Saturday, January 24, 2009

A catastrophic presidency

(Published in Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 21.)

I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who regrets for a millisecond the departure of George W Bush from the world stage. His presidency has been catastrophic both for America and for the world at large.

In the early stages of his two terms in office, hardline conservative friends of mine vigorously defended him. I learned to avoid the subject of George W Bush, especially after the invasion of Iraq, because it often led to raised voices. But as time went on, even the most vocal Bush supporters gradually fell silent.

The realisation that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction was a turning point. It swept away the principle justification for the invasion, despite attempts by the White House to retrospectively redefine the US action as being all about the democratisation of Iraq. It also strengthened claims by Bush’s critics that it was really all about oil – something I remain unconvinced of.

Eventually some of my pro-Bush friends conceded, as the death toll of both US soldiers and Iraqi civilians inexorably mounted, that the attack on Iraq was misconceived.

Iraq now seems to have turned the corner, and it’s possible it may yet become that rarest of flowers, a stable democracy, in the weed-infested patch that is the Middle East. But the damage done in the meantime, to the Iraqi people and to America’s standing in the world, is incalculable.

There was never any argument that Saddam was a tyrant and a threat to stability, but it was never explained why this particular tyrant had to be removed by force when historically, the US had been content to leave other despots in power and was not beyond intervening to prop them up whenever it suited American interests.

Even before the misbegotten Iraqi adventure, Bush had fatally undermined any claim America might have had to moral authority in the world. He did this in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the US government disregarded fundamental human rights by arbitrarily detaining countless people – including its own citizens – on the flimsiest grounds and in circumstances which denied them access to lawyers and communication with the outside world.

Such is the nature of the man that Bush couldn’t see the irony of his claim that America was making a stand on behalf of freedom and democracy – just as he was apparently unable to see the irony in his petulant response when other countries recently refused to accept released detainees from Guantanamo.

The US arbitrarily removed these people from their countries, cynically exploited what it saw as a loophole in American law by transporting them to a remote military enclave in the Caribbean, subjected them to interrogation techniques of the sort favoured by Pol Pot, and held them without charge or legal representation in defiance of all judicial norms.

As far as we know, many may be innocent. On the other hand, some may be human timebombs. It would hardly be surprising if innocent men, embittered by years of unjust detention at Guantanamo, had been turned into potential terrorists who now bear a lethal grudge against the West.

For all this, the Bush administration was rightly condemned, other than by a handful of sycophantic allies, including Britain and Australia. Yet a resentful Bush ended his presidency apparently believing other countries had an obligation to help the US clean up a mess entirely of its own making. Well, hello?

Perhaps, in future years, we will look back on the eight years of the George W Bush presidency as a bad dream. There were times when it felt as if we watching one of those dark political conspiracy films that were so popular in Hollywood after Watergate.

Trouble was, some of the leading players in this real-life drama – notably the neo-conservatives with whom Bush surrounded himself – were so one-dimensional, so close to caricatures, that had they appeared on screen we would have dismissed them as unbelievable. Some bore an unsettling resemblance to the gung-ho madmen in Stanley Kubrick’s famous nuclear warfare satire Dr Strangelove.

The Hollywood analogy is appropriate in other ways too. It often seemed Bush and his advisers had formed their view of America’s role in the world by watching Rambo-type movies in which American superheroes triumphed over sinister foreign enemies.

Bush has done what few people would have thought possible – make the disgraced Richard Nixon look good. He has greatly devalued the American “brand” and in doing so, has given strength to malevolent forces around the world that delight at the thought of a weakened and enfeebled America. That is his most worrying legacy.

It seems inconceivable that the White House, centrepiece of the world’s wealthiest and most important democracy, should have been captured by such a simplistic world view. Then again, it reveals a particular type of myopia that afflicts America, a country so big, so powerful and so self-sufficient that its inhabitants don’t feel the need to understand the subtleties of a complex, highly nuanced world.

As I once heard a New Zealand academic who had lived in the US for many years observe, the reason many Americans don’t know much about the rest of the world is that for them, America is the world.

This may help explain why a consistent factor throughout the Bush presidency appears to have been a total absence of self-doubt – a bull-headed certainty, on the part of Bush and his advisers, that they were on the right path. Theirs was a world view uncomplicated by any appreciation of inconvenient complexities. To someone from a country like New Zealand, who grows up knowing we don’t count for much and have to punch well above our weight to be noticed, this difference in outlook can be hard to grasp.

