Friday, August 30, 2013

What a lily-white lot we are

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 28.)

It received very little coverage in the New Zealand media, but for six months this year the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption conducted an inquiry into extremely dodgy dealings involving former ministers in the NSW state government.

The commission presented its findings to the New South Wales Parliament several weeks ago. It found that two former Labor Party ministers, Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, had engaged in corrupt conduct involving the issue of lucrative coal mining licences.

In a nutshell, the commission alleges that Obeid – a former powerbroker in the right wing of the faction-ridden NSW Labor Party – acquired several rural properties over which the state government subsequently issued a coal exploration lease. Macdonald was the Minister of Mining at the time.

Obeid’s family and friends were in on the deal too. They made an estimated $30 million not only from selling the land, but also by investing in the company that eventually won the mining exploration licence over the area – a very tidy little arrangement.

The commission heard that Lebanese-born Obeid, whose political career was repeatedly dogged by allegations of sleaze in one form or another, had advance knowledge of the exploration lease and influenced the mining licence process.

There was an enormous amount of colourful background detail which I won’t go into here, other than to mention that the commission also heard that former champion boxer Lucky Gattellari and a wealthy property developer named Ron Medich provided Macdonald with a prostitute named Tiffanie (he was given a choice of four) in an attempt to secure favours from the government.

In an unrelated action, Gattellari is the key witness in a court case in which police allege Medich ordered the 2009 murder of a former business associate.

Meanwhile the commission is concluding a separate inquiry into claims relating to another mining licence granted by Macdonald to a company chaired by a mate who was a former trade union boss.

Google some of the names involved in this saga and you are led into a labyrinthine network of connections between politics and crime. In Australia, and especially in Sydney, the boundaries between the two worlds are often blurred.

When we hear of corruption we tend to think of Chicago and New York, but there’s very little the Americans could teach our trans-Tasman neighbours about graft and political fixing (or police corruption, come to that). The mere fact that NSW has had a permanent commission investigating claims of corruption since 1988 speaks volumes.

From a New Zealand perspective, all this seems extraordinary. We're a lily-white lot by comparison. The only New Zealand politician to be convicted of corruption is former Labour Party minister Taito Phillip Field, whose offence – getting a tiler from Thailand to work for him on the cheap in return for help with a work permit – wouldn’t cause so much as a raised eyebrow across the Ditch.

A scandal on the scale of the Obeid affair is unheard of here and would cause a sensation. But Sydneysiders are so inured to allegations of corruption that they take it in their stride.

All of which raises an intriguing question. Why, when Australia and New Zealand have so much in common, are they so different from one another in this respect?

Criminality is deeply embedded in Australian culture. It not only intrudes into politics but crosses over into trade union affairs too.

I once interviewed Norm Gallagher, head of the militant Builders Labourers Union in Melbourne. There was intense rivalry between the Victorian and NSW branches of the union at the time, and while I was with Gallagher he took a phone call supposedly warning him that a contract had been taken out on his life and a hit man was on his way from Sydney. Gallagher, who seemed unfazed, showed me a loaded shotgun that he kept behind his office door for such contingencies.

The Melbourne office of the Sydney newspaper I worked for at the time was in the same street as the docklands headquarters of the notorious Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, which was essentially a front organisation for criminals. I recall driving past on the day of the union elections and seeing men openly packing shotguns.

Not long after that, Pat Shannon, the union secretary, was shot dead in a South Melbourne pub. It was a professional hit – a relatively common event in Melbourne then. Melbourne was a very violent city, as it has been again in recent years, and many of the gangland feuds could be traced to members of the Painters and Dockers Union.

Here’s another intriguing thing about Australian crime: the people in the thick of it are often migrants, or the children of migrants.

In the 1960s one of the kingpins of the Sydney underworld was Malta-born Perce Galea, a devout Catholic whose power was based on gambling rackets. Another Maltese criminal, Joe Borg, owner of a string of brothels, was killed in 1968 by a car bomb, detonated when he turned on the ignition of his Holden ute in Bondi. 

These days the bad guys are more likely to be Lebanese, Italian, Serbian, Albanian or Asian (although we shouldn’t forget that when the Mr Asia drug syndicate was at its most active in the 1970s, the most violent criminals in Australia were New Zealanders).

New Zealand has immigrant communities too. Nelson and Wellington, for example, have substantial populations of Italian descent, but they are untainted by criminal associations. On the contrary, they are respected as honest, hard-working and community-minded.

Contrast that with Robert Trimbole’s murderous Mafia drug ring in the marijuana-growing New South Wales town of Griffith, or the Italian-dominated Carlton Crew gang formed by Alphonse Gangitano in Melbourne.

