Friday, May 28, 2010

Help was on the way, they said - but it wasn't

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 26.)

I have been reading the Independent Police Conduct Authority’s recent report on the police response to the fatal shooting of South Auckland liquor store owner Navtej Singh. It’s not a document anyone would read for entertainment, though aspects of it might seem almost comical if it didn’t concern the death of an innocent human being.

On the day the report came out, I listened to deputy police commissioner Rob Pope being grilled about its findings by Radio New Zealand afternoon host Jim Mora.

Normally the most affable of hosts, Mora gave Mr Pope a thorough working-over. Though polite, as always, Mora was at a loss to understand how the police could have cocked things up so badly.

It must be said that he didn’t get a lot of satisfaction. New Zealand’s second most senior police officer (where was commissioner Howard Broad?) was ducking and weaving, saying on the one hand that the police accepted the report’s findings but in virtually the same breath seeming to offer excuses for their failure.

Listening in my car to Mr Pope’s defensive equivocating, I found myself getting frustrated too. I particularly resented his statement – repeated two or three times – that people needed to remember that it wasn’t the police who killed the hapless Mr Singh. Well of course it wasn’t; we didn’t need to be told that. This was a lame attempt to divert attention from the point at issue, which was whether the police failed Mr Singh by not allowing help to reach him sooner. The IPCA decided that they did, though it then soft-pedalled by holding that the police had only “arguably” breached their duty of care to preserve life.

Before I go any further, and for the benefit of anyone who has been holidaying on Mars, let me recount the essential facts of the Singh killing.

He was shot in his liquor store by a man who has since been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. The killer and his accomplices left the scene immediately – yet 31 minutes elapsed before the first police unit arrived, followed six minutes later by an ambulance.

Sixty vital minutes passed between the shooting and Mr Singh’s arrival at Middlemore Hospital. A pathologist couldn’t be sure that the delay caused his death 24 hours later but commented that it wouldn’t have helped him – a statement of the bleeding obvious, if you’ll excuse a gruesome but apt pun. Those 60 minutes represented the “golden hour” that often means the difference between life and death.

While police and the ambulance waited at a “safe forward point” 800 metres from the liquor store, reluctant to advance any further for fear the offenders might still be around, Mr Singh lay dying. Others in the store made repeated calls to police and the ambulance service. All the while, other people were coming and going freely; closed-circuit TV showed an astonishing 75 movements in and out of the shop. Mr Singh’s wife was among those who arrived.

It’s hard to imagine the anxiety and bewilderment experienced during this period by the dying man and those around him. Twice people asked if they could take Mr Singh to hospital themselves. The answer came back: no, help is on its way. But it wasn’t. (There are echoes here of the infamous occasion in 2004 when police refused to allow a Bay of Plenty woman to summon neighbours for help when her husband was being attacked in a brutal home invasion, untruthfully telling her that the police were already on the scene. In fact they took an hour to arrive.)

So what caused the police to hold back in the Navtej Singh case? The IPCA report reveals no single catastrophic error, but rather a series of failures which, cumulatively, rendered the police response almost farcical: messages not passed on, vital information misheard, confusion about who was in charge, language problems, police cars going astray because of outdated maps … the list goes on. Vital minutes were wasted while police officers struggled with unfamiliar bullet-proof vests, and one officer couldn’t open the gun safe in his car because he’d lost the key.

It would be funny if the consequences hadn’t been so tragic. Consider this transcript, quoted in the IPCA report, of a police call-taker talking to St John’s Ambulance about who should establish a safe forward point: “Yeah, yeah, I mean you guys can just go and sort of wait where you’re going to wait. I mean we’re well on the way, we’ve had a few calls so we will just sort of see you there.” You’d hardly guess, from the offhand vagueness of this unprofessional pseudo-instruction, that a human life hung in the balance.

Reading the report, I didn’t get the feeling that the police failure was due to any lack of guidance or protocols dictating how they should respond in such circumstances. On the contrary, the report cites a plethora of police protocols, and you can bet that the IPCA’s criticisms will result in more being developed.

No doubt these protocols are created to avoid situations where courageous officers, acting on their own initiative, race in without a clear plan or adequate backup, as happened when Sergeant Stu Guthrie was gunned down at Aramoana. Yet I can’t help wondering whether the more systems and procedures we put in place, the more cracks we create for things to slip through.

