Thursday, April 29, 2010

Politics at its most cynical

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 27.)

SAY the word “sneaky”. Now try drawing it out, like this: sneak-key.

There, you’ve got it.

Sneak-key is a freshly coined term for a prime minister who secretly dispatches the Minister of Maori Affairs to New York so that he can commit New Zealand to a declaration that the previous government refused to sign and that New Zealanders have never been given an opportunity to debate.

Then, when word gets out, the PM pretends it didn’t really matter much because the declaration was only symbolic anyway.

If that was the case – if signing the declaration was only a gesture – why did it have to be done so furtively? Why couldn’t Mr Key do what good leaders do in liberal democracies and clearly announce in advance what the government intended to do, so that the country was at least informed even if it hadn’t had a chance to make up its mind?

The answer is obvious. Mr Key knew people would rightly object to New Zealand signing a declaration without first having an informed discussion about the implications, but he gambled on getting away with it because of his personal popularity.

This is politics at its most cynical. It demonstrates contempt for the electorate.

So now New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and while Mr Key was airily dismissing it as a matter of no great significance, Maori expectations were being ramped up to unprecedented levels.

There’s a yawning credibility gap here. Either Mr Key is right, and the declaration is just a feel-good, “aspirational” statement of no practical consequence, or High Court judge Sir Eddie Durie, the Labour Party, public law expert Mai Chen and ACT leader Rodney Hide are right, and the declaration could have profound and far-reaching consequences.

If Mr Key had been open and up-front, I might have been inclined to accept his word. But he wasn’t, so I don’t.

That acrid smell in the air is the National Government’s political capital burning up.

* * *

THE CRESCENDO of anti-liquor propaganda has risen to deafening proportions as Parliament prepares to receive the Law Commission’s final report, due today, on suggested changes to the alcohol laws.

Over the past few weeks, New Zealanders have been bombarded with dire and sometimes near-hysterical claims about the damage being done by alcohol abuse.

If this issue is to be decided by the sheer volume of propaganda, then the wowser lobby – largely funded by our taxes – has it in the bag. They have run a sustained and cleverly orchestrated campaign designed to panic New Zealanders into thinking we’re a nation of helpless drunks. There can be no doubt that their objective was to put pressure on the commission to recommend law changes that will sharply diminish individual responsibility and punish moderate drinkers.

Polls indicate the wowsers have largely been successful in convincing New Zealanders that we all need time in the detox unit. The liquor industry, for all its supposed political influence, is trailing well behind in the war of public opinion.

Personally I won’t lose any sleep over whatever happens to the liquor industry barons. By greedily continuing to promote the Kiwi pisshead culture and pushing alco-pops to young women, they have played into the hands of the neo-puritan propagandists in the universities and the health bureaucracy.

What bothers me is that those who will pay the price, literally and figuratively, for harsher liquor laws will include the vast majority of people who drink responsibly and have benefited enormously from the gradual liberalisation of the past 30-odd years.

We’ve been here before, of course. Just as dog attacks were used to justify a crackdown on law-abiding dog owners, and just as good parents were potentially criminalised because of the actions of child abusers, so responsible drinkers risk being penalised for the misbehaviour of the relatively small number who drink to excess.

* * *

ONE OF the significant achievements of the Internet, for which it isn’t really given due credit, is that it gives courage to cowards.

Letters to newspaper editors require a name and address; have done for decades. Even on radio talkback shows, anonymity isn’t complete because there’s always the chance someone might recognise the caller’s voice. Besides, the host can dump anyone who gets too offensive. These checks tend to filter out people with extreme views who don’t have the guts to reveal themselves.

Online forums, on the other hand, confer total anonymity. People can be as toxic, defamatory, abusive and splenetic as they like, cowering all the while behind pseudonyms. The blogosphere is God’s gift to people whose cowardice previously served to keep their rage in check.

It’s a form of free speech, I suppose, but a very inferior one. If an opinion is worth expressing, it’s surely worth putting your name to.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Captured by the New Wowsers

I don’t believe Sir Geoffrey Palmer is a wowser. I imagine he would bristle at the suggestion. Neither do I believe he’s a compulsive controller who knows what’s best for everyone. However I do believe that the Law Commission, in preparing its report Alcohol In Our Lives: Curbing the Harm, has allowed itself to be well and truly captured by neo-wowsers who don’t think New Zealanders can be trusted to make the right decisions about alcohol consumption. The wowsers’ fingerprints are all over the document.

Reading the report summary and an accompanying breakdown of the 2900-plus submissions, it’s clear that the commission’s report is an almost unqualified victory for those who want to see the liberalisation of the past few decades wound back. They have convinced Palmer and the commission that only a drastic retreat from past reforms can save us from our inability to control our alcohol intake.

The tone of the report is alarmist. Large chunks of it are written in the language of the anti-alcohol propagandists who have been blitzing the media in the weeks leading up to the report’s release. Their objective was to create a moral panic over alcohol abuse, and so far they have succeeded.

The commission has listened to the social scientists, health providers and medical researchers who urged a lifting of the minimum age of purchase, an increase in excise tax and a crackdown on liquor advertising and promotion, among other measures. Liquor industry interests didn’t get a look in. In fact the commission explicitly rejects the industry position that the majority of New Zealanders drink responsibly and shouldn’t be penalised because of the minority who don’t.

