Monday, April 24, 2017

The mayhem predicted by breathless forecasters never happened

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

An expat friend emailed me from Brisbane last week. He had read about Cyclone Cook hitting New Zealand and wondered whether, after all the scary warnings, it had turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

I had to confirm that his impression was correct. Sure, trees were brought down, some houses were evacuated, farms were flooded and there were road closures, power outages and a few landslides.

The impact on those affected shouldn’t be understated. But there was nothing like the mayhem that breathless weather forecasters (and I mean almost literally breathless, in some instances) had warned us to brace ourselves for.

MetService should be conducting a rigorous self-appraisal this week, because it greatly overplayed its hand. In doing so, it put its credibility at risk. Some of the official predictions came perilously close to scaremongering.

We were told there was a real risk the intensity of the storm would match that of April 1968, when the Wahine foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour with the loss of 51 lives. But the conditions then were dissimilar in one vital respect.

It’s true that in 1968 a tropical cyclone, Giselle, passed down the country, just as happened with Cyclone Cook. The crucial difference was that it collided head-on over Cook Strait with a powerful front heading in the other direction.

It wasn’t Giselle on its own that caused catastrophe, but the violent clash of two opposing weather systems.  Meteorologists must know this, so why create the misleading impression that Cyclone Cook on its own was capable of replicating Wahine conditions? It was wrong and it was irresponsible.

This isn’t to say MetService was wrong to issue warnings. Clearly it would have been negligent not to advise the public to be prepared for an extreme weather event. There would have been hell to pay if Cyclone Cook had arrived without prior notice.

What’s at issue is the sensationalist tone of the warnings. One over-excited forecaster pronounced that it would be a “national event” – no ifs, buts or maybes – and said not many people would be spared.

This wasn’t a media beat-up. These were the exact words of professional meteorologists.

In fact the impact turned out to be largely localised, and not necessarily in the places predicted. Some of the predicted consequences, such as damaging storm surges and coastal inundation, appear not to have eventuated – or if they did, had little impact.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge stayed open and the Cook Strait ferries continued running, contradicting expert predictions.

What’s also troubling is that the meteorologists showed no inclination to moderate their forecasts even when it became apparent that they might have over-egged the pudding. They seemed to be enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

When Cyclone Cook deviated from its expected path, one forecaster pronounced that Auckland had “very luckily” been spared, but that the worst was still to come. Well, we’re still waiting.

The Central Plateau and the Wairarapa were supposed to cop it, but neither region did. I live in the Wairarapa and all that happened was that we got a night of moderately heavy rain from an unusual direction.

Once the cyclone had passed over the country and drifted off to wherever it is that ex-cyclones go, MetService went into damage control mode. By that time it was getting some stick on social media; one joker posted a photo on Facebook showing a plastic chair overturned by the wind on someone’s back lawn as an example of the devastation wreaked.

A MetService spokesman, defending the forecasters, explained that tropical cyclones were “fickle beasts which are hard to pin down”.Fair enough; we can all accept that forecasting is an inexact science. But if cyclones are unpredictable, why so much certainty before the event?

In fact I wonder if the whole business of meteorology and forecasting is becoming a bit overheated, if you’ll excuse the pun. Fears of global warming (real or otherwise), 24-hour weather channels, celebrity weather presenters and constant warnings of extreme climatic events (hardly a week passes without one) all feed into this phenomenon. But violent weather events have always been with us.

What should concern MetService is that its credibility took a hit last week, not so much because of the accuracy of its forecasts but due to the hyped-up, anxiety-inducing tone of its warnings.

It added to a deepening public scepticism toward “experts”. People take note when weather forecasters give them a bum steer, just as they take note when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-proof buildings – designed by experts – have to be abandoned after a moderate shake while decades-old structures are undamaged.


People notice, too, that there’s a striking absence of accountability for the harm done when experts get things wrong. But that’s a subject for another day. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I thought the name rang a bell ...


Well, well. In 2010 I wrote this:

When the schoolyard bully is a principal

Today I saw this:

Kawakawa School principal shared hard-core pornographic images with his staff

As an old friend is in the habit of saying: interesting, eh? And I see Witana's good mate Pat Newman is sticking by him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Free speech on campus: has the wheel turned full circle?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 5.)

Remember the 60s? That was the decade when middle-class baby-boomers rose up in defiance of their elders.

Nothing was sacred. Traditional morality was scorned and conventional political values overturned as the protest generation stormed the barricades of conformity.

Censorship became a hot-button issue as the conservative establishment fought in vain to hold the line against a tsunami of liberalism in films, literature, television and music. 

At the heart of this cultural revolution were students, vigorously pushing back the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in terms of both behaviour and speech.

University campuses served as incubators for much of the social and political liberalism that was to transform New Zealand society. The same was true overseas, where student radicalism flourished from California’s Berkeley to France’s Sorbonne.

How ironic, then, that many universities overseas have become repressive environments where political debate is shut down and anyone daring to challenge ideological orthodoxy is intimidated into silence.

At Cardiff University in 2015, students tried to ban Germaine Greer – a stroppy feminist heroine of an earlier generation – from giving a lecture.

Her crime? She had offended transgender people by suggesting a man couldn’t become a woman simply by having surgery. For expressing this “offensive” opinion, she was branded as transphobic.

Being Germaine Greer, she went ahead with her speech regardless – and infuriated her critics even more by saying “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock”. Police officers and security guards were on hand to ensure her safety.

More recently, Berkeley University – the same Berkeley that was a hotbed of student rebellion in the 1960s – cancelled a planned speech by the provocative gay libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos after thousands of students gathered to protest and black-clad “anti-fascist” activists threatened violence.

Closer to home, three students from the Queensland University of Technology were sued for “racial hatred” after posting online comments objecting to their exclusion from an “indigenous only” computer lab.

One of the students had posted: “QUT stopping segregation with segregation?” Another had asked: “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.” That was as racist as it got.

For this they were sued for $250,000. Fortunately a federal judge put a stop to the nonsense when he ruled there was no case to answer.

The university’s indigenous administrative officer, who brought the court action, linked the students to America’s Ku Klux Klan (now there’s a truly defamatory statement) and said she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been suspended or disciplined.

In Britain, meanwhile, universities have created “safe spaces” where students are protected from hearing opinions that might offend them, and the National Union of Students has a “No Platform” policy which prevents “racist or fascist” organisations from speaking at any student function.

Who defines racist and fascist? The NUS, presumably.

Another recent development in the United States is the advent of “trigger warnings”, where lecturers are required to advise students in advance of any material they might find upsetting. How fragile we’ve become.

As far as I know, we have had no direct parallels with the above cases in New Zealand. But we have come perilously close.

