Thursday, April 30, 2020

China must be held to account


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, April 29.)

When – or should that be if? – the world gets on top of the Covid-19 pandemic, attention must turn to the issue of Chinese culpability.

In an ideal world, President Xi Jinping and the government of the People’s Republic of China would be presented with a bill for reparations, but that’s not going to happen. No amount would be big enough to atone for the massive economic and social harm done internationally, and China wouldn’t pay anyway.

Nonetheless, China – or more specifically the Chinese Communist Party, since the Chinese people are blameless – must be held to account. Beijing must be made to realise there are consequences for allowing the coronavirus to leak across China’s borders and for silencing courageous people who tried to alert the world to the looming catastrophe.

The first of those consequences is the loss of trust. The world must now see that the image China has assiduously cultivated over several decades – that of a benign emerging power willing to play by the rules – is a sham. To put things bluntly, China has played us for suckers.

Chinese culpability for Covid-19 starts with its tolerance of “wet” markets, where captive live wild animals are a potential breeding ground for lethal diseases.

At a stretch, wet markets – cruel and unhygienic though they are – might be condoned on the basis that they’re a long-standing cultural practice. But nothing could excuse China’s failure to warn the World Health Organisation about the disease, as it was obliged to do, or its punishment of whistle-blowers.

In the meantime, travellers were allowed to carry the contagion around the globe. If China’s aim was to cripple Western economies, it couldn’t have done a better job. Just saying.

And it wasn’t the first such time. In 2002, China allowed vital weeks to pass before notifying the WHO of the Sars pandemic.  As with Covid-19, the communist regime’s obsession with secrecy and self-protection outweighed its concern for even its own citizens, who were kept in the dark.

Countries that have previously courted Chinese favour, including New Zealand, should now be appraising their relationships with Beijing in a much more critical light.

Not only has China revealed itself to be untrustworthy, but its aggressive global ambitions can no longer be disguised or ignored. These are most apparent in the South China Sea, where China has put military installations on artificial islands, originally created for supposedly peaceful purposes amid strategic shipping lanes.

In a recent discussion on America’s National Public Radio, US foreign policy specialist Michele Flournoy, who’s tipped as a possible Secretary of State in the unlikely event that Joe Biden wins the presidency, said China for decades had pursued a policy of “hide and bide” – hiding its real agenda while waiting for the right time to drop its mask, as she put it.

Xi’s ascendancy to the Chinese leadership was the moment the mask fell, Flournoy said. To which she might have added that the coronavirus pandemic was the moment the West took off its blinkers and realised that China is interested in behaving as a good international citizen only when it suits it to do so. 

Meanwhile, China’s ascendancy continues. In trade, it’s using the so-called Belt and Road Initiative to extend its economic influence over a large swathe of the globe. Less conspicuously, and by means that are often incompatible with the way things should be done in transparent democracies, it is exploiting political, diplomatic, business, academic and cultural channels to acquire influence in other countries’ affairs – a trend highlighted by Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University, a courageous lone voice on Chinese interference.

Regrettably, there seems to be no shortage of high-profile New Zealanders happy to be schmoozed by Beijing. John Key had an audience last year with Xi, who said he hoped the former prime minister would continue to enhance the friendship between the two countries. The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Key as praising Xi for his “vision and leadership”. All very chummy.

Another former prime minister, Jenny Shipley, served until last year (when she was implicated in the disastrous collapse of Mainzeal, of which she was a director) on the board of the state-controlled China Construction Bank, one of the world’s biggest financial institutions. 

New Zealand, like many countries, has allowed itself to become economically reliant on China and cannot easily disentangle itself.

Even America took a fatally complacent view of Chinese expansionism, allowing China to steal millions of manufacturing jobs and build a vast technology sector based largely on American innovation.

Chanting the mantra of globalisation, Western leaders encouraged China to take an active role in world trade. America even sponsored China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation. 

Successive US administrations, both Republican and Democrat, thought that if China was opened up to the world, the country’s leaders would reciprocate by playing a responsible part in international affairs, just as Germany and Japan did after America aided their revival following World War II.
 
In hindsight, it now looks a bit naïve. But to use an epidemiological metaphor, the lessons of the past few months may at least serve to inoculate the world against future delusions about China’s trustworthiness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guest post: Alwyn Poole


Alwyn Poole has kindly allowed me to post the following commentary. An innovative thinker on education issues, Alwyn was the founder of two successful partnership or “charter” schools (officially known as designated special character schools) in Auckland and co-founded Innovation Education Consultants.
The Value of a Life
It is astonishing how quickly key foundations of education and society can become twisted or subverted. A genuine proponent of education advocates important foundations: question everything, critique everything, suggest and evaluate counter scenarios (and other “experts”), ask who gains and who loses from a particular action, attack the argument and not the person. Children, youth and indeed all citizens need to apply these principles to current events and what appears to be deep moral confusion.
Everyone dies. It is maybe the least digestible fact of life, but the rate of death in every generation is 100 percent. I complained about this to my mother once and she placated me by saying that it wouldn’t happen to me. I was eight years old and at that stage accepted my immortality. In New Zealand in 2018, 33,225 human beings died. That is a little over 91 people per day. Apart from media coverage of road deaths and murders these deaths, by and large, pass unnoticed except for those close enough to attend the funerals.
In 2020 we have suddenly decided, as a society caught up in a global emergency, that these lives are more important than ever before. We have decided this to the extent that we have severely damaged significant sections of the economy, drastically restricted human rights, and allowed a very small sector of government to create edicts without due process or challenge.
New Zealand is a tiny country. If we were an American state we would rank approximately 24th by population, making all comparisons of Jacinda Ardern’s job to that of Donald Trump fatuous at best. Her role is closer to that of governor of a small state. We are highly disconnected geographically and uniquely placed to make our own decisions. We are resource-rich and relatively well educated. We should be looking at the big health picture and not being dragged into an international bunfight to prove that we can deprive citizens of their rights better than any other for very little relative gain.
As of yesterday, 19 New Zealanders had died from Covid-19. It could be argued that without state intervention it could have been more. You could argue the same if you chose not to have speed limit enforcement or mental health services. If 2020 is reasonably typical we will see around 670 people die from suicide (2.5 men for each woman, and disproportionately Maori). We will see approximately 70 homicide deaths. If this year is typical around 200,000 of us will get influenza (even with the ’flu vaccine being widely available) and between 400 and 500 will die either “with” or “because of” this virus.
Around 30 percent of our premature deaths will involve cancer and many of those will be associated with lack of early detection, alcohol and an unwillingness to seek help. At the other end of life we have thousands of babies born each year with foetal alcohol syndrome; suffering that we could surely ameliorate with the right spending and education for pregnant women.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory, says “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”.  In New Zealand, we have suddenly decided that every life is of incredible value and yet we ignore this declaration. Justice Minister  Andrew Little looked uncommonly gleeful when changing the abortion law and telling Kiwis that they did not deserve a say through a referendum. There were 13,282 unborn children who lost their lives in 2018 in our life-valuing nation. It is also more than ironic that in this year’s elections, when we are desperate to save every life, we will be voting on euthanasia.
Turning to suicide, a very credible US study has concluded that the correlation between unemployment and suicide is that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment there is a 21 per 100,000 increase in suicides. In New Zealand, brilliant mental well-being campaigners like Mike King and Paul Whatuira have struggled to get even a sideways (excuse the pun) glance from government to support their wonderful work. If we truly value life as we now seem to have chosen to do, these two men and others like them should never have to ask again. We are all touched by suicide (my birth dad’s choice of exit was a shotgun to the head); it is time to do ALL that we can.
John Donne was brilliantly right: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
I miss my parents and many others. We are right to take a strong stand to value life and be against premature death. What we should now ask of our leaders is that they be consistent and place equal value on the risks, both physical and mental, for all people. One of the important roles of teachers in a crisis situation is to hear students’ questions and concerns with an open mind and allow them to work their way through things. Suppressing this process can only lead to conformity for the sake of it and a deep sense of helplessness.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Coster: a masterclass in fudging


