Friday, March 22, 2019

So now we know: we're a nation of racists and Islamophobes


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., March 21.)

You may have thought, as I did, that the Christchurch shootings were the act of a lone-wolf fanatic.
You may have thought, as I did, that no one saw it coming,

You may have thought, as I did, that New Zealand reacted with a genuine and overwhelming outpouring of shock, grief and anguish.
You may have thought that thousands showed their solidarity with Christchurch Muslims by attending public vigils, spontaneously setting up tribute sites and donating millions to a Givealittle appeal.

You may have thought that the Christchurch Muslim community, which could have been forgiven for withdrawing into itself, responded to the calamity with a remarkable spirit of openness, inclusivity and forgiveness.
You may have thought that our own shock was mirrored by that of the outside world, which was aghast that such terrible things could happen in a country viewed internationally as peaceful, tolerant and respectful toward minority groups.

Well, it seems we all got it wrong. Because in the days following the shootings, an alternative narrative emerged.
According to this alternative narrative, we are a hateful nation of racists, white supremacists and Islamophobes.

Not only that, but the massacre was no surprise. A sudden outburst of violent race hatred was bound to happen. Rather like the cataclysmic earthquake we are constantly warned to be prepared for, it was not a question of if, but when.
It was, we were told, the inevitable outcome of a society which condones hate speech.

The former narrative, the one most of us never thought to challenge, was the dominant one in the mainstream media, but the alternative version – let’s call it the “We told you so” version - gained a lot of traction on the online comment platforms favoured by the commentariat.
It’s a narrative of self-loathing that wants us to think the worst of ourselves. It’s a narrative that shamelessly seeks to politicise the killings and create a moral panic in the hope not only that we’ll tighten the gun ownership laws – no arguments there – but far more ominously, that we might be persuaded to discard such democratic niceties as freedom of speech.

We were told, for example, that Islamophobia is “deeply embedded in our society”. That comment came from former Green MP and lifelong sanctimonious far-Left finger-wagger Keith Locke, who quoted former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy as saying that every Muslim woman she knew had faced racist abuse.
We were told that Muslims in New Zealand wouldn’t be safe until we had tough new laws governing “hate speech”, however that might be defined. We were urged to dispense with old-fashioned democratic notions of free speech and balanced debates.

According to this argument, some views are so self-obviously correct that no one should be allowed to challenge them and others are so self-obviously contemptible that they must be prohibited.  It worries me deeply that I frequently hear this line even from journalists, who should be the first to defend the barricades when freedom of speech is at risk.
We were told too that the Islamic Women’s Council had been trying for years to alert the government to the existence of extreme racists and Islamophobes in New Zealand.

But I found it hard to reconcile that statement with the interview I heard on the BBC with a Muslim woman from Christchurch who said she and her family came to New Zealand because it was safe. She told BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes she had never felt threatened here.
This leaves me wondering exactly who the Islamic Women’s Council represents and what its agenda might be. None of the Muslims I saw and heard being interviewed in the painful days following the shootings expressed even a faint hint of recrimination. None blamed their adopted country or mentioned Islamophobia.

On the contrary, they gave the impression of cherishing their lives here and seemed as perplexed as the rest of us by the violence – which, we need to keep reminding ourselves, was perpetrated by a non-New Zealander.
Obviously, people like Keith Locke weren’t listening. Or perhaps they ignore anything that doesn’t align with their preferred narrative of a divided, oppressive society.

Yes, it’s deplorable that Muslim women are sometimes abused. But who should we allow to serve as the model that dictates the agenda: a few misanthropic cranks who haven’t yet got their heads around the new multicultural New Zealand, or the countless thousands of New Zealanders who attended vigils, donated money or quietly grieved at home for fellow citizens who happen to be Muslim?
Call me a Pollyanna, but the latter group says a lot more to me about the sort of society New Zealand is than isolated instances of abuse in shopping malls.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

Long Bay: a reminder of what we value about living in New Zealand


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz., March 20.)
I’m writing this column in a camping ground at Long Bay, on the Coromandel Peninsula.
It’s Sunday morning. From where our caravan is parked I could almost spit into the sea, if I were of a mind to.

There are bush-covered headlands to the north and south of the bay and pohutukawa trees line the shore. Last night I heard the quintessential New Zealand nocturnal sound of a ruru (morepork) calling.
At the moment the tide is out and I can see kids fossicking on the rocks. The floating platform that people were diving from when we arrived here yesterday is virtually high and dry.

Earlier this morning I watched a family harvesting cockles. The sea is flat calm, the air is warm and there’s a gentle breeze blowing.
Beyond the bay I can see a string of pretty islands: Motukopake, Motuoruhi and other, smaller ones whose names I don’t know. Somewhere in the distance, hidden in the haze on the other side of the Hauraki Gulf, is Auckland.

Unlike some of the camping grounds my wife and I have stayed in over the past few days, this one is unmistakeably Kiwi. It’s not flash but it’s friendly and it has all the essentials.
Most of our fellow campers are tradies who have done well and bought caravans and boats. Dogs are permitted in the camping ground and behave themselves impeccably, with the exception of the camping ground owner’s one-eyed border collie, which runs in front of the camp’s maintenance ute barking furiously and trying to bite the tyres.

The maintenance man tells me the dog does this only with the camp’s own vehicles, never the guests’, so I suppose it’s okay.
Anyway, all this is by way of a long-winded pre-amble. Get to the point, I hear you say.

Well, I was in the camp kitchen this morning washing the breakfast dishes, and through an opening in the wall I could see the TV set in the adjoining lounge. The TV was on and although I couldn’t hear what was being said, I could see that the scenes were from Christchurch.
Because we’d been on the road for several days, it was the first TV coverage I had seen of the massacre and its aftermath. I assumed it was one of the local channels recapping last week’s events, but then I saw the Al Jazeera logo at the bottom of the screen.

I saw armed police in the streets of Christchurch. I saw Jacinda Ardern speaking with her familiar signer for the deaf at her side. I saw floral tributes to the dead piled high under a banner that said, among other things, “Kia Kaha” – stay strong.
Overseas viewers must have wondered what it meant. We know, of course, and on seeing those words on the screen I felt a sudden surge of emotion. It was a forceful reminder that this terrible thing had happened right here.

I was reminded of something my wife said on the night of the shootings as we sat in our caravan listening to radio news coverage. “This is something that happens somewhere else,” she said.
Well, New Zealand has become that somewhere else. It’s no longer possible to delude ourselves that we are somehow magically insulated against the evil we see reported nightly on the TV news from other places.

