Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More discouraging news for the neo-wowsers

Police report that in the latest weekend drink-driving blitz, on the North Shore, more than 10,000 drivers were stopped. Of those, 61 were over the legal limit.

That equates to 0.61 percent. I find this interesting because I worked out the percentages of over-the-limit drivers following two other recent blitzes and they were remarkably similar: 0.58 percent and 0.60 percent.

Now it can be argued that this still is too high, but that’s a hopelessly utopian view. The significant thing is that these figures are not only strikingly consistent, but are entirely at odds with the myth promoted by the anti-liquor panic merchants that our roads are swarming with murderous drunks.

The figures suggest to me that the sustained advertising campaign against drink-driving has been effective, and that more than 99 percent of New Zealand motorists are careful not to consume too much before getting behind the wheel.

This is discouraging news for the hysterical anti-liquor lobby, so don’t expect them to draw attention to it.

The other interesting thing about the North Shore blitz is that some drivers were two or three times over the legal alcohol limit. Senior Sergeant Brett Batty was quoted as saying it was disappointing that so many drivers were “so far” above the limit.

This seems to confirm that the real risk on the roads is posed by a tiny minority of seriously heavy drinkers, not by drivers with alcohol levels of between .05 and .08 – yet it’s this latter group that the neo-wowsers are demanding that the government crack down on.

An APB for Customline Ford

The most entertaining story in today’s Dominion Post (well, in the edition that circulates in the Wairarapa, at least) is a single paragraph at the foot of the page 3 briefs. It reports that police are looking for a 21-year-old Wairarapa man who has breached bail conditions. His name is Customline Ford.

My guess is that he has ties to the Mongrel Mob. I remember reading many years ago that in Mob culture, the V8 Ford is revered as a modern-day version of the waka, or Maori war canoe. Customline (a model that Ford USA brought out in the mid-50s, and which my father once drove) would be an inspired fit for someone born into a Mob family with the auspicious surname of Ford. Admittedly it's a bit of a mouthful, but it could be conveniently abbreviated to Cuzzy. Perfect.

I also remember once reading a death notice in which several members of the deceased’s family had names such as Galaxie and Zephyr. When you think about it, the possibilities are almost limitless: Fairmont, Falcon, Futura (for a girl?) and Zodiac, to name a few. Thunderbird and Mustang seem even more suited to gang culture. Sadly, more recent Ford model names such as Mondeo and Fiesta seem a tad wimpy and metrosexual.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sydney needs to look over its shoulder

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 24.)

The first time I went to Australia, in early 1972, it was like travelling to another planet.

Melbourne’s then-new Tullamarine Airport terminal (where I landed in a Lockheed Electra, last of Air New Zealand’s turbo-prop airliners) was vast and ultra-modern after Wellington’s scruffy converted hangar.

On the freeway into the city I was struck by the unfamiliar preponderance of orange brick houses. For lunch on that first day I was taken to an up-market Chinese restaurant where the menu included exotic dishes I’d never heard of, still less eaten.

Pub conversations with my new Australian workmates were a challenge. They seemed to speak a different language.

Australian seemed brash, racy, cosmopolitan and sophisticated after isolated, insular New Zealand. It was a society that had clearly taken its cue from the rampant capitalism of America rather than the relative austerity of Britain, which served as New Zealand’s model.

The Aussies had Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut when takeaways in New Zealand still meant fish and chips. Restaurants were classier and infinitely more varied, the clothing was more stylish, the cars were newer and there were four TV channels. I felt like a bit of a yokel.

How things have changed since then. Australian houses are still made of brick while most of ours are made of timber, but in virtually every other respect the cultural gap has narrowed to the point where it’s almost imperceptible.

Downtown Brisbane or Sydney seem not too different from Auckland or Wellington. The people are no better dressed, the cars are no flasher and the pubs and restaurants are certainly no more sophisticated. Even the names on many of the shops in the giant malls are the same – evidence of the homogeneous global economy.

One of the most conspicuous contrasts in the 1970s was the preponderance of immigrants across the Tasman, but even that point of difference has largely been eliminated. In Auckland in the 2006 census, a staggering 39 percent of the workforce was born overseas – one of the highest figures of any city in the world. (For New Zealand as a whole, the figure was an only slightly less staggering 24 percent.)

In other words we’ve caught up with Australia, at least superficially. Today you could fly from Wellington to Melbourne for the first time, just as I did in 1972, and not notice anything conspicuously different. In fact I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that in many ways the average New Zealander is now more worldly and sophisticated than his or her Australian counterpart, particularly once you get beyond the city fringes.

