Saturday, June 27, 2015

Navigating the Kafkaesque world of Work and Income

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 26.)

One of the crowning accomplishments of technology is that it has enabled the government bureaucracy to place itself out of reach of the people it’s supposed to serve.
I had a brief and slightly surreal taste of this a few days ago. I had lodged an online application for national superannuation, for which I will soon become eligible. 

All I now needed to do was attend the local Work and Income office and present my documentation – proof of identity, that sort of stuff. To do this I needed to make an appointment.
Simple enough, you’d think: just give them a call. But the only phone number listed for the local Work and Income office is a fax line. If you want to contact them, even if it’s only to set up an appointment at the local branch, you must ring an 0800 number.

This I did, and predictably got a recorded message saying the lines were overloaded. On my second attempt, however, I got through to an automated voice which asked me to enter my client number.
What client number? I don’t have one, never having been a Work and Income “client”. So I tried again, this time navigating through the system by responding to voice prompts, and duly found myself placed in a queue.

Some obliging phone systems tell you where you are in the queue and how long you might have to wait, but not this one. You’re just left there listening to – for want of a better word – music.
And here’s another thing. Although this was a dedicated superannuation line, the “music” wasn’t anything that someone applying for super would recognise. It was a noxious, unidentifiable noise, clearly programmed by someone who was born post-1980 and harbours a savage grudge against his parents and everyone else of their generation.

After about 10 minutes I could stand it no longer. I went to the Work and Income website, thinking I could arrange my appointment from there.
Ha! They thwarted me there too. Before I could get anywhere, I had to log in to the “Real Me” account (who invents these infantile terms?) that I had been required to create when I lodged my online application.

I can do that, I thought triumphantly. I even remembered my user name and password. But then it demanded my client number again, along with a “one time” password.
Hang on. I’d already used a password to get into the system, and now I was being asked to enter another: a “one time” password, whatever that might be.

I was gazumped. But the website had a helpful suggestion for those benighted souls who had neither a client number nor a “one time” password: “Please contact us”.
Great. So it was back to the 0800 number and the wretched music.  I felt I’d entered a Kafkaesque universe where you’re condemned to go round and round in aimless circles without ever encountering a real human being.

I had a worrying thought: perhaps I was just too dumb to understand the system. But I consider myself reasonably computer-savvy. I have to be, since I’m dependent on my PC and the Internet for my income.
Then I had another thought. Multiply my minor, fleeting frustration by the thousands of people who must deal with government departments every day – many of them with English as a second language, or otherwise poorly equipped to find their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy. How do they cope?

I guess they don’t. The evidence suggests that many Housing New Zealand tenants, in particular, give up in despair. Or perhaps the more stubborn “clients” plant themselves in the office of whichever department is tormenting them and refuse to budge until their problem has been dealt with.
And here’s another thing. On the day I got the run-around from Work and Income, it was revealed that the Ministry of Social Development – that’s Work and Income’s parent ministry – has 53 employees getting more than $200,000 a year. Couldn’t one or two of these generously remunerated functionaries be assigned to find ways of making the system a little more user-friendly? Or is it expressly designed to be as difficult as possible?

I’m pleased to report I did get through to a human being in the end. Even then there were more peculiar hoops to jump through before I could confirm my appointment.
But I don’t blame the weary-sounding “representative” who dealt with me. She’s probably as much a victim of the system as those on the outside trying to crack it.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Greedy baby-boomers? I'm not so sure

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 17.)
Is there anything less edifying than a debate between generations about who had it tougher?
Judging by a barely civil clash on TV3’s The Nation recently, probably not.

TV3 lined up three “millennials” – members of Generations X and Y, born after 1980 – against three baby-boomers.
The younger cohort was out to prove they had been disadvantaged by political and economic changes over their lifetime. The boomers, predictably, weren’t having a bar of it.

Great. As if there weren’t enough divisions already in society, we now have people of my generation and those of my children’s generation snarling at each other over who got the worse deal.
The catalyst for this clash was a newly published book, Generation Rent, by Wellington economists Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub. In it, the couple suggest that inflated property prices mean that in time, only the children of home owners will be able to afford houses of their own.

The result, they argue, will be the emergence of a new “landed gentry” that threatens to create a class system similar to that of Britain.
I’m not sure that the Eaqubs (who are themselves millennials) are suggesting this was all a deliberate plot to rob their generation of its inheritance, but Shamubeel Eaqub does say it’s the result of tax and banking policies introduced while people of my age were in charge. So to that extent perhaps we’re to blame, even if there was no malevolent intent.

