Sunday, June 4, 2023

Waka Kotahi's worse than useless road signs

Not that I’m picking on Waka Kotahi or anything (see earlier post), but does New Zealand have the world’s worst road signage?

I’ve expostulated on this subject before, to the extent that it’s threatening to become something of a personal obsession. What got me started again was our recent road trip, during which I saw some bizarre examples of irrational signage that seemed expressly designed to bamboozle travellers or send them the wrong way.

Example No. 1: on SH22, which is the back road from Raglan to Pukekohe (incidentally, a lovely route, worth taking if you’ve got the time), there’s an intersection near Waingaro Hot Springs where you can turn right toward Ngaruawahia and SH1 or left to carry on north toward Pukehoke, which is where we were going. But does the sign pointing left mention Pukekohe, Tuakau or any other recogniseable place name? No, it tells you that the road leads to a place called Te Akau – a mere dot on the map (Wikipedia describes it as a small farming settlement) that few people from outside the district would have heard of. Not recognising the name Te Akau and wanting to head north toward Tuakau, I headed down the wrong road for a couple of minutes before sensing there must be some mistake and turning back.

Here’s the thing: the only people wanting to go to Te Akau are likely to be locals, who of course already know where it is. Strangers to the area – i.e. the people who depend on signs to get them to the right place (are you listening, Waka Kotahi?) – are likely to be looking for names that mean something. Pukekohe, for example, or Tuakau. 

I saw several other examples of utterly useless signs pointing to no-name places rather than to localities that travellers actually want to get to. Did you know, for example, that when you head west from Paihia, the big Waka Kotahi sign beside the road tells you you’re going to Puketona? That’s right: Puketona. Not Kerikeri or Kawakawa or Mangonui or Kaitaia or any other place that people have heard of and want to get to, but another dot on the map that appears to have been put on the sign for no better reason than that it happens to be on the intersection where the road from Paihia links up with SH1.

Oheawai in Northland is another case in point. Signs on SH12 repeatedly tell you you’re heading toward Oheawai – yet another tiny dot – but make no mention of the more substantial places people might be heading for. Like Puketona, Oheawai is at a junction. I suspect the nerdish mindset in Waka Kotahi is that junctions are important and therefore dictate what should be put on signs, regardless of whether the place names mean anything to anyone.

Example No 2: heading towards Auckland from Clarks Beach, on the southern shore of Manukau Harbour, wouldn’t you expect the signs to say just that: “Auckland”? Ha! Far too logical. Instead, the signs tell you you’re on the way to Papakura. Auckland doesn’t get a mention. Many New Zealanders have only a vague idea of where Papakura is and few strangers to the district are likely to be going there. They do, however, want to be sure they’re on the road to Auckland. But for reasons apparent only to itself, Waka Kotahi has decided that information isn’t necessary. What, I wonder, would overseas tourists make of it? Not having heard of Papakura, they would understandably worry that they must be on the wrong road.

And here’s another strange phenomenon: the case of the disappearing destination. I’ve encountered this frequently and struck it again on the northwestern motorway (SH16) out of Auckland, where the signs initially point, quite rationally, to Helensville. But then Helensville inexplicably drops off the signage and Wellsford pops up in its place. Later it’s Wellsford’s turn to vanish and Helensville is mysteriously reinstated. The result, for people navigating SH16 for the first time, is likely to be confusion, at the very least.  It wouldn’t surprise me if flummoxed drivers pull off the motorway because they’re suddenly wondering whether they’re still on the right route. Consistency in signage is important.

There’s also the reverse phenomenon, where a place name is invisible until you’ve virtually arrived. Example: if you’re heading toward Raglan from the south and take the most direct route by turning off SH3 at Otorohanga, the signs tell you only that you’re on the way to Kawhia. Despite being a far bigger place (population 4000, compared with Kawhia’s few hundred), Raglan doesn’t rate a mention. It’s not till you get to a major intersection at Whatawhata, west of Hamilton, that the popular surfing and holiday town suddenly shows up on road signage. Waka Kotahi seems to assume that the only people travelling to Raglan are coming from the north and east. (I should add that as well as pointing only to Kawhia, the sign at Otorohanga is in a position where it’s very easy to miss – another regular Waka Kotahi flub.)

