Friday, May 17, 2019

Some more thoughts on the Folau furore

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 16.)

Something’s not quite right here. The 21st century buzzwords are diversity and inclusivity, but they seem to be applied very selectively.

It seems we’re in favour of diversity and inclusivity if we’re talking about race, colour, gender and sexual identity, the latter two of which keep spinning off into ever-new permutations. But puzzlingly, we’re only partially tolerant when it comes to religious belief.

We are encouraged to be tolerant toward Islam, especially since the Christchurch massacres, and so we should be. The right to practise one’s religion, at least unless it interferes with the rights of others, is one we should all unquestioningly support.

This applies even when secular society disapproves of some of those religions, or scratches its collective head in bemusement at their practices and beliefs.

But if freedom of religion is one cornerstone of a free society, so is freedom of expression, which includes the right to subject religion, along with every other institution of society, to critical scrutiny and even ridicule.

Virtually all religions – whether we’re talking Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, the Destiny Church or the Exclusive Brethren – possess what, to non-believers, are quirks, absurdities, hypocrisies and cruelties that render them ripe for mockery and condemnation.

For decades, comedians and satirists have taken joyous, blasphemous advantage of this freedom. How people laughed, for example, at Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, with its wickedly subversive song Every Sperm is Sacred – a dig at Catholic teaching on birth control.

If it offended devout Catholics – well, tough. Freedom to ridicule is the flipside of freedom to worship.

Mainstream Christianity is still considered fair game by comedians and satirists, and no one bats an eyelid. But somehow, Islam seems to be off-limits. Even a cool, reasoned criticism of Islam is likely to excite accusations of Islamophobia.

The champions of diversity don’t seem to grasp that you can abhor the grotesque atrocities perpetrated by Islamic fanatics while simultaneously defending the right of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims, such as those in Christchurch, to practise their religion.

There’s no contradiction here. It’s only when criticism of religion escalates into incitement to hostility or violence that it becomes unacceptable.

Neither do the defenders of Islam seem to realise that by denouncing all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, they give the impression of condoning a religion that, in its extreme forms, thinks it’s okay to stone homosexuals, apostates and adulterers to death.

All of which leads us neatly to Israel Folau, who condemned atheists, drunks, homosexuals and fornicators with equal vehemence, but seems to have been pilloried solely for his statement that gays will go to Hell.

The first point to be made about the Folau hysteria is that it was avoidable by the simple expedient of ignoring him. The people who have so energetically helped to spread Folau’s message are those who insist he should have kept his supposedly hateful opinions to himself.

I’ve been searching for the logic there, but so far it eludes me.

Equally perplexing is that while Folau’s detractors would scoff at the very idea that such a place as Hell exists, they apparently took his Instagram post seriously enough to whip themselves into a frenzy of outrage.

They could have smiled indulgently and let Folau’s post go unremarked, but that would have been too hard for the social media trolls who swarm around in cyberspace looking for things to get furious about.  It would also have meant passing up a chance to mount an attack on conservative Christianity, when obviously the opportunity was just too good to ignore.

So much for diversity and inclusivity, then. The attacks on Folau by people who profess to embrace difference are as fine a combination of sanctimony and vindictiveness as you’re ever likely to see. And it goes beyond mere criticism, because the purpose is to punish him.

If we truly believed in diversity and inclusiveness, we would accept Folau as part of humanity’s rich and varied tapestry, even if we don’t agree with him. Media bores like Peter FitzSimons, who has built a career out of being the Wallaby hard man who was really, all along, a sensitive liberal, would have to find something else to moralise about.

We would also acknowledge that Folau wasn’t trying to incite hatred against anyone. He was acting according to his Christian conscience, which calls him to save sinners.What’s more, his views are shared by many Pasifika people, and not long ago would have been considered unremarkable in mainstream society.

They are taken, after all, from the New Testament, which forms the basis for much of Western civilisation's moral and judicial framework. Perhaps that's the real target here, and the Folau furore just an appetiser.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

A journey rich in nostalgia


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, May 15.) 

One definition of a pilgrimage is “any journey taken for nostalgic or sentimental reasons”. Well, I recently went on just such a pilgrimage.

It took me to the Coromandel. Note that I say “the” Coromandel, so as to distinguish the region from the town of the same name.

My pilgrimage satisfied the dictionary definition, being a journey that was heavily tinged with nostalgia. I was last in the Coromandel about 30 years ago, but my most enduring memories of the place date back to the early 1960s, when my parents got the camping bug.

On our first camping trip in 1960, when I was nine, we explored the East Cape. We set out from our home in Hawke’s Bay in a mini-convoy, Dad with some of the family in our old Austin 16, towing a trailer laden with gear, and the rest of us tagging along in my brother’s 1937 Chev. I was the youngest.

The following summer we were more ambitious, venturing further afield to the Coromandel. In 1962, we took advantage of the new Cook Strait ferry service to head to Nelson and on to Totaranui, in Abel Tasman National Park. We were usually joined on these trips by cousins, uncles and aunties.

But it was the Coromandel Peninsula, with its pristine sandy beaches, bush-covered headlands and mangrove inlets, that became our favourite destination.

My parents generally eschewed established camping grounds, preferring to seek out relatively untouched places, always by the sea. At Whangapoua, on the east coast of the peninsula, we first camped on the Denize family’s farm. In subsequent years we pitched our tent (an old-fashioned square one, the only type you could get then, with no floor and a heavy wooden centre pole) in a sheltered hollow amid kanuka trees at the southern end of Whangapoua Beach.

The beach was a 30-second walk away through the dunes and Whangapoua Harbour, where we fished from the jetty, was reached via a track that led across a headland covered in pohutukawa trees.

Conditions were primitive. We cooked on the fire or on an old camping stove and we hauled water from the creek. Dad dug a long-drop dunny and we hung a safe from a tree to keep the food from getting fly-blown. We relied on the sea to keep us clean and about once a week we would take the tortuous metal road to Coromandel town for supplies.

It was much the same at Ohui, further south. There we camped on land owned by a Maori farming family, the McGregors. Our campsite was under an enormous karaka tree by a ford.

