Saturday, February 27, 2010

Note to NZEI: the public isn't listening

A recent opinion poll, conducted for the New Zealand Herald, indicated that 73 percent of people with school-age children supported national standards for primary and intermediate schools even though only 12 percent said they fully understood what national standards were.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? An obvious one is that New Zealanders are now so distrustful of the teachers’ unions that they simply choose not to believe their propaganda. They have switched off.

It’s probably not going too far to say the public has decided that if the NZEI opposes national standards, that’s reason enough for them to be implemented.

Even when people admit they are not in full possession of the facts, their instinct is to reject whatever the teachers’ unions are saying. This may not be good for informed debate, but it’s hardly surprising.

New Zealanders don’t like bullies, and for years they have watched the petulant teacher unions threaten and stamp their feet until weak governments meekly capitulated over issues such as bulk funding. The exception was during Labour’s nine years in office, when threats and foot-stamping weren’t necessary because the government benches were stacked with ex-teachers and former union officials.

The NZEI and PPTA have become the de facto controllers of primary and secondary education policy, refusing to countenance any initiative that threatened to upset the status quo. It was only a matter of time before parents and the public at large rebelled against this affront to democratic process, as they now appear to have done.

The NZEI may have sound reasons for opposing national standards, but it can only blame itself if people are no longer listening. The merits of national standards are no longer the issue; it’s all about control of the education system. The Herald's poll suggests the public has turned bloody-minded – it wants national standards even if their merits haven’t been proved. The phrase “poetic justice” comes to mind.

Labour and ACC

THE OUTCRY from Labour in Parliament this week when the government made modest adjustments to ACC was predictable. But what was National expected to do, when the cost of ACC claims has ballooned by 57 percent over the past four years?

Part of the problem with ACC is that left-wing politicians have been unable to resist using it in their quixotic quest to right all the wrongs inflicted by a cruel world, even if it meant going far beyond the original remit of the scheme.

The rot set in during the 1980s when a Labour government extended ACC to cover claims for sexual abuse – unverified claims at that. Since then the scheme has been further extended, again under Labour, to compensate the families of suicide victims. But as ACC Minister Nick Smith asked last year, since when was suicide an accident? (Or sex abuse, come to that.)

ACC represents the high-water mark of a welfare system that has steadily expanded without regard for the ability of an under-performing economy to pay for it. Labour has only itself to blame now the day of reckoning has arrived.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Clark is exposed as a sore loser

Helen Clark will have burned off a lot of public goodwill with her sour-grapes sniping at the National government. She certainly deserves to.

She says it’s hard to stand by and watch Labour’s legacy being unpicked. But as Paul Holmes pointed out when he interviewed Clark on Q+A today, National has left most Labour policies (Kiwi Saver, Working for Families, interest-free student loans) intact, much to the chagrin of many of its own supporters. Challenged to explain what she was referring to, Clark latched on to Gerry Brownlee’s comments about mining the conservation estate – only a proposal at this stage – but didn’t seem able to come up with much else, other than a vague reference to education.

But the real point is this. Clark and her party had their shot at government. They were in power for nine years, during which time they introduced a lot of policies many people heartily disliked.

Then the voters decided it was someone else’s turn. In case Clark has forgotten, this is called democracy.

She says she has tried to stay above the hurly-burly of New Zealand politics, but clearly she hasn’t tried hard enough. To use a favourite phrase of her own, she should move on.

I believe Clark went to New York with the blessing of most New Zealanders. But I also think they expected her to rise above partisan domestic politics, especially after the National government enthusiastically lobbied on her behalf at the United Nations and awarded her New Zealand’s highest honour.

Diplomatically, she has shown bad judgment. In human terms, she has exposed herself as a sore loser.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sound and fury, signifying nothing

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 17.)

The Hollywood hype machine is shifting into overdrive as Academy Awards night approaches.

Until two weeks ago, James Cameron’s futuristic epic Avatar – made with substantial input from Weta Digital in Wellington – was considered a shoo-in for the all-important Best Picture and Best Director awards, and probably a swag of others as well.

