Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pressing questions: No. 5 in an occasional series

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 27.)
More pressing questions for our troubled times:
Does the simple act of giving a waitress your food order really justify the word “awesome” in response?

If the entire population of Ireland renounced Catholicism en masse, could anyone blame them?
Why do all pop music stations seem to need black 4WD vehicles? Is it because they occasionally have to rescue DJs from remote mountain ranges, or are they rented out to the SIS for surveillance ops?

When will George Gershwin’s estate sue the composers of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report theme for pinching the first notes of I Got Rhythm?
When did it stop being a requirement that stand-up comedians should be funny?

Has narcissism become the defining spirit of Western culture?
Do some drivers think it’s an act of bravado to delay turning their lights on until it’s almost pitch dark?

Why are murderous Islamic terrorists euphemistically referred to as militants, a term once used for bolshie trade unionists?
If there were a Special Olympics event for craven snivelling, would anyone bother competing against Oscar Pistorius?

What are these district howth boards that radio and television journalists keep referring to?
Why are yappy, bad-tempered little dogs suddenly so fashionable?

Why do all the women in Renaissance paintings have legs like rugby forwards?
Does Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges genuinely think he’s the Master of the Universe, or is it just the impression he gives?

Did it dent Bridges’ ego for a millisecond when he had to admit he hadn’t heard of Victoria Forest Park, where he had just approved mining exploration?
Was the answer to that last question “probably not”?

Should it be lawful to let down the tyres of non-disabled people occupying disabled car parks?
Former New Zealand First MP Brendan Horan may not be remembered for anything else, but will he earn a place in political history for being on the receiving end of the most shameful slur ever uttered in Parliament?

Had enough vampire shtick?
Is the TV reality show Border Patrol compulsory viewing for drug smugglers looking for tips on Customs detection techniques so they can figure out how to avoid them?

How is it that journalists were collectively ranked among the least trusted occupations in a recent Readers’ Digest poll, yet individual journalists – John Campbell, Mike McRoberts, Judy Bailey, Simon Dallow – got a big tick? Some confused thinking going on here, perhaps?
Are women looking for a career as classical musicians wasting their time if they don’t happen to be good-looking?

Could much of the current anguish over binge drinking have been avoided if Parliament hadn’t foolishly abolished the offence of being drunk in a public place?
Why use the pretentious and ambiguous phrase “in real time”? What’s wrong with “instantly”?

Does Judith Collins have any idea how ridiculous she looked, carefully insinuating herself into photographs of a couple of Hollywood A-listers in the hope the glamour would rub off?
Has anyone plucked up the courage to tell Collins that pink is not her colour?

How come fans of rugby, golf, tennis and cricket can watch their favourite sport without getting hysterical, but football fans can’t?
Still lying awake at night wondering what you might be missing on Twitter?

Was that a no?
Jane Clifton: a national treasure?

A question to which we suspect there is no rational answer: why do people streak?
Has the word “homage”, when pronounced with the accent on the second syllable and without sounding the “h”, become the new gold standard for pretentiousness?

Can John Key’s popularity in the polls be explained by the fact that, unlike virtually every other prime minister in living memory, he has carefully avoided getting offside with the media?
Considering it costs only a paltry $10,000 to get alongside a cabinet minister, isn’t it downright spiteful of the National Party’s enemies to suggest it’s the party of the rich?

Are health academics the new clergy, earnestly urging us to turn away from wickedness in the form of tobacco, alcohol, sugar and fatty foods?

Has anyone noticed that the traditional term “duck shooters” is being displaced by “duck hunters”, presumably because we’re too sensitive to mention that nasty s-word?
How many hours has Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman spent perfecting that throaty, artfully modulated speaking voice?

When did Oxfam mutate from a bona fide charity into an ideologically driven activist organisation?
How come so many English immigrants end up working in jobs that involve telling other people what to do?

When Kim Dotcom gets around to launching his own clothing range, is it just possible it will be black?



