Saturday, December 29, 2012

Are Brits the people to run our public sector?

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 28.)
TWO RECENT events – education secretary Lesley Longstone’s abrupt departure and the appointment of Kevin Lavery as chief executive of Wellington City Council – have touched off an overdue debate about the wisdom of appointing Brits to top public sector jobs.

Ms Longstone, who was recruited from England, joined a New Zealand public service already top-heavy with appointees from the UK.
Other British department heads include Gabriel Makhlouf at the Treasury and David Smol at the new super-ministry, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (although to be fair, Mr Smol has been here for some time).

Both men seem well regarded. Yet when Brits are appointed to lead three of our most crucial departments of state, not to mention several lesser government agencies – including, ironically, Te Papa, which supposedly embodies what it means to be a New Zealander – it’s time to start asking why there were apparently no suitable local candidates.
Did they not come forward, or were they judged to be inferior to those from the British Isles? If it’s the latter, perhaps we have yet to overcome the cultural cringe which holds that overseas people must be more capable than we are.

In Ms Longstone’s case, things didn’t work out. Perhaps British appointees are better suited to advising on esoteric policy matters than trying to run  departments such as education, which are close to the ground and have a profound impact on ordinary New Zealanders in their everyday lives.
Now Mr Lavery, from Cornwall, has been appointed Wellington’s top bureaucrat. He can expect his performance to be scrutinised very closely, especially as he was chosen at the expense of a New Zealand incumbent whom most agree has done a good job.

The issue is not whether the British appointees have the right credentials on paper. Even her critics conceded that Ms Longstone came with an impressive CV. But our culture, attitudes and ethos are different. Decades have passed since we took our cue from what we then respectfully called the Mother Country.
British recruits inevitably bring with them their own cultural baggage, which may not be compatible with our way of doing things. As a Massey University academic (another Pom, as it happens) remarked of Ms Longstone, she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

She is hardly the first such appointee to come unstuck here. If the State Services Commission goes back through its files, it will find no shortage of high-level overseas appointees who terminated their contracts prematurely, apparently after finding things weren’t quite as they expected.
Invariably the hapless taxpayer ends up picking up the tab. Perhaps it’s time to consider a different approach.

* * *
STILL, you can’t entirely blame the British for wanting to escape. They must sometimes feel like strangers in their own country.

The latest census showed that white Britons are now a minority in London. More than 7 million, or one in eight, of the people in England and Wales were born abroad – one in eight.
There’s a lot to be said for cultural diversity, but it’s surely impossible to sustain immigration on such a scale without fundamentally altering a society. Were the British given any say in this? Most would probably say they were not.

This is not a racist argument. The same would apply if Tonga was suddenly swamped with immigrants from China.  It’s not a matter of race, but the right of people to preserve their society as they know it.
Perhaps the cruellest irony is that some immigrant groups in Britain are so hostile to their host country that they commit acts of terrorism against it. France, the Netherlands and other European countries have experienced similar smouldering resentment from migrant communities.

There are lessons here for New Zealand, which is undergoing profound demographic change of its own. Most of us welcome the more vibrant and colourful society that a liberalised immigration policy has created – but it has to be carefully monitored and managed.
* * *

THREE expressions I hope not to see or hear in 2013:
“Added bonus”. By definition, a bonus is something additional. That means an added bonus must be a bonus on top of a bonus. It’s a nonsense.

“Signed off on”. Some of us recall a distant time when things were approved. Now they are “signed off”, a term that makes no sense whatsoever, or even more bizarrely, “signed off on” (as in, “the cabinet has signed off on more Treaty settlements”).  Hanging is too good for perpetrators of this atrocity.
“Fur children”. I heard a marketing executive from a chain of pet stores say on the radio that this is now the preferred term for your cat or dog. The radio interviewer was too polite to say it, so I’ll do it for him: anyone neurotic enough to call their pets fur children should be barred by law from owning any.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tragic radio stunt: who's not to blame?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 19.)
We become almost impervious to bad news. We have to be, otherwise we would go through life in a permanent state of crippling despondency.

Yet even as blasé as we are, every now and again something happens that has the capacity to shock.  Two such items on early morning radio news bulletins have penetrated my semi-conscious state in the past two weekends.
The more recent, and by any measurement the more appalling by far, was the news of the Connecticut school shooting. But this column concerns the earlier item, in which the newsreader announced that a nurse who had put through a hoax call at the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness had been found dead. It was clear she had taken her own life, presumably out of shame.

I wondered, in my half-awake state, whether I’d heard correctly. Could a silly radio stunt really have had such tragic consequences?
Well, yes – it could, and it did.

My first reaction, like that of many people, was anger that a pair of infantile radio hosts, eager to make names for themselves, should have perpetrated a hoax that led a mother and wife to kill herself.
Mine was a natural response, but not entirely rational. The young radio hosts had no malicious intent. Their motive was another M word: mischief. But it was mischief of an essentially innocent kind. They could have had no premonition that their amateurish, juvenile prank would result in such misery.

Now they too are going through their own private hell. Even if their radio careers survive, they will have to carry this misconceived act on their consciences for the rest of their lives.
And human nature being what it is, they have become victims themselves. They are now experiencing the cowardly rage that always surfaces when someone is the butt of wholesale condemnation and is therefore deemed an easy target. 

The people reportedly making anonymous death threats against the radio hosts belong to the same wretched sub-group of lowlifes who turn out to shout obscene threats and curses whenever a much-vilified criminal – usually a sex offender – appears in court. These people get very few opportunities in life to feel morally superior to anyone else and they always make the most of them, even if in doing so they expose their own pathetic inadequacies.
The best that can come out of this ghastly business is that ratings-obsessed radio stations and so-called shock jocks (another contemptible life form) will think very carefully in future before perpetrating their puerile stunts.

These pranks may be ostensibly harmless in their intent, but I’m inclined to agree with my fellow columnist Rosemary McLeod that practical joking is often a form of bullying. How else can you explain a form of humour that usually relies on humiliation and embarrassment for its impact?
In any case, the two radio hosts are not the only people who should be ashamed of what happened at King Edward VII Hospital.

They would never have made the phone call if such pranks weren’t condoned, and possibly encouraged, by their bosses. We now know that the radio station management approved of the stunt. It was run past the station’s lawyers before being put to air. They too could have had no idea of the consequences, but they must share culpability.
The station’s claim that it tried to alert the hospital before broadcasting the hoax call is not convincing. For one thing, the hospital insists there was no attempt to warn it; but more to the point, it would be highly unusual for a media outlet to provide advance notice that such a stunt was to be broadcast.

So the station has been badly bruised too. If, as a result, radio station owners are motivated in future to curb the excesses of their attention-seeking personalities, that will be no bad thing.
But the net of blame can be spread more widely still. What about the hospital management, for example?

They had a royal patient who was the subject of intense worldwide media interest. Previous experience (the hospital is no stranger to royalty) should have alerted them to the probability of media incursions.
Fleet Street photographers were camped outside. You can be sure that elaborate precautions were taken to ensure Princess Kate’s safety and privacy. The place would have been swarming with police and security officers intent on protecting the patient not just from prying photographers and reporters, but from terrorist attack.

In the circumstances, how could the hospital management be so naïve and careless as to leave it to an unprepared nurse, the hapless Jacintha Saldanha, to intercept outside phone calls?
The hospital owners have done a great deal of indignant harrumphing over the radio station’s behaviour, but their own handling of the situation appears to have been at best sloppy and complacent, at worst incompetent.

There are other possible factors that we can only speculate on.
Most nurses in Mrs Saldanha’s position would have felt embarrassed and ashamed, but not to the point of taking their own life. The nurse who gave the radio station details of Princess Kate’s condition – arguably a far worse misjudgement – obviously didn’t feel so guilty as to hang herself. Was there something in Mrs Saldanha’s cultural background that gave her a heightened sense of shame and disgrace – a feeling that she had brought dishonour on her family? That might help explain why she thought her action could be redeemed only by killing herself and leaving two children without a mother.

