Friday, November 8, 2019

Second thoughts on peak lunacy


There have been a couple of occasions recently when I speculated that we had reached peak lunacy in the so-called culture wars. It turns out I was woefully wrong and pathetically over-optimistic.

New heights of madness are scaled almost weekly, the latest being the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that a Streets advertising sign proclaiming that “ice cream makes you happy” should be removed because “the implicit claim that there is a link between ice cream and happiness could potentially undermine the health and wellbeing of consumers”.

Good grief. It’s bad enough that some wretched soul felt motivated to complain that the ad promoted “an unhealthy relationship with food”, but infinitely more depressing that the ASA agreed. And to think I was feeling sympathetic for the advertising watchdog because it had recently been under attack from Andrew “Sour Grapes” Little after it turned down his complaint against a newspaper ad placed by National MP Nick Smith relating to Pike River (which itself qualifies for inclusion on the peak lunacy index, but that’s another story).

Unilever Australasia, which owns the Streets brand, has announced it will appeal. That’s good, but it’s tragic that we must now rely on a multinational corporate to defend free speech in advertising.

As for me, I’m forced to recalibrate my peak lunacy barometer. There’s clearly some way to go before the craziness starts to subside.


Monday, November 4, 2019

Try reading my column again, this time with both eyes


If I’ve learned one thing in 50 years of being a columnist, it’s that no matter how carefully you try to express yourself, people will take whatever meaning they choose from what you write. They will often filter out, or simply not see, anything that doesn’t align with their own preconceptions.

In today’s Dominion Post, for example, there’s a letter in which Geoffrey Horne of Wellington takes me to task over my column about the film ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ (see blog, Friday November 1).

Horne cites the reported offer of a $9 million rugby league contract to Sonny Bill Williams, along with former Air New Zealand chief Chris Luxon’s multi-million bonus, as proof of the film’s message about the excesses of capitalism. He then challenges me to deny that income gaps have expanded dramatically in the past few decades.

But if he reads my column again, and more carefully this time, he will see that far from denying the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparity between rich and poor, I explicitly acknowledge these trends and identify them as being at the core of the film’s message. They give it a deceptive patina of credibility.

At several points in my column I acknowledge that capitalism is imperfect, that unrestrained greed is bad and that capitalism needs to be regulated. Horne appears not to have noted any of this. In fact he challenges me to deny exactly what I conceded.

What I don’t accept is that capitalism’s failings justify the film’s essential premise, which is that the system is irredeemably rotten through and through. Horne doesn’t address this, preferring to attack a straw man of his own creation.

I assume this is the same Geoffrey Horne who was (perhaps still is) an eminent surgeon. I can only conclude that he takes more care reading patients’ notes than he does reading my column.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A masterpiece of the propagandist's art

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 31.)

The New Zealand-made documentary Capital in the 21st Century is a mightily impressive piece of film making.

Inspired by the best-selling 2014 book of the same name by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty, it’s taut, fast-moving and masterfully edited. The pace never lets up.

Auckland-based director Justin Pemberton, who previously made films on Richie McCaw (Chasing Great) and New Zealand’s triumphs at the 1960 Rome Olympics (The Golden Hour), makes inventive use of graphics, montages, music and clips from movies – The Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables – to keep the viewer engaged.

Originally screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival and now on commercial release, Capital in the 21st Century has received admiring reviews. Some critics say it translated Piketty’s 700-page book, which by many accounts was hard going, into something easily digestible and entertaining.

The film uses every trick in the documentary-maker’s book to dramatise its message, which is that contemporary capitalism is overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the ultra-rich and basically rotten to the core.

Viewers receptive to that message, which I suspect includes most of the people who paid to see the film, will have come away more convinced than ever that capitalism is wicked and should be dismantled.

As I say, an impressive piece of film-making – in fact a masterpiece of the propagandist’s art.

The basics of effective propaganda film-making are no mystery. They consist of being highly selective about the information presented, which means carefully excluding anything that doesn’t conform with the desired message, and then delivering it in the manner most likely to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.

The American film maker Michael Moore, famous for the documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, is a master of these techniques. But with this film, Moore’s status as king of cinematic agitprop and darling of the film festival set must be seriously challenged.

As with all the best propaganda movies, there is a grain of truth in Pemberton’s film. It focuses relentlessly on the excesses of global corporate capitalism, the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparities between rich and poor. It conveys this message via a succession of eloquent talking heads and damning images, many of them chosen for maximum emotional impact rather than veracity or strict relevance to the script.

Even a defender of capitalism can nod in agreement with some of the points made. Unrestrained greed is no easier to justify in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.

But what Capital in the 21st Century lacks is any notion of balance, because propaganda films, by definition, aren’t remotely interested in balance. The moment the existence of an alternative, competing narrative is acknowledged, a propaganda movie’s premise is weakened. Propaganda is never about presenting two sides of a story.

It’s no surprise, then, that the film doesn’t mention inconvenient facts such as World Bank figures that show 1.1 billion fewer people are living in extreme poverty than in 1990. Most of the people who have been lifted out of poverty in that time live in the same capitalist economies that Capital in the 21st Century damns as concentrating massive wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.

Neither does the film mention that life expectancy is steadily improving around the world, because this doesn’t gel with its resolutely pessimistic portrayal of how humanity is faring under capitalism.

It shouldn’t have been too hard to find a talking head willing to point out that ordinary people generally do well in market economies where the excesses of capitalism are moderated by liberal democratic government, as in New Zealand. Capitalism and democracy are the magic combination.

Such countries consistently lead global rankings not only for prosperity but for longevity, freedom and respect for human rights, which is why they are a beacon to people desperate to escape corrupt and oppressive states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  

Hardly anyone, other than the fictional Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, argues that unbridled capitalism is the pinnacle of human civilisation. It’s a matter of getting the balance right, as many countries do.

But Capital in the 21st Century isn’t interested in such nuances. It conveys the impression that capitalism is incapable of being anything other than exploitative and unfair.

And here’s the interesting thing. Apart from a general pitch in favour of a tax crackdown on the super-rich, the film doesn’t put forward any other economic model as an alternative to capitalism.

At the end, I was left wondering what system the film maker would prefer us to adopt. It can't be socialism, because that's been a wretched failure wherever it's been tried. But the film doesn't say, and I think that's either a copout or dishonest.


It's surely not that hard to get basic facts right


You’d think that by now, the story of the Polish refugee children who were welcomed to New Zealand in 1944 would be well known. Alas, it seems not.

