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 Pledges and promises made earnestly on the campaign trail will be diluted or withdrawn as tradeoffs and compromises are negotiated.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.

The Fulton Hogan Syndrome

Let me tell you about my jinxed relationship with roading contractors Fulton Hogan.

My heart sinks whenever I see one of their trucks on the road ahead. Almost invariably it means delays, often for no obvious reason.

After years of observation I’ve concluded that FH is the contracting industry’s answer to the mad Irish builder played by David Kelly in Fawlty Towers. Every project they are involved in seems to take an eternity to complete. And just when you think the job is finished, it turns out something was stuffed up and they have to come back and redo it.

Any resident of the Kapiti Coast reading this will nod knowingly. For two and a half years, commuters chafed with frustration as Fulton Hogan turned what looked like a relatively straightforward job – the building of the McKay’s Crossing overbridge north of Paekakariki – into an epic undertaking to rival the construction of the Panama Canal. Months would pass with no visible sign of progress. Pharmaceutical companies put on extra shifts to meet the demand for blood pressure prescriptions from exasperated commuters. (Alright, I made that bit up.)

Great was the rejoicing when the job was pronounced completed, but it turned out to be premature. Barely a year later, great chunks of the new highway were being ripped up again and resealed.

I wrote about this in my Curmudgeon column at the time and received an email from someone suggesting it wasn’t Fulton Hogan’s fault at all, but incompetent engineers employed by Transit (or whatever it was called that month). While I was perfectly prepared to believe the worst of Transit – after all, these are the dolts who conceived the bizarre experiment of the “T2” lanes at Mana, now about to be abandoned – I wasn’t prepared to let FH off the hook.

I had seen too many examples of their handiwork elsewhere – in the Wairarapa, for example. Hitler’s construction genius Albert Speer would have built an entire autobahn in the time it took Fulton Hogan to put in a simple passing lane on a flat, straight road south of Greytown.

In that column I suggested Fulton Hogan’s motto must be “maximum inconvenience for minimum benefit”. Frequently I see one or two big FH trucks on the Hutt motorway, ostentatiously flashing arrows at motorists indicating one lane is closed. Traffic duly slows and forms into one lane, and several hundred metres later the reason for this ridiculous pantomime becomes clear: a smaller FH truck is pulled over on the side of the motorway, well out of the way of any traffic, while a solitary workman clears a drain or picks up rubbish.

This is a symptom of what I now call the Fulton Hogan Syndrome. If a job calls for one man and one truck, send half a dozen to ensure maximum disruption. While one does the work, the others create a protective blockade.

I had a classic Fulton Hogan moment one evening last week. Taking a cab into Auckland from the airport about 8pm, I commented to the driver as we approached Newmarket that it was the quickest run I’d ever had into the city.

Ha! I spoke too soon. The words had barely left my mouth than we turned a corner and were confronted by a phalanx of Fulton Hogan trucks blocking most of the street. It took about five minutes to negotiate our way through this gauntlet – plenty of time in which to study the Fulton Hogan syndrome at leisure. I can report that it was a textbook case presenting all the usual symptoms: lots of stationary trucks with flashing lights, lots of men in high-vis vests standing around talking, and no evidence whatsoever of anything actually being done.

Oh, and the most important symptom of all, one that no Fulton Hogan moment would be complete without: a lot of irritated motorists thinking there must be a more efficient way to spend our taxes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hail a true democrat

The most telling moment in Monday night’s minor parties debate came towards the end, when Mark Sainsbury (who I thought did a pretty good job) asked the leaders whether they would support a binding referendum on MMP. Given that this was like asking turkeys whether they favoured a vote for an early Christmas, a bit of squirming and equivocation was to be expected. And so it turned out.

Rodney Hide and Peter Dunne passed this litmus test of their democratic instincts with honours, both answering without hesitation or qualification in the affirmative. Tariana Turia, Winston Peters and Jeanette Fitzsimons seemed less keen, wondering whether a referendum was really necessary or quibbling about the wording before agreeing, albeit with less than hearty enthusiasm, to accept the result. And how could they not, for heaven’s sake? What more fundamental expression of democracy could there be than a referendum?

But the classic response came from Jim Anderton, who showed how closely attuned he is to the will of the people after 24 years in Parliament. After gravely expressing some caveats about who would organise the referendum and how it would be worded, Jim magnanimously declared: “I don’t have any problem with the people having a say.”

Priceless. Democracy is safe as long as the MP for Wigram is on the job.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An interesting new tack on abortion

The Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign is objecting to TV ads encouraging voters to consider election candidates’ positions on abortion. The ads, paid for by the group Right to Life and running in prime time, use the catchphrase “Abortion – It’s Just Not Right” and urge voters to tick the boxes of candidates who take an anti-abortion stance.

Wonaac spokeswoman Di Cleary duly turned up on Morning Report condemning the ads, noting that “typically, they don’t focus on men’s responsibilities in an unwanted pregnancy”.

I found this pretty rich, given that pro-abortion groups like Wonaac have done their utmost to render men invisible in the abortion process. Their position has always been that it’s solely a woman’s right to determine whether she should abort a baby; the father’s rights have never merited a millisecond’s consideration.

Now they seem to having a bet each way: saying that men should take responsibility for unplanned pregnancies, but that if the mother decides to abort then it's nothing to do with the father. Huh?

