Friday, September 20, 2019

It's way past time to reclaim and honour our history

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, September 19.)

I remember almost nothing of the history I learned at secondary school. This is odd, because history interests me.

As a kid I would pore over my uncle Dick Scott’s illustrated history of New Zealand, Inheritors of a Dream. I still have it on my bookshelf.

At Central Hawke’s Bay College in the 1960s I was taught history by Brian Davies, one of the few teachers I remember with any affection.

Davies – who, sadly, was found dead a few months ago after being reported missing in Tauranga, aged 85 – would often go off-script and discuss current events. He would talk about the split between the two great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, and the ideological contest between capitalist democracy and totalitarian communism.

But even Davies couldn’t make the history curriculum interesting. I know we were taught 19th century New Zealand history because I vaguely remember stuff about Sir George Grey, but none of it stuck.

Later, at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, I was taught history by Spiro Zavos. I enjoyed Spiro’s classes too, but the enjoyment had little to do with history. He had the advantage of being almost the same generation as his pupils and was easily diverted into discussions about things that were happening in the world of now.

Alas, Spiro left at the end of that year and would later switch to journalism. The Englishman who replaced him was as dry and dusty as the textbooks we were required to read.  

Mr Chips he wasn’t. I retain no memory whatsoever of what we were taught in my upper sixth year, as we called it then, except that the Tudors were involved. It was paralysingly boring and I couldn’t see the relevance of it.

I still can’t, and can only conclude that the curriculum was a hangover from the days of empire. It probably reflected a view that New Zealand was too young, too small and too insignificant to have a real history of its own, and that the only one worth telling was the one we inherited from Britain.

But there’s no earthly reason why history should be dull, and still less reason why we shouldn’t celebrate our own – which is why we should applaud, at least in principle, the government’s decision to make the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory. It should have happened decades ago.

We have a rich and colourful heritage, both pre- and post-European settlement, that has been sorely neglected. In this respect we are quite unlike the Australians and Americans, who cherish their histories – the bad bits as well as the good.

A couple of years ago I found my way to the site of the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu (the beak of the bird) in south Taranaki, where the Prussian adventurer Gustavus Von Tempsky and 20 colonial troops were killed in 1868 by Hauhau warriors under the command of the formidable chief Titokowaru. Right there you have two compelling characters to rival America’s Sitting Bull and George Custer.

I wouldn’t have bothered seeking out the battle site, except that I had a personal reason for going there: my great-grandfather, a member of the Taranaki Volunteers, was wounded in the fighting and narrowly escaped with his life. But here’s the interesting thing: you could drive right past the battle site and not know it’s there.

The same is true of many other significant sites from the New Zealand Wars. How many people know eight soldiers died at Boulcott’s Farm, in what is now the heart of Lower Hutt? Or that a British force of more than 250 laid siege to a Te Ati Awa pa at Battle Hill, near Pauatahunui?

In Australia or America, sites like Te Ngutu o te Manu – Rangiriri, Orakau and Gate Pa too – would be tourist attractions, like the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat or Little Bighorn in Montana. 

So yes, it’s way past time to reclaim and honour our history, and secondary schools are a good place to start.

But there’s an important caveat to all this. There is no neutral view of history and no consensus about how it should be explained and interpreted. It follows that the teaching of history is ripe with potential for revisionism and ideological spin.

The proposed emphasis on colonisation, for instance, makes me uneasy – not because the subject should be ignored, but because colonisation has been seized as a convenient bumper-sticker explanation for everything bad that has happened to Maori.

A balanced reading of our history suggests it's a lot more complicated than that, but I've got an uneasy feeling that the curriculum will come loaded with a very large dollop of white shame and guit.

The buzz and bitchiness of local government politics

(First published in The Manawatu Standard and on, September 18).

I switched on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report one day last week to hear a babble of raised voices all trying to talk across each other. It was the sort of cacophony you might hear when a rat appears in a chookhouse.

I realised instantly that it must have something to do with the local government elections. Sure enough, it turned out to be a debate – a euphemistic term in this instance – between the three main rivals for the mayoralty of Christchurch.

It’s always a febrile time, this period leading up to council elections. There’s a peculiarly bitchy quality to local government: a propensity for petty squabbles and personality clashes that can make national politics look almost mature and sophisticated by comparison. It may be a far smaller stage, but there’s certainly no shortage of ego or ambition.  

What motivates people to stand for office? The answer, you’d like to think, is a desire to enhance community wellbeing and contribute to sound local governance, and no doubt that’s true for many candidates. They’re certainly not in it for glamour, money or prestige.

But with some local politicians, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they become addicted to the buzz of power. There’s a hint of that in Auckland’s mayoral election, where two former Labour cabinet ministers, Phil Goff and John Tamihere, are slugging it out in an ill-tempered contest tinged with personal venom.

Admittedly things could have been worse. Former mayor John Banks, another ex-cabinet minister, threatened to have another run but mercifully changed his mind. There are too many political retreads in local government already.

Should we care what happens in Auckland? Too right we should. For better or for worse, it’s the economic engine room of the whole country, with a GDP that exceeds those of Wellington, Canterbury and Waikato combined. How well it’s managed ultimately affects all of us.

Auckland isn’t the only arena where things have turned heated. In Wellington, filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson has waded into a fractious dispute over a murky development deal involving former Defence Force land and local iwi interests.

Jackson, who seems motivated by a sincere commitment to Wellington, is backing a mayoral challenge by veteran city councillor Andy Foster. It will be interesting to see which side has the greater pull – the earnest but colourless Foster, backed by Jackson’s money, or sitting mayor Justin Lester with the formidable support of the local Labour Party machine.

Meanwhile, in Invercargill, Sir Tim Shadbolt – famous for once saying “I don’t care where as long as I’m mayor” – is chasing his eighth term, and I assume he’ll romp back in. Southlanders love him because he’s given their province something it never used to have: a profile.

