Saturday, October 29, 2011

A tribute to Roger Kerr

News of the death of Roger Kerr, executive director of the Business Roundtable, comes as a shock even though we were primed to expect it. He died last night of metastatic melanoma, a particularly evil form of skin cancer that was diagnosed last year.

I wouldn’t describe Roger as a close personal friend, but I had known him for more than 20 years. He had led the Business Roundtable since its inception in 1985, having come to it from a distinguished career with Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I admired Roger for his formidable intellect and grasp of the big issues confronting New Zealand, but even more for his dogged perseverance and optimism in pursuing what he believed in. He was an articulate and persuasive champion of an open economy, free markets, smaller government, deregulation and individual freedom – causes that he pushed tirelessly despite vicious attacks from the Left and apathy from politicians for whom bold economic reform was just too hard.

He always seemed polite, upbeat and good-humoured. To his great credit, he never descended to personal abuse, although at times he must have been sorely tempted to respond in kind to the verbal assaults on his character. Perhaps he just developed a thick skin.

Roger persisted in giving politicians the message even when it was clear they didn’t want to listen. He gave them credit when they did the right thing but was always urging them to do more.

He kept up the pressure right till the end. His latest statement, stressing the need for more decisive action on the economy and government accounts, landed in my inbox on Wednesday, following Treasury’s issue of the pre-election economic and fiscal update.

Roger was often wilfully misrepresented by his opponents. He was characterised as a sinister, behind-the-scenes manipulator who sought favours for “big business”, but I don’t believe special treatment for business was part of his agenda. What he wanted was an economic and regulatory environment that would enable New Zealand to perform to its full potential, to the ultimate benefit of everyone. Above all else, he was a patriotic New Zealander.

My sympathy goes to his wife, Catherine Isaac, and to his family.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My cousin Brendan

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 26.)]

I was privileged last week to attend an unusual funeral in Nelson.

It was the funeral of a first cousin whom I barely knew. Brendan was born intellectually disabled and placed in care while still in in infancy. He was to remain in the care of the state all his life.

As was often the way then (this was 1953), his parents were advised that institutionalisation was the best course, both for him and for them.

Brendan was sent to the Braemar Home in Nelson. We can barely imagine the heartache this caused his parents, a warm and loving couple with one other child, an older daughter.

Letters that Brendan’s mother wrote to Braemar inquiring about his health and wellbeing give a small insight into the pain and grief she must have felt at giving up her baby son. Reading them today (they were kept on his file) is painful. But parents in those days were more inclined than they are now to defer to “expert” opinion. Doctors knew what was best.

In the wider family, Brendan was barely mentioned. It was normal in those days to draw a veil over such matters – not out of shame or fear of stigma, but more as a way of coping.

Attitudes were different two generations ago and it’s pointless, and I think unfair, to judge what happened then by today’s standards. People put heartbreaking events behind them and got on with life as best they could.

As it turned out, Brendan’s mental disability wasn’t severe compared with some, and, in hindsight, less limiting than his parents (who died many years ago) were led to believe. Today a child with his impairment would probably be raised at home and possibly even sent to a mainstream school.

Brendan grew up at Braemar and from the very start, it seems, was showered with love and affection by those caring for him. Although his communication skills were limited, people were drawn to him by his engaging, outgoing personality and obvious enjoyment of life.

In the 1980s the government adopted a controversial policy of de-institutionalisation which resulted in Brendan being moved from Braemar into the community. This meant living with other intellectually disabled people and caregivers in an ordinary suburban house.

The benefits of de-institutionalisation are still being vigorously debated today. It’s fair to say that the policy worked well for some but not for everyone.

In the case of mentally ill people, as opposed to the intellectually disabled, it often had adverse consequences. But Brendan seems to have thrived in the new environment.

The many photos displayed at his funeral were evidence of a full and active life. He enjoyed trips to the North Island, accompanied by a caregiver, to visit his sister and a much-loved aunty who took a close interest in him and encouraged his love of music.

When the plane touched down on these trips, a delighted Brendan would thrust his arms aloft in the thumbs-up signal and loudly call out “Good one!”, much to the amusement of his fellow passengers.

He was taken on a two-day kayaking trip in the Abel Tasman National Park. He took a flight in a light plane and drove a go-kart and dodgem cars (his caregivers drew the line, though, at bungee-jumping).

He loved Maori culture and the haka, which he pronounced “ha-ha”. One photo showed him proudly posing with a grass-skirted Maori entertainer in Rotorua. Brendan’s principal caregiver for more than 20 years, a cheerful, no-nonsense nurse named Lyn, joked that he had such an affinity for Maoridom that people wondered whether there was Maori blood somewhere in the family (er, not to the best of my knowledge).

