Sunday, June 12, 2016

Whatever this is, it's not democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 10.)

I’ve always thought democracy is a pretty good sort of system. Not perfect, of course, but as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In other words, it’s the best we’ve got until somebody comes up with something better.

Well, it seems someone has. In Masterton, of all places.

You probably thought, like me, that democracy works because it gives us the right to choose our representatives and to get rid of them if they don't measure up.

But Masterton District Council has decided that’s flawed, or at least not appropriate for Masterton. The council wants to improve democracy by appointing iwi representatives with voting rights to two of its standing committees.

Yes, you read that correctly. They would be appointed, not elected. But like elected councillors they would have the right to vote on matters affecting the rest of us.

Whatever this is, it is not democracy. It’s something else for which we don’t yet have a term. Perhaps we could call it part-democracy or near-democracy or almost-democracy until someone comes up with a better name.

I don’t want to sound alarmist. The appointment of iwi representatives to two council committees isn’t likely to be the end of the world.

The genuine councillors – the ones actually elected by the people of Masterton – would still be in the majority. And it’s possible that iwi representatives would make a sincere attempt to make decisions in the best interests of the entire community. But that’s hardly the point.

Democracy is a package deal. It doesn’t come with optional extras that you discard if they don’t happen to suit you. And the danger is that once you start subverting democratic principles, even with the best of intentions, anything becomes possible.

If there’s no longer a rigid rule that the people who make decisions on our behalf must be elected by us and accountable to us, reformers will soon find other ways to “improve” the system – all in the interests of fairness, of course.

This is how democracy gets undermined – by inches and by degrees. Ultimately someone might decide that voting is a clumsy and inconvenient process and that democracy would be much more efficient if we got rid of it altogether. It’s happened in plenty of other places.

Is it possible that 100 years hence, queues of international visitors will line up outside Masterton Town Hall to gaze admiringly at a plaque that says: “Masterton – the Place Where They Improved Democracy”? Somehow I doubt it.

I understand the worthy intent behind what the Masterton council is doing. In an ideal world there would be more Maori in local government. But it’s fanciful to interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as imposing an obligation on councils to provide seats for unelected iwi representatives.

In any case, democracy already provides the means by which Maori can stand for office. An obvious example is New Plymouth district councillor Howie Tamati, a former rugby league hero.

Tamati is standing down this year. He’s reportedly disenchanted following the defeat (by a referendum) of New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd’s proposal for a separate Maori ward. But the irony is that Tamati has served 15 years on the council, which demonstrates that voters will support good Maori candidates. He’s a living, breathing rebuttal of his own argument.

In Masterton, where I live, there are no Maori councillors. That’s sad in a town where 16 percent of the population is Maori, but it’s dangerous to say it’s a failure of democracy. There are respected Maori figures in the town whom I would happily support if they put themselves forward for election.

And here’s another thing. If I were Maori, I would regard it as patronising and offensive if councillors thought the only way my people could get a say in governance was by being given a leg-up. That suggests Maori still depend on Pakeha patronage.

And I don’t buy the line that Maori have no chance of being elected because Masterton is a conservative, racist town. This is the electorate that elected Georgina Beyer – the world’s first transsexual MP, a Maori and a former prostitute. So the argument that we’re all unreconstructed rednecks here in the Wairarapa just doesn’t wash.

Perhaps most alarming of all is the urgency with which the deal has been rushed through.  A motion that the decision be postponed until after the local government elections in October - surely a reasonable proposition - was overwhelmingly defeated. The council was clearly eager to get the matter over and done with before those pesky voters get a chance to throw a spanner in the works.

The mayor, Lyn Patterson, says the proposal was discussed in last year’s annual plan consultation, as if that discharges the council’s obligation to give the public a chance to object. But hardly anyone reads the annual plan (I certainly don’t) and the council’s decision took most people completely by surprise.

It looks, well, a bit sneaky. But the voters will ultimately have their say – and as Mike Moore famously once observed, in a democracy the voters are always right. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Will newspapers become the new craft breweries?

It’s rare these days to hear about any development in the news media that’s worth celebrating, but the announcement that the Wairarapa Times-Age is reverting to local ownership is a tonic.

After 12 years in what is now the NZME (previously known as APN) stable, the Masterton-based daily paper is being bought by its general manager, Andrew Denholm. My guess is that other local money is involved, although I have no inside knowledge.

The news is encouraging for several reasons. For a start, it represents a tiny reversal of a trend that has greatly diminished the relevance of local papers.

