Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reassuring voices in the night

The mainstream media cop a fair old pasting, but they come into their own at times of crisis. This has been borne out in over the past 24 hours, when we have seen the much-derided MSM at their best.

Television New Zealand, whose treatment of the news so often fills me with despair, went a long way toward redeeming itself with its coverage of the latest Christchurch calamity. Some of its pretty young women reporters – whom I’ve maligned in the past, suggesting they were recruited more for their looks than their ability – did a superb job. Could it be that, confronted with a truly dramatic breaking news event that forced them to fall back on their wits, they forgot (or ignored) the lessons from their expensive American coaches and simply got on with the job of telling the story? There was no time for artifice, no slick stage-managing of stories. This was the journalistic equivalent of bareback riding.

Some also dropped their professional mask of journalistic indifference and allowed their humanity to shine through. An example was the One News reporter whose shock and sorrow was unmistakeable as he described the devastation in Lyttelton.

Radio, too, rose to the occasion. Both Radio New Zealand and Newstalk ZB dropped their scheduled programmes (along with all commercials, in the case of Newstalk ZB) and maintained coverage of the quake and its aftermath throughout the night. I didn’t cross to Radio Live, but it may well have done the same.

Radio’s role extended well beyond interviewing authorities and crossing to reporters at the scene. It broadcast important 0800 numbers and, in the case of Newstalk ZB, passed on messages and helped put worried listeners in contact with missing friends and family members. All-night host Bruce Russell also read from texts and emails coming in from all over the world expressing sympathy and solidarity with the people of Christchurch.

Radio, for all the recent talk of it being another dinosaur medium, comes into its own at times like this. Some champions of social media argue that Facebook, You Tube and (heaven help us) Twitter will make radio redundant, but they overlook radio’s ability to reach out instantaneously to a mass audience. For all their wishful thinking, digital media have yet to replicate that combination of immediacy and reach.

This is what makes radio so invaluable still to police, civil defence and other emergency services seeking to convey important information. But more than that, radio can serve as a unifying force, morale-booster and agent of social cohesion. The frightened, anxious people of Christchurch, many of them doubtless unable to sleep as they waited for the next aftershock, could tune in last night and know they were not alone. There is reassurance in hearing human voices in the darkness and realising others are enduring the same ordeal – and that people all over the world, total strangers, are thinking of them and willing them to pull through. That must count for something at a time like this.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wine writers, stand to your guns

I know bullshit when I see it. I’m a wine writer, after all, and wine writers have perpetrated some of the most pretentious nonsense ever committed to paper. But I sense a serious challenge coming from the motor industry. Fairfax NZ motoring editor Dave Moore recently wrote a piece about the new-look Ford Territory, in which he quotes from what I presume to be a Ford press release waxing eloquently about something called “kinetic design language”.

Moore quotes Ford designer Chris Svensson as saying: “Kinetic design comprises several specific elements, all of which are present in the new Territory.” [Now here’s the bit I like.] “They are confident stance, dynamic lines, expressive form language, taut surfacing, bold graphics and great detailing.”

Confident stance? Expressive form language? Taut surfacing? Pass the sick bag.

I’ve noticed an increasing tendency lately for motoring writers to resort to the sort of esoteric language normally seen only in reviews of contemporary poetry books and abstract art exhibitions, but this marks a step up. Even as one fluent in the pompous dialect known as winespeak, I’m not sure I can compete at this level.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Has Key pushed his luck too far?

I’m surprised the media didn’t make more of the latest opinion polls that show support for John Key as preferred prime minister has suddenly dropped sharply.

Attention focused on the fact that both the TVNZ-Colmar Brunton and the 3News polls showed National retained a commanding lead over Labour, despite slippages of four points (TVNZ) and 0.9 points (3News).

But what I found far more interesting is that Key’s personal rating had slumped by eight points in the TVNZ poll, bringing him down to a 48 percent approval rating, and by five points in the 3News sampling (to 49 percent).

These results didn’t surprise me. The strong impression I’ve got over the past month or so is that the tide has suddenly turned for the prime minister.

Letters to the editor, radio talkback chatter and general conversation leads me to suspect that the magic aura that seems to have captivated the electorate since 2008 is starting to wear off.

Assuming I’m correct, what could the reasons be? One might be that Key has pushed his luck a bit too far. His mincing sashay down the catwalk in a Rugby World Cup volunteer’s uniform, as he now admits, was a bad look.

You can see how he misjudged the situation. He was trying to be playful and thought he could get away with it. And why not? After all, the public and the media have given him a dream run. But Key clearly didn’t realise how damaging it would look being endlessly replayed on the TV news. The catwalk strut has turned into Key’s equivalent of the Don Brash gangplank moment.

Then there’s the admission that he thought British actress Liz Hurley was “hot”.

You can go so far in trying to come across as an ordinary Kiwi bloke, just one of the boys, but the line between being jokey and crass is a fine one, and I believe Key blundered across it. At the risk of sounding quaintly old-fashioned, it was a remark unbecoming of a prime minister. It demeans the office.

What makes things worse is that he made the remark in the course of a chat with disgraced sports jock Tony Veitch, a man convicted of violent offences against his former partner. Key shouldn’t even be sharing a studio with Veitch, still less indulging in blokey banter with him about who’s “hot”.

One of Key’s political strengths is that, unlike his National Party predecessors, he appeals to women voters. A few more remarks like that, however, and his appeal might start to wane. He may be learning there are limits to how far he can go in pushing his “aw shucks, I’m just a regular guy” persona.