To explain the difference, we may have to look to history. We make jokes about Australians having convict ancestry, but there may well be something in their collective heritage that makes them more tolerant of crime and corruption.

Australia’s very first settlers, after all, were taken there as punishment, against their will. New Zealand, on the other hand, was colonised by people who came of their own volition and were motivated by a powerful desire to create a better society than the one they had left behind.

You have to wonder whether those contrasting origins have left permanent imprints on the two countries.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The river of filth

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 23.)

YOU MAY not have heard of the veteran British actor Steven Berkoff. He hasn’t had an especially illustrious career on screen: mostly minor parts, often playing villains. His most notable work has been in the theatre.
But Berkoff said something recently that must have resonated with anyone who struggles to see merit in the strange phenomenon known as Twitter.
In Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, Berkoff gave an interview in which he poured scorn on people who post their thoughts on Twitter and then recoil in horror when Internet trolls – the malevolent misfits who infest social media looking for people to attack – inevitably turn on them.
“There’s a lot of talk about people being abused on Twitter, women being savagely insulted and degraded,” Berkoff said. “I think, why get into that in the first place? If I jump into a garbage bin, I can’t complain that I’ve got rubbish all over me.”
Warming to his subject, he went on: “It [Twitter] is like a river of filth. If you jump into that river, you are going to be contaminated.”
He made the comment in the midst of a media storm over rape threats on Twitter against the feminist Caroline Criado-Perez, who had campaigned (successfully, as it happens) for Jane Austen to replace Charles Darwin on the £10 banknote from 2017.
Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported Criado-Perez, also received death and rape threats, including one accompanied by an image of a masked serial killer from the Halloween horror film series.
This was seriously creepy behaviour – the more so when you consider it was over something as unexceptionable as a woman author’s image on a banknote.
But as Berkoff tried to point out, it’s par for the course on Twitter, a medium that provides a perfect platform for psychopaths and embittered nobodies. Twitter is a gift to such people because by enabling them to remain anonymous, it confers a sense of power without personal risk.
The most bizarre aspect of the affair was that Criado-Perez, Creasy and other feminists – including the British Left’s columnist-of-the-moment, Caitlin Moran – turned on Berkoff as if he were trying to suppress their right of free speech.
All he was doing was pointing out the obvious: that Twitter can be a cesspit. As noble as the ideal of free speech is, it’s idle to expect that the Neanderthal trolls on Twitter will show any respect for it.
Demanding the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech on Twitter is like asserting the right to self-expression by strolling into a fundamentalist mosque in northwest Pakistan wearing a bikini. The best you could hope for would be a fleeting moment of satisfaction, knowing you’d struck a blow for individual rights, before you were decapitated. 

* * *

EVEN MORE perplexing than feminists’ insistence on their right to attract rape threats, and infinitely more tragic, is the addiction of vulnerable teenagers to social media sites where they are taunted and humiliated, sometimes to the point of suicide.
The Latvian-based website seems to be the principal offender. The deaths of four British teenagers have been linked to the site, which allows semi-literate trolls to place vicious messages such as “go die u pathetic emo” and “u ugly – go die evry1 wuld be happy”.
The solution, for any teenager being victimised, seems blindingly obvious: just don’t go there. But they seem incapable of tearing themselves away.
Here’s the bewildering thing. Affected teenagers seem gripped by an addictive malaise which, like self-mutilation and eating disorders, defies logical explanation (as does the unrelenting malice of the perpetrators).
This is the dark side of the digital revolution. The Internet may have empowered people by providing access to information on a scale never before imagined, but it has also created unforeseen opportunities for those bent on doing harm.

* * *

IN THE COURSE of deleting hundreds of spam emails from my computer recently, I noticed a peculiar thing.
A large proportion promised ways to shed weight, backed by the irreproachable authority of celebrities such as Britney Spears, BeyoncĂ© and Jenifer Aniston.  Paradoxically, others held out the prospect of miraculous weight gain – but  only in a part of my anatomy that propriety precludes me from mentioning. 
These things seem to go in cycles. For a long time, most of my spam emails purported to be from various banks and urged me, in comically bad English, to click on a link so that I could remedy a pressing problem with my account.
Those have now abated, to be replaced by emails assuring me that with an enlarged mumble-mumble, I will induce paroxysms of ecstasy in my sexual partners.

The really worrying thing is that obviously, enough mugs respond to these emails to make the spammers’ efforts worthwhile. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New admissions to the judicial hall of fame

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 14.)
When I was a novice reporter in Wellington, my duties including covering what was then called the Magistrate’s Court (now known as the District Court).
Naturally, I got to know some of the magistrates – not personally, you understand; they were far too magisterial for that. But by observing them from the press bench I did become familiar with their habits and idiosyncrasies.

