Friday, December 13, 2019

A country where too many avoidable accidents happen

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, December 12.)

She’ll be right. It’s almost the national motto. But in the aftermath of the Whakaari/White Island catastrophe, perhaps we should ask whether we’re just a bit too blasé about the acceptance of risk.

We go through national paroxysms of self-reproach after a tragic event – witness Pike River, the Christchurch earthquakes, Cave Creek – yet we seem to make the same basic mistake over and over again.

We’re world leaders at flaying ourselves after disaster has struck, but we never seem to see it coming.

The reputational damage done as a result of this latest tragedy will not be quickly repaired. Most of the victims are overseas tourists, and international media outlets are asking, inevitably, why people were encouraged to visit the crater of an active volcano whose risk assessment had only recently been revised upwards.

Many of those killed when the structurally unsound CTV building collapsed in the 2011 Christchurch quake were from overseas too, as were several of the skydivers who died when a plane plummeted into the ground at Fox Glacier in 2010.

The world also heard about the Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy (six dead) and the Carterton hot air balloon that crashed, killing 11 people, while under the control of a dope-smoking pilot. Put all this together, and New Zealand starts to look like a place where too many avoidable accidents happen.

This casual approach to danger in profitable tourist activities stands in striking contrast to the obsessive and costly enforcement of petty, nitpicking health and safety regulations in areas of daily life where the risk of injury is minimal.

We may have narrowly missed one more tragedy when an unstable cliff collapsed on the coastal route to Cape Kidnappers earlier this year, injuring a Korean couple who were forced into the sea. It was surely pure luck that the cliff didn’t come down while a tractor-drawn trailer-load of tourists was passing beneath it.

The Cape Kidnappers excursion is understandably popular with foreign visitors. Part of its charm is that it’s unmistakeably Kiwi in its laidback, No 8-wire approach and the quirky humour of its guides. I imagine the Whakaari/White Island tour has something of the same character.

Tens of thousands of people have visited the island and returned to the mainland feeling nothing but exhilaration, but the question must be asked: Did that lead to a culture of complacency and a downplaying of the risk inherent in visiting an active volcano?

Visitors to Whakaari were apparently given a safety briefing. But knowing it was a routine procedure, experienced by thousands of other tourists before them, they may have regarded it in much the same offhand manner as conference attendees treat announcements about the location of the toilets and emergency exits.

One report suggested that more emphasis was placed on the risk of seasickness on the boat trip to the island than on the possibility of fatal burns and damage to internal organs from toxic gas and ash.

Gas masks and hard hats were handed out, but tourists could have been excused for viewing them as being akin to theatrical props. They might well have reasoned that if the island was so hazardous that they might actually need protective gear, the authorities wouldn’t have allowed people to go there in the first place. 

We now know, of course, that the masks and helmets were hopelessly inadequate.  

Hard questions will need to be asked not only of the tour operators, but of the cruise ship company that touted the Whakaari/White Island visit as a suitable day’s outing for its passengers.

The named victims included a British woman aged 80 and two Australian men aged 78 and 79. Really? What chance did they have of running for safety in an emergency?

The police haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory either. Not only were their attempts at communication shambolic and ineffectual, but they succeeded in creating the distinct impression that if matters had been left to them, the death toll might have been far higher.

It was only due to the heroic actions of volunteers, acting on their own gumption and courage, that more lives weren’t lost. As it was, many New Zealanders would have been greatly troubled by the possibility that victims may have been left to die after rescuers had to retreat.

What of the politicians, then? National Party leader Simon Bridges and the Mayor of Whakatane gave virtuoso demonstrations of tone-deafness by saying they hoped visits to the volcano would eventually resume. I couldn’t help thinking of Jaws, in which news of a killer shark is played down so as to not to affect tourism revenue.

Then there was Jacinda Ardern, who made a valiant effort to strike the same heartfelt tone of compassion that won her worldwide praise after the Christchurch mosque massacres.

