Saturday, October 30, 2010

The bad and good of Islam

Kim Hill this morning had an interesting interview with Tim Winter, a.k.a. Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad, an erudite and articulate English convert to Islam. I didn’t hear the entire interview but his basic thrust seemed to be that Islam is greatly misunderstood in the West – hardly a new line, but quite persuasive when it’s argued as cogently as it was on this occasion. He said moderate, mainstream Islam is far removed from, and undeservedly tainted by, the extreme, militant political expressions of the faith as epitomised by organisations like Al Qaeda.

Taking the Taleban as an example, Winter likened them to tribal village hillbillies with little grasp – and a very warped grasp at that – of orthodox Islamic teaching. He also made the point that most Muslim immigration to Britain, which has become a wellspring of Islamic extremism, was from illiterate Pashtun villages in the more backward regions of Pakistan, where the version of Islam practised is (I’m paraphrasing here) a primitive local perversion of what credible Muslim scholars teach.

The problem is, as he pointed out, that the version of Islam we are confronted with in the media each day is the militant, extreme one that wants to exterminate all infidels. This has distorted our understanding of Islamic teaching and led to the fearful, anti-Islamic sentiment exemplified by opposition to the proposed Muslim cultural centre in downtown New York (not to mention European proposals to ban minarets, which ironically call into question our commitment to freedom of religion).

Even as I’m writing this I can hear people saying, “Yeah, yeah – we’ve heard all this before from apologists for Islamic extremism”. But at the very least, we have to acknowledge that Islam, like Christianity (Judaism too, for that matter), is not monolithic. Just as Christianity encompasses all manner of good and bad followers, from loony right-wing fundamentalists to neo-Marxists (both bad, in my view – the good Christians are somewhere in between), so the expressions of Islam range from the fanatical oppression of the Taleban and grotesque fringe groups like Somalia’s al Shabaab (reported today as having executed two illiterate teenage girls by firing squad for “spying”) to the civil, conciliatory variant personified by Hill’s guest this morning – and by some of the New Zealand Muslims whose reasoned and moderate letters I occasionally see in the papers.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Phew! Thank God for The Hobbit

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 27.)

The government must be grateful that the country was distracted last week by the media frenzy surrounding The Hobbit, because it overshadowed two damage control exercises that might otherwise have received much more aggressive scrutiny.

The first related to (then) Supreme Court judge Bill Wilson, who took the unprecedented step of resigning rather than face a protracted judicial inquiry into alleged misconduct arising from an undisclosed business association with a Queen’s Counsel acting in a case on which he was adjudicating.

Much of the publicity surrounding the resignation of Mr Wilson (as he has now become) focused on his estimated $1 million compensation package. This may have suited the government, the judiciary and perhaps even Mr Wilson himself, since it diverted attention from more serious issues.

Acting Attorney-General Judith Collins spun the payout as “good value” for the taxpayer, saying the costs might have been far higher if the inquiries into Mr Wilson had continued. And it’s true that, from a narrow legal perspective, the government could be said to have got off cheaply, since Mr Wilson’s appointment to the Bench had several years to run.

But what Ms Collins didn’t say, though she may well have thought it, was that paying Mr Wilson off also served the purpose of putting the issue to bed and, therefore, neatly pre-empting an inquiry which might have shown the judiciary in a poor light.

Here was a rare opportunity for some searching public scrutiny of the rarefied world of our top judges, two aspects of which have long been a cause of unease.

The first is the process by which judges are appointed and promoted, which has always been cloaked in mystery. Even senior lawyers profess to have only a vague understanding of how and why appointments are made. Occasional promises of greater transparency have never been fulfilled, and there remains a perception that it’s all done by nods, winks and shoulder-tapping.

Nelson lawyer Sue Grey, who represented the losing party in the Court of Appeal case on which Mr Wilson sat, hinted in a radio interview last week that there were questions to be asked about Mr Wilson’s own rapid rise through the judiciary, which saw him elevated from being a QC to a Supreme Court judge, via the Court of Appeal, in less than a year.

The other, perhaps bigger, issue relates to conflicts of interest. It has been often been said that New Zealand’s judges are selected from a small and exclusive pool. In a society as intimate and inter-connected as ours, personal and business associations are hard to avoid and scrupulous care must be taken to ensure ethical standards are not compromised.

You don’t need to look far for evidence of these connections. Mr Wilson not only shared interests in horse racing with Alan Galbraith, the QC who appeared before him in the Court of Appeal, but both men reportedly had racing connections with Chief Justice Sian Elias and her husband, Hugh Fletcher.

The closeness of the top legal fraternity was further demonstrated by the fact that Attorney-General Chris Finlayson stepped aside from involvement in the Wilson affair because he had worked with Mr Wilson and knew him well.

All of this reinforces, yet again, the folly of relinquishing the right of appeal to the Privy Council in London, where important cases were determined by British judges untainted by any suspicion of conflict of interest arising from friendships or business associations with litigants or their counsel.

Throughout the Wilson case there has been speculation behind the scenes that a public inquiry might bring to light other potentially compromising relationships between judges and lawyers and expose something of an old boys’ club, in which case there may well be relief in legal circles that Mr Wilson has fallen on his sword.

A veil will now be conveniently drawn over the whole affair and normal service will resume, though probably with a keener awareness of the need to declare possible conflicts of interest (not that that should be necessary, since it hardly took a top legal mind to spot an ethical problem in Mr Wilson’s undisclosed association with Mr Galbraith).

Avoiding an inquiry also means Mr Wilson is denied the chance to remove a stain on his reputation, when many of his associates say he has done nothing wrong. All this seems rather unsatisfactory.

Perhaps the most disturbing statement in the affair was Ms Collins’ remark that not ending the matter now would have caused “incalculable damage to confidence in the judiciary”. That carried the implication that whatever came out of the inquiry would have been embarrassing.

Does that mean, then, that we should close our eyes tightly and pretend it didn’t happen? Leaving important ethical issues apparently unresolved could surely have an even more corrosive effect on public trust in the integrity of the courts. It has unfortunate connotations of a cover-up.

The other damage control exercise last week was the decision by police commissioner Howard Broad to merely “review”, rather than re-open or re-investigate, the Crewe murders of 1970. On the face of it, this suggests the police will simply take another look at the same flawed police files that have already led to New Zealand’s most infamous miscarriage of justice.

If Mr Broad thinks this “gesture” (crusading journalist Pat Booth’s term) will finally put to rest 40 years of public doubt and agitation, he’s mistaken.

Two aspects of the Crewe case cry out for justice. The first is that no one was ever called to account for the planting of the bogus evidence that led to Arthur Allan Thomas’s wrongful conviction. The other is that the real killer of Jeannette and Harvey Crewe remains unidentified and has gone unpunished.

This may be the first time I’ve agreed with Peter Williams QC, who acted for Thomas, but Williams is right when he says this is a boil that must be lanced, and he’s also right when he says the job should be done by a distinguished judge from overseas. It cannot be left to the police to investigate themselves, because their record in this capacity inspires no confidence.

