Friday, November 25, 2011

Reflections on a carefully stage-managed campaign

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 23.)

Older readers of this column will recall a time when election campaigns were momentous events – part politics, part entertainment spectacle and part sporting contest.

Those were the days when party leaders such as Norm Kirk and Rob Muldoon attracted packed halls on barnstorming tours and local candidates were energetically heckled at street corner meetings.

Membership of political parties was much greater then (according to one estimate I’ve seen, 10 times greater) and the electorate was less jaded and cynical. Besides, there weren’t so many distractions competing for people’s attention.

There’s been precious little of that sense of drama and excitement, still less enthusiastic public participation, in the campaign that is now in its last days.

Election campaigns these days are carefully stage-managed affairs conducted largely through the media, notably television. The only big public event I’m aware of in this campaign was the leaders’ debate sponsored by the Christchurch Press – the one made famous by National leader John Key’s repeated taunts to Labour leader Phil Goff to “show me the money”.

Otherwise it’s all about sound bites and photo opportunities, principally with the 6pm news in mind. Everything is obsessively controlled by party strategists and PR advisers to minimise the risk of something going wrong.

Political reporters get very little advance warning of where the party leaders will be and are left scrambling in their wake, hoping for an unguarded remark, an unexpected drama – such as Mr Key being confronted by an ACT member unhappy that his party was getting the rough end of the stick over campaign arrangements in marginal seats – or a scrap of new information.

This campaign has lacked defining ideological issues. It has largely been about debt and borrowing figures – National’s versus Labour’s – and about who offers the best prospect of stability and progress in an extremely uncertain world.

Those figures are probably pointless, because they are of such magnitude that voters’ eyes glaze over. In any case, what credence can we attach to forward fiscal projections when the international environment is so unpredictable? Even at the best of times, forecasts are dodgy.

As the campaign has progressed, Labour has latched on to National’s proposed partial state asset selloff as the crucial point of difference between the two main parties. Obviously Labour’s polling has indicated this is the issue on which National is most vulnerable.

There’s an acute irony here, since the public suspicion of asset sales that Mr Goff hopes to exploit can be traced directly back to the actions of a former Labour government in which he was a high-profile minister. That’s politics for you.

Given the relentless focus on the two men vying for the prime ministership, the campaign has also been about leadership.

Neither man has turned in an entirely convincing performance. Mr Key came perilously close to seeing his campaign derailed over the symbolic cup of tea with John Banks (another exquisite irony, since the stage-managed meeting at the Café Urban was supposed to shore up their parties’ positions, not undermine them).

My view is that Mr Key and Mr Banks were too clever, too cocky, for their own good. That the stunt rebounded on them was poetic justice.

Polls indicate that National was correct to gamble that public dislike of the media would outweigh any concern about Mr Key’s supposedly indiscreet comments or the more general issue of electoral jiggery-pokery in Epsom. Yet he may still rue the meeting, since it had the undesired effect of breathing life into Winston Peters’ campaign.

Arguably the worst possible outcome of this election is that the former MP for Tauranga, a man who has exhausted his credibility several times over, should end up holding the balance of power.

As for Mr Goff, he has given the impression of sleepwalking through much of the campaign. He speaks in a whiny tone of voice that lacks fire or conviction. A capable senior minister in the Clark government, he appears to have risen above his level of competence. If he loses, as seems inevitable, it’s impossible to envisage him surviving as party leader.

And what of the other parties? The Greens have run a good campaign and been rewarded in the polls with their highest ratings yet.

Doubtless they have benefited from events such as the Pike River disaster and the Rena grounding, which have raised public consciousness about environmental fragility. But the Greens have also gone to some lengths to present themselves as a party with credible economic policies, presumably with a view to making themselves acceptable as a coalition partner for National should they find themselves in that position.

While that would stick in the craw of diehard Green supporters, it can’t be ruled out, especially when the Greens have been treated with such casual disregard in the past by their preferred partners, Labour.

And the Maori Party? People tend to give it the benefit of the doubt because Pita Sharples seems a likeable bloke, and even Tariana Turia is a lot less strident than she used to be. But there can be little doubt, after the past few days, about who the Maori Party represents, and what its agenda is.

It is the party of corporate Maoridom and its main purpose is to achieve privileged treatment for the Treaty-enriched tribes that it acts for. This couldn’t have been made clearer than when Dr Sharples said the Maori Party opposed partial asset sales, but would go along with them if the government gave iwi preferential purchasing rights. What’s “each-way bet” in te reo?

This might play well to the Maori corporate elite, but it can only have damaged the party’s credibility among the electorate at large. Perhaps the best that can be said about Dr Sharples in the present circumstances is that at least he’s honest.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's going on at TV3?

In a post on this blog site yesterday I mentioned my reluctance to accuse media organisations of political bias. I have seen those allegations hurled about far too often and far too loosely, invariably by politically aligned people frustrated that their side wasn’t the only one getting newspaper space or air time. But in the past couple of weeks I have begun to wonder seriously whether TV3 is running some sort of political agenda.

