Friday, August 29, 2008

Which "p" word for Peters?

One of the more frequently misused words in the English language is “prevaricate”. Time and again it’s confused with “procrastinate”.

To procrastinate is to keep putting off something that requires urgent action. To prevaricate is to behave or speak evasively; to avoid stating the truth.

I suspect that when John Key accused Helen Clark yesterday of prevaricating over Winston Peters, he probably meant she was procrastinating. She hasn’t really been evasive, but she can certainly be accused of playing for time.

Peters, on the other hand, provides a perfect example of prevarication. The word describes his behaviour so accurately that it could have been invented for him

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Klingons on the starboard bow

So. New Zealand First has fallen in behind Labour's emissions trading scheme, and a more astute political observer than I would have quickly realised that was inevitable after the release of the Owen Glenn letter this morning, which changed the political dynamic completely. Suddenly finding himself vulnerable, Winston Peters was hardly likely to alienate the person whose protection and patronage he most needed by telling Labour to take its ETS and shove it. He's now clinging to the PM in what might be characterised as a death embrace. How long before she prises him loose?

Oh, so Glenn's memory is faulty

Parliament’s privileges committee this morning released a letter from expatriate businessman Owen Glenn in which Glenn says he donated $100,000 toward Winston Peters’ legal expenses in 2005 in response to a personal request from Peters. This directly conflicts with the New Zealand First leader’s previous statement that he knew nothing of the donation until he was told last month by his lawyer, Brian Henry.

Peters’ response to this latest explosive development? Surprise, surprise – he suggests that Glenn’s memory is defective.

Discussing the latest bombshell on Kathryn Ryan’s programme this morning, Radio New Zealand political editor Brent Edwards said the privileges committee must now decide whose account it believes – Glenn’s or Peters’.

Not too difficult, I would have thought. They can start by asking a simple question: who has more to lose by telling the truth? Or perhaps I should turn that around and ask: who has more to gain by not being truthful? On the face of it, Glenn has nothing to gain by deceiving the committee. On the other hand, Peters is fighting for his life politically.

The latest disclosure well and truly puts the acid on Prime Minister Helen Clark. As Edwards pointed out, if Peters was a Labour minister he would have been sacked long before this. So far he has been saved by Clark’s insistence - which could be interpreted either as highly principled or utterly pragmatic - that she will take him at his word, at least until such time as she has compelling reason not to. As time passes and the doubts mount up, that stance becomes harder to sustain.

A disturbing sub-plot in the controversy is that the New Zealand First caucus meets today to decide whether to support Labour’s carbon emissions trading regime. This decision will have profound long-term economic consequences for New Zealand, and it calls for the most cautious and thoughtful deliberation. What chance of that when the embattled party leader and his increasingly insecure MPs have their minds on the much more immediate issue of their political survival?

Monday, August 25, 2008

A bad look for the EPMU

The EPMU’s decision to suspend its employee Shawn Tan, an ACT candidate in the forthcoming election, is a bad look for the union.

The union says Tan was suspended because he breached his terms of employment by not seeking permission before becoming a candidate, and because his work would suffer because of the demands of campaigning. But EPMU national secretary Andrew Little appeared to concede to both Radio New Zealand and the New Zealand Herald that the union’s view was jaundiced by the fact Tan was standing for ACT, a party that Little claims is bent on stripping away workers’ rights.

Full marks to Little for his honesty, at least. But the union gets a dismal score for its tolerance of dissent and its commitment to democracy and freedom of opinion.

One of the most unattractive aspects of unionism is the hostility its leadership cliques show to anyone who dares to buck the orthodox line. The EPMU is a sophisticated union and Little has been very effective in rehabilitating unionism’s previously woeful public image, but the Tan controversy shows that intolerance of renegades is still embedded in the union psyche.

Here was an opportunity for the union to demonstrate that it was big-hearted enough to cop the minor irritation of an ideologically delinquent employee exercising his democratic rights, and they blew it. The old, petty political instincts kicked in; solidarity with the Labour Party had to be protected at all costs. So now we are observing the ironic spectacle of a powerful organisation trying to crush the little guy – the very sort of thing trade unions were created to prevent, except that in this case it’s the union that is doing the crushing. (Tan says the union initially demanded his resignation, frightening him into reconsidering his candidacy. It was only after taking legal advice that he decided to go ahead.)

Little attempts to justify the union’s position by saying that Tan would have needed to take a lot of time off work to campaign. Well, hello? Isn’t it common for employers to cut some slack for staff who want to participate in the democratic process? The EMPU rarely loses an opportunity to pontificate on the obligations of being a good employer, but dismally fails the test itself.

And as much as Little tries to explain the EPMU’s position by referring to the inconvenience Tan’s candidacy might create, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the union would have found a way to cope if he happened to be standing for Labour.

Labour has forgotten how to engage reverse gear, while National seems unable to get out of it

The following commentary was written for the New Zealand Centre for Political Research (

National Radio reported a few days ago that Energy Minister David Parker was taken aback by the public backlash against the Government’s decision to phase out incandescent light bulbs. Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel is known to be concerned about a similar reaction against her proposal to ban liquor sales in suburban dairies. Last month, we witnessed the unusual spectacle of city streets being blocked by truckies protesting at an increase in road user charges – and the even more remarkable spectacle of the public and the media cheering them on, despite the inconvenience caused.

In other words, Labour seems to have reached that point in the life of every government when just about everything it does seems to get up people’s noses. I suspect that support for the truckies had very little to do with support for the truckies; it was more a symbolic uprising in response to a whole range of cumulative, disparate irritants connected only by the perception that a bullying, busybody government was intruding too far into people’s lives. The fuse was already primed – all the truckies did was supply the match.

Veteran political commentators such as Richard Long have drawn parallels with Labour’s attempt to ban cats from dairies in 1975 on hygiene grounds, which created such an outcry that it entered New Zealand political folklore. No one could seriously argue that it was the cats-in-dairies issue that tipped the enfeebled Rowling government out of office, but it became emblematic of the way a grumpy and irritable electorate can react against a seemingly piffling intrusion on its rights. And that was after just one term in office; Helen Clark’s government has had three.

Personally, I think the tipping point may have been reached much earlier than any of the events related above. The first unmistakeable sign that Labour was in serious trouble came in the middle of last year when school principals rebelled against proposals to ban unhealthy foods from school tuck shops. For them, it was one imposition too many – one more onerous administrative burden to distract them from their core job of teaching kids. They were also sceptical about how effective it would be – and rightly so, judging by the number of pupils now leaving school grounds at lunchtimes to binge on fatty foods from the nearest dairy or takeaway outlet. I remember thinking that when even the education profession turned against a teacher-friendly government, one whose ranks are stacked with former teachers, the alarm bells would surely start ringing. But perhaps the hubris of power had impaired Labour’s hearing, because not long after that the Clark government compounded things by buying into a very damaging fight with the electorate over the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act. To stretch the aural metaphor, it was at about this point that the political commentariat began trotting out the cliché that the public had so tired of Labour’s imperious pronouncements that it had taken the phone off the hook.

So where does that leave us now? Let’s assume that the polls are correct, and that Labour is going to take a bath in the general election. And let’s assume further that it won’t be able to cobble together enough support from the minor parties to outnumber National (an assumption supported by some poll results that suggest voters are deserting the smaller parties, with the possible exception of the Maori Party).