Shadbolt cultivates a buffoonish image, but there’s a calculating politician behind the goofy grin. He knows he can get away with self-aggrandising behaviour - such as spending ratepayers’ money on “I met the mayor” wristbands - because he’s trained the voters of Invercargill to expect that sort of stunt from him.

Christchurch illustrates another quirk of local government. Contenders who must realise they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell nonetheless keep putting themselves forward. Their optimism, or perhaps it’s idealistic zeal, is inextinguishable.

John Minto, one of the Christchurch hopefuls, is a case in point. New Zealand voters have an admirable history of rejecting extremists from both the Left and Right of politics, but Minto - a tireless campaigner for radical causes - is undeterred.  Like Mr Wobbly Man in the Noddy stories, he keeps getting knocked down but bounces back up again.

In Christchurch three years ago he won 13,117 votes, or 14 per cent of the total – not an embarrassing result, and certainly a lot better than the 3 per cent he managed when he contested the Auckland mayoralty in 2013. The Left is good at organising, and my guess is that Minto benefited from the highly motivated activist vote. But he was still more than 62,000 shy of Lianne Dalziell’s winning total.

Speaking of Christchurch, mayoral candidate Michael “Tubby” Hansen deserves a special mention. He has contested every election since 1971 and had his best-ever result in 2013, when he attracted 1.57 per cent of the vote.

What makes him stand time after time? That’s a question only he can answer. If Minto represents one type of local government candidate – the committed activist – then Hansen is another: the quixotic oddball. Every city seems to have one.

The depressing thing is that when all the election drama has subsided and the votes have been counted, what difference will it make? In most councils, real power is exercised by bureaucrats over whom elected councillors wield very limited influence and who sometimes treat their nominal bosses with contempt.

This is especially true in Auckland, where so-called council-controlled organisations have turned out to be anything but. The phrase "grassroots democracy" has a nice ring to it, but it has never sounded more hollow.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

It now falls to private citizens to defend free speech

(This column was published in The Dominion Post and on on September 5. I omitted to put it on my blog at the time but I'm correcting that oversight now. The court's decision is still pending.) 

A court case with vital implications for freedom of speech has been played out this week in the High Court at Auckland.

The proceedings were initiated by the Free Speech Coalition, which is challenging the lawfulness of a decision by Regional Facilities Auckland – an arm of Auckland Council – to cancel an appearance last year by the controversial Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

RFA, which controls the venue where the Canadians were to speak, says the action was taken for safety and security reasons after it became apparent that protesters might target the event. But the coalition claims the cancellation was an act of political censorship – and that even if there were genuine safety concerns, which it disputes, RFA shouldn’t have bowed to unsubstantiated threats of disruption.

The coalition argues this set a dangerous precedent whereby a mere threat of trouble can be used to shut down events that protesters disapprove of. This tactic, which is sometimes referred to as the “heckler’s veto”, was also used to justify the ludicrous decision by Massey University’s vice-chancellor to bar the former National Party leader Don Brash.

The real reason for the cancellation of the Brash speech was subsequently revealed to be the vice-chancellor’s objection to his opinions. The Free Speech Coalition suspects there was a similar motive for RFA’s decision not to allow Southern and Molyneux to use the Bruce Mason Centre at Takapuna.

An interesting aspect of the Auckland court proceedings, which took place before Justice Pherose Jagose, was the involvement of the Human Rights Commission as an “intervener” – a status sometimes granted to a person or organisation with no direct interest in the proceedings but with expertise that might help the court in its deliberations.

Anyone expecting the commission to deliver a resounding defence of free speech would have been disappointed. Its 38-page submission canvassed legal issues and precedents but left open the question of whether RFA was justified in denying the Canadians a speaking venue. That will be for the judge to decide.

The commission did, however, say the right to free speech is not absolute, and pointed to a Court of Appeal finding that constraints on “hateful and dangerous speech” – which is what Southern and Molyneux were accused of, although we never found out whether the accusation was justified – were “seldom difficult to justify”. I wonder if that’s a clue to the commission’s thinking, and that it believes banning the Canadians was the correct action.

Certainly it seems we shouldn’t expect the commission to champion what has been regarded for centuries as one of the defining rights of a liberal democracy. It now apparently falls to private citizens, in the form of the crowd-funded Free Speech Coalition, to defend freedom of expression.  

Dry legal arguments aside, the Auckland case was interesting for what it revealed about events behind the scenes.

Documents placed before the court show the speed with which the Auckland Left’s lobbying machine moved into gear once serial protester Valerie Morse learned of the proposed speaking engagement and contacted sympathetic Auckland councillor Cathy Casey.

They knew exactly which buttons to push. Within less than 24 hours, RFA had reneged on a signed contract with the event promoters and mayor Phil Goff had got in on the act and announced on Twitter that the Canadians would be barred from all council-owned venues.

Goff placed himself at the centre of events, telling Radio New Zealand that he wasn’t going to “aid and abet racist nonsense”. He apparently wanted to present himself as the man who saved New Zealand from a pair of racist haters, when in fact the cancellation may have been the action of a risk-averse RFA bureaucracy – albeit one emboldened by the knowledge that the mayor didn’t want the event to go ahead.

One telling email exchange revealed close co-ordination between the mayor’s office and RFA, with an obviously impatient functionary in Goff’s office telling RFA at one point: “The mayor is getting itchy twitter fingers”. Hmmm.

The views of Southern and Molyneux, whom Morse hysterically described as fascists, are almost irrelevant here. Their opinions may be offensive to some, but the main purpose of the court action is to uphold the right of peaceful assembly and challenge the right of bureaucrats and politicians to act as censors.

In any case, free speech includes the right to give offence – and unless the Canadians intended to urge their audience to commit unlawful acts, and there’s no evidence that they did, they were entitled to speak.

More to the point, New Zealanders were entitled to hear them and form their own opinions as to whether the Canadians were poisonous.

Disclosure: I have donated to the Free Speech Coalition. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Quote of the day

On Morning Report, from a Piha resident complaining about the lack of action to remedy local pollution: “When all is said and done, a lot more has been said than done.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Zealand: shining light, or breeding ground for violent extremism?

