Monday, December 29, 2008

Let's be honest about child deaths

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 23.)

WE’RE killing our kids, according to a recent news item. Two children are said to die every week as a result of accidents, and the blame is being laid – at least in part – on our “she’ll be right” attitude.

A front-page news story in The Dominion Post cited figures from a recent World Health Organisation report and quoted Ann Weaver, director of Safekids New Zealand – the injury prevention arm of Starship Hospital – as saying that compared with other wealthy nations, New Zealand performed very badly.

“We have this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and an aversion to being told what to do,” she said. “We don’t want to mollycoddle our children … but, looking at these statistics, you can see we’re not doing enough.”

I interpreted the statement that we’re “not doing enough” as a coded call for more regulation – more rules that place the paternalistic state, rather than parents, at the centre of child protection.

I’m the first to agree that two child deaths a week are two deaths too many, but there are some important points to be made about these statistics.

The first is that a press statement issued with the WHO report specifically cites New Zealand as being among the countries with the lowest rates of accidental injury to children. Lobbyists who agitate for greater state intervention are careful to make us look bad by comparing us with the relatively few affluent western countries that have even better child safety figures.

They also seem careful to avoid reference to the politically unmentionable factor that prevents New Zealand from catching up with those countries. I refer to the disproportionately high rate of accidental death and injury among children from Maori and Pacific Island families.

It’s an awful but indisputable fact that whenever you read of a toddler being backed over by a careless driver, of a baby being smothered in bed, of a child wandering off on a riverbank or a beach and drowning when no one was watching, or of children dying in a house fire caused by a burning candle or a cigarette lighter left lying around, the probability is that the victim will be from a Maori or Pacific Island family.

It’s an even more terrible fact that children who die or are permanently damaged as a result of physical abuse are most likely to be Maori or Polynesian, though I’m not sure whether these deaths and injuries count as “accidental” for statistical purposes.

No one, least of all the innocent victims of parental carelessness or brutality, is served by denying that these problems are disproportionately common among Maori and Pacific Island families.

What’s more, these issues are well understood and in most cases are covered by existing laws. The law has long required, for example, that children in cars be properly restrained, but it's commonly disregarded by Maori and Pacific Island drivers.

Ignorance? Carelessness? Laziness? Lack of imagination? Who knows? But to suggest that we need more laws to reduce injuries to children is either delusional or dishonest. Adequate laws exist already.

Stricter enforcement might help, but what’s far more important is that parents are encouraged to develop a greater awareness of the risks surrounding children and a stronger sense of personal responsibility for the safety of those in their care. There can be no more urgent task confronting Maori and Pacific Island leaders.

Performing a haka at the graveside of a dead child is a poor way to show how precious the tamariki are.

* * *

MUCH has been said about the supposed virtues of online shopping. You can get goods cheaper, people say, because online retailers have low overheads. You can shop in the comfort of your own home and at a time of your own convenience.

But in the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy, I want to put in a word for the old-fashioned shop.

Online retailers such as Amazon - which I use occasionally - have taken a huge amount of business from traditional stores, but there’s still something to be said for a retail outlet where you can examine the merchandise.

It’s easy to make a wrong decision about a product on the basis of a description on a website, as I did recently. Misled by an Internet retailer’s brief note about an expensive music reference book, I ordered it and when it arrived, found it wasn’t at all what I expected.

As it happened I liked the book anyway and have no regrets about buying it. But the deal could have turned sour.

Online shopping has other drawbacks too. I recently got the run-around from online retailer Fishpond over a DVD I ordered off its website at the beginning of November. To cut a long story short, the DVD turned out not to be in stock. After several exchanges of emails I was advised that it might not arrive before mid-January.

Tough luck if I’d ordered it to give someone for Christmas. I told them to forget it.

There are no such problems with the conventional retailer. If you’re shopping for a book, for example, you can pick it up and flick through the pages. And if you like it you can go to the counter, pay for it and walk out with your purchase tucked securely under your arm

Technology is great when it delivers, but too often it sings a siren song of false promises.

Holmes: egotistical to the end

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 24.)

A funny thing happened on Monday morning. For the first time in 22 years, the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who wake up each day to Newstalk ZB, the country’s most popular radio station, didn’t hear Paul Holmes.

New Zealand’s highest-profile broadcaster stepped down from his breakfast throne last Friday – encouraged to do so, evidently, by his bosses, who presumably thought it best that he quit while he was still ahead. Holmes will continue to broadcast on Saturdays but his coveted Monday-Friday timeslot has been taken over by Mike Hosking.

Holmes is not only New Zealand’s best-known broadcaster but also, arguably, the most egotistical. And he remained so to the end.

In his regular column in the Herald on Sunday the week before he quit, Holmes subjected himself to something called the Proust Questionnaire. He apparently found the revelations about himself fascinating and, being Holmes, naturally assumed his readers would be similarly enthralled.

The questionnaire consisted of questions such as “what is your current state of mind?” (to which Holmes answered “mellow”); “what is your most treasured possession?” (“My CNZM – Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit”); “what is your greatest regret” (“not leaving my job in 1993 and going into Parliament”); and “what is your most marked characteristic?” (“my honest, relentless sense of humour”).

What’s notable here is the Holmesian disregard for the convention that it’s for others, not us, to judge our personality and character. Many of us possibly think, privately, that we’re fascinating people, but it takes an exceptional ego to take that extra step and go public about it. Holmes cheerfully defies all the New Zealand stereotypes about modesty and humility.

Note also the assumption that the voters, no doubt delirious with gratitude, would automatically have elected Holmes to Parliament. I seem to recall also that he once toyed with the idea of standing for the Auckland mayoralty.

Holmes’ hubris was almost his undoing when he quit TV One for Prime several years ago, apparently confident that his legion of viewers would follow him. They didn’t. His successor, Susan Wood, inherited his audience virtually intact, thereby proving that it was a combination of the 7pm timeslot and TV One’s hold on viewers, not Holmes’ magnetic presence, that made his show such a ratings success.

There is a flipside to Holmes’ conceit, however. As is often the case with big egos, he appears deeply insecure.

Journalist Carroll du Chateau noted this in a New Zealand Herald article marking Holmes’ departure. As Holmes showed her to the door of his home after she had interviewed him, he asked her: “Do you think they like me? You know, do people like me or not? What do you think?”

Du Chateau wrote: “It is a stunningly personal question that reflects the inner vulnerability of our most influential broadcaster. No, he is not an egotist; he is, at heart, a little kid rattling around an enormous Remuera mansion with three small dogs and a cat, wanting to be liked.”

While it certainly seems true that Holmes yearns to be liked, I respectfully disagree with du Chateau about whether he is an egotist. I think he unquestionably is. It’s just that big egos are often, paradoxically, fragile and desperate for affirmation.

It may seem astonishing that at this stage in his career, an extraordinarily successful man like Holmes still needs to be told he’s a success. But in my experience, many high-profile people crave reassurance that they count for something. It’s not enough, somehow, for them to be at peace with themselves internally; they need the endorsement of the crowd. It’s their validation.

Another way such people assure themselves of their importance is by surrounding themselves with other important people. It’s surprising how many well-known New Zealanders are compulsive name-droppers, anxious to impress others by telling them about the high-flying people they rub shoulders with.

There was a hint of this, too, in du Chateau’s article on Holmes, when she mentioned the prominent photos on a sideboard at his home showing the broadcaster with important people such as Bill Clinton and Kiri Te Kanawa. I seem to recall too that when Holmes remarried a few years ago, the guest list at the lavish ceremony was a Who’s Who of VIPs, including the then prime minister.

Personally I don’t think it’s healthy when journalists become as big as the people they’re reporting, and even less so when they count them as personal friends. But it’s important to remember that Holmes, although he carried out journalistic functions, was not a journalist by training. He came to TV journalism via a background that included theatre and talkback radio. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he blurred the line between journalism, with its traditional principles of objectivity and detachment, and entertainment.

That he has journalistic skills, however, is unquestionable. Personally, I prefer Holmes the writer to Holmes the broadcaster.

Noses were put out of joint years ago when he won the Qantas award for newspaper columnist of the year, but there was no question that he earned it. He’s a fluent, assured and perceptive writer, and if he finds himself getting bored making olive oil at his Hawke’s Bay estate he could do worse than nurture this talent.

His profiles of party leaders, written for the New Zealand Herald prior to the election, were sympathetic and revealing, teasing out aspects of the politicians’ personalities that political reporters had left unexplored. I thought it was some of the most interesting journalism of the campaign.

Even so, there was almost as much information about Holmes in those articles as there was about the people he was supposedly covering. Only Holmes could write an article about Jeanette Fitzsimons in which he managed to refer to the difficulty of piloting his giant Bentley – of which he seems inordinately proud – up the Greens co-leader’s tortuous driveway.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

McVicar's U-turn

SENSIBLE Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar irrevocably blew his credibility when he said Bruce Emery, the Auckland man who fatally stabbed teenage tagger Pihema Cameron, should have been set free.

McVicar has built his reputation around calls for tougher sentencing, especially for violent crimes. You have to wonder what made him execute such a spectacular U-turn in this case.

The manslaughter verdict for Emery seemed fair and appropriate, and he should face the consequences. Tagging may be an infuriating scourge, but no one deserves to die because of it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good riddance to the Fitz

I rejoiced at the news, reported in today’s Dominion Post, that Palmerston North’s Fitz Tavern is to close. The Fitz, in its heyday a famous student pub, represents everything that is wrong with our drinking culture.