Though the IPCA report doesn’t say this is what happened in the case of Mr Singh, there does seem a danger that police will take a risk-averse, tick-the-boxes approach, if for no other reason than to protect themselves in the event of an inquiry. That’s the nature of bureaucracies.

The bottom line is that ultimately the police are measured by how they front up in critical situations. They are supposed to be trained to deal with potentially life-threatening circumstances and the community looks to them to step up in times of danger.

The police jealously guard their exclusive right to act when public safety is imperilled, and come down on hard on anyone who dares exercise the right of self-defence (as they did with an Auckland gun shop owner who shot a machete-wielding robber).

The flip side of this is that the public expect the police to put themselves on the line when the necessity arises, though most of us hope it never will. That is the unspoken contract.

When the police are perceived as having failed to meet this expectation, as in the case of Navtej Singh, public trust in them is severely damaged. And it doesn’t help when one of our most senior police officers talks about being willing to take criticism on the chin, to use an expression used on Mora’s programme, but in fact seems reluctant to do so.

Deals done behind closed doors

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 25.)

IT’S HARD to recall a time when the business of government was more opaque.

Increasingly, deals of far-reaching significance are being done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny, and then presented to the public as a fait accompli.

Parliament, where our elected representatives sit, laws are passed and issues are debated openly – as they should be, in a democracy – often seems reduced to an incidental role: a place to posture, let off steam and indulge in a bit of political theatre.

In a recent letter to this paper, Tony Orman of Blenheim commented on the low level of attendance in Parliament by MPs. But it’s hardly surprising if the House is half empty when the decisions that matter are being made away from the debating chamber.

Take the aborted deal to give the Urewera National Park to the Tuhoe, for instance.

The public heard about this only when it was revealed that prime minister John Key, presumably nervous over rumblings that the government was going too far in humouring Maori demands, had done a U-turn. Even then, it seems, the information reached the public only as a result of a leak to Maori TV.

Up till that moment, the Urewera handover was a done deal. Accommodation had been booked in Whakatane and commemorative pens made for the signing.

Most of the ruckus over the Tuhoe controversy centred on the political implications of Mr Key backtracking, and particularly the impact on National’s relationship with the Maori Party. But a far more pressing concern, I would have thought, was that the public had been kept in the dark on a matter of vital national interest.

Welcome to the realpolitik of MMP, where deals are done out of the public view largely to appease minority parties. The same happened with Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples’ sneaky trip to New York to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the full implications of which haven’t even begun to emerge.

At this rate Parliament, which is supposed to be the centrepiece of our Westminster democratic system, risks becoming irrelevant. It makes you wonder why we bother with elections.

* * *

SPEAKING of political theatre, I wonder if the poor mug who sits directly behind the prime minister gets paid a special allowance.

Under Labour this job fell to the hapless Darren Hughes. Under National it’s Chris Tremain.

Both are their parties’ chief whips but their primary function, it seems, is to laugh uproariously – or at least maintain a rictus grin – at their leader’s witty utterances. This is because the TV cameras are on them constantly and it would never do to suggest that they are less than rapturous in their admiration of the boss.

Mr Hughes is a personable and talented politician – a future Labour leader, perhaps? – and Mr Tremain is said to be on an upward trajectory within National. It seems a shame that the price such politicians must pay for advancement is to look fatuous whenever they are on display in the House.

* * *

IT WAS A bit rich of Rugby World Cup organiser Martin Snedden to rebuke greedy accommodation providers for wanting to suck the blood out of visiting rugby fans next year.

Snedden accused them of jeopardising New Zealand’s reputation – but surely they’re only taking their cue from the International Rugby Board, the tournament sponsors and everyone else associated with the RWC, all of whom seem bent on wringing every last dollar out of the event.

Even Parliament is complicit in this, passing ridiculous legislation to protect the precious interests of sponsors who are terrified that someone else might crowd their patch and steal a buck off them. A plague on all their houses, I say.

Rugby is no longer about the game itself so much as the interests of broadcasters (which is why we no longer see daytime test matches) and commercial interests whose only interest is in the sport as a marketing vehicle. These interests were once peripheral to the game; now they are central.