I remember when one wheel of my mother’s tiny Fiat 500 (we had acquired an extra car by then) slipped into a ditch outside the McGregors’ farmhouse. A giant of a man – or so it seemed to me at the time – emerged from the house and without a word, effortlessly lifted the car back onto the track that passed for a road.

My memory of how we spent our time on those holidays is hazy. We swam a lot and we sunbathed. We went fishing and we read. At nights Mum and Dad and any other adults present would play Scrabble by the light of a Coleman lamp.

There was a lot of laughter and a lot of singing, accompanied by a ukulele which was ideal because it didn’t take up much space in the car. Sad Movies was a favourite song one summer, and I remember my mother and her sister Winifred singing a popular song from their youth: I Was Seeing Nellie Home. I can't hear it these days without getting a bit teary.

I don’t recall it ever raining, but I’m sure it did.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that it’s all very different in 2019. Whangapoua is still a magnificent beach – nothing can change that – but the land was subdivided decades ago. It’s all built up now and there’s a big general store-cum-café where you can get things we’d never heard of in the 60s, such as latté and pains aux raisins.

At Ohui I went looking for our old campsite but couldn’t recognise anything. What was once farmland is now subdivided into lifestyle blocks and covered in mature trees, exotics as well as native. Every narrow metal road ended in a sign that said “Private”. But you can still reach the beach via a public walking track and like Whangapoua, it’s still breathtakingly pretty. The day we were there, someone was having a wedding in the dunes.

Ohui remains relatively unspoiled, but everywhere else we went – Whangapoua, Hahei, Tairua, Kuaotunu, Whitianga, Coromandel town itself – the Auckland Effect was evident in the extraordinary proliferation of opulent homes, most of them vacant for 11 months of the year. It’s a display of affluence to rival the most fashionable parts of California.

Roads that were glorified goat tracks in 1961 – Uncle Bert’s Morris Minor barely got over the hill at Kuaotunu – are now wide and smooth. They have to be, to accommodate all the European tourists in their camper vans.

But it’s still a sublimely beautiful place, and not even the sight of a massive hilltop mansion with its own helipad at Whangapoua can erase memories of a time when things were different.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Seven Sharp and its "Bonjela hell" story


I don’t normally watch Seven Sharp. Somehow I don’t get the feeling I’m likely to miss anything important by not seeing it. But last night, for some reason, I found myself watching its opening item about a baby girl who reportedly almost died from an overdose of Bonjela.

That’s right, Bonjela – that popular gel people use for mouth ulcers and for soothing babies’ gums during teething.

Interviewed by Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells, the parents cuddled their now-healthy baby as they explained how she was rushed to Starship Hospital after reacting adversely to the product. They said they were within minutes of losing her.

“Bonjela hell,” Wells called it, suggesting a promising future as a tabloid headline writer if he ever tires of television. Barry oozed empathy. “What a terrible ordeal,” she cooed.

The mother explained that they’d given the baby Bonjela and paracetamol because she was experiencing severe teething pain and the Bonjela seemed to soothe her. She said they had been in touch with health professionals who knew what they were doing.

How much Bonjela? “Quite a lot over a few days,” said the mother. “Over a 24-hour period, close to a tube.”

As it happens, we had a near-new tube of Bonjela in our bathroom. We’d used it only last week on our grandson’s gums. I went and got it.

The instructions on the tube say it should be applied no more than once every three hours and no more than six times over a 24-hour period. Then there’s a prominent warning in red letters: “Do not exceed the recommended dose. Excessive or prolonged use can be harmful.”

I would have thought that for a whole tube to be used over 24 hours was clearly far in excess of the recommended dose – in fact grossly excessive.

The instructions also say the gel shouldn’t be given to babies under four months. The baby in question was seven months old, but the warning can be taken as indicating that infants are at particular risk.

So you might think, in the circumstances, that the parents would have exercised a lot more caution. Yet I didn’t get the feeling they blamed themselves for what must have been a very scary experience.

However I’m not writing this to disparage them. You’d hope that they learned a lesson, even if they didn’t seem greatly troubled by self-doubt.

No, what appalled me was the absence of any journalistic rigour or integrity in the way Seven Sharp treated the item.

The hosts could have highlighted the warning on the tube (it was actually shown on screen at one point) and asked the parents whether they had bothered to read it – and if so, why they apparently chose to ignore it.

(At one point Wells even asked the parents: “Do you think Bonjela needs a warning?” FFS, there is a warning – it was right there on the programme, if he bothered to look.) 

They could have questioned the manufacturer of the product as to whether the warning was adequate,  or asked a health professional how the crisis could have been avoided (for example, by taking the novel step of following the instructions). They could have taken the elementary step of trying to find out whether other babies' lives  had been threatened by Bonjela (I think I know what the answer would have been).

But no. Instead, there was Barry simpering over the “adorable” baby (to be fair, she was very cute) and saying this was the sort of accident that happens when tired parents have to get up to distressed children in the middle of the night. I could almost hear thousands of parents chorusing: “No it’s not.” I mean, a whole bloody tube in 24 hours?

There was no balancing information, no expert opinion. Far easier to frame the item as (1) a tug on the heartstrings and (2) a scare story over a product that was portrayed as dangerous and irresponsible when it’s perfectly harmless, not to mention beneficial, when used as recommended - as most people obviously do.


I’ve since learned that Seven Sharp did interview a Ministry of Health doctor the previous week, when the case was first reported, and she was emphatic that Bonjela was safe provided parents followed the directions. But Seven Sharp shouldn’t assume that people would have seen that item, no matter how much they might like to think that New Zealanders religiously tune in to the show every night. It needed to be restated to provide some much-needed balance to last night’s overwrought item.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t journalism. I don’t think I’ll be tuning into Seven Sharp again in a hurry.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

My 10 favourite New Zealand songs, give or take three


Grant Harding wrote an editorial in my excellent local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, on Thursday marking the start of New Zealand Music Month. His reminiscences about the songs that had left a lasting impression on him reminded me that in an idle moment long ago, I began compiling a list of my own 10 favourite New Zealand records. I got only as far as seven, but for what it’s worth, here they are:

■ Tears (The Crocodiles)
■ Have You Heard a Man Cry (Corben Simpson)
■ E Ipo (Prince Tui Teka)
■ Outlook For Thursday (DD Smash)
■ Glad I’m Not A Kennedy (Shona Laing)
■ Time Makes A Wine (Ardijah)
■ I Hope I Never (Split Enz)

One of these days I might get around to deciding on the other three.