To recap, the 732 refugees were exiled with their parents to Siberian labour camps after the Soviet Union invaded their country in 1939, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin having done a secret deal with Adolf Hitler to divide Poland between them.

When Hitler turned on the Soviets in 1941, the Polish exiles became a problem for Stalin, Nazi Germany having then become the common enemy, and were allowed to leave. By that time many of the children’s parents had died from cold, disease and starvation.

Along with many thousands of others, the Pahiatua children, as they came to be known, were left to find their way through Central Asia to Persia (now Iran) and thence to freedom in the West. 

Accompanied by a small number of adult survivors, they eventually came to New Zealand at the invitation of prime minister Peter Fraser – our first official refugee intake. Most remained here after the war and many went on to successful careers.

It’s a remarkable story and it’s back in the news because this weekend marks the 75th anniversary of their arrival. A celebratory reunion is being held in Pahiatua. But reporters keep getting things wrong.

A story about the reunion on Stuff, having first misleadingly referred to Pahiatua as “a tiny Tararua town” (it has a population of about 2500), went on to say that the refugees had “fled Nazi-occupied Poland”.

Two mistakes, right there. They didn’t flee: they were forced from their homes at gunpoint and loaded onto railway wagons by Soviet soldiers. And the part of Poland they were exiled from wasn’t occupied by the Germans, at least not then. It was only after Hitler declared war on his erstwhile communist ally that Germany took control of the eastern part of Poland previously occupied by the Red Army.

Admittedly the wartime history of Poland is complicated, but these are facts that are easily checked.

An even more bizarre error occurred on today’s edition of Morning Report when a Radio NZ journalist, interviewing two of the surviving Poles, said one had lost most of her family in Serbian labour camps.

Serbian? Good grief.

Footnote: An article I wrote for The Listener on the occasion of the last Pahiatua refugee reunion can be seen here: https://www.noted.co.nz/archive/archive-listener-nz-2009/polish-orphan-refugees-found-sanctuary-pahiatua-new-zealand

Thursday, October 31, 2019

When bigotry poses as intolerance of bigotry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, October 30.)

Professor Jim Flynn, an internationally admired and widely published emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Otago, recently experienced a highly ironic late-career setback.

A letter from his British publisher, Emerald Press, advised him that the firm had got cold feet and reneged on an earlier undertaking to publish a book by Flynn provisionally entitled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor.

Flynn’s manuscript (to quote from Emerald’s synopsis, written before they pulled the plug) argues that a good university teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media.

Freedom to debate, Flynn writes, is essential to the development of critical thought. But the octogenarian academic warns that on university campuses today, free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence. 

Explaining its change of heart, Emerald Press told Flynn that publication of his book, which addresses “sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender”, would have placed the publisher at risk of legal action under Britain’s heavy-handed hate speech laws. While accepting that Flynn clearly had no intention of promoting hatred, the publishers said intent was irrelevant.

The irony is all too obvious. A book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence has itself been censored for fear of causing offence.

The irony is compounded by the fact that Flynn, who was active in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and was twice a candidate for the far-Left Alliance Party here, has impeccable anti-racist credentials. But he also believes emphatically in the values of free and open debate and, as a profile in The Listener noted in 2012, “refuses to back away from sensitive issues”.
 
The fate of Flynn’s manuscript underscores the extent of the threat facing freedom of speech in liberal democracies.

Incidents such as the Christchurch mosque massacres are increasingly cited not just as proof that dangerous extremism exists, but in support of arguments that to discourage it, governments must tighten restrictions on what people are allowed to say. But suppressing free speech doesn’t eliminate extremism and often serves only to drive it underground, where it can thrive unseen.

Just as worryingly, controls on speech also risk stifling legitimate public debate. Laws that govern what people are allowed to say must strike a delicate balance. They must deter incitements to hatred or violence, yet stop short of suppressing reasoned discussion of sensitive issues such as immigration, multiculturalism, religious belief and gender identity.

In a mature, civilised democracy such as New Zealand, it’s possible to debate such issues without encouraging hostility toward minorities. Existing laws allow that, but are now under review.

There is mounting evidence that in a mood of anxiety fanned by concerns about racism and extreme nationalism, most of it originating far from our shores, attempts are being made to shut down free speech in the very forums where it should be allowed to flourish, and often for feeble or spurious reasons.

In a celebrated case last year, former National Party leader Don Brash was barred from speaking at a Massey University event – the first instance at a New Zealand university of the phenomenon known as no-platforming. The reason given was that protesters might threaten people’s safety, but inquiries under the Official Information Act revealed that the university vice-chancellor’s real objection was ideological. She didn’t want the university to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours” - a reference to Brash's oft-stated and widely shared position that laws should be colour-blind.

More recently, a High Court judge held that an Auckland Council-owned company was entitled, on security grounds, to bar two alt-right Canadian activists from speaking in a publicly owned venue that was threatened with a protest blockade – a decision seen as clearing the way for protesters to force the cancellation of speaking engagements simply by threatening trouble.

In the light of that ruling, it was perhaps no surprise that Massey University’s Wellington campus, citing similar safety and security issues, subsequently pulled the plug on a feminists’ conference that transgender activists had threatened to disrupt. 

There’s another strange irony here. Feminists were once at the cutting edge of radical politics but now, because of their insistence that a person with a penis cannot be a woman, find themselves under attack by a more radical ideology that wants to silence them.

A striking feature of the speech wars is that traditional ideological battle lines have been redrawn, pitting traditional leftists (Flynn is one, Chris Trotter another) against generally younger and more radical zealots who don’t share their commitment to free speech.

When a university is intimidated into cancelling a legitimate event and a highly regarded professor is effectively blacklisted, no one should doubt that freedom of speech is under serious threat. The underlying hazard - namely, bigotry disguised as intolerance of bigotry - is inimical to liberal democracy and must be resisted.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Listener's ringing defence of free speech

The latest Listener has an outstanding editorial on freedom of speech and the need to oppose those who clamour to shut it down. It will be all the more effective because it's published by a magazine with a generally left-leaning readership that may feel uncertain or conflicted over what position to take in the speech wars. The editorial should leave readers in no doubt.

https://www.noted.co.nz/currently/currently-social-issues/free-speech-world-is-on-dangerous-path-to-stifling

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Never mind democracy - off with his head!


Meng Foon, the recently appointed race relations commissioner, thinks newly elected Tauranga city councillor Andrew Hollis should resign because he said on Facebook that the Treaty of Waitangi was “a joke” and “past its use-by date”. The new mayor of Tauranga, Tenby Powell, agrees.