So what, if anything, still sets them apart from us?

The economic disparities are well known. The income gap is growing ever wider, despite half-hearted attempts (and lots of largely empty political talk) about narrowing the gap. More than half a million New Zealanders now call Australia home, including one of my own sons and several nieces and nephews.

Depressingly, none of the expat New Zealanders I spoke to during a recent three-week visit to Australia expressed any urge to return. They like the climate, the lifestyle and the affluence.

You can’t help but notice the all-pervasive Australian sense of self-confidence. It’s evident in sport, in the media and in popular culture. They really do believe they are the Lucky Country, and I wonder whether this winning attitude is one of the defining differences between us.

We tend, by contrast, to be a bit of a hang-dog nation, acutely conscious of our chronic economic under-performance (though we simultaneously celebrate, with almost desperate eagerness, our success stories such as the All Blacks and Sir Peter Jackson). There’s a grain of truth in the way Australian satirist Barry Humphries placed mousy, timid Madge from Palmerston North in the shadow of the magnificently ebullient and self-assured Edna Everage from Moonee Ponds.

In some respects each country carries the legacy of its history. Australians display traits that can be traced back to their convict heritage: for instance, their larrikinism, their suspicion of authority and their disregard for what others think of them. By contrast we were settled by idealistic middle-class migrants and remain anxious to do the right thing and fretful about how the rest of the world sees us.

This is not altogether bad. For one thing, New Zealand remains uncontaminated by the institutional corruption and venality that infest Australian politics (and nowhere more than in the scandal-plagued New South Wales Labor Party, which seems determined to emulate the worst excesses of New York’s infamous Tammany Hall political machine).

Similarly, even the most trenchant critic of New Zealand trade unions would have to concede that organised labour here conducts itself impeccably compared with Australia, where the line between trade unionism and outright gangsterism is sometimes alarmingly blurred. (The convict heritage again, perhaps?)

Speaking of gangsterism, Australia has an entrenched criminal sub-culture with its origins in urban slums and clannish ethnic minorities. Organised crime there has a far longer history, and exists on a much larger scale, than in New Zealand.

But there’s a refined side to Australia too. I spent hours in Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, which has a spectacularly good collection that encompasses contemporary Australian art (including Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly paintings), French impressionists (Monet, Cezanne) and 20th century masters such as Jackson Pollock and David Hockney, along with some fine works by colonial-era Australian artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton.

I recall the Whitlam government creating an uproar in 1973 when it paid more than $1 million for Jackson Pollock’s famous abstract painting Blue Poles, but seeing it now, I think it was a good buy.

Incidentally, Canberra doesn’t entirely deserve the bad press it gets. A recent article in the Australian edition of Spectator magazine called the city of 320,000 a waste of a good sheep paddock, while a New Zealand friend of mine unkindly describes it as “Waiouru with trees”. Yet even Canberra has its appeal. While it lacks the character of older cities and is frequently mocked for its blandness, it’s relaxed, well laid-out, family-friendly, easy to get around and endowed with vast areas of open recreational space.

The other revelation for me on this latest Australian trip was Melbourne, which I hadn’t visited for 20 years. Once relatively staid by comparison with Sydney, the Victorian state capital has transformed itself and now seriously threatens its traditional New South Wales rival for charisma and visitor appeal.

Melbourne will never have Sydney’s great natural asset, its magnificent harbour, but it uses every man-made trick in the book to present itself as a vibrant, colourful, spectacular and supremely confident city. Its adventurous architecture, particularly along the fringes of the Yarra River, makes a very bold statement.

If I were one of Sydney’s city fathers, I think I’d be looking nervously over my shoulder.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Identity politics and the medical profession

Radio New Zealand today reported a speech in which Hutt Valley paediatrician Dr Leo Buchanan lamented the small number of Maori child health specialists. Dr Buchanan, who is himself part-Maori, said that of New Zealand’s 292 paediatricians, barely six had any known Maori affiliations. Child health services should be provided by Maori for Maori, RNZ quoted him as saying.

Am I alone in finding this peculiar? To the best of my knowledge, Maori children are physiologically the same as children of European, Indian or Chinese lineage. Does it matter if the doctor treating them is named Ropiha or Muru rather than Jones, Chan or Krishnamurthi? The answer surely is no - yet it seems a campaign is underway to convince people that only a doctor of the same ethnicity can treat them properly.

