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.