To victims and their families, she said: "You are forever linked to our nation and we will hold you close." Doubtless her words were sincerely meant, but they didn't have quite the same force second time around - perhaps because while no one could have foreseen the events of March 15, this week's tragedy could have been avoided.


Thursday, December 12, 2019

New Zealand or Aotearoa? Let the people decide

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, December 11.)

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that for years, a determined campaign has been underway to rename New Zealand.

It’s being driven by activists, bureaucrats, teachers, academics, politicians and people in the media who think “New Zealand” is too Eurocentric and insufficiently reflective of the biculturalism that is said to define us as a country.

It’s not a formal, co-ordinated campaign but a spontaneous, unofficial one that started small and has steadily gathered momentum as more people take up the cause.

Radio New Zealand was an early adopter and remains in the front line of the push for change, as it is with usage of the Maori language generally. Aotearoa is frequently used by RNZ journalists and presenters in preference to New Zealand, and lately the same trend has been creeping into the print media.

In defence of the practice, it can be argued that every New Zealander knows what Aotearoa means. But some RNZ journalists go a whole lot further – for example, by referring to Christchurch as Otautahi and Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau.

That’s overstepping the mark. It’s arrogant and elitist, and shows contempt for listeners because it leaves them to guess what place the reporter is talking about. The intention, clearly, is to encourage people to adopt these names in everyday usage. But arbitrarily renaming cities is not one of the statutory functions of Radio NZ.

This is not to say there isn’t a good case for a public debate about the adoption of Maori place names. But let’s be transparent about it, and follow democratic process rather than having change imposed by gradual indoctrination.

That debate might start with the fact that “New Zealand” says nothing about us or our place in the world. It was conferred by historical accident and treats us not as a country in our own right, worthy of our own distinctive name, but as an offshoot of Europe.

We can only conclude that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman displayed a mischievous sense of humour when he named New Zealand after a province of his homeland. By his own description, the country he sighted in 1642 was “a large land, uplifted high” (he was looking at the mountains of the West Coast).

So what did he do? He named it after a low-lying, mainly flat province that was largely reclaimed from the sea. Zeeland’s highest point, as far as I can ascertain from Google, is 54 metres.

It can be argued that this striking mismatch between name and place gives Aotearoa a head start in any debate about what we should call ourselves. It’s also more euphonious, more poetic and more descriptive. And it’s exclusively ours, not a 17th century hand-me-down from Holland.

Another ground for objecting to “New Zealand” is that it conveys the Eurocentric implication that the country didn’t exist until Tasman gave it a name, although Maori had been here since the 13th century.

But hold on a minute. There are other factors to consider, starting with the fact that we’ve been known as New Zealand for more than 300 years.

Admittedly other countries have changed their names. Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Persia became Iran and Burma became Myanmar, to name just three examples. The world got used to the new names and moved on, but it would be wrong to ignore the enormous economic cost and the long, hard process of adjustment and acceptance required.

And like it or not, the name New Zealand stands for something in the world – in trade, tourism, diplomacy, sport, war and the arts. It’s a powerful brand, built up over two and a half centuries. We mess with that legacy at our peril.

Then there’s the pronunciation to consider. Aotearoa isn’t a name that the world could effortlessly get its tongue around. Even well-meaning New Zealanders struggle with it, and they’re not helped by te reo purists who sneer when people get it wrong.

These are all factors that could be explored and weighed if we were to have an open debate, as we did over the national flag. There’s no reason why the Aotearoa/New Zealand issue couldn’t eventually be decided by referendum.

New Zealanders have shown they are not averse to the adoption of Maori place names. The acceptance of Taranaki as an alternative to Egmont, and increasingly of Aoraki in place of Mt Cook, is proof of that. Expect Whakaari to replace White Island before long, too.

There’s scope for many more places to revert to their Maori names as the significance of names bestowed during the colonial era recedes into the mists of history. How about Ahuriri instead of Napier, for starters, or Taitoko for Levin?

But let’s do it the proper way, through open, public debate and consensus rather than by stealth. Until such time as New Zealanders indicate by democratic means that they want a name change, New Zealand should remain just that: New Zealand. 