My suspicions were aroused by political coverage that in recent weeks has too often seemed slanted to discredit National. An example was Patrick Gower’s report last week about a supposedly hush-hush meeting between John Key and the head of the international oil exploration firm Anadarko. As only he can, Gower reported this in such a way as to suggest that there was something underhand going on. (“TV3 can reveal that Prime Minister John Key made time in his diary this week for a secretive meeting with the boss of an oil company that wants to undertake deep sea drilling off New Zealand’s coast.”) Never mind that prime ministers probably have meetings with international businessmen all the time without necessarily alerting the media. If there was something dodgy going on, it certainly wasn’t substantiated by the TV3 report. But never mind: Gower nonetheless raised dark connections with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010 (Anadarko had a 25 percent share in the Deepwater Horizon rig) and generously gave Greens co-leader Metiria Turei an opportunity to link Key with “catastrophic oil spills”. In other words, the story was spun to put the worst possible complexion on what may have been an entirely innocent and legitimate meeting.

This technique appears to be something of a Gower specialty. On October 26 he reported: “3 News has learned that John Key has had a private meeting with a controversial right-wing British billionaire, Lord Michael Ashcroft.” Recognise the style? The loaded phrases “3 News has learned” and “TV3 can reveal” immediately create the impression that something sneaky is being covered up.

Gower went on to say that Ashcroft was “best known for pumping his time – and millions – into the British Conservative Party and right-wing politics.” Ah, so he’s a shadowy political manipulator, then. But hang on: Ashcroft is a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party – hardly a secret society – and sits in the House of Lords as a life peer. Nothing overtly sinister there. He’s also a philanthropist who founded Crimestoppers, a crimefighting organisation now established in New Zealand, and he put up the reward money for the return of war medals stolen from the Waiouru army museum. All of these seem perfectly valid reasons why he and Key should get together while Ashcroft was in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup. But Gower seemed more interested in the fact that the left-wing Guardian newspaper had reported a controversy over Ashcroft’s tax status – a shocking blot on his character that he shares with innumerable British rock stars.

Gower’s report concluded: “Mr Key is usually quite open when it comes to his meetings with the rich and famous. His critics will argue he kept this one on the quiet because of Lord Ashcroft’s controversial baggage.” So there we are, then: the two men were quite clearly up to no good. This style of reportage, where two and two are added together to make 22, relies on innuendo and loaded phraseology and is devoid of integrity.

Then there’s Duncan Garner. When Labour recently announced its welfare policy for beneficiary families, Garner found a South Auckland mother on the DPB with six children whose desperate plight was clearly meant to impress upon us the urgent need for more spending on benefits. They were living in a four-bedroomed state house and getting by on $560 a week which, under a Labour government, would increase by $60 – enough, Garner informed us, to fill their fridge and freezer.

The oldest of these six kids would have been about seven and the youngest were toddlers. I waited for Garner to ask a few pertinent questions such as who the fathers were, where they were, why they didn’t provide any support and why she continued to have children knowing the taxpayer would have to pick up the tab. But of course these questions weren’t asked; they never are. Instead we heard Garner ask a leading question about what she would like to see as a result of this election, to which her reply – hardly surprisingly – was “more money for beneficiaries”. We then cut to Phil Goff talking about Labour’s empathy with the downtrodden before ending with Garner’s line that “help is on the way, but Labour has to win the election first”. Take from that what you will. Only a brief reference was made to the estimated cost of Labour’s desperate bid to win more votes by promising to expand the welfare state.

There was more in a similar vein on 3 News last night. In a review of the day’s campaigning, Garner praised Goff’s performance in the leaders’ debate the previous night and said the Labour leader’s message on asset sales and the minimum wage went down well on the campaign trail in South Auckland (well, of course it would). National, on the other hand, was continuing its “scare tactics” over Winston Peters. Then, just in case we hadn’t got the message, Garner referred again to National’s “scaremongering”. He wrapped up his summary of the day by referring to National minister Steven Joyce’s latest cost estimate of Labour’s election promises ($25 billion), and quoted Greens leader Russel Norman as saying that Joyce should consider a career with the “bankrupted and discredited Lehman Brothers”. The way this was reported implied that Garner endorsed Norman’s cheap shot, or at the very least considered it the most newsworthy statement of the day. A balanced assessment on a national television network just three days out from the election? What do you think?

Speaking of that TV3 leaders’ debate, some critics have suggested that John Campbell’s questions highlighted issues where National was on the defensive. Whether they did – and if so, whether it was deliberate – I couldn’t say; but I do think TV3 has now got into itself into such a position that even when it does something in complete innocence, people will be looking for signs of bias.

I should state here that I am not a supporter of Key or the National Party (I’m certainly right of centre, but I’ve voted for Labour far more often than for National), and I repeat that I’m not in the habit of alleging institutional editorial bias based on one or two examples. Now and again a report may lean one way or the other, but generally things balance out in the long run. What worries me about 3 News is that a persistent pattern seems to have emerged. And what finally convinced me that the channel has abandoned all semblance of political neutrality was its screening last night of a pseudo-documentary entitled Inside Child Poverty, written and presented by Bryan Bruce.