So now the baton passes to Barack Obama, who promises to have a more sophisticated understanding of how the world works. He comes to the presidency on a wave of optimism and idealism that hasn’t been experienced since the inauguration of John F Kennedy. It falls to him to restore the sense of moral authority that Bush talked about even as he was squandering it.

The world desperately wants Obama to succeed. But it remains to be seen whether he has the substance to match the winning charisma and the seductive oratory.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Harry may be a Charlie, but the tabloids are worse

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 20.)

THERE ARE few spectacles more nauseating than the holier-than-thou tut-tutting of the British tabloid press at the supposed indiscretions of the rich and famous. The recent storm of condemnation brought down on Prince Harry by the News of the World is a case in point.

Prince Harry may be a twerp like his father. I don’t know. What I do know is that the incident in which he referred to one of his army colleagues as a Paki and said another looked like a raghead happened in 2006, when he would have been only 20 or 21. I certainly wouldn’t like to be held accountable for some of the things I said at that age.

“Paki” is clearly capable of being an offensive term to Pakistanis but on this occasion it may have been used in harmless jest. The same applies to “raghead”, a derogatory term for Arabs.

Surely some slack should be cut for an exuberant (and possibly not very bright) young man clowning around with his army mates while waiting to board a plane. But no; we are all primed to take offence at the slightest provocation. The well-oiled wheels of the condemnation machine whir into motion and even the Conservative Party leader feels compelled to rebuke Harry for his “unacceptable” language.

And what of the News of the World? The news media have a vital role in reporting bad behaviour by public figures, but was it a matter of vital of public interest that this trivial business be exposed?

That question becomes even more pertinent when you consider that the people who run the London tabloids have the ethics of cockroaches, as anyone who has read British journalist Nick Davies’ newspaper exposé Flat Earth News will know. The British gutter press is in no position to moralise on anything.

* * *

IN A PROGRAMME recently replayed on Radio New Zealand as part of the “best of” Kim Hill from 2008, Hill interviewed Mani Bruce Mitchell about the challenges of being an intersex person – one born with genetic and physical variations that mean they are neither wholly male nor female.

One point in particular struck me. Mani Mitchell told how she was born to parents in a small country community and at first was treated as a boy. But she had a uterus and at the age of one she had an operation and became Margaret.

The community held a meeting in the local hall to discuss how it should deal with this unusual situation. Mani Mitchell described this as an example of a rural community functioning as it its absolute best.

Hill seemed momentarily taken aback by this and asked if her guest was being sarcastic, to which Mani Mitchell assured her she wasn’t. The community agreed at that meeting to close the door on her past life as a boy and from that time on she was accepted as Margaret.

What was interesting was Hill’s initial reaction. It seemed that, for a moment at least, she had difficulty accepting that a community in rural New Zealand in the conservative 1950s could have reacted to this predicament in a compassionate, positive way, rather than demanding that this freakish child be cast out.

It’s common among sophisticated urban types to equate rural communities with bigotry and ignorance, but history shows country people are a lot more liberal and tolerant than urban stereotypes give them credit for.

It was a supposedly conservative rural electorate that elected feminist MP Marilyn Waring and kept returning her to Parliament even after Truth newspaper outed her as a lesbian. And it was a supposedly conservative rural electorate that voted for the world’s first transsexual MP, Georgina Beyer.

The liberal farmer politician – of whom Tom Shand, Minister of Labour in the Holyoake government of the 1960s, is often held up as an example – is a recurring figure in New Zealand politics. Holyoake himself was from that mould and so too was Jim Bolger, who threw his weight behind the Treaty settlements of the 1990s.

Sure, you find rednecks and Philistines in the country, just as you do in the cities, but not all country people have hair on the palms of their hands and eyes in the middle of the their foreheads.

* * *

WHY AM I sceptical about the inflated claims made on behalf of local government amalgamations? Perhaps because the noisiest advocates of council mergers tend to be those who see themselves acquiring greater power (hello, John Banks). The other side of the coin is that the people who resist amalgamation most vehemently are invariably those whose municipal empires are threatened (the name of Lower Hutt mayor David Ogden comes to mind).

