Friday, August 29, 2014

I wrote a book about wine, so I must be a drunk; or at least a paid shill for the liquor czars

I’ve been meaning to revisit the subject of my column in last week’s Dominion Post, which was reproduced here. It was about Nigel Latta’s TV documentary on alcohol and it prompted a prickly response from him on his Facebook page.
Latta accused me of resorting to name-calling and said I ignored the science that shows the harm done by alcohol. Obviously he felt I should have showed more deference towards the worthy professors he interviewed on the programme, whose statements he appeared to accept without question (in marked contrast to the open scepticism he displayed with the one liquor industry representative who appeared).

Actually, I’ve never denied that alcohol causes harm. It would be pointless to try. All I have done, consistently, is point out that the majority of New Zealand drinkers consume alcohol responsibly and without doing themselves or those around them any harm, and that they would be unfairly penalised if the anti-liquor crusaders, with their demands for swingeing restrictions, got their way.
We didn’t hear from, or about, these responsible drinkers. You never do from people like professors Doug Sellman and Sally Casswell. That was the main point of my column – one that Latta didn’t answer.

As for science – well, it’s all about which statistics you choose to cite. The academics who appeared in Latta’s programme are highly selective about which statistics they present. They highlight dodgy figures that purport to show how many of us are “problem” drinkers and studiously ignore all the evidence that shows consumption is declining and that, in any case, New Zealanders are moderate drinkers by world standards. None of this was mentioned in Latta’s relentlessly alarmist documentary.
Ultimately, the case against alcohol as articulated by Sellman, Casswell and Co. has more to do with ideology than science. They use their taxpayer-funded posts in academia to push for laws that would restrict the freedom and choices of the mugs who pay their salaries.

I was going to put this response on Latta’s Facebook page, but when I saw the tone of the comments from his legion of doting supporters, I realised I’d be wasting my time (he got 3,302 “likes”). So I made do with a brief statement pointing out that when someone puts himself forward in prime time on a publicly owned television channel, and takes highly contestable positions on contentious issues, he becomes fair game for criticism.
It’s possible this is a new experience for Latta, since his parenting programmes were very popular. (My own wife and daughter were fans.) But he’d better get used to it.

I also pointed out that $750,000 of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the current series of six programmes made by Latta. There’s a very important question to be asked here: is it right that public money is used to fund a series of highly politicised documentaries on controversial social issues, and even more provocatively to screen them immediately before an election?  
It’s not the subject matter of the programmes that I object to, nor even the fact that they put forward views I heartily disagree with. What’s intolerable is that publicly funded “factual” programmes are so relentlessly partisan, with no attempt at balance. (I admit I saw only two of them, on alcohol and inequality, but both adopted simplistic, partisan positions on complex, politically sensitive issues. People who have seen other programmes in the series came to much the same conclusion.)

Before I leave this subject, I feel compelled to refer to some of the comments made on Facebook by Latta’s fans. I think they show the futility of trying to engage in any sort of useful dialogue.
● Someone wrote that if the Dominion Post endorsed my column then perhaps it was time the paper reviewed its editorial policy. What you have here, then, is lamentable ignorance combined with intolerance of dissent  – a lethal mix. (A New Zealand Party voter, perhaps?) That got 111 “likes”.

● Another commenter said that if I had to spend one weekend in an emergency ward, I’d soon change my tune. (There were several comments along similar lines.) This is a glorious non-sequitur. So because some people behave foolishly or badly when they drink, as they unquestionably do (and probably would even if alcohol was made harder to get), the rest of us must be penalised?
● Someone else said I’m a global warming denier – ergo, a heretic. Gasp. What a shame they no longer burn people at the stake. (For the record, I’ve never “denied” global warming; I’m in no position to. But I am a sceptic, because people who know a lot more about climate science than I do keep coming up with good reasons to be sceptical.)

● Someone triumphantly pounced on the fact that several years ago I wrote a book about wine. Ah, a smoking gun! Clearly, I’m just another shill for the unscrupulous booze barons Latta talked about. (Inconvenient fact: hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders drink wine regularly without ending up in police cells or emergency wards. Who’d have thought?)
● In response to this highly incriminating disclosure, someone else wrote: “Haha awesome, Karl is a drunk then. That’s why he didn’t like the programme.” And later, from another commenter: “Forgive him, he was probably rotten drunk when he wrote it.” Latta must be proud to have such sophisticated followers. (For the record again, I have four adult children. They have never seen me drunk.)