So the police are belatedly having second thoughts about the roadblocks set up by iwi vigilantes. But it’s several weeks too late, and even now Police Commissioner Andrew Coster can’t bring himself to categorically state what is obvious to everyone  – namely, that the checkpoints are illegal – or make a commitment that they will be removed.

Interviewed on radio this morning, Coster floundered as he tried to justify what plainly cannot be justified. He indicated that the police would be more actively involved in what are euphemistically called “community checkpoints” but left listeners unclear as to whether they would be allowed to continue.

In the meantime, checkpoints that were originally justified on the basis that they were protecting vulnerable Maori in remote places, such as the Far North and the East Coast, have materialised at locations where there’s no such justification, such as Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, where a Mongrel Mob member reportedly prevented a 70-year-old man from going to buy milk.

The figleaf of justification is further diminished now that health authorities are making real headway against Covid-19, meaning the risk of infection is being reduced by the day. Yet the checkpoints remain. This gives a clue to their real purpose, which has less to do with keeping elderly Maori safe than with asserting Maori control and defying the law to do anything about it.

Challenged on whether the checkpoints were illegal, Coster took refuge in bureaucratic flannel. He said while it was understandable that local communities were concerned about the coronavirus, they were not “specifically authorised” to undertake “checkpoint-type activity”. That’s a masterful bit of fudging.  

His rationalisation seems to be that police were willing to tolerate checkpoints at the outset, but the situation has changed now that the risk of widespread infection has receded. That’s a convenient way of retrospectively justifying the dangerous precedent the police created by allowing Harawira to go ahead without any mandate or authority. (It bears repeating that Harawira lost his parliamentary seat in 2014 and was roundly rejected by Maori voters again in 2017, raising questions about who, if anyone, he represents.)  

The time for the police to act firmly was weeks ago, at the outset. Why they failed to step in is unclear. Timidity? Misplaced cultural sensitivity?

And we still don’t know whether the checkpoints will be disbanded. Coster said the police were now “actively working to ensure that there is a police presence or indeed preferably that the checkpoints cease because the risk to our communities is lower”. More fudging.

On Morning Report, Corin Dann put it to Coster that residents of Muriwai Beach, near Auckland, were concerned about a possible influx of outsiders once the country goes to Level 3 and asked what the police would do if Muriwai locals – whom  I guess are overwhelmingly Pakeha – took matters into their own hands and established a roadblock.

His reply was a masterpiece of bureaucrat-speak. “Level 4 controls have aligned with the way various communities have gone about trying to manage movement that is inappropriate. But we cannot have communities running checkpoints preventing movement that is permitted under whatever level we’re in.” He went on to say police would ensure that “people who are entitled to use the road are free to do that”.

Interpret that how you will, but I took it to mean the police would not look favourably at any attempt to set up a checkpoint at Muriwai. So why is it apparently okay at Maketu? And when, exactly, did the police decide that people’s freedom of movement shouldn’t be infringed? Form your own conclusions.

The one thing most people would heartily agree with Coster on was his statement that “it’s not in anyone’s interests to let things escalate to the point where you have a bigger problem than you started with”. Er, precisely.

Meanwhile, he’s warning that the police will crack down on anyone deemed to be travelling beyond their permitted area once we go to Level 3. “Our message is very clear,” Coster told Mike Hosking on NewstalkZB. Except that it isn’t. The police talk tough when it comes to pulling errant motorists into line but tip-toe around people who blatantly defy their authority.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Only New Zealanders can judge Ardern


The latest edition of the left-leaning American monthly magazine The Atlantic includes a piece about Jacinda Ardern that might be described as fulsome. Most journalists wrongly use this word as a synonym for extravagantly generous, as in “fulsome praise”. But strictly speaking, fulsome means nauseatingly sycophantic or excessive. To be truly fulsome, the praise must be laid on so thickly that the automatic reaction is to screw your nose up at the excess of it all.

Journalist Uri Friedman pretty much satisfies that requirement with his profile of our prime minister. The tone is set by the headline: New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet. The following blurb carries on in similar vein, declaring that “Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style, focused on empathy, isn’t just resonating with her people; it’s putting the country on track for success against the coronavirus.”

Friedman writes: “Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well.”

Make no mistake, Friedman dug deep before reaching these conclusions. His principal source seems to have been Helen Clark, Ardern’s mentor and former boss – a thoroughly objective observer, in other words.

Clark told Friedman that New Zealanders feel that Ardern “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them”. She continued: “They may even think, Well, I don’t quite understand why [the government] did that, but I know she’s got our back. There’s a high level of trust and confidence in her because of that empathy.”