You may not have heard of the Somalian refugee Guled Mire. He was in the news last month when he appeared before a parliamentary select committee urging the government to remove what he described as a racist restriction on refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

He was referring to a policy introduced in 2009 which requires refugees from those regions to have existing family connections in New Zealand in order to be resettled here.

Speaking in support of a World Vision petition asking for the restriction to be lifted, Mire said it was an unnecessary and racist requirement that shut vulnerable people out.

It wasn’t the first time Mire had spoken out about the supposedly racist society that provided a sanctuary for him, his mother and his eight siblings after they fled civil war in Somalia 22 years ago.

Only days after the Christchurch mosque massacres in March, Mire said on TVNZ’s Breakfast programme that he had experienced racism almost daily in New Zealand. 

The Christchurch attacks, he said, were no surprise. “I think it’s time that we stopped living in denial about the very form of racism that has existed in this country for such a long time. It’s nothing new to us.”

He struck a similar note three months later when he was interviewed for a moralistic Australian-made documentary shown on Al Jazeera television. New Zealand’s Dark Days questioned this country’s reputation as a harmonious, peaceful place and said warnings about rising Islamophobia had been repeatedly ignored.

Mire, who has worked as a government policy adviser and is described on a public speakers’ website as an activist and writer, challenged the “This is not us” speech given by Jacinda Ardern in Christchurch after the shootings.

“This ‘This is not us’ idea is denying our lived experiences,” he told the interviewer. “That racism, that hatred that exists in this nation, is us.” He said the Muslim community in New Zealand had been calling out “violent extremism” for years.

This view aligned with a persistent far-left narrative that surfaced following the Christchurch atrocities. According to this alternative narrative, the slaughter of 51 innocent Muslims was the inevitable consequence of all-pervasive race hatred and white supremacist attitudes. This view overlooked the inconvenient fact that the alleged killer was not a New Zealander and evidently acted alone.

Mire was in the news again on Radio New Zealand this week, when he took exception to National leader Simon Bridges’ dismissive comments about the Ardern-initiated “Christchurch Call”.  Responding to Bridges’ statement that the government should concentrate on problems such as homelessness and the measles epidemic, Mire said: “It’s the same sort of rhetoric used to basically marginalise us people from minority backgrounds again and again. We’ve always felt as though we’re not accepted as New Zealanders and comments like that affirm it.”

But hang on. New Zealand gave Mire and his family refuge after they fled a dangerous, violent country. It also gave him an education and the right to speak his mind, a freedom few people enjoy in the part of the world he comes from. Surely that must count for something.

And before anyone dismisses that statement as the typical racist bigotry of a privileged white guy, perhaps we should take note of the “lived experiences” of other Muslim immigrants, some of which are strikingly at odds with the impression conveyed by Mire.

For example, there’s Gamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor Mosque, where 42 worshippers were shot in the March killings.  Speaking in Dunedin this week, the imam said New Zealand had been a shining light to the world following the shootings.

He recalled that when he first came to New Zealand after 9/11, he was initially afraid to walk in the streets in his religious robes for fear of being attacked. His fear began to subside after he was greeted by a stranger with the unfamiliar words “Hello, bro’”.

He said he was now proud to be a Kiwi. “This is my land. It is the place of my family and my children. It is my turangawaewae. I love this soil. I love us because we are one” [the italics are mine].

The imam noted that there was still hatred and division and people needed to speak out against racism. But otherwise the tone of his message could hardly have been more at variance with that of Guled Mire.

Then there’s Abbas Nazari, an Afghani who was among the Tampa refugees given a home in New Zealand in 2001 after being refused entry to Australia. Then seven years old, Nazari settled in Christchurch with his family and this year won a Fulbright Scholarship after graduating from the University of Canterbury with first-class honours in international relations and diplomacy.

He told The Guardian earlier this year that he recalled his family being given a warm welcome by a huge contingent of locals when they arrived at Christchurch Airport and said the warmth and acceptance they experienced then set the tone for the family’s new life.

He went on to say: “I can’t recall any instances of racism, and that’s the same experience for the vast majority of my family and community. I can’t recall any instances where I was marginalised or I was on the receiving end of a whole heap of crap at all.

“We wove naturally into the fabric of New Zealand society. So when I hear stories of prejudice and racism, I know for sure that it exists but my experience in New Zealand has been amazingly warm and welcoming.”

It doesn’t sound like the same country Guled Mire describes. And then there was the story this week about the Hutt City council election candidate Shazly Rasheed, an immigrant from the Maldives, whose billboards were defaced with swastikas and racist messages.

That Rasheed’s election advertising was targeted, presumably because of her skin colour, is despicable. But on the plus side she said she had lived in New Zealand for 20 years and only once been racially abused, by skinheads in Hamilton.

Even a single instance of racial abuse is one too many, but otherwise Rasheed’s “lived experience” seems at variance with Guled Mire’s too.  You have to wonder whether the problem is with him.

I think back too to the dignified response of the Muslims who survived the Christchurch attacks. Their reaction was not one of anger, but of sadness that this terrible thing had happened in a country that they thought of – and still think of – as inclusive and welcoming.

I remember the Christchurch Muslim woman who told the BBC she and her family had come to New Zealand because it was safe and that she had never felt threatened here. And I recall the thousands of New Zealanders who showed their solidarity with the Muslim community by attending public vigils, setting up tribute sites and donating millions to a Givealittle appeal. I find it hard to reconcile all this with Guled Mire’s view of New Zealand.

Which image of New Zealand is the more accurate: the hateful, racist one, or the tolerant, inclusive one? I’ll go with the latter, thanks. It’s pointless to deny that racism exists in New Zealand, but that doesn’t make this a racist country. It seems to me that Guled Mire is himself guilty of the divisive rhetoric he accuses others of.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Every Life Matters? Really?

The government has chosen an unfortunate slogan for its commendable campaign to reduce suicides. If "Every Life Matters", as we’re now being told, how come the same government wants to liberalise the abortion laws?

