Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Daihatsu society with BMW pretensions

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 28.)

SEAN Plunket wrote a thoughtful column in this paper last Saturday in which he contrasted the media coverage given to two events in Auckland: one a conference on offshore petroleum prospects, the other the annual Fashion Week extravaganza.

One event was about New Zealand’s economic future. The other was about frippery, goody bags and celebrities most of us have never heard of. Guess which event got more attention.

There is a much bigger issue here. The New Zealand economy is a crock. We haven’t paid our own way in the world – by that I mean earned more than we spent – since 1973. Our leaders talk optimistically about catching up with other OECD countries, notably Australia, but we’re steadily slipping further behind. Yet we continue to live as if in a fantasy world where we can afford to pamper ourselves with every self-indulgent excess that the consumerist economy dangles in front of us.

We consider it our right to enjoy a standard of living that our parents would never have dared dream of (even though, paradoxically, the country was far more wealthy in their time than it is now). We want to dine in the trendiest restaurants, drink the finest wines, holiday in the most exotic locations and live in the most lavish homes, but we don't want to vex ourselves wondering whether the economy is prosperous enough to sustain this lifestyle.

A whole new genre of “aspirational” magazines fosters a sense of entitlement. These glossies, along with a slew of hedonistic TV shows, are devoted to the proposition that we should imagine ourselves driving the finest European cars, living in houses created by the most fashionable architects and wearing whatever designer-label clothes are currently deemed de rigueur.

We have even created our own faux celebrity culture to promote the idea that we are sophisticated, cosmopolitan, racy and prosperous. Auckland’s Viaduct Basin is our pathetic little pretend Riviera, where frou-frou types guzzle Moët (though they can’t pronounce it) and jostle to get their pictures taken for the social pages.

Problem is, our wheezing economy cannot sustain such delusions. We are a Daihatsu society with BMW pretensions.

The ancient Romans had a phrase for all this: panem et circenses, or bread and circuses – the buying-off of the populace with showy distractions to keep their minds off more important matters. The difference is that in modern New Zealand, we don’t wait for our leaders to supply the bread and circuses. We do it ourselves.

* * *

HOW SAD that the New Zealand Federation of Islamic Associations is insisting on an apology from Building Minister Maurice Williamson for his after-dinner joke about Muslims and stoning.

It’s plain that no harm was meant. That should be the sole test of whether Mr Williamson should apologise.

But there’s more to it than that. Many Muslim immigrants come from repressive, authoritarian states, and it seems reasonable to assume that one of the factors that attracts them here is our reputation as a liberal democracy.

Free speech is a fundamental tenet of liberal western democracies, and freedom of speech includes the right to upset others. It’s a tradition without which free and open societies simply couldn’t function. (This newspaper wouldn’t exist, for a start.)

Muslims must accept that this is the way we operate. Free speech is part of the price they pay to live in a country that enjoys an unparalleled reputation for freedom and human rights. When they come here, they buy the package.

They should also come to terms with the idiosyncratic New Zealand sense of humour, which holds nothing sacred but is hardly ever malicious.

Perhaps most important of all, Muslims should realise that nothing is more likely to arouse resentment against them than the perception that having migrated here, they now insist on us modifying our behaviour to suit them.

* * *

I AM no fan of the Pope, nor of the creaking ecclesiastical bureaucracy that he represents, but I thought the British media allowed its anti-Catholic bias to get in the way of fairness and balance in its coverage of the recent papal visit.

Stories in advance of the visit were overwhelmingly negative. Anti-Catholic feeling remains strong in Britain, and nowhere more so than in the aggressively secular media. Most journalists in the liberal press clearly wanted the visit to fail, and did their best to ensure that outcome by focusing relentlessly on the clerical abuse scandal and playing up planned protests.

They must have been bitterly disappointed that after all their hard work, the visit seems to gone off quite successfully.

The media bias was evident in the coverage of a comment by Cardinal Walter Kasper which touched off a firestorm the day before the Pope touched down. Kasper, a high-ranking papal aide, was quoted as describing Britain as a “Third World” country. Cue the predictable howls of outrage.

But when you read Kasper’s comment in context, it wasn’t the bald, sweeping statement that the media made it out to be. What he said was: “When you land at Heathrow you at times think you are in a Third World country”. Anyone who has been to London in the past 20 years, and seen what a polyglot society it has become, would know exactly what he was talking about. He wasn’t comparing Britain to Bangladesh or Zimbabwe.

A Vatican spokesman said the cardinal was making a point about Britain’s cultural diversity. He might have chosen his words more sensitively – Catholic prelates are not noted for their PR skills – but it was hardly the insult the hostile British media made it out to be.

The papal visit also provided an excuse for a fresh outbreak of Acute Sensitivity Disorder, a condition first identified in this column some months ago.

Pope Benedict said in a speech that Britain had stood against “Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”. It’s hard to see how anyone could take offence at that – but no, the Humanist Society of Scotland decided it was a slight against atheists; that the Pope was comparing non-believers with Nazis.

“The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God,” a press statement spluttered.

Now there’s a breathtaking non sequitur for you. Clearly the Scottish atheists weren’t going to let a papal visit pass without seizing the opportunity to make idiots of themselves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A cruisy ride for the august professor

TV One’s Close Up last night provided further evidence (not that it was needed) of the media’s unquestioning acceptance of the shrill propaganda emanating from the neo-wowser lobby.

Host Mark Sainsbury introduced the programme by asking whether “alcohol barons” were holding the government to ransom over proposals to cut the blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05. Implicit in Close Up 's coverage of the issue was that the government was wrong to reject advice from transport officials to lower the limit – the heavy implication being that since there was no valid reason for doing so, there could only be ulterior ones.

To prove this beyond all doubt Close Up wheeled out yet another academic “expert” on alcohol – this one a professor from Perth – who confirmed that, yes, the only possible explanation for the decision to call for further research was that the government was in the pockets of the liquor industry.

