Saturday, October 12, 2019

Jim Flynn: a hero of free speech

Further to my recent post (October 9) on academic freedom of speech, Stuff's Your Weekend has an excellent piece by Yvonne van Dongen on Professor Jim Flynn's refusal to kowtow to leftist authoritarianism:

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

News flash! Academics defend freedom of speech

This was by far the most important thing in my Dominion Post – in fact anywhere in the New Zealand media – this morning:

It’s a resounding defence of free speech, and the heartening thing is that it comes from university academics.

Less heartening is the fact that the six signatories to this article are a courageous minority. Their championing of Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn stands in stark contrast to the chillingly censorious open letter signed last week by Auckland University academic staff demanding that the university silence an attention-seeking fringe group accused of promoting "white supremacy" - a phrase which appears to encompass everything from Nazism to simple pride in the values and achievements of Western civilisation.

Ask yourself: who presents the greater threat – an anonymous group (for all we know, it might just be one person) putting up stickers around the Auckland campus, or the pompous high priests of academia and their herd-like acolytes who seek to outlaw any opinions they hold to be “unsafe”? George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about suppression of free speech, would have been proud to have coined that particular term.

It's now obvious even to blind Freddy that academic freedom and the contest of ideas, two of the key values underpinning liberal democracy, are under sustained and determined attack. Ask yourself: who are the bigots here? Who seeks to impose a new style of totalitarianism? Who's calling for the enforcement of rules prohibiting secular heresy? Ironically, it’s not the supposed white supremacists. They’re not trying to silence anyone.

Another irony is that Flynn, the eminent Otago University professor who now finds himself at the centre of a censorship controversy, has impeccable leftist credentials. Sadly that wasn’t enough to protect him from leftist totalitarianism that has taken hold to the extent that Flynn's British publisher got cold feet over his latest book, which promotes – irony of ironies – free speech on university campuses.

Meanwhile, the Free Speech Coalition is calling for donations so that it can appeal against a High Court decision last week which effectively gives risk-averse municipal functionaries and their political masters carte blanche to deny the use of public venues to any speaker whose views might cause political offence or trigger protests. It’s a frightening decision which must not be allowed to stand. You can donate here:

Monday, October 7, 2019

In praise of the Remutaka Hill

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, October 3.)

There’s a man named Graeme Farr who’s standing for the mayoralty of all three Wairarapa councils. He’s using his candidacy primarily to promote a road tunnel under the Remutaka Hill.

I can’t see a tunnel happening, because the economics don’t stack up. But I have a sneaking suspicion my wife voted for Farr, contravening my strict instructions. She’s Polish, and genetically programmed to disregard orders.

No doubt there are others living in the Wairarapa who, like her, don’t much care for that steep, winding road over the hill, and many more who believe that a tunnel would unlock (to use a vogueish word) the region’s untapped potential.

But as for me, I want a Remutaka road tunnel about as much as I want a third nostril.

I like the hill. I like the sense of geographical separation from Wellington and the Hutt Valley. When I go to Wellington, it’s always a pleasure to get into the car at the end of the day and point it in the direction of home.

I especially relish the drive back over the hill, which has the almost mystical sensation of passing into a different realm. There’s a point about halfway down the northern side where the Wairarapa valley suddenly comes into glorious view.

It’s always bathed in golden sunshine, no matter how foul the weather on the Wellington side. (Okay, perhaps not always, in fact very rarely at nighttime, but often enough to make me feel smug.)

John Hayes, a former Wairarapa MP, once tried to whip up public interest in a tunnel and approached me for support in the tragic misapprehension that, as a columnist, I might wield some influence.

I politely told him to bugger off. I didn’t want the Wairarapa being invaded by the masses then, and I still don’t. No offence to my friends in Wellington, but I love the fact that there’s a big, formidable barrier to deter interlopers.

I’ve seen what happened to the Kapiti Coast when it morphed from being a pleasant and sleepy seaside retreat to a choked, claustrophobic extension of suburbia.

We lived at Raumati Beach in the 1980s and I knew the rot was setting in when the council insisted on laying a footpath along our street, which had previously had the charming feel of a country lane. We sold up just before they built a housing subdivision in the paddock where our kids used to play.

Since then I’ve watched Kapiti’s infrastructure vainly struggling to catch up with its burgeoning population. It can only get worse when Transmission Gully kicks in.

There’s a lot of growth here in the Wairarapa too, but there's room for it, and it’s manageable.

New subdivisions are going up all over the place and the traffic has intensified to the point where, in what passes for rush hour, you can get stuck at a roundabout for … oh, maybe 20 seconds.

But the Wairarapa still has the distinction of having no traffic lights. How long would that remain the case with traffic pouring through a tunnel?

We can tolerate weekend visitors, with their convoys of motorbikes and classic cars streaming across the hill in search of wide blue skies, open roads, rural pubs and charming rustic scenery, just as long as they head back home at the end of the day.  

We’re okay too with those refined, affluent types from Wadestown and Kelburn who buy weekend retreats in Greytown and then decide it’s so nice that they can do without their house in Wellington. That’s the sort of place Greytown is.  But who knows what impact a tunnel might have on the town where I live?

One of Masterton’s charms is that it’s still a traditional farming town. I like the fact that when you drive into town, you run a gauntlet of agriculture machinery dealers.

I love hearing topdressing planes flying out at first light from Hood aerodrome and returning home at dusk, and I like the tractors and stock trucks that constantly rumble past our place.

I like the friendly and obliging shopkeepers and tradies, and I like the fact that when I ring a plumber he’s pulling up outside before I hang up the phone. (Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration too.)

I don’t want any of this put at risk by intensified urbanisation and more people, which would be the inevitable result of a tunnel. So my message to Graeme Farr is the same as it was to John Hayes.

On the other hand, if Farr promised to lobby for a high-speed bypass around Carterton, which is surely the world's most boring town to drive through (though only by a slim margin over Dannevirke), he might get my vote in 2022. A flyover would be better still.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The rise of militant veganism

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, Oct 2.)