I'm 100 percent in favour of men accepting responsibility for the lives they help conceive. But groups like Wonaac encourage women to abort babies with no regard whatsoever for the views of fathers who want the pregnancy to proceed and are committed to being conscientious parents.

It’s an interesting change of tack, to say the least, for Wonaac suddenly to be insisting that fathers meet their responsibilities when in the past it’s behaved as if they don’t even exist.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Public sympathy is with the shop owners

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 15.)

When police announced they had arrested South Auckland liquor store owner Virender Singh for attacking a youth with a hockey stick, my first reaction was that this would be another massive blow to public confidence in the police.

Initial accounts suggested Singh used the hockey stick in self-defence after he was stabbed by one of several youths whom he suspected of shoplifting. This made the police statement that he should have phoned 111 and waited for help seem absurd.

After all, no store owner is going to say someone attacking him with a knife: “Please desist while I phone the police. Oh, and if it’s not inconvenient, could you hang around until the police arrive so they can arrest you?”

No, it would be a natural human reaction to use whatever means were at hand to defend yourself. It would also be understandable if, in your anger and fear, you meted out more punishment to your assailant than was strictly necessary.

Subsequent news coverage, however, suggested there may have been more to this incident than was first apparent. That was certainly the impression given by the officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Dave Pizzini, who made it clear he believed Singh used excessive force and therefore strayed outside the law that allows citizens to use “reasonable” force to defend themselves and their property.

It was perhaps significant that a retired detective chief inspector, Rex Miller, withdrew an email he had sent to Police Commissioner Howard Broad protesting about the police decision to prosecute Singh. He did this after Pizzini contacted him and gave him more information about the case.

So where does all this leave us? It suggests that the initial accounts, which indicated that Singh retaliated with the hockey stick only after being stabbed, were not entirely accurate. Perhaps the violence he inflicted on the youth really was gratuitous, as Pizzini implied.

We will have to wait for the evidence to be heard in court before coming to any conclusions about that. But in the meantime there can be little doubt that public sympathy will overwhelmingly be on Singh’s side, for reasons that have less to do with the specific facts of his case than with general unease about violent crime.

The incident took place against a backdrop of increasing lawlessness in South Auckland, where street gangs intimidate shop owners and indulge in acts of casual, often random violence.

Besides creating a climate of fear among the public in general and shop owners in particular, this has highlighted dwindling confidence in the ability of the police to protect law-abiding citizens.

Many people are convinced the police have been enfeebled by rigid protocols and political correctness. They worry that the arrest of a citizen who takes action to protect his own safety or property will encourage street thugs to behave with even more impunity and brazen disregard for the rights of others than they do now.

They will applaud Singh for going on the offensive. If more business owners took the same action, people will reason, young criminals would think twice before shoplifting or robbing tills.

Police advice to people in threatening situations is to ring 111. But shop owners worry that even if they follow that advice (assuming they’re not being bashed or stabbed in the meantime), they have no idea how long it will take for assistance to arrive. Any South Auckland business owner in a potentially life-threatening situation is bound to remember the murder of Navtej Singh, and how police took 45 minutes before deciding it was safe to attend the scene.

The lesson from such incidents is: “You’re on your own, buster – don’t count on the cops to save you.” Who can blame people like Singh for taking the law into their own hands? Even former Police Minister George Hawkins, whose electorate covers part of South Auckland, says he understands why many shop owners now keep weapons under the counter.

People will snort with derision at Pizzini’s advice that people should use “common sense” in dangerous situations. A person fearing his life might be in imminent danger from violent hoodlums isn’t likely to use common sense; his actions are likely to be dictated by adrenalin, fear, anger and survival instinct.

Neither is a person in such a situation likely to have the luxury of time in which to ponder on what the police might consider “reasonable” force. It’s all very well for someone to pontificate from the safety of a Wellington high-rise on what might constitute a “proportionate” response to a violent attack, as I heard someone from the Solicitor-General’s staff doing on radio; but when someone is waving a knife or a baseball bat in your face in an Otara liquor store, the urgency of the situation rather precludes measured deliberation on what the law allows. That’s a luxury left to judges and juries long after the event.

Admittedly, police are in a difficult situation here. They can’t allow a situation to develop in which vigilantes feel free to run amok, and they can’t risk a tit-for-tat ratcheting up of violence. Besides, they have to enforce a law that limits the right of self-defence, though I suspect many police officers are uncomfortable doing so.

But harassed shopkeepers are in a far worse predicament. They are faced with a choice between being injured or murdered if they follow police advice, and the risk of prosecution and a criminal record if they take action in self-defence and happen to overstep the mark.

My own view, and I suspect that of most people, is that criminals waive their rights the moment they violate yours. We can only hope that judges and juries show more sympathy for this view than the law allows the police to do.

Jim Anderton chases his tail

Few politicians have a more touching faith in the power of legislation than Jim Anderton. His first instinct whenever he sees something he dislikes is to reach for the phone and call the law draftsman.

Despite his long political career, he doesn’t seem to have grasped that kneejerk laws passed in an attempt to correct society’s errant behaviour frequently have unforeseen or unintended consequences, and often create anomalies and loopholes that have to be corrected by further law changes.

Of all politicians, Anderton should have learned this. In 2003, at his urging, the government substantially increased the excise duty on drinks with an alcohol content of between 14 and 23 percent. The stated purpose was to curtail youth binge drinking by whacking up the price of “light spirits” - diluted vodka, gin and suchlike.

