Sunday, March 26, 2017

The NZDF's flawed damage-control model

My impression of the Defence establishment, admittedly from the perspective of an outsider who claims no special insight, is that it has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, hierarchical institutions that observe rituals and traditions that can seem mystifying to the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; it’s just a fact.

Both also strike me as being unaccustomed to, and therefore resentful of, outside scrutiny. Their natural instinct, when under criticism, is to close ranks and go into self-protection mode.

That seems to be what’s happened over allegations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Defence Force has put its helmet on, hunkered down in its foxhole and is now waiting in the hope that the shelling will stop. Like the Catholic Church in its response to sexual abuse scandals, it seems ill-equipped to deal with public relations crises.

The government, too, seems to be hoping this will all blow over. Bill English appears to assume that the bland “Nothing to see here, folks” line that so often worked for John Key will be effective here too.  He and other ministers are counting on public respect for the SAS and suspicion of Nicky Hager’s motives to pull the government through unharmed. Besides, it all happened so long ago and far away.

I think they’re wrong. Yes, lots of people don’t want to think badly of our much-admired SAS and would rather not be confronted by the unpleasant possibility that they might have killed innocent people. But as human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott said in a thoughtful and balanced response to questions on Q+A this morning, even good people can make mistakes.

There are two issues here: whether the SAS did what’s alleged, and whether it was then covered up to avoid embarrassment. Both questions are troubling, but the latter arguably more so. Soldiers shooting the wrong people in a war zone, in the (presumably genuine) belief that their lives were threatened, is one thing; drawing a veil over it in the hope that no one would find out is quite another.

I wish we could be confident that the Defence Force would have been scrupulous in wanting to get to the truth of the matter, admit any error and atone for mistakes made, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I think the NZDF has made the mistake of taking the Catholic Church as its damage-control model. It’s surely only a matter of time before English and his ministers will have to accept that the allegations are too serious to be brushed aside. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why celebrity activists piss me off

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 22.) 

I tuned into the BBC World Service in the middle of the night recently, as one does, and found myself listening to an interview with an American woman whose identity, since I came in part-way through, was not evident to me.

She was lamenting the appalling state of the world and the heartlessness of the people who allow it to be that way.

Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned, but he might as well have been, along with all the other people in positions of power who apparently don’t care about the downtrodden and marginalised.

It was a familiar display of verbal hand-wringing. She had that slightly whiny tone sometimes adopted by people who know exactly what’s wrong with the world, if only others could share their insight and compassion.

It should have come as no surprise to learn, when the interview ended, that I’d been listening to Angelina Jolie. And I found myself analysing what it is about Jolie and others of her ilk – such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Emma Thompson, Sean Penn and even my favourite actress, Meryl Streep – that makes my hackles rise when I hear them pontificating about all the injustice in the world.

To be fair, Jolie at least puts her money where her mouth is. You could argue she has earned the right to pontificate through her humanitarian work with refugees and displaced persons.

The others, I’m not sure about. Bono, for instance, seems to do most of his supposed philanthropy with his mouth.

It seems to me that the main reason these people pontificate is that an admiring media provides them with a ready-made platform.

They don’t have to demonstrate any serious commitment to the causes they espouse. (Again, Jolie is an exception here.) It’s enough that they have half-baked opinions on emotive issues such as poverty and refugees.

I regard this as a misuse, if not abuse, of their privileged position. They seem to assume that their celebrity status confers some sort of moral authority on them.

Well, it doesn’t. They have no more moral authority than the bank teller, the bus driver and the supermarket checkout operator.

The only difference is that wealth and, crucially, media adulation gives Hollywood stars – and some rock singers too – the luxury of being able to present themselves as the conscience of the Western world. They are encouraged in this belief by fawning interviewers who never ask hard questions.

But what are they, really? They are performers. Jolie is an actor, and many would say not a particularly good one. And what do actors do? They make immense sums of money by pretending to be other people.

They recite words written by others and are made to look good by skilled directors, cinematographers, film editors and (not least) makeup artists.

They haven’t climbed mountains, performed acts of heroism, made ground-breaking scientific discoveries or written great books. Yet for some reason people genuflect before them in awe. 

Good for Jolie if she spends some of her wealth helping less fortunate people, but that doesn’t endow her with infinite wisdom. It doesn’t mean she knows the answers to the intractable problems dogging the world.