My late mother was convinced Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty, because she had implacable faith in the New Zealand police (her brother was an assistant commissioner) and in the fairness and good sense of New Zealand juries. I never argued the point with her, but I believe she was wrong on both counts.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Solomon breaks silence on domestic violence

Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon has given a courageous lead today by urging Maori to confront domestic violence in their whanau. In an interview with Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand, ahead of his keynote address to a conference on family violence, Solomon said: “If we all start speaking out, there will be change.”

This is an encouraging departure from the customary silence of iwi leaders whenever killings and bashings in Maori households make the headlines.

Solomon may have been prodded into action by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, who recently gave tribal leaders lists of abused children from each of their iwi and challenged tribal organisations to pay for their care, rather than expect the state to go on picking up the tab. Or he may have taken his cue from the gutsy Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, the former head of Women’s Refuge, who spoke at the recent inquest into the death of Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie and challenged Maori leaders to “get out of the Koru Lounge” and do more about child abuse within Maoridom.

On the other hand, Solomon may well have been thinking about this issue long before those prompts. Though not among the biggest tribes numerically (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungunu are among those that substantially outnumber it), Ngai Tahu has a reputation as being forward-thinking, economically resourceful and well-organised – and less inclined to blame Pakeha for Maori problems.

Solomon made the point on Ryan’s programme that domestic violence is not exclusively a Maori problem. Of course it’s not. Yet the worst cases, the ones that cause the most public horror and revulsion (Nia Glassie, the Kahui twins, Delcelia Witika, Craig Manukau, Hinewaoriki Karaitiana-Matiaha, James Whakaruru), tend to be.

Solomon is one of the most influential of the new generation of Maori leaders. Let’s hope his speech to today’s Jigsaw conference in Christchurch resounds throughout Maoridom.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Defying the tut-tut culture

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 26.)

WHY DO young men die thinking they can outrun the police? Why do they risk their lives drag racing?

Teenage testosterone provides only part of the answer. Young men have always felt the need to prove themselves, but not with the fatal consequences we commonly see now.

I wonder if it’s because the current generation of young males – the so-called cotton-wool kids – grew up with little concept of risk.

Previous generations of boys climbed trees, explored the countryside on long bike rides, swam in rivers and hunted possums or rabbits. As a boy, I would disappear from home on a Saturday morning, as would many of my friends, and not return until dinnertime.

Often my parents had no idea where I’d been all day. It wasn’t that they were irresponsible or uncaring; far from it. It’s just that like most parents, they give us freedom to roam and accepted that we would sometimes get into mischief. It was called growing up.

Here’s the point: if you went swimming and got caught in a deep hole, if you got stuck up a tree because you’d climbed too high, or if you hitch-hiked somewhere and got picked up by a dodgy driver and wondered whether you’d get out of the car alive, you learned about risks and consequences.

A few sharp whacks with a cane also served as a sharp reminder that there were penalties for overstepping the mark, though I’m not necessarily recommending the re-introduction of corporal punishment in schools.

I know this sounds like a bit of misty-eyed “good old days” nostalgia, but compare that with the generation growing up now.

They play in parks where the ground is padded so they won’t hurt themselves if they fall. (Lesson? There’s no pain penalty, such as a broken arm, for over-reaching yourself.) Rough-and-tumble boys’ play at school is discouraged, if not outlawed, as is tree-climbing. Children are even prohibited by law from having early-morning paper rounds.

Over-protective mothers won’t allow children to make their own way to school for fear they’ll be abducted or molested. Most of their entertainment is of the indoor variety, where the worst that can happen, if they get something wrong, is that they are terminated on a PlayStation screen. And they don’t ride bikes, either because it’s uncool or seen as dangerous.

Children of the current generation grow up with little chance to test themselves and learn their limits. It’s small wonder that, as a consequence, they cut loose as soon as they’re old enough to exercise freedom. Trouble is, they then explore their limitations driving high-performance Subarus and Mazdas, often bought for them by indulgent parents, rather than on push bikes.

They don’t seem programmed to calculate risk. The warning light that should start flashing in their brain when the speedometer needle hits 140 khm has been de-activated. How else can we explain the fact that young men choose the possibility of a violent death in a high-speed crash over the temporary inconvenience of a traffic ticket?

The same explanation may apply to binge-drinking, particularly by teenage girls. Auckland academic Michael Duncan reckons the reason so many young women get plastered is that they come from middle-class homes where they were brought up on a diet of safety.

Raised by obsessively risk-averse parents, they rebel by living dangerously. “Drinking sessions for them are a high-wire act, full of exhilarating fear and unanswered questions,” writes Duncan. Brought up on safety, they hunger for risk.

Now I admit these are just theories. I can’t cite authoritative academic studies to back them. But does anyone else have a better explanation?

* * *

FORTUNATELY there are pockets of stubborn resistance to the prevailing cotton-wool culture. I was thrilled to see a poster in my Masterton doctor’s surgery advertising a “take a kid hunting” competition, sponsored by a rural Wairarapa school.

Intrigued, I checked out the school’s impressive website and learned that the competition is open to everyone down to pre-schoolers, who are invited to shoot rats, mice, magpies, possums, rabbits, hares and turkeys. For older kids the range of eligible game is extended to include wild boars, deer (stags only) and billy goats, or they can enter a “3 bag combo”.

Entrants are required to be accompanied by an adult but must participate in the hunting themselves. Prizes include an overnight guided pig hunt. Marvellous!

This is a magnificent gesture of defiance against the po-faced, pursed-lip, tut-tut culture of preciousness that threatens to swamp us all. It shows that the traditional spirit of rural New Zealand is alive and well. I amused myself for hours imagining the reaction if the “take a kid hunting” poster had appeared on the wall of a school in Wadestown, Kelburn or Island Bay.

You’re probably curious to know the name of the school but I’m not telling, because I know there would be a convoy of protest vehicles winding over the Rimutakas before you could say Barry Crump.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I'll buy you a beer, Raybon

It’s interesting the way the neo-wowser lobby sets out to discredit its opponents by insinuation. Wellington alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking, in a recent letter to The Listener, suggested that as someone who occasionally writes about wine, I have a vested interest in promoting alcohol. In a subsequent letter, someone else who objected to my recent Listener article questioning the current wave of anti-alcohol hysteria described me as an alcohol industry apologist. And I see in the latest issue that Professor Doug Sellman, taking a second shot at me after already having had a substantial letter published, comments that it’s big of me to “admit” my vested interest in trying to downplay the extent of New Zealand’s alcohol problem. This was in reference to a brief letter I had written in response to Brooking, in which I acknowledged that I occasionally write about wine (there’s hardly any point in denying it) and added that the amount of money I made from it was extremely modest by anyone’s standards – a statement The Listener was kind enough to reiterate in a footnote to Sellman’s letter.