Result? Binge drinking continued unabated as young drinkers shifted to other beverages. The real damage, bizarrely, was sustained by producers and consumers of fortified wines, libations favoured by price-sensitive older consumers. The extra impost made previously cheap port and sherry unaffordable, and the fortified wine industry – for decades an important source of revenue for several small family-owned wineries in the West Auckland area – virtually collapsed overnight. Nice work, Jim.

More recently we have seen Anderton’s attempt to stamp out party pills thwarted by manufacturers who simply switched to formulations not covered by the legislation pushed through by Anderton last year. Only this month it was reported that party-goers were turning up in hospital after taking new-generation pills containing a different ingredient from those banned.

But never mind – an expert advisory committee on drugs will consider adding the new substance to the banned list, at which point someone in a white coat will synthesise a different variant again. And meanwhile Jimbo has asked the Law Commission to look at ways of strengthening the regulations. Brilliant.

Jim’s latest move, predictably, is to call for the legal purchasing age for alcohol to be raised back to 20. On this issue he is aligning himself with Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel, who’s keen to wind back some of the licensing law reforms of the past two decades. But raising the liquor puchasing age is likely to be a futile, token gesture; the stable doors are wide open and the horse’s hoofbeats can dimly be heard receding into the distance. Besides, the history of the licensing laws suggests that every attempt to close a loophole or rectify an anomaly only succeeds in creating new ones.

This is not to say Anderton has no reason to be concerned about party pills or binge drinking. But you’d think that by now, being an apparently intelligent man, he might have started to question his quaint belief in the power of a paternalistic state to regulate human behaviour simply by passing more laws.

Watching a kitten chasing its tail can be briefly entertaining, but watching a senior politician do it is downright disconcerting.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Guardian joins the speech police

In a recent edition of The Spectator, columnist Rod Liddle listed words and phrases that have been banned by the left-leaning, politically correct British daily newspaper the Guardian. They include active homosexual, career women, Third World, blacks, Asians, Australasia (apparently Oceania is preferred), crippled, in a wheelchair, hare lip, ethnic minorities, handicapped, spinster, committed suicide, gypsies, Siamese twins, illegitimate daughter, deaf ears, illegal asylum seeker and grandmother.

According to Liddle, the outlawed terms are set out in a free style guide that the Guardian gave away to readers “just in case they were mystified by its occasional weird language”.

Some of the unmentionable expressions on the Guardian’s list are frowned upon by the speech police here too. “Blacks,” for example, is increasingly rarely seen, having been replaced by the cumbersome “African-American”. (It’s worth recalling that “blacks” was itself originally embraced as a less discriminatory term than “negroes”, indicating that political correctness is a work in progress.)

“Crippled” is virtually extinct here and “handicapped” is likely to go the same way. “Air hostess” is almost obsolete too, at least in print, having become a victim of the feminist assault on the use of any word containing the “-ess” suffix, on the false premise that it’s somehow belittling. “Actress” and “waitress” have suffered the same fate, thereby stripping the vocabulary of a convenient and non-discriminatory means of distinguishing a female wait-person from a male wait-person.

It’s also worth noting that there are bureaucrats, academics and possibly even a politician or two in New Zealand who would sleep more contentedly if the media pretended there was no such thing as suicide.

At first glance, it’s difficult to detect any logical pattern in the Guardian’s list. Some of the banned terms reflect the ascendancy of identity politics, that baneful ideological phenomenon in which people who are in any way “different” are encouraged to think of themselves as members of an oppressed and persecuted minority – whether it be ethnic, gender-based, handicapped (whoops!) or whatever – and thus unavoidably at odds with the “mainstream”. That mindset then becomes the basis for an entire worldview and a handy platform from which to promote a culture of grievance and entitlement.

Other Guardian prohibitions reflect the PC view that no one should ever say anything that someone else might decide to find offensive, and to hell with the implications for freedom of expression.

A few – like “Australasia” – defy explanation. And it can only be described as bizarre that the word “grandmother”, a label proudly embraced by countless women of a certain age (my own wife among them), should be seen as somehow demeaning.

What’s notable about the list is the failure (perhaps intentional) to distinguish between words that are plainly and deliberately derogatory – words meant to arouse hostility and contempt, such as “wog”, “nigger” and “faggot” – from those that are simply functional and innocent, such as most of those above. It’s typical of the excesses of political correctness that malevolent ideological meaning should be read into expressions that are neutral and intrinsically harmless.

Admittedly there’s a good argument for discouraging the use of “illegitimate child”, given that changing social and moral attitudes have rendered the term virtually meaningless. Even so, it’s a great worry that a newspaper – especially one with such a proud reputation as the Grauniad (so named for its legendary misprints) – is actively abetting the enemies of free speech by placing restrictions on the language used by journalists. Limitations on what one can say or write are among the most pernicious forms of political correctness, and newspapers should oppose them with all the strength they can muster.

Footnote: A friend of mine whose work brings her into contact with impeccably PC quangos and government agencies in Wellington tells me the latest word on the verboten list in such circles is “brainstorming”. Apparently epileptics object to it. Good grief.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

More thoughts on the six o'clock swill

A reader of this blog – a man whose opinions I respect – has gently chided me for my comments in an earlier post about the six o’clock swill. He questions whether I am old enough to have personally experienced it (well, no) and suggests that “the canards about the ‘6 o’clock swill’ have become accepted as fact in the Kiwi tribal memory”.