My wife and I don’t always agree about things; just choosing a paint colour for the bathroom can take months. But we celebrated a moment of instant accord over breakfast recently.

In front of us was a newspaper account of the black-clad vegan protesters who formed a line in front of the meat shelves in an Auckland supermarket. Shoppers who were prevented from buying meat reportedly lost their patience, lashing out at the protesters.

My wife’s reaction was the same as mine. We agreed that if we’d been there, we probably would have been among those doing the lashing out.

I respect the right of vegans to renounce meat, and I’m certainly not insensitive to concerns about inhumane treatment of animals. But protesters are inviting a backlash when they arrogantly assert the right to obstruct people going about their lawful business.

This has nothing to do with the respective merits of carnivorous and vegetarian diets. It’s a matter of respecting people’s right in a free society to make their own choices within the law.

The right to protest is an essential item in the democratic toolkit, and one I’ve taken advantage of myself. But I’ve never assumed that my beliefs were so sacred that they took precedence over the rights of others – which is why, although I marched against the 1981 Springbok tour,  I avoided taking part in protests that tried to prevent fans from getting to matches. It’s also why I get mad when I see activists trying to bar people from attending political events they disapprove of.

Unfortunately, the thing about zealots is that they become so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that it overrides all other considerations. Thus we are now witnessing the rise of militant veganism, as was evident in the meat section of the Countdown supermarket in the Westfield St Lukes Mall.

Food has been well and truly politicised, and with that has come a rising level of strident militancy – hysteria, almost – and denunciation of anyone who doesn’t fall into line with the “meat is murder” agenda.

It’s all part of the so-called culture war – the clash between traditional liberal values (and I mean genuinely liberal, as in tolerant of people who differ) and those promoted by the radical and increasingly assertive authoritarian Left.

A significant recent development was the convergence of two of the great secular theologies of our age: militant veganism and climate change alarmism. The two came together in fist-pumping union nine months ago with the publication of a report purporting to link climate change with supposedly unhealthy global food production systems.

There you have it: two moral panics rolled into one – pure gold for the ideologues who endlessly lecture us on the supposed failings of capitalism and Western civilisation.

Published in the British medical journal The Lancet, the report – written by a team headed by our own Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University, a high priest of wowserism – claimed that food production systems, controlled and manipulated by profit-crazed global business interests, are not only driving climate change but propelling us toward early graves.

How this squares with statistics showing steady worldwide improvements in life expectancy wasn’t explained, but hey – why nitpick?

Swinburn and his accomplices even came up with a fancy new term for this looming apocalypse. They called it a Global Syndemic, or a “synergy of epidemics” interacting with each other to produce “complex sequelae” – a bit of Latin always looks impressive – which ultimately threaten the planet.

There should be no mistaking the purpose of such reports. They are aimed at frightening people into meekly accepting adopting radical changes imposed by those who insist they know what's best for us.

Neither should there be any doubt about the real target of the reformist zealots. They may not say it in so many words, but their goal is to dismantle international capitalism. That’s the agenda that underpins almost all the moral crusades currently being waged in Western societies.

I recently watched the New Zealand-made documentary film Capital in the 21st Century, which was inspired by a best-selling book written by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty.

The film is a very slick piece of propaganda. It uses every trick in the film-maker’s repertoire to convey the impression that greedy capitalism is responsible for pretty much everything that’s wrong in the world.

Of course capitalism is imperfect. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But like most works of propaganda, Capital in the 21st Century is significant for what it chooses to leave out – such as the inconvenient fact that the world’s freest, most open and most prosperous societies all have capitalist economies. 

And here's the other thing: the film doesn't say what better system might be installed in its place. Either the crusaders against capitalism don't know, or they're not telling us. Either way, they're not to be trusted.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

I missed one

Exhibit C (see previous post): Greta Thunberg and the attendant media circus.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Peak craziness reconsidered

I wrote a column a few weeks ago suggesting we had reached peak craziness. Alas, I was wrong.

Exhibit A: One morning last week I heard the actress Robyn Malcolm assert on Morning Report that the role of Gandalf in the proposed Amazon TV production of The Lord of the Rings should be played by a woman. And not just any type of woman, but specifically by a kuia (or as she put it tautologically, “an old Maori kuia”).

Ian McKellen did a great job playing Gandalf in the movie adaptations, Malcolm conceded, “but we don’t need another old guy with a long white beard”.

Was it a joke? You’d like to think so, but I fear not.

Assuming, then, that Malcolm was serious, we can anticipate a few obvious problems with her idea. First, J R R Tolkien very specifically envisaged an old guy with a long white beard when he created the character of Gandalf. And while the author may be long dead, he’s entitled to respect for the integrity of his story and characters. He certainly deserves better than to have them hijacked to satisfy a passing ideological fashion. 

You’d think that of all people, someone like Malcolm – who, after all, depends for her livelihood on the ability of writers to create compelling characters for actors to play – would grasp that. Evidently not.

There’s also the tricky matter of explaining how an old Maori woman would come to be living in Middle Earth – a fantasy realm, admittedly, but one very clearly rooted in European lore and culture.

That leads us to the most obvious difficulty of all – namely, that no company is going to spend hundreds of millions employing Malcolm’s acting mates on a TV series that no one will want to watch, which would surely be the fate of a Lord of the Rings that lacked one of its defining characters.

If someone wants to create a TV series with a kuia as its central figure, well and good. But fans of Lord of the Rings (I’m not one, incidentally, but that’s neither here nor there) love it as it is, not as some virtue-signalling thespian imagines it should be.

In any case, why stop at Gandalf? Literature is riddled with figures who perpetuate repressive patriarchal models. Why not cast a black woman – better still, a lesbian refugee from somewhere like Sudan – in the role of Sherlock Holmes? And given that Daniel Craig has apparently tired of the role, what’s to stop the producers of the next James Bond movie from casting a trans woman – perhaps in a wheelchair, just to reinforce the sense of inclusiveness – as agent 007?