I say pseudo- documentary because it was an undisguised, overwrought piece of hand-wringing political polemic that made no pretence of objectivity or balance. To screen it at any time would have courted controversy, but to show it in prime time just three days before a general election couldn’t be construed as anything but a deliberate attempt to tilt the political playing field in Labour’s favour.

That couldn’t have been clearer than when the host – who clearly aspires to be New Zealand’s answer to the sanctimonious John Pilger – genuflected, metaphorically speaking, before the Michael Joseph Savage monument and reminded us of Labour’s proud historical commitment to feed, clothe and house the poor. Another overtly political moment occurred when Bruce asked rhetorically: “Who builds state houses? Labour. Who sells them? National.”

I waited at the end for the announcement that this had been a party political broadcast. It never came.

Inside Child Poverty was disgracefully selective in the way it approached its subject and nauseatingly pious in the way it attempted to manipulate viewers’ emotions. Bruce sought to demonstrate that the poor in New Zealand had been systematically beaten down by heartless right-wing politicians (cue shots of Ruth Richardson and Roger Douglas) and called for a revival of what he called our “socialist” traditions to ensure there is food on every poor family’s table.

Lindsay Mitchell ( has demolished some of Bruce’s flawed arguments more effectively than I could. Suffice it to say that he couldn’t even get basic historical facts right – recalling, for example, that he had grown up in "a socialist country". I grew up in New Zealand at the same time as Bruce and it was never socialist; a welfare state, yes, but not socialist. But why bother with such nitpicking distinctions? “Socialist” has such an uplifting, righteous ring.

He took us to Sweden to show his vision of a Utopian society where well-scrubbed, state-subsidised, middle-class Scandinavian fathers stay at home to look after their babies, and where doctors tut-tut when told of the incidence of scabies and school sores in New Zealand, but he ignored the huge cultural differences that make comparisons pointless (such as the fact that Sweden has no Pacific Island and Maori populations, the two groups that are grossly over-represented in New Zealand welfare statistics).

He didn’t bother to consider the capacity of the fragile New Zealand economy to fund the potentially limitless demands of the enlarged welfare state he seeks. He didn’t consider the probability that providing more generous welfare assistance will simply encourage more people to become dependent on it (the so-called moral hazard). He talked loftily about morality but didn’t consider the morality of having large families sired by multiple fathers and then expecting other people, working people with mortgages to pay and their own children to raise, to pick up the tab. All too inconvenient.

Instead he marshalled every half-baked assertion and catchy bumper-sticker slogan he could think of (example: “The we society became a me society”) to make his point, and he was careful to interview only people who agreed with him. (It was no surprise to see Gareth Morgan, who has positioned himself as New Zealand’s leading capitalist-with-a-conscience, pop up.) But here’s the thing: a film maker could just as easily produce a documentary proving the exact reverse of Bruce’s thesis – namely, that the welfare state and the culture of dependency, entitlement and helplessness it encourages are the cause of, rather than the solution to, the poverty and deprivation Bruce professes to despise. Trouble is, NZ On Air would never fund it.

This was the first Bryan Bruce documentary I had watched and I won’t be bothering with him again. I’m tired of being lectured by smug, self-righteous baby boomers (a generation of which I, unfortunately, am one, and which has largely created the unholy mess we’re now in).

But the bigger issue is why TV3 chose to show this particular programme, with its very explicit political message, in this particular week. I’m not entirely averse to the screening of ideologically one-eyed, intellectually dishonest and emotionally manipulative crap, but I think TV3 needs to explain the timing. Perhaps someone will complain to the Electoral Commission.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scalp hunting: the new style of political journalism

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 22.)

THE ELECTION campaign has brought to the fore a new style of television journalism.

It is aggressive, confrontational, highly opinionated and designed to provoke a reaction. Its chief practitioners are Patrick Gower and Duncan Garner of 3 News.

Both are astute political journalists who clearly see their role as much more than simply reporting. When Garner announces “This issue isn’t going away”, under the guise of making an objective statement about the political controversy du jour (such as the Café Urban furore), he does so with the certainty of a man who will make damned sure it doesn’t go away.

But it’s Gower who has obviously been designated TV3’s resident attack dog, with a brief to get in politicians’ faces.

3 News recently showed Act leader Don Brash saying to Gower outside Wellington’s Amora Hotel: “You are a deceitful bastard, quite frankly, and I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

To goad the almost painfully polite Brash into responding so vehemently must have taken some doing, but I bet Gower went home that night feeling pleased with his day’s work. It’s just a shame that 3 News didn’t explain the background to the exchange so that viewers could decide whether Brash’s accusation was justified.

Former Act MP David Garrett subsequently wrote on Kiwiblog: “Gower is the prick who tried to goad me into dropping my bag and dropping him at Wellington Airport a year ago.” Garrett, who was up to his eyeballs in political strife at the time, accused the journalist of blocking his path at the security gate until a security man pulled him out of the way.