A bigger factor may be that there comes a point when the public demands more from its prime minister than amiability and photo opps. With an election looming 10 months away and an economy teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession, that time may have arrived.

Admittedly, Key still enjoys ratings that would be the envy of many political leaders, but it will be interesting to see how they track over the next couple of months. I certainly won’t be surprised to see the slippage continue.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The nation cringes and looks away

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 16.)

Another Waitangi Day has passed, and once again many New Zealanders – possibly the majority of us – tried hard to ignore what was going on at Waitangi, birthplace of the nation. (Along with 6000 others, I went to a country race meeting at Tauherenikau.)

We would desperately like to celebrate our national day without the customary ugly recriminations. After all, we have much to celebrate. Our economy may be in poor shape, but we live in one of the world’s most civilised multicultural democracies. New Zealanders of all ethnicities enjoy rights and freedoms denied the vast majority of the world’s people.

But year after year, the day is hijacked by extremists, such as Hone Harawira’s menacing, loudmouth nephew Wi Popata, who know their antics will capture the attention of the media. The rest of the nation cringes and tries to look away.

We wonder why our leaders continue to expose themselves to the humiliation heaped on them at Waitangi and wish that they would go somewhere else on the day, as Helen Clark did after her unpleasant confrontation with the creepy Titewhai Harawira years ago.

And speaking of Mrs Harawira, we wonder why politicians continue to play this manipulative woman’s game – as John Key did when he allowed her to clutch to his arm, as if giving him protection and legitimacy, when he entered the Treaty Grounds. This is as demeaning to the prime minister’s office as his propensity for silly publicity stunts, such as the recent incident in which he strutted a catwalk like a mincing drag queen.

Most of all, we wonder why Waitangi Day continues to be a day of embarrassment for most New Zealanders when other countries that treated their earliest inhabitants far less fairly and honourably than New Zealand has, such as Australia and the United States, are able to celebrate their national days without acrimony or guilt.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we are constrained by our inherent sense of fairness. New Zealanders by and large are decent people who want to do the right thing. Even when affronted by angry and violent protest, our liberal instincts kick in.

More than most people, we are prepared to allow troublemakers their say. A voice inside us says, “Gosh, perhaps we did treat them badly”. But in allowing the malcontents to take control of our national day year after year, we extend tolerance too far.

I’m told by people who have been to Waitangi on February 6 – and Key himself emphasised this in his speech on the day – that it’s an enjoyable outing. The atmosphere there is relaxed and unthreatening. The same can be said of Waitangi Day festivities elsewhere, where the emphasis is often on celebrating New Zealand’s cultural diversity rather than focusing solely, as Maori activists want us to do, on the relationship between Maori and the Crown.

Yet in terms of national consciousness, as reflected by media coverage and political imperatives, it’s the Maori-Pakeha theme that continues to demand our attention – and never the positive aspects, although the Maori-Pakeha relationship is surely as close and harmonious as any in the world (as is attested by the copious volumes of European blood running through the veins of even the most hot-headed “Maori” protesters).

A balanced view of our history would acknowledge the many ways in which our colonial forebears were humane and enlightened by the standards of their time. No one ever points out, for instance, that Maori men were granted the vote 12 years before voting rights were extended to all men of European descent. That doesn’t fit the narrative in which the Europeans were land-grabbers and oppressors. No, we hear only about the grievances.

I detect among New Zealanders a powerful desire to break free of this painful preoccupation with what some Australian historians call the “black armband” view of history. Most of us would love our national day to be a positive experience, as it is for other countries.

How we can achieve this isn’t clear. Stay away from Waitangi? Most people would be happy with that if it denied the part-Maori mischief-makers a platform. They would still be free to harangue us on the other 364 days of the year, but without the presence of TV crews they would almost certainly soon lose interest.

Trouble is, politicians and the media seem drawn to Waitangi like moths to a flame. For the media, it’s the irresistible allure of a scrap that entices them. A shouting melee is always good for the 6pm bulletin.

The politicians’ attraction to Waitangi is harder to explain. Presumably it has something to do with the desire to ingratiate themselves (though they would doubtless prefer to say “express solidarity”) with Maori powerbrokers. This also explains the annual politicians’ pilgrimage to Ratana, which is now seen as marking the start of the political year.

Certainly Key is keen to keep the Maori Party onside and therefore emphasise that National has succeeded in severing the historic link between Maori and the Labour Party. His government has granted open-door access to a powerful, non-elected Maori elite, the iwi leadership group, and is prepared to push through legislation that could give certain privileged tribes unprecedented rights over the foreshore and seabed that has traditionally belonged to us all.

In the circumstances, it’s scarcely surprising that Key shows no inclination to break the Waitangi habit, or even to encourage debate about how we should observe February 6.

A more radical option, but even less likely, would be to change our national day. United Future leader Peter Dunne, who accurately described the latest Waitangi Day antics as a farce, wants to rename it and shift it to another date, though his reported suggestion of Queen’s Birthday as an alternative makes little sense to me.

I’ve no doubt a fed-up public, including many Maori, would broadly support him; but aside from Dunne and perhaps ACT, there is little political appetite for a change. As is so often the case, the views of the political elite are far removed from those of the people they purport to represent.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A gift for hyperbole

I sometimes wonder whether Professor Doug Sellman counts a doctorate in hyperbole among his other academic qualifications. Prof Sellman, a professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Otago University, is arguably the most vociferous of the many people campaigning for tighter alcohol laws and has a knack for exaggeration that would be the envy of tabloid newspaper journalists.

He was at it again this week, telling The Dominion Post: “Drunkenness is viewed as a perfectly normal mental state for both young and older people to be in on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in New Zealand. If you’re not drunk, you can’t possibly be having a good time.”

