Friday, August 23, 2019

Some more thoughts on Ihumatao

I’ll say this much for Pania Newton, the leader of the Ihumatao occupation: she’s got nerve.

I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. Perhaps chutzpah, that wonderful Hebrew word meaning brazen audacity or cheek, would be a more appropriate term.

Newton effectively demanded that prime minister Jacinda Ardern drop everything and rush to Mangere to pay homage to her. When Ardern politely declined, an obviously sniffy Newton arranged a protest march on Ardern’s electorate office, just to let her know her priorities were all wrong.

Well, here’s the news: the prime minister of New Zealand is not answerable to Newton or her followers.

Clearly, all the media adulation of the past few weeks had gone to Princess Pania’s imperious head. How dare the prime minister ignore her?

But on this occasion, Ardern was right – right not to go to Ihumatao, and right not to be at her Mt Albert office to meet the protest marchers. She had other commitments to fulfil and was entitled to put them first.

The same was true when she went to Tokelau last month and was unfairly chided by Simon Bridges for being a part-time prime minister. What was Bridges suggesting: that she cancel a long-scheduled visit to a New Zealand dependency – the first by a prime minister in 15 years – just to humour some protesters? That struck me as a very peculiar call for a National Party leader to make, and one that raised questions – not for the first time – about Bridges’ judgment.

As for Newton, she needed to be put in her place. It would have done her no harm to have her massive sense of entitlement punctured.

Besides, Ardern had already made one mistake by arbitrarily announcing a halt to the Ihumatao development when she had no right to. Either she’s had second thoughts or her advisers have convinced her that the government should stay well clear of what is essentially an intra-tribal dispute.

Her public position now is that there’s a reconciliation process underway involving the Tainui iwi and it should be allowed to take its course: Maori negotiating with Maori.

Much as it would suit Newton for the government to intervene on her side, it would be utterly wrong – and a dangerous precedent – for the state to interfere with a deal lawfully done between the developers, Fletchers, and tribal elders. To use a rugby analogy, it would be screwing the scrum.

It spoke volumes that when Ihumatao protest supporters marched on Parliament last month demanding government intervention, Maori MPs acquainted with the history of the dispute stayed away, quietly insisting that it was a matter for the mana whenua – the people with ancestral rights over the land – to sort out themselves.

Sadly but predictably, Green MPs have not been so circumspect. Ihumatao in many respects is the perfect Green Party cause – one where overwrought, undergraduate idealism and overheated rhetoric prevails over considered assessment. So it was no surprise that Marama Davidson, Golriz Ghahraman, Jan Logie and Chloe Swarbrick made sure they were seen virtuously displaying their solidarity with the supposed victims of colonial oppression.

Now I see normally sensible commentators tut-tutting over Ardern’s hands-off approach. Peter Dunne has written an emotional piece for Newsroom in which he presents Ihumatao as the newest addition to a growing list of issues on which the Labour Party has betrayed its supporters’ expectations and crushed their hopes.

Simon Wilson in the New Zealand Herald goes much further, suggesting that this is a defining test of Ardern’s leadership. In an apparent rush of blood to the head he labels Ihumatao as “a disaster” and a “cultural crisis”.

No it’s not, Simon. Get a grip.

He even draws a parallel with the Christchurch mosque massacres, implying that Ardern has the same moral responsibility to front-foot the issue as when 51 people were murdered by a terrorist. But a child can see there’s no equivalence. No one has died at Ihumatao, no one’s life is even threatened, and in fact there’s no reason to suppose that the dispute won’t eventually be satisfactorily resolved.

But that requires people to calm down, take a deep breath and stop indulging in breathless hyperbole (in Wilson’s case) and emotional blackmail (in Newton’s). Then we might get somewhere.

The view from the Airport Flyer

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 22.)

I recently did something every rah-rah cheerleader for Wellington should do.

I took the Airport Flyer bus from the airport to the railway station. It’s a trip that presents a very different picture of the city from the one promoted by the booster brigade for the world’s “coolest capital”.