The Eaqubs are not the only ones suggesting the playing field is tilted against their generation. TVNZ’s Sunday morning political programme, Q+A, recently interviewed a New Zealand Rhodes Scholar, Andrew Dean, about his new book Ruth, Roger and Me. 
Dean has no doubt where the blame lies for the supposed burdens heaped on people of his age. As the book title suggests, it’s all due to the radical economic reforms promoted by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson in the 1980s and 90s. 

What people like Dean seem to resent most is the student loan scheme, which required them to borrow money for tertiary education that was previously available more or less free of charge.
But as was pointed out on The Nation, the payback for indebted students is that their qualifications open the way to higher-paid jobs. And Dean omitted to mention that since 2001, those student loans have been interest-free – which means people like him have been subsidised by taxpayers like me. (Doubly subsidised, in fact, because student loans come nowhere near covering the full cost of a tertiary education).

But all that’s irrelevant, because ultimately there’s little point in trying to compare one generation’s woes, real or imagined, with another’s.
The world changes. Nothing is fixed or constant. One age group might be advantaged in some respects but suffer in others. It’s swings and roundabouts.

My parents were both intellectually bright but had no prospect of a university education. My father had to leave school when he was 15. He obtained his engineering qualifications by studying in his own time. 
I don’t recall them belly-aching that we were better off than they were. On the contrary, they were grateful their children were able to grow up unaffected by war and the Great Depression.

Similarly, my generation shouldn’t resent the fact that our children are in many ways better off than we were at the same age. That’s progress and we should welcome it.
But since people like Dean are making an issue of supposed inter-generational unfairness, perhaps it’s time to point out a few home truths.

For a start, I would say that the millennials have much higher expectations than my generation did. They expect to live in bigger, flasher houses, own better cars and have state-of-the-art home appliances. 
They routinely eat out (once a rare treat, reserved for special occasions) and they take overseas holidays. They enjoy infinitely greater social freedom, having benefited from reforms – such as homosexual law reform – that their elders pushed through.

The society they live in is less regulated, less censorious and more vibrant. They have more choice in how they live.
Financially they’re better off too. The government takes far less of their income in tax and the interest rates they pay on their mortgages are a mere fraction of what they were in the 1970s and 80s.

The problem, of course, is that they don’t know this. They didn’t live through those times so have no grasp of the many ways in which they’re better off.
Would they swap their 21st century lifestyle for that of the 1970s if they realised what life was like in a strike-plagued, inflation-ridden, over-regulated, monochromatic and conformist society? I doubt it.

I realise I’m starting to sound like the characters in the famous Monty Python shoebox-in-the-road sketch who compete to tell the most far-fetched story about how hard their lives were, but my generation didn’t start this squabble.
Perhaps I can suggest terms for a truce. If people like Dean stop whinging about being hard done by, people like me might stop banging on about how his generation has never had it so good.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Collins got it right, but received no thanks for it

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 12.)
Justice David Collins drew the short straw when he was assigned to hear Lecretia Seales’ case seeking the right to die at a time of her own choosing.
He made the correct decision, ruling that it was for Parliament, not the courts, to change the law relating to assisted suicide.

He explained his decision in a thorough, carefully reasoned 55-page judgment. That he produced this document in a matter of days, hoping to deliver his decision before Seales died (which he did), was no small achievement.
He was under immense pressure, not only in terms of time but because whatever decision he made was bound to provoke an intense reaction. Few judges have presided over a more emotional case.

But Collins has been given precious little credit. Some media portrayed his decision as cold and heartless, when in fact he was at pains to express sympathy for Seales’ predicament.
TVNZ’s coverage, in particular, was disgracefully loaded. Of all media, state-owned broadcasters have a particular obligation to be balanced and objective. But TVNZ adopted a partisan and emotive tone, portraying Seales as having been cruelly denied her dying wish.

Her family, colleagues and friends could be excused their extreme disappointment. She was clearly loved and admired, and those closest to her had been through an emotional wringer.
Seales’ husband, Matt Vickers, told reporters of his wife’s deep hurt at being told of Collins’ decision. “Her reaction utterly broke my heart,” he said at a crowded press conference.

There was a reproachful note in his statement, as if Collins had failed a dying woman. In fact he had done exactly what judges are supposed to do – interpret the law without fear or favour.
But it’s scarcely surprising that Vickers felt strongly. He had just lost a wife. He was grieving.

Journalists have no such excuses. We expect them to report issues fairly and dispassionately.
We are entitled to expect thoroughness too, especially when an issue has commanded public interest as the Seales case did. But there was remarkably little reportage of Collins’ reasoning. It became almost incidental to the main story.

It was far easier, apparently, to go for emotional impact – to wring every ounce of sentiment from the family’s reaction, even if the public was left wondering why the judge ruled the way he did.
Suffice it to say that Collins’ judgment illustrates the daunting complexity of the issues. The questions Seales asked the court to determine were profound and potentially far-reaching.