In fact I’d go further than that and say the money I make from writing about wine, or commenting on it, is risible. The only thing that prevents me from disclosing the amount is embarrassment at how little I am prepared to accept in return for my efforts. It’s sufficient to say that it makes up an inconsequential portion of my income, which itself isn’t exactly stratospheric. And I can say with absolute certainty that I earn a lot less defending the right of New Zealanders to drink responsibly than Professor Sellman makes trying to panic politicians into interfering with our freedom of choice. (And what’s more, unlike Professor Sellman, the money I earn doesn’t come from my fellow taxpayers.)

But that’s not the point. What’s significant is that the neo-wowsers are so desperate that they will seize whatever red herring or innuendo they can find to smear their opponents, while simultaneously avoiding substantive discussion of issues on which their arguments are weak.

They don’t seem interested, for instance, in discussing the inconvenient fact that per capita consumption of alcohol in New Zealand is below the OECD average, and well below the figures for many Western European countries. They pretend not to hear when it’s pointed out that in recent drink-driving blitzes, the number of drivers over the legal limit was about 0.6 percent, which rather undermines their claims that drunks are causing mayhem on the highways. And they are conspicuously short of hard evidence to support their shrill insistence that reducing the legal blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05 will make a dramatic difference to road deaths, most of which are caused – if alcohol is involved at all – by drivers who are way above the 0.08 level.

No, they would rather smear their opponents as having “vested interests” – because they make a bit of pocket money on the side writing about wine – or being alcohol industry “apologists”, because they insist that most New Zealanders are moderate drinkers who are perfectly capable of making sensible decisions about their liquor consumption. Perhaps, in their simplistic, moralistic way of looking at the world, the only way the neo-wowsers can make sense of anyone who opposes them is to assume ulterior motives.

It gets tedious having to repeat this, but not only am I not an alcohol industry apologist; I actually share some of the neo-wowsers’ concerns about the way alcohol is promoted and sold. It is probably the only point on which we are on common ground, at least to some extent. I have several times criticised the way some liquor industry interests deliberately promote and exploit the moronic cult of the pisshead, which I probably find as distasteful as the Sellmanites do. But at its core, this debate is not about the behaviour of the people who make and sell alcohol; it’s about the freedom of responsible individuals to make their own decisions. Strident propaganda about wicked booze barons is a sideshow; a way of manipulating the emotions of the impressionable.

Having got that out of the way, let’s turn to the Herald on Sunday's absurd “Two Drinks Max” campaign, launched last Sunday. On one level, it’s hard to argue with. If people want to restrict themselves to two drinks, who could possibly object? It’s a worthy goal.

But what makes the Herald on Sunday campaign ridiculous, to the point of almost negating all its credibility, is the barrage of simplistic, alarmist and emotive propaganda that accompanies it. Like other media outlets, the APN tabloid appears to have unquestioningly swallowed the lurid, shock-horror claims of the neo-wowsers. Either that, or it’s a cynical marketing exercise by a paper eager to win readers with a shallow, populist crusade.

As proof of its serious intent, the Herald on Sunday presented us with the carefully considered opinions of several recognised authorities on the liquor question. They included actresses, models, fashion designers, TV presenters, radio hosts and a celebrity real estate agent. As an example of their compelling arguments, here are some excerpts:

[Herald on Sunday to model Nicky Watson] Why do you support lowering the limit?

Because it is clear that we need to there are still so many accidents on the road and from my own personal experience if I had two glasses of wine I wouldn’t drive. [This is exactly as Watson’s statement appears on the paper’s website.]

[Herald on Sunday to real estate agent Michael Boulgaris] Have you had personal experience of drink driving accidents?

No but I do have a drink drive conviction, that is why I am so passionate about what you are trying to do.

What was that like?

It was a nightmare. It was very embarrassing. When you go overseas and they ask do you have a criminal record you don't know what to say. When you go to renew your insurance, your premium goes up. People have to realise the consequences. It's just frowned upon.

[Herald on Sunday to Colin Mathura-Jeffree] Do you support lowering the drink/drive limit to 50 mg – already in place in many countries and recommended by NZ police, MoT and Alcohol Healthwatch?

Yes, it’s about safety. We need to look after each other. People who use the roads are at risk from drink drivers every time they get into their car or onto their bike or even when they use the footpaths.

Come on New Zealand, safety first. Don't drink and drive, just don’t do it.

Have you or your friends or family been involved in a drink driving crash or been a victim of one?

Yes a friend of mine was the drink-driver in a crash. No-one was hurt but it’s too easy to end up hurting someone else. Regret and hindsight are the saddest things.
We need to sort it out. It doesn’t have to happen in the first place.

[Herald on Sunday to New Zealand’s Next Top Model host Sara Tetro] Will you pledge your name to the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign?


Why do you think it's important to get behind the campaign?

Anything that's going to keep every member of society safe on the road has got to be a good thing. This is one of many things that needs to happen. Anything that might work is worth a try.

Well, I ask you: how much more proof do you need? I’m convinced. Where do I sign up?

Seriously, there’s much more in this vein, and even worse. You can read it here:

I was delighted to see that my old colleague Raybon Kan, approached by the HoS to register his dismay and horror at the mayhem wreaked by alcohol, slipped in a subversive contribution that no one at the paper seemed to recognise as a bit of a pisstake. It included the following:

Do you support lowering the drink/drive limit to 50 mg – already in place in many countries and recommended by MoT, ALAC and Alcohol Healthwatch? Why?

For what it’s worth, I agree with lowering the limit. I think “Two drinks max” is good too – a rule of thumb should be catchy. It ought to be easy for drunk people to recite. In fact, make it a jingle. Drunk people enjoy little songs. But I can't help thinking someone drunk might just say, “Stop calling me Max”.

Will you pledge your name to the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign?

Yes. Are the drinks free with the newspaper?

Go Raybon. I’ll buy you a beer next time I see you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beautiful all right, but who goes there?

Is there any place on earth where people won’t find a reason to oppose wind turbines?

The Environment Court was told this week that Contact Energy’s proposal to build more than 50 turbines in the Puketoi Range, in the northern Wairarapa, would interfere with a lush, pastoral landscape that was “frozen in time” and epitomised the scenes that sell New Zealand tourism to the world.

I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. The Puketoi Range is quite dramatic – high, wild and lovely.

But here’s the point. How many people know the Puketoi Range even exists, let alone how to find it? Tucked away in the rugged backblocks east of Woodville and Pahiatua, it must be one of the most sparsely populated places in the North Island. It’s beautiful all right, but few people go there.

(You can get a feel for the landscape by taking the road from Pahiatua to Pongaroa. It’s well worth the drive and you won’t be hassled by traffic. The road passes through Makuri, a charming little settlement nestled in a pretty valley that gives the feeling of being cut off from the outside world.)

If we must have wind turbines (and I gather there’s still a vigorous debate going on about the economics of wind generation), then I would have thought an out-of-the-way place like the Puketoi Range was a pretty good place to put them, provided the locals don’t object.

