Monday, August 31, 2015

The wit of Bart Cummings

In the obituaries for the great Australian racehorse trainer Bart Cummings, who died at the weekend, much has been made of his dry sense of humour and talent for one-liners. I recall one myself when I interviewed him at the Trentham Yearling Sales, circa 1980. The price of thoroughbred horseflesh had gone crazy; colts and fillies were fetching record prices. I asked the great man about this and he was ready with a typically deadpan reply. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s what they call galloping inflation.”

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Workplace safety debate reduced to farce

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 26.)
Opportunistic grandstanding on one side, incompetent political management on the other. That was my take on last week’s furore over workplace health and safety legislation.
It’s probably not necessary, but let’s revisit the background to this stoush.

Twenty-nine miners died in the Pike River mine explosion in 2010. A subsequent Royal Commission exposed shocking deficiencies in the way the mine was managed.
Warnings of dangerous methane levels went unheeded and there was no second exit from the mine. Production took priority over safety and monitoring by the Department of Labour was scandalously slack.

Following the commission’s damning report, the government set up an independent taskforce to review workplace health and safety more generally. It found that safety standards, monitoring and accountability were lax across the board in New Zealand industry and recommended a comprehensive rewrite of workplace health and safety laws.
As if to underline the message, in the year the taskforce report came out (2013), 10 men died in forestry accidents.

Out of that came the Health and Safety Reform Bill. Everyone supported the legislation – not just unions, but the government and business groups too. Pike River seemed to have shocked all the players into a rare state of accord.
But last month something unexpected happened. The National Party, having previously given the impression of being fully committed to workplace safety reform, watered down what the Labour Party and the unions saw as a key provision.

Under the amended bill, businesses with fewer than 20 employees in industries deemed to be lower-risk were to be excluded from an obligation to have elected health and safety representatives.
Why National had second thoughts isn’t entirely clear. Most political commentators put it down to last-minute lobbying by farming interests, worried that the new law would impose too great a burden.

Others said it was an act of defiance by stroppy National backbenchers and pointed the finger at disaffected former Cabinet ministers Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson.
The Left worked itself into a fine old lather, angrily protesting that the change meant the new law would be worse than the one it replaced.

You could understand why unions felt betrayed by the government’s back-pedalling, but that was a wild overstatement.
Certainly the bill was weakened, especially when you consider that 97 per cent of workplaces employ fewer than 20 people. But the majority of those workplaces are not high-risk, so the outcry was a bit theatrical. So was the carefully orchestrated presence at Parliament of widows and families bereaved by workplace accidents.

It was only to be expected that the unions would extract maximum leverage from the situation. After all, they don’t get many opportunities these days to put runs on the board. But there were moments when I felt those widows and families were too blatantly being used in pursuit of a political agenda.
As Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse pointed out, larger workplaces – which, although relatively few in number, employ 75 per cent of the labour force – will still be subject to the requirement to have elected health and safety representatives. And all the other provisions of the legislation will still apply to smaller workplaces, so they’re not “off the hook”, in the minister’s words.

It was on the question of risk that the workplace safety debate descended to the level of farce. National’s support parties, sensing an opportunity to assert themselves, refused to simply wave the amended bill through. They wanted more certainty on which industries would be defined as high-risk and therefore required to have elected health and safety representatives, even in small workplaces.
The government appeared not to have anticipated that complication and was forced into last-minute negotiations. In its haste, it adopted existing, arbitrary classifications of risk that were riddled with bizarre anomalies, much to the media’s delight. 

That was how worm farms and mini-golf ended up being defined as high-risk while livestock farming conveniently (from National’s perspective) escaped the net. A smarter minister might have seen the potential for embarrassment in advance and had a Plan B ready, but Woodhouse doesn’t give the impression of being the sharpest knife in the drawer.
In the end, I don’t think anyone emerged from this imbroglio with a lot of credit. The government not only appeared to have pandered to special interests, but looked incompetent politically. A case of third term-itis, perhaps.

