Saturday, September 26, 2015

Gary McCormick on Hello Sailor

After the Dominion Post and Christchurch Press published my column on Graham Brazier and Hello Sailor, broadcaster Gary McCormick contacted me. Gary knew the guys from Hello Sailor well and wanted to explain the band’s appeal. He submitted a letter to both papers but neither published it, so I’m happy to post it here.
Karl du Fresne, in his column about the amount of media attention given to the funeral of Hello Sailor’s Graham Brazier and prior to that, of Dave McArtney two years ago, raises some very good questions.
Why the media attention for the deaths of members of a rock band which Dave McArtney himself said failed at the critical moments?

They did not have the success that Dragon had in Australia and their trip to the US was a disaster. So why the outpouring of grief at both funerals at St Mathew’s Church and the substantial media interest?
Karl refers to the drug use which was big among New Zealand musicians at the time and asked, “What’s admirable about alcohol or drug addiction that wrecks people’s lives?”

Good question.
Hello Sailor’ s Gutter Black, written by Dave McArtney, was an anthem of defiance which struck a pose against the background of the rigid, conformist  New Zealand of the Muldoon years.

Blue Lady and I’m a Texan reinforced an exhilarating sense (to the rest of us living in small town New Zealand) that here was a band ….  that didn’t care ! From their boots to their loud Pacifica shirts, they were the spirit of summer.  They represented danger, Ponsonby-by-Night (at a time when any young person who had the opportunity would have lived there) and they were loved by women in the best rock band tradition.
Dragon and a few other bands had the same mana, but Hello Sailor seemed to be around more often and were more accessible to party-goers from Whangarei to Invercargill.

So, to answer Karl du Fresne’s question: Hello Sailor had the songs for Kiwi rockers that beautifully represented a time and a spirit . They personified and wrote about a  Ponsonby, Gisborne,  New Plymouth, Timaru and Invercargill  Kiwi-style “Summer of Love”!
The second reason for the public outpouring of grief was the individuals – Graham and Dave themselves.  Both flawed, Karl noted, as are we all.

Graham had the serious flaws – all born out of anxiety. Impossibly good-looking and in the early days, afraid to sing at all. He had an enormous talent as a songwriter – Billy Bold and Blue Lady – and a huge stage presence, but was riddled by doubt.
For someone of his vulnerability and personality type, drugs were the obvious solution (read Amy Winehouse.)

Graham’s excesses (and there were some spectacular public ones) were a part of the battle with himself. His friends completely understood that and helped time after time to clear up the collateral damage.
He had a lot of friends because if you had one relaxed funny conversation with Graham, the memory of it stays with you for a lifetime. He was a lovely, troubled guy.

Dave McArtney was Graham’s twin, in my opinion. He loved Graham and backed him. They were like two soldiers on patrol. It was a brand of loyalty and understanding that the All Blacks can only dream about!
Thus the media coverage of both “rock funerals” was not out of order. Paul Simon wrote a song in which he says “every generation throws a hero up the rock charts.”

Dave and Graham were ours.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Royalist, no; monarchist, yes

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 23.)
There are royalists and there are monarchists. Some people might dismiss this as an artificial distinction, but for my purposes it’s a useful one.
Royalists love the glamour and pageantry associated with the Queen and her family. They devour every sycophantic magazine article about them and turn out in their thousands to cheer and wave whenever a royal visits New Zealand.

At the risk of sounding condescending, the enthusiasm of royalists is more sentimental than rational. It’s the fairy-tale aspect of royalty that appeals to them.
Monarchists, on the other hand, may be quite indifferent to the rituals and trappings of royalty, yet value the monarchy as a constitutional mechanism. I’m one of the latter.

I’m more likely to walk across Cook Strait than to join the crowds lining the route of a royal motorcade or buy a souvenir tea towel marking the birth of the latest Windsor. Nonetheless, I believe the monarchy is the best possible form of government for New Zealand. Opinion polls suggest most New Zealanders feel the same.
This is curious when you consider that no one ever voted for the monarchy. It’s a system we’ve inherited largely by historical accident. But the point is, it works.

