Saturday, December 27, 2014

Using language to mould the perfect society

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 26.)
It’s a truism that the English language is a dynamic thing, constantly re-inventing itself. But the ground is shifting so fast these days that it must be hard for language scholars to keep up.
Consider the word “pupil”. In one of those inexplicable quirks of English usage, it seems suddenly to have been purged from the language.

“Pupil” used to be a handy way of distinguishing children and teenagers of primary and secondary school age from those attending tertiary institutions. But now it seems they’re all students, no matter what their age.
Hence when a primary school is damaged by fire, television reports that the “students” are in shock. Some of these “students” are only five or six years old.

To be consistent, this presumably means that children at kindergarten are now students too.
Changes like these don’t happen spontaneously. They have to start somewhere – but where?

I blame those shadowy figures known collectively as the language police, who are active in academia and the bureaucracy.
These ideologues view language as a means of achieving their vision of an ideal world – one in which all traces of discrimination, real or imagined, are ruthlessly rooted out.

If you view “pupil” as a demeaning word implying subservience, as they presumably do, then it follows that it must be stricken from the language. Impressionable young journalists fall into line and before you know it the word has virtually vanished from the media.
But in the process, the English language has lost another word that helps us express ourselves with precision and clarity – surely the primary object of communication.

“Actress” and “waitress” suffered a similar fate. It’s now considered sexist to distinguish females in these occupations from males; they are all actors and waiters.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the grammarian’s bible, laments that the feminist movement has had a devastating effect on many “-ess” words. In a triumph of ideology over logic, feminist language reformers decided there was something inherently degrading in that “-ess” suffix.
In fact all it does is convey an important and obvious distinction. Acknowledging there is a biological difference between males and females doesn’t mean the sexes are unequal, as the language police would have us believe.
A commonly heard argument is that it doesn’t matter how the language changes, as long as the meaning remains clear. But gender-free English can be ambiguous and misleading. To give an obvious example, to write that a man fancied a waiter in a Courtenay Place bar would create uncertainty as to whether the object of his desire was male or female. For journalists especially, words should be used to avoid ambiguity rather than create it,  
Misguided ideology is responsible for another linguistic absurdity in the form of the word “client”. A client used to be someone who paid for a professional service; now it’s any person who has received a service of any sort, even when someone else is picking up the tab.

The purpose is clear: it’s to make people feel better about themselves. “Client” sounds so much more dignified and deserving than “beneficiary”. It’s probably only a matter of time before imprisoned murderers and rapists become clients of the Corrections Department.  

But ideology can’t be blamed for all the puzzling changes taking place in the usage of English.
A surgery, for example, used to be a place where doctors or dentists administered treatment. Now the word is a synonym for an operation. Hence we hear that an injured sportsman has had a surgery, or that an eye specialist has carried out hundreds of cataract surgeries. “Operation” is bound for extinction.

Then we have nouns being used as verbs and vice-versa. “Impact”, “reference”, “leverage” and “task” used to be nouns. Now we read that a new health policy impacts on sick people, an author references previous works, an entrepreneur leverages his investment and an employee is tasked with increasing sales.
With “reveal” and “disconnect”, it’s the other way around. These are verbs that have morphed into nouns. Kim Dotcom promised “the big reveal” in the Auckland Town Hall and we heard after the election that there was a “disconnect” between Labour and the voters.

Odder still, consider “infringe” and “trespass”. People used to infringe rules; now we hear that a district council has “infringed” someone, meaning it has issued an infringement notice. The usage has been neatly inverted.
Similarly with trespass. You trespass when you illegally enter someone else’s property; all perfectly clear. But police and bureaucrats now talk about troublesome people being “trespassed” from premises such as casinos and ACC offices, meaning they have been banned.

What’s going on here? We can’t blame all these changes on ideologues bent on using language to mould the perfect society. More likely it’s the irrepressible human urge to re-invent things so as to create an illusion of progress.
Either that, or the English language is under the control of bored hobgoblins who keep switching everything around for the sake of pure mischief.

Friday, December 19, 2014

No partridge, and now no quail either

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 17.)

We had a sharp reminder last week of how merciless nature can be.
For several weeks my wife and I had been watching a pair of California quail that had taken up residence somewhere nearby and spent much of their time on our property.

It’s unusual to see quail in an urban environment (we live in the middle of town) and we assumed they were living in the reserve beyond our back fence.
They were very welcome visitors and we did our best to make them feel at home. California quail strike me as benign interlopers. They don’t seem to compete directly with native species for food, they don’t (unlike magpies) harass other birds and they don’t (unlike another Australian immigrant, the spur-winged plover) disturb the peace with raucous calls.

As time went by the quail, which are extremely wary birds, seemed to get used to our presence. For our part, we felt oddly flattered that they felt at home at our place. We hoped that in due course they would appear with a clutch of chicks.
We still assumed they were domiciled somewhere else. Then, a couple of weekends ago, my wife came across their nest as she was clearing undergrowth around the base of a gleditsia tree in the middle of our lawn.

All this time they had been under our noses. Remarkably, they hadn’t been deterred by the roar of the motor mower passing only a metre away.
We fretted that the birds might abandon the nest once their cover was blown, but no; the female resolutely stayed put. The male remained close by, keeping a vigilant eye out for predators.

About a week ago, we were rewarded with the sight we’d been hoping for. Mr and Mrs Quail appeared on the lawn leading seven balls of fluff so tiny that initially it was hard to see them.
We took an irrational pleasure in seeing these comical creatures scrambling to keep up with their parents as they explored the garden, but now we had a new reason to be anxious.

Being ground nesters, quail are highly susceptible to predators. I imagine that’s the reason they typically produce quite large clutches of chicks – sometimes 20 or more. The more chicks, the better the chance that at least some will survive.
Quail chicks also develop very quickly. They can leave the nest with their parents within 24 hours of hatching and can fly (well, as much as quails ever fly) within 10 days. But those 10 days were going to be critical.

We don’t own a cat but some of our neighbours do, and we regularly see them on our section. I’ll sometimes come up across a telltale scattering of feathers indicating one of these hunters has made a kill. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)
We quickly became accustomed to the sight of the quail family roaming our section, the chicks growing visibly bigger by the day. We felt like proud proxy parents.

But when there was no sighting for 24 hours, I went looking. It didn’t take long. On the lawn, just a metre from our deck, I saw what I’d hoped not to see: two mangled, bloodied corpses, neatly laid almost on top of each other.
My first impression, from their long legs and surprisingly mature plumage, was that I was looking at the two adult birds. It was almost a relief to realise, on closer investigation, that they were chicks. It was amazing how quickly they had grown.

Of their parents and siblings, there was no sign. We could only hope they had escaped. Even if they had survived, we thought it unlikely that we would see them back. They would now regard our place as a danger zone.
In fact the two adults briefly re-appeared after an absence of several days, but we haven't seen them since. There was no sign of their chicks. Perhaps they were being kept in hiding, but it’s more likely that cats got the whole lot.

We all know this is how nature operates, but it’s a brutal lesson when it strikes so close to home.
Does it make me want to shoot the neighbours’ cats? No. Cats do what they’re biologically programmed to do, which is hunt and kill. But it has certainly made me more sympathetic to Gareth Morgan. I’ve been ambivalent about the presence of cats on our property in the past, but I’ll be observing a zero tolerance policy now.

