Saturday, December 2, 2017

A rampant culture of entitlement

(A slightly shorter version of this column was first published in The Dominion Post, December 1.)

A pervasive culture of entitlement and self-indulgence seems to have taken root in some of our public institutions.

At its most egregious, it can be seen in the case of Nigel Murray, the disgraced former Waikato District Health Board CEO who treated himself to $218,000 worth of unauthorised spending on personal travel and expenses.

By comparison, the extravagant restaurant bills totted up by Peter Biggs and Chris Whelan, respectively the chairman and former CEO of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (Wreda), are a mere bagatelle. But it’s only a matter of scale.

Inquiries by this paper under the Official Information Act flushed out the information that Biggs and Whelan had given their Wreda credit cards a thrashing at some of Wellington’s classiest restaurants.

Is this anyone else’s business? Too right it is, because Wreda is largely funded by Wellington ratepayers.

Biggs has since paid back $4673 – this, after Wellington mayor Justin Lester blew the whistle. Biggs’ restaurant bills included $875 for dinner with New Zealand’s London Trade Commissioner and his wife, a $585 dinner with Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery and a $318 dinner with Derek Fry, also from the city council.

No restaurants were named in the Dominion Post report, but I think we can safely assume we’re not talking about Burger King.

The fact that Biggs voluntarily repaid the money suggests that after talking to Lester, he had second thoughts about whether his spending was justified. But before his own taste for fine dining became public, he was unapologetic about Whelan’s expenses (which he had approved), and defended his former CEO’s right to bury his snout in the city’s poshest troughs.

According to Biggs, Whelan’s selfless hard yakka over the fine white linen table cloths at Logan Brown, Zibibbo and Shed 5 produced measurable results. It had helped attract a call centre and Singapore Airlines to Wellington and generated business for Westpac Stadium.

When asked whether Whelan really needed to put 36 Bluff oysters on his credit card at Shed 5 (cost: $216) in order to secure that new business, Biggs rather testily rebuked the reporter for taking a “cynical” view.

The spending could be looked at as a way of showcasing Wellington’s “vibrancy and sophistication, and also building collegiality”, he said. “It depends on whether you know how the real world works.” Hmmm.

Here we get to the heart of the issue. In the “real world” that Biggs inhabits (his background is in advertising), it has become accepted wisdom that lavish lunches and dinners are an indispensable part of doing business.

This suits the participants splendidly. They all fete each other and then justify it by insisting it’s generating business or “building collegiality”.

And because everyone does it and expects it, it becomes self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. No one ever questions whether it’s necessary. Why spoil things?

Biggs gave the additional justification that Whelan’s job involved showcasing the Wellington region’s cuisine and wine. Well, of course. That’s all the excuse anyone needs to slurp some of New Zealand’s most expensive wine. “We’ll try the Martinborough Vineyard pinot noir next, waiter.” There’s $155 gone, right there.

But hang on a minute. Biggs’ explanation that it’s all about promoting Wellington unravels when you consider that an $1100 dinner for 10 at Zibibbo was for the boards of Wreda and its subsidiary agency, Creative HQ. After all, you hardly need to promote Wellington to people whose job is to, er, promote Wellington.

Presumably the dinner in this instance qualified as “building collegiality”. But to most people it just looks like an excuse to have a grand time at someone else’s expense.

In the light of Biggs’ previous comments, you also have to wonder what business he generated for Wellington by dining with Lavery and Fry. I mean, he surely didn’t need to convince them – council executives both – of Wellington’s “vibrancy and sophistication”.

Fry, incidentally, is now the interim chief executive of Wreda after Whelan stepped down earlier this year. In this role, Fry will be expected to curb the excesses of which he has previously himself been a beneficiary. It all looks decidedly clubby.

As for Lavery … well, some of us remember an era when town clerks cycled to work carrying a paper bag containing luncheon-sausage sandwiches and a granny smith apple. Now they’re called chief executives and, in Lavery’s case, pocket more than $400,000 a year. Can’t he afford to buy his own lunch?

Part of the problem is that Wreda is one of those agencies that inhabit the nebulous territory between the public and private sectors. And while Wreda has “rules” on how entertainment money is to be spent, they are loose enough to allow very liberal interpretation – which is exactly what seems to have happened on Biggs’ watch. We’re left with a clear impression of a culture where a sense of entitlement was rampant.  