In today’s story, several Fitz regulars fondly recalled the pub’s supposed glory days. One of them, who took pride in the title “Legend of the Fitz”, told how, in 1981, he downed a five-ounce beer, a seven-ounce, a 12-ounce, a half-racecourse jug – whatever that is – and an imperial jug in 28.2 seconds.

“There was not even one drop [spilled], it was boom, boom, boom,” this giant of the binge-drinking culture bragged. No mention was made of the several million brain cells sacrificed in such rituals, evidence of which was arguably all too clear to the reader.

“For $20 you could get pissed and a burger on the way home,” this fellow continued, demonstrating that the boorish pisshead culture of the 1970s is still alive and well in a few dark corners of the provinces. What a guy.

As delighted as I am that the Fitz has closed its doors, I despair when I read this sort of stuff. It makes me wonder briefly whether we’ve learned a thing. (In fact we have, of course; it’s just that there are places where the message hasn’t penetrated.)

The Dom Post reported that plaques on the pub walls commemorated a student who demolished seven pies in a minute and “a fella who drank a crate in 58 minutes”. A former barman told of the days when the Fitz sold more than 1000 quarts an hour and 500 students would pack the bar after midday.

Almost as an afterthought, the story also mentioned the death of student William Cranswick, who died after being knocked unconscious in a game of bullrush at the Fitz following a drinking session in which he and three mates were buying bourbon and cokes in trays of 16. They had bought six such trays. William’s parents told the paper, not surprisingly, that they were pleased the pub was closing.

I found the admiring tone of the story disconcerting. To acknowledge that a minority of New Zealanders like to drink themselves insensible is one thing; to celebrate it as an example of hard-case Kiwi male culture is another.

Ironically, the story appeared only days after the Dom Post carried a front-page report and accompanying feature story on the medical and social costs of excessive drinking. Among other things, that report quoted drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking as saying 10 percent of New Zealand drinkers get through nearly half of all alcohol consumed. These are precisely the sort of problem drinkers who patronise irresponsibly managed pubs like the Fitz.

Pubs that encourage excessive consumption, as the Fitz did, play into the hands of the New Puritans who think all drinking is wicked. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the solutions these activists tirelessly lobby for wouldn’t just target the pathetic minority who habitually drink to excess; they would very likely penalise all those who drink in moderation.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Kiwi Diaspora

There was a thoughtful piece by Simon Upton in today’s Dominion Post (actually, all Upton’s pieces are thoughtful) on the Kiwi Diaspora. He estimated that as many as one million New Zealanders now live abroad, a point the National Party hammered during the election campaign as proof of New Zealand’s economic decline. I read somewhere recently that only Ireland has a greater proportion of its population living elsewhere.

“Read the Christmas letters of almost any middle-class New Zealand family,” Upton wrote, “and the exploits of their emigrant children will be proudly recounted.” His column would have resonated with many New Zealand parents who are now resigned to their offspring living overseas, and whose pride in their children’s achievements is offset by anxiety about the possibility of them never coming back.

In my own case, I have a son in Australia and another in California. I would love them both to be in New Zealand but I can’t see any chance of it happening in the foreseeable future. (Fortunately I have two daughters still in Wellington to look after their father as he descends gently into senility, a process that both would argue is already well advanced).

I look around my whanau and see similar situations elsewhere. Two of my older brother’s three daughters are in Melbourne. One of my nephews is on an extended trip abroad and when he met up with my son in California, both agreed there was little to attract them back to Enzed.

On my wife’s side of the family, two more nephews are overseas – one in Switzerland, where he has family connections, and the other in England, where he and his wife revel in the travel opportunities presented by close proximity to Europe.

We used to reassure ourselves that this was just a phase all young New Zealanders went through – their OE – but that once they were ready to settle down and raise a family, they would be lured home. Now we’re not so sure. As Upton put it: “To date we have comforted ourselves with the (perfectly valid) observation that young people need to get out and experience the world; and that they will return eventually, bringing with them experience and global fluency that are vital if we are to have any hope of keeping up with the world’s leaders. The only trouble is that they don’t tend to return in sufficient numbers and we don’t keep abreast with leading-edge economies.”

The ramifications don’t bear thinking about. As Upton says, “Each of these bright young emigrants represents lost intellectual horsepower to the government, business and community.” The bleak implication is that the ones left behind will be those who are too old, too lazy, too unskilled or too lacking in ambition to make it in the competitive economies overseas.

That’s an unduly pessimistic assumption, of course, because many skilled and talented young New Zealanders (I dislike that term “Kiwis”) do choose to stay put or return home. Yet the fact remains that we’re bleeding. Recent figures show that more than 47,000 people left New Zealand for Australia on a permanent or long-term basis in the year ended September – hardly surprising when pay rates across the Tasman are estimated as being between 25 and 40 percent higher. Many of those emigrants were skilled workers, exacerbating a skills shortage that is steadily gnawing away at the productive base of the New Zealand economy.

Unless I misread him, Upton seemed resigned to the inevitability of this process continuing, citing New Zealand’s isolation and small population base. “A big population confers a depth and variety of skills, anonymity and constant competitive learning that will always be denied a very isolated community. The expats I run across … have found their niche in societies that offer more in human terms than ours ever can.” But I don’t think we can afford to be so fatalistic, which is why the new government must follow through on its election rhetoric and work at building an economy that will offer more to our best and brightest.

On this note, it was interesting to read former BNZ chairman Kerry McDonald’s scathing comments – also in today’s Dom Post – about Labour’s management of the economy during the past nine years. McDonald described it as an “absolute disaster”.

He told James Weir, the Dom Post’s business editor, that the past decade of growth was a chance to address productivity and international competitiveness, encourage a strong export sector and restructure the tax system. “Instead we went in the other direction and grew the state sector, increased taxes on businesses and introduced myriad new regulations. We absolutely knocked the stuffing out of the private sector.”

This can’t simply be dismissed as ideological grumbling. McDonald is a former head of the Institute of Economic Research and a respected economist. His comments pinpoint the tragic wasted opportunities of the Labour years – and also reveal how clever Labour propagandists were in convincing people that the economy was roaring along like a freight train when in fact the current account deficit was climbing to an unsustainable level and the export sector, on which New Zealand ultimately depends, was falling woefully short of its potential.

Tony the Terminator strikes again

Earlier this week, Radio New Zealand’s Midday Report broadcast an item about a Napier judge who packed a man off to the cells for making a hand signal to a gang member in the dock.

Remarking that he wasn’t going to have his courtroom turned into a circus by clowns, the judge remanded the man for 24 hours for contempt.

You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to work out, even before his name was mentioned, that this must be Judge Tony “The Terminator” Adeane, already famous for jailing taggers.

Judge Adeane strikes me as a throwback to the authoritarian judges of the past, but perhaps a bit of shock treatment is what’s needed to discourage the loutish behaviour now commonplace in the courts.

There have been other encouraging signs of a collective stiffening of the judicial spine. Only last week, Southland judge Dominic Flatley sent a teenage defendant home to get changed when she appeared on a drink-driving charge wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Miss Wasted”.

One of the defining features of the sixties generation was its rejection of authority. I was as enthusiastic about this as anyone, but there are some institutions that can’t function properly without respect for authority. The armed forces are one and the courts are another.

As a cadet reporter I covered the Magistrate’s Court in Wellington, where there was zero tolerance of bad behaviour. Ben Scully was a famously tough magistrate alongside whom Captain Bligh would have looked a sickly liberal. A choleric glare from Scully was enough to silence the most unruly public gallery, since he gave the impression that nothing made him happier than to send a busload of miscreants off to Mount Crawford before morning tea.

He would have loved nothing more than for some rebarbative felon to appear in the dock wearing a hoodie, chewing gum and slouching. It would have made his day.

Even relatively gentle beaks of the time, like J A Wicks and Sir Desmond Sullivan, would come down hard on anyone who dared trifle with the court’s dignity. Courtroom antics that are now almost routine – such as offensive and menacing gestures, shouts and abuse, clapping, cheering and macho posturing – were unheard of.

The courts dispense justice on behalf of the people and are entitled to insist on decorum. It’s not just a matter of a pompous, bewigged poo-bah on the bench demanding that lesser beings bow and scrape before him; it’s a question of proper respect for the institutions of justice. Not for the first time, I find myself applauding Judge Adeane for his uncompromising, “clap ’em in irons” approach.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The effrontery of Caroline Evers-Swindell

(Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 10).

That cheeky Caroline Evers-Swindell! Just who does she think she is?

Somewhere near the 40-kilometre mark on the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge two weekends ago, the Olympic gold medal-winning rower had the nerve to pass me.

I wasn’t about to tolerate this affront. On the next downhill stretch, I overtook her at speed.

Alas, my moment of glory was brief. As soon as we hit the next climb, she passed me again.

That was the last I saw of her. She finished 2363rd in a field of 4764 riders, completing the 160km course in 5 hour and 44 minutes. I took exactly an hour longer and came 3747th.

Fleetingly getting the jump on an Olympic gold medallist – albeit going downhill, and probably with a slight tail wind – was about as good as it got for me. I had entered the event with the aim of bettering what I considered to be a poor performance last time, in 2003, when I got around the lake in 6 hr 30 min.

It wasn’t to be, but at least I achieved my other objectives. These were, in order of priority: (1) to complete the event; (2) to finish without mishap (a previous round-Taupo ride, in 1996, ended with me being carted to hospital with a broken collarbone following an accident caused by my own recklessness); and (3) to ride the entire Hatepe Hill.

