Friday, December 27, 2019

Les Walters and that advertising slogan

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 26.)

A long time ago, I worked alongside a reporter named Leslie Walters.

Les got into journalism after a stint in the army. He was a likeable character with an idiosyncratic view of the world.

It soon became apparent that Les wasn’t exactly suited to the role of hack reporter, writing formulaic news stories about car accidents and council meetings.

His career might have gone nowhere had it not been for the late Frank Haden, editor of what was then the Sunday Times. Frank appreciated Les’s offbeat sense of humour and had the good sense to give him some stylistic freedom.

The result was a mad, anarchic weekly feature that combined elements of Monty Python, Spike Milligan and Private Eye. Les seemed to inhabit a parallel universe. It wasn’t journalism, but it was funny and original and it attracted something of a cult following.

Perhaps inevitably, it also attracted the attention of a recruiter from an advertising agency, which brings me to the point of this column.

It was in advertising that Les found his niche. And if his name means nothing to most New Zealanders, those of a certain age will certainly remember the slogan he was credited with creating for the tourism industry in the 1980s. “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country” was aimed at encouraging people to experience New Zealand rather than book plane tickets to foreign destinations.

It’s a phrase that has insinuated itself into the national consciousness, rather like “The drink you have when you’re not having a drink”, which came from roughly the same era and is remembered long after the brand it advertised (Claytons) vanished.

I thought about Les’s slogan while on a recent caravan trip with my wife around the top half of the South Island. His advice remains as true now as it was three decades ago.

At Ashley Gorge in North Canterbury, we had one of the country’s most exquisite camping grounds to ourselves (although to be fair, it was fully booked the following weekend, which was Canterbury’s Anniversary Weekend).

At remote Lake Coleridge, we marvelled at the grit of the engineers and workers who created one of the country’s earliest hydro-electric power stations in a beautiful but inhospitable landscape. My father, who was an engineer with the State Hydro-Electric Department, would have been fascinated.

On the return drive, the view over the vast, braided bed of the Rakaia River against its mountain backdrop almost literally stopped us in our tracks. You can see why the Canterbury high country captivated artists like Rita Angus and Bill Sutton.

We drove through charming little North Canterbury towns with Tolkienesque names like Windwhistle and Glentunnel, the latter with its fabulously eccentric gazebo-shaped brick post office (still in use).

On the road across Arthur’s Pass, we played vehicular leap-frog with rental camper vans that were constantly pulling off to the side of the highway so their goggle-eyed occupants could take pictures.

We roamed in the chilly, swirling mists at the top of the Denniston Incline, where a hardy community of 1400 people once eked a living from coal. It’s an extraordinary place that all New Zealanders should make the effort to visit.

Quirky takeaway fact: it was said that the local football team had an advantage against visiting sides because the Denniston players were able to locate the ball by ear in the thick fog. They were also known to take advantage of the poor visibility by sneaking extra players onto the field.

At Runanga, we admired the famous old miners’ hall (c. 1908) with its faded socialist slogan “The World’s Wealth for the World’s Workers”. It remains true that more than any other part of New Zealand, the Coast has a culture all its own.

We did some of the standard touristy things: Punakaiki, Farewell Spit, the celebrated Mussel Inn in Golden Bay (greatly over-rated, if you ask me, with a menu that wouldn’t require much more culinary skill than KFC).

But here’s the thing: Almost everywhere we went, our fellow travellers were from overseas. At lonely Lake Coleridge, at the end of a rough and dusty road that would deter a lot of drivers, we met an adventurous Scandinavian woman touring alone on a motorbike.

In a camping ground at Greymouth, we shared the kitchen with a big group of Israelis. At Denniston, we shared the mist with tourists from Australia.

On the long, winding road to French Pass, surely one of New Zealand’s most spectacular drives, most of the vehicles we passed were rentals of the type that overseas visitors hire. I was impressed to see an intrepid Asian woman tackling the route alone.

Not for the first time, I marvelled at the number of foreign tourists who find their way to beautiful, out-of-the-way places that most New Zealanders never see. Outsiders seem to appreciate our country in a way that not all New Zealanders do.

Okay, it wasn’t the holiday season, so we probably weren’t seeing a typical sample. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of Les Walters and his advertising slogan. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Then and now

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, December 24.)

They say that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not so sure. It can be instructive from time to time to recall how things were in the past and to ask the tricky question, is life better now?

Consider the following:

I remember when my home town, with a population of 3000, had its own daily paper and everyone read it.

I remember when primary schoolkids got the strap for minor infractions and secondary schoolboys were caned.

I remember a time when there were no human resources departments.

I remember when some state highways – the road from Napier to Taupo was one – still weren’t sealed.

I remember when you pushed button “A” to be connected when making a call from a public phone box.

I remember when people travelled to and from Britain on ocean liners with exotic names like Flavia and Arcadia.

I remember party lines and three-digit phone numbers.

I remember when the title of professor was one that automatically commanded respect.

I remember school dental nurses.

I remember when newspapers routinely referred to married women using their husbands’ initials and surname. (My wife would have been Mrs K du Fresne.)

I remember when only sophisticated people drank coffee.

I remember when we ate roast mutton on Sundays.

I remember when politicians didn’t have press secretaries and prime ministers almost never spoke to reporters.

I remember when the serial prison escaper George Wilder was considered a national hero.

I remember when no one knew what an avocado was. Or lasagne. Or Pad Thai.

I remember when the road toll reached 843 in a single year.

I remember hot pants.

I remember when boys were obsessed with World War Two exploits and amassed cherished collections of War Picture Library comics.

I remember when the local cop was regarded with respect (not always deserved) and sometimes fear.

I remember Telethons.

I remember when people arranged their holidays through travel agents (okay, some still do).

