Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I reckon eventually, something will blow

Barry Soper made a surprising statement on Newstalk ZB yesterday. I didn’t take down his exact words, but essentially he said nothing was going to happen in the next three years (he meant politically) except that Jacinda Ardern was going to have a baby.

Perhaps it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the media’s fascination with the prime ministerial pregnancy. But if not, it was an astonishingly bold pronouncement from someone who has covered politics as long as Soper has, and who must surely know the risks of making predictions.

Just hours later, Bill English announced he was retiring, and immediately the political landscape looked very different. Presto – just like that.

Now Wellington is buzzing with speculation about who will succeed English and what difference it might make. The consensus seems to be that National must look to the 2023 election rather than 2020 to regain power. This is based on the conventional wisdom that National’s fatal strategic mistake in 2017 was that it lacked a strong coalition ally, and that it’s going to take longer than three years for one to emerge.

This is an entirely plausible scenario, but it overlooks one possibility. No one can predict with any certainty that the present Labour-led government will hold together for a full term. Its internal contradictions and tensions are such that it could easily tear itself apart, in which case all bets will be off.

The greatest challenge will be reconciling the strains between New Zealand First and the Greens, who represent polar opposites on the ideological spectrum. There will be ample opportunity for this fault line to rupture, and I think we got a glimpse of one this morning with the announcement that the government might scrap plans to put video cameras on fishing boats to monitor bycatch (albatrosses, seals and so forth) and possible illegal dumping of fish.

This is hardly likely to play well with Labour’s Green allies, whose attitude toward fishing companies was summed up by former Green MP Kevin Hague’s statement that the industry couldn’t be trusted. This puts the National Party – which supports the video cameras proposal – in the unusual position of being able to claim the moral high ground with environmentalists, which won’t go down well with the Greens.

For conspiracy theorists, there’s a delectable note of intrigue here because of Winston Peters’ well-documented association with fishing industry interests. Fishing companies have been generous donors to New Zealand First and Peters was instrumental in the Labour-led government’s decision to kybosh the Kermadec marine sanctuary, which was initially championed by Green MP Gareth Hughes.

That backtrack ruffled Green feathers, and so will the retreat from the video cameras proposal. It will be nigh impossible to allay suspicion that Peters wielded his baneful influence behind the scenes.

There is potential for many more such irritants in the fraught relationship between New Zealand First and the Greens. We’ve seen a few already and the government is only four months old. Green MPs, who are driven by idealism and like to think of themselves as highly principled, will be able to button their lips and play the pragmatic game for only so long. I reckon eventually, something will blow. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pssst - don't mention asylums

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 9.)

We should always cherish the lone voice – the individual bold enough to go against the flow and to speak out against conventional wisdom when conventional wisdom has got it wrong.

Andy Espersen of Nelson is such a voice. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been reading his letters to the papers for years.

Like most lone voices, Espersen is a single-issue crusader. In his case, the issue is mental health. His consistent and persuasive message is that New Zealand made a grievous mistake when it shut down its mental hospitals three decades ago.

Unlike some lone voices, Espersen is not a crank. He spent 40 years working in mental hospitals as a staff nurse and psychiatric social worker (he’s in his 80s now), so he’s no armchair theorist.

In his most recent letter to this paper, he asked whether the mental health inquiry ordered by the new government would dare question the policy of de-institutionalisation and the airy-fairy concept of community care for the mentally ill.

I suspect he knows the answer to his question. Although prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised nothing will be off the table in the inquiry, community care is such an ideological sacred cow that no one, other than Espersen, even considers the possibility that the old way might have been better.

My prediction is that activists will do their best to ensure that the inquiry focuses on the supposed “drivers” of mental illness. These will include poverty, racism, colonisation, homelessness and homophobia. In other words, they will want to make it all about victims.

No one will want to talk about the virtues of the old “asylums”, because the word is deeply unfashionable. But they were given that name for a reason. An asylum is a place that provides sanctuary. That’s why we talk about political prisoners seeking asylum and asylum-seekers who have fled from unsafe countries.

An asylum was a place where the mentally ill were guaranteed a warm bed, three meals a day, medical care and company, if they wanted it. There were nurses to ensure they took their medication. It wasn’t an ideal existence, but it was safe and secure.

In the 1980s, however, mental health professionals decided the system was inhumane. Hospitalisation was little better than imprisonment, they argued. The mentally ill were entitled like everyone else to live independently and autonomously.

Wrapped in the warm embrace of that amorphous thing called the community, they would be liberated to fulfil their true potential as human beings.

It didn’t seem to matter if they were incapable of cooking, shopping, managing their finances, holding down a job, washing their clothes or showering. And so they ended up living in squalid flats, boarding houses and caravan parks where there was no one to ensure they took their meds. At best, a nurse or mental health worker might check on them occasionally.

It was an ideologically driven change, but the government bean-counters and deconstructionists liked it because it meant the closure of all those big, expensive old institutions.

Doubtless this bold experiment worked for some people, but its negative consequences can be seen in frequent heart-breaking newspaper reports about acutely ill patients living in the community who have committed murder or suicide. Ironically, the victims of their mad rage are often the people who are closest to them and care most about them – their families.

