Friday, July 31, 2015

So much for the Licensed Building Practitioner scheme ...

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 29.)
The house I live in was built in 1916. My wife and I plan a party next year to celebrate its centenary.
Of all the houses we’ve owned (this is number seven), it’s the one in which I've felt most at home.

It was built in what architectural historians call the transitional villa style, an intermediate stage between the traditional villa of the late 19th century and the Californian bungalow that became fashionable after World War I.
It’s by no means grand, but the rooms are generously proportioned. It incorporates some lovely woodwork and leadlight glass.

Traditional materials were used (native timber weatherboard, matai flooring, corrugated iron roof), but the house has some unusual features, including charming round leadlight windows that my architectural draughtsman brother told me are known as aurioles.
And boy, was it strongly built. When a builder cut a hole between two rooms to put in French doors several years ago, he marvelled at how sturdy the interior walls were.

Two powerful earthquakes in 1942 – 7.2 and 6.8 respectively on the Richter scale – caused mayhem in Masterton, where we live, but the only damage suffered by our house was the loss of a brick chimney (one of thousands that toppled in the town).
Now here’s my point. You can be sure that whoever built our house had no formal training or qualifications. No one in the building trade did then. I’m not even sure that councils employed building inspectors.

But houses of that era were built to last. My own grandfather was a builder in Palmerston North whose proudest creation, a magnificent 1904 villa called Kaingahou, has a category II rating from Heritage New Zealand and is regarded as a showpiece.
Contrast this with the situation I heard described on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme last week. Complaints about substandard building work have risen by 30 per cent this year. In Auckland, one-third of building inspections result in a “fail”.

Some of the failings were detailed on the programme. They included fundamental stuff like concrete blocks not lining up, gaps and cracks in foundations and walls out of true. Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan described some of the photos she was shown as “shockers”.
Auckland Council’s manager of building control partly attributed the problem to the city’s building boom, which he says has created jobs for a lot of inexperienced people.

Same old, same old. The building industry has always been prone to boom-and-bust cycles.
I couldn’t help thinking that if standards are so poor now, how bad might they get when the promised increase in housing construction starts in Auckland?

But what I most wanted to know was how all this could happen just three and a half years after the government, amid much fanfare, launched the Licensed Building Practitioner (LBP) scheme.
It was introduced in response to the disastrous leaky homes crisis and was supposed to ensure, if I recall correctly, that shoddy building work would be a thing of the past.

The scheme imposed a cumbersome new bureaucracy on the building trade and required tradesmen to jump through all manner of hoops in order to demonstrate competence. A builder friend of mine was almost apoplectic at what he called suffocating control by meddling bureaucrats, which he argued would raise building costs, stifle innovation and create barriers to employment.
The supreme irony, to me, was that the scheme appeared to enhance the power of the very same bureaucracy that had presided over the leaky homes epidemic in the first place.

And what has been the result? More shoddy building work. Ryan got an admission out of the Auckland Council building control manager (who was commendably frank) that we were at risk of another leaky buildings catastrophe.
I waited for her to ask him the obvious question: how could this happen so soon after the introduction of an elaborate scheme expressly created to prevent it? She never did.

I was left to conclude that when you combine political pressure to “do something” about a problem (such as leaky homes) with a naïve faith in the power of regulations to change people’s behaviour, the results are rarely the ones desired.
We have recently seen another example of this. Parental smacking was banned in 2007, supposedly to reduce New Zealand’s shocking incidence of violence against children.

It has done nothing of the sort, just as critics of the anti-smacking law predicted. In fact reported child abuse rates increased by 83 per cent between 2008 and 2013.
All that has happened is that a lot of good parents have been subjected unnecessarily to the stigma and unpleasantness of police investigations for harmless acts of parental discipline.