The only way to deal with these issues, as has been done in Auckland, is to put the deliberations in the hands of detached outsiders and hope they’ll see past all the parochial politics and turf wars. But whatever decisions are made, one immutable truth will hold true: the bureaucrats always win in the end.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A phone call from the ACC

A senior man from the ACC phoned me a few days ago. He had read my gripes about accident compensation (see below) and wanted a chat.

Refreshingly, he didn’t phone to harangue me or point out where I was wrong. Quite the contrary. He said I had raised some valid points and he understood my frustration.

He told me that while surveys showed big employers were generally satisfied with their dealings with the ACC, the organisation acknowledged that it needed to engage more with small businesses and self-employed people like me. To that end, he said, the ACC was now making a special attempt to improve its relationship with these sectors through intermediaries such as banks and accountants. (I’m paraphrasing him here, but I think I’m accurately conveying the gist of what he said.)

I told him it was hardly surprising that big businesses had fewer complaints about the ACC. After all, they generally employ HR departments and other specialist staff to deal with issues like accident compensation. But it’s a very different story for the panel beater, farmer or florist who employs two or three people, or for the self-employed mug like me.

For the estimated 600,000 small business operators who make up most of the private sector, ACC is just another headache on top of all the other administrative distractions that eat into their time and vacuum money out of their bank accounts. Any effort to make it more user-friendly has to be welcomed, but why has it taken so long?

The man from the ACC (not a PR flunky, incidentally) also expressed sympathy for the predicament of clients like me who had to pay two substantial invoices in the space of one month – and just before Christmas – because of delays in creating new work classifications. He explained this by saying there were a lot of changes to be worked through.

I remain unconvinced. What's more, I have a sneaking suspicion that the ACC’s peculiar classifications, which are apparently aligned with an Australian model, are an example of the bureaucratic mind creating a clumsy system then demanding that users conform with it, rather than first establishing the users’ needs then devising a system that suits them.

As for the rising cost of accident compensation levies, the ACC man recited the standard line about having to deal with an increasing number of injuries as well as higher treatment costs. Whether this justifies my levy nearly doubling as a proportion of my liable earnings between 2005 and 2009, I couldn’t say.

Of course he wasn’t in a position to comment on my most fundamental objection to ACC, which is that it’s a monopoly. Therefore I have no choice about being a client and the ACC has no competitors putting pressure on it to function more efficiently or to be more responsive to its clients’ needs.

Still, I appreciated the call.

Hiker rescued from trail

I commented in a recent column (see below) on the steady creep of American English. I gave as an example the increasing usage of the word “trail” in preference to the traditional New Zealand “track” and I speculated that in time, “tramper” could be overtaken by the American equivalent, “hiker”.

It’s happening even quicker than I expected. On TVNZ’s Breakfast programme this morning, which I’d tuned into for the Obama inauguration, Peter Williams read a news item about a woman hiker from Adelaide who had been rescued after spending nine days in a hut - or perhaps that should have been cabin - near Wanaka.

Incidentally, I thought Obama’s speech was just swell.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fancy that - more suppression orders

There can barely be a person alive in New Zealand who has not at some time heard at least a paraphrased version of English Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart’s famous statement: “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” So why is his famous injunction regularly disregarded by New Zealand judges – usually junior judges – who seem to think they know better?

The latest offender is Judge Semi Epati, who in the Manukau District Court yesterday suppressed all details of a depositions hearing against seven men charged in connection with the fatal shooting of South Auckland liquor store owner Navtej Singh.

Not only were names and details of the charges kept secret, but Judge Epati also suppressed the reasons for the suppression. Suppression orders don’t come much more blanket than that (unless, of course, the judge even prohibits anyone from disclosing the fact that judicial proceedings are taking place, as happened in a celebrated contempt of court case against Horowhenua author Anne Hunt several years ago, at which point things get scarily Kafka-esque).

Because Judge Epati suppressed his reasons for making the orders, we have no idea whether they were fair and reasonable. There is some suggestion he may have "inherited" orders imposed by other judges at earlier appearances and felt obliged to keep them in place. But there would need to be extraordinarily compelling circumstances to justify such sweeping suppression, particularly in a case that commanded huge public attention.

The orders were described in media reports as “temporary”. How “temporary” isn’t immediately apparent; but given the importance of open and transparent courts, even short-term suppression orders in proceedings relating to a fatal shooting shouldn’t be imposed lightly.

Problem is, suppression now seems the norm at first appearances and preliminary hearings. Lawyers apply for them automatically and many judges seem to grant such applications almost as a reflex action. This has not always been the case, as experienced court reporters will attest.