The problem is not the bus service, as suggested recently by a local politician, doubtless with his eyes on the forthcoming council elections. It’s the city itself.

For many visitors, the Airport Flyer provides the first experience of Wellington, and it’s not an inspiring one. It may be heresy to say this, but Wellington as seen from the airport bus is grotty.

Note that I say grotty, not gritty; gritty can be cool, but grotty never is. 

The capital has a magnificent front entrance, but the Airport Flyer approaches the city via its scruffy back yard.

Before going any further, I should stress that I’ve spent much of my working life in and around Wellington, and there’s a lot about the city that I love. I’ve proudly shown overseas visitors its better parts.

There remains some truth in the slogan that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, but the rarely mentioned qualification to that statement is that the truly good days come rarely. The reason Wellington celebrates them so extravagantly is that its climate is essentially hostile to human existence. 

Much of the time the city is bleak and windblown, as it was on the day of my Airport Flyer ride. This served only to accentuate the inconvenient truth that large parts of Wellington look drab, desolate and neglected.

Our trip begins in Rongotai. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how the presence of Sir Peter Jackson’s film-making empire has lifted the eastern suburbs, but there’s bugger-all evidence of it in Rongotai and Kilbirnie.

Mostly the flat eastern suburbs remain what they always were: areas of mean, low-cost, early 20th century houses jammed too close together and apparently owned by landlords too stingy to do maintenance or buy paint. Many have been butchered by cheap and ill-conceived alterations.

The tone lifts as the bus proceeds through Hataitai, one of my favourite Wellington suburbs, and the quaint Mt Vic bus tunnel is a treasure. But then you’re through to the other side, and it’s almost Kilbirnie all over again.

Mt Victoria is supposedly one of Wellington’s most desirable locations, but you wouldn’t guess it from Pirie St. It’s a clutter of ill-matching properties, many of them tired, rundown and of little aesthetic or architectural merit. San Francisco it ain’t.

Cambridge and Kent terraces are an eyesore – a jumble of cheap, gimcrack commercial buildings cobbled together by opportunist investors and developers with no concern other than making a buck.

Courtenay Place? It looks even more squalid by day than by night, when at least the darkness blurs the tattiness. Manners Street is little better.

It was about this point on my journey that I noticed something else. The few people on the streets appeared to have purchased their clothing from op-shops and generally looked demoralised and defeated.

A stranger would have concluded that this was the poor side of a town that had seen better days – an antipodean Detroit, perhaps – and that the sad-looking pedestrians shuffling along the footpaths were making their way to the nearest soup kitchen. 

The overall impression created by both the people and the shabby streetscapes was one of impoverishment. But this was downtown Wellington – "Absolutely Positively Wellington", the dynamic capital of one of the world’s most affluent economies.  How could this be?

Earlier that morning I had flown in from Europe where, for all its supposed problems and stresses, city streets were teeming with life and exuded energy and positivity, and where dazzling architecture turned my head around every corner. The contrast was striking – and slightly unsettling.

I know other people who have noted the same thing about Wellington but are afraid to state it for fear of being howled down. 

It’s only when the Airport Flyer gets to Willis Street and Lambton Quay that the traveller gets any impression of a vibrant and prosperous city. That’s assuming they haven’t already been so disconcerted by what they’ve seen that they’ve pressed the “stop” buzzer and taken a cab back to the airport so they can catch the next plane out again.

Admittedly there’s not a lot that can be done to fix this, short of re-routing the Airport Flyer around the bays, which would obviously be impractical. But let’s at least abandon the smug pretence that Wellington is a glorious gem that instantly bewitches every newcomer.

Yes, bits of it are charming, but much of the city looks tired and unloved to the point of appearing almost derelict. If you don't believe me, take a trip on the Airport Flyer and try to look around with an objective eye.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Britain under Boris

(A slightly shorter version of this column was published in the Manawatu Standard and other papers on August 21.)

These are extraordinary times in British politics. Under its flamboyant new prime minister, Boris Johnson, Britain is more polarised than at any time since Margaret Thatcher.

