Friday, October 26, 2012

Preposterous salaries are a moral issue

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 24.)
The New Zealand Herald published an opinion column last week in which a University of Waikato student, Ryan Wood, suggested that what we need in New Zealand is not a minimum wage, but a maximum.
He pointed out that the former chief executive of Telecom, Paul Reynolds, reportedly made $6 million a year – a figure he described as obscene. What’s more, he argued that Reynolds’ salary package didn’t seem to bear any relationship to how well Telecom did under his leadership.

Wood suggested that as long as the government was planning to introduce a low, “starting-out” wage to encourage employers to hire more young people, perhaps it should also consider imposing a ceiling on executive salaries.
He argued that if executive salaries were capped at, say, $200,000, talented and ambitious business people would have an incentive to start their own firms, because the only way to get rich would be from the profits they generated as owners. That would be good for the economy because it would create new businesses and new jobs.

I’m sure he wasn’t being entirely serious. In an open market, companies have to be free to determine their own remuneration packages. The alternative is a rigid, state-controlled economy. We tried that under Robert Muldoon and it brought the country to the brink of ruin.
Besides, in an open, global economy, good people would simply head overseas if they couldn’t earn what they thought they were worth here.

But Wood’s column wasn’t entirely tongue-in-cheek either. Arguably the most distasteful aspect of economic deregulation has been the way executive salary packages have been inflated beyond all reason.
Most people scratch their heads in disbelief at the money paid to individuals like Reynolds (though it’s unfair to single him out, since grossly inflated salaries are endemic in the corporate sector).

It’s not just that ordinary New Zealanders can’t believe any single person is worth that much. They also have difficulty understanding how anyone could want that much, given that there’s a limit to how many ostentatious houses, exotic cars and luxury yachts a person can own.
Once you count your annual income in the millions, it begins to seem almost academic. I mean, how does anyone actually spend all that money?

I wonder too how people like Reynolds can, in conscience, accept that much. Some sort of psychological self-justification mechanism must kick in – a sense of entitlement, perhaps, whereby they delude themselves that their “skill set” is so rarefied, so unique, that a stratospheric salary is theirs as of right.
Paradoxically, they rarely if ever seem to get penalised if the firm under-performs or runs into trouble, as happened to Telecom under Reynolds’ watch when the launch of the company’s XT network went pear-shaped.  Ah, but the apologists for the corporate sector say that’s when the CEO really has to perform. See the light burning in his office late at night? See the furrowed brow? He’s working harder than ever. It’s only fair that he should be compensated.

I suspect that chief executives’ reward packages, which typically consist of bonuses, incentives, travel perks and discounted share allocations, are deliberately complex so that no one other than accountants and HR advisers can understand them. But ordinary people are not so silly that they can’t see that the boss invariably comes out ahead, even when workers have to be laid off to ensure the company stays profitable.  Funny, that.
And let’s not kid ourselves that the problem is confined to the top level of the corporate world, because the entitlement syndrome has permeated almost every sector of the economy: lawyers, surgeons, sportsmen, entertainers – you name it. I know of high-profile broadcasters who charge thousands for a simple MC-ing gig (little or no preparation required – most could do it in their sleep), and I heard recently of an advertising guru whose daily consulting rate is $10,000.

Public servants don’t miss out either. In fact there are probably fewer checks on the upward movement of public service salaries than in the private sector, since government departments don’t have to answer to shareholders whose beady eyes are trained on the bottom line.  
Only last week, the ACC’s annual report revealed that the scandal-plagued corporation had 330 employees earning more than $100,000 a year.

Out of curiosity, I checked the annual report of the New Zealand Transport Agency – hardly a glamorous department. In 2011 the agency had 264 employees on salaries of more than $100,000 (I stopped myself from using the word “earning”). The chief executive, Geoff Dangerfield, gets more than $600,000.
I find these figures extraordinary, but it seems fair to assume they are indicative of the public service as a whole. It’s hard to see any rational, still less moral, basis for this, least of all at a time when the economy is struggling and New Zealanders are justifiably concerned about a growing disparity between rich and poor.

