Saturday, February 27, 2016

Freeloading tourists deserve zero tolerance

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 24.)

We have a lot of pests in this country, almost all of them imported: wasps from Germany, possums from Australia, rabbits from Britain, fire ants from Argentina, carp from Asia.
To that list we can now add a more recent arrival: the so-called freedom camper.

Cheap international travel has brought this invasive species here. Until relatively recently, a round-the-world air fare was affordable only by the wealthy. These travellers tended to be older and had no interest in roughing it. The luxury B ’n’ B was more their style.
But budget air fares have seen the creation of a new growth sector in the tourism market. They’re recognisable by their bulging backpacks, dreadlocks and dog-eared copies of Lonely Planet.

Backpackers’ hostels, no-frills camper vans and cheap, rent-a-dent car hire companies have sprung up to cater to this new tourist. But for freedom campers – or perhaps we should call them freeloaders, because that’s really what they are – it seems that even backpackers’ hostels are too pricy.
They prefer to occupy beauty spots and urban carparks where they can squat for days on end at no cost.

Unfortunately, “squat” is what they often do, literally as well as figuratively. Human excrement in the undergrowth is a common calling card of the freedom camper, along with the general detritus that they leave wherever it falls.
Neither personal hygiene nor respect for the environment appear to be high on their priorities. It was no surprise to read last week that two young French males urinated out of the windows of their moving rental car because they were in a hurry to get to Milford Sound.

They were surprised to get a police warning and clearly thought it was a bit of a laugh. “We can’t understand why it’s such a big deal,” one said.
Having travelled in France and seen how freely the French urinate in public places (small wonder, considering the unspeakable state of most public toilets there), I can understand why they were taken aback. But they need to understand that we do things differently here.

From time to time I’ve seen freedom campers interviewed on TV, usually when residents or business owners start complaining that their neighbourhood has acquired the look of an unusually squalid gypsy encampment.
Invariably the freeloaders assume an air of injured innocence when confronted, and protest that it’s not they who have left the landscape littered with rubbish for the local council to clean up.

No, it’s always someone else. They piously tut-tut at the irresponsible behaviour of these mysterious “other” travellers who give them a bad name. I’m reminded of a child’s poem from 50 years ago called Mr Nobody, in which every act of mischief or carelessness was miraculously the fault of someone unknown.
Well, I don’t believe them. I suspect that the moment the TV crew departs, they smirk at the gullibility and tolerance of their New Zealand hosts.
One reason I’m not inclined to believe them is that I have often seen these same travellers in crowded airport terminals and on the Cook Strait ferries. I have seen the way they spread themselves out across several seats so they can sleep, while later arrivals have to find space on the floor.

Such behaviour speaks of an overwhelming sense of entitlement and an arrogant indifference toward others. They give the impression of being a pampered me-first generation, accustomed to thinking only of their own needs.
This isn’t necessarily unique to travellers from the other side of the world. I’ve observed similar self-centred behaviour in New Zealanders of the same age who appear to have been brought up with little regard for others. Noisy partying late at night in camping grounds (inane drinking songs are a favourite) is just one common example.

It was also no surprise to read last week of two female freedom campers hogging the facilities at Nelson’s Riverside Pool. They reportedly spread their belongings out across the seats in front of four showers, ignored a sign asking swimmers to be considerate with the length of their showers, shaved their legs, cut their toenails and washed their underwear in the handbasins.
By coincidence, the day before that story appeared, I stopped at a public toilet in the Wairarapa town of Featherston.

I noticed that the handicapped toilet was occupied by three people who were clearly busy doing something. At first I assumed them to be the cleaners, but on looking again I realised they were tourists doing their laundry.
Tough luck for any handicapped person who pulled up needing to go. He or she would have just had to wait.

I note that some councils, and even well-intentioned individuals, are indulging these freeloading tourists by providing facilities for them.
Do they deserve them? No. They obviously have enough money to fly around the world on an extended holiday. Why the hell should New Zealand ratepayers and taxpayers subsidise their travels? In effect, that’s what the freeloaders expect.

Yes, we should welcome tourists who treat our country with respect. That’s what this is all about. But we should show zero tolerance for those who don’t.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What will these trials achieve?

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 19.)
Former SS sergeant Reinhold Hanning is on trial in Germany for his involvement in the deaths of 170,000 people at Auschwitz. He is reportedly hard of hearing and in poor health. He is 94.
His trial will be followed by that of Hubert Zafke, who is alleged to have been a paramedic at the same concentration camp. Zafke is 95 and suffers from dementia.

What will these trials achieve? That’s what I ask myself when I read of feeble old men being called to account for things that happened more than 70 years ago.
Any punishment that might be meted out to them at this stage in their lives can only be symbolic. What, then, is the purpose? And why have charges been brought against them when they are probably past the point of being able to defend themselves?

I discussed this recently with a Jewish friend. We agreed that these prosecutions are largely driven by Germany’s desire to acknowledge its guilt for the Nazi extermination camps. Beyond that point, our discussion was inconclusive.
For me, there remains a nagging feeling that these proceedings almost qualify for the description of show trials.  