Anyone reading this rant might assume that I wrote it in a fit of rage after repeatedly taking wrong turns on our road trip, some of which was in unfamiliar territory. Not so. Only twice did I briefly get misled (the other time was at Herekino, in the Far North). I pride myself on knowing the country well enough, and having a sufficiently sound sense of direction, not to get bushed. But I did repeatedly curse misleading or ambiguous signs that made me pause and double-check, and I wondered time and again how much more confounding it must be for travellers with little knowledge of New Zealand geography.

Overall, I get the impression Waka Kotahi’s signage policy is determined by someone with a degree – possibly a PhD in critical signage theory – sitting at a computer in Wellington and applying a rigid theoretical approach (the emphasis on road junctions suggests this) rather than by people actually out on the road tackling the issue from a practical, common-sense standpoint – that is to say, constantly asking themselves: “What information are motorists most likely to need here?”. (I’m available to Waka Kotahi for a modest consultant’s fee. I certainly couldn’t do a worse job than whoever’s designing the signage now.)

A possible aggravating factor is that the AA appears to have withdrawn from its traditional signposting role. There was a time when every district had a resident AA agent who knew his territory intimately (I'm not being sexist - it was invariably a bloke) and whose duties included ensuring all roads were clearly signposted. But the AA these days is a very different beast and may have abandoned that useful function.

Whatever the explanation, I find it hard to believe that the designers of road signage ever put themselves in the position of the typical road user, still less consider the challenges faced by overseas travellers – of whom there are many – trying to navigate an unfamiliar country.

Perhaps the central planners assume every vehicle has Sat Nav and no one needs help, in which case Waka Kotahi might as well dispense with signage altogether. I can think of any number of places where they might as well do exactly that, given that the existing signs are often worse than useless.


Friday, June 2, 2023

Please, Stuff, spare us the hypocritical rhetoric

There was more flatulent corporate blather yesterday from Stuff about its proud heritage.

In statements accompanying the announcement of a corporate restructuring, former Christchurch Press editor Joanna Norris – who now becomes managing director of Stuff Masthead Publishing, which apparently means she will take charge of metropolitan mastheads and websites – said: “Drawing on our 160-year history of journalism, we are reinvigorating and growing the portfolio of iconic journalism brands which are embedded in communities across New Zealand.”

Stuff likes to cite its journalistic legacy when it suits, but it has shown precious little respect for it. Often quite the contrary.

When it announced the phasing out of the Dominion Post masthead in April, it heaped scorn on the name Dominion, depicting it as a shameful hangover from colonialism. But the Dominion, although it was one of the younger daily papers in the country (established in 1907), was the starting point of what is now the Stuff group. It’s a strange thing for a company to skite about its heritage while simultaneously disowning a paper that formed its very foundation.

On that note, I should record again that when Alan Burnet, former managing director and later chairman of the Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL) group, died last year aged 101, I offered to write his obituary for the Dom Post. They weren’t interested.

The significance of this was that Burnet was the prime mover in creating the newspaper group that is now Stuff (although it was an infinitely stronger company then than now). The only reason Stuff owns those “iconic journalism brands” that Norris proudly refers to – the former Evening Post and Dominion, the Press, the Waikato Times, the Sunday Star-Times, the Southland Times, the Nelson Mail, the Manawatu Standard, the Taranaki Daily News, the Timaru Herald, the Marlborough Express – is that Burnet and his successor Mike Robson pulled them all together to form the nationwide group known as INL, which eventually morphed into Stuff.

To put it another way, Stuff wouldn’t exist had it not been for Burnet. Yet they declined to honour him with an obit, I suspect because he was an old white guy and they didn’t want to be reminded of their ideologically unfashionable roots. In the end my obit was published by the BusinessDesk website and by Burnet’s original home-town paper the Whanganui Chronicle, although it’s owned by Stuff’s rivals NZME.

Stuff doesn’t appear to be entirely ignorant of its own history, embarrassing though that history may be to its current management. The last edition of the Dom Post (now simply The Post) on April 28 announced the killing-off of the old name in a story headlined “Standing on the shoulders of giants” – an apparent acknowledgment of the generations of talented, dedicated journalists who worked for the Dominion and Evening Post and made them the successful and respected titles they were. Perhaps that headline was sneaked through by a subversive sub-editor who understood the paper’s history better than its owners do.