For 48 hours, we were the centre of world attention, and not in a good way. On the night following the massacre I streamed Newshour from the BBC World Service. It was almost entirely taken up by Christchurch.
Now call me perverse if you like, but I felt proud listening to the BBC’s coverage. Proud at the actions of my fellow New Zealanders who saw what was happening on Deans Avenue and stopped to help the victims, regardless of threats to their own safety. Proud at the many New Zealanders interviewed by the BBC who insisted they wouldn’t allow this catastrophe to change the way we are. And proud, too, that so many commentators overseas shared our own astonishment that this could happen in New Zealand, of all places – a country universally acknowledged as tolerant, open and respectful of human rights.

It’s not the terrible event that defines us, but how we respond.
And as I look out over Long Bay, where the tide is starting to come in and the boaties are backing their trailers down the launching ramp and the demented one-eyed border collie has just tried to round up a flock of seagulls, I’m reminded again of what we value about living in New Zealand and why so many people from troubled countries want to come here. It takes a lot more than a single terrible event to change that.






Friday, March 8, 2019

2018: the year of white noise


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., March 7.)

It’s said that when someone once asked the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied that it was too soon to say.

This was in the 1970s, nearly 200 years after the event.

The message from this is that historical patterns emerge slowly and it’s unwise to draw conclusions too soon. Nonetheless I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that 2018 will be recorded as the year when New Zealand was irrevocably drawn into the so-called culture wars – the global contest between neo-Marxists, who view Western civilisation as rotten and oppressive, and the upholders of traditional mainstream values and beliefs.  

Consider the following:

It was the year when we had to acquire a new vocabulary to encompass previously unimagined variations of sexuality and gender identity. (I’ve learned that I’m “cisgender”, which means I identify with the gender “assigned” to me at birth, presumably on the flimsy basis that I had male organs.)

We became familiar with the word “transphobic”, for anyone who doesn’t unquestioningly comply with the agenda of transgender activists, and we learned a strange new adjective, “woke”, which denotes someone who has an ideologically correct line on issues such as gender politics, race and class oppression.

It was a year when we were encouraged to believe that far from being biologically determined, gender is a mere social construct, and that we should discard gender-specific pronouns such as “he” and “she” because they are tools of oppression.

It was the year when anyone who dared to dissent from the “woke” consensus on issues such as gender identity, multiculturalism and climate change risked being branded as a far-Right extremist and howled down.

It was the year when the sheer volume of white noise from a tiny but shrill minority of neo-Marxists almost succeeded in dominating the public conversation.

It was the year when the polarising effect of social media was magnified by algorithms that pushed people into extreme positions on both the Left and Right, to the extent that the centre-ground sometimes seemed almost to vanish from sight.

It was a year when universities, which were once places of edgy ideas and intellectual cut and thrust, slipped further into a state of rigid dogmatic conformity.

It was a year when free speech came under sustained attack, but in a highly selective way. Free speech was permissible if you belonged to an aggrieved minority, but not for anyone defending what might be called mainstream values. Then it became hate speech.

It was the year when people in positions of authority who should defend freedom of speech, such as Auckland mayor Phil Goff and Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, tried to prevent New Zealanders from being exposed to ideas that they decided were harmful.

It was the year when a biological accident of birth became the new Original Sin; when anyone who was white, middle-class and heterosexual, women as well as men, was deemed to occupy a position of privilege that disqualified them from expressing an opinion on anything.

It was a year in which that notion of “privilege” became ever broader, even to the extent that thin people were attacked for oppressing those who are overweight.

It was a year in which the once-honourable word “liberal” continued to be used, without a trace of irony, to describe people whose intolerance of differing opinions is the very opposite of liberalism.

It was the year when the New Zealand Left fractured in fascinating ways as the “old” far Left, which still believes in free speech, turned against the precious neo-Marxist Left which insists on the right not to be offended; and when hard-core feminists, who were accustomed to being at the cutting edge of sexual politics, suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being labelled as oppressors by the transgender lobby. 

It was the year when anyone rash enough to express even mild scepticism about climate change was equated with the denialists who insist there was no Holocaust. And it was the year when we learned of a phenomenon called presentism, which seeks to deny history by erasing all reminders of our past that don’t align with 21st century moral judgments.

The good news is that the vast majority of New Zealanders, not being susceptible to bizarre political extremes, remained largely untouched by the ideological wars raging around them. If they’re aware of them, their attitude is probably one of mild bemusement at the absurdity of it all.

But the not-so-good news is that while those ordinary New Zealanders get on with their lives, neo-Marxists are seeking to reshape society in profound ways, and they have the ear of the political elites.  Zhou Enlai would have found it fascinating.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Three white males despised by the left-wing commentariat


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz., March 6.)

Donald Trump. George Pell. Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the face of things, three men with not a lot in common other than that they are all white males who are (or were until recently, in Pell’s case) in positions of power.

That alone, of course, is enough to condemn them in a world where white male privilege has been identified – excuse me while I take my tongue out of my cheek – as the root cause of all oppression and suffering.

But these men share the additional distinction of being the three world figures most loathed by the Left-leaning elites that dominate the public conversation. North Korea's despotic Kim Jong Un? Venezuela’s lethally incompetent Maduro? Syria’s genocidal al-Assad? Not even in the race.

Let’s take Trump first. Last week his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

The media hung on every word and would have been bitterly disappointed that Cohen failed to confirm suspicions that Trump had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Never mind; the media eagerly lapped up Cohen’s other damning assertions about Trump’s character, apparently forgetting that only months ago the same Michael Cohen had been portrayed in the same media as a man who couldn’t lie straight in bed.

Is Trump a crook? On the balance of the evidence, the answer is almost certainly yes. His every action and statement suggests he’s a man with the integrity of a cockroach. Yet there’s something disturbing about the way once-reputable news organisations have abandoned all pretence of balance and objectivity in the way they report him.

I listen most days to America’s National Public Radio. I'm a great fan except for one thing: it’s  obsessed with Trump and spends endless hours analysing his iniquities. 

You would never guess, listening to NPR or reading the Washington Post, that Trump currently has an approval rating of 44 per cent – hardly stratospheric, but no disgrace either. Ronald Reagan, generally considered one of the most popular occupants of the White House, enjoyed only 40 per cent approval at the same point in his presidency.

As puzzling as it may seem to us, many Americans like what Trump’s doing. The US economy has surged during his presidency and unemployment is the lowest it has been for decades, but this is either ignored or played down in most of the media.

There’s something not right here. The American media are supposed to reflect the mood of the nation, but they invite the accusation that they are elitist and out of touch. Many Americans no longer feel they can trust their newspapers and broadcasting organisations – a fact Trump is happy to exploit.

Now, Cardinal Pell. Did he sexually molest two choir boys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne? A jury decided he did, but at an earlier trial on the same charges, a different jury had voted 10-2 to acquit him. He was convicted the second time after a retrial. Other charges against him had previously been dismissed.

The Australian media decided early in the piece that Pell was a molester. He wasn’t helped by the fact that he’s an ecclesiastical conservative, which wouldn’t have endeared him to the liberal media, and neither did he do himself any favours by conveying the impression of being cold, aloof and unsympathetic to the victims of abuse.