On this crucial point, the commission has adopted the alarmist contention that “excess drinking is not confined to an aberrant minority”. Exactly what constitutes “excess drinking” is not satisfactorily explained. Rather, the commission seems to accept without question the anti-alcohol lobby’s claims that 20 percent of us drink in a “potentially hazardous manner” and that 25 percent of us consume too much alcohol every time we drink – statements that hinge on the anti-alcohol propagandists’ arbitrary perception of what is “hazardous” or amounts to “too much”. Where there is a choice between an alarmist conclusion and a more cautious, conservative one, the commission seems unerringly to opt for the former. (I should note here that judged by the criteria of Professor Doug Sellman, one of the more shrill anti-alcohol propagandists, I am one of New Zealand’s 700,000 “heavy drinkers”. Perhaps you are too.)

What bothers me is not so much that the liquor industry position – which essentially favours the status quo – has been disregarded in favour of the restrictive regime favoured by the anti-alcohol lobby. The industry is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself (and you can bet it will be doing exactly that behind the scenes). No, what concerns me is that this whole elaborate process is dominated by organised and well-resourced pressure groups: the industry on one side, the control lobby (largely taxpayer funded, incidentally) on the other. Ironically, the people on whose behalf this review exercise is supposedly being undertaken – ordinary New Zealanders – are largely excluded. There is, as far as I know, no lobby group representing moderate drinkers. By its very nature, the commission’s review gives weight to the views of interest groups but largely fails to capture the views of the ordinary citizens who will have to bear whatever consequences flow from it, but who don’t have the time, the resources, the know-how or the motivation to prepare and make submissions. (This isn’t the fault of the commission, of course; it’s just the nature of the system.)

I haven’t tackled the full report – all 500 pages of it – but the 32-page summary condenses the commission’s recommendations and gives an idea of the report’s tone. One key point, already mentioned, is the commission’s dodgy assertion – based on the anti-alcohol lobbyists’ loaded statistics – that liquor abuse is not confined to a problematical minority.

Another is that alcohol should not be treated as a “normal” commodity – again, a central tenet of the New Wowser Manifesto. “The trend towards regarding alcohol as a normal food or beverage product needs to be reversed,” the commission pontificates. “In truth, alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that easily becomes addictive and that can produce dangerous behaviours in those who drink too much. New Zealanders are reluctant as a nation to face up to the facts.” (See what I mean about the language used? It’s straight from the New Wowsers’ Handbook.)

A counter-argument to this is that by treating alcohol as a dangerous drug that must be carefully controlled, as New Zealand governments did for decades, you produce bizarre and contradictory outcomes like the six o’clock swill (wherein, I suspect, lie the origins of our binge drinking culture). I believe we’re still suffering the legacy of that prohibitionist tradition, which treated New Zealanders as helpless drunks unable to control their intake without the help of the state. The danger in turning the clock back on the liberal reforms of the last two decades, as the commission wants to do, is that alcohol will again attain the lure of forbidden fruit, attracting people (especially young people) because of its aura as something slightly risky and dangerous, rather than being treated as something to be enjoyed, like food, as part of everyday life. It strikes me as highly significant that countries where alcohol is treated as “normal”, and where children are introduced to it as an integral and unremarkable part of their culture, don’t generally share our binge-drinking problem.

It was inevitable that New Zealand would take time to adapt to the more liberal alcohol regime ushered in (albeit in a piecemeal and illogical manner) from the late 1960s onwards, but we were getting there. What the commission and the wowser lobby constantly overlook, because it doesn’t fit their agenda, is the many ways in which our drinking behaviour has improved. Not only is our per capita consumption down slightly on the late 1970s (it dipped very sharply in the 1990s, then crept back up), but we’re drinking differently. We’re doing it in more civilised surroundings, we’re doing it in mixed company rather than in the men-only domain of the old-style public bar, and we’re doing it more often over a meal rather than standing at the bar. We’re also more discerning about what we drink, choosing wine and “craft” beers over the mass-produced draught beer once dispensed through plastic hoses.

The commission notes with disapproval that the number of on-licences has more than trebled since the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, but doesn’t acknowledge that the size of the average bar has decreased enormously. The horrendous suburban booze barn of the 1960s and 70s, surrounded by acres of car parks, is extinct. The bars that have replaced them are much smaller, more intimate and more congenial. But apart from one brief token acknowledgment in the summary, the commission seems steadfastly to ignore these gains. It would rather dwell on binge drinking – a very real and ugly phenomenon, to be sure, but hardly “pervasive”, as the commission asserts, which suggests it has permeated every level of society when in fact it’s confined to a relatively small demographic group.

Not all the commission’s recommendations are extreme. There’s a good case to be made for reducing the proliferation of off-licence outlets and I personally wouldn’t argue too vigorously against the proposed reduction of opening hours. But the proposal to put the age of purchase back to 20, with no exceptions, is barmy and regressive. How humiliating for a 19-year-old to go to a bar or licensed restaurant with his or her parents and not be allowed to have a drink. How can we expect people to behave like adults when we treat them as children? This is precisely how our dysfunctional attitude toward alcohol developed in the first place.