● It was pointed out that the academics on Latta’s programme all said they liked a drink themselves. I noted the same thing – they seemed to make a point of it. This is part of the cloak of piety they drape around themselves. It not only presents them as ordinary pleasure-loving Kiwis, but also demonstrates how grave the problem must be if they’re prepared to deny themselves the wicked pleasure of a cheap bottle of chardonnay from Pak ’n’ Save just to save the rest of us. It’s a variation of the old line from the parent or schoolteacher about to administer corporal punishment: “This hurts me as much it hurts you.”
There was much more in similar vein, but I didn’t go any further. Reading comments on Facebook takes through you a cycle of emotions from depression to hilarity to despair. Nigel’s welcome to them.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

If National loses, it knows where the blame lies

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 27.)

Are you disgusted by what’s going on in politics? I am. We all should be.
Everything about the Dirty Politics affair is reprehensible. Let’s start with Cameron Slater.

I fully understood the angry reaction to his headline “Feral dies in Greymouth, did world a favour” after a West Coast man was killed in a car that was allegedly trying to escape the police.
Slater wasn’t to know that the dead man’s family had already lost three other sons in accidents, including one in the Pike River explosion. But anyone with a modicum of sensitivity would have realised a family would be grieving. A cruel and gratuitous taunt wasn’t going to help.

Someone was supposedly so offended that they hacked into Slater’s emails. At least that’s the explanation put forward for the leaked material on which author Nicky Hager based his book Dirty Politics. So you could say it was poetic justice that the “feral” post has caused such discomfort for the government. (Less so for Slater himself, I suspect; I think part of him relishes the notoriety.)
Only thing is, I’m not sure I buy the explanation about how Hager came into possession of the emails, any more than I bought his claim years ago that several National Party sources independently and simultaneously supplied him with a wodge of emails relating to Don Brash’s meetings with the Exclusive Brethren.

National Party people, leaking to a known left-wing crusader at the expense of their own party? It seemed highly improbable then and it still seems improbable now.
What makes me suspicious is that whoever hacked Slater’s emails subsequently began drip-feeding them on Twitter in a carefully phased operation obviously calculated to cause maximum political damage. As TV3 political editor Patrick Gower pointed out, that required a high degree of political and media savvy.

Suspicion has fallen on Kim Dotcom (hardly surprising, given that he boasted at the weekend about hacking the German chancellor’s credit rating), but both Dotcom and Hager strenuously deny his involvement.
Whoever’s responsible, it began to look less like the work of someone who had spontaneously attacked Slater’s email account out of anger at the “feral” headline, and more like an example of the political “black ops” that Hager supposedly despises.

Hager’s role in the affair has largely escaped critical scrutiny. He has been a trenchant critic of clandestine surveillance of private communications in the past – indeed, wrote a book about it. Yet here he is, using stolen emails to write a book whose publication is timed to derail a party he obviously opposes.
He apparently made no effort to corroborate his information, as a responsible journalist would do, yet he insists on calling himself a journalist because it conveys the erroneous impression that he’s even-handed and has no political agenda.

In my opinion Hager’s double standard – one rule for intelligence agencies, another for him – is contemptible. Yet the media have largely allowed him to claim the moral high ground.
Ah yes, the media. To be fair, the press could hardly ignore Hager’s book. Reporters would have been remiss if they hadn’t asked hard questions of John Key, as Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner did on Morning Report. Key has rarely, if ever, sounded less comfortable.

But sometimes the media get so excited that the chase itself becomes the story. Even Fairfax political reporter Andrea Vance wondered on television at the weekend whether, in their frenzied pursuit of the Dirty Politics story, journalists had done the public a disservice by largely ignoring other important election issues.
What we don’t know (or didn’t at the time of writing) is whether the media firestorm has swung support away from the government or had any impact on the undecided voter. Many people quickly lose interest in what they regard as Beltway issues and tune out.

Finally, what about the government’s performance? That brings me back to the D-word.
As irritating as Hager’s sanctimony is, we are left with the disgusting reality that he has exposed government involvement in sleazy smear campaigns and machinations of a type that Richard Nixon would have approved. The political process, which has historically been remarkably clean in New Zealand, has been tainted.

Almost as objectionable was the prime minister’s dissembling and evasiveness as he tried unconvincingly, day after day, to defend his indefensible justice minister, whom he should have sacked at the outset, and his bland pretence that despite the billowing clouds of smoke, there was no fire.
Key is partly right when he says the election has been stolen from us, but he needs only to look over his shoulder to see the people responsible.

The irony is that two weeks ago, he had this election virtually in the bag. If National loses, it will have only its own hubris to blame.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Planet Tiso (continued)

Today I revisited Giovanni Tiso's series of  tweets last week about Jane Clifton's Listener column on Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics. Here are some of the words he used: "turgid", "shit", "supercilious", "cynical".