One expects wily defence counsel to seduce doddery old JPs, summoned into court from the garden or the bowls club, with impressive-sounding rhetoric about how their clients would be severely disadvantaged if their names were to be published. Judges, however, should be made of sterner stuff and set the bar high. At present the default setting is so low that defence lawyers barely need to hitch up their trousers (or skirts, as the case may be) to step over it.

Former High Court judge Sir John Jeffries, in his capacity as president of the Press Council in 2005, was scathing about the indiscriminate use of suppression orders, describing them as “mostly reprehensible”. His successor, Barry Paterson QC, also a retired High Court judge, told a press freedom seminar in Wellington last year that District Court judges with heavy workloads were sometimes tempted to take “the easy way out” by granting suppression applications. The Court of Appeal, however, had said the assumption should always be one of openness.

The one encouraging thing is that the news media no longer take suppression orders lying down. In the Navtej Singh case, several news organisations were to challenge Judge Epati’s ruling today. If the matter ends up in front of a High Court judge there’s a good chance that at least some of the orders will be reversed, since higher courts generally subject suppression applications to a much tougher test than lawyers are accustomed to at District Court level.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More thoughts on Mark Crysell

Further to my post on Mark Crysell’s reports from Sderot, I have a feeling I may have been wrong in crediting Brian Edwards with that clever description “potty training”, in relation to the indoctrination of TVNZ journalists in the dumbed-down style of reporting adopted in the late 1980s. Edwards gave us the equally apt phrase “coochie-coo news” to describe the style of bulletin that resulted, but on reflection it may have been an anonymous (and subversive) TVNZ journalist or journalists who came up with “potty training”.

And in response to “Johnno”, who defends Crysell’s use of the expression “my report” to introduce material clearly not obtained by him personally but collated from other sources, the statement that this is common practice in TV merely reinforces my point about deceit and sleight-of-hand now being so entrenched in television journalism that it’s considered the norm, and perfectly acceptable. This is the “Everyone does it, so it must be OK” line. Even so, it seems to me that Crysell’s explicit and flagrant claim of ownership of material gathered by others takes the deception to a new level. In the other examples “Johnno” gives, the TV journalist may be happy to leave the viewer with the impression that he/she has gathered the material personally, but doesn’t expressly take credit for it. That’s a qualitative difference.

It’s pretty clear that “Johnno” and another anonymous poster who rips into me on David Farrar’s Kiwiblog, using very similar arguments, are either TV journalists themselves or are employed in closely related fields. This may explain their sensitivity.

Both defend the practice of journalists collating material from diverse sources and putting their own voices over it, but they don’t specifically address Crysell’s shameful claim – or at the very least, implication – that it was all his own work.

Incidentally, it may or may not be significant that in the last two Crysell reports from Sderot that I’ve seen, he hasn’t used the word “my report”.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Journalistic deceit from TVNZ

The first time I heard it, I couldn’t quite believe my ears.

There was TVNZ’s Europe correspondent Mark Crysell reporting on the 6 o’clock news from the Israeli town of Sderot, near the border with Gaza. Journalists congregate in this town because Israel won’t allow them into Gaza and I presume it’s the closest they can get to the Israeli bombardment.

Crysell, looking every inch the foreign correspondent in his flak jacket, talked about hearing Israeli bombs exploding. He may have mentioned taking shelter from Hamas rockets, which are occasionally fired at Sderot. Then he said something like: “Here’s my report”.

What followed was a report from inside Gaza, showing the usual scenes: wrecked buildings, grieving Palestinians, bloody hospital wards. Sure enough, it was Crysell’s voice we were hearing over the news footage; but “my” report? How could it be Crysell’s report when he was on the Israeli side of the border, well away from the carnage?

Surely even TVNZ wouldn’t stoop to anything so blatantly dishonest as dubbing its own correspondent’s voice over footage compiled by someone else (I suspect the BBC, which has people inside Gaza) and then claiming it as Crysell’s own?

Not willing to trust my ears, I went to the TVNZ website and tried to replay the bulletin, but was thwarted. All I could get was National Bank commercials.

Two nights later, however – on Friday night – I was watching One News again, and again they crossed to Crysell in Sderot. Same scenario: the foreign correspondent in his flak jacket, nodding as he waited for the link to come through and then telling us once more how he could hear the constant noise of explosions. (Well, fancy that. Why doesn’t TVNZ just replay the same footage every night if this is all he can report?)

