Friday, February 27, 2015

So what if Harre and Hooton ski together?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 25.)
Laila Harre and Matthew Hooton, enjoying a skiing holiday together?

I know it sounds implausible. A politician of the hard Left getting on the piste, so to speak, with a high-profile political commentator from the far Right? Surely not.

Certainly the person who told me about it recently was astonished – and so I was, at least initially.
So I did some cursory research (never easier than in the Google era) and sure enough, I came across an assertion by former Labour Party activist Josie Pagani that Hooton and Harre – whom Pagani acidly described as “the great revolutionary hero” – were planning a skiing holiday in Canada with their respective families.

As far as I can ascertain, Pagani’s claim was never confirmed – but then, neither was it denied. Hooton, when questioned, played coy. He said the two families would be at the Whistler resort at the same time, but stopped short of saying they would be holidaying together. He must have known the story would cause outrage on the Left, and no doubt relished the prospect.
The reaction of my informant, who is strongly left-wing, was probably typical. She was appalled that Harre, a former Alliance MP and leader of the ill-fated Internet Mana Party, should fraternise with someone viewed by the Left as being on the dark side.

I don’t recall the words “betrayal” and “hypocrisy” being used, but they certainly hung in the air. How could someone profess to be a champion of the poor and downtrodden while skiing with a representative of the ruling class?
It wouldn’t have helped that skiing is a pursuit associated with money and privilege. Holidays at Whistler don’t come cheap. Perhaps it would have been more excusable had they gone fishing together for kahawai off the end of a wharf, or played darts at the local RSA.

But knowing there was money in Harre’s family (her grandfather was credited with inventing the jandal), I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear Harre was a keen skier.
She has always given the impression of enjoying the finer things in life. Her husband owns a medical research company and the couple jointly own a vineyard (organic, of course) on Waiheke Island.
She wears expensive clothes and I recall a friend, many years ago, showing me the handsome holiday home at Tolaga Bay that she and her husband, according to locals in the know (and there are no secrets in Tolaga Bay), spent a large sum restoring.

Does that necessarily make her a hypocrite? While I dislike Harre’s politics intensely and always get a quiet thrill when sanctimonious leftists are exposed as closet capitalists, there’s no law that says they must drive 1980 Cortinas and wear track pants. In fact there’s a long tradition of left-leaning political reformers coming from privileged backgrounds.
And while I initially shared my informant’s shock at the suggestion that Harre and Hooton were chums, on reflection I came around to a different point of view.

I thought about my own situation. I have a number of long-standing friends who don’t like my political views, but we don’t let that get in the way. We focus on the likeable qualities we see in each other and generally succeed in setting politics to one side.
Life would be very dull if we fraternised only with people who think like us. It would be like being trapped for life in a Rotary Club meeting.

Let’s assume for a moment that Harre and Hooton really did go skiing together. Who are we to say they shouldn’t enjoy each other’s company?
Skiing with Hooton doesn’t mean having to agree with his politics. In fact the two might learn something from each other. Isn’t that preferable to shouting at each other over an ideological chasm?

The notion that we shouldn’t associate with people who think differently alarms me. Democracy is about the free exchange of ideas, but we retreat into tribal enclaves, erect barricades and refuse to have anything to do with the enemy.
We block our ears and hum loudly when anyone dares express a contrary thought. It’s as if we’re scared of being exposed to ideas that might turn out to be less heinous than we imagined. Groupthink takes over.

This happens on both the Right and the Left and has become noticeably worse since the advent of the Internet. Political blogs and websites provide fortresses where like-minded people can band together, drawing comfort and reassurance from their conformity and angrily repelling all invaders.
Anyone who challenges the consensus becomes the enemy. This can have strange consequences, as I discovered recently when I wrote a column asking whether John Key really believed in anything.

My column was picked up by conservative blogs, triggering an avalanche of venomous comment attacking me as a hand-wringing leftie.
You’ve got to laugh. No one could read a selection of my columns from the past 30 years and conclude that I’m a leftie. But I’d committed the unpardonable sin of writing a column that wasn’t slavishly pro-government.

In today’s world, it seems, you must be either 100 percent Left or 100 Right. People with fixed, rigid ideas feel threatened when anyone deviates from the norm. Infidels must be punished.
I’m not sure what you call this, but it certainly isn’t democracy as I understand it.


Monday, February 23, 2015

God put the Rimutaka Hill there for a reason

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 20.)
On Monday night I went to a public meeting in the Masterton Town Hall.
The hall was full, which might have something to do with the fact that not a lot happens in Masterton on a Monday night and a meeting in the Town Hall provides an exciting diversion.