As usual, in an attempt to get his message across with maximum impact (for which the media love him), he both exaggerates and over-simplifies. I would argue that drunkenness is viewed as a normal mental state only by the comparatively small but highly visible group of drinkers who get themselves into that state. It is not viewed as normal by the great majority of New Zealanders who drink moderately and responsibly. Like me, they probably find drunkenness highly distasteful.

I would also argue that the number of adults (as opposed to young drinkers) who get drunk on Thursday and Friday nights is a fraction of what it used to be. Prof Sellman may not have experienced it – he was possibly too busy studying – but I have no difficulty recalling an era when a large proportion of the working population routinely went to the pub after work every Thursday or Friday and reeled out plastered at closing time.

That once prevalent habit has virtually died out, and it can be no coincidence that it died during the years when the drinking laws were progressively being liberalised (though tougher drink-driving laws helped too).

I also dispute Prof Sellman’s assertion that younger people get drunk because they mimic their elders, and that teens stay out all night drinking because they have learned from their parents that “life can’t be enjoyed without alcohol, that social events aren’t proper events without alcohol”.

I don’t believe for a moment that the young drunks making fools of themselves in Courtenay Place on Friday and Saturday nights all come from homes where their parents set a bad example by routinely getting pissed. They are simply doing what young people have always done: celebrating their newfound independence by rebelling and doing things that they know their parents would not condone. The notion that teenage binge drinking is a new phenomenon is one of the great canards of our times. It is simply a new term.

As for Prof Sellman’s classically wowserish disapproval of the relationship between alcohol and social occasions, I can only suggest he face up to the fact that alcohol has a very long and respectable history in Western culture as a useful and pleasant social lubricant. The Bible is testimony to that: even Jesus Christ knew that weddings were less enjoyable if the wine ran out. If Prof Sellman is bent on reversing social habits that have been ingrained for thousands of years, I can only wish him luck.

He also needs to understand that people don’t have to get drunk to enjoy the convivial benefits of alcohol. Most New Zealanders have no difficulty grasping this. To equate alcohol with drunkenness, as he habitually does, is reminiscent of the shock tactics of the early 20th century abolitionists.

Like the neo-wowser who wrote a plaintive letter to The Dominion Post a few months ago rebuking the paper for publishing photos of people holding glasses of wine and beer at social events, Prof Sellman doesn’t seem to accept the legitimacy of alcohol in the social context. Like many idealistic reformers, he is on a quixotic mission to perfect humanity, even if it means having to ignore our cultural history.

Oddly enough, there is much that Prof Sellman and I agree on. Like him, I detest the binge-drinking culture. Like him, I abhor drunkenness and fail to understand why anyone would want to get themselves into that state. I even understand his concerns about alcohol marketing and promotion strategies that effectively encourage binge drinking.

Where we part company is in his demonising of alcohol and constant over-statement of the extent of the alcohol problem. He refuses to accept that the vast majority of New Zealand adults are moderate drinkers, a fact confirmed by figures that show we are below the OECD average for per capita consumption. Prof Sellman even refuses to accept there is any such creature as a “responsible drinker”. This is the stance of the zealot.

And I resent even more strongly his attempts to impose his own narrow, moralistic views on his fellow New Zealanders, whom he thinks cannot be trusted to make sensible and responsible choices.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The curious thing about Wellington and Canberra

Julia Gillard should be well pleased with her first prime ministerial visit to New Zealand. She appears to have charmed Parliament, the business sector and the media. Orstrylians may still be weighing her up, but we like her.

She said all the right things, even to the point of rewriting her precedent-setting speech to Parliament at the last minute to make sensitive reference to the New Zealand soldier killed in Afghanistan. Repeated references to the Anzac tradition, and to Australia and New Zealand as “family”, indicate that Gillard values the trans-Tasman relationship highly. They will have warmed the hearts of New Zealanders who have felt at times that Australia’s attention was focused elsewhere. The expressions of support from our bigger, more dynamic neighbour will be reassuring to a country that has been labelled the last bus-stop on the planet and sometimes frets about being vulnerable and isolated.

John Key should count Gillard’s visit as a triumph too. Not only do the two appear to have established a warm rapport, but Key will bank political points from the fact that Gillard wants to resume annual meetings. This reflects well on Key, since not all New Zealand prime ministers have been so favoured. In fact there have been long periods in the past when Australian prime ministers appeared to treat their New Zealand counterparts with indifference.

Which brings us to the curious thing about the relationship between Canberra and Wellington. Key, a centre-right politician, seems to get on well with Gillard, a centre-left politician. Helen Clark, a centre-left politician, was on the best of terms with John Howard, a centre-right politician.

Yet go back further, to times when the prime ministers of the two countries shared supposedly similar political leanings, and the relationship was anything but amiable. David Lange and Bob Hawke, both Labour leaders, made no effort to hide their mutual antipathy. No room was big enough for both of them.

In the 1970s, Malcolm Fraser and Robert Muldoon, though both leaders of conservative parties, had nothing in common – Fraser being a patrician, blue-blooded grazier from the western districts of Victoria and Muldoon a pugnacious middle-class accountant with a strong socialist streak. And even before that, I seem to recall tension between the blue-collar, self-educated Norman Kirk and the urbane (and sometimes arrogant) intellectual Gough Whitlam.

There’s the surefire formula for closer relations between the two countries. When Australia veers to the right, we should simply make a corresponding lurch to the left – or vice-versa.