Now another, lower-key contender, The Hurt Locker, has entered the running. When the Oscar nominations were announced, The Hurt Locker scored nine – the same number as the much-hyped Avatar.

So Oscars night is shaping up to be a dramatic contest between these two very different films, and what makes the showdown even more piquant is that the director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, is the former wife of Avatar mastermind Cameron.

A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have contrived a more compelling scenario. In fact you don’t have to be a hardened cynic to suspect that what we are seeing is a contest carefully orchestrated to maximise public interest.

So, what of the films themselves? The Hurt Locker has yet to be released here, so I can’t comment on its merits. But it would have to be a very dire film to be worse than Avatar.

Never in the history of the cinema has so much money, and so much creative talent, been invested in such a stinker of a film.

Avatar is tolerably watchable for the first hour or so but then gets progressively sillier, to the point where I had to stifle the urge to laugh out loud. It is never more than a kids’ film, which makes it all the more baffling that normally intelligent critics have hailed it as a masterpiece.

To make matters worse, Avatar bashes viewers around the head with a heavy-handed, moralistic message about rapacious American capitalism. Never mind the irony that the film is itself a product of the same American capitalism that it condemns and has done exactly the job it was intended to do, which was to make truckloads of money.

The basic theme of Avatar – in which an infiltrator, planted amid an alien race to facilitate their exploitation by a mining corporation, has an attack of conscience and changes sides – isn’t even original. The film has been compared with Dances With Wolves (indeed it has been described as Dances With Wolves in space) and the animated Disney film Pocahontas.

Avatar's theme also had echoes of the 1983 British film Local Hero, in which the colourful inhabitants of a Scottish fishing village charm a representative from a Texan oil company that wants to build a refinery where their houses are.

Unlike those films, Avatar depends entirely on visual effects, which admittedly are spectacular. The characters are never more than cardboard cutouts, the screenplay sounds like a parody of every third-rate sci-fi movie ever made, and the acting is laughably wooden.

I reviewed Avatar on my blog after seeing it without the benefit of the 3D glasses available at some screenings. Two people then attached comments to my blog saying I needed to see the film in 3D to appreciate it fully – which said it all, really. Anyone who thinks a bad film can be magically transformed into a good one simply by putting on 3D glasses is missing something.

The comments on my blog confirmed that some movie-goers are now so accustomed to silly, big-budget spectacles that they no longer look for cinematic qualities such as a coherent plot, intelligent dialogue and convincing characters. Hollywood has persuaded them to buy the sizzle and overlook the fact that there’s no steak.

In recent years we have seen a string of preposterous, expensive epics that depend for their impact on noise, visual effects and stunt-driven, non-stop action – tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, to quote Shakespeare. Most are pitched at the adolescent schoolboy fantasy level and are so absurd that they defy rational critical scrutiny.

It’s heresy to say this, but I count Peter Jackson’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong in this category. The latter was one of the silliest films I’ve seen – a waste, it seemed to me, of Jackson’s undoubted ability.

As for Lord of the Rings, I patriotically sat through two of the films in the trilogy but admit that for much of the time I had no idea what was going on and, worse, couldn’t have cared less. I was bored rigid and even drifted off to sleep in one of them. (I can't remember which one because with the passage of time, the two films have melded in my brain to the point where they are undistinguishable.)

In the light of my previous experiences I went to Avatar hoping to be impressed but expecting to be disappointed. I sat out the entire 162 minutes (162 minutes!) only because I was curious to see whether it could get any sillier. It did.

This was an act of unusual stoicism for me. Back in the 1990s, my two then-teenage sons were shocked and appalled that I walked out of Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s much-lauded kilts-and-swords epic. Since then I have lost count of the number of Hollywood spectacles I have walked out of, or switched off after about 10 minutes when they have been screened on TV. Life is too short to waste watching bad films.

