Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merry Christmas, and a pox on Snoopy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 23.)

There are two types of people in the world: those who squeal with delight when Snoopy’s Christmas comes on the radio and those who run screaming from the room with their hands clamped over their ears. I am in the latter category.

Who would have thought, when this novelty song made its debut in 1967, that more than 40 years later it would still come back every December like a recurring nightmare? I find myself taking note of the date on which it re-appears each year, in much the same way – albeit with much less pleasure – as readers of The Times of London traditionally compete to hear the first cuckoo of spring.

This year I got as far as December 2 before the rumble of distant artillery and the opening bars of O Tannenbaum, which announce the Royal Guardsmen’s song, had me reaching for the radio’s off switch. But of course the only way to avoid Snoopy’s Christmas altogether is to abandon all visits to shops, malls and supermarkets until Christmas is over, which seems a bit extreme even to me.

It amazes me that when the internet makes it possible to download songs and listen to them ad nauseam in the privacy of one’s home, thereby sparing people who loathe Snoopy’s Christmas the misery of hearing it yet again, people still insist on phoning radio stations to request it. This could mean one of three things.

The first possibility is that they haven’t yet discovered there’s a thing called the internet – or if they have, they haven’t figured out how to use it.

The second is that they are misanthropes motivated by sheer malice, but that’s too grim to contemplate.

The third and most likely explanation – and this too is acutely depressing – is that they can’t believe the rest of the world doesn’t share their joy at hearing the song for the 500th time, and are doing us a favour by requesting it on behalf of us all. This is a cruel variation of the holiday photos syndrome, in which people assume all their friends will want to see 72 pictures of the family in various poses at Kaiteriteri motor camp.

But enough of Snoopy’s Christmas, or you’ll be thinking I’ve developed some sort of complex.

In recent years another Christmas song has given me reason to get all twitchy and apprehensive whenever I turn on the radio or walk into a store during December, and the peculiar thing is that it’s a song I once loved.

O Holy Night was composed by the Frenchman Adolphe Adam in 1847, and even as a child I thought it the most moving of carols. It was rarely heard in those days, but in the past 20 years it has been debased by a succession of abominable pop adaptations. This is an even crueller form of aural punishment than that inflicted by the Royal Guardsmen.

Record producers must recognise the song’s intrinsic beauty, or they wouldn’t keep ripping it off. I just wish they would treat it with the respect it deserves – in other words, leave it alone. Subjecting it to pop treatment, with all the usual vocal gymnastics and histrionics, is the equivalent of tagging the Sistine Chapel or rewriting War and Peace in text language.

Sadly, the transformation of the profoundly sacred O Holy Night into a tacky pop song continues a trend that started decades ago. It involves the systematic secularisation of Christmas music – the stripping away of all references which acknowledge the religious significance of the event.

Strangely enough the trend has been most pronounced in that most religious of countries, the United States (and no, I’m not being sarcastic).

Americans take Christmas extraordinarily seriously, going to extravagant lengths to decorate their homes – a cause of much friendly neighbourhood one-upmanship – and enthusiastically indulging in the other trappings of the season, especially music. Virtually every American singer – even drug-addled rock stars – is expected to release a Christmas album, the latest example being Bob Dylan.

But what’s notable about American Christmas music is that it’s almost 100 percent secular. The songs you hear everywhere in the US during December are not traditional carols but songs such as Jingle Bells (which makes no reference to Christmas), Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Christmas Song (aka Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) and of course, White Christmas.

Many of these songs were composed in Tin Pan Alley by professional songwriters, most of whom (for example, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Marks and Felix Bernard) were Jewish. Christmas wasn’t part of their heritage, so they wrote about snow, sleighbells, Santa and other non-religious symbols.

Snoopy’s Christmas is a more recent take on that same tradition of secular Christmas songs. Despite the English-sounding name of the band that recorded it, who were cashing in on the popularity of British music in the US at the time, it was a thoroughly American record.

On the other hand, most of the classic carols we grew up with – the ones with explicit religious themes, such as Silent Night, Joy to the World, The First Nowell and Hark the Herald Angels Sing – originated in England or Europe (though not all of them: Away in a Manger was American).

You don’t have to be a devout Christian (I’m not) to value this rich Christmas musical tradition, or to lament the fact that it’s slowly but surely losing ground to the purely secular. This trend is demonstrated by what are misleadingly promoted as carol evenings, which degrade what few carols they include by treating them as pop songs so as to make them more “accessible” to a young audience.

If this sounds a bit bah, humbug-ish, I make no apologies. Traditional carols will be played in our house on Christmas morning, and a pox on Snoopy.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

One in the eye for the New Wowsers

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 22.)

I WAS DELIGHTED to read that more than 3000 motorists were stopped last Friday at a police checkpoint between Palmerston North and Wanganui and not one was over the legal alcohol limit.

This isn’t just good news for road safety – it’s also one in the eye for latter-day wowsers who want to convince us that New Zealand is a nation of helpless drunks, and that only a draconian rewriting of the liquor laws can save us from our own folly and fecklessness.

The New Wowsers have their tails up at the moment because they sense that the public, caught up in a moral panic over binge drinking and alcohol-related crime, will be receptive to a puritanical backlash against liquor consumption.

They are skilled in the selective use of statistics which paint a picture of a country gripped by alcohol addiction. One of their favourite claims is that 700,000 New Zealanders are “heavy drinkers”, based on World Health Organisation criteria.

But they ignore inconvenient statistics that show we are drinking slightly less alcohol per head than we did 30 years ago, and that New Zealand is ranked only 28th out of 190 countries (many of which ban alcohol altogether) for per capita alcohol consumption – well behind Germany, Britain, France, Switzerland and Denmark.

Even using the New Wowsers’ own criteria, the percentage of “potentially hazardous” drinkers has remained stable since 1996, despite the recent teenage binge drinking phenomenon.

The New Wowsers don’t want to acknowledge that alcohol abuse is confined to a relatively small – if highly visible – minority, and that most New Zealanders are moderate and responsible drinkers. And they can’t see, or don’t want to see, that our social drinking habits are vastly more civilised than they were before the liberal reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Cheers.

* * *

THE RUCKUS over the Mary and Joseph billboard outside Auckland’s St Matthew in the City Church reflected little credit on anyone.

On the one hand, we had a liberal Anglican clergyman eager to appear edgy and provocative in an attempt to make his church seem relevant, even knowing (as he must have) that the image of Joseph and Mary naked in bed and the caption – “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow” – was bound to antagonise countless devout Christians.

On the other, we had cranky, wrathful Christian extremists who responded as if on cue, taking it upon themselves to defend God’s honour by attacking the billboard, first with a paintbrush and then, when the paint-splattered one was replaced, with a knife.

In the background, meanwhile, lurked M and C Saatchi, the advertising agency that created the billboard and doubtless rejoiced at all the publicity. This is the sort of attention-getting mischief that ad agencies excel at, and Saatchis must have congratulated themselves on Christmas arriving a week early.

All this played out as predictably as if it had been scripted.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the controversy is that the righteous Christians who attacked the billboard apparently believed that a weak and vulnerable God needed their protection against such blasphemy. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to them that a religion that has withstood persecution and oppression from ancient Rome to communist China might be robust enough to withstand this latest slight without their help.

If I were God, I think I would have been more insulted by their intervention than by the billboard.

* * *

WHO IN their right mind would schedule a major outdoor event in New Zealand during spring? It’s the season of equinoctial gales, when the weather is at its most unsettled and much of the country takes a battering from relentless nor’westerlies.

Wellington, especially, is at its worst in spring, a season of blustering, energy-sapping winds and oppressive, leaden skies that hang around for weeks.

What’s more, as all New Zealanders know, spring usually lasts till January. It isn’t until February that we start to enjoy a proper summer, and the really settled weather comes later again, in March and April. Yet event organisers repeatedly gamble on getting fine weather when the odds are against it.

The vagaries of the New Zealand spring have been amply demonstrated over the past few weeks with a succession of events – cricket tests, air shows, wine festivals and outdoor concerts – disrupted or cancelled because of foul weather. All par for the course.

Why, then, was the 2011 Rugby World Cup scheduled for September – the month when the annual meteorological mayhem starts? If we wanted visitors to get the worst possible impression of New Zealand, we couldn’t have chosen a better time.

The only possible conclusion is that the timing, like everything else in rugby, was dictated by the all-powerful broadcasters.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Maybe now we can all get some sleep

If you ask me (and admittedly no one has), the Copenhagen gabfest had an entirely fitting outcome. It was a fiasco – a modern-day Tower of Babel. Who could have expected anything else, with 193 countries jostling to advance conflicting and mainly self-serving agendas?

On one hand we saw the leaders of respectable Western democracies stampeded into “doing something” to appease public anxiety generated by highly dubious science; on the other, petty tyrants and demagogues from terminally dysfunctional states such as Cuba, Venezuela and the Sudan, eagerly seizing the opportunity to hold a gun to the heads of those same elected leaders from the West (to say nothing of China’s determined attempt to humiliate Barack Obama, first by keeping him waiting outside a meeting and then by bogging him down in line-by-line negotiations with middle-level Chinese bureaucrats. The meaning of this, coming from a country where loss of face is a matter of enormous significance, could hardly be mistaken.)

On the sidelines, meanwhile, stood a credulous media that has so completely bought into the hysteria over climate change that it seemed no mainstream journalists dared draw attention to the comic irony that even as world leaders were sanctimoniously tut-tutting over global warming, much of northern Europe and the northeastern United States was being shut down by ice and snow.

This same media, far from displaying the sceptical detachment we expect of journalists, has energetically fuelled climate change panic by repeatedly showing images of polar bears apparently marooned on ice floes, surface floodwaters on Pacific atolls, lumps of ice falling from glaciers and even street vendors in India lighting coal burners – none of which, in isolation, tells us anything about climate change, but all of which, taken collectively, help create a sense of impending global catastrophe.