“For the life of me,” he writes, “I cannot recall seeing anyone the worse for drink in the 6 o’clock days other than on celebratory days such as test matches. In fact, I lived within 200 metres of the Quinn's Post pub [in Upper Hutt] for 17 years and cannot remember seeing even one person ‘reeling’ in the street. In fact, given that the alcoholic strength of beer at that time was well below what it is today, it always surprised me that someone could manage to get drunk before becoming waterlogged.”

He agrees that the drinking conditions were uncivilised, with bare board floors, but adds: how many houses had carpet back then? He adds that it was hardly surprising that pub staff didn’t know how to provide service or keep the place clean, given that there was overfull employment [those were the days when, according to Kiwi folklore, the Minister of Labour could recite the names of everyone on the dole] and jobs were easy to get. “Who would want to be a skivvy in a pub?” he asks.

He goes on to observe that the problem of alcohol abuse is too complex for a simple single-factor solution (I agree) but suggests we could start by teaching the young the art of having consideration for other people.

I defer to my reader’s personal recollection of the six o’clock swill but should point out that Kiwi slang of the era provides us with telltale evidence of large-scale over-indulgence in that one hour of compressed drinking after work. The term “shicker express” was widely used for the first tram, bus or train running after the pubs closed – “shickered” being the common term in those days for what we would now call “trolleyed” or “off your face”. (My NZ Oxford Dictionary tells me the word comes from Yiddish.)

In any case, I don’t resile from my main point, which was that by requiring men (women weren’t allowed to serve, let alone drink, in public bars) to herd into bars that were barely better than cattle yards, and to compress their day’s alcohol consumption into one hour (in fact slightly less, allowing for the time it took to get from the workplace to the nearest pub), New Zealand’s licensing laws were not only grossly uncivilised (as my reader concedes) but encouraged a binge-drinking mentality that I suspect has become ingrained in our culture.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Greens' poster child leads the pack

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, Otober 14).

IF THE ELECTION outcome were decided by the impact of party election hoardings, the Greens would be a shoo-in.

Their billboards depict an appealing but vulnerable-looking child pictured against a backdrop of that increasingly precious commodity, water, with the simple yet powerful slogan “Vote for me”.

The wording is a clever twist on a line normally used by candidates themselves, but it also plays on voters’ anxieties about the future. It’s a highly effective piece of political sloganeering, made to look even better because of the dreary competition.

John Key’s National Party has gone for the extraordinarily unadventurous line “Choose a brighter future”, which would have seemed bland even in the party’s conservative 1960s heyday. Cynics might say it perfectly matches the party’s strategy, which (as far as one can tell) is to take no risks and offend no one. A more apt slogan, borrowing from a famous quote in the movie When Harry Met Sally, would have been: “I’ll promise what she’s promising”.

Labour, on the other hand, has simply given up. “Party vote Labour”, its billboards say – a tacit admission, it seems, that it has no achievements to boast of and no vision with which to inspire a jaded electorate. Instead it’s counting on a large and suspiciously flattering photo of the Dear Leader to mobilise support.

A more effective poster might have had a sterner-looking PM with the wording: “Vote for me, or you’ll all be kept in after school”.

Advertising slogans have been credited in the past with turning entire campaigns – think of Labour’s success in 1972 with “It’s Time” (borrowed, if I recall correctly, from Australia). Election campaigns were seen as an opportunity for cutting-edge advertising agencies to make their mark with bold and provocative ideas, such as Colenso’s inflammatory Dancing Cossacks ad for Robert Muldoon’s National Party in 1975.

No chance of that happening in 2008. Even ACT, the party most willing to frighten the horses, has opted for non-threatening billboards. What they need is something a bit more edgy, perhaps playing up Rodney Hide’s pitbull side – something along the lines of, “Vote for me, or I’ll rip yer bloody arms off”.

* * *

CELEBRITY endorsement of political parties is a distasteful American phenomenon that should be discouraged.

Sam Neill introduced it to New Zealand when he backed Labour in 2005. Musicians Don McGlashan and Chris Knox lined up behind Labour too, and now Outrageous Fortune actress Robyn Malcolm has a starring role in the Greens’ election campaign.

It’s significant that such people back parties of the left, which tend to be generous in doling out taxpayers’ money to the arts sector. Many actors would be out of work without state handouts, so there may be an element of self-interest as well as inflated self-regard at work here.

Why is the practice distasteful? Because people like Malcolm and Neill are no more qualified than plumbers or bank tellers to advise people how to vote. They, and the parties they support, improperly trade on their celebrity status in the hope that it will sway mindless voters.

Having a famous face confers no political wisdom or insight. Actors become household names for one reason only: their ability to pretend they are someone else – hardly a recipe for political credibility.

* * *

WHATEVER his faults as a prime minister, David Lange had a gift for the apposite phrase. And he was never more correct than when he coined the expression “demented reef fish” to describe the jittery, irrational behaviour of players in the investment markets.

The myth that big investors have nerves of steel and make decisions on the basis of cool, clinical analysis has taken a hammering in recent weeks, just as it did in 1987. It’s clear to virtually everyone but the participants that the markets are driven by a toxic combination of greed, fear and panic.

They exhibit a behaviour pattern eerily similar to manic-depressive illness, alternating between irrational exuberance when markets are going up and black despair at the first sign of the inevitable downturn.

I’ve watched the share price of a company in which I have a modest investment bounce around crazily from one day to the next, not because of any specific development but in response to “market sentiment” – a euphemism for Lange’s demented reef fish.