This used to be an egalitarian society. It still has something of that spirit, but it’s steadily being eroded.
I don’t share the simplistic view that the solution is more redistribution of wealth by the state.  Imposing higher taxes on the well-off, who already contribute a greatly disproportionate share of tax revenue, risks stifling legitimate enterprise and driving the creators of wealth (and jobs) overseas, where there are any number of countries ready to welcome them.

Neither will the gap between rich and poor be closed by increasing benefits or making more people dependent on welfare, as we frequently hear argued. Benefits are a poverty trap – the evidence is overwhelming. Households where someone is working, even on a low income, consistently do better than those on welfare.
Yet inequality does have a corrosive effect on social cohesion. It creates a sense of “them and us”. So what, if anything, can be done about the widening gap that sets over-generously remunerated corporate executives and public servants apart from people who drive buses, stack supermarket shelves and look after the elderly in rest homes?

I believe it’s a moral issue as much as an economic one. It might sound quaintly old-fashioned, but what New Zealand needs is more restraint and less greed; more modesty (now there’s a truly ancient-sounding word) and less self-exaltation. These are things that can’t be achieved by legislation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mary Poppins and the debasement of journalism

Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch quite rightly gave TVNZ a serve yesterday for the way it has shamelessly promoted the Disney stage musical Mary Poppins, now running in Auckland.

Prompted by an email from a Southland listener intrigued by the fact that TV2 chose to screen the 1964 movie version of Mary Poppins on the very same night the stage show opened at the Civic Theatre in Queen St, Mediawatch compiled a damning dossier that revealed TVNZ had assiduously been plugging the show since June.

Among other things, it revealed:

■ A "news" item on One News in June announced that the musical was coming to Auckland and helpfully told viewers when tickets would go on sale. Does TVNZ routinely do this whenever a big stage musical is coming to New Zealand, or was this a case of One News editors being instructed to include the item for commercial reasons? If the latter, as I suspect, it's a debasement of journalism - not that this would worry the people who pull the strings at TVNZ, and who probably regard the 6 pm news as just another marketing opportunity. (I mean, why run an expensive news bulletin if you can't take commercial advantage of it?)

Close Up carried an interview by boy wonder US correspondent Jack Tame with the male star of the show's Broadway production.

■ When Mary Poppins opened in Los Angeles, Breakfast's Rawdon Christie was flown over to interview the stars of the show.

■ As if that weren't enough, when the musical opened in Australia, Christie was dispatched again to interview the male lead (to whom he addressed such searching questions as: "What was the hardest bit?") If Christie wants to be taken seriously as a journalist, as I think he does, he would refuse to demean himself by indulging in this tawdry hucksterism. 

After all this buildup, TV2 played its part not only by screening the movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but preceded it with a documentary about the making of the stage version that was having its premiere in Auckland that night.

Coincidence? Absolutely, insists TVNZ. It was simply taking advantage of the school holidays and the "enormous" interest in the stage show - interest largely whipped up by the state broadcaster itself. It sounded indignant at the hurtful suggestion that its programming decisions might be influenced by outsiders. "Our scheduling is sovereign," it huffed.

You can decide for yourself how credible its denial is. But at least Mediawatch extracted the acknowledgement that TVNZ has a long-standing commercial arrangement with Disney that gives it rights to screen the American producer's films and programmes.

Now, Disney may make billions out of films featuring cute, cuddly animals, but it's not noted for sentimentality in its business dealings, so it probably has certain expectations of the TV networks to which it sells those rights. And it's probably not unreasonable to infer that Disney leaned on TVNZ to ensure Mary Poppins received a gushing buildup in New Zealand courtesy of the taxpayer-owned network, in which case it should be well satisfied with the outcome.

A few questions:

Did it occur to TVNZ to disclose its relationship with Disney when it bombarded viewers with promotional fluff masquerading as journalism? Of course not. What a quaint question.

Does One News subscribe to the long-standing principle that journalism shouldn't be influenced by commercial considerations, or has that now gone by the board?

Does TVNZ care that any reputation it still enjoys for the integrity of its news bulletins might be at risk? I would hope that among the organisation's journalists, at least, there remains some commitment to ethical practice. But Breakfast obviously no longer considers itself bound by the principles of good journalism (as Mediawatch pointed out, it's currently spruiking Tip Top ice cream), and it seems the boundaries are becoming dangerously blurred on Close Up and One News as well.