Thursday, June 19, 2014

Piketty: new poster boy for the Left

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 18.)
HANDS UP all those who have read French economist Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
As I thought – not many of you. Perhaps you were put off by the fact that it runs to a dense 685 pages.

I admit I haven’t tackled it either, but I’ve read enough reviews to have a pretty clear idea what the book is all about.
The English translation was published only two months ago but already it has made Piketty the international poster boy for the Left. He contends that unequal distribution of wealth – a current political preoccupation throughout the Western world – is the inevitable result of a system which, over time, concentrates economic power in the hands of a tiny few.

Piketty argues that this is bad for democracy and should be countered by taxing the very rich until their pips squeak.
None of this strikes me as breathtakingly original, but his argument struck a chord in a world still reeling from the global financial crisis and understandably resentful of the corporate greed and dishonesty that caused it.

Such books seem to come along every few years, each one being rapturously acclaimed as exposing the iniquity of capitalism. A few years ago it was The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – a book that was similarly concerned with inequality, and made just as much impact.
The British academics who produced that tome are still dining out on its popularity. Only last month they were in New Zealand for a series of lectures at the University of Auckland, during which they preached to the converted about the corrosive effects of income disparity.

I have no doubt there is some truth in what they say. It seems obvious that a relatively egalitarian society – the type that New Zealand once took pride in being – will feel more cohesive than one in which there’s a yawning gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.
It’s also unarguable that there are far more conspicuously rich people than there were a generation ago. You can see that from the number of expensive cars on the road, the preposterous house prices in Remuera and Oriental Bay, and the even more preposterous salaries paid to corporate executives of often dubious calibre.

As I was writing this, I happened to hear a radio interview with the proprietors of a Hawke’s Bay game farm where the rich go to shoot pheasants. The fee: $2750 per person, per day. It sounded more like the England of Downton Abbey than the New Zealand I grew up in.
The conventional view is that this inequality is the outcome of a rapacious, winner-takes-all economic system. But the crucial point, surely, is how well the majority of people are doing. And my observation is that most New Zealanders enjoy a vastly higher standard of living now than they did, say, 30 years ago. They live in better houses, drive better cars, eat out more often and think little of taking an overseas holiday.

Internationally, too, statistics show that more and more countries are being lifted out of poverty. And though it may be hard for the Left to swallow, the inconvenient truth is that it’s happening as a result of global capitalism.
What’s more, “poverty” in New Zealand is measured in relative terms. It’s defined not by people’s ability to afford the necessities of life, but by how well they are doing compared with the majority. So there will always be people who are considered hard done by, no matter how affluent society as a whole becomes.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be seriously concerned about the minority of people trapped at the bottom of the heap, but it does highlight the fact that a degree of inequality is built in to the way we measure things.
But back to Piketty. His solution to the supposed problem of inequality is as unoriginal as his explanation for the cause.

Imposing huge taxes on the rich will certainly punish them for their wealth, and thus give satisfaction to the many people who believe that anyone who is rich must also be evil.
But is that a sound basis, either morally or economically, for creating a fairer society? Are the people at the bottom of the pile, or even the great number in the middle, helped by the simplistic act of transferring wealth from those at the top, with the attendant risk of suppressing the economic activity that creates prosperity for everyone? 

From what I’ve read of it, Piketty’s book consists of familiar old resentments dressed up in new garb. It’s underpinned by the discredited belief that an omniscient and benevolent state, through taxation and other instruments of control, can produce a society where everyone is better off. 
I’m all for a more equal society, but my fear is that Piketty’s proposed medicine could be far more damaging than the illness.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Has the Radio NZ reshuffle backfired?

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 13.)

I NOTICE someone has started a “Keep Jim Mora in Afternoons” page on Facebook. I wonder if this is the tiny tip of a rather large iceberg.
Mora, of course, was for several years the popular host of Radio New Zealand’s Afternoons programme. In the recent reshuffle that followed the arrival of a new chief executive, Paul Thompson, former Morning Report co-host Simon Mercep took over most of Mora’s show.