That’s kind of accidental too, but good things as well as bad can happen by accident.
All Westminster-style democracies have some sort of titular head over and above the prime minister. Some, such as India, are republics with an elected president, but New Zealand (like Canada and Australia) has the Queen as its head of state.

To many people it’s an affront to democracy that the most powerful figure in our constitution – powerful notionally rather than in reality – is unelected. Furthermore, they regard inherited power and privilege as fundamentally wrong and offensive. And it irritates them even more that our head of state lives 20,000 kilometres away.
I understand all that, but it’s possible to regard inherited power and privilege as objectionable in principle while also acknowledging that in strictly pragmatic terms, the monarchy serves us well.

Those who lobby for New Zealand to become a republic overlook the fact that constitutional monarchy is not a system in which royal edicts are imperiously handed down, but one where elected governments make their own decisions.
This is not Saudi Arabia, where the power of the monarchy is absolute. New Zealand operates as a sovereign, autonomous state – a republic in all but name. As the distinguished jurist Sir Kenneth Keith succinctly put it, “the Queen reigns but the government rules”.

Her function is almost entirely ceremonial. Her “reserve powers”, as they are known, are almost never exercised. Metaphorically speaking, they are kept in a glass case bearing the words “Break in case of emergency”.
This might happen in a rare political crisis, as occurred in Australia when the Governor-General controversially dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975.

The constitutional correctness of that dismissal is still fiercely debated, but in a sense it became academic: a general election was called soon afterwards and Whitlam’s Labour Party was overwhelmingly defeated. So even in a crisis, power is handed back to the people and normal service resumes.
Constitutionally it all seems a rather ramshackle arrangement, functioning as much by convention as by clearly defined rules, but it works.

One crucial reason it works is that the Queen is above politics. It’s to our advantage that she’s 20,000 kilometres away and has no stake in what happens here politically.
Therein lies the big concern about republicanism. Whichever way a New Zealand president were to be elected or appointed, it seems impossible to avoid political influence in the process. Neutrality could not be guaranteed. 

Republicans like to characterise support for the monarchy as a sentimental attachment to an anachronistic institution, but there’s nothing sentimental about valuing the constitutional role of the Crown. It’s a matter of simple pragmatism.
If anyone’s guilty of resorting to sentimental arguments, it’s republicans who invoke fuzzy, feel-good notions of autonomy and nationhood as justification for having our own president.

We have our nationhood and autonomy already. Or haven’t they noticed?
There’s one important caveat to all of the above. The Queen, who recently became Britain’s longest-serving monarch, has performed her duties impeccably. She is respected as a woman of wisdom, grace and discretion.

But is her son Charles cut from the same cloth? I don’t think so, and neither, it seems, do the British public. The goodwill that the Queen has conscientiously fostered could soon dissolve if her pompous, ineffectual and occasionally petulant son assumed the throne.
That could place the monarchy at risk. While the republic vs. monarchy debate is essentially about rival systems, there’s no point trying to deny that personalities also come into it.

Perhaps by the time the Queen steps down, the time for Charles to take over will have passed and the crown will pass to his more likeable son, William. In fact you can’t help wondering whether that’s her intention.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Graham Brazier: an alternative assessment

(First published in The Dominion Post and The Press, September 18.)
They farewelled Graham Brazier at St Matthew’s Church in Auckland last week.
Affectionate tributes were paid. Clearly, the former singer from the Auckland band Hello Sailor was loved and admired.

Karyn Hay of Radio with Pictures fame led the proceedings. Journalists noted the presence of Dave Dobbyn, Jordan Luck, Hammond Gamble, Susan Wood and former Auckland mayor Les Mills, who used to be Brazier’s father-in-law.
The full church was evidence that Brazier was important to a lot of people. Not all of us will be similarly honoured when we die.