A crucial difference is that Thatcher split the country along traditional party lines. She was despised with visceral intensity by the Left but revered by her own Conservative Party, whose fortunes she revived after a spell in the doldrums under the colourless Edward Heath.

Electoral success is ultimately what counts to the British Conservatives, as is the case with our own National Party, and the Tories can normally be relied on to unite behind a winner.

In Thatcher's case, the resistance within her own party came from a relatively small group of disaffected “wets” – most notably her former minister Michael Heseltine – who disliked her swingeing free-market economic reforms.

Johnson, on the other hand, has fractured the Conservatives to the extent that some former Tory ministers are exploring ways of helping Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to form an “alternative” government.

In normal circumstances this would be unthinkable, but these are not normal times.

The issue that has created this deep political rupture is, of course, Britain’s membership of the European Union. Johnson has staked his future on successfully leading Britain out of the EU in line with the 2016 referendum that resulted in a 52-48 vote in favour of leaving.

It’s a giant step into the unknown – too risky by far for the so-called Remainers in the Conservative Party, who are determined to thwart Johnson even if means installing Corbyn, an unreconstructed, old-school socialist, in No 10 Downing St.

So what are we to make of the politician whose tousle-haired blond head has become the lightning rod at the centre of this storm?

Johnson’s defenders say he has been unfairly and inaccurately caricatured, and they appear to have a point.

He has been portrayed as a British Donald Trump, with all that implies. He is commonly depicted as a buffoon, an oaf and a dilettante. But he graduated from Oxford with a second-class honours degree and had a successful career in journalism, including six years as editor of The Spectator, before moving into politics.

His best work as a journalist was incisive and informed. It showed a level of intellectual sophistication and wit that would be far beyond Trump.

Johnson has also been described as the archetypal old Etonian toff – a cross between Bertie Wooster and the classic boarding-school bounder so beloved of English fiction writers dating back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

It’s certainly true that he had a privileged and uniquely English upper middle-class upbringing, but he combines that background with a sharp intellect and a common touch that was evident in his eight years as Mayor of London. That’s a rare political skill set.

More unfairly, Johnson has been disparaged as being anti-immigration and opposed to cultural diversity. This ignores the inconvenient fact that he appointed a cabinet which includes more ministers from ethnic minorities than any in British history.

Other criticisms – for example, that he’s a serial philanderer and politically accident-prone – are much harder to counter.

Inevitably, his political ascendancy brought his turbulent personal life back into sharp focus. That was apparent in June when The Guardian, standard-bearer for the British Left, reported that the police were called after neighbours overheard an angry shouting match between Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds.

Not content with dialling 999, the couple next door to Symonds’ flat in Camberwell thoughtfully recorded the row and supplied the tape to the paper, which splashed it across the front page. 

The neighbours told The Guardian they recorded the “screaming, shouting and banging” because they were concerned for Symonds’ safety.

Of course they were. No doubt that’s why they took the tape to the paper.

Disappointingly for both the neighbours and The Guardian, the police, who sent three vehicles to Symonds’ address, said there were no offences or concerns apparent and no cause for police action.

Johnson and Symonds subsequently had to leave the flat because of protesters in the street outside. No doubt they were concerned for Symonds’ safety too.

The neighbours, incidentally, were subsequently identified as Eve Leigh and Tom Penn, who sound like a pair of classic chardonnay socialists: she an American “experimental playwright”, he a “theatre maker” – whatever that is – and composer.  The arts sector is overwhelmingly, you might say hysterically, anti-Johnson and anti-Brexit.

The flat occupied by Leigh and Penn is reportedly valued at £750,000 so they’re obviously not short of a bob. Both work in the arts sector, which is heavily dependent on state subsidies, so they can be assumed to have their hands deep in the taxpayers’ pocket. Not your working-class battlers, then.

Penn said he called The Guardian because he felt it was a matter of important public interest. Yeah, right.