My nomination for best picture

I haven’t seen The King’s Speech yet (movies take a while to reach my neck of the woods), but my Academy Award choice, based on the films I’ve seen over the past year, is the grim and decidedly un-American Winter’s Bone.

I say un-American because Winter’s Bone, directed by the relatively unknown Debra Granik, defies most Hollywood conventions. There are no A-listers in the cast (indeed, no familiar names at all); the film is set in impoverished, backwoods Missouri, surely one of the least glamorous parts of the US; its characters for the most part are deeply unattractive; and it’s uncompromisingly bleak and depressing, save for a faint note of optimism at the finish.

Watching it, I was reminded of the harrowing films made in the 1960s by British director Kenneth Loach, who specialised in bringing working-class misery and despair to the screen, and more recently by Mike Leigh, another British master of what has been labelled kitchen-sink realism. Like their films, Winter’s Bone makes few concessions to viewers seeking fragments of optimism and human goodness.

Incongruously, at the screening I attended, there was laughter among the small audience when the closing credits rolled (against a lovely rendering of the country gospel standard Farther Along, a song that fittingly seeks to make sense of the wretched lives of the poor). I could only conclude the levity was triggered by relief that the film was over, because this is a movie unleavened by any humour, even of the dark Coen Brothers variety.

The central character is a teenage girl, Ree Dolly, who looks after, and is fiercely protective of, her little brother and sister. Their mother shares their rundown house but is physically and mentally helpless (we are not told why). Ree’s father, a methamphetamine cook named Jessup, has effectively abandoned the family.

The plot unfolds as Ree doggedly and courageously goes in search of her father after learning the house will be forfeited and the family cast out unless he turns up in court to face trial on drugs charges. It’s a quest that takes her into the dark heart of a feral, inbred, white-trash family – her father’s clannish relatives – who subsist, as far as we can gather, on income from clandestine meth labs, which seem (judging by this film) to have displaced the moonshine still in the economy of the rural south.

The film is unflinching in its portrayal of the abject way of life in this rural backwater where unemployment is endemic, families are reduced to shooting squirrels for the pot, and ramshackle houses are surrounded by mangy hounds, car wrecks, derelict machinery and other detritus. The characters are truly menacing, and none more so than the wife of the local clan boss and crime kingpin – a woman who has clearly learned that the only way to survive in this godforsaken society is by being as tough as the most brutal menfolk. The role is played with frightening intensity by an actress who, like most of the cast, was unfamiliar to me. (I can’t even identify her, since I never caught her character’s name.)

The outcome of the film is almost immaterial. Its strength lies in its grimly realistic portrayal of an American way of life that is rarely exposed on screen (and certainly not as convincingly as this), and in the strength of the characterisation. Critical acclaim has rightly been heaped on Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, but all the characters ooze authenticity. Just don’t go expecting any laughs. Think of a dark, nightmarish inversion of The Dukes of Hazzard: no handsome daredevil southern boys, no whimsical Waylon Jennings theme song, no mad stunts, no General Lee, no blundering Boss Hogg ... and no hope.

Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, but I won’t be holding my breath when the Oscars are announced on February 27. This is a chitlin stew film in an industry that prefers foie gras.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Misplaced apostrophe's

As a former pupil of St Patrick's College, Silverstream, I read with interest in today's death notices that a memorial service was being held this Friday for the late Father Peter Blake, a well-liked priest who was there in my time.

What caught my eye was that the after-match function was to be held in "the Boarder's dining room". I was well aware that the number of boarders had substantially diminished since my time, but didn't realise it was now down to one.

Small wonder that people get cynical about welfare

(First published, in a slightly abbreviated form, in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 15.)

PETER FREEDOM, who boasted last week of travelling the world on his unemployment benefit, isn’t the only person to make a mockery of the benefits system.

Buried in a recent newspaper report about Ronald Terrence Brown, a career criminal jailed for drug offences, was the revelation that he had been on unemployment and sickness benefits for about 20 years.

Brown, 65, was part-owner of a bar in Auckland’s Karangahape Rd and owned six vehicles, including BMWs and a Porsche. He was involved in a ring that dealt in drugs worth millions, and all the while he was bludging off the taxpayer – just like former Christchurch gang leader Darryl Harris, who infamously claimed the sickness benefit for 26 years and even got a special-needs grant to buy tyres for his 2007 Chrysler 300C (a classic “gangsta” car – I bet it was painted black).

Small wonder that honest people get cynical about welfare when they see criminals and other freeloaders abusing the system. The effect on public morale and social cohesion – on confidence in the fairness of the system – is corrosive.

Despite what welfare lobbyists say, New Zealand has an unsustainable welfare problem. More than 350,000 people are on some form of welfare benefit, and if you add those receiving Working for Families and superannuation, the number jumps to 1.3 million. As Sir Roger Douglas has pointed out, “That’s 1.3 million New Zealanders receiving support from the 2.2 million New Zealanders working to pay for it.”

The fact that it’s Douglas saying it gives people an excuse to tune out. There goes the old right-wing dinosaur again, they’ll say. But the unpalatable fact is that he’s right.

Defenders of the welfare system will cry “unfair” at the mention of abusers like Freedom (former name Petrus Van Druten), Brown and Harris. Not typical, they will say; no one condones such brazen ripping-off of the system. And up to a point, they are right. But only up to a point.

The culture of entitlement – the notion that it’s okay to rip off your fellow citizens if you can get away with it – is endemic. Freedom, Brown and Harris simply represent it at its most audacious extreme. Decades of welfarism (exacerbated by accident compensation, the abuses of which are legion) have implanted the belief that living off the taxpayer is a legitimate lifestyle choice.

