Friday, May 27, 2022

Nanaia Mahuta and the smell test

The mainstream media have been trying desperately hard to ignore profoundly disturbing questions about the appearance of conflicts of interest involving members of Nanaia Mahuta’s family.

The scandal has reached a point where media credibility, along with that of Mahuta, is on the line. That is, if it hasn’t been shredded beyond repair already.

Revelations about government jobs and contracts awarded to Mahuta’s family connections first emerged on The Daily Examiner website on May 22, illustrating the point that it’s often online platforms, rather than ethically compromised mainstream media, that break important stories – especially those that show the government in a poor light.

The Platform has since picked up the story and so has Kate MacNamara, a New Zealand Herald business reporter who displays a gutsy independent streak lacking in most of her colleagues – all of which raises questions about how much longer the rest of the MSM can go on pretending there’s nothing to see here.

Mahuta insists possible conflicts of interests have been properly managed, but readers who join the dots are bound to form their own conclusions. The Daily Examiner’s forensic breakdown of the jobs and contracts allocated to her husband and sister is, on the face of it, damning.

In any case, as Graham Adams points out, whether Mahuta’s handling of potential conflicts satisfies legal tests is largely irrelevant, because it’s all about public perception. The test that really counts is the smell test, and in this case the smell is “off”. It’s the whiff of nepotism, and even if Mahuta has behaved in accordance with the rules, she has shown appalling political judgment – or should that be arrogance? – by allowing the situation to arise.

Meanwhile we wait to see whether the controversy has reached the point where even the TV news bulletins can no longer ignore it – or whether, as on Newshub last night, the focus remains on the prime minister’s visit to the US, where she’s been feted for her supposedly tough action to prevent gun crime.

I waited for one of the Newshub presenters to note the obvious irony that the gushing coverage of Ardern’s visit was immediately followed by an item about the continuing epidemic of drive-by shootings in Auckland, but apparently Newshub doesn’t do irony.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

A worrying precedent for National

Readers of this blog may be interested in the following speech by National MP Simon O’Connor, which I lifted from the Brash Bassett and Hide website.

MP Simon O'Connor: a fine speech about free speech (bassettbrashandhide.com)

O’Connor was speaking last week during the first reading of the Education and Training (Freedom of Expression) Bill sponsored by ACT MP James McDowall, under which tertiary education institutions would be incentivised to provide proper protection for academic freedom and free speech.

Of course this shouldn’t be necessary, since McDowall pointed out when his Bill was drawn from the ballot last year that statutes already require tertiary education institutions (including universities) to do exactly that. But as we know, some have sidestepped their obligations by using spurious health and safety excuses – such as the threat of “mental harm” – as pretexts for de-platforming speakers they don't like. McDowall’s Bill would have sought to prevent that by requiring institutions to adopt freedom of expression codes of practice at the risk of being defunded, or having their grants reduced, if they didn’t comply.

Needless to say, the Bill fell at the first hurdle. National and ACT supported it but Labour and the Greens ensured it proceeded no further.

Labour MP Shanan Halbert (no, I hadn’t heard of him either) argued that universities needed to protect students against homophobes, transphobes and racists. His colleague Angela Roberts talked about the need for "safe spaces" (was there ever a more perniciously whiny phrase?) and said Parliament should trust universities to regulate themselves so as to guard against falsehoods and misinformation. Chloe Swarbrick was worried about free speech absolutism and the need to achieve a balance between competing rights. Labour’s Jo Luxton said she believed in free speech, but … (ah, that “but” word again. It’s funny how often it comes into conversations about free speech). You can read Hansard’s report of the debate here.

But back to O’Connor. His speech was a tad theatrical – melodramatic, even – for my taste, but it was notable because here was a vanishingly rare political spectacle: a National Party MP speaking with conviction on a matter of important principle. This sets a disturbing precedent in the party and I can’t see it doing his career any good at all.  

Joel Maxwell's obsession with race

Last Saturday I sent the following letter to The Dominion Post. It was written in response to another bizarre article by Joel Maxwell – a talented writer but a man apparently so obsessed with painting the worst possible picture of race relations in New Zealand that many Dom Post readers now recoil at the sight of his byline.