Last month a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association was forced to disband after an outbreak of moral panic over its recruitment stand at Orientation Week. Someone alleged the group’s slogan, “Our honour is our pride and our loyalty”, was similar to that of the Nazi SS.

I have no idea whether the group’s members were white supremacists or whether, as a spokesman said, they merely wanted to promote European culture. If it’s the latter, then they were no different from any number of organisations wishing to celebrate their ethnic or cultural heritage. 

But we never really had a chance to find out, because the association claimed it had to disband following abuse and threats of violence.

If that’s true, you have to wonder who poses the greater threat – a small group of young men with a fondness for Celtic imagery which some people found a bit creepy, or the self-appointed enforcers of cultural correctness who intimidated them into folding their tent and melting away into the night?

What’s going on here? Is this really what the student radicals of the 1960s wanted? Did the bold liberalism of that era take a wrong turning somewhere, eventually spawning a generation frightened of, and hostile to, ideological diversity? 

Or was the 60s revolution a bit of a fraud all along, the real “liberal” agenda being to replace one form of bigotry and conformity with another?

Part of the problem is that an overwhelmingly left-leaning academic establishment (one leading American academic calls it an “intellectual monoculture”) has promoted a type of groupthink that is intolerant of dissent.

The irony, of course, is that today’s speech police are the direct ideological descendants of those 1960s radicals. Only now they are in control, and seeking to impose a type of censorship that’s just as prudish and po-faced as anything from that supposedly oppressive era. 

FOOTNOTE: This was written before, and without prior knowledge of, Professor Paul Moon's open letter, signed by the likes of Bob Jones and Geoffrey Palmer,  expressing concern at intolerance of free speech on university campuses. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Let truth and falsehood grapple

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 31.)

I know what you’re all thinking. Lord, spare us any more comment on the SAS-Afghanistan controversy. But please bear with me here.

Yes, I think there should be an inquiry. But I have to hold my nose as I write that, because I don’t trust Nicky Hager. There are a number of reasons for this.

He insists on calling himself a journalist, but all the journalists I’ve worked with made it their business, before bursting into print with damaging allegations against anyone, to seek a response from the person or persons accused.

This is called balance, and although it has become unfashionable in certain quarters it remains a fundamental principle of fair journalism.

Hager doesn’t bother with balance. He and co-author Jon Stephenson didn’t approach the Defence Force for its side of the story before publishing Hit & Run.

This is consistent with Hager’s previous modus operandi. I don’t think he gave Cameron Slater a chance to respond to the claims made in Dirty Politics either, or Don Brash when he published The Hollow Men.

He likes to get in first with a king hit. It’s much harder for someone to fight back when they’re sprawled on the canvas with the wind temporarily knocked out of them.

Hager would probably argue that the reason he doesn’t approach the subjects of his books is that it would give them an opportunity to obstruct publication, possibly with legal action.

But newspapers take that risk every time they run a potentially damaging story about someone. It doesn’t stop them seeking comment from the people or organisation they’re about to take a whack at.

Certainly there’s a danger that the aggrieved party will seek an injunction against publication, but I believe there are other reasons Hager why doesn’t give his subjects a right of reply.

The first is that his story would be undermined if there turns out to be a compelling counter-narrative. Better not to take the chance.

Another is that by publishing before his subjects have a chance to respond, and getting saturation media coverage (as he routinely does), he establishes a huge psychological advantage. His victims are immediately in the position of having to come from behind.

Is Hager’s tactic of launching his books just in time to make the TV news, thus allowing no time for journalists to seek contradictory comment (and this after tantalising the media with high expectations of a scandal), part of this strategy?

Very likely, although it should be pointed out that early evening is the standard time for book launches. In any case, you could say it’s just clever marketing. Perhaps there’s a bit of shrewd capitalist lurking in the crusading left-wing author.

My other reason for not trusting Hager is that he has an agenda. I’m suspicious of people with agendas, because they tend to frame their narratives to align with those agendas.

To put it another way, there’s a danger that the agenda, rather than the facts, will dictate the narrative, and that any facts that don’t conform to the agenda will be ignored.

In Hager’s case, the agenda can’t be neatly summarised, but it’s there. It can be broadly categorised as an antipathy toward, and distrust of, “the establishment”, capitalism and authority in general.

He seems convinced that those in power are constantly plotting to deceive and mislead the people. That theme runs through all his work. I’m not sure that such a pessimistic mindset leads to reliable conclusions.

So given that I don’t trust Hager, why do I think there should be an inquiry? Well, partly because I don’t much trust the Defence Force either.

I suspect they resent outside scrutiny. This may explain why they seem so bad at dealing with it. The military is an insular institution, not accustomed to having to explain itself to others. And like virtually all bureaucracies, its natural instinct when under attack is self-protection.

Besides, the NZDF has previous form. Several years ago, disgracefully, it tried hard to discredit Hager’s co-author Stephenson – a journalist for whom I have some respect – and ended up paying him a settlement in order to avoid a $500,000 defamation action.

In this latest case the NZDF came suspiciously late to the party with a story that was intended to shoot Hager down in flames, but which succeeded only in muddying the waters and creating more doubt and confusion in the public mind.

The only way to clear this mess up now is with an open and independent inquiry that would clarify matters once and for all. To quote the poet John Milton: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a fair and open encounter?” 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The NZDF's flawed damage-control model

My impression of the Defence establishment, admittedly from the perspective of an outsider who claims no special insight, is that it has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, hierarchical institutions that observe rituals and traditions that can seem mystifying to the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; it’s just a fact.

Both also strike me as being unaccustomed to, and therefore resentful of, outside scrutiny. Their natural instinct, when under criticism, is to close ranks and go into self-protection mode.

That seems to be what’s happened over allegations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Defence Force has put its helmet on, hunkered down in its foxhole and is now waiting in the hope that the shelling will stop. Like the Catholic Church in its response to sexual abuse scandals, it seems ill-equipped to deal with public relations crises.

The government, too, seems to be hoping this will all blow over. Bill English appears to assume that the bland “Nothing to see here, folks” line that so often worked for John Key will be effective here too.  He and other ministers are counting on public respect for the SAS and suspicion of Nicky Hager’s motives to pull the government through unharmed. Besides, it all happened so long ago and far away.

I think they’re wrong. Yes, lots of people don’t want to think badly of our much-admired SAS and would rather not be confronted by the unpleasant possibility that they might have killed innocent people. But as human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott said in a thoughtful and balanced response to questions on Q+A this morning, even good people can make mistakes.

