Sunday, August 21, 2016

The lingering consquences of idealistic 60s liberalism

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 19.

My generation has a lot to answer for. Recreational drugs, for example – or as former Wellington coroner Garry Evans preferred to call them, “wreckreational drugs”.

Mine was the generation that rebelled against the values of its parents. We were smug and spoilt, with plenty of time on our hands to reflect on how wrong our elders were about everything.

We rejected their dreary, conformist moral values. “If it feels good, do it” became the catch-cry of a generation.

And it did feel good – for a while. But then the casualties began to pile up. Drug abuse, serial relationship failures and, most tragically, emotionally damaged offspring are part of the price society has paid for idealistic 1960s liberalism. 

Initially, drugs seemed very much a middle-class hippie thing. Most of the dope smokers and trippers I knew in the late 60s were arty types and intellectuals. Drugs were one way of rebelling against a society they found dull and stifling.

Quite a few ended up permanently damaged, but others succeeded in managing their drug use. They were smart enough to ensure that it never seriously interfered with their lives or careers.

Most were well-educated and came from relatively prosperous backgrounds, so were buttressed against any disadvantages that might have come from drug use. But the same could not be said of the people who were caught up in the drug culture once it spread out into other sectors of society.

In fact there’s a segment of society that, from the 1980s on, was hit by a disastrous double-whammy.

The first blow came when economic upheaval wiped out many of the jobs that had previously provided poorly educated workers with a livelihood. The second came with the increasing availability – and social acceptability – of drugs.

Many of the people whose jobs disappeared in the 1980s sought escape in cannabis, glue and later, methamphetamine. Tinny houses sprouted like mushrooms in low-income areas.

Unlike the comfortable bureaucrats who now advocate liberalisation of the drug laws, these people were not insulated from the harmful effects of drugs by a good education and secure, well-paid careers. So they, and their children and grandchildren, are doubly disadvantaged.

To put it another way, it was the middle class that introduced society to the mind-expanding delights of drugs, but it’s mainly the underbelly of society that has had to live with the consequences.

It’s against this backdrop that we need to consider the current pressure to liberalise the cannabis laws. The people promoting liberalisation are from the educated middle classes. They probably live a long way from the suburbs where drug abuse causes misery.

The reformers advance persuasive arguments. They say drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than one of law and order.

The taxpayer-subsidised Drug Foundation, which is leading the charge for cannabis law reform (but which betrays an ideological bias by contradictorily taking a shrill line against alcohol), cleverly plays on public sympathy for terminally ill cancer patients such as former trade union leader Helen Kelly.

But while there are there are valid arguments for decriminalisation of cannabis, and especially for its medicinal use, the reformers can’t ignore the baneful effects of drug use.

Neither can they ignore the risk that liberalising the cannabis laws will send the dangerous message that drugs are OK. They may be okay if you’ve got a university degree and live in a good suburb, but they’re not so liberating if you’re a hungry kid living in a freezing state house where any surplus money goes on P rather than food or heating.

Many of the reformers seem blind to much of the damage done by drug use. But Garry Evans saw it in his 18 years as a coroner. He told this newspaper on his retirement that the term ‘recreational drug’ was a misnomer; put a “w” in front of it, he said, and you’d be closer to the truth.

Evans would know, and so do the people who conducted Otago University’s famous longitudinal study of 1000 people born in 1972. Drug abuse is a consistent factor among those in the study who went off the rails.

These are reasons to proceed with caution. As Massey University drug policy expert Chris Wilkins says, any change needs to be carefully thought through. “We can’t treat cannabis like we do any other commodity in the supermarket.”

A good starting point for the debate might be a more honesty. “Alcohol wicked, dope okay” – the line promoted by the Drug Foundation – suggests some ideological decontamination might be helpful.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The chugger on my doorstep

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

I was working at home the other day when there was a confident, assertive knock on the front door.

I opened it to find a young man (well, young to me) wearing a badge and bib that identified him as representing a well-known rescue service-cum-medical emergency charity which I won’t identify.

It was a bitterly cold day and he was soaking wet, but that didn’t stop him from launching straight into an obviously well-rehearsed spiel.

He first wanted to know whether I or any of my family had ever been helped by the charity he represented. I’m sure that if I’d answered yes, there would have been subtle emotional pressure to support this worthy cause. After all, they’d helped me; now it would be my chance to repay the favour.