Clifton is a hugely experienced and well-informed observer of New Zealand politics. She's also astute, even-handed, eloquent and funny, which explains why tens of thousands of Listener readers turn to her every week to make sense of events that would otherwise leave them scratching their heads. I thought her column on the Dirty Politics furore was one of her best. But such judgments are subjective and Tiso is entitled to disagree, even if his language is intemperate.

Could his manic attack on Clifton (I counted 35 tweets over a short period, which sounds dangerously close to obsessional) be upheld as fair comment, then? Well, perhaps it could have been, except for a couple of things.

One is that he implies she's a sociopath. Tiso quotes a line from her column - "They are both advancing a political cause" (a reference to Hager and Cameron Slater) - and then adds: "And if you think that, you're a sociopath". I've read this several times and don't see how it can be construed as meaning anything other than that Clifton is a sociopath, which my dictionary defines as "someone affected by any of various personality disorders characterised by asocial or antisocial behaviour".

Okay, you could argue that in the Wild West of the twittersphere, even insults like "sociopath" are acceptable. I'm sure Tiso didn't mean it literally; he was indulging in hyperbole for rhetorical impact.

But hang on. What happened when I took a poke at Tiso in this blog, using a similar rhetorical device against him? (I said he shouldn't be allowed out in public without a minder, and suggested someone should adjust his medication.) He howled that I was being cruel - "vile" was his exact word - because he had a daughter with an intellectual disability, which he claimed (wrongly) I was aware of. Then he had the gall to whimper about people being unpleasant and indulging in ad hominem arguments.  Well, hello.

Let's get this straight then: it's okay for Tiso to call a respected columnist a sociopath because he doesn't like her take on the Dirty Politics affair, but it's mean and horrid to suggest that he might be a bit doolally himself. That's taking unfair advantage.

There's a term in boxing for people who love to throw punches but crumple when anyone hits back. They're called crystal chins. Tiso is a crystal chin.

But here's the other thing about him. It obviously eats him up that people like Clifton are allowed to express opinions that don't conform with his. The same zealous intolerance drove his successful campaign to have two RadioLive hosts taken off the air because they asked questions Tiso didn't like.

He was pleased with himself over that one. What could be more satisfying to a Marxist than having weak-kneed capitalists capitulate at the expense of free speech?

Perhaps he thought  he could pull it off again, because he was clearly pushing on Twitter at the weekend for the Listener - one of my sources of income as a freelance journalist - to punish me for hurting his feelings. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that I'm a free agent, and that this blog  has nothing to do with the work I do for the Listener

Keep it up, Gio. If you carry on like this I really will wonder whether you've got some sort of personality disorder.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rules of engagement

It's surely a sign of Giovanni Tiso's overweening self-regard that he assumes I remember every detail of his interview by Kim Hill earlier this year, in which reference was apparently made to his intellectually disabled daughter (see his comment in response to Planet Tiso on Friday). As it happens, I don't remember that detail - or much else from the interview, for that matter. Tiso's just not that interesting. I simply recall thinking that he sounded surprisingly normal. 

For the record, then, my comment about Tiso's medication had nothing whatsoever to do with his daughter. I feel very sorry for anyone with a disabled child. I'm not insensitive to mental disability or illness, as I think I've demonstrated in newspaper columns here and here. But if Tiso thinks he can dish out bile with impunity while  somehow being protected against retaliation because of his unfortunate personal circumstances, he's dreaming.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Nigel, meet Te Radar. I hope you get along.

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 22.)
Nigel Latta is one of those phenomena that happen when you’re not looking. One day, no one had heard of him; the next, it seemed you couldn’t turn on your TV set without seeing him.
His quirky method of presentation – walking backwards, making exaggerated gestures and pulling funny faces for the camera – obviously appealed to viewers. His shows on parenting not only rated well but spun off into live performances and national tours.

The clinical psychologist became a certified celebrity. Now he’s been further transmogrified into what is loosely termed a guru – no longer just an authority on parenting, but an oracle on the great issues of our time.
His latest series (curiously timed to coincide with the election campaign, as was Bryan Bruce’s overwrought 2011 documentary Inside Child Poverty) examines hot-button concerns such as inequality, education and alcohol.

I made a point of watching the programme about alcohol because it’s an issue on which New Zealanders have historically been subjected to misinformation and dishonest propaganda from both sides.
Was Latta going to present a clear-eyed, non-partisan perspective? The publicity blurb for the series led us to expect he would, promising that he would “sort fact from spin”.