Never mind that more than 7500 people voted for Hollis, making him the second most popular candidate for the four “at large” council seats. Never mind that many of the people who voted for him quite possibly share his view – rightly or wrongly – about the Treaty.

This is the way it is in New Zealand in 2019. The option of first resort, if you disagree with something someone in public office has said, is to demand that they resign, and to hell with the democratic process that got them elected or the voters who supported them. Dissent is dealt with not by debating the issue, but by trying to silence the dissenter. 

This is not the way things are supposed to be done in a supposedly liberal democracy, but it’s increasingly the norm in 21st century New Zealand.

Hollis obviously stands in the way of Powell’s wish for a “united” council. Well, tough; that’s democracy. It’s often messy and peopled by contrary characters, just as it should be if it’s to reflect the real world.

Tauranga’s new mayor rose to the rank of colonel in the New Zealand army, and there’s a hint of military thinking in his apparent desire for order around the council table. But councillors are elected to speak their minds, not to meekly fall into line with what the mayor wants. New Zealand is a democracy, and democracy is supposed to provide a forum for all views. It is not selective.

Besides, forcing Hollis to stand down – or disqualify himself from any discussion relating to Maori issues, which is Powell’s alternative demand – doesn’t  magically get rid of his opinions. On the contrary, heavy-handed attempts to stifle dissent serve to foster anger and resentment, and are likely to reinforce the widely held opinion that New Zealand has been captured by authoritarian orthodoxy and groupthink.

The really disappointing response to Hollis’s heresy, however, is not Powell’s, but Meng Foon’s. Powell is just a provincial mayor seeking to assert himself at the start of his first term, but Foon occupies a position of power and influence in central government and, unlike Powell, doesn’t depend on votes to stay there.

Like many people, I welcomed Foon’s appointment as race relations commissioner. He had seemed an admirable mayor of Gisborne and promised to bring a grounded, common-sense approach to a job where ideology, rooted in identify politics, had previously held sway. We are now forced to conclude, regrettably, that it’s still business as usual at the Human Rights Commission.

The furore over Andrew Hollis is only a symptom of a much bigger problem, which is that freedom of speech is under concerted attack.

Whenever a public figure or institution loudly proclaims his, her or its commitment to free speech, you sense there’s a “but” coming. It seems we’re allowed to enjoy free speech, except on certain issues deemed to be offensive to fragile sensibilities.

Take Massey University, for example. Announcing last week that it had chickened out of hosting the Feminism 2020 conference, Massey made ritual noises about being committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech as “values that lie at the very heart of the tradition of a university and academic inquiry”. But its supposed commitment wasn’t strong enough to save the feminist event after it was targeted by a noisy group of precious transgender activists threatening disruption.

Massey’s excuse for capitulating to the protesters was that cancellation was the only way to avoid breaching its health, safety and wellbeing obligations. It was another victory for the enemies of free speech – and an early demonstration of the danger inherent in the recent High Court ruling which held that an Auckland Council-owned company was within its rights in cancelling a speaking engagement at the Bruce Mason Centre following an unsubstantiated threat of protest action (but with strong evidence of political influence on the part of Auckland's mayor).

There’s a strange and chilling irony here. Feminists were once at the cutting edge of radical politics, but now, because of their insistence that a person with a penis cannot be a woman, find themselves supplanted by a more radical ideology that wants to silence them.

Interestingly, this isn’t a classic left-vs-right debate. Some of the most vigorous defences of free speech have come from hard-core leftists such as Chris Trotter and Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury.  The threat to freedom of expression comes from the so-called snowflake generation, which loudly champions diversity but contradictorily has no tolerance of diverse opinions. Sadly, they are encouraged by academics and some politicians – and now by Meng Foon and Tenby Powell.

Friday, October 18, 2019

We're big enough to look after ourselves

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 17.)

A long time ago – 1978, to be precise – I wrote an article for The Listener that began something like this: “A funny thing happened at the Department of Maori Affairs recently. They put a Maori in charge”.

The article was about Kara Puketapu, who had the distinction of being only the second Maori to be appointed as head of the department charged with looking after Maori interests.

Today it would be unthinkable for Te Puni Kokiri, as it’s now known, to have a non-Maori in the top job. To appoint a Pakeha would be seen as an intolerable affront to Maori and a throwback to the days of patronising colonialism.

It would be argued that only a Maori could properly understand Maori needs, advise the government on policies affecting Maori and, perhaps most crucially, identify with the people he or she was supposed to represent.

You might well wonder, then, why New Zealanders continue to meekly accept the appointment of non-New Zealanders to the highest levels of both the public and corporate sectors. Surely the same arguments apply.

We haven’t had a British governor-general since the 1960s and we abandoned the right of appeal to the Privy Council 15 years ago. This suggests we feel capable of looking after ourselves. Yet we continue to see a stream of overseas appointees to powerful positions – a notable recent example being the naming of an Australian, Caralee McLiesh, as the secretary to the Treasury, a job that places her at the very heart of economic policy-making.

McLiesh replaced another outsider, the Englishman Gabriel Makhlouf, who left under a cloud after being roundly criticised by the State Services Commission for his handling of an embarrassing Budget leak earlier this year.

The appointment of a virtually unknown Australian raised eyebrows around Wellington. Blogger Michael Reddell, a former top official of the Reserve Bank, found it disturbing that twice in succession, an outsider with no knowledge or experience of New Zealand had been recruited to fill what he described as the premier position in the public service.

Reddell said he didn’t think it was appropriate to recruit foreigners, especially ones with no experience or background knowledge of New Zealand, for such critical roles.

Even more disturbing was the appointment of the British academic and left-wing activist Paul Hunt as Chief Human Rights Commissioner.

The human rights role is a particularly sensitive one because it calls for someone with an intuitive understanding of our unique heritage and values. It’s inconceivable that an English academic, and a highly politicised one at that, was the most suitable candidate.

Similarly, you’d think we might have recruited locally for the position of CEO at Te Papa, an institution that supposedly reflects what it means to be a New Zealander. Yet we’ve now had two British appointees in the job, both of whom have created disruption and resentment by pursuing their own vision of what Te Papa should be.

That leads me to another danger with overseas appointees. Many have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-standing commitment to the country. They are free to screw things up and move on without so much as a backward glance, leaving whatever damage they have done for someone else to clean up.

This is equally true in the corporate sector, where Fonterra, the ANZ Bank and Fletcher Building have all had to mop up after high-flying but seriously flawed CEOs recruited from the Netherlands, Australia and Scotland respectively.