On the other hand you might say this was the beating heart of local democracy, even if most of the heads in the hall were grey.
The meeting was organised by Sustainable Wairarapa, a group of business people who believe the region stands to benefit from the Local Government Commission’s proposal to establish a “super city” encompassing Wellington, the Hutt Valley, Porirua, Kapiti and the Wairarapa.

To promote their case they enlisted former Waitakere mayor Sir Bob Harvey and Greg Moyle, who serves on the Waitemata community board in the Auckland super-city. The idea was that they would tell us how much better off Auckland was following amalgamation.
They might not have been the best choice. Here were two politicians from New Zealand’s biggest, most densely populated urban area presuming to tell the residents of a sparsely populated farming region at the other end of the North Island that joining a super city could only be good for them.

I would have been more interested in hearing the views of someone from Rodney or Franklin, two semi-rural districts that were either wholly or partly press-ganged into joining Auckland.
Even those two districts are not strictly comparable with the Wairarapa, which is rural heartland rather than a lifestyle belt, but I imagine their residents might have quite a different verdict on the benefits of amalgamation.

Besides, Harvey and Moyle are insiders, embedded in the system. It’s in their interests to talk up Auckland’s governance arrangements.
Harvey chairs Waterfront Auckland, one of the highly contentious CCOs (council-controlled organisations) that have caused so much ill-feeling among Aucklanders since the supercity was created in 2010.

He’s a sincere man and an engaging speaker with long experience in local government, but he can’t claim to know the Wairarapa.
He also seems to have an ad man’s faith in empty slogans. “You have to trust the future”, he said at one point, sounding like one of the billboards he might have created in his advertising agency days.

Moyle spent more time talking about himself than about the issue and admitted he knew nothing about the region he had come to advise, “apart from drinking a lot of Martinborough pinot noir”. He even struggled with pronunciation, referring more than once to “Waipara”.
All this leaves me in a bit of quandary. My wife and I have lived in Masterton since 2003. It suits us, as it does the many refugees from Wellington who have moved here.

I’m open to persuasion that amalgamation would be the best thing for the Wairarapa, as many respected business and community leaders argue. But no one has convinced me yet.
In fact, although not a religious man, I find myself slowly coming around to the view that God had a reason for putting the Rimutaka Hill where it is.

Much of the propaganda seems to hinge on what might happen to us economically if we’re cut loose from wealthy Wellington. We’re too small and weak, the argument goes, to survive on our own. The proponents of amalgamation have played the fear card rather too much.
I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think it would be a good idea to merge Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa councils. But amalgamation with Wellington? That’s another proposition entirely. We’re different from Wellington culturally, demographically and economically. 

Most of all, I worry about what it would mean for representative government. The Wairarapa would have only two of the 21 seats on the proposed supercity council. The centre of power would be too far removed from those affected.
Do I trust Wellington-based councillors to understand what’s best for the Wairarapa? No, and it doesn’t help that when I look at the Greater Wellington Regional Council, which is the closest thing we’ve got to a super council, I see a coterie of former Labour and Green MPs – professional politicians who seem unable to wean themselves off the public teat.

Am I convinced that the democratic deficit will be made up by the proposed community boards? No. It certainly doesn’t seem to have worked out that way in Auckland.
Do I trust the Local Government Commission, with their misplaced faith in the virtues of Big Government? Not for a moment. They can’t even get their figures right.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

What's really interesting about the David Cohen affair

It’s rarely that I feel moved to write in defence of a Labour Party leader, but TV3’s attempt to skewer Andrew Little over an unpaid bill is pure mischief-making.
Two nights in a row, Patrick Gower has tried to beat this up into a major embarrassment for Little. Last night he went so far as to say it signified the end of the honeymoon for the Labour leader. The  rest of the media don’t seem too excited over it, but when TV3's political editor says it's the end of the honeymoon - well, it is, at least as far as TV3's concerned.

Gower does some very good work, and I’m mostly a fan. But when he gets bored, he tries to inflate minor issues into crises. Conflict and drama are meat and drink to him, and when there isn’t any he’ll manufacture it. On this occasion his friend and stablemate Duncan Garner, on RadioLive, seems to have been an enthusiastic accomplice.
If the affair of the unpaid bill is embarrassing to anyone, it’s Little’s chief of staff Matt McCarten. Everything Gower has reported suggests that’s where the blame lies for not paying freelance journalist David Cohen the $950 owed to him for advice given during Little’s bid for the party leadership last October.