And the most worrying aspect is that the culture of entitlement appears to be tacitly condoned by the bureaucracy that administers the welfare apparatus. How else can anyone explain the fact that Brown and Harris, whose criminal careers were a matter of public knowledge, could get away with abusing the system for so long?

Clearly, no one noticed the 2007 Chrysler Harris was driving when he arrived at the welfare office pleading poverty. Or if they saw it, no one bothered to ask why someone who could afford to buy and run such a car needed the taxpayer’s help to put food on the table.

We are left to conclude that the public servants who dispense benefits look the other way because they are as dependent on the system as the beneficiaries themselves. After all, their jobs depend on it continuing.

When the media publicised the taxpayer’s generosity to Harris, provoking public outrage, the reaction from the Ministry of Social Development was quick and fearless. Chief executive Peter Hughes said Harris had been told his sickness benefit would stop from January 10 because “he no longer meets standard eligibility requirements”.

Two questions. Would Harris’s benefit have been curtailed if the media hadn’t created a furore? And does anyone really believe his benefit was curtailed because Harris suddenly ceased to be eligible? Far more likely that the department was embarrassed at being caught out and had to act.

And here’s a third question that doesn’t bear thinking about: how many other Freedoms, Browns and Harrises are out there?

* * *

LAST WEEK’S announcement that the minimum wage was to rise by 25 cents to $13 an hour was greeted with scorn and derision in union circles. “Pathetic” and “laughable” were a couple of the epithets I heard on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report.

The rise amounts to $10 for a 40-hour week, which I would have thought was better than useless, but the unions want the minimum hourly rate raised to $15.

There’s some seriously muddled thinking going on here. Only a week before the increase in the minimum wage was announced, we learned that unemployment was up from 6.4 to 6.8 percent.

Everyone else knows the economy is struggling for traction, but this fact seems to have escaped the unions. They think industry can afford to pay the same minimum wage as economically buoyant Australia.

In the distant, make-believe galaxy the unions inhabit, employers are presumably sitting on vast reserves of cash, but it’s a different story in the real world. You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize-winning economist to figure out that if employers are forced to pay higher wages, they will simply hire fewer people and unemployment will go up again.

The unions’ stance tends to support the cynical theory that unions don’t really care about the unemployed, since people with no jobs don’t pay union fees. Personally, I don’t buy this. I think the union attitude toward the unemployed isn’t one of indifference but of ideological blindness. They can’t, or won’t, see that paying more to people who are in work, particularly when the economy is teetering on the brink of recession, reduces the prospect of jobs for those who are unemployed.

The same muddled thinking applies to youth pay. The Left thought it was a triumph in 2008 when Parliament passed Green MP Sue Bradford’s Bill abolishing youth pay rates, thus requiring employers to pay workers aged 16 and 17 the full adult rate. But as a result, youth unemployment has skyrocketed.

Economist Eric Crampton from the University of Canterbury calculates that 12,000 more young New Zealanders would be in work today had the Bradford Bill not been passed.

This wasn’t even a case of unforeseen consequences, because the consequences were entirely predictable. Simple logic dictates that an employer is less likely to take a punt on an unskilled school leaver if that person has to be paid the same wage as an adult with a solid work record.

I could go on. In 2003, Labour introduced extra entitlements for people working on public holidays. The impact on operating costs was such that many cafes, bars and restaurants no longer open on statutory holidays, meaning their employees earn nothing – a pyrrhic victory, surely, for the workers.

Cause and effect. It’s not hard to join the dots, unless you’re ideologically blinkered.

* * *

THOUGHT for the day: If New Zealanders applied a fraction of the energy and ingenuity to their work that they devote to dressing up for the IRB Sevens, would New Zealand soon be back in the top half of the OECD prosperity rankings?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A quiet, courageous rebel

My wife isn’t normally a reader of women’s magazines, but she recently visited one of her sisters and borrowed an old copy of the Australian Women’s Weekly to while away the time on the train journey home.

It lay around our place for a couple of weeks before I happened to glance at the cover and notice a pointer to a story inside. It read: Catholic bishop: Sex, celibacy and his own abuse.

I was sufficiently intrigued to pick the magazine up and have a closer look. What I read was not the usual banal froth associated with women’s mags, but a serious, substantial and well-written story about an issue of real importance.

The magazine was dated May 2010, but I hadn’t previously heard of retired Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson. Aged 72 (or more likely 73 now), he lives in a presbytery in the inner Sydney suburbs. The photo shows a neat, slightly built, gentle-looking man with a general appearance – clothes, hair, complexion – that I instantly recognised as characteristic of Catholic clergy of a certain age.

As someone who was brought up Catholic, and persisted with Catholicism well into adulthood before spitting the dummy, I found his story interesting. Bishop Robinson obviously came from a devout Catholic home. He was sent to a Catholic seminary at the age of 12 – a practice still common then, but which now seems unthinkably cruel. Robinson himself says he was abysmally young. “Sending children to the seminary was quite wrong,” he says. It was only later that he realised the many things he had missed out on – “missing the normal mixing with other people and, obviously, with girls”.

He was sent to study in Rome at 18 and at 22 was ordained a priest. Another photo shows him on his ordination day, clad in vestments and hands clasped in the standard gesture of piety familiar to all Catholics of that generation.

Robinson told the AWW that he was sexually abused by a man in his early teens. Like many such victims he buried the experience, but it was to prove strangely relevant much later in life when he found himself, as a bishop, placed in charge of Towards Healing, a programme created by the Church to help people who had suffered abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. At the time of his appointment no one knew, the magazine says, of “the dark memories it unlocked”.