Friday, May 3, 2019

New Zealand, meet Paul Hunt - the man who will shape our human rights policy


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 2.)

We’ve finally been properly introduced to the man who will shape our human rights policy for the next few years, and who will almost certainly seek to tighten the boundaries around what New Zealanders can legally say.

British academic Paul Hunt was appointed as Chief Human Rights Commissioner last October but to my knowledge, hadn’t been wheeled out for public inspection until Kim Hill interviewed him on RNZ National last Saturday.

It wasn’t a reassuring interview. Hunt’s responses to Hill’s questions served only to confirm suspicions that he will push for tougher hate speech laws that could erode the right to freedom of expression.

He talked at length about wanting a respectful and inclusive debate about free speech, but at the end of the interview many listeners would have been left with the impression that he already had firm ideas about what the outcome should be.

Hunt failed to explain why the Christchurch mosque massacres had suddenly made it imperative that we review the laws governing speech. To put it another way, he didn’t satisfactorily answer Hill’s question about how tougher hate speech laws might have averted the atrocity.

The truth is that they almost certainly wouldn’t have. But the massacres gave human rights activists – and we can include Hunt in that category – a perfect opportunity to generate a moral panic. The objective is to stampede politicians into making changes for which there is no demonstrated need.

The push for tighter hate speech laws should be seen as an opportunistic and ideologically driven exploitation of a tragedy. The momentum is coming not from the Christchurch Muslim community, but from left-wing activists and a politicised, media-savvy faction of New Zealand Muslims who purport to speak for all their co-religionists.

As an aside, you might well wonder why the supposedly liberal Left so fervently champions the interests of a religion that, in its more dogmatic forms, oppresses women and persecutes homosexuals.

Equally contradictory is the neo-Marxist Left’s habit of condemning even the most reasoned criticism of Muslim practice and belief as Islamophobic, while simultaneously seizing every opportunity to deride Christianity (the name Israel Folau comes to mind). Don’t hold your breath waiting for the neo-Marxists to explain these inconsistencies.

But back to Hunt.  The question posed in my last column remains: is an English human rights careerist, albeit one who apparently also has New Zealand citizenship, the right person to be in charge of the Human Rights Commission?

Hunt comes from a political and cultural milieu far removed from ours. It grates when I see this newcomer writing about “our” multicultural values, or hear him telling Hill that “we” New Zealanders are very used to striking a balance between competing rights.

Securing a highly influential public position doesn’t make Hunt one of us. It doesn’t magically endow with him an intuitive knowledge of how New Zealand society functions.

On that note, readers may recall that I sought information from Justice Minister Andrew Little on the appointment process. Among other things, I asked who the other applicants were, who was on the interview panel and who made the final decision.

In his reply last week, Little declined to name the other contenders for the job on the basis that applications were made in confidence. Fair enough.

The panel that assessed the applicants consisted of Pauline Winter, former chief executive of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, Sir John Clarke, former chief executive of the Ministry of Maori Affairs, and Al Morrison, then a deputy commissioner with the State Services Commission. 

Four candidates were interviewed and Hunt was judged to be the best suited to the job. Little accepted their recommendation.

I also asked Little whether the government was aware of Hunt’s involvement in British politics. (As disclosed in my last column, he was associated with the socialist Corbynite wing of the British Labour Party.) Little replied that he understood this came up in the interviews but was not identified as a conflict of interest or a disqualifying factor. Hmm.

Kim Hill homed in on this aspect too, and in particular, on Hunt’s support for Corbyn – a politician who has been widely and rightly condemned for condoning anti-Semitism. Hill wondered how this squared with Hunt’s championing of human rights. His answer could only be described as highly equivocal.

Oh, and an intriguing sidelight: Little’s letter revealed that Hunt’s appointment was made in line with a United Nations convention called the Paris Principles, which dictates how human rights commissioners should be appointed. New Zealand is a signatory so must comply.

You never heard of the Paris Principles? Me neither, and it raises an interesting question: what other binding UN agreements has New Zealand committed to without parliamentary debate or even public knowledge? So much for autonomy.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The warped moral values of the literary Left

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz, May 1.)

So, the revered James K Baxter turns out to have been a rapist.

A recently published book reveals that in a letter to a female friend in 1960, the sainted poet admitted forcing sex on his wife. He implied that she enjoyed it, noting that she seemed “10 times happier afterwards”. The tone seemed almost boastful.

That disclosure prompted a woman to divulge, in an article in Stuff’s Your Weekend magazine, that Baxter tried to have sex with her when she was a teenager at his commune at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River.

He persisted despite her protestations. The only reason he didn’t complete the act was that he couldn’t get an erection.

She was 18. Baxter would have been in his 40s. The woman wrote that she was one of several female followers whom Baxter abused sexually. In his letters, he also casually mentioned impregnating “a girl in Auckland” who subsequently lost the baby. 

There is a parallel here with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, another counter-culture hero whose ashram became a mecca for his many celebrity followers, including the Beatles. A disgusted John Lennon wrote the song Sexy Sadie after the Maharishi made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow. 

I wonder what happens now. Will the New Zealand literary elite, who for decades have idolised and even mythologised Baxter, not only as a poet but as an inspirational cultural figure, quietly file him under D for deplorable?

After all, he doesn’t seem so different from the despised Harvey Weinstein and other celebrity male predators targeted by the Me Too movement. Yet the response to the rape disclosure has been distinctly low-key, which raises an interesting question: does a different standard apply when a sexual abuser is a bearded, barefoot poet as opposed to a Hollywood mogul?

Baxter is an iconic figure in New Zealand literature. He was also a spiritual guru to dozens of disillusioned and impressionable young New Zealanders who were drawn to his commune seeking meaning and direction in life.

He made much of his rejection of capitalism and materialism, his embrace of Catholic spirituality and his empathy with Maori. But I wonder how many vulnerable young women he hit on.