I watched that news item and agree that Gower seemed intent on provoking the volatile MP into lashing out. But as Garrett said, that would have played into his hands.

Tripping politicians up, catching them out, is an honourable journalistic tradition. Gower had the usually cocky John Banks on the ropes last week over what was said over tea at the Café Urban, and even John Key looked rattled in the face of Garner’s questioning. Neither journalist lacks guts.

Yet there’s something disconcerting about Gower’s approach. You get the feeling that its purpose is to claim political scalps for the sheer sport of it.

He is a journalistic picker of scabs, a scavenger who swoops on the wounded. He scans the political landscape looking for any story that, with judicious editing and sneering voice-over, can be manipulated for maximum effect.

The Gower approach illustrates two trends in modern political journalism. One is to strive at all costs for what former British prime minister Tony Blair called “impact” – something to excite the public blood lust.

The other is to put the journalist at the centre of the story. The modern political reporter is no longer content to be a passive observer, but wants to be a player – a maker and breaker of careers.

* * *

HIGH COURT judge Forrie Miller acted sensibly and compassionately in discharging without conviction the mother of a toddler who drowned in the family swimming pool while she was distracted inside the house.

Mary-Anne Illston will serve a life sentence anyway, metaphorically speaking. She hardly needed a conviction to realise the terrible consequences of not supervising her daughter more closely.

But the case raises an important question about the need for consistency in the way police deal with such matters.

Illston was charged with manslaughter. Similarly, last April, Ashish Macwan was charged with careless driving causing death after his three-year-old son Aarush drowned in Lake Dunstan. The family van, with the boy inside, rolled into the lake after Macwan inadvertently left the handbrake off. In that case too, an enlightened judge discharged the bereaved parent without conviction.

Most people would say that in both instances, the parent’s grief was punishment enough. Yet police followed the book.

It will be interesting to see, then, whether they take the same uncompromising approach in the case of two-year-old Sukhraj Singh, who recently drowned in the Taruheru River at Gisborne. News reports said Sukhraj and his cousin, who also nearly drowned, wandered off from Sukhraj’s home and it was 10 or 15 minutes before anyone noticed they were missing.

The family blamed Gisborne District Council for not fencing the river. But the primary cause of this terrible accident, if news reports are accurate, was a failure of parental supervision.

Only the stony-hearted could not feel sorry for the Singh family. But as Justice Miller pointed out, there have been 85 pre-school and infant deaths in the past decade, most of them the result of adult complacency. Water Safety New Zealand accepts that prosecuting parents can compound their grief, but says it’s an effective way of drawing attention to the problem of child drownings.

What’s important, surely, is that the police are seen to be even-handed. The law should not be a lottery.

* * *

AT AN ELECTION meeting last week, Wairarapa MP John Hayes mentioned that of 25 young men who went on a forestry work course, 22 subsequently failed a drug test.

This is an aspect of the drug problem that the pro-dope lobby doesn’t mention. Present laws may not be very effective, but at least they serve as some sort of curb on usage. Legalise cannabis, and even more young men may be condemned to lives of uselessness.

"Undecided" voters strangely decisive

I’m not one to shriek “bias!” at the drop of a hat and I’m no cheerleader for John Key, but there was something decidedly suspicious about the behaviour of the “worm” in last night leaders’ debate on TV3.

As Stephen Franks pointed out on Morning Report, the worm moved up every time Phil Goff opened his mouth, even before anyone had a chance to digest what he was saying. David Farrar joked on Kiwiblog that Goff could have confessed to the Crewe murders and the worm would have gone up.

The reverse happened the moment Key began to speak. The worm immediately tracked downward.

The 65 people in the studio audience, whose responses determined the worm’s movements, were supposedly non-committed voters. Perhaps this means that undecided voters are those who can’t quite make up their minds between Labour, Mana and the Greens.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The funny business at the Cafe Urban

My first reaction, on hearing the Herald on Sunday had obtained a clandestine recording of John Key’s meeting with John Banks in Newmarket last Friday, was to let out a groan of dismay and disbelief. Did we really need this London-style tabloid sleaze?

Now, having learned the full circumstances, I’m inclined to take the paper’s side.

I could understand Key getting up on his hind legs, but I heard HoS editor Bryce Johns on Morning Report and his explanation of how it happened struck me as plausible. Besides, I worked with Bryce for several years and unless he’s changed, I don’t think he’s a journalist in the Clive Goodman/Rebekah Brooks mould.

Quite apart from anything else, leaving a recording device on the table right in front of the two politicians, even if it was in a little black pouch, seemed too clumsy by far to be a serious attempt at eavesdropping. It was sure to be spotted, and it was.

The fact that the paper chose not to report what was said during the conversation supports its case. The HoS appears to have acted ethically. This is not the behaviour of an editor bent on getting a sensational story that might blow the election wide open.

In any case, why go to the trouble of planting a recording device, and risking the inevitable hullabaloo that would ensue, if you weren’t going to take maximum advantage of it by splashing the taped exchange all over page one?