There are two issues here: whether the SAS did what’s alleged, and whether it was then covered up to avoid embarrassment. Both questions are troubling, but the latter arguably more so. Soldiers shooting the wrong people in a war zone, in the (presumably genuine) belief that their lives were threatened, is one thing; drawing a veil over it in the hope that no one would find out is quite another.


I wish we could be confident that the Defence Force would have been scrupulous in wanting to get to the truth of the matter, admit any error and atone for mistakes made, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I think the NZDF has made the mistake of taking the Catholic Church as its damage-control model. It’s surely only a matter of time before English and his ministers will have to accept that the allegations are too serious to be brushed aside. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why celebrity activists piss me off

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 22.) 

I tuned into the BBC World Service in the middle of the night recently, as one does, and found myself listening to an interview with an American woman whose identity, since I came in part-way through, was not evident to me.

She was lamenting the appalling state of the world and the heartlessness of the people who allow it to be that way.

Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned, but he might as well have been, along with all the other people in positions of power who apparently don’t care about the downtrodden and marginalised.

It was a familiar display of verbal hand-wringing. She had that slightly whiny tone sometimes adopted by people who know exactly what’s wrong with the world, if only others could share their insight and compassion.

It should have come as no surprise to learn, when the interview ended, that I’d been listening to Angelina Jolie. And I found myself analysing what it is about Jolie and others of her ilk – such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Emma Thompson, Sean Penn and even my favourite actress, Meryl Streep – that makes my hackles rise when I hear them pontificating about all the injustice in the world.

To be fair, Jolie at least puts her money where her mouth is. You could argue she has earned the right to pontificate through her humanitarian work with refugees and displaced persons.

The others, I’m not sure about. Bono, for instance, seems to do most of his supposed philanthropy with his mouth.

It seems to me that the main reason these people pontificate is that an admiring media provides them with a ready-made platform.

They don’t have to demonstrate any serious commitment to the causes they espouse. (Again, Jolie is an exception here.) It’s enough that they have half-baked opinions on emotive issues such as poverty and refugees.

I regard this as a misuse, if not abuse, of their privileged position. They seem to assume that their celebrity status confers some sort of moral authority on them.

Well, it doesn’t. They have no more moral authority than the bank teller, the bus driver and the supermarket checkout operator.

The only difference is that wealth and, crucially, media adulation gives Hollywood stars – and some rock singers too – the luxury of being able to present themselves as the conscience of the Western world. They are encouraged in this belief by fawning interviewers who never ask hard questions.

But what are they, really? They are performers. Jolie is an actor, and many would say not a particularly good one. And what do actors do? They make immense sums of money by pretending to be other people.

They recite words written by others and are made to look good by skilled directors, cinematographers, film editors and (not least) makeup artists.

They haven’t climbed mountains, performed acts of heroism, made ground-breaking scientific discoveries or written great books. Yet for some reason people genuflect before them in awe. 

Good for Jolie if she spends some of her wealth helping less fortunate people, but that doesn’t endow her with infinite wisdom. It doesn’t mean she knows the answers to the intractable problems dogging the world.

And here’s another thing. Activist celebrities enjoy the luxury of being able to pontificate without ever having to deliver results.

Unlike the politicians they often condemn, they don’t have to make complex policy decisions or choose between agonisingly conflicting priorities. And unlike politicians in a democracy, who must face the voters every few years, they are not accountable to anyone.

They don’t, for example, have to confront redundant workers from Detroit car plants or Pennsylvania steel mills who voted for the despised Trump because they felt robbed of hope and dignity. And they don’t have to face people from previously safe, stable Western European societies that have been ravaged by the multiculturalism that stars like Jolie espouse.

But they have money. They fly around the world in first-class or in private jets, apparently choosing to ignore their rather substantial carbon footprint (although still tut-tutting about climate change).

They stay in five-star luxury lodges and address $1000-a-head charity dinners. How much more agreeable than having to find fair and practicable solutions to real problems or to be held accountable for real results.

Oh, and they can afford to adopt children from Third World countries to demonstrate their kindness and their passion for diversity.

Adoptees from the Third World sometimes look like the latest Hollywood fashion accessory. Why not adopt children from their own country? They’re often just as needy. But it wouldn’t look as exotic, and it wouldn’t score quite so many political points.

Just once, I would like an interviewer to confront celebrity activists such as Jolie with the unarguable fact that capitalism and globalisation, which Jolie apparently blames for many of the world’s ills, have raised more people out of poverty, and eliminated more disease, than any of the fuzzy, ill-defined but fashionably soft-left ideologies promoted by her and others like her.


I’m waiting, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What abortion rights activists really mean when they talk about a "review"

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

Is there any issue more polarising than abortion?

It’s a sensitive subject because we know that tens of thousands of New Zealand women, in fact probably hundreds of thousands, have had abortions.

They will have had them for a variety of reasons – some compelling, others perhaps less so.

We know from Abortion Supervisory Committee reports that some women have had multiple abortions. Of those who had abortions in 2015, 43 had had seven or more, 74 had had six and 193 had had five, which suggests they regarded the procedure as no big deal and presumably no great cause for regret.

But a much greater number of women will have agonised over the decision, and a significant number will have suffered psychological consequences.

Decades of feminist insistence that abortion is simply a matter of women’s rights and women’s health won’t necessarily have made them feel any better about getting rid of the human life taking shape inside them.

Some will have seen the 2015 film Room, starring Brie Larson in an Oscar-winning performance as a woman who has been held captive as a sex slave for seven years.

In that time she has given birth to a boy, fathered by her captor. Mother and son live in total isolation from the outside world, imprisoned in a soundproofed garden shed.

The film’s appeal stems largely from the warmth and empathy between the woman and her smart, inquisitive son, whom she loves with a fierce passion.

It’s a daring film because it challenges the notion that the only option for a woman made pregnant through rape is to have the baby aborted.

Of course the rape victim in Room had no choice. But the film’s clear message is that even a child fathered by a monster and conceived against the mother’s will - in other words, an unwanted child - can be loved and cherished.

In this respect, the film is almost subversive, because it offers a counter-narrative to the one that dominates the abortion debate.

This is an issue so polarised that even the labels applied to the opposing camps are contentious. Abortion rights lobbyists prefer to be called pro-choice rather than pro-abortion, which is understandable.

“Pro-abortion” implies that they think sucking a foetus out of the womb and dumping it in a plastic-lined bin is a good thing, which surely can’t be the case. “Pro-choice” frames the issue much more inoffensively as an issue of women’s rights rather than babies’ deaths.

Conversely, “anti-abortion” suggests a hard, unsympathetic line and may even conjure up images of the fanatics who firebomb abortion clinics. “Pro-life” puts a friendlier, more positive spin on the anti-abortion stance.