That’s as it should be. Party leaders can’t be expected to deal with the minutiae of housekeeping.
Little could probably have got himself off the hook by saying the problem lay in McCarten’s office, but of course he wouldn’t because it would look like he was dumping on his right-hand man. And what fun Gower would have had with that.

The most interesting aspect of the non-story to me is the revelation that Cohen was engaged to work for the Labour Party.
I know that freelance journalism is a precarious way to make a living, and that there’s a powerful temptation to take work wherever you can get it. But conflict of issues arise when people who comment on matters of public interest (Cohen is National Business Review’s media columnist) are simultaneously involved in political work behind the scenes.

I suspect this goes on much more than we know. Cohen has come out in the open because he was understandably pissed off at not being paid. Otherwise his relationship with Labour would probably have remained secret. How many other notionally independent commentators, I wonder, are potentially compromised by connections we don’t know about?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Doing nothing is not an option

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 11.)
It’s hard to think of a more challenging conundrum than the one posed by the Islamic State.
Labour leader Andrew Little was right last week to describe Isis as evil. It’s a word seldom heard these days because it implies a moral judgment, and moral judgments are unfashionable. But “evil” is the only way to describe men who coldly behead their captives, then amp up the shock factor by burning one alive.

There is an element of gleeful sadism in their barbarism. Last week they pushed a gay man from the top of a tall building – reportedly the fourth such execution for homosexuality.
As with their other atrocities, they posted pictures and video online, a gesture that was part boast, part taunt. In doing so, they were saying to the world: “Look what we’re capable of. There is no limit to what we will do.

“Norms of civilised behaviour don’t apply to us. In fact we hold the civilised world in contempt. You know, and we know, that you are too weak and divided to stop us.”
These otherwise primitive haters of the decadent West mock us further by using sophisticated Western technology to rub our noses, figuratively speaking, in the blood of their victims. Without the smartphone, the video camera and the Internet, their power to shock would be enormously diminished.

And these are merely the more flamboyant examples of the Islamic State’s depravity – the ones calculated to get our attention and fill us with fear, horror and anger. Almost unnoticed in the background, Isis is proceeding with its grand plan to establish an Islamic caliphate, which means systematically slaughtering or enslaving anyone who stands in its way.  
No one, then, can dispute that the Islamic State is evil. The conundrum is what the rest of the world should do about it.

I wish there was a pat answer, but the Islamic State presents a unique challenge because it stands apart from all norms of combat or diplomacy.
It has no regard for human lives, including those of its own followers. It acknowledges no rules, it has no interest in negotiation and its adherents – who seem to include a significant number of thugs with criminal records – are said to be happy to die for their cause because it will ensure entry into paradise. How do you defeat such an enemy?

Yet doing nothing is not an option. Either we believe civilised values are worth defending and that vulnerable people deserve protection from mass murderers, or we don’t. And if we do, we can’t just whistle nonchalantly while looking the other way and pretending it isn’t happening.
We have been here before. In 1994 New Zealand was one of only three countries in the United Nations that supported forceful intervention to prevent genocide in Rwanda. The rest of the international community didn’t want to get involved, having recently seen America get its nose bloodied in Somalia. More than half a million lives were lost as a result.

A similar situation arose in the Balkans War, where a puny and impotent UN peacekeeping force did nothing as thousands of Muslims were massacred.
The situation in Iraq and Syria is not dissimilar. The West has lost its appetite for combat because of failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Islamic State is counting on America and its allies having no stomach for a fight; it is goading us, convinced that its will is stronger than ours. And so far it has been proved right. The military response has been half-hearted.

In effect, the Islamic State is testing the moral resolve of the civilised world. I just hope we won’t fail the test as we did in in Rwanda and Srebrenica.
This is not like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the objectives were hazy (or in the case of Iraq, tragically misconceived). Isis is not some shadowy terrorist entity; it’s a functioning army, operating in plain sight.

That doesn’t make it easy to defeat, but neither is it an excuse to do nothing.
Unfortunately Andrew Little, while condemning Isis as evil, doesn’t think it’s our business to stop them.

It’s interesting that where the Islamic State is concerned, the Left sharply deviates from its honourable tradition of siding with the weak and vulnerable. The Islamic State, it insists, is not our problem, no matter how many innocents die.
I suspect the Left is unable to see past its antipathy towards America and can’t bring itself to support any initiative in which America plays a leading role. Its ideological blinkers blind it to the fact that on this occasion, America is on the side of the angels.