In academia, too, we have had to suffer the consequences of questionable appointments from overseas. I’m thinking in particular of Massey University’s vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, who deservedly copped a backlash for assuming powers of political censorship on campus. What right did an Australian veterinary scientist have to dictate what opinions New Zealanders should be exposed to?

Another intriguing phenomenon, which I suspect is related, is the high proportion of foreign-born activists at the forefront of radical politics in New Zealand. Examples include the career peace protester Valerie Morse, the abortion rights advocate Terry Bellamak, the anti-poverty campaigner Ricardo Menendez-March and the vociferous Guled Mire, who keeps complaining about our supposedly racist immigration policies.

Such people bring with them an ideological fervour that is alien to New Zealanders, who are essentially a complacent and contented lot. Because we tend to be passive and polite, we make it easy for shouty, highly motivated outsiders to push their way to the top. But they don't speak for us.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Captain Cook and the consequences of colonisation


(A slightly shorter version of this column was published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, October 16.)

Gisborne is one of my favourite places. It has a distinctive character formed partly by its isolation – it’s a long drive to get there, through wild country that leaves you in no doubt that you’re off the beaten track – but also because 45 per cent of its population are tangata whenua, considerably more than any other New Zealand city. 

An old friend, a Pakeha who has lived up that way for a long time, once said to me that when you get north of Wairoa, you’re in “their” country – meaning it’s a part of New Zealand where the Maori presence and influence is all-pervasive.

That’s part of Gisborne’s appeal. No city beats it for sheer New Zealandness.

My wife and I were last there last year.  We strolled on Wainui Beach in the bright winter sunshine, had lunch with the aforementioned friend at the Tatapouri Sports Fishing Club (a Gisborne institution), enjoyed a tasting at the excellent GisVin winery, and marvelled at what must surely be one of the most impressive supermarkets in the country (hint: It’s a big yellow one).

Oh, and we drove to the top of the Kaiti Hill, which brings me to the point of this column.

The view over Poverty Bay from the top of Kaiti Hill, or Titirangi as the tangata whenua call it, is magnificent. But Kaiti Hill was, until recently, the site of a controversial statue – now relocated to Tairawhiti Museum – of Captain James Cook.

I read the plaque on that statue last year, and although I don’t recall exactly what it said, I remember recoiling at what would now be regarded as a very Eurocentric view of our history. It may not have credited Cook with discovering New Zealand, in so many words, but that was the implication.

Since then, of course, the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first landing at Poverty Bay has served as the catalyst for a reassessment of our history and Cook’s place in it. And it’s probably fair to say that we’ve emerged from the ensuing debate with a more nuanced and balanced understanding of our past than was the case in 1969, when the statue was erected.

As a thoughtful Stuff editorial observed, Cook’s landing was an event that had to happen. In an age of imperial expansion, New Zealand was bound to be (re)discovered.

The editorial wisely went on to say that the benefits and the harms that resulted can't be separated from each other, and that we should resist demonising or sanctifying either party in that historic encounter.

In other words, colonisation produced good and bad consequences, and both Pakeha and Maori should be honest in acknowledging all of them.

Cook has been described as a white supremacist. Well, of course he was. He was a man of his time - a product of his society and culture. To judge him according to 21st century sensibilities is pointless.

In any case, who could have blamed him for thinking European society was superior to the one he encountered in Poverty Bay? Compared with many indigenous societies, Maori culture was relatively advanced. But to a man brought up amid the trappings of Western civilisation – great cities, science, literature, music, cathedrals, universities – it would have seemed primitive.

That didn’t stop Cook from recognising the admirable aspects of Maori culture. In a strictly literal sense he may have been a supremacist, but he was also, by most accounts, a humane man who treated Maori respectfully.

And while much is made of the fact that nine Maori died in that first encounter, we shouldn’t forget that pre-European Maori knew all about conquest. They lived by it.

Neither should we delude ourselves about the culture Cook encountered. Heretaunga Pat Baker’s 1975 novel Behind the Tattooed Face, which was based on the author’s knowledge of his own tribe’s oral history, depicted a society in which savage tribal warfare was the norm, along with slavery and cannibalism.  

In the very first chapter, a slave is buried alive with a massive corner post for a palisade – a post that took 20 men to lift – implanted on top of him.

And that’s just the start. Naked, bound bodies are thrown alive onto red-hot hangi stones. The blade of a taiaha is thrust into a captured warrior’s chest and his still-beating heart is plucked out and ritually cooked on a fire.

Women and children are bound and thrown to the ground before being impaled alive on spears thrust through their bodies at the navel. A chief is beheaded and his tongue is skewered with a sharp stick.

Much of this is done amid triumphant hakas, chanting and sadistic joking.

It’s fashionable to talk of the lasting damage done to Maori by colonisation; Justice Minister Andrew Little did so in a breast-beating speech at the United Nations last January. But Baker’s book was a reminder that life could be merciless and precarious for pre-European Maori.

Colonisation brought benefits that included education, medicine, a written language and, above all, the rule of law and democratic government. But we must acknowledge that it also had serious negative impacts on Maori in the form of introduced disease, alienation of land, cultural decline and the gradual but irrevocable loss of control over a land where Maori once exercised exclusive domain.

Some of that is now being addressed, but it’s not hard to sympathise with claims that it’s often too little, too late.

On the positive side, each culture has absorbed some of the best qualities of the other, resulting in a society that has evolved into something unique and internationally admired.

Maori and Pakeha are inextricably intertwined. There is a bit of Pakeha in virtually all Maori, even if the activists prefer to disregard that inconvenient part of their heritage, and a bit of Maori in most white New Zealanders, even those with no Maori lineage.

You can’t grow up here and not absorb at least some Maori culture. It’s one of those things that sets us apart, and it should be celebrated.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Jim Flynn: a hero of free speech

Further to my recent post (October 9) on academic freedom of speech, Stuff's Your Weekend has an excellent piece by Yvonne van Dongen on Professor Jim Flynn's refusal to kowtow to leftist authoritarianism:
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/116443386/the-complicated-issue-of-hate

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

News flash! Academics defend freedom of speech


This was by far the most important thing in my Dominion Post – in fact anywhere in the New Zealand media – this morning:


It’s a resounding defence of free speech, and the heartening thing is that it comes from university academics.

Less heartening is the fact that the six signatories to this article are a courageous minority. Their championing of Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn stands in stark contrast to the chillingly censorious open letter signed last week by Auckland University academic staff demanding that the university silence an attention-seeking fringe group accused of promoting "white supremacy" - a phrase which appears to encompass everything from Nazism to simple pride in the values and achievements of Western civilisation.