As it happened, I’d never used the service, so he struck out there. But without missing a beat, he moved on to option two.  

He proceeded to tell me that the charity was in dire financial straits and its continued operation was in doubt unless it promptly raised a very large sum of money. This was urgent; the implication was that lives would be lost if I didn't immediately agree to contribute. 

He went on to say that he’d been canvassing the area and my neighbours had readily signed up. I was a little sceptical because many of them aren’t home during the day. Anyway, from my knowledge of them, I can’t imagine they would commit to support a charity off the cuff.

I wasn’t prepared to, either. I told him that I would consider contributing because it was a worthy cause, but I wasn’t prepared to make any commitment right there on the spot. I explained that I already supported a range of charities and had to consider whether I could afford any more. I did say, however, that I would go to the charity’s website and possibly make a donation there.

He then asked me my name so he could enter it in his digital device. Up till now I had been relaxed about this intrusion. I felt sorry for him because he must have been wretchedly cold. But at this point I stiffened and adopted a sharper tone.

“I’ve already made it clear to you,” I said, “that I’m prepared to consider giving money, but I’m not going to make a commitment here and now.” He pretended to be surprised, but obviously sensed there was no point in pursuing the matter. He said a polite goodbye and left.

I was left with a feeling of disquiet. The charity he was soliciting for operates an essential and very highly regarded service. I couldn’t imagine that it would approve of anyone going around the neighbourhood using a subtle form of emotional pressure and a slick line of patter more typical of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman.

I made a reasonably substantial donation anyway, but while on the charity’s website I also sent them a message explaining what had happened. I said I took exception to his reference to my neighbours signing up – the implication being that I would be a flint-hearted stinge if I didn’t do the same.

I said I didn’t believe this was the image the charity wanted to present to the public, which is why I was taking the trouble to notify them. (So far, I haven't heard back, so perhaps they approve after all.)

The man on my doorstep was a “chugger” – a charity mugger. These are people who are paid to solicit donations from the public, either by approaching them in the street or by going house to house.

They represent an unsavoury development in the charity business (and I use that word deliberately). There are now so many charitable organisations competing for a limited pool of donations that they are adopting increasingly aggressive tactics which in this case, I believe, bordered on unethical.

The chuggers are not volunteers with an emotional stake in the cause they are collecting for, as many naïve people assume. They are hired guns who presumably earn a commission for everyone who succumbs to their persuasive powers.

But chuggers are not the only reasons many charities are getting a bad name. People also rightly object to being bombarded with endless emails and letters asking for more. When you make a one-off donation, you don’t sign up to receive these communications. But they come anyway.

What I find almost equally objectionable are the patronising, emotive and sometimes infantile terms with which some of these appeals are worded. I have been a regular contributor to the Red Cross for years but I considered stopping my donations when I received an envelope from them emblazoned with the words “You’re amazing, Karl!”.

Does the typical Red Cross donor respond to such patently false ingratiation? I doubt it.

What all this shows is the extent to which the charitable sector has been hijacked by hard-nosed, professional fund-raisers and PR hacks who probably don’t give a toss about the causes they’re raising money for, or the damage they might be doing to their public image. It’s something charities need to address and deal with, before loyal donors switch off.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Any Australian's preferable to a Kiwi - even Kevin Rudd

(First published in The Spectator Australia, August 6.)

Anyone who has observed the relationship between Australia and New Zealand over many years is forced to an inescapable conclusion. Some Australians don’t like the idea that New Zealanders can do anything very well, and positively recoil from the thought that they can do anything better than Australia can. This was the only plausible explanation for the extraordinary contortions over whether the Australian government should back Kevin Rudd in his belated bid for the job of United Nations Secretary-General ahead of New Zealand’s Helen Clark.

For all the hollow sentimental rhetoric spouted every Anzac Day about the closeness of the trans-Tasman bond, the truth is that at the political level, New Zealand is generally regarded as an irritating smaller sibling whose interests are considered only when it suits Canberra to do so. It’s hard to escape the feeling that in the eyes of some high-powered Australian political players, any Australian – even the discredited Mr Rudd – would be preferable to a Kiwi.

Mr Rudd’s now-aborted candidacy had all the hallmarks of a spoiler action that was likely to obliterate whatever chance Miss Clark might have had of securing the big job. It was a desperate play by a bored, under-engaged man anxious to amount to something again.

