Friday, February 22, 2019

Nelson and its magical-sounding place names

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, February 21.)

If the recent Nelson fires hadn’t caused such massive disruption and economic pain, they would have been a public relations master-stroke.

Think about it. What other part of New Zealand is endowed with such evocative place names as Teapot Valley, Appleby and Pigeon Valley? Thanks to the fires, the world now knows of these magical-sounding locations.

And that’s just the start. People familiar with the region - as I am, having lived there for four happy years in the 1980s - could rattle off plenty of other charming Nelson place names: Orinoco, Dovedale, Foxhill, Ruby Bay and Spring Grove, for example.

Or how about Aniseed Valley, Woodstock, Dun Mountain, Brightwater, Fringe Hill, Neudorf, Golden Downs and Haulashore Island?

Tolkien himself could hardly have done better. Who wouldn’t want to check out such localities for themselves and see first-hand the qualities that inspired the early European settlers to take poetic flight?

Nelson stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian place names otherwise bequeathed to us by our stolid, unimaginative forebears. Northland, Southland and Westland speak of a colonial society that valued dull functionality over euphony. But study a map of the Nelson region, and you could swear someone flitted across the landscape in the 19th century scattering pretty names like fairy dust.

And the marvel is that many Nelson localities live up to the scenic promise of their names, as TV viewers would have appreciated during the Tasman fires as they saw journalists reporting against an idyllic backdrop of gentle, wooded hills.

It wouldn’t surprise me, then, if one incongruous consequence of the Tasman fires is an increase in tourism – because once the last embers are extinguished, New Zealanders who have never previously thought to visit Nelson might well be motivated to remedy that deficit. And so they should, because it’s a matter of shame that Nelson seems to attract more visitors from overseas than from our own country.

Those who make the trip will discover that Nelson has a slightly other-worldly quality which has long attracted people seeking an escape from the rat race. I had uncles who moved there in the post-war years for exactly that reason. 

This appeal can probably be attributed, at least in part, to Nelson’s isolation. From every direction, you have to cross physical barriers to get there. And as with Gisborne, another charming city that’s hard to reach, you don’t pass through Nelson to get anywhere else. You go there for its own sake or not at all.

All this gives it a distinctive character that was even more noticeable when I worked for what was then the Nelson Evening Mail. I likened life in Nelson then to living in a warm bath. It was comfortable, soothing and not too challenging – an impression reinforced by the benign climate.

Inevitably, all this bred a certain insularity – you might even say smugness – on the part of Nelsonians. It was possible to live in Nelson and be largely unaware that the rest of the world existed.
All provincial papers subsisted on local news, but the Evening Mail more than most. If it didn’t happen in Nelson (sporting events excepted), it didn’t happen.

Minor local issues excited far greater passion than anything on the national stage. So unworldly was Nelson that when Pizza Hut proposed to open a local outlet, there were restive stirrings from citizens fearing … well, I’m not sure what. It was just that an American-owned pizza chain was outside Nelson’s realm of experience, and therefore something to be viewed with deep suspicion.

In many ways Nelson then was still like a large country town. Despite its reputation as a haven for hippies, stoners and alternative lifestylers, at heart it was representative of the conservative New Zealand provincial rump.

It’s very different now. By comparison with the 1980s, Nelson today is cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Its population has almost doubled since the 1970s, with consequential effects on house prices, and people complain about the traffic. 

But back to those place names. In Nelson, even some of the suburbs have charming names: The Wood, The Brook, Annesbrook and Enner Glynn. And what other city has a downtown carpark called Millers Acre, which sounds like something out of A A Milne?

Even where the European settlers adopted Maori place names – such as Mahana, which means warmth – they chose ones which conveyed a sense of pleasantness and wellbeing.

The origins of some Nelson place names appear lost to history. Peter Dowling’s book Place Names of New Zealand isn’t able to explain, for example, why someone named a settlement in the Motueka Valley after a South American river. But hey, who wouldn’t want to live in a place called Orinoco?

Oh, and did I mention Rainy River, the Shaggery (it’s not what you think), Oyster Island, Teal Valley, Delaware Bay and The Glen?