It wouldn’t have escaped the attention of long-term readers that two of the three stories the Post’s editor, Caitlin Cherry, cited as evidence of the paper’s supposed commitment to rigorous journalism happened long before the present regime took over. And the third example she pointed to – the coverage of last year’s parliamentary protest – seemed a curious choice, since the paper did no more than should have been expected of any half-competent news organisation. After all, the story was breaking in full public view right outside the centre of government. If that was the paper’s proudest moment under Stuff’s ownership, the cupboard is worryingly bare.

Incidentally, Stuff’s story about the launching of The Post included a message to readers that contained the sentence: “All of this innovation and rebranding doesn’t mean we are turning our back on our proud history.” Oh, but they have.  Under its current management, Stuff has followed the example of its former proprietors, the Australian group Fairfax, by continuing to methodically eradicate much of what made the precursor company, INL, so successful. The gutting of its titles, the hollowing-out of its newsrooms (the casualties of which included some of the company’s most capable journalists) and the inevitable subsequent collapse of its readership can only partly be blamed on the impact of digital technology, catastrophic though that was.

And what about that weasel word “proud”? This is the same company that, three years ago, indulged in an extravagant, breast-beating mea culpa, complete with front-page apology, about its supposedly racist history. In the process, it casually defamed generations of former employees, most of whom didn’t have a racist bone in their body.

Obviously, Stuff needs to make up its mind about whether or not it’s proud of its heritage. Either it is or it isn’t. 

As for Norris's statement that Stuff is "reinvigorating" its brands ... really? That will come as news to employees who have been through repeated downsizings and are reportedly bracing for a further round of redundancies. Who do Stuff think they're kidding? If credibility means anything to them, they would spare us the hollow, hypocritical rhetoric. 

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Jeremy Clarke will be missed

I was saddened to read this week of the death on May 21 of Jeremy Clarke, who wrote the Low Life column in the British magazine the Spectator.

Readers knew his death was coming because he chronicled his decline week by week, sometimes in unsparingly explicit terms. But in a way, that made the end all the more poignant. Each week I would scan the Spectator’s contents page to see whether he was still there. Eventually, he wasn’t. But I marvelled at his ability to keep churning out wryly humorous and usually self-deprecating columns, even in acute pain on his deathbed.

Jeremy Clarke (left) with the Spectator's High Life columnist, Taki Theodoracopulos (better known simply as Taki).

Clarke, who was 66, stood apart from the clique of Eton- and Oxbridge-educated toffs who make up the core of the Spectator stable of writers. In fact he rejoiced in his proletarian enthusiasms – hence the title of his column. Unlike some of his better known fellow columnists (Charles Moore, Toby Young, Matthew Parris, Douglas Murray), he never lapsed into pomposity or preciousness. Neither did he show any propensity for name-dropping.

When I began reading him, more years ago than I care to think about, his columns were mostly devoted to his misadventures with an assortment of ne’er-do-well friends. Pubs and parties were the most common settings for his stories, which typically involved the consumption of copious quantities of alcohol and other drugs. The escapades and characters he described were sometimes so outlandish that I wondered whether he made them up, or at least embellished them. But he didn’t seek to glamorise his wayward lifestyle; in fact the tone was usually more remorseful than boastful.

In more recent years he moved to a new home in a cave in the south of France and seemed to mellow – a change that coincided with the onset of prostate cancer and the development of a serious relationship with the woman who cared for him in his last months, and whom he proudly married only a short time before his death.

One of the first thoughts that occurred to me on learning of Clarke’s death was that he’s likely to be desperately missed by his two grandsons, who frequently featured in his columns. He was devoted to them and they, obviously, to him.  They will be joined in their mourning by legions of Spectator readers around the world.


Notes on a road trip to the Far North

My wife and I recently returned from a 3000km road trip to the Far North via Taranaki. Here are some of the things we discovered (or in some cases, rediscovered):

■ New Plymouth has a great craft beer bar called Shining Peak (no prizes for guessing what inspired the name). On a vile Wednesday evening when sane people would have been at home, the place was humming. The beer was excellent, the staff were friendly and efficient and the convivial atmosphere reminded me of a good English pub. The food looked good too, though we didn’t eat there. Yet another reason to like one of New Zealand’s most appealing cities.

