Monday, April 30, 2012

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.)
On a sparkling autumn morning recently, I caught the train from Masterton to Wellington.
It’s a trip I always enjoy, and not just because it enables me to avoid the hassle and expense of parking in the capital. I usually take reading material with me but the Wairarapa countryside is so pretty that I spend much of my time gazing out the window.

On this particular morning the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the countryside seemed to glow. The train was crowded, it being the school holidays. Children chattered excitedly as they headed toward Wellington for a day in the city.
The contrast between this idyllic scene and the magazine article I was intermittently reading could hardly have been more striking. It was a review by the eminent British historian Paul Johnson of a new book, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

Let me give you some grim statistics. Though World War I killed more men in uniform, in World War II it was civilians who paid the highest price for the savagery of leaders who seemed indifferent to the terrible consequences of their actions.

In the Soviet Union, civilian deaths came to an estimated 16-18 million. In Poland, the country that suffered proportionately the highest losses, more than 6 million died, a high proportion of whom were Jews. Germany lost nearly 6 million civilians and Yugoslavia more than 1 million.

Lowe reminds us that although Britain was by far the most humane of the major European combatants (prisoners of war who died in British custody were an infinitesimal fraction of the number who died under the Russians and Germans), it was not above inflicting misery on civilian populations. The Allied destruction of German cities exceeded by a factor of 16 anything the Luftwaffe inflicted on Britain.

Debate still rages over the morality of British and American bombing raids over the German city of Dresden in February 1945, which caused huge civilian losses at a time when Germany was already on its last legs and there seemed little to gain from the attacks.

But as the title indicates, the new book is concerned mainly with what happened in Europe subsequently. Lowe demonstrates that instability and power struggles triggered by World War II continued to grip parts of Europe for decades.

Greece suffered terribly, plunging into a bitter civil war that scarred the country for 30 years. Eastern Europe was subjugated by the tyrant Joseph Stalin and liberated itself only 20 years ago. Yugoslavia was united under the socialist strongman Marshall Tito but erupted again after his death, when ancient ethnic tensions resurfaced in the Balkan atrocities of the 1990s. An estimated 100,000 people died in that ghastly conflict while the West dithered.

What, you might ask, has all this got to do with a train trip from Masterton to Wellington? Simply this: of all the countries in the world, few have been as untouched by war and suffering as New Zealand. It was impossible not to reflect, as the train rolled through the Wairarapa countryside, that we are blessed to live in one of the most untroubled countries on the planet.

Anzac Day reminded us that New Zealand’s losses in the two world wars were among the highest, per capita, of any country not actually in the war zones. In World War I we lost 18,000 men; in World War II, nearly 12,000.

But in most respects we are so isolated from world troublespots that David Lange was once able to mock our global insignificance by joking that New Zealand was a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.

Yet we don’t have to look far for examples of suffering on a terrible scale. Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (which New Zealand, to its lasting shame, recognised as legitimate) was a reminder that our own corner of the globe has its despots and mass murderers.

In East Timor, a brutal Indonesian occupation lasted more than 25 years and caused an estimated 103,000 deaths while New Zealand, along with most other Western governments, obligingly looked the other way. Thousands of New Zealanders enjoy holidays in the country that caused East Timor’s misery, and our prime minister was recently in Jakarta courting Indonesia as a trading partner.

On Kim Hill’s radio programme recently I listened to an interview with entrepreneur Mitchell Pham who, as a boy, risked his life to flee what was then a brutally oppressive communist regime in Vietnam. He and his fellow refugees nearly died when their flimsy boat gave up the ghost and were saved only by drifting close to an offshore oil rig whose crew took pity on them.

Most New Zealanders, living in relative affluence and security, can’t begin to imagine the hardship and deprivation that drives such people to risk everything for a new start.