I also noted that One News  obligingly played along with the recent visit to Auckland by actress Eva Longoria, here to promote the new Shopping Channel, humouring her control-freak PR handlers by taking a mystery bus ride to a top-secret location to meet her (it turned out to be the Langham Hotel - who would have guessed?) and meekly complying with conditions dictating how many questions they could ask, and about what. This isn't news, it's promotional fluff; but tragically, PR firms acting for people such as Longoria  can be confident that the celebrity-obsessed media will go along with their pantomimes.

And to be fair, this isn't just true of TVNZ, although the state broadcaster is arguably the most egregious offender (and being supposedly a public broadcaster, has the strongest reason for remaining aloof from commercial contamination). As Mediawatch pointed out, Fairfax's Sunday Star-Times bought into the Mary Poppins malarkey too, though not nearly so brazenly, and it's impossible not to note the increasing frequency with which print media are compromising themselves by entering into commercial arrangements, such as competitions and special offers, which encroach on once-sacrosanct editorial space.

Once again we seem to be indulging in the old New Zealand habit of veering from one extreme to another. It wasn't so long ago that newspaper journalists zealously avoided any reference to a company or brand name, regardless of its news relevance, for fear that it might confer some commercial advantage. Journalists' Union representatives took it upon themselves to police the news columns to ensure no story mentioned Air New Zealand, or Dominion Breweries, or the local family-owned hardware business (unless, that is, the story portrayed them in an unfavourable light, in which case naming them was deemed acceptable - funny, that).

We are well rid of that ideological mindset, which was donkey-like both in its stubbornness and its irrationality.  But the accelerating trend now apparent, whereby "news" is subverted by commercial considerations, is potentially far more dangerous.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

No one would ever wonder which side Kelly's on

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 19.)

IT’S A LONG TIME since the New Zealand trade union movement had a leader as forceful and articulate as Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly.
Like her late father Pat, a fiery Irish Marxist from Liverpool, she’s a fighter who gives the impression of never taking a backward step. She would have been brought up to regard compromise as the dirtiest word in the English lexicon.

It may not always be the wisest approach politically, but no one would ever die wondering which side she’s on – which is not something that could be said of all her predecessors.
Fintan Patrick Walsh, the power behind the Federation of Labour in the 1950s and 60s, was a bully and a tyrant who didn’t hesitate to crush fellow unionists if they got in his way or dared to defy him.

The wily Sir Tom Skinner was viewed with distrust by many of his union brethren, who suspected him of making secret late-night trips to Parliament to do deals with the Tory enemy over a bottle of whisky.  
Jim Knox was well-liked and well-meaning but out of his depth. A man of limited education, he had a simplistic view of industrial relations that was inadequate for the turbulent times.

Ken Douglas, a Soviet-aligned communist, inherited a union movement in upheaval following the economic reforms of the 1980s. For his attempts to hold a splintering movement together, he was branded a traitor to the working class – a label that dogs him to this day among some old-school unionists.
Ross Wilson was the first CTU president of a new breed: university-educated, quietly spoken and almost bookish. He did a conscientious job, but it was hard to imagine him storming the barricades.

Kelly combines the best attributes of some of her predecessors. Like Wilson she has a law degree, but she doesn’t hesitate to wade into a brawl, as was evident during the 2010 dispute over The Hobbit.
But she will almost certainly never see unions regain the strength they enjoyed (and abused) in the 1970s, the era she recently said she would most like to go back to.

* * *

IT MAY be happening largely out of the public gaze, but that doesn’t mean the review of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements isn’t being closely watched.
Critics of the constitutional review accuse it of working towards a predetermined outcome that will see the Treaty of Waitangi entrenched as supreme law and judges given powers to strike down any law deemed to be in breach of Treaty “principles”.

The National Party agreed to the review as part of its deal with the Maori Party after the last election. As New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters pointed out, there was no public demand for it; it arose out of opportunistic political horse-trading. Such are the flaws of the MMP system.
Critics are also suspicious of the review panel’s composition. Although it’s co-chaired by respected law academic John Burrows, it appears disproportionately weighted toward Maori. Sir Tipene O’Regan is the other co-chair and Dr Ranginui Walker is one of the four other Maori members.