■ New Zealand has an extremely fragile roading system. Well, we all knew that, but it has never been more acutely apparent. The night before we were to drive through the Awakino Gorge to the Waikato on SH3, we learned that the road was closed after a section of it fell into the river. That forced us to backtrack from New Plymouth to Stratford and take the aptly named Forgotten World Highway through Whangamomona and Taumarunui.

■ New Zealand must hold some sort of world record for the time required to clear roads after serious accidents. Before we even got to Stratford, we found ourselves stuck in a tailback stretching several kilometres following a crash involving a logging truck and an ambulance. The accident happened at 5.20am. We joined the queue at 9.10am. Nothing was happening. It wasn’t until 10 o’clock that a mobile crane headed past us to the crash scene, presumably to move the logging truck. Why the delay? This is a major state highway; re-opening it after a crash should be treated as a matter of urgency. Meanwhile, Waka Kotahi’s website was advising travellers to delay their journey or go the long way around Mt Taranaki on the Surf Highway – not very helpful when we were already en route and didn’t want to risk taking a two-hour detour around the mountain only to then learn the road had been cleared five minutes after we left, which Sod’s Law suggests was bound to happen. At 10.30, more than five hours after the accident, a traffic control truck moved slowly along the line of waiting vehicles with the news that we still faced an indeterminate delay. No explanation why. The guy in the truck was sympathetic but didn't appear to know any more than we did. At that point, everyone turned around and dispersed. Most headed back toward New Plymouth, but we found a way around the crash site using rural backroads and took less than 15 minutes to get back on track. We’d probably still be stuck there if it wasn’t for Google Maps. The incident not only confirmed my sceptical view of Waka Kotahi’s traffic management expertise, but also raised questions in my mind about the role of the police serious crash unit. There was a time when the main priority after a crash – that is, once ambulances and firefighters had done their vital work – was to get traffic flowing again. Now accident scenes seem to be frozen until the serious crash unit arrives (however long that takes) and completes whatever it is that serious crash units do. In the meantime traffic backs up, people miss vital appointments and tempers get frayed. The Wairarapa Times-Age this morning reports a similar incident yesterday: SH2 over the Remutaka Hill was closed from 7am till 11.45 am – the peak morning period for commuters to Wellington – while police investigated a fatal crash scene. Waka Kotahi lamely suggested motorists take the Saddle road via Woodville, a journey of an extra three hours. Is this another example of the cult of box-ticking, form-filling managerialism that the police seem to have succumbed to, and which prioritises protocols and process over people? I suspect it is. There must be a point at which any benefit derived from time-consuming crash investigations is outweighed by the disruption and inconvenience these investigations cause to thousands of people. Anyway, in the event, what should have been a three-hour journey from New Plymouth to Raglan ended up taking eight hours.  The scenery was nice, though – at least, when we could see through the rain.

The lovely settlers' church at Awhitu. Don't tell anyone from Auckland.

■ Awhitu Peninsula, on the southern side of the entrance to Manukau Harbour, is a lovely and largely unknown corner of New Zealand. The views are spectacular and it’s unexpectedly wild in places. After a lifetime of travelling on remote roads throughout the country, it was the first time I’ve had a deer run across the road immediately in front of me (this in a deep, bush-clad gully). I had to dodge a few pheasants too. Please don’t tell anyone about this charming place. If Aucklanders discover it, it’ll be stuffed.

■ Speaking of views, it’s hard to suppress a gasp when Hokianga Harbour reveals itself as you crest the hill approaching it from the south on SH12.  It’s one of the most spectacular vistas in the country. There’s now a roadside picnic area so you can pull off and enjoy the scenery at your leisure, which I don’t remember being there last time we passed through.


The view over Hokianga Harbour. The mysterious blonde eating her lunch in the foreground inexplicably turned up everywhere I stopped.