Joel Maxwell (“On being a black-skinned mayor”, May 21) seems determined to frame everything in terms of race. His profile of outgoing Kapiti mayor K Gurunathan is littered with implications that Gurunathan has struggled all his life against racism. But surely the cogent factor here is that the citizens of Kapiti, an overwhelmingly Pakeha city, elected him not once but twice. That must count for something. 

I now notice that the online version of Maxwell’s piece is accompanied by video footage from Patu, Merata Mita's documentary about the 1981 Springbok tour, just to drive home the notion that New Zealand’s history is irredeemably stained by racism.

I also note that the headline on the online version of the article has been changed from the original, which incorporated the phrase referred to above (“On being a black-skinned mayor”). Perhaps that was because someone at Stuff realised K Gurunathan actually doesn’t look all that black, though Maxwell does his utmost to highlight his skin colour. (Which leads to the question, who’s being the racist here? I'm not aware that Gurunathan's ethnicity has ever been an issue in Kapiti, so why does Maxwell make so much of it?).  

It should also be noted that Gurunathan, while he talks in the article about his past association with anti-racism groups, is silent about the state of race relations in New Zealand generally. This is consistent with his image as a politician who, to my knowledge, hasn’t played the race card. That didn’t stop Maxwell from mining Gurunathan’s story for whatever negative slur he could extract about New Zealanders’ attitudes to ethnic minorities. But remarkably, as my letter noted, Maxwell doesn't acknowledge the inconvenient fact that the predominantly white voters of Kapiti twice elected Gurunathan as their mayor (“inconvenient”, because it rather contradicts Maxwell’s thesis that we’re prejudiced against people of colour).

My letter hasn’t been published and I don’t expect it to be. However, to its credit, the Dom Post published my previous letter responding to an earlier article by Maxwell. You can read that article here.

Friday, May 20, 2022

On Roe v Wade and the media frenzy

On May 2, someone leaked the first draft of a US Supreme Court decision proposing that the historic ruling in the case Roe v Wade be reversed. Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision, if adopted, would mean American women no longer had a constitutional right to abortion.

The reaction was immediate and frenzied. The overwhelmingly left-liberal (i.e. pro-abortion) media, not just in America but throughout the English-speaking world, erupted with fury at the prospect that a long-entrenched feminist article of faith – namely, that a woman’s right to abort a baby takes precedence over the unborn child’s right to survive – might be overturned. As Kerry Wakefield (a woman, in case you’re wondering) pungently put it in The Spectator Australia: “The feminist offence machine ratcheted up to full, wild-eyed stridency, with Democrat congresswoman Elizabeth Warren doing everything short of howling at the moon.”

The revisiting of Roe v Wade is a rare setback for a political class that has become accustomed to calling the shots. The tone of their outrage was perfectly captured by the whiny headline on a video published on the Guardian’s website: “It feels like such a betrayal”. Another Guardian headline pronounced that the Alito draft, if adopted, would be a "global catastrophe for women". Such restraint ...

Well, better suck it up, folks. The anti-abortion lobby knows all too well what it’s like to be on the losing side. Now the boot appears to be on the other foot and the champions of abortion rights are not taking it at all well.

But here's the thing. In the weeks since the leak I’ve listened to hours of discussion, analysis and speculation on the BBC and America’s left-leaning National Public Radio. Not once did I hear a pro-life voice. (Correction: the BBC’s Stephen Sackur included a question about the Alito draft at the very tail end of an interview with Victoria Sparz, a pro-life Congresswoman, but left no time for her to expand on her answer.)

Not surprisingly, Roe v Wade has aroused less interest in the New Zealand media. Why should it, when the New Zealand abortion rights lobby has achieved its aim of making abortion as simple, at least in legal terms, as a tooth extraction (and treats it as if it’s no more morally complicated)?

But there has been a certain amount of venting in solidarity with the American sisterhood. On TV Three’s dependably woke The Project, I saw an over-excited Kate Rodger shrieking with incoherent rage while her fellow panellists nodded and murmured in agreement. No surprises there.

Media coverage of the Alito draft, in other words, has been overwhelmingly and egregiously one-sided – a perfect illustration of where the media sit in the culture wars. Even people who believe in a woman’s right to have an abortion would struggle to argue that the controversy has been reported in a fair and balanced way.