Braveheart, of course, went on to win five Academy Awards, confirming my suspicion that the Oscars have less to do with intrinsic, enduring cinematic values than other factors, such as what’s fashionable and who the Hollywood establishment has decided to pay obeisance to.

Occasionally even the pretentiously titled Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will get it right and give the Best Picture award to a film that deserves it, as happened in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. But it’s a fair bet that any list of the greatest and most memorable films of all time would exclude an awful lot of Oscar winners.

It will be entirely consistent with history if Avatar cleans up when the awards are announced, just as James Cameron’s last spectacle, the overwrought Titanic, did. But I reckon the only award Avatar deserves is for Sigourney Weaver, an intelligent and capable actress, for managing to keep a straight face through the whole ridiculous affair.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A lot of smoke, but no sign of fire

I admit I’m often mystified by politics and the process of government. Take the present fuss over Radio New Zealand funding.

If I thought the National government was seriously trying to hobble the state broadcaster or force it to adopt a commercial model, I’d be one of the first volunteers to man the barricades outside Radio New Zealand House. Notwithstanding my occasional whinges about it (mostly to do with pervasive political bias, which is not nearly as marked now as it used to be), RNZ is a national treasure. My quality of life, and that of virtually everyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances, would be greatly diminished without it. It follows that if Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman does anything to disembowel the institution, as some of his critics (such as the Greens’ Sue Kedgley) allege he is plotting to do, National can expect a savage backlash – much of it from people of a centre-right disposition who are otherwise broadly National-friendly.

But having followed the flurry of alarmist publicity about the possibility of budget cuts, I’m left wondering what all the fuss is about. It seems RNZ has simply been told it must get by on its current funding for the foreseeable future – which is no more nor less than other government departments are doing. If that means having to curb some of its aspirations, such as opening an office in Gisborne, that’s surely a relatively small sacrifice at a time when the government is borrowing a hair-raising $250 million a week to prop up an anaemic economy.

If, further down the track, RNZ has to cut services, it may have to make some difficult choices – such as shutting down National Radio’s FM network, seeking commercial sponsorship for Concert FM (good luck!) or taking National Radio off the air between midnight and 6am. In that case I believe its ultimate priority should be to protect the core National Radio service – in other words, 24-hour-a-day programming on AM frequencies, which have a better reach than FM. The RNZ board will tamper with the all-night programme at its peril; Lloyd Scott rules the night and has a lot of friends out there.

But isn’t it a bit early to be panicking? I haven’t seen any evidence that RNZ is in imminent danger of brutal cuts, still less that its very existence as a public service broadcaster is threatened, as a rather overwrought Kedgley was insisting on Morning Report today. If and when that happens, that will be the time to launch the Save Radio New Zealand campaign – and a pretty formidable campaign it would be. But for now, there’s a lot of smoke billowing around but no sign of fire, and I have a sneaky suspicion that this whole furore may have been stirred up by a low-ranking (and so far undistinguished) minister who’s feeling left out and wants to build himself a profile.

The day everyone's been waiting for - when HR managers revert to being personnel officers

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 16.)

THE CURMUDGEON has a theory that every decade can be defined by the occupational or professional group that was in the ascendancy at the time.

The 1950s was the decade of the sheep farmer, who wallowed in wealth generated by demand for wool to keep troops warm in Korea. That was when townies told jokes about farmers ordering new Rolls-Royces with glass partitions behind the front seat so their dogs couldn’t lick them while they were driving.

The sixties was the decade of the construction engineer, when motorways and overpasses spread unchecked over the landscape and tunnellers blasted holes through mountains to create hydro-power schemes. (Environment Court? No such thing. Maori land claims? Get away.)

In the seventies the media discovered academics, and you couldn’t turn on your radio or TV set without hearing a political scientist, sociologist or economist pontificating to a nodding journalist. It took time before we realised that universities only produced a better-educated idiot.