Mr Peters is not alone in expressing misgivings. In fact alarm bells are being rung right across the political spectrum.
Former Act MP Muriel Newman is campaigning against the review and left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter wrote a scathing column in this paper pointing out that the supremacy of parliament – a central tenet of our constitutional arrangements – was under threat.

The fact that the review panel has so far operated largely out of the public view has done little to allay the critics’ suspicions, but the panel’s website now lists a range of organisations that it has been having “conversations” with. Openness is surely the best approach if it wants to reassure people there’s nothing to be afraid of.
* * *
MAORI PARTY co-leader Tariana Turia wishes the media would stop harping on about Nia Glassie, the Kahui twins, James Whakaruru, Delcelia Witika and other Maori children who have died as the result of violence. Ms Turia says they deserve to be left in peace.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. An alternative view is that we should never be allowed to forget them; that it would, in fact, dishonour their memory if we allowed ourselves to push their hideous deaths out of our collective conscience.
I have no doubt Ms Turia is sincerely committed to ending violence toward Maori kids, but you have to wonder whether her commitment is shared by everyone in Maoridom.

Many Maori leaders are quick to demand redress for supposed Pakeha wickedness but are strangely mute when it comes to denouncing appalling behaviour by their own people. If it discomforts them to be confronted constantly with evidence of the outrages perpetrated on Maori children, surely that’s no bad thing.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What was that about accountability?

Two heads should be rolling today. The first is that of Judge David McNaughton, who released Akshay Chand on bail despite a written plea from Christie Marceau, who had undergone a terrifying ordeal at Chand's hands and feared that he would come after her again. Police also opposed bail, pointing out to the judge that Chand was bent on revenge and that Christie was terrified of him.

McNaughton also had in front of him a letter from Chand, saying he was remorseful and wanted to apologise.

What did the judge do? He took Chand at his word and released him to live at a house just 300 metres from Christie. (He did, however, place him under a curfew and order him not to have any contact with Christie - a tragically misplaced gesture of faith in the magisterial power of his office.) Thirty-two days later, Christie was dead - stabbed an estimated 10 times in a frenzied attack by Chand on the back deck of her house. She died in her mother's arms.

Yesterday, Chand was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. The Crown Solicitor, Simon Moore, SC, said Chand told police after Christie died that his letter was  written with the sole purpose of getting bail so he could kill her. Thanks to the gullible judge, the ruse worked.

So: Christie is now dead, her family faces a lifetime of grief, and Chand will be put away in a mental health facility until it's deemed safe to let him back into the community. Judge McNaughton, meanwhile, will presumably continue to sit in the District Court and pull a salary of slightly less than $300,000 a year.

If he has a conscience, he will resign. If he doesn't, he should be dismissed. But of course, that never happens. Who can recall a member of the judiciary being fired because of an act of incompetence or shocking misjudgement?

McNaughton, incidentally, is the same judge who was  rebuked by the judicial conduct commissioner, Sir David Gascoigne, for overstepping the mark by ordering journalists out of his court when he was conducting a bail hearing in connection with the Kim Dotcom saga.

In that case, McNaughton showed not only a disregard for well-established principles of judicial openness, but also, intriguingly, a greater readiness to listen to the authorities. He refused to grant Dotcom bail - a decision subsequently reversed by another judge.

He got it wrong then, and he got it wrong again - with fatal consequences - in the case of Christie Marceau. Dotcom, who presented no threat to anyone, was put in the slammer while the homicidal Askhay Chand was released with a feeble instruction that he should behave himself. At what point does someone take McNaughton aside and suggest he's in the wrong job?

The other head that should roll is that of Air Vice Marshal Peter Stockwell, chief of the RNZAF. Stockwell may not be personally responsible for the cavalier attitude to safety that resulted in potentially dangerous goods being shipped on civilian flights; neither is he personally responsible, as far as we know, for the casual and perhaps wilfully deceptive way the air force dealt with the issue. But something is wrong when reports point to a culture of general slackness in the air force, as evidenced by the latest controversy and by the failings exposed by the court of inquiry into the Anzac Day helicopter crash of 2010.