We’ve seen these creatures in Jacques Cousteau documentaries – massive schools swimming furiously in the same direction one moment, then being spooked by some imagined menace and mindlessly darting off in another.

It all helps to explain why economics is such an imprecise science. Ultimately, it’s about human behaviour in all its caprice and unpredictability.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Where do these expressions come from?

The evolution of the English language is a source of endless fascination. One intriguing trend is the tendency to attach superfluous words to everyday expressions such as greetings.

“Bye now”, for example. Where on earth did that come from? Or “Hi there”? What do the words “now” and “there” add?

Both expressions have a folksy ring that suggests American origins. It can only be a matter of time before we begin addressing women as “ma’am” (a la John McCain) and men as “sir”, or urging people to “y’all take care now”.

Which brings me to another example: “you have a good day”, or “you take care”. If the statement is addressed by one person to another, as it invariably is, what purpose is served by that word “you”? Who else could the solicitous expression refer to, other than the person spoken to?

Another source of endless fascination is why these things get up our noses – but they do. This last one irritates the hell out of me, though I couldn’t explain why.

Bye now, and y’all take care.

The thoughts of Mike Hosking

The latest Listener includes a piece by television writer Diana Wichtel on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire host Mike Hosking, who’s also been filling in on Close Up. In it, Hosking tells Wichtel he’s not interested in doing the Close Up job fulltime. Why not? she asks. “Because I’m doing breakfast radio”. (Well, he’s not, actually – but he will be next year when he takes over Paul Holmes’ slot on Newstalk ZB.)

Wichtel then points out that Holmes did Close Up as well as the breakfast show. To which Hosking replies: “Ah, yes he did. And there’s a lesson in that, I suspect.” He then explains: “One of the great lessons I’ve learnt is that the most important thing in the world to me is being a dad. I want to be at the school gate at three o’clock each day.”

Wichtel doesn’t take this any further, which is curious because Hosking seems to have thrown her a rather fat cue. Unless I’m misreading him, he seems to be suggesting that Holmes was so tied up in his work that he neglected his duties as a parent; that if he had been there for his children when school finished each day, perhaps Millie Holmes’ sad brushes with the law wouldn’t have happened. Hosking seems to be saying (and good on him) that he’s not going to fall into the same trap.

At least that’s the meaning I took from it. But either Wichtel missed the cue, or she considered Hosking’s meaning so obvious that she didn’t need to elaborate or draw him out.

* * *

In the same interview, Hosking vents some steam over the media's treatment of disgraced sports frontman Tony Veitch. At the end of the day, says Hosking, Veitch is just a guy who reads an autocue. “He’s a working journalist. The end.”

Except that Veitch wasn’t just some semi-anonymous hack who read the sports news. If he were, the media would have taken little interest in him. But Veitch was much more than that. He was a product of TVNZ’s star-making machinery, to borrow Joni Mitchell’s phrase. He had been assiduously nurtured and promoted as one of the network’s celebrities.

In making the leap from journalist to public figure, he also made himself public property – all of which appeared to suit Veitch and TVNZ fine, as long as the attendant publicity was good. Then it blew up hideously in their faces.

There is an ethical argument to be had about whether, and to what extent, the public is entitled to know about the private lives of public figures. But one of the lessons to be learned from the Veitch affair is that the celebrity culture TVNZ has created comes at a price.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How about a few fuzzy snapshots, for old time's sake?

Does the Security Intelligence Service, I wonder, still bother to monitor the activities of Marxist union militants?

Sigh. Probably not. For a start, there don’t seem to be many left. In any case, the SIS is probably pre-occupied with Islamic terrorists.

What set me thinking about this was the brief outbreak of industrial skirmishing on the Wellington buses last month. For a few days it was just like old times. I came all over nostalgic for the seventies, when hardly a week went by without a key industry being paralysed by strike action.

Back then, communist union agitators were a source of intense interest to the SIS. The thought occurred to me that the men leading the striking Wellington bus drivers were exactly the sort to have attracted the attention of SIS founder Brigadier Sir William Gilbert and his successor, Paul Molineaux.

Take Nick Kelly, for example. If the SIS still bothered tracking left-wing stirrers, young Master Kelly would have a bulging file by now.

Kelly first came to public attention in the late 1990s, as a youthful and fervently idealistic member of the Labour Party. In 2000, aged only 17, he became the party chairman in Paul Swain’s electorate, Rimutaka. But the Labour Party was no place for an earnest young champion of the working class, as he soon discovered. In 2001 he and the party spectacularly parted company over Labour’s support for globalisation.

Kelly’s entertaining account of this falling-out can be found on Scoop. In it, he mercilessly (and wittily) exposes the party’s inner machinations and confirms that backroom party politics are every bit as seedy and brutal as you always imagined. He went out in a blaze of glory, physically ejected from the annual party conference for committing the unpardonable sin of interrupting Helen Clark’s keynote speech with interjections about Labour’s support for the war in Afghanistan.

Undeterred – in fact probably hugely invigorated – by this setback, Kelly hurled himself back into politics with a campaign for the mayoralty of Upper Hutt in 2004. I also have a vague recollection of him having a tilt at local government office earlier than this, perhaps in 2001, and greatly amusing audiences with his visions of a Marxist workers’ paradise.

