Friday, September 21, 2018

My shameful confession

(First published in The Dominion Post and on September 20.)

I have a shameful confession to make.

On a gorgeous spring afternoon in 2017, I drove to Fernridge School, just west of Masterton, and cast my vote in the general election.

Virtually until the moment I entered the polling booth, I remained an undecided voter.

My electorate vote was straightforward enough. It went to Labour’s Wairarapa candidate Kieran McAnulty – mainly because I thought Alastair Scott, the sitting National MP, had done bugger-all in his first term other than turn up for photo opportunities, and therefore didn’t deserve to be re-elected.

In the event, Scott was returned, albeit with a reduced margin, and has been noticeably more active than when his party was in government. Perhaps the fright did him good.

But that’s not the shameful bit. For the crucial party vote, I ended up holding my nose and placing a tick beside New Zealand First.

I apologise now for this act of political vandalism. It was a moment of madness in an otherwise unblemished life and I will suck up whatever opprobrium comes my way.  

Voting for Winston Peters went against all my instincts, but I was able to rationalise an otherwise irrational act on the basis that I was voting for purely tactical reasons.

The polls indicated the result could be close. I reasoned that whichever major party formed a government, it might be useful to encumber it with a coalition partner that could serve as a check on its power. Tragically, the only party likely to fulfil that purpose was New Zealand First.

If Labour got in, and especially if it had Green support, Peters and his MPs  might be in a position to curb any wild ideological excesses of the type centre-left parties are prone to after long periods in opposition.

If a National-led government was returned, I foresaw a different problem. I didn’t fancy the thought of a smugly triumphalist National Party. The born-to-rule syndrome is not a pretty sight. Being in coalition with New Zealand First, I reasoned, might take some of the wind out of National’s sails.

Well, we all know the outcome. As the old saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for.

Some readers may recall a great deal of huffing and puffing in this column over the way Peters subsequently gamed the system to secure maximum advantage for himself and New Zealand First, leveraging his party’s piffling 7 per cent share of the vote into a commanding position from which he was able to dictate the shape of the government.

I was too ashamed at the time to admit my partial responsibility for this state of affairs. Only a trusted few knew my guilty secret.

No doubt I’ll be accused of hypocrisy for giving my vote to Peters and then professing to be appalled by what transpired.

Well, fair enough. But I would argue that it was possible to vote for Peters and still be outraged by the way he took control of the coalition negotiations. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the ease with which he was able to manipulate the other players - helped, of course, by Labour’s desperation to regain power after three terms in opposition.

And in mitigation I would point out that in voting for New Zealand First I was doing exactly what the MMP system was intended to do, which is to ensure as far as possible that no one party ends up wielding total power. The architects of MMP would be proud of me.

From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, I have to admit that things panned out pretty much as I envisaged. My tactical vote had the desired effect, which was to moderate the behaviour of whichever party formed the government.

New Zealand First has now jammed several sticks into the spokes of Labour and the Greens, to the teeth-grinding frustration of the Left. The government is looking shambolic and there must be doubts about its ability to run a full term.

No one should be surprised at this turn of events. Peters is a team player only if he’s in charge of the team. He might behave himself for a while, but in time his natural belligerence and contrarianism will assert itself.

The irony is that the Left now has to endure the agony of seeing their agenda frustrated because of an electoral system that the Left championed. But this was always on the cards, given the fundamental incompatibility between two socially “progressive” parties and one that draws inspiration from Muldoon-era conservatism.

It’s kind of perversely satisfying in an “I told you so” way, so why am I not celebrating? Probably because I don’t think this is how democracy is supposed to work.  

Thursday, September 20, 2018

If I've got cancer, I'd rather know than not know

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and September 19.)

On talkback radio a couple of weeks ago, a succession of male callers talked about their experience of prostate cancer.

Prompted by the Blue September prostate cancer awareness campaign, the host had invited listeners to tell their stories. Several men duly phoned in and gave accounts of their diagnosis and treatment.

One caller said he had to go to three doctors before he found one who was willing to order a PSA test, which is the most common diagnostic tool for prostate cancer.

Another caller backed that up. He said he knew a number of men whose doctors not only discouraged them from having a PSA test, but refused to conduct a digital rectal examination – another routine diagnostic procedure.