Once you adopt the idea that the purpose of films and other forms of entertainment is to advance an ideological agenda, the possibilities are limitless. But we know from history what happens when literature and the arts are co-opted to enforce someone’s idea of correct thinking. I mean, how many great works came out of Stalin’s Soviet Union? I remember a Peter Sellers skit that made a joke about a mythical Soviet film called The Seven Brave Tractor Drivers, which more or less sums up what happens when art becomes a vehicle for ideological propaganda.

I now turn to Exhibit B in Peak Craziness Reconsidered. For this we need look no further than Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who has fallen victim to the pernicious concept of presentism – the insistence that past actions and statements be interpreted and judged according to contemporary values.

In 2001, Trudeau – then aged 29, and employed as a schoolteacher – attended an Arabian Nights-themed fancy dress party. He wore robes and a turban and had his face, neck and hands darkened. Someone mischievously (or more likely maliciously) supplied Time magazine with a photo showing Trudeau with other attendees, thereby triggering an explosion of moral outrage which almost matches the one that erupted when Austrian president Kurt Waldheim was exposed as a former intelligence officer in the German army during the Second World War.

The comparison with Waldheim is not inappropriate. Amid the vindictive fervour generated by neo-Marxist witch-hunters, wearing brownface – a term most of us had never heard until the Trudeau affair, but which is presumably only a degree less offensive than blackface – is on a par with war crimes. And no one is safe, not even a politician who has gone to great lengths to demonstrate his sympathy for fashionable causes.

It’s impossible to ignore the irony that the very people Trudeau has tried to ingratiate himself with are the ones who have turned on him. So it’s true: the revolution really does devour its own children. The furore should serve as a lesson that even the most impeccably woke politicians aren’t immune from malevolent trolls.

Obviously wanting to get in ahead of any other career-destroying disclosures about his reprehensible past, Trudeau then confessed that while at high school, he had worn blackface while singing the Jamaican folk song Day-O. A closet racist, then, beyond all doubt; just one step removed from the Ku Klux Klan. And to think this was the prime minister who had pretended to welcome Syrian refugees. Gasp! Was there any limit to his deceit and hypocrisy?

Trudeau completed his own humiliation with an apology that took grovelling to a new level. But in the feverish orgy of judgmentalism that followed Time’s story, a few important points have been overlooked.

The first is that people’s actions should surely be judged by their intent and their consequences – and I mean real consequences, not the ones that exist only in febrile, highly politicised minds. Did Trudeau intend to hurt, mock, exploit or demean dark-skinned people? It was a fancy-dress party, for heaven’s sake. Was any harm done by colouring his face and wearing Arab robes?  Only to the overheated sensibilities of those who go through life looking for opportunities to take offence. Dressing as Aladdin hardly ranks as a crime against humanity.

Second, who in their past life hasn’t done something they now wish they hadn’t? Who wants to be held accountable for things they did decades ago, before their judgment had fully matured? I certainly wouldn’t. But Trudeau's self-righteous tormentors make no allowance for human frailties.

Moral perspectives change. Demanding that people’s past behaviour conform to contemporary codes laid down by a shrill, Pharisaical minority of activists raises the bar impossibly high. I doubt that many public figures could pass that test, and I imagine many lie awake at night fretting that their past will catch up with them.

Who knows? That Christmas pageant in your first year at school, when you were assigned to play Balthazar – you know, the one of the Three Wise Men who was traditionally depicted as black; somewhere there might still be an incriminating photo. Better track it down fast and put it through the shredder.  

Finally, what is it about wearing blackface that makes it so offensive that anyone guilty of it in their past is condemned as a white supremacist? It’s only four decades since New Zealanders without a racist fibre in their bodies sat down in front of the television on Sunday nights to enjoy The Black and White Minstrel Show.

Sure, it wouldn't happen now. But did it occur to anyone then that it was racist? Was the show intended to be degrading or insulting to people of colour? That should be the yardstick by which we now judge it. Again, intent is crucial.

Granted, in hindsight the use of blackface resulted in a grotesque caricature of black people that is now seen as offensive. Woolly wigs were worn and mouths and eyes were exaggeratedly big and white. It also evoked memories of the Jim Crow era, a time when black Americans suffered appalling institutionalised discrimination.

For those reasons it not surprisingly fell out of favour in the latter part of the 20th century. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have been forgotten that performing in blackface was often an acknowledgment that its white exponents owed a debt to genuine African-American minstrels of an earlier time. It was one manifestation of the racial and cultural cross-fertilisation – whites borrowing from blacks and vice-versa – that left a permanent imprint on American music.

The fact that blackface, however innocently used, has since come to be regarded as a vile assertion of white supremacy and a potential destroyer of political careers, even for someone with Trudeau’s liberal credentials, shows how devastatingly effective the march of identity politics has been – and how brittle the political fabric of western democracy has become.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Obituary: Alister Taylor

(The Dominion Post asked me to write this obituary. It was published on September 21.)

Born Blenheim September 21 1943
Died Russell September 9 2019

Writer and historian Tony Simpson used to joke that when Alister Taylor died, he would have him stuffed and mounted in his living room as a conversation piece.

He never got his wish. Taylor was cremated this week after dying at his home in the Bay of Islands, aged 75. But the radical publisher’s tumultuous life assured him of conversation-piece status regardless. When book people from a certain era get together, says Simpson, “we swap Alister Taylor anecdotes.”

Charming and generous but notoriously casual about paying his debts, Taylor was far-sighted and a risk-taker at a time when the publishing business was timid and conservative. He gave several prominent writers their first break and they remained grateful, even though some never saw any money.

His books ranged from the flippant (The Muldoon Annual Joke Book) to volumes of poetry by Sam Hunt and Alistair Campbell and lavishly illustrated works showcasing the paintings of C F Goldie and Dame Robin White and the photographs of Marti Friedlander and Robin Morrison.