The other source quoted in Friedman’s article, an American who’s described as an international relations scholar at Victoria University and former US Defense Department official under the Obama administration, largely echoes Clark’s assessment. “She [Ardern] doesn’t peddle in misinformation; she doesn’t blame-shift; she tries to manage everyone’s expectations at the same time [as] she offers reassuring notes,” Friedman quotes Van Jackson as saying in an email. “She uses the bully pulpit to cue society toward our better angels—‘Be kind to each other’ and that kind of thing. I think that’s more important than people realise and does trickle down into local attitudes.”

Friedman goes on to cite Ardern’s “informal and informative” Facebook Live chats. “During a session conducted in late March, just as New Zealand prepared to go on lockdown, she appeared in a well-worn sweatshirt at her home (she had just put her toddler daughter to bed, she explained) to offer guidance ‘as we all prepare to hunker down’.” 

Later in the article, he writes: “In a more recent Facebook Live, one of Ardern’s staffers walked into her office just as she was launching into a detailed explanation of what life would look like once the government began easing its lockdown. ‘Oh look, it’s Leroy!’ she exclaimed, assuring viewers that he was in her ‘work bubble’. A children’s toy was visible just behind her desk. The scene seemed apt for an era in which work and life are constantly colliding.”

That these folksy-sounding interludes may have been orchestrated to reinforce Ardern’s media image doesn’t appear to have occurred to Friedman. (I’m not saying they were, but a little journalistic scepticism might be in order.) He might also have noted the conspicuous placement of a photo of Michael Joseph Savage on a shelf behind her in a televised speech from her office in the Beehive. It would mean nothing to an American journalist, of course, but it would resonate with many New Zealanders, subtly conveying the impression that Ardern has inherited the mantle of New Zealand’s revered first Labour prime minister – the man entrenched in political mythology as the saviour who hauled the country out of the depths of the Great Depression.

For the record, I think Ardern has done a pretty remarkable job handling the Covid-19 emergency. At her daily press conferences she comes across as composed, assured and personable. There’s little hint of the immense pressure her government is under.

Considering that only three years ago she was a newly installed deputy leader of the opposition with no experience in government, still less any preparation for the demands of leading a country through not one but three major political crises (the Christchurch mosque attacks, the Whakaari/White Island eruption and now this), her coolness and apparent decisiveness under pressure is almost preternatural. 

Moreover, I don’t believe her affability (or as Ardern would pronounce it, affabilidy) is phony. I don’t think anyone could fake that charm for all this time, and under all this intense scrutiny.

Neither do I doubt her sincerity. But when all is said and done, she’s a politician and will do whatever works for her. In her case that means oozing empathy, appearing on Facebook Live in a grungy sweatshirt and smiling a lot (even when what she’s saying isn’t particularly cheerful, a habit she may have picked up from Clark). Her response to the mosque attacks made her a global media superstar, and naturally she’s going to play to that strength.

Even so, Friedman has allowed his admiration for Ardern to override any sense of journalistic detachment. He could have approached any number of New Zealand sources for a more measured assessment of Ardern, but that’s probably not what The Atlantic and its readers want. Journalists (even those on The Atlantic) love stereotypes, and the image the world media have built around Ardern is that of a warm, caring Madonna.

The only acknowledgment that New Zealanders are not unanimously enamoured of the prime minister comes when Van Jackson suggests that Ardern, like Barack Obama, is “polarising at home [while] popular abroad”.  It’s the most perceptive observation in the piece; Friedman would have done well to take note of it.

There have been other articles in a similar vein. CNN carried an item headlined Lessons in leadership: New Zealand’s virus response which highlighted Ardern’s announcement that the Easter Bunny had been declared an essential worker – a bit of Kiwi whimsy bound to appeal to those accustomed to thinking of politics as staid and humour-free. A column in the Financial Times headlined Arise Saint Jacinda, a leader for our troubled times (was a subversive headline-writer taking the piss?) described Ardern as “a model of compassionate leadership”. London-based New Zealand freelance journalist Laura Walters suggested Ardern’s “clear and decisive” leadership made Boris Johnson look floundering and ineffectual. Meanwhile, back at home, Stuff columnist Sue Allen, whose background is in PR (or as they prefer to call it now, “communications”), wrote that Ardern’s daily press conferences were “appointment viewing”. (Allen also praised the clarity of the government’s pandemic messages, but in fact they were – and still are – often fuzzy, ambiguous and inconsistent.) And of course there was that piece in the Washington Post by the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, New Zealander Anna Fifield, which portrayed the government under Ardern as showing the way in the fight against the coronavirus.

There’s a common factor here. Many of the journalists cooing with approval are young(ish) women, like Ardern. It would hardly be surprising if they felt an affinity with her and wanted her to succeed. The same is probably true of the female journalists in the Wellington press gallery, which may explain the largely uncritical coverage Ardern gets domestically. The old journalistic notion that reporters should try to distance themselves emotionally from their subject has been suspended.

But an additional factor comes into play when the journalists are outsiders. Many overseas journalists’ perceptions of Ardern are coloured by their disdain for their own leaders. They look at Ardern – young, female, left-wing, intelligent, articulate, empathetic (that word again) and attuned to concerns like climate change and multiculturalism – and lament that their fellow Americans (or Brits, or Australians, or whatever) are too dumb or racist or myopic to elect someone like her. Behind every homage to Ardern penned by a star-struck journalist from overseas, there’s a sense of hurt and resentment that they’re saddled with leaders they see as yesterday’s politicians – male, stale, pale and worst of all, conservative.

New Zealanders lap all this up, of course. Friedman’s article was reported in the New Zealand media as if it were the voice of God. We love to be noticed, and never more so than when other countries look up to us. (After decades of sheep jokes from across the Tasman, it’s taken as the ultimate compliment that many Australians, especially those from the achingly woke inner-city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, gaze longingly at our prime minister and fervently wish she were in The Lodge in Canberra instead of Scott Morrison. They just know that Jacinda would never have gone to Hawaii on holiday while her country was burning.)

But while we may feel a warm glow reading these adulatory appraisals of Ardern in the foreign media, they don’t amount to a hill of beans, as she must know. Because ultimately, it’s only what New Zealanders think of their leader that counts.

Years ago, I stopped being a judge in the New Zealand newspaper awards because I reasoned that the only people in a position to know whether a paper was doing a good job were the people who read it every day, 52 weeks a year – not a group of outsiders making their decisions based on what the paper considered were its four best issues of the year. The same applies to prime ministers. Only New Zealanders are entitled to decide whether Ardern is doing a good job.