More than 13,000 abortions were performed in New Zealand last year, indicating that there are few barriers to the procedure even under existing law. How many more abortions will be carried out if those few barriers are removed, as the government intends, is anyone’s guess.

We’re constantly told that the current abortion law is archaic and no longer fit for purpose, but one thing hasn’t changed. The 1975 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion accepted expert evidence that life begins at conception. The science hasn’t changed, even if the prevailing ideology has.

Any point after conception that is claimed as the starting point of life is an entirely arbitrary one, adopted for convenience.

That royal commission (appointed, incidentally, by a Labour government) also found that the unborn child, “as one of the weakest, the most vulnerable and most defenceless forms of humanity”, was entitled to protection.

That hasn’t changed either. If this government truly believed that every life matters, it would apply that principle to abortion as well as to suicide. Otherwise it stands accused of adopting a glaring double standard. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Okay, now let's hear the other side of the story

Susan Strongman’s recent Radio New Zealand hatchet-job on Pregnancy Counselling Services has achieved exactly what I believe was intended.

Tauranga-based Sun Media picked up and pursued Strongman’s ALRANZ-enabled story about PCS, a pro-life counselling service, receiving public funding through the community organisation grants scheme (Cogs) administered by the Department of Internal Affairs.

Sun Media reported that the minister responsible for Cogs, Poto Williams, had “gone to ground” over claims that grants to PCS broke rules forbidding money going to services or activities that promote political or religious activities. PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and takes a pro-life position.

The use of that loaded phrase “gone to ground” is interesting. It suggested Williams was either unable or unwilling to defend the grants, which in turn gave the impression there must be something shonky going on. But the explanation from Williams’ press secretary was a standard one in such circumstances: ministers quite properly don’t get involved in individual grant decisions, which are left to local committees to determine.

According to Strongman’s story, which she wrote after putting out a call for information on the Facebook page of the abortion rights activist group ALRANZ, PCS has received $335,000 of taxpayer money over 15 years.

Pro-life groups believe – and I’m certain they’re right – that the purpose of the story was to choke off public funding of PCS. Certainly the tone of the piece was hostile and set off what looked suspiciously like an orchestrated response.

Right on cue, other abortion rights activists came forward, such as Professor Liz Beddoe of the University of Auckland, who questioned why PCS should get funding when there were plenty of other organisations providing information about pregnancy. It offends these people mightily that PCS makes pregnant women aware of other choices besides termination.

As I say, the tone of Strongman’s piece was hostile. However there’s still a chance for her to salvage her damaged credibility and reputation as an impartial journalist. All she needs to do is exhibit the same investigative zeal by finding out how much public money has been swallowed up by Family Planning, the government-subsidised pro-abortion agency that facilitates a large proportion of the terminations undertaken in New Zealand.

It’s dollars to donuts that the amount of public money spent on aborting babies dwarfs the sum that has gone to a small organisation committed to trying to save them. If Strongman believed in editorial balance, she would have included this information in her story. Even now it’s not too late for her to find out and tell us, in the interests of a properly informed debate. But I’m not holding my breath.

Bad news for Grey Power Electricity: I think I'll stick with them

On Friday morning I got a phone call from a marketing person at Grey Power Electricity, of which I’m a customer. She was responding to my email three days earlier in which I complained that I’d wasted a day because I wasn’t advised in time that a scheduled power outage that was supposed to affect my property had been cancelled.

To recap: I’d been advised weeks earlier that the outage would take place from 9am till 3pm last Monday. As I work from home I put in time over the weekend to complete the work I would normally do on Monday. My wife and I ended up going to Palmy for the day – not because we needed or wanted to, but because it would have been pointless sitting at home with no power. But at 1.55 pm, nearly five hours after the power was supposed to be switched off, I got a call on my mobile from GPE telling me that there had been no outage after all.

My email to GPE last Tuesday morning, which I posted on this blog, asked for (a) an explanation and (b) an offer of compensation for the time wasted and inconvenience caused. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I received neither.

What I got from the GPE representative who phoned me was a chronology of events which showed that Powerco, the lines company that was supposed to be doing the job that got cancelled, didn’t notify GPE of the change until 10.21am. So as I surmised, Powerco’s incompetence was the starting point for the screwup.

However, that was compounded by GPE’s slack response. According to the timeline given to me by GPE, it was 12.30 before they started phoning affected customers. So, a two-hour delay. Why? That wasn’t clear.

All affected customers were contacted by 2pm, I was told, as if this was a satisfactory outcome. I must have been one of the very last customers to get the call. But given that it was five hours too late, why even bother?

I asked how many customers were affected, but she wasn’t sure; perhaps “a couple of hundred”. Neither could she tell me whether Powerco had explained the reason for cancelling the outage, or why it apparently sat on its hands for nearly an hour and a half before it occurred to someone that perhaps the customers should be notified.

More than once she “sincerely apologised”. She also said these things happened often – to which I responded that if that were the case, you’d expect the company to have systems set up to deal with them. She then corrected herself to say these things happened “from time to time” – but the same applies.

I asked whether GPE would consider any form of reparation, to which she replied, “Not at this stage” – which kind of implied that they might do so at a future date, which I think is about as likely as a herd of wildebeest stampeding through my backyard. It was the response I expected, since any olive branch extended to me would need to be extended to other disaffected consumers too, and GPE wouldn’t want to set a precedent.

She also noted, with what I thought was a faint tone of disapproval, that I had blogged on the subject, and subtly let it be known that she hoped I wouldn’t so again, as if this should be our little secret. 

But here I am doing exactly that, and for a very good reason. In the grand scheme of things, one day’s inconvenience is a mere bagatelle. I’m mindful that there would very likely have been other consumers far more put out than I was, such as elderly or disabled people stranded at home. However I’m writing about my wasted Monday because consumers too often feel powerless when they get dicked around in myriad small ways. They are entitled to use every tool at their disposal to expose poor service and to shame slack companies into lifting their game. Negative publicity – even if it’s just a blog post from a solitary kvetcher in the provinces – is one thing risk-averse, image-conscious corporates hate.