Taylor was working for the venerable New Zealand publishing house of A H & A W Reed in 1971 when he tried to interest his employers in an English translation of The Little Red Book for School Pupils, better known simply as The Little Red Schoolbook, a subversive work by two Danish teachers whose frank advice for school children ranged across such taboo subjects as sex and drugs.

When the devoutly Christian publishers not surprisingly declined, as they also did when Taylor urged them to publish the then radical student leader Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans, Taylor published the books himself.

The two books captured the spirit of the emerging counter-culture and served as a test of the liberality of New Zealand’s censorship laws. They also installed Taylor as the enfant terrible of the publishing business and launched him on a career in which he managed to earn respect as a publisher of serious, quality books and a patron of emerging writers while simultaneously leaving a trail of bad debts and despairing creditors.

He was bankrupted twice over the course of a turbulent career in which his propensity for spending money was matched by his disregard for financial obligations. Wellington lawyer Hugh Rennie QC, who knew Taylor from university days and acted for some of his unpaid authors, says that “Alister existed in a parallel universe where financial compliance was irrelevant to his objectives”.

The son of a travelling salesman, Taylor grew up in Blenheim and Palmerston North. Writer and former ACT MP Deborah Coddington, who had three children with him during their 25 years together, says he had a happy upbringing, though not a privileged one, with three sisters and an older brother.

At Victoria University in the mid-1960s, he was part of a lively circle of student leaders who would go on to make their marks in the media, the arts, the law and politics. A stylish dresser, instantly recogniseable with his thick, shaggy dark hair and glasses, Taylor was a combative figure in student politics. Even then, he was caught up in controversy over irregularities in Students’ Association finances.

He was also, at that time, a rising young star in the National Party. Simpson remembers him attending a university seminar with his then girlfriend Helen Sutch, daughter of the high-profile economist and public servant Bill Sutch, and constantly heckling left-wing speakers. But Taylor parted company with National over New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War. Coddington says he was physically manhandled from the stage at a party conference when he tried to give a speech opposing the war.

A Stuff story about his death said he once chained himself to a lamppost during an anti-Vietnam protest, but Coddington says that wasn't quite right. He was handcuffed to the pole by the police while they rounded up his fellow offenders.

Exhibiting the vision, boundless self-confidence and entrepreneurial flair that would mark his publishing career, Taylor went on to organise the Peace, Power and Politics in Asia conference, a landmark event of 1968. The speakers included such international luminaries as the Irish writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Indian diplomat and former defence minister, V K Krishna Menon.

By then Taylor was working for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as a producer of the radio current affairs programme Checkpoint. The NZBC, which was kept under tight government control, took a dim view of his political activities and fired him.

Broadcasting’s loss was publishing’s gain. The publication three years later of The Little Red Schoolbook and Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans (the latter a combination of autobiography and political manifesto) was emblematic of a period when post-war establishment values were coming under siege from the baby boomer generation.

Simpson’s The Sugarbag Years, an acclaimed oral history of New Zealanders’ experiences in the Great Depression, was another success story. Simpson had known Taylor in their university days and turned to him when he couldn’t interest mainstream publishers in the project.

“He snapped up the idea straight away. That was the thing about Alister: he had a creative and an imaginative mind.” Published in 1974, The Sugarbag Years became a best-seller and effectively kick-started Simpson’s career.

Taylor also launched the career of historian Michael King, publishing King’s first book, Moko: Tattooing in the 20th Century, in 1972. Simpson recalls King phoning him and plaintively inquiring whether he had been paid any royalties for The Sugarbag Years, because King hadn’t received any for his book.

Even then, Taylor had a reputation as an unreliable payer. “Like a lot of creative and imaginative people, he was a flawed personality in a lot of ways. He regarded other people’s money as his money.”

Taylor published another of Simpson’s books, Te Riri Pakeha, about the alienation of Maori land, in 1990. The author ended up taking Taylor to court for unpaid royalties and won the case. When he still didn’t get his money, he had Taylor declared bankrupt.

In the course of those legal proceedings, Simpson obtained a list of Taylor’s creditors, which he describes as one of the world’s most astonishing documents. It included every wine merchant within a 160km radius. “He lived extremely well and he did it all on credit.

“He and I didn’t see one another for many years after that, but I’ve always been very grateful to him because in a very real way I think I owe him my writing career. And I’m not the only one – there was Michael King too.

“Alister was very much of that era, and at the centre of what was going on.”

An idealist on one level, but without a conscience when it came to financial affairs? “Oh yes, he was a total rogue. But a genial rogue who did some great things.”

In the 1970s, Taylor moved from Wellington, where he owned the historic Rita Angus Cottage in Thorndon, to Martinborough, where he planted a vineyard on an 80-hectare property originally owned by the Martin family who founded the town.

Coddington, who joined him there in 1978 with her young daughter Briar, says it was an example of his remarkable prescience – his ability to foresee trends and get in ahead of them. No one else was growing grapes in Martinborough at the time; that would come several years later. But he bought the property on instinct because the climate reminded him of Marlborough, then in the midst of a winemaking boom.

Taylor also saw potential in Waiura, the old Martin family homestead on the property, which was virtually derelict and used to store hay. “He had the foresight to see the value in preserving old buildings,” says Coddington. “Now everyone runs around doing it.”

The couple’s three children – Rupert, Valentine and Imogen – were born during the Martinborough years. It was a time when Waiura became synonymous with extravagant hospitality, which Taylor sometimes used to placate angry creditors.

“Alister was a wonderful cook and a fantastic host,” Coddington recalls. “Authors would come over from Wellington saying ‘This time I’m going to get my royalties’, and Alister would get out a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild or whatever and whip up a quiche and a persimmon steamed pudding with whipped cream and they would leave wined and dined and still with no money.”

But the vineyard was an expensive failure, sucking up all the money Taylor had made from his publishing ventures. Rabbits and possums destroyed his vines and Taylor ended up in a messy dispute with Shadbolt, then a concrete contractor, over the $100,000 wine cellar Shadbolt had built for him.

