Monday, August 23, 2010

The Canberra hacks do it again

Will the Canberra press gallery ever learn? Probably not.

For as long as I can remember, members of the left-leaning media wolf pack that covers Australian federal politics have got things spectacularly wrong.

Election after election, their judgment has been fatally skewed by their visceral dislike of any politician to the right of the centre. They just can’t help themselves.

Even at the best of times, journalists at the centre of the cauldron that is politics are ill-equipped to read the mood of the electorate. Their vision is too distorted by their proximity to the action. But this hasn’t stopped the Canberra press corps from making fools of themselves by allowing wishful thinking to cloud their election predictions.

This time the more cautious hacks at least read the signs a little more carefully than usual and stopped short of predicting a Labour victory. Instead, they busied themselves portraying Liberal leader Tony Abbott as some sort of grotesque religious freak.

It was hard to read anything about Abbott that didn’t sneeringly mention the time he once spent in a Catholic seminary, his nickname the Mad Monk (bestowed on him by – you guessed it – the Canberra press gallery) or his supposed predilection for wearing Speedos (nudge nudge, wink wink – the guy must be some sort of sexual deviate too).

To their credit, the Aussie voters saw past this. Indeed I wonder how many Australians voted Liberal because they objected to this sustained and unsubtle character assassination.

Ironically it now looks as if Abbott might have the last laugh, just as the bland John Howard did when he more than once confounded media pundits’ confident predictions that he would be wiped out at the polls. But don’t expect the Canberra press gallery to change its ways. Self-doubt just isn’t their style.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

We're still waiting for a Sydney Opera House

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 18.)

I was recently invited to take part in a debate about architecture. The motion we were debating was that “architecture is the mother of all arts” – a statement that had me stumped until I tracked down the original quotation in its entirety.

It came from Frank Lloyd Wright, probably the most famous of American architects, who wrote: “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilisation.” Syntactically, it’s a bit clunky (Wright was an architect, not a writer), but you can see where he was coming from.

It set me thinking. What I took from Wright’s statement is that our most potent and lasting symbols of culture and nationhood are not works of art, but works of architecture.

The Parthenon still stands as a memorial of ancient Greece, just as the Colosseum does of Rome. Entire civilisations are identified by the structures they left behind: Macchu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Petra in Jordan – “a rose red city half as old as time”, in the words of the famous poem by John William Burgon.

France’s most potent symbol, one that’s instantly recognised worldwide, is the Eiffel Tower. And what could be more symbolic of Russia than the onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, which has stood at the heart of Moscow since 1561?

Think of India, and you’re likely to think of the Taj Mahal. And nothing could better exemplify the brashness and self-confidence of early 20th century American capitalism than the Empire State Building (built, remarkably, in 410 days - roughly the time it would take in New Zealand to get a resource consent for a chookhouse in your backyard).

Moving closer to home, nothing more readily identifies Australia in the eyes of the world than the iconic lines of the Sydney Opera House. Okay, so the building was conceived by a Dane – but it has been embraced by Australians, and it has come to symbolise boldness, audacity and opportunity.

Buildings such as these can give people a sense of who they are and what they value. What’s more, buildings belong to the people in a way that works of art such as paintings and sculptures can never do. By their very nature they are public, enabling ordinary people to share a sense of ownership.

All of this got me thinking about how New Zealand measures up.

We certainly don’t have anything to match the Sydney Opera House for its architectural daring. We had an opportunity with Te Papa, and we blew it. What we got was a brutish, insensitive building, ill-suited to its commanding site. It's unappealing from the outside and doesn’t make any sense internally either.

The building that’s most often described as a New Zealand icon is the Beehive. But the concept was created by a Scotsman, Sir Basil Spence, and it doesn’t say anything about us as a country. Its only virtue is that it’s distinctive.

Internally, the Beehive is appallingly impractical because of its shape. In fact it’s a classic reversal of the design dictum that form should follow function. Spence created his sketch (on a table napkin, the story goes) and then left it to Ministry of Works architects to make it work, which it never did.