There was a parallel of sorts in the 1980s and 90s, when extravagant praise was showered on Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson by overseas admirers of their economic reforms. While I supported many of those changes, it jarred with me that Douglas and Richardson were lionised on the international conference circuit. The reforms may have looked great when seen from the glass towers of New York and London, but the economic shock and dislocation experienced in New Zealand led to a far less sanguine view at home. That explains why Jim Bolger, noting Richardson's unpopularity, came to regard her as a liability and sacked her as Finance Minister.

But back to that Friedman piece. Arguably his biggest mistake was the premature assumption that Ardern and her government have shown the way to beat Covid-19. While that assessment may yet prove to be true, it’s almost certainly coloured by the writer’s obvious liking for Ardern and his desire for her to succeed. But defeating the disease is one thing; dealing with the economic mayhem created in the process is a potentially much tougher challenge. And in the end, all the glowing reports from overseas journalists will count for nothing, because only New Zealanders will be in a position to judge how well Ardern has done.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

At last, some pushback - albeit half-hearted - against Harawira's vigilantes


Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is slowly stirring as if from a long, deep slumber.

The first signs of life became apparent last week when Northland MP Matt King shook himself awake and called on the police to shut down the unlawful checkpoints set up by Hone Harawira’s followers in the Far North, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting vulnerable Maori communities from Covid-19.

That it took more than three weeks for anyone from the National Party to question the legality of the checkpoints points to the potency of whatever sleeping draught the party had ingested. But at least it was a start.

King was prodded into action following a complaint from a man who said he and his wife had been prevented from driving to nearby Kaihoke for groceries – on the face of it, a flagrant interference in their freedom of movement, imposed with no legal mandate whatsoever other than an informal nod of approval from the local police and the district mayor, the undistinguished former MP John Carter.

Newshub reported that the couple were detained against their will after refusing (quite rightly) to tell their interrogators where they lived. Four of the masked vigilantes allegedly surrounded the couple’s vehicle and took photos of the number plate. Terrified, the wife phoned 111 for help.

After several minutes the couple were told to move to a holding area for further questioning and seized the opportunity to drive off. By the time they made their return journey, police had apparently intervened and the blockade was no longer operating, although the people manning it were still at the roadside.

According to King, other members of the public, including a paramedic, had told of being made to stop and take flyers. People found the checkpoints intimidating but were too scared to say anything.

So … private citizens going about their lawful business have been stopped, detained and intimidated. And the police, who are entrusted to uphold the rule of law (and are normally ultra-zealous about deterring anyone impertinent enough to usurp their role), have looked the other way.

Just why the police have chosen to so cravenly abdicate isn’t clear, but a possible explanation is that they have been instructed not to get offside with local iwi activists. Anything to keep the peace, even if it means risking the goodwill of people whose natural instinct is to respect the law.

The media, previously diligent in their disinclination to subject Harawira’s Tai Tokerau Border Control (apparently that’s what the vigilantes call themselves) to any critical scrutiny, reported King’s statement and added an empty assurance by deputy police commissioner Wally Haumaha – the same Wally Haumaha who survived a Police Conduct Authority investigation which found he had humiliated and intimidated two women subordinates – to the effect that police had “advised” people running the checkpoints on the “appropriate” way to conduct themselves.

Not a word about their legality, or the right of iwi enforcers to usurp the role of properly constituted authorities such as the police and district council. Nothing to see here, folks.

But public anxiety at the way these blockades are operating – and not just in the Far North, but on the East Coast and reportedly in the central North Island as well – has reached such a level that National MPs can’t ignore it. The party’s agonisingly slow awakening continued yesterday during a meeting of Parliament’s epidemic response committee, where Gerry Brownlee brought up the case of an elderly man who was prevented from going to buy milk by a member of the Mongrel Mob.

The man’s MP, Anne Tolley, said she understood that the people manning the checkpoints wanted to protect their communities [from infection], but in New Zealand people should have the right of passage. “If it’s not managed well, I’m worried it could get out of hand.”

Coming from a senior representative of a party that supposedly stands for individual freedom, this was an astonishingly half-hearted defence of a right that’s taken for granted in all liberal democracies. But at least it prompted police minister Stuart Nash into a belated denunciation of “ratbags and renegades” manning illegal roadblocks.

Unfortunately, Nash’s tough-sounding talk was so qualified as to be meaningless. He said that where roadblocks were set up without the support of the local community or the police, “the police will take this very seriously”.

That’s bound to have Harawira quaking in his jandals. As most people realise, the time to crack down on the illegal checkpoints was several weeks ago, when they first appeared. They’re now an established fact, and any attempt to dismantle them could get messy.

It follows that the longer the checkpoints are allowed to continue, the greater the risk that iwi separatists will regard it as their de facto right to police their own “borders” – and by implication, assert sovereignty in other areas of public life, which you can be sure was Harawira’s goal from the get-go. The ultimate objective, as I’ve said before, is the formation of an Indigenous People’s Republic of Te Tai Tokerau.

National’s lame performance continued on Morning Report this morning when the party’s shadow police minister, Brett Hudson, called for “clarity” over the legality of what he euphemistically called “community checkpoints”. If the government was going to condone them, Hudson said, it needed to publish guidelines on how they should be legally operated.

Wow, there’s a ringing defence of individual rights for you. You can always count on the Nats to man the barricades when personal freedom is under attack.

In line with Radio NZ’s fastidious insistence on editorial balance, Morning Report followed the Hudson interview with a phone call to Tairawhiti activist Tina Ngata for her take on the checkpoints. She took an ingenious line, arguing that “community traffic management” is nothing new.

“This sort of activity has been happening for a long time," Ngata said, citing the role of Maori wardens in traffic management and stretching credulity by implying the checkpoints were no different from locals taking charge of traffic at events such as galas and tangis. 

crucial difference is that Maori wardens enjoy quasi-official status, and have done for a long time. Their activities are sanctioned under the Maori Community Development Act of 1962, and by virtue of their long history they function with the implied consent and goodwill of the community. 

The people manning the Northland and East Cape roadblocks enjoy no such legitimacy. Besides, I've never heard of anyone feeling intimidated or coerced by a Maori warden; on the contrary, their presence is usually a calming influence.

Ngata also said no one has been forced to stop. Perhaps that’s true in her East Coast rohe, but try telling that to the drivers who felt intimidated in the Far North, or the elderly man who was turned back at Maketu.