Similarly, I confidently predict that this year’s reduction in the drink-driving limit will have minimal impact on the road toll. Responsible people have cut back their alcohol intake, even if their consumption was moderate to start with, but reckless drunks will continue to behave as they always have.
It seems there are some lessons we just never learn.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Investigative 'journalist'? I don't think so

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 24.)

Nicky Hager’s lawyer helpfully explained to Justice Denis Clifford in the High Court last week that his client’s name rhymed with lager. As it happens, it also rhymes with saga, which might have been a more appropriate comparison.
Debate about Hager’s book Dirty Politics, which exposed connections between government figures and right-wing muckraker Cameron Slater, dominated last year’s general election campaign. Now it has had a sequel in court, where Hager claims police searched his house unlawfully after Slater complained that material published in the book had been obtained illegally by hacking his computer. (Hager, it should be noted, says he had no part in acquiring the material.)

Hager’s case hinges on whether he can claim the protection of something known as journalistic privilege, which covers the right to protect confidential sources. His lawyer claims the police didn’t adequately consider this right.
Central to the case, it seems to me, is whether Hager is entitled to call himself an investigative journalist. That’s apparently how he prefers to be described, and most of the media oblige him by using that term. The court heard that the Crown accepts he is a journalist.

This is helpful for his image because the word “journalist” conveys a sense of professional impartiality. But to my knowledge Hager has never worked as a journalist in the commonly understood sense of the word, and I resent him appropriating the description.
Journalists follow certain rules. They are expected to approach issues with an open mind and to report them in a balanced and objective way. (Some people dismiss objectivity as unattainable, but in fact it’s a wise and perfectly workable principle that has underpinned mainstream journalism for decades.)

Ideally, if not always in practice, journalists are expected to maintain a certain detachment. Where there’s another side to a story, they are expected to report it. And when they make allegations against people, they give them an opportunity to respond. Hager doesn’t abide by these rules.
What journalists don’t do, in my experience, is set out to pursue causes, which is what Hager has done for nearly 20 years. All his books and articles are directed toward a consistent end. Everything he does is calculated to challenge and undermine what we loosely call “the establishment”.

Sure, he uses journalistic skills, and uses them very well. He could show journalists a few things about digging beneath the surface and uncovering information that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden. But that’s partly a reflection of his motivation, which is that of a doggedly determined leftist crusader.
What he does is entirely legitimate and even praiseworthy in an open democracy, providing it’s done lawfully. Hager’s books make an important contribution to informed debate and help voters make decisions on important issues, such as state surveillance and honesty in government.

But does that make him a journalist? I don’t believe so. He was more accurately described in police documents as a political author. You could also call him an activist (which he apparently dislikes), a campaigner, an annoying pebble in the shoe of the establishment – but not a journalist.
Justice Clifford, of course, may decide differently. He may determine that there was enough of a legitimate journalistic function in what Hager did to entitle him to the protection of privilege. (And no, this column is not an attempt to sway him; High Court judges are impervious to the opinions of columnists.)

There are two other aspects of the Hager saga that trouble me. One was the timing of his book.
Bona fide journalists don’t set out with the express purpose of sabotaging a political party’s election campaign. Yet it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Dirty Politics was timed to cause maximum damage to the National Party.

My other problem is that crucial material in the book was allegedly obtained by an electronic form of theft.
This was justified by Hager’s defenders on the basis that theft is okay, even laudable, if it results in the disclosure of information that deserves to be published in the public interest. But I would argue that at the very least, this is morally dubious territory.

We may be better off for knowing that Slater ran a political bad-mouthing campaign in cahoots with government figures, but that doesn’t get around the fact that the information in Dirty Politics appears to have been acquired improperly.
Hager likes to claim the moral high ground, but the truth is that he was up to his eyeballs in the dirty politics he professes to despise.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Savaged by goldfish - again

As I fully expected, I came under attack yesterday from some of my fellow journalists over my criticism of Nicky Hager’s claim to be an investigative journalist.
The usual suspects were represented among the comments posted on the Kiwi Journalists’ Association Facebook page. The sleazy socialist journalism academic Martin Hirst popped up like an unwelcome recurring pimple – the first time I’ve encountered his odious presence since he left the Auckland University of Technology journalism school several years ago to return to his native Australia.