■ Don’t assume that just because the website of the popular Opononi pub says it’s open every day from 11am till late, it actually will be. When I tried to book a table for dinner, thinking the restaurant might be busy on a Sunday night, I was told they closed at six. The staff were all young mums, the lady behind the bar explained, and they liked to be home in the evening with their kids. Fair enough; I heartily approve of families coming first, and fortunately there was a fish and chip shop a few doors away, so we weren’t going to starve. But …

■ Don’t assume either that when the bloke who runs the Opononi fish and chip shop says they close at seven, they actually do. We were fortunate to get our order in early, because he made a spur of the moment decision to shut at six. Tough luck for anyone who arrived later. Lesson: they do things differently in Opononi. Nice fish and chips though.

■ Speaking of fish, don’t assume it’s cooked fresh from the sea at the Whangaroa Harbour Sports Fishing Club’s cafĂ©. Some of the best fishing grounds in the world lie just offshore but the only fish on the menu was frozen dory (not john dory, but the inferior oreo type) which I suspect was caught by an industrial trawler hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres away. Zane Grey would not have approved. The staff were friendly though, and we had a great motel room at Whangaroa, with a glorious view over the harbour. (We stayed in motels all along the way and there wasn’t a dud among them.)


The view from our motel at Whangaroa.

■ Everywhere we went we were confronted by the ravages of Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle and miscellaneous other recent adverse weather events; even the walking track to the Cape Reinga lighthouse was closed. The bad weather wasn’t over, either. We repeatedly struck freakishly violent squalls with rain so intense that I almost had to pull over and stop (nothing to do with the Hunga-Tonga eruption, you understand; the experts insist it’s all down to long-term climate change). Of course damaged roads can’t be helped, and we just had to be patient at the many places where traffic was held up by repair work. Less understandable, and infinitely less tolerable, was the number of times we were slowed or brought to a complete halt where nothing was happening. Twice we joined a line of vehicles following a traffic management truck at a snail’s pace over a section of road where no work was in progress and there seemed no reason for the ritual procession, other than that the men in the truck were bored and needed something to do. In other places 30kmh speed limits were imposed where there wasn’t a road worker in sight or a piece of machinery operating. Even where work was in progress, the number of vehicles actually fixing the road was invariably greatly exceeded by traffic control trucks doing nothing except ostentatiously parading back and forth with their flashing lights. I’m reluctant to use pejorative terms such as loafers and parasites, but that’s how I’ve come to view the traffic control enforcers in their hi-vis vests and ubiquitous shiny white trucks. I suspect they’ve become the most hated occupational group in the country. (The other day I saw a traffic control vehicle displaying the brand name Men at Work. Whoever named the company has a fine sense of irony.)

■ In an ideal world, every New Zealander would visit the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi. I defy anyone with an open mind to spend time in the two impressive museums there and not come away with a better understanding of Maori grievances and of our highly nuanced, 50-shades-of-grey history. And no, I’ve not suddenly gone woke. Every time I drive anywhere in New Zealand through magnificent landscapes once occupied by Maori but now controlled by Pakeha - land that was once theirs but now is not - I get a glimmer of insight into why many people of Maori descent feel aggrieved. We are all captives of our complicated history and the country’s future largely depends on whether (and how) we can resolve tensions and contradictions arising from past events that can’t be retrospectively wished away, no matter how much we might like to.

■ I’ve never been sure about the late artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who’s best known in New Zealand for the famous public dunny he designed in Kawakawa. Part of me always suspected he was, as much as anything, an accomplished self-publicist with fawning, impressionable admirers in all the right circles. But the Hundertwasser Art Centre in Whangarei is magnificently eccentric – a wonky delight, and a good reason to visit a city that otherwise doesn’t seem to have much to commend it. It’s hard to wander around the building without (a) smiling and (b) marvelling at the work that went into it. A documentary about Hundertwasser reveals a man of prodigious energy, imagination and creativity – which is not to say he didn’t also have a talent for bullshit. 


The delightfully wonky Hundertwasser Art Centre.

■ There’s a great wine shop in the main street of Cambridge with a range of imported wines as good as any you’ll see in the big cities. Not cheap, but obviously there are people in affluent Cambridge who can afford them.