The justification advanced by the people manning the checkpoints is that they are doing so with the aim of protecting remote communities. Any reasonable person can sympathise with that objective, but it falls far short of justification for allowing self-appointed guardians to take the law into their own hands. Viewed against the backdrop of a long push for Maori nationalism, it should be seen for what it is: an attempt to advance a race-based separatist agenda.

This challenge to the rule of law is happening in plain sight, and no one – not even the National opposition – is doing anything about it, other than impotently tut-tutting.

Footnote: As I was writing this post, prime minister Jacinda Ardern was reportedly asked a question at her daily press conference about the legality of the checkpoints and indicated  she supported them. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere other than on Maori TV, where it was reported in te reo.  The mainstream media generally maintain a studied indifference to the issue - with the honourable exception of Stuff columnist Martin van Beynen, who wrote what I thought was a rather restrained column about it last Saturday.



Friday, April 17, 2020

A welcome respite from neo-Marxist scaremonering

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

It’s true, then. Every cloud really does have a silver lining.

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into economic and social turmoil on a scale not seen before in most people’s lifetimes. We have no idea how long this will last or what the long-term repercussions might be.

But look on the bright side. For several weeks we have enjoyed a respite from the shrill scaremongering and moralising of the neo-Marxist Left.

Moral panics over hate speech, gender identity, climate change, white supremacy, Islamophobia and the consumption of meat and dairy products have been displaced from the headlines. The world’s news media have found more pressing issues to concern themselves with. It’s amazing what an urgent existential crisis can do.

This is not intended to sound flippant, or to diminish the heartbreak experienced by families unable to provide comfort to the dying in their last hours due to Covid-19 rules. But it does underscore the vast difference between the ideological fixations of a noisy minority of self-absorbed activists and the genuine life-and-death situation society as a whole is now grappling with.

Another blessing is that the leftist doctrine of identity politics, which sees society as irrevocably divided between oppressors and oppressed, has suffered a sharp setback.

Identity politics seeks to focus on and magnify our differences, especially those relating to race, gender, class, sexual identity and religion (and increasingly, age too).  The aim is to divide and destabilise society. But in the face of the common challenge posed by Covid-19, New Zealanders have tapped into a deep reserve of solidarity and shared purpose.

Beyond those consequences, no one knows quite how the crisis will play out. But a wide range of possibilities present themselves.

One likelihood is that the wave of economic liberalisation and deregulation which swept the Western world under the banners of Thatcherism and Reaganomics in the 1980s will be at least partially rolled back.

Just as the Great Depression led to the election of big-spending, interventionist governments under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States and Michael Joseph Savage here, so the coronavirus scare has legitimised state involvement in the New Zealand economy on a scale not seen since Robert Muldoon.

How far this will extend remains to be seen, but it’s already clear that a fundamental reset is under way. Expect higher taxes, greater state control and more power in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats.

Globalisation, a defining trend of the past few decades, has taken a massive hit too. Not surprisingly, countries have lowered the shutters.

The strains are nowhere more apparent in the European Union, which is showing signs of fracturing as bickering member states focus on protecting their own national interests. Founded in idealism in the aftermath of the 1939-45 war, the EU is discovering that noble intentions go only so far.

Domestically, the crisis will go a long way toward restoring public respect and even affection for farmers, who have often been unfairly disparaged in recent years for their supposed contribution to global warming and environmental degradation. Expect the rural sector to regain its former status as the engine-room of the economy – a role usurped in recent years by international tourism, which has somehow largely escaped censure for the harm it has done in environmentally sensitive places.

Politically, the crisis has been good for Labour. Confronted with an unforeseen challenge far greater than any New Zealand government has faced since World War Two, Ardern and her team have generally responded calmly and decisively.

But they must still be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, contrary to a letter in my local paper which seemed to suggest that it’s unpatriotic to question, still less criticise, government decisions. There’s nothing like a national emergency to bring out the authoritarian streak in some citizens.

Considering the hazards strewn in its path, the government has done well to make only two serious misjudgements. The first was the omission of magazines and community newspapers from its list of essential industries, which gave German publisher Bauer Media the excuse it needed to abandon the New Zealand market, leaving subscribers to its magazines literally grieving.

The other was the shameful connivance of the police, presumably with government approval, in condoning unlawful highway checkpoints manned by iwi activists in the Far North and on the East Cape.

So much for the rule of law. Hone Harawira, no doubt delighted at being allowed to get away with it, will treat it as a precedent – another step on the path toward the Indigenous People’s Republic of Te Tai Tokerau.

The crisis has been good for Winston Peters too, allowing him to masquerade as statesmanlike in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Will this be enough to save his disreputable party after a run of damning disclosures? The voters will decide.

But the hardest part is still to come as the government attempts the extraordinarily difficult balancing act of rekindling the economy without risking a resurgence of the virus. The possibility remains that the cure could be even more damaging than the disease.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The lockdown deprives us of that precious and undervalued commodity, choice


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, April 15.)

I’m writing this on a glorious Easter Sunday morning. From where I sit in what I grandiosely refer to as my office, which in reality resembles nothing so much as a medieval monk’s cell, I look out on the street. It’s a good vantage point from which to observe a passing parade of walkers, runners, cyclists and even horse riders.

Being on the edge of town, our street is semi-rural and relatively quiet, which makes it popular with walkers. Some are regulars whose faces are familiar to me. But in the weeks since the Covid-19 lockdown began, the number of passers-by has multiplied.

I don’t recognise these new faces, which tells me they’re from outside our neighbourhood or – far more likely – that they’re locals who either don’t usually get the opportunity to go for a stroll or who, for one reason or another, wouldn’t normally think of doing it.

It’s a lockdown phenomenon, then, but a beneficial one. Eager for some fresh air and respite from being house-bound, people are taking to the streets. In the process, they’re getting acquainted with their local neighbourhoods, possibly for the first time.

I might add that they’re getting acquainted with their neighbours too, because a psychological side-effect of the Covid-19 crisis is that people suddenly feel a sense of communal solidarity – a feeling that we’re all in this together. This has the effect of breaking down the barriers of reserve that often deter people from exchanging greetings with strangers or striking up a conversation with the person next door.  

Another benign consequence of the lockdown is that the absence of vehicles has made streets quieter and more pedestrian-friendly. Walking is therefore not only more pleasurable, but it’s also generally safe to step off the footpath in order to maintain social distancing from anyone coming the other way.

And here’s something else. The people I see out walking every day are a demographic cross-section, from the very young to the elderly. But what’s especially noticeable is the number of young families out together, either on foot or on bikes.