For their part, opposition parties and the unions overplayed their hand, accusing the government of putting profits before people and failing to acknowledge that even in its slightly watered-down form, workers should be much safer under the new regime than the old. And in all the fuss over the "watered-down" provision, no one explained how a system of elected health and safety representatives would work where farms are run by only one or two people, sometimes father and son or husband and wife. 
Some of the news media deserve a slap too, for playing heavily on the emotional scars of bereaved Pike River and forestry families when the debate had moved on and their experiences, painful though they undoubtedly were,  were no longer strictly relevant.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

No one's forced to eat junk food

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 21.)

When I think of Otago, I’m inclined to think of it as a place of solid, practical people – people like Henry Shacklock, who made cast-iron coal ranges, the original Sir James Fletcher, founder of the construction company that bears his name, and Bendix Hallenstein, a 19th century businessman whose name lives on in a national menswear chain.
Dunedin today still has an aura of Presbyterian sturdiness and self-reliance (although Hallenstein, of course, was Jewish). The Otago Daily Times is the last of the traditional New Zealand daily newspapers, still family-owned, still concentrating on what it does best – which is local news, delivered on paper – and faring pretty well compared with digitally focused papers elsewhere.

But I have to accept that my romantic view of Otago is hopelessly outdated. Because far from being a place associated with useful, functional things like stoves, houses and trousers, Otago has ironically become a name synonymous with the 21st century phenomenon of academic busybody-ism.  

Unlike the business enterprises of those early entrepreneurs, this is not a field of activity intended to ease people’s lives or make a raw young country more liveable.
On the contrary, it sets out to frighten and discomfort New Zealanders with an almost constant campaign of shrill hectoring and haranguing. Its only point in common with Dunedin’s Presbyterian founders is its unshakeable moral sanctimony.

I refer specifically to Otago University’s once admired medical school, which gives the public impression of having become a nest of tiresome academics whose lecturing, sadly, isn’t directed only at their students.
No doubt there are many in the university’s medical faculty who continue to work quietly and inconspicuously with the noble aim of training others to cure the sick, the lame and the mentally afflicted.

But the most publicly visible Otago University academics are those on a self-appointed mission to save us all from our own folly – people like professors Doug Sellman and Jennie Connor, neither of whom misses any opportunity to whip up alarm over our alcohol consumption (which, by international standards, is actually quite moderate).
The odd thing about their highly emotive rhetoric is that most of the people at whom it’s directed have nothing wrong with them.

Most New Zealanders are sensible enough not to binge on things that they know are bad for them if indulged in to excess, but the New Puritans in the universities don’t trust ordinary people to make their own decisions. They think the state – guided of course by learned experts – should determine how we live.
Alcohol isn’t the only supposed scourge that gets these moral crusaders fired up. Fatty foods, sugar and salt are all on the list of addictions that we’re apparently powerless to resist.

Neither is Otago the only university that employs them. But it’s unquestionably the go-to institution if you want to be badgered about your eating and drinking habits. The Dunedin campus produces self-righteous finger-waggers the way Ethiopia produces marathon runners.
A previously unfamiliar one popped up a few days ago on Radio New Zealand. Dr Lisa Te Morenga of Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition said an improvement in Maori health required a reduction in the socio-economic gap between them and non-Maori. More specifically, she said the government needed to intervene more to help Maori make healthy food choices.

Introducing class politics into the health debate is nothing new, but it was what she said next that particularly interested me. According to Te Morenga, it’s difficult to make healthy choices when constrained by poverty, "especially when there's a plethora of cheap, high-calorie food out there".
This is nonsense. It recycles the tired old mantra that people are trapped into eating unhealthy food because it’s cheap; that they are at the mercy of slick marketing campaigns.

Plenty of nutritious food – potatoes, rice, pasta – is much cheaper than the Big Macs and KFC that a lot of Maori people eat.
If some Maori don’t know how to cook healthy food, then let’s address that.  If people are miraculously still unaware that fatty food causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes, then perhaps we need to find a new way of reaching them through education campaigns.