■ There are places where history feels very close. One such place is Ruapekapeka, on a hilltop south of Kawakawa – site of an historic battle in 1846 between 1600 British troops and 400 Ngapuhi and Ngati Hine warriors led by the chief Kawiti. The Maori defenders surprised the overwhelmingly larger British force by successfully withstanding a prolonged bombardment and siege through the ingenious design of their fortifications. One British officer called the stockade a model of engineering. At Ruapekapeka you can wander among the defensive earthworks and look down into the dugouts where the defenders sheltered from enemy fire (and from which Ruapekapeka, meaning bat’s nest, gets its name). The battle ended with the Maori withdrawing, but contrary to British propaganda, it was a hollow victory for the imperial power. Other countries would proudly celebrate such sites, but New Zealand seems strangely reluctant to honour its rich and unique history. It’s obvious that money has been spent enhancing the entrance to Ruapekapeka, yet you could still drive past it and not realise it’s there; it was only a road sign saying Monument Rd that made me stop and look around before realising I’d found the place. Most of the signs identifying the site seem to have been ingeniously concealed behind trees. Much the same is true of the important battle site at Rangiriri, just off SH1 north of Huntly. It’s at the end of a dead-end street without a parking area. There’s an information board, but the sign indicating that this is where a decisive battle was fought in 1863 is obscured behind a scruffy shrub, and the overgrown path leading up a small hill to the Maori redoubt is barely visible. We could and should do a lot better.


Ruapekapeka, where history feels very close.

■ The Auckland Effect is my term for the steadily widening perimeter around Auckland where you can see the conspicuous imprint of Auckland wealth. Over the decades the AE has inexorably spread up the east coast of Northland, though it’s less obvious on the west side. You can see it also extending its tentacles down into the Waikato and over into the Bay of Plenty. It’s evident mainly in the extraordinary proliferation of ultra-expensive houses, many of which had drawn curtains, indicating they’re used as holiday homes. I found myself idly wondering who owns all these fabulously opulent residences with million-dollar views. How and when did New Zealand produce so many extremely rich people? The Auckland Effect is the ultimate proof that the egalitarian country I grew up in has irrevocably passed into history.

Overall impressions: New Zealand may be going to the pack in multiple ways. Its infrastructure is collapsing, the economy is sick, the education system has been ruinously contaminated by extremist ideology (even maths is now apparently treated as an expression of white privilege) and the deranged culture wars are raging to the point where democracy itself is at risk. But physically it’s still a beautiful country - no one can change that - and the people are friendly and good-hearted. They deserve far better from those who purport to represent them.


 As far as you can go without getting very wet: me at Cape Maria van Diemen.




Friday, May 26, 2023

A fresh appraisal of an unfashionable subject

I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by my friend and long-ago boss, the Sydney-based New Zealand author and journalist Robin Bromby.

Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp is subtitled Life and Work in Outposts of the British Empire in the Twentieth Century. It’s a very detailed and substantial piece of work on an aspect of history that most scholars either shy away from or approach in antagonistic terms because it’s considered ideologically beyond the pale.

Robin himself acknowledges that the history of the British Empire is “a subject one addresses now with caution”. From a 21st century perspective, the idea that European imperial powers could claim ownership over foreign territories at will, even when they had no particular purpose for them (as was sometimes the case), is unthinkable. But there was a time in living memory when it was considered entirely natural – in fact a matter of pride – that the sun never set on the British Empire. And as Robin notes, the administrators who ran those distant outposts were often motivated by high ideals.

They needed to be, because the rewards were often scant. Contrary to popular belief, the typical colonial official did not lead a life of luxury and privilege. Conditions were often brutally harsh. Heat (and sometimes cold), disease, primitive housing, inadequate remuneration and unimaginable loneliness were some of the prices colonial officials paid for the privilege of serving the Empire.

Communication with the outside world was chancy and erratic at best, as were visits from supply ships. More often than not, fresh food was unprocurable. In particularly remote locations, the colonial officer could go weeks or even months without seeing another European. Conventional family life was out of the question; officers often had to leave their children behind in England or were forbidden from having a family at all. It certainly wasn’t all polo, pink gins and punkahwallahs waving pandanus fans to keep the sahib cool, as readers of Somerset Maugham might imagine.