On the Pope's statement about clerical sexual abuse

It's funny how humbug in Italian still sounds like humbug.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cultural appropriation is one of the means by which civilisation progresses

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and, February 20).

Complaints about cultural appropriation are a bit like earthquakes and outbursts of hysteria on social media. It’s only a matter of time before the next one comes along.

On Waitangi Day, Radio New Zealand broadcast an interview with expatriate New Zealand journalist Denise Garland, who was concerned about British breweries using Maori names and imagery to promote their beers.

New Zealand beer and hops were increasingly popular overseas and breweries naturally wanted to use New Zealand themes in their advertising, she said, but some “crossed the line between respect and offence”.

Only weeks before, controversy had arisen over an award-winning cheese called Tuteremoana Cheddar, which is produced by Fonterra subsidiary company Kapiti Cheese and takes its name from the highest point on Kapiti Island. 

Tuteremoana was also the name of a high chief who once lived on Kapiti, and Maori trademarks advisor Karaitiana Taiuru said putting his name on a food product was insulting to Tuteremoana and his descendants. In customary terms, it meant that people were eating him.

Taiuru, it turns out, has also been in touch with some of the British brewers mentioned by Garland. In all cases, it seems, the breweries were apologetic and responded by withdrawing the offending promotional material. They obviously had no wish to be disrespectful.

Similarly, although the Tuteremoana brand had been around without controversy for 10 years, Fonterra said it would review the use of Maori names in its branding and consult with iwi to make sure such use was “respectful”.

Clearly, this thing called cultural appropriation has become a minefield for image-conscious companies and their risk-averse PR advisors.  Even the mighty Disney empire buckled when complaints were made about the use of tattoos on kids’ costumes marketed to promote the movie Moana.

We can attribute this trend to the phenomenon known as identity politics, which brings with it a heightened sense of exclusive proprietorship over the symbols and traditions of specific cultures.

But as Garland acknowledged on Radio New Zealand, Maori culture is respected internationally. Attempts to mimic it appear to be driven by admiration rather than any desire to mock it. Shouldn’t that count for something?

As a country, we use Maori culture to promote our tourism industry. A Maori symbol, the koru, adorns the planes of our national airline. The haka is a ritual that precedes every All Blacks game.

This could all be seen as cultural appropriation, but no one seems to mind. At what point, then, does it become offensive? Where is the line to be drawn between what’s acceptable and what’s not?

A starting point, perhaps, is where there’s a clear intention to demean Maori culture. But even then, some wiggle room must be allowed for satire and free speech.

And here’s another thing. Guardians of Maori culture often give the impression that all things Maori are off-limits. But what’s striking about complaints of cultural appropriation in the Maori context is that they flow only one way.

Maori are free to borrow from other cultures, as they have enthusiastically done since their first contact with Europeans, yet they seem to expect their own culture to be treated as sacrosanct. Is that fair or consistent?

Maori eat food, play sports and wear clothing that were brought to New Zealand from other countries. They have become masterful exponents of reggae music, which comes from Jamaica.

Nobody objects, and neither should they, because every culture on earth has borrowed, stolen and adapted ideas from others since the dawn of time. That’s how civilisation progresses.

Virtually everything we do – the books we read, the ideas we adopt, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the language we use, the songs we sing and the religions we follow – came from somewhere else.

The Irish don’t seem too bothered, for example, that virtually the entire Western world has seized on St Patrick’s Day as an excuse for drinking, partying and indulging in over-the-top demonstrations of supposed Irishness, regardless of whether the revellers have Hibernian roots.

The idea that Maori culture must be fenced off or exempted from this rich global cross-fertilisation is wrong as well as futile, as is the notion that we can somehow raise the drawbridge and retreat into our individual cultural bunkers. 

In the case of Tuteremoana cheese, there’s an additional issue. This is the 21st century, and while cultural traditions are generally entitled to respect, there’s a point at which they should be dismissed as primitive superstition.

If the descendants of Tuteremoana want to believe they’re devouring their ancestor if they eat the cheese that bears his name, that’s fine, but they can’t expect the rest of us to go along with it. That would be like Christians insisting that everyone must believe in the virgin birth.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sir John Jeffries

(I wrote the following obituary for Sir John Jeffries for The Dominion Post, which published it yesterday. Inexplicably and inexcusably, I got the name of Sir John's father wrong. The error has been corrected in this version and in the one published on the Stuff website.)

