latched on to this novelty, they realised there was some sport to be had.

A question about incest, which Mr Whyte answered with the ingenuousness of a political novice, was quickly followed by one about polygamy.  Result: a media furore.

As long as he responds to questions like a philosophy lecturer (his previous calling) rather than a politician, the media will continue trying to trap him into saying outrageous things which can then be used to ridicule him. It doesn’t help that these are philosophical positions that can’t easily be explained in a sound bite.

Whether this will harm him politically is another matter. It’s possible the commentariat was more excited by his statements than the public, which very likely recognised it was Whyte the pointy-headed philosopher speaking.

To get back to the high-wire analogy, Mr Whyte has managed to stay upright so far. But each curly question is like a gust of wind that causes him to teeter precariously before regaining his balance.

Will he make it safely to the other side, or will he topple into the torrent below? Either way, ACT’s true believers may be in for a few more heart-stopping moments.

* * *

NEW ZEALANDERS drink to get drunk, declares the ever-censorious Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. “One of the ways Kiwis drink is we drink to get drunk,” he told the Dominion Post this week. “People plan their whole weekend around it – what’s the next drinking occasion and how much can I drink.”

Really? This doesn’t describe any New Zealander I know. Mr Bell’s description may apply to a small and troublesome minority of binge drinkers, but he didn’t differentiate. According to him, we’re all hopeless inebriates.

As long as the wowser lobby resorts to ridiculous hyperbole in an attempt to whip up hysteria over alcohol, it forfeits the right to be taken seriously.