But it’s not just the credibility of the media that has taken a self-inflicted hammering. Once-admirable charitable organisations such as Oxfam stand exposed as having been wholly captured by left-wing political activists who seem to model their tactics on the self-righteous bullying perfected by Greenpeace. (Speaking of which, how gloriously ironic it was that Greenpeace activists unfurled a banner on the Sydney Opera House demanding: “Stop the politics”. Ha!)

On the subject of squandered credibility, how about the climate change scientists? Any expectation that they, like the media, would assess facts dispassionately and objectively has long since been shattered. The neutrality we once expected of scientists lies buried beneath layers of emotive, fear-mongering rhetoric.

Then, of course, there are the protesters. They are the same frenzied protesters we have seen attacking businesses and storming police barricades wherever Apec leaders have met to discuss free trade.

They are young and passionate. Their minds are unencumbered by wisdom or experience. What they possess by the bucketload is the conviction that we are all helpless victims of an oppressive global capitalist conspiracy that wants to rip the hearts out of the poor and vulnerable and devour their children. Where do they pick this up? Probably in university lecture theatres. Their spokespeople seem incapable of articulating the cause of their rage in any systematic or coherent way; bumper-sticker slogans suffice. (There's an example from a local protester in the Dominion Post this morning: "Carbon trading is gambling with our future and allows polluters to profit.") What the protest leaders all share is the same telltale gleam in the eye – the mark of angry, holier-than-thou zealots the world over.

Underlying the whole Copenhagen circus was a deep antagonism toward capitalism and a burning desire to make successful capitalist democracies grovel in shame for their supposed iniquity. Climate change conveniently distracts attention from the genocide, megalomania, oppression, starvation and economic collapse that distinguishes the regimes of the democratic West’s arch-detractors.

Well, thank God the tumultuous farce is over. Maybe now we can all get some sleep.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Let's hope it's not just an idle threat

Today’s New Zealand Herald reports that Education Minister Anne Tolley is threatening to sack any school boards of trustees that allow teachers to boycott the proposed new national standards.

I hope it’s not an idle threat. A former National government caved in to sabotage and standover tactics by the PPTA in the 1990s over bulk funding, which helps explain why the teacher unions - in this case, the NZEI - feel so cocky about flexing their muscles again over national standards.

They’re probably betting on a weak minister backing down again, but they may be wrong about Tolley. She gives the impression of being a bit of a flake (witness her recent speech to a PPTA conference in which she read a children's story about a rat, which may in hindsight have contained a coded message), but unlike her predecessors she may have the guts to tackle the staffroom bullies. The crucial thing will be whether her Cabinet colleagues back her or allow themselves to be intimidated by a concerted display of left-wing teacher solidarity.

This dispute has moved far beyond being an argument over national standards. It’s about who controls our schools and who determines how our children and grandchildren are taught. The teacher unions, encouraged by weak National governments and teacher-friendly Labour ones, have usurped that right for themselves. It’s way past time the government re-asserted itself on behalf of the taxpayers who fund the system.

Putting pressure on boards of trustees, which are notoriously vulnerable to union coercion (and whose support the NZEI is seeking in the dispute over national standards), is one way of doing this. Many of us might prefer a more direct approach, such as suspending teachers who refuse to do as they are told, but targeting school boards will be less messy and therefore politically more do-able. I hope this doesn’t mean that Tolley and her fellow ministers aren’t prepared to tackle the NZEI head-on if and when it comes to the crunch.

She has already gone to some lengths to humour the union but the NZEI seems to regard compromise as a sign of weakness. Nothing but total capitulation will suffice. Judging by her reported comments, Tolley may have belatedly grasped this and decided against further concessions. The Herald reports her as saying she had already made many changes in response to union concerns, but each time they had returned with more and she believed their arguments were now purely philosophical.

I believe the underlying issue has been “philosophical” right from the outset. It’s all about power and control.

National’s Wairarapa MP John Hayes, in his regular column in the Wairarapa News last week, summed up the issue neatly. Hayes, a former diplomat with a decidedly undiplomatic forthrightness (which will probably ensure he never gets promoted), wrote as follows:

"I spent 30 years working for a range of Governments. Sometimes I agreed with the policies the Government wanted, sometimes I did not. My views were irrelevant. My job as a public servant was to implement the Governments policies irrespective of my personal views. That is how democracy works in New Zealand. If a state employee does not want to implement a particular policy, like National Standards, that’s fine, they should resign and find employment in an environment that suits them better. It is not however acceptable for them to remain on the Government’s payroll and work against the Government’s policies."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Confessions of a heavy drinker

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 9.)

I SEE Jim Anderton has added his voice to the increasingly shrill chorus of doom over alcohol abuse.

In a recent statement supporting calls for a sweeping overhaul of the liquor laws, Mr Anderton claimed that 25 percent of New Zealanders were heavy drinkers. “That’s equal to the combined population of both Wellington and Christchurch.”

I assume he borrowed this alarmist claim from the crusading anti-liquor academic Professor Doug Sellman, who recently wrote in a highly emotive newspaper article that New Zealand had 700,000 heavy drinkers – the basis for his comparison with the populations of Wellington and Christchurch, which Mr Anderton has now picked up.

But hang on. There are a couple of problems here.

For a start, Professor Sellman’s article didn’t define that crucial term “heavy drinker”. Neither did it explain how he arrived at a figure of 700,000.

When I contacted him for clarification he explained that a heavy drinker, in World Health Organisation terms, is someone who drinks more than 21 standard drinks per week or more than six per occasion. As for the number of heavy drinkers, he said that 25 percent of New Zealand drinkers aged over 16 scored 8+ on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, which I gather is some sort of international standard for determining hazardous drinking.

Twenty-one standard drinks a week is an average of three a day. Using that definition, many New Zealanders certainly would be classified as heavy boozers. But I wonder how reliable that measurement is.

“Experts” in health bureaucracies such as the WHO tend to take a disapproving approach to alcohol consumption and it’s possible an element of overkill – call it scaremongering, if you like – is built into their criteria.

I spent some time searching the WHO website and could find no clinical basis for the assertion that 21 drinks a week make someone a heavy drinker. In fact the definitions I found for “heavy drinker” were frustratingly vague.

For instance: “Heavy drinking is a pattern of drinking that exceeds some standard of moderate drinking or – more equivocally – social drinking. Heavy drinking is often defined in terms of exceeding a certain daily volume (e.g. three drinks a day) or quantity per occasion (e.g. five drinks on an occasion, at least once a week), or daily drinking.” Interestingly, this differs slightly from the definition Professor Sellman gave me.

Elsewhere in the same report, the WHO defines a relatively heavy drinker as one who might have one drink after work on a Monday, two with dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, none on Wednesday, eight at a party on Friday night, two on Saturday afternoon and four with friends on Saturday night, and none on Sunday – an average of three drinks a day.

This is all very imprecise and leaves us little the wiser.

In any case, the term “heavy drinker” seems highly subjective. I have an average of three drinks a day – one before dinner and two during the meal.

I have followed this drinking pattern for years and don’t, to my knowledge, suffer any alcohol-related illness. I am fit and active. I have never had a serious accident or been pulled up for driving while drunk (though I have been breath-tested at checkpoints on many occasions), have never been convicted of bashing anyone in an alcohol-fuelled rage and can’t remember when I last threw up as a result of excessive alcohol consumption, except that it was a very, very long time ago.

My children, all of them long since grown up, have never seen me drunk. Yet it seems I am classified by the WHO as a heavy drinker. You have to wonder whether these international standards have been set at a level calculated to frighten responsible drinkers into thinking they’re hopeless sots.

It’s worth recalling that the “safe” drinking limit that guided official British alcohol policy for 20 years – 21 standard drinks a week for men, 14 for women – turned out to have been a figure that wasn’t based on any objective data, but was “plucked out of the air” by a Royal College of Physicians working party that didn’t really have a clue how much alcohol was “safe” but felt compelled to come up with guidelines. It’s possible the WHO notion of “heavy drinkers” was arrived at in a similarly arbitrary fashion.

But the problems don’t end there, because some of the alarmists’ figures don’t add up. If there are really 700,000 heavy drinkers in New Zealand, which I doubt, then they represent less than 17 percent of the population, or one person in six. So how does that square with the much more alarming 25 percent figure cited by Professor Sellman in an email to me, and also quoted by Mr Anderton?

I can’t help suspecting that in the righteous cause of wowserism, any figure can be bandied about with impunity. But whether it’s 17 percent of the population or 25 percent, most New Zealanders know from their own experience and observation that these figures are alarmist.

They know that New Zealanders, by and large, are much more civilised drinkers than they were a generation ago.

We are drinking more wine and less beer, we are drinking more in mixed company, we are drinking more often as an accompaniment to food and we are drinking in infinitely more congenial surroundings. In their eagerness to turn the clock back, the anti-liquor lobbyists choose to disregard these positive developments, preferring to focus on a troublesome minority of binge drinkers to the exclusion of everything else.

They are aided by politicians like Mr Anderton, who has a socialist’s fondness for simplistic, heavy-handed solutions to complex social issues (as he demonstrated with his ill-advised "sherry tax" in 2003).

There is an important debate to be had about alcohol consumption. Binge drinking among the young is particularly worrying. But the vast majority of New Zealanders drink responsibly, and no one is served by wild, emotive claims that make the liquor problem seem far worse than it is.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Just what a creaking economy needs - more middle-class welfare

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 8.)

IT’S TRUE that the devil makes work for idle hands. This is confirmed by the Families Commission’s report urging the government to extend paid parental leave to fathers.

Things that would really make a difference – such as getting families off the dead-end street of benefits and finding ways to ensure more children have fathers in their lives – are in the too-hard basket, so the commission turns its attention to soft options like asking the government to subsidise middle-class parenthood.

I have several misgivings about paid parental leave. The main one is that it gives the state an excuse to intrude into yet another area of our lives in which people previously looked after themselves. In other words, it’s another insidious whittling away of individual responsibility.