Until a few days ago, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a last column before Christmas on the theme that while we don’t have a pear tree, still less a partridge, nature had given us a present in the form of that quail family. Unfortunately this is not that column.
It’s hard to explain why the birds brought us such pleasure. They just did. We can only hope the adults will try again, and that this time some chicks will survive.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A nation succumbs to emotional incontinence

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 12.)
I think it was the British psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple who coined the term “emotional incontinence” to describe mass displays of extravagant grief.
Dalrymple wasn’t referring to the neurological disorder of that name, but a sociological phenomenon that was first noted in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.

On that occasion the traditionally stoical British public indulged in an uncharacteristic outpouring of mawkish sentimentality, gathering in the streets to weep on each other’s shoulders at impromptu shrines decorated with teddy bears. (Why teddy bears? You tell me.)  
Until recently, that public grief-fest stood as the high-water mark of emotional incontinence. But astonishingly, Australians may have outdone the Brits with their reaction to the death of the cricketer Phillip Hughes.

I say “astonishingly” because Australia likes to think of itself as tough and resilient; a larrikin society where hard men in the tradition of Ned Kelly, Jimmy Spithill, Steve Irwin, Dennis Lillee and the fictional Crocodile Dundee spit in the eye of adversity.
But now the secret is out. Australia’s soft emotional underbelly has been exposed.

Hughes’ death not only triggered an overblown media frenzy that continues almost unabated after two weeks, but seemed to reduce some of his fellow players to gibbering wrecks. Who would have thought Australian cricketers were so emotionally fragile?
Counsellors were working with Australian teams, we were told. Some players might never pad up again.

So traumatised were the Australian players that on the day before this week’s postponed test match against India began, there was still doubt as to whether some would be fit to take the field.
Most memorably, we saw the Australian captain, Michael Clarke breaking down like an overwrought teenager.

“We must dig in and get through to tea,” a quivering Clarke told mourners at Hughes’ funeral, in what sounded suspiciously like a line composed by a PR hack to wring maximum sentiment from the occasion.
We hear a lot these days about PDAs – public displays of affection, usually involving celebrity couples, that are criticised as exercises in attention-seeking. I wonder if intemperate public displays of grief should be similarly discouraged.

Certainly, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such displays are often less about the dead than the living.
Deaths happen in sport – most notably in motor racing, where fellow drivers do their grieving in private and move on.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall Australia’s jockeys being so psychologically damaged by the deaths of two female colleagues in separate accidents in October, only weeks before the Hughes incident, that they cancelled all riding engagements. Jockeys, like racing drivers, must be made of sterner stuff than cricketers.
The grieving for Hughes wasn't just excessive to the point of self-indulgence; it was hypocritical too. As sports columnist Mark Reason pointed out in this paper, it was Michael Clarke who told an English batsman last year, “Face up – get ready for a broken f***ing arm”.

The Australian captain clearly loves to indulge in macho sledging, enjoys pumping up the intimidation, but goes to pieces when a teammate dies as a direct result of gladiatorial aggression on the field. Can he join the dots, or does his ego get in the way?
Of course social media had to get in on the act too, with a mass exercise in dribbling self-pity called Put Out Your Bats, the originator of which – a man so psychologically frail that he burst into tears when he heard of Hughes’ death – was lauded in the Australian media as a hero and a celebrity in his own right.

The Put Out Your Bats campaign captured perfectly the spirit of the social media era. It required little of its participants and achieved nothing beyond making them feel good for having engaged in what they no doubt thought was some sort of profound communal act of catharsis.
To be sure, Hughes’ death was a tragedy – not so much because it robbed Australia of a great cricketing talent, but because every life taken prematurely is a tragedy.

More than anyone, his family would have been grieving, but significantly we heard virtually nothing about them. It was all about the game and its cosseted, self-absorbed stars.
In the same week that Hughes died, my wife lost a much-loved sister. She nursed her in her final days and was with her when she breathed her last.

Bereavement didn’t leave my wife in a state of abject helplessness. The day after we held a farewell ceremony for her sister, she was back at work. That’s what people do in the real world. They just get on with things.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Stop bullshitting us, prime minister

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 3.)
The day after winning re-election, prime minister John Key warned that one of the biggest risks his government faced in its third term was arrogance. What a pity he didn’t heed his own advice.
Over the past few weeks, we have observed a National government that seems determined to live up to every stereotype about third terms. It has been arrogant, smug and incompetent.

Worse than that, it appears to have undergone an integrity by-pass.
Key has given new Labour leader Andrew Little a dream start, and Little has the ability to take full advantage of it. More by good luck than good management, Labour has found itself with a leader who could prove a real handful for National. 

I would go further and say that if National and Key carry on as they have in the past few weeks, there’s a good prospect of a Little-led government in 2017.
Let’s examine National’s performance in greater detail. We’ll start with the accusation of arrogance.

With very little warning, the government proposed radical changes to security laws and allowed practically no time for people to make submissions. It displayed utter contempt for the normal democratic process.
It didn’t even bother trying to explain why an overhaul of the security laws was suddenly so urgent. “Don’t bother your tiny little heads fretting about civil liberties and the right to be free from surveillance,” the government effectively said. “Just believe us when we say the country is at imminent risk of terrorism. Trust us, because we know what we’re doing.”

Trouble was, the legislation was introduced to Parliament in the same week as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence confirmed that the former head of the SIS was up to his eyeballs in the leaking of information calculated to damage one of the National government’s opponents.

Trust them? Yeah, right.
The perception of arrogance was compounded by the performance of the Attorney-General and Minister in Charge of the SIS, Chris Finlayson.

This is the minister charged with ensuring our rights are protected. Yet when Guyon Espiner questioned him on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report about why the security legislation was being bulldozed through Parliament, Finlayson testily replied that the government didn’t have time for “chit-chat”.
He subsequently made what purported to be an apology in Parliament, but he didn’t look at all apologetic to me. In fact he looked very pleased with himself.

Finlayson is reputedly a clever man, and knows it; but clever men have a way of tripping over their own egos. He’s also a list MP, and I wonder if he would be quite so cocky if he had to answer to an electorate.
Even before the appearance of the proposed new security laws, the government had shown signs of third-term arrogance.  Within weeks of winning the election, it had pushed through new employment laws that were widely criticised as eroding workers’ rights.

I’m not convinced that the new laws are quite as oppressive as the critics say, but it was the symbolism that struck me. Here was a newly re-elected government using its majority to ensure the speedy passage of laws that were seen as anti-worker.
If it wanted to send out a signal confirming all those old left-wing claims about National acting in the interests of the bosses, it couldn’t have done a better job.

Now let’s look at the charge of incompetence. Consider the following.
■ Murderer and paedophile Phillip Smith, a man known to be clever and manipulative as well as evil, escaped to South America because of staggering naivety on the part of the Corrections Department;

■ The State Services Commission presided over an embarrassing sexual harassment fiasco in which it was seen as supporting the senior public servant whose behaviour was the subject of the complaint;
■ As already mentioned, the former head of the SIS allowed himself to be used in an underhand smear campaign aimed at discrediting a senior Labour politician.

In each case, incompetence and bad judgment on a grand scale. But did we see any of the responsible cabinet ministers, or even department heads, volunteering to fall on their swords? 
Ministerial accountability used to be a core principle of Westminster-style democracy. Ministers carried the can for their departments’ cockups even when they weren’t personally to blame.

It’s a harsh system, but an effective way of ensuring discipline and accountability right down through the chain of command. It means someone has to pay when things go wrong. After all, if no one suffers, where’s the incentive to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
But don’t hold your breath for waiting for ministers in this government to maintain that tradition. It’s just not going to happen.