The eighties was the decade of the financial wide-boys – the spivs, sharks and Flash Harrys who stayed cold-eyed and sober while the rest of the country got drunk on financial deregulation. By the time we woke up with the inevitable hangover, they’d cleaned everyone out and scarpered in their executive jets.

In the nineties it was the turn of the consultant, when people who’d been sacked in public service restructurings went out on their own and managed to persuade their former employers to re-engage them at five times more money than they’d been earning before. Goodbye Hallensteins cardigan and 10-trip train ticket; hello Working Style suit and BMW.

And the noughties? Make no mistake – this was the decade of the human resources department. Cleverly picking up on Mao Zedong’s idea of permanent revolution, HR managers ensured that the organisations which employed them were kept in a constant state of disruption and uncertainty, merrily disestablishing old jobs and creating new ones, then watching everyone fight over them.

The cost to the economy, in terms of time and energy wasted by endless re-organisation while real work got left undone, is anyone’s guess. But the real brilliance of the HR revolution was that it kept people so anxious and distracted that no one thought to ask an obvious question: do we really need HR departments?

If the Curmudgeon’s theory holds true, however, 2010 may mark a turning point. This newspaper recently reported the very significant information that staff at Capital and Coast District Health had been told of a proposal to shed 49 management and administration roles – including the entire human resources unit. Does this mean that HR managers are about to be devoured by the very revolution they set in motion?

I look forward to the day when they revert to being known as personnel officers and occupy poky little offices with filing cabinets recording the date of birth of each employee and a calendar showing when the next long-service gold watch is due to be handed out.

* * *

DOES TVNZ have any further to fall? Put another way, does it still have any credibility to lose?

Its priorities were tellingly exposed when, on the evening of Prime Minister John Key’s speech at the opening of Parliament, TV One’s Close Up cancelled an interview with Mr Key in favour of an “exclusive” with Robin Brooke, the former All Black who disgraced himself at a Fiji resort on New Year’s Eve.

Mr Key’s speech was the first major political set piece of the year. It finally gave voters a clue to where this government might be heading after more than a year of treading water.

There were important questions to be asked. Mr Key was primed and ready. But at 4.30 in the afternoon his media minders were advised he was no longer wanted.

Close Up had a much bigger fish to fry. Why burden viewers with an interview about New Zealand’s economic future when there’s an ex-All Black prepared to make a craven apology in front of the nation for drunkenly groping a 15-year-old girl’s bum?

Obviously, this was so compelling it couldn’t wait. It had all the ingredients tabloid television loves: scandal, celebrity and a public display of shame.

What a pity Brooke couldn’t be induced to break down and sob with remorse. Perhaps the Close Up team would then have collected a bonus.

This was arguably a private matter that should have been dealt with privately. Trouble is, media intrusion into private lives is now so entrenched in popular culture that people submit to it without question. Viewers become accomplices in a circus in which everyone is demeaned – participants and viewers alike.

The entire item was imbued with a familiar moralistic sanctimony. In medieval society they had the stocks. These days we’ve got Close Up.

* * *

YOU JUST know, when you see a newspaper item headed “Bomb joke backfires”, that two immutable truths are about to be confirmed yet again.

The first is that airport security officers are genetically programmed to have no sense of humour and even less discretionary common sense, and therefore regard every jocular reference to ticking bombs as a serious threat calling for immediate arrest.

The second immutable truth is that there’s always a tourist – invariably male and often Australian, as in the latest case last week at Hamilton Airport – who still hasn’t grasped the first one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Er, where's the story?

I often scratch my head over the news judgment of the major TV channels, but last night’s lead item on One News was especially perplexing.

Alone among the nation’s media outlets, One News chose, as the most important story of the day, an exchange in Parliament between prime minister John Key and the Opposition over Key’s ownership of shares in an obscure Australian mining company, Jackson Mining.

The Dominion Post devoted a brief item to the subject this morning on page 2 and the New Zealand Herald referred to it in passing towards the end of its parliamentary “sketch” piece covering the day’s events in the debating chamber. Which was about the level of coverage the story seemed to merit.