Ask yourself: who presents the greater threat – an anonymous group (for all we know, it might just be one person) putting up stickers around the Auckland campus, or the pompous high priests of academia and their herd-like acolytes who seek to outlaw any opinions they hold to be “unsafe”? George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about suppression of free speech, would have been proud to have coined that particular term.

It's now obvious even to blind Freddy that academic freedom and the contest of ideas, two of the key values underpinning liberal democracy, are under sustained and determined attack. Ask yourself: who are the bigots here? Who seeks to impose a new style of totalitarianism? Who's calling for the enforcement of rules prohibiting secular heresy? Ironically, it’s not the supposed white supremacists. They’re not trying to silence anyone.

Another irony is that Flynn, the eminent Otago University professor who now finds himself at the centre of a censorship controversy, has impeccable leftist credentials. Sadly that wasn’t enough to protect him from leftist totalitarianism that has taken hold to the extent that Flynn's British publisher got cold feet over his latest book, which promotes – irony of ironies – free speech on university campuses.

Meanwhile, the Free Speech Coalition is calling for donations so that it can appeal against a High Court decision last week which effectively gives risk-averse municipal functionaries and their political masters carte blanche to deny the use of public venues to any speaker whose views might cause political offence or trigger protests. It’s a frightening decision which must not be allowed to stand. You can donate here: https://www.freespeechcoalition.nz/donate?utm_campaign=fsc_funding_for_appeal&utm_medium=email&utm_source=freespeech

Monday, October 7, 2019

In praise of the Remutaka Hill

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 3.)

There’s a man named Graeme Farr who’s standing for the mayoralty of all three Wairarapa councils. He’s using his candidacy primarily to promote a road tunnel under the Remutaka Hill.

I can’t see a tunnel happening, because the economics don’t stack up. But I have a sneaking suspicion my wife voted for Farr, contravening my strict instructions. She’s Polish, and genetically programmed to disregard orders.

No doubt there are others living in the Wairarapa who, like her, don’t much care for that steep, winding road over the hill, and many more who believe that a tunnel would unlock (to use a vogueish word) the region’s untapped potential.

But as for me, I want a Remutaka road tunnel about as much as I want a third nostril.

I like the hill. I like the sense of geographical separation from Wellington and the Hutt Valley. When I go to Wellington, it’s always a pleasure to get into the car at the end of the day and point it in the direction of home.

I especially relish the drive back over the hill, which has the almost mystical sensation of passing into a different realm. There’s a point about halfway down the northern side where the Wairarapa valley suddenly comes into glorious view.

It’s always bathed in golden sunshine, no matter how foul the weather on the Wellington side. (Okay, perhaps not always, in fact very rarely at nighttime, but often enough to make me feel smug.)

John Hayes, a former Wairarapa MP, once tried to whip up public interest in a tunnel and approached me for support in the tragic misapprehension that, as a columnist, I might wield some influence.

I politely told him to bugger off. I didn’t want the Wairarapa being invaded by the masses then, and I still don’t. No offence to my friends in Wellington, but I love the fact that there’s a big, formidable barrier to deter interlopers.

I’ve seen what happened to the Kapiti Coast when it morphed from being a pleasant and sleepy seaside retreat to a choked, claustrophobic extension of suburbia.

We lived at Raumati Beach in the 1980s and I knew the rot was setting in when the council insisted on laying a footpath along our street, which had previously had the charming feel of a country lane. We sold up just before they built a housing subdivision in the paddock where our kids used to play.

Since then I’ve watched Kapiti’s infrastructure vainly struggling to catch up with its burgeoning population. It can only get worse when Transmission Gully kicks in.

There’s a lot of growth here in the Wairarapa too, but there's room for it, and it’s manageable.

New subdivisions are going up all over the place and the traffic has intensified to the point where, in what passes for rush hour, you can get stuck at a roundabout for … oh, maybe 20 seconds.

But the Wairarapa still has the distinction of having no traffic lights. How long would that remain the case with traffic pouring through a tunnel?

We can tolerate weekend visitors, with their convoys of motorbikes and classic cars streaming across the hill in search of wide blue skies, open roads, rural pubs and charming rustic scenery, just as long as they head back home at the end of the day.  

We’re okay too with those refined, affluent types from Wadestown and Kelburn who buy weekend retreats in Greytown and then decide it’s so nice that they can do without their house in Wellington. That’s the sort of place Greytown is.  But who knows what impact a tunnel might have on the town where I live?

One of Masterton’s charms is that it’s still a traditional farming town. I like the fact that when you drive into town, you run a gauntlet of agriculture machinery dealers.

I love hearing topdressing planes flying out at first light from Hood aerodrome and returning home at dusk, and I like the tractors and stock trucks that constantly rumble past our place.

I like the friendly and obliging shopkeepers and tradies, and I like the fact that when I ring a plumber he’s pulling up outside before I hang up the phone. (Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration too.)

I don’t want any of this put at risk by intensified urbanisation and more people, which would be the inevitable result of a tunnel. So my message to Graeme Farr is the same as it was to John Hayes.

On the other hand, if Farr promised to lobby for a high-speed bypass around Carterton, which is surely the world's most boring town to drive through (though only by a slim margin over Dannevirke), he might get my vote in 2022. A flyover would be better still.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

The rise of militant veganism

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, Oct 2.)

My wife and I don’t always agree about things; just choosing a paint colour for the bathroom can take months. But we celebrated a moment of instant accord over breakfast recently.

In front of us was a newspaper account of the black-clad vegan protesters who formed a line in front of the meat shelves in an Auckland supermarket. Shoppers who were prevented from buying meat reportedly lost their patience, lashing out at the protesters.

My wife’s reaction was the same as mine. We agreed that if we’d been there, we probably would have been among those doing the lashing out.

I respect the right of vegans to renounce meat, and I’m certainly not insensitive to concerns about inhumane treatment of animals. But protesters are inviting a backlash when they arrogantly assert the right to obstruct people going about their lawful business.

This has nothing to do with the respective merits of carnivorous and vegetarian diets. It’s a matter of respecting people’s right in a free society to make their own choices within the law.

The right to protest is an essential item in the democratic toolkit, and one I’ve taken advantage of myself. But I’ve never assumed that my beliefs were so sacred that they took precedence over the rights of others – which is why, although I marched against the 1981 Springbok tour,  I avoided taking part in protests that tried to prevent fans from getting to matches. It’s also why I get mad when I see activists trying to bar people from attending political events they disapprove of.