Finally, there’s the issue of Key and his relationship with Cameron Slater, which brings us to the subject of integrity.
I now seriously wonder whether the prime minister has any, given his pathetic dissembling over whether he’d been in touch with Slater. That came on top of his preposterous claim recently that when he spoke to Slater, it wasn’t in his capacity as prime minister.

For heaven’s sake, give us a break. This is altogether too cute and too cocky. People have given Key the benefit of the doubt before, but there must come a time when his credibility runs out.
You could argue, I suppose, that if he has some sort of political death wish that compels him to continue dealing with Slater, that’s his prerogative. But what’s inexcusable is that he plays us for mugs by bullshitting us.

At the very least, he should show us a bit more respect.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Labour picked the right leader

(First published in The Dominion Post on November28, though you won’t find it on the paper’s website.)
Initial reaction to Andrew Little’s election as Labour Party leader was mostly dismissive.

Critics pointed out that he couldn’t win his home town seat of New Plymouth and was lucky to squeak back into Parliament at all. They also made much of the fact that Little won the leadership contest by the narrowest of margins and wasn’t the choice of his fellow MPs.
We were repeatedly reminded that without union support, Little’s bid would have failed – choice propaganda material for the Right, given older New Zealanders’ memories of the damage done by militant trade unionism in the 1970s and 80s.

Then there were the jibes about Little being dour and humourless – a bit harsh, I thought, given that the entire leadership contest was a personality-free zone.
But while all of these criticisms were valid, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Labour under Little is doomed to continue its slide into self-destruction and irrelevancy.

My view is that even if he was elected by the skin of his teeth under a flawed process that gives too much power to the unions, Labour ended up with the right leader.
True, he’s not exactly charismatic, but neither was Helen Clark when she became Labour leader. She went on to win three terms.

I first met Little when he led the university students’ association in the late 1980s. I’ve had occasional dealings with him since then and found him personable, direct and straight.
Those last two qualities in particular are worth noting. Little doesn’t strike me as a man who seeks to ingratiate himself with people by saying whatever he thinks his audience might want to hear.

That sets him apart from his predecessor, David Cunliffe, and I suspect from Grant Robertson too.
Cunliffe was notable for talking tough in left-wing forums but then modifying his stance immediately afterwards.  He also brought ridicule on himself for apologising to a women’s refuge audience for being a man.

As for Robertson, he always seemed just a bit too keen to portray himself as one of the boys – a Kiwi bloke who liked nothing more than a night at the pub watching the footy. I suspect this was an over-reaction to the perception that people might be biased against him because he was gay.
Politicians often don’t seem to realise how transparent and calculating they look, but Little comes across as authentic. 

He comes from an unusual background. His father, a former British Army major, was a National Party stalwart who wrote trenchant letters to the papers, often on Middle East issues.
Major Little had served in the Middle East and was strongly pro-Palestinian – an unusual position for a National Party man. The younger Little may have inherited some of his father’s spirit even though they weren’t politically compatible.

Despite his union background, he’s no ideologue. He’s grounded in the real world and can speak the language of business people. I would suggest that of the four leadership contenders, he was by far the best placed to appeal to the centre ground.
He has made a good start with a series of confident media performances, which wouldn’t surprise those who know him, and a combative stance in the House.  His biggest challenge may not be reaching out to the country, but winning the support of ideologues in his faction-ridden party.

A factor in Little’s favour is that his mix of university education and union experience  makes him ideally placed to bridge the gap between the disparate wings of the party – the latte-drinking, liberal inner-city dwellers on the one hand and the traditional blue-collar support base on the other.
The natural electoral cycle may work in his favour too. National governments are never less attractive than when they assume the triumphalist, born-to-rule manner that sometimes comes with third terms.

Besides, by 2017 New Zealanders may decide it’s time the balance was tipped back in favour of working people. Only last week, statistics confirmed that while the economy continues to grow and business profits keep rising, employees are enjoying only a small share of the gains.
This is a fair-minded country, and it goes against the grain that corporate salaries have risen to grotesque levels while wage earners struggle to keep up with the cost of living. 

The balance of power in the labour market has shifted radically. The trade union tyranny which New Zealand experienced a generation ago is no longer the risk. A much bigger problem now is corporate tyranny and arrogance.  
It follows that the prospect of a Little-led Labour government may not be quite as far-fetched as it first seems.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Unfortunately, the migration door swings both ways

I’VE RECENTLY been reading a book by the English journalist A A Gill. The Golden Door is a book about America – a country that fascinates Gill, and in which he finds much to like.
Gill’s observations about immigration particularly resonated with me. Writing about the great wave of humanity that left Europe for America in the 19th century, he cites some striking statistics.

Between 1800 and 1914, 30 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. If that doesn’t sound a big number, consider it in this context: Ireland lost one in four of its population, Sweden one in five. Five million Poles, four million Italians and three million Germans crossed the Atlantic.
As Gill points out, “all entrances on one stage are exits elsewhere”. While we tend to think of migration to America in terms of what that country gained, Gill reminds us that it represented an enormous human loss for Europe. Every departure was “a farewell, a sadness, a defeat”. The Irish would hold wakes so that they could mourn those leaving.

He writes movingly of the “gut-wrenching finality of separation”. Those departing would hug their mothers, drink a toast with friends, take a last look at the old house, pat the family dog, and leave. Very few would ever return.
Gill reminds us too that the people who left were usually the ones who could be spared least. “Like a biblical curse, the biblical land called the young and the strong from Europe: the adventurous, the clever and the skilled.”

There are clear parallels here with the New Zealand experience, because ours is an immigrant society too. We can’t be sure what motivated the Polynesian voyagers who first settled New Zealand; some suggest overcrowding on their home islands, depletion of food resources or warfare.
Others theorise that they may simply have been driven by an adventurous urge to discover and colonise new lands. But whatever the explanation, they were obviously looking for something better – and perhaps they too were the young and the strong, the risk-takers.

My own forebears were certainly not prepared to accept the status quo in the countries of their birth. On my mother’s side they were Irish Catholics, economically disadvantaged and politically powerless. On my father’s side, they were getting out of a country (Denmark) that had recently been invaded by the Prussian army.
Life in Europe held even less promise for my wife’s family. Her parents were forcibly transported from occupied Poland to Germany during the Second World War and put to work in an arms factory. At the war’s end there was nothing to go back to; their families had been wiped out and Poland had effectively been taken over by Stalin’s repressive Soviet Union. It took 20 years for them to find their way to a safe haven in New Zealand.

Every New Zealand family has its own immigration story to tell, but in every case someone made the risky decision to leave behind the known and familiar and take a chance on the other side of the world. It’s equally true of the many immigrants now arriving from Asia.
But what occurred to me, reading Gill’s book, is that in recent decades the pattern has also reversed itself.

New Zealand has experienced its own exodus. Just as our forebears left Europe for a better life and new opportunities, so, ironically, large numbers of our own children have left New Zealand for much the same reason.
Members of my generation have had to resign themselves to the likelihood that their offspring will end up making their future in another country. Even more ironically, many have gone back to the country their ancestors abandoned: Britain.

There are echoes here of the 19th century experience in countries like Ireland. We too have lost many of our youngest and most talented. The crucial difference is that, thanks to cheap international air fares, we are spared the unimaginably painful experience of saying goodbye knowing we’ll probably never see them again.
My own situation is not unusual. Of our four children, three live overseas: two in Australia and one in California. Only two of our six grandchildren are growing up as New Zealanders. Many of my nieces and nephews, too, find life elsewhere more rewarding.