Te Ara, the website of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, lists 12 buildings that it describes as iconic. The Sky Tower is there, but although it’s instantly recogniseable, like the Beehive, I think of it as representative of Auckland rather than New Zealand. It has a dramatic quality because of its sheer scale, but I don’t know that it could be described as aesthetically pleasing or inspirational.

Many of the other buildings on the Te Ara list, such as Nelson’s Anglican cathedral, the Otago University clock tower and the Rotorua Bath House, are colonial derivatives of British models. Even the charming National Tobacco Company building in Napier, another on the list, was a knock-off of the Californian art deco style that was in vogue at the time.

Interestingly enough, the list doesn’t include a building that is often cited as unmistakebly unique to New Zealand because of the way it incorporates both modernist and Maori influences. I refer to the Futuna Chapel in Karori, designed by the late John Scott and shamefully neglected by the Catholic Church before being rescued by people who recognised its importance.

As for our corporate buildings, well … the Roman architect Vitruvius thought buildings should raise people’s spirits, but you certainly couldn’t say that of the glass and concrete towers in the Auckland and Wellington CBDs. I regard many of them as Gordon Gekko buildings, after the ruthless executive in the movie Wall Street. They are dominating and assertive, but no more than that.

And there must surely be a special place in Hell for the architects who created the brutalist government buildings that rose in many provincial cities during the 1960s and 70s. These drab, East German-inspired edifices blend in to their surroundings with all the delicacy of an All Black prop in a corps de ballet.

If there’s a definitive New Zealand style of architecture, one that we can truly call our own, it seems to be expressed more in everyday domestic architecture than in showpiece public buildings. You could argue that the definitive New Zealand building, one that really says something about our lifestyle, values and aspirations, is the humble Kiwi bach, which was celebrated in a television advertising campaign several years ago.

And it seems to me that if there’s an emerging character in our architecture it’s a certain eccentricity and playfulness. You can see this in the work of Ian Athfield and in Friedrich Hundertwasser’s public toilets at Kawakawa (not that I care for the latter). You can also see it in the Puke Ariki gallery at New Plymouth, which looks as if it’s been built from driftwood washed up on the beach, and in the idiosyncratic building taking shape at Wellington Airport, which has been dubbed The Rock.

Perhaps we just need to be patient. We are, after all, one of the youngest countries in the world; even Australia had a 50-year head start on us. By my reckoning, that gives us 13 years to come up with an iconic public building to match the one that was opened by the Queen on Sydney’s Bennelong Point in 1973.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Coddington vindicated on Asian crime

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 17.)

TWO YEARS ago, journalist and former ACT MP Deborah Coddington was crucified for an article she wrote in North & South magazine about Asian crime in New Zealand.

The Press Council upheld complaints against Coddington largely on the basis of her failure to place Asian crime in the context of an increasing Asian population. Her critics used this omission to attack the credibility of the entire article. Inevitably, she was accused of being racist.

It’s worth recalling the furore over that article as reports of large-scale Asian crime continue to surface. Recent weeks have seen a procession of Asians parading through the Auckland courts following what police describe as one of the largest drug busts in New Zealand history.

Methamphetamine worth more than $6 million has been seized, along with $750,000 worth of ContacNT (the core ingredient in methamphetamine), more than $400,000 in cash and 21 firearms. Police also claim to have busted a sophisticated money-laundering operation.

Only weeks before those busts, an Auckland court heard details of how two Asian drug syndicate leaders laundered nearly $20 million through the Sky City casino, which they used as an office for planning “P” deals. They were sentenced to jail terms of 18 and 15 years.

In the same week as the second of those men was sentenced, a Vietnamese student in Christchurch was jailed for importing heroin in a condom that had to be removed from his bowel by surgery. And while all this was going on, three Chinese men were charged in connection with the death of 18-year-old student Jiayi Li, $6 million worth of pure methamphetamine was found in the luggage of Taiwanese “tourists” arriving at Auckland Airport, and Chinese police detained a man suspecting of fleeing to China after fatally stabbing an Auckland taxi driver.

Does this mean all Asians are criminals, or that they are predisposed to crime? Of course not. The vast majority come to this country with no criminal intent and become hard-working, law-abiding citizens. A third-generation Chinese New Zealander from a market gardening family was quoted in this paper recently as saying modern Asian criminals made a mockery of his forebears’ hard work and respect for the law.