But to suggest that people don’t eat the right food because they can’t afford it strikes me as lazy and simplistic, although of course it aligns with the prevailing ideology in academia.
It also absolves people of personal responsibility for their choices. They can excuse their bad eating habits on the grounds that they are the victims of heartless, manipulative capitalists.

I’m no apologist for the fast food industry. I curse it every time I pick up discarded McDonald’s bags or KFC cartons in the street. But no one is forced to eat burgers or deep-fried chicken, any more than they are forced to smoke.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thanks for the attention, guys

In my line of work you tend to cop quite a lot of personal abuse – the more so since the Internet made it possible to make abusive comments instantly, effortlessly and under the protection of anonymity.

Much of this abuse occurs at a subterranean level, on blogs or Twitter streams that I might have no knowledge of. When I do become aware of it, which is usually when someone tips me off, there’s always the question: do I respond?
Mostly I don’t. Life is too short, and I have a living to earn. I marvel at people whose names (or more often pseudonyms) crop up constantly in the blogosphere or on Twitter. I can only assume they have nothing to do, which may explain why they seem perpetually peevish.

In any case, I have to accept that criticism goes with the territory. I dish it out, and I have to expect some back in return. As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”.
But every now and again, I come across something that seems to call for a response. It happened today, when my attention was drawn to a recent exchange on Twitter.

Someone called Dan (Why so timid, Dan? Tell us who you are) tweeted: “Karl du Fresne looks like he wears his 2001 Alcatel cellular telephone in a holster attached to his belt”.
To which New Zealand Herald journalist Matt Nippert responded: “And no low-slung holster either. That belt’s hitched high.”

Another Herald journalist, Juha Saarinen, joined the fun: “Right below the moobies”.
At this point, anonymous Dan weighed in again: “Visible, obviously, because his shirt is proper tucked in.”

Now if you were na├»ve, you’d laugh this off as a bit of harmless fun.  But of course it’s nothing of the sort. It’s malice masquerading as humour.
I have no idea what prompted this particular exchange, but I’m guessing these guys don’t much like what I write. So they resort to sneering and ridicule. They create a caricature of me as a sad old dinosaur who’s been left floundering helplessly in the wake of the digital revolution,  wears his pants around his chest  and doesn’t realise that it’s uncool to tuck his shirt in.

I’ve been subjected to far more vicious online attacks, so won’t lose any sleep over this one. But it’s worth commenting on for several reasons.
The first is that it’s a classic ad hominem attack, mounted via a medium perfectly suited to ad hominem attacks. Since Twitter imposes a limit of 140 characters, participants are conveniently excused from developing a coherent argument. Far easier to discredit someone by constructing a man of straw (based on what? The mug shot on my column?) and then tearing it down. Job done.

And let’s examine this crude caricature further. A newspaper column, or even something as expansive as a blog, often reveals only a small part of the writer and his or her private life (unless, of course, we’re talking about Deborah Hill Cone). Columns often tell you nothing about who the columnist’s friends are, what’s most important to them personally, what they wear, the books they read, the films they watch or the music they listen to.
The Three Mouseketeers of the Twittersphere mentioned above wouldn’t have a clue about the sort of person I am, but this doesn’t stop them from making assumptions on which to base puerile personal attacks. (There’s nothing new here. In the past I’ve been described as an ardent National Party supporter and a devout Catholic, both comically wrong.)

My second point is that in these situations, people typically hunt in packs. They post their comments in friendly forums where they are confident of attracting support.  They operate in the smug certainty that in the groupthink of the echo-chamber, their Twitter followers or blog commenters can be relied on to back them up.
In short, it’s the dynamics of the gang, where people seek reassurance and security in numbers. Not everyone in a gang is necessarily gutless, but by their very nature gangs attract cowards and curs.