It's not good enough for Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman airily to say that he has confidence in the air force and its leadership. Complacency and resigned acceptance seem to have become the default reactions whenever shortcomings are exposed in government. It often seems that the more we hear about accountability, the less we see it demonstrated.

When the head of an institution falls on his sword, even though he may not be personally responsible for whatever mishap or blunder has occurred, it sends a message that reverberates down through the ranks. It demonstrates that incompetence or wrongdoing has consequences. Our  system of government is built on that principle; it's about time we saw it honoured.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What America needs is a Jefferson Smith

A friend commented at lunch today that you’d have to be mad to run for the presidency, given the enormous challenges facing whoever occupies the Oval Office. That prompted a discussion about why anyone would put themselves forward for the job. Vaulting ambition? A naked lust for power? Unbridled conceit?
That in turn led us to consider the possibility that anyone wanting to become president must, by definition, be unfit to hold the office. In the same way as Groucho Marx said he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member, perhaps no sane, well-balanced person would want to be president of (or even risk living in) a country that would elect him.

We also recalled Yossarian, the US air force bombardier in World War II who was the central character in Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22. Yossarian was desperate to be grounded on the basis that he was mentally disturbed; but the fact that he wanted to be grounded (for the eminently sensible reason that he didn’t like people trying to shoot him out of the sky) was taken as proof that he was, in fact, perfectly sane. Follow that line of reasoning, and the only person who could safely be elected president is someone who doesn’t want the job.
In the great Frank Capra movie Mr Smith goes to Washington, the na├»ve, honest Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) is elected to the US Senate at the behest of corrupt interests who assume he can be easily manipulated, but in the end Smith’s wholesome idealism wins out. Where’s Jefferson Smith now that America needs him?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reclaiming control of education

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 10.)
Across much of the English-speaking world, a struggle is raging over control of education. The good news is that politicians, the people we elect to make decisions on our behalf, seem to be winning.

The pattern is remarkably consistent. Governments, both of the Left and the Right, are wresting control back from teachers’ organisations. They have realised that education is too important to be left in the hands of teachers.

Julia Gillard, now prime minister of Australia, made her name as a reformist education minister. In that capacity she launched My School, a website that provides access to information on achievement standards in nearly 10,000 Australian schools. (Within hours, the website crashed because it couldn’t cope with the demand.)
Needless to say, Australian teachers opposed My School. They raised the bogey – all too familiar here – of “league tables” which would enable parents to compare schools. Nothing seems to terrify teachers’ unions more than the thought of parents and taxpayers being given information about how schools are performing.

The launch of My School was preceded by the introduction of national literary and numeracy tests, also vehemently opposed by teachers and academics.
More recently, Ms Gillard took the first step toward introducing performance pay for teachers, another initiative bitterly resisted by teachers’ unions. Payment on merit supposedly undermines the sacred principle of “collegiality”, because teachers argue it has the potential to sow discord in the staff room. Diddums, as Helen Clark might have said.

The parallels with New Zealand are obvious, except that we’re several years behind. The arguments are exactly the same here as in Australia. What’s noteworthy is that the Australian reforms were instituted by a Labor government, which might normally be expected to take the teachers’ side. That Ms Gillard was prepared to bulldoze teacher opposition aside indicates that education reform was seen as too vital to delay any longer, regardless of teachers’ protests.
Similar scenarios have been played out elsewhere. In 2001 the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a critical component of which is standards-based education reform. Sound familiar? It’s based on the premise that measurable goals – such as our national standards – can improve outcomes in education.

Co-written by Democrats and Republicans (the late Senator Edward Kennedy was one of the legislation’s sponsors), the No Child Left Behind Act requires standardised annual testing and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measurements. Schools that fail the AYP for two consecutive years are publicly identified and must undertake improvement programmes. What’s more, children attending those schools must be given options such as shifting to another school.
American teachers fought the changes and continue to oppose attempts to impose greater accountability. A key issue in a recent Chicago teachers’ strike was a requirement that schools introduce an evaluation system in which a teacher’s rating depends partly on student test scores. But as the New York Times commented in an editorial, teacher evaluation is increasingly popular across the US and is unlikely to be rolled back.