And here’s another thing. Activist celebrities enjoy the luxury of being able to pontificate without ever having to deliver results.

Unlike the politicians they often condemn, they don’t have to make complex policy decisions or choose between agonisingly conflicting priorities. And unlike politicians in a democracy, who must face the voters every few years, they are not accountable to anyone.

They don’t, for example, have to confront redundant workers from Detroit car plants or Pennsylvania steel mills who voted for the despised Trump because they felt robbed of hope and dignity. And they don’t have to face people from previously safe, stable Western European societies that have been ravaged by the multiculturalism that stars like Jolie espouse.

But they have money. They fly around the world in first-class or in private jets, apparently choosing to ignore their rather substantial carbon footprint (although still tut-tutting about climate change).

They stay in five-star luxury lodges and address $1000-a-head charity dinners. How much more agreeable than having to find fair and practicable solutions to real problems or to be held accountable for real results.

Oh, and they can afford to adopt children from Third World countries to demonstrate their kindness and their passion for diversity.

Adoptees from the Third World sometimes look like the latest Hollywood fashion accessory. Why not adopt children from their own country? They’re often just as needy. But it wouldn’t look as exotic, and it wouldn’t score quite so many political points.

Just once, I would like an interviewer to confront celebrity activists such as Jolie with the unarguable fact that capitalism and globalisation, which Jolie apparently blames for many of the world’s ills, have raised more people out of poverty, and eliminated more disease, than any of the fuzzy, ill-defined but fashionably soft-left ideologies promoted by her and others like her.

I’m waiting, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What abortion rights activists really mean when they talk about a "review"

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 17.)

Is there any issue more polarising than abortion?

It’s a sensitive subject because we know that tens of thousands of New Zealand women, in fact probably hundreds of thousands, have had abortions.

They will have had them for a variety of reasons – some compelling, others perhaps less so.

We know from Abortion Supervisory Committee reports that some women have had multiple abortions. Of those who had abortions in 2015, 43 had had seven or more, 74 had had six and 193 had had five, which suggests they regarded the procedure as no big deal and presumably no great cause for regret.

But a much greater number of women will have agonised over the decision, and a significant number will have suffered psychological consequences.

Decades of feminist insistence that abortion is simply a matter of women’s rights and women’s health won’t necessarily have made them feel any better about getting rid of the human life taking shape inside them.

Some will have seen the 2015 film Room, starring Brie Larson in an Oscar-winning performance as a woman who has been held captive as a sex slave for seven years.

In that time she has given birth to a boy, fathered by her captor. Mother and son live in total isolation from the outside world, imprisoned in a soundproofed garden shed.

The film’s appeal stems largely from the warmth and empathy between the woman and her smart, inquisitive son, whom she loves with a fierce passion.

It’s a daring film because it challenges the notion that the only option for a woman made pregnant through rape is to have the baby aborted.

Of course the rape victim in Room had no choice. But the film’s clear message is that even a child fathered by a monster and conceived against the mother’s will - in other words, an unwanted child - can be loved and cherished.

In this respect, the film is almost subversive, because it offers a counter-narrative to the one that dominates the abortion debate.

This is an issue so polarised that even the labels applied to the opposing camps are contentious. Abortion rights lobbyists prefer to be called pro-choice rather than pro-abortion, which is understandable.

“Pro-abortion” implies that they think sucking a foetus out of the womb and dumping it in a plastic-lined bin is a good thing, which surely can’t be the case. “Pro-choice” frames the issue much more inoffensively as an issue of women’s rights rather than babies’ deaths.

Conversely, “anti-abortion” suggests a hard, unsympathetic line and may even conjure up images of the fanatics who firebomb abortion clinics. “Pro-life” puts a friendlier, more positive spin on the anti-abortion stance.

We can expect to hear more from these groups after the Abortion Supervisory Committee, in its latest report, recommended a review of the 40-year-old legislation that sets out the circumstances in which abortions may legally be carried out. Like it or not, we’re back in the old minefield.

Abortion rights activists took the report as the cue to mount a fresh campaign for liberalisation of the law, as the committee surely must have known they would.

The activists were quick to pick up the committee’s statement that some of the language in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (CSA) Act is sexist and outdated, as if that somehow renders the entire legislation invalid.