He worked with victims of clerical abuse for nine years, “hearing the traumas inflicted by men representing the church to which he had devoted his life”. It was during this time that he took his own experience of abuse down from the attic, as he puts it, and confronted the fact that he too had been abused.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Robinson says his faith in Christ never wavered; in fact it was strengthened. But his faith in the church hierarchy took a battering. The Melbourne diocese headed by the famously conservative archbishop George Pell never adopted the Towards Healing programme, preferring to create its own version, and when Pell moved to Sydney in 2001, Robinson found him too difficult to work with. He eventually retired in 2004, partly for health reasons but also because of his disillusionment with the way the church was handling the abuse scandal.

In 2007, Robinson courageously published a book entitled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. In it he called on the Church to rethink its approach to divorce, sexuality and papal infallibility. Robinson argues in the book that forced celibacy is one of the causes of sexual abuse in the Church, one that would be removed by allowing priests to marry.

He argues – persuasively, it seems to me – that celibacy is a gift not given to everyone. For Mother Teresa, in love with God and her people, celibacy made for a satisfying life; but for others in the Church, Robinson says, obligatory celibacy becomes a heavy burden that harms their ability to be good human beings. He says it can lead not just to abuse but also to alcoholism, misogyny or the seeking of power.

The book offers some intriguing insights. Robinson dismisses the theory promoted by Vatican cardinal Tarcisio Bertone that abuse by Catholic priests is all about homosexuality. Robinson believes the reason more boys than girls were abused was twofold. One factor was opportunity (priests looked after boys, nuns looked after girls) and the other, astonishingly, was that some offenders didn’t see the abuse of boys as a technical violation of their celibacy vow. “If it’s not an adult woman, then somehow they’re not breaking their vow.”

The reaction of the Church to his book was sadly predictable. He was forbidden from speaking on Church property and the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a public finding of “doctrinal difficulties” with the book.

I am often struck, when reading of such things, by the similarity between the Catholic hierarchy and the totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet communist bloc. The stilted language and the harsh intolerance of criticism have much in common. The overwhelming priority of the institution is to protect itself at all costs and to discredit the critics. The AWW quotes former priest and Catholic commentator Paul Collins as saying the hierarchy in Rome pressed the Australian bishops “to not exactly condemn Geoff, but to disown him”.

Robinson himself says one of the key problems of the Church is that the hierarchy is so caught up in its loyalty to Rome that bishops and cardinals “have in some ways forgotten their responsibility to be leaders of the local church”.

This quiet but courageous rebel’s comments resonated with me. I think I understand the theological (or perhaps I should say theoretical) arguments in favour of celibacy: total commitment to God and so on. But the insurmountable truth is that celibacy imposes a cruel, unnatural lifestyle on men who become priests, just as thrusting 12-year-old boys into the seminary did. The bizarre rationalisation of those priests who thought abusing boys somehow got around the problem of their celibacy vows is surely an example of the twisted thinking that can arise as a result of this unnatural state.

The other thing that struck me about Robinson’s experience, although it’s hardly new, is the intransigence of an increasingly isolated and ossified male hierarchy in Rome that brooks no criticism, is swift in resisting any perceived challenge to its power and control and seems so often to be in a state of denial. From what I know of Christ, it’s not the Church he would have envisaged.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The biggest little country in the world

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 2.)

We live in a fantastic little country. I am reminded of this every time I take a long road trip, which is something I like to do often.

Note that I say “little” country – which New Zealand is when compared with, say, Australia or the United States. But I never cease to be amazed at how big this little country can seem when you set out to explore it. It’s the biggest little country in the world.

There are places where the back country seems to go on forever; where you can crest the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere and look out over dramatic, rugged landscapes that give the impression of stretching to infinity.

One of the factors that contributes to that sensation of “bigness” is the sheer diversity of our scenery, which is something overseas visitors frequently comment on.

Late last year my wife and I drove from Sydney to Canberra and then from Canberra to Melbourne – all up, a journey of more than 1200 kilometres in which the scenery varied little. In New Zealand you need travel only a fraction of that distance to experience striking changes in the countryside: sub-tropical beaches, park-like farmland, limpid lakes and fast-flowing rivers, forests (both native and exotic), alpine tussock country, snow-capped mountain ranges and lots more in between.

We squeeze a helluva lot into a small package, and there are always new places to discover.

A couple of weeks ago we decided to explore one of the very few parts of the country we were unfamiliar with: the Kawhia-Raglan area on the North Island’s west coast. Our route took us north via Taranaki, where we took the Surf Highway – which skirts around Mt Taranaki, staying close to the coast – rather than the more direct road to New Plymouth via Stratford and Inglewood.

It was worth the extra travelling time. The countryside is very easy on the eye – surprisingly so for dairying country – and there are some charming small towns along the way. We particularly liked Opunake, which is set behind a pretty bay (if you don’t mind black sand) and has the look and feel of a quintessential Kiwi country town.

One of the striking things about Taranaki, particularly north of Hawera, is the luxuriant growth. Trees and shrubs thrive in the mild, relatively wet climate and you can see that the people who live there (Taranakians?) make the most of it. So many houses boasted magnificent gardens that at times we felt as though we were passing through a giant park.

At New Plymouth we booked into a motor camp where I had stayed before, and which must be one of Taranaki’s best-kept secrets. The prosaically named Belt Road Holiday Park is only a few blocks from the city centre but occupies a superb elevated site right on the coast. We enjoyed crumbed snapper and chips with a glass of riesling on the verandah of our cabin and watched the comings and goings from the port below as the sun slowly dipped into the Tasman. I never envy people who stay in sterile, five-star hotels, and least of all at times like this.