According to Hirst, I’m a tired old 19th century opinion machine who hasn’t been a journalist for years. Hirst wouldn’t have a clue about the work I still do as a reporter (work unrelated to my opinion columns), but ignorance has never been any impediment to people like him.

A former Radio New Zealand journalist named Colin Feslier had a go at me too. Feslier’s name will be listed in the annals of New Zealand journalism for one reason only. As a PR flunky at the Department of Internal Affairs in 2009, he misled the media about Winston Peters’ failure to return a ministerial car after the election. And he made things worse by boasting in an email (wrongly, as it turned out) that he had managed to persuade TVNZ, TV3 and the Dominion Post to “terminate their interest in the story”.
Sorry, but I’m not likely to regard Feslier as an authority on anything to do with journalism. He revealed his dismal lack of understanding when he suggested that by my own definition of “journalist”, I should have offered Hager a chance to respond to my comments about him. Apparently he fails to grasp the fundamental distinction between a piece of investigative journalism and an opinion column. Or perhaps he does get it, but it suits him to pretend not to.

Similarly, some commenters have challenged my statement that journalists don’t pursue causes. What about Phil Kitchin, Pat Booth and Donna Chisholm? they ask.
They are either thick or dishonest. There is a world of difference between a journalist seeking justice for a woman alleging rape by police officers, or men wrongly convicted of crimes, and what Hager does. There was no underlying political motive in the admirable stories written by Booth, Kitchin and Chisholm. With Hager, on the other hand, it’s all about politics. He’s not interested in stories that don’t advance his political agenda. I’m sure I didn’t have to put the adjective “ideological” in the front of the word “causes” for most of my readers to understand that.

I understand several journalists had a whack at me on Twitter too, including one quite high-profile political reporter. They do us all a big favour by revealing their true feelings, although it can’t do much for their reputations as journalists.
There’s something significant going on when supposedly impartial journalists, especially ones who cover politics, so freely display their biases. I share the concern expressed by Alastair Thompson in his recent radio interview about the line between politics and journalism becoming increasingly blurred (although it apparently didn’t occur to Alastair that he’s contributed to this himself).

How has this come about?  To return to an old theme of mine, it has a lot to do with the teaching of journalism. Until the 1970s, journalists learned their trade on the job. If they got above themselves they were sharply pulled into line by crusty, hard-nosed old hacks (not necessarily male) who adhered strictly to traditional precepts about balance and objectivity.
But we now have two generations of journalists who graduated from journalism schools where teaching is often highly politicised by people such as the aforementioned Hirst. Many of these tutors and lecturers have had minimal journalism experience; just enough to persuade slack, lazy institutions to give them a job. They were far stronger on leftist ideology than on journalistic practice.

Hardly surprising, then, that many trainee journalists are taught that their primary mission is to make life difficult for the institutions of power (an honourable journalistic function, but it doesn’t define what journalism is about). This naturally makes them sympathetic to left-wing crusaders, such as Hager, and hostile to those on the right, such as Cameron Slater (and me too, obviously). They deeply resent any voice that runs counter to the comfortable soft-left groupthink that dominates media discourse.
It must be incredibly galling that the vast mass of ordinary people remain profoundly indifferent to their noisy chatter, as was demonstrated by the 2014 election result. Or were they simply too self-absorbed to get the message?

Monday, July 20, 2015

The New Puritans and their vision of Utopia

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 15.)
New Zealanders are under siege, bombarded almost weekly with warnings that we’re killing ourselves, either by drinking too much, eating the wrong food or being too fond of sugar.
Last week a coterie of academics from Otago, Auckland and Oxford universities called for special taxes on fatty and salty foods and government subsidies on fruit and vegetables.