Unfortunately, the thing about zealots is that they become so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that it overrides all other considerations. Thus we are now witnessing the rise of militant veganism, as was evident in the meat section of the Countdown supermarket in the Westfield St Lukes Mall.

Food has been well and truly politicised, and with that has come a rising level of strident militancy – hysteria, almost – and denunciation of anyone who doesn’t fall into line with the “meat is murder” agenda.

It’s all part of the so-called culture war – the clash between traditional liberal values (and I mean genuinely liberal, as in tolerant of people who differ) and those promoted by the radical and increasingly assertive authoritarian Left.

A significant recent development was the convergence of two of the great secular theologies of our age: militant veganism and climate change alarmism. The two came together in fist-pumping union nine months ago with the publication of a report purporting to link climate change with supposedly unhealthy global food production systems.

There you have it: two moral panics rolled into one – pure gold for the ideologues who endlessly lecture us on the supposed failings of capitalism and Western civilisation.

Published in the British medical journal The Lancet, the report – written by a team headed by our own Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University, a high priest of wowserism – claimed that food production systems, controlled and manipulated by profit-crazed global business interests, are not only driving climate change but propelling us toward early graves.

How this squares with statistics showing steady worldwide improvements in life expectancy wasn’t explained, but hey – why nitpick?

Swinburn and his accomplices even came up with a fancy new term for this looming apocalypse. They called it a Global Syndemic, or a “synergy of epidemics” interacting with each other to produce “complex sequelae” – a bit of Latin always looks impressive – which ultimately threaten the planet.

There should be no mistaking the purpose of such reports. They are aimed at frightening people into meekly accepting adopting radical changes imposed by those who insist they know what's best for us.

Neither should there be any doubt about the real target of the reformist zealots. They may not say it in so many words, but their goal is to dismantle international capitalism. That’s the agenda that underpins almost all the moral crusades currently being waged in Western societies.

I recently watched the New Zealand-made documentary film Capital in the 21st Century, which was inspired by a best-selling book written by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty.

The film is a very slick piece of propaganda. It uses every trick in the film-maker’s repertoire to convey the impression that greedy capitalism is responsible for pretty much everything that’s wrong in the world.

Of course capitalism is imperfect. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But like most works of propaganda, Capital in the 21st Century is significant for what it chooses to leave out – such as the inconvenient fact that the world’s freest, most open and most prosperous societies all have capitalist economies. 

And here's the other thing: the film doesn't say what better system might be installed in its place. Either the crusaders against capitalism don't know, or they're not telling us. Either way, they're not to be trusted.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

I missed one

Exhibit C (see previous post): Greta Thunberg and the attendant media circus.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Peak craziness reconsidered


I wrote a column a few weeks ago suggesting we had reached peak craziness. Alas, I was wrong.

Exhibit A: One morning last week I heard the actress Robyn Malcolm assert on Morning Report that the role of Gandalf in the proposed Amazon TV production of The Lord of the Rings should be played by a woman. And not just any type of woman, but specifically by a kuia (or as she put it tautologically, “an old Maori kuia”).

Ian McKellen did a great job playing Gandalf in the movie adaptations, Malcolm conceded, “but we don’t need another old guy with a long white beard”.

Was it a joke? You’d like to think so, but I fear not.

Assuming, then, that Malcolm was serious, we can anticipate a few obvious problems with her idea. First, J R R Tolkien very specifically envisaged an old guy with a long white beard when he created the character of Gandalf. And while the author may be long dead, he’s entitled to respect for the integrity of his story and characters. He certainly deserves better than to have them hijacked to satisfy a passing ideological fashion. 

You’d think that of all people, someone like Malcolm – who, after all, depends for her livelihood on the ability of writers to create compelling characters for actors to play – would grasp that. Evidently not.

There’s also the tricky matter of explaining how an old Maori woman would come to be living in Middle Earth – a fantasy realm, admittedly, but one very clearly rooted in European lore and culture.

That leads us to the most obvious difficulty of all – namely, that no company is going to spend hundreds of millions employing Malcolm’s acting mates on a TV series that no one will want to watch, which would surely be the fate of a Lord of the Rings that lacked one of its defining characters.

If someone wants to create a TV series with a kuia as its central figure, well and good. But fans of Lord of the Rings (I’m not one, incidentally, but that’s neither here nor there) love it as it is, not as some virtue-signalling thespian imagines it should be.

In any case, why stop at Gandalf? Literature is riddled with figures who perpetuate repressive patriarchal models. Why not cast a black woman – better still, a lesbian refugee from somewhere like Sudan – in the role of Sherlock Holmes? And given that Daniel Craig has apparently tired of the role, what’s to stop the producers of the next James Bond movie from casting a trans woman – perhaps in a wheelchair, just to reinforce the sense of inclusiveness – as agent 007?

Once you adopt the idea that the purpose of films and other forms of entertainment is to advance an ideological agenda, the possibilities are limitless. But we know from history what happens when literature and the arts are co-opted to enforce someone’s idea of correct thinking. I mean, how many great works came out of Stalin’s Soviet Union? I remember a Peter Sellers skit that made a joke about a mythical Soviet film called The Seven Brave Tractor Drivers, which more or less sums up what happens when art becomes a vehicle for ideological propaganda.

I now turn to Exhibit B in Peak Craziness Reconsidered. For this we need look no further than Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who has fallen victim to the pernicious concept of presentism – the insistence that past actions and statements be interpreted and judged according to contemporary values.

In 2001, Trudeau – then aged 29, and employed as a schoolteacher – attended an Arabian Nights-themed fancy dress party. He wore robes and a turban and had his face, neck and hands darkened. Someone mischievously (or more likely maliciously) supplied Time magazine with a photo showing Trudeau with other attendees, thereby triggering an explosion of moral outrage which almost matches the one that erupted when Austrian president Kurt Waldheim was exposed as a former intelligence officer in the German army during the Second World War.

The comparison with Waldheim is not inappropriate. Amid the vindictive fervour generated by neo-Marxist witch-hunters, wearing brownface – a term most of us had never heard until the Trudeau affair, but which is presumably only a degree less offensive than blackface – is on a par with war crimes. And no one is safe, not even a politician who has gone to great lengths to demonstrate his sympathy for fashionable causes.

It’s impossible to ignore the irony that the very people Trudeau has tried to ingratiate himself with are the ones who have turned on him. So it’s true: the revolution really does devour its own children. The furore should serve as a lesson that even the most impeccably woke politicians aren’t immune from malevolent trolls.