But then I thought the remote hills above Makara, west of Wellington, were the ideal site for a wind farm too, and look at the hysteria they created there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

So this is what scientific scepticism looks like

How appropriate that when Kim Hill took a day off, Radio New Zealand should rope in Finlay Macdonald to fill the gap on her Saturday morning show. It obviously wouldn’t do to startle Kim’s listeners, who I would guess are generally of a soft-left political persuasion, by bringing in a host who might challenge their world view.

And how appropriate too that one of Macdonald’s interviews should be with Australian climate change alarmist Tim Flannery, who promotes the apocalyptic view that the world is going to hell in a handcart and unless we urgently change our profligate ways – and by this he means within the next couple of years – we’ll all be toast.

“The science is dire,” Flannery pronounced. “We need to act now.” Just as we did, presumably, with acid rain, world starvation, nuclear war, over-population and all the other threats that were supposed to wipe us out during my lifetime.

When someone like Macdonald stands in for Hill, you just know you’re not going to hear an interview with a climate change sceptic (a word I use in preference to “deniers”, the loaded term the alarmists use to denigrate their opponents). This would go against the grain. And in the highly unlikely event that a sceptic was invited onto the show, you can be sure the questions would be a lot tougher than the ones put to Flannery.

Here was a reminder of what Radio New Zealand used to be like across the board: left-leaning hosts asking left-leaning guests soft questions, in the comfortable assurance that like-minded listeners would all be nodding their heads in agreement. How cosy and self-reinforcing it all was.

Thankfully RNZ seems to have tried hard in recent years to shed its image as a platform for left-wing views. Both Morning Report and Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon strive to be neutral and balanced (I can’t speak for Checkpoint because I never hear it, Mary Wilson’s graceless interviewing style having driven me away years ago). On Jim Mora’s afternoon panel discussions you hear a range of views that would have been inconceivable when RNZ was a citadel of the left.

Left-wing views that used to irritate the hell out of me on RNZ no longer bother me because although we still hear plenty of them, they are mostly balanced by other opinions that reflect the political diversity of the New Zealanders who own and fund Radio New Zealand. I don’t mind listening to left-wing ideologues as long they don’t have the state broadcasting apparatus to themselves; in fact I welcome it, since there are few things more boring – or dangerous – than hearing only views that echo your own.

But pockets of the traditional bias remain in RNZ. No one will ever die wondering what Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw’s politics are, and there’s rarely anything on Hill’s programme that challenges leftist orthodoxy.

That Macdonald agreed with Flannery was implicit in his line of questioning. It was taken as a given that climate change is a real and immediate threat. When sceptics were mentioned, it was in a dismissive and incredulous tone. Since it seemed to be assumed that the audience shared this stance, there was clearly no need to waste their time or disturb their certainty by questioning the dubious science and dodgy statistics underlying much of the climate change hysteria.

In fact Flannery assured listeners that “all scientists are sceptics”, as if to say he and his fellow believers wouldn’t be pushing climate change theories unless they were certain that the science was rock-solid. So I had to smile when, only moments later, he earnestly expounded what many scientists would dismiss as a downright loony theory – a variation of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – in which he predicted that earth in the near future (sometime this century, in fact) would function as one whole organism, with a brain, self-consciousness and a nervous system.

Speaking as if Gaia already existed, Flannery theorised that this super-being was approaching puberty and in time might even reproduce. He added that it also needed to form a brain, but the internet and mobile phones might enable that to happen (exactly how wasn't explained). Only squabbling nationalistic governments, he suggested, were preventing the flowering of “global consciousness and unity”.

Whoa – what was that again? This didn’t exactly sound consistent with the hard-boiled scientific scepticism Flannery had been talking about a couple of minutes earlier. Even Macdonald seemed slightly taken aback and suggested Flannery was getting into the realm of science fiction. But if it occurred to Macdonald that this excursion into the outer reaches of New Age fantasy raised doubts about his guest’s credibility, he didn’t show it. And why would he, since the whole interview would have been negated if Flannery had been exposed as a complete flake. Better to move on and pretend it hadn’t happened.

Interestingly, Flannery revealed that he had been brought up Catholic. Though no longer practising, he gave the impression this background had left a lasting imprint. This led me to think about the number of Catholics who have renounced the faith but then embraced quasi-religious ideologies with an almost evangelistic fervour. Some of the staunchest socialists I know are ex-Catholics, which leads me to suspect that people brought up in a strong belief system, which they have later rejected, feel the need to find something to take its place. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Technology has caught up with Kitt

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 13.)

Back in the 1980s my children were fond of a TV programme called Knight Rider.

No doubt you’ll remember it. The star of the show, supposedly, was David Hasselhoff, but what really fascinated young viewers was his car, a tricked-up 1982 Pontiac Firebird called Kitt.

Kitt was essentially a super-computer on wheels, able to drive itself and equipped with special features such as a turbo-boost that enabled the car to leap over obstacles. It could even withstand explosive blasts and small arms fire.

When he was in a tight spot, Michael Knight, the crime-fighter played by Hasselhoff, could summon Kitt much as cowboy heroes in previous generations whistled up their faithful horses. Kitt could even talk, using a voice synthesiser.

Watching Knight Rider with my kids all those years ago, I never imagined how quickly real-world technology would catch up with Hollywood fantasy – but it seems car manufacturers are starting to produce models that come creepily close to emulating Kitt.

I recently read, for example, that it’s theoretically possible to drive the latest top-of-the-range Audi A8 through the centre of a busy city without having to do much more than steer it.

Like Kitt, the new flagship Audi can “see”. It has front-mounted radar sensors that scan the road ahead and ensure the car remains a safe distance from the vehicle in front. If the vehicle in front stops, the Audi’s “stop and go” mechanism will bring the car to a halt with about four metres to spare. The driver doesn’t have to do a thing.

If the stop is only brief the Audi will move off again, without any prompting, once the car in front has proceeded. Spooky.

But wait, there’s more. The car has a night vision function that uses a thermal imaging camera to detect people on the road in front – very handy if any yokels are staggering home from the pub after closing time – and will highlight the person in red and sound a warning if anyone strays into the car’s firing line.

I couldn’t help thinking this would be a useful device in the Australian Outback, where night-time collisions with kangaroos are a constant hazard. (Once, travelling on an overnight bus from Adelaide to Alice Springs, I discovered when we stopped briefly in the opal mining settlement of Coober Pedy that a big grey ’roo had been collected along the way and was wedged, well and truly dead, under the front bumper. I assumed the unfortunate animal would be removed before we continued on our way, but no; it remained there, scraping along the highway all the way to Alice, 700 km further on.)

But I digress; back to the Audi.

There’s a touch-sensitive control pad on the car’s central console on which the driver can enter a phone number or destination simply by tracing the letters or numbers with a finger. The car will do the rest, dialling the number or automatically entering the destination into the GPS system and letting satellite navigation take over.

If the car anticipates a frontal collision, it closes the windows and sunroof, activates the hazard warning lights, tensions the seatbelts and slams on the brakes – all in roughly half a second. Kitt would be impressed and possibly even envious, given that he had quite a sensitive ego.