Interestingly enough, the teachers’ main adversary was Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat who was formerly President Barack Obama’s chief of staff. As in Australia, agreement on the need for education reform transcends normal political divides. The Obama administration supports merit pay, charter schools (another idea that induces apoplexy in teachers’ union leaders) and teacher assessment systems.
In Britain, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government passed legislation in 2010 allowing parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own version of charter schools, known as free schools (so called because no fees are charged).

Funded by the taxpayer but outside the control of local authorities, free schools were introduced in the face of almost hysterical opposition from the National Union of Teachers. The NUT also fought the “academies” programme instituted by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2000, under which schools enjoy a high degree of autonomy but remain publicly funded.
“Academies” were an innovative attempt to deal with the problem of entrenched failure within schools with a record of low academic achievement. You’d think the teachers’ union would applaud such an initiative, but no; academies were seen as a threat to centralised control of education, which in turn is a threat to the union power base.

The common theme across all these countries is that governments, dissatisfied not only with performance in the education sector but also the lack of transparency and accountability, are forcing through changes in the face of determined opposition from teachers’ organisations which are understandably reluctant to relinquish their power.
Politicians, the representatives of the people, are quite properly reclaiming the right to decide how schools should be run. This ranges from demanding better information for parents (in other words, accountability) to providing options beyond the narrow ones available under the status quo (in other words, choice – the ultimate dirty word in the teachers’ union lexicon).

This process is much further advanced elsewhere than in New Zealand, where both National and Labour governments have allowed themselves to be bullied and intimidated by belligerent teachers’ organisations. (Remember National’s feeble attempt to allow schools a degree of autonomy by introducing bulk funding in the 1990s, and how the initiative was sabotaged by teacher defiance?)
What we are now seeing played out, in the furore over the release of national standards results, are the opening skirmishes in a battle for the control of education. And while Education Minister Hekia Parata may lack the experience and political skill for such a challenging job (her performance so far has been of the bull-in-a-china-shop variety), she must stand her ground.

Before anyone accuses me of teacher-bashing, I acknowledge that my four children have had some admirable and dedicated teachers to whom I will always be grateful. The problem lies not with individual teachers but with the collectivist mindset of their unions, which have called the shots for so long that they genuinely believe they have the right to determine education policy.
But teachers and academics no longer control the debate and I sense public opinion is shifting. New Zealand is at last having a vigorous public discussion about important education issues.

The response to Fairfax Media’s recent release of information about individual school performance has been huge. Parents have had a tiny taste of how things might be in an education sector where schools are no longer, in Ms Parata’s words, “a secret society”. It will be interesting to see where this leads.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Shaky ground for Shearer

I see David Shearer is accusing the Government of using the Christchurch earthquakes as a smokescreen for a "wider agenda" of closing and consolidating schools.

He should be very careful here, because this is shaky ground (pardon the pun) for a Labour Party leader. Shearer was elected to Parliament only three years ago, so his political memory is short. But if he'd been around in 2003, he would know there was a national uproar then over a brutal school closure programme which traumatised many communities. It was masterminded by his own colleague Trevor Mallard, then minister of education, who exhibited a Pol Pot-style indifference to the damaging consequences. There seemed to be little understanding of the central place of schools in the lives of many communities, especially in rural areas (not that they mattered much, since they vote National).

The effects of that clumsily executed programme are still evident in places like Masterton, where I live. Besides causing enormous stress and disruption, it left the town with several unsightly, abandoned schools that inevitably became magnets for vandals, taggers and arsonists. A local secondary school teacher wrote a PhD thesis on the closures in 2010 and concluded there was still no evidence that the benefits outweighed the costs.

At least National has the excuse that the Canterbury earthquakes forced a reappraisal of Christchurch's education infrastructure. Part of the reason for the pain felt over the 2003 school closures was that little attempt was made to explain why it was necessary.

A video worth watching

I recently wrote an article for The Listener (it's in the October 6-12 edition) about the Tironui Music Trust, a music education programme launched in 2006 by former Montana Wines managing director Peter Hubscher and his wife Pam. Funded by the Hubschers, the trust provides instruments and tutors in low-decile schools in Papatoetoe, South Auckland. It grew out of Peter Hubscher's love of classical music (his father was an original member of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) and his conviction, shared by Pam, that children from low socio-economic backgrounds can benefit in all sorts of ways from music tuition. I spent a day watching the kids involved in the programme rehearse for their big concert of the year and came away deeply impressed by the commitment not only of the tutors but also the principals and staff of the schools involved (not to mention the children themselves, who clearly enjoy their music enormously). 