Yet another caller said he had asked his doctor whether he should have a test and was advised: “Don’t go looking for trouble”. He got his test only after seeing another doctor. A subsequent biopsy confirmed the presence of cancer.

What’s going on here? If a PSA test is a simple first step toward determining whether a man has a potentially fatal illness, why do some doctors discourage patients from having one?

Just in case you’re wondering, the prostate is a walnut-sized organ between the bladder and the penis. It produces seminal fluid, so only males have it. An elevated PSA count, which is identified by a blood test and can signify the presence of cancer cells, is often the first indication that something is amiss.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation recently disclosed that it gets five calls or emails every week from men who wanted the PSA test but were turned down by their doctors. Yet one in eight New Zealand men will develop prostate cancer at some time in their life, and more than 600 die from it every year. It’s the third most common cancer in New Zealand.

So why are so many doctors apparently reluctant to act? A possible reason – and this is purely me speculating – is that prostate cancer can be a tricky disease to deal with. Some GPs throw up their hands, figuratively speaking, at the very mention of it.

First, it can be difficult to diagnose. The PSA test is a useful first step but it's not fool-proof and can give misleading results.

If it suggests there might be something wrong, it’s usually followed by the digital examination - the finger-up-the-bum test in which the doctor reaches inside and feels the prostate for any sign of abnormality.

Doctors don't enjoy doing this, for obvious reasons. The consensus among callers to the talkback show was that that GPs who were younger or female were more comfortable with it than older male doctors.

Patients don't much like it either. Some men seem to regard the digital rectal examination as threatening to their masculinity. There’s no getting around the fact it can be uncomfortable as well as undignified. But hey – if it can save your life, who cares about a little indignity?

Here, though, we encounter another problem. As one doctor explained it to me, the digital examination can be unreliable too.  The doctor can’t feel the whole prostate, so a cancerous growth may still escape detection.

If something’s found, the next step is a biopsy, in which tissue samples are taken from your prostate. This is an invasive procedure and it can be unpleasant. It also carries the risk of side-effects. For those reasons, some doctors hesitate to recommend it.

And again, a biopsy is a bit of a shot in the dark. As I understand it, there’s no guarantee that the samples taken will be taken from the part of the prostate that’s diseased. So again, the cancer may be missed.

That’s the thing with prostate cancer: there seems to be uncertainty at every turn. Treatment isn’t cut and dried either. Options include removal of the prostate, radiation therapy, hormonal treatment or brachytherapy, in which radioactive “seeds” are implanted in the prostate.

There seems to be no single “correct” or one-size-fits-all approach and there are potential downsides with every option, which may explain why some GPs seem tempted to put the illness in the too-hard basket.

I have prostate cancer myself. It was detected in 2016 after I went “looking for trouble”. A routine blood test showed my PSA level had risen slightly beyond the safe zone and a biopsy confirmed the presence of what's technically described as low-grade, low-volume cancer.

So far, my PSA remains relatively low and stable. I’m under “active surveillance”, which makes me sound like a suspected agent for a hostile foreign power, but simply means I have regular tests to make sure my PSA count hasn’t spiked .

I don't lie awake at night fretting about it. In fact I barely give it a thought from one week to the next. What would that achieve?

In any case, cancer is no longer the death sentence it was once regarded as. I know several men who were treated for prostate cancer years ago and remain healthy and active. If I stay lucky, I may be one of the many who die with the disease rather than from it.

But I’ll tell you one thing: if I’ve got cancer, I’d rather know than not know.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind

The British government clearly thinks New Zealand should have been more forthright in supporting condemnation of Russia for its involvement in the Novichok poisoning scandal. Britain’s minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, reportedly said in an interview that he hoped the Labour-NZ First coalition would issue an “unequivocal” statement backing Britain’s position. By implication, Winston Peters’ action in merely “accepting” the conclusions reached by the British investigation into the poisoning wasn’t enough.

Now National’s foreign affairs spokesman, Todd McClay, has taken up the call. According to McClay, New Zealand risks falling out of step with “our closest friends and allies” unless it makes a statement unequivocally condemning Russia. It was clearly not good enough, in McClay’s view, for Britain to be “left guessing” over our support.