Will they eventually come back? We can only hope so.
When the subject comes up in conversation with my kids, certain themes emerge. Whatever attachment they feel to the country of their birth, life is economically more rewarding for them elsewhere and the opportunities are greater.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that New Zealand is a low-wage country. My children say they could possibly live with that, but what they can’t accept is the severe disjunction between wages and the cost of living here.
Alas, getting living expenses into line with wages, or vice-versa, is a challenge that seems to be beyond us.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

People who stare at quarries

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 14.)
The world is in the grip of an epidemic of infantilism. How else can anyone account for tour parties travelling around the world to gasp in awe at the Weta Cave or the newly unveiled model of Smaug the dragon at Wellington Airport?
We’re told that Hobbit pilgrims from overseas burst into tears on arriving at Hobbiton. Perhaps someone should have gently explained that it wasn’t really where Bilbo Baggins lived. It was a farm in the Waikato.

It reminded me of the time I was driving over Haywards Hill and noticed a group of people standing beside a tourist bus gazing misty-eyed at the hillside quarry where the Helm’s Deep battle sequence was filmed for Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I felt like shouting, “It’s just a bloody quarry, for God’s sake”, but I probably would have risked arrest. Given the national reverence for Jackson and the contribution his fantasy epics have made to the country’s GDP, there could well be laws prohibiting such heresy. 

Thirty years ago I read The Hobbit for my children. They were enthralled, but the story struck me as rather slight – certainly compared with The Lord of the Rings.
How Jackson could stretch it into three films, with a cumulative length of nearly eight hours, almost defies belief. I can only assume each film in the trilogy is padded out by the same interminable battle scenes that, to me, made the Lord of the Rings films indistinguishable from each other.

Interchangeable sequences seem to be a common feature of fantasy films. I’ve tried to watch several of the Harry Potter movies on television, but after the first 30 minutes or so I can never tell which one it is. They all ultimately morph into one super-long, generic Harry Potter film in which the plots and mumbo-jumbo dialogue (another feature in common with the Lord of the Rings movies) hardly seem to vary.
Now here’s the question. Why, at a point in history when people are arguably better-educated than ever before, and therefore presumably less susceptible to myth and superstition, has Western civilisation produced a generation so seduced by make-believe?

It’s not just The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Look at the international media frenzy over the announcement that a new Star Wars instalment is imminent. You can be sure this news was trending big-time on Twitter, which is now the ultimate measurement of how important anything is.
Look at the excited reaction by film critics when a new Spider-Man or Batman movie hits the screens. These escapist trifles are treated as if they were as profound as something by Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

Look at the phenomenal success of 2009’s Avatar – surely one of the silliest films ever made – and the hype surrounding the promised release of a sequel in 2016.
Look at the tens of thousands of people who attend sci-fi and fantasy conventions such as San Diego’s famous Comi-Con, where they dress up as Darth Vader or Dumbledore and queue patiently for a glimpse of people called actors, who are revered for pretending to be someone else.

What’s going on here? My Oxford dictionary gives a clue. It defines infantilism as childish behaviour or the persistence of infantile characteristics or behaviour in adult life. Think The Big Bang Theory, which gently satirises four highly educated men who refuse to grow up.
That definition seems, to me, a pretty good description of the Hobbit fan syndrome. But it only gets us halfway toward understanding the phenomenon, because putting a word to it doesn’t really explain how or why it happens.

What’s clear is that the so-called millennial generation – which means, roughly, those born after 1980 – includes a large cohort that is affluent, easily bored and eager for new sources of distraction and gratification.
They seem to find it in escapist fantasy. This is harmless enough, except that the line between fantasy and reality has a tendency to become blurred – witness the Hobbit fans who shed tears of ecstatic joy at being shown a farm near Matamata.

Here’s one possible explanation. There is ample research to support the theory that humanity is hard-wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Conventional religious belief has largely fallen out of favour; we’re too sophisticated and sceptical for that. But perhaps the need to believe remains.
Maybe hobbits, superheroes, wizards and Jedi knights have filled the vacuum. Unlike religion, they demand nothing in return – surely an irresistible advantage.


Friday, November 7, 2014

When a whanau places itself above the law

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 5.)
If you had to name the vital principles underpinning our civilised, democratic society, what would they be?
One would surely be the rule of law, which provides a framework by which injustices are dealt with, disputes resolved and the weak protected against the powerful.

Respect for the rule of law is one of the factors that distinguishes liberal democracies from countries where despots rule, and where justice, if it exists at all, is administered very selectively.
It follows that without the rule of law, society would unravel. Yet a determined challenge to the rule of law in New Zealand has been allowed to continue unchecked for seven years.

The country has watched with mounting dismay and incredulity as the Bay of Plenty whanau of the late James Takamore has repeatedly defied court orders to allow the exhumation of his body and its return to Christchurch, from where it was taken in 2007.
First the High Court, then the Court of Appeal and finally the Supreme Court all decreed that the wishes of Takamore’s Paheka partner and children should prevail over those of his whanau.

It’s clear that Takamore himself wished to be buried in Christchurch. But when an attempt was made in August to disinter his body from the whanau urupa near Opotiki, police and funeral directors were blocked by an intimidating group of Maori protesters. Rather than risk violence, they retreated.
At that moment, the goddess of justice must have let out a quiet sigh of despair.

In this case, the whanau have placed themselves above the law. They have used a cultural pretext, the sanctity of Maori custom, as an excuse to defy the courts and bully a grieving family. And a timid Crown appears to have no answer to their arrogance.
A High Court judge who has tried to mediate, apparently in the vain hope that sweet reason would succeed where court orders failed, has given up and passed the parcel – an embarrassing, much-handled parcel that no one wants – to the Solicitor-General.

No one will be holding their breath in the expectation of a sudden breakthrough. After all, why would the whanau capitulate now, when they have succeeded in repeatedly making a mockery of the legal system and proving its impotence?
Effectively, we seem to be back to square one. The scandalous procrastination continues.

The whanau claims good reason for doing what it did. After Takamore’s death members of the whanau travelled to Christchurch where they reportedly found his body lying unattended in the funeral home. The Tuhoe people regard this as an egregious breach of tikanga (custom) and a slight to the dead person.
I’ve also seen it argued (by a Pakeha) that Takamore deserves to lie among his own people, where his remains will be honoured and cared for.

I understand that argument up to a point, but it assumes he would have been neglected and forgotten had he remained in Christchurch. That’s an insult to his widow and children.
In any case, all that is irrelevant. We have a judicial system that has evolved over hundreds of years to determine a just and fair outcome in complex situations such as this. It’s not perfect, but it gets things right most of the time.

Maori as well as Pakeha are protected under this system. Maori accepted British law when they signed the Treaty (in fact asked for it, because of the problems caused by unruly colonists) and have become adept at using it to their advantage.
But the law is not a game of pick-and-choose. The system depends on people accepting the decisions of the courts whichever way they fall. Maori cannot embrace the judicial system when it works in their favour and disregard it if they think their tikanga takes precedence.  

It hardly needs saying that the rule of law is imperilled when people see a renegade group brazenly defying the highest court in the land and getting away with it. What’s to stop other disaffected litigants deciding to have a go?
There’s surely a simple, if unpleasant, solution. It’s ultimately the job of the police to enforce the law. Instead of timidly tip-toeing around the issue in the interests of cultural sensitivity, the police should guarantee sufficient force to protect those wanting to exhume the body. Anyone who interferes should be arrested for breach of the peace and contempt of court.

I’m sure that if a motorcycle gang defied the law from behind the walls of its fortified headquarters, the police would call in a bulldozer. It’s happened before. But it seems a different set of rules apply on the Kutarere Marae.
For every day that Takamore’s whanau are allowed to go on defying the courts, the rule of law is weakened. And James Takamore’s immediate family is left to ponder its apparent powerlessness.

