Thursday, April 28, 2011

An intolerable distortion of democracy

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

Right now I’m glad I don’t live in Auckland. This, however, has nothing to do with the usual anti-Auckland prejudice exhibited by people living south of the Bombay Hill.

No, the reason I’m pleased not to be a resident of Auckland is that I would be seething with resentment at the way democracy has been hijacked under the city’s new governance arrangements.

The new “super city” was created in the name of efficiency. The rationale was that Auckland could never fulfil its true potential while it consisted of several municipal entities (Auckland, North Shore, Manukau and Waitakere, to name the main ones), each marching to the beat of its own drum.

Public misgivings about the forced merger of the old councils mostly centred on whether the mechanisms for democratic participation, such as community boards, would be adequate. But as the new council gets up to speed, Aucklanders are becoming acutely aware of other shortcomings.

For one thing, both the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand have reported mounting concerns about secrecy. The new agencies responsible for services such as water and transport are not obliged to admit the public or the media to their meetings, or even to reveal their agendas.

Decisions on matters of such obvious public importance as passenger transport fare increases have been made behind closed doors. According to Radio New Zealand, fare increases weren’t even mentioned on the sketchy agenda issued to the media ahead of last month’s Auckland Transport meeting.

According to an Automobile Association spokesman, most of Auckland’s transport governance is being undertaken in “complete secrecy”. Even deputy mayor Penny Hulse criticises the agency’s propensity for making key decisions in private. So much for Mayor Len Brown’s promises of transparency.

Radio New Zealand also reported that Watercare, the agency responsible for Auckland’s water supply, has its head office in central Auckland but chooses to hold its meetings at a hard-to-reach venue in suburban Mangere, the clear implication being that the agency wants to discourage pesky members of the public from turning up and asking to know what’s going on.

Mayor Brown lamely explains all this by saying that many appointees to the new agencies come from commercial rather than public sector backgrounds and aren’t accustomed to demands for public scrutiny. We heard the same excuse when government departments became state-owned enterprises back in the 1980s and enthusiastically adopted a private-sector culture, seizing on commercial sensitivity as an excuse for avoiding public accountability.

For all his talk of openness, it was Mr Brown himself who opposed a call from nine councillors for public debate on a funding package for the new Auckland Council’s Maori Statutory Board.

You can understand Mr Brown’s sensitivity, because this is where things get really scandalous.

Back in February, the council’s strategy and finance committee approved (in a closed meeting, of course) a budget of $3.4 million for the non-elected Maori board. Predictably, there was a public uproar. But when the full council cut back the allocation to $1.9 million – still several times more than the $400,000 ratepayers had been told the board would cost – the nine-member board had the chutzpah (I don’t know the appropriate Maori word, so the Yiddish one will have to do) to take legal action against the council. At the public’s expense, of course.

To its shame, the council capitulated. And when the matter came back before councillors this month, Mr Brown ensured that it was dealt with out of public view, no doubt to minimise political embarrassment.

The council’s PR spin doctors sold the outcome of that meeting as a compromise under which the council would split the difference between what the Maori board was demanding and what the council had offered. But as Herald columnist Brian Rudman pointed out, once all the extras were added up – support services, office accommodation and so forth – the final budget was only $300,000 short of the outrageous original demand.

The ratepayers, in short, were comprehensively shafted.

That much of this happened in secret is only the lesser part of the scandal. Far more outrageous is that a non-elected board of Maori advisors – chosen by an unaccountable “iwi selection body” and meekly rubber-stamped by a National government anxious to stay onside with the Maori Party – has been able to bully an elected council into doing things its way, and to hell with the cost to ratepayers.

But hang on; it gets even worse. Two representatives of that non-elected Maori Statutory Body will have full voting rights on council committees – in other words, equal power with elected councillors.

This is a travesty that even the Left finds offensive. MP Phil Twyford, the Labour Party’s Auckland issues spokesman, said it went against a fundamental principle of democracy. And the Left-leaning Rudman wrote that he couldn’t think of any model of democracy in which government appointees, not elected by the people they purported to represent, shared voting rights with elected representatives.