But hang on a minute. Cast your mind back to the Rainbow Warrior bombing by French government agents in 1985. That crime had direct parallels with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. It was a hostile act carried out by a foreign power in the territory of another country with whom it had supposedly friendly relations.

McClay huffs and puffs that the Novichok incident was “an appalling, violent breach of the sovereignty of one of New Zealand’s closest friends”. Those exact same words could have been applied to the Rainbow Warrior bombing.

If anything, the Rainbow Warrior outrage was even more egregious, since it had fatal consequences and was carried out by a supposedly friendly power. But was it condemned by Britain, the country thousands of New Zealanders died for in two world wars?  

Nope. On the contrary, Britain's silence implied condonation. Official papers released in 2005 showed that Margaret Thatcher refused to sanction official criticism of France even after the French government had admitted responsibility for the bombing. She sided with the then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, against colleagues in the British cabinet who wanted the government to take a firmer line against the French.

It was no secret at the time that Thatcher heartily disapproved of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand and viewed this country as impertinent for having the effrontery to undermine the Western defence alliance. For all we know, she might have privately applauded France’s action.  

The British government had no sympathy for us then, and it's a bit rich to expect unquestioning allegiance from us now that it finds itself in the same predicament. The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind. If I were Peters, I’d be asking my officials for a polite diplomatic translation of the phrase “Blow it out your ear”.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Remembering the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu

It's 150 years today since the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu. This is a column I wrote last November.

We New Zealanders are not very good at celebrating our unique and turbulent history.

This was brought home to me last week when, during a trip through Taranaki, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit an historic site with a connection to my family.

Te Ngutu o te Manu (“the beak of the bird”) was the scene of an attempt by colonial forces to seize a fortified South Taranaki pa occupied by the formidable Ngati Ruanui chief Titokowaru in 1868.

It didn’t go well for the colonials. A first attack was abandoned and four soldiers were killed in the second skirmish. But Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas MacDonnell, perhaps unwisely, persisted.

On the third attempt, MacDonnell and his 350 men were lured into a trap. Although outnumbered six to one, Titokowaru’s defenders, many of them concealed around the edge of a clearing in front of the pa, mowed the attackers down.

When the smoke cleared, 20 of the attacking force lay dead or dying. They included the colourful Prussian adventurer Major Gustavus Von Tempsky, the leader of an irregular force known as the Forest Rangers.

Among the wounded was my great-grandfather, John Flynn. Irish-born, he was not a regular soldier but a member of the Taranaki Volunteers. Shot through the left thigh, he was carried to safety by his comrades during an arduous seven-hour retreat through the dense bush, harried every step of the way by Titokowaru’s Hauhau warriors.

Flynn eventually made a full recovery and went on to spend many years driving the mail coach that ran between Hawera and New Plymouth. Paradoxically he got on well with local Maori and spoke the language.

Some might think it unwise to admit having a forebear who was, not to put too fine a point on it, part of a military force whose job was to enforce the seizure of Maori land, but I feel neither proud nor ashamed of my great-grandfather and refuse to judge him. He was acting according to the prevailing values and beliefs of his time, just as we are free to see the actions of that era through a different lens.

The battle site is marked by a memorial listing the names of the dead soldiers. There is no mention of the Maori casualties, confirming Winston Churchill’s famous statement that history is written by the victors.

Although in this case the Ngati Ruanui won the battle, their story is invisible. The bigger war was ultimately won by the Crown, and part of the reward was to lay exclusive claim to the account of what happened.

But what struck me most was that you can drive past the site of the Te Ngutu o te Manu memorial and not know it exists. The stone cross stands in a large grassy clearing surrounded by native bush, concealed from the road.

There’s no sign at the entrance, nor at the nearby turnoff, and there’s nothing back on the main highway to indicate that you’re just five minutes’ drive away from a significant battleground. I found it only because I was given precise directions by a helpful woman at the Hawera information office. (For the record, the battle site is just a stone's throw from the Kapuni natural gas plant.)

The same is true of another historic Taranaki site. For most motorists speeding on the Surf Highway between New Plymouth and Opunake, the AA road sign marking the turnoff to Mid Parihaka Rd would flash past in a blur. But it’s up this quiet country road that 1600 troops invaded the pacifist Maori settlement of Parihaka in 1881 and arrested community leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.