I wonder when someone in authority – a judge, a politician, the police commissioner, anyone – will eventually muster the moral courage to call the Takamore whanau’s bluff. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Not everyone wants the news in "real time"

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 31.)
I ALWAYS make a point of reading Mike O’Donnell’s contributions in the Saturday business pages of the Dominion Post. He’s an entertaining columnist who shatters the peculiar conceit that the only people capable of writing well are those who do it for a living.
He’s smart, witty, perceptive and well-informed. You can see why he’s highly regarded in the business and digital technology worlds where he made his name.

Even more appealing is that he seems an unpretentious bloke with an enthusiasm for cars, motorbikes and shooting, which makes his columns all the more readable.  
Until earlier this year, O’Donnell was the chief operating officer for TradeMe. He now heads a new $5.3 million project set up to market New Zealand public sector intellectual property to other governments.

I translate that as meaning, in essence, that his job is to persuade other countries to pay for the right to copy clever ways of doing things that have been pioneered by our public sector – a position for which he seems admirably suited.
Given my respect for him, you can probably understand my reluctance to challenge him, least of all on an issue where he’s regarded as an authority. But I balked at his column last Saturday in which he speculated about the impact of social media on journalism.

O’Donnell suggests that by the time of the next general election, social media may have rendered the evening television news bulletin extinct. His theory seems to be that consumers of news (a ghastly phrase) will no longer be prepared to wait until 6pm for their fix, but will update themselves constantly throughout the day by accessing news on their smartphones and tablets.
People have the capability to do that now. But do the vast number who still get their news from newspapers, TV and radio really have such a voracious appetite for information that in future they will demand it in (to use another ghastly phrase) “real time”?

I somehow doubt it, and I wonder whether people like O’Donnell have been misled by their own enthusiasm for the digital revolution and their missionary desire to promote its assumed benefits.
O’Donnell is certainly correct when he says that digital media – Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and online news services such as Stuff – have changed the way journalists operate.

Reporters no longer write only to fill the morning paper or the 6 pm bulletin; they’re constantly updating stories or breaking news online. Competition to be first is more intense than ever. But in a sense, it’s artificial competition.
There may be prestige and status to be gained (and bosses to be impressed) by being the first journalist to break a story on Twitter, but does it really matter to anyone besides other journalists, politicians and a minority of tragic news junkies?

Again, I doubt it. Once something has happened, it’s happened – and I suspect that to most people, it doesn’t really matter whether they learn of it instantaneously or wait for tonight’s TV bulletin or tomorrow morning’s Dom Post. 
Not everyone is so obsessed with politics or news in general that they feel compelled to constantly check Twitter, Stuff or Cameron Slater’s latest blog post.

People who are so obsessed – and O’Donnell may or may not be one of them – could easily fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else is, too. But most people I know, and they represent a reasonably wide demographic cross-section, seem to have a healthy grip on life’s priorities and manage perfectly well without getting hung up on Twitter or any other online news outlet.
If they are on Twitter at all (and I know few people who are, or at least who are prepared to admit it), then it takes its place along with all the other things going on their lives. It doesn’t occupy their every waking thought.

And thank God for that, because what sort of world would it be if police officers, bus drivers, construction workers, shop assistants, schoolteachers, forestry workers, nurses, farmers and plumbers constantly interrupted whatever they were doing to look at their digital devices for fear they might have missed something?
Call me a Luddite, but I think it still suits a lot of people to get their news from the 6 pm bulletin, the morning paper or Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. Trouble is, the noise from those predicting the end of the traditional media often drowns out everyone else.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why food and wine faddism has become almost intolerable

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 22.)

I have an admission to make. I am a recovering wine and food writer.
For many years I wrote wine columns; even a book. I also reviewed restaurants for various publications and was a judge in national restaurant awards.

Those days are now behind me. I enjoy my wine and my food as much as ever, but haven’t lost a millisecond of sleep fretting that I’m no longer part of that scene.
This has nothing to do with ill-will or personal animosity. I don’t think I’ve ever met a winemaker I didn’t like, and I greatly admire what the wine industry has achieved over the past 30-odd years. 

Similarly, I respect the chefs I know. They work hard and are fiercely dedicated to what they do. We should all be enormously grateful that they have transformed New Zealand from the dull, stodgy, meat-and-three-veges culture that I knew when I was growing up.
So what’s the problem? Why am I strangely relieved that consignments of wine no longer turn up on my doorstep from companies hoping for a favourable review, and that I no longer get paid to dine at some of the country’s best restaurants?

Here’s why: in the end, I was repelled by all the hype.
At some indeterminable point during the past decade, the business of wine and food moved beyond the simple appreciation of eating and drinking. It morphed into something approaching a cult.

Glossy food and wine magazines proliferated beyond reason. In some metropolitan newspapers, space previously devoted to issues of public importance was taken over by café reviews and articles about the food fad du jour.
Chefs, winemakers and even baristas became celebrities, lionised like pop stars. Entire display stands in bookshops were devoted to expensive recipe books, their creators posing on the covers like kitchen gods.

The language of food and wine became progressively more preposterous. Wine critics not only discovered that they could get away with laughably pretentious writing, but that it resulted in them being even more revered.
Restaurant menus began to look as if composed by graduates of creative writing schools. The concept of simple things done well seemed to be abandoned as restaurants competed to create ever more exotic combinations. Some worked, many didn’t.

Perhaps worst of all, it got to the point where you couldn’t turn on the television without being confronted by food shows.
At the innocuous end of the spectrum these were honest, simple programmes that often told you something about the culture of a place as well as its cuisine. I quite enjoyed the River Cottage series, for example, and the food-inspired travelogues of Rick Stein.

But then television also gave us excrescences like Gordon Ramsay (I momentarily forgot his name while writing this, so typed “foul-mouthed chef” into Google and there it was) and a serious of contrived, so-called “reality” food shows – a misleading term if ever there was one – in which the primary object seemed to be the humiliation of the contestants.
The latest example of food and drink faddism is the fascination with craft beer. I rejoice in the range of beer now available to consumers, thanks to a new generation of creative independent brewers. But the earnest, bearded cultists who gather at craft beer festivals strike me as only slightly less tragic than men who spend their weekends playing with model planes and boats.

Someone coined the clever term “food porn” to describe the obsession with food and wine and the preponderance of TV shows, magazines and books devoted to the subject. Just as the porn industry does its best to strip sex of its eroticism and mystique (has there ever been a sexy porn movie?), so the simple pleasure of eating and drinking has been contaminated by crass hucksterism. 
How did this come about? Some of the blame must fall on those old culprits, the vulgarians who work in marketing and public relations. Relentlessly talking up anything with a dollar in it is what they do.

I began to lose interest in writing about wine when I sensed that wine companies were increasingly being taken over by aggressive young marketing types who might as well have been promoting Coke, for all they cared or knew about wine, and that the labels they kept pushing forward were not ones that ordinary people could afford to drink.
But marketing and PR spruikers can succeed only if there is a responsive market, and a new type of consumer – affluent, acutely attuned to the trend of the moment and terrified of missing out on whatever’s new – provides it. And I’m not just talking about the impressionable young, because many of the most hopeless food faddists are baby-boomers like me.