So now it’s in the hands of the politicians. Given the fraught history of legislation relating to alcohol, we shouldn’t expect Parliament to make logical or consistent decisions – least of all if it’s down to a conscience vote (and I have some sympathy with Sir Geoffrey Palmer on that point). But at least the politicians, unlike the Law Commission, have constituents’ views to consider, which might lead to a more balanced position being struck than that taken by the commission. We should certainly hope so.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A concert in the Wairarapa

Last night I was privileged to attend, along with about 40 others, a concert by the luminously talented Wellington singer and songwriter Jess Chambers. Of course 40 people would normally be a pitiful turnout, but this was a concert with a difference. It was held in the Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Philippa Steele and the audience consisted of invited (paying) guests, all known to the hosts and mostly members of the rapidly growing Wairarapa community of refugees from Wellington.

It was the first such concert I’d attended, but the concept isn’t new. Some of us can recall an era when people frequently arranged concerts in their own homes, though usually the performers were family and friends rather than professional entertainers. Most homes seemed to have a piano then, husbands and wives often sang together (my parents did), and even if you couldn’t sing or play an instrument, well, reciting a poem was fine.

Television killed off that charming tradition, but attempts have been made to revive it. In Greytown, Ed and Juliet Cooke frequently host classical recitals in their home – though again, by paid performers rather than amateurs. Simon and Philippa simply extended the concept to a different musical genre.

Which brings me to Jess Chambers and her talented accompanist, Peter Hill. This was an act perfectly suited to the intimacy of the venue, a big old home that would almost certainly have hosted similar entertainments in its long distant past.

Chambers plays guitar and sings. Hill backed her with great subtlety and empathy on electric guitar and mandolin, filling out the sound with layers of texture. Several in the audience drew comparisons with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the analogy was apt. Not only was the lineup similar but the repertoire too; in fact some of the warmest applause was for Chambers’ rendition of the Gillian Welch song Elvis Presley Blues. Like Welch and Rawlings these two had the ability, with just two instruments, to keep their audience engaged – entranced is not too strong a word – for the better part of two hours; long enough to just about exhaust their repertoire.

Chambers came to prominence as member of the Woolshed Sessions, a loose coalition of musicians whose name is taken from the album they recorded last year in a woolshed near Takaka. But no one should doubt her ability to carry off a solo performance. Her repertoire includes some very appealing songs of her own – songs that are alternately wistful, quirky and witty – along with a slew of cover versions. Besides the aforementioned Elvis Presley Blues these included Neil Young’s Harvest Moon – Young would surely approve – and Chrissie Hynde’s Don’t Get Me Wrong. To each of these she brings a fresh interpretation, effectively making them her own. Chambers has an immensely appealing voice – gutsy and assertive one moment, full of poignant yearning the next. I was constantly reminded of Jonatha Brooke, whose 1997 album 10 Cent Wings is still one of my favourites. But Chambers is doubly blessed because as well as being indecently talented, she’s also very pretty. In the unlikely event that you tired of her music, you could just look at her.

Between songs, she indulged in engaging, slightly shy banter in a hybrid accent – part Kiwi, part American – that was explained when she said she had a New Zealand father and an American mother and spent some of her formative years in California, where she acquired her taste for country music.

Ah, there’s that loaded term again: country music. I would guess there were people at last night’s concert who wouldn’t describe themselves as country music fans, because the term has acquired such negative connotations. But Chambers demonstrated just how broad and all-encompassing the genre really is.

My thanks to our hosts for a terrific night. I hope there will be more.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A pink government clad in Tory blue

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

Contrary to popular belief, it was Labour that won the 2008 election.

Yes, I know the official results show we elected a National government and banished Helen Clark. But in terms of practical consequences, what we now have is, in many respects, a pink government wearing National Party blue.

Labour and its allies in government succeeding in shifting the political centre to the left. They redefined the political game by making an unprecedented number of people dependent on government largesse in one form or another, whether it was Working for Families, interest-free student loans or even the Winston Peters SuperGold card.

National knows it tampers with these electoral bribes at its peril. In politics, it’s much easier to say no in the first place than to try to take something back once people have become accustomed to it.

In effect National finds itself having to play the game on Labour’s terms. During three terms under Labour the public became so conditioned to social democratic-style government that National, even with its handsome election margin, didn’t dare interfere too radically with Labour’s legacy. In fact John Key, as leader of the Opposition, spent much of his time clearing the decks of potentially divisive points of difference with his opponents – reassuring the public, in effect, that things wouldn’t change too much under a new government.

Notwithstanding proposed welfare changes, the introduction of national standards in schools and vague talk about opening up the conservation estate to mining, Mr Key’s party is too timid to attempt the radical change needed to transform a chronically under-performing economy. National has sent out a clear signal that the moment any special interest group squeals at its taxpayer-funded privileges being curtailed, the government will back down – just as it promptly did when superannuitants jumped up and down over threatened cuts to SuperGold Card travel discounts.

It has been left to ACT – now ghetto-ised in the media as a party of the far right – to champion the cause of small government and the free market. The political ground once occupied by National stands largely vacant as the government jostles with Labour for the so-called political centre, which has moved steadily to the left.

Many traditional National supporters are deeply unhappy with this but don’t speak out because a National government is still better than a Labour one, even if it isn’t quite the National government they expected.