Judge and civil servant
Born Wellington March 28 1929; died January 25 2019

John Jeffries failed School Certificate three times and went on to become a High Court judge and a knight of the realm. There’s a message of hope there for academic under-achievers.

The rector of St Patrick’s College, Wellington, wrote a reference for the young Jeffries in which he advised prospective employers not to give him any job that required study. Jeffries rejoiced in that reference for the rest of his life, his brother Bill told mourners at his funeral.

Jeffries, who died last month aged 89, was also, at various times, deputy mayor of Wellington, chairman of Air New Zealand, head of the Police Complaints Authority, chairman of the Press Council and Commissioner of Security Warrants. Knighted in 1993 for services to the law, he was still working at 83 and proclaimed himself New Zealand’s oldest public servant.

Jeffries was no dry, ascetic careerist. Genial, witty and gregarious, he loved humour, literature, sport and music. And although he became a respected Establishment figure and stalwart of the Wellington Club, he retained a keen social conscience shaped by an upbringing that was anything but privileged.

He grew up in the no-frills Wellington suburb of Lyall Bay, the second in a family of five. His mother, Mary, was a schoolteacher and his father, Frank, was a joiner who had been unemployed during the Great Depression. Both parents had experienced prejudice in their lives: Mary due to her Irish Catholic background and Frank because he had been brought up by two spinster sisters known as “the aunts”.   

According to his son Trevor, Jeffries may have had no academic qualifications when he left school but he knew his way around a pool table, the result of hours spent in a Courtenay Place billiards parlour. 

His first job, as an insurance clerk, was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis. He was nursed in Wellington Hospital by Joan Patricia Christensen, known as Pat, who had been raised in India but emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager during World War II to escape the threat of Japanese occupation. The two were married in 1951 and would adopt two children, Trevor (named after a close friend of Jeffries who died in the Tangiwai disaster) and Julia.

Jeffries’ second stab at a career was as a teacher. It wasn’t until 1959 that he acquired a law degree, at what was then Victoria University College, and was admitted to the Bar.  

Along the way he enjoyed the company of an arty, left-wing Bohemian crowd that included the bibulous poet James K Baxter. Baxter once repaid a one-pound loan from Jeffries by writing him a poem entitled To John Jeffries – In Return for the Loan of a Quid To Drink With.

Jeffries became a partner (along with Michael Hardie Boys, who would serve decades later as Governor-General) in the firm of Scott, Hardie Boys, Morrison and Jeffries. Home was a modest two-bedroom bungalow in Wilton that Jeffries renovated and extended, in the time-honoured Kiwi manner, with help from his father and brothers.

In the very earliest days of New Zealand television, his sharp mind and quick wit led to appearances on a current affairs show chaired by the brash and irreverent political scientist Austin Mitchell, later to become a British Labour MP.

Politics soon beckoned. At 33, Jeffries became the youngest-ever (at that time) Wellington city councillor. Elected on the Labour Party ticket, he would remain on the council for 12 years and serve as deputy mayor, earning the label “Mr Fixit” from the Sunday News for making progress on issues that had defeated others.

On one occasion his friend Baxter, who worked as a postie, decided to do Jeffries a favour by dumping his conservative rivals’ election pamphlets, which he was supposed to deliver, at Jeffries’ front gate. He told Jeffries he thought the “Tory propaganda” would do less harm there.

Jeffries had mayoral aspirations, but they were thwarted by the reluctance of long-serving Labour incumbent Sir Francis Kitts to step aside. He was to be frustrated again in his bid to enter national politics. When the Labour Party offered him a shot at the National-held parliamentary seat of Miramar he declined, hoping instead to contest a Labour seat in the Hutt Valley.

The party bosses ruled that out, much to his chagrin. It would fall to his brother Bill, who was younger by 16 years, to serve three terms as MP for Heretaunga in the 1980s and as a Cabinet minister in the fourth Labour government.