I agree. Mind you, Labour wanted dedicated Maori seats on the council, similar to those in Parliament – and that would be an intolerable distortion of democracy too.

Should we non-Aucklanders be concerned? Yes, because once special rights for Maori are entrenched in Auckland they will set a precedent that will be applied elsewhere.

Maoridom, citing special status as tangata whenua, has already succeeded in uncoupling itself from normal democratic principles. The creation of dedicated Maori seats on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council in 2004 – modelled on the anachronistic Maori seats in Parliament, whose existence has become even less defensible since the advent of MMP – effectively created a parallel electoral system that specially favours Maori.

Local Government Minister Rodney Hide ruled out a similar arrangement in Auckland, but Maori have ended up wielding disproportionate power anyway. Maori opinion carries more weight than non-Maori in Auckland’s new governance arrangements, yet there is less accountability; in fact none. A fundamental and long-standing democratic nexus has been severed.

Where this will lead, in an increasingly multicultural society, remains to be seen. At some point the burgeoning Maori sense of entitlement may collide head-on with the rising expectations of other ethnic groups such as Asians, who will soon outnumber them.

As Rudman pointedly asked last week, what will John Key and Mayor Brown say when the Chinese knock on their doors and ask for guaranteed council seats like those awarded to Maori? Through their willingness to accede to Maori demands, today’s politicians risk piling up potentially ugly problems for future generations to untangle.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A stadium of four million suckers

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

THE LIKELY cost to Auckland ratepayers of the Rugby World Cup has now been put at $103 million and rising. That includes $3 million-plus for the privilege of acquiring the extra three matches transferred from quake-stricken Christchurch. Some bonus.

I’m not sure whether the figure also takes into account the staggering $3.07 million cost of erecting a proposed giant TV screen in Aotea Square – a project the former Auckland City Council approved on the basis of an airy-fairy estimate of $1.65 million.

Isn’t it funny how often that happens? Politicians and officials get sucked in by grandiose projects on the basis of optimistic cost projections, then meekly agree to pay up when the costs blow out, as they invariably do. What the heck – it’s only ratepayers’ money.

Expect to see these shenanigans replicated around the country, albeit on a less spectacular scale than in Auckland, as the Rugby World Cup nears.

In the same week as Auckland’s big-screen blowout was revealed, it was announced that Hamilton ratepayers would have to fork out an extra $410,000 because someone decided the floodlights at Waikato Stadium weren’t up to RWC standard – and all this for just one match, since the other two Hamilton fixtures will be played during the day.

There’s a pattern here. A massive PR blitz has seduced us all into thinking the RWC is such a wondrous event that we should not only swallow the massive bill – never mind that the country’s broke – but also put up with an unconscionable suppression of normal commercial competition on the ground that the interests of the precious sponsors must be protected. (The latest news is that even fund-raising sausage sizzles will be forbidden from the “clean zones” around RWC venues.)

We’re a stadium of four million, all right – four million captive suckers, comprehensively being shafted by an unholy alliance of powerful sports administrators, sycophantic politicians and hard-nosed multinational corporates that probably don’t give a toss about rugby.

* * *

MAY I MAKE a prediction? Celia Wade-Brown will be a one-term mayor of Wellington.

I think of her as the accidental mayor. I can’t believe that anyone outside her immediate circle of fervent Green supporters really expected her to be elected. The citizens of Wellington must have scratched their heads and wondered how it happened.

The obvious explanation is that just enough people were tired of Kerry Prendergast to sway the result. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Wellington wanted Ms Wade-Brown as mayor; merely that she was the least scary – and probably the best organised – of Ms Prendergast’s rivals to whom people could give their protest vote.

My guess is that many of those who cast votes for Ms Wade-Brown never imagined that lots of others would do the same – enough to give her a winning margin of 176.

Ms Wade-Brown seems pleasant enough, and I’m sure she’s well-intentioned; but she gives the impression of being flaky and ineffectual. She may grow into the job, as some initially unpromising people do, but there’s not much sign of it so far. And the events of last week show that opposition to her is hardening around the council table.