The process of agglomeration by which provincial papers such as the Times-Age were gobbled up in the late 20th century by the two big industry players of the time, INL and Wilson and Horton, was once overwhelmingly positive for the industry.  

It gave small, previously family-owned papers access to capital with which to invest in vital new technology. It brought them into a nationwide career structure that lifted professional standards and it also meant that small papers were less likely to be captive to local parochial interests.

That all worked well while the two big companies remained in New Zealand hands. The turning point came when the Australian outfits Fairfax (which acquired INL) and APN (which bought Wilson and Horton) moved in.

Australian ownership has not been good for the New Zealand print media. Their disregard for the New Zealand way of doing things was never more obvious than when they dismantled the New Zealand Press Association, thus ending a system of news sharing that had lasted more than a century and ensured that newspaper readers in Whangarei and Gisborne knew about things of importance that were happening in Invercargill and Greymouth.

Sharing wasn’t the Australian way, so it was scrapped.

Oddly enough, the only Australian proprietor ever to show respect for New Zealand was the much-maligned Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch had a controlling interest in INL but after one or two early attempts to impose Australian ideas on his New Zealand papers – most notably the ill-advised conversion of The Dominion into a tabloid in the late 1960s – he wisely left things to trusted New Zealand managers such as Alan Burnet and the late Mike Robson.

A defining characteristic of that era was that New Zealand newspapers were run by people who understood and were totally committed to the business of newspaper publishing. That couldn’t be said of the new generation of decision-makers who took over with the arrival of the Australians.

Of course it’s hardly their fault that the industry was brought to the brink of collapse when the online revolution plunged newspapers into turmoil and destroyed the traditional business model. Nonetheless, hard questions can be asked about their response to the crisis.

Both Australian-owned companies dived headlong into a rushed digital-first strategy which effectively required the cannibalisation of their print products. Resources were shifted from print (which made money) to digital (which didn’t, and even now pulls only very modest revenue).

Websites took priority over print. Journalists were required to become “platform-agnostic”. To put it simply, the owners hollowed out their papers to the point where many readers could see little point in buying them. 

Would a New Zealand publisher such as Robson or former New Zealand Herald owner Michael Horton have reacted in the same way? I’m not so sure.

I would like to think that their belief in newspapers, and their realisation that newspapers occupy a unique place in New Zealand life, would have made them more determined to protect and preserve their print products.  I believe they would have explored every possible means of ensuring newspapers’ survival, including putting content behind paywalls instead of making it available free.

Just look at the Otago Daily Times, the sole surviving New Zealand-owned daily. The ODT has survived the industry crisis in a far better state than any other paper, and it appears to have done so largely by sticking to its knitting. Its owner, Sir Julian Smith, is old-school. Evangelists for the online revolution may have sneered at him as a Luddite, but his refusal to panic and join the rush to digital now looks bold and far-sighted.  

But back to the Times-Age. If any newspapers can survive in the new media environment, it will be those that specialise in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives (the ODT understands that, too), but it’s also the segment of the market that has been least disrupted by the internet. If you want local news, you must get it from a local provider; you can’t read Masterton news in the online editions of the New York Times or the Guardian, or even on the Radio New Zealand website.

So there’s hope for the Times-Age. Getting the paper printed closer to home would be a useful step. Sadly the Times-Age press was dismantled long ago when printing was shifted to APN’s Wanganui site – a move that diminished the paper’s ability to serve its community because of the effect it had on editorial deadlines. In recent years the Times-Age has been printed in Hastings and even, on occasions, at the New Zealand Herald’s plant in Auckland.

I’m sure the bean-counters found compelling reasons for shutting down the paper’s press, but it had the insidious effect of eroding the sense that the Times-Age was an integral part of the local community. A similar fate has befallen provincial papers all over the country, sending a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners don’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers?

Now Andrew Denholm (who is Wairarapa-born and raised) is not only taking over the Times-Age, but talking about employing more staff. Ironically, his purchase of the paper represents a step back to a time when local papers were locally owned. Who knows: perhaps the newspaper industry will go the way of the brewing business, which has seen a similar move away from nationwide conglomerates to small, often proudly regional operations.

I’m sure Denholm has no delusions about the challenges of bringing the paper back home. But I applaud him for his guts and his belief in the importance of local news, and I’ll be taking out a subscription because I think he deserves all the support and encouragement we can give him.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

It's not booze that's the problem - it's us

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

It has become accepted wisdom that New Zealand has a serious drinking problem. But do we? And if we do, what’s the reason?