If you missed the last such newspaper story, don’t worry. They’re like buses – there’ll be another one along soon.

There’s a recurring pattern to the human tragedies described in these accounts. Usually they have stopped taken their medication. They may be abusing illegal drugs or alcohol. Often they are living in chaotic circumstances. None of this would happen if they were in a hospital.

Their families are driven to despair. Pleas for help fall on deaf ears or get swallowed up in a cumbersome and unresponsive bureaucracy.

The system allows district health boards to wash their hands of difficult patients the moment they’re out the door. Too often it’s left to the police to pick up the pieces.

Coroners repeatedly make recommendations about how the system needs to be improved. The authorities solemnly nod in agreement, then ignore them.

The prison system ends up bearing part of the burden too. Espersen estimated last year that there were about 2000 mentally ill prisoners who should be in mental hospitals.

As he said in one letter, "We as a society ought to be ashamed". The mental health inquiry has an opportunity to do something about this - but will it?

You can argue with Mallard's method, but not his motive

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 7.)

The census figures say it all, really.

Since 1991, the number of New Zealanders describing themselves as Christian has tracked consistently and quite sharply downwards, from nearly 70 percent to 48 percent.

There has been a corresponding upward trend in the number claiming no religious belief – up to 42 percent in 2013, the most recent census year.

If this pattern continues, it would be no surprise if the 2018 census showed non-believers outnumbering Christians in New Zealand, confirming our status as one of the world’s most secular countries.

As a point of comparison, 83 per cent of Americans described themselves as Christian in a poll last year and only 13 percent said they had no religion. In Australia the figures are 52 percent (Christian) and 30 percent (non-believers).

Meanwhile, there has been a steady rise in the number of New Zealand residents adhering to other religious beliefs besides Christianity – notably Hindus (whose numbers doubled between 2001 and 2013), Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs.

This is the consequence of a radical change in immigration policy dating from 1987, when the Lange government shifted from a system that gave preference to applicants from Britain, Europe and North America to one that was essentially skills-based. This opened the door to migrants of diverse ethnicities and religions from Asia and other parts of the Third World.

In the light of all this, it was unsurprising that Trevor Mallard, who became parliamentary Speaker following the change of government, decided that the explicitly Christian prayer which opens proceedings when Parliament is sitting was overdue for a rewrite.

When Parliament resumed after the 2017 election, reference to Jesus Christ and the Queen had been deleted. Mallard apparently made this decision unilaterally, short-circuiting what was expected to be a consultation process.

It seemed high-handed but it was consistent with his style. And he was within his rights, since the Speaker is the boss in Parliament in much the same way as judges decide how their courts are run. It may seem paradoxical, but Parliament is not an institution run on strictly democratic lines.

After the summer recess, however, Mallard back-pedalled. When Parliament resumed last week it was with a compromise version of the prayer. The Queen had been reinstated – as she should be, given that she’s our head of state. But of Jesus Christ, there was no mention. And just to rub salt into the wounds of traditionalists, Mallard recited the prayer in Maori.

Setting aside the question of whether he should have consulted before barging ahead in the first place, the muted public reaction to the change suggests that most New Zealanders are pretty relaxed about it.

That’s not surprising, given that fewer than half the population now profess to be Christian. I suspect that if the census drilled down a bit further and asked respondents whether they solemnly believed that Jesus Christ was truly the son of God, which is what defines a Christian, they might be even fewer in number.

Many people who think of themselves as Christian use the term in a much looser sense, denoting someone who tries to live according to Christian values. Such people are unlikely to take great offence at Christ no longer being mentioned in the parliamentary prayer, the wording of which was clumsy and archaic and thus due for revision regardless of religious feelings.

Those who believe in the existence of a supreme being will be consoled that the prayer still acknowledges “almighty God”, although in such a way that adherents of other religious beliefs besides Christians can feel it refers to their God too.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with this compromise. The TV news showed a rally at Parliament protesting at the change. The ecstatic singing, the blissful facial expressions and the waving of arms toward the heavens suggested this was an evangelistic fringe of New Zealand Christianity rather than the mainstream.

If I understood him correctly, the protesters’ leader argued that our system of government largely derives from Judeo-Christian principles and that Parliament should therefore acknowledge and honour Christ as embodying and inspiring those principles.

It’s a legitimate argument but it only goes so far, because modern democracy requires that we acknowledge and respect other religious beliefs.

Some devout Christians struggle with this idea, because their faith in Christ is absolute and allows for no alternatives. Most of us, though, accept that modern New Zealand is a pluralist society that accommodates a range of belief systems, just as long as they don’t intrude on anyone else’s rights.

We should thank God, if you’ll pardon the expression, that we live in a tolerant, liberal society rather than an oppressive theocracy, such as Iran, or one of those countries where religious passions can lead to murder and mayhem, such as India or Myanmar.  

Mind you, it does our MPs no harm to start their day with an acknowledgement that they are answerable to a higher power. If only they could make a more sincere attempt to live up to the sentiments expressed in the prayer, particularly the bit about humility.