Outdated language can be easily fixed, but highlighting the issue is a clever propaganda tactic because it portrays the Act as a quaint hangover from an era when men supposedly told women what to do.

In truth, the renewed debate is about much more than semantics. Complaints about sexist language are a smokescreen, because merely making the Act gender-neutral wouldn’t achieve the activists’ objective.

When they talk about “reviewing” the legislation, what they really mean is rewriting it to make abortion available on request – their goal since the 1970s.

The committee has obligingly opened the door a crack and the abortion rights lobby has jammed its foot into the gap, as the committee possibly intended.

The abortion rights lobby wants abortion decriminalised – that is to say, no longer treated as an offence under the Crimes Act, which they regard as an anachronism.

To all intents and purposes the provision relating to abortion in the Crimes Act is negated anyway by the CSA Act, which enables the Crimes Act to be legally sidestepped.  

Nonetheless, the fact that abortion remains in the Crimes Act serves a symbolic purpose. It's a reminder that abortion involves extinguishing a life, no matter how hard the pro-choice lobby tries to disguise the fact.

Friday, March 10, 2017

How to alienate your best friends

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 8.)

I find myself in the unfamiliar situation of being in agreement with Winston Peters. The New Zealand First leader thinks the police have lost the plot, and so do I.

Peters has attacked the police for wanting to curtail the right of people to take their own wine and beer to race meetings. He uses his customary blustering rhetoric, describing the police as politically correct wowsers and comparing them with Nazis.

But he’s right when he says government policy should recognise that the vast majority of New Zealanders treat alcohol responsibly – a fact wilfully ignored by zealots in the police hierarchy, the public health sector and the universities, who think we’re all helpless drunks.  

Peters is also undoubtedly correct when he predicts that a prohibition on people taking their own alcohol to race meetings would soon become a blanket ban on alcohol at other community events, and possibly even family picnics.

The latest police proposal surfaced in a briefing paper on ways to reduce “alcohol-related harm” – three words that I suspect the staff at Police Headquarters in Wellington are required to chant for five minutes at the start of every working day to remind them of their primary mission.

The briefing paper identified BYO alcohol at race meetings as a “key issue”. This caused immediate alarm on the West Coast, where the Kumara race meeting, at which people have traditionally been allowed to drink their own alcohol, is a signature event on the social calendar.

West Coast mayor Bruce Smith says that if the police get their way, they will kill off an event that has been attracting West Coast families for 134 years. And you can be sure the Kumara races won’t be the only meeting affected.

I’ve often attended the races at the picturesque Tauherenikau course, in the Wairarapa. It’s an old-style, family-friendly country race meeting that attracts people from Wellington as well from the Wairarapa.

As at Kumara, people are allowed to take their own liquor. Many racegoers arrive early and set up picnic tables under the trees, often in the same spot they’ve occupied for years.  There are no bag searches or other controls.

And you know what? In all the years I’ve been attending the Tauherenikau races, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who was visibly drunk, still less behaving badly.  The police are barely visible.

Yet the police hierarchy claims to have identified race meetings as a “key” cause of alcohol-related harm. This represents the latest step in a long campaign by police to redefine themselves as moral custodians whose primary function is not so much to prevent crime or catch crooks as to protect society from its own foolishness.

There have been innumerable examples in recent years of this Mother Hen approach to policing. In Wellington, police have subjected bar owners to such harassment that the city’s most experienced and respected hospitality operator – a man whose bars and restaurants have an exemplary record – declared last year that bar owners now saw the police as the opposition, not an ally.

Heavy-handed policing was also blamed when the once spectacularly successful Wellington Rugby Sevens fell out of favour with the public. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

It’s significant that Peters has now taken hold of this issue. No politician has a keener nose for public discontent, and his nostrils will be twitching more than ever in an election year when his party stands a good chance of holding the balance of power.

He will have noted that the single-minded, anti-liquor mindset adopted by the police hierarchy is putting officers offside with the community they are paid to serve.

I picked up a sudden, unmistakeable change of mood a couple of summers ago, when – without prompting from me – friends began expressing their irritation about being breath-tested on their way to work, or complaining about the bullying demeanour of police officers at outdoor events where people were harmlessly (and legally) enjoying a drink.

I have also noted a growing public feeling that police priorities are cockeyed and their resources misused. Ninety per cent of burglaries go unsolved and victims of crime frequently complain that calls to the police go unheeded.