We can expect to hear more from these groups after the Abortion Supervisory Committee, in its latest report, recommended a review of the 40-year-old legislation that sets out the circumstances in which abortions may legally be carried out. Like it or not, we’re back in the old minefield.

Abortion rights activists took the report as the cue to mount a fresh campaign for liberalisation of the law, as the committee surely must have known they would.

The activists were quick to pick up the committee’s statement that some of the language in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (CSA) Act is sexist and outdated, as if that somehow renders the entire legislation invalid.

Outdated language can be easily fixed, but highlighting the issue is a clever propaganda tactic because it portrays the Act as a quaint hangover from an era when men supposedly told women what to do.

In truth, the renewed debate is about much more than semantics. Complaints about sexist language are a smokescreen, because merely making the Act gender-neutral wouldn’t achieve the activists’ objective.

When they talk about “reviewing” the legislation, what they really mean is rewriting it to make abortion available on request – their goal since the 1970s.

The committee has obligingly opened the door a crack and the abortion rights lobby has jammed its foot into the gap, as the committee possibly intended.

The abortion rights lobby wants abortion decriminalised – that is to say, no longer treated as an offence under the Crimes Act, which they regard as an anachronism.

To all intents and purposes the provision relating to abortion in the Crimes Act is negated anyway by the CSA Act, which enables the Crimes Act to be legally sidestepped.  

Nonetheless, the fact that abortion remains in the Crimes Act serves a symbolic purpose. It's a reminder that abortion involves extinguishing a life, no matter how hard the pro-choice lobby tries to disguise the fact.


Friday, March 10, 2017

How to alienate your best friends

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 8.)

I find myself in the unfamiliar situation of being in agreement with Winston Peters. The New Zealand First leader thinks the police have lost the plot, and so do I.

Peters has attacked the police for wanting to curtail the right of people to take their own wine and beer to race meetings. He uses his customary blustering rhetoric, describing the police as politically correct wowsers and comparing them with Nazis.

But he’s right when he says government policy should recognise that the vast majority of New Zealanders treat alcohol responsibly – a fact wilfully ignored by zealots in the police hierarchy, the public health sector and the universities, who think we’re all helpless drunks.  

Peters is also undoubtedly correct when he predicts that a prohibition on people taking their own alcohol to race meetings would soon become a blanket ban on alcohol at other community events, and possibly even family picnics.

The latest police proposal surfaced in a briefing paper on ways to reduce “alcohol-related harm” – three words that I suspect the staff at Police Headquarters in Wellington are required to chant for five minutes at the start of every working day to remind them of their primary mission.

The briefing paper identified BYO alcohol at race meetings as a “key issue”. This caused immediate alarm on the West Coast, where the Kumara race meeting, at which people have traditionally been allowed to drink their own alcohol, is a signature event on the social calendar.

West Coast mayor Bruce Smith says that if the police get their way, they will kill off an event that has been attracting West Coast families for 134 years. And you can be sure the Kumara races won’t be the only meeting affected.

I’ve often attended the races at the picturesque Tauherenikau course, in the Wairarapa. It’s an old-style, family-friendly country race meeting that attracts people from Wellington as well from the Wairarapa.

As at Kumara, people are allowed to take their own liquor. Many racegoers arrive early and set up picnic tables under the trees, often in the same spot they’ve occupied for years.  There are no bag searches or other controls.

And you know what? In all the years I’ve been attending the Tauherenikau races, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who was visibly drunk, still less behaving badly.  The police are barely visible.

Yet the police hierarchy claims to have identified race meetings as a “key” cause of alcohol-related harm. This represents the latest step in a long campaign by police to redefine themselves as moral custodians whose primary function is not so much to prevent crime or catch crooks as to protect society from its own foolishness.

There have been innumerable examples in recent years of this Mother Hen approach to policing. In Wellington, police have subjected bar owners to such harassment that the city’s most experienced and respected hospitality operator – a man whose bars and restaurants have an exemplary record – declared last year that bar owners now saw the police as the opposition, not an ally.

Heavy-handed policing was also blamed when the once spectacularly successful Wellington Rugby Sevens fell out of favour with the public. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

It’s significant that Peters has now taken hold of this issue. No politician has a keener nose for public discontent, and his nostrils will be twitching more than ever in an election year when his party stands a good chance of holding the balance of power.

He will have noted that the single-minded, anti-liquor mindset adopted by the police hierarchy is putting officers offside with the community they are paid to serve.

I picked up a sudden, unmistakeable change of mood a couple of summers ago, when – without prompting from me – friends began expressing their irritation about being breath-tested on their way to work, or complaining about the bullying demeanour of police officers at outdoor events where people were harmlessly (and legally) enjoying a drink.

I have also noted a growing public feeling that police priorities are cockeyed and their resources misused. Ninety per cent of burglaries go unsolved and victims of crime frequently complain that calls to the police go unheeded.

A business owner told me last week that even when he provided the police with video footage of organised shoplifters at work, and evidence of their identity, no action was taken. Yet the police always seem to have enough officers for alcohol checkpoints, even in places and at times of day when the likelihood of catching drunk drivers must be minimal.

If I’m hearing this, the politicians must be hearing it too. Likewise, police officers in the community must be aware of mounting dissatisfaction.


What should especially concern the police and government is that the grumbling is coming not from the usual habitual complainers, but from conservative, law-abiding people – the type whose natural inclination is to respect and support the police. It takes a special sort of incompetence – or perhaps I should say dogmatic zeal – to alienate your best friends. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

When the police become mother hens

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

I shudder when I see someone advocating a hate speech law. So should we all.

Police commissioner Mike Bush didn’t go so far as actually advocating a law prohibiting “hate speech”, however that may be defined, but obviously it was on his mind. In fact he’s talked to the Human Rights Commission about it.

I imagine it would have been a meeting of minds. After all, it’s the nature of bureaucracies to want their powers expanded.

Combine this with the pervasive school of thought in modern government which holds that a feckless society needs paternalistic minders to keep it from getting into trouble, and almost any busybody law becomes possible.

If we were to have speech police, could George Orwell’s Thought Police be far behind?

A hate speech law would mark a radical and dangerous extension of existing police powers: from protecting people and property against clearly identifiable threats, such as assault and theft, to making value judgments about whether a citizen has crossed the blurry line between fair comment and something much darker.  

Such a law would be welcomed by activist minority groups which want the state to protect them from any comment they see as hurtful or oppressive. But freedom of speech is far too precious in a democracy to be undermined by subjective judgments from police officers about what constitutes incitement to “hate” as opposed to a robust expression of legitimate opinion.