Riders hit the Hatepe Hill 30 kilometres from the finish. In a fast-moving car you barely notice it, but on a bike, after several hours’ riding, it can be a killer climb. Part of it is psychological: it’s a long, straight hill that gets steeper as you approach the top. You can see it stretching out in front of you, without so much as a single bend to relieve the oppressiveness.

In 2003, to my lasting shame, I walked the last two or three hundred metres of the Hatepe Hill. This time, at least, I got to the top without dismounting.

So that was my Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge for 2008. It was the seventh or eighth time I’d taken part (I’ve lost count), and not my most distinguished effort.

While it would be nice to excuse my indifferent performance on the basis of my age, it won’t wash. Several of my contemporaries completed the event in just over five hours and Gary Ulmer, father of Sarah, did it in a blistering 4 hrs 28 min – at the age of 70.

But what an event. Dutch immigrant and Taupo resident Walter de Bont started the annual round-the-lake ride in 1977, persuading 25 other cycling enthusiasts to join him. This year 10,500 cyclists took part, taking over the town for the weekend and pumping millions into the local economy.

It attracts riders from several countries, along with an increasing number of “name” competitors, including several notables from sports other than cycling.

Evers-Swindell wasn’t the only famous rower taking part. Rob and Sonia Waddell scorched around the course in 4 hrs 22 min, Sonia finishing first in her age group. Among other finishers I noted the names of former All Black skipper Buck Shelford, Olympic yachtsman Hamish Pepper, former Sports Minister Trevor Mallard and television host Mary Lambie (who recorded an impressive time of 6 hr 10 min despite stopping for a broken chain).

Not all the 10,500 cyclists ride the full 160 km course. Over the years multiple spin-off events have evolved, including a relay (teams of two riding 80 km each, or four riding 40 km each) and, at the other end of the endurance scale, maxi-enduro (640 km) and enduro (320 km) rides. I suspect it’s a condition of entry for these latter two events that an EEG prior to the race must show no trace whatsoever of brain activity.

The organisation required for an event of such logistical complexity, calling for thousands of bikes and riders to be ferried to the relay changeover points and back to Taupo afterwards, beggars belief. But it all seems to happen flawlessly.

As the event has grown, so it has inevitably become slicker and more commercial. The corporate sponsors seemed more intrusive this year than on previous occasions, but I guess that’s the price you pay for a huge event that everyone wants to be involved in.

Fortunately, out on the course, where it counts, not much has changed. There’s still the same camaraderie among the riders, at least among the plodders where I compete.

The key to a long event like this is to spend as much time as possible riding in a bunch, or peloton. Riding in company helps keeps riders’ spirits up, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s calculated that cyclists save up to 30 percent of their energy riding in a group because the mass is more efficient than the individual. The riders at the front of the bunch overcome the wind resistance – you have to experience this to understand how important it is – and everyone takes a turn leading the bunch, at least in theory.

The disadvantage of riding in a tightly packed bunch, of course, is that if one rider has a momentary lapse of concentration, perhaps while reaching for a drink bottle or something to eat, several may be taken out in the resulting pile-up.

The dynamics of bunch riding are fascinating. Bunches form then break up as riders drop off the pace or crank up the speed, then re-form with an entirely different composition. The trick is to latch onto a bunch that’s going at just the right speed and hope it lasts, but it never does – at least not in the lower orders. I’m resigned to spending long periods on my own, which at least has the advantage that I can admire the scenery.

As you will have gathered, I’m pretty impressed with this event. My only serious concern is that every time I take part, it seems an army of malevolent elves has added extra hills to the long stretch on the western side of the lake, between Taupo and Kuratau Junction. This is a matter I intend to take up with the organisers.

The child as a fashion accessory

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, December 9.)

WHO would want to be a small child in the 21st century? Virtually from the moment of birth you’d be given the message that other people’s needs take priority over yours.

Within hours of being born, you’re bundled out of hospital because the health system considers there are more important things to do with the health dollar than allow new mothers time to bond with their babies. Mother struggling with breast-feeding? No support at home? Tough. Out you go.

Before you’re a few months old you’re likely to find yourself being left at a crèche each morning so that Mum can go to work, because a relentlessly acquisitive, consumerist society has convinced a generation of parents that owning a flash house, driving a late-model car and pursuing a career are more important than raising their children.

At weekends, you’re liable to find yourself being dressed in cute designer-label clothes and dragged off to a trendy café where you’re expected to behave yourself patiently while your parents slurp latté and read the Sunday paper.

And on the rare occasions when you’re taken for a walk in a pushchair – or baby-buggy, to use the cutesy-wutesy name now preferred – you’re propelled toward a procession of bewildering, and possibly frightening, strangers.

The recent report of a Dundee University study that showed forward-facing pushchairs might impair children’s development shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

When a small child is facing its parent there is constant interaction between the two. The Dundee study found, predictably, that this stimulated brain development. Conversely, the study concluded that babies facing away from the pusher could be “emotionally impoverished” and even suffer stress. The language is a bit melodramatic but the message is simple enough.

There are obvious practical reasons, too, why the rear-facing pushchair is preferable. It means that whoever’s pushing can see instantly if anything is wrong, such as the child choking or being dazzled by the sun, or a wasp landing on its face.

But the vagaries of fashion dictate that the forward-facing buggy is the way to go. Forward-facing pushchairs are now so prevalent that it’s hard to find an old-fashioned one in which the child faces the pusher.

I suspect the appeal of the forward-facing pushchair has more to do with the gratification of parents than with the comfort and wellbeing of the child.

Couples are delaying having children because their careers take priority. When they finally get around to it, they often behave as if this most basic biological feat is something no one has ever accomplished before.

The child then becomes an advertisement for the parents, a fashion accessory to be shown off for maximum advantage. This is accomplished far more effectively when the unfortunate infant is facing forward.

* * *

TWO Wairarapa women recently organised a litter cleanup in which an estimated 10 tonnes of rubbish was picked up from rural roads.

The forensic evidence pointing to the culprits responsible for this roadside detritus couldn’t be clearer. Discarded McDonald’s and KFC packaging predominates, along with beer cans, stubbies and alco-pop bottles.

The problem, of course, is that the slobs who get most of their nutritional intake from fast food, washed down with vile beverages like Lion Red, Red Bull or Woodstock bourbon-and-coke, are the very people most likely to thoughtlessly discard packaging, bottles and cans out the car window.

There exists an entire sub-class that is oblivious to the economic cost and aesthetic offence of the rubbish they leave behind.

What’s the answer? The Greenies want punitive taxes on the companies that produce the rubbish, but a better solution might be an old-fashioned one. The community can take matters into its own hands not by cleaning up the Neanderthals’ litter – that simply gives them licence to continue – but by showing its collective disapproval.

The litterers must be made to feel guilty every time they drop a beer can or Big Mac wrapper. Stop and glare at them. Encourage your children to point at them and ask loudly why they’re making a mess. Try suggesting politely to the litterers that they take their rubbish home. Being polite to such numbskulls may go against the grain, but getting angry and abusive just gives them an excuse to be abusive back.

Guilt and shame have become unfashionable emotions, but even the dimmest-witted, greasy-fingered KFC eater has a faint, residual trace of social conscience that can be activated. Tolerance of bad behaviour is the curse of the liberal sixties generation, and never more misplaced than when it comes to littering.

* * *

I HAVE been lobbying quietly but persistently for the broadcasting of Snoopy’s Christmas to be made a criminal offence and for a government bounty to be paid on all copies.

Once that’s achieved, the next step will be to persuade the United Nations to declare the playing of Snoopy’s Christmas a form of torture, marginally more subtle than waterboarding but no less cruel and unnatural. Readers will be kept informed of the progress of this campaign.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The 60s generation passes the baton (reluctantly)

First published by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research (

In the first party leaders’ debate on TV One during the election campaign, Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper tackled National leader John Key on the subject of the 1981 Springbok tour. He wanted to know what Key’s position had been.

You could almost hear the groans from thousands of living rooms, including my own. The tour was 27 years ago, for heaven’s sake; couldn’t we leave it alone? What possible relevance could it have in 2008?

Viewers aged under 40 would have been puzzled rather than exasperated. After all, who cared whether a young John Key (he would have been only 20) took part in protests against an ancient rugby tour?

I still think Soper’s question was silly, but in one sense it pinpointed a factor in the elections that seems largely to have escaped comment.

The 1981 Springbok tour was the high-water mark of the protest era in New Zealand. For those who opposed the tour, it was as much the defining event of their generation as Gallipoli and the Great Depression had been for their grandparents and parents. If you wanted to be cruel, you could say that for many of the protesters it was the only time in their life that they did something exciting and vaguely dangerous.

But more than that, 1981 was the ultimate expression of much that the rebellious, university-educated, baby-boomer generation stood for. It was a significant factor in the momentous political changing of the guard that occurred three years later. With the defeat of Robert Muldoon in 1984, the baby-boomer liberals moved from the streets, where they had so recently been bloodied by police batons, into the halls of power.

Soper, like me, is a member of that baby-boomer protest generation. I wouldn’t have a clue what his position was on the tour, and in any case it’s not relevant. But clearly the tour still resonated with him as a sort of political litmus test.

Moreover, he obviously didn’t think he was alone in wanting to know what Key’s attitude had been, and he may well have been right. To the thousands of liberal baby-boomers who still thrill to the memory of matching through the streets chanting “amandla awethu” (“power to the people”), what Key thought about rugby and apartheid may well have been a matter of some significance.