I met Baxter once or twice in the early 70s and can confirm that he certainly had a certain charisma, although it’s hard to imagine women finding him sexually attractive. He had long, lank, dirty hair and wore grubby op-shop clothes.

He didn’t look like a man who showered often, if at all. He possibly dismissed personal hygiene as a hang-up of the neurotic white middle classes. But he would hardly have been the first literary idol to imagine that he possessed some sort of sexual magnetism.

There are two striking things about the Baxter rape scandal. The first is the hypocrisy of it all; a man who paraded his humanitarianism and empathy with the underdog, sexually brutalising his wife and taking advantage of vulnerable young women who came to him seeking guidance.

The other is that although it’s shocking, it’s hardly unusual. There has never been any shortage of lionised males from the arts and literary worlds who combined a massive sense of sexual entitlement with apparent indifference toward the women they inflicted themselves on.

The glaring contradiction between this rampant male chauvinism and their professed embrace of sexual equality is rarely acknowledged, still less explored.

From the 1950s through till the 70s, the belief among the arty, left-wing elites was that all sex was liberating. Men not surprisingly took full advantage of this, often treating the women around them as sexual chattels. Their female acolytes played along, perhaps imagining that by doing so, they were showing their contempt for conventional bourgeois morality. 

This led to some truly grotesque behaviour – none more so than the recently revealed abuse suffered in the 70s by the two daughters of the Sydney novelist Dorothy Hewett. An author much admired by the Australian Left for her politically charged writing, Hewett encouraged her teenage girls to have sex with the men in her fashionable circle – among them the late Bob Ellis, a celebrity left-wing journalist and Labor Party speech writer.

Incredibly, when the two daughters wrote about their experiences many years later, they were savaged by their mother’s male contemporaries for damaging her reputation. Such is the warped values system of the literary Left.

Back here in New Zealand, a recent biography of Maurice Shadbolt by Philip Temple portrayed the acclaimed writer as a man whose treatment of women was so reprehensible that even some of his best friends abandoned him – although, to be fair, a woman of my acquaintance who knew Shadbolt told me that’s not how she remembers him.

In an interview with Kim Hill last year, Temple portrayed the New Zealand arts and literary scene of the 1960s and 70s as incestuous and promiscuous. The men slept around at will and the women, needless to say, humoured them. It all sounded sad rather than liberating, and certainly more seedy than sexy. 

Double standards, much? Yep, but there's nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Recommended reading

Juliet Moses has written a coolly rational but powerful piece highlighting the danger to democracy if people like Golriz Ghahraman are permitted to advance their hate speech agenda. Everyone should read it:

https://shalom.kiwi/2019/04/why-golriz-ghahraman-should-not-be-the-guardian-of-our-speech/

Monday, April 22, 2019

On the Israel Folau hysteria


There’s nothing left to be said about the Israel Folau affair, but I’m going to say it anyway.

■ The outrage is confected. People had the choice to either take notice of Folau or ignore him. They chose the former, presumably because it gives them an excuse to display their fury. This is the zeitgeist; the spirit of the times. By taking notice of Folau, and by parading their virtuous indignation in countless social media posts and commentaries in mainstream media, they are giving his beliefs far wider circulation than they would otherwise have had. They are therefore complicit in spreading the harm that they claim to be concerned about. This was perfectly illustrated by a commentator over the weekend who wrote that we should ignore Folau, but then contradicted his own sensible observation by devoting an entire column to him. It makes no sense.

■ If what Folau said in his Instagram post is preposterous, as all his critics say, why dignify it by taking him seriously? That makes no sense either.

■ Folau is said to be quoting the Old Testament prophet Leviticus. His views can thus easily be ridiculed as primitive biblical fundamentalism – the sort of thing that the loving, forgiving Christ of the New Testament would never have endorsed, and therefore not to be taken seriously. But Folau’s post was based on a letter from Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6-9). In other words it’s entirely in line with mainstream Christian belief – or at least mainstream Christian belief as it was generally understood until relatively recently (and still is, in many Pasifika communities). In other words, what Folau is saying is consistent with beliefs that formed the basis of Western civilisation. Seen in that context, it’s not quite the crazy, extremist fringe opinion that it’s characterised as.

■ What’s more, being a committed Christian, Folau presumably believes it’s his God-given obligation to do whatever he can to save other souls by spreading the gospel message. It might not make sense to the rest of us in an overwhelmingly secular society, but that doesn’t free him from what he would see as his duty.

■ As is obvious from all the uproar, Folau’s position is a deeply unpopular one. But since when was it forbidden to express unpopular opinions? The barrage of opprobrium that Folau has brought down on himself sends a clear signal that while we theoretically enjoy the right of free speech, fear of the baying mob will deter all but the most determined from expressing unfashionable thoughts. It’s an ominous pointer to where the pending review of so-called hate speech might lead us.

■ None of the above should be taken as suggesting that Rugby Australia has no legal right to terminate Folau’s contract. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that if he undertook to refrain from making such statements, then he has to live with the consequences. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about the climate of censoriousness that now prevails in the sporting and corporate worlds or about the enforcement of secular orthodoxy, which is no less threatening than the religious kind.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Horses and bikes


Cycling on country roads in the Wairarapa, I occasionally encounter people on horseback. I’m always aware of the risk that a horse will be spooked in these situations, but I’ve never been entirely sure how best to avoid it.

When cyclist and rider are approaching each other, horse and rider can see you coming and have time to react. Common sense dictates that you slow down and allow the horse plenty of room (i.e. move to the other side of the road if possible). But what if you’re approaching from behind and neither horse nor rider knows you’re there?

That happened to me this morning on a quiet country road west of Masterton. I’d exchanged greetings with the female rider on the outward leg of my ride (it’s a dead-end road) and encountered them again from behind as I was riding back home.

I adopted the same approach as usual, slowing right down and moving to the far side of the road. But the horse was spooked when it saw me out of the corner of its eye and the rider got a fright too. It took her a moment or two to get her mount back under control.

I apologised and explained that I would have called out as I approached, except that I thought the sudden sound of a voice might be enough in itself to startle a horse. But she said that’s what I should do in future, so I will.