The traditionally frugal public-sector ethos doesn’t stand a chance when it has to compete with the temptations presented by a corporate credit card. To put it another way, what CEO with pretensions of grandeur is going to choose a sandwich in the office over lunch at Logan Brown? After all, this is the real world we’re talking about.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Freedom of speech, Rachel Stewart-style

New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart is a true champion of free speech. Except, that is, when someone wants to say something she doesn’t like.

In her column this week she savaged an occasional Otago Daily Times columnist named Dave Witherow. Witherow is guilty of the unpardonable sin of being (like me) an ageing, conservative male. In the eyes of the left-leaning bigots who have acquired almost total control of the public conversation in New Zealand, this automatically disqualifies him from having a valid opinion on anything.

What specifically pushed Stewart’s buttons is that Witherow wrote a column criticising Maori Language Week – or as he put it, “media apologists the length and breadth of the land prostrating themselves before the holy altar of te reo”.

He was especially critical of Radio New Zealand. “For the last couple of years,” Witherow wrote, “RNZ has been ahead of the pack in obsequiousness. Everything indigenous is sacrosanct, and even formerly redoubtable interviewers now shrink from the slightest demur when boring bigots drone on about the mana of all things native.”

Witherow used provocative language, as he’s entitled to do, and duly copped a barrage of self-righteous condemnation.

One of the more frenzied responses came from someone named Glenn McConnell, who was described as a Stuff reporter. That word “reporter” used to mean someone who reported, but that was before journalism training was politicised and new entrants to the profession were inculcated with the view that their mission was to correct the world’s iniquities. Many of them struggle to string three coherent words together, but they can spot sexism and racism a mile off and never hesitate to pass judgment. So McConnell had no compunction in labelling Witherow as a racist and accusing him of “casual bigotry”.

Hmmm. I wonder who the real bigots are here, but we’ll come back to that.

McConnell condescendingly allowed that most racists don’t know they’re racist. Ah, but he knows a racist when he sees one. Such are the superior moral insights conferred by modern journalism training.

Meanwhile, on the news website The Spinoff, Madeleine Chapman (no, I hadn’t heard of her, either) indulged in her own casual bigotry. She apologised for having to condemn yet another “bad column” (sigh – it’s just so tiresome having to constantly correct all these knuckle-dragging reactionaries) but justified it by saying she hoped it would be “the last goodbye to a generation of old men standing on their media platforms, yelling at clouds”.

You almost have to admire the conceit underlying that statement. Chapman seems to think the irresistible force of her argument will shock people like Witherow into silence. Good luck with that, as they say.

Another Spinoff contributor, Danyl Mclauchlan, categorised Witherow as representative of a “mostly older, mostly Pakeha subset of the population” whom he said were routinely provoked into outrage by Maori Language Week. Mclauchlan sneeringly referred to “drunken uncles at summer barbecues, bores holding forth in work tea-rooms and columnists and cartoonists on provincial papers”, all perpetuating their own ignorant versions of New Zealand history.  

(If I can slightly digress here, you can’t help but note a striking consistency in both Spinoff pieces. In an era when the Left is vigilant to the point of obsession in condemning stereotypes and prejudice, the one form of discrimination that’s not just tolerated but encouraged is the disparaging of older white males. The epithet “male, pale and stale” now serves as a coded synonym for someone who is misogynistic, racist, homophobic and stubbornly resistant to everything that’s progressive and enlightened. It’s a caricature, used to dismiss the legitimacy of anything that older white men might say or any opinions they might hold. So much for the Left’s supposed embrace of diversity.)

Witherow’s column also attracted the inevitable admonishment from Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, who unfortunately has emulated her immediate predecessor, Joris De Bres, by morphing into a tedious, finger-wagging prig.  But the most poisonous attack, and I use the word deliberately, came from Stewart.

Stewart has the gall to say she believes in free speech – “absolutely” – before going on to say she “struggles with what basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech”. But she can’t have it both ways.

What she really wants is to deny Witherow a right that she claims for herself – that of free speech. She goes a step further by attacking the Otago Daily Times for publishing his column and therefore, in her eyes, being complicit in hate speech.