This wild assertion went completely unchallenged by Sainsbury. The possibility that the government had made a sensible decision not to be rushed into a law change on the basis of incomplete (I would say biased) research by anti-liquor extremists in the bureaucracy and the universities wasn’t considered.

Sainsbury’s lead-in to the item, in which he rhetorically asked “Who’s calling the shots?” and “Do the liquor barons have too much say?” was a clear signal that Close Up wasn’t going to waste time subjecting the professor’s claim to any scrutiny.

Instead, the hard questions were all directed at Bruce Robertson, representing the Hospitality Association. Here, writ large, was the simplistic heroes-and-villains scenario so beloved of tabloid television: hotel and bar owners bad, moralistic academics good.

I would like to have seen Sainsbury put a couple of simple questions to the smug-looking professor (smug, no doubt, because he knew he was in for an easy ride). I would have pointed out that the road toll, far from suddenly becoming a national crisis as the academics would have us believe, has been in steady decline for years. I would have pointed out that the AA has published data that raises serious doubts about the efficacy of reducing the blood alcohol limit. I would have pointed out that per capita alcohol consumption in New Zealand, contrary to the impression given by the anti-liquor activists, is below the OECD average (and below that of Australia). And I would have pointed out that in the most recent drink-driving blitz, only 0.58 percent of the 31,777 drivers tested were over the limit.

How would the professor square these facts with the almost hysterical clamour for liquor law changes that would penalise responsible, moderate drinkers?

Close Up has researchers. It wouldn’t have taken too much effort to come up with one or two questions that might at least give the illusion of balance. But like much of the media, Close Up has uncritically bought in to the moral panic promoted by the neo-wowser lobby.

I think of my late colleague Frank Haden’s wonderful dictum – “Doubt everyone with gusto” – and wonder whatever happened to journalistic scepticism.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Holding the line against the neo-wowsers

I’m not in the habit of expressing unalloyed admiration for politicians of any colour, but the more I see and hear of Transport Minister Steven Joyce, the more I like him. He's sharp, articulate and politically astute, but affable too.

Joyce was on Morning Report this morning calmly and sensibly batting away the latest salvo from the anti-liquor activists in the transport and health bureaucracies.

The latest phase in the neo-wowsers’ campaign to tighten the liquor laws (a campaign which, I grudgingly admit, has been adroitly planned and orchestrated – largely at the taxpayers’ expense) was the release under the Official Information Act of papers showing that the government disregarded an avalanche of “expert” advice from the Ministry of Transport on the need to reduce the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05mg per 100ml of blood.

It has been a feature of the neo-wowsers’ campaign that their claims are generally accepted uncritically by the media, even when they don’t stand up to close analysis. It seems to be assumed that because they are public officials, and therefore theoretically concerned only with our wellbeing, their integrity is unassailable. Promoting the notion that they are driven by a "public good" mission is a central part of the neo-wowsers’ strategy. This is presumed to give them the moral high ground and therefore trump any counter-arguments.

The neo-wowsers are highly selective in their use of statistics, disregarding any figures that don’t suit their agenda, and they don’t seem too bothered if their statements are inconsistent. My reading of today’s Dom Post report, for example, indicates that on the one hand, transport officials are saying that if the legal blood alcohol level were reduced, up to 33 lives a year could be saved.

That implies that 33 of the 137 people reportedly killed last year in car accidents involving alcohol had blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08. Yet Radio New Zealand’s report quotes a transport official as saying people with a blood alcohol level of between 0.05 and 0.08 caused 30 deaths between 2006 and 2008.

I’m no mathematician, but there seems to be a marked discrepancy here. But what the heck – any old figures will do as long as they help stampede the public into thinking we have an alcohol-induced crisis on the roads, notwithstanding the rather inconvenient fact that the road toll is steadily trending downwards.

Clearly the release of the MOT papers was intended to embarrass the government into backing down and accepting the neo-wowsers’ demand for a lower legal blood alcohol limit. But to his credit, Joyce stood firm on the government’s decision to seek more detailed research specific to New Zealand.

Studies have already been done which call into question the neo-wowsers’ simplistic claims about the benefits of reducing the limit. For example an ESR study for the police looked at 1,046 drivers who died between 2004 and 2009, of whom 48 percent tested positive for drugs or alcohol either alone or in combination.

The ESR report says that 21 of 351 deceased drivers in the study who had used alcohol – just 2 percent of the 1,046 drivers in the study – had blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08. Only 10 of these drivers had used alcohol alone, while the other 11 had also used a potentially impairing drug.

Of the 351 drivers who had used alcohol, either alone or in combination with another drug, 28 percent had levels of 81-160mg, 35 percent had levels of 161-240mg and 15 percent had levels over 240mg/100ml of blood.

This not only confirms that the real menace on the roads is caused by seriously heavy drinkers, who disregard the legal limits anyway, but also suggests that the use of drugs such as cannabis is a critical factor too.

Even if it could be proved that reducing the blood alcohol limit would reduce the road toll, is that on its own a compelling argument for it? Reducing the speed limit from 100 kmh to 80 kmh would reduce the road toll too, but no one seriously suggests doing it. So would banning all vehicles with no disc brakes or electronic traction control. The question, as in so many issues, is where to strike an appropriate balance that takes reasonable account of safety considerations without becoming unduly oppressive.

If it were left to them, the compulsionists in the bureaucracy and the universities would err on the side of oppression; that’s their instinct because they know what’s best for everyone. Personally I’m relieved that Joyce is holding his hand up and refusing to be rushed.

Footnote: In the latest issue of The Listener, out this week, I argue that the neo-wowser lobby has grossly overstated our alcohol problem and conveniently overlooked the enormous advances in the drinking habits of the typical New Zealander.

Monday, September 20, 2010

When the schoolyard bully is a principal

I'm surprised more hasn’t been made of the contemptible schoolyard bullying reported last week by TV3 political editor Duncan Garner. Presumably it was overtaken by the much bigger drama unfolding around David Garrett and ACT.