The irony is that the appointment was unlikely to go to anyone from the Anglo world anyway, since it’s the UN custom to rotate the job on a geographical basis, and it’s generally considered the turn of Eastern Europe. Besides, conventional wisdom holds that the big powers which control the UN Security Council prefer to appoint someone malleable, which Clark is not.

In a recent straw poll, the former Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand  ranked only sixth of the 12 contenders. Toss in an Australian candidate to muddy the waters, and she wouldn’t have a bolter’s chance.

That Mr Rudd threw his hat into the ring in the first place was perhaps no surprise. After all, a man with an Olympian intellect – to say nothing of an ego the size of the Simpson Desert – needs a suitably formidable challenge. What was surprising was the breadth of political support for his bid, from senior figures in the coalition government as well as former colleagues from the party which found him intolerable as its leader.

It didn’t seem to matter that Mr Rudd had been an abject failure as Australian prime minister, once jettisoned by his own MPs and later emphatically rejected by Australian voters fed up with his toxic and dysfunctional government.

Neither did it seem to matter that even people on Mr Rudd’s own side (notionally, at least) ridiculed his conceit in thinking he was competent to take over one of the most powerful jobs in international politics. Kristina Keneally, former Labor Premier of New South Wales, called him a psychopathic narcissist and said her labrador dog would do a better job as Secretary-General – a putdown even more stinging than Queensland Senator James McGrath’s remark that he wouldn’t trust Mr Rudd to operate a toaster.

In the end, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made what was described as a captain’s call in announcing the government would not support Mr Rudd’s nomination.  Mr Turnbull was as blunt as the laws of political propriety permit in explaining why he had made the decision, simply saying that Mr Rudd was not suitable for the job.

Given Mr Rudd’s erratic history of rudeness, bad temper and general megalomaniacal behaviour, it’s possible that as many Labour voters as coalition supporters agreed. Certainly Mr Rudd’s petulant response to Mr Turnbull’s decision confirms that the Prime Minister made the right call. But what remains unexplained is why so many high-profile figures – including Liberal Party deputy leader Julia Bishop, ambassador to the US Joe Hockey, former Labor Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans and former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson – argued in Mr Rudd’s favour.

Judging by the public comments of Mr Rudd’s supporters, the main consideration seemed not so much his competence for the job as the belief that Australia should be seen as supporting an Australian candidate. This view was articulated by, among others, Richard Woolcott, a former Australian ambassador to the UN. “If an Australian decides to stand I think the Australian government should support that Australian,” Woolcott was quoted as saying. 

It didn't seem to matter that there was already a nominee from this part of the world, and one who has the necessary credentials. Miss Clark is respected even by her former political opponents in New Zealand as a woman of formidable ability and proven competence in international affairs. She was a three-term Prime Minister and since 2009 has held the third-highest job in the UN – that of administrator of the UN Development Programme. But she happens to be a New Zealander, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that it would be seen as a blow to Australian pride if a prestigious international job went to a Kiwi when there was an Australian available.

The relationship between the two countries is complex. There’s a lot of genuine affection, but also an undeniable rivalry. New Zealanders are more keenly aware of this than Australians, because Australia is able to ignore New Zealand in a way that isn’t possible in reverse.

This is partly determined by geographical location. New Zealand is an insignificant presence somewhere over Australia’s shoulder, like a more remote Tasmania. But when New Zealand looks out to the world, the first thing it sees is Australia.

Yet for all its size and pretensions to global importance, Australia doesn’t like being upstaged by its smaller bro’. Perhaps that’s why Australian politicians who once regarded Mr Rudd as their bitter enemy, and who rightly highlighted his personal failings, suddenly began singing his praises.

Mr Rudd hadn’t magically metamorphosed into a reincarnation of Nelson Mandela or John F Kennedy, so what had changed? The answer could only be that if someone from Down Under was going to take over the top post in the UN, then it should be an Australian rather than a Kiwi.

Perhaps the most telling fact was that ordinary Australians recognised Mr Rudd’s unsuitability even if the political elites didn’t. An April poll showed that Miss Clark’s candidacy was supported by more than twice as many Australians as Mr Rudd’s, and even Labor voters preferred Clark by a narrow margin. Perhaps that’s what people mean when they talk about the wisdom of crowds.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Carmen, a gay rights advocate and Cuba St icon? Really?