Another possible explanation is emotional or mental fragility, but I have seen nothing to suggest Mrs Saldanha suffered from any such condition.
Was she harassed by the notorious London tabloids? Again, there has been no such suggestion. That would very likely have been her fate had she lived, but the tabloids scarcely had time to identify her before they were reporting her death.

One aspect of this sad affair not widely commented on is the shadow it has cast over what should be a happy event: the birth of the royal couple’s first baby in a few months’ time. That will now forever be tarnished by association with tragedy. But establishing who is to blame is far from straightforward.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

How to stay onside with teachers

As was to be expected, there was an almost deafening chorus on Morning Report this morning calling for Hekia Parata's head. But the comment that most interested me came from Massey University education academic Professor John O'Neill, who said Parata's biggest mistake from the outset was that she got offside with workers in the education sector - in other words, teachers.

Problem is, the only way to stay onside with the teachers' unions is to allow them to dictate policy - the easy option, but obviously untenable in a democracy. The price of their support is to avoid doing anything that might upset them. No other body of public sector workers behaves like this.

This is not to say that teacher unions don't sometimes have good and legitimate reasons to oppose government policies or lobby for public support. But ultimately we elect governments, not teacher unions, to determine policy. That may be why John Key feels it necessary to stand up for his beleaguered education minister, even when her record so far has been less than stellar.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More mangled pronunciation

One News reporter Helen Castles was careful to get her Maori pronunciation correct last night, but struggled with English. In an item on shellfish poisoning she twice pronounced "paralytic" as "paraletic". Doesn't anyone check these items before they go to air?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our resident morepork has been silenced

Sadly, we’ll no longer enjoy the call of the morepork (ruru) that we often heard at night in the reserve behind our house. We had some friends around for a barbecue last night and one of our guests, while inspecting the garden, happened to look up into a big plum tree by our back fence and saw a large dead bird suspended in the branches. Closer investigation showed it to be a morepork – presumably the one that has been resident all these years.

I took the body to the local DOC ranger today, thinking it might be of interest. He explained that although moreporks are incredibly skilful fliers, their navigation system can sometimes be affected by storms and gale-force winds (which we’ve had lately). Apparently they have very precise mind maps, and if the branch of a tree (for example) suddenly pops up where they don’t expect it, they can come to grief. We can only assume that’s happened to our bird, which was hooked up in a tangle of branches and was dangling upside down.

Very sad, because it was a beautiful bird. I left it with DOC because they thought someone might be able to use the feathers. I might put up a “vacancy” sign by the entrance to the reserve and see if we can attract another one.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An unsung hero of print

Today's Dominion Post contains a fine tribute by my friend and former colleague Peter Kitchin, New Zealand's most celebrated obituarist, to another old colleague: Nick Wrench, former deputy editor of The Dominion Post, who died last Sunday at the age of 55 from brain cancer.

Nick was one of the unsung backroom heroes of the newspaper business: smart, creative, energetic, committed and endlessly enthusiastic. As chief sub-editor and later news editor at the old Evening Post, he loved nothing more than to hurl himself into a really big, fast-breaking story, marshalling all the paper's resources - words, pictures, headlines, graphics, design - to produce a complete and compelling package. An outstanding example was the Post's coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which conveniently fell in the paper's time. (We were able to make an early start because, being something of an insomniac, I heard of the attacks as they happened in the early hours of the morning and was able to rouse key editorial staff from slumber and get them on deck. Nick and his old mate Mike Aston, the Post's design maestro, were the first people I phoned, knowing they would be the kingpins.)

Nick's finest moment, undoubtedly, was when he organised publication of the Christchurch Press - the Dom Post's sister paper - on the night following the disastrous quake of February 22, 2011. The Press's production systems were put out of action by the quake, though its printing press in the suburbs was still working and reporters and photographers were all on the job. Nick stepped into the breach, masterminding production of the Press's earthquake edition by remote control from Wellington. Christchurch marvelled not only that the paper was able to come out, but that it was able to provide such comprehensive coverage. Readers rarely get to hear of people such as Nick, but good newspapers couldn't happen without them.

He was an admirable figure in more ways than one, facing his terminal illness with inspirational optimism, courage and spirit. The big crowd at his funeral at Old St Paul's on Thursday was testimony to the respect his former colleagues (Nick parted company with the Dom Post last year) felt for him. A Waikato farm boy to the end, he was buried at Ohaupo.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rata speaks out - but is anyone listening?

Dr Elizabeth Rata of Auckland University is one of very few Maori with the courage to speak out against the pernicious consequences of what she calls Treaty-based biculturalism. (Another brave and lonely voice is that of Tata Parata, whose letters often appear in The Dominion Post.) In this piece in today's New Zealand Herald,  Dr Rata persuasively explains why so many New Zealanders, including Maori, are alarmed at the "profoundly undemocratic nature of political arrangements proposed by Treaty activists within all levels of government". It's an article everyone should read, but I suspect that the politicians who most need to heed its powerful message have their hands clapped firmly over their eyes.

An ego punctured, but probably only temporarily

Tau Henare is reportedly bitterly disappointed at being passed over for the plum post of Speaker. But what inflated sense of self-regard could possibly have led this swaggering blowhard to believe he deserved the job in the first place? Henare's political career has been utterly undistinguished other than by his predilection for tweeting - which says a lot, given that it demands neither intellect nor application - and his exchange of blows with Trevor Mallard (so much for the dignity of Parliament, which the Speaker is expected to uphold). Appointing him to succeed Lockwood Smith would have made about as much sense as making me the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Who are the worst drivers?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 5.)

I am about to go where few male columnists are reckless enough to stray.
Having fortified myself with several stiff single malt whiskies, I am going to venture an opinion on the relative merits of male and female drivers.

This is high-risk territory, since it’s well established that women drivers are one of those subjects that only other women are allowed to comment on. But before female readers erupt in fury, anticipating another tiresome round of male derision, I should explain that I’m on their side.
In fact my purpose in writing this column is to defend them against belittling comments made by … a woman.

Writing recently in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Jessica Fellowes observed that when she saw motorists hogging the middle of the motorway while driving under the speed limit, or blocking an intersection while deciding which way to turn, or changing their mind about whether to let a mother with a pram cross the road, nine times out of 10 it was a female driver.
“It always makes me furious,” she wrote, “not because bad driving is dangerous, but because she is letting the side down.”

Fellowes went on to argue that while women may have fewer accidents, that doesn’t make them better drivers. “Pootling at 65 kmh in the inside lane on the motorway may prevent you from crashing into anyone,” she wrote, “but it is probably causing a pile-up in the outside lane as other drivers turn their heads to swear at you for forcing them to overtake at high speeds.”
She concluded that when all is said and done, men are generally better drivers.

This would be an incendiary claim if it came from a male, although many men may secretly agree. But I believe Fellowes is wrong.
Yes, men are technically better drivers, generally speaking. Most men have a more natural affinity with anything mechanical – although oddly enough, I’ve known far more men than women who didn’t drive at all.

A male driver is more likely to master a hill start without too much difficulty. He’s more likely to be at ease with a manual rather than an automatic transmission, less troubled by having to reverse (I know a woman whose husband has to back the car out of the garage for her) and more comfortable with parallel parking, which some women drivers go to great lengths to avoid – even if it means leaving the car several blocks from wherever they want to go.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule – a British survey indicated that 11 per cent of men avoid parallel parking – but in general terms, men are more confident drivers: more willing than women to back a trailer down a narrow driveway, tackle a rough 4WD track or enjoy the thrill of driving fast on a twisty mountain road.