What made this schoolyard bullying unusual was that the perpetrators were grown men – two Northland school principals heavying a female colleague who committed the inexcusable sin of breaking ranks over national standards.

Donna Donnelly, principal of Tikipunga School, Whangarei, is a supporter of national standards. This was clearly intolerable to two fellow principals, Peter Witana and Pat Newman, who sent her intimidating emails.

TV3 News showed a composed, dignified Donnelly asking Witana to apologise. He refused.

An agitated Witana, an executive member of the Principals’ Federation, then turned on an extraordinary performance in front of Garner, gesticulating and speaking directly to the TV3 camera, saying things like “Don’t make me look terrible Duncan” and “Don’t make me dislike you.” He looked so emotionally unstable that Garner could have been excused for feeling slightly threatened himself – just as parents with children under Witana’s care might have been excused for wondering whether he needed to take stress leave.

The next night we learned that Newman, too, had waded into Donnelly, sending her an email in which he said, among other things, that her former colleagues in the Waikato regarded her as “the best export they ever made” [sic].

I couldn’t help wondering at the coincidence that both Witana and Newman are physically big men (overweight, not to put too fine a point on it) with moustaches, a not uncommon mark of the bully.

Interviewed for TV3 News, Newman (whom Kiwiblog's David Farrar reports is seeking the Labour Party nomination for Whangarei) tried to skew the issue, suggesting that principals and boards of trustees were not being allowed to question and criticise education policy.

I’m not aware of anyone trying to deny them that right. The issue here is one of intimidation and harassment of a colleague who dared dissent from the union line.

Intolerance of minority or opposing views can be a deeply unattractive aspect of trade union culture, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen evidence of it in the teaching unions. Attempts to introduce bulk funding in secondary schools in the 1990s were sabotaged by blatant teacher intimidation of elected school boards and the worst shame of it was that the Bolger government was too gutless to intervene.

Several of the people who posted comments about the Witana story on TV3’s website wanted to know how Wellington-based Garner happened fortuitously to be on the spot at Tikipunga School when Donnelly confronted her fellow principal. Fair question; it did look like a jackup.

Other commenters darkly hinted at issues in Donnelly’s past and suggested she wasn’t squeaky-clean herself. If that’s the case, we should be told about any relevant disputes she may have had with staff or colleagues. Could it be, I wonder, that she made herself unpopular by espousing views that were at odds with union orthodoxy?

Whatever the background factors, nothing excuses Witana and Newman for behaving like a couple of gang enforcers. It's intolerable enough that teacher activists should arrogantly defy an elected government, and in so doing place themselves above the democratic process that other public servants dutifully accept; but it becomes even more offensive when they collectively harass anyone brave or rash enough to defy them.

The irony, of course, is that schools are supposedly united in their determination to stamp out bullying. It’s officially not condoned in the playground, but a different standard seems to apply in staff rooms.

Footnote: Several of the anonymous comments attacking Donnelly on the TV3 website clearly came from teachers, some of whom displayed only a primitive grasp of grammar and spelling. Herein may lie one of the reasons for the almost hysterical resistance to national standards.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The other South Island fault line

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 15.)

Not one but two hitherto unsuspected fault lines have emerged in the South Island.

The more obvious is the one that ruptured at 4.35am on the morning of September 4, causing catastrophic damage. In the first 24 hours after the event, there was mostly relief that no one had been killed, due no doubt to the lucky timing.

But as the days went on and the aftershocks continued unrelentingly, the true cost of the 7.1 quake started to become apparent – not just in terms of damaged property and infrastructure, which was massive enough, but in the form of public anxiety. Relief turned to fear and uncertainty as businesses closed, houses and public buildings were condemned and the ground just kept shaking.

The evidence of the previously unknown fault line running under the rural town of Darfield was there for everyone to see in the pictures of cracked roads, kinked railway lines, crumbling buildings and ruptured farm paddocks.

Not so obvious, however, was the other newly discovered South Island fault line – one that is sociological, economic and political rather than geological. It lies further south, around Timaru.

The furore surrounding the collapse of South Canterbury Finance, and its subsequent $1.6 billion bailout by the taxpayer, laid bare a seismic divide between the provincial South and the urban North.

It evoked memories of a distant time – it would have been the late 1970s or early 80s – when there was a vocal South Island secessionist movement. North Islanders regarded it as a joke but its proponents took it very seriously, believing that the interests of the South were being arrogantly disregarded by those in power in Wellington.

The fallout over SCF has brought similar North-South divisions to the surface. Alan Hubbard, the octogenarian multi-millionaire behind the Timaru company, was a genuine local folk hero – a sainted figure who seemed to remain untainted even when other finance companies were falling like skittles.

The government’s announcement that his affairs were being placed under statutory management provoked shock and outrage. Crowds marched through the streets of Timaru demanding that Mr Hubbard be given a fair go.

But in the metropolitan north, financial commentators began asking hard questions. Unaffected by home-town sentiment, they looked past Hubbard’s reputation as a generous and much-loved benefactor, of whom the worst that could be said was that he spurned modern technology and didn’t always keep his books completely up to date.

They also began to wonder whether, preoccupied with health problems, he had taken his eye off the ball.

For a time there were two simultaneous but conflicting narratives running in the media. In one, Mr Hubbard was a man of impeccable probity and loyalty to his community who had been unfairly targeted by meddling bureaucrats and blamed for events beyond his control. It was said that he deserved a chance to dig himself out of the hole – which, with his proven financial acumen, he would inevitably do.

In the other narrative, SCF and its related companies were a disaster waiting to happen – one made worse by related-party lending (a common feature of some of the notoriously shonky finance companies that had already gone under) and dodgy speculative investments that multiplied after SCF became eligible for the government’s deposit guarantee scheme.