For many kids, having all this leisure time with their parents must be something of a novelty. Those with working parents, which means a very high proportion of New Zealand children, must relish having their mums and dads home with them.

I imagine the eventual return to normality, if there is such a thing,  will be just as tough for some parents, mothers especially, as for their kids. There’s a widely held view that mothers find being at home with their children stressful, but that’s not universally true. 

While it’s unfashionable to admit it, some resent being forced by economic circumstances – or just as often, by social expectations – to pursue careers, and would rather be full-time parents regardless of the financial disadvantages.

And as it is for kids, so it is for dogs. Over the past two weeks there’s been a steady procession of dogs and their owners past our front gate – far more than I’d normally see.

Some of these will be dogs that usually get their exercise in parks and open areas too distant to walk to and therefore off-limits under the lockdown rules, but my guess is that many of them are normally left to languish alone at home during the day. They too have reason to be delighted with the lockdown and may be excused for sulking when they find themselves on their own again.

As for people like my wife and me, being confined to barracks is no great hardship. Social isolation is how many in our age group live for much of the time anyway.

For those like us, the main challenge posed by the lockdown is a psychological one, and a piffling one at that. Being forced to stay at home with only our own company induces an unfamiliar state of ennui, which is best described as a vague feeling of lethargy and listlessness arising from lack of stimulation.

We have everything we need except that most precious and undervalued commodity, choice: choice about how to spend our time, who to spend it with, where to go and when. But the fact that we normally enjoy such choice is a reminder of how privileged we are. It can’t be compared with the hardship, loneliness and stress many people are experiencing.

My wife and I have a guaranteed (if modest) income from the state, no mortgage or rent to pay, no jobs and therefore no anxiety about losing them, and no kids to keep engaged while the lockdown drags on.

In as much as anyone can have certainty in their lives, we do. And it’s uncertainty, perhaps more than anything, that makes the coronavirus crisis so worrisome: uncertainty about when and if it will be over, and uncertainty about the huge social and economic damage that could be done in the meantime.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

A personal perspective on the closure of The Listener


It suddenly struck me quite forcefully yesterday that the issue of The Listener containing the programme listings for the week just ended was probably the last one I will ever see. (I say “probably” because there remains a theoretical possibility that someone will revive the magazine, though I’m not holding my breath.)

There may have been one more edition, but if there was, I didn’t see it because the lockdown kicked in and the shop where I normally buy El Listenero was closed.

All the familiar clichés apply here: “end of an era”, “New Zealand institution” and so forth. The Listener has been a significant part of my life. When I was a kid, it was part of a bundle of publications – along with the NZ Weekly News and the British comics Film Fun, Radio Fun and Tiger – that we picked up every Friday afternoon from Hallagan’s bookshop in Ruataniwha St, Waipukurau. (New Zealand being the sort of place it is, Jack and Margaret Hallagan were close family friends and their kids attended the same convent school.)

I didn’t take much notice of the Listener in those days, although I do remember a spat in the correspondence columns between Kathrin du Fresne of Waipukurau (my mother) and C C du Fresne of Mapua, Nelson (my uncle). I don’t recall what the argument was about; probably some moral issue like sex education, censorship or the contraceptive pill. Mum was a devout Catholic and a social conservative while Chris, my father’s younger brother, was a radical leftie. Both were naturally combative, but strangely enough (or maybe not) they got along quite well personally and I like to think they respected each other.

Many years later – in 1978, to be precise – the Listener became a central part of my life when the then editor Tony Reid, who sadly died recently, offered me a job as a staff writer (as the Listener’s hacks were known then). I ended up working there for four years alongside the likes of Tom Scott, Helen Paske, Gordon Campbell, Jane Ussher, Vernon Wright, Karen Jackman, Denis Welch, David Young, Phil Gifford, Sue McTagget, Vincent O’Sullivan (then the books editor) and a young Pamela Stirling, who would become editor for the magazine’s last 16 years.

They were a terrifically talented team, and fun to work with. I produced a few pieces of work that I was proud of but otherwise I can’t say that I distinguished myself. Years later, Stephen Stratford – then a Listener sub-editor, now a respected freelance books editor – wrote of that era: “Months would pass – nay, entire seasons – between articles by Karl du Fresne and Vernon Wright*.” That was an elegant way of saying I wasn’t very productive, or to put it more bluntly, that I was lazy. In my defence, I would argue now that I also suffered from a lack of confidence. I would immerse myself in research but dreaded the moment when I had to sit down and write that elusive first paragraph. I would do anything to postpone it.

The thing about the Listener was that there was no pressure – not on me, anyway, though it was a different story for Tom Scott with his weekly cartoon and political column. I don’t recall ever hearing mention of the word deadline, though that may be a case of self-serving selective memory.

That my low productivity seemed to be tolerated says something about the sort of magazine the Listener was back then. Its high circulation (nearly 400,000 at its peak, a phenomenal figure by today’s standards) was virtually guaranteed by the fact that it had sole rights to publish the entire week’s TV and radio programmes in advance, other publications being restricted to running them one day at a time. “No pressure” could have been the magazine’s motto. It was always chock-full of advertising, but I don’t recall the advertising manager – a lovely, amiable man named George Barrett, who in a past life had been a Blenheim picture theatre manager and who became my go-to guy whenever I needed a loan, which was quite often – ever raising a sweat. He just sat behind his enormous desk and the ads rolled in.

I quit the Listener when it eventually dawned on me that I was temperamentally unsuited to the rhythm of a weekly magazine, which allowed far too much latitude for procrastination. I needed the brutal discipline of a daily deadline, which is why I came to be appointed news editor of the Nelson Evening Mail in 1982 – a move I never regretted. But the Listener re-entered my life decades later, by which time Pamela was editor and I was working as a freelance journalist. Pamela generously put a lot of work my way and for quite some time used my services as an anonymous editorial writer. It was probably no bad thing that the editorials were unsigned, since I imagine that left-leaning Listener readers (that’s almost tautological) would have choked on their carbon-free vegan quiche had they realised that a journalist widely loathed for his supposedly right-wing views had become a cuckoo in their beloved nest.