He claimed he was not political but admitted he was a Remainer, while Leigh had proudly tweeted on a previous occasion that she had given Johnson the finger. So we’re obviously talking about people with a high level of emotional maturity as well as impeccable moral principle.

Sanctimonious justifications aside, the Guardian’s story looked like a bit of journalistic mischief from a paper that vehemently opposes Brexit. But it was an example of the type of scrutiny Johnson is subjected to.

Interestingly, the clash of opinions over him has been fiercest among those who know him personally. It has been played out in recent months in the columns of the magazine he once edited, The Spectator.

It started with a savage attack on him by Sir Max Hastings, a former editor of the conservative Daily Telegraph, who was once Johnson’s boss.

Hastings, who once vowed to flee to Buenos Aires if Johnson was given the keys to No 10, marvelled that the Conservatives could consider delivering power into the hands of a man no one could trust with their wallet, handbag or spouse. 

He wrote that Johnson’s air of geniality concealed an egomania that precluded concern for the interests of any human being other than himself. In an even more damning article in The Guardian, Hastings accused him of cowardice, moral bankruptcy and contempt for the truth.

Those attacks triggered a withering response from Sir Conrad Black, the former owner of both The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, who has lately made a comeback in public life after a period in disgrace for alleged embezzlement.

Black, who knows both men well, declared Johnson to be more trustworthy and reliable than Hastings, whom he labelled an ill-tempered snob.

It was an extraordinarily bitter exchange between two prominent establishment figures, and an indication of the depth of feeling over the new prime minister – and Brexit.

Clearly, Britain is in for a wild ride.  The world will be watching to see whether Johnson crashes and burns, taking his country down with him, or successfully delivers on his promise to restore British autonomy.

I know which outcome I'd prefer, but I wouldn't put money on it even if I had any.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Warsaw: a reminder that the main victims of war are civilians

There are aspects of the Second World War that receive scant attention in the West. We know about Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor and D-Day, but far less about the Battle of Stalingrad or the Sino-Japanese War, simply because Western countries weren’t directly involved. Yet the Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest conflict in history, while the Japanese occupation of China resulted in the deaths of between 10 and 25 million Chinese.

It’s very easy to forget, too, that the main victims of the war were civilians. Civilian deaths totalled an estimated 50-55 million – more than twice the number of military dead. China and the Soviet Union accounted for roughly half of that total.

That civilians paid by far the highest price – either directly, due to military activity and deliberate extermination, or through war-related famine and disease – was brought home to me on my recent visit to Poland. Between 5 and 6 million Poles died during the war, of whom an estimated 3 million were Jewish. That’s roughly 20 per cent of Poland’s population – a higher ratio of civilian dead than even the Soviet Union, and more than twice that of Germany.

Walk around Warsaw and you can’t fail to be aware of the enormous price Poland paid for events over which it had no control. In an article I wrote for this week’s issue of The Listener, marking the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, I mention that there are at least 160 memorial plaques dotted around the Polish capital, each signifying a place where civilians were the victims of Nazi atrocities.

I now realise that my wife’s parents, who were forcibly removed from Warsaw in the reprisals that followed the Uprising and were transported to Germany to work in a labour camp, were among the lucky ones. As my Listener story points out, 10,000 civilians were killed in the Ochota district where my parents-in-law lived. In another part of the city, the Wola district, 40,000 died in acts of unimaginable savagery.

As a point of comparison, New Zealand lost 12,000 people in the same war, nearly all of them combatants. That equated to 0.72 percent of the population. Yet proportionately, our military losses were the highest of any Commonwealth country and caused immense grief. On Anzac Day, we quite rightly mourn and honour the New Zealanders who died far away in a terrible conflict for which they were blameless. But I wonder whether our commemorations should also include acknowledgment of the many millions of civilians – Polish, Russian, Chinese and, yes, German and Japanese too – who bore by far the harshest cost of the conflict.

Friday, August 16, 2019

My one-millionth page view

This blog achieved a milestone of sorts yesterday when it clocked up its one millionth page view.

It’s taken a while to get there: the blog was launched in May 2008.