Rugby is no longer a sport but a brand. Even All Black coach Graham Henry talks of it as a product.

For a reminder that it wasn’t always thus, I recommend Hard on the Heels, a superb exhibition celebrating 60 years of All Black photography by the redoubtable Peter Bush.

Bush’s pictures capture a golden era when players toured on a shoestring, often had to wash their own gear and got straight back into club rugby the week after they got home from arduous overseas tours. At the recent opening of the exhibition at Masterton’s Aratoi gallery, a strong thread of nostalgia ran through the speeches by Sir Brian Lochore, Sir Colin Meads (those “Sirs” still don’t seem quite right) and Bush himself.

I got the distinct impression these rugby giants liked things better the way they used to be, even if all they ever got was a miserly daily allowance.

Hard on the Heels will tour provincial cities before opening in the four main centres to coincide with the Rugby World Cup (assuming no sponsor objects). It’s worth seeing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Finance markets have some work to do

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 12).

What an unedifying spectacle it has been, watching the local fallout from what is now commonly referred to overseas as the GFC – the global financial crisis. Barely a day passes without fresh reports of the carnage suffered.

The recession has been no respecter of reputations, taking down some big names along with countless anonymous small investors. Many will never recover.

Take Craig Norgate. Prior to the first ominous rumblings in the financial sector, Norgate was a powerful player in agri-business whose every move was closely watched. Now his empire is in tatters and the wealthy McConnon family of Dunedin, who threw in their lot with Norgate when he was on the up and up, appear to have gone down with him to the tune of $40-odd million.

The most spectacular collapses, though, have occurred in the property sector, which seems to operate on the delusional belief that development booms will go on forever. Many of the finance companies that failed did so because they were grossly over-exposed to highly speculative developments, and often were engaged in related-party lending – in layman’s terms, taking money from investors and passing it to mates.

At best, those involved were over-optimistic and probably greedy. At worst, their behaviour was criminally reprehensible.

In the aftermath of the various company crashes, recriminations have been flying in all directions as those involved seek to escape responsibility, point the finger of blame elsewhere or salvage whatever spoils they can get they from the wreckage. Last week, investors in stricken property company DNZ Property Fund were baying for the blood of the company’s directors, two of whom – astonishingly – were still demanding to be paid $43 million for their management contract even as the company was struggling for survival. Audacity hardly begins to describe it.

In addition to the predictable assortment of opportunist scoundrels, arrivistes and fast-buck merchants, the recession has sullied the names of some pillars of the establishment. Prominent lawyers – the sort of well-connected people the Australians call silvertails – have been implicated in the collapse of several dodgy companies, demonstrating once again that membership of the right clubs is no guarantee of either business acumen or probity.

Most sensationally, two former Cabinet ministers – Remuera blueblood Sir Douglas Arthur Montrose Graham and former Labour Party Justice Minister Bill Jeffries – face charges which, theoretically, could see them imprisoned. Both were directors of the failed Lombard Finance. (Two of Sir Douglas’ former Cabinet colleagues, Wyatt Creech and John Luxton, may count themselves lucky to have bailed out of another failed company, Blue Chip Investments, before it crashed.)

That’s another lesson each generation apparently has to learn all over again: that the presence of “solid” public figures on a company board – or, for that matter, endorsements by TV newsreaders and famous sportsmen – doesn’t guarantee a thing. In fact they should probably be read as warning signs.

As I say, not a pretty sight. In many ways it’s a replay of the 1987 collapse, when people with more ambition than ability over-reached themselves and took thousands of gullible investors down with them. Indeed, some of those involved in the 1987 fiasco have cropped up again, like the proverbial bad penny – most notably the egregious Rod Petricevic of Bridgecorp.

Naturally we feel sorry for investors who have lost their savings, particularly those who were counting on it for retirement income, but many must accept some responsibility for their own fate. Doubtless some were naïve and some were misled by unscrupulous advisers, but others, dazzled by the interest rates offered by finance companies of dubious repute, allowed greed and hope to get the better of common sense.