In this respect, Labour and its former allies are the winners even if they are no longer in power.

Thus continues a long-standing paradox of New Zealand politics whereby parties of the right behave like parties of the left, and vice-versa.

Think about it. Rob Muldoon, though nominally a National prime minister, was a controlling socialist at heart. State control of the economy – indeed, of virtually every facet of life – was rarely more strongly asserted than under his leadership.

It was in areas of social policy that Muldoon was archly conservative. It was this potent combination that won him the support of blue-collar conservatives, traditionally Labour voters, and helped keep Labour out of power for three terms.

In the 1980s, a reformist Labour government, faced with an economy in a state of collapse, ushered in an era of economic neo-liberalism that was as far removed from traditional socialist principles as it was possible to get. Roger Douglas drove through policy changes that were closer in spirit to those pursued by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the pinup girl of laissez-faire capitalism.

The topsy-turvy politics continued in the 1990s when Jim Bolger’s National government, running counter to type, negotiated the first big Treaty settlements – something Maori voters might have expected from Labour, given its traditional command of Maori loyalty.

Then came the 1999 election, and more chameleon politics. While never missing an opportunity to condemn the “failed reforms” of the 1980s and 1990s, Helen Clark left virtually all of them in place, pragmatically recognising that the socialist economic experiment had been a worldwide failure.

Instead, Labour – much like the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown government in Britain – turned its attention to a new agenda which cleverly harnessed the capitalist economy to the left’s social policy objectives. Under this approach, as the conservative British commentator Gerald Warner has shrewdly observed, left-wing governments allow markets to create wealth so that the state can then appropriate it in taxes and use it to enforce social control.

So now here we are with National again in power – ostensibly the party of individual freedom, private enterprise and small government – and it appears every bit as dedicated to big government, and every bit as eager to appease every hand-wringing claimant for taxpayer help (other than those actually contributing to the economy, such as farmers and small businesses), as Labour was.

Mr Key doesn’t seem to accept that being an effective leader means sometimes having to upset people. He seems to have a pathological desire to be liked. But at some point, unpopular decisions will have to be made or the government’s stated intention of catching up with Australia will remain a fantasy.

Perversely, the policy on which the government has shown its boldest leadership – the misconceived emissions trading scheme – is one that will burden rather than stimulate the economy, and which has been vigorously opposed by business and farmers – sector groups that could normally be expected to support a National government.

As it is in New Zealand, so it is in Britain. The political parallels between the two countries are striking. In both countries, Labour politicians assiduously promoted what has been called the Third Way – supposedly a benign compromise between capitalism and socialism, but in reality a creeping expansion of government control with a corresponding erosion of individual autonomy. And in both countries, the mainstream parties of the centre-right, as it’s now lamely called, seem either powerless or unwilling to roll it back.

David Cameron, the British Conservative Party leader, is an appeaser who hopes to win power in the forthcoming election by not frightening the horses. Politically, he could be Mr Key’s doppelganger.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

God protect us from pretend prophets

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 13).

WHEN we think of conceit and arrogance, we normally associate it with overt displays of superiority: the swaggering walk, the braying voice, the overweening air of self-assurance.

Yet there is another type of conceit and arrogance that dresses down, cladding itself in the garb of modesty and humility. It can appear self-effacing and even holy, but it is no less vain.

It was this sort of disguised hubris that we saw on display in the trial of the so-called Waihopai Three. Anyone observing the defendants’ scruffy clothing, their unworldly manner and their air of righteous sincerity could have concluded these were humble men of Christ, driven by the purest of motives. The jury obviously did.

I don’t dispute the sincerity of the three men who vandalised the Waihopai satellite dish, but I do question the popular perception that they are simple men of faith, untainted by pride or vanity.

On the contrary, I believe they exhibit a deeply unattractive type of conceit: namely, the unshakeable moral conviction of zealots.

Their beliefs trump anyone else’s. If their fellow New Zealanders objected strongly enough to the Waihopai satellite dish, it would be a political issue. They don’t, and it isn’t. Yet the Waihopai Three decided their moral convictions entitled them to act on our behalf, and to hell with the repair bill that the taxpayer will now have to pick up.

Even Helen Clark, hardly a right-wing warmonger, condemned the attack on Waihopai in 2008 as a senseless act of criminal vandalism.

The inflated self-regard of the Waihopai Three emerged in full view last week when Solicitor General David Collins QC suggested the Crown might sue them for damages. One of the three, Adrian Leason, scoffed at the government for being “sore losers or cry babies” and virtually taunted it to have a go.

A damages case would only promote their cause, he said; and besides, the three had only $1000 between them (a statement now open to doubt after revelations that Leason and co-defendant Sam Land have property assets valued at half a million dollars).

The third Waihopai vandal, Dominican friar Peter Murnane, seemed serenely confident that public opinion would force the government to back off. We shall see.

Murnane, incidentally, was one of the priests who gave sanctuary to the oily queue-jumper Ahmed Zaoui. He represents a highly politicised branch of the Catholic clergy that rarely hesitates to let reason get in the way of emotional fervour.

The motivation of the Waihopai vandals is as much political as religious. Their rhetoric is that of the neo-Marxist left which pursues its agenda under the banner of peace and justice.