The case is being appealed, but in the meantime it’s reasonable to ask whether a fair and impartial verdict was possible against a backdrop of public outrage – entirely justified – over the epidemic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

The trial took place amid such a climate of public revulsion and media condemnation that it’s hard to imagine jurors not being influenced. The appeal judges will have the last word on whether Pell is guilty, but no one can rule out the possibility that he has been made a scapegoat for grotesque perversions perpetrated by others.

Finally, Netanyahu. The tough Israeli prime minister is facing corruption charges and most commentators can barely conceal their delight.

You can see why he’s not liked. More than once, I’ve seen Netanyahu coolly demolish smug, condescending TV interviewers who thought they could skewer him over Palestine.

Granted, Netanyahu is probably not a nice man, but effective leaders are often imperfect human beings. The sainted John F Kennedy, to take an obvious example, was an alley cat and a voracious sexual predator. Winston Churchill saved Britain from Nazism but he was coldly ruthless when it suited him.

Netanyahu may be a crook, for all I know, but I suspect that if I were an Israeli, surrounded by hostile forces wanting to kill me, I would be reassured by having him as prime minister.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Nelson and its magical-sounding place names


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., February 21.)

If the recent Nelson fires hadn’t caused such massive disruption and economic pain, they would have been a public relations master-stroke.

Think about it. What other part of New Zealand is endowed with such evocative place names as Teapot Valley, Appleby and Pigeon Valley? Thanks to the fires, the world now knows of these magical-sounding locations.

And that’s just the start. People familiar with the region - as I am, having lived there for four happy years in the 1980s - could rattle off plenty of other charming Nelson place names: Orinoco, Dovedale, Foxhill, Ruby Bay and Spring Grove, for example.

Or how about Aniseed Valley, Woodstock, Dun Mountain, Brightwater, Fringe Hill, Neudorf, Golden Downs and Haulashore Island?

Tolkien himself could hardly have done better. Who wouldn’t want to check out such localities for themselves and see first-hand the qualities that inspired the early European settlers to take poetic flight?

Nelson stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian place names otherwise bequeathed to us by our stolid, unimaginative forebears. Northland, Southland and Westland speak of a colonial society that valued dull functionality over euphony. But study a map of the Nelson region, and you could swear someone flitted across the landscape in the 19th century scattering pretty names like fairy dust.

And the marvel is that many Nelson localities live up to the scenic promise of their names, as TV viewers would have appreciated during the Tasman fires as they saw journalists reporting against an idyllic backdrop of gentle, wooded hills.

It wouldn’t surprise me, then, if one incongruous consequence of the Tasman fires is an increase in tourism – because once the last embers are extinguished, New Zealanders who have never previously thought to visit Nelson might well be motivated to remedy that deficit. And so they should, because it’s a matter of shame that Nelson seems to attract more visitors from overseas than from our own country.

Those who make the trip will discover that Nelson has a slightly other-worldly quality which has long attracted people seeking an escape from the rat race. I had uncles who moved there in the post-war years for exactly that reason. 

This appeal can probably be attributed, at least in part, to Nelson’s isolation. From every direction, you have to cross physical barriers to get there. And as with Gisborne, another charming city that’s hard to reach, you don’t pass through Nelson to get anywhere else. You go there for its own sake or not at all.

All this gives it a distinctive character that was even more noticeable when I worked for what was then the Nelson Evening Mail. I likened life in Nelson then to living in a warm bath. It was comfortable, soothing and not too challenging – an impression reinforced by the benign climate.

Inevitably, all this bred a certain insularity – you might even say smugness – on the part of Nelsonians. It was possible to live in Nelson and be largely unaware that the rest of the world existed.
 
All provincial papers subsisted on local news, but the Evening Mail more than most. If it didn’t happen in Nelson (sporting events excepted), it didn’t happen.

Minor local issues excited far greater passion than anything on the national stage. So unworldly was Nelson that when Pizza Hut proposed to open a local outlet, there were restive stirrings from citizens fearing … well, I’m not sure what. It was just that an American-owned pizza chain was outside Nelson’s realm of experience, and therefore something to be viewed with deep suspicion.

In many ways Nelson then was still like a large country town. Despite its reputation as a haven for hippies, stoners and alternative lifestylers, at heart it was representative of the conservative New Zealand provincial rump.

It’s very different now. By comparison with the 1980s, Nelson today is cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Its population has almost doubled since the 1970s, with consequential effects on house prices, and people complain about the traffic. 

But back to those place names. In Nelson, even some of the suburbs have charming names: The Wood, The Brook, Annesbrook and Enner Glynn. And what other city has a downtown carpark called Millers Acre, which sounds like something out of A A Milne?

Even where the European settlers adopted Maori place names – such as Mahana, which means warmth – they chose ones which conveyed a sense of pleasantness and wellbeing.

The origins of some Nelson place names appear lost to history. Peter Dowling’s book Place Names of New Zealand isn’t able to explain, for example, why someone named a settlement in the Motueka Valley after a South American river. But hey, who wouldn’t want to live in a place called Orinoco?

Oh, and did I mention Rainy River, the Shaggery (it’s not what you think), Oyster Island, Teal Valley, Delaware Bay and The Glen?

On the Pope's statement about clerical sexual abuse

It's funny how humbug in Italian still sounds like humbug.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cultural appropriation is one of the means by which civilisation progresses


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz, February 20).

Complaints about cultural appropriation are a bit like earthquakes and outbursts of hysteria on social media. It’s only a matter of time before the next one comes along.

On Waitangi Day, Radio New Zealand broadcast an interview with expatriate New Zealand journalist Denise Garland, who was concerned about British breweries using Maori names and imagery to promote their beers.

New Zealand beer and hops were increasingly popular overseas and breweries naturally wanted to use New Zealand themes in their advertising, she said, but some “crossed the line between respect and offence”.

Only weeks before, controversy had arisen over an award-winning cheese called Tuteremoana Cheddar, which is produced by Fonterra subsidiary company Kapiti Cheese and takes its name from the highest point on Kapiti Island. 

Tuteremoana was also the name of a high chief who once lived on Kapiti, and Maori trademarks advisor Karaitiana Taiuru said putting his name on a food product was insulting to Tuteremoana and his descendants. In customary terms, it meant that people were eating him.

Taiuru, it turns out, has also been in touch with some of the British brewers mentioned by Garland. In all cases, it seems, the breweries were apologetic and responded by withdrawing the offending promotional material. They obviously had no wish to be disrespectful.

Similarly, although the Tuteremoana brand had been around without controversy for 10 years, Fonterra said it would review the use of Maori names in its branding and consult with iwi to make sure such use was “respectful”.