He served a term as president of the Victoria University Students’ Association, blaming a “dirty” Labour campaign when the students voted him out, and in 2007, clearly never one to be discouraged by failure or rejection, he stood for the Wellington mayoralty as a candidate for the far-left Workers Party. And now, lo and behold, he pops up as president of the quaintly named Wellington Tramways Union, which represents the city’s bus drivers.

It’s hard not to feel a certain fondness for people like Kelly. They just keep bashing away, buoyed by the same sort of unshakeable conviction that devout Christians display. You can’t help but admire them for their dogged consistency, even if it all seems a bit futile in a country that shows no inclination whatsoever to join the class struggle.

Then there’s Graeme Clarke. I’d completely lost track of the former secretary of the now-defunct Coachworkers’ Union (there’s another anachronistic name for you), but there he was speaking on TV as a representative of the Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union, which also got drawn into – or perhaps made a point of getting drawn into – the bus dispute.

Back in the 1970s Clarke was a key figure in the industrial unrest that frequently afflicted car assembly plants in the Hutt Valley and Porirua. He was associated with the Workers Communist League, one of several splinter factions to emerge from the endless internecine squabbling that convulsed the Marxist left.

The union movement has been through such painful upheaval since then that it was almost heartwarming to see Clarke has survived intact, albeit looking a little greyer.

One hopes that somewhere in the SIS there’s a low-grade clerk who’s paid to keep tabs on people like Clarke and Kelly, just for old time’s sake. Maybe a few fuzzy photos for the files, clandestinely shot from the back of a fake plumber's van as the Bruvvers emerge from Trades Hall? It’s the least they deserve for a lifetime spent in the service of the revolution.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A nation grapples with the bottle

(Note: This is an expanded version of a column published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard on October 1. Because of its length it is recommended for readers of above average fitness and stamina. Take warm clothing and leave a note of your departure in the intentions book.)

The Dominion Post recently carried the sad story of a young man, a horticulture student at the Eastern Institution of Technology in Hawke’s Bay, who literally drank himself to death as the result of a drinking competition with his flatmates.

The same morning that story appeared, Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report carried an item about alcohol-related violence in Queenstown. Police statistics show that 97 per cent of the people arrested in the resort town are affected by alcohol and the risk of being assaulted late at night is twice the national average. On licensed premises in Queenstown, the risk rises to nearly six times the national average.

All this is very dismal news to Pollyannas like me who believed that liberalisation of the alcohol laws would usher in an era of enlightened drinking. Things haven’t panned out quite as I hoped – at least, not as far as younger drinkers are concerned.

Let me explain the basis for my misguided optimism.

For generations, New Zealanders had some of the most restrictive licensing and drinking laws in the civilised world, for which we can thank a powerful temperance movement that very nearly succeeded in winning a 1919 referendum on prohibition. But paradoxically these laws were strikingly ineffective in controlling the socially undesirable consequences of drinking.

Their most famous legacy was the institutionalised binge drinking known as the six o’clock swill, when men packed public bars in the hour after knocking off work, guzzling as much vile draught beer as they could in the short time available before reeling into the streets and lurching home to breathe beery fumes over the missus and kids.

Less civilised drinking conditions would be hard to imagine. The six o’clock swill not only encouraged over-indulgence but entrenched a social attitude that drinking alcohol was an activity so wicked it had to be quarantined behind closed doors. Public bars were required to have frosted or opaque windows so that passers-by wouldn’t be corrupted. Here we have the origins of the forbidden fruit syndrome that I argue still curses New Zealanders’ relationship with alcohol.

The first momentous step toward relaxation of the licensing laws was the provision for New Zealand’s first licensed restaurants in 1961. From that time on, incrementally and ultra-cautiously, Parliament continued – always in the face of fierce opposition from the wowsers – to pursue a policy of liberalisation. The introduction of 10 o’clock pub closing in 1967 was followed in 1969 by the reduction of the minimum age of purchase (there has never been a legal “drinking age”, technically speaking) from 21 to 20.

With each step, Parliament was encouraged by the realisation that less repressive drinking laws didn’t create mayhem in the streets after all. But MPs still tended to view the liquor laws as a minefield.

The fact that liquor issues were traditionally decided by a conscience vote didn’t help, since individual MPs were subjected to intense lobbying by liquor and hotel industry interests on one hand and advocates of tight control on the other – a situation hardly conducive to coherent lawmaking. (Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who recently announced a thorough review of the licensing laws, thinks the conscience vote on liquor issues should be abandoned. Associate Minister of Justice Lianne Dalziel, sponsor of a Bill now before Parliament that will partially wind back the licensing law reforms of the past 20 years, agrees.)

That the laws were rife with contradictions and inconsistencies was confirmed by Sir George Laking, chairman of a government working party on liquor legislation, who described them in 1986 as “a jungle of regulatory provisions without any clear or coherent objective”. Nonetheless, ad hoc reform continued.

The restaurant and cafĂ© sector benefited enormously from deregulation – a crucial factor in triggering the dining-out revolution that transformed New Zealand socially in the 1980s. But even as this was happening, alcohol was still capable of inciting panic. I remember writing an editorial for the Nelson Mail in the mid-1980s about the hysteria triggered by a proposal to open a Pizza Hut restaurant. A Pizza Hut restaurant! Concerned Nelsonians – and there’s no one on earth more concerned than a Concerned Nelsonian – were convinced it would lead to mass drunkenness in the streets and probably carnage on the roads and sexual depravity too.