Let’s start by tackling that first question. In 2014 the World Health Organisation published a table showing per capita alcohol consumption in 190 countries.

New Zealand was ranked 31st . At first glance, that seems a bit of a worry. It suggests we’re among the world’s heaviest boozers.

But that ranking needs to be put into perspective. In many of those 190 countries, especially those in Asia and Africa, alcohol has never been a big part of the local culture. Consumption is accordingly modest.

Many Asians have a good biological reason to avoid liquor. It’s estimated that 36 per cent of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans lack the vital enzymes (technically known as acetaldehyde dehydrogenases) that enable their bodies to metabolise alcohol.

For these unfortunate souls, drinking can induce nausea, trigger a rash and cause the heart to race – all good reasons for abstaining.

Now, factor in the many countries where drinking is discouraged and even prohibited for religious reasons. That includes the entire Islamic world.

Take all that into account, and the list of countries that New Zealand can meaningfully be compared with becomes a lot shorter.

A better way of assessing where we stand in terms of alcohol consumption is to look at countries that are broadly similar to us culturally and ethnically. Here we emerge in a more favourable light.

According to the WHO figures, New Zealanders drink 10.9 litres of pure alcohol per year. That’s less than the French and Australians (12.2), the Irish (11.9), the Germans (11.8), the British (11.6) and the Danes (11.4).

So what conclusion what can we draw from our WHO ranking? A common reaction might be one of surprise.

We have been so bombarded by anti-liquor propaganda – some of it verging on hysterical – that many people are convinced we really are in the grip of a ruinous binge-drinking culture.

Relax. We’re not.  In fact official figures show that alcohol consumption in New Zealand is in gradual decline – another fact at odds with the constant barrage of anti-liquor rhetoric.

Does this mean we don’t have a drinking problem after all? Well, no.

The vast majority of New Zealanders who enjoy alcohol do so responsibly and in moderation. They drink without causing harm to themselves or others.

Panic over binge drinking is generated by a small but highly visible minority of mainly young drinkers who haven’t learned to control their consumption.

These are the drunks the TV cameras love to show fighting, falling over and vomiting in the gutter in Wellington’s Courtenay Place or Auckland’s Fort St in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings.

They are a problem, but they are not typical of New Zealand drinkers. Just ask yourself: when did you last witness a brawl in a café where people were drinking, at a family gathering or even in the local pub?

Now, let’s return to the second question I posed at the start of this column. If we do have a drinking problem – and we do, though it’s a very limited one – then what causes it?

The finger-waggers in the universities and the public health bureaucracy will say it’s the demon drink. That’s the justification for their determined campaign to reduce alcohol availability – in other words, to limit the free exercise of choice by other New Zealanders.

But if alcohol is the problem, how is it that most of us are able to enjoy it without turning violent or causing mayhem on the road? If alcohol has us in its grip, how come we’re able to drink in moderation and know when to stop?

An answer was provided in a report written last year by British anthropologist Anne Fox, who has made a career out of studying drinking cultures.

Fox was commissioned by the liquor conglomerate Lion to study drinking behaviour in New Zealand and Australia. Predictably her credibility was questioned because of where her funding came from, but no one has seriously challenged her main finding – which was, in a nutshell, that it’s not alcohol that’s the problem: it’s us.

For whatever reason, a culture has developed in Australia and New Zealand in which alcohol is used as a convenient excuse for behaving badly and failing to exercise self-control. 

But bad behaviour is not an inevitable consequence of drinking, and it doesn’t happen elsewhere in the world.

In a recent column in the Listener, Berlin-based New Zealand journalist Cathrin Schaer marvelled that alcohol is freely available everywhere in Germany and drinking is considered a pleasurable part of everyday life.

German laws, she wrote, tend to emphasise individual responsibility. Behave badly and you’ll be busted, but otherwise you’re free to drink where and when you like.

Getting drunk, Schaer added, is considered uncool. “It’s as though an unwritten social code says if we treat you like an adult, you’d better act like one.”

In New Zealand, the reverse is true. Drinkers are expected to behave badly because it’s not their fault – it’s the booze. This view empowers the control freaks who want to change us by making alcohol harder to get.

But if the Germans can drink responsibly (and the French, and the Spanish, and the Dutch), then why can’t we? For the answer to that question we have to stop blaming alcohol and take a hard, critical look at ourselves.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Who is Rachel Stewart and why is she saying these awful things about me?

Someone drew my attention a couple of days ago to a comment posted on Twitter by a newspaper columnist named Rachel Stewart.