It’s funny how people become what the media wants them to become. Take the late Carmen Rupe, whose distinctive silhouette now appears in the green-for-go pedestrian traffic lights (wouldn’t red have been more appropriate?) on Wellington’s Cuba St.

Carmen is routinely portrayed in the media these days as a champion of homosexual law reform and crusader for trans-gender people. The Dominion Post yesterday called her a gay rights advocate; on TV3 last night she was a “campaigner against discrimination”. But that’s not how I, or many others who were around Wellington when Carmen was active, remember her.

Carmen may have given encouragement to trans-gender people – and possibly gays too – by the mere fact of her existence, and through her high profile around Wellington. To that extent she may have served as a role model, but I don’t recall her actively campaigning for causes. Sure, she once ran for the Wellington mayoralty, but that was a prank perpetrated by Bob Jones. No one took her candidacy seriously.

In any case, Carmen’s prominence in Wellington suggested that the city was quite relaxed about trans-gender people, even in the 1960s and 70s. Certainly, she didn’t seem to suffer any discrimination personally. She was an identity. The city was proud of her. Locals would take out-of-towners to her coffee bar hoping for a sight of her. But that was about as far as it went. She never, to my knowledge, agitated politically for greater sexual freedom. That’s a revisionist invention by people who weren’t around during Carmen’s heyday – younger journalists, for instance, and Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

And here’s another thing. Carmen is now celebrated as a “Cuba St icon”, which is odd because she was associated with Vivian St. That’s where Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge was located. Later, she opened a strip club, the Balcony – but that was on Victoria St, roughly where the Wellington public library now stands.

Wade-Brown is reported as saying Carmen was "synonymous with Cuba St", but how would she know? She arrived in Wellington in 1983, by which time I suspect Carmen had probably already moved to Kings Cross, Sydney. It may suit Wellington now to hail Carmen as a Cuba St figure, because it conveniently matches the bohemian image the street has acquired over the past couple of decades. But Cuba St in Carmen’s time was a rundown, dreary thoroughfare with none of the vibrancy and atmosphere we associate it with today.

Cuba St had a few notable assets – Fuller Fulton’s supermarket, the Karantze Brothers grill room, Le Normandie restaurant – but nothing raunchy or racy. Even the legendary Bistro Bar at the Royal Oak Hotel, gathering place for Wellington’s demimonde, was around the corner on Dixon St.

Cuba St was associated more with shuffling derelicts. But as the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Underwhelmed by the Olympic Games? So am I

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 5.)

The Olympic Games haven’t even started and I’m over them already.

It wasn’t always like this. Historically, the Games have been the ultimate sporting contest, commanding rapt worldwide interest.

I’m no sports fanatic, but even for me there was a frisson of anticipation as the Games approached and a feeling of being caught up in the contagious general excitement once they began.

Everybody watched and everybody talked about it. It was the subject of water-cooler conversation before we’d heard of water coolers.

Heck, I even recall getting excited over the Fosbury Flop – the revolutionary new high-jump technique that won the American Dick Fosbury a gold medal at Mexico in 1968.

But I sense that the public no longer feel quite the same spirit of ownership and involvement. You could say the Games have been stolen from us.

There are multiple reasons for this. Drugs, for starters.

In the past, the pre-Olympics media buzz was typically about who was going to win what. But for weeks now, Games reportage has been focused on allegations of large-scale, state-backed doping by Russia. 

Drugs are nothing new in sport. In the 1960s and 70s, people would look askance at suspiciously masculine-looking female athletes from the Soviet Union and East Germany and wonder how many male hormones they had ingested.

It was even suggested that the unbeatable Soviet shot-putter and discus thrower Tamara Press was a hermaphrodite. She and her equally suspect sister Irina retired before gender verification became mandatory.

There are echoes of the Cold War in the allegations now being levelled at Russia. But drug use isn’t confined to Russian athletes; it's rampant in international sport.

New Zealanders aren’t above dabbling in drugs either. Discus thrower Robin Tait and weightlifter Graham May both admitted using steroids.

What makes it even more problematical these days is that laboratories keep coming up with ever more sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs and seem able to keep one step ahead of detection techniques.