In 1983, the property was knocked down in a mortgagee sale (it subsequently became Te Kairanga Vineyard, which is now thriving under American ownership) and Taylor and Coddington moved to the Bay of Islands.

In Russell, they ran a café. Taylor did the cooking and Coddington waited on tables. Coddington later acquired The Gables restaurant on the Russell waterfront but by 1990 the couple had moved to Auckland, where Coddington got a job writing for North & South.

Taylor remained active in the books business, publishing – among other things – the New Zealand Who’s Who Aotearoa, in competition with a long-established book published by Reeds. It still rankles with retired journalist Max Lambert, who edited the Reeds version, that Taylor’s book masqueraded as the “official” Who’s Who, trading on its rival’s reputation.

“In my book he was a shyster,” Lambert says of Taylor. “He did some pretty underhand things, which is a pity because he had some good ideas. He did a brilliant book on horses.”

Three books on horses, in fact, starting in 1980 with Notable New Zealand Thoroughbreds, by Waikanae writer and lifelong racing fan Mary Mountier.  Did she end up out of pocket? “Oh God yes, everyone did,” she says.

Yet Mountier has no regrets. The limited-edition book was printed to exacting standards in Japan and Taylor spared no expense, sending her to Japan to supervise production and later to Australia and Britain to research similar books there.  “That was part of the problem. He was very generous, but he kept on spending even when the cheques started to bounce.”

Mountier says Taylor had a knack for finding writers who had a passion for particular subjects and who were willing to put in inordinate amounts of time and effort. But she’s proud of the books and grateful for the experience of having met people at the top echelons of the international racing scene. And she’s especially proud that all three are in the Queen’s library.

Taylor and Coddington parted in 2003, the year after Coddington was elected to Parliament. Even then Taylor was embroiled in legal problems – this time in New South Wales, where the Commissioner for Fair Trading took action against him over the alleged late and non-delivery of books.

Despite the split, Coddington retained “a huge amount of affection” for him and says his children loved him too.

She told Stuff the day before the funeral: “The kids were asking me what he was like when I met him. He was the man. He was the man.”

An essential trait of his personality, she said, was that he was anti-authority – “an anarchist”. He never seemed troubled by the mayhem he left in his wake and threats of legal action would just “wash over him”.

Now married to lawyer Colin Carruthers QC and living in Martinborough again, Coddington was co-owner of some of Taylor’s companies and admits a measure of responsibility for his bad behaviour toward people to whom he owed money. “Of course I do – guilt and responsibility, but I can’t turn back the clock.”

What Taylor did to people was reprehensible, she says – “all those poor people who signed contracts that were never honoured.

“I know of people, authors, who went to their letterboxes having been told there was a cheque in the mail, and there was never a cheque in the mail. You can’t do that to people.”

In his last years, Taylor lived on his own in Russell. He was found dead at home after a suspected heart attack.

Friday, September 20, 2019

It's way past time to reclaim and honour our history

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, September 19.)

I remember almost nothing of the history I learned at secondary school. This is odd, because history interests me.

As a kid I would pore over my uncle Dick Scott’s illustrated history of New Zealand, Inheritors of a Dream. I still have it on my bookshelf.

At Central Hawke’s Bay College in the 1960s I was taught history by Brian Davies, one of the few teachers I remember with any affection.

Davies – who, sadly, was found dead a few months ago after being reported missing in Tauranga, aged 85 – would often go off-script and discuss current events. He would talk about the split between the two great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, and the ideological contest between capitalist democracy and totalitarian communism.

But even Davies couldn’t make the history curriculum interesting. I know we were taught 19th century New Zealand history because I vaguely remember stuff about Sir George Grey, but none of it stuck.

Later, at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, I was taught history by Spiro Zavos. I enjoyed Spiro’s classes too, but the enjoyment had little to do with history. He had the advantage of being almost the same generation as his pupils and was easily diverted into discussions about things that were happening in the world of now.

Alas, Spiro left at the end of that year and would later switch to journalism. The Englishman who replaced him was as dry and dusty as the textbooks we were required to read.  

Mr Chips he wasn’t. I retain no memory whatsoever of what we were taught in my upper sixth year, as we called it then, except that the Tudors were involved. It was paralysingly boring and I couldn’t see the relevance of it.

I still can’t, and can only conclude that the curriculum was a hangover from the days of empire. It probably reflected a view that New Zealand was too young, too small and too insignificant to have a real history of its own, and that the only one worth telling was the one we inherited from Britain.

But there’s no earthly reason why history should be dull, and still less reason why we shouldn’t celebrate our own – which is why we should applaud, at least in principle, the government’s decision to make the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory. It should have happened decades ago.

We have a rich and colourful heritage, both pre- and post-European settlement, that has been sorely neglected. In this respect we are quite unlike the Australians and Americans, who cherish their histories – the bad bits as well as the good.

A couple of years ago I found my way to the site of the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu (the beak of the bird) in south Taranaki, where the Prussian adventurer Gustavus Von Tempsky and 20 colonial troops were killed in 1868 by Hauhau warriors under the command of the formidable chief Titokowaru. Right there you have two compelling characters to rival America’s Sitting Bull and George Custer.

I wouldn’t have bothered seeking out the battle site, except that I had a personal reason for going there: my great-grandfather, a member of the Taranaki Volunteers, was wounded in the fighting and narrowly escaped with his life. But here’s the interesting thing: you could drive right past the battle site and not know it’s there.

The same is true of many other significant sites from the New Zealand Wars. How many people know eight soldiers died at Boulcott’s Farm, in what is now the heart of Lower Hutt? Or that a British force of more than 250 laid siege to a Te Ati Awa pa at Battle Hill, near Pauatahunui?

In Australia or America, sites like Te Ngutu o te Manu – Rangiriri, Orakau and Gate Pa too – would be tourist attractions, like the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat or Little Bighorn in Montana. 

So yes, it’s way past time to reclaim and honour our history, and secondary schools are a good place to start.