New Zealanders of all cultures and skin colours are routinely treated by doctors of Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese and Middle Eastern origins without protest, and without suffering any adverse effects. Surely it’s the availability and competence of the treatment that counts, not the ethnicity of the medical professional.

Is this where identity politics – the socio-political phenomenon whereby minorities define themselves primarily by their ethnicity, and insist on being treated differently from their fellow citizens – has led us?

Howard deserved more balanced treatment than this

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 23.) 

WHEN I heard that Radio New Zealand host Kim Hill was going to interview former Australian prime minister John Howard last Saturday, I held out a na├»ve hope that this might mark a departure from the usual leftist thrust of her programme. Howard, after all, is emphatically a conservative – a political breed rarely heard on Hill’s show. 

More fool me. Hill wasn’t remotely interested in finding out what had made Howard the second longest-serving prime minister (after Sir Robert Menzies) in Australian history. She was simply looking for a scalp to dangle in front of her admiring audience. 

The interview was relentlessly adversarial from the word go. Hill revisited the same tired old political controversies that have already been worked over ad nauseam by her kindred spirits in the left-leaning Australian media, who despise Howard and are nonplussed and bitter over his popularity with the voters. 

Why wasn’t Howard prepared to negotiate a treaty with the Aborigines, Hill demanded to know. Why didn’t he apologise to them (as if Howard was personally responsible for their historical mistreatment)? How did he justify getting involved in Iraq? 

What about the disgrace at Abu Ghraib (as if Howard stood by and did nothing when Iraqi prisoners were being tortured)? Why did he still support the monarchy? (Never mind that the Australian people voted against republicanism in a referendum.) 

I waited for her to get around to the controversy over the Tampa refugees in 2001. Sure enough, that got worked over again too. 

It’s hard to believe that Hill genuinely thought she was going to extract some fresh revelation after all this time – perhaps a grovelling mea culpa? – but doubtless it played well to the chardonnay socialists who make up her core audience. All her questions were delivered in the smug, condescending and judgmental tone that has come to exemplify media elitism. 

For good measure, Hill threw in one or two gratuitous insults – such as “I’m trying to make sense of your thinking” [on Iraq], as if her guest was some sort of imbecile. Howard was remarkably tolerant of her provocations but the interview was prickly, at times teetering on the brink of outright acrimony. 

Hill finished by baiting Howard, again gratuitously, with a strange remark to the effect that he probably hadn’t enjoyed the experience of being interviewed by her. In other words, she seemed to be saying, hadn’t she done well to give him such a roasting? Howard was understandably nonplussed by the comment but somehow managed to remain civil. 

I’m no cheerleader for Howard and wouldn’t argue for a moment that former politicians should be treated with kid gloves, but he deserved more balanced treatment than this. After all, he must have done something right, since he won four elections in a row (to the despair of leftist commentators, who repeatedly made fools of themselves predicting he would fail). 

What’s more, he led a country that consistently out-performed New Zealand in almost every sphere, and with which we are now vainly and pathetically trying to catch up. 

Nowhere in Hill’s interview was there any acknowledgement of this. A Martian listening to it would have concluded that Howard’s prime ministership was an abject failure. In fact more than that – a moral disgrace. 

Just as well for democracy that politicians are ultimately accountable to the voters, not to media egos who enjoy the luxury of exercising – in Stanley Baldwin’s famous phrase – power without responsibility. 

 * * * 

WHEREVER you go in the world, backpackers look the same – bored, jaded and uninterested in their surroundings. 

I was reminded of this while travelling from downtown Auckland to Mangere airport on a shuttle bus recently. A young European couple in front of me barely glanced up as we drove through the suburbs. They wore an expression of blank indifference common to backpackers everywhere. 

Admittedly Auckland’s not Paris or San Francisco, but still, you’d expect them to show some interest. These affluent Generation Y kids troop listlessly from one adventure tourism attraction to the next, their MP3 headphones blotting out all ambient sound. 

The brief adrenalin rush of the bungy jump, luge or jetboat ride jerks them into a state of alertness only briefly before they shuffle back onto the bus and head off in search of the next buzz. I can’t help wondering why they bother to travel at all. They might as well stay at home and watch TV. 

 * * * 

I RECENTLY booked two flights with Air New Zealand online and printed out the flight details. The first sheet of paper contained all the information I wanted: flight numbers, times etc. So what was on the superfluous second sheet of paper that my printer spat out quite needlessly? The words: “Good planets are hard to find – please think of the environment before you print this email.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What drives men like Eastwood and Murdoch?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 10.)