Key’s answer to Soper’s question – that he couldn’t really recall what he thought about the tour, because he was preoccupied pursuing the young woman who is now his wife – would have brought cries of disbelief and denunciation from veterans of the protest movement. How could anyone presuming to run for the highest office in the land not have had a firm view about the 1981 tour? And even worse, how could Key have considered it so unimportant that he couldn’t even remember what his view was? In the theology of the earnest, middle-class liberals who led the opposition to apartheid, this was tantamount to heresy.

But the brutal truth is that Key represents a generation for whom the tour didn’t matter, and matters even less in 2008. Now he’s prime minister, and the post-war liberals who have called many of the shots politically for the past 24 years are going to have to get used to it.

The left-leaning baby-boomers who helped keep Labour in power for nine years, and who watched with mounting despair in their artfully restored inner-suburban villas as the results came in on election night, are having to come to terms with the unpleasant fact that “their” people – of whom Helen Clark is the embodiment – are no longer in control. The baton has been passed to a new generation with quite different values and attitudes.

In that respect, Soper’s question identified a symbolic turning point, even if that wasn’t its purpose. The baby-boomers have had their shot at power and now it’s someone else’s turn.

I’m not a political scientist and I don’t “do” demographics, but the population statistics must surely show that the balance of electoral power has shifted, as it had to do, from my generation to generations X and Y – those born from the mid-60s on.

Admittedly these terms need to be treated with caution. “Baby-boomer” is the sociological term of convenience for people of my generation but in many ways it is unsatisfactory. I prefer to call it the sixties generation, a broader and looser description yet in many ways more accurate. My reasoning is that the 1960s – the era of the protest movement and student radicalism, hippiedom, drugs, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, sexual liberation (the pill) and Carnaby Street fashion – was the decade that encapsulated the profound political, cultural and ideological shifts of the time.

Technically the baby-boomer generation consists of those born between 1946 and 1964, but there were people born outside that era who exemplified baby-boomer values and people born within that era who do not. I know many people now aged in their late 60s and early 70s – too old, strictly speaking, to be baby-boomers – whose political views were shaped not in the dreary, prosperous and conformist 1950s but in the turbulent and exhilarating 1960s.

David Lange, for example, was born in 1942 but was unarguably a baby-boomer in terms of his politics. He was an idealist and a modern social democrat. Unlike the political leaders of the preceding generation, such as Holyoake, Kirk and Muldoon, he had the benefit of a free university education that was crucial in shaping his liberal attitudes.

Key was born in 1961, technically still well within baby-boomer parameters, and like Lange he went to university. But his formative experiences occurred during the 1980s, an era when many of the 1960s-era values so cherished by the liberal baby-boomers were being upended by Rogernomics.

That’s another thing the discombobulated baby-boomers will have to get used to. If it’s an article of faith among the liberal left that the 1981 protest movement was an heroic rejection of racism and authoritarianism, then it’s equally an article of faith that the economic reforms that came later in the 1980s were a betrayal of the egalitarian, social-democratic values that defined “their” New Zealand. But to all intents and purposes, people of Key’s generation have experienced only the post-Rogernomics New Zealand.

To them, the programme of deregulation, liberalisation and asset sales that horrified the liberal left (and rescued a moribund economy in the nick of time) would seem unremarkable. It’s all they have known. Grim reminders of the supposed treachery of the Douglas-Prebble-Bassett cabal – such a potent element of liberal-left folklore – are largely lost on Generation X-ers.

The extent of this generational shift is illustrated by the fact that Helen Clark in her 20s was immersed in politics (she was active in Labour’s famous Princes St branch) and taking part in protests against the Vietnam War while Key, at an equivalent age, was well on his way to making his first millions with Elders Merchant Finance. Only 11 years separate them in age but in reality the gap is infinitely wider.

So now the ageing liberal left faces the dismaying prospect of a future in which “their” leaders, the spokespeople for the sixties generation, are doomed to become yesterday’s men and women, since it seems unlikely that the reliable but unexciting Phil Goff (another baby-boomer) will be anything more than an interim Labour leader, elected to tide things over while the talented and ambitious young thrusters, such as David Cunliffe and Darren Hughes, jockey to become the next Clark.

All this has caused much wringing of hands since the election, but it’s no bad thing. The veterans of the Vietnam and apartheid protests may have convinced themselves they have a monopoly on idealism and political morality, but an honest stocktake of the baby-boomer era would show that in many ways we’ve stuffed things up spectacularly.

The sixties generation were a cosseted lot, arguably the most affluent and indulged generation in history. They responded to their good fortune by rejecting the values of their parents and rebelling against authority and conformity.

All this was very liberating, but it came at an enormous cost. A lot of babies were thrown out with the bathwater. My generation may have achieved unprecedented personal freedom, but it also created a legacy of social and family breakdown, crime, drug abuse and unhappiness on a tragic scale. John Key’s mob can’t do much worse.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fish and chips with a Chinese accent

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 26.)

A profound socio-culinary change has passed almost unremarked in New Zealand. I was reminded of it by a recent news item announcing the result of a contest to find New Zealand’s top fish and chip shop.

The honour went to a takeaway outlet named So Fine Seafoods, in the Hutt Valley suburb of Avalon. But what caught my eye were the names of the proprietors: Anthony Cho and Jian Huan Zhou.

Fish and chips have been an essential part of New Zealand’s culinary traditions for as long as anyone can remember. They were among the items of cultural baggage that working-class British migrants brought with them in the 19th century. In fact fish and chips are one of the few notable contributions the British have made to international cuisine, along with the glorious meat pie.

But an interesting happened to fish and chips in New Zealand. They were hijacked by people of Mediterranean origin.

In the New Zealand of my childhood, most fish and chip shops were owned by Greeks, Dalmatians or Italians, all of whom showed a natural aptitude for the dish.

I suppose these migrant groups took to cooking fish and chips because they were accustomed to a fish diet in their home countries. My guess is that they started out by catching and selling fish – this was certainly true of the Italian community in Wellington, who dominated the fishing trade – and progressed naturally to cooking it in batter and serving it with deep-fried chips, like the English.

So adept did these Mediterranean nationalities become at cooking “greasies”, as they were affectionately known, that I believe New Zealanders enjoyed the best fish and chips in the world – better by far, certainly, than any I have eaten in the UK or anywhere else.

In my own home town in Hawke’s Bay, we had two fish and chip shops. One was owned by Jack Radonich and the other by Mark Ujdur. They were directly opposite each other in the main street.

Back then we called such people Yugoslavians, which was a bit of a misnomer. They were more correctly called Dalmatians, from a coastal region of what is now Croatia. (At least “Yugoslavians” was more accurate than “Austrians”, which is what New Zealanders called them until the First World War, since they came from what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire.)

Jack Radonich and Mark Ujdur were probably from families that migrated to Northland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to dig for kauri gum. When the gum ran out, some of these people turned to winemaking (hence the many prominent wine companies of Dalmatian origin, such as Montana, Babich, Nobilo and Delegats). Others went into the fishing business (the names Vela and Simunovich may ring a bell) and some with more modest aspirations settled for fish and chip shops.

We favoured Jack Radonich over Mark Ujdur (which we pronounced You-jar). Being Catholics, and thus forbidden to eat meat on Fridays in those days, we were regular Friday night customers. This was one Catholic tradition which, despite widespread antagonism toward Catholics, had permeated the entire community. Friday night was fish-and-chip night for Protestants and Catholics alike.

Jack Radonich was a shy, gentle man with smiling eyes. His English wasn’t good – a raucous Kiwi offsider named Ted dealt with the customers – but his fish and chips were more consistent than his rival’s. And if you were in the know, you could walk through the dining room and place your order in the kitchen out the back where Jack did the cooking, while lesser beings waited patiently at the counter in the front of the shop.

It’s a tribute to the staying power of fish and chips that decades after the Pope waived the rule about not eating meat on Fridays, they are still a Friday-night tradition for many New Zealand families. What’s even more impressive is that they have survived in the face of fierce competition from fast foods that in my childhood weren’t even heard of, such as KFC, pizza, kebabs, Asian takeaways and the ubiquitous McDonald’s.

But to get back to my starting point, the other significant development in the fast-food business, besides its rampant proliferation, is that the Chinese have finally learned how to cook fish and chips.

It took some time. In the 1970s and ’80s I would avoid Chinese fish and chip shops. Chinese cuisine may be among the most delectable and varied in the world – I often think if I had to choose one ethnic cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Cantonese – but their skills didn’t seem to lend themselves to a culinary style as foreign as fish and chips. Their fish too often seemed excessively fatty or stale, their chips soggy. The Greeks, Dalmatians and Italians remained the masters.

My son and I once deduced, from intensive research, that your chances of getting good fish and chips were best if they came from a shop that was owned by one of the above ethnic groups and had blue waves painted on the shop window. Don’t laugh – the blue-waves rule proved a pretty reliable guide.

But the Chinese are nothing if not adaptable. Their ability to observe and learn has made their country an economic powerhouse. And so it was probably inevitable that they would eventually get the hang of traditional Kiwi greasies.

I haven’t tried the fish and chips from the award-winning So Fine Seafoods. In fact I don’t eat a lot of fish and chips these days, much as I love them. But in Wellington the other night I stopped, as I have done several times before, at a Chinese-owned fish and chip shop in Molesworth St, just up from Parliament.

It’s impeccably clean and it’s run with an efficiency that Jack Radonich would have gazed at with astonishment. But most important of all, it makes fantastic fish and chips – fresh, crisp and irresistible.