Heading north the following day we admired the neat Kiwi baches beside the bush-fringed estuary at Tongaporutu, stopped for a coffee and a muffin at the pretty settlement of Mokau (at an excellent café run, like many these days, by Asians) and gave thanks that no developer had got his clutches on this beautiful and largely unspoilt stretch of coastline. Being a long way from Auckland must help.

We took the back road to Kawhia, turning off the main highway at Awakino and winding through bush-clad hills. There were large arrows on the road at regular intervals indicating the direction of the traffic – a pointer to the fact that many of the people who travel these scenic roads, well off the beaten track, are not New Zealanders but foreign tourists in campervans. At remote Waikawau we diverted to a beach accessible only on foot through a tunnel dug in 1911. (An irrelevant point of interest: one of my daughters tells me this intriguing location featured in an episode of the TV series Sensing Murders, a farmer’s wife allegedly having been murdered there in the 1970s.)

Several times while driving, my attention was caught by what at first glance looked like common harrier hawks, but which turned out, on a second look, to be the smaller and much faster native falcons, or karearea. My Field Guide to New Zealand Birds tells me the karearea is classified as uncommon, but these impressive predators seemed quite plentiful in this sparsely populated habitat.

At the quiet little harbourside town of Kawhia, a place that gave the impression of still waiting to be discovered, we ate a late lunch and watched Maori boys jumping into the tide from the wharf (or to be more precise, from the roof of a shed on top of the wharf). Then it was onto another slow, winding road through the hills to Raglan, a much livelier and trendier destination.

Lively and trendy it may be – Raglan is a surfers’ mecca, with wall-to-wall cafes – but it’s also a very appealing place, with an attractive harbour and magnificent beaches.

To return home to the Wairarapa, we cut back through the centre of the North Island. I chose another road I hadn’t taken before: SH30 from Te Kuiti to Taupo via Benneydale. I had been intrigued by the remote coal mining settlement of Benneydale ever since reading about the staunch unionists there who went on strike in support of the watersiders in the great industrial showdown of 1951.

Benneydale today is a forlorn township that has clearly enjoyed better days. There’s still a sign pointing to the underground mine and another indicating that it remains the property of Solid Energy, but it seems mining ceased some years ago.

Further along SH30 we deviated again, into the Pureora State Forest. Here I discovered there’s a gravel road that cuts through the forest for nearly 30 kilometres (and passes close to the geographical centre of the North Island) before coming out at Tihoi, west of Lake Taupo.

We paused for a moment to consider our options: a sealed highway through farmland via Mangakino and Taupo, or a one-way metal road through one of the largest remaining tracts of native bush in the North Island. There are no prizes for guessing which route we chose.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Still crazy after all these years

It’s a strange old world and no mistake. In 1999, when the Balkan territory of Kosovo was being ethnically cleansed by Serbian nationalists (eventually triggering belated Nato retaliation in the form of bombing raids), I wrote a newspaper column expressing disgust at the inhuman acts perpetrated in the Balkans in the name of Serbian nationalism.

Though I admit it was a strongly worded column, provoking a number of angry letters and an official complaint to the New Zealand Press Council, I never imagined it would still be reverberating 12 years later. But a few days ago, on this blog, a comment appeared out of the blue – bizarrely, under an inconsequential and totally unrelated post I had written about cricket – that revives the controversy.

It came from someone writing under the name of Kelly Slater, and I now feel obliged to write this post simply to explain to mystified readers what it’s all about. Slater’s rant (assuming Slater is a genuine name, which is doubtful) obviously aroused some interest, because the post attracted an unusually high number of readers, and I can’t believe they were simply interested in my flippant comments about cricket. Hence this attempt to fill in the background.

My column was published in Wellington’s Evening Post and the Nelson Evening Mail, and though it was triggered by events in Kosovo, it was written when the memory of Serbian atrocities in Srebrenica and Sarajevo – some of the most appalling events in my lifetime – was still fresh.

Untangling exactly who was responsible for what in the ghastly charnel house that was the Balkans in the 1990s is notoriously difficult. No one – including Croatians, Muslims and Kosovars – was blameless. But there was no doubt about Serbian responsibility for the worst excesses, and that was the subject of my column. To convey the tone of it, here’s one paragraph:

“The events of the past few years in the Balkans have produced in me a deep detestation of all things Serbian. I don’t take any pride in this, but neither do I apologise for it. Humanity demands that we are repelled by the vile acts carried out in recent years in the name of Serbian nationalism.”

Chastened by some of the subsequent responses, including a conversation with an elderly Serbian woman from Levin, I partially recanted in a subsequent column in which I wrote:

“To treat all people of Serbian descent as sharing culpability for the barbaric behaviour of [Slobodan] Milosevic and his brutish gangs of murderers and rapists was quite plainly simplistic and wrong, and offensive to those Serbs who adhere to humanitarian values and are shamed by the frightful acts carried out in the name of Serbian nationalism.

“To the many good and decent Serbian people living in New Zealand, therefore, I apologise. It was quite wrong of me to visit upon them the sins of the vile people who dishonour the name of Yugoslavia. Does this mean I also retract the rest of my comments? Not for a moment.”