Perhaps surprisingly, given Britain's imperial wealth, the Colonial Office in London was a parsimonious employer. Not only did it pay its officers poorly, but they were strictly limited in the creature comforts they could take with them and were only rarely allowed trips home. Long-suffering wives were expected to entertain visiting dignitaries despite not being given the means to do so. Even alcohol allowances were miserly.

Robin reveals that colonial administrators were typically the best and brightest of their era – graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, accomplished at sport and well-connected socially. The demands on them were immense. A district officer in his early 20s was likely to find himself in sole charge of an area the size of Wales or Scotland and responsible for everything from the maintenance of law and order (both as police chiefs and magistrates) to the building of schools and roads, the conduct of inquests, the settling of tribal disputes, the conduct of inquests, the collection of taxes and even the dispatching of marauding wild animals. Some colonial administrators eventually returned home and went into politics but many spent their lives being cycled through postings that could take them to places as scattered as Sierra Leone, Hong Kong, Sudan, Aden, Trinidad, the Solomon Islands, Somaliland, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands.  

Robin doesn’t gloss over the rampant economic exploitation that took place under colonialism or the shameful way Britain took advantage of native manpower from the colonies in wartime, but he points out that British administrators built schools, roads, hospitals, railways and sanitation systems. Much of that infrastructure is still in use today. Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp is not only rigorously researched – a prodigious feat in itself – but presents a nuanced and non-judgmental appraisal of a period in history that generally gets a bad press. The book is available here.


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Just another day at Wellington City Council ....

There are some situations so absurd that only humour can adequately capture their lunacy. Wellington city councillor Nikau Wi Neera, who was elected last year to represent the city's Maori ward, has filed a notice of motion calling on the council to mark Nakba Day – a commemoration of Palestinian displacement in 1948 – by officially recognising the state of Palestine and lighting up the Michael Fowler Centre in the colours of the Palestinian flag.

This is too out-there even for Wi Neera’s fellow Greenie and avowed Palestine supporter, mayor Tory Whanau, but that doesn’t mean the proposal is dead in the water. It will come before the full council next month, and there are enough ideological zealots (i.e. Tamatha Paul) and flakes (Iona Pannett, Rebecca Matthews) around the table to give it a reasonable chance of success. In the meantime, someone has wickedly spoofed it using a now-familiar meme from the movie Downfall, deftly skewering the council’s fatuous woke pretensions and neatly making the point that ordinary Wellingtonians probably have more pressing issues on their minds than Palestinian liberation.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Hipkins goes the full sausage roll

Labour’s re-election strategy is now blindingly clear. Chippy Hipkins is going the full sausage roll.

Hipkins’ fondness for the humble pastry snack has already become entrenched in New Zealand political mythology. On his trip to Britain he was presented with sausage rolls not once but twice – first by King Charles and again at No 10 by Rishi Sunak. It would be no surprise if his benefactors had been tipped off in advance that this would be an appropriate gesture.

The media loved it, of course. “Chris Hipkins charms London with sausage-roll diplomacy”, read a headline in the Left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald.

This plays to Hipkins’ carefully cultivated image as an unpretentious working-class boy from the Hutt. We can expect the sausage roll to become a defining emblem of his prime ministership as he seeks to erase the ideological taint left by his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern.

Labour’s survival at the next election hinges on the party retaining at least some of the middle-New Zealand voters who crossed over from National in 2020 and delivered Ardern the first clear majority of the MMP era.

To achieve this, Hipkins must convince those swinging voters that this is a different government from the one Ardern led – one that’s concerned with bread-and-butter issues rather than the polarising identity politics that have caused Labour’s support to collapse.

The sausage roll, with its reassuring connotations of the less confrontational New Zealand that predated Ardern, meshes neatly with this objective.  Hipkins needs to convince middle voters that he’s no threat, and the sausage roll is the perfect political prop. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a sausage roll? It’s tailor-made as a comforting symbol of national unity at a time when people fret that the county is being torn apart by the ugly ideological forces unleashed during Ardern’s term.

But Hipkins’ “Boy from the Hutt” shtick extends further than sausage rolls. He told Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass that he gets his most useful “informal” advice while shopping at Pak’nSave. Forget all those highly paid apparatchiks cluttering the Beehive; if Hipkins is to be believed, it’s the Pak’nSave checkout ladies who keep him in touch with what’s going on in the real world.   