I hadn’t consciously heard of Stewart but she knew about me. She tweeted: “I read Karl du Fresne in the Dom and, quite apart from the fact that I agree with him on nothing, I think to myself they could have me.”

The first thing that struck me about this desperate cry for attention was her stupendously inflated self-regard. A quick look at Stewart’s Twitter account reinforces the impression that she has an ego the size of Mt Taranaki.

I imagine it’s even more rampant now, since she advertises the fact that she was voted the top opinion writer in the recent Canon Media Awards. I, on the other hand, have never won any sort of award. I don’t enter awards because they don’t generally count for a hell of a lot, other than to the people who win them.

The judges who matter, ultimately, are the people who read the paper. And it’s just possible that one reason why I get published is that there’s an audience for the opinions I express. This may not have occurred to Stewart. Perhaps she’s so accustomed to bathing in the admiration of her Twitter followers – people for whom the 140-character limit is a blessing because it saves them from having to develop any coherent arguments – that she’s been deluded into assuming that everyone thinks just like her.

Well, they don’t. The angry left-wing wasps who swarm on Twitter are far less representative of mainstream opinion than I am. I suppose that’s why they’re so bitter. They’re frustrated, and they give vent to their frustration through infantile personal attacks on anyone whose opinions they dislike. Just ask Mike Hosking, who weathers a barrage of venomous abuse every day.

Same old, same old, you might say. But Stewart amps it up a notch when she suggests I should be sacked and replaced by her, presumably because she believes the public would be better served by reading her opinions. This is a novel position for a newspaper columnist to take. It suggests a very low tolerance of free speech, which ultimately is what all columnists – Stewart included – depend on.

Am I over-reacting? Probably. “Rise above it,” a wise friend said. But the Irish in me (du Fresne being a proud old Hibernian name) makes it hard for me to ignore a taunt. Besides, you get to a point where you feel the urge to strike back at the buzzing wasps.

Here’s something for Stewart to consider. I don’t object to her having a platform for her views and I expect the same in return. Indeed I don’t object to any left-wing commentator having a platform. I often read them and sometimes even nod in agreement. I have never believed that any “ism” has all the right answers.

I would go further and suggest Stewart should force herself to read my stuff, even if she has to hold her nose while she does it. Having to confront the unpalatable fact that other people have different opinions can only be good for her – that is, unless she really doesn’t like the idea of a pluralistic democracy, in which case things are worse than I thought.

And here’s something else for her to consider. There might actually be issues on which we agree – the environmental damage done by industrial-scale dairying, for starters. As far as I know, I was writing about this long before Stewart launched the public crusade against the dairy industry that made provincial headlines this week.

Trouble is, some people – and Stewart may well be one of them – are locked into a binary view of the world that requires people to be categorised as either bad or good, with no grey area in between.

I’ve noticed that one strange consequence of this mindset is that when I write something that lefties might be expected to agree with – an expression of support for trade unions, for example, or a condemnation of the historical treatment of Maori, or the aforementioned dirty dairying – they magically don’t see it. A mysterious fog comes over their eyes. It doesn’t register with them because it doesn’t fit the binary world view that people must be either totally right or totally wrong.

Put another way, they’re more comfortable seeing me as an unreconstructed right-wing dinosaur who couldn’t possibly have anything of value to say about anything. Nothing can be allowed to disturb settled assumptions.

It’s all a bit tiresome and infantile, but the consoling factor is that criticism of me by Stewart and the type of people who follow her on Twitter is arguably the highest form of flattery. If I wasn’t getting under their skin, they’d ignore me.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The parlous state of our Defence Force

(First published in The Spectator Australia, May 14.)

In the same week that Australia announced it was spending $50 billion on a fleet of new submarines, the New Zealand army admitted it couldn’t muster enough soldiers to fire the traditional rifle salute at an Anzac Day service in the country’s third-largest city, Christchurch. Two weeks before that, it was revealed that two modern patrol ships from the New Zealand navy’s modest fleet hadn’t been to sea for years because of crew shortages.

It’s hard to imagine a more vivid demonstration of the parlous state of New Zealand’s military forces, or of the growing defence capability gap between New Zealand and Australia. But was anyone embarrassed by these disclosures? Not that you’d notice.

In complacent New Zealand, defence ranks so low in the order of political priorities that it’s virtually off the radar. Endangered native parrots get more attention. Politicians take their cue from opinion polls which show that while New Zealanders support their Defence Force, they don’t want to spend any more money on it.