Luckily for them, they wouldn’t have to work out the nightmarish regulatory details such a proposal would entail, nor pay for the army of public servants that would be required to administer it. Not their problem.
A couple of weeks earlier, at a conference in Wellington, the head of preventive and social medicine at Otago University, who also happens to be a campaigner for stringent liquor controls, recited a slew of scary statistics linking alcohol consumption with cancer.

Professor Jennie Connor said that for women, cancer was the most common fatal consequence of drinking, accounting for 44 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths. In 2007, according to her figures, 243 cancer deaths were attributed to drinking.
And just to frighten people more, she said that about one-third of alcohol-related cancer deaths occurred among women who had fewer than two drinks a day.

In other words, forget all that reassuring stuff about drinking in moderation. There’s no “safe” level of consumption.
Now I admit I’m just a dumb layman, but loose phrases such as “attributed to drinking” and “related to drinking” arouse my journalist’s scepticism. They seem to fall short of a definitive statement that these women got cancer and died specifically as a result of drinking.

Besides, I wondered how doctors could be so sure that it was alcohol that caused these fatal cancers and not some other factor – or, more likely, combination of factors. How can they so confidently rule out genes, for example, or general diet and lifestyle?
And why don’t academic researchers also mention, just to prove they’re not ideologically biased, that many people drink in moderation throughout their lives and are still healthy in their 80s and 90s? That might present a slightly more balanced picture.

It would help, too, if the journalists reporting alarmist statements about diet and alcohol were a little less credulous. But we’re conditioned to defer to people with titles like “professor” and to assume they speak with Olympian authority and strict scientific neutrality. Their statements are generally reported unquestioningly.
Attempts by public health “experts” to scare us into changing our behaviour, and to bludgeon politicians into passing restrictive laws,  bear a striking similarity to the moral crusade waged by prohibitionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of those earlier crusaders were driven by religious convictions, but it’s not religion that motivates today’s academics. There may be a quasi-religious intensity in the way they push their message, but their motives are more ideological than spiritual.
I suspect they have a vision of a perfect society, one that would be achievable if only people knew what was good for them. But ordinary people are greedy, stupid and blind to reason, so other solutions must be found – coercion by legislation, for example, and dissuasion from bad habits through the introduction of higher taxes on products like liquor, sugar and fatty foods, or restrictions on marketing, purchasing age and trading hours.

And their ideal of a Utopian society doesn’t always involve denying people things. It can also mean giving them something, whether they ask for it or not.
In one of the more extreme ideas to emerge from Dunedin-based academics, it was recently proposed that all teenage girls should be fitted with contraceptive implants or intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) before they become sexually active.

The purpose, its backers say, would be to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. But according to a study by another university, Waikato, these are coming down anyway, and have been since 2008.
Under the proposal, girls would automatically be given long-term contraceptives unless they chose to opt out – “in the same way as children are vaccinated,” as one of the idea’s backers helpfully put it. He didn’t say at what age he thought this should happen: 12, perhaps? 13?

This is a form of social control that reads like something out of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. It would be another step in the creeping intrusion of the state into areas of life where people have traditionally made their own decisions.
The idea also has a moral dimension in that it suggests the liberated ideals of the swinging sixties are alive and well in the universities. By assuming that it’s normal for girls to become sexually active while young, it would effectively encourage them to do so. Liberals are very good at ignoring the damage done by the sexual revolution.

It’s tempting to dismiss the backers of such ideas as control freaks, but perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good.
My problem with such people is twofold. First, they believe that the perfect society is attainable only through the intervention of the state, and that this justifies laws that impinge heavily on individual choice. And second (which is closely related), they have no trust in the wisdom of ordinary people. They seem incapable of accepting that most of us are capable of behaving sensibly and in our own best interests without coercion or interference by governments and bureaucrats.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sledging: just one of the things that makes us different from Australia

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 10).
I wonder if the time has come to abandon the myth that New Zealanders and Australians are kindred spirits, joined at the hip.
The clincher for me was the behaviour of the Australian cricketers during the final match of the Cricket World Cup.