We can only hope this is merely an awkward growing phase that an inchoate consumerist society must go through en route to social maturity. And that in due course we will rediscover the simple pleasure of mince on toast.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Deetch" or "dutch"? Both are capable of being made to sound absurd

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 17.)
YEARS AGO, while on a government-sponsored visit to Germany,  I noticed my official guide smirking as he eavesdropped on the conversation of some of our fellow passengers on a train trip between Karlsruhe and Berlin.

He later explained that the group’s accent identified them as coming from a provincial region in the north of Germany. A resident of sophisticated Bonn himself, he clearly regarded them as yokels. His contempt couldn’t have been more obvious.

It lodged in my memory not just as extraordinarily unprofessional, coming from someone employed to promote a newly-unified Germany, but as a striking lesson in how human beings put others down purely because of the way they speak.

Mocking other people’s accents is an age-old way of asserting cultural and social superiority. 

It’s also one of the easiest ways in which to poke fun at other nationalities - a fact cleverly exploited by the scriptwriters of TV comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and ’Allo ’Allo!, in which the Germans and French were mercilessly caricatured on the basis of their accents.

Fifty years ago, Peter Sellers sold lots of records with his wickedly clever impersonation of Indians. Would he get away with it today? Probably not. Cultural sensitivity would rule it out. Yet some accents are still considered fair game - including our own.

On the American talk show Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver had great fun recently with a New Zealand television news clip about the fuss over the National Party’s alleged plagiarising of a track by rapper Eminem in its election advertising.

Two aspects appealed to Oliver. The first was National campaign manager Steven Joyce’s reaction when journalists asked him whether National had obtained copyright clearance to use the Eminem song.

Joyce’s reply - "We think it’s, um, pretty legal”  - amused Oliver, who suggested the politician would make an entertaining defence lawyer.

But what also attracted Oliver’s attention, perhaps inevitably, was the accent of the New Zealand television reporter featured in the clip. Her pronunciation of “Eminem”, in particular, so amused him that he attempted his own imitation – not once but twice, to the great mirth of his audience.

Fair enough; I cringe too at the pronunciation of television journalists. Some give the impression they’re on a mission to destroy every trace of euphony in the English language.

This particular reporter’s pinched pronunciation of the vowels in “Eminem” was enough to make even me wince, and I’m a New Zealander.

But then, with accents, who’s to say that one is worse than another? All accents are capable of being made to sound ridiculous.

Several years ago, simple-minded Australians (no jokes about tautology, please) hooted with delight at the famous “Beached Az, Bro” video – an Australian-made cartoon in which a beached whale with a Kiwi accent declined an offer of a potato chup because he could only eat plinkton.

It wasn’t terribly clever, but it played to the widespread perception among Australians that New Zealand is a slightly more backward version of Tasmania.

Even an intelligent magazine like the Spectator Australia can’t resist having a dig. In an editorial devoted to National’s election victory a couple of weeks ago, it referred to events across the “dutch”.

But really, can anyone say the New Zealand accent is intrinsically more absurd than one that pronounces chips as cheeps, kiwi as koy-woy, pool as pewel and today as to die? Or, for that matter, ditch as deetch?

I suppose we just have to accept that New Zealand English can sound odd to other ears. What apparently doesn’t occur to most Australians, with their nationalistic braggadocio, is that their accent can sound pretty tortured too.

And what about the Brits? Once, travelling on a train in France, I spent several minutes trying to figure out the nationality of the young men who were sharing my compartment. It eventually dawned on me that they were from England and that the language they were speaking was nominally the same as mine.

No one from a country with Britain’s quaint assortment of impenetrable regional accents is in a position to poke fun at the way other people speak. At least a New Zealander from Kaitaia can understand one from Invercargill, which is not something that can be said for the British.

So perhaps people like Oliver should lay off the jokes about other cultures’ accents. It’s a cheap way of point-scoring, and it often says a lot more about the mocker than the mocked.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

George, George, what were you thinking?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 8.)
I’ve always rather liked George Clooney. I particularly enjoyed the films he made with the directors Joel and Ethan Coen, namely O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty.
Both movies bore the Coen brothers’ trademark storyline of greedy, evil or stupid people (sometimes all three) getting caught up in grotesquely complex events that spiral out of control, usually with disastrous and outrageously funny consequences.

Clooney seemed a natural fit with the Coen brothers’ darkly whimsical view of the world. What especially impressed me was that even with his matinee-idol looks, he was happy to play roles that required a degree of self-mockery. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously – a quality he shares with a similarly suave heart-throb from an earlier era, Cary Grant.
I was less impressed with the over-rated Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s directorial debut, in which he starred as a colleague of the legendary American broadcaster Edward R Murrow, and I probably should resent him for his involvement as producer of Argo, which wilfully misrepresented New Zealand’s role in a plot to spirit six American diplomats out of hostile Iran. 

But his best films have been brilliant and even his poorer ones are better than most, so he remained one of the few Hollywood stars I admired.
His efforts on behalf of war victims in Sudan seemed to mark him as a decent man, too – a genuine humanitarian, and blessedly free of the irritating sanctimony and self-promotion that has made U2’s Bono a figure of ridicule.

On top of all this, Clooney seemed endearingly immune to the hype, humbug and glitz customarily associated with big box-office names. Still more reason to like him.
That is, until last week. Then he blew it.

Clooney could have got married quietly and discreetly. Instead, his wedding was the centre of a media event that was extravagant even by Hollywood standards.
We can only conclude this was deliberate. Why else choose Venice as the venue?

It’s hard to imagine any city in the world where there would be less prospect of privacy. In Venice, people get around in open boats. This meant that virtually every move by Clooney and his bride, the Lebanese-born civil rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, would be witnessed and recorded by paparazzi and TV cameras.
Again, we can only assume it was orchestrated with this intent. The media seemed to have been advised in advance of the wedding party’s movements so that they could be on hand to capture every moment.

Certainly Clooney seemed to revel in the attention, beaming and waving like a monarch acknowledging the adoration of his subjects. Not for him the raised hand to fend off prying lenses or the phalanx of bodyguards to keep the press at bay, as we’ve come to expect of celebrity weddings.
On the contrary, there seemed an inordinate amount of very public cruising back and forth on the canals in the company of his illustrious guests, the purpose of which was presumably to ensure maximum exposure.

George, George, what were you thinking?
Journalists, clearly so mesmerised by the glamour of the occasion that they momentarily took leave of their professional scepticism, wittered on about the prospect of Clooney’s female fans worldwide being plunged into despair at the sight of the man they called the world’s most desirable bachelor giving his heart to someone else.

In fact a more probable consequence was that many people who had previously respected Clooney as an intelligent and sensible man, with an admirable disregard for the usual excesses of Hollywood stardom, would be wondering how he could have let them down so badly. Or perhaps, like me, they were quietly rebuking themselves for having so naively misread him.

Several questions arise from the extravaganza in Venice. The first and most obvious is why so many stars feel an apparent compulsion to live their lives so publicly. Is it because they depend on the constant affirmation of the crowd? Does stardom get inside their heads to the point where public adulation eventually becomes the only way they can measure their worth?
Another is why celebrities appear to crave the company of other celebrities. Is this another form of validation for insecure egos? (Matt Damon, Bono, Cindy Crawford and Bill Murray are at my wedding – ergo, I must be up there in the celebrity stratosphere.) Did they have a life, friends, before they became stars?

But perhaps the most perplexing question of all relates to our own fascination with the cult of stardom, without which the Clooney-Alamuddin wedding would have been ignored.
After all, what are actors? They are people who are famous for pretending to be someone else.