To my knowledge Pamela has said nothing publicly since the announcement of the Listener’s closure, but I imagine she will have been devastated. She was ferociously committed to the magazine and led it through some turbulent times.  She survived what by all accounts was some pretty vicious staff infighting – the Listener could be a fractious workplace, partly due to the tendency of some of its journalists to treat the magazine as a political platform – and in recent years had to deal with a steadily sinking lid as the owners cut back on staff and resources. I often marvelled that the magazine came out at all, such were the pressures on its editorial staff.

Which brings me to Bauer Media, the company that lowered the boom on the Listener after 80 years as part of New Zealand’s cultural fabric. Bauer’s exit is further evidence that foreign control of New Zealand media is generally ruinous. Australian ownership did grave – some would say irreparable – damage to both our major print media companies and it seems the Germans are no better. Overseas owners have no emotional stake in the country and no long-term commitment to our wellbeing. They don’t understand our culture and ethos and are largely indifferent to New Zealand affairs. They are interested in us only for as long as they can make a profit, and when that ceases, they cut and run. Well, auf Nimmerwiedersehen, Bauer.

*When last heard of, Vernon was still working as a journalist in Zambia.



Friday, April 3, 2020

Random musings on Covid-19


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

The man who edits this page sensibly suggested in an email to columnists last week that readers might appreciate a break from the constant bombardment with comment about Covid-19. But really, what can you do? To use an old expression, it’s the only game in town.

Here, then, are a few random musings to add to the hubbub.

■ The Covid-19 crisis truly merits the adjective “epochal”. Like the two world wars, the 1918 influenza epidemic and the Great Depression, it has the potential to define an era and leave a mark that will endure for decades. The world will look and feel quite different when we eventually come out the other side. We don’t yet know how it will be different; we just know that it will be. Already things feel very different from how they were only two weeks ago, and we have no idea where we will end up. In fact not knowing is the hardest part. It may be a cliché to say we’re in uncharted territory, but there’s a reason why clichés become clichés. It’s because they usually express a truth.

■ On a cosmic level, Covid-19 is a humbling slap-down. It reminds us that we’re not masters of the universe, as we liked to think. For all its immense sophistication and achievement, medical science suddenly looks almost puny against a malignant force of nature. For its part, the global economy has been exposed as being far more fragile than anyone imagined. And note how quickly some countries have rediscovered their nationalistic impulses, retreating into their shells and closing borders. We can only hope this doesn’t translate into the revival of historic rivalries, suspicions and enmities.

■ New Zealand is better placed than most countries to deal with this crisis. We’re an intimate, cohesive society with a strong sense of communal solidarity. We haven’t become so cynical that we can’t still harness the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that used to keep the populace energised during telethons (remember them?). That’s one reason people were so unhappy about the forced closure of free community papers. These hyper-local papers are the only ones many people see. They are important not only as a means of keeping people informed about local affairs but also for making them feel connected to the wider community, which is never more valuable than at a time when many are feeling anxious and isolated. It was one of the government’s few missteps and the partial backdown announced on Tuesday doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.  

■ Even within my own social sphere, I’m aware of people having to cope with painful personal consequences arising from Covid-19. In one instance, a family lost a husband and father when he died during what was expected to be routine surgery. Hospital visits had been banned, so they never saw him in his final days, and to compound their grief there was no funeral. In another case, a friend who was in the habit of visiting his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife every day can no longer do so because the rest home where she’s a resident had no option but to go into lockdown. Husband and wife are thus prevented from spending precious daily time together, and no one can say when – or even if – things will return to normal. Sad circumstances such as these will be causing anguish throughout the country.

■ Everyone’s trying hard not to politicise Covid-19, but it needs to be said that so far, Jacinda Ardern and her top-tier team have handled the crisis commendably enough to almost guarantee a second term, should this year’s election go ahead. That “so far” is an important qualifier, though. There’s still a long way to go, and a difficult balance to be struck between decisive government and heavy-handed interference in personal freedoms. Watch this space.

■ What an ironic paradox that at a time when people might feel the need to turn to religion for hope, comfort and reassurance, church doors are closed. A golden marketing opportunity missed, a cynic might say.

■ Hardship can take multiple forms. Many New Zealanders would never dream of patronising McDonald’s or KFC, but for a significant demographic group, fast food is a staple. They’ll be suffering now that it’s denied them. Good, you might say; perhaps the lockdown will break bad eating habits – but that doesn’t necessarily follow. I feel sorry for them.

■ All news media should make a point of regularly highlighting the number of people who have been treated for Covid-19 and recovered. It’s a small thing, but an important reminder that it’s not a death sentence. Many victims experience only mild symptoms and are over it within a few days.

■ We have a large, cheerful-looking teddy bear in our lounge window. Regular readers will know I’m not usually a teddy-bear type of guy, but children passing with their parents on the footpath point and smile when they see him. That can only be a good thing.

A bit more clarity and consistency would be helpful


So David Clark put his mountain bike in his van, drove a couple of kilometres to an MTB track and went for a ride. Where’s the problem, exactly?

I’ll tell you what the problem is. It’s that the public is getting so many mixed and contradictory messages that even the Minister of Health doesn’t seem to know what’s allowed and what’s not.

The government has a problem here. It needs public co-operation and goodwill, and most people are happy to oblige. But it helps if they’re given consistent messages, and it also helps if they can see the logic in what they’re being asked to do.

I have yet to see any explanation, still less a convincing one, as to why it’s unsafe to do what Clark did – i.e., drive to a nearby location, then go for a bike ride, walk or run from there. I can’t see how that’s going to expose more people to Covid-19 than walking around the block, which we’re told is permitted and indeed encouraged. He’s not going to infect people driving his van.

Neither have I seen any statement clearly explaining how far we’re supposed to venture, if at all, from our immediate neighbourhood. Pre-lockdown, I was in the habit of riding my bike to the end of a nearby country road. I don’t know how far it is, but there and back takes roughly an hour at a reasonably brisk pace.

The road is quiet even in normal times and positively ghostly right now. I’m almost as likely to see an aardvark as another human being. If I did that ride today, would I risk being pulled over by a cop? And if I was, and I asked him/her to explain what risk I posed, what would he/she say? What’s the difference between riding on that quiet country road and endlessly circling my local suburban block, where I’m far more likely to encounter other people?

That said, I think most of us accept that there are justifiable limitations on what we can do. There’s a lovely bush walk about 30 minutes’ drive from my place, but it’s well out in the countryside and I’d probably be pushing the envelope if I drove there. So how about the network of nice walking trails on the other side of town, just 10 minutes from my place? Some snitch dobbed Clark in for travelling less than that distance for his bike ride (the anonymous media informant claimed to be “horrified”, which tells you something about his or her fragile psychological state), so would I be breaking the rules if I drove there? Is there some sort of invisible, virtual line on the road that marks a boundary that I’m not supposed to cross? If so, how am I supposed to know where it is? I’ve read a lot about the Alert Level 4 regulations, but seen no practical guidance about this.