Thursday, December 5, 2019

More thoughts on that Tremain cartoon


It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Otago Daily Times cartoonist Garrick Tremain has been hung out to dry – or as seems to be the preferred metaphor these days, thrown under a bus.

I get the impression that Tremain now accepts that his cartoon making light of the Samoan measles epidemic was grossly insensitive. But he’s hardly the only person culpable.

All newspaper cartoons are supposed to be vetted by senior editorial people and we can assume that process was followed in this case, in which case editorial heads should be rolling too, metaphorically speaking.

The paper not only failed to see how wrong the cartoon was but also misjudged the public reaction, thinking it could get away with a low-key apology on page 10. The editor, Barry Stewart, has since tried to make amends by facing protesters yesterday and publishing a second mea culpa on the front page today.

But it’s Tremain who’s being made to bear the primary responsibility. Stewart says the cartoonist has been stood down while the ODT conducts a “review”, which sounds like a damage control exercise aimed at mollifying protesters in the hope that it will all blow over.

A particularly ignoble aspect of the controversy is the spectacle of a fellow cartoonist putting the boot in. Jim Hubbard has drawn not one but two cartoons taking a whack at Tremain, which strikes me as contemptible.

Hubbard’s cartoons are often close to the bone too, though at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Tremain’s, and it’s not hard to envisage circumstances in which he too might be publicly pilloried, in which case I’m sure he would appreciate a bit of solidarity.

As an aside, I can’t help wondering whether the ODT's display of tone-deafness over the Tremain cartoon is a Dunedin thing. No offence to the ODT – a paper for which I have great respect – or to the residents of that estimable city, but Dunedin is a bit isolated from the cultural mainstream and possibly not quite in tune with how issues are viewed in other parts of the country. Could that explain the ODT’s spectacular lapse of judgment?


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

That Garrick Tremain cartoon


Cartoons can be a tricky issue for editors. It’s not enough that they should simply be funny, and indeed some of the best are not. To be truly effective, cartoons need an edge. They should be provocative.

Accordingly, editors need to cut cartoonists a lot of slack. They will sometimes publish cartoons they know some readers will find offensive, and that they may even find offensive themselves.

The Media Council, formerly the Press Council, takes a liberal view of cartoons (by which I mean liberal in the classical rather than the lame, woke sense) and so do the courts. When Labour MP Louisa Wall took the Otago Daily Times to court over two Al Nisbet cartoons which she considered racist, Justice Matthew Muir agreed that they were insulting but held that they didn’t breach the Human Rights Act.

Whatever you thought of the cartoons, the decision could only be seen as a victory for free speech and a defence of the right to upset people. Regardless of their ideological persuasions, cartoonists would very soon be extinct as a species if they were denied that right.

Having said all that, sometimes a paper publishes a cartoon that seems to strike a sour note with almost everyone. The Garrick Tremain cartoon published this week by the aforementioned ODT was such a cartoon.

It lamely attempted to make humour of the measles epidemic in Samoa. But the deaths of 55 children are no one’s idea of a joke and the cartoonist couldn’t even claim to be making a point. Both the editor of the paper and Tremain himself admit it was a bad lapse of judgment. Tremain says it was a limp joke but he can’t wind the clock back.

Will that satisfy the vigilantes crying out for utu? Not a chance. They won’t rest until they have someone’s head on a platter.

The ODT’s apology, they say, is not enough. It never is. Among other things, they want the paper’s staff to undergo racism training. But where does race enter into it? The cartoon would have been offensive regardless of the ethnicity of the measles victims.

Auckland University of Technology journalism lecturer Richard Pamatatau has joined the pile-on, saying the ODT has a history of publishing racist cartoons and Tremain should be dumped. I wonder, am I the only one troubled by the irony of a journalism lecturer calling for someone to be silenced?

Pamatatau says Tremain’s cartoons are not what cartoons are supposed to be, but he’s no more entitled to present himself as the arbiter of what cartoons should say than I am.

Bottom line: being offended from time to time is the price we pay for freedom of speech, a quid-pro-quo that most people in a liberal democracy are happy to accept.