I have a family connection of sorts with Parihaka, too. My uncle, the left-wing historian Dick Scott, published The Parihaka Story in 1954 and followed it up with the more comprehensive Ask That Mountain in 1975.

It’s fair to say that Dick brought the Parihaka affair to the attention of a Pakeha public that had previously known nothing about the Parihaka community’s campaign of non-violent resistance to European encroachment on Maori land.

The story is pretty well known now, but there are no signs directing travellers to the place where it unfolded. That may be the choice of today’s Parihaka residents, since it’s still a functioning community and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their rustic tranquility being disrupted by streams of cars.

Still, it strikes me as sad that we do so little to cultivate awareness of our own fascinating history. It wouldn’t happen in Australia, where Ned Kelly and the rebellious gold miners of the Eureka Stockade, to give two examples, are feted in the public memory, and where the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a major tourist attraction.

It’s not just in Taranaki that historic sites are overlooked. I wonder how many people drive past the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Orakau, near Te Awamutu, without realising it’s where Rewi Maniapoto made his famously defiant last stand in the Waikato Wars.

Is this, I wonder, another manifestation of the so-called cultural cringe – the self-deprecating New Zealand conviction that nothing of interest has ever happened here?

The Churches' desperate search for relevance

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, September 6.)

The Venerable Dr Peter Carrell was recently announced as the new Bishop-elect of the Anglican diocese of Christchurch. A statement said the Venerable Dr Carrell (churchmen do love their titles) was humbled by the confidence the Anglican community had shown in him and excited by the road ahead.

“With respect to Christchurch city,” he was quoted as saying, “I look forward to working co-operatively with Mayor Lianne Dalziel and the city council on matters of mutual interest and concern, especially challenges facing our city around homelessness, poverty and climate change.”

Of God and salvation, which some Christians still quaintly regard as being at the core of their faith, there was no mention. There was, however, a brief reference to the need for long-term healing of spiritual and mental health crises in the community.

In the same week, Morning Report ran a story about the director of the Anglican Advocacy Unit calling for stricter rules to control deceitful and manipulative property managers. Nothing about saving souls there, either.

Meanwhile, in the Vatican, Pope Francis was addressing business leaders on the need to stop the world’s oceans filling up with plastic waste.

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” the Pope said. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”

I had to read that last bit two or three times before I figured out what he was saying (or at least, what I think he was saying). But hey, at least God got a look in.

Now I’m no Bible-bashing, repent-or-burn-in-Hell evangelist – far from it. The only time I go near a church is to attend funerals, which I do far too often.

But the examples above strike me as evidence of the mainstream Churches desperately searching for relevance in an increasingly secular world, and of deluding themselves that they will find it by pushing fashionable political barrows.

Another example was the statement distributed to New Zealand Catholics by their bishops prior to the 2017 election. Predictably, it adopted voguish soft-Left positions on taxation, affordable housing and “caring for our planet”.

If I were Catholic, the presumption that I needed the bishops’ guidance on who to vote for would have irritated me even more than the pious platitudes.

But it’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans who have fallen into the trap of taking activist political positions. Even the Salvation Army, for decades a citadel of robust, practical Christianity and evangelisation, seems to have been politicised.

Its social justice advocates are regular fixtures on Radio New Zealand. I reckon the RNZ newsroom has Major Campbell Roberts, the Sallies’ director of social policy, on speed-dial.

Some will say it’s the duty of the Churches to speak out on issues such as climate change, inequality, racism, homelessness, immigration, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism – and yes, plastic waste too.

Fair enough, but that seems to be all they speak out on. In doing so, they often give the impression they’re currying favour with the activist Left.

The striking emphasis on secular issues in ecclesiastical pronouncements also suggests that Church leaders have decided that since God isn’t getting punters into the pews anymore, they need to try something different.

Maybe they called in the marketing gurus, who suggested they change their branding to something more in tune with a public that has turned away from religion – something that conspicuously signals virtue and compassion, even if it doesn’t come up with solutions. 

Certainly the statistics look bad for the mainstream Churches. Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of New Zealanders claiming no religious belief rose from 30 to 42 per cent.

It’s fair to say this has coincided with a collapse of the Churches’ moral authority – in Catholicism’s case, largely due to its scandalous record on sexual abuse. Just look at the way the formerly compliant Catholic Irish have taken the phone off the hook.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. But the Churches need to understand that they’re competing in a very crowded sector. In pursuing political causes, they risk being just another lot of voices amid the clamour from a vast and ever-proliferating body of strident advocacy groups demanding that the politicians do something.