I remember when farmers could afford to buy flash new cars - Chevrolets, Dodges, DeSotos - because of the demand for wool to clothe American troops in the Korean War.

I remember when most towns had a pie cart.

I remember when a public bar was a mysterious place with frosted glass windows that were open at the top so that a fug of beery fumes and tobacco smoke could escape, and where the hubbub within suggested men having a good time.

I remember when only corner dairies and service stations were open at weekends.

I remember when bad boys were sent to borstal.

I remember the 1987 stock market crash, and the shock it caused to inexperienced investors who didn’t realise share prices could go down as well as up.

I remember when you had to catch a ferry to get across Auckland Harbour to the North Shore.

I remember when New Zealand Forest Products was the country’s biggest company.

I remember cranking the telephone handle to get through to the local exchange and being asked, “Number, please”.

I remember when bottles could be returned to the suppliers for a small refund and bottle drives were a popular method of fundraising for clubs and schools.

I remember when television came to my home town and I would ride my bike around the neighbourbood gazing enviously at houses with aerials.

I remember when everyone watched serious current affairs shows such as Gallery.

I remember when private hotels, which provided food and beds but no liquor, were a popular accommodation choice and motels were still a novelty.

I remember when no one had heard of sun block.

I remember when the state-owned New Zealand Listener sold nearly 400,000 copies a week because it had a monopoly on publication of the week’s TV programmes.

I remember when the only restaurants in provincial towns were dining rooms attached to fish and chip shops.

I remember when pubs had ladies’ and escorts’ bars and no barmaids.

I remember when radios and TVs needed a minute or so to warm up after being switched on.

I remember walking more than a kilometre to school each day from the age of five.

I remember the occasions when kindly Mr White from down the road gave me a lift in his Austin 7 and no one assumed he was a paedophile.

I remember newspaper honesty boxes.

I remember seeing a picture of the Beatles for the first time and thinking they looked weird.

I remember when flying to Australia was an adventure that you dressed up for.

I remember childhood friends dying from illnesses which today are easily treatable.

Back to that question at the start: is life better now? The only possible answer is yes and no.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The truth about that Saigon execution, five decades on

Everyone has seen the picture of South Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Vietcong prisoner in the streets of Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive. It’s one of two photos that became emblematic of the Vietnam War, the other being Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s shot of the naked nine-year-old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing with other children after being burned in a napalm attack.

Pictures like these helped turn American public opinion against the war. The execution of Nguyen Van Lem, especially, looked like a callous and casually sadistic act. It’s hard to look at the picture without wincing. It conveys almost viscerally the impact of a pistol shot at virtual point-blank range. Americans seeing it wondered, understandably, whether the American military should be propping up a regime that permitted such barbarism.

The impression given in the accompanying news stories at the time, and repeated over and over again since, was that Lem was merely a Vietcong suspect. But what wasn’t made clear, and is still little known, is that there was a back-story to the picture which revealed that the barbarism in Vietnam wasn’t one-sided. I learned of it while reading Max Hastings’ exhaustively researched book Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, which I started months ago and recently picked up again, determined this time to finish it.

According to Hastings, Lem, who led one of the many groups of Vietcong insurgents that infiltrated Saigon at the start of the Tet offensive, had earlier slit the throats of a captured South Vietnamese army officer, Nguyen Tuan, his wife, six children and 80-year-old mother.

It was Lem’s misfortune that he was subsequently caught and brought before Loan, who administered immediate retribution. Hastings, who is admirably even-handed in his acknowledgment of atrocities by all participants in the war, flatly asserts that “the murders committed by [Lem], who was dressed in civilian clothes [so was not covered by the Geneva Convention], justified his execution”.

Hastings also reveals that Eddie Adams, the AP photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for the picture, regretted that its publication caused enormous harm to the image of the South Vietnamese (and Americans), and lamented that he couldn’t also get a picture of Lem cold-bloodedly murdering the Tuan family.

Hastings’ account certainly casts the execution in an entirely  new light. As he told me when I interviewed him about his book for The Listener:

"Everyone has seen the pictures of the South Vietnamese monk burning himself in the street; everyone's seen the picture of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting dead a Vietcong prisoner; everyone's seen the picture of the naked girl running for safety after being caught in a napalm strike. But no one sees pictures of all the ghastly things that the communists did to their own people, because the pictures don't exist." Quite so.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A country where too many avoidable accidents happen

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 12.)

She’ll be right. It’s almost the national motto. But in the aftermath of the Whakaari/White Island catastrophe, perhaps we should ask whether we’re just a bit too blasé about the acceptance of risk.

We go through national paroxysms of self-reproach after a tragic event – witness Pike River, the Christchurch earthquakes, Cave Creek – yet we seem to make the same basic mistake over and over again.

We’re world leaders at flaying ourselves after disaster has struck, but we never seem to see it coming.

The reputational damage done as a result of this latest tragedy will not be quickly repaired. Most of the victims are overseas tourists, and international media outlets are asking, inevitably, why people were encouraged to visit the crater of an active volcano whose risk assessment had only recently been revised upwards.

Many of those killed when the structurally unsound CTV building collapsed in the 2011 Christchurch quake were from overseas too, as were several of the skydivers who died when a plane plummeted into the ground at Fox Glacier in 2010.

The world also heard about the Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy (six dead) and the Carterton hot air balloon that crashed, killing 11 people, while under the control of a dope-smoking pilot. Put all this together, and New Zealand starts to look like a place where too many avoidable accidents happen.

This casual approach to danger in profitable tourist activities stands in striking contrast to the obsessive and costly enforcement of petty, nitpicking health and safety regulations in areas of daily life where the risk of injury is minimal.

We may have narrowly missed one more tragedy when an unstable cliff collapsed on the coastal route to Cape Kidnappers earlier this year, injuring a Korean couple who were forced into the sea. It was surely pure luck that the cliff didn’t come down while a tractor-drawn trailer-load of tourists was passing beneath it.