Clearly, this thing called cultural appropriation has become a minefield for image-conscious companies and their risk-averse PR advisors.  Even the mighty Disney empire buckled when complaints were made about the use of tattoos on kids’ costumes marketed to promote the movie Moana.

We can attribute this trend to the phenomenon known as identity politics, which brings with it a heightened sense of exclusive proprietorship over the symbols and traditions of specific cultures.

But as Garland acknowledged on Radio New Zealand, Maori culture is respected internationally. Attempts to mimic it appear to be driven by admiration rather than any desire to mock it. Shouldn’t that count for something?

As a country, we use Maori culture to promote our tourism industry. A Maori symbol, the koru, adorns the planes of our national airline. The haka is a ritual that precedes every All Blacks game.

This could all be seen as cultural appropriation, but no one seems to mind. At what point, then, does it become offensive? Where is the line to be drawn between what’s acceptable and what’s not?

A starting point, perhaps, is where there’s a clear intention to demean Maori culture. But even then, some wiggle room must be allowed for satire and free speech.

And here’s another thing. Guardians of Maori culture often give the impression that all things Maori are off-limits. But what’s striking about complaints of cultural appropriation in the Maori context is that they flow only one way.

Maori are free to borrow from other cultures, as they have enthusiastically done since their first contact with Europeans, yet they seem to expect their own culture to be treated as sacrosanct. Is that fair or consistent?

Maori eat food, play sports and wear clothing that were brought to New Zealand from other countries. They have become masterful exponents of reggae music, which comes from Jamaica.

Nobody objects, and neither should they, because every culture on earth has borrowed, stolen and adapted ideas from others since the dawn of time. That’s how civilisation progresses.

Virtually everything we do – the books we read, the ideas we adopt, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the language we use, the songs we sing and the religions we follow – came from somewhere else.

The Irish don’t seem too bothered, for example, that virtually the entire Western world has seized on St Patrick’s Day as an excuse for drinking, partying and indulging in over-the-top demonstrations of supposed Irishness, regardless of whether the revellers have Hibernian roots.

The idea that Maori culture must be fenced off or exempted from this rich global cross-fertilisation is wrong as well as futile, as is the notion that we can somehow raise the drawbridge and retreat into our individual cultural bunkers. 

In the case of Tuteremoana cheese, there’s an additional issue. This is the 21st century, and while cultural traditions are generally entitled to respect, there’s a point at which they should be dismissed as primitive superstition.

If the descendants of Tuteremoana want to believe they’re devouring their ancestor if they eat the cheese that bears his name, that’s fine, but they can’t expect the rest of us to go along with it. That would be like Christians insisting that everyone must believe in the virgin birth.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sir John Jeffries


(I wrote the following obituary for Sir John Jeffries for The Dominion Post, which published it yesterday. Inexplicably and inexcusably, I got the name of Sir John's father wrong. The error has been corrected in this version and in the one published on the Stuff website.)

SIR JOHN FRANCIS JEFFRIES
Judge and civil servant
Born Wellington March 28 1929; died January 25 2019

John Jeffries failed School Certificate three times and went on to become a High Court judge and a knight of the realm. There’s a message of hope there for academic under-achievers.

The rector of St Patrick’s College, Wellington, wrote a reference for the young Jeffries in which he advised prospective employers not to give him any job that required study. Jeffries rejoiced in that reference for the rest of his life, his brother Bill told mourners at his funeral.

Jeffries, who died last month aged 89, was also, at various times, deputy mayor of Wellington, chairman of Air New Zealand, head of the Police Complaints Authority, chairman of the Press Council and Commissioner of Security Warrants. Knighted in 1993 for services to the law, he was still working at 83 and proclaimed himself New Zealand’s oldest public servant.

Jeffries was no dry, ascetic careerist. Genial, witty and gregarious, he loved humour, literature, sport and music. And although he became a respected Establishment figure and stalwart of the Wellington Club, he retained a keen social conscience shaped by an upbringing that was anything but privileged.

He grew up in the no-frills Wellington suburb of Lyall Bay, the second in a family of five. His mother, Mary, was a schoolteacher and his father, Frank, was a joiner who had been unemployed during the Great Depression. Both parents had experienced prejudice in their lives: Mary due to her Irish Catholic background and Frank because he had been brought up by two spinster sisters known as “the aunts”.   

According to his son Trevor, Jeffries may have had no academic qualifications when he left school but he knew his way around a pool table, the result of hours spent in a Courtenay Place billiards parlour. 

His first job, as an insurance clerk, was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis. He was nursed in Wellington Hospital by Joan Patricia Christensen, known as Pat, who had been raised in India but emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager during World War II to escape the threat of Japanese occupation. The two were married in 1951 and would adopt two children, Trevor (named after a close friend of Jeffries who died in the Tangiwai disaster) and Julia.

Jeffries’ second stab at a career was as a teacher. It wasn’t until 1959 that he acquired a law degree, at what was then Victoria University College, and was admitted to the Bar.  

Along the way he enjoyed the company of an arty, left-wing Bohemian crowd that included the bibulous poet James K Baxter. Baxter once repaid a one-pound loan from Jeffries by writing him a poem entitled To John Jeffries – In Return for the Loan of a Quid To Drink With.

Jeffries became a partner (along with Michael Hardie Boys, who would serve decades later as Governor-General) in the firm of Scott, Hardie Boys, Morrison and Jeffries. Home was a modest two-bedroom bungalow in Wilton that Jeffries renovated and extended, in the time-honoured Kiwi manner, with help from his father and brothers.

In the very earliest days of New Zealand television, his sharp mind and quick wit led to appearances on a current affairs show chaired by the brash and irreverent political scientist Austin Mitchell, later to become a British Labour MP.

Politics soon beckoned. At 33, Jeffries became the youngest-ever (at that time) Wellington city councillor. Elected on the Labour Party ticket, he would remain on the council for 12 years and serve as deputy mayor, earning the label “Mr Fixit” from the Sunday News for making progress on issues that had defeated others.

On one occasion his friend Baxter, who worked as a postie, decided to do Jeffries a favour by dumping his conservative rivals’ election pamphlets, which he was supposed to deliver, at Jeffries’ front gate. He told Jeffries he thought the “Tory propaganda” would do less harm there.

Jeffries had mayoral aspirations, but they were thwarted by the reluctance of long-serving Labour incumbent Sir Francis Kitts to step aside. He was to be frustrated again in his bid to enter national politics. When the Labour Party offered him a shot at the National-held parliamentary seat of Miramar he declined, hoping instead to contest a Labour seat in the Hutt Valley.

The party bosses ruled that out, much to his chagrin. It would fall to his brother Bill, who was younger by 16 years, to serve three terms as MP for Heretaunga in the 1980s and as a Cabinet minister in the fourth Labour government.