I believe Coddington has largely been vindicated. But she was so fiercely denounced in 2008 that it would take a brave journalist to tackle the subject of Asian crime again.

* * *

YOU have to feel for Joe Karam. He has spent years of his life and a very large sum of money campaigning on behalf of David Bain. When a High Court jury in Christchurch returned a not guilty verdict last year he must have thought he would at last get his life back – but not so.

Contrary to all expectations, the acquittal didn’t end the debate over David Bain’s role in the deaths of his family members. If anything, quite the reverse.

So now Mr Karam, far from withdrawing from the public arena in triumph, finds himself fighting the old battles all over again. Dominion Post photographer John Selkirk’s recent picture of him slumped on the floor of the Radio Live studio, head in hands after a torrid debate with talkback host Michael Laws, said it all.

Now Downstage Theatre is showing a play, The December Brother, which subjects the Bain killings to yet another examination. Regardless of where you stand, it’s easy to understand Mr Karam’s exasperation when a Dom Post journalist phoned to ask what he thought about the play. “You go and have your salacious fun with it and good luck with you,” he said before hanging up.

This is surely not what Mr Karam and his team anticipated when they celebrated David Bain’s acquittal 14 months ago. It just goes to show there’s nowt so contrary as folks.

* * *

THE MINISTRY of Education has released a report that shows more than 50 percent of New Zealanders now hold a tertiary qualification, and that we’re studying at more advanced levels.

This is being touted as evidence that we’re getting smarter – but are we? The fact that more people are acquiring degrees and diplomas may simply highlight the phenomenon known as credentials creep, whereby careers that once required only practical skills and on-the-job experience now demand formal academic qualifications.

Credentials creep has been great for the educational establishment. It has enabled polytechnics to turn their backs on budding hairdressers and panel beaters and re-invent themselves as pretend universities. And it has provided careers for countless people who were nondescript practitioners in their chosen occupations but who now teach others: second-rate academics running second-rate courses.

The result is that academic qualifications have been degraded to the point where workplaces teem with technically well-qualified drones and dullards. I’m with the British writer Desmond Bagley, who once said: “If a man is a fool, you don’t train him out being a fool by sending him to a university. You merely turn him into a trained fool, which is 10 times more dangerous.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Evict it and change the locks

No one lamenting TVNZ’s relentless plunge down-market would have taken any comfort from a discussion on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon yesterday about the course the state broadcaster is plotting.

Kathryn Ryan invited four guests to discuss recent claims (covered in this blog) that TVNZ is abandoning its traditional core audience of mature viewers for a younger market. Each guest’s contribution was revealing and even enlightening in its own way, if only because they confirmed that the people running the state broadcaster are busily hammering the last nails into the coffin of the public service ethos that once drove the organisation.

Karen Bieleski, a former TV One programmer now with Prime, said she had been told before leaving TVNZ in 2004 that TV One needed a younger audience to attract advertising. There was a marketing-driven push for more glossy, dramatic programming.

Ryan made the point that older viewers have more money to spend and therefore, in theory, should be of greater interest to advertisers than the young. But Bieleski said the people calling the shots in marketing and advertising were young themselves and therefore not interested in the type of programming, such as “quality” British drama, that appealed to older viewers. She suggested TVNZ programmers were breaking the rule that “you’re not supposed to programme for yourself”.

Bieleski acknowledged that critically acclaimed programmes didn’t necessarily rate well but also pointed out that older people tended to watch a lot more television – a claim that seems to be supported by recent Nielsen data from the US which shows that the median viewership (pardon the hideous word) of the four major American TV networks has aged markedly during the past decade. (The average ABC viewer now is aged 51, up from 43. The typical CBS viewer has aged three years, to 55. NBC’s is 49 and Fox’s is a relatively youthful 44.)

Bieleski managed to get in a few plugs for her own channel, saying that Prime loved older viewers. Sky channels such as Living and UK TV had also picked up a lot of mature viewers, she said – the implication being that they had been driven into Sky’s arms by TVNZ’s programming policy, just as this blog has suggested.