Couples once made their own decisions about having children and bore the consequences, but paid parental leave effectively makes all of us responsible for what should be individual concerns – the collectivist’s dream. While sold to a gullible public as warm, fuzzy and caring, it implies that people are now so helpless they can’t even make decisions as basic and personal as having children without the intervention of a benevolent state.

The more we become dependent on government assistance, the more we invite the state to exert further influence in our lives. That alone is a reason to regard paid parental leave with suspicion.

The commission’s request for taxpayer-funded leave to be extended to “dads”, as commissioner Greg Fortuin prefers to call them in his ingratiatingly folksy manner, also demonstrates the perils of benefit creep.

Invariably, when the government extends a helping hand to one group of claimants, it creates grounds for others to claim discrimination and seek similar assistance. If new mothers are paid to have time off, why shouldn’t new fathers too? This is the logic by which welfare dependency grows inexorably, imposing an ever-increasing burden on a creaking economy.

* * *

SPEAKING of which, here’s a question: If John Key and Bill English are too timid to tackle meaningful economic reform at this stage of the electoral cycle, when the government’s popularity is still high and the voters have two years in which to adjust to tough decisions before the next general election, will they ever summon the courage to tackle them?

Here are a couple more questions. The prescription for economic growth set out in the 2025 Taskforce report may be “too radical” for Mr Key and Mr English – but isn’t it true that the longer change is postponed, the more radical the solution will have to be? Or do they have a less radical solution up their sleeves that we don’t know about?

New Zealand has spent more than it earned in every year since 1973. In that time we have slipped from the top 10 in the OECD rankings to a lowly 22nd out of 30. The average Australian family of four is now $64,000 better off per year than its New Zealand equivalent.

These are stark economic facts but the human impact is visible in other ways. Virtually every New Zealand family now has close relatives living in Australia, a fact evident from the death notices in the paper each day which show that some families now have more members in Australia than here. Comparisons with the Irish diaspora of the 19th century, when poverty and starvation forced the talented and able-bodied to migrate en masse, are only slightly exaggerated.

Yet we remain in a state of denial, antagonistic to any suggestion of change. The recommendations of the 2025 Taskforce were howled down by the forces of reaction before a debate could even get started.

For nine years under Labour, we were gulled into thinking the economy was humming when all that was keeping us afloat was a spending binge on property and consumer goods, using borrowed money. Now we have a government that acknowledges the economy is in dire trouble but apparently lacks the guts to do anything about it.

I suppose that’s progress, of sorts.

* * *

I SEE THERE’S a new Katherine Mansfield biography coming out soon.

Thank God for that. It must be at least six months since the last one. She was in danger of being forgotten.

Mansfield mania is one of the few growth industries in an otherwise largely moribund economy. Air New Zealand’s profit would take a severe hit if it were deprived of revenue from the literati and academics who regularly fly off to events such as the recent Mansfield symposium at Menton on the French Riviera, which reportedly attracted “50 international Mansfield scholars”. I wonder how many scholars the symposium would have attracted had it been held in Gore or Waipukurau.

Publishing industry sources tell me the forthcoming Mansfield biography, the 47th, will include previously undiscovered entries from her exercise book at Karori School in 1894, when the six-year-old Mansfield wrote a seminal essay describing her first day in the primers. It is thought to provide fascinating new insights into the evolution of her writing style, and the literary world is understandably abuzz with anticipation.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Radical" report an excuse for inaction

The most dismal thing about the generally hostile reaction to the report of the Don Brash-chaired 2025 Taskforce is that so many New Zealanders seem happy for the country to sink to the level of a peasant economy, if not slide quietly under the waves altogether.

Okay, so Brash and his fellow taskforce members could be accused of leading with their chins. By promoting what looked like a full-blown ACT manifesto they not only gave National an excuse to back away, as John Armstrong points out in the New Zealand Herald, but they also re-ignited the residual rage and resentment still lingering over the economic restructuring of the 1980s. Just as predictably, that anger immediately threatened to choke off what should have been a vital debate about what New Zealand needs to do to restore economic parity with Australia (if it’s not already too late).

Without the reforms of the 1980s and 90s, New Zealand would be even more of an economic cot case than it is. Even Helen Clark, while never missing an opportunity to disparage them as “failed reforms”, was smart enough to leave them in place. But they left such a political legacy – or perhaps curse is a better word – that any discussion of economic policy quickly gets buried under apocalyptic warnings about the heartless agenda of Rogernomics. One wonders whether the country will ever wriggle free of this crippling inability to confront the need for change. There doesn’t seem much prospect under the present government.

Part of the problem is that Rogernomics has never had a good salesman. Whatever else Roger Douglas may have been (and many regard him as a visionary), he was never a politician the public felt it could trust, still less warm to. Something to do with those eyes, perhaps. Rodney Hide, despite heroic efforts to make himself seem an ordinary, decent bloke, has a similar problem. Oddly enough, the austere and seemingly ingenuous Don Brash seems to empathise more successfully with Mr and Mrs Average Kiwi. (Political commentators, in their eagerness to belittle him, consistently and conveniently forget that Brash got National to within a gnat’s cock of winning the election in 2005.) But Brash only has to mention privatisation, tax reform or government spending cuts, and the forces of reaction – by which I mean all those entrenched interest groups that have most to lose – are portraying him as a man who dismembers babies and eats their livers raw.

These reactionary forces have taken the high ground in the PR war, and in the process have rendered politicians so gun-shy that John Key and Bill English were backing away from the taskforce’s report even before it had been released.

With the help of a generally (though not entirely) complicit media, the reactionaries moved to shut down the debate about economic parity with Australia before any of the ideas in the taskforce’s report could gain traction. They have privileged positions to protect, and nowhere more so than in the public sector which Labour assiduously expanded during its nine years in power, and from which it draws much of its core support.

National dismisses the solutions proposed by the Brash task force as “too radical”. The only possible meaning to be taken from this is that National, while prepared to tinker around the edges, is too timid to risk a backlash by confronting the challenge of promoting economic growth in a forceful way. Perhaps it doesn’t grasp that the longer change is postponed, the more "radical" the solution will have to be – unless, of course, we’re content to become a peasant economy.

Admittedly, the Key government was handed a poisoned chalice. It’s a universal strategy of centre-left governments to cling to power by making as many people as possible dependent on them – hence Labour’s Working for Families package and interest-free student loans. Trouble is, once such ruinously misguided policies are in place and their beneficiaries are securely fastened onto the state teat, it becomes politically very difficult to dismantle them. And a National Party desperate to win power in 2008 made it even harder for itself by guaranteeing not to meddle with them, even knowing the economic damage they were doing. Now it says its hands are tied; it cannot go back on a promise. Which some might see as a convenient excuse for inaction from a party that, in truth, doesn’t have the political courage to show economic leadership when it’s desperately needed.

Friday, November 27, 2009

All Ihimaera's work is now under suspicion

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 25.)

The Wellington writer and academic Vincent O’Sullivan was right on the nail last week when he compared literary plagiarists with drug cheats in sport.

He was talking, of course, about the scandal surrounding acclaimed author Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel The Trowenna Sea, which an alert reviewer in The Listener exposed as being littered with passages pinched from other writers (16 at first count, though more have since been discovered).

In a clever analogy with sport, O’Sullivan described plagiarism as a performance-enhancing technique that provided an unfair advantage over contemporaries and colleagues.

More to the point, it’s also an unforgiveable breach of faith with Ihimaera’s loyal readers, who will be left wondering whether other passages in the books they have so admired were not the writer’s own.

O’Sullivan was one of only two writers, to my knowledge, who spoke out unequivocally about Ihimaera’s conduct. The other was C K Stead, who was sharply critical of Auckland University, Ihimaera’s employer, for playing down the gravity of the author’s ethical breach. Otherwise the literary world observed a deafening silence.

Retired historian Keith Sorrenson waded into the debate too, disclosing that he had been plagiarised in Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch back in 1986. So Maoridom’s most accomplished literary figure – the man who also gave us The Whale Rider – has previous form, to coin a phrase.

I loved Sorrenson’s answer to a question put to him by Kathryn Ryan of Radio New Zealand. Asked if plagiarism could be committed accidentally, the retired professor conceded that it could, but then added pointedly that Ihimaera seemed to be accident-prone.

Inevitably there has been an element of the tall poppy syndrome in the public outcry over Ihimaera’s deceit. Writers have a reputation for preciousness and a lot of people will have quietly enjoyed the spectacle of one being publicly skewered.

Nonetheless, plagiarism is a very serious charge and the affair has heaped shame not only on Ihimaera himself but also on the university, which employs him as a professor of English and “Distinguished Creative Fellow in Maori Literature” (don’t they love grandiloquent titles?), and on Ihimaera’s publishers, Penguin.

The Arts Foundation has egg on its face too, having honoured Ihimaera with a $50,000 grant only days after the Listener’s exposé appeared. The Dominion Post carried a photo of a beaming Ihimaera proudly posing with his fellow grant recipients as if nothing had happened.

The foundation’s error of judgment reflected what seemed to be a complacent misconception, shared by all those in Ihimaera’s camp – and perhaps by Ihimaera himself – that his illustrious reputation would protect him from lasting harm.

All those in a position to act decisively when the controversy erupted chose instead to tread water in the apparent belief that it would soon blow over. An anonymous commenter on David Farrar’s popular Kiwiblog speculated mischievously that Ihimaera may have been considered bulletproof because he was Maori and gay.

The foundation subsequently defended itself by saying the $50,000 award recognised Ihimaera’s whole body of work. Problem is, a cloud of suspicion now hangs over that body of work. Credibility can take a lifetime to achieve but only a moment to destroy.

Once caught out, Ihimaera seemed to hope that an apology would put the affair to rest, just as it apparently did all those years ago when Sorrenson confronted him over The Matriarch. But it very quickly became clear that people struggled to accept the writer’s assurance that the plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea was nothing more than an inadvertent oversight.