This affair has the potential to rebound on Key. He dismisses his exchange with Banks as “bland” but refused permission for the HoS to publish the transcript of the recording, on the ground that he didn’t want to give the paper the satisfaction of getting the story after behaving unethically (if indeed it was unethical).

The problem now is that there is real public curiosity about what was said, and about the contradiction between Johns’ claim that the recording is potentially game-changing (the political phrase du jour) and Key’s insistence that it’s really of no interest. The stakes have been raised to the point where it becomes increasingly likely that someone will divulge what was said.

TV3 disclosed tonight that it too has a copy of the tape, and there are likely to be others circulating. There are hints that the recording contains statements about ACT leader Don Brash that would not look good for either Key or Banks. I’m picking that it will all spill into the public arena sooner or later. That’s the way these things normally play out.

It demonstrates that even at this late stage in a carefully orchestrated and generally successful National campaign, things could still go pear-shaped for Key. It only takes one indiscreet comment, and Johns hinted at such a comment in the tape from the Café Urban.

In fact it would be exquisitely ironic – you might say poetic justice – if the meeting between Key and Banks blew up in their faces. It was a PR stunt staged to attract maximum media attention. People talk about the cup of tea as being symbolic, and so it was – not just in the strictly political sense, but also because it was symbolic of a tightly controlled media operation in which political journalists are expected to dance to a ballet choreographed by Beehive spin-meisters.

It was assumed the media would turn up en masse at the Café Urban and film the palaver; indeed the whole pantomime would have been pointless if they hadn’t. But the journalists and photographers were then expected to retreat to a respectful distance, noses pressed up against the window (almost literally), and allow the two men to go into a cosy huddle.

It was a highly public event, deliberately so, yet at crunch time Key insisted on asserting his right to privacy. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking there’s a bit of a contradiction, a double standard, here. The whole affair was conducted entirely on the politicians’ terms, for the politicians’ benefit, and to that extent, pretty much summed up what the modern election campaign, with all its jiggery-pokery, has become; and I have to admit I’d find it quite satisfying if something hideously embarrassing came out of it all.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Parading our inferiority complex

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 9.)

Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, defines “mania” as a state of abnormally elevated or irritable mood, arousal, and/ or energy levels.

Sound familiar? Strike out that word “irritable” and you’ve got an accurate description of the mood that gripped the country for the duration of the Rugby World Cup.

Like any patriotic New Zealander, I was pleased at the outcome of the event; but I was also relieved when it was over. The media hype was relentless and overwhelming.

Harmless fun? Yes, most of the time. Yet occasionally there was a nasty edge to it, and it didn’t escape attention.

A columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Sheehan, brought the collective wrath of the nation down on his head in the last week of the tournament when he criticised the throat-slitting gesture in the All Blacks’ Kapa O Pango haka.

The criticism came at the tail end of what I thought was a fair and perceptive column in which Sheehan commented on the “immense emotional stake” New Zealanders had invested in the RWC final, which was to be played the following weekend.

“The cumulative weight of the 24 years since the All Blacks won the World Cup for the first and only time has become a burden on the nation that can be lifted only when the All Blacks captain lifts the cup once more,” Sheehan wrote.

Had the Wallabies won the semifinal against the All Blacks, he added, the result would have been a “psychic scar” across New Zealand.

The column concluded with Sheehan saying that the violence implied by the throat-slitting gesture had no place in sport.

To say he touched a raw nerve would be to understate the case. More than 560 comments were posted on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website, many of them from outraged New Zealanders. When Fairfax Media’s Stuff website in New Zealand picked up Sheehan’s comments, a further 868 comments were posted – depressing proof that nothing, not even politics or religion, arouses New Zealanders’ emotions more than sport.

Some readers remonstrated with Sheehan for supposedly misunderstanding the throat-slitting gesture. A handful sided with him. But most readers accused Sheehan of being a sore loser because the All Blacks had beaten the Wallabies a few days before.

This was a lazy and churlish response. Far easier to accuse Sheehan of sour grapes than to engage with his arguments, which were that the Kapa O Pango haka sends an unfortunate message (whatever its defenders may claim) and that New Zealanders depend far too heavily on one sport, rugby, for their national pride and sense of identity.

A few readers seized Sheehan’s column as an opportunity to boast of New Zealand’s superior race relations and to condemn Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals – hardly relevant in this context. One commenter labelled Sheehan a convict.

The tone of the responses was overwhelmingly vitriolic and depressingly puerile. A fairly typical comment (anonymous, of course – they always are) ran: “I think [the haka] is awesome. What have Australia got? That Waltzing Matilda crap.”

Another, in similar vein, went: “Thanks for your input skippy, now back to Waltzing Matilda, and leave us to our affairs.”

At such times we New Zealanders reveal an ugly aspect of the national character: touchy, defensive and acutely sensitive to criticism, especially when it comes from our big, brash neighbour. It wasn’t just the silver fern on display during the RWC; we grabbed the opportunity to parade our national inferiority complex too.

Sheehan was provoked into writing a second column in which he described the torrent of condemnation as “an outpouring of dog-in-the-manger, chip-on-the-shoulder, small-country-small-minded, defensive churlishness on an industrial scale.” I have to agree.