For a long time my readership averaged between 200-300 page views daily, but lately it’s been up around the 500 mark.

On a good day it can get as high as 2000. This usually happens when there’s a link to this blog from a much more popular site such as Kiwiblog or, until its recent demise, Whale Oil.

Who are my readers? I’m not really sure. Most commenters choose to remain anonymous, which is fine with me unless they’re engaging in a personal attack, in which case I want to know who my accusers are.

Speaking of which, I’m very grateful to the people who comment regularly – you know who you are – and take some pride in the fact that the comments, while often trenchant, are always intelligently expressed and don’t descend to the levels of abuse and malice often seen elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Anyway, that’s enough self-aggrandisement. On to the next million …

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Worthy things that I could have written about, but didn't

Yesterday’s Dominion Post included a letter from Victoria University academic Dolores Janiewski, in which she took a poke at me for my recent column about the transgender mountain biker Kate Weatherly (see “When gender politics morphs into craziness”, August 9).

Janiewski, a historian who includes gender, race, class and culture among her research interests – make of that what you will – has criticised me before, as she’s entitled to do. But on this occasion she seemed offended because I didn’t write about things she thinks I should be writing about.

She questioned my use of the phrase “peak lunacy” in a column about gender issues and noted that I failed to mention the killing of Walmart shoppers in El Paso. (She may also have noted that I failed to mention Hiroshima, the Manson Family, thalidomide, rising sea levels and Catholic sex abuse. Just trying to be helpful here.)

Janiewski went on to imply that because I didn’t write about the El Paso shootings, I must think transgender mountain bikers are every bit as mad and dangerous as white nationalists with guns. I believe this is called a non sequitur – or if you want to be fancy, a deductive fallacy.

Yes, lots of things – hundreds of things, maybe even thousands – happen in the world on any given day that are far crazier than a transgender mountain biker who insists on being regarded as a woman. But on the day I wrote that column I happened to be interested in Weatherly. In any case, thousands upon thousands of words were written all around the world about the El Paso shooting and America’s gun laws (which is what I suspect Janiewski was getting at), and anything I said would have merely duplicated the futile pontificating of innumerable other commentators.

It’s not the first time I’ve been criticised for not writing about what other people think is important. This assumes there’s some sort of consensus about the things that really matter and anything not on the approved list should be dismissed (or perhaps even censored) as being inconsequential, or a distraction from pressing issues, or deviating from ideological orthodoxy. Underlying this, it’s not hard to sense a moralistic urge to control the public conversation.

As for that phrase “peak craziness”, of course it was hyperbole – a journalistic device used for effect. It shouldn’t need to be explained to someone with a PhD from Duke University (Janiewski’s alma mater) that I wasn’t literally suggesting Western civilisation had scaled the ultimate pinnacle of insanity. That moment has yet to come and I hope I won’t be around when it does.

Janiewski also thought she’d skewered me because I approvingly cited a University of Otago study about transgender athletes. How did this square, she wondered (I’m paraphrasing her letter here), with my previously expressed theory that all universities are complicit in a neo-Marxist plot?

In fact there’s no inconsistency at all. It’s well within the bounds of probability that any university which employs neo-Marxist crackpots will also have academics on its staff, particularly in the sciences (and I don't mean the social sciences, which are not sciences at all), who are uncontaminated by ideology and prefer objective, verifiable evidence. There may be even a few of the latter at Victoria.

Finally, in what Janiewski probably thought was another “gotcha” moment, she said I hadn’t noticed that prominent lesbian and radical feminists, including Germaine Greer, had criticised transgender politics. “Perhaps noticing such disagreements would cause du Fresne too much distress at having to abandon his claims about a unified “Left” conspiracy bent on destroying gender, biology and rationality itself,” she wrote.

Actually, no. The original draft of my column included the following:

I’m not suggesting that Weatherly is consciously part of a neo-Marxist plot to take over the world.  But I do suggest that she’s in denial when she insists she’s a woman – and what’s more, despite her protestations, that she does have an unfair advantage over her female competitors.