And then he said it again: “This is my report” (the italics are mine). What followed was more footage from within Gaza, similar to that which I had seen two nights earlier. It included several interviews in which the interviewee was not seen – but it couldn’t have been Crysell, because the interviews were from inside Gaza and Crysell was outside. This, however, didn’t stop Crysell dubbing his own voiceover and claiming it as his own report.

The only interview clearly conducted by Crysell himself was with a New Zealand Jewish man living in Israel, in what appeared to be peaceful surroundings, who talked about his reaction to the attacks on Gaza. Not exactly gritty frontline stuff.

The journalistic deceit here is breathtaking. Only weeks ago, Radio New Zealand’s Noelle McCarthy was deservedly pilloried for plagiarising bits and pieces of British newspaper opinion pieces in her own commentaries on Afternoons. Now we have one of the state-owned TV network’s most senior journalists presenting other people’s work as his own, with the apparent endorsement of his employer, and as far as I’m aware not a voice has been raised in protest.

Plagiarism in any shape or form is reprehensible, but I know which of these two examples I find more objectionable.

The most generous interpretation I can manage is that Crysell compiled the reports from material obtained from other sources, but that doesn’t make them his reports. “My” report, in this context, would suggest to most viewers that he was the man on the ground, gathering the information himself, when that was clearly not the case.

This tawdry situation has come about because TVNZ likes to present itself as a serious news organisation of international standing that can foot it with the big boys, flying its own correspondent to the scene of the latest international flare-up. But who does it think it’s kidding?

Crysell can’t get into Gaza, so is reduced to presenting variations on the same report every night, telling us how he can hear fighters and choppers flying overhead and bombs going off several kilometres away.

If this were as far as it went, it would simply be a laughable but harmless example of TVNZ slavishly adhering to the silly convention that its viewers gain some special insight by having “their” own reporter on the scene, even if he has nothing to report that can’t be covered more authoritatively by other news organisations whose services TVNZ has access to. But in its desperation to convince us that it’s right up with major players like the BBC and CNN, TVNZ has resorted to the pretence that its man is in the thick of things when clearly he isn’t. That’s a disgrace.

For his part, Crysell on his blog seems eager to present himself as the intrepid foreign correspondent, dodging Hamas missiles and racing to his hotel’s “safe room” in the middle of the night. In fact he’s probably no more at risk of physical harm than a TV cameraman on the sideline at an All Black test match.

So another step has been taken in the steady debasement of television journalism, and intelligent viewers have one more reason to wonder whether they can trust their own eyes and ears. This comes only months after TV3’s John Campbell, a broadcaster whom I generally admire, was rightly censured for conducting a fake interview with an actor purporting to be one of the Waiouru war medal thieves.

Television news and current affairs has almost compromised itself to a standstill through gimmickry, artifice and prestidigitation of one form and another. It started with the absurdity of having tandem news presenters, a practice now so embedded that no one questions it any more, and proceeded with the deliberate dumbing-down of bulletins under the guise of giving them more emotional impact. (Brian Edwards memorably described the indoctrination of TVNZ journalists in the new style of reporting as “potty training”.)

Practices that once provoked condemnation, such as reporters in Wellington newsrooms dubbing their own voices over stories from overseas, are now routine. And no one has ever, to my knowledge, seriously questioned the ethical implications that arise from commercial sponsorship of news and current affairs programmes or, in TV3’s case, the extraordinary situation whereby representatives of a sharebroking firm present the nightly financial and stock exchange news.

One final point on the chutzpah (perhaps an appropriate word in this context) of Crysell presenting the news from Gaza as his own. What does it say about TVNZ’s opinion of its viewers that it thinks it can get away with it? Or are viewers so brain-dead (to use former newsreader Lindsay Perigo’s description of TV news several years ago) that anything is now possible?

My hassles with ACC

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 7.)

For the past six years I have made my living as a freelance journalist. For reasons that escape me, the ACC seems to have had great difficulty getting its head around this simple fact.

There must be hundreds of others like me – self-employed journalists working from home – yet the state workplace insurer is apparently incapable of finding an appropriate classification for us. It apparently hasn’t occurred to ACC to classify us as freelance journalists. Too simple, perhaps.