He reminded readers that he had described the haka as “the greatest ritual in world sport” (it was just the Kapo O Pango version he disliked), and had also acknowledged that it would be an injustice if the All Blacks didn’t win the RWC (so much for the accusations of sour grapes). But as I’ve learned myself in 40 years of writing newspaper columns, you can’t control the meaning readers choose to take from what you write.

The response to Sheehan’s column wasn’t the only unattractive New Zealand trait on display during the World Cup. The demonisation of New Zealand-born Wallaby Quade Cooper, encouraged by idiotic elements of the media, was just as distasteful. The booing whenever Cooper touched the ball was a disgrace.

One Australian commentator on The Roar website paid tribute to the good-natured reaction of New Zealand fans after the All Blacks had demolished the Wallabies. But how would we have behaved, I wonder, if the Aussies had won? It’s easy to be gracious in victory; much harder in defeat.

The most telling point Sheehan made in his original column was that rugby occupies too big a place in the New Zealand psyche, and our response to the All Blacks’ narrow win in the final proved his point.

Like any patriotic New Zealander I was pleased by the result, but the euphoria that enveloped the country for days afterwards was over the top. Our national pride must be very fragile if it rests on something as ephemeral as a sporting trophy.

I found the self-congratulatory tone of the celebrations intriguing too. Anyone would think the entire country had been playing the French on Eden Park rather than an elite team of highly paid professional sportsmen.

And I couldn’t help wondering about the ugly flip-side of victory. The consequences if the All Blacks had lost don’t bear thinking about.

The nation would have been plunged into a mood of dark despondency. If previous experience is anything to go by, the incidence of domestic violence would have soared as neanderthal males took out their frustrations on their partners and children.

Graham Henry and his team would probably have needed police protection. Former All Blacks coach John Hart received death threats and hate mail after the defeat by France in the 1999 semifinals. Just imagine how much more extreme the reaction would have been had they lost again this time.

Sheehan was right. New Zealand had too much emotion invested in the RWC and some of the side-effects weren’t pretty. As an Australian living in New Zealand commented on the Sydney Morning Herald website, we need another way, besides rugby, to define ourselves on the world stage.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What we need is a Lange - or even a Muldoon

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 8.)

THE ELECTION campaign reminds me of a catchphrase made famous by British television comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. “What do you think of it so far?” Morecambe would ask halfway through their show. And the answer was always the same: “Rubbish!”

One of the consequences of MMP is that the major parties have become more risk-averse and more centrist. The defining ideological differences that once separated National and Labour have narrowed to the point where they are reduced to fighting over a shrinking patch of centre ground.

What this means is that election campaigns are matters of tone and nuance rather than the great contests of ideas that they should be. It’s all about “branding”.

There’s no fire, no galvanising vision. At a Business New Zealand pre-election conference addressed by the party leaders last week, it was the minor parties that presented the bold ideas (and Pita Sharples the wit).

In difficult times like this, an election campaign provides an opportunity for the nation to debate whether to tear the house down and start again. But John Key and Phil Goff are like a married couple squabbling over which shade of off-white to paint the kitchen.

Both are decent, well-meaning men, but this campaign could do with the fiery idealism of a Norman Kirk or the biting wit and charisma of a David Lange.

In fact it’s almost enough to make you yearn for the days of Robert David Muldoon. He may have been a nasty little bully, and a socialist to boot (despite leading a supposedly conservative party), but at least he stirred people up.

* * *

NONETHELESS, election campaigns have a way of bringing certain things out into the open.

Asked on TV3 News which major party the Maori Party would support, co-leader Tariana Turia replied: “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

Here, in stark relief, is one of the fatal shortcomings of MMP. We have no control over what happens after we cast our votes. We don’t know who will get into bed together, what compromises will be made and what policies will be traded off.

The politicians, having gone through the three-yearly ritual of prostrating themselves at our feet in order to win our support, will be back in the driver’s seat and the voter will be merely an impotent onlooker.

Opponents of FPP say that things were no better under that system; that once in power, governments were free to do whatever they liked regardless of any promises made beforehand. But the difference is that under MMP, post-election horse-trading behind closed doors is more than just a risk; it’s an integral feature of the system.

Under FPP, governments that broke promises or introduced policies without consulting the electorate knew they risked being punished at the next election. Now parties can justify almost any breach of faith with their supporters by saying it’s the price we pay for a system that depends on compromise and negotiation.

I won’t be voting for a return to FPP, which was a demonstrably unfair system, but neither will I vote to retain MMP. We have replaced one seriously flawed setup with another.

* * *

MR SHARPLES illustrated another unattractive aspect of the new political environment when he attacked the rival Mana Party on the basis that it has Pakeha candidates, namely John Minto and Sue Bradford.

How can people with white skin, Mr Sharples asked, pretend to represent Maori?

This was a naked appeal to identity politics, whereby people define themselves according to whatever minority group they belong to – be it Maori, gay, fundamentalist Christian, disabled or whatever – and frame their political goals accordingly.

