Thursday, April 24, 2014

The quest for a better life

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 23.)
In his recently published autobiography, Don Brash reflects on the contribution made to many Western countries by minority groups that had been forced to leave their homelands because of discrimination.
He theorises that people under pressure are driven to succeed. Brash specifically mentions Huguenots, Quakers and Jews.

This resonated with me. My forebears on my father’s side were Huguenots – Protestants who fled France in the late 17th century to escape persecution by the Catholic majority. They settled in tolerant Denmark, from where my grandfather emigrated to New Zealand in 1890.
Huguenots spread themselves around the world. They were among the earliest settlers in New York and also migrated in large numbers to the Cape of Good Hope – hence the frequency with which French surnames, such as du Plessis, de Villiers, Joubert and du Toit, occur in South Africa.

The Jewish diaspora, of course, is well known. Ashkenazi Jews, many of them driven out of central and eastern Europe by campaigns of harassment known as pogroms, have been hugely influential in business, science and the arts in the United States, in particular.
They have also punched well above their weight in New Zealand. One of our most energetic early premiers, Julius Vogel, was Jewish and Abraham Hort was a prominent figure in early Wellington. Woolf Fisher was a founder of Fisher and Paykel and Bendix Hallenstein established the retail chain that bears his name. In the brewing and retail industries, the Myers and Nathan families have been key players for generations.

Many New Zealand Jews were not only highly successful in business but were, and are, generous benefactors to the community. Whether this arises from a sense of gratitude to a country that offered them freedom from persecution, I couldn’t say.
But back to my own forebears. On my paternal grandmother’s side, I’m descended from Danes who left their homeland after the province of Schleswig, where they lived, was invaded by Prussia in 1864. The decisive battle of the Danish-Prussian war was fought around their farmhouse.

Rather than live under the rule of Germans who were bent on suppressing Danish language and culture, they emigrated in 1875 and settled in the Manawatu, where they prospered as farmers, timber millers and merchants.
My mother, meanwhile, came from an Irish Catholic background. Her forebears left Ireland in the 19th century for the same reason as millions of others: poverty, religious discrimination and subjection to British rule.

My wife’s family, too, came to New Zealand looking for a new life, free of the bitter experiences of the Old World.
Her Polish parents had been forcibly transported to Germany in 1944 and put to work in Nazi labour camps. They had witnessed indescribably shocking things and both lost their entire families.

When the war ended, Poland had effectively been taken over by Stalin’s Soviet Union and there was no point in returning. Some of their friends made the mistake of going back and were never heard from again.
Rendered stateless, my in-laws spent nearly 20 years looking for a country that would take them in. In the end it was New Zealand that welcomed them – this after friends had emigrated here and written to them saying what a wonderful place it was.

These family stories are probably not exceptional. We are a society of immigrants. The circumstances they left behind may have differed, but virtually everyone who came here – including, for all we know, the first Maori arrivals – was motivated by a desire for a better life.
It’s true of the Dalmatians who came here to dig kauri gum in the late 19th century, it’s true of the Pacific Islanders who came here to work in car assembly plants in the 1960s, and it’s true of everyone who arrived in between. Why else would people uproot themselves and risk an uncertain future in a strange land?

Perhaps not all of them had experienced the acute pressure that Don Brash refers to in his book – the type that threatens people’s very identity and existence; but I believe they all came here determined to construct a better society than the ones they had left behind. And they probably included a disproportionate share of determined and aspirational people – risk-takers who were not prepared to go on living in unsatisfactory circumstances.
I think that helps explain the sort of society we have become. By world standards we are a liberal, tolerant and even idealistic society. That was confirmed in the recent international Social Progress Index which ranked New Zealand No 1 in the world – and most significantly, scored us highest on freedom, tolerance and inclusiveness.

We have not only left behind poverty, repression and lack of opportunity. Crucially, we seem also to have left behind old feuds and rivalries.
To backtrack momentarily, my wife’s family, although Catholic (like most Poles), was sponsored on arrival in New Zealand by a Methodist community in Palmerston North, which found them a house and helped them settle in. Even in the 1960s, when religious differences were far more pronounced than they are now, this seemed to signal that New Zealand was able to rise above petty sectarianism.

Mercifully, anti-semitism has never taken root here. It’s as if there’s an unstated understanding that the divisions of the Old World – whether it’s Jew versus Christian, Irish Catholic versus Irish Protestant, Croat versus Serb or whatever – have no place in the new one.
And long may it remain so. I reckon there should be an imaginary quarantine bin at airports where arriving immigrants discard old prejudices in the same way as they dispose of prohibited foodstuffs.