As with climate change, a stifling and oppressive media groupthink prevails. And what’s particularly striking about the tone of media commentary is the obvious assumption that everyone shares the media elite’s anger, as if no half-intelligent or reasonable person could possibly be opposed to unrestricted abortion rights.

These are the new bigots – people who are not only intolerant of dissenting views but so convinced of their own rightness that they don’t even acknowledge the existence of counter-arguments.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. One thing that did surprise me, however, was to learn that the supposedly neutral and “fiercely independent” Wellington-based online news site Scoop declined to publish two news releases on Roe v Wade from the anti-abortion group Right to Life – this after running a pro-choice column by Scoop's leftist in-house commentator Gordon Campbell and two statements from abortion rights groups attacking the Alito draft.

I’ve admired Scoop in the past, naively believing it was willing to publish all shades of news and opinion, but its credibility now is shot – a shame, because if it had the guts and integrity to live up to its own hype, it could serve as a valuable platform for groups unable to gain traction in the mainstream media.

As for Alito’s draft decision, some pertinent facts appear to have been overlooked amid the backlash. The first and most important is that if the Supreme Court goes ahead and overturns Roe v Wade, abortion rights will become a matter for each state to decide. In other words, decisions on abortion law will be handed back to the elected representatives of the people – which, in a properly functioning democracy, is surely where they belonged in the first place. The 1973 decision overrode states' rights to determine their own laws and now they may get them back. But far from applauding this judicial nod to people power, the pro-abortion camp is aghast. Leftist ideologues tend to be distrustful of democracy because they can never be sure that people will vote the correct way.

To put it another way, a reversal of Roe v Wade would be only a partial unspooling of the law. It’s not as if the court is likely to rule that abortion will become illegal everywhere and in any circumstances (although some abortion rights activists, desperate to stir up opposition even if it means telling porkies, are suggesting that’s exactly what will happen).  

On that note, it’s amusing – in an ironic way – to hear activists wailing that a bunch of mostly male judges in Washington DC have made what they condemn as an “ideological” decision. Isn’t that pretty much what happened in 1973 when the court (which was then entirely male) ruled in favour of women’s right to terminate a pregnancy? The only thing different is that the dominant ideology on the court bench has been reversed. The current is now running in the other direction and the feminists, having had things their way for 50 years, don’t like it.

As my friend and former colleague Bob Edlin observed, “the ruling effectively demonstrates that one bunch of judges can determine something one day, based on what they argue the US constitution allows or disallows. Another bunch of judges with different ideological leanings can rule to the contrary several years [or in this case decades] later.”  

As Bob points out, the US constitution hasn’t changed; only the composition of the court has. This highlights a fundamental flaw in a system that places enormous power in the hands of judges appointed on the basis of their political and ideological leanings in the expectation that they will interpret the constitution accordingly.

The court is expected to release its final decision next month or in July. In the meantime we can expect to be bombarded with canards such as “abortion is a health issue”. (Not for the unborn baby it’s not. And in any case, since when were pregnancy and childbirth classified as illnesses?)

Placards waved by Roe v Wade demonstrators also assert that “abortion is a human right”. Since when? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948, which was the distillation of centuries of thinking and writing about the subject, makes no mention of abortion. It does, however, unequivocally assert the right to life. The fiction that abortion is a human right is an invention of late 20th century feminism, but the slogan has an undeniably catchy appeal to people incapable of thinking above bumper-sticker level.  

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Callinicos fire is still smouldering

Remember the saga of Moana and Judge Callinicos? You know, the case of the little Maori girl whom Oranga Tamariki removed from her Pakeha foster parents, who had given her a loving and secure home for the first time in her short and miserable life, and placed with a Maori family she didn’t know so that her cultural needs could be met? And how two senior judges – the so-called Heads of Bench – interfered in the case after the then acting head of Oranga Tamariki, the late Sir Wira Gardiner, complained that Family Court judge Peter Callinicos (who ruled that Moana should stay with her Pakeha carers) had “bullied” Oranga Tamariki social workers who gave evidence in the case – social workers whose conduct Callinicos was scathingly critical of? And how Callinicos had to remind his judicial superiors that it was wrong to approach a presiding judge during a part-heard case, since it might compromise the judge’s impartiality? And how the Judicial Conduct Commissioner looked into the case without even bothering to interview Callinicos and found that the Heads of Bench hadn’t acted inappropriately? And how it eventually emerged that an even more senior judge – from the Supreme Court, no less – had involved himself in the case behind the scenes and given his opinion? (You may pause for breath here.)