They claim to have acted on behalf of the women and children killed by the US war machine in Iraq, but theirs is a highly selective morality. They condemn the killing of innocent Iraqis by American forces, most of which is unintentional, but they say nothing about the rampant and wholly deliberate murder of innocent people – mostly of their own kind – by Islamic fanatics seeking to extinguish democracy and impose their own repressive dogma.

If it ever occurred to the Waihopai Three that the eavesdropping network operated by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand might be preventing more wholesale slaughter by these murderous fundamentalists, they probably pushed the thought from their minds. It doesn’t fit their warped worldview.

Muslim terrorists probably regard these woolly-headed, pretend prophets in much the same way as Lenin viewed the “useful idiots” in the West who supported the murderous Soviet state.

* * *

AM I ALONE in objecting to the melodramatic use of the word “survivors” to describe anyone who has been sexually abused or spent time in a psychiatric institution?

“Survivors” are people who have lived through truly life-threatening experiences. I wouldn’t make light of the awful experiences many victims of sexual and psychiatric abuse have suffered, but the integrity of the language is worth protecting.

Their lives were generally not at risk. To describe them as survivors devalues the word and detracts from the ordeals of true survivors – those who lived through Nazi concentration camps, for example, or were plucked from the sea after the Wahine sank.

You can see, though, why lobbyists for people seeking compensation for abuse have adopted the word. “Survivors” is an emotive term that makes their claims sound more pressing.

* * *

THE LEFT keeps moaning that wages in New Zealand are too low, which is perfectly correct. They complain that the government hasn’t delivered the promised higher-wage economy – again, all true.

But just let anyone suggest that something meaningful be done to free up the economy, increase productivity and stimulate income growth – such as reducing taxes and government spending – and who’s the first to howl in protest? Why, it’s the Left.

Unionist Matt McCarten recently grizzled that an increase in ACC levies would negate the 25 cents an hour rise in the minimum wage. Yet if anyone proposes dismantling the ACC behemoth, the unions are the first to rise up on their hind legs.

Until the Left can reconcile these contradictions, it’s stuck with a credibility problem.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A phrase Private Eye would have been proud of

Back in the 1970s, the British satirical magazine Private Eye coined the wonderful phrase “Ugandan discussions” as a euphemism for illicit or surreptitious acts of sexual congress.

The origin of the term is disputed. I always understood it referred to Princess Elizabeth of Uganda, a statuesque diplomat (and famous model) during the rule of Idi Amin who, having been caught in compromising circumstances with a white man in a toilet at Orly Airport, Paris, while travelling on government business, purportedly gave the explanation that they had repaired to the toilet cubicle for talks about affairs of state.

However an entry in Wikipedia gives an alternative explanation, suggesting the phrase arose from an incident in which the Irish journalist and feminist Mary Kenny retired upstairs with a former cabinet minister in the Ugandan government of Milton Obote during a London party and later claimed they had been discussing events in his homeland.

Whatever. The key point is that “Ugandan discussions” (or alternatively, “discussions of a Ugandan nature”) entered popular usage as a metaphor for sex, along with several other wickedly clever Private Eye expressions including “tired and emotional” for drunk and “Lunchtime O’Booze” for any bibulous, freeloading journalist (if that’s not a tautology).

The reason I relate all this is that I think we may, in future, be able to use our own New Zealand equivalent in place of Private Eye’s famous phrase.

Today’s Dominion Post recounts in some detail the events surrounding the death in 1984 of young Wellington woman Sacha Macfarlane, who was killed in a collision with a car driven by drunk Chilean diplomat Luis Lopez. Sacha’s death caused outrage at the time because Lopez, claiming diplomatic immunity, was able to scuttle back to General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile without facing charges. Only this week did the Chilean government formally apologise to Sacha’s family.

The Dom Post account by Tim Donoghue, quoting police files, retraces Lopez’s steps on the Friday night of the fatal accident and records that he spent several hours eating and drinking in the company of two Wellington women. Sometime after 11.30 pm, Lopez and one of the women went back to his apartment on Mt Victoria, where they stayed for about two hours. The fatal accident happened later when Lopez was driving his lady friend home to Khandallah, where she reportedly intended to introduce him to her husband.

The Dom Post records that the woman said, in a sworn affidavit, that she had gone to Mr Lopez’s apartment to read Chilean newspapers. This seems a rather unorthodox thing to do at 11.30 pm after a boozy night on the town and I think most readers of the Dom Post couldn’t have helped wondering whether a compelling interest in Latin American journalism was an entirely convincing explanation for her presence in Mr Lopez’s apartment.

Of course, whatever went on is entirely the woman’s own business, and it’s important to point out that she was perfectly within her rights to accompany Mr Lopez back to his place for whatever reason she chose, provided it was legal. It should be remembered too that she became an unwitting victim of this tragedy, though the Dom Post doesn’t say whether she too was injured in the crash.

Still, the statement does stand out as one of the more novel explanations proffered for a married woman’s presence in a man’s apartment late at night, and you can’t help wondering whether “reading Chilean newspapers” will become the new “Ugandan discussions”.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Accountability - the Achilles heel of Maori self-help efforts

What an unhappy coincidence, at least from the Maori Party’s point of view, that the party's flagship $1 billion-plus Whanau Ora scheme was unveiled just as The Dominion Post was exposing misuse of taxpayer money by a Maori health provider on the Kapiti Coast.