When we read of the agony other countries have endured – genocide, starvation, mass displacement, the destruction of entire cities – it puts our petty concerns (paid parental leave, the sale of farmland, the partial privatisation of government-owned companies) into perspective. But I suppose everything is relative.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

John Banks has some admirable qualities. I respect his courage and the way he rose above childhood circumstances that were, to say the least, unpromising. But I wonder whether he might ultimately be undone by the addiction to politics that we see in so many public figures who refuse to recognise when their time is up.

TV3’s Campbell Live last night made claims about Banks which, if true, could shatter whatever reputation he might have for political integrity. In a nutshell, Campbell Live alleged he did not disclose the source of generous donations from Auckland-based German internet tycoon Kim Dotcom at the time Banks was campaigning against Len Brown for the Auckland mayoralty. Even more damaging is the allegation that he asked for $50,000 from Dotcom to be split into two payments of $25,000 in an attempt to disguise the donor’s identity.

Campbell Live pointed out that while it’s not illegal to accept such donations, it’s a breach of electoral law to list them as anonymous – as happened in this case – when the identity of the donor is known. And John Campbell insisted: “The Dotcom camp is adamant Banks knew the money was from them.” Today’s New Zealand Herald strengthens the claims against Banks, quoting Dotcom himself on dates and details.

The Herald quotes Dotcom as saying last night: “John said, ‘Wait a minute’, [this was after Dotcom had offered the $50,000]. “It would be good if you could split it up into two payments of 25 [thousand dollars], then I don’t declare publicly who made it’.”

Banks was already under pressure before these latest claims for allegedly failing to disclose the source of a $15,000 donation from SkyCity. Such largesse from the casino operator would have been embarrassing because he has been a vocal opponent of gambling. (Len Brown received an equal amount from SkyCity and disclosed the donor.) That matter has now been handed to the police for investigation, as the Auckland electoral officer is obliged to do by law.

That the allegation relating to the SkyCity donation came from Labour MP Trevor Mallard, who can hardly claim to be the Mr Clean of politics, doesn’t diminish its potential to damage Banks. And that has serious implications for the National-led government, since – as the Herald reports – a conviction would place his Epsom seat at risk and therefore endanger the government’s tenuous majority.

Both Campbell Live and the Herald reported details that undermine previous statements from Banks playing down his relationship with Dotcom. Campbell Live showed video footage of him proposing a toast to Dotcom at the German’s birthday party and attending a New Year’s Eve waterfront party hosted by Dotcom, at which Banks and his wife were shown hugging their hosts.

One can only assume the video footage was supplied to Campbell Live by the Dotcom camp because, as the programme reported, Banks has kept his distance from Dotcom since the latter’s arrest on internet piracy-related charges. Dotcom might well feel his generosity to Banks hasn’t been reciprocated.

All this looks very bad for Banks, and it isn’t helped by the fact that he was strikingly vague, lame and evasive when John Campbell talked to him by phone (Banks wouldn’t appear on the programme). This was not the cocky, combative Banks we know from previous scrapes. He appeared to have suffered an almost total memory lapse when it came to recalling details of his contacts with Dotcom and the sources of the donations made to his mayoral campaign.

However you look at it, this is a worry. If he wasn’t being honest – well, he wasn’t being honest, and he deserves to be exposed; end of story. If, on the other hand, he genuinely couldn’t remember events that happened relatively recently, then one has to wonder about his mental acuity and question whether he’s fit for public office.

All this strikes me as rather tragic, and a vivid demonstration of the hazards that await politicians who linger too long on the public stage.

When Banks was defeated by Brown for the Auckland mayoralty, he should have read that as a signal that his time was up. But no, it seems he couldn’t contemplate a life where he wasn’t in the thick of things. At this point, Don Brash obligingly stepped forward and, in a spectacularly inept move, anointed Banks as ACT’s candidate in Epsom. In doing so he may well have sounded the party’s death sentence, since party loyalists rightly viewed Banks as a largely unreconstructed Muldoonist.