Well, it’s taken a few months, but the Dominion Post’s dogged Hawke’s Bay reporter Marty Sharpe has reported a further development. Sharpe’s story, which the Dom Post, for reasons best known to itself, placed on page 9 despite its disturbing implications, contains good and bad news.

Sharpe reported that the Law Society’s Rule of Law Committee, made up of legal heavyweights including Sir Geoffrey Palmer and other experts in public and constitutional law, looked into the Callinicos affair and produced a 12-page report which concluded that the actions of the senior judges were “highly unconventional” – an admirable legal euphemism – and had the potential to undermine public confidence in the judicial system. On the face of it, those are damning words. (The Rule of Law Committee, incidentally, was established in 2007 to “assist the profession to meet its fundamental obligation to uphold the rule of law and to facilitate the administration of justice”. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog, as it did to me, to discover that a special committee had to be created to encourage something as basic as respect for the rule of law, which you'd assume was a pre-requisite for, er, lawyers, but there you go.)

Anyway, the good news is that there are still people in the legal system who seem concerned with the need to maintain public confidence in the independence and integrity of the judicial system – although the fact that the Law Society has apparently been sitting on this report since last October doesn’t say much for its concern about transparency on an issue that raised serious doubts about judicial conduct.

The bad news is that having been presented with the report, the society has done … well, nothing, apparently. The committee made several recommendations, including “urging the use of conventional mechanisms … when dealing with alleged inappropriate judicial conduct”, but Sharpe reports that the society appears not to have acted on them.

That prompted the society’s Wellington branch to write to the then Law Society president, Tiana Epati, expressing concern at the society’s silence on an issue involving “what appears to be a breach of the principle of judicial independence”. Branch president Christopher Griggs, who was also on the Rule of Law Committee, said the society "should communicate to the Attorney-General its concern at the prospect of senior public servants seeking private audiences with the Heads of Bench touching on matters before the courts”.

Epati, who has since finished her term, replied that the Law Society board stood by its earlier decision not to take any action. She pointed out that Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann had already established a conduct advisory committee to review judicial guidelines and consider how improvements could be made. (Again, it seems surprising this should have been considered necessary, since the official judicial guidelines stress the importance of judges remaining independent – a principle so fundamental that naïve lay people like me would think it hardly needs to be spelled out.)

Net result: the Law Society board didn’t see that any further action was necessary “at this time”. But as Griggs pointed out, the conduct advisory committee can only consider matters that relate to the judiciary. That leaves another issue to be tidied up – namely, the conduct of government department heads, which appears to be the Attorney-General’s territory. “We remain of the view that it is not okay for the head of a government department to have a cup of tea and a bickie meeting with Heads of Bench to discuss matters subject of a part-heard hearing,” Griggs told Sharpe.

Some lawyers, then, clearly think the Law Society could have taken a more pro-active role in asserting the importance of judicial independence. The Callinicos affair is a fire that’s still smouldering despite official attempts to smother it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the last thing the judicial and legal establishment wants is to be exposed to awkward public scrutiny.

 

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Free Speech Union meeting that earned a trigger warning from Salient

The latest edition of the Victoria University of Wellington student newspaper Salient contains an account of the recent Free Speech Union event at the university, at which I spoke.

It’s prefaced with a trigger warning advising, in bold type: This article examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist, and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question. Please exercise caution when reading.

My first reaction was that this was written as a satirical comment on the preciousness now rampant in Western universities and the hysterical aversion to any ideas that run counter to woke-think. Alas, no; it was deadly serious. I forgot that this generation of students isn’t noted for its sense of humour.

Given the alarmist tone of the warning, it wouldn’t surprise me if the student union had arranged for ambulances and mental health counsellors to be placed on standby in advance of publication, or perhaps ordered emergency stocks of smelling salts. Fortunately I can report that no one fainted at the actual meeting.