If I were a Greek, Dalmatian or Italian fish and chip shop proprietor, I’d be seriously worried. At the very least, I’d be painting blue waves on the front window.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Calm down, lefties, and have another chardonnay

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, November 25)

THE MOST striking thing about the election was not the outcome, which was telegraphed well in advance. Neither was it the unexpected speed and decisiveness with which John Key acted in the following days.

No, the most notable aspect of the election result was the anguished wailing and hand-wringing of the chardonnay socialists, who revealed themselves as sour losers and fair-weather democrats, deeply resentful of a result that didn’t go their way.

Let’s get things in perspective. What happened on November 8 was hardly a tectonic political shift. It’s difficult to recall an election in which the two major parties were more closely aligned.

The electoral cycle followed its normal and predictable course. Far from endorsing a violent ideological lurch, New Zealanders voted for some new faces and a change of tone.

Accordingly, most people reacted to Labour’s defeat with equanimity. I mooched around Wellington the morning after the election and the mood was neither subdued nor excited. People were just getting on with life, as you do.

But among affluent baby-boomer lefties in suburbs like Thorndon and Wadestown, where the liberal puritan class guiltily enjoys the trappings of capitalism while simultaneously condemning them, the mood was one of black despair. Helen Clark was gone; the sky had fallen.

There was irrational fear at the prospect of Rodney Hide being in government and of Sir Roger Douglas, fangs dripping blood, getting back into Parliament. The mass bayoneting of beneficiaries was due to begin at dawn – or so you’d have thought.

The tone was set by a splenetic Sunday Star-Times column in which Chris Trotter bitterly condemned his fellow New Zealanders for daring to elect a party he didn’t approve of.

From Melbourne, a peevish hack named Jill Singer, combining arrogance and ignorance in equal measure, reproached us for behaving liked doped slugs. Of course, being an Australian journalist, she would know what’s best for New Zealanders.

In the face of this hysteria it was tempting to recall the dignified, statesmanlike response of Michael Cullen when Labour was elected in 1999: “We won, you lost, eat that.” But a more appropriate response would have been: calm down, folks. It’s called democracy. Take a mogadon pill and have a lie down; the world isn’t about to end.

And most important of all, show some respect for the right of your informed fellow citizens to elect the government of their choosing.

* * *

A CHARITABLE explanation for the over-reaction of the middle-class Left is that they were in mourning – grieving the passing of a political generation raised on protest marches against apartheid and the Vietnam War.

Miss Clark was almost certainly the last of our leaders to come from that liberal, university-educated, baby-boomer cohort. While there’s a theoretical chance that her fellow baby-boomer Phil Goff will become prime minister, no one’s holding their breath.

The baton has been passed to a new generation. While technically John Key is a baby-boomer (he was born in 1961), in terms of values and outlook he is more representative of Generation X. The greying veterans of the protest movement, who are convinced they have a monopoly on idealism, are inconsolable.

* * *

IT WILL be interesting to see whether the new government makes good on its pledge to curb extravagance in the public sector. It will have its work cut out, since a culture of contempt for taxpayers and ratepayers has become embedded in local as well as central government.

The poor mugs who fund the Gore District Council, for example, are paying for the council’s chief executive to study for a law degree at Otago University. He spends two afternoons a week in Dunedin, travelling back and forth in his council car.

Gore’s mayor defends this by saying it’s all about investing in the future. Well, call me cynical, but I wonder how long the CEO will stick around in Gore once he gets his degree.

Then there’s the Canterbury District Health Board, which – despite being $15 million in the red – paid $10,000 for its retiring chief executive to attend a conference in Paris earlier this year.

That’s right, retiring chief executive. He quit on November 15.

Given that he didn’t have much time to apply whatever knowledge he might have acquired in Paris, in between cocktail parties and visits to the Moulin Rouge, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the trip was a reward – as was the $7000 farewell party that the board threw in the CEO’s honour.

How easily councils and public boards seem to be persuaded that their employees deserve these special considerations over and above their very generous emoluments (the Canterbury health boss was on $450,000-plus a year). And how odd it is that the conferences they attend invariably take place in Paris, Rome or New York. I wonder whether the CEO would have been itching to go if the event had been held in Kyrgyzstan or Chad.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In praise of ageing hacks and snappers

Tuesday’s Dominion Post carried a great front-page pic taken by its veteran Auckland-based photographer John Selkirk. It showed Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder fending off a female anti-mining protester in a Santa suit who was trying to squash a custard pie in his face.

Their arms are entangled, Elder appears to be falling backwards with his eyes closed (presumably to avoid being blinded by goo), and fragments of bilious green pie are flying through the air above them. The shot has the same quality as that famous picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, capturing and preserving a moment that would have passed too quickly to be taken in by the human eye, and one in which the participants are oblivious to the presence of the camera.

It reminded me that we don’t seem to see as many good old-fashioned hard news photos (“hard” meaning a picture showing a genuine, spontaneous news event, rather than something stage-managed) as we used to. It also made me pause and admire, as I have done countless times before, the skill and instinct of the good news photographer.

John and I worked on the old Dominion together nearly 40 years ago, when he was a skinny kid from Masterton and I was a skinny kid from Waipukurau. One of the things that impresses me about photographers like him is that no matter how long they’ve been in the game, they never lose their hunger for a good picture. Neither do they lose their ability to “read” a situation and anticipate what’s likely to happen next, and where they need to position themselves for the best possible shot.

They are constantly alert for potential pictures in even the most unpromising circumstances. In this case it would have seemed a humdrum assignment: Solid Energy’s annual general meeting at Auckland’s Langham Hotel. Selkirk was probably sent there to get a routine shot for the business pages, but his antennae would have been twitching for something more rewarding, and he got it. (Incidentally I hope Elder laid an assault complaint against his assailant, as a lesson to self-righteous protesters who consider it their right to disrupt other people’s lawful business. The photo could be “Exhibit A” and the prosecution would rest its case in a trice.)

Phil Reid of the Dom Post is another outstanding veteran photographer, still regularly winning awards after decades of snapping. There are several others I could name, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Being able to compose and take a technically sound picture is only one of their skills, and arguably a less important one than it used to be, due to the technological advances in their equipment. Even more vital is that instinct for the picture, that uncanny anticipation and decisive grasping of the moment. It’s a skill that particularly comes into play covering sport, when the best photographers – even those not especially interested in sport – show a remarkable knack for being in the right spot.

The right personality is important too, because a photographer often has to go into tense and uncomfortable situations in which a camera may be unwelcome or intrusive, or coax reluctant subjects into doing things that they might not particularly want to do. There have been times when, as a young reporter, I was pathetically grateful to my accompanying photographer for helping to jolly along a taciturn or unco-operative interviewee. I would have come back empty-handed from an interview I once attempted with a stubbornly reticent centenarian had Jack Short, then the chief photographer of the Evening Post, not come to my rescue and got the old bloke talking.

Thank goodness people like Reid and Selkirk are still at it. The same can’t be said, unfortunately, of the legions of reporters who have quit the newspaper business for easier and/or better-paid jobs in other fields. That journalism has lost a vast body of experience in the past 20-odd years is obvious the moment you walk into a newsroom. The collective memory deficit grows larger with every year.

We should value not only the veteran photographers but also the reporters who have stubbornly hung in while their contemporaries have migrated to PR or opted for a quieter life on the sub-editors’ desk. It’s great, for example, to see the Dom Post’s Hank Schouten still energetically ferreting out good stories. I’m surprised the Defence people haven’t put a contract out on him, given his habit of breaking embarrassing stories about military equipment failures and costly tendering blunders.

Hank has spent his working life making a nuisance of himself, which is one of the most honourable things that can be said of a reporter. Fortunately, being Dutch, he has the hide of a rhinoceros and seems happily immune to criticism from those who object to his robust style. He drove Lower Hutt’s then mayor John Terris to distraction in the 1990s, when he covered Hutt affairs for the old Evening Post. Terris, a former Labour MP, was a shrewd and controlling politician who had his council and city pretty well stitched up except for one rogue factor – Hank, who insisted on reporting events and opinions that the mayor would have preferred remained unreported. It was a reminder of the importance of journalists in ensuring public accountability when more formal mechanisms fail, since without Hank’s efforts many issues of local significance would have been quietly swept under the carpet.

And since I’m writing about unsung journalism heroes, I want also to refer to Simon Collins of the New Zealand Herald. Simon’s a little younger than the other personalities mentioned here, and I hope he isn’t offended by the implication that he’s a grizzled veteran. I first encountered him when he came to the Evening Post in the late 1970s as a graduate of Brian Priestley’s Canterbury University journalism course. I remember Priestley, with whom I shared a car to and from Avalon TV studios on Friday afternoons for the recording of a long-forgotten TV show called The Media (once spoofed on A Week Of It as The Tedia), speaking very highly of his quietly industrious pupil. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, Simon being almost painfully unassuming, but Priestley was right. Simon is an exceptionally fair and capable reporter who seems as committed now as he was then, and who has never succumbed to the fashionable cynicism that many older journalists affect.

What particularly impresses me about him is that he’s able to set aside his personal beliefs. His own politics – as anyone familiar with City Voice, the lively free weekly paper he once edited and published in Wellington, would attest – are of a distinctly pinkish hue, but you’d never guess this from reading his stories.

I was amused a few months ago to see a story in which he interviewed the American Catholic theologian Father Robert Sirico, who advised George W Bush on welfare reform. I imagine that Sirico’s views – which include the belief that welfare leads to “moral decay” – would have gone down like a cup of cold sick with Simon, who I seem to recall once wrote an article in City Voice arguing that the state had an obligation to support people who chose not to work. But his piece about Sirico was dead straight, without a hint of disapproval. I’ve seen other pieces by Simon in which he dispassionately reported on the huge social costs of welfare dependence – stories that I imagine would have made him wince.