The regular magistrates included J A Wicks (they were always referred to by their initials in those days), D J Sullivan and M B Scully.
Mr Wicks – later to become Sir James – had glasses and wispy hair. He was quietly spoken and gave the impression of being a kindly man, but he brooked no nonsense.

Mr Sullivan (later to become Sir Desmond, and chief judge of the District Court), was younger and less aloof. He seemed a sympathetic type and I wasn’t surprised to read in his obituary in 1996 that he believed in giving people a second chance.
Mr Scully, known by everyone as Ben (but not to his face), was a different proposition. He was short and pugnacious and had a reputation as being irascible and unforgiving.

Everything about Ben Scully, from his choleric complexion to the impatient way he strode into court, as if he couldn’t wait to pack the first miscreant of the day off to prison, gave warning that he was not a man to be messed with. 
Lawyers were intimidated by Ben Scully, and any defendant who made the mistake of antagonising him soon regretted it. Barristers old enough to remember him still mention his name with something approaching awe, although away from court he was apparently regarded with affection as well as respect.

Magistrates in those days were lords of their domain and you forgot that at your peril. Even reporters on the press bench took care to behave with decorum.
I was reminded of that era last week when I read an excerpt from a new book called Grumpy Old Men, in which Auckland District Court judge Russell Callander sounds off about some of the things that irritate him. No, make that many of the things that irritate him.

Judge Callander is in his 70s and sounds like a throwback to those magistrates I recall from the late 1960s. His is a magnificent rant that will warm the hearts of curmudgeons everywhere. Allow me to quote some of the juicier bits:
■ “People who dress badly when they appear in court can make me tetchy. Courts are solemn places: not the beach or the public bar of the local boozer.”

■ “Epidermal self-mutilation with grotesque ill-drawn graphics so frequently flaunted by defendants, their associates, and witnesses are most irritating. When a man can’t even successfully spell four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, it makes me worry either about the standards of teaching in our schools, or the intelligence quotient of some of our more delinquent citizens.”
■ “Certain guilty paedophiles selfishly elect trial by jury on serious charges of sexual violation of children. They force innocent children to testify about traumatic and sensitive sexual issues in the usually futile hope a jury will acquit. They deny their offending. They lie through their fangs. And then, after being sentenced to imprisonment, they confess all to a prison psychologist and ask for a rehabilitation programme and the earliest possible release date.”

■ “Benefit bludgers and tax cheats make me growl with indignation. When people improperly take benefits, they steal from the state – from the rest of us who obediently pay our taxes. I have seen people live cheerfully in well-paid jobs while for years they supplement that with unemployment benefits totalling thousands of dollars – in one case nearly $100,000. Often they have the cheek to look very disgruntled when they are caught, convicted and ordered to pay it all back. Then, adding insult to injury, they smile sweetly and offer to pay it back at $15 per week over the next 128 years. Naturally, without interest.”
■ “A huge amount of court time is wasted by Maori activists who profess that Maori sovereignty renders them somehow immune to the laws of New Zealand.

■ “Over the years I have dealt with scores of men who have fathered children and then totally abdicated any responsibility for them. They don’t provide any financial help. They don’t play any parental role. They are selfish, uninterested, inhuman and irresponsible. They deserve the condemnation of us all.”
■ “And then there are the liars, the perjurers, the fabricators and prevaricators. Gone are the days when people admitted their crimes and told the truth. The oath is mainly meaningless. The mantra is ‘Get off the hook by any means’. It is shameful and destructive. It makes me not just grumpy but angry.”

I find it hugely refreshing and encouraging that a judge should throw political correctness to the wind and so vigorously express sentiments felt by many of his fellow New Zealanders.
I wonder if there’s a trend building here – an overdue backlash against misguided tolerance of bad behaviour and disrespectful antics in the courts.

In the same week that I read Judge Callander’s expostulations, another District Court judge, Judge Russell Collins, delivered a scalding judgment in the case of lawyer Davina Murray, who was found guilty of smuggling contraband to Mt Eden prison inmate Liam Reid, a convicted murderer and rapist with whom she was having a relationship.
Murray obviously got right up Judge Collins’ nose during the trial, and he didn’t hold back. He castigated her for turning up late in court, repeatedly talking over himself and witnesses, playing up to the media benches while she was being addressed from the Bench and making gratuitous comments after rulings had been given against her. At one point, Judge Collins was moved to remind Murray that she wasn’t in an American television show.