And what about super-mayor Len Brown in Auckland? He looks a one-termer too, though for different reasons. He gives the impression of being emotionally brittle. One wonders whether he has the constitution for such a punishing, high-pressure job.

I predict that after a short but spectacular spell in office, the highly strung Mr Brown will explode or burst into flames.

* * *

A MOMENT’S silence, if you please, while we mourn another useful word whose meaning is slowly but surely being eroded by misuse.

“Majority” is a word that relates to numbers. My Chambers Concise Dictionary says it refers to the greatest number or the largest group. Fowler’s Modern English Usage defines it as a superiority in numbers or the greater number. Hence we say that a majority of MPs voted in favour of the Coastal and Marine Bill, or that a newspaper opinion poll showed a majority of respondents didn’t object to John Key using an air force Iroquois to get from a V8 car race to a golf club dinner.

All very simple. Yet I frequently hear people who should know better, such as journalists, using “majority” as if it can be applied to mass, volume or area.

A Radio New Zealand reporter recently suggested that New Zealand could export the majority of its oil, while on television a foreign correspondent informed us that the majority of Libya consists of desert. What’s wrong with that good old-fashioned word “most”, for heaven’s sake?

It’s all very well to say that English is in a constant state of evolutionary flux, but when we blur the usage of a word with a specific function, we rob the language of its greatest virtue – its precision.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The celebrity cult that has contaminated sport

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

FAMOUS English football manager Harry Redknapp can’t understand why Manchester United’s star striker Wayne Rooney behaves like a spoiled brat. Perhaps I can help.

Commenting on Rooney’s expletive-laden outburst into a TV camera after he scored a hat-trick of goals against West Ham, Redknapp said he didn’t remember Bobby Charlton (legendary Manchester United player of the 1960s) doing that.

“Why do these young players have to be so angry with the world?” Redknapp continued. “I don’t know why. They are getting hundreds of thousands of pounds a week.”

Well, exactly. Redknapp has answered his own question.

Sports stars like Rooney behave like spoiled brats because they are spoiled brats. Feted and fawned over, pumped up by media attention and preposterous salaries (Rooney is reportedly on £250,000 a week, or $525,000 in our terms), they ooze braggadocio and hubris.

That they lack any personal discipline should come as no surprise to anyone. Petulant behaviour and attention-seeking come with the territory.

This is the price we pay for the celebrity cult that has contaminated sport, spawning a generation of cosseted, self-absorbed and thoroughly unpleasant individuals of whom Rooney is merely the latest example.

Part of the problem, as former England test cricketer Ed Smith observed in a recent article in The Spectator, is that there’s no balance in the lives of highly paid sporting professionals. They live in a bubble, disconnected from the real world.

Oafish prima donnas like Rooney would be brought back to earth with a thump if they had Monday-to-Friday jobs in an office or factory, or spouses demanding that they paint the roof and change the baby’s nappies.

Here in New Zealand we have our own celebrity sports stars, many of whom seem confused about whether they belong on the sports field or the cover of women’s magazines. Thankfully they don’t include anyone as obnoxious as Rooney, but they do show worrying symptoms of the same self-absorption and star syndrome.

It’s instructive to recall that in 1987, when the All Blacks were preparing for the first Rugby World Cup under Brian Lochore, they were taken by bus to the tiny South Wairarapa settlement of Pirinoa and billeted with local farming families. Now only the best hotels suffice for the ABs and their ever-expanding retinue of attendants.

That, of course, was the only World Cup New Zealand has won. Perhaps there’s a moral there somewhere.

* * *

AT LAST we are seeing a point of difference emerging between the Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee National and Labour parties. It’s not much, but it’s something.

It’s all to do with public spending and the size of government. National has seized on the ballooning cost of the Christchurch quake, which has exacerbated our already bleak economic predicament and mounting public debt, as an excuse for doing what a conservative government should do anyway: namely, reduce the level of government, and in particular the disproportionate share of the economy accounted for by state spending.