I am supported in the former assertion by many feminists, including the redoubtable Germaine Greer and her fellow terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), and in the latter by old-fashioned and rather inconvenient science.

I took that latter paragraph out because I was over my word limit. So, no distress at all. On this issue, if not on many others, I’m on the same side as Greer and the terfs.

What’s more, I don’t claim there’s a “unified” leftist conspiracy, since one thing we can always rely on the left to do is tear itself apart in ideological squabbles (which is pretty much what seems to be happening right now on the gender battleground) while the rest of the world gets on with things that matter.

The voice of Western millennial entitlement

I happened to hear a BBC interview with the Swedish teenage enviro-wunderkind and media darling Greta Thunberg about her forthcoming trip to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. (In case you haven’t heard, she’ll be crossing the Atlantic on a racing yacht so as to avoid leaving a carbon footprint.)

After discussing the privations of sailing on a yacht that doesn’t have a toilet (oh, the sacrifices this selfless girl is willing to make for the cause), the fawning interviewer asked what action Thunberg would be seeking at the UN.

The answer was revealing. “Our job is to demand the solutions, not provide the solutions,” Thunberg replied.

There you have it, really: the voice of privileged Western millennial entitlement. Don’t bore me with the practical realities that politicians have to grapple with. Don’t waste my time talking about the likely economic consequences of abandoning fossil fuels for unreliable renewable energy sources, or the downstream social impacts. Not my problem. Just fix it.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Another brilliant idea

Stuff reports today that Patrick Barrett, a senior lecturer in public policy and political science at Waikato University, is concerned that not enough young people vote in local government elections.

Fine. I agree that if only 33 per cent of eligible voters in Hamilton cast votes, as happened in 2016, a lot of people are missing out on an important opportunity to exercise their democratic right. Perhaps more to the point, low voter turnout can skew the result and lead to the election of a council that’s not truly representative of the community.

So what’s Barrett’s solution? He’s urging that the voting age be lowered from 18 to 16.

Brilliant. I wonder what makes him think 16-18 year-olds are any more likely to vote than all the millennials who don’t bother. I mean, really.

Friday, August 9, 2019

When gender politics morphs into craziness

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, August 8.)

History might well record that we reached peak craziness on July 20, 2019.

That was when I read a story in the sports pages about a champion New Zealand mountain biker named Kate Weatherly, who was born male but “transitioned to female” from the age of 17.

Weatherly was reported as objecting to a University of Otago study which found, surely to no one’s surprise, that transgender female athletes have an advantage over rivals who are born female.

Her own record seems to prove the point. According to the story, Weatherly went from being an “average” men’s downhill mountain biker to winning the women’s elite national championship. Some rivals – again, surely to no one’s surprise – say that’s unfair.

Weatherly resents being described as transgender and disputes the finding that she enjoys an advantage over her rivals. “I’m not a transgender,” she insists. “I am a woman who happens to be transgender. As a result I want to be able to compete with my fellow women.”

It was at this point that that I wondered whether we had reached peak lunacy. What civilisation has regarded for millennia as immutable truths are now up for redefinition in the light of personal preference. Down is up, wet is dry, night is day.

Weatherly’s perception of herself as “a woman who happens to be transgender” is a piece of semantic trickery. It plays into the fashionable ideological notion that virtually nothing is fixed and even words such as “male” and “female”, which until recently were considered to have a settled and universally understood meaning, are in fact infinitely flexible.

This in turn fits neatly with the neo-Marxist idea that sex and sexual identity are mere social constructs, imposed on people by a repressive, white, male-dominated, capitalist society, and must be overturned if people are to be truly liberated.

The underlying aim is to destroy social cohesion by magnifying minority grievances, and ultimately to subvert democracy by giving supposedly oppressed groups special rights over others.

I’m not suggesting that Weatherly is consciously part of a neo-Marxist plot. However I do suggest that she’s in denial when she insists she’s a woman - and that despite her protestations, she does have an unfair advantage over other competitors.