Courts are institutions of the people and deserve to be treated with respect. We should applaud Judges Callander and Collins for making a stand against those who abuse their dignity.
They will stand alongside Hawke’s Bay judge Tony Adeane – who in 2008 declared that he wasn’t going to have his court turned into a circus and packed a man off to the cells for 24 hours after he made a gesture to a mate in the dock – in my own judicial hall of fame.




Saturday, August 10, 2013

Molesworth Street revisited

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 9.)

IT’S NO exaggeration to say that for some of my generation, the 1981 Springbok tour was as much the defining event of their lives as the 1939-45 war had been for their parents.

Over 56 days, they rose up in a cathartic rebellion that gathered momentum as the tour progressed.

The anti-tour protests brought to a head all the frustrations and resentments of a baby-boomer generation that had chafed through two decades of conservatism and conformity, topped off by the snarling authoritarianism of Robert Muldoon.

It was more than just a protest against apartheid. It was an emphatic rejection of the values of the old New Zealand – values associated with the short-back-and-sides generation that ran the rugby union and the RSA.

For many of the protesters, raised in middle-class comfort in the suburbs, confronting police skirmish lines was the closest they had come, or were ever likely to come, to real danger. It could be hazardous, but it was exhilarating.

It's no surprise, then, that aspects of the tour have entered the realms of cultural mythology. It's widely thought, for example, that the police responsible for batoning protesters in Wellington's Molesworth St were members of the famous (infamous?) Red Squad, the elite police team specially formed for the tour. In fact, the Red Squad was nowhere near Wellington that night.

But there's another aspect of the so-called Battle of Molesworth St that needs to be clarified.
It's often presented as a brutal, gratuitous attack that came out of the blue. An article in this paper last Saturday perhaps unwittingly reinforced that impression. But the truth is that Blind Freddy and his dog could have seen the confrontation coming, even if the protesters didn't.

I had taken part in the protest rally that preceded the march up Molesworth St that night. The police had co-operated fully, but then the protest leaders announced a previously undisclosed plan to march on the South African consulate. That wasn't part of the deal with the police.

Inspector Bert Hill gave a clear warning of the likely consequences. "I am sorry, we cannot let you walk on Molesworth St," he said through a megaphone. "Please do not go onto Molesworth St and block the street."

The protest leaders ignored him. Only four days before, protesters had succeeded in forcing the abandonment of the Springbok match against Waikato. They probably thought they were unstoppable.

But police pride had been seriously hurt at Hamilton and it should have been obvious that they weren't about to be humiliated again. Their credibility was at stake.

Small wonder that the night air was soon filled with the sound of batons striking protesters' heads. Despite opposing the tour, I thought my fellow demonstrators brought the battering on themselves that night.
* * *

HAYDN JONES, who writes an entertaining column in this paper's Your Weekend magazine, devoted his most recent piece to the subject of single-income families.

He's the sole earner for his young family and says their one luxury is that his wife stays at home and looks after the children. They can afford to do this, because they live in a relatively cheap provincial city.

His Auckland friends put their children into daycare and spend so many hours at work that they have little energy left at weekends.

Jones laments that often both parents have to work to put food on the table. He adds: "That's the great New Zealand tragedy."

But is it? I agree that it's sad, but I don't believe parents have no option.

That may sometimes be the case, but more often it comes down to choice. It's a tradeoff: Either they have a good car, a flash house, expensive holidays and modern appliances, or they accept a lower standard of living in return for the benefits of spending precious time with their children – something they will never get a second crack at.

Jones and his wife have chosen the latter, and good on them. Plenty of other young parents could do the same; it's all a matter of expectations.

* * *

WAS THERE ever a sillier euphemism than the expression "to sleep with" someone, meaning to have sex with them?

I recall reading an interview with Bill Wyman, the most carnally active member of the Rolling Stones, which referred to him sleeping with 265 women in three months.
Good grief. They must have been short naps.

Recently, this nonsensical term cropped up again. A columnist in the British Spectator wrote that the racing driver James Hunt was alleged to have "slept with" 33 British Airways stewardesses in two weeks.

This coy phrase dates back to a time when polite people couldn't quite bring themselves to mention sex explicitly. How it survives in an era when we insist on being shamelessly blunt about most other things is a mystery.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hold the front page!

Stop the presses! Old people more likely to die!

This from an Agence France-Presse report in today's Dominion Post:

In 2011, those aged 65 and over accounted for nearly two-thirds of all deaths in the United States, according to statistics from the Centre for Disease Control.

Who'd have thought?