Shouldn’t all this give heart to those who are ideologically at odds with Labour’s Big Government approach and redistributionist, the-rich-are-pricks philosophy? Well, not to me, because I have little confidence that National will be radically different. Elections are supposed to be about choices, but I can’t think of any general election in my voting lifetime when the choices seemed less clearcut. The only sense in which the choices are clearly defined is that Labour has forgotten how to engage reverse gear while National, which has progressively ditched many of the policies that clearly delineated its differences with Labour, seems unable to get out of it.

It’s a truism that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. It has probably never been truer than now, when we are witnessing a Labour government seemingly bent on electoral hara-kiri by antagonising the public at every turn, and a National opposition bound for victory largely by default and determined to do as little as possible to upset that prospect. The defining quality of National’s campaign, as far as it can be determined at this point, is that it is obsessively risk-averse – an exquisite irony when you consider that party leader John Key originally made his reputation, and his millions, as an audacious foreign exchange trader with ice-cool nerve.

Pragmatically speaking, of course, there is no earthly reason why National should risk frightening the voters when it can coast into office by playing safe. But politics should be about more than pragmatism. Some people (me, for example) are still sufficiently naïve and idealistic to look to political leaders for vision and inspiration, for a sense of what sort of country New Zealand could be if it were led in a bold new direction. John Key’s National Party, unfortunately, offers no such vision. Former leader Don Brash got close, but allowed himself to be repackaged by his minders as a non-threatening “mainstream” politician – and appears to have regretted it ever since.

Of course there’s an alternative explanation for National’s apparent timidity. This is the “secret agenda” theory, so eagerly promoted by Labour, which holds that the benign smile on John Key’s face is a trap; that National has a set of extremist tricks up its sleeve but won’t declare its hand. Personally I don’t buy this, but if it’s true then National deserves to be rejected for the simple reason that politicians in a western democracy are supposed to be open and honest about their intentions. It was precisely because the public became cynical about undisclosed agendas – Labour’s in the 1980s, National’s in the 1990s – that we allowed ourselves to be suckered into the great electoral con job known as MMP.

Here’s the problem, then: Key seems a genuinely decent and affable sort of bloke – but should we elect our leaders on the basis of their apparent decency and affability? I look for something deeper. At the very least I look for some clear indication of what a party stands for, philosophically. I know what Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party stand for, and even if I don’t agree with them I can at least respect them for having some sort of coherent ideological framework. But when I look at National all I see is a party that seems prepared to make whatever trade-offs and compromises are necessary to win office. That may be realpolitik, but I don’t believe it’s enough to inspire confidence and respect from voters.

It strikes me as very telling that John Key’s most visceral response to anything since he became party leader came in March this year when ACT leader Rodney Hide proposed that Sir Roger Douglas should sit in a National-ACT Cabinet. In a rare flash of something approaching passion, Key made a statement that could have been scripted by a Labour Party spin-doctor: “I’m not going to go and run a government that slashes benefits and privatises off all the assets that the state continues to own; I’m not going to run a radical agenda.” That the National leader should be so eager to distance himself from a party that champions small government and private enterprise – once the ideological touchstones of National itself – was a graphic illustration of how far National has drifted in its bid to capture the centre ground.

I said before that the choices facing voters in this election have never been less clearcut, but I should qualify that. The choices may not be as clearcut as some of us might like between Labour and National, but MMP, for all its flaws, does give voters other options. One of the sub-plots of the election will be whether ACT supporters throw their weight behind National to help ensure Labour’s defeat, or stay true to Rodney Hide’s party in the hope that a few more ACT MPs in Parliament will put some steel into National’s spine.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mediawatch fails the squeaky clean test

A quiet Sunday breakfast was interrupted by something on the wireless that was so startling I nearly choked on my Blackball pork sausage. Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch took a passing swipe at another RNZ programme, Checkpoint.

Okay, it was so fleeting they probably hoped no one would notice. But the mere fact of Mediawatch criticising its host broadcaster at all was such a novelty that I daresay many other listeners, like me, were momentarily dumbstruck. (The criticism, incidentally, was for Checkpoint’s failure to disclose that a broadcast interview with Cadbury’s chief executive about redundancies was supplied by a PR firm acting for the company, though Mediawatch seemed to find this less objectionable than TVNZ doing much the same thing.)

The state broadcaster’s media watchdog is always ready to impute villainous motives to the privately owned media, but after years of listening to Mediawatch almost every week I can’t recall one item in which it subjected Radio New Zealand to the same degree of critical scrutiny that it applies to other media organisations. I’m almost at the point of wondering whether the renewal of presenter Colin Peacock’s contract is conditional on RNZ remaining off-limits.

RNZ’s apparent immunity from criticism isn’t the only factor that makes me wonder about the programme’s probity. Setting aside its irritating inconsistency – the fact that it sometimes carries eye-glazingly tedious items about matters of little interest, even to media professionals, while overlooking media stories that cry out for investigation – I have to ask whether some partiality has been exercised in the recruitment of the people on the programme.

There was never much room for doubt about the politics of Russell Brown, who originally hosted it. Peacock, who took over, seems an affable and intelligent sort of bloke and I couldn’t claim to know what his politics are, other than to repeat the observation that his programme has a tendency to assume ulterior motives for just about everything the privately owned media do. But the recent recruitment of two other contributors to Mediawatch raises some questions.

Jeremy Rose, like Peacock, is a likeable fellow (well, he'd have to be - he's a mountain biker), but I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge that his politics are more pink than blue. He was closely associated with City Voice, a markedly left-leaning free paper founded by Simon Collins (now of the New Zealand Herald) which struggled heroically but unsuccessfully to find a niche in Wellington during the 1990s. (Incidentally, Rose’s excruciatingly long item on broadcasting in Niue last week was an example of Mediawatch’s odd predilection for boring listeners with matters of only tangential relevance to the New Zealand media. It made me wonder whether he had been given a grant to visit the island, a condition of which was that he broadcast something about it – in which case it should have been disclosed.)

More recently, Mediawatch has started carrying contributions from Adelia Hallett. Hallett has a respectable background in journalism but also happens to be a former media officer for the EPMU, the union that covers journalists (or at least those journalists who have chosen to remain unionised). It strikes me as slightly odd that of all the people who might work for Mediawatch, Radio New Zealand happens to have chosen two with leftist associations.

Today’s programme featured an item in which Hallett editorialised disapprovingly on an arrangement whereby a reporter for The Radio Network sits in on the daily editorial conferences of the Northern Advocate, which is owned by the same media conglomerate (APN) – the implication being that by sharing news, the two arms of APN are reducing competition (and ultimately threatening jobs). The item included critical comment from Tony Wilton, whom Hallett described as an “industry veteran”, but who is far better known these days as a long-standing official of … why, the EPMU.

In the “interests of full disclosure”, Mediawatch revealed at the end of the item that Hallett was a former deputy chief reporter of the Northern Advocate. But it evidently thought it not worth mentioning that she was also a former employee of the EPMU, a fact some listeners might have found just as interesting.

This is not to say that the arrangement between The Radio Network and the Northern Advocate was not a legitimate issue for Mediawatch to investigate. But when a programme consistently plays up stories that reflect badly on privately owned media while appearing to treat its host broadcaster as immune from criticism, when it appoints reporters with leftist political connections and doesn’t make all relevant disclosures, you have to suspect there is an unbalanced agenda at work.