Note that he shops at the correct supermarket chain – the egalitarian, no-frills one. None of your fancy-pants New World snobbery where they pack your shopping bags for you.

Oh, and Hipkins wants us to know he can be found with other Mums and Dads on the sidelines at Saturday morning sport, where he’s brought down to earth by the realisation that there’s more to life than politics. It’s his way of assuring us that he’s one of us – or if not, that he’s at least in touch with the public mood.

Even in his anachronistic use of language, Hipkins seems keen to evoke the tone of a less fractious era. “It’s a blimmin’ good day for Kiwis living in Australia,” he quaintly said of Canberra’s decision to create a pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders – conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s in Australia’s interests, and potentially very damaging to New Zealand, to smooth the way for skilled and highly educated Kiwis looking to jump the Ditch.  

The folksy vernacular, the sausage rolls and the paeans to Pak’nSave and Saturday morning sport should all be seen as part of Labour’s big rebranding project – a distancing of the party from ideological crusades that alienate the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Another critical component in this transformation is up-and-comer Kieran McAnulty, whom New Zealand Herald political writer Audrey Young recently described as perhaps Labour’s most important politician after Hipkins and Grant Robertson .

If Hipkins is marketed as the boy from the working-class suburbs of the Hutt, McAnulty is presented as the boy from the rural heartland. You don’t get much more country than Eketahuna, where – as he was eager to stress to Young in her complimentary profile of him - his family roots are. McAnulty is Labour’s point of connection with the vital provincial electorates that abandoned National in 2020. The party needs to lock them in come October and you can be sure it will work the former TAB odds calculator like a drover’s dog.

There’s nothing unsubtle about McAnulty’s pitch. He may have sold his ancient Mazda ute, a political prop that charmed the media as successfully as Hipkins’ love of sausage rolls, but he still positions himself as an uncomplicated Kiwi bloke whom ordinary voters can relate to and trust to do the right thing. Except that he's not that idealised person, any more than Hipkins is. They're both politicians to the tips of their toes.

No doubt it was because of his affable, blokey quality that Labour chose McAnulty to sell Version #2 of the diabolical Three Waters proposal. Labour strategists would have reasoned that if anyone could make the rehashed package seem harmless, despite its racist co-governance provisions remaining essentially intact, it would be him.

He played his assigned role to the hilt, even to the extent of opening the press conference with the words: “The guts of it is …” As Young remarked, it was as if he’d just walked off the set of a Fred Dagg skit. Labour would have counted on voters feeling reassured that Three Waters had been stripped of its obnoxious bits. After all, how could a straight-shooting, daggy Kiwi bloke like McAnulty hide ulterior ideological motives?

And it may have worked. Even Young, who gives the impression of having fallen under McAnulty’s spell, said he seemed to have taken the heat out of the issue.

There’s one other crucial element in Hipkins’ attempts to persuade the public that Labour has shed the toxic ideological skew that it adopted under Ardern. While the party’s top people work hard at promoting an aura of benign Kiwi authenticity, Labour is simultaneously keeping its scary monsters out of sight.

Actually, make that scary monster, singular. Nanaia Mahuta has done more than any other single figure to promote unease and distrust about Labour’s agenda. Hipkins realised she had become a liability and moved quickly to demote her from eighth to 16th  in the cabinet rankings while also stripping her of responsibility for Three Waters and co-governance.

The 13-strong Maori caucus, however, remains a powerful force within the government – in fact stronger than ever, with a record eight Maori members in the cabinet. It would be wildly fanciful to assume that Treaty activism, the single most virulent source of potential political conflict in New Zealand’s future, has been conveniently neutered within the government following the change in the party’s leadership. More likely the extremists and agitators have been instructed to lie low so as not to imperil Labour’s bid for a third term.

Two questions arise, then. The first (and there are no prizes for guessing the correct answer) is whether the Treaty activists within the government will revert to form if Labour, with the support of the Maori Party and the Greens, secures a third term. The second is how long Hipkins and McAnulty can persist with the already strained Kiwi bloke routine before the voters cry for mercy.