Friday, August 2, 2013

The new generation of Windsors

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 31.)
You don’t have to be an ardent royal watcher (I’m not) to have noticed that there has been a striking change in the family dynamics of the Windsor whanau.
The events surrounding the royal birth confirm that the new generation of royals refuses to be tied by the hidebound traditions of the past – and good on them for that.

There were a number of pointers which, individually, may have seemed insignificant. But taken together, they added up to a significant break from the stuffy dictates of Buckingham Palace protocol.
Take the announcement of the royal birth. In one of those eccentric rituals so beloved by the British, tradition decreed that a letter announcing the birth be forwarded from the hospital to the monarch, after which a bulletin would be posted on a gilded easel outside the palace. Instead, a press release went out by social media.

The royal couple’s first visitors were Kate’s parents, who turned up at the hospital in a London taxi. In previous generations, this would have been seen as an unthinkable act of impertinence. Someone from the royal family – probably Prince Charles – would have had first visiting rights.
The Middletons, after all, are mere commoners. But Kate is obviously close to her family and on such occasions, a first-time mother wants her Mum at her side – not a stiff, awkward father-in-law mumbling platitudes, as Charles would surely have done.

When the couple left the hospital, it wasn’t in the back of a chauffeur-driven limo. William placed the baby’s car seat in the back of a Range Rover then got behind the wheel and drove himself, just as any new father might have done (except that most new fathers can’t afford a Range Rover).
Royal observers also noted that when the couple emerged, it was Kate who carried the baby. In 1981, when the one-day-old William was presented in public for the first time on the same hospital steps, it was Charles who held him – leaving no room for doubt as to who was foremost in the parental pecking order. William and Kate, in contrast, seemed to be signalling that theirs is a marital partnership between equals. 

Perhaps most important, the new addition to the royal family has not been handed over into the care of nannies, as was the fate of so many of his predecessors. It appears his parents are determined to raise him in a domestic setting that’s as close to normality as the dictates of royal life will allow.
William will take the statutory two weeks’ paternity to leave to which any new father in Britain is entitled, then get back to work.

There’s a profound generational change taking place here. William and his younger brother Harry seem determined to do things their own way, rather than be governed by rigid precedents and pushed around by fussy courtiers. And who can blame them?
The contrast between Prince Charles and his sons is striking. Charles is stiff and pompous, though you sometimes get the impression he desperately wants not to be. He seems incapable of exhibiting any spontaneity. He was an old fogey by the age of 21and seems imprisoned in the role history and tradition has assigned him.

His sons, by contrast, are relaxed and strikingly ordinary. They dress casually and speak with a neutral, middle-class accent. In fact Harry sometimes seems determined to sound like a working-class Eastender.
It’s as if the two brothers have made a conscious decision to repudiate, as far as they reasonably can, the trappings of privilege and tradition. Whatever your opinion of the monarchy as an institution (and bear in mind it’s not the fault of William and Harry that they were born into it), they surely deserve some respect for that.

They also deserve the gratitude of the older royals for helping to restore the image of the Windsors after the family sank dangerously and deservedly low in the public esteem.
While the Queen has been unfailingly conscientious in discharging her public duties, her children let “the firm” down badly. Princess Anne and the useless Prince Andrew both had disastrous marriages – Anne to a philanderer who fathered a child in an extramarital affair with a New Zealander, Andrew to the erratic Sarah Ferguson, who turned out to have an unfortunate weakness for wealthy American businessmen.

Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana unravelled even more spectacularly. Bullied into the marriage by his domineering father, according to some accounts, he chose his much younger bride largely on the basis, it seems, of her breeding potential. (“At least she’ll breed some height into the line,” Prince Philip reportedly remarked.)
It was a cynical marriage of convenience. All along, Charles was in love with another woman. He should consider himself extraordinarily lucky that the British public seems to have forgiven him for being a cad.

The public emotion that erupted after Diana’s death, and in particular the anger and bewilderment over the Windsors’ apparent indifference to the tragedy, shook the royal family to its core.
From that time on, the royals became noticeably more responsive to public opinion. Perhaps they realised that although unelected, they were still ultimately accountable to the people.

The Queen has since adopted a warmer, less aloof persona. She can take much of the credit for the fact that the royal family has regained the popularity it lost in the 1990s.
But William and Harry, too, have helped rehabilitate the Windsors in the public eye. They have made the family look human.

Given that the two brothers experienced the trauma of their mother’s death at a sensitive age, and saw at close quarters how cold and clannishly self-protective the royal family could be, it’s remarkable that they have emerged so well-balanced.
They could have been excused for rebelling against the stifling, tradition-bound environment they were born into. Instead they seem to have made the sensible decision to deal with it on their own terms. In doing so, they have showed a lot more character than their father.