On a central issue in the case – namely, whether palliative care allows people to die with dignity and free of pain – experts on each side presented diametrically opposed views. When even professionals can’t agree, what’s a judge to decide?
But Collins picked his way through the tortuous legal and ethical minefield and came to the only sensible decision: that it’s for Parliament, the ultimate court in the land, to determine whether doctors should be permitted to assist in the death of terminally ill patients.

This will have disappointed those who believe courts should take an activist role in making law rather than merely interpreting it. But this case wasn’t just about Seales.
It had far broader implications, as Collins would have been keenly aware. He would have been entitled to feel uneasy about creating a precedent that could be applied in cases where terminally ill patients weren’t in command of their faculties as Seales obviously was.

Part of his decision deals with the need to protect vulnerable people from being induced to commit suicide. Advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide insist there can be safeguards against this happening, saying that doctors would have to be satisfied that the person genuinely wanted to die.
But how much faith can be placed in those assurances? After all, the abortion laws require two certifying consultants to satisfy themselves that a pregnant woman’s mental health would be endangered if she gave birth – but history shows that obtaining approval for an abortion is a rubber-stamp process.

Would assisted suicide or euthanasia be any different? If a life in the womb can be extinguished so easily, why should clinicians feel any differently about one that is nearing the end of its course?
Collins prudently and properly decided that such questions are not to be determined by non-elected judges.

His decision may have come as a bitter disappointment to Seales and her supporters, and it  certainly seems to have upset TVNZ's editors. But it was constitutionally correct.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

It's not pretty, but it's preferable to Fifa

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 3.)
You may have heard of “fly on the wall” filmmaking. It’s a technique in which documentary makers record their subjects unobtrusively, so as not to influence their behaviour.
The object is to portray people as they really are. The subjects of the film become so accustomed to the presence of the camera that eventually they forget it’s there and allow the barricade of self-consciousness to drop, revealing their true selves.

A notable example was the Australian documentary Cunnamulla, released in 2000, for which the director spent a year filming and interviewing the inhabitants of a godforsaken town on the edge of the Queensland outback.
The result was a dejecting portrayal of a town that seemed trapped in an aimless, hopeless, sullen torpor.

The participants became accustomed to the presence of the film-maker and spoke with surprising candour about their lives and attitudes (too much candour in the case of two teenage girls, who subsequently took the director to court alleging he had portrayed them as sluts).
An earlier example of the same film-making genre, also Australian, was Rats in the Ranks, in which the film-makers observed the Machiavellian scheming behind the scenes during a mayoral election campaign in the Sydney suburb of Leichardt. 

But New Zealanders are good at this game too. Last week I watched the documentary The Ground We Won, a study of a men’s rugby team in the central North Island farming town of Reporoa.
I wanted to see whether it was as good the critics said it was. It is.

The Ground We Won is about much more than rugby, although that’s the central motif. The film is a revealing but strictly non-judgmental observation of male bonding and the role team sport plays in facilitating it. 
It also casts light on a macho rural male culture that has changed little in recent decades. Urban sophisticates watching it should brace themselves; they might not recognise this other New Zealand. 

The film is superbly made. Producer Miriam Smith and director Christopher Pryor made a bold decision to shoot it entirely in black and white, and the result is unexpectedly beautiful.
But liking the film is not quite the same as liking what it depicts. In some ways, The Ground We Won is disturbing.

Beer is central to the team’s rituals, and prodigious quantities of alcohol are drunk. Sensitive souls might be taken aback at some of the language too; you don’t often hear the C-word used with such vigour and relish.
Townies might also be shocked by a scene in which the main character, a dairy farmer and team kingpin nicknamed Slug, attaches a rope to a quad bike to pull a dead calf from the womb of a cow.
Slug is then shown sitting nonchalantly on the motionless cow while he conducts a conversation on his cellphone. To urban sensibilities the scene is confronting, but it’s just another day on the farm

Women are virtually invisible. The Ground We Won depicts a world that seems exclusively male, although this doesn’t mean wives and girlfriends don’t feature in the men’s lives. They’re just not part of the film.
The only woman who appears in more than an incidental role is a stripper, paid to perform at a boorish initiation rite for a hapless young English rugby enthusiast who has arrived in Reporoa and doesn’t know what’s hit him.

Does the film paint a complimentary picture of masculine culture in rural New Zealand? Not really. In fact it reinforces virtually every negative stereotype about Kiwi blokedom.
For all their crudeness and vulgarity, though, the men are portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light. You sense they’re genuinely concerned for each other. Occasionally some reveal a hint of sensitivity, even tenderness.