My third and perhaps most important point is that if I really were the pathetic figure these people make me out to be, they would ignore me.  I wouldn’t be worth the time of day. So I regard their attempted ridicule as a perverse compliment, and should probably thank them for the attention.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Zealand's forgotten fallen

Bob Davies, a former Sergeant-Major of the New Zealand Army (in other words, the army's top non-commissioned officer), delivered this speech on Sunday in Auckland to mark Vietnam Veterans' Day. I'm happy to reproduce it here.

After World War One, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was formed to establish an appropriate way to discharge the debt of honour each country owed to its fallen.  By the end of World War Two and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s mandate, 1.7 million fallen were commemorated in 23,000 cemeteries and memorials across 157 countries.  Those who have had the privilege to visit any of these sites cannot but be overawed, not just by the scale of the casualties – for there is surely that - but by the overwhelming dignity and solemnity of the environment that enfolds the earthly remains of those who sacrificed all so that the rest of us may have a future.  While nothing can compensate for such sacrifice, at least their remains are protected in perpetuity as they lie alongside their comrades in peace.  They are our Glorious Dead.

Since New Zealand first sent troops overseas in 1899 to assist the British Empire in its fight against the South African Boers, we have lost 28,923 servicemen and women who were killed in action, died of wounds or who died of a result of illness or accident due to their operational service; service, I shouldn’t need to remind you, which was in pursuit of the government of the day’s international priorities.   It is very difficult to get one’s head around such a statistic so let me help you.  If we laid each of the 28,923 fallen head-to-foot, beginning at the Bombay BP Station on State Highway 1, they would extend to somewhere around the Northcote off-ramp on the other side of the Harbour Bridge. 

Almost, but not quite at the end of that line, you’ll find 32 men; they are our forgotten fallen.  These are men who were killed since World War Two.  They served in South East Asia, in Malaya and in Vietnam.  No longer under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, some of these men lie in obscure cemeteries, some in graves which are overgrown or in graves that are very difficult to access.  And because they are not subject to the same rules as those who lie in a Commonwealth War Grave, their resting places are not protected. 

They lie there because their families could not afford to have their bodies returned to New Zealand.  If you visit the National War Memorial at Pukeahu, the Army Memorial Museum in Waiouru, or the Auckland War Memorial Museum, their sacrifice is acknowledged alongside the rest of our fallen, except in their case their resting place is not so glorious.   Their next of kin have grieved no less than any other of the families from other conflicts, but to these families their treatment demonstrates that the country considers theirs to be of a lesser sacrifice as, unlike their forefathers and their sons, successive governments have failed to discharge the debt of honour that the country owes to them.

For some years now, there have been efforts to have these men returned to New Zealand, but without success.  The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs just in May this year stated the Government had no intention to change its policy and repatriate these forgotten fallen, this during the 100th commemorative year and despite a Cabinet paper that concedes the unfairness of their treatment.  He also gave a further reason: that historically soldiers were buried where they fell.  Clearly he is misinformed as none of the fallen lie in Vietnam – and more tellingly – nor do they lie in East Timor, Iraq or in Afghanistan.

With an ironic and questionable sense of timing, the Prime Minister decided this was the year to run a campaign to change the flag, the flag under which these men fell.  Whether this is a good idea or not is not only irrelevant but extraordinarily insensitive and thoughtless if most returned servicemen, those we are supposedly commemorating this year and next, object to it as the RSA informs us they do.

The 2007 Cabinet paper estimated the cost of repatriation of the 32 forgotten fallen to be considerably less than $500,000.  That may have increased somewhat in the years since but whatever its cost today, it will be miniscule in comparison to the $24 million dedicated to changing the flag.

The Prime Minister has made much recently of the importance of New Zealand contributing to ‘The Club’ when once again the Government has placed our young men and women in harm's way to demonstrate our solidarity with it.   On 20 May this year our closest ally in ‘The Club’, Australia, announced in Parliament it was repatriating Australian war dead from Malaysia.  Can we expect the New Zealand Government to again show solidarity by similarly repatriating our forgotten fallen?  Apparently not.