Marketing commentator Michael Carney offered the view that the tastes of the 25-54 age group had changed and TVNZ’s programming simply reflected that. He said older viewers (54-plus) could go to the video store. In suggesting an entire generation had miraculously been infantilised, Carney was articulating the self-serving view of marketing and advertising people. It suits their purpose for us to believe that TV viewers have become less discerning and will mindlessly lap up whatever crass reality show it suits them to hurl at us.

Dave Gibson, of independent producer Gibson Group, sternly advised us to wake up and smell the coffee. Times have changed and people need to get over the lifelong habit of watching TV One. More good programmes are being made than ever before, he said; we just have to get off our bums and find them. (In other words, join the drift to Sky, which has trebled its market share since 2000 and now has 800,000 subscribers – refugees from TVNZ, in effect.)

Dave, whom I respect, was probably treading a careful line here. After all, he sells programmes to TVNZ and wouldn’t want to bag them publicly. Yet what he said made sense: the glory days when TVNZ monopolised the airwaves and was expected to cater for everyone are long gone. The market has fragmented and can’t be glued together again.

The obvious rejoinder to this, however – as Ryan pointed out – is that TVNZ remains a state-owned channel. Like it or not (and TVNZ apparently doesn’t like it one bit), it has inherited a public service role and a core audience that still has certain expectations of it. At the very least it should be honest and up-front with its viewers and tell them the game has changed, and it no longer wants them.

Which leads us neatly to Ryan’s fourth guest: Andrew Shaw, the charisma-free children’s show host who rose to become a TVNZ executive with a title far too long to waste space reproducing here. One thing that can be said in Shaw’s defence is that he’s blunt (or perhaps simply arrogant), and he wasted no time trying to humour the delicate sensibilities of older TV One viewers. Shaw was brutally frank (or indiscreet, or simply stupid - take your pick) in declaring that “commercial realities” dictate programming and that advertising agencies determine where they will spend their money. “We chase the shows that rate.”

He was scathingly dismissive of “critically acclaimed” programmes (and he’s right, up to a point) and he stated categorically that the Americans make the best television drama in the world. That explains why the only TVNZ prime-time slots not occupied by crass pseudo-reality shows are filled with formulaic American crime programmes that all look the same.

In a colourful turn of phrase, Shaw referred to “cave dwellers out there who only want to watch Midsomer Murders”. You could almost hear teacups crashing to the floor around the country as fans of British drama clutched their chests.

I suppose we should be grateful to Shaw for being so open in acknowledging (as if there were still any doubt) that the Barbarians have taken over the Citadel. His contempt for the people who have been TVNZ’s most loyal supporters couldn’t have been more clearly expressed.

So where does all this leave us? I can only speak for myself. But as a taxpayer, and therefore an involuntary and unwilling shareholder in TVNZ, I don’t want anything to do with this meretricious outfit. No earthly reason remains why it should be in public ownership. The state might as well invest in a chain of brothels or sex shops.

I have no idea whether TVNZ is eager to be privatised; the politics are beyond me. But its actions certainly suggest that it wants to be cut loose from government ownership, and whatever tiny residual semblance of public obligation that might entail, and I think the government should oblige. TVNZ is the equivalent of a once-favourite child who has turned into a rebarbative P addict yet remains in the family home. Evict it, I say, and change the locks.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Does poetry matter? Well, yes - but not as much as plumbing

MY ATTENTION has been drawn to a talk apparently given earlier this year by local literary luminary Ian Wedde, and since posted on the website of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre. The address, entitled Does Poetry Matter?, included the following passage:

“Some time back the Dominion Post columnist Karl Du Fresne [sic] … wrote an opinion piece about the uselessness of poetry or more specifically of poets, in the course of which he asserted that if he wanted to get his plumbing fixed he wouldn’t be asking a bloody poet would he, so what good were they?”

Two things struck me about this. The first was that the column in question was published five years ago, and I took it as a great compliment that it was still lodged in Wedde’s brain after all this time. I had to ask the Dom Post library to retrieve it for me so I could remind myself what I had written.