But does that necessarily make them better drivers in the broader sense? Confidence is a double-edged sword. Men’s mastery of the technical aspects of driving may lead them to take risks that women, for lack of confidence, avoid.
The great British Formula One driver Stirling Moss once said there were two things no man would admit doing badly: driving and making love.

Combine a surfeit of that self-confidence with the aggression and competitiveness that comes with testosterone, and you have a much greater risk of an accident.
It all comes down to how you define a good driver. Is it one who is technically competent, or one who doesn’t take silly risks – even if that means sometimes being more cautious than is strictly necessary?

Jessica Fellowes seems to judge drivers purely by their technical skills. In that case I wonder how she would rate boy racers, many of whom are skilful drivers – they know how to put a car into a controlled drift, for example, or apply opposite lock to control a skid  – but are tragically accident-prone because they lack maturity and sound judgement.
This much I can say with absolute conviction: in nearly 45 years of driving in several countries, the worst driving displays I have witnessed have invariably been by men.

Some of these men may have been technically competent drivers, but dangerous nonetheless because of their aggression and ego. Put some men behind the wheel and they behave like strutting bantam roosters, regarding every other male on the road as a (sexual?) rival. There are no road users more menacing than these macho primitives, and sadly New Zealand is full of them.
I don’t recall ever seeing such behaviour from a woman driver, although they are not without their faults. Despite being labelled the gentle sex, many women accelerate harder and brake more sharply than they need to. It makes for a jerky drive, burns fuel unnecessarily and wears the brakes out prematurely. But it could hardly be called life-threatening.

More worrying, and just as hard to explain, is the tendency of many women drivers to tailgate, often at speed. Some men do it too, but usually for the purpose of harassing or intimidating the driver in front – the human equivalent of the bantam rooster’s aggressive body language in the barnyard. Why so many women do it is a mystery.
Arguably the worst drivers of all are older men, who remain convinced of their superior driving skills but become stubbornly oblivious to every other road user. The worst possible combination, in my experience, is an elderly man wearing a hat and driving an old ute.

I’m not ashamed to say that only last week I dobbed one such older driver in to a highway patrolman after he crossed the Rimutaka Hill, between the Wairarapa and Wellington, at a pace that would have made a funeral procession look like the Monaco Grand Prix.
Despite having plenty of opportunities to pull over and let faster vehicles pass, he doggedly held his ground even when more than a dozen cars had backed up behind him. Inevitably, impatient drivers then began taking risks. Three cars pulled out and overtook in places where clearly it wasn’t safe to do so.

The cop I alerted, who then stopped the errant vehicle (a tired old van), told me later that the driver, a man in his late 60s, was nonplussed; he didn’t realise he’d done anything wrong. Perhaps he thought that mirror thingy in the centre of the windscreen was for hanging things on.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where do I get my ticket?

What a difference a hyphen can make.

Today's Dominion Post contains an advertisement for the annual Carols by Candelight concert hosted by Nick Tansley at Wellington's Waitangi Park.

It includes the words "Alcohol Free". If that were the case, every freeloading drunk in the lower half of the North Island would be there.

But put a hyphen between those two words and it conveys quite a different meaning - the one I'm sure the organisers intended.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Cooper's wine guide has become a door stop

Michael Cooper's latest Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines arrived in the mail a few days ago.

It's a veritable door stop. The very first edition of Cooper's annual guide, published in 1992, ran to 280 pages and listed more than 800 wines. The latest edition has 670 pages and reviews 3260 wines.

Whereas you could have stuffed the 1992 edition into your back pocket, at a pinch, while scanning the shelves at your local wine shop, you'd risk a hernia doing the same with the latest version.

Quite apart from being a useful reference book for risk-averse wine lovers, the Buyer's Guide doubles as a chronicle of the New Zealand wine industry. If you want to see how winemaking in New Zealand has evolved and grown, you need only compare the various editions over the years.

Whereas the 1992 edition reviewed only three syrahs, the 2013 edition has 30 pages of them. But the reverse is true too: the inaugural guide reviewed 34 muller-thurgaus (remember them?), but the latest book has only two. Many of the wine varieties listed in the new book - such as albarino, arneis, gruner-veltliner, tempranillo and nebbiolo - were unheard of, other than by wine nerds, when the first edition was published.

The book has evolved too. Cooper reviews the 2012 vintage conditions in the various wine regions (although whether casual wine buyers would be interested in such esoteric detail is a moot point), lists his two best buys of the latest releases (one white, one red - buy the book if you want to know what they are) and continues his practice of nominating "super classic", "classic" and "potential classic" New Zealand wines.

Unsurprisingly, he no longer feels it necessary to include, as he did in 1992, a section discussing the relative merits of cask (aka bag-in-box) and bottled wines. That's another measure of how the wine industry has matured.

Cooper has been writing about wine since the mid-1980s  (the first edition of his Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand came out in 1984) and has earned a full-time living from it since 1991, most recently as wine columnist in The Listener. In that time his annual guide has seen off at least two competitors.

His approach has changed little. He's meticulous and conscientious to a fault. For many wine writers, part of the attraction of the job is being schmoozed by wine companies - treated to free trips and lavish lunches, bombarded with free wine and generally made to feel very important (all of which wine companies do very well). But from my observations, Cooper is utterly immune to such blandishments. He has a job to do and he takes it very seriously.

In fact if I have a criticism of him, it's that he takes it a little too earnestly. Wine is about enjoyment, after all, and I sometimes feel that Michael could afford to lighten up a bit. But if that's the most damning thing that can be said about him (and I believe it is),  his reputation as "New Zealand's most acclaimed wine writer" (to quote the publisher's blurb) is safe.

[Michael Cooper's Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines 2013 is published by Hodder Moa and has a recommended retail price of $39.99.]

Public must own constitutional review

I recently wrote an article for The Listener backgrounding the constitutional review currently being undertaken in line with the confidence and supply agreement negotiated in 2008 between the National and Maori parties. I didn't take a position on the issue but thought (as did The Listener) that it was crucial people were aware the review was taking place, given its profound implications.

It can't be left to the political elite to determine our constitutional arrangements. On this issue, above all others, the public must have the final word - which is pretty much what constitutional law expert Professor James Allan is saying here in a commentary for Muriel Newman's Centre for Political Research.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sellman resorts to demagoguery

An article in yesterday's Dominion Post shows how readily anti-alcohol campaigners resort to shonky propaganda techniques more often associated with demagoguery.

The article examines the influence of scientific advice on government policy and notes that the government appears to have ignored the views of chief scientific adviser Sir Peter Gluckman on alcohol law reform.

Commenting on this, Professor Doug Sellman is quoted as saying: "The PM gets advice from all sorts of places, and he's obviously taking his advice from the alcohol industry over his science adviser."

So ... if the government decides not to follow the advice of Sir Peter Gluckman, it can only be because it has been captured by wealthy liquor barons. This conveniently plays to  public prejudices in the same way as populist politicians like to blame identifiable "villains" -  whether they be black people, immigrants, Jews or foreign powers - for whatever's upsetting people.

But Sellman's statement disregards something that Gluckman himself acknowledges in the same article: namely, that governments have to weigh up all manner of factors in making policy decisions. "Expert" advice is part of that mix, but as Gluckman says: "Science and scientific knowledge is not the only thing that makes policy. We don't live in a technocratically dominated society, we live in a participatory democracy."

Clearly, Gluckman accepts that governments don't make decisions just to gratify "experts". Politicians are often in a position to assess broader factors which academics, with their narrow specialist focus, may ignore or overlook. (If politicians get it wrong, we can vote them out - a fate that taxpayer-funded academics, no matter how flawed their arguments, escape.)

Sellman, on the other hand, suggests that if the government doesn't listen to the increasingly hysterical arguments of the anti-liquor propagandists, the only possible explanation is that evil capitalists have prevailed.