I remember going to see a Wellington investment manager, a shrewd and respected operator, in 2003 and showing him a fistful of finance company ads clipped from the business section of that day’s paper. Even then they were offering generous interest rates. I asked him what he thought of these companies and his reaction surprised me. Normally the most mild-mannered of men, he gestured contemptuously, almost sweeping the ads off his desk, and said he knew nothing about any of these firms.

Given that he was one of the country’s most experienced investment managers, the message seemed plain: steer clear of these outfits. I did.

One potentially long-lasting consequence of the financial crisis is that New Zealanders once again will become gun-shy about investment, cautiously placing their money in Kiwi Bonds and term deposits or reverting to the time-honoured reliance on property.

That could be damaging to our fragile economy because the private sector depends on investment in business enterprises, principally through the share market, to promote growth, employment and prosperity. But you can hardly blame people for backing away from shares in the current climate. Their confidence in the entire business sector is likely to have been severely shaken.

My own fingers have been burnt too. My wife and I had a relatively modest investment in a company – not a finance company, but a firm making a widely used and apparently good product – that went belly-up last year. I still don’t know why it went belly-up, because no one from the board or management has had the basic courtesy to explain to us, as shareholders, what went wrong and why our money disappeared into a black hole.

Even though this omission breaches no law, it struck me as showing contempt for the shareholders. And while I still have investments in other companies, and have read all the research that shows that the share market usually generates a good return over the long haul, that experience has made me sceptical about shares and reluctant to invest in more. It has left the impression that the market is opaque, and favours insiders with the time, the contacts and the expertise to know what’s really going on.

If I multiply my own disenchantment by the number of people who have taken far heavier hits, the finance markets have a lot of work to do to win back people’s confidence.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Gordon Brown a victim of Acute Sensitivity Disorder: academic

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

NEWSFLASH: Researchers have identified a previously unrecognised psychological phenomenon which they say is sweeping the developed world. They have given it the name Acute Sensitivity Disorder.

Quoted in the latest edition of the British medical journal The Lancet, Dr Fergus Aitken-Humphreys of Edinburgh University says the condition is characterised by quickness to take offence at the merest slight and to demand redress.

An acute allergic reaction to certain “trigger” words and expressions is a common symptom. Researchers noted that someone had recently laid a complaint against a New Zealand television host who used the term “schizo”, Dr Aitken-Humphreys said.

Symptoms of ASD may be displayed by groups as well as individuals. Dr Aitken-Humphreys said the next step for the researchers was to establish whether there were any links with the phenomenon known as identity politics, in which members of minority groups focus on perceived differences with the community at large and are hyper-sensitive to statements that are seen as stereotyping or stigmatising them.

By coincidence, Dr Aitken-Humphreys’ research team released its preliminary findings at the same time as a political furore erupted in Britain over prime minister Gordon Brown’s description of lifelong Labour voter Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman”.

Dr Aitken-Humphreys said the reaction to Mr Brown’s gaffe was consistent with ASD. “Some people might take the view that Mr Brown was perfectly entitled, in what he thought was the privacy of his car, to express a personal view about Mrs Duffy.

“It was an off-the-cuff statement made amid the stress of a closely fought election campaign. Some people might take the view that it was a perfectly normal human reaction in the circumstances. But suddenly the entire election result was supposedly hanging in the balance because of it.”

He noted that the news media, which was often complicit in the spread of ASD, had made great play of the Duffy incident. “What we don’t yet know is whether the fuss created by the media reflects community attitudes at large.” He pointed out that despite the adverse publicity, opinion polls showed no drop in Mr Brown’s support.

Some scholars suspect that ASD is closely related to apology fever, first noted in the 1990s, which takes the form of an obsessive quest for expressions of remorse, often over events that took place in the distant past and for which the party apologising had no responsibility.

Dr Aitken-Humphreys said there was some support for the view that advanced societies were becoming more thin-skinned.

“What’s striking about our research is that ASD seems confined to affluent, developed countries. One theory is that people are no longer preoccupied with the business of sheer survival. They have time on their hands to dwell on perceived grievances and allow them to become magnified out of all proportion.

“In the few primitive societies where ASD has been diagnosed, it has invariably been transmitted by activists from developed countries who, ironically, were just trying to help.”

* * *

TALKING of psychological disorders, I was recently seated on a plane next to a smartly dressed young woman who had not one but two cellphones. As she carried on a conversation on one she was texting on the other.