An incredulous Paul Holmes, writing in the Herald on Sunday, challenged Auckland University’s Dean of Arts, Jan Crosthwaite, over her bland statement that the university was satisfied there was no deliberate wrongdoing on Ihimaera’s part.

“Excuse me?” wrote Holmes. “How do you plagiarise in a way that is not deliberate? How do you plagiarise by accident?”

Like Holmes, I fail to see how Ihimaera could have lifted whole chunks of text from other people’s books and then somehow forgotten to acknowledge them.

Ihimaera says in his defence that the plagiarised passages made up only 0.4 percent of The Trowenna Sea. This is like a thief pleading in mitigation that he stole only one flat-screen TV when he could have done a ram raid and stripped the entire store.

But here’s the real puzzle: why on earth would a writer of Ihimaera’s reputation risk everything for 0.4 percent of his novel? Why would he jeopardise his credibility for the sake of such a tiny fragment?

In a long career in journalism I have known several people who were exposed as plagiarists and whose careers suffered as a result. Most of them, like Ihimaera, were good writers who didn’t need to rip off other people’s material, and I wondered why they would take the chance.

I suppose they did it because they thought they could get away with it. But the risk of being found out was higher than one might think.

It seemed that no matter how obscure the source material, someone had read it before and recognised it when it turned up in another guise. Google’s Internet search engine, which is how Ihimaera was caught out by The Listener, makes it even more likely than ever that plagiarists will be exposed. But of course we can never know how many cases have gone undetected.

At the time of writing, I get the impression this affair still has some way to run. Those in a position to have done something meaningful to atone for Ihimaera’s misconduct ducked for cover in the hope that the whole nasty business would go away, but it hasn’t, and it won’t.

Remember Tau and Tuku? Not much has changed

[First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 24.]

DEFENDERS of MMP pooh-pooh the notion that it’s an electoral system in which the tail wags the dog, but the evidence has rarely been clearer than in the past week.

All the weasel words in the political lexicon can’t disguise the fact that the National Party has bought Maori Party support for its dodgy climate change legislation at the expense of the taxpayer.

Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples saw that National was in a fix and sniffed the opportunity for a deal favourable to Maori interests. National obliged.

As a result, an already prosperous Maori elite will get richer still by pocketing carbon credits worth a potential $25 million a year, according to one estimate.

The Maori Party won just 2.39 percent of the total vote in the last general election, yet National panders to it because it needs the party’s backing to push through legislation that no one else wants.

This is a travesty of democracy but it’s nothing new. Back in 1999 Tau Henare, then leader of the renegade Mauri Pacific Party – which no one voted for, since it broke away from New Zealand First – boasted that he had screwed $170 million out of Jim Bolger’s National Government as the price of his party’s support.

Mr Henare, of course, is now back in Parliament as a National MP. Meanwhile his ex-Mauri Pacific colleague and fellow member of the infamous “Tight Five”, Tukoroirangi Morgan, has re-invented himself as a sleek front man for the wealthy Tainui tribe. You have to admit there’s a certain synchronicity here.

* * *

PERHAPS the most obnoxious aspect of the sweetheart deal with the Maori Party is that it will place still more economic power in the hands of a tribal elite that shows little interest in spreading its wealth among less privileged Maori.

This powerful iwi coterie fought tooth and nail through the courts to prevent the spoils of Treaty settlements trickling down to so-called “urban Maori” who don’t have the right connections. Their success in fighting off claims by urban Maori is measured by the continuing existence of a substantial Maori underclass that has been cut out of the Treaty bonanza.

It is in this underclass that the problems of Maori unemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence and welfare dependency continue to fester while the Maori aristocracy looks the other way. Not their problem.

* * *

SIR WILLIAM Gilbert, the half of Gilbert and Sullivan who wrote the words, came up with the perfect name for public officials who suffer from an inflated self-regard. He called them pooh-bahs.

Oddly enough, that was the word that flashed into my mind when I read that Children’s Commissioner John Angus had urged people to stay away from last weekend’s “march for democracy” in Auckland, organised to protest at the government’s decision to ignore the 87 percent of New Zealanders who voted in a referendum against the criminalisation of smacking.

What a cheek. What business is it of the Children’s Commissioner if New Zealanders want to exercise their democratic rights by marching up Queen St? What extraordinary conceit makes him think we could benefit from his moral and political guidance?

No one outside the social welfare bureaucracy had heard of Dr Angus before his appointment earlier this year. Perhaps this silly statement was his way of letting people know he exists.

Like his colleague, Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, who gratuitously stirred up the squabble between Michael Laws and a group of Otaki schoolgirls over the spelling of Wanganui, Dr Angus needs to pull his head in.

* * *

AT THE risk of sounding treasonous, isn’t it time for a reality check after the hysteria over the All Whites’ win against Bahrain?

Fact: New Zealand is at odds of 750 to 1 to win the 2010 World Cup. It shares these ignominious odds with North Korea.

Fact: New Zealand is 77th in the world football rankings. It jumped six places following its win at Westpac Stadium but still languishes behind such football giants as Togo, Cyprus and Benin.

Fact: All Whites coach Ricki Herbert said it was the enthusiastic backing of the Wellington crowd that got his team “over the line” against Bahrain. Conclusion: Unless New Zealand’s World Cup games can all be played in the Cake Tin, or the government charters fleets of Boeing 747s to carry noisy Wellington fans to match venues overseas, the 1-0 result against Bahrain was as good as it’s going to get.

Commentators who say that rugby needs to watch its back clearly had their judgment clouded by the euphoric mood at the Westpac Stadium. All it proved was that Wellington loves an excuse for a good party, which we already knew.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

As usual, the Air New Zealand wine awards spring a few surprises

It’s always interesting to browse through the results of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, the most important of New Zealand’s annual wine competitions.

Some things change little – like the swag of gold medals picked up every year by Villa Maria, which has an unparalleled record of competition success. But the awards always turn up a few unexpected results, and often throw light on previously obscure wineries that are destined for bigger things.

This year the big surprise was sprung by Julicher Estate, a small, family-owned winery in the Te Muna Valley near Martinborough whose 2008 pinot noir was named the Champion Wine of the Show. Remarkably, given Martinborough’s status, it was the first time in 20 years that a wine from the South Wairarapa winemaking region had won the supreme prize.

Perhaps even more remarkably, given the fact that Martinborough was the first New Zealand region to produce consistently good pinot noir and still makes many of the country’s best examples, it was the first time a Martinborough pinot noir had won. This is partly explained by the fact that some exalted Martinborough wineries, such as Ata Rangi and Dry River, don’t enter competitions. (The previous Martinborough wine to win the coveted champion’s trophy, in 1989, was a Martinborough Vineyard chardonnay.)

Julicher Estate was founded only 10 years ago by Dutch immigrant Wim Julicher (pronounced You-licker), a retired Hutt Valley builder. Though the Dutch are not noted as a nation of wine drinkers, it’s one of several New Zealand wineries established by immigrants from the Netherlands. Others include Alpha Domus (Hawke’s Bay), Mebus Estate (Wairarapa) and Staedt Landt (Marlborough). Even more intriguingly, Julicher has a Finnish winemaker, Outi Javovirta.

Before the Air New Zealand awards were announced last weekend, Julicher was a label familiar to wine lovers in the Wairarapa, and perhaps Wellington, but probably little known further afield. There had been signs, however, that this was a winery to watch. Julicher’s 2005 riesling scored the maximum five points in a Cuisine tasting three years ago, and the winery's 99 Rows Pinot Noir 2008 – an early-drinking style of pinot, cheaper than the label’s premium, trophy-winning wine – was another Cuisine five-pointer, securing a place in the Top 10 in the magazine’s recent annual pinot tasting.

The irony is that Wim Julicher started out in 1996 intending to grow olives, not grapes. It was only after his olive trees were devastated by frost in 1998 that he decided there might be a more promising future in wine.

As a result of its weekend triumph, Julicher Estate will now enjoy a cachet in the marketplace and status-conscious wine drinkers who hadn’t previously heard of the label will be clamouring to acquire its wine. This demonstrates one of the great virtues of competitions: they alert the market to promising new wineries (well, newish in this case) that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Julicher isn’t the first obscure winery to have beaten more illustrious names to top honours. In the 2001 Air New Zealand awards, a sweet riesling made by Canterbury House (a label now part of the Mud House group, but rarely heard of these days) was named champion wine of the show. Best-in-class trophies have often gone to outsiders such as Gisborne’s small Amor-Bendall winery, which in 2004 won the hotly contested sauvignon blanc trophy, and Martinborough’s now-defunct Lintz Estate, whose shiraz won the champion “other reds” trophy in 1998 (a prize controversially withdrawn after British judge Oz Clarke realised the wine submitted for judging was different from the one under the same label that was served at the awards dinner.)

These examples show that success in the Air New Zealand awards is no guarantee of a stellar future – but it’s a good start nonetheless, and my guess is that Julicher will be no flash in the pan.

Catalina Sounds, Couper’s Shed and Georgetown are three other little-known names that thrust themselves into the spotlight in the 2009 Air New Zealand awards, winning the trophies for best sauvignon blanc, best pinot gris and “best exhibition red wine” respectively. Marlborough label Catalina Sounds, owned by an Australian wine distributor, produced its first vintage in 2006. Couper’s Shed is an even newer name; it’s a Hawke’s Bay label owned by Pernod Ricard and targeted mainly at the restaurant market. Georgetown is a Cromwell (Central Otago) label about which I know nothing, and which appears to be so new it isn’t even mentioned in the 2009 Winegrowers New Zealand annual report which lists all its members.