I wonder, does he really believe this? Is he  being wilfully dishonest, or is his view of the alcohol issue so black-and-white, so obsessively negative in its focus, that he's incapable of understanding that politicians might have perfectly legitimate and honourable reasons for not listening only to "expert" advisers?

People can make up their own minds on that. But either way, it confirms to me that Sellman is fundamentally an ideologue whose  title of professor confers a patina of academic authority.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hobbit mania: where reality and fantasy converge

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 30.)
IN HIS WILDEST imaginings, J R R Tolkien could hardly have envisaged a world stranger than the real one.
The weirdness takes multiple forms. Busloads of overseas tourists descend on a dairy farm near Matamata to gasp in awe at a few holes in the ground; Tolkien obsessives from around the world travel to Wellington so they can they dress up in Hobbit costumes and hairy feet to attend a Hobbit party; and not least, star-struck reporters abandon all semblance of journalistic detachment – not to mention all sense of proportion – in their gushing coverage of the Hobbit premiere.

Somewhere along the line, reality and fantasy have converged to such an extent that it’s hard to know where one stops and the other begins.
Someone should have gently explained to the awe-struck fans pressing in on actor Elijah Woods at Monday night’s party that Woods isn’t really Frodo Baggins. He’s just an unusual-looking bloke pretending to be Frodo Baggins. This point sometimes seems lost on them.

Similarly, you have to wonder whether the tragic tourists gawking at the Hobbiton film set realise that Bilbo Baggins doesn’t actually live there.
It’s all harmless, and a handy boost for a beleaguered economy, but mystifying to anyone not gripped by Hobbit mania.

No doubt the experts can explain the popular obsession with fantasy as evidenced by the popularity of Tolkien, Harry Potter and the infantile comic strips that Hollywood has inflated into big-screen epics.
One theory is that they fill the belief void created by the decline of religion (something of an irony, given that Tolkien was a devout Catholic). Another is that people are so disenchanted with the real world that they seek refuge in an alternative universe.

Whatever the explanation, you have to hand it to Sir Peter Jackson and his associates. They have taken the work of a bookish Oxford don and built it into a billion-dollar franchise – although whether Tolkien would recognise his work, or feel comfortable with what has been done to it, is another matter entirely.
* * *
THE MOST important two hours on television are between 8am and 10am on Sunday mornings. That’s when TV3 screens The Nation and TV One follows it up with Q&A.
No other programmes take the time to illuminate important political and economic issues or expose politicians to in-depth examination.  

Sometimes the result is that you find yourself forced to revise previously held views. A recent interview with John Key on The Nation, for example, may have come as a revelation to anyone who previously dismissed him as a lightweight with limited command of policy detail.
On the other hand, existing prejudices can be reinforced – as when David Cunliffe, ahead of his thinly disguised play for the Labour Party leadership, came across on the same show as smug and evasive.

A diminishing segment of the population can remember when TV channels showed programmes like these in prime time. There was no competitive pressure then; viewers watched because they didn’t have dozens of other channels jostling for their attention with foodie porn, talent quests and home renovation shows.
Virtually everyone in the country saw the famous 1970 Gallery programme in which Brian Edwards mediated in the resolution of a long-running Post Office industrial dispute. Similarly, the exchange between prime minister Robert Muldoon and the fearless young upstart Simon Walker on Tonight in 1976 (“You’re not going to set the rules, my friend”) was a talking point for days.

We were probably a better-informed democracy then. These days, serious current affairs attracts a pitifully small audience. The ratings-driven networks have succeeded in their long-term mission to turn viewers’ brains to mush. Most people probably don’t even know the Sunday morning programmes exist.
Of the two, my preference is TV3’s The Nation. It’s less flashy and production-driven than Q+A, and all the better for it. Presenter Rachel Smalley manages the unusual feat of being a sharp interviewer while also looking elegant and cool.  

The Nation also benefits from its regular media panel consisting of the aforementioned Edwards, who is nearly always witty and insightful, and Bill Ralston – although I’m amused at how Ralston, an absolute bodgie in his heyday, has reinvented himself as some sort of elder statesman of journalism. 
* * *
IN MY last column I feigned indignation at the ageing BBC correspondents reporting on television from world trouble spots, and asked why the illustrious Beeb didn’t follow the example of our own TV networks by employing attractive young women.
I had hoped it would be obvious that I was writing tongue-in-cheek, but no – I have been condemned by some readers as ageist and sexist.

My apologies to anyone whose sensibilities were offended. Clearly such items should come with a warning that they are not to be taken seriously.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Shafted by their own council

So this is what it has come to.

The Kapiti Coast District Council, according to today's Dominion Post, has identified 40 "sacred" Maori sites on which owners will not be allowed to subdivide, alter existing buildings, or disturb the land.

As I write this, I'm fervently hoping the citizens of the Kapiti Coast will be laying siege to the council offices and that the mayor, the councillors and the council functionaries (who I suspect are the real villains of the piece, because that's usually the case) will be cowering in terror in a basement panic room.

If not, they certainly should be. But it won't happen, because the populace has become so desensitised to this type of attack on their rights that they have become utterly supine.

According to the Dominion Post, letters were sent to affected Kapiti property owners last month giving them four weeks' notice that the historic status of the "wahi tapu" sites would be included in the new district plan, which takes effect this week.

Landowners appear to have been taken by surprise. One said the letter came out of the blue.

If I correctly interpret  a statement by Waikane Community Board chairman Michael Scott, details of sites deemed to be tapu have already been entered on land information memorandums (LIMs) and titles. In other words, property values have potentially been undermined even before owners have had a chance to react.

Affected owners will be able to make submissions on the proposal until March 1, but it looks suspiciously like a fait accompli. After all, it's far easier for a council to defend something that has already been imposed than to convince people beforehand that it's fair, reasonable and necessary. The council bureaucrats will probably count on a high proportion of owners, weakened and demoralised by decades of increasingly brazen encroachments on their rights and freedoms, rolling over and passively accepting it. And they will probably be right.

Now, how did this come about? Well, from what the Dominion Post tells us, the council commissioned three local iwi to look at possible sites of historic interest to them on the Kapiti Coast.

They came up with a list of 400, which has been whittled down to 40 for inclusion in the proposed district plan.

What evidence was required to establish the validity of the iwis' claims? That's not clear, but I'm hoping someone on the Kapiti Coast will have the gumption to file an offical information request demanding to know.

One property owner is quoted as saying Maori researchers believed a pa site and an urupa (burial ground) may have been on his land. But the property had been in European ownership and farmed since 1830, and previous owners had never mentioned a pa site.

The owner is now prevented from carrying out earthworks, modifying existing buildings or subdividing. Just like that.

According to Michael Scott, who is a lawyer, the restrictions mean owners will not be able to dig a hole and put a swimming pool in. A farmer will be allowed to graze stock, but not disturb the land surface.

Does this mean, I wonder, that a property owner will have to pay koha to the local iwi for the right to plant lettuce and tomato plants? I'm not being entirely flippant, because given the now-routine ritual subservience to Maori claims, which can delay a highway construction project because of concerns that a taniwha might be disturbed, anything is possible.

The most obvious objection to what the KCDC is proposing is that it's a flagrant violation of  property rights - in other words, the right to determine what to do with one's own assets and possessions. Tragically, this fundamental right has already been so circumscribed that most people have given up trying to defend it. (It says a lot about the architects of our Bill of Rights Act, passed by a Labour government in 1990, that  reference to property rights was omitted.) 

But even more alarming is the casual acceptance by the Kapiti council that certain people who define themselves as Maori should have the power to determine what other people do with their land - in other words, the conferring of special privilege on the basis of race. Twenty years ago such a proposition would have rightly been regarded as outrageous. But this is the logical and inevitable outcome of a pernicious policy of biculturalism under which people's rights and privileges are determined by the extent to which they can claim, however tenuously, Maori ancestry. 