In her lead item, One News political reporter Francesca Mold (who was, in the ridiculous jargon of TV newspeak, "across developments") didn't take the trouble to spell out why the story was supposed to pique our interest. Was it because Jackson Mining was involved in uranium mining? Hardly scandalous, surely. It’s not as if it’s illegal, after all. Australia’s Labour government actively encourages it. Or is uranium one of those political litmus words that’s supposed to throw nuclear-free New Zealanders into a tizz? It wasn’t made clear.

I had to watch the item a second time, online, to pick up a brief reference by Mold to the government’s proposal to open up the conservation estate to mining. So that was it? Were we supposed to get agitated about the possibility that Key stood to gain from the government’s still-embryonic proposals to relax prohibitions on mining? Again, it wasn’t spelled out – but this was the only clue I could find to explain why TVNZ’s news editors considered it the story du jour.

It was only later that I realised One News had broken the Jackson Mining story in its lead item on Sunday night, after political editor Guyon Espiner questioned Key about his holding in the company on Q+A that morning.

Now it all started to fall into place. One was beating up a story of its own making – standard behaviour on a quiet Sunday, when Q+A often furnishes material for the 6pm news (and provides an opportunity for TVNZ to promote its own programme). But even on Sunday, One News was straining to make much of the story. Espiner himself acknowledged on camera that it would probably blow over quickly and that no one thought there was anything sinister about it.

Why, then, try to resuscitate the story on Tuesday? Hasn’t TVNZ heard the old adage about soufflĂ©s never rising twice? And why make the mistake of assuming that One viewers had seen the item on Sunday so didn’t need to be told again why they should be concerned that Key owned shares in Jackson Mining (if indeed TVNZ could answer that question itself)?

Having now watched both items, I’m still not sure why One News considered the issue so newsworthy. Was it the uranium angle, or was it the possibility that Key might secretly be plotting for Jackson Mining to dig holes all over our national parks? The viewers are none the wiser. This struck me as flawed news judgment compounded by sloppy journalism that failed to ask, still less answer, the vital question – why should the viewer (or reader, or whatever) care?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A genius, or just tormented?

I don’t claim to have closely followed the career of the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who sadly took his own life this week, or to have made a close study of the surreal world in which he moved. But I have read and seen enough to conclude that he was a disturbed man. What the sycophants of the fashion world (or art, or pop music, or literature for that matter) describe as genius is often mental or emotional torment desperately looking for an outlet.

Few people outside the fashion industry would doubt that McQueen’s bizarre creations were the products of a damaged mind. His parades looked like out-takes from a Federico Fellini fantasy film, full of models so grotesquely pale and thin that they looked like creatures from an alien planet, wearing garments (for want of a better word) that seemed designed to strip the wearer of all dignity and humanity. To watch those blank-faced, asexual, other-worldly models parading clothes by McQueen was to understand the view of some feminists that the high fashion industry is fundamentally misogynistic, created to humiliate and demean women. (His 10-inch heels were too much even for some models, who refused to wear them for fear of injury.)

Of course his clothes provoked gasps of astonishment, which is why the fashion industry loved him. It is an industry that craves novelty like a drug. Having realised long ago that there were only so many ways classical design themes could be re-invented, high fashion has left itself nowhere to go other than to that edgy place we call out-there.

McQueen appears to have been in his natural realm there. A gay boy from working-class London, he apparently viewed himself as an outsider and seems to have been ambivalent about the adulation heaped on him. According to The Times, he was shy in private but foul-mouthed and confrontational in public. A “powerful fashion journalist” who crossed the Atlantic to meet him is said to have been left “white with shock” afterwards. Good. There should be no such thing as a “powerful fashion journalist” in the first place. The notion is preposterous, and an example of how inflated with conceit and self-absorption the alternative universe that is the fashion industry has become.