The film makers struck gold with the main characters. Slug is a rough-and-ready cockie of Friar Tuck-like physique and countenance, with an unruly mop of tousled blond hair. He’s a solo Dad bringing up lively twin boys and appearing to make a great job of it.
Broomy, the handsome team captain, is thoughtful and articulate in his more reflective moments; Peanut is a charismatic teenager, good-looking and cocky but with an air of vulnerability that some women are likely to find irresistible.  

Farming can be a lonely life, and rugby is important to these men for more reasons than you might imagine.

Quite by chance I later heard Slug (real name Kelvin) interviewed on the radio. He said that in the months leading up to the period when the film was made, Reporoa farmers had been through a tough drought and were under a lot of stress.

Slug reckoned that rugby, and the mateship that went with it, helped relieve the pressure. Presumably the distraction and camaraderie of the game will help them cope with the present milk-price slump too.
I was reminded of an article I wrote years ago about heartland rugby in the Wairarapa. What came through then was that Saturday footy was the social glue that held isolated rural communities together.

That function is likely to become even more important as the country pub, another traditional social hub, edges toward extinction.
And notwithstanding its unrelenting boozy machoism, I can’t help thinking that amateur rugby, Reporoa-style, is morally preferable to the greed and corruption of corporate international sport as exemplified by Sepp Blatter’s Fifa.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Some things are beyond forgiveness

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 29.)
There was a time when I didn’t quite know what to think about the Irish Republican Army.
Before going any further, I should explain my background. My mother was of staunch Irish Catholic stock and I was raised in an environment soaked in Irish Catholicism.

I don’t recall Mum ever expressing a view on the Irish political question, but it probably wasn’t necessary. I was genetically programmed to feel sympathetic to Irish nationalists and to resent the English for what they had done to Ireland.
Besides, I had leftist leanings in my younger days (didn’t we all?), and there was a certain romanticism about Irish revolutionaries and the heroic failure of their attempts to throw off British shackles.

Irish republicans became very adept at exploiting this romantic aura. In 1985, in the midst of the Troubles, I observed a big republican march on Belfast’s Falls Rd. Gerry Adams, who even then was the leader of the Sinn Fein party, was in the front row.
Surrounding him were beaming Irish-American Catholic visitors, mostly from the Boston area – generous donors to the republican movement who were made a great fuss of by their hosts and who no doubt thought they were contributing to the holiest of causes.

Did it occur to them that their dollars might have paid for bombs that killed innocent people? I doubt it.
I’m not sure exactly when I stopped thinking of the IRA as righteous freedom fighters. Initially I rationalised their acts of terrorism as terrible but defensible. I persuaded myself that sometimes the end justifies the means – a rationale that psychopathic ideologues have used as an excuse for all manner of abominable acts.

But eventually I arrived at an absolutely clear position from which I’ve never deviated since. This was that nothing justifies the killing of innocent people; not under any circumstances.
No cause is so righteous that it entitles those pursuing it to take the lives of people, even children, who have done nothing wrong and probably have no power whatsoever to control events.

Of course that’s exactly what terrorists do. They achieve their goals by creating fear and by making it clear that they will go on committing atrocities until the other side loses its nerve and caves in.
This holds true whether it’s in Baghdad, Paris or Northern Ireland (where, I should add, the IRA was not alone: the British Army shot 26 civilians in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, and Protestant loyalists also killed indiscriminately).

You can argue about whether soldiers are legitimate targets. Soldiers enlist in the knowledge that their lives might be on the line. They have a choice.
But ordinary citizens waiting for a bus, eating in a café or travelling on a plane have no say in their fate. Murdering them requires a complete forsaking of conscience and morality.

The worst of the Irish republican bombings took place in Omagh as recently as 1998. Twenty-nine people were killed and 220 injured. The bombing paradoxically accelerated progress toward a peace agreement because of the public revulsion it caused.  It was a rare case of an unintended consequence being a good one.
That terrorist act was carried out by an IRA splinter group which had parted company with the “official” leadership, but the bombing differed from IRA-endorsed atrocities only in scale. The nature of the act was the same.

Which brings me back to Gerry Adams. The Sinn Fein leader has denied repeated allegations that he was an IRA man, but the taint is there. It’s hard to imagine that a man who was for so long at the centre of the republican struggle isn’t stained with blood.
What, then, are we to make of the highly publicised and carefully orchestrated handshake between Adams and Prince Charles, whose great-uncle Lord Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb?

Part of me wants to applaud the meeting as a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
We already had the extraordinary example of the incongruous friendship that blossomed between the Protestant loyalist demagogue Ian Paisley and the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, whose rapport led to them being labelled the “Chuckle brothers” by the British media.

If those two formerly implacable enemies could bury the hatchet, what more appropriate sequel could there be than for the heir to the British throne to put aside Adams’ dodgy past and walk arm-in-arm with him, metaphorically speaking, into a golden future? 
But I’m not so sure.  Some things are beyond forgiveness.