I’ve since found this advice from Cycling UK and the British Horse Society, which only last year launched a joint campaign dealing with this issue:

Horses can react quickly when startled, so cyclists should drop their pace and call out a greeting, giving the horse and rider time to react before overtaking wide and slow. By alerting the rider and horse to their presence, cyclists run less risk of the horse reacting, and reduce the risk of injury - not just to the rider and their horse, but also themselves.

I pass on this advice for the benefit of other bike riders who might find themselves in a similar situation. Fortunately the rider I met this morning appeared to be experienced and in control of her horse. The outcome could have been different had it been a novice.

Is this the man we want to shape our human rights policies?

(First published in The Dominion Post and Stuff.co.nz., April 18.)

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never done before. I made a request under the Official Information Act.

I suppose it might be seen as shameful, as a journalist, to admit that I’ve never previously had recourse to the OIA, but there you are. I never felt I needed to.

My request was to Justice Minister Andrew Little and asked for information about the appointment of the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt.

Hunt is in a powerful position to influence laws that could affect the quality of New Zealand democracy at its most fundamental level. We can assume that he will be very closely involved in the fast-tracked review of our “hate speech” laws, which has serious implications for freedom of expression.

Yet prior to his appointment last October, virtually no one in New Zealand, outside a narrow political and academic elite, had heard of him. Even now, he’s largely an unknown quantity. But what we do know about him isn’t reassuring.

Hunt is described as a New Zealand and British national, but he comes from a British academic background. He has made a career in the burgeoning international human rights industry.

His lengthy Wikipedia entry, clearly written by an admirer, describes him as a “human rights scholar-activist” and a professor of law at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex. He has held senior appointments with the United Nations, including that of rapporteur on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“Rapporteur” is a fancy word for a UN official who checks to ensure that member countries measure up to the UN’s high expectations. Readers with long memories may recall that a UN rapporteur, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, was sent to New Zealand in 2005 and gave us a telling-off for our multiple human rights failings.

Countries represented on the UN commission that sent Stavenhagen here included Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Cuba – nations internationally admired for their unstinting commitment to freedom.

Similarly, Hunt’s fellow rapporteurs 20 years ago included representatives from Russia, Belarus, Cameroon and Egypt, all of which are ranked as “not free” by the international organisation Freedom House. So we may be entitled to feel just a tiny bit sceptical about the credentials of UN officials professing to champion human rights.

But wait, there’s more. When Hunt wasn’t busy polishing his human rights credentials, he was dabbling in British politics.

To be precise, he contributed to a website called Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as “the home of political news and comment for progressives”. Hunt’s writing on social justice issues aligned closely with the policies of the Corbynite socialist (aka “progressive”) Left of the British Labour Party.

Last year, Hunt put himself forward for election to the party’s National Policy Forum. The aim was to “ensure Labour has an election-winning manifesto”. In a pamphlet, Hunt wrote that he could help strengthen and deliver Labour’s “exciting social policies”.

Of course he’s entitled to embrace whatever brand of politics he likes. But at the same time, we’re entitled to ask whether Hunt, a man steeped in British left-wing activism, is the right person to shape New Zealand’s human rights policies.

We’re also entitled to ask whether there was no suitably qualified candidate from a New Zealand background – someone with an intuitive understanding of New Zealand society and unencumbered by imported leftist ideology. This is one of the questions I’ve put to Little.

Many New Zealanders first heard of Hunt on the Tuesday following the Friday Christchurch mosque shootings, when he had an opinion article published on Stuff. In that article he warned of “violent, transnational, neo-fascist ideology” and issued a thinly disguised call for tougher hate speech laws.

He wrote passionately about the importance of protecting tolerance, diversity and equality, but strangely his polemic made no mention of one of the most fundamental human rights of all: freedom of expression.

Hunt certainly wasted no time seizing the moment. The opportunity was apparently too good to pass up. But New Zealanders might have been more impressed if he hadn’t so quickly rushed to judgment about what caused the shootings – which, after all, were perpetrated by someone from Australia – and deciding what, if anything, needs to be done to avoid a repetition.

No doubt Hunt’s CV ticked all the boxes for Labour and even more so for the Greens, but I wonder whether New Zealand First thought to challenge his appointment. The party’s supporters would surely have expected it to.

I also wonder whether the National Party raised even a squeak in protest. Probably not, since the Nats' election strategy for 2020 seems to consist of keeping their heads down and hoping not to be noticed.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Four wheels bad: why the public transport zealots hate private cars

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz., April 17.)

If you want a stark demonstration of the ideological divide between people who think the state knows what’s best for everyone and those who value personal choice, look no further than the private car.

People love cars for a whole lot of reasons, but their root appeal lies in the fact that they give us options. They enable us to make choices about where and when we travel, and with whom.

This enrages and frustrates ideologues who envision a Utopian collectivist society where such decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats, supposedly for the common good.

The very existence of the private car is an affront to these zealots, because it prioritises individual autonomy over the ideal of a compliant society where people are made to do things their way.

Right now this conflict is being played out in the affluent Auckland beachside suburb of St Heliers, where planners from Auckland Transport are pushing an agenda that appears to have zero backing from locals.

The planners want to remove 40 car parks from the local shopping centre and install 13 raised pedestrian crossings. They also plan to impose a 30 kmh speed limit.

The ostensible reason is that there are too many accidents in the area: 39 between 2013 and 2017, according to Auckland Transport, including three serious injuries. But locals pooh-pooh this grim-sounding statistic, claiming that most of the reported incidents were minor and parking-related.

I believe the supposedly high crash rate is a smokescreen for the real motives of the planners, which are mostly ideological. They don’t like cars and they want to do whatever they can to deter people from using them. They think people should walk or take public transport or ride bikes and scooters.

Public transport in particular is central to their vision. But while we can all understand the benefits of a good public transport system, buses and trains can never replace the car.

That’s because the car confers the ability to go where you want when you want, via the route of your own choosing.  We know there are downsides to this freedom in the form of traffic congestion, accidents and carbon emissions, but society has decided that these are acceptable prices to pay in return for the autonomy that the car bestows.