All this comes at a price, of course. The Audi A8 will set you back $240,000. But if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of decades, it’s that technological innovation starts out being affordable only to the most wealthy but soon becomes commonplace. Early adopters have learned this to their cost.

Just consider the automotive features, now taken for granted, that were once considered to be at the very cutting-edge of technology.

It seems extraordinary now, but 50 years ago it was possible to buy a new car that had neither a heater nor a radio. One of the reasons Japanese car makers made such inroads into the New Zealand market in the 1960s and 70s was that they incorporated, as standard equipment, features that complacent British and Australian manufacturers (which enjoyed market dominance only because preferential tariffs made them cheaper than the competition) treated as luxury extras.

Reversing lights and power steering were virtually unheard of then. You needed the forearms of Sylvester Stallone to wrestle the heavy tanks of the time around corners or into parking spaces.

Automatic transmissions were still a novelty too. Most cars had clunky three-speed manual transmissions with gear levers mounted on the steering column. In about 1961, when the father of a boy in my harriers’ club got a brand-new automatic EK Holden, the first Holden to boast such a feature, we all wanted to be his friend so we could ride in this wondrous machine to our Saturday races.

Safety features were not a priority then. Primitive seat belts started to appear only in the 1960s, radial tyres didn’t replace cross-plies until the 1970s and disc brakes didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s.

The thought that in the future we would be able to lock and unlock cars by remote control, or that cars would have computerised electronic stability control systems and parking sensors that beep when you get too close to the vehicle behind, would have seemed the stuff of pure fantasy. Heck, I even remember getting excited when I acquired my first car with an intermittent windscreen wiper function and a knob for dimming the dashboard lights (it was a Fiat – Australian and British cars didn’t boast such features until years later.)

Car radios didn’t become standard items until the late 1960s, but the car I drive now has a six-CD stereo that I can operate without taking my hands off the steering wheel. What’s more, the volume automatically adjusts depending on how fast I’m going. How smart is that?

My car has features I’ve never used, despite having owned it for nearly three years. Cruise control, for example. Frankly, I could never see the point of it. And I’m yet to be convinced of the merits of keyless locking, which still regularly confounds me.

Next month, on a trip to Australia, I’m going to use a satellite navigation system for the first time. I don’t think I'll need it, having found my way around Australia without such aids in the past, but my brother lent me his TomTom and assures me it’s the way to go, so I’ll give it a try. I'm no tech-head, but I'm still curious.

However I won’t be able to avoid thinking about the Aussie couple who arrived in Christchurch in the middle of the night a few years ago, tried to find their way to Nelson using their rental car’s sat nav and ended up stranded on the Rainbow Road, a four-wheel drive route through the remote Spenser Mountains. They were found the next day and guided to safety by a shepherd.

No doubt the $240,000 Audi comes equipped with a foldout motel unit, complete with queen-sized bed, spa pool and espresso machine, in the event of such emergencies.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Is modesty at risk of extinction?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 12.)

MODESTY is a word rarely heard these days. If it’s mentioned at all, it’s usually in the context of someone’s achievements. We might say, for example, that Ed Hillary was noted for his modesty – in other words, that he wasn’t encumbered by a big ego.

But there are other shades of meaning to the word “modesty”. My dictionary offers the definition “decorous in manner and conduct” or, alternatively, “moderate or restrained”.

These definitions convey a range of nuanced meanings that imply a way of behaving that is dignified and protective of one’s privacy. Modest people don’t draw attention to themselves or volunteer information about their personal life that is no one else’s business. In essence, modesty can be seen as a form of self-respect.

It is in this sense that the word risks becoming extinct, because the old-fashioned concept of modesty collides head-on with the public’s desire to be entertained by revelations about aspects of people’s lives that were once thought better kept to oneself.

We are encouraged to lay bare the most intimate details of our private lives. Popular culture demands it, whether it’s a Hollywood star talking on Oprah about a drug problem, a grossly obese person taking part in a humiliating TV documentary or a former All Black making a grovelling public apology for a sexual indiscretion.

The latest manifestations of modesty’s decline are Facebook – aptly described by a British commentator as the invasion of one’s own privacy – and Twitter, which encourages its followers to broadcast their every thought and action, no matter how banal or personal, to whatever tragic souls might be interested.

In a world where legislators busy themselves devising new privacy laws, it has paradoxically become the fashion to keep nothing secret. We live in a confessional culture in which nothing is concealed, no matter how shameful or degrading.

In the Catholic Church, confession of one’s sins – in private – is followed by repentance and absolution. But in modern, secular society, confession is absolution, provided it’s done in public. As long as the sinner entertains a voyeuristic audience with a full and frank admission of guilt (the more detailed the better), the reward is forgiveness.

The problem is that once modesty has gone, the concept of shame will soon follow. And shame is – or used to be – one of our most effective checks on bad behaviour.

* * *

THERE are people who regard Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, formerly chief executive of Women’s Refuge, as a flake. But Ms Raukawa-Tait was right on the nail recently when she called on Maori leaders to “get out of the Koru Lounge” – what an apt phrase – and do more about child abuse within Maoridom.

Her comment, at an inquest into the violent death of Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie, echoed Social Development Minister Paula Bennett’s blunt message two months ago when she confronted tribal leaders with lists of abused children from each of their iwi and suggested that tribes pay for their care rather than expect the state to continue doing it.

At last, it seems people are starting to put pressure on Maoridom’s elite to take some responsibility for the shamefully high incidence of abuse and violence in Maori families. For too long this issue has been the taniwha in the whare – a baleful presence that the iwi powerbrokers apparently prefer to ignore. They would rather spend their time reminding Pakeha of their record as colonial oppressors and demanding redress for the many historical ills and humiliations, real or imagined, that Maori have suffered.

This is far more rewarding than grappling with the ugly reality of Maori violence (and a lot easier too, given the eagerness of guilt-ridden white politicians to humour their demands).

How much money from the Treaty settlements, I wonder, filters down to grassroots Maori organisations struggling to deal with the epidemic of family abuse? Or do Koru Club membership fees take priority?

I eagerly await the day when Waatea News, the Maori news bulletin on Radio New Zealand, carries as many statements by Maori leaders deploring Maori family violence as it does news items about Treaty grievances. But I’m not holding my breath.

* * *

ONE largely overlooked aspect of the continuing controversy over The Hobbit is that by the time it finally gets made, this film is going to be weighed down by a huge burden of expectation. Even by Hollywood standards, few movies in history have received as much publicity before the first scene was shot.

Endless uncertainty about funding, feverish speculation over casting, the resignation of the exasperated director and the furore over actors’ contracts mean the project has escalated from what should have been a relatively modest undertaking to a magnum opus that the whole world is watching every step of the way.