All the while, John Jeffries was building a reputation as one of Wellington’s leading lawyers. He practised criminal law as well as handling personal injury cases – a lucrative field in the pre-ACC era – and serving as counsel for the National Council of the Licensed Trade, the liquor industry lobby group. Socially he was upwardly mobile, moving his family to Khandallah.

In 1975, the Labour government appointed him chairman of Air New Zealand. It was a short-lived appointment, his tenure being terminated by incoming National prime minister Robert Muldoon after Jeffries and other high-profile citizens, including Sir Edmund Hillary and Anglican archbishop Paul Reeves, had signed up to the Citizens for Rowling campaign that urged voters to support Labour in the 1975 election.

Only months later, the same National government that refused to accept Jeffries as head of the national airline made him a judge of what was then the Supreme Court (now the High Court). Muldoon’s justification for this apparent change of heart – namely, that Jeffries was “a very fine lawyer and an honourable man” – didn’t allay suspicions that the purpose of the appointment was to keep him out of politics.

He remained on the Bench until 1992 and delivered several significant judgments. In one, he found against an Australian wine company that asserted the right to use the term “champagne” for its sparkling wine. Jeffries ruled that the French makers of champagne were entitled to exclusive use of the name.

In another decision of lasting consequence, he set out to clarify what had previously been an unsatisfactorily vague definition of the crucial word “welfare” in child custody cases.

A third judgment, a significant victory for Whanganui River Maori, upheld a Planning Tribunal decision that restricted state power company Electricorp’s right to extract water from the river for the Tongariro hydro scheme.

Bill Jeffries said his brother’s judgments reflected a concern for “the outsider, the people beyond the mainstream”, which he had inherited from his parents.

Retirement from the High Court in 1992 brought only the briefest respite before Jeffries accepted an appointment as Police Complaints Authority. He spent five years in that post and regretted on his departure that he had been unable to reduce the number of people dying in high-speed police pursuits – still a contentious issue more than 20 years later.

Jeffries also had to fight a misconception that he was part of the police and therefore not independent. He argued for a name change and would have felt vindicated when the authority was reconstituted as the Independent Police Conduct Authority in 2007.

Similar concerns troubled Jeffries when he became chairman of the Press Council, the industry-funded regulator of the print media. Determined to distance the council from the newspaper industry and thus rid it of the suspicion that it was partisan in its decisions, he arranged for it to move out of the building it shared with the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and employ its own staff.

He regarded it as an important part of his job to encourage newspapers to adopt more professional standards and he took a dim view of intrusions on individual privacy by journalists. But he was a committed champion of press freedom and took a noticeably more pro-active approach than some of his predecessors.

On one occasion he staunchly defended the right of journalists to keep their sources confidential - a right that had been challenged by the Privacy Commissioner. On another, he was scathingly critical of "reprehensible" suppression orders imposed by courts. Under Jeffries, the council also spoke out against a proposed criminal libel law that was seen as protecting politicians at the expense of free speech.

When he stepped down from the Press Council in 2005, then prime minister Helen Clark paid tribute to him for his clear thinking and ability to get to the heart of complex issues. Clark knew him well from having worked with him since 1999 in his other capacity as Commissioner of Security Warrants, which involved jointly determining with the prime minister whether to allow the Security Intelligence Service to intercept people’s private communications. Jeffries remained in that job until 2013.

Away from the demands of office, Jeffries enjoyed his family, golf, The Goon Show, rugby, James Joyce, cricket, The New Yorker, Circa Theatre and occasional lunches with his former fellow judges. His close friends included the late Robin Cooke, aka Baron Cooke of Thorndon, the only New Zealand judge to have sat in the House of Lords.

He shared the last years of his life with Betty Knight, his wife Pat having died in 2001. (Betty’s husband Lindsay, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, died in 2002.)

Jeffries suffered from severe osteo-arthritis but remained mentally sharp till the end. He died in the apartment he shared with Betty at Oriental Bay, “looking across the harbour at the city he loved”, in the words of his son Trevor. 

Sources: Bill Jeffries, Trevor Jeffries, Julia Jeffries, Betty Knight, Mary Major, Wikipedia.



Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Raymond Chan

I was terribly saddened to hear of the death on Sunday of the Wellington wine writer Raymond Chan. Raymond finally succumbed to cancer after determinedly keeping the illness at bay, with the  unflagging support of his partner Sue Davies, for many years.

Raymond won an enormous circle of friends with his cheeky humour and zest for life. It was a measure of the respect and affection he enjoyed in wine circles that in 2016, friends and associates chipped in to pay for treatment with the very expensive immunotherapy drug Keytruda.

Underneath that infectious wit, which remained irrepressible even when he was experiencing the roller-coaster ride of cancer treatment, Raymond was an extremely serious and knowledgeable wine judge and critic. He wrote about the subject with eloquence and great authority, never resorting to the pretentious excesses of winespeak.  Wine industry events won't be quite the same without him.

Joelle Thomson has written an obituary for Raymond on the Regional Wines website here.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Labour and NZ First: a shared fondness for pork-barrel politics


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., February 7.)

In a memorably pungent turn of phrase, former Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said of Maori support for Labour in the 2017 election that it was like a battered wife going back to her abuser.

Okay, she was bitter at Maori voters turning against her party. Sour grapes, her critics would have said. But you could see where she was coming from.

Labour has traditionally commanded support from Maori, dating back to its alliance with the Ratana Church in 1936.

It’s one of the stranger quirks of New Zealand politics that Ratana is still regarded as exerting powerful political influence, to the extent that even National MPs routinely make the dutiful pilgrimage to Ratana pa every January for the event that kicks off the political year.

Few commentators bother to ask why Ratana is still deemed so important when the Church commands a relatively small following. At the time of the 2013 Census (I won’t embarrass Stats NZ by asking where the 2018 results are), Ratana had just 40,000 followers.

Neither does it seem to strike people as odd that politicians pay homage to Ratana despite the general consensus that that religious belief should not intrude on political affairs. The Catholic Church would be told where to get off, and rightly so, if it suggested that political parties send representatives to Sacred Heart Cathedral every year to give an account of themselves.

Be that as it may, the Ratana connection still works for Labour. But Fox wasn’t the first Maori politician to make the point that Maori haven’t always done well under Labour governments. Mana Motuhake in 1980 was formed out of a similar sense of frustration that Labour took its Maori support for granted.

Labour created the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 but it was National in the 1990s, under Jim Bolger and Sir Douglas Graham, that drove through the first big treaty settlements.

In that same decade, Labour lost its hold on Maori voters when New Zealand First, still in its infancy, won all of the five Maori seats then in existence. Labour has been trying ever since to woo them back and finally succeeded by securing the seven Maori electorates in 2017 – although Fox, who has experienced a string of adverse events since losing her seat, obviously didn’t think it deserved to.

All of this came into sharp focus in the events leading up to Waitangi Day.