Identity politics runs counter to the idea of communities acting in concert for the common good. It also promotes the divisive idea that to represent someone with brown skin, a politician must be of the same colour.

Mr Sharples’ party depends heavily on identity politics for its appeal. So does Hone Harawira’s Mana Party, though it seeks to mop up disaffected ragtag Pakeha as well as Maori.

In a useful report on the forthcoming voting referendum, the centre-right Maxim Institute highlights the choice voters will be given between systems that elect MPs to represent the community as a whole and ones that emphasise representation for narrow interest groups.

The report describes identity politics as “murky ground” but also acknowledges the unfairness of electoral systems that don’t give minority parties any chance at all.

Maxim doesn’t come out in favour of any one system, but on the basis of its analysis STV and SM, while far from perfect, look to be the best compromises between the two unpalatable extremes.

Call me sceptical, but I suspect that whatever electoral system we come up with, the politicians will find a way to turn it to their own advantage.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The avoidable death of Sukhraj Singh

WHEN A CHILD dies an avoidable death, it’s not entirely surprising that the grieving family looks for someone to blame.

In the case of toddler Sukhraj Singh, who drowned in the Taruheru River at Gisborne last week, blame has fallen on Gisborne District Council for not fencing off the river.

Only the flint-hearted could not feel sorry for the family. I can't think of any event more heartbreaking than the death of a child. But the primary cause of this terrible accident, if news reports are accurate, is that the mothers of Sukhraj and his cousin Achilles Kaui – who also nearly drowned – didn’t notice that they had wandered off.

According to the Dominion Post’s account, 10 or 15 minutes passed before the two women realised the little boys were gone – more than enough time for a child to get into fatal trouble.

It’s now almost a kneejerk reaction to blame some imagined bureaucratic failing whenever awful accidents happen. A similar thing happened in 2009 when Aisling Symes fell into a manhole in Henderson.

But the primary responsibility for children’s safety will always rest with parents. Far more children die because their parents were distracted at a crucial moment than because councils didn’t put up fences or follow up reports of manhole covers coming loose.

Public authorities can never identify, still less eliminate, every potential hazard, and it’s not their function to do so. Active, inquisitive children will always find ways to put themselves at risk; that’s why their parents need to watch them at all times.

When there’s water nearby, the need for vigilance multiplies.

In the same week that Sukhraj died, an inquest was held into the drowning of a two-year-old girl at Waiwera Thermal Pools north of Auckland. The coroner was told that Nylah Vau wandered away from the kiddies’ pool while her parents were otherwise occupied.

The Vau family will now have a lifetime in which to mourn the tragic consequences of inadequate supervision. Such incidents are far too common.

If events follow the usual course in Gisborne, the district council will feel compelled to conduct an inquiry into the death of Sukhraj Singh and will very likely announce some time later that action has been taken to prevent a recurrence.

The trouble with such outcomes is that they perpetuate the dishonest pretence that public officials can eliminate risk – and even more lethally, they encourage the mindset that it is the responsibility of public officials, rather than parents, to ensure that tragedies don’t happen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Oz Spectator honours Kerr

The latest edition of The Spectator Australia, out today (well, in Australia, anyway; New Zealand gets it next week) devotes an editorial to the late Roger Kerr, crediting him with helping to kick-start a dramatic reform agenda – “cutting income and business tax, privatising state-run industry, floating the exchange rate, slashing agricultural subsidies and protective tariffs, changing the rules of welfare, deregulating the labour market (and eroding the source of union power)” – that made Paul Keating, the champion of economic reform in Bob Hawke’s government, blush.

The editorial tribute, written by Spectator Australia editor Tom Switzer, describes the long-serving Business Roundtable head, whose funeral service yesterday packed Old St Paul's in Wellington, as a public intellectual in the best sense of the term. “His wit, civility and intellectual honesty contributed hugely to the respectability of the cause of free markets and small government in a nation with deep socialist roots.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rolling across America

(This article was published in the travel section of The Dominion Post, October 26.)

THERE can be few better ways to travel than in the observation car of an American train on a golden autumn afternoon with a cold beer in hand.

I’m on the California Zephyr, speeding westward through the gently undulating farmland of Illinois. We’re about four metres above the ground, on the upper of two levels, and the train is quiet and smooth.

To my surprise, the observation car is half-empty. Either my fellow passengers have all done this trip before and become blasé about the sights, or they are unmoved by the beauty of the landscape.

The view through the floor-to-ceiling windows gives new meaning to the line from America the Beautiful about amber waves of grain. Cornfields stretch to the horizon in all directions, interrupted here and there by dark clumps of trees indicating the presence of a lonely farmhouse. Some of these habitations look like exquisite little doll’s houses.

We are at the start of the great Midwestern prairie and it will take us the rest of the day and all of the night to cross it. The landscape changes little but it’s easy on the eye and I’m never bored.

As evening approaches, we cross the Mississippi into rural Iowa. The sunset is like molten copper. Much later, in the darkness, we rumble across the inky-black waters of another mighty river which a fellow passenger confirms is the Missouri, the border between Iowa and Nebraska.