I’m sure there are people on the left who criticise Simon’s resolutely detached style, but I applaud it. He demonstrates that objectivity, a concept much derided by politicised journalism educators, is achievable even by people with very emphatic views of their own. I would be hard-pressed to think of a better role model.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Political agreement shouldn't be a condition of friendship

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 12)

On the evening of election day my wife and I were at a wedding.

At one point during the celebrations the groom, an old friend who was marrying for the second time, came and sat at our table.

Another old friend, who has never disguised his conservative political leanings, made a provocative comment about the elections.

The groom, who leans the other way politically, responded. There was a brief but sharp exchange which resulted in the groom angrily getting up and leaving the table.

Probably just as well that he did. The last thing anyone wants at a wedding is a political shouting match, least of all one involving the groom.

I sighed with despair. These men are good mates, both of mine and of each other. I felt like banging their stubborn heads together.

We live in a democracy – one of the world’s freest and most enlightened democracies, at that. And democracy depends on people respecting the right of others to hold different views.

Why can’t people, old friends especially, simply accept that others think differently? Why must they try to assert their own political opinions over those who take a contrary position?

I’ve often pondered this, partly because my friends occupy every conceivable point on the political spectrum. If I chose them on the basis of political compatibility I would have a very dreary and narrow circle of acquaintances.

Many of my oldest and dearest friends have political views that are sharply opposed to mine. Over the years I’ve migrated politically from what might have been considered a vaguely leftish position to one that some people would characterise as right-wing, but I still like and respect my old friends for exactly the same reasons that attracted me to them in the first place. We don’t disagree on goals so much as how to achieve them.

In any case, although I admit using labels such as “left” and “right” for journalistic convenience, I regard them as hopelessly inadequate to convey the complexities of politics. Politics is more about shades of grey than black and white, and I still find myself on common ground with left-wing friends on many issues (Iraq, to give one obvious example).

In the company of most of these friends, politics is treated as a no-go area. They know and I know that we’re at odds, and so we generally skirt around political issues. If we express our views at all, it’s either in a humorous way – making light of the fact that we’re poles apart – or in a neutral, matter-of-fact way that says, “Well, this is what I think, but I know you think differently and I’m not going to try and harangue you into submission”.

I have no interest in knowing how my friends vote. It has no bearing on my relationship with them. If they ask me how I vote (which happens rarely), I’ll tell them, because in a free society there should be no shame or embarrassment in standing up for what you believe in.

But I don’t generally initiate such discussions, and neither do I expect my friends to accept my views. I feel no missionary urge to convert them. All I insist on is that they respect my right to hold my opinions, just as I do theirs. For the most part, happily, they do.

But it seems there are always people for whom this is not good enough. They demand that you not only hear their opinions but yield to them, and that you listen respectfully as they make provocative statements that they know you disagree with. What’s the point, for heaven’s sake?

I have often listened to someone I know badmouthing another person in my circle of friends, purely on the basis of their supposed politics. Often they don’t even know the other person; it’s enough to know that they differ politically.

Sometimes they draw wildly incorrect conclusions about other people, purely on the basis that they are presumed to hold a particular view on a particular issue. That’s a very shallow basis on which to condemn someone, because there’s much more to people than their political beliefs.

Ironically, some of the worst offenders are people who smugly (and mistakenly) think of themselves as liberals. The problem here is that the word “liberal” is often used as a synonym for left-leaning or “progressive”, when in its classical sense it means open-minded and tolerant of different opinions.

Some of the most illiberal people I know fancifully think of themselves as liberal. Sadly this category includes many journalists, as could be seen from the way the so-called “liberal” American press ridiculed and sneered at Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

What they revealed was their intolerance of any views that challenged their own self-righteous elitism. It didn’t seem to occur to them – or at least it certainly didn’t deter them – that Palin spoke for a very substantial constituency of conservative Americans who, in a democracy, were as entitled as anyone to be represented.

Fortunately in our own country we are generally blessed with politicians who, when it counts, have the good grace to concede that they don’t necessarily have a monopoly on wisdom or truth. Hence the dignified acceptance by Helen Clark of her defeat on Saturday night, and a pleasantly rancour-free speech by Winston Peters.

When it came to the crunch, they accepted that the people had spoken – and the people, as Mike Moore reminded us when Labour was dumped in 1990, are always right. This is the central pillar of democracy, and politicians who can’t accept it should stand aside for those who do.

That includes people such as Labour list MP Charles Chauvel, who reportedly said at the weekend that New Zealanders had elected a “little, nasty, brutish government”. In effect he was attacking the right of the people to elect the government of their choosing, which strikes me as profoundly anti-democratic. Perhaps we should charitably put it down to election night emotion.

How they rated

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, November 11)

How the Curmudgeon rated the party leaders’ election campaign performances:

Helen Clark (4/10). It was sad to see Miss Clark, a leader respected for her intellect, energy and political skills, resorting to dissembling and fearmongering as she sensed power slipping away. She was less than honest about what she knew of the links between Owen Glenn and Winston Peters, and about Labour president Mike Williams’ desperate dirt-digging excursion to Melbourne. In the last weeks of the campaign she made increasingly frequent visits to the credibility ATM and by Saturday the balance in her account was zero. Towards the end, Miss Clark came across as sour and negative, which served only to accentuate her rival’s relentlessly sunny, upbeat disposition.

John Key (7/10). An unproven performer at the start, he gained in credibility and confidence as the campaign progressed. The first TV debate against Clark was a turning point, demonstrating that he was neither over-awed nor outgunned by his formidable opponent. It’s either a tribute to Mr Key’s salesmanship, or an indication of the country’s terminal fatigue with Labour’s nanny-statism, that he won office despite being backed by a front-bench team consisting largely of retreads, and without anyone having more than a vague idea of what he stands for.

Jeanette Fitzsimons and Russel Norman (7/10). Say what you like about the Greens’ watermelon ideology (green on the outside, red on the inside), but their call for greater transparency in government – such as making Parliament subject to the Official Information Act, releasing Cabinet minutes and ending the political game-playing over the naming of the election date – was one that should resonate with citizens of all political persuasions. Just a shame they blotted their copybook earlier by supporting the iniquitous Electoral Finance Act.

Rodney Hide (5/10). Achieved his goal, and then some, but partly at the expense of ACT’s reputation as a party with a serious message. The post-Dancing with the Stars Hide shows a worrying fondness for political stuntmanship and seemed intent on re-inventing himself as a celebrity politician.

Winston Peters (1/10). Got one point for turning up. Nothing this master prevaricator said could be taken at face value. To what extent Helen Clark was damaged by association with Mr Peters was arguably the great unanswerable question of the campaign. Politics has been cleansed by his dumping, but it’s a shame one or two likeable New Zealand First MPs got taken down with him.

Peter Dunne (5/10). Mr Clean ended up with a suspicious smudge on his Persil-white reputation when he was implicated – he insists unfairly – in allegations of donations for favours. Scored a bonus point for the best statement of the campaign: “I have never met the Vela brothers, nor have my party or I ever received any donation from them, other than this one.”

Jim Anderton (5/10). Never deviated from his well-rehearsed script as the cranky granddad of the old Left, putting impertinent young pups in their place and telling war stories about the days when he single-handedly saved New Zealand from the predators of the New Right.

Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples (7/10). Conducted themselves with dignity and restraint. Whatever your views on their politics, the Maori Party co-leaders deserve credit for giving Maori a sense that they at last have an effective voice in Parliament.

* * *

IT’S ONE of the ironies of politics that the best speeches are often made in defeat.

John McCain never commanded greater respect than when he conceded to Barack Obama. Helen Clark regained her poise on election night, delivering a concession speech that was free of retribution. Even Mr Peters was in a mellow mood, paying tribute to his rival in Tauranga and avoiding any mention of his tormentors in the media.

It’s as if all the hormones that drive politicians on the campaign trail – the ones that make them touchy and aggressive – miraculously get switched off on election night to be replaced by endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that supposedly flood the body after activities like sex. But let’s not take that metaphor any further.

* * *

FINALLY, a few questions to ponder post-election:

How come Sir Roger Douglas continues to be demonised by virtually everyone outside his own party, including John Key, when even Sir Roger’s hypocritical detractors in Labour left most of his 1980s reforms intact, knowing that without them New Zealand would be an economic basket case?

Was it a mark of the news media’s exasperation with stage-managed campaigns that they pounced with such glee when Miss Clark tripped in a shopping mall? Were voters really expected to believe this was some sort of profound political metaphor, as some over-excited commentators suggested, or was it simply a measure of the media’s hunger for another “Don Brash walks the plank” moment?

Given that Helen Clark, Winston Peters and Peter Dunne have all been burnt for flirting with wealthy businessmen (and Britain’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer recently suffered a similar fate after allegedly soliciting a donation from a dodgy Russian billionaire), is it too much to expect that our politicians might learn to keep their distance from such people in future?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Refreshing, perhaps; career-enhancing, no

It’s my guess – just a hunch, mind you – that some highly placed Labour appointees in the Wellington bureaucracy will be feeling distinctly uneasy at the prospect of a National-led government assuming power next week.

The heads of some government departments and agencies are personally aligned closely with Labour policies – possibly too closely for comfort. Having existed in a snug state of symbiosis with their political masters for the past nine years, they are likely to feel vulnerable under a government of a different ideological colour.

The branches of the bureaucracy concerned with imposing Labour-style political correctness, such as the Human Rights Commission, may have reason to feel especially insecure.