A programme that sets itself up as a media watchdog – and a taxpayer-funded one at that – has to be squeaky clean. It has to ensure that it meets all the standards it demands of other media outlets in terms of fairness, balance, consistency and integrity, and then some. Can this be said of Mediawatch? Sadly, I don’t think so.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A nation of Hillarys and Snells - yeah, right

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 20.)

Sport sometimes brings out the very worst in New Zealanders.

Over the past few days we have witnessed a veritable orgy of self-congratulation over New Zealand’s record-beating day at the Olympic Games, when in the space of a few hours we went from nowhere on the medals table to 14th. The braying was deafening.

To listen to talkback callers and a few media commentators, you’d think we were all entitled to share the credit for the successes of our sportspeople in Beijing. At times like this we puff ourselves up in a bombastic display of nationalism that I find almost nauseating, all of us wallowing vicariously in the glory of the few. Never mind that a great many New Zealanders who puffed their chests out with pride watching TV on Saturday night have rarely indulged in anything more physically challenging than rolling a fag, carrying a slab of beer from the bottle store to the car or pulling the lever on a pokie machine.

I was as pleased as anyone with New Zealand’s successes in Beijing. I watched with a roomful of people last Saturday night and I’m quite certain it was only due to our noisy barracking that the Evers-Swindell twins got to the line one-hundredth of a second before the Germans.

We are perfectly entitled to feel proud. The Olympics are all about national pride, even if for many competitors the Games are at least as much about individual glory as winning for one’s country. But there is a point at which national pride can metamorphose into crass boastfulness and triumphalism.

Success in sport gives us an opportunity to re-state all our favourite clichés about ourselves. On one radio station, callers were invited to phone in with their own three-word descriptions of Saturday’s medal haul, as if they were writing a newspaper headline, and predictably they were all about Kiwi grit and Kiwi pluck prevailing in the face of adversity. They were mostly variations on the “little country that could” theme.

Poor Mahe Drysdale, who struggled to the line on the verge of collapse, now seems fated to carry the great weight of personifying our national self-image, at least until the next heroic battler turns up.

We take great comfort in this self-image. It reinforces the notion that we are a country of Ed Hillarys and Peter Snells – resourceful, courageous and determined, yet unfailingly humble. Those first three adjectives may still apply, at least to our sports people, but can the rest of us truly claim to be humble? I’m not so sure.

In any case, can we claim to have a monopoly on pluck and grit? Of course not. Who’s to say that a New Zealander who wins a medal, or narrowly misses out on one, is more plucky and determined than a competitor from the Ukraine or Tunisia? They have all exhibited extraordinary courage and single-mindedness to get where they are. In fact athletes from Third World countries have probably overcome far greater obstacles to get to Beijing than any of ours.

Here’s the problem: far too much of our self-perception rests on how well, or how badly, we do at sport. This is probably inevitable in a small and relatively young country that has succeeded only intermittently, if sometimes with outstanding results, in other fields. Sport is what we have consistently done best and are best known for around the world. So it’s how we measure ourselves.

Hence major sporting occasions, whether it’s the Rugby World Cup or the Olympic Games, tend to follow the same familiar pattern. We talk ourselves up beforehand, often creating unrealistic expectations (the media have a lot to answer for). When we fail to live up to those self-created expectations, we are plunged into gloom and despair. And we are merciless in taking out our frustrations on the very people whom we have unfairly burdened with our nationalistic baggage and insecurities – the sports people.

Just look at the fate of the All Blacks. Savaged by everyone after their failure in last year’s Rugby World Cup, pilloried again after their recent isolated losses to the Wallabies and the Springboks, they are suddenly our heroes again. At least until their next defeat, when you can be sure the hounds will be baying again for the blood of Graham Henry and his sidekicks, and probably half the team as well.

A similar roller-coaster pattern has been played out in Beijing: great expectations during the buildup, followed by demoralisation and doubt when the New Zealand competitors in early events such as horse-riding, and even some of the rowing heats, failed to dominate as expected. You could sense the denunciations welling up at home: we were chokers, we couldn’t handle the intense pressure of top-level competition.

We even saw one or two sports journalists chiding New Zealanders for having unrealistic expectations – which was pretty rich, considering it was a drum-beating sports media that had hyped up New Zealand’s prospects in the first place.

And then, in a few ecstatic hours on Saturday, our pride and confidence were miraculously restored. We were world-beaters after all. Doesn’t this all seem rather familiar?

We are a fickle and capricious lot, as quick to share the credit when our sportspeople do well as we are to condemn them bitterly when they fail to measure up to our expectations. What does this say about us as a country?

It certainly doesn’t say we’re humble, much as we might like to think we are. Rather, it says we are insecure and immature. The support we give our sports people is conditional on them making us feel good about ourselves. They deserve better.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ad hockery and other follies

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post and The Press, August 19.)

IT’S THE political itch-scratching season. How else can anyone explain the politicians’ urge to pass ineffectual laws in a desperate attempt to kid people that something meaningful is being done?

Earlier this month, in a kneejerk reaction to a mini crime wave in South Auckland, the Government introduced a bill that will prevent dairies below a certain size from selling liquor. If it becomes law it will unfairly penalise the owners of those businesses, who acquired them in good faith thinking they could sell alcohol. What’s more, to my knowledge there isn’t a shred of evidence that cutting back the number of liquor outlets in such an arbitrary fashion will make a blind bit of difference to liquor-related crime.

But more worrying still, the bill revives memories of an era when liquor laws were so confusing, illogical and impenetrable, so riddled with contradictions and anomalies, that even specialist lawyers had difficulty understanding them. The dog’s breakfast that once passed for New Zealand’s drinking laws was the legacy of a contest for political influence that raged for decades between the once-powerful big breweries and the equally formidable wowser lobby. It took years for a timid parliament to unscramble things.

You don’t have to be a senior citizen to remember some of those anomalies. The confusion over when it was legal to drink on a Sunday – how much food constituted a “meal”, therefore making it permissible to be served alcohol – was comical. And even after Parliament passed the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, which went a long way toward cleaning up the mess, it managed to leave a few bizarre anomalies in place, just for old time’s sake. Remember when supermarkets had to cover their wine shelves on Sundays, to the amusement of overseas visitors who wondered what sort of alternative universe they had strayed into?

Setting minimum limits on the floor area of retail premises allowed to sell liquor marks the resumption of a grand old New Zealand tradition of ad hoc interventionism that succeeded only in creating a society with a torturously conflicted attitude toward alcohol. What basis is there for expecting a different result this time?

* * *

THEN THERE’S the folly of proposing a drastic reduction in the maximum permissible blood alcohol level for drivers. Again, it conveys the impression of a tough government cracking down on sociopathic drunk drivers. But the main problem with drinking drivers is not that the permitted alcohol level is too high; it’s that a hard-core minority of drivers habitually drink to excess and will continue to do so no matter what limit the law applies.

These people – many of them multiple repeat offenders – are indifferent to the law, just as people who own dangerous dogs and parents who bash their kids are indifferent to the law. And just as with over-the-top dog controls and anti-smacking laws, responsible citizens will end up being made to pay for the misbehaviour of the tiny minority.