The second thing was that Wedde’s comment didn’t quite reflect the tone of the column. Here’s what it said:

HAVE poets become the All Blacks of the chattering classes? Books sections in newspapers and magazines lavish acres of space on new volumes of New Zealand poetry, which seem to spew out by the week. Kim Hill devotes a regular segment of her Saturday radio programme to poets. Obscure poets are celebrated in something called the Writers' Walk on the Wellington waterfront, where we are supposed to feel a frisson of excitement at the sight of their names. The cafe society crowd, meanwhile, excitedly flock to poetry readings where they sip chardonnay and listen reverentially to the droning of people who write marginally better than they read.

Statistics New Zealand tells me there are now more poets listed in the census than drainlayers, and that at any given time there are likely to be 9.3 New Zealand poets flying to some exotic destination to give government-funded readings at international poetry conferences.

All right, I just made those last bits up. But seriously, does all this attention to New Zealand poetry reflect mainstream interest, or is it just a passing whim of the literati? When can we expect a Drainlayers' Walk, or perhaps a Plumbers’ Promenade, on the Wellington waterfront? These people contribute more to my quality of life than any poet. I mean, who looks up “Poets” in the Yellow Pages when they have a blocked dunny?

I think it’s clear from the above that this was a light-hearted piss-take of the undue (and often uncritical) reverence with which anyone claiming to be a poet is now regarded. In pointing out that utilitarian occupations such as plumbing make a greater contribution to our quality of life, but get on with it quietly without fuss or adulation, I wasn’t arguing that poetry doesn’t matter. In fact I have quite a few well-thumbed poetry books on my shelves and have been known to launch into impromptu recitations of anything from Ozymandias to Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis. At a symposium a few years ago I even won a modest trophy for recognising more poems than any of the other 40-odd people present, some of whom had very distinguished academic records. So in wrongly assuming that I disdain poetry, Wedde has taken what might be described as poetic licence.

You can read Wedde’s dissertation here:

I found it eye-glazingly ponderous and pompous; the sort of writing that gives intellectuals a bad name. It includes the obligatory references to mad French sociologists. But most of all I was struck by the fact that a supposedly distinguished academic appears not to know how to spell the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Who'll be handed TVNZ's vial of poison next?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 4.)

I have a confession to make. I have been wrong about Television New Zealand.

I had come to the erroneous conclusion that TVNZ no longer cared about the mature viewers who make up its core audience. In fact it’s much worse than that.

It turns out that the state TV network isn’t simply indifferent to the people who have been its most loyal viewers. It wants to get rid of them altogether.

They are an inconvenience. A nuisance. An embarrassment.

TV critic Jane Clifton recently reported that TVNZ had vowed to “young down” TV One, the channel of habitual choice for most viewers of middle age and older.

She pointed to TVNZ’s recent decision to install Alison Mau as frontwoman on one of its longest-running and most popular programmes, Fair Go. Veteran presenter Kevin Milne – voted one of New Zealand’s most trusted people – is still on the show, but Clifton says he’s being edged out.

She also reported speculation that Pippa Wetzell of TV One’s Breakfast show was being groomed to take over as presenter of Sunday, TVNZ’s flagship current affairs programme, from another veteran, Cameron Bennett, whose departure was announced recently.

Meanwhile, according to Clifton, TVNZ has instructed the producers of Good Morning to attract a younger audience, preferably at the expense of the older age group rather than in addition to it.

Clifton didn’t cite sources but she is well informed, and too good a journalist to make it all up.

Besides, her article was consistent with comment from other informed observers who have noted a trend to promote younger faces on TV at the expense of presenters and journalists with authority and experience.

Former TV current affairs journalists Lindsay Perigo and Janet Wilson have both commented (as I have) on the preponderance of inexperienced but often pretty young female reporters on the TV news, some of whom barely seem to have mastered the rudiments of English, let alone journalism. Paul Holmes has noticed it too, and remarked that “the age thing” bothers him.

It’s not only female reporters, either. TV One has been busily making a star of its youthful-looking reporter Jack Tame, a boy wonder who is rumoured to be paid a stonking salary despite his relative lack of experience. Tame is a journalistic lightweight who nonetheless comes across well on screen, which makes him a perfect fit for the image TVNZ wants to project.