In this narrative, which rapidly became the dominant one in the North Island papers, Mr Hubbard had not only allowed his business to grow too big for him to handle, but had let it fall into the hands of people who didn’t necessarily share his principles. (In saying this I exempt SCF’s most recent chief executive Sandy Maier, who appears to have worked hard to salvage the firm).

It’s tempting to say that no winners come out of this, but it’s not true. SCF investors have kept their money and even their interest, much to the chagrin of other New Zealanders – especially those who had to walk away empty-handed from earlier financial collapses. A few cold-eyed opportunists who got their timing right will have done exceptionally well.

On the other hand, Mr Hubbard and his wife Jean have not only lost a fortune, but have sacrificed a reputation that took decades to build – if not among their stalwart local supporters, then certainly in the eyes of the taxpayers who were called on to rescue SCF. And those taxpayers, of course, are all losers too, to the tune of several hundred dollars each.

What we are left with is a striking rift between North and South. People are shouting at each other across this chasm and it will be a political challenge for National, traditionally the party of the provinces, to reconcile them.

Resentment clearly simmers in South Canterbury. When Finance Minister Bill English (himself a Southern Man, at least by birth) suggested that Timaru should be grateful for the SCF bailout, he copped a savage backlash. Timaru Herald editor David King reported a flurry of furious letters to the paper.

Attitudes in the South seemed to be summed up in a poster carried by a protester in one of the pro-Hubbard marches. “Get back to Wellington where the real fraudsters are,” it said.

But resentment feeds on resentment. New Zealand Herald business editor Liam Dann wrote that Mr Hubbard had left an appalling mess for the taxpayer to clean up and owed the country an apology.

Broadcaster Paul Holmes wrote in his newspaper column that the country had been forced to swallow a filthy rat and all it had got from the south was contemptible ingratitude. Another Auckland-based commentator, Deborah Hill Cone, wrote derisively about “the cult of Hubbard and his affectation of having a VW” and concluded that the financier ending up believing his own self-righteous hype.

That graunching you can hear is the sound of two tectonic plates – the south and the north – rubbing up against each other. This is a fault line that may run even deeper than the one that tore Christchurch apart.

Friday, September 17, 2010

ACT enters the terminal phase of self-destruction

Will ACT survive the next election? I don’t think anyone will be betting the house on it right now. The party seems determined to disembowel itself in full public view.

My own reaction to this is mixed. On one hand I’m disappointed, because I supported most ACT policies and admired many of its MPs, at least up until the point when the party suddenly jumped the rails by aligning itself with the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

I have nothing in particular against Garth McVicar’s outfit, but the “three strikes and you’re out” shtick muddied the ACT brand. It diverted the party from its core foundation principles, which today’s New Zealand Herald correctly summed up as individual freedom, personal responsibility and small government, in favour of a focus on crime and punishment. The bizarre result was that Rodney Hide ended up courting Winston Peters’ natural constituency – the angry, frightened and bewildered. Hide’s attempt to promote himself via an inane television show further devalued ACT’s brand, giving the party’s critics (never in short supply) more ammunition with which to ridicule him, and alienating core ACT supporters who found the Dancing With the Stars episode trivial and demeaning.

It didn’t help that the 2005 election saw ACT’s representation in Parliament reduced from nine seats to two, taking out most of the party’s intellectual heavy-hitters and ideological standard-bearers – people like Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman. ACT has never fully regained the status it enjoyed between 1996 and 2005 as a coherent and sturdy alternative to National’s soft-centred, let’s-not-frighten-anyone pragmatism. And of course Hide did himself no favours by exposing his double standards on the question of MPs’ travel perks – the very issue on which he made his name.

David Garrett, who entered Parliament in 2008 and has plunged ACT into the crisis which now threatens its survival, seems a very different personality from the old-school ACT MPs, and looked a potential liability from day one. He’s intellectually sharp and has made some impressive speeches in the House, notably on the foreshore and seabed, but there’s a loose-cannon quality about him – something slightly feral – that makes his false passport escapade much less of a surprise than it would be if any other MP had done it (or at least anyone from the current crop of MPs, arguably the most goody-two-shoes mob in memory; sometimes one longs for a John Kirk or Alamein Kopu).

As I write, Hide has returned from his foreshortened holiday in Hong Kong and is reportedly meeting Garrett this afternoon. There is speculation that Garrett will be made to resign from the party – but will that put the issue to bed? Hardly. Hide himself has some hard questions to answer because he knew of the false passport affair but was apparently happy for Garrett to keep quiet about it. It won’t look good if he makes Garrett walk the plank for something in which he (Hide) was complicit. Garth McVicar was probably right when he said Garrett should have fessed up when he made his maiden speech in Parliament. It would have caused a temporary sensation, but without the potentially fatal effects a beleaguered ACT is now having to deal with. Covering something up in the vain hope that no one would ever breathe a word of it to the media (in a political hothouse like Wellington???) was extraordinarily ill-judged.

As the Dom Post editorial points out today, ACT’s problem is also National’s problem. There has been media speculation that National will abandon Hide and put up a strong candidate against him in Epsom. But if Hide loses his seat, National would have no ally to its right and would therefore be wholly dependent on the Maori Party for support – an unappealing prospect for National, and for the rest of us too.

I wonder if what we are now seeing merely demonstrates that it’s ACT’s turn to suffer the curse of being a minority party in government. As long as a party remains outside government, as the Greens have done, it can safely occupy the moral high ground. Its high-minded principles are unlikely to be compromised by the dirty reality of having to govern. But the moment a party is drawn into a coalition, it’s exposed to that reality. Deals are done and principles get stretched.

It’s also unhealthy for political egos. Ambitions are unleashed. Tensions arise between idealists and pragmatists. We saw these strains when Heather Roy was given the heave-ho as ACT’s deputy leader. Given that the information about Garrett's Day of the Jackal stunt was reportedly leaked from within ACT, possibly by a disaffected Roy loyalist, the current crisis in ACT may be directly related to Roy’s demotion.