So every time someone wins gold, there’ll be that nagging suspicion: was it pure strength, skill and determination that did it, or was there a Swiss lab technician in a white coat lurking somewhere in the background?

Then there’s the influence of corporate and state sponsorship, which tilts the field in favour of professional competitors with wealthy backers.

The days when raw, naturally talented amateur athletes like Peter Snell and Murray Halberg prepared for the Olympics by pounding roads in the Waitakere Range at weekends under the critical gaze of Arthur Lydiard (who owned a small shoe factory and earned money on the side as a milkman) are long gone.

If Snell were running now, he’d be supported by a retinue of professional trainers, motivators and even PR minders.

Sport is inextricably linked with national prestige, so governments have got in on the act – something once confined to the Soviet bloc. A recent study found that every Olympic medal won by an Australian cost the Aussie taxpayer more than $9 million.

That surely places competitors from impoverished Third World states at an enormous disadvantage against those from countries that can afford to fund institutes of high-performance sport. That’s a double blow to the old Olympic ideals of amateurism and a level playing field.

So much for the competitors, then. But what about the slackers at home who want to watch the Games on television?

Sorry, but unless they pay a Sky TV subscription, they’ll have to make do with edited highlights packages on Sky-owned Prime. Sky enforces its exclusive rights ferociously, as its ugly dispute with Fairfax Media and NZME showed.

Some countries – Australia, for example – have legislation requiring that major sport events be televised free. But not us.

What this means is that the sense of community involvement that came from the entire nation watching – a living room of 4.7 million people – is now the stuff of nostalgia.

I could go on. I could talk about how corruption has contaminated sport (witness the FIFA scandals), how corporate sponsors now call the shots, how the Games are a prime target for terrorists (although that's not entirely new - remember Munich?), and how professionalism has spawned a new breed of overpaid, pampered and often dysfunctional sports celebrities.

I could point out that the Games have imposed a massive financial burden on an economically struggling nation. It's no surprise that Brazilians, according to reports this week, are underwhelmed by the event. They have more pressing issues on their minds, like surviving.

The common denominator linking so many of the factors tarnishing the image of sport is, of course, the baneful influence of money. Not even the Olympics, which once rejoiced in the spirit of amateurism, are free of its grip.

Capitalism is a wonderful thing, but there are some things that the vulgar money men should never have been allowed to get their hooks into. Sport is one.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

It's Kevin Roberts' turn to be thrown to the wolves

I’m no fan of Kevin Roberts. He’s a tireless self-promoter whose talent for bullshit is breathtaking even by advertising industry standards. But the extraordinary furore over his comments on gender diversity illustrates the dangerous extent to which business is now held hostage by the po-faced forces of political correctness.

Roberts, the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, has been asked to take leave of absence for saying, in quite mild and unexceptionable terms, that the debate over gender diversity in the advertising business is over.

It seems that in business these days, you’re allowed to express an opinion only if it’s the right one.

We know that the enforcers of political correctness are intolerant of any departure from ideological orthodoxy. That’s been the case for a long time. What’s relatively new, and frightening, is that business leaders are now so intimidated that they capitulate without firing a shot.  

The lesson is clear. Roberts has been hung out to dry as a lesson to anyone else who might be tempted to express a legitimate opinion. And there’s another, even more potent, lesson here: no one is too big to be safe. Even Roberts’ rarefied status in the advertising world wasn’t enough to protect him once the Harpies had him in their sights.

Loyalty? Forget about it.

The irony is that Roberts may not have been downplaying women’s legitimate career ambitions at all, but instead was wondering aloud whether there were better options for women than relentlessly pursuing advancement as men do. That was the interpretation placed on his remarks in a discussion (between women, as it happened) that I heard on the BBC.

Not that it matters. Men are not permitted to discuss such things. As columnist Grace Dent put it in Britain’s Independent, Roberts has been escorted to “Shamed Man Gulag #231, policed by a number of perma-furious turquoise-haired fourth-wave feminists”.

New Zealanders should recognise this pattern of events, because we’ve been here before. In 2011, Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association head Alasdair Thompson was publicly crucified for suggesting that menstruation caused women to take sick leave. Shamefully, he lost his job as a result. 

Thompson was thrown to the wolves by the very people who should have supported him and now Roberts has suffered a similar fate. Clearly, no one should expect the gutless business sector to stand up for people’s right to free speech.