It was no surprise to read that McQueen was “discovered” by Isabella Blow, the “eccentric, aristocratic former fashion editor of Vogue”. Blow killed herself in 2007 by drinking weedkiller. Now McQueen too has taken his own life, which leaves me wondering whether the fashion industry, like rock music, attracts talented but inherently unstable people or whether the excesses, adulation, pressures and temptations of the culture and lifestyle render previously normal people unstable.

No doubt McQueen will be ostentatiously mourned for a few days – his funeral, if there is one, should be rich in air-kissing and photo opportunities – and then the Beautiful People will move on, anxious to find the next big thing; some other tortured soul who will satisfy the industry’s appetite for newness, outrage and entertainment.

It’s getting perilously close to clichĂ© territory to say that McQueen was devoured by the celebrity culture that created him. The real explanation for his premature death may be far more simple. In the end, it appears that all the adulation in the world couldn’t compensate this fragile man for the recent loss of his mum. Who knows; she may have been the one person in his glitter-filled life whom he felt loved him as someone other than a fashion darling.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Thank God for stroppy democracies

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 3.)

WHAT a shocking and tragic picture has emerged from the inquiry into the sinking of the Tongan ferry Princess Ashika.

Reports present almost a caricature of the archetypal Pacific Island backwater where complacency, lethargy, deference to authority, lack of initiative and fear of upsetting important people combined with catastrophic results.

There is even an element of what might be called the Bwana Syndrome, in which expatriate white men of dubious ability enjoy being big fish in a small pool.

In the unlikely event that you’ve forgotten the details of the Princess Ashika sinking, let me remind you.

The decrepit, 37-year-old ferry sank last August while on a voyage from Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital, to the Ha’apai island group. It was making only its fourth trip in Tongan waters.

Of the 74 who drowned, 29 were women and 12 were children. All the survivors were male.

It’s clear there were innumerable opportunities to prevent this tragedy, starting with the ill-advised decision to buy the patently unseaworthy ship. But at every point where people in authority could have applied prudence and common sense, instead a casual fatalism and reluctance to act prevailed – either out of complacency, penny-pinching or fear of angering the bosses.

The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, which operated the ferry for the Tongan government, dispatched its manager, New Zealander John Jonesse, to buy a ferry in Fiji despite Mr Jonesse apparently having little or no maritime experience. He got the Princess Ashika for $400,000 and reportedly considered it a bargain.

Evidence given to the commission indicates Mr Jonesse, a former schoolteacher who changed his name from Jones, had got his job with the corporation after only one formal interview and without references.

Mr Jonesse was on the corporation’s board with a former Scottish deputy transport commissioner, a lawyer who boasted the grandiose title of Lord Dalgety of Sikotilani, and a Tongan chairwoman who, in the three years she had been in the position, had reportedly never sent an email or letter on corporation business.

It later transpired that Dalgety, the corporation secretary, had spent 66 days staying in a five-star Singapore hotel on corporation business, for which he was paid a daily rate of $US674. So while the corporation was eager to procure a ferry on the cheap, no such constraints seem to have applied to Dalgety’s expenses.

The Princess Ashika wasn’t subjected to a survey before purchase and no independent valuation was obtained. The most recent survey carried out in Fiji had described the ship as “beyond repair” and with “uncontrollable corrosion”, but the survey report either was not seen or not acted on.

The ship had to turn back after taking on water on its delivery voyage to Tonga and when it finally arrived in Nuku’alofa, a team of Tongan marine surveyors compiled a six-page list of defects.

Not to worry – a “provisional survey certificate” was issued to allow the Princess Ashika to sail.

Only the day before the sinking, a former general manager of the Shipping Corporation inspected the ship for insurance purposes and concluded it was an “intolerable risk”, but did nothing to stop it sailing. This was literally an accident waiting to happen.

The same fatal complacency appears to have sealed the ship’s fate on the night of its sinking. Despite alarming incidents on its previous three trips in Tongan waters, including one in which waves smashed holes in the sides of the vessel, no one bothered to check liferafts and lifejackets or ensure that passengers were briefed on safety procedures.