HRC chief commissioner Rosslyn Noonan is the archetypal Labour appointee. A pioneering feminist in the 1970s, she comes from a teachers’ union background and has worked with the International Labour Organisation and the UN Human Rights Commission. Before being appointed to her present post in 2001 she was trade union and human rights co-ordinator with Education International. It’s hard to imagine anyone with credentials more likely to appeal to Labour. But the ground has suddenly shifted violently under her feet.

To her great credit, Noonan opposed the Electoral Finance Act. Nonetheless it’s hard to imagine her relationship with the incoming government being one of mutual warmth and admiration. Though she was re-appointed in 2006 and her term runs till 2011, it would hardly be surprising if she exited before then.

Her fellow commissioners Joris de Bres and Judy McGregor may also be asking themselves whether they want to stick around. Race Relations Commissioner de Bres, like Noonan, has impeccable Labour credentials (he made his name in the Public Service Association) but his particular talents, which include a propensity for lecturing newspaper editors who dare to exercise the right of free speech, may have less appeal for the Nats.

Then there’s McGregor, herself a stroppy former newspaper editor who moved into academia before being anointed by Labour as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

McGregor appears to have little patience for fusty old public service conventions about maintaining the appearance of political neutrality. At a journalism seminar organised by the EPMU in Wellington last year she ingratiated herself with her left-leaning audience by praising trade unions as defenders of free speech and stressing the importance of union vigilance.

She went on to list the myriad failings of media proprietors (more rousing applause) and even provided a personal assessment of the country’s newspaper columnists, giving a tick of approval to people like Finlay MacDonald, Russell Brown and Tapu Misa, all of whom can be relied upon to express views that generally conform with her own, while rubbishing those from the conservative end of the spectrum, such as Richard Long, Michael Laws, Garth George and someone with a pretentious-sounding French name which for the moment escapes me.

Even setting aside the novelty of a Human Rights Commissioner publicly indicating that some columnists’ views were acceptable while others were not (this, in a country whose Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of expression), it was a speech that underlined how brazenly the public service had been politicised under Labour.

McGregor could hardly have laid her political cards on the table more clearly. And while it might have been refreshing to hear a senior public servant express herself with such candour, her views don't seem exactly career-enhancing now that there’s a National government in power.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The way we talk

It was gratifying last weekend to see TVNZ’s Sunday programme devote an item to changes in the way we’re speaking. Here I was thinking I was the only person who had noticed the ghastly transmutation of the New Zealand accent, and the fearsome speed with which it’s progressing. But no – it seems some linguists are onto it, as is Jane Clifton.

What aroused Sunday’s interest, apparently, was an Australian video taking the peece out of the Koiwoi accent. Shown on YouTube, the Aussie veedeo attracted 40,000 heats. Now Orstrylians should be the last poiple to mock anyone else for the way they speak, but let’s set that aside for the moment. The indisputable fact is that the New Zealand accent is changing dramatically, which raises a couple of questions, such as: does it matter, and should anyone care? To which I would answer yes and yes.

Let’s back up for a moment. What are these changes? Interviewed by reporter Janet McIntyre, linguist Liz Gordon identified the confusion of “i” and “e” sounds (so that check-in sounds like chicken), the muddying of the “l” sound in words like milk and children, and the substitution of “f” and “v” sounds for “th”, so that mother becomes muvver, thing becomes fing and so on.

To those examples I could add a long list of others that I've noticed, mostly to do with the strangulation or blurring of vowel sounds. Hence Air New Zealand morphs into Ear New Zealand, electricity becomes alictricity, Helen Clark becomes Hullen Cluck, Wellington becomes Wullington and hips becomes hurps.

Other grating mispronunciations include chooldren (who sometimes drink moolk), jewel for duel, knowen for known, reconnised and vunnerable. One of my favourites came from an 0800 road closures line which informed me that cushion was advised on icy roads in the central North Island.

Then there’s the phenomenon known as the rising terminal, in which statements are made to sound like questions – a practice now endemic in New Zealand English – and an increasing tendency to pronounce the “ing” sound as “een”, as in: “He disappeared on a fisheen trip" (sorry, trup).

You expect to hear the language mangled by teenage schoolgirls (and I’ll explain later why I refer specifically to girls), but what irritates me is that you now routinely hear female journalists talking like this on television and radio, which once considered it their responsibility to uphold speech standards.

Reporters like Lisa Owen (One News), Kate Rodger (3 News) and Toni Street (TVNZ Sport) are as painful to listen to as fighting cats or the graunching of gears by a learner driver. Even Radio New Zealand, once the standard-bearer for correct diction, has let standards slip appallingly.

Jane Clifton accurately described this hideous new Kiwi accent as sounding like baby talk. She’s right: there’s a new generation of women who insist on talking like little girls. Clifton compared it with the voice she uses to speak to babies or her dog.

So, does it matter? I got the impression Liz Gordon didn’t really think so, but as a linguist was simply excited that the language was changing in such an interesting way.

Janet McIntyre also interviewed young singer/songwriter Anna Coddington, a qualified linguist. Coddington, who’s very pretty as well as smart and vivacious (a word mispronounced by one of TV3’s star reporters this week as “vyvacious”), speaks with the Westie schoolgirl accent that now seems the norm among New Zealand women of her age, and makes no apologies for doing so. As long as people understand each other, she reckoned, there should be no problem.

But that is the problem. The New Zealand accent is being tortured and reshaped to such an extent that it’s not only seriously unpleasant to listen to, but is perilously close to being incomprehensible.

I feel especially sorry for tourists who have to deal with young female staff in shops, hotels and restaurants. They must wonder whether they’ve been hoodwinked by tourist brochures telling them New Zealand is an English-speaking country.

Gordon made an interesting point. She said that changes in the way the language is spoken are typically driven by young women. She didn’t explain why this was the case (or maybe that was edited out), but she confirmed my impression that it’s the female accent that is changing most noticeably. Perhaps this has something to with the fact that young women are naturally loquacious, so change spreads with the speed of a viral infection.

Sunday also left unanswered the intriguing question of why the accent has changed so markedly (and with such speed). Coddington thought it was part of a move away from the influence of the “mother country” that once dictated “proper” standards of speech.

I think she’s right, but I’d go further. It’s not just a reaction against our old colonial obeisance toward Britain. I think it’s a misplaced expression of egalitarianism – a rejection of traditional speech standards that are now seen as elitist. And I suspect it began, as with so many things, in the classroom. Many educated 1970s feminists went out of their way to adopt a determinedly slovenly way of speaking, presumably seeing this as another way of shaking off oppressive male power structures, and inevitably it seeped into the education system.

As is our wont in New Zealand, we lurch from one extreme to the other. In the 1950s and 1960s, radio announcers, newsreaders and politicians went to absurd lengths to sound like the upper-crust English. Sunday illustrated this point by playing a brief clip of Keith Holyoake, who was often mocked for his pompous way of speaking (perhaps unfairly, as his biographer Barry Gustafson has pointed out that Holyoake’s mother coached him to talk that way because in those days it was considered proper. Listen to a tape of Sir Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister of the era, and you’ll notice exactly the same thing).

But there is a neutral New Zealand way of speaking that neither mimics BBC English (which is itself a lot less stuffy and formal than it used to be) nor goes to the grating extremes of today’s young women. Examples? Mike McRoberts and John Campbell of TV3, or Simon Dallow and Peter Williams of TVNZ. They have unmistakeable New Zealand accents but they enunciate clearly and are easy on the ear. The same could be said of most Radio New Zealand announcers and newsreaders (though not, regrettably, of all RNZ’s journalists).

Another marked change in the New Zealand voice not covered in the Sunday item is the number of New Zealand men who, although heterosexual, speak in a way that would have once been considered effeminate. I wonder whether this has something to do with the fact that many men are educated entirely by women and a large number grow up in fatherless households. In such circumstances their speech patterns are bound to be picked up mainly from women.

John Key, who grew up without a Dad around, has what I would describe as a namby-pamby manner of speaking, accentuated by thlight lithp. In a previous generation this would probably have been considered a liability; not manly and authoritative enough. That it doesn’t seem to have impaired his political career suggests such a voice is no longer considered slightly odd for a red-blooded Kiwi male.

A final thought: we are in the rare position of having to choose on Saturday between a female politician who often sounds like a bloke and a male politician who sounds a bit like a sheila. No wonder the rest of the world thinks we’re a bit peculiar.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More thoughts on the six o'clock swill

Followers of this blog may recall that my recent comments about the six o’clock swill were challenged by a reader whose personal recollection was that it wasn’t as bad as it’s often painted. Now an old friend (well, old in the sense that I’ve known her for a long time) has emailed me to say, in effect, oh yes, it was.

This friend grew up in a Taranaki farming town and vividly recalls her father and his friends “swaying their way home, or to their cars, trucks, tractors, invariably with a jar or two under their arms. Absolutely horrible. It’s something I try to forget and never laugh about.”

Wives and kids would milk the cows while husbands/fathers got plastered, she recalls. Two of her siblings became alcoholics and one died at 43. “What we witnessed as children did not help either of them,” she writes.

“The only good memories I had of the 6 o’clock swill was going along the street beside the hotel and finding money that the drunks dropped on their way home. I actually found a lot of money and strangely enough I still dream of walking along that street and finding money! How weird is that?”

I have no such recollections myself, since my father was content with a glass of sherry before dinner while he read the paper. The only time I recall him drinking in a pub was on rare occasions when we were travelling, usually in the summer holidays. On a hot day he would sometimes stop at a country pub and have a single cold beer while we kids enjoyed a glass of raspberry or somesuch outside.