In 1989, Parliament passed the Sale of Liquor Act. Though typically muddled, it allowed wine sales in supermarkets (except on Sundays – a bizarre manifestation of Parliament’s timidity in dealing with liquor issues). The Act also further liberalised opening hours and eased the rules under which minors could enter licensed premises, although MPs stopped short of reducing the drinking age to 18 as recommended by a government working party.

But here’s an interesting thing: contrary to all the predictions of the wowsers who opposed liberalisation, liquor consumption markedly decreased during this period. New Zealanders drank less alcohol per capita in the nine years following the 1989 reforms than in any other comparable period for which reliable data was available. Here, it seemed, was proof that if people were treated as mature adults, rather than as helpless retards who needed protection from the depredations of ruthless liquor barons, they would respond accordingly.

Perhaps emboldened by this realisation, Parliament revisited the issue in 1999 and took care of some unfinished business. It not only axed the ridiculous prohibition on Sunday wine sales in supermarkets but allowed them to sell beer as well. And it lowered the minimum purchase age to 18 (a reform, incidentally, that the police supported, though they seem to have conveniently forgotten that fact now).

I wholeheartedly welcomed all this for the reason that I believed it would finally lay to rest the forbidden fruit syndrome I referred to earlier. This syndrome, I believe, gave alcohol a sort of fugitive mystique that made it irresistible to teenagers, who by nature tend to want whatever they’re told they can’t have.

I believed then, and still want to believe now, that the best way to encourage sensible consumption of alcohol was to treat it as just another everyday consumer product. All the evidence pointed toward that conclusion. The more alcohol was normalised, the more responsibly we drank.

It’s fair to say, however, that the past few years have sorely tested that belief. From 2001, alcohol consumption started to climb again. The increase seems to have been largely driven by spirits and spirit-based drinks – in other words, the “alcopops” or RTDs (for “ready to drink”) that seem so lethally attractive to young women. And with it has come an ugly new social phenomenon: the young female binge drinker.

But it’s not exclusively a female thing. Among young men, the urge to over-indulge in alcohol – something I thought we were well on the way to eradicating – has inexplicably made a comeback. The death of the young Hawke’s Bay horticulture student was tragic evidence of that, as was the recent report of a car that crashed over a cliff in Canterbury, killing a passenger, after the occupants had taken part in a drinking game aptly called the Circle of Death.

Not only are drinking games making a comeback (a South Island Young Farmers’ Club competition charmingly called “Last Man Standing” was cancelled last year only after a public outcry), but the barbaric rite of passage known as the yard glass persists too. In the provincial town where I live, a young man collapsed and died at his 21st birthday celebrations in 2006 after downing a yard glass.

Why parents condone this tradition is an utter mystery to me. It proves nothing other than that if you drink a lot of beer in a very short time, you’ll be violently ill.

Just when society seemed finally to have learned that drinking didn’t have to mean getting drunk, a binge-drinking mindset seems to have taken hold of the young and threatens to negate much of the progress we’ve made.

Who’s to blame, if anyone? This is where it gets tricky. It’s not done to speak ill of the dead, but it’s hard to avoid mention of Michael Erceg, the liquor industry entrepreneur who died in a helicopter crash in 2005. It was Erceg who, having identified young women as a potentially lucrative and undeveloped customer base, hit the market with RTDs and became fabulously wealthy on the proceeds. Mind you, if he hadn’t done it, someone else would.

Other people in the industry are not entirely blameless. For all the talk about promoting restraint, some brewery advertising still perpetuates macho beer-guzzling as a central element in the boorish culture of male mateship. So if there is a legislative backlash against alcohol abuse, greedy and stupid people in the industry will be largely responsible.

Then there’s the old familiar New Zealand tendency to lurch wildly from one extreme to the other. We went from a very tightly regulated regime to one that was so wide open, in terms of trading hours and density of outlets, that it inevitably encouraged excessive consumption by the minority of drinkers who don’t know the meaning of the word “enough”.

Other possible explanations take us into more complex sociological territory. It isn’t preposterous to ask whether the insistent feminist message that “girls can do anything” has been extended to getting legless, just as it appears to have led to an increase in the incidence of female violence. After all, if young men are allowed to drink themselves into a state of insensibility and roll in their own vomit, why should young women be denied the same pleasure?

There’s also the depressing possibility that binge drinking is an Anglo-Saxon curse that afflicts every predominantly white, English-speaking country. It can’t be purely coincidental that both Britain and Australia have similar problems to ours.

Whatever the explanation, the regression is unwelcome. And alongside all the other reasons why it’s unwelcome, such as violence, road accidents and sex attacks, it’s fuelling a virulent new form of wowserism.

The New Wowsers are not like the stern Protestant wowsers of old who believed liquor was the creation of the devil. They do, however, have the same sense of moral superiority and the same urge to control other people’s lives. Many are driven by a loathing of capitalism, which they see as the source of all humanity’s problems.

They lobby tirelessly for tighter controls on alcohol and they are getting political traction, partly because they are firmly embedded in the machinery of government – in the Ministry of Health and in the state-funded quangos and activist lobby groups that whip up moral panic over binge drinking and easy access to alcohol.

Public unease over binge-drinking has created a political setting in which the pendulum seems likely to swing back toward a more restrictive licensing regime. Under the Bill introduced by Dalziel, who takes a very conservative position on liquor issues (she doesn’t like wine and beer being sold in supermarkets), local councils will draw up “local alcohol plans” which licensing authorities will have to take into account in granting licences. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee anti-liquor activists and community busybodies taking control of the consultation process that councils will be required to follow in drawing up these plans.