In the event, he did nothing of the sort. The show turned out to be a wearily predictable litany of neo-wowser laments from the usual academic finger-waggers.
Professor Doug Sellman? Check. Professor Sally Casswell? Check. Professor Jennie Connor? Check. Dr Paul Quigley? Check. (Dr Quigley works in the emergency department at Wellington Hospital, which gives him an aura of coalface cred – but it also means that he sees the very worst side of alcohol abuse, so may not be the most objective judge.)

As the po-faced professors droned, the picture became ever gloomier. There’s no such thing as a safe level of consumption, we were told (that was Connor). Supermarkets are the country’s biggest drug dealers (Sellman). Alcohol is a neurotoxin that prevents us thinking logically. (I think that was Connor again; perhaps they edited out the important proviso that this happens only if you drink too much.)
And of course Latta parroted the hoary old canard that we’re at the mercy of shadowy liquor czars – foreign ones at that – who have our venal politicians in their pockets.

It was disappointing to see Sir Geoffrey Palmer buying into this doom-laden nonsense, but Palmer is a man whose earnest desire to do the right thing has taken him to some strange places. Perhaps he’s feeling guilty about having presided over the liberalisation of the liquor laws (which he no doubt thought was the right thing to do then) in 1989.
Between interview sequences, we were shown familiar stock footage of drunk teenagers in places like Courtenay Place, the implication being that they represent the typical New Zealand drinker. Latta seemed appalled that some kids had to pass liquor outlets on their way to school, as if such places emanated some sort of lethal miasma.

We met a woman who has terminal cancer at 32. She had been a drinker and now wished someone had told her that alcohol could cause cancer. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her? But to imply that her cancer must have been caused by drinking was disgraceful, even cruel.
If everyone who drank got cancer, most of us would have been dead years ago. It would have been more valid to talk to women in their 80s who have been moderate drinkers all their lives and remain healthy and mentally alert.

Latta claimed to have invited liquor industry interests to take part, but they declined. They should have accepted, because refusal made it look as if they had something to be ashamed of.
But perhaps they sensed the cards would be stacked against them. The one industry person who agreed to talk to Latta, a hapless spokeswoman for the industry-funded Tomorrow Project, was subjected to an aggressively sceptical line of questioning that was completely at variance with his sycophantic acceptance of the Sellman-Casswell-Connor propaganda.

Throughout the programme, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing. Then it came to me.
We had heard nothing from the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who enjoy alcohol in moderation, without any adverse effect on their health or their family life.

These ordinary, responsible New Zealanders had no voice. Latta framed the issue as a struggle between noble anti-liquor crusaders and wicked booze barons, with no one in between.
He overlooked the fact that New Zealand alcohol consumption has declined over the past 30 years and that it’s moderate by world standards (less, for example, than Germany, Australia, Britain and the Netherlands).

Neither did he mention that drink-drive convictions are in steady decline. These are inconvenient statistics. Nothing must be allowed to detract from the message that we’re a nation of helpless drunks.
The lack of balance was so egregiously blatant that I had to pour myself a stiff drink to calm down. But at least it meant I was mentally prepared when I watched Latta’s subsequent programme on inequality, which turned out to be equally selective and melodramatic in its approach.

I’ve now decided a little Latta goes a very long way. I hope he and Te Radar get along, because I’ve filed them both under Overexposed Hosts Who Get On My Nerves.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Planet Tiso

I recently heard the self-described Marxist blogger Giovanni Tiso being interviewed by Kim Hill. (Fancy that, you’re thinking; a left-wing guest on Kim Hill’s show. Who’d have thought?) On that occasion Tiso gave a remarkably convincing impersonation of a sane man. Almost had me fooled. Then someone drew my attention to his angry stream-of-consciousness yapping on Twitter about Jane Clifton’s latest Listener column. I’m now convinced that he’s unhinged and shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a minder.
Tiso can barely contain his fury that the Listener’s respected political columnist should have a different take on the Dirty Politics affair from his own. Such is the far left’s embrace of free speech. But you have to allow that Tiso is at least consistent in his intolerance of views that don’t square with his own. This after all is the man who, to his surprise and delight, managed to get two RadioLive hosts pulled off the air because he didn’t like what they said during the Roast Busters furore.
What's most intriguing is Tiso’s apparent conviction that an eager world constantly awaits his latest pronouncement. He appears incapable of leaving Twitter alone for more than a few seconds. Given that he clearly doesn't have enough to do, perhaps some kind soul could offer him an honest job; he’s bound to have a doctorate in something useless. Or, failing that, at least adjust his medication.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The heavy hand of the electoral laws

Darren Watson’s Planet Key video is a wickedly clever piece of political satire, perhaps more so for Jeremy Jones’ visuals than for the song itself. That it has now become snagged in the electoral laws is ridiculous and dangerous. University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis suggested on Morning Report that the Electoral Commission is being super-cautious because newish electoral laws, passed in 2010, haven’t yet been tested in court. Whatever the explanation, something’s seriously wrong when the heavy hand of the law stifles legitimate political expression. If the law as written leaves the commission uncertain as to whether Planet Key is permissible, then it’s bad law and should be reviewed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Shock, horror: man breaks ankle!