All the while, John Jeffries was building a reputation as one of Wellington’s leading lawyers. He practised criminal law as well as handling personal injury cases – a lucrative field in the pre-ACC era – and serving as counsel for the National Council of the Licensed Trade, the liquor industry lobby group. Socially he was upwardly mobile, moving his family to Khandallah.

In 1975, the Labour government appointed him chairman of Air New Zealand. It was a short-lived appointment, his tenure being terminated by incoming National prime minister Robert Muldoon after Jeffries and other high-profile citizens, including Sir Edmund Hillary and Anglican archbishop Paul Reeves, had signed up to the Citizens for Rowling campaign that urged voters to support Labour in the 1975 election.

Only months later, the same National government that refused to accept Jeffries as head of the national airline made him a judge of what was then the Supreme Court (now the High Court). Muldoon’s justification for this apparent change of heart – namely, that Jeffries was “a very fine lawyer and an honourable man” – didn’t allay suspicions that the purpose of the appointment was to keep him out of politics.

He remained on the Bench until 1992 and delivered several significant judgments. In one, he found against an Australian wine company that asserted the right to use the term “champagne” for its sparkling wine. Jeffries ruled that the French makers of champagne were entitled to exclusive use of the name.

In another decision of lasting consequence, he set out to clarify what had previously been an unsatisfactorily vague definition of the crucial word “welfare” in child custody cases.

A third judgment, a significant victory for Whanganui River Maori, upheld a Planning Tribunal decision that restricted state power company Electricorp’s right to extract water from the river for the Tongariro hydro scheme.

Bill Jeffries said his brother’s judgments reflected a concern for “the outsider, the people beyond the mainstream”, which he had inherited from his parents.

Retirement from the High Court in 1992 brought only the briefest respite before Jeffries accepted an appointment as Police Complaints Authority. He spent five years in that post and regretted on his departure that he had been unable to reduce the number of people dying in high-speed police pursuits – still a contentious issue more than 20 years later.

Jeffries also had to fight a misconception that he was part of the police and therefore not independent. He argued for a name change and would have felt vindicated when the authority was reconstituted as the Independent Police Conduct Authority in 2007.

Similar concerns troubled Jeffries when he became chairman of the Press Council, the industry-funded regulator of the print media. Determined to distance the council from the newspaper industry and thus rid it of the suspicion that it was partisan in its decisions, he arranged for it to move out of the building it shared with the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and employ its own staff.

He regarded it as an important part of his job to encourage newspapers to adopt more professional standards and he took a dim view of intrusions on individual privacy by journalists. But he was a committed champion of press freedom and took a noticeably more pro-active approach than some of his predecessors.

On one occasion he staunchly defended the right of journalists to keep their sources confidential - a right that had been challenged by the Privacy Commissioner. On another, he was scathingly critical of "reprehensible" suppression orders imposed by courts. Under Jeffries, the council also spoke out against a proposed criminal libel law that was seen as protecting politicians at the expense of free speech.

When he stepped down from the Press Council in 2005, then prime minister Helen Clark paid tribute to him for his clear thinking and ability to get to the heart of complex issues. Clark knew him well from having worked with him since 1999 in his other capacity as Commissioner of Security Warrants, which involved jointly determining with the prime minister whether to allow the Security Intelligence Service to intercept people’s private communications. Jeffries remained in that job until 2013.

Away from the demands of office, Jeffries enjoyed his family, golf, The Goon Show, rugby, James Joyce, cricket, The New Yorker, Circa Theatre and occasional lunches with his former fellow judges. His close friends included the late Robin Cooke, aka Baron Cooke of Thorndon, the only New Zealand judge to have sat in the House of Lords.

He shared the last years of his life with Betty Knight, his wife Pat having died in 2001. (Betty’s husband Lindsay, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, died in 2002.)

Jeffries suffered from severe osteo-arthritis but remained mentally sharp till the end. He died in the apartment he shared with Betty at Oriental Bay, “looking across the harbour at the city he loved”, in the words of his son Trevor. 

Sources: Bill Jeffries, Trevor Jeffries, Julia Jeffries, Betty Knight, Mary Major, Wikipedia.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Raymond Chan

I was terribly saddened to hear of the death on Sunday of the Wellington wine writer Raymond Chan. Raymond finally succumbed to cancer after determinedly keeping the illness at bay, with the  unflagging support of his partner Sue Davies, for many years.