There is a middle way here, and cities such as Auckland are slowly groping their way toward a balance between the freedom of the car and the efficiency of public transport. But it’s not happening fast enough for Greenies and ideologically driven planners. They want to bring coercion to bear. 

In their perfect universe we would all board buses and trains or ride bikes. But while this takes cars off the road, it can never meet people’s individual needs.

It just doesn’t suit most people to organise their lives around public transport timetables and fixed routes. They want the freedom to decide for themselves when it’s convenient to go to the supermarket, the movies, a restaurant, a sports event or a church service.

The planners and bureaucrats can’t accept this because it doesn’t conform to their notion of how society should function. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the people affected by their proposals – the local residents and business owners who pay their salaries – are united in opposition.

The planning zealots also seem pig-headedly blind to the reality that you can’t carry a week’s shopping home from the supermarket on a bike in the rain, no matter what the passionate cycling advocates say. Neither can septuagenarians, of whom there are a great many around St Heliers, be expected to walk or – still more improbably – ride a scooter to the local shopping centre to meet friends for a coffee.

This is of no concern to collectivist planners. They think people’s individual needs should be subordinate to the supposed greater good. Freedom of choice is anathema to those who think the perfect society is a tightly regulated one controlled by largely anonymous and unaccountable public officials. 

And that’s the other big issue here. Auckland Transport is officially described as a council-controlled organisation, but it’s clearly a misnomer. Elected councillors are often unaware of what their bureaucrats are doing and appear powerless to rein them in.

The lesson from Auckland is that as local government bureaucracies expand, they become ever more distant and aloof from the people they’re supposed to serve. 

The bureaucrats apparently don't even feel any obligation to explain themselves. When TVNZ's Seven Sharp asked for someone to come on the programme and talk about the traffic plan for St Heliers, AT initially agreed and then backed out. Their contempt for the public that they supposedly serve - or was it their inability to put forward a convincing case? - could hardly be clearer.

FOOTNOTE: After this column was submitted for publication, things got even worse. When a public meeting was held in St Heliers to protest at AT's plan (600 people turned up, indicating the depth of local feeling), AT declined to send a representative on the grotesquely implausible pretext that it might not be safe. There you have it: arrogance and cowardice in equal measure. What a contemptible lot. 


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Introducing my sister's debut novel



My sister Julia du Fresne (or Julie, as she’s known in the family) recently published her first novel, 'The Age for Love', which is available as an e-book.  I’m very happy to make this space available to her so that she can spread the word. The book is available from amazon.com or smashwords.com for $2.99 (for a limited period only).

Synopsis:  

Sheela Tree is the “strange name, a name for keeping strangers company”, chosen for a career in theatre by Marie Cassegrain. Marie is the only daughter of Neils, a New Zealander of Danish Lutheran extraction, and Leila, also born in New Zealand but steeped in Irish Catholicism.

It’s a mix described by a prominent psychologist as a recipe for disaster, an opinion echoed by Sheela’s analyst Max Hatfield, “who thinks she’s just a lush”.

Her years of growing inside what amounts almost to a pale - a Catholic parish in a Hawke’s Bay town in the ’50s and a pre-Vatican II boarding school - are revealed during treatment in her 20s for drug and alcohol addiction.

The “strangers” she comes across include would-be thespian Barrie Gore (with whom she becomes only too familiar), whose father Cosmo is “chairman of the vestry at St Cuthbert’s and a pervert” and his mother Violet, “a collector, a bully and a snob”.

Mystic Graham Mikes reads Juvenal and experiences “divine dazes”; Patrick Blackmoor, director of the NZ Theatre Company, is “a pimp of the sophisticated kind”. We also meet Father Edmund, a monk much given to giggling; Xavier, a French set designer and “man of passions”, and Dr Grayson Lamb, who finds the patients he refers for illegal abortions in Christchurch “passive, even submissive”, and makes the most of the opportunities they afford.

Even Sheela’s family are strangers, or so they seem to “the broom brigade”, the shopkeepers and accountants of the Chamber of Commerce - and to the Power Board, Neils’ employer in “the quintessential Nazareth” of Potangotango.

Her mother’s forté is fainting, often rehearsed but sometimes not; her engineer father  might be described as charming, if that were “a word with currency in Potangotango”, while her difficult, disruptive brother Laurence is bipolar and bisexual.

The Catholic Church is examined at a time when, like bulimia and hate speech (not yet invented), there was no whiff of sex abuse.  A priest can be ‘fab’ or ‘choleric’, wear a roman collar and get away with it. Sex outside marriage is sinful – and indulged. “You knew people did it, and incredible though it seemed – imagine Mrs Redmond-Hogg, so thin and mild, or Mr Rozbicki with his gumboots, his accent and harelip – even Catholics did it.”

We glimpse New Zealand’s academia in the days of Roger Hall’s Middle-Age Spread and its runaway success; the city of Cologne during WWII, and the hidden life of a little NZ monastery.

Seen through the eyes of a family like the Cassegrains, small-town New Zealand in the ‘50s is anything but dull and grey, as that era is now said to be.

Incidents of a troubled childhood – one of which her mother forbids her to mention - prefigure a teenage pregnancy and illegal abortion. Years later, at the Mas de l’Ange, a commune in France frequented by theatre types and governed in the spirit of Eros by her lover Xavier, Sheela is confronted by a similar dilemma, this time resolved in that same spirit by Xavier, in the US.

But Sheela, who in New Zealand had barely registered the existence of a tangata whenua, is eventually surprised by a “yearning for something unique to Maori” which brings her home again, to the hill where her father had said the sun always came out, in “the most beautiful place in the world”.

Making a vineyard here, guided by the mystic Graham Mikes and an unlikely newcomer, Sheela finds the lives she had lost and new life for herself - but one which those earlier losses mean she may still lose.



***

Julia du Fresne attended Bill Manhire’s Short Fiction Workshop in its heyday, where her writing was compared favourably with poet Kate Camp’s and playwright Duncan Sarkies’.

“Forget the short story “,  said Manhire,”write the novel”.