If legal blood alcohol levels are reduced as proposed, expect to see countless safe and responsible drivers taken off the road for breaching the new limits while incorrigible drunks continue to get behind the wheel without a thought for the carnage they cause. But the New Puritans in the Ministry of Health, the Alcohol Advisory Council and the universities will pat themselves on the back for having extended state control one degree further into people’s lives.

* * *

I HEARD the peculiar view expressed somewhere that the Dominion Post’s decision to publish Winston Peters’ comment to reporter Phil Kitchin – to wit, “Phil, I’ve told you that I’m not talking to a lying wanker like you” – might have a detrimental effect on relations between journalists and politicians. The argument went that it might make politicians reluctant to talk freely to reporters for fear that remarks intended to be off the record would be published.

Well yes, it might. On the other hand it might encourage politicians to be more civil and courteous.

Journalists shouldn’t put up with bullying and intimidation from politicians. They should expose it, because people are entitled to know how their elected representatives really behave. Keeping obnoxious remarks “in house” merely plays into the hands of the bullies.

Politicians with James Cagney complexes who play tough with the media are merely demonstrating that they can’t hack the pressure of public accountability. If a politician in an open democracy can’t deal with legitimate questions without resorting to bluster and puerile insults, he isn’t fit to hold public office.

* * *

FURTHER evidence has come to hand indicating we are well on the way to developing an entirely new form of spoken English. A radio newsreader announces that Ear New Zealand is reducing trans-Tasman fears, which will be exciting news for those with a phobia about air travel. And when I rang Land Transport’s 0800 road closures line during one of the recent weather bombs to find out whether the Rimutaka Hill road was open, the pre-recorded announcement included the strange information that cushion was advised on several icy highways in the central North Island.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I did a peculiar thing last weekend. I went to the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight.

The reason this was peculiar, at least for me, is that I normally run a mile from populist Hollywood fare. I recall the original Batman film as having been pretty execrable, in common with every other post-1980s Hollywood action spectacle that I’ve seen bits of (mainly on long-haul flights). But what tempted me to give The Dark Knight a try was that it’s had good reviews from critics who usually know what they’re talking about, and in particular there have been glowing notices for the late Heath Ledger’s performance (it was the last film he completed) as The Joker.

Well. More fool me.

Sure enough, Ledger’s performance is compellingly grotesque (or grotesquely compelling, or whatever). But it’s hardly enough to sustain the movie for 152 minutes. And not for the first time, I noticed a peculiar pattern.

Allowing for the fact that any Hollywood spectacle based on a comic-book character requires a certain suspension of disbelief, the film’s narrative follows a more-or-less coherent path for the first hour or so. Ingenious special effects and slick cinematography help cover weaknesses in the storyline. But at some indiscernible point the director and scriptwriter seem to decide they no longer need to maintain even a pretence that the story makes sense. The narrative careers off the rails completely and the movie enters a strange cinematic realm where all that matters is noise and motion.

What dialogue you can hear ceases to mean anything. The film blindly lurches forward, steadily gathering momentum as it simultaneously sloughs off any semblance of plot. It just gets louder and louder, sillier and sillier.

It’s as if the director has a severe hyperactivity disorder for which he has taken a massive dose of Ritalin at the start of the shoot. He manages to keep control of himself for a while, but as filming progresses and the drug slowly wears off he becomes increasingly manic and deranged. I suspect that Christopher Nolan, the director of this particular turkey, could no more explain the plot than I could split the atom.

As I say, I’ve observed this in Hollywood action spectacles before. I first noted it in Ghostbusters (1984), a diverting bit of harmless tosh that made less and less sense as it went on. The trend has steadily gathered pace since then and it now seems utterly immaterial whether a Hollywood action spectacle follows a logical storyline. Even the acclaimed film There Will Be Blood, after an impressively controlled, low-key start, steadily had the pressure cranked up until it eventually blew apart like an overheated boiler.

It sometimes seems Hollywood has forgotten how to tell a simple story well. Trick cinematography and sound effects – the louder the better – have triumphed over characterisation and storyline. But of course this isn’t entirely true; mercifully we still have films like In the Valley of Elah, No Country for Old Men (thank God for the Coen brothers) and the wonderful Charlie Wilson’s War to remind us that not all of Hollywood is brain-dead.

Speaking of people being brain-dead, those around me watching The Dark Knight seemed to find it enthralling. What’s even more scary is that so many otherwise intelligent critics seemed impressed by it.

On this occasion I foolishly disregarded my own advice to walk out of crappy films. I think I kept hoping that it would somehow redeem itself. It didn’t. In fact it ended on a completely appropriate note, with one of the central characters saying something that was clearly supposed to be profound and portentous – except that we couldn’t hear it over the flatulent background (sic) music.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How do you spell Popacatapetl?

I can’t recall any Olympic Games – come to that, any sporting occasion at all – at which the quality of the broadcast commentaries has prompted so much negative comment. National Radio’s Mediawatch devoted an item to it on Sunday, the blogosphere has apparently been even more excitable than usual, and Jane Clifton turned her attention to the subject in the Dominion Post this morning, skewering the commentators as only she can – deftly and without malice.

Amid all the condemnation, there are one or two positive points to be made about TV’s coverage of the Beijing Games. Most of all, we should be enormously thankful that the task of anchoring the TVNZ coverage fell by default to Peter Williams after the forced withdrawal of the disgraced Tony Veitch. I would have found Veitch’s brash, loudmouth manner unbearable. Williams’ style – affable, low-key and professional – is unfashionably old-school, but far better attuned to the audience likely to be watching the Games coverage.

After that it gets harder to find nice things to say. Sports reporters Craig Stanaway and Andrew Saville do a competent job, as do some of the comments people. But Peter Montgomery, as always, is too excitable and his punchlines are sometimes painfully laboured. Toni Street sounds like a West Auckland schoolgirl, but then so does almost every female TVNZ journalist; I think they put them through a finishing school somewhere near Henderson.

If the New Zealand commentators have a common fault, it's that their desire for New Zealand to do well clouds their objectivity. They insist on telling us our competitors are well placed or still in touch with the leaders even when it looks obvious to the viewers at home that they're not in the hunt.

But we shouldn’t heap all our derision on TVNZ. Whoever called the women’s 10,000-metre race for Newstalk ZB, which I heard in the middle of the night, seemed to think all that’s required of a radio commentator is periodically to bellow the name of whoever happens to be leading.

One thing in particular intrigues me. I keep hearing commentators say “Who’s going to ask the question?” This seems to be the phrase du jour among broadcasters at Beijing, especially when there’s a bunch of competitors biding their time and waiting for someone else to make a move. Frankly I’m less curious about who’s going to ask this mysterious question than what the question is. What’s the capital of Upper Volta, perhaps? How do you spell Popacatapetl? Can a soufflé rise twice?

I have my own theory about sports broadcasters and sports journalists. I suspect many of them are sports fans first, broadcasters or journalists second. They seek careers as sports broadcasters and journalists not so much because they want to tell great stories, which is what motivates good journalists, but because they are sports-heads who get a thrill out of being close to the action.

In my experience the best sports journalists are those who have solid experience reporting other sorts of stories and could, if called upon, write a political or crime story as convincingly as they could report a rugby test. They have drifted into sports journalism, sometimes by accident, and found a niche there where they are content. Those who report (or broadcast) sport primarily because they love sport, rather than the reporting of it, are more likely in my experience to be second-raters.