The scandal now enveloping Banks is highly unlikely to have arisen if he had not become the MP for Epsom, and therefore pivotal to the government. Had he quietly left politics no one would have had much interest in pursuing him. If Banks’ career finally comes to an ignoble end as a result of the current disclosures, it could be seen as poetic justice for a man who was pathetically desperate to cling to political power.

Friday, April 27, 2012


A couple of weeks ago, the Dominion Post’s Saturday magazine, Your Weekend, published an article of mine about Lower Hutt. You can read it here:

Towards the end of the article I quoted Hutt South Labour MP Trevor Mallard and mentioned that he was raised in Wainuiomata. During my interview with him I had asked whether he grew up in Lower Hutt and he had replied: “I grew up in Wainuiomata”.

Someone I know subsequently contacted me to say that this was untrue: Mallard had grown up in Khandallah. She understood his father had been a stockbroker. This informant put me in touch with another person, also known to me, who confirmed that he’d been at primary school with Mallard in Khandallah and played sport with him there. He said Mallard had later attended nearby Onslow College – a decile 10 school, and a long bus ride from Wainui. I was able to confirm this by checking the MP’s entry in the New Zealand Who’s Who. What’s more, a Google search revealed that Mallard had frequently been described in the past as a Wainuiomata boy; no mention of Khandallah. Similarly, his website during the 2011 election had him saying he’d lived in Wainui “for the majority [sic] of my life”.

The significance of this, for those unfamiliar with the sociology of Greater Wellington, is that Wainuiomata is about as working-class as you can get in New Zealand, whereas Khandallah is at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum: a leafy suburb of lawyers, doctors, company directors and suchlike. The obvious implication was that Mallard was being less than honest about his background in order to bolster his blue-collar cred with Labour supporters.

Well, I contacted Mallard today and put this discrepancy to him. He seemed unfazed, explaining that he’d attended Wainuiomata Primary School, been a foundation pupil at Wainui’s Wood Hatton School (a school, ironically, that  he closed down when he was Minister of Education) and had shifted to Khandallah during his Form I year. He came back to Wainuiomata later, he said. “And you also went to Onslow College?” I asked. “Yes I did.” He added that he had relatives in Wainuiomata and a long family history there.

So where does this leave us? Since his school attendance is a matter of public record (and I can’t imagine he would risk telling fibs about something so easily checked), we can only conclude that he has been rather selective in highlighting his Wainuiomata background while playing down his more privileged antecedents. While you could take the moral high ground and argue that this isn’t 100 percent honest, from a pragmatic point of view I suppose it’s simply smart politics.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant or appropriate place to observe Anzac Day than the charming little village of Tinui.

It was here, 40 minutes’ drive east of Masterton on the Castlepoint road, that the world's first Anzac Day ceremony was held in 1916, when Anglican vicar the Rev Basil Ashcroft held a service in the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd (still in use) before leading a procession up nearby Mt Maunsell to erect a permanent memorial.

But that’s not the only quality that makes Tinui a special place in which to remember New Zealand’s war dead. The picture-book setting also provides an idyllic backdrop, since the little settlement has been proudly preserved largely as it might have looked 90 years ago.

Tinui was then the centre of a prosperous farming area, and it must be a very long time since it last experienced the sort of crowd that gathered in front of the war memorial hall yesterday. I estimated the number (very roughly) at about 1000, ranging from small children – there were lots of family groups – to gnarled old veterans in blazers and berets.

The service was simple but moving. We stood in brilliant sunshine as local schoolchildren recited the names displayed on the small memorial in front of the hall. Thirty-six locals died in the First World War and 12 in the Second.

It’s hard to imagine the impact these deaths must have had in what was then a remote, sparsely populated area. Among those killed in the 1914-18 war were two lots of three men with the same surnames – cousins if not brothers.

Emily Wellbrock of Tinui led the crowd in the singing of the national anthem, in Maori and English. A chorus of tuis in a clump of kanuka trees across the road obligingly chimed in.

We sang a couple of hymns too, accompanied by Mrs Val Mellish on a piano that had been wheeled out into the sunshine.