Being in government also means a minority party is subjected to much more intense media scrutiny. Who cares what a no-name backbencher might have done in 1984? But when he’s one of five MPs propping up the government, his past becomes a matter of public interest.

All of these pressures must be magnified when the party caucus consists of only five people – and not only that, but five strong-willed people with firm ideological views and bigger-than-usual egos. In a larger caucus, such as National or Labour, I imagine tensions are more easily diffused. But the tectonic forces at work when ACT’s MPs get together in a small room must be of Canterbury proportions.

Will ACT go the way of the Alliance, Mauri Pacific and New Zealand First? It certainly seems to be nearing the terminal phase of self-destruction. As I said at the start of this post, I would be disappointed if that happened. ACT has performed an important function on the right of the political spectrum, just as the Greens have on the left, and has achieved more in government than its critics imagined possible. But it has lost its way and must accept responsibility for the mess it now finds itself in.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cloistered institutions both

One of the interesting sidelights of the Stephen Wilce affair has been the glimpse it affords into the culture of the defence establishment.

It has often struck me over the years that Defence has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, stiffly hierarchical and attach exaggerated importance to ritual and tradition. They have their own sets of rules, often quite unrelated to the way things are done on the outside (an example was the double-dipping on accommodation allowances by senior Defence Force officers posted to the UN in New York – it was just the way things were done, and no one questioned it despite the obvious impropriety).

Both institutions are resistant to outside scrutiny and give the impression of being resentful when they are subjected to it. They appear slightly disconnected from the outside world and not very well equipped to cope when it intrudes. We saw this with the Catholic Church in its ham-fisted response to media attention over sex abuse, and we have seen it with Defence’s clumsy handling of the controversy over the sexed-up CV that apparently landed Wilce his sensitive job at the top of the Defence Technology Agency.

Still unexplained is the fact that concerns were apparently raised about Wilce as long ago as 2008, but not acted upon. In fact $250,000 of taxpayers’ money was subsequently spent sending him on an eight-month course at the Royal College of Defence Studies. And when a complaint was made about Wilce in July this year, Defence apparently didn’t even bother to take the elementary step of checking with Momentum, the consultancy that recruited him. This suggests a culture of complacency – perhaps even an attitude that Defence is above the procedures and protocols that apply to other agencies of the state. I hope I’m wrong.

TV3 political reporter Patrick Gower, in his blog, highlighted defence chief Jerry Mateparae’s unconvincing response to questions about the scandal. “Mateparae initially argued he couldn’t say anything in case ‘whistleblower’ legislation was enacted – but then the Lieutenant General admitted there was no whistleblower, but an anonymous letter,” Gower wrote. “He also said it was an ‘employment issue’ – even though Wilce has quit.” Clearly, Mateparae was either ill-prepared for the media’s questions or thought he could simply brush them off.

Almost as worrying to me was Mateparae’s resort to bland bureaucrat-speak. “He [Wilce] has represented us as the chief scientist in venues where he’s got to deliver against competencies that are quite rigorous and he’s been doing that quite well as far as I’m concerned,” Mateparae was quoted as saying. He went on to say that Wilce had been “delivering against the competency sets that I expect him to deliver.”

Does it make anyone else uneasy when the Chief of the Defence Force uses ghastly HR jargon (“competency sets”) to defend Wilce’s appointment – and in so doing, attempts to sidestep the real issue, which is how Wilce got the job in the first place? (Mateparae, it should be noted, wasn’t in charge when Wilce was appointed, so can’t be blamed for hiring him.)

Political columnist Gordon Campbell wonders whether the Defence Force and the intelligence community enjoy too close a relationship. It’s a fair question, especially since Mateparae is to be the next head of the Government Communications and Security Bureau. It all starts to look a little cosy, which might explain why the SIS didn’t bother to exert itself too strenuously checking Wilce’s credentials, even though he was up for a highly sensitive position.

Quick, let's take offence

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 14.)

ACUTE sensitivity disorder has broken out again. In New Zealand, the Muslim community has taken offence at Building Minister Maurice Williamson’s after-dinner jokes. In Australia, meanwhile, Olympic swimmer Stephanie Rice, a triple gold medallist at Beijing, has had a sponsorship deal cancelled by Jaguar because she made an imprudent comment on Twitter using the word “faggots”.

The question surely should be, in such instances, whether there was serious intent to stir up hatred or ill-will. In neither case is that apparent.

Mr Williamson was just being the class clown, as is his wont. His joke – about Muslims being stoned after committing adultery while New Zealanders committed adultery after getting stoned – was in questionable taste, but that’s all.

As for Rice, her grammatically challenged tweet, “Suck on that faggots”, following the Wallabies’ win over the Springboks, seemed merely puerile and impetuous – the product of an immature mind rather than a calculated slur intended to incite ill-feeling against homosexuals. It doesn’t even make sense. What’s the bet she had been drinking?

The main lesson to be taken from Rice’s misfortune, and that of countless other not-very-bright celebrities before her, is that Twitter, the very name of which implies empty-headedness, is dangerous as well as pointless.

* * *

MY HEART goes out to the parents of the little boy who was killed by a reversing vehicle in a South Auckland driveway last week, but the question has to be asked: when are people going to learn?

Toddlers and driveways are bad combinations. They are even more lethal when the next-door neighbour’s vehicle is a big four-wheel-drive (as in this case) with poor rear visibility. Anyone who drives an SUV has to be almost obsessively cautious when reversing, especially if there are children in the neighbourhood.

What other lessons can be learned from this tragedy? One is that little kids move fast – a point brought home by the sad death of Lucas Ward, who drowned in Gisborne’s Waimata River while his grandmother was momentarily distracted.

In the case of 18-month-old Sirj-Michaels Siaea, of Otara, who was killed under the wheels of the neighbour’s Land Cruiser, his mother was reportedly having a cigarette with her partner nearby when it happened.