So she did. Tucked into corners of her life, du Fresne having been surprised by fifth-time motherhood at age 46, it took her all of the 10 years which is the average gestation for a first novel.

Naturally, she submitted The Age for Love first to Bill Manhire, at Victoria University Press.  Manhire turned it down. Because, he said - although giving high praise to her writing - not many VUP readers would identify with “the distorted world-view” of the chief character. “Distorted”, that is, because Sheela is highly atypical of VUP heroines: as a cradle Catholic, in her 20s she becomes an apostate but  eventually is reconciled with the Church. In other words, politically it’s completely incorrect.

During the years of writing her MS was scrutinised, admired and cheered on by first cousin, short story giant and novelist Yvonne du Fresne. To du Fresne's knowledge The Age for Love is the first in the genre of literary fiction in New Zealand to examine the agonised issue of abortion, suppressed and kept sub rosa as it is by media, publishers and the writing fraternity, all seemingly dominated by ladies of the liberal left.

But just as The Age for Love was rejected by what du Fresne thinks must have been the very last of the shrinking list of print publishers, the first ‘indie’ ebook was launched on the internet.  With other demands on her time, especially now as a blogger on the causes and effects of the crisis in the Catholic Church, it’s taken her several more years to get to the launching pad.

So du Fresne believes that at age 73, she might be New Zealand’s oldest-ever  writer  to publish a debut novel in the genre of literary fiction.

Although graphically detailing abortion and its effects, The Age for Love is not a polemic. It may infuriate you, it may surprise you - and it may even make you laugh.

Excerpt:

No one knew, at the Mas de l'Ange. And if they did would they care? At the Mas de l'Ange their common indifference was a construct of the utmost seriousness. At the Mas de l'Ange, there was nowhere for her to go but into the arms of an angel.

         She remembers screaming, as scarily demonstrated by Leila as a rational woman's first defence against any assailant (in high register to avoid damage to the vocal cords); she knows she screamed as she ran into the night, that starless European night which is never truly dark but always in some quarter illuminated by a baleful pall of electric and neon lighting. She remembers leaving the dining room that evening, closing the door quietly and carefully behind her before breaking into a run, before opening her mouth to scream, after Xavier had gone from the table between the grilled tuna and the cassoulet with Françoise, to take her as Sheela needed no telling, briefly to bed.

When an hour or so later Xavier found her and carried her back into the house, Francoise and Stan going by her pallor and lack of vital signs decided she was dead, but Xavier knew better and phoned for an ambulance. Soaked to the skin and hypothermic, she was unconscious only - as she would have preferred to remain.
“La betise,” he said. “She’ll survive.”
And she did - after a fashion. So did her child - for a time.

To buy The Age for Love, go to amazon.com or smashwords.com.

Author’s bio:

Julia du Fresne is a sometime journalist, painter and actor, lately an organist and still a passionate gardener, wife of Hamish Kynoch, mother of five adult children, grandmother of seven, fully-professed lay Carmelite and blogger at www.juliadufresne.blogspot.com.



           



 




           

Friday, April 12, 2019

Guess what? Hate speech can be punished using existing laws


The moron who shouted abuse at Muslim worshippers outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch on Wednesday now faces a possible prison sentence, and so he should.

Why the police officers stationed outside the mosque didn’t arrest this odious exhibitionist hoodlum immediately is a question only they can answer, but at least someone higher up later thought better of it.

Anyway, Daniel Nicholas Tuapawa has now pleaded guilty to a charge of behaving in an insulting manner likely to cause violence and has been remanded on bail for a pre-sentencing report. He says he has no recollection of the incident.

There’s scope for endless argument about the definition of hate speech, but even a free-speech advocate like me has no trouble deciding that someone who allegedly kicked photos of murdered Muslim worshippers while shouting “Fucking Muslims, they all need to get the fuck out of New Zealand” and “All Muslims are terrorists” – and this outside the mosque where more than 40 people were killed – has crossed the line.

The police who let him get away with it were just plain wrong to decide that he was simply exercising his right to free speech. They should have detained him straight away for a breach of the peace and left it to a court to decide.

But here’s the thing: the charge belatedly brought today shows that the police were able to deal with the offence using existing laws. The lesson is that notwithstanding all the squawking from the opportunistic neo-Marxist Left who insist we need special hate speech laws, there’s ample scope already for deterring people who behave in a threatening way toward minorities.

Friday, April 5, 2019

And in breaking news from Eketahuna ...

The Wairarapa Times-Age reports today that in response to concern about vehicles exceeding the speed limit through Eketahuna, two members of the Eketahuna Our Town Committee carried out tests with a speed gun supplied by the NZTA. "The test results showed that cars were not speeding through the town and that the fastest vehicle to pass through Eketahuna was a tractor."  This is my Story of the Week.

The enemies of free speech have seized the moment


(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., April 4.)

Changes to the gun control laws are a mere trifle compared with what else might come down the legislative pipeline following the Christchurch mosque massacres.

There are an estimated 250,000 New Zealanders with a firearms licence. Of those, we can assume only a small proportion of gun enthusiasts will be directly affected by proposed changes covering military-style semi-automatic weapons.

Changes to what we can say, write, read and hear, on the other hand, could threaten the essential nature and quality of our democracy. Ultimately they would affect everyone. That’s why we should all be extremely uneasy about the pending review of laws governing so-called “hate speech”.

A review was due this year anyway, but Justice Minister Andrew Little says it will be fast-tracked following the Christchurch atrocities.

I don’t believe that Little is necessarily an enemy of free speech, but no one should be in any doubt that the climate is perversely ripe for a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Authoritarian ideologues on the far Left know that if there’s ever going to be a moment when New Zealanders can be persuaded to accept restrictions on what we can say, it’s now, when the country is looking for ways to atone for the appalling atrocities – although they were not perpetrated by us – on March 15.

Before that happens, we should insist on answers to some crucial questions. Here are a few:

■ In what way are existing “hate speech” laws inadequate? Respected legal academics point out that we already have laws that prohibit statements inciting racial disharmony or hostility against minorities. There is nothing to indicate these laws have failed. In fact they are rarely used, which suggests the problem is not as pressing as hate-speech lobbyists claim.