She continued texting after the plane started taxiing out to the runway, despite the usual request to turn off electronic devices. Two or three times, when she seemed on the verge of shutting her phone down, she suddenly remembered one more message – clearly a matter of life and death that couldn’t wait the 40 minutes till we arrived at our destination – and began texting again.

You could sense the mental turmoil when she eventually forced herself to put both phones in her handbag. And the moment we touched down, one of the phones was out and she was at it again.

What causes this compulsion to remain constantly in touch – a compulsion so strong that some people seem to have difficulty stopping even for the duration of a short domestic flight? Should it be classified as an addiction, or perhaps a form of mania?

* * *

TV COMMERCIALS are considered an abomination in our house, and I can hit the mute button faster than Wyatt Earp could draw his Buntline Special. But some ads retain the ability to irritate even with the sound off.

Take the ad for Dettol disinfectant wipes. It shows vile germs rampantly proliferating on every household surface touched by vulnerable children. All that stands between these innocent, unknowing creatures and an outbreak of the bubonic plague is a conscientious mother busily disinfecting everything.

The ad not only panders to a ridiculous hygiene obsession propagated by the purveyors of disinfectants, but misleadingly suggests that everything can and should be sanitised.

The truth is that germs are everywhere, and thank goodness for that. We need them because exposure to germs helps keep our immune systems armed and alert.

Some medical specialists suspect that germ phobia, paradoxically, is to blame for the extraordinary growth of food allergies, and that what we need is more, not less, exposure to dirt and allergens to keep our immune systems on their toes.

I say we should cut Bertie Germ a bit of slack. He has as much right to be here as we have.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Okay, so it took more than 20 years - but it was worth the wait

Sometimes I wonder if I’m one of those tragic individuals who’s fated always to be the last cab off the rank. I had one of those occasions last week when I bought a DVD called Black&White Night – a recording of a 1987 concert by Roy Orbison and a select group of friends.

I learned of this film only recently from hearing Kim Hill interview Stephanie Bennett, the Englishwoman who produced Black&White Night and now lives on Waiheke Island. But when I started mentioning the DVD to friends, it seemed I was the only person still alive who hadn’t already enjoyed it.

No matter. I decided to write this anyway, in the unlikely event there are other benighted individuals out there like me.

Black&White Night was originally made as a TV special. It was filmed at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles and features a stellar lineup of backing musicians and singers: guitarist James Burton, Bruce Springsteen, T-Bone Burnett, Jackson Browne, J D Souther, Tom Waits, k d lang, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes. The bass player is Jerry Scheff and the drummer is Ronnie Tutt – both, like James Burton, former members of Elvis Presley’s TCB band and veteran LA session musicians. (A slight annoyance, for me, was the presence of the ubiquitous Elvis Costello, who since the early 1980s seems to have made a career out of hanging around in the shadow of much greater performers and not bringing anything to the table. But that’s a personal thing.)

There are several factors that make Black&White Night (and yes, it’s entirely shot in monochrome) a fantastic concert. The first is Orbison himself, who at 51 was still in exceptionally good voice and still hitting the high notes as if the previous 25 years hadn’t happened. The second, of course, is the songs – and they’re all here: Running Scared, Only the Lonely, Crying, Oh, Pretty Woman, Blue Bayou (perhaps my favourite), In Dreams and It’s Over, among others. Orbison himself was so charisma-free that he became, paradoxically, almost charismatic. The impassive way he sings these songs – songs of great emotional intensity and almost operatic scale – is part of his appeal. His expressionless delivery also means the songs have to stand on their own, unembellished by any histrionics. Which, of course, they are well able to do.

But what gives this performance a special magic is the guest stars – not because they take over the show, but for quite the reverse reason. At no point does anyone look remotely interested in trying to upstage Orbison. It’s his night, and they’re there strictly in a supporting role. Their great respect for him, and their pleasure at helping him present his songs, is obvious in every frame. Raitt, Warnes and Lang sing like angels and there are moments when they look positively rapturous. Even Springsteen is caught several times looking at Orbison with unabashed admiration.