My wife and I boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago at two in the afternoon. If we were to stay on the train all the way to Emeryville, near San Francisco, it would be a 52-hour trip. But because we couldn’t get a sleeper compartment and didn’t fancy sitting for all that time, we’ve decided to break the journey for a day and a night in Denver, Colorado, before resuming.

We could have saved time and money by flying, but it goes without saying that you see a lot more from a train than you do from 30,000 feet. Rail remains one of the most rewarding forms of travel – and sociable too, since you naturally fall into conversation with your fellow passengers. As on a ship, a camaraderie soon develops among the people temporarily brought together in this confined space.

In the dining car on our first night we sit opposite a genial young man from Perth, Australia, and a shy female student on her way back to Stanford University after the summer vacation. Because space is limited in the dining car, people are required to share their table with strangers; but rather than being an imposition, it adds to the enjoyment of the journey.

Our companions at dinner on the second night are a charming elderly couple, retired teachers from Wisconsin, who are on their way to visit relatives in Oakland, California. They have a sleeping compartment but complain that it’s claustrophobic – that once they’re in there with the door closed they feel shut in.

It’s a comment we hear from other passengers too, and we’re pleased that we’re travelling coach class. We even sleep reasonably well, since the train is barely half-full and each of us is able to stretch out over two seats. The only problem on the first night is that it’s cold – a malfunctioning thermostat, apparently.

The food in the dining car could be described only as basic – at best, on a par with airline meals. It’s not cheap, either, but you either eat it or starve, since there’s no opportunity to buy food along the way. But the dining car serves wine and beer, which makes the meals seem more palatable; and in any case, no one ever travelled on an Amtrak train for the innovative cuisine.

It’s the scenery that makes this journey unforgettable. The prairies, pretty as they are, are merely an appetiser; the main course, in visual terms, is served once the train starts climbing into the Rockies west of Denver.

Here the California Zephyr passes through terrain that makes the usual superlatives seem feeble: spectacular rocky bluffs, deep canyons, rushing mountain creeks and idyllic alpine meadows. Though it’s only early autumn, the forest foliage at this altitude (the railway climbs to nearly 3000 metres) seems to show off every colour in nature’s palette, from pale yellow to brilliant scarlet.

We’re soon following the upper reaches of the Colorado River, where we pass parties of white-water kayakers, the occasional fly fisherman and even a prospector panning for gold. Here the railway passes through Upper Gore Canyon, whose walls rise nearly 500 metres and seem to reach out menacingly over the train.

But wait: there’s more. After the Rockies come the vast deserts of Utah and Nevada – a lunar landscape where wind and rain have sculpted the rock into all manner of improbable shapes. In the distance I see massive buttes, similar to those of the famous Monument Valley, rising from the desert floor.

The train rolls through the desert all night, occasionally passing desolate little towns almost hidden in the sagebrush. At 3 am we stop briefly in a place called Elko, Nevada, where there’s not even a station – just a shelter with room for two or three people. Obviously someone got off, or on, the train at Elko and I can’t help thinking the latter would have been the better option.

We also pass the town of Winnemucca, where the conductor, a man with a voice that reminds me of Fozzie Bear in The Muppet Show, tells us Butch Cassidy robbed the bank in 1900.

But there are more mountains to come yet – namely, the majestic range known as the Sierra Nevada. Here we cross the Donner Pass, scene of one of the darkest episodes in the history of American settlement. Trapped by thick snow in the terrible winter of 1846-47, 39 members of a party of 87 settlers died of malnutrition and exposure. Some members of the party famously resorted to cannibalism.

It’s hard to reconcile this grim story with the scene presented by Donner Lake on a gloriously sunny day, shimmering under a powder-blue sky criss-crossed by vapour trails.

Once out of the mountains, the train makes a last dash across California’s broad Central Valley and skirts the shores of San Francisco Bay before reaching its ultimate destination. From Emeryville, we catch an Amtrak bus across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where we say our goodbyes.

We’ve spent 33 hours on the California Zephyr since Denver but it doesn’t feel like it. In fact we get off the train feeling infinitely fresher than at the end of a 12-hour flight cooped up like battery hens on a Boeing 747. Even as lowly coach-class passengers we have experienced travel as a pleasure in itself, rather than merely as a means of getting somewhere.


State-owned Amtrak operates the California Zephyr service daily each way between Chicago and Emeryville, in the San Francisco Bay area of California – a distance of nearly 4000km. The train leaves Chicago at 2pm and arrives at 4.10pm two days later. In the reverse direction the train leaves Emeryville at 9.10am and arrives in Chicago two days later at 2.50pm. Cities it passes through include Burlington, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Reno, Nevada; and Sacramento, California. “Superliner” sleeping accommodation is available and the dining car provides a full meal service, including wine and beer. Smoking on the train is prohibited. Prices range from $US152 for a coach-class seat (not including meals) to $US1396 for a superliner bedroom for two (meals included). Superliner bedrooms are self-contained with their own hand basin, toilet and shower. Note: fares may vary depending on the time of year.