New Zealand was comprehensively outplayed; there’s no getting around that. But the Australians weren’t content with merely winning.
They couldn’t resist snarling like rabid Tasmanian devils, goading and taunting the beaten New Zealand batsmen even as they were heading back to the pavilion.

For what purpose? The Australians didn’t have the excuse that they needed to intimidate or unnerve their opponents. They’d already got them out, for heaven’s sake.
It was something rarely seen: sledging not as a tactic to win (questionable enough at the best of times, but expected from the Australians), but for the pure pleasure of it.

Brad Haddin was the principal offender. He’s the embodiment of the Ugly Australian – a boorish, braying, gloating, charmless braggart, incapable of even winning graciously.
He later tried to explain his actions by saying the Kiwis deserved everything they got. They were just too damned nice. He couldn’t bear it.

This suggests that Haddin suffers from a serious personality disorder, but he can always argue that he was merely taking his cue from his skipper. In 2013, Michael Clarke was heard telling the English batsman Jimmy Anderson: “Get ready for a broken f***ing arm.”
Australians invented sledging and have made it an art form. As long ago as the mid-1970s, Rod Marsh and skipper Ian Chappell (brother of Greg, who instigated another noble example of Australian sportsmanship, the infamous underarm bowling incident of 1981) were said to vie with each other in profanity.

Some people – the sort of people who regard winning as everything – admire this untrammelled aggression, but Australia is the only cricketing country that routinely indulges in it. They’re proud of it; it’s their point of difference.
Far from feeling contrite about his behaviour in the CWC final, Haddin has promised more of the same during Australia’s current tour of England. The Black Caps may have won universal acclaim in England for the way they played and behaved on their recent tour (“majestic in every way”, Roger Alton wrote in the Spectator), but Haddin advised the English media not to expect the same from Australia. That’s not how they do things.

All of which makes you wonder whether there’s a dark flaw in the Australian character.
We joke about Australians being descended from convicts, but perhaps it truly has tainted them. That would help explain not only their uncouth demeanour on the cricket pitch but a few other things besides: their tolerance of corruption, the preponderance of organised crime and their feral politics.

The comforting cliché is that Australians and New Zealanders are blood brothers whose bonds were forged in war, but we spring from different historical roots and have evolved into two quite distinct cultures.
I sometimes suspect we don’t really like each other much. We resent their swaggering braggadocio and loud nationalism. They regard us with indifference most of the time, dismissing us as too small and insignificant to amount to anything.

But they hate it when we do things better than they can, they don’t like competing with us on a level playing field (remember how hard they fought to keep our apples out?), and they never hesitate to claim our successes as their own. It came as news to an Australian-based friend of mine, for example, that the singer Keith Urban – routinely promoted in Australia as the boy from Caboolture, Queensland – is a New Zealander.
Our prime ministers have often disliked each other – famously in the case of Lange and Hawke – and according to recent reports, the Australians have even tried to erase New Zealand from the Anzac narrative. So much for trans-Tasman mateship.

Yes, we still have more in common with Australia than with any other country, and there are lots of things about Australia that I like.
I go there often and enjoy it for its energy, its colour and its larrikin humour. Only an Australian could come up with the expression “as lonely as a bastard on Father’s Day”.

Besides, not all Australians are yobbos. I’m sure many cringed with shame at Haddin’s antics.
But dare I say it, I think we have a more civilised society on our side of the ditch, and I think we should at least thank Haddin for demonstrating it.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Honouring those gentle, benign stingrays

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 1).

I read recently that the New Zealand Geographic Board proposes to change the name of Frank Kitts Lagoon, on the Wellington waterfront, to Whairepo Lagoon.
Fair enough. Sir Frank Kitts, a long-serving Wellington mayor, is already commemorated in the name of a nearby park. And while Whairepo may not be the easiest name for non-speakers of Maori to get their tongues around, it has local relevance. Whairepo is the Maori name for the eagle rays – commonly known as stingrays – that are frequently seen basking and feeding in the lagoon.