It’s quite moving, and all the more so when you consider Orbison’s history. He was a giant in the early to mid-sixties (I recall Crying, a Christmas present from my brother, as the first LP I ever owned), but from the late 60s onwards he vanished from the radar, displaced by the pop revolution that followed the so-called British invasion led by the Beatles. There seemed no place for Orbison in the musical tumult that followed, and his career went into a long decline. He suffered terrible personal tragedies too: first the death of his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident in 1966, followed two years later by a house fire that killed his two sons.

The hits stopped coming after 1967; it was to be another 13 years before he had another song in the Billboard Top 100 (1980’s That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again, a duet with Emmylou Harris). For much of that period Orbison was reduced to playing second-rate venues on the has-been circuit. His career must have been close to its nadir when I interviewed him for an Australian Sunday paper in 1974: he had just performed for the inmates of Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. But in one of the great redemption stories of pop music, he began to emerge into the light again when other stars – among them Harris, Springsteen, Lang and Don McLean (who had a big hit with Crying in 1980) – rediscovered his songs. The formation of the Travelling Wilburys with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne in 1987 marked the completion of Orbison’s journey back from obscurity.

You need to know this story to fully appreciate Black&White Night. On one level it’s simply a great concert; on another it’s a poignant tribute to a man who went from hero to zero and back again. And it seems somehow consistent with the rest of Orbison’s life story that within months of making this film, he was dead from a heart attack, aged only 52. His last top 10 hit – You’ve Got It, with the Travelling Wilburys – was issued posthumously.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Make alcohol harder to get, and you make it even more alluring

People directly caught up in awful events, or even on their periphery, are not likely to make the most rational judgments about them. We respectfully hear them out, but their arguments are often clouded - understandably - by intense emotion.

Take the Auckland doctor whose son attends the same school as James Webster, the 16-year-old who tragically drank himself to death at the weekend. Dr Margaret Abercrombie dashed off a letter to the prime minister urging the government to take action over teenage drinking. On Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon programme on Radio New Zealand today, Dr Abercrombie said Parliament should make it more difficult to get access to alcohol. She mentioned price increases as one tool for reducing availability.

The immediate and obvious problem with this approach is that there is nothing Parliament could have done to prevent James getting hold of the bottle of vodka that killed him. It belonged to his grandmother and he obtained it from a cupboard at her home. Besides, at 16, James was two years below the legal purchasing age even now, demonstrating that age controls are of limited effectiveness in curtailing teenage drinking.

To be fair, Dr Abercrombie wasn’t talking only about James’ death, but about the wider problem of teenage binge drinking. But even here we are left with a problem that I believe defies simplistic legislative solutions.

New Zealand teenagers, in common with those of the same age group in other predominantly Anglo-Saxon countries, regard getting pissed as a rite of passage. It has always seemed to me that there is a large element of defiance involved in this.

They see their elders as hypocritically consuming alcohol but wanting to deny it to them. Teenagers being teenagers, their instinct is to defy authority. Alcohol thus takes on the aura of forbidden fruit; it becomes even more desirable.

I wouldn’t argue that this alone explains New Zealand’s teenage binge-drinking culture, but it’s an important factor. It follows that the more you try to keep teenagers from getting access to alcohol, the more determined they will become to acquire it by one means or another. If they can’t buy it legally, they’ll raid the liquor cupboard at home.

This is nothing new. I remember the frisson of excitement when, as a primary school pupil, I aided and abetted a friend in pillaging his parents’ cocktail cabinet. Granted, there was a degree of curiosity about what alcohol tasted like; but far more important was the thrill of defying and outfoxing our parents.

Later, in my teenage years, my friends and I would go to great lengths to procure illicit alcohol – not because we particularly liked the stuff (it took me years to acquire a taste for beer) but because drinking it made us feel like real men. Whoever in our group had a driver’s licence would be delegated to take us to whatever pub was known to have a clandestine after-hours trade and to ask no questions about age. This often meant a round trip of 80 miles, which was a measure of our determination.

But there’s a potent factor affecting teenage drinking today that wasn’t around even in my time. It was identified in an article in the New Zealand Herald earlier this year by Michael Duncan, a sociology lecturer at Carey Baptist College in Auckland.