We don't know who these iwi representatives are or on what basis they determined that certain pieces of land are sacred and inviolable. They are not elected and not accountable for the consequences of anything they recommend. It's power without responsibility, the antithesis of democracy.

The real villains, however, are not the local iwi (after all, it's human nature to avail oneself of any special treatment offered) but those in the Kapiti council who have orchestrated this abuse of power. Elected, paid and entrusted by the hapless citizens of Kapiti to ensure their interests are protected and their rights respected, they choose instead to shaft them.

And the worst part about it is that Kapiti represents, in microcosm, what is happening all over New Zealand on a grand scale. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Who's the Humpty Dumpty here?

Anti-alcohol obsessive Professor Doug Sellman doesn’t want for chutzpah.
In this morning’s Dominion Post, he tut-tuts about the terms “moderate drinking” and “responsible drinking”, calling them “Humpty Dumpty terms”.

A Humpty Dumpty term, presumably, is one that means whatever the user chooses it to mean, as in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. Effectively, Sellman is saying such terms should be taken with a grain of salt.
Funny, then, that the same man doesn’t hesitate to make grotesquely alarmist statements about “heavy” drinking. In 2009, Sellman made the absurd claim that 700,000 New Zealanders – the equivalent of the combined populations of Wellington and Christchurch (pre-quake) – were “heavy drinkers”.

I think he’s guilty of Humpty Dumptyism himself. He asserts the right to use the arbitrary term “heavy drinker” while simultaneously pooh-poohing the notion that anyone might be capable of “moderate” or “responsible” consumption. He can’t have it both ways.
In my book, anyone who consumes alcohol without suffering adverse health consequences, breaking the law or suffering relationship problems can accurately be described as a moderate, responsible drinker.

That describes the vast majority of New Zealanders. But Sellman and others of his ilk are so fixated on the conspicuous minority who abuse alcohol that they are blind to its social benefits.
Perhaps I should add health and economic benefits too, because as Canterbury University economist Eric Crampton pointed out in the same newspaper story, drinkers on average earn more than non-drinkers, light drinkers have a lower mortality rate than non-drinkers and light-to-moderate drinking produces better ageing outcomes.

Crampton is possibly the only person on the public payroll prepared to counter the incessant barrage of hysterical anti-alcohol propaganda emanating from academia and the health bureaucracy. Thank God there are still one or two independent thinkers in the universities.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Where private affairs have public consequences

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 21.)
Certain aspects of the American character puzzle me.
Their ardent patriotism is one. It’s on display everywhere, from “God Bless America” bumper stickers to the Stars and Stripes that flutter from houses in virtually every street.

Another is their intense religiosity. No one from New Zealand – a country so irreligious that some Christians are almost embarrassed to admit they go to church – can fail to notice the fervent faith of many Americans.
It’s especially noticeable in the more conservative states, where on Sundays it’s common to see acres of cars parked outside large, imposing churches, even in sparsely populated rural areas.

That brings me to another curious aspect of the American character. Public morality is an infinitely more sensitive issue there than in New Zealand.
That was obvious from the political furore that blew up over the revelation that the military hero General David Petraeus, who commanded US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, had conducted an affair with a much younger woman who wrote his biography. The scandal ended his brief career as head of the CIA.

Paula Broadwell had spent much of last year “embedded” with American troops in Afghanistan as she gathered material for her book. In this context that term, which is usually applied to journalists reporting the war, took on a whole new meaning.
As often happens with political scandals, one disclosure led to another. The Petraeus scandal soon enveloped other people – notably socialite twin sisters from Florida who had a penchant for cultivating politicians and senior military figures.

One of the sisters, Jill Kelley, complained to an FBI agent that she was receiving threatening emails – supposedly from Broadwell, who appeared to suspect Kelley of making a play for Petraeus. Another four-star general, John Allen, was then exposed as having exchanged suggestive emails with Kelley.
Are you managing to keep up so far? If not, never mind. Because the interesting point is that in America, private affairs often have public consequences.

In Italy and France, it’s generally assumed that prominent men will have extra-marital liaisons. In fact it’s almost expected of them, as if you’re less of a man if you don’t have a mistress tucked away somewhere.
Though the Brits tend to be more discreet, the British public too has generally been tolerant of infidelity in high places. Mild-mannered former prime minister John Major’s reputation didn’t seem to be seriously harmed – in fact may even have been enhanced – by the revelation that he had carried on a four-year affair with backbench MP Edwina Currie.

David Lloyd George, leader of Britain’s coalition government in the latter years of World War I, was nicknamed the goat on account of his womanising (he was also, by all accounts, prodigiously endowed), and King Edward VII had a string of high-profile mistresses.
In Britain, things seem to get messy only when there are national security implications, as when Defence Minister John Profumo was famously sacked for having a relationship with call-girl Christine Keeler, who was simultaneously sleeping with a Soviet spy.

Closer to home, Australian prime minister Bob Hawke had a reputation as a philanderer. Like Petraeus, Hawke had a relationship with his biographer (the exotically named Blanche d’Alpuget). The Aussie media knew of Hawke’s infidelities – the relationship with d’Alpuget was public knowledge – but it was never a hot political issue.
Closer still, New Zealand journalists have tended to turn a blind eye to politicians’ affairs, even when they were relatively common knowledge (as in the case of the late Robert Muldoon, who was once the subject of a wickedly witty fake newspaper billboard that read Rooting pig shot in Ngaio; PM safe). The general view was that it was none of the public’s business unless the relationship compromised the participants politically, implicated them in illegality (as in the case of two Labour MPs who were outed for homosexual activity before it was decriminalised) or reflected poorly on their ability to do their job.

An exception was National MP (and later Speaker of the House) Doug Kidd, whose affair with a parliamentary secretary was exposed by the feminist lobby in 1983 with the express purpose of causing him political embarrassment. The feminists were gunning for Mr Kidd (as he was then – he was later knighted) because he had moved to amend the abortion law.  
Otherwise, the only recent sex scandals I can recall in New Zealand politics were those that came to public attention because they were the subject of police complaints. The politicians involved – National’s Richard Worth and Labour’s Darren Hughes – both resigned.

The big difference in America is that even when an adulterous relationship has been between consenting adults and there has been no suggestion of criminality, the code of public morality often demands that the transgressor be punished.
For a long time, a respectful American press left presidents alone. Franklin D Roosevelt had mistresses, one of whom was even assigned a code name by the Secret Service. Dwight D Eisenhower’s relationship with his English female chauffeur during World War II was never referred to while he was alive. John F Kennedy scattered his seed with impunity, knowing he was protected by the sanctity of his office.

All that changed post-Watergate, when the US media began applying much more critical scrutiny to politicians.  Two high-flying casualties were senators Gary Hart in the 1980s and John Edwards in 2008 – both contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination who became soiled political goods when their extra-marital activities were made public.
Even in business, careers have been destroyed by affairs – as in the case of Lockheed Martin president Chris Kubasik, who was forced to step aside because of his relationship with a subordinate.

President Bill Clinton is a remarkable exception to the rule. Miraculously, perhaps due to personal charisma, America seems to have forgiven him his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky (and Gennifer Flowers, and Paula Jones, and probably others that we don’t know about).
Adultery and politics are natural bedmates, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. The personal characteristics that make men successful in politics – ambition, charisma, energy – are often the same as those that make them sexually adventurous and attractive to women.

No doubt that’s true of many military commanders too. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for General Petraeus.
Few men wouldn’t have been tempted in his situation: isolated from home and family, in a lonely, dangerous and unimaginably stressful job, suddenly finding himself the subject of flattering attention from a much younger woman. But he has paid the price demanded by a tradition of censorious public morality that probably dates all the way back to the puritanical Pilgrim Fathers.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Our most important political commentator

If I had to name the most important political commentator in the country, it would be Colin James.