The newspaper account said the little boy was too young to understand the dangers of playing in driveways. Of course he was; that’s why children need adults to protect them.

I wonder if the coroner will say anything about this. It might sound heartless, but too many small children die because the adults responsible for them seem to lack any awareness of how quickly an everyday situation can turn to tragedy.

* * *

FOR AS long as most of us can remember, there has been a clear differentiation between TV One and TV2.

TV One was the channel for the more mature (and, dare I say it, discerning) viewer. It was where TVNZ chose to show its serious drama and current affairs programmes. TV2, on the other hand, was pitched at a younger audience and was largely about fun and frivolity.

But without any public pronouncements, or at least none that I’m aware of, the state broadcaster appears to have abandoned this long-standing policy. Look at the programme schedules now, and it’s virtually impossible to detect any difference between the offerings on TV One and TV2. Most nights they are an interchangeable selection of crass pseudo-reality shows and formulaic American crime dramas.

My question is this: when will the government abandon the pretence that the taxpayer has any interest in owning a broadcaster that goes for the lowest common denominator and doesn’t even pay lip service to the public service values that were once its raison d’etre?

The government might as well own a chain of sex shops or fast-food outlets. TVNZ has become an embarrassment and should be knocked off to the highest bidder without delay.

* * *

CHRIS CARTER was right about one thing: as things stand, Phil Goff looks as if he’s merely keeping the seat warm for whoever will be the next Labour Party leader.

Mr Goff is a decent, personable man. He was an effective and respected cabinet minister. But he has never looked convincing as leader. His minimal impact in the role shows there’s a big leap from being a capable team player to running the show.

Part of the problem is that as leader, he is under much closer public scrutiny than ever before. He has not responded well to that scrutiny, often looking awkward and self-conscious. His media trainers appear to have advised him to be warm and sympathetic, but often the result is that he looks wishy-washy and ineffectual.

My advice would be to stop trying so hard and be himself. Otherwise he risks becoming the embodiment of the Peter Principle, which holds that employees in an organisation rise to their level of incompetence – in other words, they keep advancing through the hierarchy until eventually they find themselves in a job that’s beyond them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What is it about Defence?

What is it about our Defence people? Our troops on the ground, in trouble spots like Timor Leste, Afghanistan and the Solomons, invariably acquit themselves with great distinction. But Defence HQ seems terminally dysfunctional, with a particularly disturbing penchant for making ill-advised procurement decisions dating back to the purchase of the infamous HMNZS Charles Upham, a ship that rolled so heavily on its maiden voyage that the captain feared for its safety. (It was decommissioned after only three years.) More recent purchases, such as the frigate Canterbury, have been plagued by design and equipment faults, and heads are still being scratched over the bizarre decision in 2003 to spend $680 million buying 105 light armoured vehicles for purposes which remain a mystery. (Only three were deployed to Afghanistan, though it would seem the very sort of place where LAVs might come in handy. Perhaps the other 102 have been kept behind in case of the armed insurrection we were told the Tuhoe were planning in the Urewera.)

Now Defence has been hugely embarrassed by revelations on TV3’s 60 Minutes that Englishman Stephen Wilce, head of the Defence Technology Agency, creatively enhanced his CV with bogus claims about his past achievements. It seems even the most elementary checks weren’t made – an inexcusable failing in an era when Google makes it possible to establish very quickly whether Wilce was, for example, a former member of the British Olympic bobsleigh team, as he claimed.

Wilce (who has now resigned) was reportedly known in a former job as Walter Mitty, after the humorist James Thurber’s famous fictional fantasist, and you certainly have to wonder about the naivety of whoever employed him. In secret camera footage showing a flabby-looking, podgy Wilce incongruously talking to a 60 Minutes journalist about his supposed background in top-level sport and military combat, his body language screamed bullshit artist. He might as well have had the words emblazoned on a flashing neon sign attached to his forehead.

As in previous similar cases (the name Mary Anne Thompson springs to mind), it seems that a whistle-blower aroused suspicions about Wilce’s credentials well before the public got wind of the scandal – yet he was stood down only last week, when Defence must have known TV3 was onto the story. Funny, that.

Defence Force chief Jerry Mateparae assures us that Wilce did exceptional work for Defence, but that’s no excuse for appointing someone to a highly sensitive position without first checking that his CV was kosher. It hardly encourages confidence in the Defence establishment, or the spycatchers of the Security Intelligence Service (which has the job of vetting such applicants), that Wilce was able to slip so easily through the net. In fact it’s such a high-level farce that the best one can hope for is that a clever satirist will make a great play out of it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bruiser Plunket has left the building

There were times when Sean Plunket’s hectoring style of interviewing irritated me, even to the extent that I switched the radio off. If he has a fault, it’s that he sometimes unleashes the inner attack dog either when it’s not necessary or too soon, before the interview subject has so much as bared a fang or raised a hackle. A momentary hesitation, or any sign that the interviewee might want to explain the background or context before answering a specific question, and Sean goes for the throat. I am still not convinced that his aggressive interviewing style necessarily elicited more information than the more patient, non-threatening approach of his avuncular co-presenter, Geoff Robinson. Sometimes it simply got the subject’s back up, closing off any possibility of co-operation.

But all that aside, the 13-year partnership between the two Morning Report co-hosts, which ended with Sean’s departure today, has been remarkably successful. They were a highly complementary team: a classic good cop/bad cop pairing in some respects, each with his own approach but both highly effective at their best, and with what appeared to be a genuine respect and affection for each other, though they are quite different personalities. And it has to be said that there are times – such as with tricky customers like Winston Peters – when the job calls for someone with Sean’s bare-knuckle skills.