This is not to say that a journalist who has written about other things beside sport will always be a good sports reporter, or that one who has written only about sport will be an inferior one. But on the law of averages that's how it tends to work out.

Dumb New Zealand (continued)

More gems from the Radio Live quiz:

Host (Ewing Stevens): “What were Little Man and Fat Boy?”

Caller: “Batman and Robin?”

Stevens: “In 1987, which host of Entertainment Tonight had her legs insured for $2 million?”

Caller: “Betty Grable?”

Monday, August 18, 2008

That National Party list

I have never pretended to understand politics, least of all the internal workings of the National Party. The publication of National’s list for the 2008 election has done little to enhance my comprehension.

I was appalled in 2005 when Wairarapa candidate John Hayes was placed at 50 on the National list and Tau Henare, a carpetbagger from the disgraced Mauri Pacific party, was ranked 29. Hayes came to politics with a background as a distinguished and courageous diplomat who literally risked his life to broker a peace deal in Bougainville. And Henare’s achievements, other than being the leader of the swaggering Tight Five in the dismal last years of the Bolger-Shipley regime? Well, let’s just say National needed more brown faces and Henare, having tasted the good life, was desperately keen to get back into Parliament.

As it happened, Hayes didn’t need a high list placing. He won the Wairarapa seat and in the three years since, has established a reputation as a ferociously hard worker in a challenging electorate. So how has the party hierarchy rewarded him? Well, fancy that – he’s still at 50. And Henare? He’s been promoted three notches, to 26. What he has done in the past three years to earn that promotion isn’t immediately clear, but there you go. I did say National’s internal politics weren’t easy to figure out.

So Hayes will have to win his seat again, which he will almost certainly do because he’s an effective MP, and because the Labour Party makes a habit of selecting poor candidates in the Wairarapa. (On a previous occasion – I can’t recall whether it was 2002 or 2005 – Labour overlooked high-profile Masterton mayor and former international test rugby referee Bob Francis for a non-entity favoured by the party hierarchy and the unions, but virtually unknown in the electorate.)

I heard John Key on the radio today trying to justify Hayes’ low ranking by saying he would win the Wairarapa seat anyway, but you’ve got to wonder what sort of message it sends. I wonder too whether Hayes has ruffled feathers within the party, because for a former diplomat he can be undiplomatically blunt and he’s possibly not one to keep his head down and meekly toe the party line. But I stress that I’m speculating here.

I also note that Stephen Franks, former ACT MP and now National candidate for Wellington Central, has been given a clear message too: he’s ranked at 60, which can hardly be interpreted as anything other than a slight. Unlike Hayes, Franks will have a real battle on his hands to win his chosen constituency seat. I have a funny feeling the party hierarchy would be perfectly relaxed about him not getting into Parliament, because Franks is the sort of character the Nats aren’t very good at accommodating. He’s formidably bright and he has a strongly developed, coherent political philosophy which probably sits awkwardly with the prevailing pragmatism in the party. My guess – and again I stress it’s entirely a guess – is that the National hierarchy regards his intellect and uncompromising brand of free-enterprise, small-government politics as a potential embarrassment.

If I’m right, Franks is hardly the first person to be penalised because of National’s discomfort at having to make room for people who take a consistent, principled stand on issues rather than bow to cautious populism. Don Brash experienced it too, as he disclosed to the Sunday Star-Times a couple of months ago.

As Ruth Laugesen wrote when she interviewed Brash, he came into politics with a firm agenda for change that included sharply reduced taxes and superannuation reform, as well as restraints on the runaway Treaty industry. But his super-cautious minders, worried that he might startle the horses, persuaded him that he needed to be repackaged as a “mainstream” politician. It was almost painful to watch at the time, and Brash admitted to Laugesen that he now regretted not using the enormous surge in his popularity after the famous Orewa speech in 2004 to stamp his authority on the party more firmly.

The message, then as now, is that the National Party is frightened of people who come into politics with a clear vision and a mind of their own.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A few random thoughts, in no particular order

CAN anyone explain the bizarre behaviour of the police? The officer in charge of the inquiry into the killing of Weymouth teenager John Hapeta went on radio on Wednesday to assure the people of South Auckland that there was no danger to public safety. Yet the TV news subsequently showed a clip of a uniformed cop at the crime scene toting what looked like a semi-automatic rifle.

If it was just another South Auckland street murder with no wider implications, why the firepower? Were the police expecting an armed attack, or was it just a gratuitous display of force to impress people? Your guess is as good as mine.

The police seem to lurch wildly between macho overkill (the Urewera “terrorist” raids, with all that ridiculous paramilitary paraphernalia) and excessive caution (holding everyone back at a “safe assembly point” while Navtej Singh lay bleeding to death on the floor of his Manurewa liquor store). There may be a consistent logic to their tactics, but it escapes me.

* * *

JOHN KEY, in his speech on National’s benefits policy this week, had a dig at Labour for using euphemisms such as “social development” and “income support” – anything to avoid that wicked word “welfare”. National, he promised, would call a spade a spade.

Key could start by banning the use of the word “clients” for beneficiaries. A client is someone who pays for a service. “Client” in the context of welfare is a bullshit word designed to make beneficiaries feel better about themselves and take their minds off the discomforting fact that they're dependent on the taxpayer. It panders to that particularly pernicious form of political correctness that decrees we mustn’t use any term that might be construed as demeaning, even if in avoiding it we have to be downright dishonest.

* * *

I’M SURPRISED more attention hasn’t been paid to the proposed national policy statement for renewable electricity generation, released this week by the Ministry for the Environment (fresh from the triumph of its Fruitgrowers Chemical Company remediation at Mapua, Nelson, which was the subject of a withering condemnation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment).

The stated objective of the policy is to promote renewable electricity generation. But hang on, what’s this? “When considering proposals to develop new renewable electricity generation activities, decision-makers must have particular regard to the relative degree of reversibility of the adverse environmental effects associated with proposed generation technologies.”

What this appears to mean is that local authorities, when considering resource consents for new hydro dams, must take into account the fact that a hydro dam can’t be easily dismantled and taken away. So at the same time as the government claims to be encouraging renewable power generation, it’s placing yet another obstacle in the way of hydro development. According to the National Business Review, a spokeswoman for Energy Minister David Parker said this was intended to protect New Zealand's remaining rivers from exploitation.

This strikes me as having one foot hard on the accelerator while the other is firmly planted on the brake. But perhaps I’m missing something.

* * *

JIM MORA, on his splendid afternoon programme on The Network Formerly Known as National Radio, referred this week to interesting political research emanating from the University of Southern California. It appears academics there have found that in times of uncertainty, swinging voters are most attracted to politicians with a clear ideological commitment. What they look for is plain speaking and firm opinions, not cautious middle-of-the-roadism. Could I suggest that the National Party write away for a copy of the findings?

A greeting from the past

My wife encountered a charming bit of old-style, small-town kiwiana this week. When she rang a kindly woman from whom we’d borrowed a bassinet for our visiting baby grandson, she got the now rarely heard telephone greeting, “Are you there?”