Happily, on this occasion both Justice Minister Amy Adams and Police Minister Paula Bennett squashed Bush’s idea.  They rightly pointed out that existing laws are perfectly capable of dealing with public statements likely to incite hostility against, for instance, ethnic or religious minorities. Check out Section 61 of the Human Rights Act, for starters.

Anyway, what was Bush doing raising the matter in the first place? Since when was it the role of the Police Commissioner to suggest new laws that would restrict fundamental liberties such as the right of free speech?

The job of the police is to enforce laws passed by Parliament, not to publicly float their own ideas about what might be necessary for society’s wellbeing. We don’t need activist public servants stepping beyond their remit.

Most New Zealanders would probably prefer Bush to devote his energy to reducing the scandalous burglary rate, or ensuring that the police respond promptly to calls from victims of crime rather than fobbing people off - as happens all too often - by saying they’re busy with other things.

But the commissioner’s action is entirely consistent with the role police have increasingly taken upon themselves, which is that of moral custodians. Already we have seen, in recent years, a marked change in the way the police view their duties.

Traditionally their function was to protect people against lawbreakers and to apprehend criminals. But the modern New Age police take a much broader view of their role. They have morphed into mother hens, constantly clucking about all the things we’re doing wrong. They think we need to be protected against ourselves.

This is most conspicuous in matters relating to alcohol consumption. The police have a legitimate interest in minimising the road toll, but their moralistic crusades against drinking resemble nothing so much as the shrill campaigns of late-19th century prohibitionists who were convinced that liquor would be the ruin of us all.

They need to be reminded that alcohol consumption is not only legal, but for centuries has been the lubricant of social intercourse and celebration.

Of course a small minority of people drink to excess and behave badly, which brings me to the woman who was videoed shouting abuse at a group of Muslims in Huntly recently.

Bush seized this as justification for a discussion about the need for hate crime legislation. But Newstalk ZB talkback host Tim Beveridge got to the heart of the matter when he said the real problem in the Huntly incident wasn’t racism or xenophobia; it was drunkenness.

The question, then, is whether an isolated outburst from a pathetic drunk justifies a senior public servant talking about the need for hate speech laws. Most people would probably think we need a far higher threshold than that.

As for Bush, he has some ground to make up. He got off to an unpromising start in his job, being the cop who delivered a glowing eulogy at the funeral of the detective who framed Arthur Allan Thomas, and his public image hasn’t improved with recent publicity suggesting he was evasive about declaring an old drink-driving conviction.

Perhaps he should pull his head in and concentrate on his core functions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Farewell to a friend

(This is a longer version of a column published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 22.)

My friend John Schnellenberg died last week. For more than 13 years, we’d met almost every Friday for lunch.

We were both refugees from Wellington. John and his wife Sonia had moved to Masterton after retiring. My wife and I made the same move several months later.

We hadn’t known the Schnellenbergs in Wellington, although I had worked for the same newspaper company as Sonia, but we connected in Masterton because of a long-standing friendship between John and my sister and brother-in-law.

They had got to know each other through politics. John was by instinct a conservative, which drew him to the National Party. But he was a liberal conservative, as is my brother-in-law, and together they were active in a 1970s National Party faction – co-founded by John – that  did its best to resist the illiberal impulses of the party’s then leader, Robert Muldoon.

I say John had retired by the time we met, but that’s not entirely true. For much of his life he had worked for Shell Oil, but he had also owned a bookshop and an early Apple computer dealership. In retirement, he set up a one-man business consultancy. “I’m in commerce,” he would say when people asked him what he did. It always struck me as a very John thing to say.

I can’t recall how our Friday lunch habit came about. It just sort of happened.

At first we spread our patronage around. The True Blue Café, Food For Thought, Dish, The 10 O’Clock Cookie Company, Taste and The Village Grinder all enjoyed our custom. Each café catered to a subtly different demographic group, so we were exposed to a cross-section of Masterton society.

As a former business owner, I think John felt we owed it to the town to support as many places as possible. But as time went by, we ended up alternating between Café Entice (prosperous farmers, real estate agents, professional types) and Café Strada (a mixed clientele, but with a few tattoos and the occasional workman’s high-vis vest).

In recent years we were joined by another Wellington refugee, the playwright Joe Musaphia. Two Jews and a Gentile.

I was very much the baby in this trio, John and Joe both being in their early 80s. They had known each other in Wellington through the Jewish community. John was descended from the Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Eastern and Central Europe as part of the Jewish diaspora, while Joe was from the Sephardic Jewish line that ended up in Spain and Portugal. Different backgrounds, but united by a rich and proud culture stretching back several millennia.

John was the more religiously observant of the two and would always tut-tut disapprovingly when I sat down with a slice of Cafe Strada’s excellent bacon and egg pie. Lightning would strike me, he would warn. He never tired of his little joke, and I always laughed. It was one of those lines that somehow got funnier the more predictable it became.

John was a gentleman and a charmer. He was a small man whose eyes twinkled behind his glasses – one of the very few people I know of whom that could be truthfully be said – and whose face almost permanently wore a genial, knowing smile. I learned at his funeral that Jews are enjoined to greet others with a pleasant countenance. John obviously took that to heart.

He loved to laugh – his whole body would convulse when I said something he found funny – and he loved to talk. He enjoyed engaging with people to the extent that it could become slightly exasperating.

He couldn’t place his lunch order (invariably something sweet and not terribly nutritious) without making small talk with the woman behind the counter, regardless of how many people were waiting behind him, and our lunches were frequently interrupted by John’s need to converse with whoever happened to be passing our table. Although a relatively recent arrival in town (by Masterton standards, at least), he seemed to know everyone.

He had a Jew’s interest in business and closely monitored the town’s economic prosperity, alternating between despondency and optimism depending on how many businesses were opening or closing down. The amount of traffic on the main street was a recurring issue of vital interest. Behind this, I suspect John was always thinking about what was happening to Masterton property values.

He was never entirely convinced he had made the right move by shifting to a country town, and not just because he was missing out on the boom in Wellington house prices. There was a part of John that remained firmly rooted in European urban culture, even though he had known it only briefly in childhood. He could at times be disdainful of what he perceived as provincial values and attitudes.

He also remained unmistakeably Jewish. His oldest and closest friends were Jewish and he was deeply engaged with the Jewish community. But while his Jewishness was central to his sense of identity, he considered himself first and foremost a New Zealander. 

Nonetheless, he sometimes gave the impression of remaining slightly mystified by New Zealand ways. In this respect he was notably different from our lunch partner Joe, who still spoke with a faint trace of an East London accent but had effortlessly absorbed the New Zealand way of doing things – indeed, made his living writing plays about it.