Next year is an election year, and Labour will be anxious to consolidate its Maori support. This dovetails neatly with the desire of its coalition partner, NZ First, to build its reputation as the saviour of the regions and to atone for its acquiescence in government policies – notably the signing of the highly unpopular United Nations Compact on Global Migration – that are seen as a betrayal of its supporters.

Jacinda Ardern has pronounced 2019 the Year of Delivery, which suggests she realises that at some stage the public will expect the government to translate last year’s plethora of reports and working groups – presumably set up to buy time while the coalition parties adjusted to the shock of finding themselves in power – into action.

Over the past few days, a few clues have appeared as to how that will be done. In the best Labour tradition, it will involve spraying a great deal of money around – a lot of it in Northland, and targeted either expressly or by implication at Maori.

Last Sunday, flanked by Winston Peters and Shane Jones, Ardern announced a $100 million fund to help Maori landowners develop unproductive land. She followed that on Monday with details of an $82 million regional employment scheme. Both will be paid for out of Jones’ $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, which with every passing day looks increasingly like the Peters and Jones re-election campaign chest.

Americans call this pork-barrel politics: the funding of local projects in the hope that voters will reward their benefactors at election time.

Pork-barrelling is a traditional Labour weakness, but Peters – perhaps taking his cue from Robert Muldoon, a socialist in National disguise and the man Peters appears to have modelled himself on – is favourably disposed to it too.

The announcements will have played well in the regions and to Maori, especially in Northland, where Peters and Jones have their roots. And Jones, in his blustering champion-of-the-people mode, will advance grandiloquent arguments about having to make up for nine years of National Party indifference.

Not since David Lange has a New Zealand politician been able to weave such meandering, elliptical sentences, presumably in the hope of leaving his interrogators cross-eyed. Just don’t ask Jones any inconvenient questions about accountability and transparency – or if you do, don’t expect a straight answer.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Random thoughts on Waitangi Day


(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz on February 6.)

■ The British were relatively humane, enlightened colonisers, certainly by comparison with other colonial powers such as Belgium, Spain, Portugal and France. New Zealand was colonised not by force of arms but by agreement with the established inhabitants. In that respect we are rare, if not unique.

■ As far as we can tell, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with honourable intentions and genuine respect for Maori. It was only later that settler greed for land and general Pakeha villainy caused things to turn dirty. But it should be acknowledged that some Maori tribes were dispossessed of their lands by their own chiefs.

■ Colonisation had a devastating effect on Maori health and society and is increasingly blamed for problems which dog Maori today, such as educational under-achievement, unemployment and high imprisonment rates. But colonisation brought benefits too. Pre-European Maori life was hardly idyllic. Tribal warfare was a constant threat and slavery, violent death and cannibalism were endemic.

■ The Treaty can be seen in hindsight as a hopelessly insubstantial document on which to base the governance of a complex 21st century country. Hastily written and even more hastily translated, the Treaty has strained to breaking point under the enormous weight placed on it. It doesn’t help that there were two versions, leaving the courts to come up with sometimes fanciful imaginings of what the signatories intended.

■ Unlike Australia, whose first white settlers were convicts, New Zealand was settled by people who came here of their own free will, looking for something better. This was probably just as true of the original Polynesian arrivals as it was of the Europeans who followed. My own family stories are typical: my father’s forebears left Denmark to get away from Prussian invaders and my mother’s left Ireland to escape poverty and repression. My wife’s parents were victims of Nazism who were rendered stateless by World War II and remained so until New Zealand accepted them in 1965.

■ As the debate over immigration threatens to become more rancorous, we need to remind ourselves that we were all - Maori included - once immigrants who were able to take advantage of what this country offered. Most New Zealanders probably welcome the more vibrant society that has resulted from increased immigration and cultural diversity, but it has the potential to become problematical if not handled carefully. The real issue is how to manage immigration without destabilising society and facilitating divisive demands for special treatment of select ethnic and religious groups.

■ We still don’t know nearly enough about our incredibly rich and colourful history. In fact we have two rich histories, one of which – pre-European Maori history – is overlooked altogether because Maori had no written language with which to record it. It survives only in oral story-telling.

■ Taika Waititi was justified last year in ticking Pakeha New Zealanders off for not bothering to pronounce Maori names properly. But does that make us a racist country, as he suggested? I don’t think so. The “racist” tag is greatly overplayed and too often used to close down legitimate discussion. There is racism in New Zealand, undoubtedly, but you can’t condemn a country as racist just because people persist with the pronunciations they’ve grown up with. “Racism” to me implies a belief that some races are intrinsically superior to others and that discriminatory treatment is therefore justified. I can’t see how lazy pronunciation, which is usually the product of a lifelong habit rather than any desire to demean or belittle Maori, crosses those thresholds.

■ New Zealand is a pragmatic, practical country that prefers to do what works rather than allow itself to be captured by ideology. Extremist causes almost never gain mainstream political traction. We thus tend to be spared the ugly and intolerant extremes of Left and Right that characterise politics in some other countries.

■ We’re also a small, intimate society with two degrees of separation, which means we can’t help bumping into each other in the street, the supermarket and airport lounges. It’s harder to hate people when you have to deal with them face-to-face as human beings. How many countries could put together a parliamentary rugby team with players from opposing parties, such as the one that’s playing against former rugby greats in a curtain-raiser to a pre-season Blues-Hurricanes match this weekend?

■ And finally, we have much to celebrate. We live in one of the world’s most civilised liberal democracies. Global surveys consistently rank us among the top 10 countries in the world on measurements such as freedom, human rights, quality of life, education, health and tolerance of difference. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing lots of things right. Happy Waitangi Day.

Friday, January 25, 2019

It's true then - the past is a foreign country


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., January 24.)

I was enjoying a New Year drink with an old friend and discussing some of the things that have changed in our lifetime. Soon I found myself mentally making a list.

It’s a totally random, off-the-cuff list, compiled in an idle mood on a lazy day. It doesn’t purport to make a profound statement about the state of society. It’s just a reminder that, in the words of the author L P Hartley, the past is a foreign country where they do things differently.

For what it’s worth, here it is:

I remember paying mortgage interest rates of more than 20 percent.

I remember when a milkman delivered milk to a box at your gate, in glass bottles that you washed and returned for re-use.

I remember when the government went to inordinate lengths to prevent the pirate station Radio Hauraki from challenging the state broadcasting monopoly.

I remember when towns had stock routes so that mobs of sheep and herds of cattle could avoid the main street.

I remember when secondary schoolboys wore caps.

I remember standing (or not standing, depending on how rebellious I felt) for God Save the Queen at the movies, which we used to call the pictures or the flicks.

I remember railcars.

I remember when schoolkids were issued with Post Office Savings Bank books to encourage thrift.

I remember when most cars had three-speed transmissions operated by a gear lever mounted on the steering column.