Obviously wanting to get in ahead of any other career-destroying disclosures about his reprehensible past, Trudeau then confessed that while at high school, he had worn blackface while singing the Jamaican folk song Day-O. A closet racist, then, beyond all doubt; just one step removed from the Ku Klux Klan. And to think this was the prime minister who had pretended to welcome Syrian refugees. Gasp! Was there any limit to his deceit and hypocrisy?

Trudeau completed his own humiliation with an apology that took grovelling to a new level. But in the feverish orgy of judgmentalism that followed Time’s story, a few important points have been overlooked.

The first is that people’s actions should surely be judged by their intent and their consequences – and I mean real consequences, not the ones that exist only in febrile, highly politicised minds. Did Trudeau intend to hurt, mock, exploit or demean dark-skinned people? It was a fancy-dress party, for heaven’s sake. Was any harm done by colouring his face and wearing Arab robes?  Only to the overheated sensibilities of those who go through life looking for opportunities to take offence. Dressing as Aladdin hardly ranks as a crime against humanity.

Second, who in their past life hasn’t done something they now wish they hadn’t? Who wants to be held accountable for things they did decades ago, before their judgment had fully matured? I certainly wouldn’t. But Trudeau's self-righteous tormentors make no allowance for human frailties.

Moral perspectives change. Demanding that people’s past behaviour conform to contemporary codes laid down by a shrill, Pharisaical minority of activists raises the bar impossibly high. I doubt that many public figures could pass that test, and I imagine many lie awake at night fretting that their past will catch up with them.

Who knows? That Christmas pageant in your first year at school, when you were assigned to play Balthazar – you know, the one of the Three Wise Men who was traditionally depicted as black; somewhere there might still be an incriminating photo. Better track it down fast and put it through the shredder.  

Finally, what is it about wearing blackface that makes it so offensive that anyone guilty of it in their past is condemned as a white supremacist? It’s only four decades since New Zealanders without a racist fibre in their bodies sat down in front of the television on Sunday nights to enjoy The Black and White Minstrel Show.

Sure, it wouldn't happen now. But did it occur to anyone then that it was racist? Was the show intended to be degrading or insulting to people of colour? That should be the yardstick by which we now judge it. Again, intent is crucial.

Granted, in hindsight the use of blackface resulted in a grotesque caricature of black people that is now seen as offensive. Woolly wigs were worn and mouths and eyes were exaggeratedly big and white. It also evoked memories of the Jim Crow era, a time when black Americans suffered appalling institutionalised discrimination.

For those reasons it not surprisingly fell out of favour in the latter part of the 20th century. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have been forgotten that performing in blackface was often an acknowledgment that its white exponents owed a debt to genuine African-American minstrels of an earlier time. It was one manifestation of the racial and cultural cross-fertilisation – whites borrowing from blacks and vice-versa – that left a permanent imprint on American music.

The fact that blackface, however innocently used, has since come to be regarded as a vile assertion of white supremacy and a potential destroyer of political careers, even for someone with Trudeau’s liberal credentials, shows how devastatingly effective the march of identity politics has been – and how brittle the political fabric of western democracy has become.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Obituary: Alister Taylor

(The Dominion Post asked me to write this obituary. It was published on September 21.)

RUPERT ALISTER HALLS TAYLOR
Publisher
Born Blenheim September 21 1943
Died Russell September 9 2019

Writer and historian Tony Simpson used to joke that when Alister Taylor died, he would have him stuffed and mounted in his living room as a conversation piece.

He never got his wish. Taylor was cremated this week after dying at his home in the Bay of Islands, aged 75. But the radical publisher’s tumultuous life assured him of conversation-piece status regardless. When book people from a certain era get together, says Simpson, “we swap Alister Taylor anecdotes.”

Charming and generous but notoriously casual about paying his debts, Taylor was far-sighted and a risk-taker at a time when the publishing business was timid and conservative. He gave several prominent writers their first break and they remained grateful, even though some never saw any money.

His books ranged from the flippant (The Muldoon Annual Joke Book) to volumes of poetry by Sam Hunt and Alistair Campbell and lavishly illustrated works showcasing the paintings of C F Goldie and Dame Robin White and the photographs of Marti Friedlander and Robin Morrison.

Taylor was working for the venerable New Zealand publishing house of A H & A W Reed in 1971 when he tried to interest his employers in an English translation of The Little Red Book for School Pupils, better known simply as The Little Red Schoolbook, a subversive work by two Danish teachers whose frank advice for school children ranged across such taboo subjects as sex and drugs.

When the devoutly Christian publishers not surprisingly declined, as they also did when Taylor urged them to publish the then radical student leader Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans, Taylor published the books himself.

The two books captured the spirit of the emerging counter-culture and served as a test of the liberality of New Zealand’s censorship laws. They also installed Taylor as the enfant terrible of the publishing business and launched him on a career in which he managed to earn respect as a publisher of serious, quality books and a patron of emerging writers while simultaneously leaving a trail of bad debts and despairing creditors.

He was bankrupted twice over the course of a turbulent career in which his propensity for spending money was matched by his disregard for financial obligations. Wellington lawyer Hugh Rennie QC, who knew Taylor from university days and acted for some of his unpaid authors, says that “Alister existed in a parallel universe where financial compliance was irrelevant to his objectives”.

The son of a travelling salesman, Taylor grew up in Blenheim and Palmerston North. Writer and former ACT MP Deborah Coddington, who had three children with him during their 25 years together, says he had a happy upbringing, though not a privileged one, with three sisters and an older brother.

At Victoria University in the mid-1960s, he was part of a lively circle of student leaders who would go on to make their marks in the media, the arts, the law and politics. A stylish dresser, instantly recogniseable with his thick, shaggy dark hair and glasses, Taylor was a combative figure in student politics. Even then, he was caught up in controversy over irregularities in Students’ Association finances.

He was also, at that time, a rising young star in the National Party. Simpson remembers him attending a university seminar with his then girlfriend Helen Sutch, daughter of the high-profile economist and public servant Bill Sutch, and constantly heckling left-wing speakers. But Taylor parted company with National over New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War. Coddington says he was physically manhandled from the stage at a party conference when he tried to give a speech opposing the war.

A Stuff story about his death said he once chained himself to a lamppost during an anti-Vietnam protest, but Coddington says that wasn't quite right. He was handcuffed to the pole by the police while they rounded up his fellow offenders.