Video producer Baz Caitcheon of bazzacam was also there that day and captured some wonderful footage of the kids playing. You can see from the sparkle in their eyes that they love what they're learning. Baz also interviewed two of the principals whose support has been crucial to the scheme, along with a couple of the inspirational tutors. If you have four minutes and fifty seconds free, it's worth watching.

If you want to know more about the Tironui Trust (and no, Peter Hubscher didn't put me up to this), you can go to the website here. While there's no provision on the site for making donations, the Hubschers are keen to introduce the programme more widely and are looking for other sponsors who might be able to help.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

We baby boomers have a lot to answer for

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 5.)

THERE'S a new lobby group in town: Apologists Incorporated.
Their basic premise is that no one is ever responsible for anything bad that happens to them and therefore no one should be made to suffer the consequences of wrong, dangerous or stupid behaviour.

This applies whether you are a convicted criminal, a hopeless parent, a bad tenant, a drug user, a welfare bludger or a tagger.
Apologists reject the notion that disapproval or (heaven forbid) punishment might be useful in deterring people from doing things that harm themselves and others. To them, disapproval is just another example of a judgmental society ganging up on the vulnerable and marginalised.

In their eyes, no one is ever allowed to judge anyone else and “discrimination” is by definition a dirty word. Never mind that discrimination is the social judgment that allows us to distinguish between the good and the harmful.
Apologists Incorporated have become noticeably more active in recent weeks, indignantly raising their voices in defence of people’s right to ignore the rules by which the rest of us try to live. A few examples:

● The howls of protest at the suggestion that people receiving the unemployment benefit might be required to submit to drug tests. Clearly, drug users are entitled to expect that the taxpayer should subsidise their illegal habits.
● The outrage that greeted Social Development Minister Paula Bennett’s announcement that beneficiaries with outstanding arrest warrants will have their benefits cut. Clearly, it’s the taxpayer’s responsibility to support criminals while they evade the law.

● Green MP Julie Anne Genter’s statement in Parliament that taggers should be allowed to “assert their mana, passion and courage”* – this in response to the Hutt City Council (Graffiti Removal) Bill. In other words, mean-spirited ratepayers and property owners should stop grumbling about the defacement of buildings and the huge cost of cleaning up.
Unfortunately it’s my generation, the idealistic baby-boomers, that’s responsible for all this anguished hand-wringing. We have a lot to answer for.

* * *
THE DOOMED TV current affairs show Close Up wasn’t exactly a journalistic heavyweight, but whatever replaces it is likely to be even frothier. The marketing people who control TVNZ regard news and current affairs with the same distaste as a gardener regards slugs and mealy bugs.
Taken on its own, Close Up’s impending demise is worrying enough, but it takes on an even more disturbing dimension when considered in the context of other media trends.

Newspapers are shrinking as advertising support falls away. As a result, there’s less news in the papers – and most conspicuously, less information about what’s happening in other parts of the country since the demise of the New Zealand Press Association.
The American playwright Arthur Miller reckoned a good newspaper was a nation talking to itself. What he meant was that a civil, democratic society depends on the free flow and exchange of information and ideas.

Cheerleaders for the digital media revolution believe online platforms will more than compensate for the decline of traditional news media, but that remains to be seen. The Internet does some things well, but has proved a poor substitute for old fashioned print media when it comes to the gathering and dissemination of “straight” news.
* * *

PACKAGING manufacturers are pressing on with their attempts to produce the ultimate impenetrable container.

They encase products such as batteries in armour-like plastic packaging that resists everything short of an axe.
They drive music lovers mad by wrapping CDs in brittle plastic that peels off in small pieces. This is often exacerbated by tiny, sticky labels that prevent you opening the CD case and have to be painstakingly removed with a razor blade.

They delight in taunting consumers by capping soft drink bottles with tear tabs that come away in your hand, leaving the bottle top securely in place.  Ditto with milk bottles, where the supposedly removable seal is often anything but.
Recently I was a guest in an up-market B and B where it took several minutes to prise the tiny foil seal off the complementary shampoo container in the shower.