But there’s an important caveat to all this. There is no neutral view of history and no consensus about how it should be explained and interpreted. It follows that the teaching of history is ripe with potential for revisionism and ideological spin.

The proposed emphasis on colonisation, for instance, makes me uneasy – not because the subject should be ignored, but because colonisation has been seized as a convenient bumper-sticker explanation for everything bad that has happened to Maori.

A balanced reading of our history suggests it's a lot more complicated than that, but I've got an uneasy feeling that the curriculum will come loaded with a very large dollop of white shame and guit.

The buzz and bitchiness of local government politics

(First published in The Manawatu Standard and on, September 18).

I switched on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report one day last week to hear a babble of raised voices all trying to talk across each other. It was the sort of cacophony you might hear when a rat appears in a chookhouse.

I realised instantly that it must have something to do with the local government elections. Sure enough, it turned out to be a debate – a euphemistic term in this instance – between the three main rivals for the mayoralty of Christchurch.

It’s always a febrile time, this period leading up to council elections. There’s a peculiarly bitchy quality to local government: a propensity for petty squabbles and personality clashes that can make national politics look almost mature and sophisticated by comparison. It may be a far smaller stage, but there’s certainly no shortage of ego or ambition.  

What motivates people to stand for office? The answer, you’d like to think, is a desire to enhance community wellbeing and contribute to sound local governance, and no doubt that’s true for many candidates. They’re certainly not in it for glamour, money or prestige.

But with some local politicians, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they become addicted to the buzz of power. There’s a hint of that in Auckland’s mayoral election, where two former Labour cabinet ministers, Phil Goff and John Tamihere, are slugging it out in an ill-tempered contest tinged with personal venom.

Admittedly things could have been worse. Former mayor John Banks, another ex-cabinet minister, threatened to have another run but mercifully changed his mind. There are too many political retreads in local government already.

Should we care what happens in Auckland? Too right we should. For better or for worse, it’s the economic engine room of the whole country, with a GDP that exceeds those of Wellington, Canterbury and Waikato combined. How well it’s managed ultimately affects all of us.

Auckland isn’t the only arena where things have turned heated. In Wellington, filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson has waded into a fractious dispute over a murky development deal involving former Defence Force land and local iwi interests.

Jackson, who seems motivated by a sincere commitment to Wellington, is backing a mayoral challenge by veteran city councillor Andy Foster. It will be interesting to see which side has the greater pull – the earnest but colourless Foster, backed by Jackson’s money, or sitting mayor Justin Lester with the formidable support of the local Labour Party machine.

Meanwhile, in Invercargill, Sir Tim Shadbolt – famous for once saying “I don’t care where as long as I’m mayor” – is chasing his eighth term, and I assume he’ll romp back in. Southlanders love him because he’s given their province something it never used to have: a profile.

Shadbolt cultivates a buffoonish image, but there’s a calculating politician behind the goofy grin. He knows he can get away with self-aggrandising behaviour - such as spending ratepayers’ money on “I met the mayor” wristbands - because he’s trained the voters of Invercargill to expect that sort of stunt from him.

Christchurch illustrates another quirk of local government. Contenders who must realise they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell nonetheless keep putting themselves forward. Their optimism, or perhaps it’s idealistic zeal, is inextinguishable.

John Minto, one of the Christchurch hopefuls, is a case in point. New Zealand voters have an admirable history of rejecting extremists from both the Left and Right of politics, but Minto - a tireless campaigner for radical causes - is undeterred.  Like Mr Wobbly Man in the Noddy stories, he keeps getting knocked down but bounces back up again.

In Christchurch three years ago he won 13,117 votes, or 14 per cent of the total – not an embarrassing result, and certainly a lot better than the 3 per cent he managed when he contested the Auckland mayoralty in 2013. The Left is good at organising, and my guess is that Minto benefited from the highly motivated activist vote. But he was still more than 62,000 shy of Lianne Dalziell’s winning total.

Speaking of Christchurch, mayoral candidate Michael “Tubby” Hansen deserves a special mention. He has contested every election since 1971 and had his best-ever result in 2013, when he attracted 1.57 per cent of the vote.

What makes him stand time after time? That’s a question only he can answer. If Minto represents one type of local government candidate – the committed activist – then Hansen is another: the quixotic oddball. Every city seems to have one.

The depressing thing is that when all the election drama has subsided and the votes have been counted, what difference will it make? In most councils, real power is exercised by bureaucrats over whom elected councillors wield very limited influence and who sometimes treat their nominal bosses with contempt.

This is especially true in Auckland, where so-called council-controlled organisations have turned out to be anything but. The phrase "grassroots democracy" has a nice ring to it, but it has never sounded more hollow.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

It now falls to private citizens to defend free speech

(This column was published in The Dominion Post and on on September 5. I omitted to put it on my blog at the time but I'm correcting that oversight now. The court's decision is still pending.) 

A court case with vital implications for freedom of speech has been played out this week in the High Court at Auckland.

The proceedings were initiated by the Free Speech Coalition, which is challenging the lawfulness of a decision by Regional Facilities Auckland – an arm of Auckland Council – to cancel an appearance last year by the controversial Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

RFA, which controls the venue where the Canadians were to speak, says the action was taken for safety and security reasons after it became apparent that protesters might target the event. But the coalition claims the cancellation was an act of political censorship – and that even if there were genuine safety concerns, which it disputes, RFA shouldn’t have bowed to unsubstantiated threats of disruption.

The coalition argues this set a dangerous precedent whereby a mere threat of trouble can be used to shut down events that protesters disapprove of. This tactic, which is sometimes referred to as the “heckler’s veto”, was also used to justify the ludicrous decision by Massey University’s vice-chancellor to bar the former National Party leader Don Brash.

The real reason for the cancellation of the Brash speech was subsequently revealed to be the vice-chancellor’s objection to his opinions. The Free Speech Coalition suspects there was a similar motive for RFA’s decision not to allow Southern and Molyneux to use the Bruce Mason Centre at Takapuna.