Morning Report today devoted nearly seven minutes to an accident on the Skyline luge at Rotorua – more than twice as much time as it gave to a fatal helicopter crash near Wanaka.  Guyon Espiner interviewed a man who witnessed the grisly spectacle while passing overhead on the chairlift, and who was clearly traumatised by the experience. The witness seemed indignant that there wasn’t a Victim Support team waiting at the top to offer immediate counselling.
Goodness me, there was blood visible. Children saw it too and no doubt would have been left permanently scarred. The witness was appalled at the Skyline staff’s apparently casual reaction to the tragedy. I half expected him to call for a commission of inquiry.

Espiner’s co-host Susie Ferguson then leapt in like a tag wrestler and grilled the company CEO, whose assurance that a paramedic and ambulance were promptly on the scene was apparently deemed inadequate. Ferguson wanted to know whether the accident victim might be permanently maimed, and when the perplexed CEO couldn’t answer that, not being a medical man, she imperiously demanded: “Why not?”
The company’s callous indifference was considered such an outrage that the item ran several minutes past the usual break for the 8.30am news.

A listener tuning in halfway through could have been excused for wondering what awful catastrophe had unfolded. In fact the accident victim had broken his ankle.
So: “Man breaks ankle on luge”. It’s not exactly up there with, say, the Carterton balloon tragedy.  

I’ve been on the Skyline luge a number of times, first with my kids and more recently with my grandchildren, and I’d be surprised if minor accidents like this weren’t a regular occurrence. People ride on luges because they provide a thrill. If there wasn’t an element of risk, the business wouldn’t exist. So why the fuss?
Morning Report can normally be counted on to provide a refuge from the confected non-news that other media outlets bombard us with. I bet I’m not the only listener hoping this was just a momentary lapse of judgment.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I know what Shakespeare would have said

Let me get this straight. Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil site is hacked in retaliation for a post that upset a lot of people and as a result, a great swag of incriminating emails ends up in the hands of Nicky Hager.
Meanwhile, Labour’s enemies discover there are weaknesses in the Labour Party’s website that enable them to go poking around there for sensitive information, some of which ends up with Slater.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that if either of these acts was illegal, it’s more likely to have been the hacking of Whale Oil. So why, on Q+A and The Nation this morning, did the interviewers apply the blowtorch to Slater and go soft on Hager?
Taking advantage of a website’s slack security may, at worst, be ethically dodgy, but publishing the contents of private emails obtained by hacking is surely a lot more serious. Yet both Susan Wood (Q+A) and Lisa Owen (The Nation) let Hager off the hook while aggressively going after Slater. (Owen, for example, seemed to be demanding that Slater reveal sources, something no journalist would dream of doing.)

Hager can’t have believed his luck. But then, perhaps he’s come to expect this sort of friendly treatment. You can’t help but suspect that in the eyes of many in the media, Hager has a halo and Slater has horns and a forked tail.
I’m no cheerleader for Slater. His blog has earned its place in the media landscape but it’s sometimes gratuitously offensive, as when he wrote that a “feral” who crashed his car on the West Coast while trying to evade police deserved to die – the comment that supposedly triggered the attack on his website. He was making a legitimate point but overcooked it, presumably for the purpose of provoking a reaction, which he got - in spades.

The comments posted on Whale Oil, too, are often rabid, and I was pleased to hear him say this morning that he intends to exercise tighter moderation. Not before time.
I don’t like cosy collusion between journalists (or in this case bloggers) and cabinet ministers or government spin doctors either. They smell. But Slater is hardly the first media person to be favoured with sneaky leaks and tipoffs. As has been pointed out over the past few days, Helen Clark had her favourites in the press gallery too.

And anyway, what about Hager’s motives? He likes to call himself an investigative journalist, but he’s nothing of the sort. In truth he’s a polemicist who happens to use some journalistic skills, such as writing and ferreting out information (which, to be fair, he does pretty well, if selectively).
Hager dislikes being called an activist, but it’s a more honest description of his role than “journalist”. The giveaway is that he seems very choosy about the subjects he writes about, and in the way he covers them.