There was a time when this was a common way of answering the phone, but my wife was momentarily taken aback. Though she has lived in New Zealand since 1965, she doesn’t recall ever hearing it before. My guess is that it dates from the days of party lines, when it was normal for several subscribers, particularly in rural areas, to share a common number, but each with a different suffix – 345-D, 345-M and so on. Asking “Are you there?” on picking up the phone may have been a courtesy as well as a precautionary measure to avoid butting in on someone else’s conversation. On the other hand, the very hesitant nature of the greeting suggests it could be a throwback to an even more distant time when people still treated the new-fangled phone as an object of suspicion and were reluctant to believe there could be anyone on the other end.

Thinking about this reminds me that another way of establishing whether a party line was clear was to say “Working?” before proceeding with the call - another splendid old expression that has sadly passed into disuse. We didn’t have a party line at our house, though our exchange (Waipukurau) was one of the last to lose the old manual phones on which you’d crank the handle and an operator would say, “number please”.

Anyway, it was fascinating to discover the old phrase “Are you there?” is so ingrained that some older citizens still use it, and it got me thinking about other quaint Kiwi expressions that are no longer heard. My father was in the habit of saying “right you are, then”, which was a way of expressing agreement, though oddly enough he only ever did it on the phone, never in face-to-face conversation. And when I was a paper boy I had a boss who would say, as I left the office each morning with my bundle of Dominions, “I’ll see you anon” – a Scottish expression, I believe. Corker.

I’m so taken with “are you there?” that I might start using it myself. If it so confuses callers that they hang up, so much the better. I share the view of my late colleague Frank Haden, who used to say phones were for him to ring other people on, not vice-versa.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dumb New Zealand

One of the funniest regular features in the British satirical magazine Private Eye is Dumb Britain, in which readers send in examples of hilariously stupid answers given by contestants on TV and radio quiz shows.

Here are a couple of typical Dumb Britain entries from a recent edition:

From TV's The Weakest Link: "Which pop group, who once collaborated on a record with the footballer Paul Gascoigne, took their name from an island off the coast of Northumberland?"

Contestant: "Gerry and the Pacemakers."

From an LBR (London) radio quiz: "What was the title of the Beatles’ fifth album?"

Caller: "I don’t know."

Host: "It’s a four-letter word beginning with 'H'".

Caller: "A Hard Day’s Night."

If I kept a pen and paper handy, I could easily compile a list of equally idiotic answers to questions I hear occasionally on quiz shows here – especially those on Radio Live. Here’s one I heard the other night on veteran talkback host Ewing Stevens’ programme:

Stevens: "What’s the largest living reptile?"

Caller: "Um, would that be a blue whale? Or is the blue whale a fish?"

Even Stevens, who by no stretch of the imagination could be considered an intellectual powerhouse, sometimes seems taken aback by the depth of his listeners’ ignorance.

The IQ of the typical Radio Live caller is scarily low. You sometimes wonder how these people manage to dress themselves in the morning.

It’s not hard to see why purveyors of dubious alternative health remedies are among the station’s biggest advertisers. There could be no radio audience more likely to swallow exaggerated claims or fall for simplistic solutions to complex health issues (a tendency encouraged by the octogenarian Stevens, who energetically promotes the products of an “alternative” health products company based on Waiheke Island, where Stevens also lives). If the Commerce Commission or Ministry of Health monitored these programmes regularly, I reckon they’d hear enough unsubstantiated claims to keep them in litigation for a decade.

The gullibility of Radio Live’s listeners must have made them an attractive target for the promoters of the bogus weight loss product Body Enhancer, who copped a $600,000-plus fine in 2005 (later reduced on appeal to a mere $394,500) for breaches of the Fair Trading Act. Body Enhancer was heavily promoted on Radio Live, or Radio Pacific as it was then known.

Interestingly enough, one of the station’s heaviest advertisers these days is Tim Bickerstaff, once a notoriously combative talkback host himself, who sells a herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction which he claims fixed his own impotence.

You have to admire Bickerstaff’s chutzpah when he promotes a “buy two bottles, get two free” deal for $199. Get two free? Admittedly I was never great at arithmetic, but by my reckoning those bottles come at a price of $49.75 each. But the ads must work, or Bickerstaff wouldn’t be blitzing the airwaves with them day after day. Who was it that said there was a sucker born every minute?

And if you’re wondering how I know all this, fair question. Like many poor sleepers, I tune in nightly to the alternative universe of midnight-to-dawn radio. This isn’t as tragic as it sounds, because you hear some surprisingly informed discussion on all-night talkback – certainly just as intelligent as much of the comment you read in the blogosphere, and generally a lot more civilised. (As with all talkback shows, the quality of the callers is largely determined by the quality of the host.) You can also catch up with interesting Nat Rad programmes that you missed during the day (like Kim Hill’s Saturday interview with Wellington blues musician Dave Murphy, which was replayed in the early hours this morning).

But while I occasionally tune into Radio Live, it’s not something I would recommend for edification, or at least not during the small hours. It’s more a curiosity thing: an opportunity to marvel at – how can I put this politely? – the unfathomable ignorance of a section of the community that is otherwise mercifully hidden from view.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A message from China: "Beat this, buster"

That Olympic Games opening ceremony … was that a tour de force, or what?

It was a powerful statement that China – a country which for much of its history has been insular and complacent, lagging far behind a rampant West (no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution, no democracy) – has almost caught up and now demands to take its place on the world stage. “Beat this, buster,” one billion Chinese seemed to be saying.

It was a public relations feat of epic proportions. Only China, with its enormous manpower and, perhaps more significantly, the state’s untrammelled power to mobilise people at will, could have accomplished it. These Games will be unlike any others in recent history, if for no other reason than that the Chinese government has a unique power to stage-manage events, even to the extent of filling stands with compliant spectators. (I could be wrong, but the enthusiasm of the uniformed crowd watching some of the rowing heats, and waving their brightly coloured sausage-things in unison, didn’t look entirely spontaneous.)

Another thing that struck me about the opening ceremony was that it was quintessentially Asian – a celebration of the perfection that can be achieved by vast numbers of people working in sublimely co-ordinated harmony. Seen in that light, it could be interpreted as a statement about the formidable power of collectivism as against the heroic individualism we prefer to celebrate in the West. Was this a pointer, in microcosm, to a future clash of cultures?

But even as we marvelled (and who couldn’t have?) at the exquisitely orchestrated pageantry, the spectacular marriage of technology, art and mass regimentation, there was a darker undertone for those of a mind to see it.

In The Dominion Post this morning, a letter writer drew the inevitable analogy with the Berlin Olympics of 1938, which the Nazis used to sanitise the international image of a regime that was simultaneously planning world domination and the extermination of an entire culture.

Maybe that comparison is unduly pessimistic, but it still pays to remind ourselves, at the same as we’re gasping in admiration at Chinese ingenuity, that the same Beijing government that uses cute-looking children to reinforce emotionally appealing statements about us all being united in “one world” and “one family” also gives encouragement and support to butchers and monsters in places like Darfur and Zimbabwe, to say nothing of the repression it imposes on its own citizens.

On a more banal note, it’s gratifying to see I wasn’t the only person appalled by the leaden commentary – and that’s being polite – that accompanied TVNZ’s coverage of the opening ceremony.