Otherwise the trophies went to well-established and mostly familiar names, as can be seen from the following complete list:

Air New Zealand Champion Wine of the Show Trophy
Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
Bell Gully Champion Sustainable Wine Trophy
Olssens Annieburn Riesling 2009
JF Hillebrand New Zealand Ltd Champion Pinot Noir Trophy
Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
Label & Litho Champion Chardonnay Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Barrique Chardonnay 2007
OI New Zealand Champion Sauvignon Blanc Trophy
Catalina Sounds Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009
BDO Champion Other White Styles & Rosé Trophy
Church Road Reserve Viognier 2007
Fairfax Media Champion Open Red Wine Trophy
Waipara Hills Southern Cross Selection Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008
Fruitfed Supplies Champion Syrah Trophy
Coopers Creek SV Hawkes Bay Syrah Chalk Ridge 2008
LatitudeGT Champion Pinot Gris Trophy
Couper’s Shed Pinot Gris 2009
Newstalk ZB Champion Other Red Styles Trophy
Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Tempranillo 2008
New World Champion Open White Wine Trophy
Forrest The Doctors’ Riesling 2009
New Zealand Winegrowers Champion Gewurztraminer Trophy
Johanneshof Cellars Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2009
New Zealand Winegrowers Champion Merlot Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Merlot 2007
Plant & Food Research Champion Riesling Trophy
Esk Valley Marlborough Riesling 2009
Rabobank Champion Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot/Cabernet Blend Trophy
Mills Reef Elspeth Cabernet Merlot 2007 Champion Sparkling Wine Trophy
Deutz Marlborough Cuvee Blanc de Blancs 2006
Wineworks Champion Dessert Wine Trophy
Farmgate Noble Harvest Riesling 2007
Corbans Viticulture Champion Exhibition White or Sparkling Wine Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay 2006
Kapiti Champion Exhibition Red Wine Trophy
Georgetown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007

A few points of interest about the awards:

■ The jury is still out on which region does best with pinot noir. Marlborough and Otago dead-heated for gold medals in the pinot class, with seven each. Wairarapa wines scored four, including one not from Martinborough (Fairmont Estate). [Point of explanation: a gold medal does not indicate that a wine has won its class, merely that it has been awarded more than 18.5 points out of a possible 20. A wine that wins its class is awarded a trophy. In contrast to the Olympic Games, there is theoretically no limit to the number of medals that can be awarded in each category.]

■ The number of trophies seems to be steadily expanding, perhaps to ensure more winners and therefore create an additional incentive for wineries to enter. For example, three rieslings and three pinot noirs were awarded trophies, though in separate categories. This seems to muddy the results and create uncertainty as to which has been judged the “best” wine.

■ The trophy-winning Villa Maria chardonnay is a Gisborne wine, which may provide welcome encouragement to chardonnay growers in a region that has shown signs of falling out of favour.

■ Keep an eye on Waipara. The low-profile North Canterbury region didn’t make a huge splash in the awards, but picked up gold medals for the wine styles it’s best suited to, namely riesling and pinot noir. It was fitting that one of those medals went to Glenmark Weka Plains Riesling 2003, a wine bearing the label established by the pioneer of Waipara wine, farmer John McCaskey. Waipara Springs also picked up a gold medal for its Premo Riesling 2005 and up-and-coming Waipara label Greystone scored with its 2008 pinot noir.

■ Seven gold medals were awarded in the gewürztraminer class, despite it being a small category and a relatively unfashionable wine style that many wineries regard as too troublesome to bother with. Riesling also did well, scoring 10 gold medals. By comparison, only 13 gold medals were awarded in the much bigger sauvignon blanc class.

■ Only one merlot scored gold, suggesting that merlot on its own, while warm and plump, needs the tannic structure of cabernet sauvignon to give it some spine. (Even one gold medal would be too much for the lead character in the cult movie Sideways, who despised merlot.)

■ Of the 10 gold medals awarded for syrah (another very high ratio), three were for Waiheke Island wines. The rest, predictably, went to Hawke’s Bay.

■ It was pleasing to see Mills Reef take home the trophy for best Bordeaux-style red – appropriate recognition for a winery that consistently delivers without hype or fanfare.

■ Small Martinborough winery Margrain walked away with a remarkable haul of three gold medals – from a total of seven – for dessert wines. One of the medal-winning Margrain wines was a botrytis chenin blanc from vines planted 30 years ago by Martinborough wine pioneer the late Stan Chifney, whose vineyard Margrain acquired after his death. Two of the four remaining golds for dessert wines went to Hawke’s Bay producer Ngatarawa, long a proven performer in this class. (Farmgate, the champion dessert wine, is a Ngatarawa label.)

■ Montana Sauvignon Blanc won gold – a fitting honour in the year marking the 30th anniversary of the wine many still consider the archetypal Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Another Marlborough producer, St Clair, won four of the 13 gold medals awarded for sauvignon blanc.

All very interesting, but of course wine competitions are not infallible. Wine judging is subjective, even when carried out by experts, and can throw up quirky results. Bear in mind that the judges do their tasting in a very different setting from that in which most people enjoy wine, and that noses and palates can become tired and jaded over the course of a long day in which literally hundreds of wines may be sampled. It’s well known that wine contests tend to favour “look at me” or “show pony” wines while quieter, very worthy wines may go unnoticed.

Bear in mind too that many of the country’s most distinguished wine producers – among them Te Mata Estate, Ata Rangi, Neudorf, Felton Road, Dry River and Pegasus Bay, to name just a few – rarely, if ever, enter New Zealand wine competitions. Even Montana for many years didn’t bother. One obvious reason is that these wineries don’t need awards to enhance their reputations, but an additional factor is that they don’t make wines to a formula aimed at winning competitions.

This reflects no discredit on wines that do well in competitions, or wineries (such as Villa Maria) that consistently win trophies. A wine that wins a gold medal in a competition such as the Air New Zealand awards will almost certainly be a very good wine, but that’s not to say there are not better wines out there. In any case, the best judge of any wine is the person drinking it.

For the awards in full, go to:

[My book The New Zealand Wine-Lover’s Companion is published by Craig Potton Publishing and has a recommended retail price of $29.99.]

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cactus Kate and that smoking gun

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch yesterday reported a furore, largely confined to the blogosphere, over legal guidelines reportedly issued to editors of APN publications, which include the New Zealand Herald and The Listener.

News of these guidelines, supposedly emanating from APN’s head office in Sydney, was broken by blogger Cactus Kate under the headline APN Chicken Out . Cactus Kate could barely contain her excitement, writing that she was on to such a humdinger of a story that her hands were shaking.

The Hong Kong-based New Zealand lawyer, much of whose writing (or at least what I’ve seen of it) seems to revolve around social gossip, sexual exploits, international travel and bragging about expense accounts, breathlessly reported that she had been told of the guidelines by “not one, not two, but three separate, anonymous sources”. She added in melodramatic tones that none of her sources could write about the story themselves for fear of losing their jobs.

(Did it occur to Cactus Kate, I wonder, that it was a coincidence that three “separate, anonymous sources” apparently chose – independently, separately and simultaneously – to notify her of their concerns? That would have caused my journalist’s antennae to twitch, just as they twitched a few years ago when Nicky Hager claimed several National Party insiders independently, separately and simultaneously had leaked damaging information to him about dodgy goings-on inside the party. Fancy that! But then Cactus Kate, perhaps seeing herself as positioned at the epicentre of the news media universe, may have thought it perfectly natural that these whistle-blowers would come straight to her. In any case, surely no disaffected APN journalist would set her up? No, of course not. Let’s move on.)

After giving herself a hearty pat on the back for having the balls to break the APN legal guidelines scoop when no gutless mainstream media hack would, Cactus Kate finally got around to telling us what was in them.

“Not content with slashing their newsrooms and replacing real free-ranged [sic] journos with young battery hens,” she wrote, “they [APN] are now thrusting guidelines from Sydney upon editors such as the ones at New Zealand Herald. The thrust is all to do with NO budget allocated for legal action or defence [the bold type is Cactus Kate's] so the editors have basically been told not to run stories that could cause legal action or are risky in other ways.”

I’m afraid those antennae started twitching again here. When I see vague phrases such as “the thrust is all to do with” and fuzzy words like “basically” I wonder why we are not being shown the source material on which such claims are based.

If it’s true that APN editors have been told they have no budget for legal action or defence, and if this means editors have no money to consult lawyers over potentially risky stories, then that would certainly be cause for alarm. But it’s hard to tell from Cactus Kate’s vague paraphrasing whether this is in fact what it means, and in the meantime the Herald has published a statement by editor Tim Murphy categorically stating that “there is no truth whatsoever to the claim that our editorial legal budget has been restricted or that we need to alter our approach to legal challenges or threats over Herald stories. No cut. No change.”

Now it’s possible that Murphy has put his reputation at risk by telling a huge fib but somehow I doubt it. Moreover, his statement is clear and emphatic whereas Cactus Kate’s use of language such as “the thrust is all to do with” is suspiciously imprecise. So for the time being, I’m putting my faith in Murphy. Time will soon tell if the Herald has lost its nerve and stopped publishing risky stories, in which case people will notice and stop buying it.

So what of the other guidelines? Unlike the above, these are purportedly reproduced in their entirety on Cactus Kate’s blog, so we can judge for ourselves what they mean. And I’m afraid that for the most part, they strike me as standard advice from a big media firm that not surprisingly wants to keep a check on legal costs.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1. Conservative editorial approach
Editorial could take a more conservative approach to the subject matter and content of the risky or contentious articles. Where editorial identifies an issue or risk in an article the relevant passages could be proactively removed, or rewritten internally, to remove the perceived risk, as an alternative to obtaining legal advice on the risks of publication.

Cactus Kate condemns this as “utterly soft cock” and concludes that it means “the poor editor cannot even go and get legal advice as to whether to keep subject matter in an article. They have to basically remove the content as an alternative to obtaining legal advice!”