A reader of the Nelson Evening Mail decided I wasn't chastened enough and complained to the Press Council. The then editor of the Mail, the admirable David Mitchell, went to some lengths – far more than most editors in such circumstances – to argue in my defence, and the complaint was subsequently dismissed in a thoughtful decision written by the council's then chairman, former High Court judge Sir John Jeffries. The decision read, in part:

“The first [column] is not for racial hatred, it is against it. It is not for violence, but against it. The central point of the second column is that recourse should not be had to history to explain but that the violence should be halted right now. The political message of the piece is that Nato bombing be supported for the sole purpose of stopping the killing of thousands of Kosovars and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. When ethic cleansing is the issue some columnists choose not to express themselves by detached analysis using language of cold objectivity but prefer to startle and shock.

“This was not writing of an irresponsible, reckless or promiscuous nature. It was powerfully expressed argument laced with emotion and passion. The Council in the name of objectivity, balance and judgment should not interfere with the freedom to write and publish such material. This is highly emotive writing but it does not call for disapprobation by the Council.”

You might think the matter would have rested there, but no. In 2006 my columns were dredged up on an aggressively pro-Serbian website run by someone calling himself Jared Israel, who described me not only as racist (fair enough – I had confessed in my first column to racist sentiments toward Serbians) but as an anti-Semite as well, based on his particular interpretation of the language I used. This might come as a surprise to my Jewish friends, but there you go.

Now, another five years on, this “Kelly Slater” has weighed in. My column may be 12 years old, but that's a mere moment in time to people who still nurture bitter grudges and hatred arising from events that happened 600 years ago.

It’s pointless trying to engage in rational, coherent debate with such people; the manic-obsessive tone of his/her comments, with all their wild-eyed accusations and bizarre non-sequiturs (I don't like murderous Serbian nationalists so must love Croatians, Muslims and Kosovar organ harvesters), speaks for itself.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How will history judge John Key?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 1.)

I WONDER how history will judge John Key. On the strength of his performance so far, I think it might assess him quite harshly.

Historians may look back on these years as a time when an economically feeble, socially dysfunctional New Zealand needed bold leadership, but instead had a prime minister who was content to tread water.

Mr Key enjoys remarkable popularity but seems to lack any vision. Either that, or he’s keeping it from the rest of us.

He is personable, media-friendly and seems sincere, but nothing he has said or done since winning the 2008 election has inspired New Zealanders or energised them with a new sense of purpose.

He shows worrying signs of being addicted to popularity. History may record Mr Key as the smile-and-wave prime minister, always ready to exchange on-air jokes with breakfast disc jockeys or be photographed at Super 15 rugby training sessions, but frightened to risk his poll ratings by taking tough action on issues such as wasteful government spending, welfare dependency and economic reform.

His announcement last week of a partial privatisation of four state-owned companies, far from being radical, was a cautious step intended to appease those who are impatient for policies that might lead to the long-promised economic transformation.

Mr Key’s natural instinct seems to be to leave things as they are – hardly a formula for dynamic leadership. His greatest political talent is that his relentlessly upbeat disposition makes New Zealanders feel good about themselves, especially after the dour Helen Clark years. But complacency is the last thing we need.

All this might be less depressing if there were an alternative leader waiting in the wings, but there isn’t. In any case, it would be idle to hope that Mr Key might be elbowed aside by disgruntled National colleagues. National is a party that values power above all else, and will excuse almost any shortcomings in its leader as long as he’s creaming the Opposition in the polls.

* * *

MY REACTION on seeing a Tui beer sign outside a pub or bar is similar to that of medieval travellers arriving on the outskirts of a village and being confronted with a painted black cross warning of typhoid, cholera or leprosy. I don’t exactly flee in panic, but I make a decision to give that particular watering hole a big swerve.

Tui represents all that is ghastly about mass-produced, industrial New Zealand beer. It’s sweet, bland and gassy.

But while I’d sooner drink sump oil, you have to hand it to Tui for its phenomenal marketing story. A beer once considered a regional curiosity, virtually unsaleable outside its home territory, has been re-invented as the quintessential Kiwi brand. The crowd of 7000-plus who converged last Saturday on tiny Mangatainoka, home of the Tui brewery, to watch a Super 15 warmup match was testimony to the brand’s pulling power.

Tui’s marketers would have us believe the match between the Hurricanes and the Chiefs was all about celebrating rugby’s popularity in the rural heartland, but make no mistake: this was first and foremost a beer promotion – and an extraordinarily successful one, with more than 24,000 cans sold.

Who would have thought so many people could have so little taste?

* * *

CHANCES ARE you’ve never heard of Frank N Magid Associates, but if you watch TV One you’ve unwittingly been sucked in to this American firm’s orbit of influence.

Magid Associates, which describes itself as a research-based strategic consulting firm, has been advising TVNZ on its news presentation since at least 1999. The Herald on Sunday recently revealed that the firm’s yearly fees came to $262,000 plus travel expenses.

The state broadcaster coughed up this information very grudgingly after fending off an Official Information Act request for 12 months. Why the secrecy? TVNZ would doubtless argue commercial sensitivity, but a more likely reason is that its bosses realise it doesn’t look good for a public broadcasting organisation to be forking out large sums for advice from corporate shamans on how to massage the news.

The American consultants’ fingerprints are all over One News. You can see their influence in the constant live crosses to places where nothing is happening, in the way reporters are encouraged to cover stories in a breezy conversational tone, and in the preference for youthful, good-looking journalists – young women especially – over more experienced hands.

I also detect Magid Associates’ influence in the way certain favoured journalists are groomed as celebrities (and if rumour is correct, remunerated accordingly).

The purpose is to spice up the news, to personalise it and make it seem more compelling. TVNZ wants us to think of its newsreaders, reporters and weather presenters as our “friends”. But the ultimate effect of this news-as-schmooze approach is to debase the news and further blur what was once a clear line distinguishing it from mere entertainment.