But I do wonder about the media attention devoted to his death. 3 News devoted one and a half minutes to the funeral service, an honour not granted to many.
Effusive obituaries and newspaper columns were written. Some of those who paid tribute to Brazier seemed eager to show they had a personal connection with him, as if hoping that some of the glory attached to being an Auckland rock hero of the 1970s might rub off on them.

The fact that Brazier had convictions for assaulting two of his partners was barely mentioned. It was inconveniently at odds with the eulogies that described him as a gentle, polite and literate man.
This is not meant as an attack on Brazier, whom I never met. We are all imperfect human beings. Rather, I’m curious about who the media choose to honour, and why.

The established view among the New Zealand rock music priesthood is that Hello Sailor occupy a uniquely hallowed place in Kiwi pop culture. But do they?
They were world-famous in Auckland – or to be more specific, Ponsonby. They captured the spirit of a particular Auckland scene at a particular time.

I believe both their popularity and significance have been overstated. Gutter Black, their signature song, went no higher than 15 on the New Zealand pop chart – not bad, but it hardly qualifies for the anthem status bestowed on it. Blue Lady did only marginally better.
Admittedly, chart success isn’t the only determinant of a song’s greatness, but popular taste surely must count for something.

I suspect Hello Sailor were liked for a lot of reasons that didn’t necessarily have much to do with music. They personified a new urban cool that was fashionable in Auckland at the time. They had a raffish, subversive quality that made them attractive to a particular demographic.
They struck a pose that was particularly appealing because it was so markedly at variance with the politics of the conservative and autocratic Robert Muldoon, who was then at the height of his power.

But how good were they? They went to America and failed. I’ve heard it suggested that the reason they never cracked the LA scene was that they were too busy partying and doing drugs.
I don’t buy that. Plenty of rock bands have led notoriously debauched and drug-saturated lives while continuing to record hit songs. I think the truth is that Hello Sailor weren’t as good as their fans thought they were.

The members of another New Zealand band of that time, Dragon, led even wilder lives than Hello Sailor, but still managed to have a string of hits in Australia, including a No 1, and once cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.
But Hello Sailor were lionised by writers, journalists, DJs and the culture commissars in a way that Dragon never were. It was a very cliquey Auckland phenomenon, and remains so.

One factor that enhanced the Hello Sailor legend was that drug use was big among New Zealand musicians at that time and the band was at the heart of that culture. Blue Lady was a drug song.
Some music journalists are strangely enthralled by dissolute rock singers and write about their flawed lives as if they are worthy of emulation. But what’s admirable about alcohol or drug addiction that wrecks people’s lives?

Only two weeks ago I saw a documentary about Amy Winehouse, in which a uniquely talented woman disintegrated in front of our eyes. Not an edifying spectacle.
Now Brazier is dead at 63. His close friend and bandmate Dave McArtney died two years ago at 62.

Both had been heroin users. In the eyes of some of their admirers, this enhanced their mystique. But you can’t help wondering whether both might still be alive if they hadn’t conformed to the archetype of the hard-living, junkie rock star that some journalists seem so keen to glamorise.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

ACC and the law of unintended consequences

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 9.)
A letter in last week’s Listener magazine offered an interesting slant on the workplace safety debate.
The writer was a New Zealand geologist who had worked in Australia. He had gone there convinced, as most of us probably are, of the virtues of our no-fault accident compensation system.

He thought ACC was clearly superior to the Australian alternative, where people injured in workplace mishaps (or in car accidents, or even as the result of a fall on a slippery supermarket floor) can sue for damages. 
That used to be the way in New Zealand too. Personal injury cases were a profitable area of practice for lawyers until the well dried up with the introduction of the accident compensation scheme in 1974.

Under ACC, the state picked up the tab for all work and non-work injuries, regardless of who (if anyone) was to blame.
At first it seemed a bizarre notion that a burglar who accidentally slashed his arm while breaking into a house should be entitled, courtesy of his law-abiding fellow-citizens, to free medical treatment and weekly earnings while he recovered to steal again.

But we put those misgivings aside because the new regime seemed preferable to one where compensation hinged on being able to prove negligence, which involved hiring a lawyer.
In hindsight, ACC can be seen as the high-water mark of socialism – or, if you like, collectivism – in New Zealand.