I remember when every town had a dosing strip where dogs were tested for hydatids.

I remember the fathers of my school contemporaries dying in their 40s from heart attacks.

I remember when the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation banned harmless protest songs.

I remember Peter Pan and Frosty Jack ice cream.

I remember when TV transmission started at 5pm and finished at 10.

I remember when there were only four women MPs.

I remember when the film censor decreed that the movie version of James Joyce’s Ulysses had to be shown at separate screenings for men and women.

I remember McWilliam’s Marque Vue and Montana Cold Duck.

I remember when the most popular meeting-place in Wellington was under the James Smith clock at the corner of Cuba and Manners Sts.

I remember when city council chief executives were called town clerks.

I remember Cona coffee.

I remember when the police drove black Humber Super Snipes.

I remember when Catholic and Protestant schoolkids exchanged religious taunts on their way to and from school.

I remember when people got their pay handed to them in cash, in little manila envelopes.

I remember when a try in rugby was worth three points.

I remember when a diagnosis of cancer was regarded as a virtual death sentence.

I remember when new cars didn’t come equipped with heaters or radios.

I remember bodgies, widgies, milk-bar cowboys and beatniks.

I remember when young men in country towns belonged to Jaycees.

I remember morning assemblies at my state secondary school where we sang English hymns and songs like There is a Tavern in the Town.

I remember when no Pakeha New Zealanders - and not many Maori either - had heard of Parihaka.

I remember when New Zealand Truth was the only paper that covered sex cases and was kept out of sight in respectable homes.

I remember when beer was sold in flagons.

I remember when union membership was compulsory.

I remember when The Flintstones was shown in prime time and everyone watched it because TV was a novelty and there was only one channel.

I remember when the first McDonald’s outlet opened and people thought it was weird that their burgers contained a slice of gherkin.

I remember when New Zealand shut down at weekends and there was no television or radio advertising on Sundays.

I remember when “mixed flatting” was frowned upon as improper.

I remember when travelling by air was an occasion for which people dressed in their best clothes.

I remember Suzy’s Coffee Lounge, the Casablanca, Roy’s hamburger joint, the Majestic Cabaret, the Bistro Bar and the Downtown Club.

I remember traffic cops.

I remember a time before bureaucrats decided it was unsafe for New Zealand kids to do early-morning paper rounds.

I remember when people fiercely resented being required to wear seat belts.

I remember when “coming out” was something respectable young ladies did at debutante balls.

I remember when there were TV reporters over the age of 40.

I remember when everyone in New Zealand recognised the names of the president of the Federation of Labour and the chairman of the Meat Board.

I remember when everyone smoked at work, then went to the pub and smoked some more.

Is society better now, or worse? To be honest, I can’t decide. It’s just different.




Thursday, January 24, 2019

Pardon me for not getting excited about this thing called 5G


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz., January 23.)

I see the technology industry is readying itself for something called 5G – geek-speak for the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications.

I can’t wait. I’m jumping out of my skin with excitement.

I jest, of course. I’m an IT agnostic who has learned not to trust technology. If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it’s that supposed innovations and improvements come loaded with fishhooks and frustrations.

We’re told 5G will provide “high data rate, reduced latency, energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity and massive device connectivity”.

Translated, I suspect that means there will be incremental gains in terms of speed and capacity that most everyday users probably won’t even notice. Just like the people who invested in ultrafast broadband and later wondered why they bothered.

Oh, and there will be teething problems. There always are. So expect a lot of hype when 5G is launched, but expect to be disappointed too, because the history of the IT industry is littered with false promises.

It’s an industry that depends heavily on credulous consumers who are always ready to be sucked in by the illusion of a technological nirvana. Just witness the queues that form outside Apple retail outlets whenever a new iPhone is launched.

Improvements on the previous models are often minimal or largely cosmetic. But there’s a good reason why Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company:  it took the notion of planned obsolescence, which was originally associated with the car industry, and refined it to the max.

Planned obsolescence means that even as a new product is launched, the makers already have a better version on the blocks. Apple’s marketing department knows there are millions of suckers out there who are willing to believe the latest Apple device represents a quantum leap over the previous one and that life would be unbearable without it.

The flip side of the Apple story is that there are legions of users who tear their hair out with Apple products and vow never to use them again. But where can they go – to Microsoft? It’s probably the one company with more frustrated users than Apple.

That computer users are effectively at the mercy of these two grotesquely profitable companies is almost enough to shake your faith in capitalism. It’s a case of market failure on a massive scale.

Most punters would be happy just to have technology that works – something that’s consistent, user-friendly and doesn’t let them down. But IT users have been conditioned to accept a failure rate that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry.

Even when a company delivers something you actually like, be prepared to have it taken away from you or changed into something different.

I won’t bore readers again with my story of how, when I wasn’t looking,  Microsoft uninstalled the only version of Windows that I ever liked and gave me a new one that I didn’t want and didn’t ask for.

Suffice to say that it was like waking up one morning to find that the car I’d been driving for years, and which performed to my satisfaction, had been snatched away and replaced with an updated model that bore little resemblance to the previous one and drove like a pig.

More recently, a similar thing happened with Skype. For years I was a contented Skype user, enjoying face-to-face conversations with people in the most unlikely places. Then something happened.

Skype suddenly looked and felt different. The settings were unfamiliar. I couldn’t make it work. Christmas passed without the usual video conversations with family overseas.

I heard the same complaint from other users, including Generation X-ers whom I regard as totally tech-savvy. So it wasn’t just me.

The finger of blame was pointed (surprise!) at Microsoft, which owns Skype and which (I’m quoting from Wikipedia) “redesigned its Skype clients in a way that transitioned Skype from peer-to-peer service to a centralised Azure service and adjusted the user interfaces of apps to make text-based messaging more prominent than voice calling”.

I think what that means is that Microsoft took a product that worked to people’s satisfaction and stuffed it up. As it does.

The bigger issue here is that society has become totally beholden to information technology, with all its failings. Like it or not, we’re all passengers on a train that’s hurtling at increasing speed toward an unknown destination. And meanwhile the so-called digital divide, which separates those who are at ease in this new world from those who can’t keep up, grows ever wider.

I can think of no other technological revolution that has so completely penetrated people’s lives or influenced human behaviour, and I’m less confident than ever that this is a good thing. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it.






Friday, January 11, 2019

Is this debate about drugs, or capitalism?

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., January 10.)

Oh, dear. Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, after years of agitating for relaxation of the drug laws, is fretting that liberalisation might open the way to corporate domination of the cannabis trade.

Hmmm. Perhaps he should heed the old saying about being careful what you wish for.

Bell has long advocated a permissive approach to so-called recreational drugs. His argument is that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than criminalised. So you’d expect him to be thrilled that the government has promised a binding referendum on decriminalisation of cannabis.