Of course I always have the option of shifting to another electricity retailer. But while that might give me some moral satisfaction, it would likely be a pyrrhic gesture. Grey Power Electricity is hardly likely to mourn the loss of one customer, and in any case I’m not confident that other suppliers are necessarily any better. I think the better course is to stick with GPE and make a nuisance of myself.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Activism disguised as journalism

Radio New Zealand continues to exhibit utter contempt for its obligation of impartiality.

In a story published on the RNZ website yesterday under the headline NZ's right wing turn up in force for controversial free speech case, reporter Matthew Theunissen painted a lurid picture of “notable right-wing figures” turning up at the Auckland High Court, where the Free Speech Coalition was challenging Auckland Council’s right to deny a public speaking venue to Canadians Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux.

Theunissen reported that Don Brash, “the man behind the Orewa speech”, made an appearance and Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers’ Union was listening intently in the gallery, “a few seats down from a man wearing a MAGA (Make Ardern Go Away) hat”.

He added that “old” Conservative Party leader Colin Craig (I think Theunissen meant “former”, but hey – who expects journalists to have a command of correct English?) “poked his head around the door at one point”.

There you have it, then: as sinister a collection of shadowy right-wing rogues and conspiratorial schemers as you could wish for. Theunissen seemed intent on making it sound like a clandestine meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, or perhaps a reunion of old Nazis. I'm not sure they turned out 'in force', as the headline said, which implied a room full of menacing men in brown shirts and jackboots, but let's not get too picky. 

Theunissen went on to describe one of the applicants appearing in support of the Free Speech Coalition's case as “would-be Dunedin mayor, climate change denier, Donald Trump supporter and rare books dealer Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle” (whose name Theunissen misspelt, but hey – who cares about getting names right when it’s the sneering tone that matters?).

The relevance of Moncrieff-Spittle’s views on climate change and Donald Trump wasn’t clear, but never mind; the important thing was to convey the impression that this was a court action brought by a bunch of crazy and possibly dangerous old men.

Even Jack Hodder QC, who represented the Free Speech Coalition, didn’t escape. Theunissen’s assiduous research had established that Hodder also acted for the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners in opposing aspects of the recent changes to the gun laws.

No further evidence needed, then. It was left to readers of Theunissen’s piece to conclude that the disreputable figures congregating in the Auckland High Court were racists (Brash – ref. the Orewa speech of 2004), religious cranks (Craig), champions of heartless free-market capitalism (Williams) and probably white supremacists (Moncrieff-Spittle). Oh, and possibly gun nuts too (Hodder).

The unmistakeable purpose of the article was to denigrate those involved in the Free Speech Coalition’s case and by doing so, to discredit the court action.  Never mind that the coalition’s motivation is to defend the freedom of speech that Theunissen and his colleagues – all funded, incidentally, by the taxpayer – depend on every day for their livelihood.

RNZ followed that up today with the results of an obviously laborious investigation (pun not deliberate) into Pregnancy Counselling Services, an organisation that offers support to pregnant women facing a choice between having an abortion or carrying their baby to full term.

It’s no secret that PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and tries to encourage women to at least consider having a baby rather than immediately taking the abortion option, so that was hardly a “stop the presses” exclusive. RNZ reporter Susan Strongman concentrated instead on portraying PCS as dishonest in the way it promotes its services and highlighting the fact that it has received modest financial support under the government’s Community Organisations Grants Schemes (Cogs).

Trouble was, Strongman’s credibility as an impartial journalist was fatally compromised when she was sprung collaborating with pro-abortion activist group ALRANZ. As reported on this blog last month, Strongman used the ALRANZ Facebook page to seek information from women who had sought counselling from PCS “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

Strongman’s post on the ALRANZ page introduced her as a “friendly journalist” and said that “Terry [Terry Bellamak, president of ALRANZ] can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist”. Prospective sources were told “you can get my mobile number off Terry”.

It’s one thing for journalists to use contacts to go on a  fishing expedition for information, but another to align themselves so closely with one side of a divisive and contentious political debate, especially when the reporter is working for a state-funded broadcaster with an obligation of neutrality.

Certainly, pro-life groups were convinced that Strongman was out to do a hatchet job on PCS with the aim of cutting off an important source of funding. Reading Strongman’s 3400-word article does little to dispel that impression, although I can’t help wondering if it was toned down once she realised she’d been rumbled.

It includes, for example, an interview with the chair of the PCS board of trustees, but there’s no concealing the article’s partisanship. As with Theunissen’s piece on the Free Speech Coalition’s court action, it can only reinforce concerns about the increasing incidence of activism disguised as journalism, and further undermine public confidence in Radio New Zealand as an impartial source of information on matters of vital public interest.

NZ First ministers and their hats

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, September 4.)

What is it about NZ First ministers and their hats?

There’s Ron Mark, the Minister of Defence, who’s rarely seen without his trademark cowboy hat.

This might be explained by the fact that he’s a country music fan. But not being a tall man, it’s also possible he deduced a long time ago that wearing a distinctive hat ensured people noticed him.

He certainly likes to be seen. Years ago, when he was mayor of Carterton, I observed him working the crowd at a local country music festival that he helped organise.

It was almost embarrassing to watch. Mark was the MC for the day, and when he wasn’t on stage he paraded around the venue in a cringeworthy display of grandstanding. 

He got up and sang too – and to be fair, he has an okay voice, although no more than that.

I admit I’m in two minds about Mark. I used to appear with him occasionally on my brother’s radio show in Wellington, in a segment in which we discussed the events of the week.

I liked him and respected his clear thinking. It probably helped that we agreed on a lot of things. I would never doubt that he’s sincerely motivated by a desire to do the right thing for his country.

I also admired him because he came from a disadvantaged background but rose above it.  He would be the first to give his foster-parents credit for that, but it must have been due to his own efforts too.