The Cape Kidnappers excursion is understandably popular with foreign visitors. Part of its charm is that it’s unmistakeably Kiwi in its laidback, No 8-wire approach and the quirky humour of its guides. I imagine the Whakaari/White Island tour has something of the same character.

Tens of thousands of people have visited the island and returned to the mainland feeling nothing but exhilaration, but the question must be asked: Did that lead to a culture of complacency and a downplaying of the risk inherent in visiting an active volcano?

Visitors to Whakaari were apparently given a safety briefing. But knowing it was a routine procedure, experienced by thousands of other tourists before them, they may have regarded it in much the same offhand manner as conference attendees treat announcements about the location of the toilets and emergency exits.

One report suggested that more emphasis was placed on the risk of seasickness on the boat trip to the island than on the possibility of fatal burns and damage to internal organs from toxic gas and ash.

Gas masks and hard hats were handed out, but tourists could have been excused for viewing them as being akin to theatrical props. They might well have reasoned that if the island was so hazardous that they might actually need protective gear, the authorities wouldn’t have allowed people to go there in the first place. 

We now know, of course, that the masks and helmets were hopelessly inadequate.  

Hard questions will need to be asked not only of the tour operators, but of the cruise ship company that touted the Whakaari/White Island visit as a suitable day’s outing for its passengers.

The named victims included a British woman aged 80 and two Australian men aged 78 and 79. Really? What chance did they have of running for safety in an emergency?

The police haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory either. Not only were their attempts at communication shambolic and ineffectual, but they succeeded in creating the distinct impression that if matters had been left to them, the death toll might have been far higher.

It was only due to the heroic actions of volunteers, acting on their own gumption and courage, that more lives weren’t lost. As it was, many New Zealanders would have been greatly troubled by the possibility that victims may have been left to die after rescuers had to retreat.

What of the politicians, then? National Party leader Simon Bridges and the Mayor of Whakatane gave virtuoso demonstrations of tone-deafness by saying they hoped visits to the volcano would eventually resume. I couldn’t help thinking of Jaws, in which news of a killer shark is played down so as to not to affect tourism revenue.

Then there was Jacinda Ardern, who made a valiant effort to strike the same heartfelt tone of compassion that won her worldwide praise after the Christchurch mosque massacres.

To victims and their families, she said: "You are forever linked to our nation and we will hold you close." Doubtless her words were sincerely meant, but they didn't have quite the same force second time around - perhaps because while no one could have foreseen the events of March 15, this week's tragedy could have been avoided.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

New Zealand or Aotearoa? Let the people decide

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, December 11.)

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that for years, a determined campaign has been underway to rename New Zealand.

It’s being driven by activists, bureaucrats, teachers, academics, politicians and people in the media who think “New Zealand” is too Eurocentric and insufficiently reflective of the biculturalism that is said to define us as a country.

It’s not a formal, co-ordinated campaign but a spontaneous, unofficial one that started small and has steadily gathered momentum as more people take up the cause.

Radio New Zealand was an early adopter and remains in the front line of the push for change, as it is with usage of the Maori language generally. Aotearoa is frequently used by RNZ journalists and presenters in preference to New Zealand, and lately the same trend has been creeping into the print media.

In defence of the practice, it can be argued that every New Zealander knows what Aotearoa means. But some RNZ journalists go a whole lot further – for example, by referring to Christchurch as Otautahi and Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau.

That’s overstepping the mark. It’s arrogant and elitist, and shows contempt for listeners because it leaves them to guess what place the reporter is talking about. The intention, clearly, is to encourage people to adopt these names in everyday usage. But arbitrarily renaming cities is not one of the statutory functions of Radio NZ.

This is not to say there isn’t a good case for a public debate about the adoption of Maori place names. But let’s be transparent about it, and follow democratic process rather than having change imposed by gradual indoctrination.

That debate might start with the fact that “New Zealand” says nothing about us or our place in the world. It was conferred by historical accident and treats us not as a country in our own right, worthy of our own distinctive name, but as an offshoot of Europe.

We can only conclude that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman displayed a mischievous sense of humour when he named New Zealand after a province of his homeland. By his own description, the country he sighted in 1642 was “a large land, uplifted high” (he was looking at the mountains of the West Coast).

So what did he do? He named it after a low-lying, mainly flat province that was largely reclaimed from the sea. Zeeland’s highest point, as far as I can ascertain from Google, is 54 metres.

It can be argued that this striking mismatch between name and place gives Aotearoa a head start in any debate about what we should call ourselves. It’s also more euphonious, more poetic and more descriptive. And it’s exclusively ours, not a 17th century hand-me-down from Holland.

Another ground for objecting to “New Zealand” is that it conveys the Eurocentric implication that the country didn’t exist until Tasman gave it a name, although Maori had been here since the 13th century.

But hold on a minute. There are other factors to consider, starting with the fact that we’ve been known as New Zealand for more than 300 years.

Admittedly other countries have changed their names. Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Persia became Iran and Burma became Myanmar, to name just three examples. The world got used to the new names and moved on, but it would be wrong to ignore the enormous economic cost and the long, hard process of adjustment and acceptance required.

And like it or not, the name New Zealand stands for something in the world – in trade, tourism, diplomacy, sport, war and the arts. It’s a powerful brand, built up over two and a half centuries. We mess with that legacy at our peril.

Then there’s the pronunciation to consider. Aotearoa isn’t a name that the world could effortlessly get its tongue around. Even well-meaning New Zealanders struggle with it, and they’re not helped by te reo purists who sneer when people get it wrong.

These are all factors that could be explored and weighed if we were to have an open debate, as we did over the national flag. There’s no reason why the Aotearoa/New Zealand issue couldn’t eventually be decided by referendum.