A business owner told me last week that even when he provided the police with video footage of organised shoplifters at work, and evidence of their identity, no action was taken. Yet the police always seem to have enough officers for alcohol checkpoints, even in places and at times of day when the likelihood of catching drunk drivers must be minimal.

If I’m hearing this, the politicians must be hearing it too. Likewise, police officers in the community must be aware of mounting dissatisfaction.

What should especially concern the police and government is that the grumbling is coming not from the usual habitual complainers, but from conservative, law-abiding people – the type whose natural inclination is to respect and support the police. It takes a special sort of incompetence – or perhaps I should say dogmatic zeal – to alienate your best friends. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

When the police become mother hens

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 3.)

I shudder when I see someone advocating a hate speech law. So should we all.

Police commissioner Mike Bush didn’t go so far as actually advocating a law prohibiting “hate speech”, however that may be defined, but obviously it was on his mind. In fact he’s talked to the Human Rights Commission about it.

I imagine it would have been a meeting of minds. After all, it’s the nature of bureaucracies to want their powers expanded.

Combine this with the pervasive school of thought in modern government which holds that a feckless society needs paternalistic minders to keep it from getting into trouble, and almost any busybody law becomes possible.

If we were to have speech police, could George Orwell’s Thought Police be far behind?

A hate speech law would mark a radical and dangerous extension of existing police powers: from protecting people and property against clearly identifiable threats, such as assault and theft, to making value judgments about whether a citizen has crossed the blurry line between fair comment and something much darker.  

Such a law would be welcomed by activist minority groups which want the state to protect them from any comment they see as hurtful or oppressive. But freedom of speech is far too precious in a democracy to be undermined by subjective judgments from police officers about what constitutes incitement to “hate” as opposed to a robust expression of legitimate opinion.

Happily, on this occasion both Justice Minister Amy Adams and Police Minister Paula Bennett squashed Bush’s idea.  They rightly pointed out that existing laws are perfectly capable of dealing with public statements likely to incite hostility against, for instance, ethnic or religious minorities. Check out Section 61 of the Human Rights Act, for starters.

Anyway, what was Bush doing raising the matter in the first place? Since when was it the role of the Police Commissioner to suggest new laws that would restrict fundamental liberties such as the right of free speech?

The job of the police is to enforce laws passed by Parliament, not to publicly float their own ideas about what might be necessary for society’s wellbeing. We don’t need activist public servants stepping beyond their remit.

Most New Zealanders would probably prefer Bush to devote his energy to reducing the scandalous burglary rate, or ensuring that the police respond promptly to calls from victims of crime rather than fobbing people off - as happens all too often - by saying they’re busy with other things.

But the commissioner’s action is entirely consistent with the role police have increasingly taken upon themselves, which is that of moral custodians. Already we have seen, in recent years, a marked change in the way the police view their duties.

Traditionally their function was to protect people against lawbreakers and to apprehend criminals. But the modern New Age police take a much broader view of their role. They have morphed into mother hens, constantly clucking about all the things we’re doing wrong. They think we need to be protected against ourselves.

This is most conspicuous in matters relating to alcohol consumption. The police have a legitimate interest in minimising the road toll, but their moralistic crusades against drinking resemble nothing so much as the shrill campaigns of late-19th century prohibitionists who were convinced that liquor would be the ruin of us all.

They need to be reminded that alcohol consumption is not only legal, but for centuries has been the lubricant of social intercourse and celebration.

Of course a small minority of people drink to excess and behave badly, which brings me to the woman who was videoed shouting abuse at a group of Muslims in Huntly recently.

Bush seized this as justification for a discussion about the need for hate crime legislation. But Newstalk ZB talkback host Tim Beveridge got to the heart of the matter when he said the real problem in the Huntly incident wasn’t racism or xenophobia; it was drunkenness.

The question, then, is whether an isolated outburst from a pathetic drunk justifies a senior public servant talking about the need for hate speech laws. Most people would probably think we need a far higher threshold than that.

As for Bush, he has some ground to make up. He got off to an unpromising start in his job, being the cop who delivered a glowing eulogy at the funeral of the detective who framed Arthur Allan Thomas, and his public image hasn’t improved with recent publicity suggesting he was evasive about declaring an old drink-driving conviction.

Perhaps he should pull his head in and concentrate on his core functions.