An interesting aspect of the Auckland court proceedings, which took place before Justice Pherose Jagose, was the involvement of the Human Rights Commission as an “intervener” – a status sometimes granted to a person or organisation with no direct interest in the proceedings but with expertise that might help the court in its deliberations.

Anyone expecting the commission to deliver a resounding defence of free speech would have been disappointed. Its 38-page submission canvassed legal issues and precedents but left open the question of whether RFA was justified in denying the Canadians a speaking venue. That will be for the judge to decide.

The commission did, however, say the right to free speech is not absolute, and pointed to a Court of Appeal finding that constraints on “hateful and dangerous speech” – which is what Southern and Molyneux were accused of, although we never found out whether the accusation was justified – were “seldom difficult to justify”. I wonder if that’s a clue to the commission’s thinking, and that it believes banning the Canadians was the correct action.

Certainly it seems we shouldn’t expect the commission to champion what has been regarded for centuries as one of the defining rights of a liberal democracy. It now apparently falls to private citizens, in the form of the crowd-funded Free Speech Coalition, to defend freedom of expression.  

Dry legal arguments aside, the Auckland case was interesting for what it revealed about events behind the scenes.

Documents placed before the court show the speed with which the Auckland Left’s lobbying machine moved into gear once serial protester Valerie Morse learned of the proposed speaking engagement and contacted sympathetic Auckland councillor Cathy Casey.

They knew exactly which buttons to push. Within less than 24 hours, RFA had reneged on a signed contract with the event promoters and mayor Phil Goff had got in on the act and announced on Twitter that the Canadians would be barred from all council-owned venues.

Goff placed himself at the centre of events, telling Radio New Zealand that he wasn’t going to “aid and abet racist nonsense”. He apparently wanted to present himself as the man who saved New Zealand from a pair of racist haters, when in fact the cancellation may have been the action of a risk-averse RFA bureaucracy – albeit one emboldened by the knowledge that the mayor didn’t want the event to go ahead.

One telling email exchange revealed close co-ordination between the mayor’s office and RFA, with an obviously impatient functionary in Goff’s office telling RFA at one point: “The mayor is getting itchy twitter fingers”. Hmmm.

The views of Southern and Molyneux, whom Morse hysterically described as fascists, are almost irrelevant here. Their opinions may be offensive to some, but the main purpose of the court action is to uphold the right of peaceful assembly and challenge the right of bureaucrats and politicians to act as censors.

In any case, free speech includes the right to give offence – and unless the Canadians intended to urge their audience to commit unlawful acts, and there’s no evidence that they did, they were entitled to speak.

More to the point, New Zealanders were entitled to hear them and form their own opinions as to whether the Canadians were poisonous.

Disclosure: I have donated to the Free Speech Coalition. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Quote of the day

On Morning Report, from a Piha resident complaining about the lack of action to remedy local pollution: “When all is said and done, a lot more has been said than done.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Zealand: shining light, or breeding ground for violent extremism?

You may not have heard of the Somalian refugee Guled Mire. He was in the news last month when he appeared before a parliamentary select committee urging the government to remove what he described as a racist restriction on refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

He was referring to a policy introduced in 2009 which requires refugees from those regions to have existing family connections in New Zealand in order to be resettled here.

Speaking in support of a World Vision petition asking for the restriction to be lifted, Mire said it was an unnecessary and racist requirement that shut vulnerable people out.

It wasn’t the first time Mire had spoken out about the supposedly racist society that provided a sanctuary for him, his mother and his eight siblings after they fled civil war in Somalia 22 years ago.

Only days after the Christchurch mosque massacres in March, Mire said on TVNZ’s Breakfast programme that he had experienced racism almost daily in New Zealand. 

The Christchurch attacks, he said, were no surprise. “I think it’s time that we stopped living in denial about the very form of racism that has existed in this country for such a long time. It’s nothing new to us.”

He struck a similar note three months later when he was interviewed for a moralistic Australian-made documentary shown on Al Jazeera television. New Zealand’s Dark Days questioned this country’s reputation as a harmonious, peaceful place and said warnings about rising Islamophobia had been repeatedly ignored.

Mire, who has worked as a government policy adviser and is described on a public speakers’ website as an activist and writer, challenged the “This is not us” speech given by Jacinda Ardern in Christchurch after the shootings.

“This ‘This is not us’ idea is denying our lived experiences,” he told the interviewer. “That racism, that hatred that exists in this nation, is us.” He said the Muslim community in New Zealand had been calling out “violent extremism” for years.

This view aligned with a persistent far-left narrative that surfaced following the Christchurch atrocities. According to this alternative narrative, the slaughter of 51 innocent Muslims was the inevitable consequence of all-pervasive race hatred and white supremacist attitudes. This view overlooked the inconvenient fact that the alleged killer was not a New Zealander and evidently acted alone.

Mire was in the news again on Radio New Zealand this week, when he took exception to National leader Simon Bridges’ dismissive comments about the Ardern-initiated “Christchurch Call”.  Responding to Bridges’ statement that the government should concentrate on problems such as homelessness and the measles epidemic, Mire said: “It’s the same sort of rhetoric used to basically marginalise us people from minority backgrounds again and again. We’ve always felt as though we’re not accepted as New Zealanders and comments like that affirm it.”

But hang on. New Zealand gave Mire and his family refuge after they fled a dangerous, violent country. It also gave him an education and the right to speak his mind, a freedom few people enjoy in the part of the world he comes from. Surely that must count for something.

And before anyone dismisses that statement as the typical racist bigotry of a privileged white guy, perhaps we should take note of the “lived experiences” of other Muslim immigrants, some of which are strikingly at odds with the impression conveyed by Mire.

For example, there’s Gamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor Mosque, where 42 worshippers were shot in the March killings.  Speaking in Dunedin this week, the imam said New Zealand had been a shining light to the world following the shootings.

He recalled that when he first came to New Zealand after 9/11, he was initially afraid to walk in the streets in his religious robes for fear of being attacked. His fear began to subside after he was greeted by a stranger with the unfamiliar words “Hello, bro’”.