Clifton’s article in The Dominion Post crystallised what must have long been naggingly apparent to perceptive viewers – and never more so than when TVNZ aired its critically savaged Cheers to 50 Years of Television, a programme made to mark television’s golden jubilee but which succeeded only in demonstrating just how little TVNZ knew about, or cared for, its core audience.

As I wrote at the time, the negative public reaction to this silly celebrity game show, which featured two panellists known only to viewers of a TV2 children’s programme, confirmed that viewers at home had a keener appreciation of television’s central place in New Zealand culture than the decision-makers who run the medium.

Not that the overwhelming criticism of Cheers to 50 Years seemed to bother TVNZ. In a ringing declaration of the organisation’s values, a TVNZ spokeswoman said the important thing was that the show got good ratings.

So now, assuming Clifton’s analysis is on the nail, TVNZ’s strategy is laid bare. The state broadcaster is pursuing a younger audience and will evidently do whatever is necessary to attract that market segment, including getting rid of capable and experienced hosts like Bennett (and Milne, if Clifton is to be believed) and further dumbing down its programming – if that’s humanly possible.

Why is it taking this course? That’s anyone’s guess, but I suspect TVNZ is acting under the baleful influence of its most important clients, the advertising agencies. Ad agency executives worship the cult of youth even though the affluent middle-aged are much bigger spenders. Logically, well-to-do baby boomers should be the ad agencies’ primary target – but since when did logic enter into it?

An even more interesting question, though, is what conclusions can be drawn about the nature of TVNZ’s relationship with the public, and about its corporate culture.

On the former point, it’s clear that the relationship that state-owned television enjoyed with New Zealand viewers for several decades – in which a public sense of pride, involvement and ownership in television was valued and reciprocated by a broadcasting organisation with a strong public service ethos – is at an end. (In which case another question arises – namely, why should the public still own TVNZ when it no longer meets the public’s needs?)

On the second point, I think we can safely assume that the TVNZ hierarchy places no value whatsoever on loyalty, either to its audience or to its employees.

Former newsreader Judy Bailey, who delivered TVNZ a huge audience and effectively became the public face of the organisation, was jettisoned the moment her stratospheric salary made her a political embarrassment. Now Cameron Bennett, who has been with TVNZ for 24 years and served it well as a foreign correspondent before fronting Sunday, has got the heave-ho because he no longer suits TVNZ’s “branding”. Kevin Milne may be readying himself for an involuntary exit too.

The way Bennett’s departure was announced tells us something else about TVNZ’s corporate ethos. The announcement was spun as if Bennett’s resignation was all for his own benefit. “Format changes provided him [Bennett] with a natural opening to assess his personal priorities,” announced head of news and current affairs Anthony Flannery, in a textbook example of human resources department doubletalk.

This unctuous flim-flam didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Having recently been the subject of a letter to The Listener in which TVNZ’s head of corporate affairs flagrantly misrepresented something I had written, nothing emanating from TVNZ’s corporate headquarters – which I once labelled the Death Star – could surprise me.

The people I feel sorry for in all this – apart from the viewers whose loyalty TVNZ isn’t remotely interested in reciprocating – are the many good, conscientious and talented people who still work for the organisation.

I won’t name any, because that might be the kiss of death for them in that toxic environment. But I bet that when they see the fate of people like Bennett, they must nervously wonder when a vial of poison is going to be handed to them too.

Friday, August 6, 2010

It's inappropriate to be judgmental

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 3.)

IT SEEMS that in the 21st century, the worst thing anyone can be accused of is inappropriate behaviour.

We seem to have forgotten words like evil, wicked, outrageous, immoral, scandalous and reprehensible. They might as well be erased from the dictionary. They have been replaced by that one all-purpose weasel word “inappropriate”.

A policeman who beats up a suspect is accused of behaving inappropriately. A paedophile teacher admits inappropriate touching (whatever that may be). A politician who watches blue movies at the taxpayer’s expense confesses to inappropriate use of his ministerial credit card. A developer whose building mysteriously gains an extra three storeys acknowledges an inappropriate breach of the district plan. A Hollywood celeb caught snorting cocaine with one of his mistresses tearfully breaks down on television and admits it was an inappropriate lapse for which he hopes his wife and fans will forgive him.