Invariably he pushes issues dear to the left, and does it in a way that presents the right – whether it’s the business sector, the National Party or the Exclusive Brethren – in the worst possible light. To put it another way, he’s agenda-driven. That isn’t journalism.
As proof of his supposed neutrality, he cites the fact that he embarrassed Clark’s Labour government in 2002 with his book Seeds of Distrust (published, like Dirty Politics, immediately before an election, so as to achieve maximum political impact), in which he exposed the accidental release of genetically modified corn.

But this doesn’t prove a thing – least of all that he had no political motive, as he would clearly like us to think. The truth, I suspect, is that Hager is well to the left of Labour and would have been hoping that the timely publication of Seeds of Distrust would benefit the Greens, a party which I believe he’s more attuned with.
Hager’s book was given the title Dirty Politics for a good reason – to create the impression of moral rot on the part of the government and its cheerleaders. The irony is that Hager is as much a part of the dirty politics he writes about as John Key, Slater, Judith Collins and Jason Ede. And I suspect the reaction of most neutral voters will be, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “A plague on all their houses”.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Is this the most bizarre campaign ever?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 13.)
This election is shaping up to be the strangest in my lifetime.
There’s a cacophony of minor parties scrambling for attention and a frenzied political bidding war in which there seems to be no limit on the extravagance of the promises made.

We’ve had an outbreak of thinly disguised xenophobia over the sale of a farm, a sideshow over the use of the phrase “Sugar Daddy”, and a blatant appeal to the emotions of voters who imagine New Zealand can raise the drawbridge and retreat into a cosy and safe economic fortress, 1970s-style.
And all this is taking place within the context of a seriously flawed electoral system originally devised  to prevent an extremist party such as the Nazis regaining power in Germany, as if that were somehow applicable to New Zealand.

The weirdness is so all-pervasive it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the largest (literally) and most bizarre factor of all.
The very name Kim Dotcom suggests a character from a Batman or Austin Powers movie. But while Dotcom likes to present himself as something of a fun-loving jester figure, he’s a noxious force in politics.

If there was any doubt about that, it was erased by the Internet-Mana Party video on YouTube in which Dotcom urged an apparently liquored-up audience of Christchurch students to chant “F--- John Key”.
Apologists for Dotcom have tried to excuse this as free expression and youthful exuberance. It was nothing of the sort.

Whatever you think about Key (and I’ve never been a fan) this was rabble-rousing at its basest and most puerile level. Dotcom looked like a grotesque cross between a gangsta rapper and the Fuhrer at Nuremberg. 
Policy? Issues? Never mind that tedious stuff. Let's bring it all down to mindless, hateful abuse.

The video did, however, serve one useful purpose: it left no one in any doubt that what primarily drives Dotcom is deep personal animosity against Key.

No matter what you think about the other figures in this election campaign, you have to allow that they are all motivated by genuine concern for New Zealand. But Dotcom doesn’t give that impression.
The question voters should ask themselves is whether a toxic personal grudge is a sound reason for entering politics (not forgetting, of course, that Dotcom may also be motivated by a desperate desire to avoid extradition to the United States, where he’s wanted for Internet piracy).

Relax, the apologists for Internet-Mana say; Dotcom won’t necessarily have any influence on party policy. If you believe that, you probably also believe in chem trails. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person to put $3 million into a party if he’s not going to have any control over it.
Which brings us to Laila Harre, the nominal leader of the Dotcom-funded party. Of all the performers in the current political circus, she is the one whose reputation has been most damaged.

Harre once commanded respect as a leftist politician of conviction. In aligning herself with Dotcom she has redefined herself as a rank opportunist – a retread, desperate to revive her political career even if it means throwing her lot in with a flashy and extremely rich capitalist entrepreneur with an opaque agenda.
Try as she might, she will never overcome the perception that she has betrayed her proletarian principles in the pursuit of power.

So what of the other players in this most bizarre election campaign?
There’s the cerebral and unworldly Jamie Whyte, whose Herculean task is to rebuild the discredited Act. Whyte is a conviction politician, just as Harre once was on the other side, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Act has no gas left in its tank.

There’s Colin Craig, who hopes to capture the substantial social conservative vote, but who seems determined to sabotage himself. I mean, who persuaded him to pose for that tragically misguided photo where he’s lying in the grass with a come-hither look?
Craig is another conviction politician, but like Whyte, he’s up against a media that is at worst hostile, at best unsympathetic. The last thing he needs is to provide ammunition to the mockers, but he can’t seem to help himself.

Then there’s Winston Peters. There’s always Winston Peters. But I wonder if this could be the old warhorse’s last charge. If New Zealand First doesn’t get past the five per cent threshold, I can’t see Peters sticking around for another three years – in which case that could be the end of the party too, unless Ron Mark can be persuaded to take over.
And of course, lastly there’s Key. His preternatural popularity is a complete mystery, but you can’t argue with the opinion polls.

