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.