Colonel Paul Curry of the Royal New Zealand Engineers delivered a thoughtful speech in which he reminded us that Gallipoli, although not a military victory, was a triumph of valour. He acknowledged that the Turks had made an immense sacrifice too, and pointed out that Gallipoli formed part of the national identities of three countries: Turkey, New Zealand and Australia.

Col Curry went on to quote the Greek general and orator Pericles, who said (and I hope I took this down correctly) that freedom is the possession only of those prepared to defend it.

Several prayers were recited and then, as we stood in silence, we heard the distant rumbling of aircraft engines. Right on cue, three First World War biplanes – I presume they were replicas built by the Vintage Aviator, which is based at Masterton’s Hood aerodrome – appeared over the hills to the south and flew low overhead. I don’t mind admitting that the combination of the glorious autumn morning, the historical significance of the place, the reverence of the crowd – and yes, the tuis too, just to remind us that this was a uniquely New Zealand experience – produced one of those lump-in-the-throat moments.

Afterwards we all trooped into the hall where the local Women’s Institute had produced a classic Kiwi morning tea: club sandwiches, bacon and egg pie, mince savouries, asparagus rolls and (of course) Anzac biscuits. I’m delighted to report that Tinui is a panini-free zone.   

But wait, there’s more. A large number of us then drove or walked the kilometre or so to where a 4WD farm track leads three kilometres up to the summit of Mt Maunsell, 300 metres above Tinui. Many walked the track; others took advantage of the farm quad bikes that were on hand to shuttle pilgrims to and from the top.

It’s a steep climb, and boggy in places, through farmland, pines and regenerating bush to where a cross of jarrah hardwood was erected in 1916 – the first memorial of its type. It stood until 1965, when it was replaced by one made of more permanent materials. Schoolchildren helped erect the new cross by carrying small bags of cement up the track.

The cross, 3.6 metres high and stoutly braced to protect it from the fierce winds that can batter the hilltop, is now officially registered with the Historic Places Trust as a Category 1 historic site. Though the track is on private land and open to the public only on Anzac Day, it’s hoped that it may become a public walkway.

I can see Tinui becoming something of a national institution as the significance of this exquisite little place becomes more widely known. I have mixed feelings about this. The size of the crowd yesterday was about right; anything bigger and the settlement might have been overwhelmed. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Tinui Parish Anzac Trust, which organises the event, will be to ensure it retains its unique ambiance.


In breaking news last night (I presume it will have been fixed by the time you read this), TV3 newsreader Hilary Barry informed us that a woman had been killed by an alaphant.

This is clearly a hitherto unknown sub-species of pachyderm and readers of this blog can rest assured I will leave no stone unturned in my efforts to unearth further information.

My first thought was that it was perhaps closely related to the alleyphant, which I have previously heard mentioned by New Zealand television journalists. The alleyphant is a sub-species specially bred for ease of manoeuvring in the narrow lanes one finds in many Indian and Southeast-Asian cities.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nanny State in the bedroom

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 24.)

DEBATE on Labour MP Sue Moroney’s paid parental leave legislation has largely focused on whether it’s affordable, but surely there’s a much bigger issue here.

The notion that parents should be paid to carry out the role nature programmed them for – namely, looking after their children – represents a huge intrusion by the state into what has historically been deemed a private matter.

That this aspect of the debate has been virtually ignored demonstrates how thoroughly we have been conditioned to Big Government involving itself in people’s lives.

A letter in this paper, written by a man who said he came from a family of nine, made the point that his parents had made the choice to have children and it followed that they were prepared and able to foot the bill. 

He went on: “I don’t understand why people who decide to have children now expect the state to supply even more financial support for their life choices.”

I couldn’t have put it any better. Paid parental leave effectively makes the government a direct partner in the business of having a family.

That parents should base their decision to have children on the level of taxpayer support available to them represents a further erosion of individual responsibility. Metaphorically speaking, Nanny State might as well be standing in the bedroom during the act of procreation.