Keith Quinn and John McBeth may be respected sports broadcasters, but on this occasion they would have been far more eloquent had they simply shut up. Their clumsy attempts to do justice to the extraordinary spectacle unfolding before them served only to demonstrate how far out of their natural oeuvre they were. You could almost sense their relief when the teams started marching into the stadium, thus giving them an opportunity to scramble onto more familiar ground – all that prosaic stuff about who was leading which team, how many Games they’d attended and what medals they were in contention for.

It’s often struck me that for a country supposedly obsessed with sport, we are poorly served by our sports broadcasters. At best they are journeymen – knowledgeable enough, and likeable, but quite incapable of reaching beyond the traditional jock-strap audience, or of communicating the magic and sublimity of sport at its finest.

The dullest of them all is the somnolent Murray Deaker, whose popularity can only be explained by the low expectations of his listeners.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ecclesiastical politics

(Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 6.)

Squabbles in the Churches can be both entertaining and disappointing – entertaining because of their sheer bitchiness and disappointing because one assumes, perhaps unrealistically, that people of God are above this sort of thing.

Recent schisms within the Anglican and Catholic Churches in Britain serve as a reminder that while Churches owe their allegiance to God, they are human institutions subject to the same flaws as any other – ambition, rivalry, pettiness, vanity, hubris and resentment. (Politics, in other words.)

An outsider may wonder why they just can’t live with their differences and get on with it. The explanation, I suspect, is that it’s all about the exercise of power and control. (Politics, in other words.)

In both Churches, the recent clashes – well, they’re ongoing really – are classic conflicts between liberal and conservative. In the C of E, the defining issues that separate the two camps are women bishops and gay ordinations.

It may strike New Zealanders as odd that the notion of female bishops is still seen as controversial, given that Penny Jamieson, the world’s first female Anglican bishop, was consecrated in Dunedin in 1990. But in Britain, traditionalist Anglican clergy are threatening to defect to Rome if women are allowed to invade what has always been – in that part of the world anyway – an all-male domain.

The issue of gay clergy is even more divisive. Officially, ordination of homosexuals was forbidden by the Lambeth conference of bishops 10 years ago, but the edict was considered bound to fail because the horse had well and truly bolted. A significant proportion of the Anglican clergy in Britain is homosexual, and predictably the Lambeth conference – which included representatives from more conservative parts of the Anglican world, including Africa – has been widely and wilfully defied.

The issue was brought to a head in 2003 by the ordination of the American bishop Gene Robinson, a formerly married man who rejoices in his homosexuality and has been accused of using gay rights to build a whole new “quasi-Christian” sect. Prohibitions imposed on Robinson by the Archbishop of Canterbury have played into Robinson’s hands, enabling him to promote himself as a sort of martyr-cum-celebrity while also cleverly playing on the Christian tradition of sympathy for victims and underdogs.

Anglican gay activists recently upped the ante even further, provocatively staging an elaborate gay wedding service between a New Zealand priest and an English hospital chaplain in an historic 12th century church. One gets the impression the gay rights faction within the Church is more intent on baiting its conservative opponents than seeking dialogue and reconciliation.

The issue dogging the Catholic Church in Britain has attracted less attention but similarly highlights tensions between liberals and conservatives. Under Pope Benedict, the ancient Latin rite known as the Tridentine Mass – officially discouraged, if not banned outright, since the Vatican Council of the 1960s – has been reinstated.

The British Catholic hierarchy, whose attitudes were largely formed in the post-Vatican Council era, don’t like this one bit and expressed their disapproval by pointedly staying away from a Latin Mass celebrated at Westminster Cathedral by a high-ranking cardinal from Rome. The “liberals” (a bit of a misnomer, since liberal implies tolerance) prefer the modern, egalitarian, vernacular form of the Mass, with its hideously banal “folk” music in place of old-style hymns, to the more mystical Latin rite.

Again, an outsider has to wonder: what’s all the fuss about? Isn't it all a bit - well, petty? The Latin Mass was the approved form of Catholic worship for centuries. Why it should suddenly have been virtually forbidden in the 1960s, and why those who preferred it should have been made to feel like sinners and fugitives, is a bit of a mystery.

Clerical resistance to the papal edict allowing the Latin rite to be reinstated is equally puzzling. No one is being forced to attend Latin Masses, after all; it’s entirely a matter of choice. In any case, aren’t they simply different ways of worshipping the same God? So where’s the problem?

You have to conclude it’s all about power and control – about dictating how the faithful may worship. It also shows a strange preoccupation with form (the “how” of worshipping) over function (the “why”).

It’s interesting that the Churches that seem prone to these disputes are the hierarchical ones where power and authority are concentrated at the top. Hierarchies inevitably feel threatened by dissent.

On the other hand the increasingly popular evangelical Churches, which have virtually no hierarchical structures, don’t seem too bothered by theological differences and don’t engage in embarrassingly un-Christian ecclesiastical politics. They just get on with praising God. Perhaps there’s a lesson there somewhere.

It’s worth noting too that the Catholic and Anglican Churches are the ones that place most emphasis on pomp and ceremony, with all the attendant vestments, staves, mitres, incense, choirs and solemn ritual. The supposed purpose is to honour and glorify God, but is it possible that all these ceremonial trappings also encourage the all-too-human failings of ego and vanity? (It’s a mischievous thought, but perhaps they are also what attract so many gay men to the Church. Not that I wish to indulge in stereotyping, mind you.)

Incidentally, these clashes in the Anglican and Catholic Churches occurred at the same time as controversy erupted over a proposal to remove the original wooden pews from the gracious old St Mary’s Anglican Church in Karori, Wellington. The plan was to replace them with plastic chairs that could be arranged in a more informal and “contemporary” style that would encourage more young people to attend services.

You’ve got to laugh. Mainstream Churches have been trying for decades to attract more young people by re-arranging the seating, dumbing down the liturgy and substituting trite guitar music for supposedly stuffy traditional hymns. Ironically the result, all too often, is that they have alienated some of their staunchest worshippers.

What would Christ have made of these top-up clauses?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post and Press, August 5)

THERE’S A parable in the New Testament about a vineyard owner who goes out first thing in the morning and hires some labourers to harvest his grapes. The parties agree on a wage of one denarius for a day’s work. Later in the day – several times, in fact – the vineyard owner goes out again and recruits more workers. At the end of the day, when everyone is paid, they all get one denarius regardless of whether they have worked for one hour or 12.

The blokes who started work in the morning are peeved because the latecomers have been paid the same amount. But hang on – didn’t they agree that one denarius was fair payment for the day’s work? The landlord has kept his side of the deal, and the fact that the latecomers received the same amount is neither here nor there. Jesus Christ, who told the story, was obviously on the side of the vineyard owner.

There’s a parallel of sorts with the recent revelation that the Ngai Tahu and Tainui tribes’ Treaty settlements of the 1990s contained “top-up clauses”, which I don’t recall being publicised at the time they were negotiated. These clauses specify that the two settlements, each worth $170 million, could be ratcheted up if total Treaty settlements eventually surpassed $1 billion in 1994 terms. That point is likely to be reached soon as a result of the recent $500 million “Treelords” settlement with central North Island tribes.

In other words, $170 million was considered a fair deal by Tainui in 1995 and by Ngai Tahu in 1997, but because other tribes now stand to get bigger settlements than were apparently anticipated then, Tainui and Ngai Tahu can come back for more. This seems a bit crook to me – but then I’m neither a lawyer nor a politician.