The Whanau Ora scheme will channel public money direct to Maori community groups in the belief that they are in the best position to achieve the desired health and welfare outcomes. It’s surely worth a try, given that the present government-centered approach seems to be making little or no headway against the disproportionate incidence of illness, violence, drug use, welfare dependency and low life expectancy among Maori. But what confidence can the public have that Whanau Ora spending will be subject to rigorous scrutiny and accountability?

Accountability, or the lack of it, seems to be the Achilles heel of taxpayer-funded, Maori-controlled initiatives. The Dom Post’s revelation that $590,000 of health funding was unaccounted for by Te Runanga O Te Ati Awa Ki Whakarongotai came only days after similar allegations were made about the Tekau Plus project (see earlier post, April 3), which swallowed up more than $1 million of money intended to promote Maori business.

In both cases, it seems the money was shovelled indiscriminately into a black hole. Even worse, repeated attempts to alert government ministers and public servants to the alleged misuse of public funds by the Waikanae runanga were ignored until whistle-blowers – local Maori, as it happened – threatened to go to the media. When I wrote last week that politicians, frightened of appearing unsympathetic to Maori aspirations, were turning a blind eye to the massive rorting potential created by loose control over handouts to Maori interests, I didn't expect to be proved right quite so soon.

These scandals will only reinforce fears that Maori agencies are a protected species, exempted from normal rules of accountability. A sceptical public will need a lot of persuading that spending under the Whanau Ora scheme will be monitored more carefully.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The affronts to the Tongan people continue

There were no surprises in the report of the royal commission of inquiry into the sinking of the Tongan ferry Princess Ashika. It was negligence, indifference and incompetence right down the line – from the prime minister and the minister of transport, down through the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia and its “deplorable’ chief executive and “evasive” secretary, to the ferry's master (who slept while the ferry was sinking) and the first mate. All could have acted to avert the tragedy. None did, due to either a shocking disregard for the duty of care owed to the public of Tonga, or to a catastrophic failure of imagination, or perhaps both.

While there is some satisfaction in learning that New Zealander John Jonesse, the Shipping Corporation CEO, faces a manslaughter charge, along with the Princess Ashika’s master and first mate, you have to wonder whether the charges announced so far get to the heart of the matter. They introduce an element of accountability, if only post-facto, that was otherwise lacking. But the evidence heard by the commission suggested a much bigger collective failing; one that couldn’t be pinned on any individual. It was all to do with not rocking the boat, if you’ll pardon an unfortunate pun. People who could have prevented the Princess Ashika sailing, knowing it was a death trap, appear not to have acted because they didn’t want to make a fuss or risk upsetting their superiors. This seems to have taken precedence over the need to ensure the safety of the ferry’s passengers.

Jonesse, the master and the first mate were easy targets (as was the pompous and self-important Lord Dalgety QC, the Shipping Corporation secretary, who has been placed under house arrest and faces a charge of perjury). But how do you pin charges on an entire government culture that encourages deference to authority at the expense of the public interest? That’s surely the bigger underlying issue.

Tonga is an oligarchy ruled by a small and wealthy elite; a country where, under present arrangements, 10 of the 14 members of the cabinet are appointed by the monarch for life. It is a country where the law decrees that traffic must pull over and stop when the king travels by – the same useless king who abandoned his people immediately after the sinking of the Princess Ashika so that he could dress up and hob-nob with dignitaries at the Edinburgh Tattoo. It is a country that suppresses freedom of speech and where you criticise the monarchy at your own risk.

Under constitutional changes to be introduced later this year, the king’s powers will be reduced and a more democratic parliament elected. These belated reforms can partly be attributed to the riots of 2006, which caused $100 million worth of damage; even long-suffering Tongans can run out of patience. But in the meantime the culture of deference to authority persists, and you have to wonder to what extent it can be blamed for the Princess Ashika tragedy.

You also have to wonder whether the pending constitutional reforms will make much difference. The report of the royal commission was to be made public at the king’s pleasure (yes, the same king who clearly considered the sinking less important than the Edinburgh Tattoo). The findings were still being withheld from the Tongan public long after they had been reported in the New Zealand media. That would be unthinkable in any western democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more emphatic gesture of contempt for the Tongan people’s right to know.

The black hole called Tekau Plus

It’s disappointing, though hardly surprising, that other media haven’t followed up investigative reporter Phil Kitchin’s revelations in The Dominion Post about taxpayer money disappearing into the black hole called Tekau Plus.

No doubt they have their reasons. Fear of litigation would be one, though previous experience suggests Kitchin will have done his homework very carefully and lawyers will have pored over every word before publication. Reluctance to acknowledge that a competitor has broken an important story is a more likely explanation – and make no mistake, this is a very damning exposé. But other media will pick up the story only if heads start to roll, and so far there’s no sign of that happening.

Kitchin revealed that large amounts of public money, sunk into a project supposedly intended to develop Maori export businesses, were essentially unaccounted for. A report on Tekau Plus accounts cited in his story revealed that nearly $1.2m of taxpayer funds was paid to Fomana Capital, which ran Tekau Plus for the Federation of Maori Authorities, yet there were no descriptions of the services provided by Fomana or third parties it hired. Management and consultancy fees, those old familiar gobblers of public funds, seem to have swallowed up much of the dough.