Having once owned the Mister Pickwick bookshop in Lower Hutt, John made a point of getting to know the proprietors of the Masterton book outlets and would regularly report on how they were doing. He was an avid reader himself, with a vast collection of books, mostly non-fiction.

History and politics fascinated him. He was a great admirer of Winston Churchill and must have read – often several times – everything ever written by or about the British wartime leader.

He acknowledged Churchill’s flaws, but I think what ultimately counted to John was that Churchill, almost alone at first, had stood up to Hitler. John had spent his early years in Germany but escaped to New Zealand with his parents before the Holocaust with the assistance of a British diplomat who knew his father. John’s grandparents were not so fortunate, dying in a concentration camp.

Living as part of a tiny Jewish community in overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Wellington can’t have been easy. New Zealand in those days was suspicious of outsiders – more so than ever during the war years, when someone with the name Schnellenberg was likely to be viewed as an enemy alien. The irony that he was Jewish, and therefore had far more to fear from the Nazis than anyone, would have been largely lost on insular New Zealanders.

That was the reason Hans Wolf Schnellenberg – his given name – became simply John, at the suggestion of a sympathetic schoolteacher. Even his death notice referred to him as John W Schnellenberg.

Paradoxically, John was an admirer of German efficiency and technological excellence. For a long time he drove an ageing Mercedes-Benz – replaced not long ago by a newer, sportier model – and would regale me every Friday with accounts of how it was performing. (Or not. It was what you might call a love-hate relationship.)

I’ve been trying to recall what else we talked about. Politics, certainly. Books, films, television and the media too. What I do know is that our conversation rarely flagged.

We didn’t always agree, and sometimes there was a degree of heat in the conversation. For all his geniality, John had firm views that didn’t always coincide with mine. He used to needle me about the failings of the news media, but gave up a few years ago when he realised I’d decided the news media were no longer worth defending. It was no fun for him anymore.

He was an admirer of George W Bush, and I wasn’t (neither was Joe). He predicted that Donald Trump would become president, and irritated Joe and me by reminding us of it.

I think his political views were shaped, at least to some extent, by his perception of where politicians were likely to stand on the issue of Israel and the Middle East, which is hardly surprising.

And now John’s gone. What am I going to do on Fridays? I dunno. Perhaps Joe and I will go on meeting. He’s an entertaining raconteur who has led a full and very interesting life. But our lunches won’t be the same.



Saturday, February 18, 2017

A compressed introduction to New Zealand

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

We played host to our son’s Californian in-laws for a few days last week. They’re well-travelled, but it was their first time in New Zealand.

We did the predictable things. We took them to the top of Mt Victoria and drove them around the Miramar Peninsula. Oriental Bay reminded them of fashionable Sausalito, on the northern side of San Francisco Bay.

We rode on the cable car and meandered down through the Botanic Gardens before catching a bus back to Lambton Quay.

We had dinner at the Backbencher Pub and explained what the politicians’ effigies on the walls were all about. The next night we enjoyed a drink in the evening sun on Queens Wharf before eating at a restaurant called Apache, which describes itself as a combination of Vietnamese and French but seemed more Pho Bo than boeuf bourguignon.

Our guests saw Wellington at its best. The sun was out – most of the time, anyway – and the city was buzzing.

Everywhere we went, cafes and bars were bulging. The Americans must have wondered when Wellingtonians get any work done.

Once we’d done Wellington, we headed across the Remutaka Pass to the Wairarapa. We drove past Wharekauhau Country Estate, incongruous in its wild, remote location overlooking Cook Strait, and wondered what its wealthy guests actually do when they get there.

We took them to the Lake Ferry pub for lunch and had fish and chips outside in the sunshine. Normally we would have carried on to the rugged little fishing settlement of Ngawi, where bulldozers haul trawlers up on to the steep, stony beach, and on to the lonely Cape Palliser lighthouse, but we sensed our visitors were at risk of scenery fatigue.

They marvelled at the number of sheep in the Wairarapa countryside. I had to tell them there were far fewer now than in the days of incentivised sheep breeding when the Muldoon government paid farmers a subsidy for every woolly head.

Up to this point, New Zealand had been on its best behaviour. I’d warned our guests about the unpredictability of our climate – something Californians have difficulty getting their heads around – but the mild weather seemed determined to make a liar of me.

That all changed on Sunday, when Wellington unleashed a ferocious northwesterly gale. We took our visitors to the Island Bay Festival, where they seemed totally unfazed as hats blew off and unsecured outdoor furniture skidded along the street.

Needless to say, the hardy Island Bay locals took it in their stride. Many were dressed as if for high summer.

Here our guests were introduced to another facet of New Zealand culture – the Two Degrees of Separation thing.

Unbeknown to us, the festival coincided with the official opening of the new Island Bay seawall – the last one having been destroyed by a storm – and the annual blessing of the local fishing fleet.

The master of ceremonies was Paul Elenio, a stalwart of Island Bay’s Italian community, and the blessing of both the wall and the fishing boats was conducted by Cardinal John Dew.

I had long-standing links with them both: Elenio from our years working together at the old Evening Post and Dew from convent school days in Waipukurau.

I explained to the Americans that ours is an intimate society. Anywhere you go in New Zealand, you’re likely to bump into someone you know. It must be the world’s most hazardous country in which to conduct an illicit affair.

We saw the Americans off on Monday morning. They seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as well as learning a few things about the country that gave them a son-in-law.

They asked lots of questions: about what brought Europeans to New Zealand, about Maori and their relationship with Pakeha (no simple answers there), about the things we have in common with Australia (not as many as they might think, I said).   

I felt satisfied that we had given them a compressed introduction to our country. They saw its sophisticated, cosmopolitan side but also got a glimpse of an older, rural New Zealand.

We have evolved into a society that feels comfortable and familiar to a visitor from a place like California. But vitally, we’ve also retained some distinctive qualities that mark us as different.  

Yes, we have our problems. But as our American friends head back to a troubled and divided country led by an incoherent egomaniac, I know where I’d rather be. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

A puzzling departure from normal practice

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 8.)

Is there any more intractable issue in international affairs than that of Israel and Palestine? Offhand, I can’t think of any.

It’s tricky for a whole lot of reasons. One is that the competing claims of the two sides, Israel and the Palestinians, both have weight.

The Jews, having suffered centuries in exile, mostly in countries where they experienced relentless discrimination and persecution, have a right to a homeland where they can feel safe and secure. But the Palestinians feel aggrieved because to provide that Jewish homeland, they were displaced from land that they regarded as theirs.

Another complicating factor is that both sides are capable of behaving badly – sometimes very badly.