Now let’s take this a step further. I have a friend in her 70s who, until last week, swam every day in the sea near her place in Auckland. In an email to me yesterday she said she’d love to be able to swim now; the weather’s hot and the tides are ideal. But she’s been told it’s not allowed, and being a conscientious, law-abiding citizen, keen to do the right thing, she’s complying. At the same time, she can’t understand it. The authorities indicate that it’s because they don’t want emergency services having to rescue people, but for heaven’s sake; she’s been swimming without incident at her local beach for years and points out there have never been lifeguards there anyway, presumably because it’s a harbour beach and very safe.

Similarly, a mate of mine in Nelson wanted to go surfing at Rabbit Island, as is his habit. That’s forbidden too, just in case the Coast Guard has to be called out to save someone. Really? How often do you hear of the Coast Guard having to rescue a surfer? And in sheltered Tasman Bay, of all places? It’s absurd.

The problem here is a predictable one. The urge to control human behaviour is ingrained in officialdom, and a health crisis provides a perfect excuse to indulge in a bit of gratuitous control freakery. It doesn’t help that until today, we had a police commissioner who gave the impression of relishing the opportunity to talk tough about the possible consequences for people rash enough to flout the rules. I hope his successor strikes a less bullying tone.

In a situation like the present one, there’s always a danger that governments will err on the side of authoritarianism on the pretext that it’s for the public good. Many New Zealanders are old enough to recall that happening during the 1951 waterfront dispute, when basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of association were suspended under the Public Safety Conservation Act (the name says it all), which a Labour government finally repealed in 1987.

But governments need to carry the public with them, and never more so than in the effort to contain Covid-19. That won’t be achieved by alienating and antagonising people through heavy-handed enforcement of petty rules. I’m sure Jacinda Ardern understands that, but the message appears to have got lost in translation. A bit more clarity and consistency would be helpful.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A perfect antidote to the coronavirus scare


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, April 1).

While our fellow New Zealanders were angsting over the escalating coronavirus crisis last month, my wife and I were on the road. It was possibly the best place to be.

There’s something to be said for isolation, and I don’t mean the isolation everyone has experienced over the past week in their homes. In our case it came from being in remote places where access to newspapers, TV, the Internet and even radio was intermittent and sometimes non-existent. This meant we were able to make our way around some of the scenic nooks and crannies of the upper North Island largely untroubled by the increasingly gloomy news emanating from Wellington.

And when I say scenic, I mean scenic. There is no more effective antidote to a looming health catastrophe than the visual distraction of the New Zealand landscape.

Our route took us through Hawke’s Bay, the Volcanic Plateau, the Bay of Plenty, the King Country, the Waikato and North Auckland. Everywhere we went, New Zealand from the road was a joy to behold. It just keeps looking lovelier.

It’s not just the obviously outstanding physical features, such as mountains, lakes and beaches, that make this country so pleasing to the eye. On a more basic level, it’s something very simple: trees. Nothing transforms the landscapes so much as trees, and over my lifetime I’ve watched as they’ve grown and proliferated throughout rural New Zealand.

Despite the opprobrium heaped on them for supposedly raping the land for profit, farmers deserve much of the credit for this. Early pastoralists may have stripped the land bare in their eagerness to turn it into grass, but subsequent generations of farmers understood the aesthetic value of trees and we all benefit.

So where did we go? Well, we stayed at Ohiwa, a magical spot in the eastern Bay of Plenty where the camping ground nestles under a pohutukawa-clad bluff, at the top of which, if you don’t mind a bit of a climb, you can see the remains of fortified pa sites, strategically located so as to command a view of advancing enemies.

Maori history is all around us, but it’s often not obvious. You have to seek it out, but it’s there – as in the Hukutaia Domain, near Opotiki, where we gazed in silent awe at a massive, 2000-year-old puriri tree called Taketakerau, the Burial Tree, under which the Upokorehe iwi interred the bones of their distinguished dead.

Ohiwa has the great advantage of being out of reach of what I call the Auckland Effect. No offence to our biggest city, but Auckland is like a gradually spreading stain whose economic and cultural imprint extends far beyond its official territorial boundaries.

As with London and the rest of Britain, there is Auckland and then there is the rest of New Zealand. It exists in its own bubble, but one that keeps expanding. From Auckland north to Warkworth is effectively one giant construction zone.

Pahi, on the Kaipara Harbour, is distant enough to have escaped the Auckland Effect too. I wanted to go there because it was where an uncle of mine had a hideaway, and I reasoned – correctly, as it turned out – that he would have chosen it for the best of reasons.

It’s an enchantingly pretty and serene corner of the world. From our caravan site at Pahi we looked out over an arm of the Kaipara at a scene depicted in a Dick Frizzell painting that hangs in our lounge. We bought the Frizzell print years ago because the place he painted, called Whakapirau, was so unmistakeably New Zealand. I’m pleased to report that although there are a few more houses at Whakapirau now (and the classic Kiwi caravan on the hillside in Frizzell's painting is nowhere to be seen), its essential character is unchanged.

I can’t mention Pahi without returning to the subject of trees, because it’s the site of a magnificent Moreton Bay fig tree thought to have been planted before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. And 15 minutes’ drive away is the justly famous Matakohe Kauri Museum, which intrigued me because while it celebrates this most majestic of trees, it simultaneously pays tribute to the rugged and resourceful men who cut them down and milled them.

So what else did we do? We enjoyed a spectacular sunset framed by elegantly sculpted macrocarpas at Muriwai Beach. On the Napier-Taupo road I bored my wife for the umpteenth time about what the road was like when I was kid, when it was unsealed and tortuously slow and deer sometimes crossed in front of you.  In Tauranga we missed a crucial turnoff amid road works and I cursed the NZTA – again, not for the first time – for its pathetically inadequate signage.

We also had one of those two-degrees-of-separation moments when we found that another couple among the four in our tour group at the Waitomo Caves used to live just along the road from us. Only in New Zealand …

Oh, and we were rudely woken when our caravan was rammed by a rogue ute at 4.30am in the Port Waikato camping ground, but that’s a story for another time.