Brendan’s physical state deteriorated in recent months and he was moved from the home where he had lived for several years to another that provided a higher level of care. He developed pneumonia and died peacefully on a Sunday morning, not in a frightening and unfamiliar hospital ward but in his own room, surrounded by people and things he knew. He was 58.

As I said at the start of this column, I barely knew Brendan. I now wish I’d known him better.

I went to the funeral with my sister not knowing quite what to expect, but it was a joyous occasion. Rain was forecast but never eventuated, so we gathered in the bright Nelson sunshine on the deck of the spacious, modern home in Richmond where he spent his last weeks.

Brendan’s caregivers, present and former, turned out in numbers, as did his fellow residents (or clients, as they’re called these days). There was a lot of laughter – they’re a jovial bunch, these caregivers – and a few tears.

The stories told about Brendan portrayed a man who, for all his disadvantages, led a full and happy life. He certainly deserved to be more than a dark family secret, as was once the fate of such people.

For me, it was something of a revelation to learn of the warmth and devotion that surrounded Brendan in death and in life.

Most of us think that looking after the intellectually disabled must be a particularly thankless field of health care, but there was no mistaking the love and dedication of the staff who gathered to farewell my cousin, or the reward they got in return. I was told that Lyn had postponed retirement several times so she could continue caring for him.

Another nurse told me Brendan would rush up and cuddle her when she turned up at work each day. “What other job is there,” she asked me, “where you’re greeted with a hug every morning?”

Some of Brendan’s fellow residents are immobile and incapable of communicating or doing anything for themselves. It takes a particular type of person to do this work: someone possessed of infinite patience and able to see that inside the helpless body and contorted face, there’s a human being who deserves love, attention and affection.

Very few of us are equal to this challenge, yet society’s ability to care for those totally dependent on others is a fundamental measure of our humanity. We are collectively in the debt of these largely unsung heroines and heroes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A field day for kibitzers

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 25.)

KIBITZER is a wonderful Yiddish word for which there’s no precise equivalent in English. It means someone who stands around giving unwanted advice.

Kibitzers, usually men of a certain age, have had the time of their lives since the container ship Rena hit the rocks. Tune into any talkback show and you’ll hear them expounding on all the things the authorities have done wrong and how, with a pair of tin snips, a garden hose and a roll of duct tape, they could have had the containers offloaded, the oil pumped out and the ship safely refloated within 24 hours. If only someone had asked them.

Listening to talkback radio, I am agog at the depth of engineering knowledge – salvage expertise too, it seems – acquired by Kiwi blokes who have spent a lifetime changing the oil in Mark II Cortinas, sharpening the blades on the Masport and clearing blockages under the kitchen sink. I mean, who would have thought?

Speaking of the Rena, I worry for Britain because it seems we’ve pinched all their experts on maritime safety and salvage operations. As was also noticeable in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, a striking number of the officials who appear on the TV news each night to update us on developments speak with British accents.

There was a time in New Zealand when virtually every union spokesman had an accent that identified them as English or Scottish. Nothing puzzling about that; they were simply carrying on the class war. But can anyone explain why so many British immigrants end up working for regulatory authorities?

* * *

I WAS SHOCKED last week by the cost of a return air fare between Wellington and Nelson, particularly when compared with a recent international flight. So I did some sums.

Wellington-Los Angeles return via Auckland is a round trip of roughly 22,000 kilometres. Cost flying Air New Zealand: about $2400.

Wellington-Nelson return is a round trip of about 264 kilometres. Cost flying Air New Zealand: $361.

I’m no Einstein, but I calculate that flying to LA (with meals and drinks provided) costs slightly more than 10 cents per kilometre while the cost of flying to Nelson (with a complimentary drink of water) is $1.36 cents per km, or nearly 14 times as much.

You can’t help but feel the national carrier is taking advantage of its virtual monopoly on some provincial routes, particularly when a friend tells me he booked a return flight on Air New Zealand from Wellington to Queenstown for less than $160. The difference? Competition.

Oh, and I paid $27 for nine hours’ parking at Wellington Airport when you can get all-day parking for $12 in the CBD. But no one ever pretended that capitalism is perfect.

* * *

IN A RECENT column I complained that making a one-off donation to a charity invites a barrage of unwanted mail for years thereafter. The assumption is that having given once, you’re fair game.

More recently I’ve been reminded of another fundraising technique that’s even more intrusive. This happens when you respond to a telephone charity appeal and then get phoned annually by someone asking if you’ll be repeating your donation.