New Zealanders have shown they are not averse to the adoption of Maori place names. The acceptance of Taranaki as an alternative to Egmont, and increasingly of Aoraki in place of Mt Cook, is proof of that. Expect Whakaari to replace White Island before long, too.

There’s scope for many more places to revert to their Maori names as the significance of names bestowed during the colonial era recedes into the mists of history. How about Ahuriri instead of Napier, for starters, or Taitoko for Levin?

But let’s do it the proper way, through open, public debate and consensus rather than by stealth. Until such time as New Zealanders indicate by democratic means that they want a name change, New Zealand should remain just that: New Zealand. 

Thursday, December 5, 2019

More thoughts on that Tremain cartoon

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Otago Daily Times cartoonist Garrick Tremain has been hung out to dry – or as seems to be the preferred metaphor these days, thrown under a bus.

I get the impression that Tremain now accepts that his cartoon making light of the Samoan measles epidemic was grossly insensitive. But he’s hardly the only person culpable.

All newspaper cartoons are supposed to be vetted by senior editorial people and we can assume that process was followed in this case, in which case editorial heads should be rolling too, metaphorically speaking.

The paper not only failed to see how wrong the cartoon was but also misjudged the public reaction, thinking it could get away with a low-key apology on page 10. The editor, Barry Stewart, has since tried to make amends by facing protesters yesterday and publishing a second mea culpa on the front page today.

But it’s Tremain who’s being made to bear the primary responsibility. Stewart says the cartoonist has been stood down while the ODT conducts a “review”, which sounds like a damage control exercise aimed at mollifying protesters in the hope that it will all blow over.

A particularly ignoble aspect of the controversy is the spectacle of a fellow cartoonist putting the boot in. Jim Hubbard has drawn not one but two cartoons taking a whack at Tremain, which strikes me as contemptible.

Hubbard’s cartoons are often close to the bone too, though at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Tremain’s, and it’s not hard to envisage circumstances in which he too might be publicly pilloried, in which case I’m sure he would appreciate a bit of solidarity.

As an aside, I can’t help wondering whether the ODT's display of tone-deafness over the Tremain cartoon is a Dunedin thing. No offence to the ODT – a paper for which I have great respect – or to the residents of that estimable city, but Dunedin is a bit isolated from the cultural mainstream and possibly not quite in tune with how issues are viewed in other parts of the country. Could that explain the ODT’s spectacular lapse of judgment?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

That Garrick Tremain cartoon

Cartoons can be a tricky issue for editors. It’s not enough that they should simply be funny, and indeed some of the best are not. To be truly effective, cartoons need an edge. They should be provocative.

Accordingly, editors need to cut cartoonists a lot of slack. They will sometimes publish cartoons they know some readers will find offensive, and that they may even find offensive themselves.

The Media Council, formerly the Press Council, takes a liberal view of cartoons (by which I mean liberal in the classical rather than the lame, woke sense) and so do the courts. When Labour MP Louisa Wall took the Otago Daily Times to court over two Al Nisbet cartoons which she considered racist, Justice Matthew Muir agreed that they were insulting but held that they didn’t breach the Human Rights Act.

Whatever you thought of the cartoons, the decision could only be seen as a victory for free speech and a defence of the right to upset people. Regardless of their ideological persuasions, cartoonists would very soon be extinct as a species if they were denied that right.

Having said all that, sometimes a paper publishes a cartoon that seems to strike a sour note with almost everyone. The Garrick Tremain cartoon published this week by the aforementioned ODT was such a cartoon.

It lamely attempted to make humour of the measles epidemic in Samoa. But the deaths of 55 children are no one’s idea of a joke and the cartoonist couldn’t even claim to be making a point. Both the editor of the paper and Tremain himself admit it was a bad lapse of judgment. Tremain says it was a limp joke but he can’t wind the clock back.

Will that satisfy the vigilantes crying out for utu? Not a chance. They won’t rest until they have someone’s head on a platter.

The ODT’s apology, they say, is not enough. It never is. Among other things, they want the paper’s staff to undergo racism training. But where does race enter into it? The cartoon would have been offensive regardless of the ethnicity of the measles victims.

Auckland University of Technology journalism lecturer Richard Pamatatau has joined the pile-on, saying the ODT has a history of publishing racist cartoons and Tremain should be dumped. I wonder, am I the only one troubled by the irony of a journalism lecturer calling for someone to be silenced?

Pamatatau says Tremain’s cartoons are not what cartoons are supposed to be, but he’s no more entitled to present himself as the arbiter of what cartoons should say than I am.

Bottom line: being offended from time to time is the price we pay for freedom of speech, a quid-pro-quo that most people in a liberal democracy are happy to accept.

I would certainly far prefer to go on being offended – as I often am by cartoonists – than concede to people like Pamatatau the right to determine what views I may be exposed to. Given a choice between bad taste and puritanical censorship, I’ll take the bad taste every time.

Friday, November 29, 2019

We need to talk about Islam

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 28.)

New Zealand is overdue for a grown-up conversation about Islam.

It’s a conversation that has been made necessary because as a nation we’re conflicted, to use a popular term, about the religion founded by Mohammad. But the conversation needs to get beyond simplistic, kneejerk allegations of Islamophobia, and it needs to unpick some contradictions and inconsistences in how we view Muslims.

First, some background. There have been Muslims in New Zealand since the late 19th century. Most of those early arrivals came from South Asia (mainly India) and appear to have lived quietly without attracting public attention.

There was a surge in Muslim immigration during the 1970s and 80s, especially following the nationalist Fiji coup of 1987, which made life very uncomfortable for Fiji Indians of the Muslim faith. Political instability also resulted in the arrival of Muslim immigrants from Somalia and the Middle East.