This linguistic contamination has now spread to sport. New Zealand cyclist Julian Dean, head-butted in a sprint to the finish line during the Tour de France, said his assailant’s behaviour was “really inappropriate”. No doubt Springbok lock Bakkies Botha’s head-butting of All Black Jimmy Cowan was inappropriate too.

At this rate it can only be a matter of time before murderers like Clayton Weatherston stand accused of acting inappropriately toward their victims and Adolf Hitler is condemned in the history books for inappropriate behaviour toward the Jews.

Does it matter? Of course it does. “Inappropriate” is a mealy-mouthed word, a namby-pamby word. It is a prissy euphemism devised by schoolteacher liberals who don’t want to seem judgmental. It is a word that diminishes the gravity of bad behaviour and in so doing, subtly conditions us to excuse all manner of sleaze and vileness.

* * *

MY LOCAL paper recently published a photo taken at the opening of a newly established “hub” for a variety of community services.

The accompanying story announced that the offices would be shared by a plethora of organisations including Career Services, Workbridge, Supporting Families, a free budgeting service, Family Planning, addiction services and gambling help, a couple of Maori community organisations, Child Youth and Family and Work and Income.

The picture, which showed a predominantly female audience listening to a speech by government MP Paul Quinn, illustrated a striking phenomenon of our times.

A vast network of taxpayer-funded, or at least state-subsidised, community agencies has sprung up, all operating in similar fields and with functions that often overlap.

Their proliferation seems unrelated to whichever political party is in power. Labour governments create them in the belief that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by state intervention, and National leaves them alone because dismantling them is just too much hassle.

But who knows how much good they are doing? What scrutiny are they subjected to? How do we know we’re getting value for money?

No doubt some of these organisations have the ability to transform people’s lives, but it’s odds on that others are an utter waste of time, space and money. Trouble is, how do we know which is which?

A sceptical view, based on our stubbornly dismal statistics for child neglect, poor health, drug and alcohol addiction, teenage pregnancies, welfare dependency and family violence, is that they’re making bugger-all difference to anything. But they certainly provide careers for a lot of well-intentioned, middle-class women.

An even bleaker view is that these organisations may be part of the problem rather than the solution, discouraging people from taking greater responsibility for their own lives in the knowledge that helping agencies are always on hand to sort things out for them (in a non-judgmental way, of course).

* * *

AT THE core of the increasingly hysterical debate over liquor abuse lies a choice between a free society – in which we accept that a minority of people will behave criminally or irresponsibly, and take reasonable steps to control them and minimise the harm done – and an un-free society, in which unreasonable constraints on the responsible majority are justified by the need to control the behaviour of the irresponsible minority.

Of course, in the un-free society, much of the criminal minority disregards laws and controls anyway, so that the burden of compliance largely falls on the law-abiding and responsible. One example was the proposal (now on hold) to lower the legal blood alcohol limit to a level that would trap many safe drivers, but do nothing to deter potential killers who repeatedly drive while grossly intoxicated.

Other examples include the compulsory microchipping of dogs, which subjects law-abiding citizens to unnecessary compliance costs but is totally ineffectual against rogue dog owners; and the criminalisation of smacking, which puts good parents at risk of prosecution but does nothing to deter real abusers.

These are kneejerk laws passed to create the illusion that something is being done. They simply scratch a political itch.

The best that can be said of the people agitating so evangelistically for restrictive liquor laws is that they are convinced they are acting in our best interests. Like the Labour government that New Zealanders tossed out in 2008, they don’t think people can be trusted to make their own choices.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

TV3 joins the wowser crusade

Sigh. Just when I was starting to think TV3 News wasn’t so bad after all (a cynic would say it’s because anything looks good alongside their competition), they do their best to drive me away again. Their lead item on Tuesday night was a shocker, though I mean that in the metaphorical rather than the literal sense.

It seems TV3, along with much of the mainstream media, has become an enthusiastic and uncritical accomplice in the concerted campaign of fear and panic over liquor abuse. This is the only possible explanation for its decision to lead the 6pm bulletin with a British “expert” on liquor and drug abuse, a Professor David Nutt, tut-tutting (or should that be nut-nutting?) over the government’s supposed capitulation to the liquor industry on the proposal to reduce the legal alcohol limit for drivers.