But perhaps the packagers’ greatest triumph yet is the fiendish plastic seal I encountered on a tube of cream for treating muscle inflammation.
The tube came with a pamphlet that explained everything except how to open it. I studied the seal for some minutes wondering how to attack it. Then I did what I invariably do in such situations: I passed it to my wife.

She soon figured out that the plastic seal had tiny notched edges that fitted snugly into a recess in the top of the cap. A quick twist and the seal was broken.
But buyers of the product are left to work this out for themselves, and I bet there are cases where the muscle pain goes away of its own accord long before they manage to get the tube open.

* My reference to Genter's statement was based on a report in The Dominion Post. It's since been pointed out to me that Hansard reported her as saying: "I think there is great potential there, and I think it would be sad if we wrote off people who are currently tagging as people who could not become constructive members of society and channel their passion, their bravery, and their willingness to flout the law into something more successful."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Twitter shmitter

Today’s Dominion Post has an article (not available online, as far as I can see) by New Zealand pollster Stephen Mills, of UMR Research, who is in the US observing the presidential campaign. His theme is that Twitter has usurped American bloggers in  terms of political impact and significance. He quotes someone called Garance Franke-Ruta (is he sure that's not a made-up name?) from the Atlantic as saying the "conversation" has moved off the blogs on to Twitter, "especially for political insiders".
Problem is, the article doesn't really bear that out. Sure, it cites some superficially impressive numbers: in 2008 the two major party conventions generated 360,000 tweets; this year the figure was nearly 14 million. Mitt Romney's speech peaked at 14,000 tweets a minute, we were breathlessly informed. Michelle Obama's speech doubled that figure and Barack Obama nearly doubled it again, to 54,000. 
Holy habadashery, Batman, there's obviously something deeply significant going on here. But is there?
Mills' piece tends to confirm my suspicion that Twitter proselytes are transfixed by numbers and speed. It's all about being first with a piece of information, regardless of its value.   But elections are still determined by voters, not Twitter users. And even though the US reportedly has 140 million Twitter users (many of them not active), most people have lives to get on with. I can't imagine that more than an infinitesimally small minority feverishly pounce on every fresh morsel from the candidates' speeches.
Political "insiders" can excitedly tweet to their hearts' content, but are they just babbling among themselves? How much of their digital chatter penetrates beyond their own self-absorbed realm to the masses who will choose the next president?
How many people are interested enough to absorb all this information? Years ago, someone came up with a clever analogy to describe the impossibility of keeping up with the flow of information online. They said it was like trying to drink from a firehose. If it was impossible then, how futile must it be now?
Mills quotes someone named Adam Sharp as suggesting Twitter is ushering in an exhilarating new era when people can be "directly engaged in the political process on a one-to-one basis again". But he would say that, because he's a highly paid Twitter executive. Mills' article certainly doesn't bear out his extravagant claim.
More and faster doesn't equate with better, least of all when you're considering politics. Quite apart from anything else, how much intelligent analysis can be packed into 140 characters?
Thankfully Mills allows himself some scepticism, but only towards the end of his piece. "There is certainly a risk," he writes, "that Twitter will lead to ever faster-moving but even more shallow politics." Quite so. He quotes expatriate New Zealander Hamish McKenzie, a reporter for tech blog Pandodaily, as saying that as stories emerge faster and burn out faster, full consideration of their importance is lost. Sam Weston, another Kiwi who works for digital company Huge, says work and thought go into most blogs, whereas Twitter is instant and easy.
It's encouraging to see that not everyone working in digital media has been sucked in by the noisy evangelists overselling its benefits.

A very enjoyable birthday

I recently attended a very enjoyable 70th birthday celebration for John Buck, co-founder of Havelock North's famed Te Mata Estate winery. Naturally we tasted quite a bit of wine - not just Te Mata's, but some historical curiosities from the Te Mata vineyards of more than a century ago (when they were owned by gentleman farmer Bernard Chambers) and an extraordinary selection of vintage madeiras which John had gone to some trouble to source, the oldest of which dated to 1827. I have written about the event on my good friend Raymond Chan's wine website, here.