The expectation seems to be that you’ll comply. I object to this because it puts people on the spot in a way that a letter doesn’t. Many New Zealanders are too meek and polite to say “no” to someone soliciting donations on the phone.

Old-fashioned door-to-door salesmen knew that the key to making a sale was to get inside the house. Most householders – usually women at home alone – were then psychologically vulnerable because they thought the only way to get rid of the intruder without any unpleasantness was by making a purchase.

Telephone appeals use essentially the same technique. Once they’ve got you on the phone there’s nowhere to run.

Worse still, some charities follow up the phone call with what they call an “invoice”, which implies a legal obligation to pay. I accept that raising funds is a challenge in a market crowded with hundreds of deserving charities, but this is getting perilously close to a hard sell.

* * *

A MOMENT’S silence, please, while we mourn the loss of another good word.

“Passion” was once used mainly to describe a particularly ardent form of love. But like so many other words, its piquancy has been eroded by misuse.

“Passion” these days is something sports writers ascribe to sports teams. In future, no writer will be able to use the word without conjuring up images of Brad Thorn.

It’s just one of a grab-bag of New Age, psychobabble cliches that are now applied to sport. We constantly hear about teams possessing self-belief, having their character tested, being on a journey, wanting to express themselves and - perhaps worst of all - “living the dream”.

Good grief. I bet Colin Meads never talked like that.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Take a deep breath, Pinky, and read it again

In more than 40 years of column writing (not continuously, but in every decade back to the 1960s), I’ve learned a couple of things.

One is that you can never be sure what’s going to provoke a reaction, so it’s pointless writing something with the sole intention of stirring people up. Columns that you think will bring the sky down on your head go unremarked, while some that you think innocuous unleash a barrage of condemnation. (There was a time when I would have said that religion was the exception to this general rule; that anything touching on religion was bound to rattle people’s cages, believers and non-believers alike. But we are now such a secular society I don’t think even that’s true.)

Another thing that I’ve learned is that no matter how carefully you try to express yourself clearly and unambiguously, you cannot control the meaning that people will take from what you write. People will see what they think they see, or in some cases, whatever their prejudices lead them to see.

This was confirmed again last Friday when I happened to hear comedian Pinky Agnew on The Week That Was, the weekly slot on Kathryn Ryan’s radio programme in which guests comment in a supposedly humorous way on the events of the week. Pinky lined me up for a bit of stick over something I’d written in my Curmudgeon column in the Dominion Post a few days before (see below on this blog).

Fair enough – but perhaps she should have taken a deep breath and read my column a second time before launching forth.

According to Pinky, I’d been “yammering on” about New Zealanders’ propensity for wearing black. Yammering on? My dictionary defines “yammer” as to complain loudly and at length, but my reference to New Zealanders’ fashion sense consisted of just one paragraph in an 820-word column.

Well, okay – we all indulge in hyperbole. But then Pinky accused me of specifically targeting women - "he's criticising women of course" - and Wellington women at that. In fact my column didn’t single out women. I used the all-inclusive pronoun “we” (as in, “how drab and sombre we all look”), which I thought made it pretty clear that I wasn’t making any distinction between men and women. (As it happens, I’ve written several times in the past about the dull conformity of the clothing worn by the corporate male.)

And where on earth did she get the Wellington angle? My column was prompted by my observations in Auckland Airport. How could someone read the word Auckland and see Wellington? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps Pinky can explain.

An Auckland friend of mine who heard her was as nonplussed as I was. She emailed me later in the day: “I have just read your blog and for the life of me can’t understand what that woman was going on about. I gathered from her comments that you had been talking about women in Wgtn. The only mention you made was of people – not women – at Auckland Airport.” She had wondered whether Pinky was talking about another column not yet posted on my blog.

You could perhaps excuse Pinky if my comments had been made on radio or television. Something said on the airwaves is gone a moment later and there’s often no way to confirm you heard what you thought you heard. But a newspaper column? It’s not hard to check. It’s there in black and white, and these days on the Net for good measure.

I can only conclude that Pinky took the meaning she did from my column because she had me typecast as a sexist male. The human mind indeed works in peculiar ways. As a columnist, there's no way to counter this.

Incidentally, that Curmudgeon column also confirmed anew the other lesson referred to in the opening paragraph of this blog post. I would have thought that if any subject covered in the column would provoke a response, it would be the reference to tragic tech geeks and their hunger for new devices to play with. But no; it was my mention of our fondness for sombre clothing that wound people up, generating two stories with pictures in the following day’s paper – one on page 1 and another on page 3 – and 75 comments on the Stuff website, ranging from incoherent and sub-literate to sharp and insightful (all the latter, of course, being from those who agreed with me).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Rugby World Cup of two halves

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 12.)