Raymond won an enormous circle of friends with his cheeky humour and zest for life. It was a measure of the respect and affection he enjoyed in wine circles that in 2016, friends and associates chipped in to pay for treatment with the very expensive immunotherapy drug Keytruda.

Underneath that infectious wit, which remained irrepressible even when he was experiencing the roller-coaster ride of cancer treatment, Raymond was an extremely serious and knowledgeable wine judge and critic. He wrote about the subject with eloquence and great authority, never resorting to the pretentious excesses of winespeak.  Wine industry events won't be quite the same without him.

Joelle Thomson has written an obituary for Raymond on the Regional Wines website here.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Labour and NZ First: a shared fondness for pork-barrel politics

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, February 7.)

In a memorably pungent turn of phrase, former Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said of Maori support for Labour in the 2017 election that it was like a battered wife going back to her abuser.

Okay, she was bitter at Maori voters turning against her party. Sour grapes, her critics would have said. But you could see where she was coming from.

Labour has traditionally commanded support from Maori, dating back to its alliance with the Ratana Church in 1936.

It’s one of the stranger quirks of New Zealand politics that Ratana is still regarded as exerting powerful political influence, to the extent that even National MPs routinely make the dutiful pilgrimage to Ratana pa every January for the event that kicks off the political year.

Few commentators bother to ask why Ratana is still deemed so important when the Church commands a relatively small following. At the time of the 2013 Census (I won’t embarrass Stats NZ by asking where the 2018 results are), Ratana had just 40,000 followers.

Neither does it seem to strike people as odd that politicians pay homage to Ratana despite the general consensus that that religious belief should not intrude on political affairs. The Catholic Church would be told where to get off, and rightly so, if it suggested that political parties send representatives to Sacred Heart Cathedral every year to give an account of themselves.

Be that as it may, the Ratana connection still works for Labour. But Fox wasn’t the first Maori politician to make the point that Maori haven’t always done well under Labour governments. Mana Motuhake in 1980 was formed out of a similar sense of frustration that Labour took its Maori support for granted.

Labour created the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 but it was National in the 1990s, under Jim Bolger and Sir Douglas Graham, that drove through the first big treaty settlements.

In that same decade, Labour lost its hold on Maori voters when New Zealand First, still in its infancy, won all of the five Maori seats then in existence. Labour has been trying ever since to woo them back and finally succeeded by securing the seven Maori electorates in 2017 – although Fox, who has experienced a string of adverse events since losing her seat, obviously didn’t think it deserved to.

All of this came into sharp focus in the events leading up to Waitangi Day.

Next year is an election year, and Labour will be anxious to consolidate its Maori support. This dovetails neatly with the desire of its coalition partner, NZ First, to build its reputation as the saviour of the regions and to atone for its acquiescence in government policies – notably the signing of the highly unpopular United Nations Compact on Global Migration – that are seen as a betrayal of its supporters.

Jacinda Ardern has pronounced 2019 the Year of Delivery, which suggests she realises that at some stage the public will expect the government to translate last year’s plethora of reports and working groups – presumably set up to buy time while the coalition parties adjusted to the shock of finding themselves in power – into action.

Over the past few days, a few clues have appeared as to how that will be done. In the best Labour tradition, it will involve spraying a great deal of money around – a lot of it in Northland, and targeted either expressly or by implication at Maori.

Last Sunday, flanked by Winston Peters and Shane Jones, Ardern announced a $100 million fund to help Maori landowners develop unproductive land. She followed that on Monday with details of an $82 million regional employment scheme. Both will be paid for out of Jones’ $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, which with every passing day looks increasingly like the Peters and Jones re-election campaign chest.

Americans call this pork-barrel politics: the funding of local projects in the hope that voters will reward their benefactors at election time.

Pork-barrelling is a traditional Labour weakness, but Peters – perhaps taking his cue from Robert Muldoon, a socialist in National disguise and the man Peters appears to have modelled himself on – is favourably disposed to it too.

The announcements will have played well in the regions and to Maori, especially in Northland, where Peters and Jones have their roots. And Jones, in his blustering champion-of-the-people mode, will advance grandiloquent arguments about having to make up for nine years of National Party indifference.