Nutt had nothing to say that hasn’t already been said by the vociferous New Zealand wowser lobby, led by the excitable Prof Doug Sellman. His statements were not new and neither were they news. They were simply one more expression of opinion – and a highly emotive one at that – by yet another sanctimonious academic who claims to know what’s best for us. The only thing new was that this time it was a sanctimonious academic with a British accent, which if anything made it even more irritating

As with climate change, we have given up expecting dispassionate, detached, objective statements from academics and health activists crusading for restrictive drinking laws. They are evangelists on a holy mission.

Nutt took the hoary old line that the government is in thrall to faceless liquor barons, and that only this can explain its decision to stall a reduction in the legal alcohol limit until more research has been done. This time-honoured wowser propaganda may play well to the impressionable, but it overlooks the fact that governments have wider responsibilities than to lobby groups, whether they represent the liquor industry or the latter-day temperance crusaders.

It may be that the government is holding the anti-liquor activists at bay because it recognises that there is a very large body of New Zealanders – those who don’t drink to excess, and therefore don’t deserve to be shackled by restrictive liquor laws – whose voices haven’t been heard in the debate. Much is made of the fact that the Law Commission report on the liquor laws attracted thousands of submissions, but by their very nature such exercises mainly bring out the committed activists. If the government is taking its time over liquor law changes because it wants to ensure the process isn’t wholly captured by the temperance evangelists (as the Law Commission appears to have been), then good on it. That’s called democracy.

Perhaps the anti-liquor campaigners, having succeeded in controlling the debate this far, suddenly sense the tide is turning against them. That may explain why they are turning up the volume, with “experts” like Nutt calling for lawyers to sue the liquor industry and urging a total ban on liquor advertising and supermarket wine sales. It might also explain Prof Sellman’s hysterical claims to a select committee recently about the level of alcohol-induced harm likely to result from the Rugby World Cup (70 serious or fatal road accidents, 400 babies with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, more than 10,000 physical and sexual assaults … phew!).

It’s the wowsers’ prerogative, of course, to indulge in doomsday fantasies in the hope that we will all be terrified into complying with their agenda. But it’s disappointing that news organisations like TV3 should be buying into their alarmist nonsense and giving them spurious credibility.

What time’s the Prime news bulletin on? I might have to change my routine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Harawira shelters behind a double standard

I regard Maori Party MP Hone Harawira’s comment that he would feel uncomfortable if one of his children brought home a Pakeha as infinitely more offensive than the email that caused such a stir last year, in which he ranted about “white motherf**kers raping our lands and ripping us off for centuries”.

That email merely expressed a one-eyed interpretation of history, one that is not uncommon among radical Maori activists, and I was surprised at the outrage it provoked.

But Harawira’s latest statement in an interview with the Weekend Herald was something else. It expressed a deeply personal and divisive form of racism that we normally associate with white rednecks.

Harawira seems to be saying that no one with white skin is good enough for his children. This is racism by any definition. It promotes a racial separatism that is alien to our culture and history.

Imagine the reaction if a white politician made a similar statement about Maori. As ACT MP David Garrett said on the TV3 News last night, his political career would quickly be at an end.

But as happened last year, Harawira’s statement is being laughed off. Oh, that’s just Hone sounding off again, his protectors in the Maori Party tell us. When is someone going to make the point that Harawira is being given a degree of latitude that would never be extended to a white politician?

And what of our staunchly even-handed Race Relations Commissioner? True to form, Joris de Bres reportedly tut-tutted that Harawira’s statement was “unwise”, but added that the fuss would soon blow over. Oh, well that’s alright then.

I invite anyone to contrast the commissioner’s breezy tolerance of Harawira’s exercise of his right to free speech with the zeal with which de Bres pursued the newspaper editors who dared publish the Mohammed cartoons several years ago.

Readers of this blog will know that I believe in free speech, even when the views expressed are contemptible. Better out in the open than hushed up, I say. But free speech is abused when double standards allow a bigot like Harawira to mouth off in a fashion that no Pakeha politician would dare emulate.