All of this happened without controversy.  So what changed?

With the rise of Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, a militant form of Islam emerged which was seen as an existential threat to the West. Anxiety about Islamist extremism has since been ratcheted up by repeated terrorist massacres – many of them perpetrated by radicalised Muslim immigrants striking at the countries that took them in – and by appalling atrocities perpetrated by Islamic State and Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Islam, and Muslim immigration, thus became a highly political issue.

All this coincided with substantially increased Muslim immigration to New Zealand. At the time of the 2001 census, 23,631 New Zealand residents identified as Muslim. By last year, the number had jumped to 61,455.

Muslims still make up only 1.34 per cent of the population, half the number of New Zealand Hindus, but they are highly visible and some are politically active – more so since the Christchurch mosque massacres of March 15.

As the spontaneous public reaction showed, New Zealanders were shocked and appalled by that incident and deplored the perpetrator.

The killer did not represent New Zealanders, most of whom feel nothing but goodwill toward Muslims who come here with the aim of living peaceably and contributing to their community.
That goodwill is plainly reciprocated by the many Muslim New Zealanders who, since March 15, have publicly expressed their appreciation of this country and their feeling of being welcome and accepted here.

But here’s where things get tricky. The events of March 15 have been seized by some people, not all of them Muslim, as an opportunity to promote the idea that Muslims are the victims of hatred and discrimination.

This notion is used in turn to politicise the Islamic faith and lobby for treatment not extended to other religions – for instance, seeking women-only days at public swimming pools so that men can’t see women’s bodies, or the provision of prayer rooms in public spaces.

No reasonable person would challenge Muslims’ right to follow their religion without harassment, but nothing is more likely to provoke resistance than the perception that a religious denomination is being singled out for privileged treatment. New Zealand is a secular society and no exceptions should be made.

We must also reserve the right to criticise those aspects of Islam that sit awkwardly with secular liberalism, just as we’re free to mock Christian beliefs. This is not incompatible with respect for the right of Muslims to follow their faith.

Post-March 15, however, there was an outpouring of misconceived liberal guilt that manifested itself in bizarre ways, such as the furore over the name of the Crusaders rugby team. This fuss conveniently overlooked that Muslims were invaders too, with a long history of bloody conquest that reached far into Europe on one side and India on the other.

Arguably the biggest challenge posed by Islam, though, is to the political Left, which must somehow reconcile its embrace of Islam with its promotion of rights for women and gays. Good luck with that, as they say, because the two are inherently incompatible.

What complicates the issue is that Islam is a broad church, ranging from tolerance and acceptance of difference at one end of the spectrum – i.e. the version of Islam that should be welcomed here – to unspeakable violence and repression at the other.

Why the Left champions Islam is no mystery. It’s because the Islamic world is seen as standing in opposition to the capitalist West, so must be supported.

But by railing against so-called Islamophobia without qualification, the Left lays itself open to the accusation that it turns a blind eye to the repression of women and the stoning of homosexuals. It's an exquisite ideological tangle, and the world waits with interest for the Left to declare exactly where it stands.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

My vision of Wellington in 2030

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, November 14.)

I keep having nightmarish visions of Wellington in 2030.

In my nightmare, Civic Square has been cordoned off for more than a decade and is covered with gorse and thistles. At night it’s taken over by homeless people who gather there to smoke P – which prime minister Shane Jones has promised to legalise as a condition of his coalition deal with the Greens – and to dance naked around bonfires in scenes vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max.

The ghostly buildings around the square remain empty. Reports on various restoration options fill a rusty shipping container on the weed-infested site where the five-star Amora Hotel used to be.

The once-celebrated Ferns orb sculpture that hung over the square, having been taken down in 2015, re-installed in 2018 and then removed again, has been broken up for scrap after engineers couldn’t agree on whether the cables holding it were safe. Bits of it were recently dredged out of the lagoon near the Star Boating Club. 

The City to Sea bridge, long closed because of structural defects, collapsed onto Jervois Quay years ago. Efforts to clear the wreckage were halted because of health and safety concerns.

The central library is located in a tattered marquee on Newtown Park. How long it will stay there is uncertain, since the park is the subject of a Treaty claim which has itself been before the courts for several years because of a dispute between rival claimants. The library’s collections are housed in a disused shirt factory in Levin.

In Johnsonville, residents are still waiting for work to start on the redevelopment of the local shopping mall, first proposed 23 years ago. In the meantime, the vacant site is occupied by a Mr Whippy van, a pop-up 24-hour discount liquor outlet and a bouncy castle that can't be used most of the time because of the howling wind.

In my dream there has been some progress. Tracks for a light rail line from the station to the airport made it as far as Taranaki St before being stopped short by appeals lodged by feuding groups of public transport obsessives. The project is now at a standstill.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council is no more – ousted by a citizens’ action front which stormed the GWRC offices after the council CEO, a former Swansea parking meter warden who got the job with a falsified CV that no one thought to check, was paid a half-million-dollar performance bonus even though the buses still weren’t running on time.

Work has yet to commence on the second Mt Victoria tunnel. Officials are still working on a business case, now in its 73rd iteration, while the government and city council argue over how it’s going to be paid for.

At Shelly Bay, several buildings have collapsed from rot while mediators continue to seek a compromise between developer Ian Cassels – now living in a retirement village – and Sir Peter Jackson, who is working on his seventh Hobbit movie. In the meantime a tent city, erected by protesters inspired by Ihumatao (which recently celebrated its 11th anniversary), occupies the site.

All over town, high-rise apartments have been abandoned by owners who could no longer afford the insurance premiums. They have been taken over by squatters.

In my nightmare, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University has finally got the change of name he wanted. It's now Te Wananga o Te Whanganui-a-Tara, colloquially known as Twot.