During my first few years in self-employment ACC gave me the puzzling classification “Other periodical publishing (excluding printing)”. This didn’t describe what I did – I’m a journalist, not a publisher – but it was evidently the closest the ACC could get.

The ACC seemed to recognise something was wrong with its system because twice its representatives contacted me about my classification and we had long conversations in which I carefully explained what I do.

Eventually it reclassified me under “creative arts”. So I am now a creative writer, which to me suggests a writer of fiction (no sarcastic jokes please). This is only marginally less misleading than the previous description.

ACC apparently spent so much time wrestling with this classification issue that my ACC invoice for the 2007-2008 year didn’t arrive until October 2008. I duly paid it, only to get another invoice – for the 2008-2009 year – less than one month later.

When I queried the fact that I had to pay two annual levies within one month, totalling nearly $3200 (and just before Christmas, when many people’s finances are under pressure), it was explained that the 2007-08 invoice was delayed because ACC didn’t have an accurate description of my business activities.

Well, hello? I’ve been doing exactly the same work for six years and have been on their files all that time. Twice I have explained to ACC staff what I do, but still they dither about how to classify me. And now I’ve been penalised for the failings of the ACC’s pathetic classification system by having to pay two hefty invoices within one month.

But that’s only half of it. Go back a couple of paragraphs.

That figure, $3200, is not a misprint. My ACC levy for 2007-2008 was $1451. For 2008-2009 it was $1737.

Now let me explain something. Freelance journalism is not a hazardous occupation. I don’t work with explosives or dangerous animals. I don’t spend weeks dodging ice floes in the Southern Ocean on a deepwater fishing trawler, I don’t shimmy up trees carrying a chainsaw and I don’t go down into a mine where there are noxious gases and rockfalls.

My office is in my house. I walk to work each day – it’s about 10 metres – and I don’t get strafed by hostile aircraft on the way. The worst that could happen to me is that I might get showered with broken glass hurling my computer out the window, as I am frequently tempted to do.

In six years, I haven’t experienced anything remotely resembling a workplace accident. Yet my ACC bill for the current year is $1737. I can only conclude I’m subsidising burglars who break their legs falling from drainpipes and drug dealers who suffer third-degree burns when their P labs blow up, none of whom pay any ACC levy at all.

In the past three years my levy has risen by 90 percent. When I queried this, the ACC replied that my levy was based on my increased earnings. Now, setting aside arguments about the fairness of having to pay more just because you earn more (after all, I would be no more likely to have a workplace accident earning $500,000 a year than I would earning $50,000), we’re still left with a problem – namely, that my levy increased by 90 percent during a period when my income increased by 42 percent.

I paid this outrageous bill because when push came to shove, I had little option. I am dealing with a big, brutal, armour-plated monopoly. And here’s the most fundamental objection of all.

I can’t say to ACC: “Bugger you, I’m taking my business elsewhere”. Like everyone else, I am forced to deal with an organisation that is not transparent, is not accountable to its hapless customers and has no competition.

That last factor is the most important of all. In a market economy, your ultimate protection against inept service or unreasonable fees is to withdraw your custom. But with ACC, that choice is denied us. The state compels us to do business with it whether we want to or not.

That monopoly status not only traps us, the customers, but also removes the most important incentive for an organisation to improve its performance. Where is the pressure to function more efficiently when the ACC knows its business is guaranteed by compulsion? Why should it treat its customers as precious when it knows the state forbids anyone else from offering them a better deal?

For a few years under National in the 1990s, accident compensation was opened to competition. I wasn’t self-employed then so can’t say how much better, if at all, the private sector catered for people like me. But as a general rule, competition forces businesses to sharpen their act. It can hardly do otherwise.

Labour reinstated the ACC monopoly because it’s an article of faith in Labour’s ideology, despite all evidence to the contrary, that governments do things more fairly and efficiently. I would like to report that National, supposedly the party of free enterprise, is firmly committed to de-regulating the sector again so that people like me have a choice. But no; National’s pre-election ACC policy merely said the party supported the “principle” of competition and choice.

John Key said competition in the 1990s had been healthy for ACC and had resulted in substantially lower levies (oh really?), but he couldn’t bring himself to promise that competition would be reinstated.

Since then it’s emerged that ACC levies will have to increase substantially this year to cover a previously undisclosed deficit of several billion dollars, which seems to confirm that this state monopoly, like most others, has been ineptly managed.