I would certainly far prefer to go on being offended – as I often am by cartoonists – than concede to people like Pamatatau the right to determine what views I may be exposed to. Given a choice between bad taste and puritanical censorship, I’ll take the bad taste every time.

Friday, November 29, 2019

We need to talk about Islam

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, November 28.)

New Zealand is overdue for a grown-up conversation about Islam.

It’s a conversation that has been made necessary because as a nation we’re conflicted, to use a popular term, about the religion founded by Mohammad. But the conversation needs to get beyond simplistic, kneejerk allegations of Islamophobia, and it needs to unpick some contradictions and inconsistences in how we view Muslims.

First, some background. There have been Muslims in New Zealand since the late 19th century. Most of those early arrivals came from South Asia (mainly India) and appear to have lived quietly without attracting public attention.

There was a surge in Muslim immigration during the 1970s and 80s, especially following the nationalist Fiji coup of 1987, which made life very uncomfortable for Fiji Indians of the Muslim faith. Political instability also resulted in the arrival of Muslim immigrants from Somalia and the Middle East.

All of this happened without controversy.  So what changed?

With the rise of Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, a militant form of Islam emerged which was seen as an existential threat to the West. Anxiety about Islamist extremism has since been ratcheted up by repeated terrorist massacres – many of them perpetrated by radicalised Muslim immigrants striking at the countries that took them in – and by appalling atrocities perpetrated by Islamic State and Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Islam, and Muslim immigration, thus became a highly political issue.

All this coincided with substantially increased Muslim immigration to New Zealand. At the time of the 2001 census, 23,631 New Zealand residents identified as Muslim. By last year, the number had jumped to 61,455.

Muslims still make up only 1.34 per cent of the population, half the number of New Zealand Hindus, but they are highly visible and some are politically active – more so since the Christchurch mosque massacres of March 15.

As the spontaneous public reaction showed, New Zealanders were shocked and appalled by that incident and deplored the perpetrator.

The killer did not represent New Zealanders, most of whom feel nothing but goodwill toward Muslims who come here with the aim of living peaceably and contributing to their community.
That goodwill is plainly reciprocated by the many Muslim New Zealanders who, since March 15, have publicly expressed their appreciation of this country and their feeling of being welcome and accepted here.

But here’s where things get tricky. The events of March 15 have been seized by some people, not all of them Muslim, as an opportunity to promote the idea that Muslims are the victims of hatred and discrimination.

This notion is used in turn to politicise the Islamic faith and lobby for treatment not extended to other religions – for instance, seeking women-only days at public swimming pools so that men can’t see women’s bodies, or the provision of prayer rooms in public spaces.

No reasonable person would challenge Muslims’ right to follow their religion without harassment, but nothing is more likely to provoke resistance than the perception that a religious denomination is being singled out for privileged treatment. New Zealand is a secular society and no exceptions should be made.

We must also reserve the right to criticise those aspects of Islam that sit awkwardly with secular liberalism, just as we’re free to mock Christian beliefs. This is not incompatible with respect for the right of Muslims to follow their faith.

Post-March 15, however, there was an outpouring of misconceived liberal guilt that manifested itself in bizarre ways, such as the furore over the name of the Crusaders rugby team. This fuss conveniently overlooked that Muslims were invaders too, with a long history of bloody conquest that reached far into Europe on one side and India on the other.

Arguably the biggest challenge posed by Islam, though, is to the political Left, which must somehow reconcile its embrace of Islam with its promotion of rights for women and gays. Good luck with that, as they say, because the two are inherently incompatible.

What complicates the issue is that Islam is a broad church, ranging from tolerance and acceptance of difference at one end of the spectrum – i.e. the version of Islam that should be welcomed here – to unspeakable violence and repression at the other.

Why the Left champions Islam is no mystery. It’s because the Islamic world is seen as standing in opposition to the capitalist West, so must be supported.