Sean’s departure, after an often strained relationship with his employer, reminds us once again of the crucial role Morning Report serves in the life of the country. Radio New Zealand claims the programme has a bigger audience than any other breakfast show, but its importance goes far beyond that. It provides a daily examination of news and current affairs that goes deeper than any other, especially now that the long-form TV current affairs interview has been effectively condemned to a Saturday and Sunday morning ghetto that attracts only the truly committed. And while some other Radio New Zealand programmes may still show traces of the traditional tilt to the left, Morning Report in recent years has generally been scrupulously fair and balanced. I suspect that Sean’s politics are slightly right of centre, just as Geoff Robinson’s probably lean the other way – but those suspicions (and it’s pure guesswork) come from personal knowledge. You’d be hard-pressed, listening to the programme, to pick the hosts’ leanings.

Perhaps most important of all, Morning Report, by reporting news from all over the country and broadcasting it to everyone between Cape Reinga and Stewart Island, makes a vital contribution to our sense of national cohesion. It goes some way toward filling the vacuum referred to in an earlier post (We know less about ourselves than we did, September 3) in which I talked about the demise of the New Zealand Press Association’s news-sharing arrangements. In effect, Morning Report is the national daily newspaper we don’t have.

Sean (who paid tribute in his final moments on air to his late father Pat, himself a former RNZ journalist and an ex-colleague of mine) will be missed. But if today’s Dominion Post is correct, he’ll be popping up elsewhere: as the successor to Justin du Fresne (who he? – Ed.) on NewstalkZB’s Wellington region talkback show on weekday mornings.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Credit where credit's due

I have been a harsh critic of One News, but as someone once said: credit where credit's due. They did a superb job in covering the Canterbury earthquake. Last night's extended 6pm bulletin was thorough, authoritative and blessedly free of the customary sensationalism and hyperbole - proof that when you have a real story on your hands, it's not necessary to over-egg the pudding.

It was One's (and our) good fortune that the quake happened in Canterbury, where TVNZ just happens to have a couple of old-style reporters - Vicki Wilkinson-Baker and Lorelei Mason - who know how to cover a big story. No breathless excitement and little-girl squawking from these professionals. Their work was ably complemented by the reporting of Jendy Harper, Lisa Davies and Joy Reid in a package that was seamlessly tied together by an unflappable Simon Dallow (my apologies if I've overlooked anyone). Notably absent from the scene was TVNZ's boy wonder Jack Tame; perhaps he was detained in the makeup department.

It's reassuring that there's still a true journalistic heart beating underneath all the banality and fluff that too often passes for news on One. Well done.

Friday, September 3, 2010

We know less about ourselves than we did

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 1.)

Five years ago, something happened that radically changed the way New Zealanders get their news.

The circumstances in which this occurred provide an interesting case study of a long-established New Zealand industry being forced, in the face of intense competition between new Australian owners, to change the way it operated. The outcome, I believe, is a less informed populace.

Let me explain. For 125 years, until January 1 2006, newspapers throughout the country pooled and exchanged news under a co-operative arrangement operated by the New Zealand Press Association.

Member newspapers from Whangarei to Invercargill supplied news from their own regions to NZPA and those news stories that were deemed newsworthy enough to circulate nationally would then be distributed to all other member papers.

NZPA was collectively owned by the member newspapers and each paper paid an annual subscription based on its circulation figures. It was a system that enabled a newspaper reader in Nelson to read about a murder trial in Timaru, a fatal accident in Tolaga Bay or a rowdy debate in Parliament.

Technological advances aside, NZPA had functioned essentially unchanged since 1880, when the introduction of the telegraph first made it possible for news to be distributed around the country almost instantaneously.

Many historians credit the Wellington-based news agency with helping foster a sense of nationhood and national identity because it enabled New Zealanders to be informed of events beyond their own regions and communities. At its peak, in 1917, 74 member newspapers took the NZPA service.

Commercial tensions between rival newspaper companies occasionally arose around the NZPA board table but the principle of exchanging news was never seriously questioned. One reason was that until the 1960s, there was little direct competition between newspapers. Each region had one dominant morning or afternoon newspaper – most of them independent and family-owned – and competition existed only on the periphery of each paper’s circulation area. So newspapers could generally afford to be magnanimous about sharing.

Even when the industry began to consolidate from the 1960s onwards – a period that saw most provincial newspapers (including the two in which this column is published) absorbed by two major companies – there remained a strong commitment to the co-operative arrangements underpinning NZPA.

The men who ran the two dominant newspaper groups, Wellington-based INL and Auckland-based Wilson and Horton, understood the importance of NZPA in the life of the country and were generally prepared to set aside their commercial rivalry where the interests of NZPA were concerned.

Mike Robson, effectively the last chief executive of INL and an influential industry figure, was himself a former NZPA foreign correspondent with a keen appreciation of the crucial role the agency played in informing New Zealanders. His sudden death in 2000 took out a key player who could almost certainly have been counted on to defend NZPA’s traditional method of operation.

Everything changed, however, when both newspaper groups were acquired by new owners – INL by the Australian Fairfax group and Wilson and Horton (publishers of the New Zealand Herald) by APN, an Australian company ultimately controlled by Irish magnate Sir Tony O’Reilly.

Bitter rivals on their home turf, the Australians found themselves sitting around the same boardroom table at NZPA, which they now controlled. The idea of sharing news was alien to them, and it wasn’t long before competitive tension threatened to tear NZPA apart.

Matters came to a head when APN challenged Fairfax’s monopoly in the Sunday newspaper market by launching the Herald on Sunday. Fairfax not only refused to supply news through NZPA to the new paper but threatened to withdraw from the agency altogether, which would have meant its collapse.

The choice facing NZPA was stark: restructure or die. What emerged was a compromise plan whereby the agency abandoned its traditional co-operative arrangement in favour of a strictly commercial model. Rather than being fed news by 26 daily papers scattered around the country, NZPA would employ its own staff and generate its own stories, much as news agencies in other countries do.