The Human Rights Commission is concerned that current laws cover race, colour and ethnicity but not religion, which means they don’t protect Muslims or other religious minorities. But that should be easily fixed without imposing wider restrictions on speech.  

■ How would tougher speech laws have prevented the killings? That isn’t clear. They might limit the rights of ordinary New Zealanders while having no effect on fanatics like the Christchurch shooter (who, we shouldn’t forget, was Australian). And they would risk driving potentially dangerous opinions underground, where they are harder to counter.

This latter point was made to me last year by Professor Paul Spoonley when I interviewed him for an article on “hate speech” in The Listener. Spoonley, an authority on extremism, questioned the need for tougher laws and described himself as an ardent proponent of free speech. He now seems to have had a change of heart – as he’s entitled to do, although it seems a sharp about-turn.

■ How is hate speech to be defined, especially when one person’s hate speech is another’s legitimate expression of opinion? And crucially, who will do the defining?

One person who can be expected to wield influence over the review is the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt.

Never heard of him? No, many New Zealanders haven’t. He was appointed last October as part of a cleanout that followed a sexual harassment scandal at the Human Rights Commission.

Hunt was recruited from Britain. He is an academic, a human rights careerist and an activist whose adulatory entry in Wikipedia makes much of his work with the United Nations. He is also aligned with the Corbynite socialist Left of the British Labour Party.

Is he someone we should entrust with the job of influencing what New Zealanders can be permitted to read, hear and say? I don’t think so. Not for a moment.

■ Could a review result in police being given power to launch what would effectively be political prosecutions against people for saying the wrong things, as happens in Britain? That would be a radical extension of police powers and one that New Zealanders must oppose.

■ Most important, how is the notion of hate speech to be reconciled with freedom of expression – a fundamental tenet of democracy, and a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act?

New Zealand is internationally admired as a liberal, open democracy. We pride ourselves on respecting freedom of religion, and never more so than in the weeks since the Christchurch shootings.

Freedom of speech is part of the same bundle of rights, but paradoxically we are now being told that one freedom must be restricted to protect another. It doesn’t add up.

The enemies of free speech want to contain political debate within narrow parameters dictated by them, and are prepared to exploit a tragedy to achieve that goal. They must not be allowed to get away with it.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

There's no reason why free speech can't be civil

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on Stuff.co.nz., April 3.)

Some good has come out of the awful events in Christchurch on March 15.

Ordinary New Zealanders came together in an overwhelming display of support for the victims and their families – confirming that, contrary to inflammatory statements by a couple of Green Party politicians, ours is fundamentally a decent society. That was a big plus.

In the wake of the shootings there was also a general recognition that ethnic minorities are an integral part of the New Zealand community; that they have a right to be here and to follow their chosen faiths without hindrance, even when some aspects of those faiths may be at odds with the views of the liberal, secular mainstream. Another plus.

A further consequence of the Christchurch shootings was that many of us became more conscious of the ways in which we unthinkingly perpetuate racial stereotypes – for example, by making jokes about the supposed characteristics of ethnic minorities. Even when no malice is intended, jokes about race can have the effect of magnifying potentially negative perceptions of “otherness”.

These are all changes for the better, but March 15 brought about another significant outcome that can only be positive. 

As New Zealand recoiled in shock and anguish at the violent deaths of 50 innocent people, attention focused on the role of so-called social media in promoting hatred and division.

Not for the first time, Facebook – the platform used by the Christchurch shooter to live-stream his monstrous act – was squarely in the frame. But whereas Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet behemoth has sometimes given the impression of being largely indifferent to the harm it causes, and so powerful as to be virtually untouchable, this time it was shamed into taking at least token action.

Whether Facebook’s newly announced ban on content promoting “white nationalism and separatism” will be effectively enforced remains to be seen. Many commentators are sceptical – understandably so, given Facebook’s record.

But in the meantime, there have been important changes much closer to home. New Zealand’s biggest digital news platform, Stuff, and the long-established Kiwiblog have both announced long-overdue changes to their comments policies. It’s no coincidence that this happened so soon after the Christchurch atrocities, which can at least partly be blamed on the proliferation of hateful online rhetoric.

Comment sections, for those unfamiliar with them, are spaces where readers can express their own thoughts on whatever has been posted online.

In theory, comments are moderated – that is to say, someone is supposed to check them to ensure they’re not defamatory or offensive. But even on a mainstream site like Stuff, which says it rejects roughly one-third of the comments submitted, the comments section is too often a toxic cesspit.

Kiwiblog, the website of conservative political pundit David Farrar, is even worse. The primary content, most of it written by Farrar himself, is usually reasoned and restrained, as you’d expect of someone who is naturally personable and polite. The Kiwiblog comments section, however, can be a fetid swamp.

I must declare an interest here, because I’ve been the target of savage attacks on both Stuff and Kiwiblog – as I am on other anti-social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, where I’ve been abused using language so inventive that it almost commands my admiration.

Someone on Reddit recently called me a “motherf**king odious s**tgibbon”, which even I have to admit has a certain vigorous ring to it. 

The common denominator here is anonymity. As long as people are allowed to hide behind pseudonyms, as the most rancid commenters do, then they feel emboldened to say whatever they like.

Sociologists call it disinhibition – a lack of restraint and a disregard for social convention. It happens because these commenters feel safe behind their online identities with their idiotic cryptic names.

Who knows what these fearless keyboard warriors would be like if they had to identify themselves? It wouldn’t surprise me if they were as meek as lambs.

Newspapers learned decades ago that the quality and tone of letters to the editor improved overnight once writers were required to provide a name and address. It’s a great shame Stuff didn’t adopt a similar policy online, but I guess it reasoned that people would be less likely to post comments if they had to name themselves.

Now the site has made changes aimed at cutting out “comment pollution” and Kiwiblog has done much the same. Farrar has written an admirable exposition of what’s acceptable, what’s not, and why. 

Eyebrows will be raised at Stuff's decision to place certain hot-button issues - such as 1080, immigration and fluoride - off-limits to commenters altogether, but otherwise both sites' moves should be welcomed. After all, there's no reason why free speech shouldn't be exercised in a civil and respectful way.