Duncan noted that radio host Murray Deaker had recently interviewed Sir Geoffrey Palmer about binge-drinking by young women and both had concurred that the message must be got to these young women that drinking to get drunk was quite simply dangerous.

Duncan then went on:

“I agree with Deaker’s and Palmer’s views but not with their recommended action. To tell these young middle-class women today that drinking to get drunk is dangerous is to only exacerbate the problem.

“The very reason why many young women drink to get drunk is because it is dangerous. They drink to get drunk so as to be in danger. Let me explain.

“Many of these young women come from middle-class homes where they were brought up on a diet of safety. Their well-meaning parents worked hard to keep them from harm's way. Schools, play yards, swimming pools, outings, malls, you name it; all had to be safe for their children. It is this generation of children that has become known as the ‘cotton-wool kids’.”

In this culture of fear, Duncan wrote, risk was stigmatised and an excessive preoccupation with precaution and safety became the new bottom line. “These girls were brought up to be risk- averse. But then the inevitable happened and these girls morphed into young women. Not surprisingly, they began to individuate themselves from their parents, principals and inherited principles; they rebelled against safety and looked for danger. For cotton-wool kids recklessness has become the new form of rebellion.”

For many of these young women, he concluded, binge-drinking was not about alcohol or simply getting “pissed”. Rather, it was about creating dangerous situations where they didn’t know what would happen next. Drinking sessions, for them, were a high-wire act, full of exhilarating fear and unanswered questions. Having been brought up on safety, they hungered for risk.

That’s a very perceptive analysis, my only criticism being that Duncan confined it to young women. I believe it applies at least equally to young men who cut loose the moment they escape parental control and are able to make up for all the risky behaviour they weren’t allowed to indulge in earlier. Binge-drinking is just one manifestation of that; the boy-racer culture is another, arguably more lethal, one.

Hence my misgivings about the restrictive approach advocated by the Law Commission in its recent report on the liquor laws, and even more vociferously espoused by the New Wowser lobby in the health agencies and universities. By making alcohol harder to get, they risk making it seem even more dangerous and hence more alluring.

Sure, we have a serious and worrying teenage binge-drinking problem. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. And it has been greatly exacerbated by some liquor companies that have aggressively targeted the youth market – none more so than Independent Liquor, which pioneered alco-pops, and was rightly fingered by Dominion Post columnist Linley Boniface yesterday. It becomes that much harder to defend responsible liquor consumption when a segment of the industry seems determined to promote irresponsible consumption. (The Liquorland chain is culpable too, as Linley demonstrated when she revealed a slogan from the company’s website: “We’ll get the stuff to your car – because why only buy as much as you can carry?”. Small wonder the New Wowsers have gained so much political traction when these morons play into their hands.)

My concern, as explained before in this blog, is that turning the clock back on liberalisation of the liquor laws will serve at best to prolong, and at worst set back, an already difficult struggle (and it has gone on for decades) to get to a point where teenagers will no longer regard alcohol purely as means of writing themselves off.

I don’t know what the solution is, beyond suggesting that it lies in a much more complex social and cultural change than is likely to be achieved through simplistic legislative and regulatory changes (though they may have a role to play). But I do know the solution doesn’t lie in telling teenagers they can’t drink – the prohibition approach. Whatever barriers are placed in their way, they’ll find a way around them; they will delight in outwitting the law, because that’s how teenagers behave. And the risk is that stricter laws will drive them into the hands of black marketers and we’ll end up with even less control than we have now.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Amen to that, Ringo

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

Six years ago, I wrote about the disgraced New Zealand Catholic priest Alan Woodcock, who had just pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s. Woodcock was a teacher at my old school, though not in my time.

At that time the Catholic Church internationally was reeling under a wave of sex abuse allegations. These started to surface during the 1980s and steadily gathered momentum, notably in the United States and Ireland.

Woodcock’s court appearance followed revelations of a long history of sexual abuse by St John of God brothers in Christchurch. In the US, an investigation commissioned by the Church substantiated claims of abuse against more than 4000 priests.

Catholics were shocked not only by revelations of appalling behaviour by men they trusted and respected, but equally by the efforts of high-ranking people in the Catholic hierarchy to hush up the crimes and protect their perpetrators from legal repercussions.