Mora still hosts The Panel, the late-afternoon segment in which guests comment on the issues of the day, but it seems that many RNZ listeners are pining over his absence from the rest of the show.
When I last checked, the Facebook page had attracted 288 “likes” – hardly an earthquake, but my own unscientific soundings suggest Mora is widely missed.

While Afternoons had grown tired and needed refreshing, its failings had nothing to do with Mora, who was the consummate host for that style of programme: witty, intelligent, empathetic and well-informed. Mercep, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be making much impact.
This raises wider questions about what makes a good radio host. Mercep did an honest if unexciting job on Morning Report, but a news programme is all about gathering information. It doesn’t depend on the host’s personality.

Afternoons, on the other hand, is very much driven by the charm of the host. And since Mercep took over, the show has lost its spark. I would be surprised if its audience hadn’t shrunk. RadioLive, which has developed a strong roster of hosts, will no doubt welcome deserters.
It’s reasonable to assume that Mercep was moved into the Afternoons slot because RNZ wanted to clear the decks for some fresh blood on Morning Report, its flagship programme. But I suspect the move may have backfired in more ways than one.

RNZ appointed Guyon Espiner and Susie Ferguson to replace Mercep and the sainted Geoff Robinson, presumably with the aim of carrying Morning Report into a new era.
But that created another issue. While Espiner is an excellent print journalist (as he shows in occasional articles for The Listener) and did a good job as political editor for TV One, radio is different.

In radio, the voice is all-important. Especially at breakfast time, it must cut through the household noise of boiling kettles, humming microwaves and running taps.
Ferguson’s voice has that vital “listen to me” quality, but Espiner’s is soft and his diction woolly. As a result, he’s not making the impact his bosses would have been hoping for. I wonder whether they’ve given him any voice training.

On TV, Espiner’s voice wasn’t an issue because it’s a visual medium. But radio is all about sound – a factor possibly not fully appreciated by Thompson (who comes from a background in the print media) when he approved Espiner’s appointment.
Mercep, too, is handicapped by a soft voice. So I wonder whether not one, but two, mistakes have been made: first in appointing Espiner to Morning Report (and assuming that what had worked on TV would also work on radio), and consequentially in moving Mercep to Afternoons.  No doubt RNZ’s audience figures will tell us in due course.

* * *

THE GREENS will have made few friends in politics with their proposal to decriminalise abortion. It’s nearly 40 years since the abortion wars divided the country, but the wounds were deep and most MPs would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.
More to the point, the Greens’ abortion policy represents a dogmatic ideological stance that is at odds with their warm, fuzzy image and supposed concern for the weak and vulnerable.

From a pragmatic perspective as well as a moral one, it makes no sense. Abortion may technically still be a criminal offence (a fact little understood by most people), but when was anyone last prosecuted?
The truth is that any woman wanting an abortion can procure one, as Christchurch abortion consultant Dr Pippa MacKay has pointed out. The law is a sham: we have an abortion-on-request regime in everything but name, which is not what Parliament intended when it changed the abortion laws in 1977.

So what are the Greens trying to prove? Were the 14,745 abortions in 2012 not enough for them?
Green MP Jan Logie got one thing at least partly right when she said abortion was a health issue. It’s a health issue all right – not for women, for whom pregnancy is a natural and healthy state, but for the unborn whose lives are terminated.   

* * *

IT’S HARD TO imagine anything more worthy of being ignored than a hand-wringing statement by bishops and university professors on the wickedness of alcohol.

Presumably the academics and senior church figures who signed a recent plea for tougher measures to reduce New Zealand’s supposed “heavy binge-drinking culture” missed the latest World Health Organisation figures which show that our level of alcohol consumption is moderate by world standards and our rate of “heavy episodic drinking” relatively low.
On the other hand, perhaps they’d rather not let the facts stand in the way of a good old moral panic.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A wake-up call for the political class

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 4.)
Interesting things have been happening in British politics. And while there’s no obvious connection with trends in New Zealand, you don’t have to look too far beneath the surface to see parallels.
In recent elections for the European Parliament, the representative body elected by voters throughout the European Union, 33 percent of the British seats were won by the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip).