For starters, he has longevity on his side. I first met him when he was No 2 in the Dominion's press gallery team behind Keith Hancox.

That was in 1969. James makes even the Herald's John Armstrong and Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper look like johnnies-come-lately.

That gives him a wider and, dare I say it, more mature perspective than most others covering politics. He's able to evaluate political trends and events within an historical and cultural context that escapes younger journalists.

That's part of what makes him so valuable, but the other factor is that he floats above the daily political drama and takes in the big picture. While other political journalists are reporting from the skirmish lines, amid the blood and severed limbs, James is on a strategic ridge several kilometres back, coolly surveying the scene through binoculars and taking in the broader implications.

For a typical example, check out his latest column in the Otago Daily Times. Other political writers are totally absorbed with Labour's leadership tensions, but James gives them only a passing mention. He's more interested in the latest report of the Land and Water Forum, which has largely been ignored by the rest of the media but may have far more significant long-term ramifications than David Cunliffe's bungled leadership aspirations.

James doesn't write with the flair and wit of a Jane Clifton. Reading his columns requires a mental change of gear, since his style is dry and can be somewhat oblique. But his insights are always interesting and you sense that his judgment is sound.

He's also fair and even-handed. James is one of those political journalists who carries purity to excess (in my view) by choosing not to vote, but in any case it's hard to discern what his personal leanings, if any, might be. Given the intensely partisan nature of much political commentary since the emergence of the blogosphere, that only reinforces his credibility.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

John Key and that gay red jersey

(First published in the Dominion Post, November 16.)

ACUTE sensitivity disorder has gripped the nation again. The latest outbreak was touched off by prime minister John Key’s comment that a radio interviewer’s red jersey looked a bit “gay”. As predictably as Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell, the gay lobby rose up in anger.
Protesters labelled it a slur against gays and took to the streets wearing red tops as a gesture of solidarity with the oppressed. Sir Ian McKellen, perhaps mistakenly thinking his on-screen aura of Gandalfian wisdom has somehow carried over into real life, went online to register his dismay.

I suspect most New Zealanders would have viewed the fuss with an air of worldly resignation. They have become well-accustomed to minority groups rearing up on their hind legs at every imagined slight.
If the gay rights lobby is to be believed, Mr Key’s statement was likely to excite prejudice against gay men. But what’s more likely to generate a backlash is the fuss gay activists make every time someone says anything that might be construed, however tenuously, as an attack on them.  

In many people’s eyes, it reinforces the impression – am I allowed to say this? – that they are a bit precious.
We live in a robust, liberal democracy. People say things every day that could cause upset if the maligned parties were of a mind to take offence. Most of us manage to ignore it and get on with life.

In Mr Key’s case, he was merely making an attempt to sound blokey in order to connect with that radio programme’s predominantly male, rural audience.
Politicians do this all the time, possibly without even realising it. I remember years ago hearing Helen Clark being interviewed on a youth-oriented radio station in Auckland. It was a different Helen Clark than I’d ever heard before: both her manner of speaking and the language she used were obviously calculated to communicate with that particular audience.
No one can seriously accuse Mr Key of being anti-gay. How quickly his critics forget that he has ingratiated himself with gay men too – for example, by speaking at the Big Gay Out rally in Auckland last February and posing for photographs with transvestites and bare-chested gay men.
That’s what politicians do: pander to whichever group they happen to be addressing at the time. But surely there are far worse things a prime minister could be accused of than trying to be one of the boys.

* * *
DEAR ME. The Labour Party’s problems are graver than I thought.

At the party’s annual conference on Sunday, leader David Shearer will deliver a speech that is being treated as a make-or-break moment. Many in the party are unhappy with his performance and will look to his address for a sign one way or another: either he can galvanise Labour with an inspirational, visionary speech or he becomes a footnote in the party’s history.
Trying to shore up his credentials in an article published in this paper last week, Mr Shearer was reported as saying: “I believe I have very strong views. I am very value-driven as a politician.” He went on to say he had lived the values of “opportunity, fairness and giving people a fair go”.

Really? Is that the best he can do? He “believes” he has strong views? Is he waiting for confirmation from someone else? Such equivocal language is likely to reinforce rather than counteract suspicions about his lack of fire.
And how strikingly unoriginal to say he believes in “fairness” and a “fair go”. Show me a politician who doesn’t profess to believe in a fair go. It’s probably the most shop-soiled cliché in the politician’s lexicon.

Mr Shearer’s comments ahead of his speech hardly seem likely to create a sense of feverish anticipation. But then, are his prospective rivals any more promising?
The Listener recently published a profile of another Labour Party David, the ambitious David Cunliffe, and it seems he too has trouble breaking out of the cliché trap. In his own words, he has certain ideals and values “and they are about fairness, about equity, about opportunity and it’s good old Kiwi stuff, you know”.

Wow. There’s fresh thinking for you. Isn’t there anyone in the Labour hierarchy capable of elevating the political dialogue above the level of a 1960s bumper-sticker?
* * *
I WAS ASTONISHED recently to see a BBC correspondent named Jeremy Bowen reporting from the Middle East on One News.

How did this bloke ever get on television? He’s male, for a start, and he’s more than 50 years old – a veritable fossil. He’s got thinning grey hair and an unfashionable moustache. Doesn’t the BBC have any respect for its viewers?
Then there’s Orla Guerin, another BBC reporter who keeps popping up in world trouble spots. At least she’s female, but come on – she’s 46 years old!

What’s more, she doesn’t seem to care too much about her appearance. She doesn’t even wear makeup. Can’t they find her a backroom job somewhere?
How much nicer to see the pretty young things TVNZ and TV3 employ. Thank God our own broadcasters still strive to maintain some sort of basic standard, even if the Beeb doesn’t.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bowden's alarming Treaty analysis

Muriel Newman's latest NZCPR Weekly contains an alarming analysis by Roger Bowden, former professor of economics and management at Victoria University. Bowden's advice, in a nutshell? Forget all that government propaganda about the proceeds of state asset sales going towards health and education, because the money will be entirely swallowed up paying for Treaty settlements.

These ongoing liabilities include the outrageous "top-ups" built in to the Tainui and Ngai Tahu settlements, whereby what were considered fair compensation sums at the time they were negotiated get ratcheted up to ensure some sort of spurious relativity is retained.

Here's the most salient bit from Bowden's analysis:

Let’s start with the annual appropriations for running costs, covering such things as negotiation costs, the Waitangi Tribunal & representation, and disbursements under the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act. The 2012 budget request is $169,969m. The same annual sum (can it ever diminish?) capitalised over 10 years at the current NZ govt bond yield, as the opportunity cost of capital, comes to $1,409m.

Now add in the cost of outstanding and projected settlements up to 2016 (not 10 years, but bear with me here), amounting to $2,800 m. Together with the capitalised running costs, that comes to $4,209m, if my arithmetic is correct.

I’m not sure whether this includes the ratchets promised to Tainui and Ngai Tahu in previous settlements, which at the time envisaged a total of $2 billion instead of the $4 billion so far awarded or projected. Last I heard, Tainui and Ngai Tahu will be sharing a top up of $138.5m, but there will be more down the track as the settlements continue to mount. Nor does this year’s Waitangi Vote allow for future annual costs under the ‘co-management’ regimes that are becoming the norm for Waitangi settlements.