On the fatal night, the ship began taking on water within hours of leaving port at 4pm. Yet the captain went to bed at 7pm, leaving the first mate in charge.

Even when water on the cargo deck was knee-deep and the ship was listing dangerously, no one roused the master. He was finally woken about 10 minutes before the ship sank. It was only then that passengers were alerted to the imminent danger, but it appears to have been too late.

The captain admitted to the inquiry that he knew the ship was unseaworthy but he sailed because that was what the corporation wanted.

The reluctance to act continued even after the sinking. The New Zealander who heads the Tongan police, Chris Kelly, didn’t learn of the tragedy till his daughter texted him the next morning. Kelly’s deputy knew of the sinking at 1.10am but didn’t tell his boss because he didn’t want to bother him.

Instead he directed emergency operations from his bed, evidently sleeping between calls from his subordinates.

It subsequently transpired that a Tongan fishing boat skipper ignored a distress flare from the Princess Ashika because he thought he was short of fuel and didn’t have the right safety equipment. Survivors were picked up later by another vessel.

The shambling incompetence continued the next day. Mr Jonesse came to a briefing with a manifest recording only 79 names rather than the 128 who had been on board. The manifest didn’t even name the ship correctly, calling it the Olavaha – the ferry the Princess Ashika had replaced.

All in all, reports from the royal commission’s hearings present a picture of a terrible tragedy unfolding in slow motion. The bumbling incompetence, amateurism and complacency would have been comical if the outcome hadn’t been so utterly appalling.

The Tongan people have every right to be very angry, but probably won’t be. They are a passive, respectful people who didn’t seem offended even when their worse-than-useless king, immediately after the sinking, flew off to Scotland to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo rather than remain at home with his grieving subjects.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the terrible fate of the Princess Ashika and its doomed passengers? Probably none that we didn’t know already. The tragedy confirms that hierarchical societies produce a culture of deference where people do what they are told and are reluctant to speak out or take the initiative for fear of stepping out of line.

Thank God for stroppy democracies.

We no longer expect politicians to tell us the truth

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 2.)

AUSTRALIAN Opposition leader and practising Catholic Tony Abbott brought a hail of criticism down on himself last week for expressing a conservative view on virginity. Feminists and leftist academics predictably pounced, denouncing Abbott as an unreconstructed male chauvinist.

But hang on. Regardless of what anyone thinks of his views, shouldn’t Abbott be given credit for expressing his opinions honestly and openly? That’s what democracy is supposed to be about: politicians saying what they think and letting the voters make up their minds.

Trouble is, politics is now so contaminated by spin-meisters and risk-averse media minders that we no longer expect people like Abbott to tell the truth.

Are his critics saying they would prefer it if he prevaricated and dissembled, like so many of his colleagues? It’s a strange old world, all right.

* * *

HOW entertaining it is to see the fear-mongering campaign of the global warming alarmists unravelling.

First there were the hacked emails and documents that indicated a conspiracy to massage scientific evidence in favour of the manmade global warming hypothesis. Then came the almost comical revelation that a predicted melting of Himalayan glaciers – one of the most alarming assertions in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – was a fiction, utterly lacking in any scientific validity.

Now a sheepish IPCC has had to admit there was no scientific basis for claims that global warming was linked to a supposed rise in natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

This latest backdown came as no surprise to me. I recently watched a compilation of old movie newsreels dating back to the 1920s, and in virtually every year there were reports of catastrophic weather events – most of them every bit as bad as the more recent floods and hurricanes allegedly caused by climate change.

The global warming alarmists insist that a few embarrassing porkies don’t detract from the overwhelming weight of evidence pointing to an impending climate catastrophe. But the truth is that they reveal a shocking lack of scientific rigour and in doing so, raise questions about the credibility of all IPCC reports.

None of this should surprise anyone. When scientific report writers are little more than propagandists, they will inevitably be tempted to use whatever scrap of dodgy information they can find to support their case – even to the point of making things up.