Palestine shelters terrorist groups that are dedicated to the destruction of Israel (the Middle East’s only democracy, and one where Arabs enjoy rights of citizenship that would never be granted to Jews in Arab states, even assuming any Jew would be crazy enough to want to live in one).

These fanatics think nothing of killing innocent civilians. In their eyes no Jew can be innocent. The very fact of being Jewish is a crime that warrants their extermination.

Groups such as Hamas are indifferent even to the suffering of their own people, cynically exploiting children and other civilians as human shields.

Using schools, hospitals and even mosques as sites from which to launch rockets at Israeli territory is a grotesque win-win strategy from their point of view. They know the Israelis will hesitate to strike back for fear of killing civilians – and if they do retaliate, that’s fine with the terrorists too, since the resulting damage will be televised by gullible Western media as evidence of Israeli savagery. 

When it suits them, the Palestinians make noises about negotiating a settlement. But whenever a deal looks within reach, they pull back or impose new conditions that they know will be intolerable to the Jews. It was said of the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

For their part, the Israelis don’t always make it easy to support the Jewish cause.

They have occasionally been guilty of gratuitously brutal reprisals. The 1982 Shatila and Sabra massacres, when Israeli forces turned a blind eye to the slaughter of civilians in Lebanese refugee camps thought to harbour terrorists, remains a terrible stain on the country’s reputation. The man held responsible for the killings, Ariel Sharon, later became Israeli prime minister.

Aggressive territorial expansion by Jewish hardliners is another factor that troubles people who might otherwise support the Israeli cause. The widely held religious conviction that the Jews are God’s Chosen People is no help either. It encourages Jewish zealots to believe they have divine endorsement in whatever they do.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not a likeable man. He gives the impression of being arrogant and belligerent.

But Netanyahu is strong, like Sharon, and the Israelis have a history of supporting leaders who uncompromisingly defend their country’s right to exist. You can hardly blame them, when their tiny country – less than half the size of Canterbury – is surrounded by 22 hostile Arab states, many of which would cheerfully see Israel obliterated.

This is the backdrop against which New Zealand strangely co-sponsored a recent United Nations resolution condemning as illegal Israeli settlements in territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War (a war started, and quickly lost, by the Arabs).

I say “strangely” because the Israel-Palestine question is one on which New Zealand has previously taken a prudently cautious approach.  This is in line with our international reputation as an honest broker that seeks honourable and sustainable solutions to problems rather than taking sides or adopting provocative stances.

Our support for the UN resolution was a dramatic departure from this practice. It came as a bombshell just two days before Christmas. You have to wonder: what’s changed?

The picture is made more opaque by the involvement of our slippery Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, a man who could make a stroll to the corner dairy for a bottle of milk look suspicious.

McCully claimed New Zealand’s support for the resolution was all about promoting the so-called two-state solution, under which Israel and Palestine would peacefully co-exist. But the unavoidable suspicion is that we were doing a favour for the White House.

Barack Obama had a notoriously testy relationship with Netanyahu and may have wanted to score a last diplomatic blow against him before his term expired. To have moved directly against Israel, however, would have risked a damaging domestic political backlash within the US.

Was New Zealand, then, leaned on to do Obama’s dirty work, with the US playing its part by refusing to exercise its usual veto against the resolution? In the absence of any convincing alternative explanation, it seems plausible.

Even if we accept McCully’s assurance that our intentions were honourable, why should New Zealand so suddenly take an active and provocative stance on such a volatile issue? After all, it’s not as if there’s any shortage of countries willing to pillory and marginalise Israel.

The backing of a respected, neutral democracy like New Zealand gave the resolution a force that it would not otherwise have had. The Jew-haters will have taken great heart from our support and could well use it to justify further acts of terrorism.

Is this what New Zealanders want? I doubt it. It’s a nightmarishly complicated issue and we’re probably better off trying to work constructively from the sidelines. But if we’re forced to take sides, I know which one I’d opt for.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Donald Trump and the decline of objective journalism

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

One consequence of the Trump presidency is that it has accelerated the decline of detached, objective journalism.

Most people outside America, me included, despise Donald Trump. This has apparently made it permissible for the media to abandon all pretence of neutrality and to treat him as fair game for contempt, disgust and ridicule.

An example was an article on Monday by Paul McGeough, the chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. The SMH is a paper that could once be relied on for balanced reportage, but McGeough’s report on Trump’s decree banning immigration from seven Muslim countries was drenched with emotive rhetoric and hyperbole.

It began with the words: “This is the face of selective, lily-livered hate.” It went on: “Donald Trump holds it in his heart, but he manufactures it too, masking state-sanctioned religious persecution as a national security endeavour – all to stoke the ‘us and them’ hysteria that drove his election campaign”.

McGeough’s article continued in similar vein, telling us that Trump had severed the torch-bearing arm from the Statue of Liberty and plunged America into darkness. (I presume he meant in a metaphorical sense.)

You didn’t need to read far to realise that this wasn’t a classically restrained piece of reportage. But mixing comment with fact, to the point where the two become almost indistinguishable, is already routine in media coverage of the Trump presidency.

When a man is as widely loathed as Trump, journalists feel safe putting the boot in. But these may be the very times when we most need sober, cool-headed journalism that reports the facts without further inflaming already overheated passions. There’s enough hysteria around already without over-excited journalists heaping petrol on the fire.

In any case, much of the rage about Trump overlooks a couple of important points.

The first is that he was fairly elected according to the rules of the US Constitution. We might view those rules as flawed, since Electoral College votes can outweigh the result of the popular ballot, but they were deliberately designed that way to protect smaller states from being disempowered by more populous ones.

Protest banners shrieking "Dump Trump", just because the presidential election delivered a result some people didn't like, are not only spectacularly pointless after the event, but indicate contempt for democracy.

The other point is that nations are entitled to protect their borders against possible external threats – in this case, a very real one. People might dislike the brutal, pig-headed manner in which Trump has gone about this, but the principle is unarguable.

Now, back to that McGeough piece. There has always been a place in good newspapers for robust, provocative editorials and opinion columns, but traditionally they were kept separate from news. That’s no longer necessarily the case.

Editorial bias has so pervasively invaded the news columns of once-esteemed papers like the SMH, its sister paper the Melbourne Age, Britain’s Guardian and even the redoubtable Washington Post, that they can no longer be regarded as reliable papers of record. Much of their reportage is coloured by the journalist’s personal perception of events or by the paper’s editorial stance. 

But the mixing of news and comment isn’t a phenomenon that suddenly materialised with Trump’s emergence. It’s a trend that has been gathering momentum for years.

Its origins lie in journalism schools, where ideologically motivated tutors tell students that objectivity – the professional obligation to remain impartial and tell both sides of the story – is a myth promulgated to protect the wealthy and powerful.