But any way you add up the sums, the message is that present and future commitments under just the one Vote, Treaty Negotiations, will comes to something like 5-6 billion dollars in total present value, probably even more. It’s hard to find Votes with a similarly spectacular explosion. No doubt there are others on a smaller scale; the ministerial travel budget, perhaps? But otherwise, even the traditional biggies like Health and Education seem under control, at least on Treasury projections, especially for Education, which is projected to level off, even turn negative. Expect yet more belt tightening after the latest revenue figures.
Coincidentally, the latest Treaty settlement bill, compensating Auckland's Ngati Whatua tribe, passed through Parliament yesterday. Compared with the Tainui and Ngai Tahu deals, it's relatively small beer. But there are many more potentially large settlements in the pipeline, and there's a very real prospect that the Crown will have to negotiate water access river by river, hapu by hapu, if the courts rule in favour of Maori water rights .

Bowden concludes by saying: "The conclusion is inescapable. We need the partial asset sales to finance the soaring costs of the Treaty industry."

All of which raises the question that no politician seems willing to confront: how far can New Zealand continue wading into this morass before it becomes completely unaffordable (if it isn't already)?


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pagani has good news for the right

In a revealing interview with Audrey Young in today's New Zealand Herald, former Labour candidate and political commentator Josie Pagani lifts the lid on the toxic factionalism within the party.

It seems that anyone who doesn't fall into line with strident far-left agitators in the blogosphere or the unions - and that means people like John Tamihere, David Shearer and Pagani herself - can expect to be exposed to ugly personal campaigns of vilification.

This of course will come as good news to the right, because if the hard-core socialists in Labour prevail, they will render the party unelectable.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bloody immigrants

OBVIOUSLY disturbed by Education Ministry boss Lesley Longstone’s trouble-at-mill South Yorkshire accent, someone complained to Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report recently about the preponderance of British migrants in top government jobs.
Surely the complainer hadn’t just noticed. This has been going on for decades, and not just at the top level of the public service. British migrants are disproportionately represented throughout the public sector, from building inspectors and animal control officers upward. They show a particular fondness for jobs that require a uniform, as has been apparent from some of the witnesses in the Christchurch earthquake inquiries.

Several of our most important government departments have British chief executives. Besides Longstone at Education, there’s Gabriel Makhlouf at the Treasury – arguably the most influential public servant of them all – and David Smol, who heads the new “super-ministry”, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (although to be fair, Smol had previous experience in New Zealand).
At a function last month I heard speeches from the chief executive of the Earthquake Commission, Ian Simpson, and the head of Te Papa, Michael Houlihan – both Brits who replaced New Zealanders. Houlihan’s appointment was particularly intriguing, given that the institution he runs is supposedly all about defining what it means to be a New Zealander.

Is this a lingering legacy of the cultural cringe, whereby we assume that outsiders are more capable than we are?
It’s worth recalling that we farewelled the last British governor-general, Bernard Fergusson, in 1967. New Zealanders have done the vice-regal job ever since. It’s puzzling that nearly five decades later, we still turn to Britain for so much expertise in other areas. While the government obviously has to recruit the best people for the job, I can’t imagine other countries – Australia, for example – tolerating such a high proportion of imports in top public service jobs.

I have a theory about this, albeit one that’s completely unscientific.

It’s often said that New Zealanders lack ambition. A common explanation for the lack of big New Zealand companies, for instance, is that Kiwi business people are not interested in building world-leading empires. Once they’ve got the “three Bs” – the bach, the boat and the BMW – they are content.
You could argue, I suppose, that this is a reflection of our easy-going, she'll-be-right culture. Life in New Zealand is essentially pretty cruisy for the majority; it's not a country where you have to claw and compete to survive, and there's always a generous welfare system to cushion failure.
Of course there are ambitious New Zealanders, but most tend to go overseas. This country is too small, and the opportunities too limited, to contain them.

Has this, I wonder, created a talent vacuum in the upper echelons of the public service that can be filled only by recruiting abroad?
Getting back to Longstone, it was very clear from her recent contretemps with teachers that she’s hopelessly unfamiliar with the New Zealand way.

Longstone copped flak for daring to say New Zealand’s education was not world-class. Had she spent more time here, she would understand that only teachers and their unions are allowed to say there’s anything wrong with the education system, and that only they are entitled to define what’s wrong and what’s right.
Longstone riled the teachers by drawing attention to the stubbornly high proportion of under-performing Maori and Pacific Island students. Teachers are allowed to highlight this, but only as a way of exposing government failings and condemning inequity in the system. When they are not focusing on the system’s failings, teachers are forever talking up our internationally high achievement rankings (which Longstone acknowledged), for which they like to take credit.

What upsets the teachers when the head of the Ministry of Education brings up the subject of under-achievement is that it threatens to turn the debate in a direction they don’t like. When teachers talk about under-achievement, it’s with a view to leaving the system unchanged but having more money ploughed into it: more teachers at the chalkface, higher pay (to encourage more people to take up the profession) and smaller class sizes. But when Longstone brings the subject up, in the teachers’ eyes it can only be because the government wants to soften us up for some wicked neoliberal experiment such as charter schools.
How much simpler everything would be if we forgot foolhardy alternative ideas and left it to teachers to control the education debate. That’s the natural way of things. The sooner the English interloper comes to terms with this peculiar fact of New Zealand education, the sooner we can all get back to normal.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Kim Hill: international radio personality of the year

I didn’t listen to Kim Hill this morning. I didn’t listen to her last week and I probably won’t listen to her next Saturday either.
I realise I may well miss something worth hearing, because she sometimes has interesting guests and she’s a very capable interviewer. But I have to weigh those factors against the likelihood that I’ll be irritated by her overweening ego, her increasingly exaggerated mannerisms and her disgraceful ideological bias.

It was announced this week that Hill had been named International Radio Personality of the Year 2012 at some awards ceremony in London. I don't wish to sound churlish, but I'm afraid that merely confirms my scepticism about such awards.
Setting aside the intrinsic conceit of this particular award (did every radio personality on the planet enter, as the title implies?), the problem is that entrants can be very selective about what they put in front of the judges.
I hold the view that the only people genuinely in a position to judge how well Hill does her job are her New Zealand listeners who hear her (or choose not to hear her, as in my case) week after week. (I've said the same about newspaper awards, which is why I no longer judge them. The only people who can say whether a paper is doing its job well are the local readers who get it every day.) And while Hill clearly has a devoted fan base that won't hear a word against her, most people I know - including many habitual Radio New Zealand listeners - have long since tuned out for much the same reasons as I have.




Thursday, November 8, 2012

We should bow to experts - unless they happen to be right-wing

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 7.)
I recently had what might be termed a difference of professional opinion with some of my fellow journalists. It was touched off by a newspaper editorial that took a whack at “enthusiastic amateurs” sounding off on such issues as climate change, vaccinations and fluoridation.

Everyone was entitled to their opinion, the editorial writer loftily pronounced, but not all views should be accorded equal weight. The views of people with years of study and experience behind them were worth more than those of non-experts.
“Everyone is free to disagree but ignorance does not have an equal right to be heard,” the editorial concluded.

A member of an internet journalism discussion group to which I belong applauded the editorial, saying she couldn’t agree more. “These amateur know-it-alls are a menace,” she declared.
I thought this a peculiar position for a journalist for take. I mean, aren’t we supposed to believe in freedom of speech? 

Another member chimed in that the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar should be added to the “list of nutters”. Then someone else suggested a couple of other names for what was shaping up as a blacklist: David Round and Lindsay Mitchell.
For the benefit of those who haven’t heard of them, I should explain who these people are.

David Round is a University of Canterbury law lecturer who has written extensively over many years about Treaty of Waitangi issues. Unusually for an academic, he scathingly dismisses the Treaty settlement process as a rort and a gravy train.
Lindsay Mitchell is a Wellington researcher who, in her own words, sets out to debunk the myths surrounding the welfare state, which she describes as economically, socially and morally unsustainable. Hers is a courageous and often lonely voice challenging the vast body of agencies, bureaucrats and academics with a common interest in propping up an unwieldy and seriously flawed welfare system.