The university has taken over most of the buildings on The Terrace that it didn’t already own. These have been converted into halls of residence, but only overseas students can afford the fees. 

The Supreme Court now sits in a converted motel in Tawa, its showpiece building in Lambton Quay having been flattened because of weather tightness issues and replaced by a Wilsons parking building.

The former St Gerard’s monastery is gone from its commanding position above Oriental Bay – demolished because the owners couldn’t afford the one-in-2500-year earthquake standard that bureaucrats demanded. The site is now occupied by a Ryman rest home.

Down at the port, cruise ships stopped coming long ago because Extinction Rebellion activists harassed any passengers trying to disembark. The entire waterfront is now occupied by logs from the Wairarapa, where forestry has displaced all but one sheep and beef farm – kept functioning as an historical curiosity – in order to meet New Zealand’s carbon credit commitments.

But there’s a note of nostalgia in my nightmare, too. On warm summer evenings, old-timers gather in Pigeon Park to reminisce about a fabled time when mayors named Wilde, Blumsky and Prendergast made exciting things happen and Wellington was celebrated as the world’s coolest little capital.

I should add that in my dream, the city's mayoralty remained unresolved after the disputed election result of 2019. I was relieved to wake up one morning recently to the news that this part of my vision, at least, hadn't played out in reality. As for the rest, I'm not so sure.

When quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and other Stuff regional papers, November 13.)

Okay, I admit it. I’m a coward.

As a recreational cyclist, I’m privileged to live in a region blessed with glorious rural landscapes, wide-open skies and quiet, smooth roads.

On fine days, these roads beckon seductively, and never more so than in spring.  They sing a siren song as irresistible as that of the Lorelei who lured boatmen to their doom on the Rhine.

There’s just one problem. Magpies.

Magpies will ignore you for nine months of the year, then launch frenzied attacks during the other three, when they’re nesting.

They don't seem to have noticed that human beings are not in the habit of climbing trees to steal their young. This is especially true when the human beings are wearing lycra shorts and bike shoes, which are not conducive to tree-climbing.

Be that as it may, during the nesting season, every human is perceived as a threat. And for some reason, magpies seem to reserve their fiercest aggression for people on bikes.

Before going any further I should declare that I generally like magpies. They’re handsome, smart, fearless and extremely agile on the wing. 

I love their song too, which Denis Glover, in his classic poem The Magpies, famously translated as “quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle”.

Staying at our son’s house in the bushy outer suburbs of Canberra years ago, I was entranced by the sound of magpies calling softly – the term is carolling – in the middle of the night. It was magical.

But in spring, magpies torment me. They are the Stukas of the bird world. Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle becomes a declaration of hostile intent. 

When I moved to the Wairarapa more than 15 years ago, I found a perfect cycling route that wound through the valleys and hills north of Masterton.

The farmland was pretty, there was a nice mix of hills and flats, and virtually no traffic. Cycling nirvana.

During the many years I had lived in Wellington, I had experienced only a few magpie attacks while riding, and they seemed half-hearted. It was as if the magpies felt obliged for the sake of appearances to go through the motions of dive-bombing cyclists, but their hearts weren’t really in it.

But in the Wairarapa, it was a very different story. Crazed magpies swooped on me every few hundred metres. Some struck my head; others simply harassed me, often attacking repeatedly even when I must have been well out of their territory.  

I tried different routes, with much the same result. On one long hill, I found it easier to get off the bike and walk rather than duck the constant attacks. At least when you’re on foot you can turn and face them.

Talking to other cyclists, I learned that some of these birds were legendary. One guy I know had a chunk taken out of his helmet by a notorious bird.  Another acquaintance was out riding with his son when a magpie landed on his back and started pecking at his neck.

Shouting and waving your arms does no good whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems only to rark them up.

Reasoning with them is just as futile. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t want to eat their babies. They don’t listen.

Various deterrents have been tried in Australia, where magpie attacks are a serious problem. In one experiment on a suburban street patrolled by a particularly vicious bird, helmets with eyes painted on the back (magpies always attack from behind) and spikes protruding from the top were found to be totally ineffective. Attaching a flag to the bike didn’t work either.

Bizarrely, the only cyclist who wasn’t attacked wore no head protection at all, which suggests magpies have a jaundiced view of helmets. But I’m not prepared to take the risk of proving you’re safer without one.

The long and short of all this is that I’ve almost abandoned cycling on the road during the nesting months. Call me gutless, call me a wimp, but I find magpie attacks distracting and unnerving. They take the pleasure out of cycling.

I tell myself that the helmet protects my head, so what’s the worst that can happen in an attack? And the answer comes back: I could take my eyes off the road and ride under the wheels of an oncoming truck, which would be no fun for the truck driver and probably even less for me.

Fortunately I have a mountain bike, and there’s a network of magpie-free off-road tracks in the area where I live. So I ride my MTB and wait for the danger to pass.

I’m happy to report that I recently cycled along a stretch of road where I’ve been swooped on in the past, and I was left alone. So we’ve reached that time of year when the magpies’ protective hormones are subsiding and it’s safe to ride past their nesting sites without bracing for an attack.

Quardle oodle ardle wardle dardle is no longer an announcement of imminent hostilities, and all’s right with the world.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Second thoughts on peak lunacy

There have been a couple of occasions recently when I speculated that we had reached peak lunacy in the so-called culture wars. It turns out I was woefully wrong and pathetically over-optimistic.

New heights of madness are scaled almost weekly, the latest being the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that a Streets advertising sign proclaiming that “ice cream makes you happy” should be removed because “the implicit claim that there is a link between ice cream and happiness could potentially undermine the health and wellbeing of consumers”.