But if they are indeed show trials, what do they show?  That the Nazi regime exterminated innocent human beings on an unprecedented scale? We know that already.
Is the purpose, then, to prove that Germany is no longer the country that it was under Hitler? We know that, too. Germany has spent much of the past seven decades re-establishing its credentials as a civilised, humane country.

Perhaps the rationale is simply that justice demands that these men be punished, even after all this time. But such punishment seems pointless, even vindictive, at this stage in their lives.
Besides, Zafke has served a three-year prison term already. He was convicted and sentenced by a Polish court after the war for being a member of the SS.

This time he faces trial on more specific charges: namely, that as a para-medic at Auschwitz he was party to the murders of 3681 people who went to the gas chambers while he was on duty.
It’s not clear whether he’s alleged to have been actively involved in their extermination. All that’s necessary, it seems, is for the prosecution to prove that men like Zafke and Hanning were cogs in the Nazi extermination machine, and therefore culpable.

But even if that’s proved, as seems likely, surely there are problems here too.
For one thing, it can be argued that all of Germany was complicit in the war crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

The German people allowed Hitler and his murderous accomplices to take power. They stood by and did nothing as the Nazis ramped up their persecution of the Jews. 
There was no secret about the Nazi agenda – it was clear for all to see. The existence of extermination camps may not have been public knowledge, but the camps were the logical, ultimate conclusion of Nazi anti-semitism, which the German people appeared to condone. Arguably, that made all of them accessories in the murder of six million Jews.

Why, then, select for symbolic punishment those whom the records show were physically present when the gas was turned on? They were just the front end of an evil ideology that inexplicably captured an entire country.
And here’s another thing. How realistic is it to now demand that individuals such as Zafke and Hanning should have taken a moral stand and refused orders to work in places like Auschwitz?

They were simply going along with something their countrymen appeared to endorse. They were caught up in a murderous national hysteria.
Besides, they would very likely have been shot for refusing to obey orders. How many of us can say that in a similar position, we would have put our lives on the line to save others?

The expectation seems to be that these men should have shown the moral courage of martyrs. That’s an extraordinarily high demand to make of ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
I have been to Auschwitz. It’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what went on there.

I entirely understand the sentiments of the Auschwitz victim’s grandson who was reported as saying he would cheerfully put a rope around Hanning’s neck. For him, it’s deeply personal.
But the men primarily responsible for the extermination of Europe’s Jewry have long since been brought to justice. Perhaps it’s time to finally close the door on the ghastliest episode in 20th century history.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The arrogance of the self-righteous

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 10.)

A letter in Wellington’s Dominion Post last week said that if you wanted a good reason to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, you only needed to look at the people supporting it.
Funny, here was me thinking exactly the opposite. You could turn that statement around 180 degrees and be right on the nail.

The protest rallies that coincided with the signing of the TPPA in Auckland brought out a ragtag, bad-tempered mob eager to seize any excuse to legitimise their anger at the world at large.
And they didn’t stop at merely protesting. With all the customary arrogance of the self-righteous, they decided their cause entitled them to disrupt other people’s lives by blocking streets and paralysing traffic.

A few marchers signalled their criminal intent by concealing themselves behind masks. It’s easy to be bold when you’re anonymous.
Some hothead went so far as to firebomb a cabinet minister’s electorate office. When idealism morphs into acts of violence, protesters relinquish any right to be heard.

It’s sometimes argued that it takes extreme action to be noticed, but I don’t buy it. This is where I parted company with many of my fellow demonstrators during the 1981 Springbok tour. The right to protest stops when it interferes with the rights of other citizens.
The TPPA also gave fresh oxygen to Waitangi Day activists, who justified their latest ritual display of rage on the novel premise that as Maori (however that word might be defined), they were entitled to special consultation.  

At Waitangi, Steven Joyce was hit in the face with a rubber sex toy. That the thrower, Josie Butler, escaped prosecution (as did those who mischievously blocked Auckland intersections the previous day) left the police looking lame and ineffectual.  
“No charges laid woohoo!” Butler tweeted triumphantly. No doubt she will have become an overnight hero of the Left, who are too absorbed in their own sanctimonious bubble to realise that offensive protest gestures ultimately boost support for the National government and play into the hands of the law-and-order lobby.   

If it wasn’t the TPPA, the protesters would doubtless have found some other issue to feel inflamed about. But the multi-country trade agreement has become a lightning rod for a great deal of unfocused rage about a whole lot of things – a one-size-fits-all cause for the chronically disaffected.
It has served as a convenient rallying point for everyone nursing a grudge about the government, John Key, globalisation, the Treaty, capitalism, inequality; in short, every real or imagined assault on the downtrodden and disadvantaged.

Much of the rage has been informed by emotion rather than facts. A lot of the participants in the protests were young and apparently unencumbered by knowledge.
That’s the prerogative of youth, I suppose. It’s a time of life when idealism hasn’t yet been tempered by real-life experience.

I still haven’t entirely made up my mind about the TTPA. The secrecy surrounding the negotiations was bound to arouse suspicion, but that’s the nature of trade deals.
It certainly didn’t help that the government chose Sky City – a symbol of global capitalism in its most vulgar form – as the venue for the signing. How clumsily provocative was that?