My own childhood memories of the six o’clock swill are of walking past the public bar of the Tavistock Hotel (“the Tavvy”) in my home town and being assailed, almost literally, by the hubbub of noisy conversation, accompanied by a fug of cigarette smoke and the nauseating stench of stale beer, emanating from the gap at the top of the frosted windows. Even then it struck me, in a vague sort of way, as uncivilised – an impression reinforced by the sensation that the rowdy men behind the opaque glass, while plainly enjoying themselves, were indulging in something so unspeakable that women and children weren’t allowed to see it.

I will take a lot of convincing that this bizarrely ambivalent attitude toward alcohol, a direct legacy of the temperance movement, hasn’t impeded the development of a more mature attitude toward drinking, which is why I have grave misgivings about those who are determined to wind back the clock.

Those premature obituaries for capitalism

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard October 29.)

The international financial meltdown may have had at least one beneficial effect. It has triggered a useful debate about the forces at work in the global economy and resulted, one would hope, in a slightly more informed and economically literate public.

It remains true that economics is an inexact science, and that if you put six economists in a room you’ll get eight different opinions. Yet there seems to be a broad consensus about what caused the crisis – namely, dodgy lending by greedy and irresponsible American financiers, using highly contrived financial instruments, to people who had no prospect of paying back the money they had borrowed.

That created a domino effect which, in a globalised economy where money flows freely across borders, quickly spread fear and panic worldwide.

On other aspects of the crisis there is far less unanimity. Some economists suggest the seeds were sown by left-wing politicians and bureaucrats in the Clinton administration distorting the financial markets by promoting policies aimed at getting low-income people into their own homes. Others argue the exact reverse, blaming a lack of intervention by right-wing politicians intent on protecting their friends on Wall St.

Simultaneously, there is a more urgent debate going on about how to deal with the meltdown, and still another about what the longer-term implications might be.

On the first of those two issues some of the reactions have been fascinating, with many “pure” laissez-faire capitalists arguing that governments should have stepped back and let shaky financial institutions collapse.

There’s an undeniable appeal about this brutal school of economic Darwinism, which holds that failure and regeneration is part of the natural economic cycle and should be allowed to run its course. Certainly the view that greedy financial institutions should be made to suffer for their sins, rather than be bailed out by the state, strikes a chord with most taxpayers. The “moral hazard” argument, which holds that people who don’t bear the consequences of their actions are likely to go on behaving badly, is a hard one to rebut.

But politically, of course, the hands-off approach was unrealistic. No democratic government could stand by, as happened in the early 1930s, and watch passively as economies crashed, taking jobs and homes with them.

Alongside all these other debates, it has been interesting to see the number of triumphant obituaries written for capitalism and the free-market economic model. The British magazine The Spectator, commenting on the recent British Labour Party conference, noted a mood of “revivalist socialist zeal”. But the obituaries for capitalism are as premature as they are predictable.

It’s certainly true that capitalism’s image has been badly tarnished, but that’s hardly new. For centuries, capitalism has gone through periodic crises of varying severity.

Only the most one-eyed free-market advocate would argue that capitalism is perfect. It has always been susceptible to greed, vanity, corruption and venality. In other words it’s as imperfect as humankind itself.

But it just happens to be the best economic system humanity has discovered so far – the one most likely, especially in conjunction with democracy, to deliver prosperity and freedom. A glance at any table ranking the world’s freest, fairest and most prosperous countries will confirm this.

Right now we are seeing capitalism work spectacularly in Asia, where countries that New Zealanders raised aid money for when I was a child, to ensure they didn’t starve, have now overtaken us in the OECD rankings.

And just try suggesting to the economically rampant Chinese that they revert to the disastrous state control that caused millions to die of starvation under Chairman Mao. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, was smart enough to realise that free enterprise was the most effective way of unleashing China’s vast human potential, and there are now encouraging signs that a degree of democratic reform may follow to complete the package.

Among capitalism’s many failings is that each generation tends to forget the lessons of the previous one and has to make the same mistakes all over again.

The New Zealand economy got intoxicated on its new-found freedom following deregulation in the 1980s, leading to a frenzy of crazed speculation that resulted in the 1987 stock market crash.

One generation on, the same “irrational exuberance”, to use a phrase made popular by for the former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, drove the manic property boom of recent years. The consequences weren’t as dramatic, but the behavioural pattern was similar.

Nothing new here. Capitalism is fuelled by self-interest, and it doesn’t take much for self-interest to morph into naked greed. That has always been a hazard in capitalist economies, which is why governments apply controls in an attempt to check its worst excesses.

The argument, as in so many things, is about getting the balance right; determining how far the state should go in regulating private enterprise. Too far, and it risks stifling enterprise and economic activity; not far enough, and it places too much power in the hands of greedy and/or stupid people who either can’t see or don’t care about the possible consequences of their behaviour.

But as for the old familiar socialist condemnations of capitalism’s “boom and bust” cycle, which have been so predictably revived following the world financial crisis, there is a simple rebuttal.

Yes, capitalism periodically undergoes crises. They cause pain, but invariably capitalist economies recover.

Cars crash too, because their drivers sometimes behave badly or make silly mistakes, but no one argues (well, excluding the Greens) that cars should be banned. We accept that the benefit of motor vehicles far outweighs the damage they cause.

The crucial point to remember when capitalism is floundering in one of its occasional crises is that they are just that: occasional. Most of the time, capitalism works. Socialism never does, never has.

Wherever it has been tried socialism has been associated with oppression, deprivation, economic collapse and the crushing of the human spirit. Yet still the tired old voices of the “progressive” Left – and what an ironic ring that word “progressive” has – seek to persuade us that capitalism is doomed and we must place our faith in a benevolent state to guarantee our wellbeing. Fat chance.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Isn't democracy grand?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, October 28.)

BEFORE you get giddy with power at the thought of exercising your ultimate right as a citizen on November 8, here’s a quick reality check.

The tick you place beside a name on the ballot paper may, in theory, have an infinitesimal influence on the immediate outcome of the election. But from that point on you will be powerless to shape events.

After the peculiar interlude known as the election campaign, during which the politicians uncharacteristically suck up to us, normal service will resume. We’ll go back to disliking and distrusting them, while they’ll abandon the pretence that we’re their masters (as if anyone was fooled anyway) and go back to telling us what to do.

Party leaders and their apparatchiks will disappear behind closed doors and start their horse-trading. At that point all bets will be off. Pledges and promises made earnestly on the campaign trail will be diluted or withdrawn as tradeoffs and compromises are negotiated.

Voters will have no influence whatsoever over these negotiations. The only virtually certain outcome is that one or more fringe parties, supported by a small and possibly demented minority of voters, will end up wielding disproportionate power.

And no matter which party commands the majority of the seats in Parliament, we can be certain of one thing. Government will continue to exert an intrusive and overbearing influence in people’s lives, even to the extent of threatening people with prosecution if they don’t co-operate with Statistics New Zealand, because the bullying state has taken on such a life of its own that even politicians who object to it are powerless to rein it in.

Isn’t democracy grand?

* * *

WAS THERE ever a more pathetic display of male infantilism than the TV series Top Gear?

It revolves around three grown men apparently trapped in a state of permanent adolescence. Week after week they drive fast cars around in circles, egging each other on and making “phwooar”-type noises at each other’s exploits. It’s like watching small boys throwing stones at bottles or daring each other to put double happies in pensioners’ letter boxes.

Some people – including women, whom you’d expect to know better – seem to find this enthralling. At the end of each programme the hosts – the supposedly cute midget presumably chosen for his resemblance to Davy Jones from the Monkees, the long-haired one who looks like he failed an audition for Pink Floyd and the big loud one who fancies himself as the master of the sardonic putdown and was probably a boarding school bully – are surrounded by a fawning audience of brain-dead drongos and drongo-esses whose eyes gleam with unabashed adoration.

Whenever I stumble on this ghastly show, I wonder anew how the Poms ever won the war.

* * *

OF COURSE we have our own examples of men who proceed through life determinedly behaving as if they’ve never emotionally progressed beyond the fourth form. A symptom of this is the fixation with juvenile nicknames. One radio station that I tune into from time to time has ageing hosts named Macca, Muzza and Blackie. Good grief.

I wonder, do they still live at home with their mums?

* * *

AN ITEM in my last column criticising celebrity endorsements of political parties prompted the inevitable letter to the editor asking why newspaper columnists should be allowed to tell people how to vote when actors and musicians are not. The answer is simple.

First, this columnist doesn’t recall ever presuming to tell anyone how to vote. Neither do most columnists align themselves with particular parties or interest groups. But more importantly, most columnists don’t trade on a reputation earned in some other, unrelated field. Most are not celebrities, so have no X-factor to misuse by trying to sway people politically. They stand or fall on their ability to comment entertainingly or insightfully on matters of public interest. A pretty obvious distinction, I would have thought.

* * *

IN ALL THE hysteria over National MP Lockwood Smith’s comments about Pacific Island vineyard workers having big hands and needing to be shown how to use toilets and showers, no one seems to have asked the most important question: is it true? Do vineyard owners really have to show Pacific Island workers how to use toilets and showers? Do they find Asians better suited to vineyard work? If so, Dr Smith has nothing to apologise for.

Dr Smith may come across as a bit of a twerp, but he’s entitled to pass on concerns raised with him by Marlborough vineyard employers on a matter of public policy without being howled down. Democracy is in real peril when the free flow of information and opinion is stifled for fear of upsetting someone.