I would have thought this greatly strengthened the case for workplace insurance to be re-opened to competition, but I’m not exactly holding my breath.

Friday, January 9, 2009

They're stealing our language

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, January 6.)

In recent weeks the Americanisms “cookie”, “race car” and “airplane” have appeared in local news and sport stories. These are alien words.

Speakers of New Zealand English would say “biscuit”, “racing car” and “plane” (or “aeroplane” if you want to be pedantic, as pilots tend to be). But like noxious introduced weeds, American terms are invading the linguistic landscape and threatening to render our distinctive form of English extinct.

We surrendered long ago to the silly term “swim meet” – “track meet” can’t be far behind – and I noted that a recent news report about an injured tramper said she had been pinned under a rock on the “trail”. Whatever happened to that good old Kiwi word “track”?

Television is often blamed for the Americanisation of New Zealand English, but I wonder if this latest aberration can be attributed to the popularity of mountain biking.

Off-road biking originated in California, where people ride on trails. As the activity gained a following in New Zealand, mountain bikers adopted American terminology. And because there’s a degree of crossover between mountain biking and tramping, particularly where they use the same routes, the word “trail” now seems to be spreading into the latter activity.

It’s probably only a matter of time before “trampers” become “hikers”, and another Kiwi-ism will have been lost.

Some Americanisms are now so embedded in the language that further resistance is futile. Hardly anyone goes to the pictures any more, still less the flicks; the conquest of the American word “movies” is total. And we may have passed the point where “G’day” could be rescued from the inexorable advance of the meaningless “Hi”.

To take a slightly more obscure example of how the language is changing, no one gets “rooked” any more by a greedy or unscrupulous business person (otherwise known as a “shyster”). No, you get ripped off – another Americanism.

But it’s not too late to salvage some of the threatened expressions that make New Zealand English so distinctive. “Dunny”, originally a Scottish word, seems safely off the endangered list, while “shag”, that evocative old term for sexual congress which I always assumed to be Australasian (though the dictionaries don’t confirm this), has been embraced internationally. “Crikey” is another comeback word, now securely ensconced as the name of a popular Australian media website.

Columnist Steve Braunias has revived that great old Kiwi word “rooster” – as in, “he’s an odd sort of rooster” – while TV host John Campbell has single-handedly done great work in making “bugger” acceptable. In Campbellese, “you silly buggers” is a term of endearment.

Perhaps we should institute a new award: Hero of Kiwi English First Class, perhaps, or Companion of the Honourable Order of Harry Orsman, in memory of the late, indefatigable collector of New Zealand slang.

* * *

THERE’S some very muddled thinking around which I can only attribute to over-indulgence during the holiday period.

Take the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The usual voices are being raised in outrage and I heard an overwrought radio talkback host, his voice quavering with anger, comparing Israel with Nazi Germany. Talk about emotion triumphing over reason.

I’m no cheerleader for the Israeli government, but there’s a brutal logic in what it is doing. It’s saying to the Hamas fanatics: as long as you continue to fire rockets at our civilian population, we will respond one hundredfold.

What’s happening in Gaza, as with every situation in which innocent civilians are made to suffer for the actions of warmongers, is a tragedy. Hamas, however, could stop the bombs falling tomorrow if it abandoned its own attacks. It’s that simple.

Hamas chooses to continue, despicably using civilians to shelter its murderous terrorists, because it knows that thumb-sucking, hand-wringing sympathisers in the West – such as our radio talkback host – will assign all the responsibility for the carnage to Israel.

To paraphrase a famous line, the Hamas leaders are either extraordinarily thick or they are extraordinarily wicked, and I don’t think they are thick.

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MUDDLED thinking Part II: the news media are under attack for highlighting the fact that Christchurch murder victim Mellory Manning (or “Mallory”, as female radio and TV reporters insist on calling her, in their squeaky, little-girl voices) was a prostitute. Journalists are being judgmental, the complainants say; Ms Manning’s occupation is irrelevant.

In fact Ms Manning’s occupation was as pertinent to the manner of her death as that of a pilot killed in a plane crash or a fisherman drowned at sea.

I don’t detect any suggestion by the media that her life was worth less because she earned her living on the street, and neither should there be. But the fact remains that if Ms Manning were a hairdresser, a service station attendant or a teacher, she would be alive today. Heaven protect the media from people who want the world reported as they think it should be, rather than as it is.