Perhaps that background explains his determination to prove himself. He has something of the character of the bantam rooster about him – a quality that sometimes comes to the surface in parliamentary debates, where he has occasionally lost control of both his tongue and his judgment.

He makes much of his military background, of which he’s very proud, although I’ve heard mixed reports about how he was regarded by his army colleagues.(Of course that could be the tall-poppy syndrome at work.)

To give him his due again, he appears to have been an unusually effective Minister of Defence. On Mark’s watch, real progress has been made in replacing scandalously outdated Defence Force equipment.

That presumably reflects NZ First’s sway within the coalition government. The party has a degree of influence that’s unearned and undeserved, but which occasionally delivers good outcomes nonetheless.

But there’s still that troubling self-promotion shtick. At the Featherston Booktown festival earlier this year, I went to a well-attended session about Paddy Costello, the brilliant post-war New Zealand diplomat who was suspected of being a Soviet spy.

Mark was there and apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity presented by a captive full room. At question time he took the floor and talked for a good 10 minutes about the things he was doing as Minister of Defence. There was no connection whatsoever with Costello but the audience listened politely because that’s the sort of people New Zealanders are.

But back to those hats. The other NZ First minister with a penchant for headgear is, of course, Shane Jones, whose preferred styles are the fedora and the pork pie hat.

When these are worn in combination with a heavy overcoat, as they often are in Jones’ case, the visual effect is worryingly gangsterish. I’m waiting for him to complete the image by carrying a violin case, as was the habit of the notorious 1920s Chicago Mafia hitman Samuzzo Amatuna.

According to legend, Amatuna, who was an accomplished violinist, used his instrument case to conceal a tommy gun with which he would assassinate rivals. I’m not suggesting Jones is a mobster, but he does seem to take pleasure in cultivating a certain gangsterish swagger which sits uncomfortably with his propensity to play fast and loose when it comes to matters such as perceived conflicts of interest.

Jones’ other political trademark is his verbosity, with which he mesmerises journalists. He’s adept at using his loquacity to avoid giving straight answers to awkward questions and seems unable to decide whether his role model is Winston Churchill or Al Capone.

Yes, he’s a colourful, outspoken and charismatic character in a political arena where colour, charisma and risk-taking are in short supply. But are these the qualities we want from a minister charged with spraying $3 billion of public money around in the most undisciplined spending spree in New Zealand history?

The Provincial Growth Fund that Jones controls lacks contestability, transparency and accountability. It’s a recipe for political patronage, pork-barrelling and vote-buying on an unprecedented scale.

Colour and charisma are all very well, but I think most New Zealanders rate integrity as a more desirable attribute.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

A case study in how to piss off your customers

This is one for my bulging "Doesn't it piss you off when you get dicked around" file. It's an email I sent this morning to Grey Power Electricity and its partner, Pulse Energy.

I am a Grey Power Electricity customer. 
Several weeks ago I was advised by letter of scheduled power outages on Sunday August 11, Monday August 12 and Monday September 2.
The first two outages took place more or less as scheduled. As I work from home these were a major inconvenience [for the benefit of blog readers, the power went off at 9am and was supposed to come back on at 3.15pm], but I was prepared to accept that.
I say “more or less as scheduled” because the outage on August 12 was supposed to end at 3.15pm but continued until after 6pm, causing further inconvenience.
Yesterday’s outage was supposed to start at 9am and continue until 3pm. Accordingly, I made sure that all the work I would normally do on a Monday was completed during the weekend, which disrupted my normal leisure time. It was a lovely weekend and I would have preferred to be in the garden.
As it turned out, the outage never happened. I was advised of this in a phone call that I received at 1.55pm, nearly five hours after the power was supposed to be turned off.
Needless to say, the call was useless. I had gone to Palmerston North for the day – not because I needed to, but because it would have been pointless staying home with no power. In other words, it was a completely wasted day.
It’s hard to see any explanation for this other than poor planning and/or incompetence. If the outage was cancelled, why couldn’t consumers have been advised earlier, when there was still time to re-arrange commitments for the day?
I write to request two things:
1. An explanation as to why I wasn’t notified of the cancellation until it was far too late to be of any use; and
2.  An offer of compensation for the inconvenience caused and time wasted.
Yours sincerely,
Karl du Fresne

It's possible the blame is shared by Powerco, which I believe was doing the work that necessitated the outage, but as the retailer it appears to be the responsibility of Grey Electricity/Pulse to keep customers informed.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Some more thoughts on Ihumatao

I’ll say this much for Pania Newton, the leader of the Ihumatao occupation: she’s got nerve.

I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. Perhaps chutzpah, that wonderful Hebrew word meaning brazen audacity or cheek, would be a more appropriate term.

Newton effectively demanded that prime minister Jacinda Ardern drop everything and rush to Mangere to pay homage to her. When Ardern politely declined, an obviously sniffy Newton arranged a protest march on Ardern’s electorate office, just to let her know her priorities were all wrong.

Well, here’s the news: the prime minister of New Zealand is not answerable to Newton or her followers.

Clearly, all the media adulation of the past few weeks had gone to Princess Pania’s imperious head. How dare the prime minister ignore her?

But on this occasion, Ardern was right – right not to go to Ihumatao, and right not to be at her Mt Albert office to meet the protest marchers. She had other commitments to fulfil and was entitled to put them first.

The same was true when she went to Tokelau last month and was unfairly chided by Simon Bridges for being a part-time prime minister. What was Bridges suggesting: that she cancel a long-scheduled visit to a New Zealand dependency – the first by a prime minister in 15 years – just to humour some protesters? That struck me as a very peculiar call for a National Party leader to make, and one that raised questions – not for the first time – about Bridges’ judgment.

As for Newton, she needed to be put in her place. It would have done her no harm to have her massive sense of entitlement punctured.

Besides, Ardern had already made one mistake by arbitrarily announcing a halt to the Ihumatao development when she had no right to. Either she’s had second thoughts or her advisers have convinced her that the government should stay well clear of what is essentially an intra-tribal dispute.