We wrongly attribute to them the characteristics of the fictional characters they play. The extent to which we worship them hinges on how convincingly they pull off this feat. Our interest in them is as illogical as our fascination with royalty, whose mass appeal is derived from accidents of birth.
So we’re the suckers, and Clooney is simply taking advantage of our gullibility. But I can’t help liking him less as a result.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Deceived and demoralised

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 3.)
I WONDER, was this the most demoralising election result ever for the New Zealand left?
There was an excited buzz in the left-wing blogosphere and in social media in the weeks leading up to the election. There seemed to be a sense that victory was in their grasp, even when the polls suggested otherwise. But they were cruelly deceived.

Their optimism is easily explained. In the early stages of the campaign, they saw the fallout from Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics dominating the news bulletins night after night.
After that firestorm had abated, the media turned its attention to Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth, with its dazzling line-up of high-profile journalists and leakers from overseas, all eager to tell us how morally bankrupt our government was.

Those on the left observed the adulation heaped on Hager, who was lionised at speaking engagements. They thrilled at the big turnouts attracted by Dotcom and his incongruous handmaiden, Laila Harré. And they deduced from all this that an unstoppable momentum was building, the inevitable result of which would be the unceremonious dispatch of the Key government.
They were wrong. It was a massive indulgence in wishful thinking, and it must have made the left’s defeat even more crushing psychologically.

How could they have been so misled? That’s easy to explain too.
Consider the enthusiastic capacity crowd at Dotcom’s Moment of Truth event and the full halls he addressed on his barnstorming campaign through the country. The left interpreted this as evidence of an irresistible groundswell of discontent, when it was nothing of the sort.

Someone as novel and entertaining as Dotcom was bound to attract crowds, especially in provincial centres where not much happens. In any case, there are always enough true believers to fill halls and give the impression something big is afoot.
Alas, it was all an illusion. The great mass of New Zealanders, the Joe Average types who determine election results, were unmoved.  They watched the overheated news coverage on television, read the headlines and marvelled at the unpleasantness of it all. Then, on September 20, they went into the ballot booths and voted National.

Now the left is in disarray, as is obvious from the painful recriminations within the Labour Party. David Cunliffe inevitably became the scapegoat for Labour’s humiliation even though he ran a tolerably good campaign.
Ironically, the controversy over Dirty Politics and allegations of illegal state surveillance, all of which should have been helpful to Labour, deprived Cunliffe of the opportunity to articulate the party’s policies on issues closer to the concerns of ordinary people.  

The question now is whether Labour can recover from its self-evisceration in time to mount a credible challenge in 2017. When a veteran loyalist like Sir Bob Harvey is questioning whether the party should do away with its traditional red and even consider changing its name, there’s clearly a deep identity crisis to be resolved.
Labour still hasn’t determined whether it’s a party of the blue-collar working class (think South Auckland) or of the university-educated, inner city-dwelling liberal left (think Mt Victoria).

The Greens are licking their wounds too. They worked hard to make themselves more palatable to the wider electorate. They mounted an effective campaign and seemed supremely confident that this would be their moment, but the voters had other ideas. The Greens’ message didn’t seem to resonate beyond their core supporters.
They too must now withdraw to figure out how it all went so wrong. Small wonder that we’ve heard barely a peep from them since election night.

Internet-Mana is deservedly history. Never has a new party made so much noise for so little reward.
Will Harré and John Minto get the message and ride off into the sunset? Somehow I doubt it. Zealots don’t give up easily; they are sustained by an overwhelming sense of righteousness and rationalise defeat by convincing themselves that their fellow citizens are either suckers or knaves.

The net effect of the election result is that the New Zealand left must contemplate the unpalatable possibility that it is now irrelevant. The noisy activists and ideologues who used up much of the oxygen during the election campaign have been exposed as hopelessly out of touch with the reality of most New Zealanders’ lives.
They will of course continue shouting in their own echo chamber. That’s what they do. But after the drubbing of September 20, it will be a long time before they convince anyone that they have a message worth listening to.

Friday, September 26, 2014

This was not in the Left's script

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 24.)]
What an extraordinary election campaign. And what an extraordinary result.
I am writing this column on the morning after. By the time it’s published, most of the dust will have settled. But even at the time of writing, I think some firm conclusions can be drawn

Obviously the result can be seen as an endorsement of the National-led government. But for me the really significant point was that voters overwhelmingly repudiated concerted efforts by outsiders to sway the outcome.
New Zealanders were emphatically saying this was their election and they weren’t going to have it hijacked by agenda-driven activists, some of them with no stake in the country.

By outsiders I don’t just mean literal outsiders such as Kim Dotcom, the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the security leaker Edward Snowden. I include anyone trying to exert influence from the sidelines.
That means Nicky Hager, whose book Dirty Politics was obviously timed to derail National’s election campaign. It’s not that Hager was wrong to expose the unsavoury goings-on detailed in his book. National deserved to be shamed and Hager was entitled to the scalp of cabinet minister Judith Collins.

But questions remain about his motive, his method and most of all his timing. It’s reasonable to ask whether he was just as guilty of trying to influence an election as the furtive National Party funders he exposed in his 2005 book The Hollow Men.
The media firestorm over Dirty Politics dominated the first weeks of the campaign. When that subsided, it was Dotcom’s turn. But the momentum of the campaign shifted noticeably after the German’s much-touted “Moment of Truth” event in the Auckland Town Hall.

Again, it was a carefully orchestrated attempt to sabotage National. All those high-profile speakers, parachuted in or beamed in by video link from their various boltholes; it all looked a bit too obvious.
It didn’t help that Dotcom failed to deliver on his promise to expose John Key as a liar, and even less that he then angrily turned on journalists when they challenged him. Suddenly the public saw the less benign side of the fun-loving German.

No one can say with absolute certainty why people vote the way they do, but as the campaign went into its final days I sensed a stiffening public resistance to all these finger-wagging interlopers telling us how rotten our government was.
If I’m right, it’s highly ironic that it was the Left, not the Right, that was damaged.  Labour’s support collapsed and the Greens fell far short of the ambitious goal they had set themselves.

This was the law of unintended consequences kicking in big-time. It was not the outcome that the Left had scripted for itself.
Interviewed on Sunday morning, Labour leader David Cunliffe said the firestorms over Dirty Politics and state surveillance had sucked up all the oxygen in the campaign, leaving little opportunity for voters to consider policy issues.

I’m sure he’s right. The issues that the Left had been pushing, such as child poverty and the inequality gap, hardly got a look in.
The biggest irony of all, of course, is that Dotcom’s own party was humiliatingly wiped out, taking with it three-term MP Hone Harawira.

Both men will have learned a lesson. Dotcom will have learned that New Zealanders resent big-spending outsiders throwing their weight and money around (he acknowledged, to his credit, that his influence had poisoned the Mana Party), and Harawira will have learned about the dangers of Faustian pacts.
He was seen as compromising his principles, and his people punished him for it.

I felt a bit sorry for Colin Craig, who was thwarted by the vagaries of a flawed electoral system. The cheerleaders for MMP frequently remind us of the failings of the old first-past-the-post system, but they can’t ignore the shortcomings of one that denies a seat to a party that commanded more than four percent of votes while giving two to parties with less than one per cent support.
You have to wonder, too, whether distrust of MMP explains the marked falloff in voter participation since it was introduced. Voters are cynical about MMP because they realise that the system puts more power, not less, in the hands of the politicians. That was not the promise when it was introduced.

I almost felt sorry for Cunliffe too. He was more convincing by the end of the campaign than he was at the beginning – but given the history of leaders who lose elections, it’s unlikely he’ll get another shot.
What Labour must do now, urgently, is rejuvenate. Too many of its list MPs in the last term looked as if they were merely keeping their seats warm.