And when gullible governments and charitable foundations are handing out massive grants for research into global warming, what mug is going to choke off the flow of funds by saying it isn’t happening?

* * *

THE funniest comedy on television is often to be found on the 6 pm news.

In a lead item last week on the Auckland power blackout, One News excitedly crossed to reporter Jack Tame who, we were told, was “across developments” (my thanks to media critic Denis Welch for picking up this latest fatuous expression).

Then we saw Tame standing at a city intersection at peak hour, telling us about the traffic problems supposedly caused by the outage. Trouble was, viewers looking over his shoulder could see no sign of congestion. In fact vehicles were moving as freely you’re ever likely to see in Auckland.

I have a suggestion for TVNZ’s Auckland newsroom when covering such stories in future. Perhaps they should hand out petrol vouchers to motorists as an incentive to remain stationary, banking up at the lights and tooting impatiently, so as to replicate the traffic gridlock One News is so anxious to report.

Aucklanders are an obliging lot, after all; I’m sure they would be happy to comply.

* * *

IN THE sports pages of this paper last week, Phoenix football team chief executive Tony Pignata reportedly said he was “in agreeance” with another club about the undesirability of a recent on-field fracas.

Agreeance? Pardon me?

The word “agreement” has served the English language very well for a long time, but what the heck – let’s make up a new one.

Come to that, why doesn’t everyone just invent whatever new words happen to come into their heads? Then people can babble away in their own private languages and make even less sense than they do now.

Speaking of new words, what about “firefight” and “lockdown”? Reporters love them, presumably because they convey a sense of drama – but what do they mean?

I assume a “firefight” (the word originated in the Vietnam War) is what we used to call a gun battle, in which case the latter term seems a lot more accurate.

As for lockdown, I hear it used freely by journalists but don’t have a clue what it means. How can an entire neighbourhood be placed in lockdown, as is sometimes reported? And why are prisoners now said to be locked down when, only a few years ago, they were locked up?

A free weekend in Paremoremo with the partner of your choice for the most convincing explanation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Let's ignore this one, chaps

Let it be noted that police breath-tested about 1000 drivers leaving Trentham racecourse after the Wellington Cup meeting on Saturday, according to the Dominion Post. Only two drivers were over the limit.

This inconvenient statistic will doubtless be ignored by the New Wowsers, since it undermines their conviction that we are a nation of helpless drunks who must be protected from ourselves.

That guy on Q+A

It’s not easy finding positive things to say about TVNZ, but I think political editor Guyon Espiner has earned a big tick.

Espiner is steadily growing into his role as an interviewer on the Sunday morning political programme Q+A. He kicked off the year on an impressive note yesterday with an interrogation of Labour leader Phil Goff that was searching and incisive but never hectoring – not always an easy balance to strike.

As an interviewer, Espiner prepares well, is quick on his feet and has a pleasant manner. He has a slight tendency to interrupt too often, but there’s a fine line between giving interview subjects a fair suck of the sav and letting them control the show (as any politician will do, given half a chance). And he doesn’t shrink from the tough questions, to wit: “Are you a failure as leader?” – a question Goff answered with the same imperturbable smile he displayed throughout the interview. (He has inherited Helen Clark’s practice of grinning even when he’s being serious, which I find slightly unnerving.)

In his pieces to camera on One News, Espiner resists the temptation to grandstand and generally respects the boundary between analysis and editorialising – a skill his blustering counterpart at TV3, Duncan Garner, has yet to master (assuming Garner wants to, which may not be the case). And Espiner passes the most important test of any political journalist, which is that he leaves us guessing as to what his own political views (if any) are.

Best line from yesterday’s Q+A: “You don’t create wealth by taxing people” (Mike Moore). This should be tattooed on left-wing politicians’ foreheads.

Funniest line from yesterday’s Q+A: Asked by Paul Holmes whether he liked being in bed with the Nats, Hone Harawira paused for a moment before answering: “I wake up a lot.” He might have an anger problem, but he’s got a sense of humour too.