Yes, it’s ironic that the American invasion of Iraq helped create the circumstances that enabled the Islamic State to flourish. George W Bush barged in like a Hollywood sheriff come to clean up Deadwood.
But that doesn’t mean the West should wash its hands of the appalling crimes being carried out as a result. Indeed America could be seen as having a moral responsibility to clean up the mess it helped to create.

Most reprehensible of all is the craven argument that we should avoid antagonising the Islamic State for fear that some deranged jihadist will strike at us. That’s moral cowardice of the lowest order.
John Key is right to highlight the inconsistency in the Left’s stance, and I applaud him for saying that New Zealand will not look the other way. It’s rare for Key to commit himself so emphatically, and commendable for him to do so on one of the pressing moral issues of our time. We should hold him to it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

More pressing questions for our turbulent times

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 6.]

Three failed prime ministers in a row – shouldn’t Australians be getting worried?
Looking forward to another day of joyous celebration at Waitangi?

Fed up with the daily bombardment of conflicting advice about healthy diet and lifestyles?

Easier to shrug your shoulders and ignore it all?
Does anyone outside politics and the media really care exactly when prime minister John Key learned about former MP Mike Sabin’s problems with the police?

Having said that, wouldn’t Key save himself a lot of trouble if he was a bit more honest and up-front?
An inmate dies after trying to smuggle drugs into Otago Prison in his stomach and his mother reckons it’s the fault of the prison staff? Really?

So Ngapuhi leaders are squabbling over a Treaty settlement – who’d have thought?
If and when they resolve their differences, can we hope they’ll manage their finances better than the Tuwharetoa bosses whose $66 million “Treelords” settlement magically evaporated in five years, leaving just $16 million?

Tired of reading about craft beer?
Could pompous, eccentric and ineffectual Prince Charles be God’s gift to the struggling republican movement?

Given that Andrew Little has barely put a foot wrong since taking over as Labour Party leader, why risk hiring a spin doctor who might screw it all up?
Is the dearth of quality free-to-air television proof that programmers have given up trying? Or have they simply delegated the job to the office tea lady?

The Rugby Sevens – yesterday’s sensation, today’s yawn?
So what’s the next diversion for a society suffering from mass attention deficit disorder and constantly craving new excitements?

When did police give up bothering to enforce the cycle helmet laws?
So cinema admissions in New Zealand last year were a record high. But hang on – wasn’t the advent of television in the 1960s supposed to mean the death of films?

Is it a condition of employment by the University of Otago that its academic staff constantly lecture the public on the wickedness of their ways and deplore everything that popularly elected governments do?
Hyper-inflation, empty supermarket shelves, media censorship, political prisoners – is Venezuela the latest advertisement for the glories of socialism?

Tony Blair – the most contemptible Western politician of our time?
Amid all the chortling and sniggering over the couple filmed having a “sex romp” in a Christchurch office, has anyone given a thought to the potentially devastating personal consequences?

Speaking of which, what exactly is a sex romp?

Do New Zealanders really cut down tall poppies, as Eleanor Catton claims, or do they simply object to preciousness and petulance?
Thousands died at the hands of the prophet Mohammed, but how many people did Jesus Christ kill?

Tired of reading about house prices?

If the British really regard us as “family”, as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond claimed this week, how come we have to languish in queues at Heathrow while French, Romanians, Greeks and Estonians get fast-tracked?
Anyway, isn’t Hammond’s patronising “we’re all British” shtick just a bit 1970s?

Having said that, what civilised country can say “not our problem” when barbaric jihadists are burning people alive, enslaving women and committing genocide?
Monetise, blog, podcast – has the Internet contributed some of the clunkiest words in the English language?

When people complain about New Zealand being anti-intellectual, aren’t they really grizzling that no one pays enough attention to the Left?
Nigeria may be Africa’s richest country, but is its army the most useless in the world?

Wilson Parking – New Zealand’s most disliked company?
Why has a perfectly good word – “censored” – been jettisoned in favour of the trendy “redacted”?

Why do vacuum cleaners suddenly look like something out of Star Wars or Doctor Who?
Has “so” now replaced “look” as the word politicians and bureaucrats use to preface every statement when interviewed on TV and radio?

Has any computer systems upgrade in the public sector ever been completed on time and within budget?
Why is it that in remote places, the only radio reception is from Christian and sport stations – the latter carrying compelling broadcasts of Australian greyhound racing?
Big Brother – the most grotesque television programme of all time?