I don’t see where it says that. I read it as simply saying the “full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes” approach shouldn’t necessarily be the first option for an editor considering whether to run a risky story. I interpret the guideline as saying editors should weigh up whether the importance of the story justifies the potential legal risk. This is a routine judgment call which is made more or less daily on big newspapers, though Cactus Kate – not being a journalist – wouldn’t necessarily know that. Significantly, the guideline doesn’t say editors must take a more conservative approach or that relevant passages must be removed. Yes, it’s cautious; but that’s the way media lawyers are.

2. Checklist for common issues
There are a number of issues which have arisen repeatedly and have either required legal advice and the re-writing of articles, or have not received legal advice and have led to claims. Editorial could avoid the need for a reasonable amount of legal advice and potential claims by applying the following general guidelines:
a. In criminal reporting:
i. Avoid the publication of any information which discloses the fact that a person facing prosecution has any previous criminal convictions (in addition to revealing that directly, this includes reference to having been in prison, use of police “mug shots”, etc)
ii. Check whether there is any name suppression order, or order suppressing any particular evidence, and that no details are published which could lead to identification or revelation of the suppressed information.
iii. Be mindful that it can be contempt (as a breach of the sub judice rules) for the newspaper to carry out and publish its own investigations into matters that are before the Court, or to publish other evidence which may be contentious at trial.
b. Particular care should be taken to ensure that people are always correctly identified and that photographs accurately depict the intended people, and do not implicate unrelated people.
c. Avoid entirely, or take particular care in relation to, any allegations or implications of fraud, dishonesty, untruthfulness and other improper conduct, unless they can be clearly substantiated.

This is standard stuff that all journalism students learn (or should learn) in their media law classes. Nothing to see here, folks; move on.

Quivering with indignation, Cactus Kate then goes on: “This is not however the worst affront to investigative journalism - this is:

d. There are categories of people who are more inclined to sue if they are the subject of adverse publications, so particular care should be taken in reporting allegations of misconduct against lawyers, doctors, judges, other professionals, politicians, critics and wealthy businessmen/women.

I ask you, how outrageous is that? “Particular care should be taken”. Gasp!
Please note that it doesn’t say you must not write stories about these people – simply that if you do, you should check your facts and weigh your words very carefully so as not to give them an invitation to sue. Again, this advice won’t come as a surprise to any experienced journalist. It’s not merely standard editorial practice; it’s common sense. But Cactus Kate, in a rush of blood to the head, reads it as a signal that APN newspapers will no longer run stories that reflect badly on prominent people.

She writes: “It chops the cock off the rooster so to speak as most investigative pieces of journalism are by definition against the most successful people in society, or those with the most power such as politicians or judges. Bloggers will simply take you over as I have done in reporting on your behaviour as figures in your own industry gave me this story to run and not a MSM publisher.” (Dear me, she doesn’t write very well, does she? I think I can see why Fairfax dropped her as a columnist.)

But wait, she hasn’t finished. Cactus Kate then cites the following, highly incriminating “guidelines”:

e. It should be remembered that the fact that a publication merely repeats allegations or statements that have been made by other people does not provide a defence to a defamation claim if those statements cannot be substantiated; and that describing such statements as “allegations” or as “claims” rather than as facts does not necessarily provide a defence to a defamation claim (if, for example, the publication implies, or people may believe, that there is some substance to the allegations).
f. It should be remembered that when reporting any death that may have been self-inflicted that it is unlawful to publish any particulars relating to the manner in which the death occurred without the permission of the coroner before the inquest has been completed.
g. The fact that a story has been broken elsewhere without apparent repercussions does not necessarily mean that it is then safe for APN to pick it up. APN should make its own independent assessment of risk.

Ho-hum …. more standard legal advice of the sort that chief reporters and news editors have been handing out to gung-ho young reporters for decades. But CK sees it as the death knell for vigorous, investigative journalism. “APN are chickening out and creating MSM Lite in New Zealand,” she wails.

The guidelines so dramatically exposed by Cactus Kate are not so much a smoking gun as one of those toy pistols with a flag that comes out of the barrel saying “Bang!”. As Tim Murphy says in his statement on the New Zealand Herald website, her supposed exposé consists of “a heavily truncated mish-mash of unremarkable legal discussion points (a to g) in a 66-page media law training paper put together by our lawyers, Bell Gully, and provided to 80 or so participants from throughout APN. Nothing secret about them and nothing new.”

I suspect Cactus Kate’s secret informants either have a grudge against their employer (a possibility that incriminates APN’s entire editorial staff, since nearly all journalists heartily resent their bosses) or have played a practical joke. But at least she has the excuse of not being a journalist, and therefore not knowing how the business functions. The same can’t be said for Janet Wilson, a former television current affairs producer, now married to Bill Ralston, who energetically took up CK’s crusade on Mediawatch.

Wilson worked herself into a highly agitated state over the supposed timidity of media organisations but conspicuously failed to answer presenter Colin Peacock when he asked for examples of the media backing away from risky stories. The best she could do was relate a completely irrelevant anecdote relating to an investigative story she heroically (one assumes) got past TVNZ’s editors two and a half years ago, before she decided her future lay in running a media training company.

Perhaps Wilson was out of the country, or too busy instructing her clients in the dark art of deflecting problematical media inquiries, when The Dominion Post went to court to defend publication of the so-called Urewera terrorism files – just one example of the type of high-risk story she claims the media are no longer tackling.

Wilson was especially incensed over APN’s reported injunction to staff to “take particular care” with stories about potentially litigious people. Brushing aside presenter Colin Peacock’s reasonable protestation that such advice was nothing new, she uttered the tedious old cliché that one of the basic tenets of journalism was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. (Actually that’s not, and has never been, a basic tenet of journalism, although the idea has successfully been planted in the heads of countless gullible journalism students, of whom Wilson was possibly one.)

Wilson even had the nerve to suggest that Murphy didn’t know about the instructions being given to editors in his own company (though Wilson of course does – yeah, right). “I think Tim is being left out of the loop,” she said. It was a strange, angry rant that made little sense and left me wondering why Mediawatch bothered.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gary Glitter and the Morris Marina weren't good ideas either

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 11.)

Let me take you back to 1974.

New Zealanders were driving Holden Kingswoods, Morris Marinas and Hillman Hunters. Police cars were painted battleship grey.

An ailing Norman Kirk was prime minister and Sir Denis Blundell was Governor-General. The president of the Federation of Labour, Tom Skinner, was one of the most powerful men in the country.

Popular TV shows included Happen Inn and Upstairs, Downstairs. Philip Sherry and Bill Toft were reading the news and viewers were enjoying the novelty of colour, introduced just in time for the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. Television transmissions ended before midnight and there was no advertising on Sundays.

Flares, platform shoes, glitter and Afro hairstyles were all the rage. John Hanlon was topping the charts with Lovely Lady and Blazing Saddles was showing at the movies, along with The Towering Inferno.

Men still did most of their drinking in smoky public bars before staggering home to the missus. They drank Lion Brown and DB Draught because there was little else available.

McDonald’s hadn’t yet arrived in New Zealand and licensed restaurants were expensive places you went to for special events such as 21st birthday celebrations or wedding anniversaries.

Andy Leslie was captain of the All Blacks and rugby’s image was still untarnished by the 1976 Olympic Games boycott and the 1981 Springbok tour.

Feminism was in its infancy. The domestic purposes benefit had just been introduced and abortion was illegal.

CDs and DVDs hadn’t been invented and the internet, if anyone had thought of it, would have seemed the stuff of wild science fiction.

New Zealand had a highly protected economy that had been largely dependent on trade with Britain. We had not yet felt the full impact of the 1973 oil price shocks and the chronic inflation that was to follow, or the pain from Britain’s decision to abandon us by joining the European Economic Community.

It was the last year in which we enjoyed the same per capita income as Australians. New Zealand farmers, encouraged by generous taxpayer subsidies, had 56 million sheep compared with 34 million now. Milk – also generously subsidised – was four cents a pint.

It would be another 10 years before the government of David Lange, forced to take drastic action because of New Zealand’s dire economic predicament, pushed through a radical programme of deregulation that transformed the country.

You get the picture? New Zealand in 1974 was a very different place than it is now. It was, quite literally, a lifetime ago.

It was in this context that the accident compensation scheme, or ACC as it became known, was introduced. The concept of a universal, no-fault accident compensation scheme was a world first, and New Zealanders were proud of it. But the world moves on.

What’s intriguing about ACC is that because it seemed a good idea in 1974, many people insist it must still be a good idea now.

Flared trousers, Gary Glitter, Morris Marinas, import restrictions and lousy beer didn’t seem bad ideas in 1974 either, but no one is clamouring to reinstate them. So what’s so precious about ACC that it must be frozen in time, presumably as a permanent reminder of a warm, fuzzy era when a paternalistic state bandaged our knees and kissed us better?

The comparison with flares, beer and crappy British cars might seem frivolous, but you can see what I’m getting at. Nothing is permanent in a turbulent, dynamic world, and what seemed entirely appropriate and even visionary in 1974 may be hopelessly inefficient and anachronistic in 2009.

In 1974 we felt economically secure and we placed our trust in mummy state. That was even truer in 1967, when the Woodhouse Commission first proposed ACC.

At that time we enjoyed one of the world’s highest standards of living and probably felt we could afford a gold-plated accident compensation scheme that was, essentially, the biggest extension of the welfare state since the 1930s.

Not only have economic circumstances changed radically since then, but politicians have bought electoral support by weighing ACC down with ever greater responsibilities, usually in response to the special pleadings of aggrieved groups which exist in numbers unimagined 35 years ago.

On top of that, ACC exhibits all the usual symptoms of cumbersome bureaucracies that face no competition and therefore little pressure to perform. These symptoms include perversely paying long-term compensation to freeloaders and malingerers while simultaneously fighting tooth and nail to deny compensation to deserving cases, of which almost every New Zealander knows at least one example.

Yet whenever anyone dares to suggest the scheme should be modified or (horror!) exposed to competition, the opinions of Sir Owen Woodhouse, the architect of the scheme, are trotted out as if he remains the Oracle.