The only thing standing between Key and a third election victory is the MMP system, the vagaries of which could still deliver a rogue result in the form of a dysfunctional coalition cobbled together from the disparate, angry forces of the left.
As a journalist, I find it riveting; as a citizen concerned for our future, I find myself getting more apprehensive as the big day approaches.

FOOTNOTE: This was written last weekend, before the Nicky Hager bombshell. What was previously our most bizarre campaign ever is now also shaping up to be the ugliest.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Socialism, Bob Harvey-style

(First published in the Dominion Post, August 8.)
I WAS INTRIGUED to hear Sir Bob Harvey, the personable former Waitakere mayor and tireless champion of West Auckland, describe himself on TVNZ’s Q+A programme recently as a socialist.
Obviously the meaning of the word has changed. The classical definition of a socialist is someone who believes in state control of the economy, but no intelligent person – and Harvey is an intelligent man – could seriously argue that the heavy hand of the state creates happy, prosperous societies.

I mean, what shining examples are there? The Soviet Union? North Korea? Chaotic, wretched Venezuela, perhaps?
The truth is that wherever it has been tried, socialism has been synonymous with economic failure, misery and repression.  That’s why it’s almost extinct. People aren’t stupid.

I can only conclude, therefore, that when people like Harvey describe themselves as socialists, they actually mean something else – perhaps a gentler, kinder socialism that hasn’t yet been revealed to the rest of us.
Here’s my theory. I suspect that to call yourself a socialist these days is to announce to the world that you have a social conscience, and are therefore on a higher moral plane than all those heartless people who are interested only in their own wellbeing.

In addition to that, I suspect that “socialist” has become a code word for someone who feels guilty about enjoying the trappings of capitalism – the stylish clothes, the overseas holidays, the restored villas in fashionable inner-city suburbs.
Most of the people I know who think of themselves as socialists enjoy pretty sweet lives. Capitalism has been very kind to them. I bet Harvey (who made his name in advertising, possibly the least socialist business imaginable) isn’t exactly short of a buck.

But we’re talking about a generation that lived through the heady era of the protest movement, when capitalism was the enemy, and part of them has never moved on.
Even when they’ve grown sleek and prosperous, in their minds they’re still marching down Willis or Queen St protesting against apartheid or the Vietnam War. Calling themselves socialist is a convenient way of resolving the contradiction between their romantic ideals and the reality of their very comfortable capitalist lives.

True socialists like the founders of the Labour Party wouldn’t recognise these people.
Being a socialist in those days meant getting your head bashed in by a special constable on horseback. Now it means sitting around a Kelburn dinner table tut-tutting about income disparity while someone opens a bottle of 2003 Felton Road pinot noir and wonders whether to go to Morocco or France for their next holiday.

* * *

IT’S DECADES since newspapers decided they would no longer accept letters written under pseudonyms. Most require that the writer supply a full name, home address and phone number. It’s not foolproof, but it weeds out most of the mischief-makers who don’t have the guts to put their names to their opinions.
Predictably, the quality of letters improved almost overnight when the rules were changed.

Contrast this with the approach of the Sunday political TV programmes Q+A and The Nation, which seem happy to accept anonymous texts and emails commenting – often scurrilously – on the issues under discussion and the credibility of the politicians interviewed.
Some contributors provide a first name, but the viewer has no way of knowing whether it’s genuine. Occasionally the commenter is identified in full, but most are anonymous.

Given that the comments are displayed on screen almost instantaneously, there’s no way the producers can vet them in the hope of weeding out propagandists and barrow-pushers.
How many of the snide messages running across the bottom of the screen are from party members and activists? There’s no way of knowing. In effect, they’re no better than the cowardly trolls who infest the Internet.

* * *

I WONDER, is there a club for people who can’t stand Te Radar? If not, I might have to start one.
I admit I’m out of step with public opinion here. Clearly, lots of people love him. Why else would TVNZ (or to be precise, the taxpayer through New Zealand on Air) keep paying him to jaunt around the Pacific making prime-time documentaries?

But something about Te Radar irritates me, and I can’t figure out exactly what   it is. The frizzy hair? Those nerdy glasses? That nasal Kiwi voice? The contrived Peter Pan quirkiness? All of the above?
What bothers me most is that the people he encounters in faraway places might make the mistake of thinking he’s representative of the rest of us. Now there’s a scary thought.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Con Devitt and the decline of union militancy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 30.)
Cornelius Devitt died in Wellington a couple of weeks ago. That name would mean nothing to younger New Zealanders, but to those of a certain age, Con Devitt was once a household name. In fact you could almost say he was public enemy number one.
Devitt was a trade union official. To be precise, he was secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union.