I see from a recent TV news item that Clint Eastwood, at 80, has just begun work directing a new movie.

Two things struck me about this. The first is that it seems almost inconceivable that Eastwood could be that old. It doesn’t seem so long since he was playing the idealistic, hot-headed young cowboy Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, or the rule-breaking San Francisco detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry.

The second is that he still has the fire and energy to make films. Something keeps driving him – but what? It’s not as if he has anything left to prove, after a 50-year career during which he picked up five Academy Awards as a director and a People’s Choice Award for “favourite all-time movie star”.

You might think that, having attained octogenarian status, Eastwood would be happy to sit back in the California sun and reflect on a full and rewarding life. But no, there are projects he needs to complete – the latest a film biography of the late FBI director J Edgar Hoover (a figure so controversial and intriguing that it’s amazing no one has made a movie of his life before).

Eastwood gave a clue to his work ethic in a recent interview in which he said it had always shocked him that famous directors from Hollywood’s golden era, such as Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, retired when they were still capable of making films. “I always thought, ‘Why aren’t these guys still working?’ I figure your best years should be at a point when you’ve got a lot of so-called knowledge.”

Myself, I’m with Capra and Wilder. Presumably they regarded work as something you did mainly because of economic imperatives – wives and families to keep, alimony to pay, mansions to buy in Beverly Hills or Malibu. Once you’d made your pile, why keep pushing yourself?

Men of my generation probably have a more balanced attitude to work than those of my father’s era. Most of us, having grown up in a more affluent society, treat work as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself; a way of financing a lifestyle in which we can enjoy family and leisure.

This is especially true in a country like New Zealand, which is noted for its laidback approach to life. Economists sometimes complain that one reason New Zealand isn’t more prosperous is that most Kiwi business owners are happy just to acquire the “Three Bs” – bach, boat and BMW. They don’t feel compelled to build the type of international business that can transform an economy.

But obviously there are people, like Eastwood, for whom work is about much more than making money so they can eventually retire in comfort. Something else propels them.

It’s not hard to think of other examples. Winston Churchill was 65 when he became prime minister of Britain – an age when many men are retired and pottering in the garden.

Churchill had packed more into those 65 years than a lesser man could hope to achieve in several lifetimes. Yet he not only saw Britain successfully through World War II – an extraordinary feat of leadership, requiring unimaginable levels of energy, resilience and determination – but still had enough gas in the tank to come back in 1951 for a second stint at No 10 Downing Street. He was then 76.

He didn’t retire from politics until he was 85 (too late, many said), and he lived till 90 – proving that pressure and hard work are no impediment to a long and full life.

And look at Rupert Murdoch, who is pushing 80 yet remains a dominant figure in the world media scene. He passed the point long ago when his ambitious global expansion could be logically explained by a desire to accumulate more wealth. There’s a limit, after all, to how much money any man can spend.

So what motivates him? His critics would say power, given Murdoch’s apparent use of his media interests to influence politics. Others might suggest his desire to create a dynasty. Even so, you’d think he might now have reached a stage in life when such matters ceased to be so important – but apparently not.

There are examples in sport, too. Take Sir Alex Ferguson, the dour Scottish manager of Manchester United football club. Okay, at 69 he’s a relative youngster, at least compared with Eastwood and Murdoch. But here’s the interesting thing: Ferguson is the most successful manager in the famous club’s history, having won 26 major honours since he took over in 1986. There’s no significant title Man U hasn’t won under his guidance. You’d think his desire to win might have started to fade. After all, what has he got to prove? Yet Ferguson still approaches every game as if his future depends on it.

Then there’s the Australian horse trainer Bart Cummings, still as determined as ever, at 82, to add to his Melbourne Cup tally. Cummings’ great rival, the late Tommy Smith, was also still training at 80.

New Zealand’s own Bob Charles was still playing on the international golf circuit at 74, despite presumably having earned more than enough for a comfortable retirement.

In literature, there’s John Le Carre – still cranking out spy thrillers at 79, though the royalty cheques from his 20-odd novels, not to mention movie adaptations, must have made him a very wealthy man. New Zealand author James McNeish, who is the same age as Le Carre, is also still active (his latest novel was published this year).

Politics seems a particularly hard habit to kick. Just look at Robert Mugabe, still clinging doggedly to power at 86. A more benign local example is Jim Anderton – so addicted to public life that at 72 he was eager to become the mayor of Christchurch while maintaining a parallel career as an MP.