Of course we’re not perfect, as a contemptible Wellington footballer demonstrated recently when he made monkey noises at a rival player from Africa. But we should be proud that we’re an inclusive society, as has been shown by the way we’ve painlessly adapted to greatly increased inflows of Asian immigrants. We are now one of the world’s most cosmopolitan societies – a remarkable transformation that has been achieved with minimal fuss.
In an election year, when rival politicians will be doing their best to paint the blackest possible picture of their opponents, it does no harm to remind ourselves that this is actually the Most Civilised Little Country in the World.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The curious incident of the bird in the nighttime

I was watching the TV news last night when there was a loud bang from the adjoining dining room. It sounded like someone had thrown something hard against our French doors.
I went to investigate and there, just visible in the rapidly fading light, was a handsome morepork, flat on its back on our deck. It was a truly pathetic sight. Its legs were moving feebly but it appeared to be out cold and I wondered whether it had done its dash.

What do you do in these situations? I figured that the stress of being picked up and handled by a human being might only have hastened its demise. I convinced myself that the best course was to leave it in peace in the hope that it would recover of its own accord. Fortunately it wasn’t cold or wet outside.
While my wife kept an eye on it, I got on the phone to seek advice. My call to the Bird Rescue organisation in Auckland was diverted to the SPCA, where the call taker – obviously not an SPCA person, but someone merely manning the phones – said I’d have to contact my local branch. This I did, and got an after-hours cellphone number where there was no reply. I left a message.

Meanwhile things were happening on the deck. Somehow the poor bird had struggled to its feet. In the light of a torch (it was now completely dark) we could see it standing motionless, its head drooping forward. It looked desperately forlorn.
I went back to the computer and looked for advice on handling stunned birds. I quickly found what appeared to be an authoritative article from North America which said, essentially, that the first thing to do was ensure it was safe from predators such as cats. (This was my wife’s first thought anyway, which is why she stood vigil at the French doors.)

Beyond that, it suggested allowing time for the bird to recover on its own and if necessary, carefully picking it up, placing it in a box and leaving it in a safe place where its system could “reboot” (nice analogy).
By this time, probably half an hour had passed. Then a shout from the dining room announced that the bird had flown. Phew.

The incident left me pondering a couple of questions. The first was, why do moreporks seem so accident prone? I always assumed they were skilled night-time flyers, but I’ve already written here about the dead one we found tangled in the branches of our plum tree a couple of years ago. A man from DOC told me they sometimes get disoriented in stormy weather, but last night was calm. So why had one crashed headlong into the side of the house? It’s the sort of clumsiness you expect of kereru, not ruru.

The other thing I was left wondering was why we should be so moved by the fate of a mere bird. Nature kills creatures every day in all sorts of cruel ways. Having established what the noise was from the dining room, I could have rationalised that this was simply Darwinism in action and gone back to watching TV. But something caused my wife and I to fret about the morepork’s survival, and we were both hugely relieved when it appeared to recover.
Was it because a morepork, with its soft, mottled plumage, is a beautiful bird when you see one up close (a privilege we don't normally get)?  Was it because it’s a native bird, and therefore considered more precious than an introduced species? Was it because there’s something uniquely appealing about the call of the morepork in the nighttime, when everything else is silent?

Was it, in other words, mere dribbling sentiment? Intrinsically, a morepork’s life is no more special than that of a blackbird or a sparrow. Yet if a blackbird or a sparrow had knocked itself out on our deck, though I would have felt momentarily sorry, I would have been inclined to shrug my shoulders and leave it to its fate. What a capricious, emotional lot we human beings are.
Footnote: I’m pleased to say that someone from the Masterton SPCA returned our call soon after, and was as delighted as we were that the bird had flown.

Friday, April 11, 2014

We're ahead of the Aussies on this one

Australians are perplexed – and I suspect slightly miffed – that New Zealand is likely to beat them to a new flag.
Stone the crows, cobber, they complain. Aren’t they supposed to be the rebellious ones?

Australia, after all, is the country that gave us Ned Kelly, who embodied the spirit of anti-authoritarianism, and the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854, in which Victorian gold miners rose up against the British colonial government.  
New Zealanders, a much more genteel lot, have never displayed the same eagerness to cast off the shackles of British colonialism. Until relatively recently we were seen as a distant mirror image of the Mother Country, stolidly loyal to the Crown, whereas Australia from the very beginning was determined to forge its own identity. 

This can partly be attributed to the high proportion of Irish in Australia, a group not noted for their affection toward Britain. Former prime minister Bob Hawke reckoned Australia was the most Irish country in the world outside Ireland itself.
In the latter part of the 19th century, roughly one-third of the white Australian population was Irish. Peter Lalor, who led the Eureka rebels, was an Irishman, while Kelly was the son of an Irish convict who had been transported to Tasmania.