But by railing against so-called Islamophobia without qualification, the Left lays itself open to the accusation that it turns a blind eye to the repression of women and the stoning of homosexuals. It's an exquisite ideological tangle, and the world waits with interest for the Left to declare exactly where it stands.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

My vision of Wellington in 2030

(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, November 14.)

I keep having nightmarish visions of Wellington in 2030.

In my nightmare, Civic Square has been cordoned off for more than a decade and is covered with gorse and thistles. At night it’s taken over by homeless people who gather there to smoke P – which prime minister Shane Jones has promised to legalise as a condition of his coalition deal with the Greens – and to dance naked around bonfires in scenes vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max.

The ghostly buildings around the square remain empty. Reports on various restoration options fill a rusty shipping container on the weed-infested site where the five-star Amora Hotel used to be.

The once-celebrated Ferns orb sculpture that hung over the square, having been taken down in 2015, re-installed in 2018 and then removed again, has been broken up for scrap after engineers couldn’t agree on whether the cables holding it were safe. Bits of it were recently dredged out of the lagoon near the Star Boating Club. 

The City to Sea bridge, long closed because of structural defects, collapsed onto Jervois Quay years ago. Efforts to clear the wreckage were halted because of health and safety concerns.

The central library is located in a tattered marquee on Newtown Park. How long it will stay there is uncertain, since the park is the subject of a Treaty claim which has itself been before the courts for several years because of a dispute between rival claimants. The library’s collections are housed in a disused shirt factory in Levin.

In Johnsonville, residents are still waiting for work to start on the redevelopment of the local shopping mall, first proposed 23 years ago. In the meantime, the vacant site is occupied by a Mr Whippy van, a pop-up 24-hour discount liquor outlet and a bouncy castle that can't be used most of the time because of the howling wind.

In my dream there has been some progress. Tracks for a light rail line from the station to the airport made it as far as Taranaki St before being stopped short by appeals lodged by feuding groups of public transport obsessives. The project is now at a standstill.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council is no more – ousted by a citizens’ action front which stormed the GWRC offices after the council CEO, a former Swansea parking meter warden who got the job with a falsified CV that no one thought to check, was paid a half-million-dollar performance bonus even though the buses still weren’t running on time.

Work has yet to commence on the second Mt Victoria tunnel. Officials are still working on a business case, now in its 73rd iteration, while the government and city council argue over how it’s going to be paid for.

At Shelly Bay, several buildings have collapsed from rot while mediators continue to seek a compromise between developer Ian Cassels – now living in a retirement village – and Sir Peter Jackson, who is working on his seventh Hobbit movie. In the meantime a tent city, erected by protesters inspired by Ihumatao (which recently celebrated its 11th anniversary), occupies the site.

All over town, high-rise apartments have been abandoned by owners who could no longer afford the insurance premiums. They have been taken over by squatters.

In my nightmare, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University has finally got the change of name he wanted. It's now Te Wananga o Te Whanganui-a-Tara, colloquially known as Twot.

The university has taken over most of the buildings on The Terrace that it didn’t already own. These have been converted into halls of residence, but only overseas students can afford the fees. 

The Supreme Court now sits in a converted motel in Tawa, its showpiece building in Lambton Quay having been flattened because of weather tightness issues and replaced by a Wilsons parking building.

The former St Gerard’s monastery is gone from its commanding position above Oriental Bay – demolished because the owners couldn’t afford the one-in-2500-year earthquake standard that bureaucrats demanded. The site is now occupied by a Ryman rest home.

Down at the port, cruise ships stopped coming long ago because Extinction Rebellion activists harassed any passengers trying to disembark. The entire waterfront is now occupied by logs from the Wairarapa, where forestry has displaced all but one sheep and beef farm – kept functioning as an historical curiosity – in order to meet New Zealand’s carbon credit commitments.

But there’s a note of nostalgia in my nightmare, too. On warm summer evenings, old-timers gather in Pigeon Park to reminisce about a fabled time when mayors named Wilde, Blumsky and Prendergast made exciting things happen and Wellington was celebrated as the world’s coolest little capital.