Some of the offenders had been carrying on their depredations for decades. When they were uncovered, the standard solution was simply to move them to a new location where, as often as not, they took up where they had left off. This became known, with bitter wit, as the “geographical cure”.

I wrote in that 2004 column that as a child I never heard of, still less experienced, sexual impropriety by priests, although I was brought up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools. As far as I could tell, the priests I knew were men of probity who honoured their vows. In fact one of the many sad aspects of the crisis engulfing the Church was that a shadow of doubt and suspicion now hung over many good men.

At the time of the Woodcock and St John of God scandals, Catholics must have been tempted to dismiss such cases as isolated aberrations. But no; six years on, the allegations just keep rolling in. Like a tsunami that strikes once, then retreats and gathers even greater force before sweeping in again, the sexual abuse scandal continues to batter Catholicism.

Virtually no country with a substantial Catholic population remains untouched. Only this week, a highly influential Mexican priest – founder of an order apparently much admired in the Vatican – was exposed as a serial abuser of the most contemptible kind.

The ripples have reached the very top, with evidence that Pope Benedict, while a cardinal, was personally complicit in the covering-up of abuse.

Even setting aside publicity stunts such as the atheist Richard Dawkins’ threat to have the pope arrested when he visits Britain, and allowing for the likelihood that the ever-swelling ranks of complainants will include a few unscrupulous chancers jumping on the bandwagon with an eye to a payout, the sex abuse imbroglio is a shocking indictment of a look-the-other-way mentality within the Church.

It is also a betrayal of the millions of devout Catholics who try hard to lead good lives and who expect the heads of the Church to lead by example. I am no longer a Catholic but many of my friends and extended family are. They deserve better.

It would be understandable if the revelations against the clergy had shaken the faith of these Catholics. In some of the countries caught up in the escalating scandal, such as Germany, people are abandoning the Church in disgust. Those who choose to remain faithful to Catholicism are doubtless clinging to a belief in something higher and more transcendent than the deeply flawed men who lead the Church.

The sight of the Catholic hierarchy in Rome flailing about in panic, at times giving the impression of trying to defend the indefensible, has not been edifying. What this crisis has demonstrated is the inability of the Vatican to deal with external scrutiny, still less with demands for accountability.

The Church is a deeply insular institution governed by arcane ritual and a rigid hierarchy. That insularity not only provides a closed environment where abusers were clearly able to prey with virtual impunity; it also leaves the Church ill-equipped to deal with the sort of pressure it now faces, particularly from an aggressive secular news media that has the scent of blood in its nostrils.

The Catholic hierarchy is skilled at exerting tight internal control but has been almost comically clumsy and inept in its attempts to fend off outside criticism. It has managed to antagonise everyone from gays to Jews – two lobbies notoriously quick to take offence. And it does itself no favours by couching its official statements in a peculiarly opaque language as impenetrable as that used by totalitarian regimes in places like North Korea and the former Soviet Union.

At least here in New Zealand, far from the ossified bureaucracy in the Vatican, the Church seems to have learned something. In 2004, after Woodcock was exposed, Church leaders turned to a prominent Catholic, a retired judge, for advice. That was a mistake. He was a former pupil of the school where Woodcock had taught and I wrote then that his main concern seemed to have been to minimise harm to the school’s reputation.

Now the Church has employed former police commissioner John Jamieson, a non-Catholic, to investigate alleged cases of abuse. That’s far more likely to encourage public confidence in the Church’s procedures.

Where and when all this will end is open to speculation, but it could theoretically result in the unthinkable: the forced resignation of a pope, for the first time in hundreds of years.

This wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It would be like shock therapy, which may be exactly what the Catholic Church needs. At the very least the doors and windows of the Vatican need to be thrown open so that light and fresh air can penetrate. A re-examination of the sacred cow of priestly celibacy might be a good place to start.

Oddly enough, one of the most apposite comments on the Catholic Church’s other-worldly response to the crisis enveloping it came from former Beatle Ringo Starr. Apparently intrigued by the fact that the Vatican, amidst all the uproar over clerical abuse, found time to absolve the Beatles of sins supposedly committed 40 years ago, Starr observed: “I think the Vatican, they’ve got more to talk about than the Beatles.”

Amen to that, to coin a phrase.