Many of the journalists now working in newsrooms here and overseas have been taught that their mission is not so much to report events as to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – often using exactly those words.

This is activism, not journalism. Journalism can and often does produce outcomes that afflict the comfortable, but that is not its primary purpose, which is to inform people on matters that may be of interest to them.

But there’s another factor, besides the politicisation of journalism training, that has led to the increasingly opinionated tone of news coverage. The internet, by giving people instant access to an almost infinite range of news and opinion outlets worldwide, has imperilled the traditional “broad church” newspaper – the one where you could expect to see a wide range of views expressed.

News and information junkies now gravitate to the websites that most closely reflect their own world view. News outlets on both the Right and the Left have responded by taking on a tribal character, promoting opinions that parallel the views of their followers.

After all, it’s easier to have your prejudices confirmed than to be challenged by unpalatable new ideas. Not so good for democracy, though.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The flip side of Air New Zealand

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 20.)

There’s something slightly creepy about Air New Zealand.

Our national carrier plays very successfully on its image as an airline that does things a bit differently from others. It’s the plucky little airline that could.

We’re supposed to see Air New Zealand as quirky – a bit “out there”. Its “brand” is encapsulated in those famous safety videos, which are cited as evidence of Air New Zealand’s sense of fun, and in its habit of changing its livery to cash in on whatever’s trending, whether it’s the Rugby World Cup or The Lord of the Rings.

Myself, I can’t stand those smug, gimmicky videos, but we’re expected to love them. It’s almost a requirement of citizenship. Air New Zealand has so carefully aligned itself with Brand New Zealand that it’s unpatriotic not to think it’s the coolest little airline on the planet.

But the flip side of the airline’s corporate persona is that it can be bossy, authoritarian and a bit anal. It’s the schizoid, bad-tempered clown that can turn nasty if you don’t laugh at its jokes.

Property investor Sir Bob Jones and broadcaster Gary McCormick have both fallen foul of the airline for not complying with what Jones trenchantly calls its infantile nanny-statism. Both were banished to the naughty corner.

Jones ended up buying his own plane. McCormick has been banned for two years, an extraordinary act of arrogant corporate bullying that he intends to challenge.

I banned myself from flying Air New Zealand if I could possibly avoid it after an experience several years ago when I was booked on an afternoon flight to Sydney. I had to catch a bus to Canberra and made sure I had hours to spare, because experience had taught me to expect delays.

So it turned out. As the afternoon wore on, I sat through countless announcements of delayed departure times. I can’t recall precisely what reason was given: “servicing requirements” or “engineering requirements” or one of those familiar bland excuses that airlines use to cover up their slackness. 

At one stage we were grudgingly given vouchers for the airport café, the value of which seemed to have been fixed so as to ensure we couldn’t actually buy anything edible.  Otherwise the airline’s ground staff were characteristically missing in action.

In the event, our flight arrived in Sydney several hours late. I missed the last bus by minutes and had to make hurried arrangements to spend the night in Sydney, at considerable inconvenience both to me and the people who were expecting me in Canberra.

But what lingers in my mind was what happened when it became obvious, halfway across the Tasman, that I was at risk of missing my connection.

I approached three flight attendants who were idly chatting at the front of the cabin. I wanted to ask if they happened to know where the bus pickup point was at Sydney Airport – a piece of information that might save me vital minutes – or, failing that, whether they could suggest any other way of getting to Canberra at that late hour.

As they saw me approach, their conversation ceased and their demeanour changed. They looked at me with a mixture of alarm and suspicion. A passenger, doubtless wanting something ... a problem, in other words.

When the most senior of the attendants opened her mouth to speak to me, it wasn’t to ask how she could help. It was to reprimand me, in headmistressy tones, for stepping across a line on the floor of the cabin beyond which passengers weren’t permitted. It seems I could have been a hijacker trying to get into the cockpit.

She had all the charm of an SS concentration camp guard. Needless to say I hadn’t noticed the line on the floor (who would?) and had no idea I had suddenly become a security risk. No matter. Rules are rules, and I had to be put in my place.

It was one of those moments when you’re so taken aback that you don’t think of an appropriately witty response until much later. (The French have a term for this: l’esprit d’escalier.) But I proceeded to seek the flight attendants’ advice anyway.

They not only couldn’t help me, but showed no interest in doing so. In fact they reacted as if it was downright impertinent of me to interrupt their chatter, although it was their airline that had caused my predicament.

Such things stick in your mind for years.  It became my defining Air New Zealand moment, even superseding the memorable time my luggage – and that of most other passengers – was removed from an Air New Zealand flight to Tonga without our knowledge because the plane was overweight. The pilot casually informed us of this only when we were halfway to our destination.

Everyone has their negative airline stories, but almost all of mine involve Air New Zealand.  It's an airline that does a lot of things well, but it often appears unwilling to accept responsibility for the inconvenience it creates for passengers when it fouls things up.

That’s how McCormick fell out with the airline. He had been stuffed around by flight delays and decided that the least Air New Zealand could do was allow him a glass of wine in the Koru Club as a quid pro quo, even though he wasn’t a member. 

I understand his exasperation, but that's not the way things work with Air New Zealand. It determines the rules, and unfortunately they don't include anything about getting passengers to their destinations on time or recompensing them if it fails to do so.

In Jones’ case, the circumstances were different.  His argument with the airline arose from a flight attendant’s by-the-rulebook insistence that he read the instructions for passengers travelling in the emergency row, though he says he’d flown in the same seat countless times before.

Reading Jones’ description of the hatchet-faced flight attendant who marched off to report him to the captain, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was the same woman I’d encountered on my flight to Sydney. Certainly it sounded as if she had the same schoolmarm-ish demeanour.

Now here’s the thing. People will say that aviation safety requires that instructions be obeyed. But Air New Zealand’s preoccupation with enforcing the rules, and punishing rebellious souls like McCormick and Jones, would be more tolerable if it were matched by concern for passengers whose travel is disrupted by the airline’s own failings. But it isn’t.

The airline insists on passengers complying with instructions, but often fails to fulfil its reciprocal obligations toward them. You're at their mercy.

It’s a lop-sided relationship in which one party expects passengers to meekly do as they’re told, but doesn’t always keep its side of the bargain – and incurs no penalty for failing to do so. There’s no naughty corner for unaccountable, anonymous airline employees when planes run late or are cancelled.

I know of other regular fliers who avoid Air New Zealand if they possibly can, although it’s not easy in a country where one airline enjoys such overwhelming dominance. If Jones and McCormick want to form a club, I’m sure there’d be plenty of starters.