Fellow Vietnam veterans join me today in challenging this Government to return our forgotten fallen to the country for which they have sacrificed all and before the flag is changed.   Let the National Government, the Government that sent us off to our war and that has ignored us since, now make amends.

Lest we forget.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Must TV cameras intrude on private grief?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 12.)
When I joined the now-defunct New Zealand Journalists’ Association in 1968 (union membership in those days being compulsory), I automatically signed up to the journalists’ code of ethics.
One of the rules in that code was that journalists should accept no compulsion to intrude on private grief. In other words if my boss asked me to seek an interview with a family that had just lost someone in a car accident, I was entitled to say no, and the union would back me.

The rule was generally respected, although ambitious young journalists often accepted such assignments nonetheless, knowing they were a source of good human-interest stories. I did such “death-knocks”, as they were known, once or twice myself.
It was well-known that bereaved people would often open up willingly to a reporter who turned up on the doorstep. It was a chance to pay tribute to the person who had died and it seemed to have a cathartic effect, as if it was the first step in the process of grieving and confronting their loss.

The resulting stories were usually handled sensitively. Complaints from families alleging that they had been exploited or manipulated were rare.
Despite knowing all this, I squirmed last week when One News showed footage of the three Nepalese sisters who lost their parents and younger brother in a fire in Waimate.

TV3 News, which I gave up watching months ago after it gratuitously broadcast video of an ugly assault involving teenage girls in Northland, apparently screened similar footage. 
The three sisters appeared to be comforting each other in bed. The camera moved in very close and lingered for an inexcusably long time on the weeping siblings.

The oldest sister tried to speak but mumbled only a few words before breaking down. I shouted at the TV set to leave them alone. My wife felt the same way but sensibly refrained from shouting, realising it probably wouldn’t have much effect.
I often feel uncomfortable watching people sharing their most intimate thoughts and experiences with television interviewers. I want to say “Stop! You shouldn’t be revealing these things to an audience of strangers.”

But I have to accept that they appear to be speaking voluntarily and in full knowledge of what they’re doing, even if the reasons escape me. When it comes to intrusions into privacy, there’s no bright, clear line separating what’s ethical or acceptable from what’s clearly beyond the pale.
Even the fuzziest line, though, was crossed in the coverage of the grieving sisters from Waimate. The camera made us all voyeurs in a moment of intense grief – and for what purpose? 

Did it tell us anything about the tragedy that we weren’t able to deduce for ourselves? Or was it just a cheap attempt to wallow in the emotion of the moment, as television loves to do?
Not only would the sisters have been emotionally vulnerable, but they were still relatively recent immigrants from a culture not accustomed to the Western media’s way of doing things.

That makes matters worse. They wouldn’t have had PR advisers on hand to advise them how to deal with the media.
That they agreed to the interview is no justification for its screening, as was apparently argued by someone from TV3 on Twitter. The sisters may have thought this was just how things are done in New Zealand. You suffer a tragic event and you let the TV cameras in to record your sorrow. 

What a shame no one told them they didn’t have to do this; that they were entitled to mourn in private.
I’ve heard it suggested that the sisters were persuaded not only to give the interview, but to make their grief obvious because it would encourage people to donate to a fund set up for them. But that’s a darkly cynical spin to put on events. I prefer to think they assumed this was what’s expected of bereaved people in New Zealand.

Either way, TV news editors should have had the discretion not to broadcast the footage, or at least to keep it to a few seconds. But no, the sight of distraught people struggling to come to terms with a personal tragedy was just too good to resist.
It caused me to wonder, yet again, why I bother to turn on the 6pm news when so much of it makes me cringe. The answer, I suppose, is that we human beings are social animals who need to know what’s happening in the world, even if we have to see it through the distorting filters of the news bulletin.

One good thing came out of this. On talkback radio that night there was an outpouring of disgust over the item. Many callers said they had switched off. “Vultures” was one of the more pithy epithets used.
Similar sentiments were expressed on a New Zealand journalists’ Facebook page. When even some of the TV journalists’ peers found the footage repugnant, and said so, perhaps there’s some hope for us after all.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Has the food cult got out of hand?