He said he was now proud to be a Kiwi. “This is my land. It is the place of my family and my children. It is my turangawaewae. I love this soil. I love us because we are one” [the italics are mine].

The imam noted that there was still hatred and division and people needed to speak out against racism. But otherwise the tone of his message could hardly have been more at variance with that of Guled Mire.

Then there’s Abbas Nazari, an Afghani who was among the Tampa refugees given a home in New Zealand in 2001 after being refused entry to Australia. Then seven years old, Nazari settled in Christchurch with his family and this year won a Fulbright Scholarship after graduating from the University of Canterbury with first-class honours in international relations and diplomacy.

He told The Guardian earlier this year that he recalled his family being given a warm welcome by a huge contingent of locals when they arrived at Christchurch Airport and said the warmth and acceptance they experienced then set the tone for the family’s new life.

He went on to say: “I can’t recall any instances of racism, and that’s the same experience for the vast majority of my family and community. I can’t recall any instances where I was marginalised or I was on the receiving end of a whole heap of crap at all.

“We wove naturally into the fabric of New Zealand society. So when I hear stories of prejudice and racism, I know for sure that it exists but my experience in New Zealand has been amazingly warm and welcoming.”

It doesn’t sound like the same country Guled Mire describes. And then there was the story this week about the Hutt City council election candidate Shazly Rasheed, an immigrant from the Maldives, whose billboards were defaced with swastikas and racist messages.

That Rasheed’s election advertising was targeted, presumably because of her skin colour, is despicable. But on the plus side she said she had lived in New Zealand for 20 years and only once been racially abused, by skinheads in Hamilton.

Even a single instance of racial abuse is one too many, but otherwise Rasheed’s “lived experience” seems at variance with Guled Mire’s too.  You have to wonder whether the problem is with him.

I think back too to the dignified response of the Muslims who survived the Christchurch attacks. Their reaction was not one of anger, but of sadness that this terrible thing had happened in a country that they thought of – and still think of – as inclusive and welcoming.

I remember the Christchurch Muslim woman who told the BBC she and her family had come to New Zealand because it was safe and that she had never felt threatened here. And I recall the thousands of New Zealanders who showed their solidarity with the Muslim community by attending public vigils, setting up tribute sites and donating millions to a Givealittle appeal. I find it hard to reconcile all this with Guled Mire’s view of New Zealand.

Which image of New Zealand is the more accurate: the hateful, racist one, or the tolerant, inclusive one? I’ll go with the latter, thanks. It’s pointless to deny that racism exists in New Zealand, but that doesn’t make this a racist country. It seems to me that Guled Mire is himself guilty of the divisive rhetoric he accuses others of.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Every Life Matters? Really?

The government has chosen an unfortunate slogan for its commendable campaign to reduce suicides. If "Every Life Matters", as we’re now being told, how come the same government wants to liberalise the abortion laws?

More than 13,000 abortions were performed in New Zealand last year, indicating that there are few barriers to the procedure even under existing law. How many more abortions will be carried out if those few barriers are removed, as the government intends, is anyone’s guess.

We’re constantly told that the current abortion law is archaic and no longer fit for purpose, but one thing hasn’t changed. The 1975 Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion accepted expert evidence that life begins at conception. The science hasn’t changed, even if the prevailing ideology has.

Any point after conception that is claimed as the starting point of life is an entirely arbitrary one, adopted for convenience.

That royal commission (appointed, incidentally, by a Labour government) also found that the unborn child, “as one of the weakest, the most vulnerable and most defenceless forms of humanity”, was entitled to protection.

That hasn’t changed either. If this government truly believed that every life matters, it would apply that principle to abortion as well as to suicide. Otherwise it stands accused of adopting a glaring double standard. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Okay, now let's hear the other side of the story

Susan Strongman’s recent Radio New Zealand hatchet-job on Pregnancy Counselling Services has achieved exactly what I believe was intended.

Tauranga-based Sun Media picked up and pursued Strongman’s ALRANZ-enabled story about PCS, a pro-life counselling service, receiving public funding through the community organisation grants scheme (Cogs) administered by the Department of Internal Affairs.

Sun Media reported that the minister responsible for Cogs, Poto Williams, had “gone to ground” over claims that grants to PCS broke rules forbidding money going to services or activities that promote political or religious activities. PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and takes a pro-life position.

The use of that loaded phrase “gone to ground” is interesting. It suggested Williams was either unable or unwilling to defend the grants, which in turn gave the impression there must be something shonky going on. But the explanation from Williams’ press secretary was a standard one in such circumstances: ministers quite properly don’t get involved in individual grant decisions, which are left to local committees to determine.

According to Strongman’s story, which she wrote after putting out a call for information on the Facebook page of the abortion rights activist group ALRANZ, PCS has received $335,000 of taxpayer money over 15 years.

Pro-life groups believe – and I’m certain they’re right – that the purpose of the story was to choke off public funding of PCS. Certainly the tone of the piece was hostile and set off what looked suspiciously like an orchestrated response.

Right on cue, other abortion rights activists came forward, such as Professor Liz Beddoe of the University of Auckland, who questioned why PCS should get funding when there were plenty of other organisations providing information about pregnancy. It offends these people mightily that PCS makes pregnant women aware of other choices besides termination.

As I say, the tone of Strongman’s piece was hostile. However there’s still a chance for her to salvage her damaged credibility and reputation as an impartial journalist. All she needs to do is exhibit the same investigative zeal by finding out how much public money has been swallowed up by Family Planning, the government-subsidised pro-abortion agency that facilitates a large proportion of the terminations undertaken in New Zealand.

It’s dollars to donuts that the amount of public money spent on aborting babies dwarfs the sum that has gone to a small organisation committed to trying to save them. If Strongman believed in editorial balance, she would have included this information in her story. Even now it’s not too late for her to find out and tell us, in the interests of a properly informed debate. But I’m not holding my breath.