It reminds me of the constant inflationary leap-frogging that went on with union pay rates back in the 1960s and 1970s under the guise of retaining “relativities”. That was a racket and so are the Treaty top-up clauses.

They also make a mockery of the phrase “full and final settlement”. Obviously they were full and final only till such time as Tainui and Ngai Tahu got envious of the deals other tribes were negotiating.

As usual, it’s the taxpayers who get suckered. I wonder what Christ would have said about it.

HAVE DAIRY farmers become a protected species politically?

In a decision that went against Hawke’s Bay Regional Council policy and the advice of the council’s own staff, a hearings panel recently granted an application to take water from two already stressed rivers at the rate of 215,000 cubic metres a week for new dairy farms in central Hawke’s Bay.

The applicants reportedly spent $3 million on dairy conversions before gaining resource consents and said they invested heavily in irrigation equipment on the understanding they would get approval. In other words, the hearings panel appears to have been presented with a fait accompli.

Urban property developers cottoned on to this approach long ago, exceeding maximum building height limits and then seeking retrospective approval knowing no council would be brave enough to demand that they tear down what had already been completed.

In an interesting choice of wording, the hearings panel decided the farmers’ application called for a “pragmatic approach”. As a disgruntled Fish and Game Council pointed out, the panel’s approval sends the message that farmers can expect to get resource consent on the basis of their investment in infrastructure.

The decision is highly provocative because the regional council acknowledges that the rivers concerned, the Tukituki and the Waipawa, are already over-allocated and have very low flow levels in summer. But it’s merely an example in microcosm of a much wider problem.

The aggressive spread of dairy farming into areas ill-suited for dairying, such as central Hawke’s Bay and the Canterbury Plains, is New Zealand’s environmental elephant in the kitchen. The impact of massive irrigation demands, heavy fertiliser application and polluted runoff is ignored because the dairying boom is helping to prop up a sagging economy. There is powerful pressure not to stand in the way.

And if you think it’s stretching things to suggest dairy farmers enjoy a degree of immunity from the processes other people are subject to, just think back to the dairy industry mega-merger that created Fonterra. Parliament passed special legislation exempting the merger from Commerce Commission scrutiny, thus sending a signal that dairy interests were to be accorded special treatment. The message seems to have got through.

COULD WE have a moratorium on this overworked word “stunning”? Stunning wines, stunning homes, stunning TV shows, stunning views, stunning fashion, stunning restaurants … the entire nation must be in a permanent state of concussion. Once confined to the hyperbole-strewn ghetto of real estate advertising, the word has spread like an invasive weed.

Is it now the second most frequently used word in the English language, after absolutely? “Absolutely”, I hear you chorus.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

So the Bradford amendment is working then

When police recently issued a six-monthly review of the Section 59 Amendment, better known as the anti-smacking bill, proponents of the bill argued that it showed the new law was working exactly as intended.

Police attended 288 “child assault events” during the six months, of which 13 involved “smacking” and 69 involved “minor acts of physical discipline”. All but four incidents were deemed too inconsequential to warrant prosecution.

Supporters of the Bradford bill argued that this proved opponents’ fears that responsible parents would be prosecuted for trivial acts of discipline were groundless.

Certainly, the figures suggest that the police are taking a commonsense approach. But does this mean the law is working as intended?

Let’s take another look. One of the main justifications advanced for the bill by Green MP Sue Bradford and her supporters was that New Zealand has a shocking child abuse problem, and that Parliament needed to send a powerful signal that violence against children wouldn’t be tolerated.

Well yes, we certainly do have a shocking child abuse problem. But as opponents of the bill argued all along, the really violent parents – the ones who kill and maim their kids – would be supremely indifferent to the law change. The law hadn’t deterred them in the past and there was no reason to believe the Bradford bill would magically reform them.

And so it has turned out. Recent incidents confirm, depressingly but predictably, that the posturing of the anti-smacking ideologues hasn’t made a blind bit of difference where it really counts.

Last month (on the same day, in fact), the papers reported that a homicide inquiry was underway into the death of a seven-year-old boy in Nelson (the parents were helping police with their inquiries) and a three-year-old boy was admitted to Starship Hospital in a critical condition after being injured while in the “care” of his family. And as I write this, a four-month-old boy from Papakura is in Starship Hospital with critical head injuries which police say were non-accidental.

So let’s abandon the nauseating pretence that the Bradford bill had anything to do with saving children from being killed or suffering horrific injuries at the hands of brutal parents. While responsible, conscientious parents now find themselves being visited by the police for trifling acts of often justifiable child discipline, thus taking up police time that would be better spent chasing real criminals, the monsters who attack their kids with broom handles, kick them in the head and throw them against the wall continue to rage out of control. As we knew they would.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Those clandestine tapes

At the annual winter bash put on by well-connected Wellington PR firm Saunders Unsworth at the Backbencher pub last night, jovial National Party frontbencher Gerry Brownlee mischievously made the point of asking, before he joined in any conversation, whether any of those present had a concealed tape recorder.

Everyone got the joke, of course; there could be no more politically savvy gathering than this. But levity aside, the clandestine recording of National deputy leader Bill English and senior MP Lockwood Smith making what, in retrospect, were injudicious comments at a cocktail party during the party conference last weekend has serious implications.

For a start, the tapes are embarrassing to National because they enable Labour to push the damaging line that behind John Key’s anodyne, don’t-frighten-the-horses policy statements lies a more extreme secret agenda that will unfold only if and when National wins office.

The media have certainly pounced on them, as you’d expect. The tapes were initially leaked to TV3, which to my knowledge has said nothing about who recorded them or how they came into TV3’s hands. Suspicion automatically falls on Labour infiltrators posing as National conference delegates, though I’ve also heard the intriguing (but I think highly improbable) suggestion that ACT provocateurs may have been responsible.

Whatever, it suggests that this is going to be a dirty, desperate campaign. If Labour people are responsible for the clandestine tapes, any political advantage obtained by embarrassing National has to be weighed against possible public distaste at the underhand tactics.

The media’s role – and particularly that of TV3 – also demands scrutiny. Coverage of the controversy so far has conveniently sidestepped the ethical murkiness of obtaining stories by a process that looks perilously close to entrapment. Media law expert Steven Price has pointed out that it’s a crime to tape a conversation between other people if the circumstances indicate that one of those taking part wants it to be private. Steven also suggests TV3 may have broken the law if it were party to an illegal interception. But even if it falls short of lawbreaking, TV3's use of the tapes raises important questions about journalistic ethics.

On the one hand, a strong argument can be made that there is a compelling public interest in what a National government might do and that the public deserves to know if the party isn’t being honest about its plans. But surreptitiously taping people at a party smacks of the tactics used by the deplorable British tabloids, and most senior journalists I know would probably feel uncomfortable about it. I suppose it’s a line call.

Here’s another important consideration: how much weight should you attach to off-the-cuff statements made in response to leading questions at a noisy cocktail party? The media may be reading more into them than is justified.

I would take the same view if the tables were turned and it was Labour MPs who had unwittingly put their foot in it. If you look at the transcripts, they are less incriminating than Labour wants people to think. In any case, how many of us would want to be held accountable for something we’d blurted out after a couple of glasses of wine at social occasion? I certainly wouldn’t.