Good grief. It’s bad enough that some wretched soul felt motivated to complain that the ad promoted “an unhealthy relationship with food”, but infinitely more depressing that the ASA agreed. And to think I was feeling sympathetic for the advertising watchdog because it had recently been under attack from Andrew “Sour Grapes” Little after it turned down his complaint against a newspaper ad placed by National MP Nick Smith relating to Pike River (which itself qualifies for inclusion on the peak lunacy index, but that’s another story).

Unilever Australasia, which owns the Streets brand, has announced it will appeal. That’s good, but it’s tragic that we must now rely on a multinational corporate to defend free speech in advertising.

As for me, I’m forced to recalibrate my peak lunacy barometer. There’s clearly some way to go before the craziness starts to subside.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Try reading my column again, this time with both eyes

If I’ve learned one thing in 50 years of being a columnist, it’s that no matter how carefully you try to express yourself, people will take whatever meaning they choose from what you write. They will often filter out, or simply not see, anything that doesn’t align with their own preconceptions.

In today’s Dominion Post, for example, there’s a letter in which Geoffrey Horne of Wellington takes me to task over my column about the film ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ (see blog, Friday November 1).

Horne cites the reported offer of a $9 million rugby league contract to Sonny Bill Williams, along with former Air New Zealand chief Chris Luxon’s multi-million bonus, as proof of the film’s message about the excesses of capitalism. He then challenges me to deny that income gaps have expanded dramatically in the past few decades.

But if he reads my column again, and more carefully this time, he will see that far from denying the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparity between rich and poor, I explicitly acknowledge these trends and identify them as being at the core of the film’s message. They give it a deceptive patina of credibility.

At several points in my column I acknowledge that capitalism is imperfect, that unrestrained greed is bad and that capitalism needs to be regulated. Horne appears not to have noted any of this. In fact he challenges me to deny exactly what I conceded.

What I don’t accept is that capitalism’s failings justify the film’s essential premise, which is that the system is irredeemably rotten through and through. Horne doesn’t address this, preferring to attack a straw man of his own creation.

I assume this is the same Geoffrey Horne who was (perhaps still is) an eminent surgeon. I can only conclude that he takes more care reading patients’ notes than he does reading my column.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A masterpiece of the propagandist's art

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 31.)

The New Zealand-made documentary Capital in the 21st Century is a mightily impressive piece of film making.

Inspired by the best-selling 2014 book of the same name by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty, it’s taut, fast-moving and masterfully edited. The pace never lets up.

Auckland-based director Justin Pemberton, who previously made films on Richie McCaw (Chasing Great) and New Zealand’s triumphs at the 1960 Rome Olympics (The Golden Hour), makes inventive use of graphics, montages, music and clips from movies – The Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables – to keep the viewer engaged.

Originally screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival and now on commercial release, Capital in the 21st Century has received admiring reviews. Some critics say it translated Piketty’s 700-page book, which by many accounts was hard going, into something easily digestible and entertaining.

The film uses every trick in the documentary-maker’s book to dramatise its message, which is that contemporary capitalism is overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the ultra-rich and basically rotten to the core.

Viewers receptive to that message, which I suspect includes most of the people who paid to see the film, will have come away more convinced than ever that capitalism is wicked and should be dismantled.

As I say, an impressive piece of film-making – in fact a masterpiece of the propagandist’s art.

The basics of effective propaganda film-making are no mystery. They consist of being highly selective about the information presented, which means carefully excluding anything that doesn’t conform with the desired message, and then delivering it in the manner most likely to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.

The American film maker Michael Moore, famous for the documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, is a master of these techniques. But with this film, Moore’s status as king of cinematic agitprop and darling of the film festival set must be seriously challenged.

As with all the best propaganda movies, there is a grain of truth in Pemberton’s film. It focuses relentlessly on the excesses of global corporate capitalism, the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparities between rich and poor. It conveys this message via a succession of eloquent talking heads and damning images, many of them chosen for maximum emotional impact rather than veracity or strict relevance to the script.

Even a defender of capitalism can nod in agreement with some of the points made. Unrestrained greed is no easier to justify in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.

But what Capital in the 21st Century lacks is any notion of balance, because propaganda films, by definition, aren’t remotely interested in balance. The moment the existence of an alternative, competing narrative is acknowledged, a propaganda movie’s premise is weakened. Propaganda is never about presenting two sides of a story.

It’s no surprise, then, that the film doesn’t mention inconvenient facts such as World Bank figures that show 1.1 billion fewer people are living in extreme poverty than in 1990. Most of the people who have been lifted out of poverty in that time live in the same capitalist economies that Capital in the 21st Century damns as concentrating massive wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.

Neither does the film mention that life expectancy is steadily improving around the world, because this doesn’t gel with its resolutely pessimistic portrayal of how humanity is faring under capitalism.

It shouldn’t have been too hard to find a talking head willing to point out that ordinary people generally do well in market economies where the excesses of capitalism are moderated by liberal democratic government, as in New Zealand. Capitalism and democracy are the magic combination.

Such countries consistently lead global rankings not only for prosperity but for longevity, freedom and respect for human rights, which is why they are a beacon to people desperate to escape corrupt and oppressive states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  

Hardly anyone, other than the fictional Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, argues that unbridled capitalism is the pinnacle of human civilisation. It’s a matter of getting the balance right, as many countries do.

But Capital in the 21st Century isn’t interested in such nuances. It conveys the impression that capitalism is incapable of being anything other than exploitative and unfair.

And here’s the interesting thing. Apart from a general pitch in favour of a tax crackdown on the super-rich, the film doesn’t put forward any other economic model as an alternative to capitalism.

At the end, I was left wondering what system the film maker would prefer us to adopt. It can't be socialism, because that's been a wretched failure wherever it's been tried. But the film doesn't say, and I think that's either a copout or dishonest.

It's surely not that hard to get basic facts right

You’d think that by now, the story of the Polish refugee children who were welcomed to New Zealand in 1944 would be well known. Alas, it seems not.