Judging by Kitchin’s account, the project was fatally compromised by conflicts of interest. When Te Puni Kokiri CEO Leith Comer made inquiries into what Tekau Plus was achieving, the high-profile Maori business figures running the show reportedly tried to fend him off with woolly management-speak. “Establishing soft network clusters” and “bigger picture value propositions – phrases straight from the corporate bullshit manual – were a couple of the priceless examples Kitchin cited.

To his credit, Comer appears to have blown the whistle on the project (it was frozen last November). But his acknowledgement that the Tekau Plus contract was extraordinarily loose and wishy-washy will have only confirmed fears that Maori agencies operate according to very different rules of accountability, transparency and integrity from other recipients of public money. And politicians, frightened of appearing unsympathetic to Maori aspirations, turn a blind eye to the massive rorting potential created along the way.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The debate over dairying has come 10 years too late

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 31.)

My mother was raised on a Taranaki dairy farm. I grew up next to a dairy farm myself. Our neighbours produced milk for the local hospital board (remember them?) and were good family friends. I would sometimes help out in their milking shed, though the word “help” is used very loosely in this context.

I disclose these facts in a probably futile attempt to head off accusations that I’m a one-eyed, intransigent opponent of dairying.

Truth is, I’m rather fond of cows. We had a succession of jersey house cows when I was a boy and I grew quite attached to them.

None of this, however, dissuades me from the view that there has been no more lamentable change to the New Zealand landscape in my lifetime than the rampant expansion of dairy farming.

The Clyde Dam, Lake Manapouri, the aborted Project Aqua on the Waitaki River, the Waihi gold mine, the toxic chemicals site at Mapua, the proliferation of wind farms – all these other celebrated environmental causes of the past few decades pale by comparison.

Quite apart from anything else, most of the above are (or were) confined to one location. Dairying, by contrast, has spread its unsightly blight from end of the country to the other.

Let me elaborate on this. Dairy farming strikes me as a perfectly appropriate activity where geography is conducive to it. That means Northland, the Waikato, Taranaki, the West Coast and pockets of other regions, including Hawke’s Bay, the Manawatu, Nelson and the Wairarapa, where there’s abundant rainfall and the fertile soil supports lush pasture growth.

In other words, all the regions where dairying has traditionally been carried out.

What has happened in the past couple of decades, however, is that dairying, driven by high prices, has spread into areas where it was not traditionally practised, and which are demonstrably ill-suited to it: areas of relatively low rainfall where intensive dairying can be sustained only by sucking vast quantities of irrigation water out of rivers and aquifers and by applying vast amounts of fertiliser to poor, often stony, soils.

Of course those nutrients find their way back into waterways, along with polluted run-off created by bovine urine and excrement.

The environmental damage is compounded by the size of these modern, industrial-scale farms, which dwarf the traditional cow cocky’s modest holding. The average herd size has more than doubled in the past 20 years, to 351. In Canterbury, where the environmental pressure created by dairying is felt most acutely, the average herd is more than twice that number.

What’s more, production per cow has increased as farming has become more intensive – up from 239 kg of milk solids in 1992-93 to 330 kg in 2006-2007.

I first realised the scale of this transformation on a trip around the South Island in 2005. In North Canterbury and parts of Otago, vast tracts of land – previously devoted to sheep and beef – had been converted to dairying.

Ugly irrigation machines, hundreds of metres long, marched across the land like creatures from a science-fiction movie. Tree plantations had been felled so as not to block their path.

Friends just back from the South Island tell me big dairy herds are now grazing around Twizel, in the beautiful Mackenzie Country. Closer to home I have seen dairy industry entrepreneurs buying up and converting every farm they could get their hands on in parts of the Wairarapa and Central Hawke’s Bay where, 20 years ago, dairy cows were unknown. Meanwhile the rivers run ever lower and dirtier.

And it’s not just sheep and beef country that’s being converted. I recently heard a Canterbury farming spokesman talking about the amount of prime grain and seed land being lost to dairying. Ten or 11 conversions are currently planned in mid-Canterbury alone, on some of New Zealand’s best cropping soil.

Let me bore you with some more figures. In 1990-91, dairying accounted for 1.35 million hectares of New Zealand farmland. By 2012-13, that area will have increased to 2.13 million ha. Roughly 800,000ha of prime sheep and beef land has been converted to cows.

But the statistics tell only part of the story. What’s more significant is the type of land converted, and the consequential degradation of the environment.

There’s no getting around the fact that dairying, compared with most other forms of farming traditionally carried out in New Zealand, is unsightly and dirty – especially where it clearly doesn’t belong. Dairy farms can look quite pretty in parts of the Waikato but no one can pretend that dairying aesthetically enhances the Mackenzie Country or the valleys of North Canterbury.

The problem is, all this change has taken place largely without public debate. Much of it has gone unnoticed, at least until recently, because most of the population lives in cities. Out of sight, out of mind.