This doesn’t seem to bother the supporters of the Moroney bill. Then again, neither has it been mentioned by the National Party in its arguments against the bill, probably because there aren’t a lot of votes to be won by exploring moral and philosophical consequences.

* * *

THAT MEDIA commentators have been overwhelmingly in favour of extending paid parental leave is no surprise, since many of them are from the demographic group that stands to benefit.

Supporters of the bill point out that extending the provisions would bring us into line with certain other countries. This is rarely a convincing argument, least of all when some of those countries are burdened with massive deficits caused by feel-good government handouts.

In the dynamic economies of Asia, which are rapidly overtaking the tired, social-democratic states of Europe that are held out as an example to us, the concept of paid parental leave would be viewed with astonishment.

A far more compelling argument is that babies are best looked after at home, and that society as a whole benefits. The problem, however, is that the current generation of parents has unrealistically high lifestyle expectations that demand two incomes.

It doesn’t occur to them to do what their parents did, which was to adjust their lifestyle so that one parent worked while the other stayed at home.

Instead, they see it as the taxpayers’ obligation to make it possible for them to enjoy the best of both worlds: have a family while still being able to afford two cars, a McMansion, a 42-inch flat-screen TV and an annual overseas holiday.

 * * *

ONE INTRIGUING question remains unanswered in the saga of Katrina Bach, the beleaguered chief executive of the Department of Building and Housing. Who was on the phone?

Viewers of TV3 News have repeatedly been shown footage of Ms Bach being harried by reporter Patrick Gower – the Darth Vader of the press gallery, only not as good-looking – as she walked briskly through the corridors of Parliament.

Ms Bach was flanked by a phalanx of stony-faced, determined-looking female minders whose job, clearly, was to keep the news hound at bay. They resembled nothing so much as bodyguards protecting a publicity-shy celebrity.

All the while Ms Bach gave the impression of being intently pre-occupied with a cellphone conversation – albeit an unusually one-sided one, as she didn’t appear to be saying anything to whoever was on the other end.

This conveyed the unfortunate impression that she was faking the phone conversation to avoid having to respond to Gower’s questions, which surely was not the case. A simple statement identifying the mystery caller would clear the matter up and put an end to potentially corrosive speculation in the nation’s living rooms.

 * * * 

HE PROBABLY wouldn’t thank me for saying this, but Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O’Reilly would be an excellent man to have in Parliament.

He’s a clear thinker, an articulate communicator and a tireless champion of economic transformation. He’s not an ideologue, but neither is he a pragmatist who chooses the path of least resistance. We have a surfeit of both types of politician already.

O’Reilly is a big, genial man with an irreverent wit and an up-front approach that has helped him build good relationships with the media and with people on the other side of the employer/union divide. He is by far the most effective voice New Zealand business has had in my lifetime.

On second thoughts, perhaps he’s too good for politics.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The dark flipside of the Net

ONE OF the least surprising news items of the past week was the revelation that the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik had spent a year cloistered in his mother’s flat immersed in an online role-playing game called World of Warcraft.
One of the defining characteristics of multiple killers is a lack of empathy with their fellow human beings. They are often loners leading isolated lives. David Gray, who shot dead 13 people at Aramoana in 1990, was a textbook example.
Online games developed too late for Gray – he had to make do with books about war – but they seem the perfect outlet for the antisocial fantasies of the brooding, sociopathic loser. What better preparation for the clinically efficient murder of 77 complete strangers than to shut yourself off and indulge in a violent, vengeful fantasy game that involves no interaction with real people? This is the dark flipside of the Net.
What we don’t know is whether it was lack of empathy with other people that attracted Breivik to the solitary life of the compulsive computer gamer in the first place, or whether he developed the trait as a result of his addiction to the virtual world.
Either way, perhaps compulsive online gaming should henceforth be regarded as a danger sign – along with a fondness for army-surplus camouflage uniforms, another worrying indicator of the potential revenge fantasist.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's wrong here?