Two generations of Kiwis have grown up with the notion that the military exists mainly to contribute to feel-good operations such as international peacekeeping and relief efforts. Defence policy seems predicated on the hope that in the event of a major conflict, New Zealand will escape the attention of the combatants. Failing that, Australia and the United States will ensure its protection.

The principal function of the navy and air force is to patrol New Zealand’s massive exclusive economic zone, the fourth largest in the world. The air force tries to accomplish this using 1960s-era Orion aircraft - planes that predate the Holden Kingswood and which have been miraculously kept flying as a result of endless engine and electronics upgrades. The RNZAF’s Hercules transport planes are of a similar vintage.

No one pretends New Zealand is capable of mounting a credible defence effort if the country came under attack. In 2001, Helen Clark’s Labour government decided to mothball the air force’s only combat aircraft, a squadron of ageing Skyhawks.

Clark famously justified that decision by pronouncing that we lived in “an incredibly benign strategic environment”. Only months later jihadists destroyed the Twin Towers, and suddenly the world looked very different. But Labour doggedly stuck to its defence-lite credo, cancelling a deal under which New Zealand would have cheaply acquired 28 F-16s to replace the Skyhawks.

By common consent, the strategic environment now is highly unstable –not just in the familiar flash points of the Middle East, but in New Zealand’s own area of strategic interest. North Korea is ruled by a belligerent madman and an ascendant China is flexing its military muscles with provocative displays of military power in the oil-rich South China Sea, where any conflict would threaten vital trade routes.

If that happened, defence commentators say, New Zealand would be under pressure to help keep sea lanes open. But with just two frigates (one of which has been in port since the end of 2014, undergoing an upgrade), it would struggle to make even a token contribution to a multinational task force.

Even when the navy sticks to its core role of protecting the country’s fisheries, there are doubts about its effectiveness. In January last year, in what seemed a striking demonstration of the navy’s impotence, HMNZS Wellington proved powerless to stop three Equatorial Guinea-flagged ships caught poaching valuable Antarctic toothfish.

All this must cause Australians to wonder whether New Zealand is pulling its weight in the defence partnership. Admittedly the two countries have different strategic priorities, partly due to Australia’s size and closer proximity to Asia.
New Zealand stayed out of the Iraq War, for example, while Australia assumed the role of America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Pacific.

New Zealand remains excluded from the Anzus Treaty as a result of its anti-nuclear stance, which was initiated by Labour and continued by the centre-right National Party. But as commentators point out, the relationship with Australia remains a cornerstone of New Zealand defence policy – and the widening capability gap between the two countries has been noted.

In a scathing speech at a symposium in Wellington last year, Kiwi defence analyst Chris Salt – an amateur, but a well-informed one – said New Zealand’s defence plan hinged on buying enough time to run to Australia and America for help. He described it as a policy “devoid of honour and integrity”.

So what happened to the notion that defence of national sovereignty is a core role of government? The answer, in New Zealand at least, is that it has been the victim of a profound generational change.

Until the 1970s, the country was led by politicians with painful memories of the Second World War. The defence portfolio was invariably assigned to a senior cabinet minister and the Returned Services Association was arguably the country’s most powerful lobby group.  RSA members had personally experienced the consequences of being thrust into war ill-prepared and warned constantly about the danger of running down New Zealand’s defence capability. The baby-boomer generation mocked them as crusty old warmongers.

As the old soldiers died and memories of the war grew dimmer, defence slipped down the priority list. The election in 1984 of a Labour government led by pacifists and idealists who had cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s, and who remained gripped by a mindset that regarded any sort of offensive military capacity as bad, was a turning point.

But it’s hardly fair to pin all the blame on Labour. The National Party, which has governed for much of the post-Anzus era, shows no greater commitment to defence than its left-leaning opponents.  

And while New Zealand defence personnel continue to serve with distinction on the ground (they’re helping train Iraqi troops right now), their political and bureaucratic masters in Wellington often give the impression of being incompetent and dysfunctional, with a long record of catastrophically ill-advised equipment purchases, bitter inter-service rivalry and disruptive shifts in policy with every change of government.  

Given the sustained neglect of defence in New Zealand, it’s a strange paradox that attendance at Anzac Day services has never been greater. The inescapable conclusion is that New Zealanders in the 21st century are more comfortable commemorating past wars than dwelling on the possibility of future ones.

Footnote: Please excuse the annoying changes in the typeface. I have no idea what causes this and have given up trying to fixing it.