While politicians’ long careers can be explained either by the desire for power (as in Mugabe’s case) or the conviction that they still have something to offer (as in Anderton’s), the reason why others such as Eastwood continue to work into their 80s may be no more complicated than that they simply love what they do.

Many men define themselves by what they do for a living. Their work gives their life purpose and often sustains them into old age.

The sad irony is that others spend their lives grinding away in humdrum jobs that give them no pleasure, yet don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement and often die within a few years.

More pressing questions for our times

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 9.)

How come, when tragedy strikes a small town, it’s always described in the media as a tight-knit community? Are there no loose-knit communities out there?

Should Hone Harawira be getting counselling for anger management?

Why do so many New Zealanders drive grey cars, and what does that say about us?

Why does the government spend millions on aviation security when all a terrorist has to do to create mayhem is set off a bomb on a suburban bus?

Fed up with new products and services being “rolled out”? Isn’t that what you do with pastry and barrels?

Was your life made complete when you finally found out who the anonymous test driver known as The Stig was, or did it take all the fun out of watching Top Gear?

If the answer to either of the previous questions was “yes”, do you still have all your old Matchbox toys lovingly arranged on your bedroom shelves, and does your mother still choose your clothes for you?

Why does Phil Goff (like Helen Clark before him) seem to have a permanent smile, even when he’s talking about something serious?

Why do police rarely, if ever, intervene when large, intimidating Maori men in dark glasses illegally occupy private property and deny access to the rightful occupiers? Do we have a rule of law or not?

Remember when the word “offshore” meant an island or a reef, and foreign countries were “overseas” or “abroad”?

Why is it apparently essential for fashion models to be not only emaciated, but knock-kneed and pigeon-toed as well?

Can anyone think of a good reason why the head of the Transport Agency is paid more than $550,000 a year?

Given up watching television yet?

The world’s meanest streets: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; Detroit, Michigan; Manukau, South Auckland?

Why is it so difficult, even in classy bars, to buy one of New Zealand’s many excellent craft beers? (Actually, I know the answer – it’s because the old brewery duopoly still stifles competition.)

Why are shooting victims always reported to have been “gunned down”? Doesn’t anyone just get shot anymore?

Was the election of a left-wing mayor in the Auckland super-city the voters’ unsubtle way of telling Rodney Hide they don’t entirely trust him?

Why does the government treat the shadowy Iwi Leaders’ Group – a tribal elite with no democratic legitimacy or mandate – as the voice of Maoridom?

Has the heat has gone out of the global warming debate?

When will someone stumble on the secret graveyard where all the television reporters over 40 are buried?

Confused by a government that keeps telling us public spending has to be curbed, yet seems to have no trouble finding grants for non-essentials such as literary awards, high-performance sport, new museums and suchlike?

Fed up with voice-prompted “help” lines that provide an option for every problem except the one you’ve got?

Wellington Airport’s chief executive proudly describes his new terminal building as “edgy” – but isn’t it possible to be edgy and aesthetically pleasing at the same time?

Tired of hearing silly expressions like “game on” and “from the get-go”? Can anyone even explain what the “get-go” is?

Has anyone in government thought of instituting a nocturnal emissions trading scheme?

Paul Holmes and cheeky darkies, Paul Henry and Mrs Dikshit – what is it about television hosts with the initials PH?

Lain awake at night worrying that you might have missed something important because you’re not on Twitter?

Has TVNZ finally realised it has alienated its most loyal audience by screening wall-to-wall trash, and does this explain the re-appearance of quality drama in prime time on Sunday nights?

Further to that last question, is it way too late?

Do political journalists make the mistake of assuming the public shares their fascination with whatever political scandal du jour is exciting the press gallery?

Further to that last question, does politics become less important the further you travel from Wellington?

Why are there no great female rock guitarists?

Do Sir John Anderson and Dame Margaret Bazley, New Zealand’s Mr and Ms Fixit, ever lose track of what boards and committees they’re on?

Grateful to accept $13 an hour for your cleaning job at Fonterra, knowing that 2547 of the company’s executives get more than $100,000 a year?

Does anyone still believe anything the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society says?

Are once-respected brands such as BMW and Moet-et-Chandon now hopelessly contaminated by association with the ostentatious nouveau-riche who judge everything by its label and price?

Is a flash flood one that looks smart?

Puzzled by emails from people who sign off with the words “talk soon”, even though you’re not a close friend and hardly ever see them?

Fed up with road signs that advise you to slow to 50kmh because of non-existent road works?

Does modern weather forecasting technology simply mean, as a cynical friend of mine says, that the MetService now gets it wrong faster?