Will it live up to the attention? The pressure on Peter Jackson to deliver, after all this controversy, must be immense. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

Footnote: In the same week this column was published, talkback host and former Wanganui mayor Michael Laws' estranged partner Leonie Brookhammer was revealing (in Woman's Day) explicit details about the breakup of their relationship - details that must be painful and humiliating to both of them. I felt like a voyeur reading excerpts in The New Zealand Herald. While it's gratifying to have my comments about modesty and privacy (or more precisely, the fashionable willingness to relinquish it) confirmed so promptly, I can't think who - other than Woman's Day shareholders - benefits from this sort of exposure.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Two degrees of separation

One of the difficulties in being a journalist in a small and intimate society such as New Zealand is that you’re likely to know many of the people you write about.

This can create all manner of complications. Put the boot into someone in a newspaper column and you could well bump into them in the street the next day, or worse still, find yourself sitting opposite them at a dinner party.

I once wrote a column that attacked the then prime minister, Jim Bolger – I called him the India rubber man of politics – and the very night it was published, I found myself almost literally rubbing shoulders with the Great Helmsman and his wife, Joan, at the prizegiving night at the college where our sons were pupils.

I’m sure this sort of thing can happen in London or New York too, but the odds are much greater here.

More discomforting for me, though, is when you write something critical about someone you not only know, but like.

Take my recent blog post about the teachers’ unions (see below). I’ve known Kate Gainsford, the PPTA president, since I worked in Nelson in the 1980s. Her husband Brent Edwards, Radio New Zealand’s political editor, was a friend and colleague of mine on the Nelson Evening Mail and later on the Evening Post in Wellington.

I haven’t seen Kate for years but always found her very likeable, with an attractive personality and a great sense of fun. From the PPTA’s standpoint she seems an extremely effective president: personable, articulate and well-spoken. A sharper contrast with Martin Cooney, the obnoxious bovver-boy who led the PPTA in a previous era, is hard to imagine.

If I bumped into Kate in the street tomorrow or found myself sitting opposite her at a dinner party, I’d like to think we could still enjoy each other’s company. I refuse to dislike people just because I disagree with their politics or the policies of the organisation they represent. As I once wrote in a column inspired by an election-day dust-up between a couple of old friends, the people I mix with occupy every conceivable point on the political spectrum. If I had to choose my friends on the basis of political compatibility, I’d have a very narrow circle of acquaintances.

In any case, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, life in a tiny country like ours would just be too damned difficult if we insisted on carrying our political convictions into every aspect of our personal lives. Life could get quite unpleasant if political adversaries couldn’t behave civilly in places where they can’t avoid help bumping into each other (such as the Koru Club).

Fortunately it’s a feature of life in Enzed that most people seem to rise above whatever political differences they might have, or at least quarantine them in the interests of harmonious personal relationships. (It was interesting, for example, that Matt McCarten said some of the warmest messages of support when he recently announced he had an aggressive form of cancer came from his opponents on the Right.)

Paradoxically, the bitterest antagonisms seem to exist between people who are nominally on the same side. Witness the recent turmoil within ACT, or the endless ideological squabbles that destroyed the Far Left in New Zealand. I’m sure there’s an explanation for this, but I haven’t yet figured it out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Women's Refuge ad faulted

It’s pleasing to see that the Advertising Standards Complaints Board has upheld a complaint against a Women’s Refuge advertisement referred to in this blog several months ago.

The visually striking ad, by Saatchi and Saatchi, appeared on the back page of Your Weekend, the colour magazine that came with the Saturday edition of The Dominion Post, The Press and The Waikato Times. The complaint concerned the caption, which read: “1 in 3 women need your help. Because living in fear, isn’t living.”

What caught my attention, as I said in my blog, was the suggestion that one in three New Zealand women live in fear, which struck me as an improbable figure. When I emailed Women’s Refuge asking for the source of this claim, I got a reply citing a survey in which between 33 and 39 percent of women questioned in Auckland and the Waikato were found to have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their partners in their lifetime (my italics).

I objected to the ad because it implied that one in three New Zealand women live in constant fear of assault from a male. But that’s not what the survey said. It stated that one in three women had at some time in their lives experienced an act of violence – a disturbing statistic, but a very different thing from saying that at any given time, one in three women are in a state of fear.

Someone named K Maclaren (presumably from the Waikato, because the complaint referred to the Waikato Times) also took exception to the ad and complained to the ASCB, saying there was no credible evidence for the "live in fear" claim. A majority of the board concurred, saying they were concerned that “a study restricted to women living in Waikato and Auckland was used as the basis for national statistics.

More to the point, the board continued: "Similarly the finding, which was based on an episode of physical or sexual violence during ‘a lifetime’, became the basis for “fear”, in the current sense. In the majority view, it was inappropriate to extrapolate the claim “1 in 3 women … are living in fear…” from this research. [The majority] also made the point that a strong claim specifically used to encourage donations from the public, in turn, required robust research to substantiate it. In the majority view, this had not been provided. Therefore it concluded that in this context, the claim was exaggerated and in breach Rule 2 [of the advertising code]. The majority was also of the view that as the advertiser had failed to adequately substantiate the claim, the advertisement could not be said to have been prepared with the requisite level of social responsibility to consumers and society, therefore it also breached Basic Principle 4 of the [advertising] Code.”

The board - correctly, in my opinion - rejected an additional complaint that the ad discriminated against men (which possibly tells you something about the complainant). But what I find a bit worrying is that a minority of board members thought the ad was fair enough. According to the decision, they felt that “in the context of advocacy advertising, the advertiser had the right to use provocative, robust opinion and given the nature and context of the claim, the right to extrapolate the statistics from the research. Therefore in the minority view, the advertisement was not in breach of any aspect of the Advertising Codes of Practice.”

Frankly I can’t see how anyone could come to any conclusion other than that the ad was dishonest and misleading. As I said in my original post, Women’s Refuge does admirable work but does itself no favours by soliciting public support using dodgy figures.

A gratuitous intervention

If anyone was to compile a list of the enemies of free speech in New Zealand, the name of Joris de Bres would have to be on it. The Race Relations Commissioner was in full cry again today, demanding that TVNZ do something about Paul Henry for his silly comments about the Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand.

I’m neither a cheerleader for Henry nor one of those people who splutter with indignation every time he offends someone. I do think that on this occasion he made an oaf of himself, and he probably realises it himself. It’s not just a matter of whether Henry's question to John Key about whether Satyanand was a real New Zealander had a racist undertone (which it did). Almost as shameful was the fact that it was downright ignorant and unprofessional, since a broadcaster of Henry’s standing could surely have been expected to know – or made an effort to find out – that Satyanand has as much claim as anyone to call himself a New Zealander.

But we don’t need a state commissar like de Bres to point all this out. People are perfectly capable of coming to their own conclusions about Henry’s behaviour without guidance from left-leaning government functionaries as to the proper exercise of free speech.

As de Bres himself pointed out more than once when interviewed on Morning Report, anyone offended by Henry’s line of questioning can seek a remedy through the broadcasting complaints procedure (as they appear to be doing). So why does de Bres need to butt in? His intervention struck me as completely gratuitous.