Besides, it has been a gradual process. The government didn’t suddenly announce that 800,000 ha of farmland was going to be converted from sheep and beef cattle to dairy cows. If it had, alarm bells might have started ringing in the same way as they do when a new hydro dam or opencast mine is proposed.

It’s probably also true that dairying, because of its economic importance, has enjoyed a large measure of political protection. Only tourism matches it as an earner of the overseas revenue that the economy depends on. That makes the dairy industry very powerful politically – probably more powerful than the meat and wool sector was in its heyday, half a century ago.

With a sluggish economy struggling out of recession, there’s an especially strong temptation for politicians to look the other way when official reports portray a greedy dairy industry preoccupied with increasing production without proper regard for the environment. Only last month, a report issued by the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry showed that dairy farmers' compliance with the much-vaunted "Clean Streams Accord" was actually slipping backwards.

Only now are we having something approaching a proper national debate over land use. Controversies over toxic runoff, the Crafar farms fiasco, the odious proposal to put “factory farms” in the Mackenzie Basin and the squabble over the management of Canterbury’s precious water have finally alerted New Zealanders to the scale of dairying’s march across the landscape and the detrimental consequences for the environment (to say nothing of our image as “100 percent pure”, which is looking decidedly dodgy). It’s just a shame the debate is taking place about 10 years too late.

Media label dogs Kurariki at every turn

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 30.)

IF Bailey Junior Kurariki becomes a hardened lifetime criminal, as now seems inevitable, then I’m afraid my fellow journalists will have to accept a large measure of responsibility.

The media were captivated by the image of the 12-year-old Kurariki’s wide-eyed face peering over the top of the dock when he was found guilty of the manslaughter of pizza delivery man Michael Choy in 2002, and they haven’t been able to leave him alone since.

He immediately became branded as “New Zealand’s youngest killer”, a tag that has dogged him at every turn.

In a very narrow, technical sense, I suppose the description is correct. But does that justify its endless repetition? I’m not so sure.

It’s important to point out that Kurariki didn’t actually kill anyone. He was a decoy who gave the signal for one of his older partners-in-crime to leap out and hit Mr Choy. He must have known the plan was to assault Mr Choy, but there was no proven intent to kill – otherwise the charge would have been murder.

In any case, Kurariki was under the influence of older associates. Significantly, we don’t hear anything about them these days. Of the six who were convicted, Kurariki was singled out for continued media attention solely because of his age.

I would have thought this very factor was a compelling reason to leave him alone, so that he might have had some chance of rehabilitation away from the public eye.

In fact the exact reverse happened. Kuraraki has been subjected to such unrelenting media attention that he had no chance of settling back into a normal life after his initial release from prison.

The media played a direct hand in his latest brush with the law. Two female journalists from the Herald on Sunday, a reporter and a photographer, went to interview him after he finished a one-month sentence for wilfully damaging a TV camera. (The media again. Fancy that.)

Kurariki is alleged to have exposed himself to the two, masturbated and groped them. Naturally they lodged a complaint with the police, which in turn led to his latest arrest last week after he failed to appear in court.

I hope the two Herald on Sunday journalists feel pleased with themselves. For two apparently attractive women to visit a troubled and unstable young man in his home was perilously close to baiting him. But never mind, the paper got what it no doubt wanted: a story headlined Child killer becomes sex pest.

Kurariki’s life is a tragedy playing out in slow motion, and it’s not hard to predict how the storyline will unfold. This is not the New Zealand media’s proudest moment.

* * *

THERE IS a certain type of officious Englishman whose image is seared into the New Zealand psyche.

We have all encountered him. He carries a clipboard and has a pocket bristling with pens. A typical example of the subspecies pommus pettibureaucratus has a moustache and wears a white dustcoat. He loves to give orders, preferably citing the minutiae of council bylaws and Acts of Her Majesty’s Parliament.

He has an accent which identifies him as a member of the English lower-middle class, a social status of which he is probably acutely aware and possibly resentful.

Though thousands of miles from home, he has found an ideal habitat in the lower regulatory branches of government.

Here he has secured a form of employment which enables him, at one stroke, to fulfil his dream of improving his social and economic standing – to “make something” of himself in a country blessedly free of class rigidities – while simultaneously asserting authority over people who, in different circumstances, might be his betters.

Any career with the word “inspector” in the job description – health inspector, building inspector, fire safety inspector – is irresistible to him. If there’s a uniform with the job, so much the better.

Local government is rich in such openings. In this capacity he is able to indulge his natural talent for nitpicking and gleefully pouncing on the supposed shortcomings of others.

We have seen a striking example of this personality type in a recent “reality” TV show. I leave it to readers to guess which programme I’m referring to.

* * *

PEOPLE used to suffer harm. They exhibited different types of behaviour. They demonstrated competency of one sort or another. Sometimes they would indulge in misconduct.

Then someone decided, for no obvious reason, to append the letter “s” to words that had managed perfectly well without it. So now we have harms, behaviours, competencies and misconducts.

Even worse, I’ve recently seen reference to knowledges, evidences and learnings (this last from a police officer talking about the lessons police learned from a security breach at Premier House during Prince William’s visit in January).

Happily these atrocities haven’t yet crept into everyday English, but it may be only a matter of time. Predictably, teachers, social workers and other “caring” professions have adopted them with gusto. Or should that be gustos?