Effectively, it was a state takeover of turf previously occupied by lawyers and insurance companies. But more than that, it took fault out of the equation.
It made us all collectively responsible for everyone else’s folly, whether it’s a company with lax safety standards or a snowboarder testing his skills on a slope strewn with rocks.

To put it another way, it absolved people of full personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It meant that if we fell over, the state could be counted on to pick us up and kiss us better.
This brings us back to the New Zealand geologist in Australia. He noticed that Australian employers were extremely risk-averse when it came to health and safety – more so, by implication, than bosses here.

As a supervisor, he was required to ensure not only that workers wore all the usual safety equipment, but long-sleeved shirts and long trousers as well, for fear that the boss might be held liable if someone got skin cancer.
Contrast that with a recent New Zealand court case in which a forestry worker wasn’t even wearing a high-vis vest when trees were being felled in the pre-dawn darkness. A workmate didn’t see him, and he was killed by a falling log.

The geologist wrote that he had been incredulous on reading about the infamously slack safety standards at the Pike River coal mine. “Our no-fault ACC system,” he concluded, “seems to mean just that.”
In other words, if I interpreted his letter correctly, no-fault compensation can serve as a licence for employers to disregard their obligations when it comes to workers’ safety.

Did anyone anticipate this at the time ACC was introduced? I don’t know. But it wouldn’t be the first time well-intentioned legislation has led to unintended and sometimes disastrous consequences. History is littered with examples.
The domestic purposes benefit was brought in to help struggling solo parents – an entirely laudable aim. It seems no one imagined that it would incentivise teenagers to have children at the taxpayers’ expense.

The Privacy Act was passed to protect personal information. Now it’s used to justify schools arranging abortions for girls without having to tell their parents.
Bike helmets were made compulsory to prevent cyclists suffering brain injury. Result? Women and teenagers stopped riding bikes because helmets were considered uncool or just too inconvenient.

In the United States, idealistic zealots successfully campaigned in the early 20th century for Prohibition – an event that gave birth to organised crime as gangsters exploited demand for illicit liquor. It was the best thing that ever happened to the Mafia.
The European Union arose out of a desire to ensure that the countries of Europe would never again go to war with each other, but its architects overlooked underlying economic, political and cultural differences that are now threatening to pull the union apart.

Likewise, when the 1985 Schengen Treaty created passport-free travel between 26 European countries, no one anticipated that Europe would be swamped with refugees from North Africa and the Middle East.
Often these changes are championed by idealists from the political left. Their intentions may be good but their faith in the ability of laws to control human behaviour is often misplaced.

Of course we can’t use fear of unforeseen consequences as an excuse for doing nothing. But if the geologist’s perception is correct, it’s possible that the accident compensation scheme perversely contributed to the culture of workplace complacency highlighted in 2013 by the government’s Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety.
I’m sure that wasn’t the outcome the ACC’s creators envisaged.

Monday, September 7, 2015

When the state goes behind parents' backs

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 4.)
Mention abortion and a lot of people metaphorically block their ears and start humming loudly.
At the very sight of the word in this column, some readers will probably turn the page and move on. But this is an issue that refuses to go away.

It was re-ignited last week when Hillary Kieft of Stratford courageously spoke before a parliamentary select committee.
Kieft’s daughter, at the age of 15, was referred for an abortion without her parents’ knowledge. She later tried to kill herself.

The abortion was arranged by the daughter’s school. According to her mother, she was given no other option.
That a vulnerable teenager could be referred for a potentially life-changing and psychologically damaging operation without parental knowledge seems despicable. It deprived her of family support when she most needed it.

The defence for keeping parents in the dark in such situations is that they can’t always be relied on to support pregnant daughters. Some girls would risk being harshly punished for bringing disgrace on their family, which is despicable in its own way.
This provides politicians with a ready-made excuse not to accede to Kieft’s petition for a law change that would require parents to be notified before girls under the age of 16 could be referred for an abortion.