His justification was pretty wobbly too. In an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to free speech, de Bres argued that it wasn’t a question of whether Henry should be allowed to say what he said, but rather whether his employer should condone it. Hmmm … that seems a pretty fine distinction. One way of interpreting it is that de Bres regards Henry as beyond redemption, but sees TVNZ – as a state broadcaster – as politically more open to correction.

I was also intrigued by his comment that one of the Breakfast programme’s major advertisers is Heritage Hotels, which he pointed out has a lot of Indian employees who have reason to feel aggrieved by Henry’s remarks. The clear implication was that the hotel company might consider withdrawing its advertising. I wonder, is it the function of the Race Relations Commissioner to raise the idea of an advertising boycott as a way of exerting pressure on a rogue television host? I wouldn’t have thought so – but it wouldn’t be the first time de Bres has overstepped the mark.

Friday, October 1, 2010

It's time to call the teachers' bluff

History tells us that when a government takes on a trade union, there can be only one outcome. In 1912, William Massey’s government famously crushed a strike by Waihi gold miners. The following year, the same administration recruited special mounted constables from rural areas – dubbed “Massey’s Cossacks” because of their riding skills – to subdue striking waterfront workers.

In 1951 Sid Holland’s National Party government broke the power of the watersiders and their allied left-wing unions in a dispute that lasted 151 days and left a legacy of bitterness that lingered for decades. Twenty years later, another National government deregistered the Seamen’s Union, thereby ending years of damaging guerrilla-style industrial action promoted by a militant union faction known as the Red Guard. (I remember it well, because as a young industrial reporter I was with the union president, the late Bill “Pincher” Martin, when the news came through that his union no longer legally existed.)

Perhaps the most striking instance of a government challenging union power, at least in modern times, was Margaret Thatcher’s epic confrontation with British coal miners in the mid-1980s. Thatcher’s victory over the miners effectively broke the back of militant unionism in Britain after decades of economically ruinous strikes.

In all the above cases, government action came only after years of union provocation and misguided appeasement by timid politicians, which union militants invariably (and correctly) interpreted as weakness. The short-term results, when the politicians finally acted, were not always pretty, but the public generally regarded the inevitable unpleasantness as an acceptable price to pay for the curbing of union power.

It’s tempting to romanticise the vanquished trade unionists as working-class heroes, but in reality many (like the British miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and the charismatic Jock Barnes, who led the New Zealand wharfies in 1951) were hotheads and egotists, driven by a potent combination of power, vanity and ideology, blind to any considerations other than the interests of their own organisations, and ultimately prepared to see even their own followers destroyed rather than surrender.

From a 2010 perspective, these clashes between governments and unions seem little more than historical curiosities. But are they? The days when powerful blue-collar unions – miners, watersiders, seamen, freezing workers – could bring the economy to a standstill are long gone, reflecting the economic transformation of the past three decades. In some cases the unions were complicit in their own fate, hastening the demise of their industries either by bloody-minded militancy (as in the case of the Boilermakers’ Union, whose industrial blackmail techniques ensured an end to construction projects that depended on them) or by their stubborn refusal to abandon old ways.

But all that has happened is that the centre of union power has shifted. The unions with the greatest strength now – and the ones most prepared to use it – are those representing white-collar occupations and professions, mostly employed by the state.

All of which brings us to the two teachers’ unions, the NZEI and the PPTA, both of which just happen to be locked in disputes with the government right now: the NZEI over national standards and the PPTA over salary and conditions claims.

There is something depressingly familiar about all this. As the power of the old blue-collar unions has faded, so the militancy of the teacher unions has increased. It has become almost a cliché to describe them as the boilermakers and freezing workers of the new millennium. In fact I see from my files that as long ago as 1995, I wrote an editorial about the PPTA headlined Militants of the nineties.

In that Evening Post editorial I wrote: “As employees of the system, teachers have every right to be consulted on changes. They are entitled within reason to oppose moves which they believe are not in the best interests of pupils, and when all else fails they have the same legal right as any other group of employees to take industrial action. But they misuse their strength – and test the country’s patience – when they consistently use their organisational muscle to frustrate, defy and stonewall the legitimate policies of an elected government.”

I also wrote that teachers had misled themselves into believing that they were the sole guardians and arbiters of all that was correct in education. “They have deluded themselves into thinking, in effect, that they have proprietorial rights over the education system when in fact they are merely its servants.”

I know what you’re thinking. That was 15 years ago, and nothing has changed – except that the teachers seem more convinced than ever that they control education and that it’s the government’s function to comply with their agenda, rather than vice-versa.

You can hardly blame them for being bolshie, because clearly it works. The teachers generally get what they want. They have learned that if they dig their toes in, governments will back down – as we saw when PPTA members, by the simple expedient of bullying and intimidating school boards of trustees, thwarted the Bolger government’s attempts to experiment with bulk funding (which was what that 1995 editorial was about).

Right now the secondary teachers are threatening to strike if they don’t get the 4 percent salary increase they’re demanding (on top of the 4 percent they got last year, and the 4 percent the year before that – surely you don’t expect teachers to accept the restraints that other public servants have to live with?). And it seems, judging by a TV3 News report this week, that some PPTA members are not above misusing their influence and authority in the classroom by getting pupils to write letters to the Ministry of Education supporting their claims. TV3 reported that the letters were on PPTA-branded stationery and all appeared to have been written from the same template. The suspicion was that it had been done in class time. Disgraceful? Yes. Unprofessional? Yes. Par for the course? Afraid so.

Meanwhile, at the NZEI’s annual conference, primary teachers subjected Education Minister Anne Tolley to a protest that even their pupils would have considered embarrassingly puerile. Tolley’s speech was heard in stony silence – not even a token round of perfunctory applause when she finished – and every time she mentioned “national standards”, the mute delegates all held up protest placards. Outside afterwards, Tolley was heckled and harassed. Discourteous? Yes. Disrespectful? Yes. Childish? Yes. An appalling example? Yes. Par for the course? Most assuredly.

The question is, how much longer will New Zealanders have to tolerate these antics? How many more ministers of education – representatives of a government that the people of New Zealand elected – will be subjected to this sort of humiliating treatment? When will a New Zealand government decide it has had enough petulance, disruption and wilful defiance from the teachers and take them on, just as Thatcher did with the miners?

It’s not enough for the minister to protest lamely that unionised teachers are behaving unprofessionally or inappropriately. She’s supposed to be in charge. Problem is, she looks isolated; there’s very little evidence of support from other senior figures in the government.

On national standards, it’s time for the government to start getting more assertive. It’s not for teachers to decide whether national standards work. That’s a decision to be made at future elections by the people of New Zealand, who pay the teachers’ salaries and expect them to respect the democratic process. This means accepting the government's right to introduce new and perhaps distasteful policies, just as all other public servants do.

The NZEI has made its objections clear and that should be an end to it. But as long as National appears less than resolute, the NZEI will use every opportunity to sabotage national standards. The teachers will have been greatly encouraged by the fact that Tolley appears to have been left to fight the battle alone, creating the impression (perhaps falsely) that the government has little stomach for a fight. If John Key and his senior ministers are seriously committed to education reform, they should show it.