The article accused me of describing the Black Lives Matter movement as a “crusade” (guilty as charged – that’s exactly what BLM was), of making derogatory remarks about trans women (I described transgender activists as virulent and aggressive) and of spreading harmful misinformation about the 2019 mosque massacres (what I said, if I recall correctly, was that there was no evidence that tighter laws against “hate speech” would have prevented the shootings, which is true).

The Salient reporter also latched on to my criticism of the media as a “woke elite”. Exactly how all this was “harmful” wasn’t explained.

What was potentially harmful was the article’s emphasis on the role of two admirable VUW academics, Michael Johnston and James Kierstead (whose name was misspelt), who helped organise the event. Johnston was quoted as making the heinous statement that it was a great honour to introduce the union on campus.

The tone of the story seemed to suggest Johnston and Kierstead had brought the university into disrepute through the subversive act of promoting free speech. The purpose of the piece, clearly, was to put pressure on the VUW administration to follow the shameful example of other universities (most recently the Auckland University of Technology) by ensuring no such event happened again. The students’ association president was quoted as saying VUW would be “potentially reviewing guidelines at [sic] having external organisations book campus spaces” – wishful thinking on his part, one would think, since that’s not a matter for the association to decide.

(As an aside, the article was notable for demonstrating that today’s students have only the most fleeting acquaintance with the rules of grammar and syntax. The notion that the ability to express yourself clearly denotes clarity of thinking appears foreign to them.

Salient has a distinguished history, with a roll of former editors and contributors that includes Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Hugh Rennie QC, the late Michael King, economist Brian Easton, the late Supreme Court judge Sir John McGrath, broadcaster Sharon Crosbie, Sir Tipene O’Regan, cartoonist Sir Bob Brockie (he’s not really a sir, but I like to think of him as one), Sir Bob Jones and others who went on to successful careers in journalism and publishing. They must shake their heads in despair at what it’s become.)

Salient’s article noted with apparent approval that posters on the campus advertising the FSU meeting had been taken down – repeatedly, in fact – and replaced with substitutes proclaiming “Hate Speech is Not Free Speech” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and labelling the FSU as “racist, homophobic and transphobic hypocrites”. The paper quoted one unnamed student as saying “the event is full of violent misinformation and sends [sic] an unsafe agenda for many communities who study here”.

Violent? Really?? The atmosphere was about as menacing as a meeting of the Country Women's Institute. There’s nothing to indicate the anonymous student actually attended. Why risk having your smug prejudices contradicted?

Similarly, a former president of the Queer Students’ Association was quoted as saying the FSU event “showcases an individual [I guess that means me] who sees his attempts at delegitimising Māori and trans individuals and their world views as promoting free speech. All this does is uphold the sexist, racist, and transphobic status quo and is in no way actually a valuable contribution to academic discourse.”

Like the aforementioned anonymous student, she appears to have reached these conclusions without bothering to acquaint herself with what I said. Far easier to leave your mind unencumbered by knowledge.

Just in case there remained any doubt that the FSU consists of unreconstructed, spittle-flecked, white supremacist haters, there was also this comment from students’ association “engagement” vice-president Katherine Blow (who apparently prefers to be known by the pronoun “they”): “VUWSA does not support the Free Speech Union event, because the group is known for their extremist, trans-exclusionary, homophobic and racist views.” “They” added that “ideally, the event wouldn’t have taken place”.

It’s heartening to know that Victoria’s students are driven by fearless open-mindedness, a spirit of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a willingness to engage with dissenting opinions. Is this the best New Zealand can expect from our supposed thinkers of the future: nonsensical slogans and playground-level name-calling?

(You can read the article here, but have a Valium tab on hand just in case it induces an anxiety attack.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Squeeze your eyes shut, cross your fingers and hope

The Three Waters project is a con and a fiasco on every level.

First, it fails to satisfy even the most basic democratic test. A system in which the nation’s water infrastructure is run by opaque “entities” where 16 percent of the population wields 50 percent of the power (and that’s assuming the representatives of the iwi elite truly speak for all people of Maori descent, which is far from assured) makes a mockery of representative government.