To put it in marketing terms, they risk losing their vital point of difference – namely, saving souls.

I’m sure most of the people who still faithfully go to church on Sundays, along with the priests and vicars who minister to them, are concerned with more transcendent matters than plastic waste and evil property managers, important though such things are.

So why do Church leaders so often resort to hand-wringing political advocacy? Is it an admission that God just doesn’t cut it anymore? Have the Churches given Him up as a lost cause? It sometimes looks that way.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The neo-wowsers never let up

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, September 5.)

So – the latest word from health researchers is that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe.

Let’s set aside the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with health and diet studies which frequently contradict each other – to the extent that many people are inclined to disregard them all – and take this latest one at face value.

Superficially, the results of the survey, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, look persuasive.

The researchers found that while alcohol might be beneficial in some circumstances, the benefits are outweighed by risks which increase regardless of how little is consumed.

Not surprisingly, they found that the risks start out small with one drink a day, then increase as people consume more – hardly a stop-the-presses revelation.

Their conclusion: going teetotal is the only sure way to avoid the risk of harm.

Okay then. Now let’s apply the same test to a range of other human activities.

Travelling by car, indeed any form of transport, carries the risk of injury or death on the road. Does that mean we never go anywhere? No.

Getting married carries the risk that the relationship will end in an ugly and painful divorce. Does that mean people stay single? No.

Playing sport carries the risk of injury and disability. Does that mean we would be healthier if we were a nation of couch potatoes? No.

Investing money carries the risk that the investment will go belly-up and we’ll lose financially. Does that mean we hide our savings under the mattress? No.

Travelling to exotic places carries the risk of life-threatening illnesses from eating dodgy food or cutting our feet on poisonous coral. Does that mean we stay at home? No.

The point is that life would be unbearably dull – even pointless – without the pleasure, satisfaction and achievement that come from doing things that entail an element of risk.

Most people manage that risk by taking sensible precautions. They weigh the risks against the rewards and act accordingly.

We don’t drive fast in cars with bald tyres and munted brakes. We try to choose the right life partners and do our best to resolve any conflict that arises in the relationship.

If we play rugby, we wear mouth guards and avoid head-high tackles. If we ski, we stay on the designated slopes. If we push beyond those (relatively) safe limits, we accept the risk and take responsibility for the possible consequences.

I could go on, but you get my drift.

Now, back to alcohol. Most New Zealanders drink responsibly. They understand that excessive consumption carries risk.

Even the so-called experts, who never miss an opportunity to lecture us on the perils of alcohol, grudgingly accept that the great majority of people drink in moderation.

Alarmists in the health sector like to focus on the 20 percent of alcohol consumers whom they classify as “heavy” drinkers, but their definitions are questionable.

The “safe” drinking limits that guided British alcohol policy for years weren’t based on any hard data, but were plucked out of the air by a Royal College of Physicians working party which didn’t really have a clue how much alcohol was safe.

In the United States, a female heavy drinker is now classified as one who has eight or more drinks a week. Is it a good idea to regularly have eight or more drinks a week? Probably not. But to claim that anyone who does is a heavy drinker seems over the top.

I know lots of healthy, sober women who would exceed that limit at least occasionally. They would be shocked at the thought that they were officially considered heavy drinkers.

But of course that’s the aim: to scare people into cutting back or giving up altogether.

The publicly-funded neo-wowsers are on a moral crusade, and they never let up. They don’t trust ordinary people to make sensible decisions about what’s safe.

Another problem with alarmist studies such as the one mentioned above is that, as a recent editorial in The Listener pointed out, the scare-mongers never take into account the beneficial aspects of alcohol, both social and economic.

In Western civilisation, alcohol has been regarded for centuries as a means of socialising, relaxing and celebrating. You’d think that might count for something, but no.

Oh, and one other thing. According to one analysis of that recent American survey, it means that in a population of 100,000 people aged 15-95, 918 people are at risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related conditions in a year if they have a drink every day, against 914 people who are at risk of developing the same problems if they never drink at all.

I don’t know about you, but they’re odds that I’m prepared to risk.