What was immediately noticeable was that the individuals dismissed by some of my fellow journalists as not deserving any publicity were, loosely speaking, all right of centre.
I noted that no one suggested that the ubiquitous, all-purpose left-wing activist John Minto gets far too much attention from the media. Yet over time, Minto has been on our television screens and in the news columns of our newspapers far more often than the three people mentioned above.

Minto irritates me, but I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that he should be silenced. Yet here were journalists arguing, in effect, that the media pays far too far much attention to activists from the other side of the political divide.
I concluded that among journalists who belong to the group, or at least those who take part in the online discussions, there was a pronounced bias against the right. 

Is this true of journalists generally? I’m not sure. It may simply be true of the journalists who feel strongly enough to express an opinion. Journalism has always attracted a percentage of people who are motivated by idealism, and idealists are often left-wing.
But the individual political leanings of journalists are not so important in this context. What matters is that they should be committed to freedom of expression, regardless of whether they agree with the opinion being expressed.

That’s fundamental to journalism in a liberal democracy, and I found it highly ironic – and said so – that people who called themselves journalists appeared to be arguing that certain views, right-wing views, shouldn’t be given the time of day. (Some denied my accusation that they were arguing for suppression, but it was hard to see what other inference could be drawn from their statements.)
In any case, let’s examine this question of “expert” versus “non-expert” a little more closely.

It was clear from the discussion that the word “expert” is generally equated with a university degree. In the climate change debate, you’re not considered credible unless you have a relevant academic qualification.But in more than 40 years in journalism, I’ve come across any number of highly-qualified “experts” whose opinions seemed to owe more to ideology than to academic credibility.
Many academics are moralists by nature, always ready to lecture us on what they perceive to be the world’s failings. I remember sitting in a university lecture theatre several years ago, surrounded by gullible young students, and being appalled by the brazenly ideological cant spouted by the eminent academic addressing us.

Whatever the subject – whether climate change or alcohol law reform, to choose two topical examples – many academics are inclined to cherry-pick the theories that suit their political leanings. They often give the game away by indulging in extravagant rhetoric that is more emotive than scientific.

But assuming that academic qualifications confer some sort of authority, how does one of my fellow journalists explain his suggestion that David Round has no credibility? According to the University of Canterbury website, Mr Round has an honours degree in law. I can only conclude that in the eyes of some journalists, left-wing people with degrees are entitled to respect but right-wing people with degrees should be ignored.
Let’s take this further still. Why should we bow to academic experts anyway, when they are notorious for getting things wrong?

Political scientists are hopeless at predicting election outcomes. Seismologists and meteorologists are often wise only after the event (only last January our own Niwa confessed it had got its summer weather outlook completely wrong). Historians differ wildly in their interpretation of events - which means at least some of them must be wrong - and the study of economics is famously inexact. And don’t get me started on media “experts”, many of whom have only the most tenuous grip on reality.
Journalists of all people should know to treat “experts” with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Besides, there are other ways, apart from a university education, to acquire knowledge and expertise.
A diligent, intelligent and enthusiastic amateur can acquire a body of knowledge to rival that of any academic. For that reason it’s dangerously elitist to dismiss a group such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust as having nothing of value to contribute to the debate on crime and punishment.

Amateur pressure groups play a crucial role in a participatory democracy. Confine public debate to “experts” and you risk excluding legitimate and often highly knowledgeable participants. 
Take Lindsay Mitchell, for example. She is an assiduous researcher who frequently exposes flaws in the arguments of welfare “experts”. Such individuals should be treasured in a free and open democracy – yet here were journalists, of all people, arguing that they should be ignored.

Should we be worried by this? You bet we should.



Jack Tame: a recantation

Several times, in newspaper columns and in this blog, I have mocked TVNZ reporter Jack Tame as a lightweight, chosen for accelerated promotion through the newsroom hierarchy on account of his cute telegenic appeal rather than journalistic ability.

Well, today I formally recant.

The boy wonder, as I like to call him, was recently posted to New York as TVNZ's correspondent in America. And over the past week, in particular, he has proved himself up to the job.

His coverage of super storm Sandy was first-class. Like all good reporters, Tame thrives on big stories. He was popping up all over New York - rather like a jack-in-the-box, if you'll pardon the pun - and seemed to be on the job around the clock.

He segued from Sandy into another demanding assignment, the presidential election, and did a similarly impressive job. He still has that puppyish enthusiasm (and that grating Kiwi accent), but he reports with clarity and authority. He's relaxed on camera and ad libs fluently.

Now, if he could just work on that voice ....

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Since when was Coke cheaper than water?

Is it something in the water down Dunedin way? The University of Otago seems to produce more than its share of moralistic, finger-wagging academics, especially when it comes to matters of health and nutrition.
They have a knack for turning every negative health statistic into an attack on free markets and, by implication, a government that is callously indifferent to the needs of the poor. It doesn’t seem to matter that their statements often fly in the face of logic and common sense.  

Today’s Dominion Post reports that poor dental health is the most common cause of avoidable hospital admissions for pre-schoolers in the Wellington region. Pacific Island and Maori children are particularly susceptible, with rates of hospital admission several times higher than other groups.
The paper quotes Murray Thomson, Otago’s head of dental public health, as saying: “Kids are being given things in sippy cups and bottles that are neither milk nor water.” Fair enough – but then he goes on to say: “It’s just another marker of poverty, really.”

Hang on. How does that add up? Are Maori and Pacific Island parents forced to give their small children Coke and other high-sugar drinks because they can’t afford water or milk? That seems an absurd conclusion. But it will play well to Prof Thomson’s colleagues because it conforms to the prevailing orthodoxy which holds that everything bad in New Zealand can be attributed to poverty, and that poverty in turn could be eliminated at a stroke if only the government were of a mind to do it (presumably by increasing benefits and the minimum wage, and thereby increasing the burden on the productive sector that must ultimately bear the cost).
Thomson may be closer to the mark when he cites lack of education as a cause of poor dental health among children. Perhaps the Maori mother my wife recently observed feeding her baby Coke on a train simply didn’t know that Coke isn’t good for babies. Or was it just that Coke is more convenient than healthier alternatives? (Normally my wife would have said something, but chose not to because the woman was accompanied by tough-looking members of her whanau who might not have appreciated being given advice by a Pakeha.)

Problem is, every time an “expert” like Thomson glibly attributes this type of health issue to "poverty", it removes personal responsibility from the equation – and gives the supposed “victims” licence to carry on, since their behaviour is out of their control. It’s all the fault of the government and the economic system.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The wolf pack has moved on

The media are finally losing interest in the Dotcom saga. It’s no longer generating daily headlines and the journalistic wolf pack has moved on.
But here’s the thing: the public was never that interested anyway. To use the fashionable jargon, it was a classic Beltway issue (the Beltway being the highway that encircles Washington DC, and hence a metaphor for any issue that excites political obsessives but leaves ordinary citizens wondering what all the fuss is about).

What made the Dotcom affair particularly riveting for political junkies was that it implicated normally secretive security agencies – a rare treat. Better still, it exposed them to embarrassment and ridicule.
Combine the scent of a wounded prime minister’s blood with the spectacle of panic and discomfort among the "spook" community, to use another term much loved by reporters, and you have what might crudely be called a political journalist’s wet dream.

But even if the public had cared much in the first place, which I doubt, they would have very quickly lost interest as the tangle of allegations became ever more intricate.
This is not to say the media should have ignored the affair, especially when a government security agency had flagrantly disregarded the law. But its significance in the eyes of the public was probably greatly over-estimated.

Still, there are rich pickings there for anyone interesting in scripting a political farce. It might be something for my fellow Dominion Post columnist, the parodist Dave Armstrong, to pursue when he’s not tending his basil plants.