That’s why I describe her attack as poisonous. In a breathtaking display of moral and intellectual conceit, Stewart wants us to accept that her opinion is legitimate and noble while that of Witherow is hateful and contemptible. But she can’t exercise her own right of free speech while simultaneously seeking to deny it to others. A democratic society is built on the contestability of ideas. The moment any set of ideas is outlawed, democracy is diminished. Enlightened leftists (that is, those who can genuinely lay claim to the honourable term “liberal”) realise that. Stewart either can’t, or doesn’t want to.

In any case, who defines “hate speech”? Stewart doesn’t explain, so I’ll attempt it for her. Hate speech, in the eyes of some on the Left (not everyone, by any means), can essentially be defined as any opinion that runs counter to identity politics. This is the ideology that seeks to polarise society by breaking it down into supposedly oppressed minority groups, all pursuing their own divisive agendas, and which assesses everything in Western civilisation – art, literature, history, politics, the media – in terms of class, race and gender.

Playing the “hate speech” card is one of a range of tactics now routinely employed to marginalise any opinion the Left doesn’t like. Others include dismissing any expression of conservative opinion as a “rant”, thus implying it’s the product of a deranged mind, or caricaturing even moderately right-of-centre opinion as extreme, as New Zealand writer Ben Mack did in a hysterical, pants-wetting Washington Post column describing New Zealand First as a “far right” party and its involvement in the coalition government as “terrifying”. (The headline read: How the far right is poisoning New Zealand. Notwithstanding my own detestation of Winston Peters and his role in the shonky formation of the new government, I didn’t recognise the country portrayed in that headline and I don’t know any New Zealander who would.)

“Denier” and “denialist” (which are used in the context of the climate change debate to imply that global warming sceptics are on a par with Jew-hating Holocaust deniers) are part of this repertoire of attack too, along with the terms “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobe” and “misogynist” – all of which are used to portray the person so labelled as either stupid, evil or both, and thus to shame or intimidate them into silence. The ultimate objective of this strategy is to redefine the boundaries of public discourse so as to exclude anything that doesn’t conform to the neo-Marxist agenda.

But here’s the thing. Stewart’s entitled to fume all she likes about hate speech, just as long as she doesn’t attempt to shut other people down. I’m not in the habit of attacking other columnists and wouldn’t be criticising her here if she hadn’t stepped over that line. (Incidentally, I don’t know of any conservative group that argues people like her should be silenced. It’s always those on the Left who seek to stifle opinions that upset them.)

Now, back to McConnell, the Stuff columnist who accuses Witherow of bigotry. But who are the real bigots in this debate? My Oxford dictionary defines a bigot as an obstinate and intolerant believer in a religion or political theory. If that accusation is going to be hurled at Witherow, then it should be thrown right back at some of those attacking him. People should never make the mistake of equating bigotry with conservatism. Some of the most resolutely closed minds I’ve encountered have belonged to diehard lefties.

Fortunately there are left-leaning commentators who see the danger of the route people like Stewart would take us down. They are prepared to defend Witherow’s right to an opinion, and the ODT’s right to publish it, even if they don’t agree with what he says. On Pundit, for example, Tim Watkin described Witherow’s column as insulting and narrow-minded (fair enough), but drew the line “when criticism becomes an attack on civil debate and free speech”. And in the Herald, veteran writer Gordon McLachlan chided Stewart for thinking her own opinion sacrosanct. She should accept, he wrote, that she was not in command of ultimate truths.

Amen to that, but I suspect Stewart is so wrapped up in her own conceit, and so lacking in critical self-awareness, that reasoned criticism will fly straight over her head.

This debate still has some way to run. It’s likely to be revived tomorrow when Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill interviews Don Brash, who endorsed Witherow’s column and posted a statement on Facebook saying he was “utterly sick” of hearing Te Reo Maori on RNZ. Brash identified Guyon Espiner of Morning Report as the worst offender and accused him of “virtue signalling”. (Good on Espiner for learning Maori, but he does give the impression that he enjoys showing off his fluency. And it’s hard to see the point of the increasingly frequent usage of Maori on Morning Report, unless it’s to make listeners feel that they’re not being good New Zealanders unless they learn it too. RNZ needs to understand that it’s not the function of the state broadcaster to inspire us to good works – we can go to church for that – or sign up to some idealistic vision of biculturalism.)

I can’t decide whether Brash is being foolhardy or courageous entering the lion’s den with Hill, since he has about as much chance of fair treatment as I have of being crowned Miss Universe. In my experience, the only time Hill interviews conservatives, it’s with the intention of trying to demolish them or make them look stupid. But good luck to him.