To recap, the 732 refugees were exiled with their parents to Siberian labour camps after the Soviet Union invaded their country in 1939, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin having done a secret deal with Adolf Hitler to divide Poland between them.

When Hitler turned on the Soviets in 1941, the Polish exiles became a problem for Stalin, Nazi Germany having then become the common enemy, and were allowed to leave. By that time many of the children’s parents had died from cold, disease and starvation.

Along with many thousands of others, the Pahiatua children, as they came to be known, were left to find their way through Central Asia to Persia (now Iran) and thence to freedom in the West. 

Accompanied by a small number of adult survivors, they eventually came to New Zealand at the invitation of prime minister Peter Fraser – our first official refugee intake. Most remained here after the war and many went on to successful careers.

It’s a remarkable story and it’s back in the news because this weekend marks the 75th anniversary of their arrival. A celebratory reunion is being held in Pahiatua. But reporters keep getting things wrong.

A story about the reunion on Stuff, having first misleadingly referred to Pahiatua as “a tiny Tararua town” (it has a population of about 2500), went on to say that the refugees had “fled Nazi-occupied Poland”.

Two mistakes, right there. They didn’t flee: they were forced from their homes at gunpoint and loaded onto railway wagons by Soviet soldiers. And the part of Poland they were exiled from wasn’t occupied by the Germans, at least not then. It was only after Hitler declared war on his erstwhile communist ally that Germany took control of the eastern part of Poland previously occupied by the Red Army.

Admittedly the wartime history of Poland is complicated, but these are facts that are easily checked.

An even more bizarre error occurred on today’s edition of Morning Report when a Radio NZ journalist, interviewing two of the surviving Poles, said one had lost most of her family in Serbian labour camps.

Serbian? Good grief.

Footnote: An article I wrote for The Listener on the occasion of the last Pahiatua refugee reunion can be seen here:

Thursday, October 31, 2019

When bigotry poses as intolerance of bigotry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and, October 30.)

Professor Jim Flynn, an internationally admired and widely published emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Otago, recently experienced a highly ironic late-career setback.

A letter from his British publisher, Emerald Press, advised him that the firm had got cold feet and reneged on an earlier undertaking to publish a book by Flynn provisionally entitled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor.

Flynn’s manuscript (to quote from Emerald’s synopsis, written before they pulled the plug) argues that a good university teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media.

Freedom to debate, Flynn writes, is essential to the development of critical thought. But the octogenarian academic warns that on university campuses today, free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence. 

Explaining its change of heart, Emerald Press told Flynn that publication of his book, which addresses “sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender”, would have placed the publisher at risk of legal action under Britain’s heavy-handed hate speech laws. While accepting that Flynn clearly had no intention of promoting hatred, the publishers said intent was irrelevant.

The irony is all too obvious. A book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence has itself been censored for fear of causing offence.

The irony is compounded by the fact that Flynn, who was active in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and was twice a candidate for the far-Left Alliance Party here, has impeccable anti-racist credentials. But he also believes emphatically in the values of free and open debate and, as a profile in The Listener noted in 2012, “refuses to back away from sensitive issues”.
The fate of Flynn’s manuscript underscores the extent of the threat facing freedom of speech in liberal democracies.

Incidents such as the Christchurch mosque massacres are increasingly cited not just as proof that dangerous extremism exists, but in support of arguments that to discourage it, governments must tighten restrictions on what people are allowed to say. But suppressing free speech doesn’t eliminate extremism and often serves only to drive it underground, where it can thrive unseen.

Just as worryingly, controls on speech also risk stifling legitimate public debate. Laws that govern what people are allowed to say must strike a delicate balance. They must deter incitements to hatred or violence, yet stop short of suppressing reasoned discussion of sensitive issues such as immigration, multiculturalism, religious belief and gender identity.

In a mature, civilised democracy such as New Zealand, it’s possible to debate such issues without encouraging hostility toward minorities. Existing laws allow that, but are now under review.

There is mounting evidence that in a mood of anxiety fanned by concerns about racism and extreme nationalism, most of it originating far from our shores, attempts are being made to shut down free speech in the very forums where it should be allowed to flourish, and often for feeble or spurious reasons.

In a celebrated case last year, former National Party leader Don Brash was barred from speaking at a Massey University event – the first instance at a New Zealand university of the phenomenon known as no-platforming. The reason given was that protesters might threaten people’s safety, but inquiries under the Official Information Act revealed that the university vice-chancellor’s real objection was ideological. She didn’t want the university to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours” - a reference to Brash's oft-stated and widely shared position that laws should be colour-blind.

More recently, a High Court judge held that an Auckland Council-owned company was entitled, on security grounds, to bar two alt-right Canadian activists from speaking in a publicly owned venue that was threatened with a protest blockade – a decision seen as clearing the way for protesters to force the cancellation of speaking engagements simply by threatening trouble.

In the light of that ruling, it was perhaps no surprise that Massey University’s Wellington campus, citing similar safety and security issues, subsequently pulled the plug on a feminists’ conference that transgender activists had threatened to disrupt. 

There’s another strange irony here. Feminists were once at the cutting edge of radical politics but now, because of their insistence that a person with a penis cannot be a woman, find themselves under attack by a more radical ideology that wants to silence them.

A striking feature of the speech wars is that traditional ideological battle lines have been redrawn, pitting traditional leftists (Flynn is one, Chris Trotter another) against generally younger and more radical zealots who don’t share their commitment to free speech.

When a university is intimidated into cancelling a legitimate event and a highly regarded professor is effectively blacklisted, no one should doubt that freedom of speech is under serious threat. The underlying hazard - namely, bigotry disguised as intolerance of bigotry - is inimical to liberal democracy and must be resisted.