Perhaps due to the Irish influence, republicanism has always been a stronger political force in Australia than here, although Australians voted against becoming a republic by a comfortable margin (55-45) in a 1999 referendum.
Republicanism seems to be off the agenda there now – not surprisingly, since Liberal Party prime minister Tony Abbott is a former executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, which played a key role in the “no republic” campaign in 1999.

That aside, Australians still think of themselves as more overtly nationalistic than New Zealanders. Hence their bewilderment at the fact that we’re seriously considering dropping the Union Jack from our national flag – a proposal considered too radical for Australian politicians to contemplate, even those on the left.
Their puzzlement is compounded by the fact that the idea is being pushed here by an ostensibly centre-right prime minister, John Key.

In the Australian view of the world, this doesn’t make sense. As a conservative, Tony Abbott would no sooner drop the Union Jack from the Australian flag than pass a law allowing same-sex marriage. The same could have been said of his Liberal Party predecessor, the long-serving John Howard.
But right there you have a clue to the difference between the two countries, which many Australians fail to understand. Mr Key did pass a law allowing same-sex marriage – and in doing so, continued a tradition of supposedly conservative New Zealand governments refusing to conform to standard conservative dogma. His promotion of a new flag is entirely in line with that tradition.

Even someone as knowledgeable as the high-profile Canberra political commentator Michelle Grattan doesn’t grasp that we do things differently over here.  Grattan wrote a column on the proposed flag referendum in which she was plainly surprised that a centre-right New Zealand government would do something no centre-right Australian government would contemplate.
But it’s nothing new. New Zealand governments march to a drumbeat which is often out of synch with conservative agendas elsewhere.

In the 1960s, National prime minister Keith Holyoake resisted American pressure to commit more New Zealand troops to the Vietnam War. New Zealand made only a modest contribution to the war effort; enough to show that we supported the Americans in principle, but no more.
Australia, in contrast, succumbed to American browbeating, even sending conscripts to fight. Prime Minister Harold Holt became famous for his craven commitment to go “all the way with LBJ” (American president Lyndon Baines Johnson).

The Australian commitment in Vietnam continued a pattern of close co-operation with America that dated back to World War Two. New Zealand, on the other hand, has increasingly shown a tendency to chart its own course, under National governments as well as Labour, and particularly since Britain abandoned us for Europe in 1973.
In the 1990s, National under Jim Bolger signed up to the former Labour government’s nuclear-free policy, although it had caused a deep rift with both Australia and the United States and continued to be an irritant in our relationships with Canberra and Washington.

Bolger also tried, without success, to promote republicanism – another initiative that must have confounded Australian observers who associated republicanism with the left. I suspect his republican sentiments had something to do with the fact that he was the son of Irish immigrants.
It was under Bolger, too, that National initiated a programme of Treaty settlements, which may have been another manifestation of his Irish sympathy for the victims of colonialism. Again, it was a policy that ran counter to expectations from a supposedly conservative government.

What it all adds up to is that centre-right governments in New Zealand don’t always conform to conservative norms. They are essentially pragmatic; they know they must capture the centre ground to stay in power and are prepared to compromise conservative principles (and even jettison them altogether, as in the case of same-sex marriage) if that’s what it takes.
It might not conform to other people’s expectations of us, but that’s the way we are.

For me, there is a sense of satisfaction in getting the jump on the Australians over the flag issue.
Our neighbours have an unfortunate habit of treating us condescendingly. As far as most Australians are concerned, New Zealand might as well not exist, other than as an object of disparaging jokes about sheep and fush ’n’ chups. So it startles them when we do something that many of them probably envy us for.

But the government’s proposal to push ahead with the flag referendum is consistent with the way we conduct our affairs in other spheres, where we often demonstrate a more independent spirit than they do (for example, by refusing to go to war in Iraq, and by limiting our contribution to the Afghanistan war – an echo of Vietnam).
Let me make a prediction, though. If we decide to adopt a new flag, whatever the design, the snorts of derision from Australia will be long and loud. But underneath the bluster, they’ll probably be wishing they’d done it first.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Masterton you don't read about

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 4.)
SIGH. It’s happened again. Masterton has been back in the news, and for all the wrong reasons.
The town where I live is also home to the four people found guilty last week of bashing Featherston supermarket worker Glen Jones to death, supposedly in revenge for an alleged rape.

It’s also where police raided three properties a few days ago in a crackdown on cannabis and methamphetamine. Among the seizures was a loaded sawnoff shotgun.
I could imagine people reading those newspaper stories and nodding as if to say, “There you go – Masterton again.”