Sir Owen naturally feels proud of his baby, but with respect, he’s now 93, and though he’s still clearly as sharp as a tack, he should accept that New Zealand is a different country from the one in which he embarked on his ambitious social experiment.

ACC’s five principles – which included “community responsibility” for accidents, comprehensive entitlement regardless of what caused the accident, and compensation at 80 per cent of previous earnings – were in tune with the collectivist mood of the time. But they haven’t aged well in a society which has learned to its cost that many people will happily take something for nothing, and which has grown intolerant of people who expect others to pay for their own failure to behave safely or responsibly.

Sir Owen and his many supporters talk about these “principles” as if they are sacrosanct, but very few things are sacrosanct and institutions such as ACC should certainly not be regarded as permanently cast in stone. A radical overhaul of the entire accident compensation regime is long overdue.

Going cold turkey on the TV news

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

I HAVE ALMOST given up entirely on the television news.

This is not easy. Watching the TV news is like addiction to tobacco; you know it’s not good for you, but a lifetime habit is hard to break. There’s always the nagging fear that I might miss seeing something really important.

Fortunately the television networks, bless them, are doing their best to make the parting painless for me.

A watershed moment came when TV3 led its 6pm bulletin with coverage of Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe’s apology for the way the airline treated the families of those who died in the Mt Erebus tragedy in 1979.

The bulletin editors decided that in her preamble to the item, newsreader Hilary Barry should give viewers the benefit of her opinion on the airline’s behaviour 30 years ago. “Frankly, it stank”, Barry harrumphed.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I neither expect nor want to hear facile editorial opinions from newsreaders – least of all from one who, by my reckoning, was about nine years old when Flight NZ901 slammed into Erebus, and who probably remembers less about it than many of her viewers. What gob-smacking effrontery.

Of course it may not have been Barry’s opinion at all, but words written by someone else for her to say – which, if anything, makes it worse. Was it Barry’s own opinion, in which case it was worth no more than that of the corner dairy owner, or was it the opinion of some anonymous TV3 person behind the scenes whose view might carry some weight if only we knew who the person was? It’s anyone’s guess.

The very vagueness of this editorial posturing makes it meaningless, yet at the same time slightly disturbing. Unlike a newspaper editorial, which is clearly an expression of opinion for which the editor takes responsibility, the viewers don’t know where this opinion emanated from or what, if any, importance to attach to it.

More disturbingly still, the promiscuously casual mixing of news and comment – long the journalistic stock-in-trade of TV3’s political editor Duncan Garner – means viewers increasingly have to guess which is which.

A few nights earlier, TV3 had repelled me with its highly opinionated coverage of the discovery of missing toddler Aisling Symes’ body in a stormwater drain at Henderson.

Being wise after the event, which is something TV reporters do very well, the journalist slagged off the police for not finding Aisling earlier. My guess is that the reporter was instructed to adopt her smugly moralistic tone. Certainly it wouldn’t have happened without her editors’ approval.

At times like this I cringe with shame at the behaviour of my fellow journalists, and I recall the famous condemnation of the British press by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1931: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

What is noticeable about editorialising by TV journalists is that it seems calculated to exploit populist sentiment. They choose soft targets, playing to the public appetite for scapegoats and moral outrage.

It’s considered safe to heap scorn on Air New Zealand, especially since most of the people who might once have defended the airline are no longer around, and it’s considered safe to rubbish the police for not finding a dead toddler earlier, though there were good reasons why that didn’t happen, and Aisling’s life wouldn’t have been saved in any case.

Police, like politicians, are considered fair game in almost any circumstances.

A British newspaper journalist once wrote, tongue only partly in cheek, that editorial writers hid in the hills till the fighting was over, then came down and bayoneted the wounded. The same is now true of TV reporters.

This coincides with a fundamental change in the role of the TV journalist, whose primary function these days is not so much to impart important information as to provoke an emotional reaction from the viewer – be it grief, fear, anger, sympathy, disgust or whatever.

So I must now steel myself at 6 o’clock and try to ignore the temptation to switch on the TV set. Each evening I assess whether the benefit of anything I am likely to learn by watching the news will be outweighed by the irritation of sitting through so much pap. Most nights the balance of probabilities favours leaving the TV off.

The intrusion of editorial comment into the news is the proverbial last straw, coming on top of silly gimmickry like tandem newsreaders (can anyone remember when it took only one person to read the news?) and pointless live crosses to attractive reporters who have the language and pronunciation skills of pre-schoolers.

TVNZ offers no respite, since the two networks are locked in a downward spiral of crassness in which any new form of idiocy adopted by one is quickly mimicked by the other.

Newspapers can irritate me too, but there’s a vital difference. Reading the paper, you can see at a glance the stories you have no interest in reading – the depressing child abuse trial, the antics of celebrities you’ve never heard of – and pass over them.

Television doesn’t allow that luxury. You either endure the dross, hoping it will throw up an occasional nugget, or you forgo it altogether. More and more often, I’m choosing to do the latter.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mayhem at Masterton book launching; police hold back crowds

Hedley's Bookshop in Masterton, a Wairarapa treasure that deserves to be more widely known, was the venue for the launch at a merry gathering last Wednesday evening of my book The New Zealand Wine-Lover's Companion, published by Craig Potton Publishing. David Hedley kindly said a few words, I said a few more words, then we drank a toast (with wine kindly supplied by Palliser Estate of Martinborough) and cast the book adrift on the fickle sea of fate.

It has already had its first review, thanks to my friend Raymond Chan of Regional Wines & Spirits, Wellington. Raymond had a hand in the book's preparation, for which I am most grateful, and very kindly wrote the following (unsolicited) review to put on the Regional Wines website in advance of a promotion there next Saturday, November 7.

Further information about The New Zealand Wine-Lover's Companion is available on the Craig Potton Publishing website,



I must declare a personal interest in this book. While I was undergoing tough times during cancer treatment earlier this year, Karl approached me asking to peruse a section of his manuscript for a proposed book. His words were so much fun that I wanted to see more of his work. It brightened my days over a bitterly cold winter and probably helped in the process of recovery. So I read Karl’s manuscript in entirety, offering some suggestions and a few minor corrections.

It’s an A-Z guide that is perfect for dipping in an out of, gleaning interesting facts about many different facets of wine that are applicable to anyone in New Zealand interested in wine. It has entries on grape varieties, different wine styles, New Zealand and important international wine producers, people and history, all who or which have made an impact on the New Zealand wine scene. There are explanations of technical jargon and even a layman’s guide to the pronunciation of some of the more difficult words and names.

Whilst not comprehensive or fully detailed in wine science, it offers a wonderfully broad overview in assistance to a beginner in wine as well as bringing a sense of nostalgia to the experienced wine professional, in its entries, showing how long Karl has been interested in wine. His style of writing is very approachable and his wry humour and wit evident in much of the book. You really couldn’t expect anything else from a journalist who has been a wine writer for NZ House & Garden, The Evening Post, the Sunday Star-Times, Cuisine and National Business Review. Karl served as the Editor of The Dominion for some time, but now freelances from the Wairarapa, close to many of his friends in the wine industry.

I recommend this delightful book for your own enjoyment; it should also make an excellent gift. Karl will be instore at Regional Wines on Saturday 7 November, from 11.00 am to 4.00 pm, at the same time as the tasting of a range of Craggy Range wines, promoting his book. We will have the book for sale at $29.95, no extra for signed copies on the day!

2009 Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson

- Raymond Chan

Memo Joris de Bres: It's no longer 2008

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 27.)

SOMEONE should point out to Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres that there has been a change of government.

Last week, Mr de Bres presented six girls from Otaki School’s kura kaupapa Maori language unit with certificates honouring them for their well-publicised conflict with Wanganui mayor Michael Laws over the proposal to insert an “h” in the city’s name.

Regardless of how one feels about Mr Laws or the spelling of Wanganui, this was a gratuitously mischievous and provocative act on the part of Mr de Bres. It served only to poke a pitbull that would have been better left sleeping.

Ostensibly, the certificates recognised the “dignity” with which the girls behaved during their confrontation with Mr Laws. This seemed a contrived justification for a blatant political stunt.

Not content with wading in to the row uninvited (or so we must assume) and in a highly partisan fashion, Mr de Bres seemed to go out of his way to antagonise Mr Laws, commending the girls for putting up with “rubbish” from the mayor.

The commissioner’s behaviour doesn’t exactly square with the stated objectives of the Human Rights Commission of which he is a member, which include the encouragement of “harmonious relations between individuals and among the diverse groups in New Zealand”. Here he is winding things up when his job is to keep things calm.

Mr de Bres, a Labour appointee and former Public Service Association official with impeccably PC credentials, seems trapped in some sort of time warp. He needs to be reminded that the previous government, which might have smiled indulgently on his antics, was tossed out by a public tired of suffocating political correctness and official busybodies.

National may be less tolerant. It would be justified in taking the view that a statutorily independent figure such as Mr de Bres should be above trying to score points in petty political rows.

The Race Relations Commissioner also needs to be reminded that Mr Laws will always be able to claim the moral high ground over him for one very good reason: unlike Mr de Bres, he’s elected and publicly accountable.

* * *

THIS NEWSPAPER presented a very thorough assessment at the weekend of John Key’s first year as prime minister, but I thought it missed one significant point about his leadership.

Arguably Mr Key’s most notable achievement has been to bring a sense of unity and cohesion to a country that was previously highly polarised. He has done this not only through his disarming “gee golly” personality, as Mike Moore described it, but by being ideologically non-threatening. Virtually no one can think of a good reason to take violent exception to him.

The country is enjoying a blessed respite after all the bitter, fractious politics of the Clark-Brash-Peters era, and its gratitude is reflected in the opinion polls. However I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he’s tucked up in bed at night, Mr Key utters a prayer of thanks for the fact that the divisive figure of Winston Peters has left the political stage. If anyone was capable of sabotaging his dream run, it was the New Zealand First leader.