Exhibiting the vision, boundless self-confidence and entrepreneurial flair that would mark his publishing career, Taylor went on to organise the Peace, Power and Politics in Asia conference, a landmark event of 1968. The speakers included such international luminaries as the Irish writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Indian diplomat and former defence minister, V K Krishna Menon.

By then Taylor was working for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as a producer of the radio current affairs programme Checkpoint. The NZBC, which was kept under tight government control, took a dim view of his political activities and fired him.

Broadcasting’s loss was publishing’s gain. The publication three years later of The Little Red Schoolbook and Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans (the latter a combination of autobiography and political manifesto) was emblematic of a period when post-war establishment values were coming under siege from the baby boomer generation.

Simpson’s The Sugarbag Years, an acclaimed oral history of New Zealanders’ experiences in the Great Depression, was another success story. Simpson had known Taylor in their university days and turned to him when he couldn’t interest mainstream publishers in the project.

“He snapped up the idea straight away. That was the thing about Alister: he had a creative and an imaginative mind.” Published in 1974, The Sugarbag Years became a best-seller and effectively kick-started Simpson’s career.

Taylor also launched the career of historian Michael King, publishing King’s first book, Moko: Tattooing in the 20th Century, in 1972. Simpson recalls King phoning him and plaintively inquiring whether he had been paid any royalties for The Sugarbag Years, because King hadn’t received any for his book.

Even then, Taylor had a reputation as an unreliable payer. “Like a lot of creative and imaginative people, he was a flawed personality in a lot of ways. He regarded other people’s money as his money.”

Taylor published another of Simpson’s books, Te Riri Pakeha, about the alienation of Maori land, in 1990. The author ended up taking Taylor to court for unpaid royalties and won the case. When he still didn’t get his money, he had Taylor declared bankrupt.

In the course of those legal proceedings, Simpson obtained a list of Taylor’s creditors, which he describes as one of the world’s most astonishing documents. It included every wine merchant within a 160km radius. “He lived extremely well and he did it all on credit.

“He and I didn’t see one another for many years after that, but I’ve always been very grateful to him because in a very real way I think I owe him my writing career. And I’m not the only one – there was Michael King too.

“Alister was very much of that era, and at the centre of what was going on.”

An idealist on one level, but without a conscience when it came to financial affairs? “Oh yes, he was a total rogue. But a genial rogue who did some great things.”

In the 1970s, Taylor moved from Wellington, where he owned the historic Rita Angus Cottage in Thorndon, to Martinborough, where he planted a vineyard on an 80-hectare property originally owned by the Martin family who founded the town.

Coddington, who joined him there in 1978 with her young daughter Briar, says it was an example of his remarkable prescience – his ability to foresee trends and get in ahead of them. No one else was growing grapes in Martinborough at the time; that would come several years later. But he bought the property on instinct because the climate reminded him of Marlborough, then in the midst of a winemaking boom.

Taylor also saw potential in Waiura, the old Martin family homestead on the property, which was virtually derelict and used to store hay. “He had the foresight to see the value in preserving old buildings,” says Coddington. “Now everyone runs around doing it.”

The couple’s three children – Rupert, Valentine and Imogen – were born during the Martinborough years. It was a time when Waiura became synonymous with extravagant hospitality, which Taylor sometimes used to placate angry creditors.

“Alister was a wonderful cook and a fantastic host,” Coddington recalls. “Authors would come over from Wellington saying ‘This time I’m going to get my royalties’, and Alister would get out a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild or whatever and whip up a quiche and a persimmon steamed pudding with whipped cream and they would leave wined and dined and still with no money.”

But the vineyard was an expensive failure, sucking up all the money Taylor had made from his publishing ventures. Rabbits and possums destroyed his vines and Taylor ended up in a messy dispute with Shadbolt, then a concrete contractor, over the $100,000 wine cellar Shadbolt had built for him.

In 1983, the property was knocked down in a mortgagee sale (it subsequently became Te Kairanga Vineyard, which is now thriving under American ownership) and Taylor and Coddington moved to the Bay of Islands.

In Russell, they ran a café. Taylor did the cooking and Coddington waited on tables. Coddington later acquired The Gables restaurant on the Russell waterfront but by 1990 the couple had moved to Auckland, where Coddington got a job writing for North & South.

Taylor remained active in the books business, publishing – among other things – the New Zealand Who’s Who Aotearoa, in competition with a long-established book published by Reeds. It still rankles with retired journalist Max Lambert, who edited the Reeds version, that Taylor’s book masqueraded as the “official” Who’s Who, trading on its rival’s reputation.

“In my book he was a shyster,” Lambert says of Taylor. “He did some pretty underhand things, which is a pity because he had some good ideas. He did a brilliant book on horses.”

Three books on horses, in fact, starting in 1980 with Notable New Zealand Thoroughbreds, by Waikanae writer and lifelong racing fan Mary Mountier.  Did she end up out of pocket? “Oh God yes, everyone did,” she says.

Yet Mountier has no regrets. The limited-edition book was printed to exacting standards in Japan and Taylor spared no expense, sending her to Japan to supervise production and later to Australia and Britain to research similar books there.  “That was part of the problem. He was very generous, but he kept on spending even when the cheques started to bounce.”

Mountier says Taylor had a knack for finding writers who had a passion for particular subjects and who were willing to put in inordinate amounts of time and effort. But she’s proud of the books and grateful for the experience of having met people at the top echelons of the international racing scene. And she’s especially proud that all three are in the Queen’s library.

Taylor and Coddington parted in 2003, the year after Coddington was elected to Parliament. Even then Taylor was embroiled in legal problems – this time in New South Wales, where the Commissioner for Fair Trading took action against him over the alleged late and non-delivery of books.

Despite the split, Coddington retained “a huge amount of affection” for him and says his children loved him too.

She told Stuff the day before the funeral: “The kids were asking me what he was like when I met him. He was the man. He was the man.”

An essential trait of his personality, she said, was that he was anti-authority – “an anarchist”. He never seemed troubled by the mayhem he left in his wake and threats of legal action would just “wash over him”.

Now married to lawyer Colin Carruthers QC and living in Martinborough again, Coddington was co-owner of some of Taylor’s companies and admits a measure of responsibility for his bad behaviour toward people to whom he owed money. “Of course I do – guilt and responsibility, but I can’t turn back the clock.”

What Taylor did to people was reprehensible, she says – “all those poor people who signed contracts that were never honoured.

“I know of people, authors, who went to their letterboxes having been told there was a cheque in the mail, and there was never a cheque in the mail. You can’t do that to people.”

In his last years, Taylor lived on his own in Russell. He was found dead at home after a suspected heart attack.