The following comment was posted under a column by Tapu Misa in the New Zealand Herald commending the education system in Finland, where teachers are esteemed and competition between schools is eschewed:

"NZ teachers are saught after internationally, unfortunately on my return to NZ this year I have not been treated as a professional that knows what they are doing."

One spelling mistake and three grammatical errors in one sentence. Not bad.

I know, I know ... it's unfair to take one example of an illiterate teacher and use it to ridicule the entire profession, which includes many highly admirable and conscientious people. But it does show that under the system Tapu defends, it's possible for a teacher to become qualified without having even a rudimentary command of the English language. I wouldn't want this individual set loose in front of my grandchildren.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Auckland: a city without a heart

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 11).

Heading out of Auckland on the southern motorway a couple of weeks ago, homeward bound on a wet, miserable morning, my wife and I vowed that it would be a long time before we’d be going back. Then we remembered we’d said exactly the same thing after our last trip there four or five years ago.

I’m too embarrassed to divulge what lured us back for our latest visit, other than to say it was shockingly hedonistic and self-indulgent. But our resolve has hardened, and this time we intend sticking to our resolution.

For years I refused to indulge in the anti-Auckland prejudice commonly encountered south of the Bombay Hill. Those tiresome “Wellington is better” (or Christchurch, or Dunedin) arguments struck me as puerile and parochial. Eager to demonstrate my broad-mindedness, I argued that every New Zealand city had its virtues and Auckland was no exception.

I now realise I’ve failed to convince even myself. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason, still less articulate it, but every time I go to Auckland I like it less. My wife and I couldn’t get away soon enough after the latest trip.

The best way I can describe it is to say that Auckland seems a city without a heart – both literally and metaphorically.

Literally speaking, Queen Street is supposed to be the city’s heart; there’s even a business promotion organisation called Heart of the City. But Auckland’s heart, if that’s what it is, is barely beating. Despite the $50 million reportedly spent in recent years trying to tart it up, Queen St looks tired to the point of seeming almost moribund.

There’s not so much as a faint spark of the energy and vibrancy that once made it a shoppers’ mecca. It looks and feels like a street in terminal decline. Even that doughty old department store Smith and Caughey – Auckland’s equivalent of Wellington’s Kirkcaldie and Stains or Ballantyne’s in Christchurch – seems to have given up the ghost.

Downtown Auckland gives the impression of having been gripped by the same disease I’ve seen in American and Australian cities: shoppers have abandoned it, either for fashionable inner-suburban Newmarket or for bland, lookalike suburban malls such as South Auckland’s Sylvia Park (a place that manages to be even duller than its name suggests).

It came as no surprise last week, then, to see Auckland councillor and business leader Cameron Brewer lamenting the tacky shops that have taken over what was once the country’s premier retail address. But I fear he might have sounded the alarm too late.

And here’s another thing: Queen St is the Street of Grunge. Most of the people we saw trudging its footpaths looked as if they hadn’t washed for days and were wearing clothes they’d hauled out that morning from a mouldy pile under the bed. After walking among these scrofulous-looking creatures I wondered whether we should check ourselves for fleas.

The number of people smoking – far more than I’ve noticed elsewhere in New Zealand – only added to the prevailing air of grottiness.

In the 1980s, Warwick Roger’s Metro magazine did its best to portray Auckland as a city of dazzling cosmopolitan sophistication and excitement. With all due respect to Warwick, a journalist I greatly respect, it wasn’t true then and it’s even less true now.

Not even the architecture redeems downtown Auckland. Once-elegant older buildings have been botched or defaced while the modern high-rise blocks are relentlessly ghastly and mostly cheap-looking, designed without a thought for aesthetics and devoid of any hint that they were meant for occupation by human beings.

The Sky Tower has become, by default, Auckland’s defining piece of architecture, but it impresses for its brashness and audacious engineering rather than for any beauty.