That may not sound significant, but the Boilermakers’ Union included the workers who did the welding on construction jobs involving structural steel.
It was a small union, but it wielded power far beyond its size because it effectively controlled some of the country’s biggest construction jobs. And in the 1970s, under Devitt’s leadership, the Boilermakers’ Union was synonymous with militancy and disruption.

Most notoriously, the union was blamed for endless delays in the building of Wellington’s showpiece BNZ Centre. Begun in 1973 and intended for completion in 1977, the 31-storey building wasn’t finished until 1984. The final cost was four times greater than the original estimate.
The BNZ site wasn’t the only one where the boilermakers made their presence felt. They were also involved in long-running disputes at Mangere Bridge, Marsden Point oil refinery and the Kawerau pulp and paper mill.

But the BNZ job caused the greatest outrage. It was in the heart of Wellington and thus smack-bang in the public eye. And because the BNZ in those days was still state-owned, the taxpayer had a direct stake in it. One consequence of the BNZ fiasco was that New Zealand architects stopped designing buildings that depended on structural steelwork.
I interviewed Devitt in 1995 and he insisted the union was made a scapegoat for other problems on the BNZ job. I’m sure there was an element of truth in that, but there was no doubt that the boilermakers were a bloody-minded lot who seized any excuse they could for downing tools. On one memorable occasion they went on strike because a union delegate didn’t like his company-issue boots.

Rob Muldoon was prime minister then, and he was in the habit of referring to “Clydeside militants” – a shorthand term for left-wing unionists from Britain who attained positions of influence in New Zealand unions. That was a direct reference to Devitt, whose early days were spent in Glasgow’s Clydeside area, then a hive of heavy industry. Devitt proudly told me it was known as “Red Clydeside” on account of its tradition of union militancy.
Devitt, who was 86 when he died, was one of the last of a generation of union leaders whose faces were very familiar to New Zealanders in the 1970s and early 80s. They included Bill Andersen (Drivers’ Union), Pat Kelly (Cleaners and Caretakers), Blue Kennedy and Frank McNulty (Meat Workers), Don Goodfellow (Railwaymen) and Jim Knox (Federation of Labour president).

Some were Marxists, though not always openly so. Factionalism ran deep within the union movement, not only between militants and conservatives (of whom the Irish Catholic Tony Neary, of the Electrical Workers’ Union, was the figurehead) but also within the left – most notably between Moscow-aligned communists and those who took their ideological cue from Beijing.
It was a time when militant unions wreaked economic havoc in key industries. Freezing works, the wharves, car assembly plants, transport (especially the Cook Strait ferries, which were seen as especially vulnerable) and the pulp and paper industry were often targeted.

It was ironic that Muldoon, despite his much-vaunted tough-guy image, never got on top of the union problem. Unions went on strike with almost complete impunity throughout his nine years in power, and no doubt contributed to the woefully sick economy that Labour inherited in 1984.
Only a handful of union survivors from that era remain. They include Ken Douglas, who went on to head the Council of Trade Unions, and former Seafarers’ Union president Dave Morgan, though neither remains active in union affairs. Douglas tried to hold the movement together when it began to break apart in the late 1980s and was savagely attacked for supposedly betraying the workers – another irony, given his socialist and militant credentials.

It all seems a lifetime ago, which I suppose it was. Yet that period of strong-arm unionism left an enduring legacy.
Many New Zealanders retain sharp memories of the damage done by industrial turmoil. That goes a long way toward explaining why the union movement today is a shadow of what it once was.

Economic upheaval, deregulation and globalisation wiped out the old centres of union power, such as the big freezing works and car assembly plants. Politicians did the rest, passing new employment laws that tipped the scales in favour of employers.
The abolition of compulsory trade union membership in 1991 was a turning point. Some militant blue-collar unions never wanted it in the first place, believing the movement was weakened by numerically large unions, such as those covering retail and clerical workers, whose members were not strongly committed to union principles and were reluctant to take industrial action.

Today, less than 17 percent of the labour force is unionised and some once-formidable unions no longer exist. Others have shrunk or have been absorbed by others. Power has shifted to white-collar unions, such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations.
There’s a new generation of union leaders – typically much better-educated than their predecessors, more media-savvy and less locked into old, class-warfare mindsets. And because unionism is no longer compulsory, unions have to work a lot harder to attract and retain members, which they do.

I believe that in some ways, the balance of power in industrial relations has swung too far in favour of employers. Workers need strong, effective representation to protect themselves against abuse and exploitation.
But if today’s union leaders want to understand why politicians have nobbled them, they need only look back at the rampant abuse of power by militant unions in the era of Con Devitt.