I am in two minds, almost literally, about the Rugby World Cup, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

On the one hand, you can look at the event as purely a sporting contest in which teams from around the world compete, in theory, to find out who’s best. (I say “in theory” because the RWC really only determines which team performs best “on the day”. There are probably half a dozen teams capable of winning if the ball bounces their way.)

On this level – as a showcase of skill, athleticism, tactics, brute force and dogged determination – the Cup so far has been a great success. Rugby fans have been treated to some sensational contests and, in the very best sporting tradition, a couple of monumental upsets.

Who would have thought, for example, that Ireland would beat Australia? Certainly not the Australians. Or that Tonga, having gone down to Canada in the early stages of the tournament, would turn around two weeks later and humiliate France, one of rugby’s great powers?

Then there was the breathtakingly close result in the Scotland-England game, when England clinched a narrow victory in the dying minutes. How the New Zealand fans – no friends of the English – would have savoured an upset win by the underdogs in that fixture.

On such occasions, sport becomes a compelling drama that can stir even sceptical non-fans. A friend told me that he heard broadcaster Brian Edwards – not exactly your stereotypical rugby follower – admitting on the radio that, to his surprise, he found himself not only watching but getting emotionally involved.

It’s been rewarding, too, to see the so-called “minnows” of the game – teams such as Georgia, Romania, Russia and Namibia – enjoying their moment of glory, or at least international exposure, on the world stage.

A sports writer in the illustrious New York Times made the mistake of writing an article in which he rubbished the RWC format and suggested it was absurd that such weak rugby countries were pitted against mighty teams like South Africa and Australia.

He was howled down by readers, including many knowledgeable American rugby enthusiasts, who pointed out that the “minnows” relished this opportunity to compete against their heroes, even if the scores were crazily lopsided, and that it was only by exposure to such international competition that such sides could hope to lift their game and promote rugby in their home countries.

That’s another respect in which the Cup seems to have been a success: it’s great PR for rugby, raising international awareness and appreciation of the game and boosting its profile in countries where it’s only a minor code.

There’s no doubt New Zealanders have helped achieve this by getting behind the event, turning it into a nationwide party and making sure that no team lacked vocal support.

The Wairarapa, where I live, officially adopted the Georgian XV and swung in behind the team with gusto. Masterton turned on a welcome parade in the main street and Georgian flags were still fluttering around town a week after the team bowed out of the contest.

Again, people who thought themselves well and truly inoculated against rugby fever have told me they were surprised at the way they were swept along by the contagious enthusiasm for the event.

For all that, however, the RWC has been tarnished. Because you can also look at the tournament as an example of sport being subverted – you could almost say corrupted – by money, greed and corporatism.

The International Rugby Board cynically took advantage of New Zealanders’ love of the game by charging them far more to see their own team play than any other – and this after taxpayers and ratepayers had forked out tens of millions of dollars (one estimate put it at $1 billion-plus) to subsidise the event and to ensure facilities conformed with the nitpicking requirements of the IRB, the broadcasters and the sponsors.

In fact admission prices for all but the minor games were set at a level most people couldn’t afford, and it was no surprise that that there were empty seats at the quarterfinal matches.

Providers of accommodation and other services got in on the act by hiking their prices, and why wouldn’t they? They were only taking their cue from the organisers.

Meanwhile Parliament, to its shame, demeaned itself by kowtowing to the IRB and passing draconian legislation – the Major Events Management Act – to protect the precious interests of sponsors.

The creation of advertising-free “clean zones”, patrolled by government enforcers, went far beyond what was reasonably justified to ward off so-called ambush marketers.

It was a distasteful display of bullying that also set a disturbing precedent for the regulation of free speech, since a government that can be persuaded to outlaw certain types of advertising at the behest of rugby sponsors might also be tempted to crack down on other forms of expression that it decides are inconvenient.

The extreme reach of the new laws, which will remain on the statute books after the RWC has finished, became apparent when it was revealed that even the St John’s ambulance service had to cover sponsors’ logos on ambulances and uniforms for fear of incurring a massive fine.

As the RWC progressed, the oppressive heavy-handedness of the IRB became progressively more absurd. A helicopter firm was warned not to fly over Eden Park because its company name was visible (it seems the IRB’s rights now extend to airspace) and two Samoan players were fined $10,000 each for wearing unapproved mouthguards – mouthguards, for heaven’s sake!