This is heresy to Labour, which clings to its touching belief in the ability of big government to solve every problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

One of the eternal verities of politics is that it’s much easier for politicians to give something than to take it away, as demonstrated by the howls of outrage over cuts to subsidised early childhood education (spending on which had reportedly trebled over five years to $1.4 billion, for very little benefit).

The same is true of public service numbers. Few people sounded the alarm when the number of public servants climbed by 10,000 under Labour, but when numbers are cut back by a mere one-fifth of that figure, the outcry is deafening.

* * *

OH DEAR. The shambles on Wellington suburban railway lines goes from bad to worse. Barely a day goes by without anguished letters in the paper lamenting delays, overcrowding, the replacement of trains with buses and the non-appearance of the long-promised Matangi trains.

The new Korean-built trains are rapidly assuming the mythic status of the Loch Ness monster. People claim to have seen one; some even profess to have ridden in one. But as the weeks pass, public scepticism grows. It’s only a matter of time before train spotters start turning up at the Dominion Post with fuzzy photographs, taken from a distance in poor light, as proof of the trains’ existence.

No one should doubt the ideological commitment of Greater Wellington regional council (sorry, Te Pane Matua Taiao) to public transport. The fleet of empty buses I see trundling around the roads of the Wairarapa – buses that no one asked for, as far as I can ascertain – is proof that the council is determined to get us out of our cars, even if it goes bankrupt in the process. But the trains fiasco makes you wonder whether the council’s commitment is matched by the ability to deliver.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A seriously retrograde step

Even accepting that every institution has a natural lifespan, the impending demise (let’s call it euthanasia) of the New Zealand Press Association is unquestionably a setback for New Zealand journalism – and not just because 40-odd journalists will be put out of work, though I certainly wouldn’t want to be thrown on the job market in the present economic climate.

Nor is the closure of NZPA simply a matter of sentimental regret, or even one that should be of concern only to journalists.

NZPA has fulfilled an historically significant role – one that remains valid even in the digital era. When it was launched in 1880, NZPA had the effect of bringing New Zealand together. For the first time, via the telegraph, New Zealanders had ready access to news and information from beyond their own regions. Historians have credited this with creating a sense of national cohesion in place of the narrow, regional parochialism that previously prevailed. At its peak, 74 member newspapers subscribed to the NZPA service, which gave them access to news of importance supplied by other member papers from all over the country.

It was a co-operative arrangement that worked well. It was especially important to smaller provincial papers with limited resources, which relied heavily on NZPA content to fill their pages each day; not so crucial to metropolitan papers such as the New Zealand Herald and The Press, which had much more substantial reporting staffs.

NZPA provided the means by which readers in Whangarei and Timaru could be informed of a murder trial in Invercargill or a plane crash in the King Country. The association supplemented this nuts-and-bolts news service by providing political coverage for smaller newspapers that couldn’t afford to maintain their own reporting staff in Parliament, and at its peak – in the 1960s and 70s – it had a network of overseas correspondents seeking out stories of significance to New Zealand from places like London, Washington and Hong Kong. In addition, NZPA served as a clearing house for international news sourced from agencies such as Reuters and AAP.

One reason the co-operative model succeeded was that until the 1970s, the newspaper industry consisted of a string of independent (mostly family-owned) papers, very few of which competed head-on with rivals in their own cities. They could afford to be magnanimous about providing news to papers in other regions that posed no direct threat.

But even after two big chains – INL and Wilson and Horton – came to dominate the industry through a process of mergers and takeovers in the 1970s and 80s, NZPA held together largely because the heads of those two groups, Mike Robson and Michael Horton, had grown up with the co-operative arrangements and understood their historical importance. (The late Robson, who headed INL, was himself a former NZPA man.) Competitive tensions often arose, particularly between The Dominion and the Herald , whose circulation areas overlapped, but were generally resolved without blood being spilled.

All that changed when the two groups fell under Australian control. The co-operative model was alien to the modus operandi of Fairfax, which acquired INL, and APN, which took over Wilson and Horton. These two groups had a history of aggressive rivalry in Australia and couldn’t understand why they were expected to share news with each other. From the moment the Aussies found themselves in the unfamiliar position of sharing ownership of NZPA, the agency was on a slippery slope.