The need for a vigorous opposition is never greater than when a government has convincingly won a third term and risks becoming arrogant and complacent. Democracy prevailed on Saturday, but the concern now is whether it will be up to the job of holding the government to account over the next three years.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Key's enemies may have overcooked things

(First published in The Dominion Post and The Press, September 19.)
WHAT A CAMPAIGN. Its most striking feature, apart from the unprecedented viciousness on the fringes, has been the attempt by agenda-driven activists – some of them high-profile outsiders – to influence the outcome.
This may ultimately count in John Key’s favour. His enemies may have overcooked things.

Voters could well look at the role played by external agents five days out from the election and decide it looks too much like a concerted effort to hijack their democracy.
Certainly Kim Dotcom has burned up whatever political capital he acquired as a result of the ridiculous police raid on his home. New Zealanders are over him.

Voters may also feel that the barrage of savage denunciation aimed at Key during the past few weeks went beyond the bounds of fairness. Whether he deserves their sympathy is another matter, since there is ample evidence that he hasn’t been straight with voters. 
The public may also have wondered at the remarkable number of recent events – protest marches by Women’s Refuge activists, highly political Nigel Latta television documentaries, alarm-laden reports on child poverty, teachers’ union attacks on charter schools – that showed the government in a bad light.

That this crescendo of outrage came immediately before an election is, of course, entirely coincidental.
A few other observations:

■ Claims of media bias have been flying from both sides of politics – not from the politicians themselves, who know better, but from their overheated supporters. As usual, the accusations largely cancel each other out.
The one area where the media left itself exposed to criticism was in its generally uncritical acceptance of Nicky Hager’s cloak of moral purity. Hager has yet to explain why it’s okay for him to use stolen emails while he simultaneously condemns state intelligence-gathering.

The obvious conclusion is that the Left reserves for itself the right to decide when illegal acts are permissible because of their high moral purpose. Call it the Waihopai Three Syndrome.
The canonisation of Hager aside, the worst the media could be accused of was getting over-excited. Journalists thrive on drama and conflict, and no election campaign has delivered more than this one.

■ Winston Peters is again under fire for refusing to disclose which of the major parties New Zealand First is likely go with.
But even if he did reveal his intentions, there’s no guarantee he would stick with them. In 1996 he appeared happy for everyone to believe he would support Labour, then went the other way – after first keeping the country guessing for weeks.

If he really wanted to convince us of his integrity, the obvious course would be to guarantee support for whichever party wins the most votes. What could be more democratic than that? But that would deny him the pleasure of playing games and indulging in indignant bluster, which is what he does best.
■ Watching party leaders making their pitches at a pre-election conference organised by BusinessNZ, it was clear that the most philosophically coherent parties – perhaps the only philosophically coherent parties – are two from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: ACT and the Greens.

All the others – with the exception of Internet-Mana, which is the political equivalent of a pantomime horse – are scrambling for the middle ground.  
Thomas Pippos, chief executive of conference co-sponsors Deloitte, made the point that policy differences between the centre-Right and centre-Left are slight in the context of the overall regulatory framework. The two major parties, in other words, are noisily squabbling over a small patch of turf.

One of the most impressive performers at the BusinessNZ event, incidentally, was Greens co-leader Russel Norman. He was polished, articulate and in command of the policy issues.
In his stylish suit and tie, Norman looks almost mainstream. He personifies the transformation of the Greens from the flaky days of hand-knitted jerseys and dreadlocks.  

■ Will this election be ACT’s last hurrah? At its peak the party had nine MPs and provided a credible voice for what is often pejoratively referred to as neoliberalism.
Jamie Whyte has made an heroic attempt to resuscitate ACT after the dire John Banks era, but he’s too cerebral to connect with voters. His other-worldly quality was cruelly exposed when he had to admit he hadn’t heard of Whanau Ora.

A strong ACT lineup in Parliament would provide a counter-balance to the Greens on the left of Labour and stiffen National’s spine, but it’s hard to escape the feeling the party has done its dash.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Politics isn't all dirt, even if it sometimes looks that way

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 10.)
Don’t despair. Things are not as bad as they seem. At least that’s the optimistic message I’ve taken from all the unedifying political argy-bargy of the past few weeks.
It’s easy to think the worst, mind you. First, there was the YouTube video of Christchurch students moronically chanting “F… John Key”. That was a low in New Zealand politics, but it took only a couple of weeks to be surpassed in loathsomeness by a “song” – I use that word in the loosest possible sense – in which a semi-literate swamp-dweller snarled that he wanted to kill John Key and f … his daughter.

How the group that made it avoided prosecution is a mystery, especially when the Electoral Commission had previously huffed and puffed mightily over a clever and essentially harmless musical video called Planet Key.
One was a sophisticated, legitimate piece of political satire, the other a primitive, malevolent rant (the creator of which subsequently claimed, in a display of mock ingenuousness that would have fooled no one, that he was merely trying to encourage young people to vote).

Then there was Nicky Hager’s book  Dirty Politics, which – at the risk of sounding melodramatic – was like shining a torch into a dark political backroom, the existence of which was previously unknown,  and seeing rats scurrying around trying to escape the light.

Democracy depends on accountability, but the people whose machinations Hager exposed were neither elected nor accountable. Democracy also depends on transparency, but their attempts to subvert the political process relied on concealment. We are better off now that they are out in the open.
Much the same can be said about Judith Collins’ resignation as minister of justice, which had a cleansing effect. Collins denies the claims against her and deserves a chance to clear her name, but the trail of allegations against her meant she had become tainted goods. She had to go.

What about Hager himself, then? Yes, he performed a public service by exposing what needed to be exposed. But he remains open to the accusation that he is himself, ironically, part of the dirty politics that he professes to despise.
He is not an impartial journalist sifting objectively through all the evidence and weighing all the facts. He is a highly partisan, agenda-driven campaigner who used stolen emails and apparently made no attempt either to corroborate his material or allow the people he accused to respond, as a journalist would.

It’s surely significant that even after all the furore of the past few weeks, public support for Key and his government, as measured by the opinion polls, appears to have barely moved.
That suggests the public, after weighing everything up, has largely discounted Hager’s claims. They will have noted the strategic timing of the book launch and possibly regard Dirty Politics as itself a bit dirty, notwithstanding all the claims about the purity of the author’s motives.

That’s one of the great things about an informed, open democracy. It has a remarkable way of enabling people to see past the smoke, flames and noise and eventually find their way to the right conclusion.
I always remember Mike Moore’s philosophical response when the Labour government of which he was briefly the leader was thrown out of office in 1990. “The people are always right,” he said.

He was saying that in a democracy, you can’t argue with the result of a free and fair election. But what he said was also correct in a broader sense: an informed electorate is capable of making wise decisions.
That’s one of the reasons I remain hopeful. But there’s another factor too.

It’s agreed by everyone that this has been an unusually vicious election campaign. But the important thing is that the worst of the nastiness is on the fringes of politics, among noisy and highly partisan activists on either side.
In the middle, where most New Zealanders dwell, life goes on. Politics isn’t everything. They tune out most of the unpleasantness.

Another thing that gives me heart is that when the firestorm over Dirty Politics was at its height, I watched rival politicians debating on television. On one programme, Education Minister Hekia Parata was in the studio with Labour’s Chris Hipkins. On another, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was up against her Labour counterpart, Jacinda Ardern.
The striking thing about both these exchanges was that they were intelligent, respectful and civilised. It was good to be reminded that where it counts most, New Zealand politics isn’t so dire and soiled after all.