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 7.)
As I write this, the salivary glands of Wellington foodies will be working overtime in anticipation of the Wellington on a Plate festival. But I’m strangely unexcited.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I have no interest in eating. Quite the contrary.

I love food and regard every meal as an adventure. I’m lucky to have a wife who’s not only a terrific cook but who doesn’t seem to mind that my first words to her most mornings are “What’s for breakfast?”
I have sometimes wondered whether my enthusiasm for eating is a bit unnatural. Is it normal to recall, with vivid clarity, flavours from dishes eaten decades ago? (The rahm schnitzel from Wellington’s long-vanished Mecca restaurant lives in my memory.)

But I needn’t have worried. In terms of obsession with food, I apparently trail well behind the pack – which brings me back to Wellington on a Plate.
The festival programme arrived with my Dominion Post several weeks ago. It runs to 70 pages.

On page 11 I read that you can experience something called the D’Luxburger in the Lobby Lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel. “This gastronomic extravagance,” the blurb reads, “includes a collection of sumptuous ingredients – Ngawi-sourced crayfish and black truffle mayonnaise; groper and caviar; slow-poached Wellington South Coast paua.
“This SeaSational burger trilogy is accompanied by a gold-flaked vodka martini, Krug Champagne and Martinborough Dry River Pinot Gris.”   

The price: $350 per head. For this sum you apparently also receive “a glittering crystal gift”.
I wonder, is this really about the pleasure of food, or is it about acquiring social status points that can then be boasted about with one’s wealthy friends?

Admittedly, the D’Luxburger is at the extreme end of the scale. But flicking through the rest of the Wellington on a Plate programme, I can’t help but get the uncomfortable feeling that food has been elevated to the level of a fetish.
The same page invites diners to sample five different cuts of a cow at Dragonfly restaurant. The hook is that you do so blindfolded.

This striving for novelty strikes me as the culinary equivalent of “jumping the shark” – in other words, reaching the point where the simple enjoyment of good food is in danger of being overtaken by gimmickry. 
Heston Blumenthal can be blamed for much of this. He’s the English chef who built a cult out of dishes such as egg-and-bacon ice cream.

Blumenthal seems an amiable enough character, but his food is described in terms that go beyond mere pretentiousness. According to an article I read recently, his menus are not just about taste but about “the ebb and flow of stories: contextual theatrical narrative-driven dishes that have layers and layers and layers”.
Perhaps Blumenthal is having an elaborate joke at our expense, but the tragedy is that there’s no shortage of affluent consumers hungry for anything that smacks of novelty. If it’s expensive, so much the better - it must be good.

Meanwhile a peculiar faddism seems to have overcome chefs and foodies, such as the sudden romantic enthusiasm for “foraging”. Evidently food is much more authentic if it has been harvested from the roadside.  
One festival event invites people to forage with the chef from the exclusive Wharekauhau Lodge, then return to the lodge for a five-course, wine-matched lunch using the ingredients gathered. That will set punters back a modest $247.

Among other fads I’ve noted, fish nowadays must be line-caught and chips must be hand-cut. Even the humble oat must be steel-cut. Such practices apparently endow even everyday foodstuffs with a powerful mystique.  
And of course you must be able to trace the exact provenance of everything you eat, right to the very paddocks where the ewe that supplied your lamb shank grazed contentedly on alfalfa and white clover seasoned by salt-laden winds off Palliser Bay. If you can shake the hand of the farmer, so much the better.

I applaud the range and quality of food now available in New Zealand restaurants and cafes. I bow to our farmers and growers and clever chefs.  
But Wellington on a Plate takes the celebration of food to a level where even I have to ask: has it all gone a bit far? The food business strikes me as being in danger of becoming almost as much of a pretentious con as the fashion industry.

Suffice it to say that I won’t be lining up for a D’Luxburger. I do, however, like the look of the Kapiti Coast Festival of Fish and Chips. That sounds like me.