Second, and in addition to the above, it severs the links by which the public is able to exercise control over infrastructure that it owns. The recent attempt to overcome opposition to Three Waters by tweaking the shareholding arrangements, so as to create an illusion of financial control by councils, was a feat of prestidigitation that fooled no one.

Those two failings could be described as the primary constitutional objections to Three Waters, but there are others – such as the absence of an informed mandate from the public (co-governance wasn’t mentioned in Labour’s 2020 manifesto) and not even a pretence of adequate consultation. (Far from it. Once Nanaia Mahuta realised dozens of councils intended to fight her asset grab, she resolved to bulldoze it through whether they liked it or not.)

A cynic might say such arrogance should be no surprise coming from a minister who enjoys quasi-regal standing within the Tainui confederation and is thus steeped in a hierarchical tribal culture that dates back to the Maori King Movement. While her manner is quiet and understated, it’s possible she’s accustomed to getting her own way by virtue of her hereditary status. (Just a personal theory …)

Against all that, we have a vague promise that the country’s water infrastructure will be better funded and more efficiently managed under the new mechanisms. But while even critics of Three Waters acknowledge there’s scope for improvement, the failings of the existing arrangements – and especially the supposed health risks from poor water – have been grossly overstated in an attempt to frighten the public, with assistance from a crude TV propaganda campaign that would have embarrassed even Joseph Goebbels.

So much for the constitutional flaws (for want of a better term) in the Three Waters project. But on top of that, and just as glaring, are the potential bureaucratic and administrative fishhooks.

Today’s Wairarapa Times-Age reports concern within local councils – or should I say panic? – over the cost of the transition to the new structure. Carterton District Council, one of the smallest in the country (population 9700), expects to spend $850,000 preparing for Three Waters over the next two years. The council’s chief executive says the plan has imposed an “enormous” programme of work that the council’s not resourced to cope with it. Mayor Greg Laing describes the process as “absolutely appalling”.

The Times-Age quotes the Department of Internal Affairs as saying funding will be provided to cover transition costs, but it’s obvious that councils haven’t seen any of the money and don’t know when they will. In any case, South Wairarapa’s mayor Alex Beijen, who presides over a district with a population of only 11,000 (and one that’s already financially stretched to breaking point), says resourcing will be a big challenge even with extra government money.

Reading between the lines, it seems clear the process has been so rushed that no one thought to put transitional funding arrangements in place – or alternatively, didn’t have the time. Could this urgency have anything to do with the fact that there’s an election next year and Labour is anxious to lock in its audacious ideological projects before it gets booted out of office, as seems more likely with every passing day?

Similar unseemly haste is evident in health, where the consequences, at least on a personal level, could be even more catastrophic. In a scathing assessment, Ian Powell – former executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists – points to the massive disruption and destabilisation likely to be caused by Health Minister Andrew Little’s madcap scheme to abolish district health boards and replace them with … what, exactly? 

If anyone knows, we haven’t been told. That's exactly Powell's point. But in the meantime, God alone knows how much money, energy and expertise will be diverted from the provision of health care – to the detriment of sick people desperately in need of treatment – as the health system struggles to restructure itself to comply with Little’s ill-defined vision.

As Powell points out, “With only 40 working days to go, DHBs have no more information on what will replace them on 1 July than they had on 21 April last year when the health minister announced their abolition.” You can read his damning appraisal here – and if that’s not depressing enough, Richard Prebble has more to say about the state of the health system here.

All this has a wearying familiarity. Labour governments tend to come into office bursting with grand ideas but lacking the ministerial talent necessary to convert their missionary zeal into effective action. Their ambitions consistently outstrip their ability to deliver, resulting in reliance on obscurantist jargon and slogans (Powell cites the empty vow to end the “postcode lottery” in health care) and promiscuous spending binges as a substitute for good policy. Little, who should have been one of Labour’s more competent ministers, has turned out to be anything but.

When it’s plain to everyone except fervent true believers that the wheels are falling off, Labour collectively squeezes its eyes shut, crosses its fingers and hopes everything will magically turn out okay. That’s what Mahuta and Little appear to be doing now, metaphorically speaking, and by the time voters are able to do anything it will be too late. The damage will have been done.