Her public position now is that there’s a reconciliation process underway involving the Tainui iwi and it should be allowed to take its course: Maori negotiating with Maori.

Much as it would suit Newton for the government to intervene on her side, it would be utterly wrong – and a dangerous precedent – for the state to interfere with a deal lawfully done between the developers, Fletchers, and tribal elders. To use a rugby analogy, it would be screwing the scrum.

It spoke volumes that when Ihumatao protest supporters marched on Parliament last month demanding government intervention, Maori MPs acquainted with the history of the dispute stayed away, quietly insisting that it was a matter for the mana whenua – the people with ancestral rights over the land – to sort out themselves.

Sadly but predictably, Green MPs have not been so circumspect. Ihumatao in many respects is the perfect Green Party cause – one where overwrought, undergraduate idealism and overheated rhetoric prevails over considered assessment. So it was no surprise that Marama Davidson, Golriz Ghahraman, Jan Logie and Chloe Swarbrick made sure they were seen virtuously displaying their solidarity with the supposed victims of colonial oppression.

Now I see normally sensible commentators tut-tutting over Ardern’s hands-off approach. Peter Dunne has written an emotional piece for Newsroom in which he presents Ihumatao as the newest addition to a growing list of issues on which the Labour Party has betrayed its supporters’ expectations and crushed their hopes.

Simon Wilson in the New Zealand Herald goes much further, suggesting that this is a defining test of Ardern’s leadership. In an apparent rush of blood to the head he labels Ihumatao as “a disaster” and a “cultural crisis”.

No it’s not, Simon. Get a grip.

He even draws a parallel with the Christchurch mosque massacres, implying that Ardern has the same moral responsibility to front-foot the issue as when 51 people were murdered by a terrorist. But a child can see there’s no equivalence. No one has died at Ihumatao, no one’s life is even threatened, and in fact there’s no reason to suppose that the dispute won’t eventually be satisfactorily resolved.

But that requires people to calm down, take a deep breath and stop indulging in breathless hyperbole (in Wilson’s case) and emotional blackmail (in Newton’s). Then we might get somewhere.

The view from the Airport Flyer

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 22.)

I recently did something every rah-rah cheerleader for Wellington should do.

I took the Airport Flyer bus from the airport to the railway station. It’s a trip that presents a very different picture of the city from the one promoted by the booster brigade for the world’s “coolest capital”.

The problem is not the bus service, as suggested recently by a local politician, doubtless with his eyes on the forthcoming council elections. It’s the city itself.

For many visitors, the Airport Flyer provides the first experience of Wellington, and it’s not an inspiring one. It may be heresy to say this, but Wellington as seen from the airport bus is grotty.

Note that I say grotty, not gritty; gritty can be cool, but grotty never is. 

The capital has a magnificent front entrance, but the Airport Flyer approaches the city via its scruffy back yard.

Before going any further, I should stress that I’ve spent much of my working life in and around Wellington, and there’s a lot about the city that I love. I’ve proudly shown overseas visitors its better parts.

There remains some truth in the slogan that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, but the rarely mentioned qualification to that statement is that the truly good days come rarely. The reason Wellington celebrates them so extravagantly is that its climate is essentially hostile to human existence. 

Much of the time the city is bleak and windblown, as it was on the day of my Airport Flyer ride. This served only to accentuate the inconvenient truth that large parts of Wellington look drab, desolate and neglected.

Our trip begins in Rongotai. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how the presence of Sir Peter Jackson’s film-making empire has lifted the eastern suburbs, but there’s bugger-all evidence of it in Rongotai and Kilbirnie.

Mostly the flat eastern suburbs remain what they always were: areas of mean, low-cost, early 20th century houses jammed too close together and apparently owned by landlords too stingy to do maintenance or buy paint. Many have been butchered by cheap and ill-conceived alterations.

The tone lifts as the bus proceeds through Hataitai, one of my favourite Wellington suburbs, and the quaint Mt Vic bus tunnel is a treasure. But then you’re through to the other side, and it’s almost Kilbirnie all over again.

Mt Victoria is supposedly one of Wellington’s most desirable locations, but you wouldn’t guess it from Pirie St. It’s a clutter of ill-matching properties, many of them tired, rundown and of little aesthetic or architectural merit. San Francisco it ain’t.

Cambridge and Kent terraces are an eyesore – a jumble of cheap, gimcrack commercial buildings cobbled together by opportunist investors and developers with no concern other than making a buck.

Courtenay Place? It looks even more squalid by day than by night, when at least the darkness blurs the tattiness. Manners Street is little better.

It was about this point on my journey that I noticed something else. The few people on the streets appeared to have purchased their clothing from op-shops and generally looked demoralised and defeated.

A stranger would have concluded that this was the poor side of a town that had seen better days – an antipodean Detroit, perhaps – and that the sad-looking pedestrians shuffling along the footpaths were making their way to the nearest soup kitchen. 

The overall impression created by both the people and the shabby streetscapes was one of impoverishment. But this was downtown Wellington – "Absolutely Positively Wellington", the dynamic capital of one of the world’s most affluent economies.  How could this be?

Earlier that morning I had flown in from Europe where, for all its supposed problems and stresses, city streets were teeming with life and exuded energy and positivity, and where dazzling architecture turned my head around every corner. The contrast was striking – and slightly unsettling.

I know other people who have noted the same thing about Wellington but are afraid to state it for fear of being howled down. 

It’s only when the Airport Flyer gets to Willis Street and Lambton Quay that the traveller gets any impression of a vibrant and prosperous city. That’s assuming they haven’t already been so disconcerted by what they’ve seen that they’ve pressed the “stop” buzzer and taken a cab back to the airport so they can catch the next plane out again.

Admittedly there’s not a lot that can be done to fix this, short of re-routing the Airport Flyer around the bays, which would obviously be impractical. But let’s at least abandon the smug pretence that Wellington is a glorious gem that instantly bewitches every newcomer.