The result of that change, as detailed in a master’s degree thesis by former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis, was that NZPA went from effectively having hundreds of reporters around the country to being reliant on its own 44 staff – mostly based in Wellington – and a network of part-time correspondents or “stringers” in the regions.

What this meant in real terms was a sharp reduction in the availability of “non-local” news in our newspapers. In many papers the NZPA content halved.

Much of what people now read in their daily paper is either from their own region or from the major metropolitan centres (Wellington and Auckland), where NZPA’s limited news-gathering resources are concentrated.

Fairfax-owned papers share news among themselves, which means their readers have access to news from other cities where the local paper happens to be part of the Fairfax group. But areas where APN papers hold sway are “black holes” in terms of the availability of news to readers of Fairfax papers, and vice-versa. In other words, the universality of coverage provided by the old NZPA no longer exists.

NZPA’s distribution of news from the regions has dwindled to a mere trickle compared with the agency’s heyday, when in a typical year NZPA would dispatch as many as 40,000 news items. Provincial papers have felt this decline most acutely because they relied more heavily on NZPA than the larger metropolitan papers, which have big reporting staffs of their own.

What this all boils down to is that we know less about ourselves. As Ellis puts it, the information flows that help New Zealanders build and maintain a collective picture of themselves have been impaired.

Television and radio, with the notable exception of Radio New Zealand, have done nothing to fill the vacuum. Regional news coverage by television and commercial radio is negligible other than when major stories break, such as the search for little Lucas Ward in Gisborne or the recent spate of deaths in Feilding.

Ellis also noted that “inadequate coverage of a region has the potential to diminish that region’s sense of its own importance and relevance”. To put it more bluntly, some provincial towns and cities risk becoming invisible to the rest of the country.

NZPA has survived, but only as a shadow of its former self. It’s ironic that this profound change has happened with very little public awareness and even less debate, but reporting on itself has never been one of the newspaper industry’s strengths.

Regional council leads recycling efforts

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 31.)

NOMINATIONS have closed for the local government elections and the published lists of candidates show that not much has changed. Amid the many capable and conscientious people seeking public office, there is also the inevitable over-representation of cranks, publicity seekers and delusional no-hopers.

Quite a few will get elected. You can get away with being dysfunctional on a city council or district health board because these institutions are not subjected to the same level of public and media scrutiny as, say, parliament and central government.

Indeed it can be helpful to be slightly mad or disruptive because you’re more likely to attract publicity, which means your name stands out on the ballot paper.

The other striking thing about the lists of candidates is the number of recycled politicians, mostly from the Left, who are having a second go at a publicly funded (and quite lucrative) career.

Local government not only offers rich opportunities for the Left to further its utopian vision of a perfect society, but has the added advantage of operating off the public’s radar screen most of the time, which means they can get on with the job largely unnoticed.

Running my eye down the list of candidates for the Greater Wellington Regional Council, for example, I see four former Labour MPs (Fran Wilde, Chris Laidlaw, John Terris and Paul Swain), a former Labour mayor of Porirua (John Burke) and several others, including Terry McDavitt and Peter Glensor, with strong Labour/Left associations.

Interestingly enough, they all describe themselves as “independent” or list no affiliation.

In Porirua, meanwhile, former Labour cabinet minister Russell Marshall is running for the mayoralty, as is another former Labour minister, Mark Burton, in Taupo.

On one hand it can be argued this is a good thing. Such people are experienced in public life and can make an effective contribution in local government. On the other hand, you have to wonder whether some have become so addicted to the status and privilege of office that they are incapable of detaching themselves from the publicly funded intravenous drip.

* * *

ON JIM Mora’s radio show recently, former broadcaster and Labour Party man Brian Edwards deplored the hateful, vindictive nature of much comment in the blogosphere and on talkback radio. It was, he said, a sad aspect of New Zealand society that people took extreme views and could be highly personal in their attacks, even to the point of saying the people they were attacking were worthless and might as well be dead.

“Hear hear”, I thought. Trouble was, only about half an hour before, on the same programme, Edwards had been unburdening himself of some pretty vindictive thoughts about ACT.

Nothing could please him more, he said, than the disintegration of Rodney Hide’s party. It was an awful party and they were all bullies. Indeed, they were “the most ghastly people in politics”, and the sooner we saw the back of them, the better. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Edwards harrumphed.

Reproducing his words in print doesn’t adequately convey the venom with which he said them. Witty and charming at his best, Edwards on this occasion revealed a less appealing side of his character.

It wasn’t clear what road-to-Damascus conversion Dr Edwards experienced between his outburst against ACT and his tut-tutting about intolerance a short time later, but it didn’t go unnoticed by the show’s host. In the light of Edwards’ condemnation of hateful comment, Mora asked playfully, did he care to reconsider his remarks about Mr Hide and ACT? No, he didn’t. “There are some people you just can’t see any good in,” Edwards declared.

So Edwards dislikes vindictive personal comment in general but exempts himself when he’s attacking people whose political views he disapproves of. In doing so he strips away the thin veneer of faux liberalism and reveals a nasty streak of intolerance lurking beneath.

Clearly, anyone who thinks that democracy calls for tolerance of opposing views and respect for the right of others to think differently is either mistaken or hopelessly naïve.

* * *

JOURNALISTS have fallen in love with the silly neologism “lockdown”. We are frequently told that a street or school has gone into lockdown because someone has been seen with a gun. Prisons go into lockdown after a disturbance, and New Delhi supposedly went into lockdown recently in a security rehearsal for the Commonwealth Games.

It sounds dramatic, which is why journalists have embraced it, but what does it actually mean? An entire city can’t be shut down, and even in an armed offender alert, police can’t confine everyone in their homes. Only in the prison context is the word accurate in the sense that people are literally locked away – but even then you have to wonder why the traditional term “locked up” has mysteriously reversed into “locked down”.

We are frequently told that English is a living, dynamic language – and so it is. But surely it helps to know what a term actually means before we adopt it so eagerly.