But we’ll be in a better position to judge the agreement once it’s tabled and debated in Parliament. In the meantime, we need to remember that no country is forced to ratify it, and even those that do may choose later to withdraw if they feel disadvantaged by its terms. The rabid opponents don’t mention this.
Until we know more, I’m prepared to put my faith in respected, neutral commentators such as the Wellington business writer Patrick Smellie.

In an article last week, Smellie applied a reality check to much of the overheated rhetoric surrounding the TPPA.
He pointed out, for example, that while New Zealand opponents claim the agreement serves American corporate interests, American politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties are arguing that it shouldn’t be ratified because it’s tilted against the US. They can’t all be right.

Smellie also made the point that American drug companies, supposedly the sinister manipulators behind the scenes of the TPPA talks, had been defeated when they sought 12-year patent protection for their products. These facts are strikingly at odds with the claims of the hysterical anti-globalists.
As with any such deal, there were tradeoffs – a win here, a concession there. But until any disadvantage to New Zealand is proved, we should reserve judgment.

After all, if the TPPA turns out not to be in our best interests, we can toss out the people responsible. That’s the most potent check on any politician who might be tempted to betray us.
In any case, what are the alternatives? We live in a global world whose steadily rising prosperity depends on the exchange of goods and services.

Presumably the protesters would prefer us to raise the drawbridge and retreat into some dreamy socialist Utopian fortress where we could pretend the rest of the planet doesn’t exist.
North Korea has tried that. It doesn’t seem to work.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Masterton deaths bring out the excuse-makers

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 5.)
Driving down the main street of Masterton last Sunday morning, I noticed a cluster of traffic cones on the footpath. A few metres further on, a photographer was taking a picture of the street.
I didn’t give it another thought at the time. It was only later that I learned two 15-year-old boys in a stolen car had hit a pole and been killed while fleeing from police. A 14-year-old survivor has since been charged in connection with the crash.

The deaths touched off the usual debate about whether police should engage in such pursuits (which they say they abandoned in this case). This is an argument that will probably never be neatly resolved.
At one extreme, there are those who say police should never give chase. No young tearaway deserves to risk death merely because a broken tail light or loud exhaust has attracted police attention, or so the argument goes.

The short answer to that, of course, is that the risk is easily avoided. All the offender has to do is comply with the police instruction to stop.
That way, the worst that can happen is a court appearance and perhaps a fine or licence cancellation; possibly a jail term if there’s a list of previous offences. That’s surely better than dying.

At the other extreme, there are those who say that society is better off if lawbreakers kill themselves trying to flee.
This is the brutal view that got blogger Cameron Slater into trouble a couple of years ago when he wrote that a “feral” who was killed in car fleeing police on the West Coast did society a favour by dying. That statement was subsequently cited as moral justification for the hacking of his emails, which led in turn to the Nicky Hager “Dirty Politics” saga.

Slater overstated his case, as he often does. But while it may seem un-Christian to say that death in such circumstances is self-inflicted, it’s a view held by many reasonable and otherwise compassionate people.
To crash into a power pole while trying to evade the consequences of what is often a trivial offence isn’t quite “suicide by police”, but it’s getting close. The pursued party presumably doesn’t want to die, but evidently places such a low value on his or her life that it’s a risk worth taking.

But the debate over police pursuits goes further than that. If police were to adopt a policy of non-pursuit, the inevitable consequence is that lawbreakers would be given carte blanche to defy them.
What a great leap forward that would be for society. It would be the exact reverse of the highly effective “broken windows” style of policing, in which zero tolerance is shown for even minor offences.

AS IS often the case in situations like this, the Masterton deaths have brought forth excuse-makers who seek to shift responsibility for the tragedy.
Alan Maxwell, co-ordinator of Wairarapa Anglican Youth, was quoted as saying he was angry at community apathy and the teenagers’ “limited choices”. 

“The bottom line is they’re just bored and if we don’t give them things to so, they find stupid things to do and make stupid choices.
“At some point, as a community, we have to take responsibility, otherwise these kids are not going to be the only ones [to die] this year.”

No doubt Maxwell is a decent man who’s grieving for two boys he knew personally, and in whom he saw good qualities. But since when did being bored justify stealing someone’s car? And why do so many people minimise criminal behaviour by referring to it as making “stupid choices”?
Maxwell’s comments reminded me of the Catholic priest in the 1990s who, presumably temporarily unhinged by emotion, blamed the government for the deaths of several young Maori men in a Christchurch marae fire.

Yes, the deaths of the Featherston boys was a tragedy. There will be people who loved them and cared for them. They will be mourning.
I don’t know what circumstances led to two 15-year-olds being out in a stolen car at 2.15am. I do know, however, that one of the boys was named Pacer, which was the name of an Australian muscle-car of the 1970s, and that he had siblings named Chevy, Dodge and Corvette. Hmmm.

I also know that “the community” doesn’t make teenage boys steal a car or make a run for it when the police try to intercept them. For that, the responsibility must lie elsewhere.