* * *

SPARE A thought, meanwhile, for poor Phil Goff, who is lurking, metaphorically speaking, in a dank basement while Mr Key enjoys the adulation of the crowds from a sunny Beehive balcony.

From a public relations point of view, Mr Goff’s problem is that he doesn’t have the personality to withstand the close exposure he faces as Opposition leader.

He is a pleasant and reasonable man. This works well enough when you are merely a Cabinet minister or shadow spokesman, but it becomes a liability when you are subjected to the harsh glare of the spotlight as party leader. In a high-profile job that requires Mr Goff to provide constant sound-bites to the media, pleasant and reasonable soon translates to boring. The public switches off.

Even at her lowest ebb in opposition, there was something about the steely Helen Clark that commanded the public’s attention. But Mr Goff hasn’t got it, and it’s a moot point whether even the Brian Edwards-Judy Callingham media training that helped humanise Ms Clark could save him.

* * *

OBSERVED last week on the Hutt motorway: three Fulton Hogan trucks travelling in convoy in the outside right-hand lane with big flashing arrows indicating that the lane was either closed or about to be closed and forcing vehicles to converge in the remaining lanes. As traffic was building up toward the afternoon peak this caused a bit of a squeeze and there was much sudden braking.

Having passed the Fulton Hogan trucks I naturally looked for the reason why the lane was closed. There was nothing; the highway in front of them was clear.

I have often wondered whether the constant processions of slow-moving Fulton Hogan trucks up and down the Hutt motorway were someone’s idea of an elaborate practical joke. Now I’m convinced.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Power-crazed councils must be checked

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 14.)

Not long before the last election, I had an animated discussion with a political scientist about the role Rodney Hide was likely to play in a National-led coalition government.

The academic was convinced that Hide would wield little, if any, real power. Because the ACT leader represented a small party to the right of National he would not be in a strong bargaining position, whereas the Maori Party – which was pivotal to National’s ability to govern – would be able to extract lots of political concessions.

Well he was right about the Maori Party, of course; no surprises there. But he was wrong about Hide, which proves again that supposed experts can be woefully off-beam in their assessments.

No one who knows Hide could have thought for a moment that this stroppy politician would be content to accept a tame, lap-dog role in government. And so it has turned out.

Assigned the local government portfolio, normally one of those low-profile Cabinet jobs like Customs and Internal Affairs, Hide has taken to his new role with typical gusto. Aucklanders must be shell-shocked at the speed with which he has driven through his controversial “super city” plan.

I understand the misgivings of those who worry that such a far-reaching change is taking place at such pace, but I can see why Hide has done it this way. If you give the opponents of change time to marshal their defences, proposals get sandbagged and nothing happens.

This is probably truer in local government than in other sectors of the economy, given that it’s the domain of wily local politicians and bureaucrats intent on protecting their own empires.

Of course it’s not just Auckland that’s feeling the heat under Hide. Councils elsewhere must also be squirming with discomfort at the shake-up he has demanded.

While commending some councils for their innovative, ratepayer-friendly initiatives, he has signalled a crackdown on red tape, compliance costs – many of them imposed under the former Labour government – and excessive rate increases. Most of all, he wants councils to concentrate on their traditional core roles.

We should welcome this approach because local government exercises wide-ranging powers over the way we live, and the potential for misuse of those powers is considerable.

One abuse that needs to be checked is the propensity of councils to routinely increase rates without regard for the state of the economy or the ability of property owners to pay. It’s all too easy for councillors – or more precisely bureaucrats, which is where real power usually resides in local government – to regard ratepayers as a bottomless cash barrel.

Earlier this year Wairarapa MP John Hayes subjected councils in his electorate to withering criticism, accusing them of spending like Paris Hilton. He gave the example of a farmer who, struggling to pay an $11,000 rates bill after enduring three back-to-back droughts, found himself lumbered with a nine percent increase. Hayes also asked why pensioners in South Wairarapa were expected to pay a 20.17 percent increase when inflation was running at less than 3 percent.

These are examples of councils lamentably out of touch with their constituents.

Another disturbing trend in recent years has been for councils, in their eagerness to promote economic development, to play at being entrepreneurs. Council-sponsored art festivals, car races, stage productions and garden shows have hoovered up public money with little regard for commercial risk.

These are often vanity projects for councillors and officials. Occasionally they succeed, but only with generous ratepayer subsidisation. Sometimes they fail spectacularly. Auckland Regional Council lost $1.8 million last November staging an exhibition football match starring David Beckham and Auckland City Council took a scandalous $2 million bath with a production of My Fair Lady that attracted less than half the audience needed to break even.

Show business and professional sport are high-risk undertakings at the best of times. Even the most astute promoters can come a cropper. Why on earth should public money be placed at risk to stage them, other than because the hapless ratepayer is a captive source of money?

Equally disturbing is the tendency of some power-crazed council officials to treat citizens as if they are the enemy. A classic example was Hamilton City Council’s mad attempt to fine residents $1500 each for daring to watch the V8 street races from the roofs of their own homes.

The council thought to seek legal advice only after imposing the fines, and had to back down. What an indictment of the bossy, punitive mindset that seems to afflict some Town Hall bureaucrats.

Other examples include Hastings City Council’s demand that a resident take down a sea wall erected, at considerable cost, to replace a previous one protecting his house on a notoriously erosion-prone stretch of coast, and Central Otago District Council’s ban on the use of local Oamaru stone in the construction of rural houses because some community busybodies thought it was – get this – too visible.

It was in that part of the country too that pop singer Shania Twain had to jump through endless hoops before coming up with a design for her house that satisfied all the nitpicking demands of the local planning commissars.

In Wellington, meanwhile, pettifogging planning dictates have triggered a row in the historic suburb of Thorndon, whose residents can hardly install a light bulb without getting a council dispensation.

Something has gone seriously wrong when councils are constantly at odds with the people they supposedly serve, and when bullying bureaucrats seem to regard it as their purpose in life to place obstacles in the way of the people who pay their generous salaries, rather than try to make things easier for them. If the Minister for Local Government can change this, he will have earned our gratitude.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

In my Curmudgeon column last Tuesday (see below), I wrote about the phrase “moral panic”. I described this as a term used by the Left to ridicule legitimate middle-class concerns about anti-social behaviour such as violent crime, but pointed out that the Left was not above fomenting moral panic itself on issues such as climate change, parental smacking and the alcohol laws.

As if to prove my point, Doug Sellman, director of Otago University’s National Addiction Centre, obligingly chimed in only two days later in the Dom Post with a textbook outburst of moral panic over alcohol.

In a highly overwrought piece, Sellman called for heavy-handed intervention to curtail the “damage” done by liquor consumption and rein in the “drug pushing” liquor industry. He wants the government to crack down severely on liquor advertising and marketing, increase the price of alcohol, raise the legal purchasing age and greatly reduce both the hours of sale and the number of liquor outlets. He describes these as “proven” strategies, though he doesn’t back up that claim. On the other hand he dismisses, without elaboration, Justice Minister Simon Power’s perfectly reasonable statement that how we drink is “a product of our culture and will only change gradually over time”. Sellman is convinced that our drinking culture is the direct result of clever marketing by fiendish liquor barons – he calls them drug merchants – who mesmerise helpless children into developing “a lifelong habit of alcohol drug use”. This, he argues, can only be changed by state coercion.

His piece was heavy on emotion and light on fact, unless you counted highly dubious statistics such as the claim – supposedly based on World Health Organisation “best practice” criteria – that 700,000 New Zealanders are “heavy drinkers”. I’m always sceptical about that phrase “best practice”, and more so than usual in this case because I suspect that “best practice” is arbitrarily defined by people like Doug Sellman to suit their own agendas.

It's worth recalling that the "safe" drinking limit that guided British alcohol policy for 20 years - 21 units of alcohol a week for men, 14 for women - turned out to have been a figure that wasn't based on any objective data, but was "plucked out of the air" by a Royal College of Physicians working party which didn't really have a clue how much alcohol was safe. I suspect the WHO definition of "heavy drinkers" falls into the same category.

What little substantive argument Sellman put forward was greatly overshadowed by his frequent resort to highly emotive scaremongering, such as the shrill assertion - again supposedly based on that WHO definition - that New Zealand's number of heavy drinkers equals the combined populations of Wellington and Christchurch. He says if we don’t act soon, the “widespread damage associated with excess alcohol will continue for decades to come”. If that’s not inciting moral panic, I don’t know what is. It reminded me of the famous injunction over the door of the public bar in the old Temperance Union propaganda poster: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”.

The tone of his piece also served to reinforce my suspicion that much of the hue and cry over liquor is underpinned by hostility to free markets and capitalism.

I’m no cheerleader for the liquor industry, as anyone who has read what I have written recently about New Zealand’s alcohol problem will attest. But the last people we want writing our alcohol policy are moralistic academics.

What Sellman conveniently overlooks is that overall, New Zealanders have become much more civilised drinkers – as anyone my age, remembering the barbaric drinking culture of the 1960s, can attest. We are drinking more wine and less beer, we are drinking more in mixed company, we are drinking more often as an accompaniment to food and we are drinking in infinitely more congenial surroundings. This tends to bear out Simon Power's statement that our drinking habits can change over time. But in his eagerness to turn the clock back, Sellman chooses to disregard all these positive developments, preferring to focus on a troublesome minority of binge drinkers to the exclusion of everything else.

He also chooses to disregard the role of personal responsibility. Sellman wants the state to make our liquor consumption decisions for us, because clearly we are not capable of making them wisely for ourselves. In fact Sellman displays a conspicuously low regard for the intelligence of his fellow citizens, apparently regarding them as powerless to resist the mind-controlling techniques of the booze barons and their pernicious advertising agencies.

The great danger in the current climate of moral panic over alcohol, so assiduously whipped up by people like Sellman, is that policy changes will be driven by alarm over the behaviour of a small but conspicuous minority of problem drinkers. In the process, the majority who drink responsibly will be penalised.