A crucial first step has already been taken with the passing of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, which essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness.  

You can take it as read that the activists’ ultimate goal is decriminalisation of the drug altogether, and perhaps other drugs too. That’s how advocates of “progressive” social change advance their agenda: incrementally.

It’s a strategy that relies on a gradual softening-up process. No single step along the way, taken in isolation, is radical enough to alarm the public. Change is often justified on grounds of common sense or compassion, as the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill people certainly can be.

But each victory serves as a platform for the next. Once change has bedded in and the public has accepted it as the new normal, the activists advance to the next stage. The full agenda is never laid out, because that might frighten the horses.

In this instance, presumably to reassure us that Labour and the Greens aren’t totally soft on drugs, the passage of the medicinal cannabis bill was closely followed by an announcement that the government will crack down on dealers of the synthetic cannabis that has been causing mayhem.

But there should be no doubt that what we’re observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which the National Party gave as its reason for not supporting the medicinal cannabis bill.

Now, back to Bell’s misgivings about where the cannabis referendum might lead. 

It’s not decriminalisation that worries him. Why would it, when for years he’s been using his taxpayer-subsidised job to lobby for exactly that outcome?

No, what upsets him is the thought of the drugs trade being contaminated by the profit motive. A liberal drugs regime is all very well, just as long as the trade doesn’t fall into the hands of wicked corporate capitalists.  

Bell’s vision, obviously, is of something much purer and more noble, although it’s not entirely clear what model he has in mind. A People’s Collective, perhaps.

It will surprise no one that Professor Doug Sellman, the director of the National Addiction Centre, has expressed similar misgivings. Sellman likes the idea of legalising cannabis but doesn’t want companies making money from it.

I suspect Sellman and Bell are at least partly motivated by hostility toward capitalism. They certainly share a dislike - which in Sellman's case could be classified as obsessive - of the capitalist liquor industry.

Given that cannabis and alcohol are both potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs, why do both men display a more forgiving attitude to the former than to the latter? In my opinion the reason is at least partly ideological. It’s the capitalist business model, as much as anything, that they object to.

But (news flash!) New Zealand is a capitalist economy, and it generally works pretty well. It’s not perfect, but no one has come up with a better alternative.

If Bell wants the cannabis trade made legal, what difference does it make whether the drug is marketed by DopeCorp Inc, operating from a Queen Street high-rise, or by a dreadlocked stoner from Golden Bay?

It could be argued that a public company, subject to corporate and consumer law and with directors who are accountable for what they grow and sell, might be a safer purveyor of cannabis than a backyard dealer.

To put it another way: if a safe, regulated cannabis market is the way to go, and corporates are best-placed to deliver that outcome, what’s the objection? It can only be ideological.

The much bigger issue, of course, is whether we should decriminalise cannabis use in the first place. There are strong arguments running both ways.

The parallels with alcohol are obvious. Both can cause great harm to a minority of users, although activists like to play down the adverse consequences of drugs other than alcohol.  We don’t hear much, for example, about the devastating effects cannabis can have on the young or the mentally unstable.

But if we're going to have an honest national debate about cannabis, the important thing, surely, is that it should focus on social wellbeing rather than being distorted by covert ideological agendas.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The bias you have when you don't know you have it


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, January 9.)

At the end of each year, dictionaries like to highlight significant new words or phrases that have entered the English language over the previous 12 months.

The Collins English Dictionary declared “single-use” its word of the year for 2018, a year when disposable plastic supermarket bags became a symbol of wasteful consumerism and environmental harm.

Observant readers will note that “single-use” is actually two words, but then so was “fake news”, which was Collins’ word of the year for 2017.

The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017 was “youthquake”, which was defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”.

Oxford’s lexicographers chose it because of the role young voters played in that year’s British general election, which nearly delivered an upset victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn’s brand of cloth-cap socialism struck a chord with the impressionable young, who are not old enough to know that socialism always turns out badly.

Oxford’s choice for the year just ended was “toxic”, a word that cropped up in a variety of contexts. We had toxic relationships, toxic cultures, toxic waste, toxic chemicals and “toxic masculinity” – a feminist label for appalling male behaviour as perpetrated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

It can be seen from the above examples that the word of the year typically reveals something about the mood of the times. Others included “Brexit” (Collins, 2016) and “post-truth” (Oxford, same year).

Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to my own word of the year – except that, like Collins, I’ve cheated and gone for a phrase that consists of two words.

My phrase of the year is “unconscious bias”. This is something you’re guilty of if you’re white and middle-class, and more so if you’re male, able-bodied and heterosexual.

If you tick those boxes, you are automatically considered to hold an unconscious bias against people who are none of those things – in other words women, people of colour, people who identify as gay, lesbian or trans-gender, and those with disabilities.

At least this is what we’re told by people who promote the concept of unconscious bias. And we just have to accept that they must be right, because the essence of unconscious bias is that you don’t know you have it.

Most New Zealanders may think of themselves as fair-minded, tolerant and full of goodwill toward their fellow human beings, but those who accuse them of unconscious bias know better. They know that beneath our smug complacency, most of us seethe with malice and are determined to maintain our status in society by crushing those less privileged.

The genius of the phrase “unconscious bias” is that people who are accused of harbouring it can’t deny it, because by definition they’re unaware of it. They are expected to stare shame-facedly at the floor and admit they’re guilty even though they never realised it.

In fact the act of denying guilt may serve to confirm it. At a seminar on hate speech last year, I heard one speaker assert that “the heartbeat of racism is denial”. In other words, if you deny you’re racist, you probably are. In this topsy-turvy, Kafka-esque world, you’re condemned either way.

While logic dictates that there probably is such a thing as unconscious bias, I believe its grip on society is grossly overstated, the aim being to heap guilt and shame on white middle-class people so that they meekly comply with activists’ demands for special treatment of supposedly oppressed minority groups.

Of course, unconscious bias wasn’t the only new term we had to get our heads around in 2018. Another was the adjective “woke”, which derives from “awake” and came into common usage as a result of America’s Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re “woke”, you’re alert to racism and social justice issues.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the political insult du jour is to call someone a gammon.  An English term for ham, gammon is used to refer to pale-skinned men on the conservative side of politics who supposedly resemble pigs.

“Gammon” is closely related to the phrase “stale, pale and male”, which was also frequently heard in 2018.  All other stereotypes based on sex, age and skin colour are strictly forbidden, but older white men are the one demographic group that it’s okay – in fact almost mandatory – to disparage.

But at least this ideological contradiction throws up the occasional humorous irony, as exemplified by the impeccably “woke” Auckland columnist who wrote a furious rant about pale, stale males only months after turning 60 himself.

Either it was an unconscious expression of self-loathing, or he somehow imagines he’s been sprinkled with fairy dust which renders him magically exempt from the label.