Not since David Lange has a New Zealand politician been able to weave such meandering, elliptical sentences, presumably in the hope of leaving his interrogators cross-eyed. Just don’t ask Jones any inconvenient questions about accountability and transparency – or if you do, don’t expect a straight answer.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Random thoughts on Waitangi Day

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on February 6.)

■ The British were relatively humane, enlightened colonisers, certainly by comparison with other colonial powers such as Belgium, Spain, Portugal and France. New Zealand was colonised not by force of arms but by agreement with the established inhabitants. In that respect we are rare, if not unique.

■ As far as we can tell, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with honourable intentions and genuine respect for Maori. It was only later that settler greed for land and general Pakeha villainy caused things to turn dirty. But it should be acknowledged that some Maori tribes were dispossessed of their lands by their own chiefs.

■ Colonisation had a devastating effect on Maori health and society and is increasingly blamed for problems which dog Maori today, such as educational under-achievement, unemployment and high imprisonment rates. But colonisation brought benefits too. Pre-European Maori life was hardly idyllic. Tribal warfare was a constant threat and slavery, violent death and cannibalism were endemic.

■ The Treaty can be seen in hindsight as a hopelessly insubstantial document on which to base the governance of a complex 21st century country. Hastily written and even more hastily translated, the Treaty has strained to breaking point under the enormous weight placed on it. It doesn’t help that there were two versions, leaving the courts to come up with sometimes fanciful imaginings of what the signatories intended.

■ Unlike Australia, whose first white settlers were convicts, New Zealand was settled by people who came here of their own free will, looking for something better. This was probably just as true of the original Polynesian arrivals as it was of the Europeans who followed. My own family stories are typical: my father’s forebears left Denmark to get away from Prussian invaders and my mother’s left Ireland to escape poverty and repression. My wife’s parents were victims of Nazism who were rendered stateless by World War II and remained so until New Zealand accepted them in 1965.

■ As the debate over immigration threatens to become more rancorous, we need to remind ourselves that we were all - Maori included - once immigrants who were able to take advantage of what this country offered. Most New Zealanders probably welcome the more vibrant society that has resulted from increased immigration and cultural diversity, but it has the potential to become problematical if not handled carefully. The real issue is how to manage immigration without destabilising society and facilitating divisive demands for special treatment of select ethnic and religious groups.

■ We still don’t know nearly enough about our incredibly rich and colourful history. In fact we have two rich histories, one of which – pre-European Maori history – is overlooked altogether because Maori had no written language with which to record it. It survives only in oral story-telling.

■ Taika Waititi was justified last year in ticking Pakeha New Zealanders off for not bothering to pronounce Maori names properly. But does that make us a racist country, as he suggested? I don’t think so. The “racist” tag is greatly overplayed and too often used to close down legitimate discussion. There is racism in New Zealand, undoubtedly, but you can’t condemn a country as racist just because people persist with the pronunciations they’ve grown up with. “Racism” to me implies a belief that some races are intrinsically superior to others and that discriminatory treatment is therefore justified. I can’t see how lazy pronunciation, which is usually the product of a lifelong habit rather than any desire to demean or belittle Maori, crosses those thresholds.

■ New Zealand is a pragmatic, practical country that prefers to do what works rather than allow itself to be captured by ideology. Extremist causes almost never gain mainstream political traction. We thus tend to be spared the ugly and intolerant extremes of Left and Right that characterise politics in some other countries.

■ We’re also a small, intimate society with two degrees of separation, which means we can’t help bumping into each other in the street, the supermarket and airport lounges. It’s harder to hate people when you have to deal with them face-to-face as human beings. How many countries could put together a parliamentary rugby team with players from opposing parties, such as the one that’s playing against former rugby greats in a curtain-raiser to a pre-season Blues-Hurricanes match this weekend?

■ And finally, we have much to celebrate. We live in one of the world’s most civilised liberal democracies. Global surveys consistently rank us among the top 10 countries in the world on measurements such as freedom, human rights, quality of life, education, health and tolerance of difference. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing lots of things right. Happy Waitangi Day.