Friday, November 28, 2008

Calm down, lefties, and have another chardonnay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In praise of ageing hacks and snappers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Political agreement shouldn't be a condition of friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How they rated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

FINALLY, a few questions to ponder post-election:

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Refreshing, perhaps; career-enhancing, no

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The way we talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More thoughts on the six o'clock swill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those premature obituaries for capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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