The ridicule and contempt heaped on the IRB over that episode was richly deserved, especially when the same pompous, arrogant, Northern Hemisphere rugby establishment had turned a blind eye to illegal ball-switching by the English team. Cheating you can get away with, apparently, but don’t dare upset the precious sponsors.

Did the IRB get the message? Clearly not, because only days later we learned it had issued rules about what players could write on the strapping around their wrists, where some players inscribe biblical references or allow family members to put messages.

This obsessive micro-control discredits rugby and has soured an otherwise wonderful event, but that’s what happens when sport is captured by men in suits.

For the fans and for most, if not all of, the players, rugby is still about sport. But for the game’s administrators and the broadcasters and sponsors who bankroll it, it’s all about money – and the two are not always compatible bedmates.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A crushing letdown for the Apple faithful

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 11.)

A COUPLE of years ago I was taken aback at the sight of a lunchtime queue stretching along Lambton Quay. It turned out they were standing in line to buy the latest Apple product, which was being released that day.

It must have occurred to them that they could return the following day, by which time the rush would have subsided, and buy the item without having to wait.

They must also have known that if they waited a few months they’d get it 50 per cent cheaper, which is always the way with cutting-edge technology. But the compulsion to get their hands on it right there and then was obviously too powerful to resist.

Last week we saw another outburst of Applemania with the release of a new Apple phone called the iPhone 4S. The event was anticipated with much the same eagerness as a fervent Jehovah’s Witness might await the Second Coming. But oh, dear – the new model wasn’t quite what the Apple faithful were hoping for.

They were expecting an iPhone 5 and all they got was a “refresh” of the iPhone 4, said one. Another complained that it wasn’t as sleek and curvy as he’d hoped, and wouldn’t let people make credit card purchases by waving phones in front of sensors. (I ask you – how primitive is that?)

The sense of disappointment – betrayal, almost – was palpable.

The parallels with religion are striking. There has been much comment in recent weeks about rugby being elevated to the level of religion, but here’s a segment of the population for which technology is the new God.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to make comparisons with drug addiction. The tech-heads constantly crave a bigger fix. The iPhone 4 doesn’t do it for them anymore (though it was released only last year) and the 4S, which they were counting on to recreate that exhilarating rush, has let them down. They demand a more potent hit.

But what happens if and when the information technology industry can no longer satisfy the appetite for ever-faster, more powerful devices? The desolation of the Apple devotees in that event can only be imagined. Life will cease to hold any meaning.

* * *

RETURNING home after spending time overseas, you often see New Zealand in a new light.

Coming back from a trip to Japan years ago, I was struck by how big and ungainly we dairy-fed New Zealanders seemed. Compared with the grace and delicacy of the Japanese, even our women had the appearance of front-row forwards.

What struck me on my latest return, this time after six weeks in America, was how drab and sombre we all look. Killing time in Auckland Airport while waiting for my flight to Wellington, I watched a constant procession of people scurrying past clad in what appeared to be funereal garb – all blacks and dark greys.

And it wasn’t only the clothes; it was their demeanour too. They looked a thoroughly joyless and anxious lot – brows furrowed and no one talking, still less smiling or laughing. I’ve seen happier faces in waiting rooms at VD clinics (just fibbing, but you get my drift).

What is it about us? We seem perversely proud of our gloominess. How else to explain the dark, bleak tradition in much of our art (what other country could celebrate the despairing works of Colin McCahon?), our films and our literature?

Even the much-acclaimed movie Boy was deeply depressing, and it was touted as a comedy.

America’s economy is stagnant and its normally irrepressible self-confidence is wavering, yet Americans still seem to enjoy life. In the streets, shopping malls and restaurants, the mood is buoyant and people are smiling. But we New Zealanders seem to need a Rugby World Cup - a once-in-24-years-event - to induce any joie-de-vivre.

* * *

IMMIGRATION officials aren’t employed for their conviviality, so I wasn’t surprised by the stony-faced look from the officer checking my passport at Auckland Airport when I commented brightly on the speed with which the passengers on my flight from San Francisco had been processed.

I was, however, slightly taken aback when he wanted to know how long I had lived in my home town. Now why would he need to know that? It almost sounded like an attempt to catch me out on some irregularity.

His manner reminded me of the coldly officious American border security officer who had pulled our car over near the US-Mexico border, examined our passports and interrogated us about our recent movements. But at least the US border official had the excuse that we were foreign nationals in an area notorious for people smuggling.

Perhaps the Auckland immigration officer was trying to be sociable, but he didn’t seem the sociable type and the question wasn’t asked in a sociable way.

Then again, perhaps I’ve just seen too many films where Gestapo officers stop people in the street and demand to see their papers.