Masterton people are accustomed to a bad press. I call it a decile 1 to 10 town. Sociologically speaking, there’s a bit of everything here, from the genteel rich to a few families with multigenerational problems of violence, drugs, alcohol and welfare dependency.
Inevitably it’s the bad stuff that gets reported. News, by definition, is anything out of the ordinary, and what’s out of the ordinary is often bad: crime, car crashes, death and general unpleasantness. Ordinary people leading good lives – bringing up happy kids, supporting community organisations, doing useful work, playing sport, paying the bills – are not newsworthy.

The Masterton of the negative headlines is not the Masterton I have come to know. It’s not a town of lowlifes and no-hopers, though of course it has its share. The Masterton I know is a town full of good people.
It’s the town where the family that won $37 million in Lotto in 2009 has donated more than $1.5 million to the Wairarapa ambulance service.

It’s the town where, according to the nurse who took my blood recently, the Blood Service gets more donors than anywhere else in the Wellington region.
It’s the sort of town where, when someone gets cancer, her friends quickly rally round and organise a roster to drive her to Palmerston North Hospital each day for treatment.

And here’s another thing. Masterton actually doesn’t feel like Detroit or Juarez. By that I mean you don’t feel you’re taking your life in your hands walking down the street.
In more than 10 years here, we have been the victims of only one crime. Someone – I suspect kids – took advantage of an insecure shed to reach inside and steal a fishing rod. I hope they have better luck with it than I had.

My wife and I have now lived here longer than in any other locality. Our habit of moving house every few years used to be a standing joke among our friends, but Masterton has cured us of our peripatetic urges. That speaks for itself.
* * *

IN A PREVIOUS life I once interviewed the great British actor Donald Pleasence. We talked about eyes.
His own eyes were his most striking feature. They were a pale, steely, penetrating blue that could give him a quite menacing aura.  But Pleasence – a friendly, obliging man off-screen – reckoned the eyes by themselves communicated nothing. He insisted it was the accompanying facial expressions that conveyed meaning.

I had trouble accepting this, and still do. I was inclined to believe, as Shakespeare said, that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been watching Kim Dotcom on television, and Dotcom strikes me as contradicting the Pleasence hypothesis. Even when the Internet Party founder’s face is smiling, his eyes seem to express distrust, suspicion and hostility.

They invite suspicion and distrust in return. I’ve decided I’m with Shakespeare on this one.

* * *

PERHAPS the least surprising news so far this year was that Hutt City Council officials are excited about the prospect of a new sports stadium at Petone.
Of course they are. Municipal functionaries are always keen to talk up any proposal that promises glamour and excitement, particularly in towns that conspicuously lack it.

Besides, it’s easy to get excited when it’s other people’s money that’s at risk.
Invariably, when such projects are proposed, council bureaucrats flourish glowing economic reports from obliging consultants.  But just watch the bureaucrats and the consultants go to ground when the stadium turns out to be a dog.

For a cautionary tale, Hutt ratepayers need only look to Dunedin, where projections for the Forsyth Barr Stadium turned out to be grossly over-optimistic.
That city is now lumbered with a facility that cost a lot more than expected and has failed to deliver the promised returns. It’s massively indebted and running at a loss. Isn’t that always the way?

The proposal for a 12,000-seat stadium at Petone strikes me as particularly misguided. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem – namely, the embarrassment of the Wellington Phoenix at having to perform in an almost empty Westpac Stadium. But who’s to say the Phoenix will even exist in five years?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Professor Misery-Guts

How the left hate it when international surveys show New Zealand doing well. It undercuts their basic thesis that the country desperately needs rescuing from the clutches of cold-hearted capitalists.
Professor Marilyn Waring, who gives the impression of being a career misery-guts, went to great lengths on Morning Report this morning to pour scorn on an international index that rated New Zealand No. 1 in the world for social progress.

Waring, who teaches social policy at the Auckland University of Technology, wasn’t terribly clear about what she didn’t like about the Social Progress Index. Academics often have difficulty expressing themselves plainly. But she was certainly keen to talk it down.
I think most New Zealanders are smart enough to understand that international rankings are not foolproof. However they are a useful guide to where we stand, and this index – pioneered by Harvard University business professor Michael Porter – seems a genuine attempt to measure countries’ wellbeing in a more holistic way than by simply looking at gross domestic product.

That wasn’t good enough for Waring, although she could only resort to waffle when interviewer Susie Ferguson attempted to establish exactly what it was that she objected to, or how countries’ wellbeing could be more accurately measured.
I suspect the basic problem is that academics like Waring spend much of their time sounding off about all the things that are wrong about New Zealand, and it’s a huge inconvenience when a reputable research project confirms that in fact we’re blessed to live in one of the world’s freest and fairest societies.