It seems an extraordinarily modest request, given that parents are normally assumed to have some control over what happens to their children. But don’t expect Parliament to act.
Most politicians run a mile from the abortion debate. Too difficult; too likely to stir up raw emotions.

I expect that the select committee will gratefully seize any reason for not meddling with the status quo. The possibility that not all parents might be as loving as Hillary and Peter Kieft will provide them with all the justification they need.
But that would leave a grave wrong unremedied. It’s not hard to understand why the Kiefts and others in their situation feel their rights as parents have been coldly disregarded.

What made matters worse in their case was that it wasn’t just a passive deception. It appears they were wilfully misled.
Kieft said that when their daughter was dropped off after the abortion, she and her husband were told she had been to a counselling appointment. If that’s true, they were told a bare-faced lie.

So this is what it has come to: an agency of the state not only usurping parents’ rights, but trying to cover it up by lying. 
We should expect no more, because the administration of the abortion law is drenched top to bottom with dishonesty.

The dishonesty starts with the pretence that abortions are carried out for the mental health of the mother. It was officially acknowledged as long ago as 1998 that this is a “pseudo-legal” justification to get around the fact that otherwise, abortion remains an offence under the Crimes Act.
If dishonesty can be practised on such a scale that it’s used to justify 14,000 abortions every year, it’s easy to see why lying to a schoolgirl’s parents would be considered no big deal.

The school can always say it only did what everyone else associated with the carrying out of abortions does. You might call it top-down dishonesty.
In this case the deceit was compounded because even when a psychology team was called in to help with their daughter’s deteriorating mental state, the Kiefts were not told what had triggered the change in her behaviour.

In other words there was a conspiracy of silence which involved health professionals too. And in the meantime the Kiefts were afraid to go to sleep at night for fear that their daughter might not be alive when they woke up.
Kieft told the select committee there was no follow-up counselling or medical care for their daughter. Once the job was done, neither her school nor the Family Planning clinic where the abortion was carried out showed any further interest.

So much for all the hypocritical cant about abortionists being primarily concerned for women’s wellbeing.
The acute irony is that a University of Otago study found in 2008 that women who had had abortions had a 30 per cent greater risk of developing mental health problems.

No one talks about this. That’s more dishonesty, right there.
So while abortions are ostensibly about protecting women’s mental health, they often have precisely the reverse effect. And so it turned out in the sad case of Kieft’s daughter, who still takes medication every day to deal with depression.

Footnote: A letter in the Dominion Post of September 7, written by Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond, says the abortion in question could not have been carried out by a Family Planning clinic because only its Tauranga clinic is licensed to carry out abortions.

I accept that that's technically correct. My column was based on information in a Dominion Post story that said the girl was taken to a Family Planning clinic. But the distinction is an academic one. The abortion was  arranged by Family Planning, and I find it interesting that the organisation now gives the impression of wanting to distance itself from the case. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hello Sailor

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about Hello Sailor and the death of Graham Brazier. I have decided to delete it - not because I resile from anything I said, or because of any criticism (although it did attract one critical comment), but simply because I decided, on reflection, that the timing was insensitive.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Williamson does it again

Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson became the darling of the so-called liberals (I say “so-called” because people who like to think of themselves as liberal are often anything but) when he made a speech in Parliament ridiculing opponents of the same-sex marriage bill.
I wonder what those people think of their hero now, in the light of his puerile, oafish and sexist antics as MC at an information technology dinner – a performance that so embarrassed the host company that it emailed an apology to its guests.

The supposed champion of gay rights revealed himself as a childish sniggerer, happy to play for laughs at the expense of homosexuals. I wonder, will he be feted internationally for that, as he was for his “gay rainbow” speech? Somehow I doubt it.
His gig as MC confirmed – not that confirmation was needed – that Williamson is a buffoon and a compulsive showboater with the emotional intelligence of a fourth-form schoolboy. I wonder how long it will be before either the National Party or the voters of Pakuranga decide they’ve had enough and pull the pin.