So much for the Auckland CBD. Former Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey reckons the waterfront celebrations that marked the start of the Rugby World Cup signified a new coming together for a once notoriously divided city. Watching the partying, Harvey wrote, “I knew that Auckland had found not only its heart, but its soul.”

Well, Harvey is a natural optimist and a great cheerleader for the new Auckland, but I wonder whether this was wishful thinking. It was certainly hard to glimpse Auckland’s heart and soul in Queen St on a wet Monday morning.

Despite the creation of the super city, Auckland still seems to consist of a collection of disparate communities, each with its own distinct character and identity. We visited several on our recent trip – Devonport, Mission Bay, Titirangi – and it’s in such places that you see Auckland’s more appealing face. Unfortunately not many people can afford to live in these desirable localities, for the gap between haves and have-nots is greater in Auckland than anywhere else in the country.

Setting aside the grotty ambience of its downtown area, what strikes me about Auckland every time I go there is that, to the visitor, it seems soulless and unwelcoming. And here we get back to the question of whether it has a heart in the metaphorical sense.

On an individual level, people are fine; but as a collective entity, Auckland isn’t people-friendly. It exudes an impatient, heads-down, me-first character that I don’t observe in any other New Zealand city.

The obvious explanation is that this is a symptom of its size: after all, it’s a big, sprawling place with an overloaded infrastructure and its inhabitants are naturally intent on going about their business as quickly and painlessly as possible. The pace is fast and Aucklanders seem resolutely focused on their own needs.

Yet I’ve visited lots of big cities overseas and I detect a coldness, almost an indifference, in Auckland that I haven’t noticed in, say, Melbourne or Chicago. Despite their size, those cities still feel human in scale and in the way they accommodate people.

In Auckland, I feel like an outsider. This is an unsettling sensation in one’s own country, and it has nothing to do with the fact that in parts of the city there are more Asian faces in the streets than European. It’s a part of the city’s character and it becomes more noticeable every time I go there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The ACC scandal: politics at its most opaque

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 10.)

OBSERVING the ACC scandal unfold is like watching a scrum in an All Blacks-Springboks test match. You know there’s something ugly and unsavoury going on there, but you can’t quite see what it is.

It has provided a glimpse of politics at its most murky, messy and Machiavellian. It smells of power struggles, personal vendettas, greed and egos.

The most unsatisfying thing about it, from the public point of view, is that it has largely been played out behind the scenes.

We could sense precious little beyond the obvious fact that a bitter political contest was consuming the time and energy of politicians who should doubtless be doing more important things.

The ACC story led evening news bulletins and provided fuel for countless political columns, but not even the best-informed political commentators seemed able to spell out exactly what it all means.

Information leaks excited the press gallery but did little to enhance public understanding. The leaks were calculated to advance the political and personal agendas of the participants; nothing else.

This left the electors, to whom the politicians are accountable, unable to figure out what’s going on, still less decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

One crucial question remains unanswered. Where does the public interest figure in this imbroglio? On the few facts given to us, it doesn’t seem to count much at all.

The row has, however, brought home one or two facts of modern political life.

The first is the speed at which political scandals can gather momentum, and the unpredictability of their course.

In this case, what started out as a leak exposing apparent privacy lapses at ACC very rapidly escalated into something much bigger and messier. In a very short time the scandal had brought down one of the government’s brightest and hardest-working ministers.

Tony Blair referred to this phenomenon in a speech shortly before he stepped down as British prime minister in 2007. Noting that politicians now grapple with a relentless 24/7 news cycle, he observed that a drama can harden into a crisis within minutes.

The other thing we’ve been reminded of is that savage power struggles and ego clashes are no longer exclusively a male preserve – if they ever were.

* * *

PEOPLE find so many ways to debase the English language that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.

On Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report last week, Waikato district police commander Wim van der Velde was interviewed about a report that criticised police for their handling of a case in which a mentally disturbed woman escaped from hospital care and murdered a neighbour.