So far, so good, then. But hang on a minute.
In a submission requesting the name change, the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, which represents the original Maori occupants of the land around Wellington Harbour, said Maori believed the eagle rays acted as kaitiaki, or guardians, ensuring the safety of waka (canoes) and people in and around the lagoon.

This belief was solemnly cited in a Geographic Board press statement.  At this point an otherwise unexceptionable proposal starts to look decidedly flaky.
Was this a practical joke, intended to take the mickey out of earnest Pakeha liberals, or are we really expected to take such mumbo-jumbo seriously?

I doubt that even Maori genuinely believe the eagle ray is some sort of mystical, benign presence, kindly watching over recreational lagoon users.
It’s a fish, for heaven’s sake. What’s more, the eagle ray is capable of inflicting a very painful wound on any idiot gullible enough to believe that it feels benevolently inclined toward human intruders.

In instances such as this, the desire to show respect for other cultures collides head-on with common sense and empirical knowledge about the real world.
It’s one thing to respect Maori heritage and to acknowledge their legitimate interest in conferring names on public places, but that doesn’t mean deferring to folklore that we know to be absurd.

But here’s the problem. Many liberal Pakeha New Zealanders, desperate to do the right thing, buy into this nonsense. Ironically, even people who scoff at conventional religious belief, deriding it as so much fearful superstition, happily abandon their scepticism whenever the tangata whenua invoke primitive mythology. It’s tikanga, and therefore sacred and not to be challenged.
In a rational world, the Port Nicholson Settlement Block Trust would invite mockery by expecting us to believe that fish possess some sort of spiritual power. But in our eagerness to be fashionably bicultural, we defer to statements that we know to be preposterous.

The trust could have made its case quite persuasively without resorting to superstition, just as a former mayor of Masterton, Frank Cody, recently argued for the summit on State Highway 2 between the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa to be renamed.
It has customarily been known as the Rimutaka Hill Road, but the word Rimutaka is meaningless. It’s a corruption of the original name, which was Remutaka, meaning “to sit down” – so named, according to Maori tradition, by the Maori chief Haunui when he rested at the summit while looking down on the land beyond.

Those in favour of restoring the original name have made their case rationally and convincingly. Changing the name of Frank Kitts Lagoon to Whairepo should be similarly uncontroversial. Why, then, do its backers resort to the equivalent of fairy tales?
I can only surmise that it’s a means by which Maori interests seek to exert influence over public decision-makers who see it as career-enhancing to display cultural empathy, even if it means bowing to beliefs they know to be ridiculous.

At least this time there’s no economic cost attached, unlike the preposterous incident in 2002 when construction of a new highway in the Waikato was halted because of Maori concerns that it would disturb a resident taniwha. Transit New Zealand meekly caved in and agreed to re-route the new road.
On that occasion, Dr Ranginui Walker, a former professor of Maori studies, defended the belief in taniwha as a cultural thing – “just as the same as goblins are part of European culture”.

The difference, of course, is that no one pretends goblins actually exist, and I very much doubt that any European highway was ever re-routed to avoid upsetting them.
Granted, there may once have been a practical basis for stories about taniwha. Walker cited a dangerous place on the Waikato River where Maori children were warned against swimming because a taniwha would get them.

In that case, telling scary stories about a taniwha was a sensible way of keeping kids out of trouble. But it’s a credibility-breaking leap from there to asserting that taniwha genuinely exist and that we must humour them.
But sadly, we should expect more of this sort of thing. It’s not so long since Radio New Zealand reported, without a hint of scepticism, that volcanic activity on White Island and Mt Tongaririo was a sign that Ruamoko, the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, was unhappy about the government’s plan to sell off state assets.