I should add that in my dream, the city's mayoralty remained unresolved after the disputed election result of 2019. I was relieved to wake up one morning recently to the news that this part of my vision, at least, hadn't played out in reality. As for the rest, I'm not so sure.


When quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and other Stuff regional papers, November 13.)

Okay, I admit it. I’m a coward.

As a recreational cyclist, I’m privileged to live in a region blessed with glorious rural landscapes, wide-open skies and quiet, smooth roads.

On fine days, these roads beckon seductively, and never more so than in spring.  They sing a siren song as irresistible as that of the Lorelei who lured boatmen to their doom on the Rhine.

There’s just one problem. Magpies.

Magpies will ignore you for nine months of the year, then launch frenzied attacks during the other three, when they’re nesting.

They don't seem to have noticed that human beings are not in the habit of climbing trees to steal their young. This is especially true when the human beings are wearing lycra shorts and bike shoes, which are not conducive to tree-climbing.

Be that as it may, during the nesting season, every human is perceived as a threat. And for some reason, magpies seem to reserve their fiercest aggression for people on bikes.

Before going any further I should declare that I generally like magpies. They’re handsome, smart, fearless and extremely agile on the wing. 

I love their song too, which Denis Glover, in his classic poem The Magpies, famously translated as “quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle”.

Staying at our son’s house in the bushy outer suburbs of Canberra years ago, I was entranced by the sound of magpies calling softly – the term is carolling – in the middle of the night. It was magical.

But in spring, magpies torment me. They are the Stukas of the bird world. Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent. 

When I moved to the Wairarapa more than 15 years ago, I found a perfect cycling route that wound through the valleys and hills north of Masterton.

The farmland was pretty, there was a nice mix of hills and flats, and virtually no traffic. Cycling nirvana.

During the many years I had lived in Wellington, I had experienced only a few magpie attacks while riding, and they seemed half-hearted. It was as if the magpies felt obliged for the sake of appearances to go through the motions of dive-bombing cyclists, but their hearts weren’t really in it.

But in the Wairarapa, it was a very different story. Crazed magpies swooped on me every few hundred metres. Some struck my head; others simply harassed me, often attacking repeatedly even when I must have been well out of their territory.  

I tried different routes, with much the same result. On one long hill, I found it easier to get off the bike and walk rather than duck the constant attacks. At least when you’re on foot you can turn and face them.

Talking to other cyclists, I learned that some of these birds were legendary. One guy I know had a chunk taken out of his helmet by a notorious bird.  Another acquaintance was out riding with his son when a magpie landed on his back and started pecking at his neck.

Shouting and waving your arms does no good whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems only to rark them up.

Reasoning with them is just as futile. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t want to eat their babies. They don’t listen.

Various deterrents have been tried in Australia, where magpie attacks are a serious problem. In one experiment on a suburban street patrolled by a particularly vicious bird, helmets with eyes painted on the back (magpies always attack from behind) and spikes protruding from the top were found to be totally ineffective. Attaching a flag to the bike didn’t work either.

Bizarrely, the only cyclist who wasn’t attacked wore no head protection at all, which suggests magpies have a jaundiced view of helmets. But I’m not prepared to take the risk of proving you’re safer without one.

The long and short of all this is that I’ve almost abandoned cycling on the road during the nesting months. Call me gutless, call me a wimp, but I find magpie attacks distracting and unnerving. They take the pleasure out of cycling.

I tell myself that the helmet protects my head, so what’s the worst that can happen in an attack? And the answer comes back: I could take my eyes off the road and ride under the wheels of an oncoming truck, which would be no fun for the truck driver and probably even less for me.

Fortunately I have a mountain bike, and there’s a network of magpie-free off-road tracks in the area where I live. So I ride my MTB and wait for the danger to pass.

I’m happy to report that I recently cycled along a stretch of road where I’ve been swooped on in the past, and I was left alone. So we’ve reached that time of year when the magpies’ protective hormones are subsiding and it’s safe to ride past their nesting sites without bracing for an attack.

Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle is no longer an announcement of imminent hostilities, and all’s right with the world.