Ukip outpolled both the Conservative and Labour parties – the first time a third party has managed this in a British national election since 1910. The result saw Ukip win 24 seats in the European Parliament, up from 13 in the last EU elections. Labour won 20 seats and the Conservatives (the major losers) 14.
The great irony is that the majority of British seats in the European Parliament are now held by a party that is committed to taking Britain out of the EU.

This is a seismic shift in British politics, and it has left the two major parties reeling. In the past they – and the British media – have tended to dismiss Ukip and its leader, former Conservative Nigel Farage, as an extreme right-wing fringe.
Now they must take the newcomer seriously, even though Farage’s party still has only a tenuous foothold in the British parliament, where it holds three seats in the House of Lords.

There is a much bigger story behind this, and it has been unfolding over several years. It is about the growing separation between the political elite and the people they supposedly represent.
Ukip and its unorthodox leader, a populist who's not ashamed of his fondness for a pint at the local, are seen as having tapped into a feeling of disenfranchisement among voters – a sense that democracy has been stolen from them.

The party’s rise has coincided with the emergence of what commentators call the new political class – an elite of professional political operators that has taken control of the major parties and is seen as having lost touch with ordinary people.
Among Tory voters, in particular, there was frustration that the Conservative Party led by David Cameron wasn’t listening to their concerns about the intrusive influence of the EU in British affairs. You can bet it will be listening now.

Ukip has also tapped into mounting public concern about the level of immigration to Britain from Europe under the EU’s “open borders” arrangements. The party has positioned itself as anti-immigration, exploiting public resentment at recent arrivals from Eastern Europe claiming welfare benefits and placing further strains on an already wheezing National Health Service.
Labour as well as the Conservatives has dismissed Ukip’s concerns as racist and fascist, but some commentators are now suggesting Labour will have to revise its stance because it too is vulnerable to a backlash in working-class areas, where migrants are taking jobs and undercutting wages.

So where are the parallels with New Zealand? Oddly enough, they have nothing to do with immigration.
New Zealand is in the midst of an extraordinary demographic change – arguably far more dramatic than the one Britain has experienced. We are now one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the Western world. But although politicians are arguing about the stress immigration is placing on housing and infrastructure, the transformation has otherwise been remarkably painless.

Large-scale immigration always has the potential to create problems, especially where ethnic groups congregate in ghettos and refuse to mingle with wider society. Recent tension between rival factions in an Auckland mosque serves as a warning that the situation in our biggest city, especially, needs to be carefully monitored. Overall, though, we can pat ourselves on the back for absorbing the new arrivals almost seamlessly.
No, the similarities with Britain relate to the relationship between political parties and the voters – because here, as in Britain, we have seen the emergence of a new political class that is increasingly isolated from voters.

The era of big political meetings and street-corner campaigning is long gone. Membership of the major parties has reportedly been in decline since the 1970s. Election campaigns are largely conducted by the party leaders on television. Even senior cabinet ministers are almost invisible.
All this adds up to a public disengagement from politics and a vacuum between electors and elected. This vacuum has to all intents and purposes been filled by the new political class – the consultants, advisers, spin doctors, opinion pollsters, lobbyists, assorted insiders and even news media who live inside the Wellington bubble and only fleetingly make meaningful contact with real people in the outside world. Politics is largely conducted through opinion polls.

British political commentator Peter Oborne wrote about this phenomenon as long ago as 2007 in his book The Triumph of the Political Class, in which he argued that politicians had emerged as a separate interest group. He went even further, claiming that the people at the top level of the major parties had more in common with each other than with ordinary voters.
The same might be said of New Zealand, where Labour and National both occupy essentially the same social-democratic political space.

In Britain, Farage has deftly exploited this feeling of voter alienation. In New Zealand, his closest equivalent is Winston Peters. Now there’s a scary thought.