As for the PPTA, there has been talk this week of lockouts. This talk came from the PPTA rather than the government and looked like a calculated ratcheting-up of the tension – almost a dare. Well, National should call the union’s bluff. Governments have pussy-footed around on education for too long and the teacher unions just keep getting more cocky and obstructive. The government, having been given a mandate to govern (and still enjoying strong support in the polls), would have moral authority on its side.

It would be interesting to see how tough the teachers are when the other side goes on the offensive. A full-on confrontation would be messy but there is no doubt who would win, provided the government had the balls to see it through. And if previous government-union showdowns are any guide, a resounding defeat for the PPTA would leave the union weakened and demoralised, clearing the decks for a slew of potentially beneficial education reforms that have previously been put in the too-hard basket for fear of teacher resistance.

A few that come to mind are education vouchers, which would enable parents to “buy” their children’s education at the school of their choice; performance-based pay, which would reward and incentivise good teachers and strip away the protection enjoyed by non-performers; bulk funding, which would shift power from the central bureaucracy to school boards; and an end to the perverse Labour-imposed system of zoning, which locks the poor into mediocre schools and creates exclusive zones of privilege (as reflected in stratospheric real estate prices) around sought-after ones.

None of these proposals are radical. They seem that way only because the teacher unions have opposed them so vehemently, knowing that the national union structure – the source of their power and control – would probably start to unravel if they were adopted.

Is this an anti-teacher rant? No. I have known many teachers – both my own and those of my four children – for whom I had great respect and admiration. Good, hard-working teachers deserve far more honour and recognition than they get under the present structure, which supports and protects poor performers under the guise of “collegiality”.

Is it an anti-union rant, then? No. I believe strongly in unions and have held office in one myself. What I object to is the abuse of union power. The teacher unions exert far more control over the education system than is healthy or democratic. They do it only because they have been able to bully successive governments into letting them. But the time has come for the education of our children (and grandchildren, in my case) to be liberated from their grasp.

In defence of talkback radio

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 29.)

I AM a talkback listener. There, I’ve said it.

One hesitates to admit this because the world of talkback radio is said to be populated entirely by ranters, rednecks and bigots. The phrase “talkback radio mob” is common shorthand for bores and blowhards who are long on opinions and short on intellect.

The truth is that talkback radio, much like any other form of media, is a mixed bag.

The one consistent rule I’ve observed over many years is that the quality of talkback is largely determined by the quality of the host. If the host is intelligent, well-informed and concerned with matters of substance rather than banality and trivia, he or she is likely to attract callers of a similar calibre.

Not only does like attract like, but good hosts have little patience for rank stupidity, ignorance or bigotry, and are likely to dump moronic or abusive callers without much ado. Eventually the morons get the message and stop calling, or find a less discriminating host on another station (there’s usually one somewhere).

Most of my own talkback listening is done in the small hours. People often express surprise when I tell them I regularly listen to the midnight-to-dawn talkback shows, but when you’re not a good sleeper the sound of human voices can be a useful distraction from the pre-occupations that might otherwise clutter the mind. Music might be more soothing, but it leaves mental space that can be invaded by vexatious thoughts.

Talkback radio gives you something to engage with, yet you don’t want it to be too stimulating. After all, the purpose of going to bed (well, most of the time, anyway) is to sleep. The ideal all-night host, to my mind, strikes a delicate balance, promoting interesting conversation while trying to keep the mood reasonably relaxed.

I sometimes wish Pat Brittenden, an all-night host on NewstalkZB, would grasp this. He gives the impression of being on steroids, treating every caller as a challenge to his intellectual supremacy; someone who must be won over by the sheer force of his arguments.

To be fair to Brittenden, he’s smart; I just think his Socratic version of talkback would be better suited to a daytime slot. Bruce Russell, with whom he normally alternates, strikes a completely different tone. Certainly Russell has firm views which he sometimes expresses caustically, but they are leavened by a whimsical and engaging wit.

Over on the other all-night talkback programme, on Radio Live, you get either the former church minister Ewing Stevens – an octogenarian who uses his show to promote quack health remedies to the anxious and gullible (though it’s possible Stevens sincerely believes in their efficacy) – or Dudley Stace, who is given to talking about his motorcycle trips or encouraging viewers to call in with their views on such banal subjects as the best pie they’ve ever eaten.

As I said, the host largely determines the quality of the caller, and these two Radio Live hosts tend to bring out the type of insomniac who gives talkback a bad name.

Many people find night-time radio chatter comforting. This was never better demonstrated than in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake, when countless people, unnerved by the constant aftershocks, turned to early-hours talkback programmes not just for information, but also for the reassuring knowledge that others were sharing the same ordeal.

You quickly learn that there’s an alternative universe of insomniacs and other nocturnal creatures – security patrol men, long-haul truck drivers, all-night service station attendants, bakers making 2am starts – who keep the talkback studio buttons lit up while normal people slumber. I hesitate to call it a community, but it sometimes has that feeling.

Some callers are simply lonely or bored and have nothing to say. They give the impression of being infatuated with the sound of their own voices, and sensitive hosts often humour them more than they should.

Many callers, however, are articulate, witty, insightful and well-informed. I often think it’s a shame that their voices are not more widely heard – their sweetness wasted on the night-time air, to paraphrase the poet Gray.

At its best, talkback radio can be a reassuring confirmation that we live in an informed and robust democracy. New Zealanders are generally pretty savvy on matters of politics and many don’t hesitate to assert their right to free speech on talkback radio, just as they do in letters to the editor and (increasingly) in the online domain known as the blogosphere.

Ironically, blogosphere dwellers tend to look down on talkback as an inferior forum, the preserve of the unsophisticated dinosaur. I say this is ironic because debate in the blogosphere, being generally unmoderated, often degenerates into petty, toxic abuse of the most unedifying kind. Talkback radio at least has a host who can hit the dump button when discussions get unpleasant or defamatory.

One other thing you can’t help noticing when you become a habitual talkback listener is the disproportionate number of non-New Zealand accents. Notwithstanding my comments about New Zealanders not hesitating to assert their right to free speech, the number of callers with British accents is striking.

My brother Justin, a Wellington morning talkback host on NewstalkZB, referred to this recently in a Dominion Post interview following his announcement that he’s retiring at the end of the year (to be replaced by Sean Plunket, formerly of Radio New Zealand).

Justin said one thing that irked him, after 23 years on the programme, was people’s reluctance to phone in. He used the word “passionless” – the same word writer Gordon McLauchlan used to describe New Zealanders in his famous 1970s book The Passionless People.

According to Justin, only 5-10 percent of his listeners ever call in. He reckons English and Dutch listeners are far more likely to phone because they come from cultures where people are not afraid to speak out.

I’m not going to argue with him – he’s my big brother, after all – but I reckon the ratio of callers to listeners must be higher on night-time talkback. Either that, or there are far more insomniacs out there than we ever imagined.