In a dire example of the managerialist jargon that has taken root in the public sector, Superintendent van der Velde said of the report: “Learnings came out of it, and from those learnings it seems police could have done some things differently.”

Two questions arise. Whatever happened to the word “lessons”? And what makes people think pretentious neologisms such as “learnings” carry more weight?

The substitution of silly new words for perfectly good old ones, often by making a noun out of a verb, is one of the odder trends in the abuse of English. Even my Microsoft Word program recognises there’s something not right with “learnings” by putting a red line under it.

It’s often said that English is a dynamic language, constantly acquiring new words and usages. But when new words serve no purpose, and in fact detract from the language’s clarity and precision, they should be shunned.

For perpetrating this latest atrocity, Superintendent van der Velde should be assigned to traffic duties for a month.

* * *

SPEAKING of peculiar linguistic trends, it seems everyone these days is in the business of selling “solutions”.

Real estate agents don’t sell houses anymore; they provide “residential property solutions”. A moving company promises “tailored solutions for every customer”, Mitre 10 offers “Home DIY Solutions” and trucking company Linfox is in the business of “supply chain solutions”. (It’s what we used to call transport, but why make do with one word when you can use three?)

A few months ago, Campbell Live featured an item about a Wanganui nursery ware retailer named Baby Solutions, a name that could just as easily have been adopted by an abortion clinic.

Presumably it’s thought that the word “solutions” suggests something more sophisticated than “services”. Engage a firm called Plumbing and Heating Solutions, for which I hear ads on my local radio station, and you expect the man who turns up to unblock your drains to be wearing an Italian suit – or at the very least, crisp white overalls – rather than an old footy jersey and boxer shorts.

It’s hard to tell where this trend will lead, but it may be only a matter of time before funeral directors start advertising death solutions.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The history that Tulsa tried to forget

I haven’t seen or heard it mentioned in news coverage, but Tulsa, Oklahoma, where two men have been detained following a series of apparently racially motivated shootings, has a history of racial tension.

In 1921 the inner-suburban black neighbourhood of Greenwood was the scene of what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, one of the most destructive outbreaks of racial violence in American history. An estimated 10,000 people were left homeless and 35 blocks were razed by fire. Wikipedia says the official death toll was 36, but unofficial estimates ranged as high as 300. Most of the victims, though not all, were black.

It started as these things often seemed to, touched off by a report (never substantiated) that a black shoeshine boy, Dick Rowland, had assaulted a teenage white girl in an elevator. When a lynch mob gathered at the Tulsa County Courthouse where the terrified Rowland was being held, members of the Greenwood community armed themselves and went to the jail to protect him. It all escalated from there.

Underpinning the mob violence was high unemployment among whites, coupled with resentment of the prosperous black community of Greenwood, which had been dubbed “the Negro Wall Street”. Several of its residents were reputedly multimillionaires.

In the frenzy that raged through the streets of Greenwood, some victims were burned alive. Others were tied behind cars and dragged through the streets. Firebombs were dropped on Greenwood from planes and a newborn black baby was found dead in the street, apparently abandoned when its mother fled in panic.

What makes the Greenwood rioting especially intriguing is that for decades, all mention of it was erased from official archives and records. Many natives of Tulsa grew up unaware it had happened.

It wasn’t until 1997, 76 years after the event, that the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was set up. Among the witnesses were elderly black residents of Tulsa who were children when their neighbourhood was torched. When the commission reported back in 2000, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in neighbouring Texas headlined its coverage: “Tulsa’s terrible secret”. French magazine Le Vrai called the Tulsa riot the American equivalent of a pogrom.

The riot is commemorated in the Greenwood Cultural Centre, which my wife and I visited last year. Opened in 1995, it stands at the heart of the area devastated by the rioting in 1921. It’s now a rather sterile, lifeless neighbourhood that appears to have undergone what is euphemistically called urban renewal. The Oklahoma State University is nearby. On the Monday morning we were there, we appeared to be the cultural centre’s only visitors.