The New Wowsers would love nothing more than to turn the clock back. But while there is clearly some legislative fine tuning to be done to curb some of the excesses encouraged by the present laws, I believe it would be a mistake – and wholly ineffectual – to raise the so-called “drinking age” back to 20. It would only perpetuate the forbidden fruit syndrome and make it even less likely that we will ever grow out of it.

As discouraging as the current spike in binge drinking is, we shouldn’t be panicked into losing sight of the big picture. Anxiety about binge drinking must not be allowed to obscure the fact that most New Zealanders are drinking in an incomparably more civilised manner than those of earlier generations. We are drinking with meals rather than for drinking’s sake, we are drinking more in mixed company and we are drinking in infinitely more congenial surroundings.

If the wowsers had had their way, none of these advances would have happened. We should be wary of simplistic law changes that would penalise the entire community for the drinking behaviour of a problematical minority and risk trapping New Zealand society in a permanent state of adolescence.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cromwell had the story on the baubles of office

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, September 30)

IT WILL BE interesting to see whether Bob “the Builder” Clarkson bows out of public life altogether now that he’s left Parliament.

It’s possible he will, because clearly he found politics not to his liking. In that case he will be a rare exception, since the record shows overwhelmingly that once people have tasted the status and power that goes with public office, they find it hard to get it out of their system. Very few seem content to settle back into anonymous civilian life.

The gold standard here is Tim Shadbolt, who made no attempt to disguise his eagerness to become a mayor again after the exasperated voters of Waitemata City, as it was then, dumped him in 1989 as punishment for his chaotic reign.

Shadbolt made it clear he was prepared to take his carpetbag to any municipality that was prepared to elect him – even, as it turned out, to the ends of the earth (where, to be fair, he appears to have done an excellent job in building Invercargill’s profile and self-esteem).

It’s generally forgotten now that Shadbolt also once stood for Parliament as a New Zealand First candidate, which was a telling indication of his willingness to subject himself to almost any humiliation in pursuit of public office.

Then there are those unfortunate ex-MPs who, apparently unable to re-adjust to life after Parliament, seem condemned to drift in an aimless orbit. I’m thinking of people like the disillusioned Georgina Beyer, who complained last month of being poorly treated by her former Labour colleagues because they hadn’t offered her a taxpayer-funded job.

You can understand Beyer’s resentment. After all, it’s a grand old political tradition that unless they have spectacularly fouled their nests, MPs will be parachuted into comfortable sinecures once they’ve reached their use-by date in Parliament. Former Labour backbencher Dianne Yates, for example, has been appointed to four government boards that will pay her a combined annual stipend of $80,000 a year. Small wonder that Beyer feels left out.

Election to public office seems to create a sense of entitlement, as if having served one function, people expect other doors to open automatically. On a previous occasion Beyer even talked of having a crack at the Wellington mayoralty, but perhaps wisely thought better of it.

All of which brings us to another recently retired MP, Mark Blumsky. He too shows worrying signs of having been enslaved by addiction to public office.

The amiable Blumsky went from being a big fish in a relatively small pond, as mayor of Wellington, to being a small fish in a much bigger pond as a backbench National MP whom nobody took much notice of. It was an adjustment that he obviously found difficult – so difficult that he has baled out after just one term and is now making noises about returning to local government, if his wife lets him.

He should listen to Mrs Blumsky. Addiction to public office is only marginally less tragic than methamphetamine dependency.

Oh, and then there’s Clem Simich. He bowed out too last week after 16 years as a National MP, including a stint as Minister of Police, but Wellington isn’t exactly buzzing with excited speculation about his next career move. Though by all accounts well liked and respected by his colleagues, Simich had such a low profile in Parliament that most people are unaware he was ever there.

* * *

OF COURSE there’s an elite group of former politicians who lead a charmed existence. Look at Jim Bolger, for whom life after politics has been very full. The man once known as the Great Helmsman gives the impression of finding it hard to resist an appointment, even when it’s to the board of a state-owned bank set up by his former political enemies and opposed by the party he led for 12 years. Mr Bolger could no more have quietly retired to the family farm at Te Kuiti than I could sing the lead role in Lucia de Lammamoor at La Scala.

Then there’s Fran Wilde, former mayor of Wellington and now chair of the Wellington Regional Council, who could wallpaper a small room with a CV listing her appointments since she was a Labour MP.

Recent evidence suggests public jobs are probably a safer refuge for ex-politicians than company boardrooms, where they are exposed to the cruel vicissitudes of the marketplace. Just ask former Cabinet ministers Sir Douglas Graham and Bill Jeffries, who must rue their decisions to accept directorships with the stricken Lombard Group.

* * *

ITS WAYWARD leader aside, the Peters Party is not entirely without merit. Deputy leader Peter Brown seems a fundamentally decent sort of cove, but the NZ First MP I would most like to see return to Parliament is the feisty Ron Mark, who combines a sharp natural intelligence with a refusal to bow to politically correct orthodoxy.

Alas, the mathematics of MMP mean we can’t get Mark or Brown without getting Peters too. And I’m no longer able to think of Peters without recalling the famous words of Oliver Cromwell, addressing the “rump” Parliament in 1653: “You have been sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Incidentally, it’s worth reading Cromwell’s withering speech in its entirety, because bits of it are oddly applicable to our own parliament. He even included a reference to a shining bauble.