Yes, bits of it are charming, but much of the city looks tired and unloved to the point of appearing almost derelict. If you don't believe me, take a trip on the Airport Flyer and try to look around with an objective eye.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Britain under Boris

(A slightly shorter version of this column was published in the Manawatu Standard and other papers on August 21.)

These are extraordinary times in British politics. Under its flamboyant new prime minister, Boris Johnson, Britain is more polarised than at any time since Margaret Thatcher.

A crucial difference is that Thatcher split the country along traditional party lines. She was despised with visceral intensity by the Left but revered by her own Conservative Party, whose fortunes she revived after a spell in the doldrums under the colourless Edward Heath.

Electoral success is ultimately what counts to the British Conservatives, as is the case with our own National Party, and the Tories can normally be relied on to unite behind a winner.

In Thatcher's case, the resistance within her own party came from a relatively small group of disaffected “wets” – most notably her former minister Michael Heseltine – who disliked her swingeing free-market economic reforms.

Johnson, on the other hand, has fractured the Conservatives to the extent that some former Tory ministers are exploring ways of helping Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to form an “alternative” government.

In normal circumstances this would be unthinkable, but these are not normal times.

The issue that has created this deep political rupture is, of course, Britain’s membership of the European Union. Johnson has staked his future on successfully leading Britain out of the EU in line with the 2016 referendum that resulted in a 52-48 vote in favour of leaving.

It’s a giant step into the unknown – too risky by far for the so-called Remainers in the Conservative Party, who are determined to thwart Johnson even if means installing Corbyn, an unreconstructed, old-school socialist, in No 10 Downing St.

So what are we to make of the politician whose tousle-haired blond head has become the lightning rod at the centre of this storm?

Johnson’s defenders say he has been unfairly and inaccurately caricatured, and they appear to have a point.

He has been portrayed as a British Donald Trump, with all that implies. He is commonly depicted as a buffoon, an oaf and a dilettante. But he graduated from Oxford with a second-class honours degree and had a successful career in journalism, including six years as editor of The Spectator, before moving into politics.

His best work as a journalist was incisive and informed. It showed a level of intellectual sophistication and wit that would be far beyond Trump.

Johnson has also been described as the archetypal old Etonian toff – a cross between Bertie Wooster and the classic boarding-school bounder so beloved of English fiction writers dating back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

It’s certainly true that he had a privileged and uniquely English upper middle-class upbringing, but he combines that background with a sharp intellect and a common touch that was evident in his eight years as Mayor of London. That’s a rare political skill set.

More unfairly, Johnson has been disparaged as being anti-immigration and opposed to cultural diversity. This ignores the inconvenient fact that he appointed a cabinet which includes more ministers from ethnic minorities than any in British history.

Other criticisms – for example, that he’s a serial philanderer and politically accident-prone – are much harder to counter.

Inevitably, his political ascendancy brought his turbulent personal life back into sharp focus. That was apparent in June when The Guardian, standard-bearer for the British Left, reported that the police were called after neighbours overheard an angry shouting match between Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds.

Not content with dialling 999, the couple next door to Symonds’ flat in Camberwell thoughtfully recorded the row and supplied the tape to the paper, which splashed it across the front page. 

The neighbours told The Guardian they recorded the “screaming, shouting and banging” because they were concerned for Symonds’ safety.

Of course they were. No doubt that’s why they took the tape to the paper.

Disappointingly for both the neighbours and The Guardian, the police, who sent three vehicles to Symonds’ address, said there were no offences or concerns apparent and no cause for police action.

Johnson and Symonds subsequently had to leave the flat because of protesters in the street outside. No doubt they were concerned for Symonds’ safety too.

The neighbours, incidentally, were subsequently identified as Eve Leigh and Tom Penn, who sound like a pair of classic chardonnay socialists: she an American “experimental playwright”, he a “theatre maker” – whatever that is – and composer.  The arts sector is overwhelmingly, you might say hysterically, anti-Johnson and anti-Brexit.

The flat occupied by Leigh and Penn is reportedly valued at £750,000 so they’re obviously not short of a bob. Both work in the arts sector, which is heavily dependent on state subsidies, so they can be assumed to have their hands deep in the taxpayers’ pocket. Not your working-class battlers, then.

Penn said he called The Guardian because he felt it was a matter of important public interest. Yeah, right.

He claimed he was not political but admitted he was a Remainer, while Leigh had proudly tweeted on a previous occasion that she had given Johnson the finger. So we’re obviously talking about people with a high level of emotional maturity as well as impeccable moral principle.

Sanctimonious justifications aside, the Guardian’s story looked like a bit of journalistic mischief from a paper that vehemently opposes Brexit. But it was an example of the type of scrutiny Johnson is subjected to.

Interestingly, the clash of opinions over him has been fiercest among those who know him personally. It has been played out in recent months in the columns of the magazine he once edited, The Spectator.

It started with a savage attack on him by Sir Max Hastings, a former editor of the conservative Daily Telegraph, who was once Johnson’s boss.

Hastings, who once vowed to flee to Buenos Aires if Johnson was given the keys to No 10, marvelled that the Conservatives could consider delivering power into the hands of a man no one could trust with their wallet, handbag or spouse. 

He wrote that Johnson’s air of geniality concealed an egomania that precluded concern for the interests of any human being other than himself. In an even more damning article in The Guardian, Hastings accused him of cowardice, moral bankruptcy and contempt for the truth.

Those attacks triggered a withering response from Sir Conrad Black, the former owner of both The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, who has lately made a comeback in public life after a period in disgrace for alleged embezzlement.

Black, who knows both men well, declared Johnson to be more trustworthy and reliable than Hastings, whom he labelled an ill-tempered snob.

It was an extraordinarily bitter exchange between two prominent establishment figures, and an indication of the depth of feeling over the new prime minister – and Brexit.

Clearly, Britain is in for a wild ride.  The world will be watching to see whether Johnson crashes and burns, taking his country down with him, or successfully delivers on his promise to restore British autonomy.

I know which outcome I'd prefer, but I wouldn't put money on it even if I had any.