In fact NZPA came perilously close to collapse as early as 2004, when Fairfax threatened to withdraw from the agency after APN launched its Herald on Sunday in opposition to Fairfax’s Sunday Star Times and Sunday News. NZPA survived only by undergoing a radical restructuring, effective from January 1 2006, that involved abandoning the co-operative model and reconstituting itself as a wholly commercial service

Under these arrangements, member papers no longer fed news to the agency. Instead NZPA generated news using its own staff and a network of part-time correspondents scattered around the country. Revenue was generated on a user-pays basis rather than by the traditional arrangements, whereby NZPA was funded by subscriptions paid by member papers.

One immediate effect was that NZPA went from effectively having several hundred reporters in newspaper offices around the country to being reliant on a few dozen of its own staff, mostly based in Wellington, augmented by the part-time “stringers”. It was a pale shadow of the old service but at least the restructuring bought a stay of execution. And in hindsight, that’s exactly what it was – because as radical as the 2006 upheaval was, it probably succeeded only in postponing the inevitable. NZPA now seems to have been doomed from the moment the Australians took control. The co-operative model just didn’t fit the business plans of the big two companies.

So what are the consequences likely to be? First, it will hurt APN more than it hurts Fairfax. This no doubt helps explain why it’s Fairfax, not APN, that has forced NZPA’s impending closure. Fairfax has a substantial competitive advantage over its rival because it controls a much bigger part of the country. The only areas in which Fairfax papers are not dominant are Auckland, Northland, the Bay of Plenty, Wanganui, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, the Wairarapa, the West Coast and Otago (where the still-independent Otago Daily Times still holds sway). Auckland is APN's citadel; its provincial papers are minor players.

The rest of the country – the Waikato, Taranaki, the lower North Island and virtually the entire South Island – is Fairfax territory. This means Fairfax has been able to develop an in-house news-sharing network that almost rivals that of the old NZPA. Former NZPA editor John Crowley has been busy behind the scenes at Fairfax for the past several years, presumably doing just that. APN is much less favourably placed and will struggle to match Fairfax for coverage. Seen in that light, yesterday’s announcement can be interpreted as Fairfax exploiting its geographical supremacy and putting its foot on the throat of its bitter rival.

And what of the wider consequences? One will be that NZPA’s non-newspaper clients – which include radio and TV – will lose a valuable source of news. But far more important will be the impact on newspaper readers.

Former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis, who completed a thesis for his master’s degree on the consequences of NZPA’s 2006 restructuring, pointed out on Morning Report that newspapers will no longer have access to NZPA’s political coverage. This will be a loss because NZPA covered the daily nuts-and-bolts of politics – select committee hearings, parliamentary debates – that the major papers had long since lost interest in, presumably because they weren’t seen as sexy.

Even more worrying is that the existing “black holes” in news coverage will become wider and blacker still. Under the old co-operative model, NZPA had the entire country covered (though some papers were conspicuously less conscientious than others about meeting their obligations to the agency). The black holes started to become evident after 2006, when NZPA’s traditional sources dried up and the flow of news from the regions slowed to a trickle. The gaps will become even more obvious once NZPA passes into extinction. Fairfax papers can be expected to provide coverage from regions where Fairfax holds sway, but what about those parts of the country where it has no presence? More to the point, how will APN papers get news from the vast swathes of territory where APN is unrepresented? Doubtless they will do what they can, particularly when big stories break. But the service will be no substitute for the comprehensive, day-to-day coverage traditionally provided by NZPA.

The net result is that New Zealanders will know less about themselves. Parts of the country that have already faded from view since 2005 because of attenuated news coverage may become damned-near invisible, other than when a catastrophe occurs (as at Pike River).

Try as I might, I can’t see this as anything other than a seriously retrograde step. If the creation of NZPA in 1880 helped bind the country together, then its demise is likely to have the reverse effect.