Weatherly may well have grown up wanting to be a girl. She may feel like a woman and think of herself as one. That’s entirely her right, and no one should stand in her way. She should be free to live as a female, as “trans” people have quietly done for decades.

But claiming to be a woman doesn’t make her one. It doesn’t eradicate that awkward XY chromosome conferred on her at birth. And it doesn’t oblige the rest of us to think of her as female.

More to the point, she can’t get away with the claim that she’s competing on a level playing field with mountain bikers who were born female.

You can see why this is a nightmarish issue for sports organisations, some of which have been intimidated into complying with the aggressive demands of transgender athletes. But the science is clear.

It was all coolly set out by one of the authors of the Otago University study, physiology professor Alison Heather, in an in-depth interview for the Stuff website.

Weatherly, who has been having hormone treatment since she was 17, says her testosterone is tested every three months and has never been above 1.4 nanomoles per litre, which is within the average range for “cis” women – those who are born female. The implication is that she enjoys no advantage from having been born male.

But as Heather points out, many of the physical advantages men have over women in sport – such as bigger and different-shaped bones, greater muscle mass, larger hearts and superior oxygen capacity – are formed in the womb and continue to develop through puberty.

In other words, they are fixed in place by the time a person is in their teenage years and can’t be undone by hormone treatment. This might explain Weatherly’s striking progression from an also-ran as a male mountain biker to podium-finisher as a female.

Of course you’re immediately branded as transphobic if you suggest that someone who transitions from male to female or vice versa can never be quite the same as someone who is “cis” gender. But transphobia implies fear and hatred, which is not what this is about.

Most New Zealanders, being a generally tolerant lot, probably accept that people should be free to assume whatever sexual identity suits them. It's only when they use their sexual identity or adopted gender to claim special treatment - or, in the case of sport, take unfair advantage over others - that it becomes an issue.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

An abortion provider has her feet held to the fire on Morning Report (yeah, right)

It’s day three of the Great New Zealand Abortion Debate, Part II (resuming after a 42-year interval), and it’s becoming increasingly plain that Morning Report – or at least Susie Ferguson – has little intention of covering the issue even-handedly.

She gave us a clue to her feelings a couple of mornings ago when she made a flippant remark about women having to pretend they were mad in order to get an abortion under existing law. No prizes for guessing what she thinks, then.

This morning Ferguson took up a claim by National MP Chris Penk that Andrew Little’s abortion bill will allow abortions up to full term, which the public would almost certainly regard as intolerable. But did we hear from Penk himself? Nope, not a word.

Ferguson would have been justified in grilling Penk about the basis for his statement, but Morning Report didn’t bother with that, perhaps because it would have given him a platform. Instead, Ferguson interviewed Helen Paterson, the chair of Abortion Providers of Aotearoa New Zealand – an impeccably impartial authority. I mean, who better to provide an unbiased assessment of the proposed law change than the people who provide abortions, whose business will be made much easier (and hence more profitable) if the bill proceeds?

First Ferguson invited Paterson to agree that Penk was guilty of misinformation. Then she gently guided her through a series of soft questions which brought forth an assurance that the proposed new law was “unlikely” to change things “significantly” for women whose pregnancies had gone beyond 20 weeks.

She didn’t bother to pin Paterson down on whether the bill might create a theoretical possibility that some babies would be aborted much later than under the present law, which was surely the crux of Penk’s concern. Instead Ferguson allowed Paterson to take refuge in a semantic discussion about the meaning of the phrase “late-term abortion”.

But it got worse. Ferguson then suggested the language being used in the abortion debate (she obviously meant by the anti-abortion lobby) resembled the rhetoric heard in the United States – thus drawing a parallel with a country where people opposed to abortion are portrayed as fanatics, religious fundamentalists and oppressors of women. Not surprisingly, Paterson agreed that the language tended to be “emotive”. 

Fearlessly, Ferguson continued with her relentless inquisition. “So the language being used is – what, unhelpful?” And astonishingly, Paterson agreed that it was. Offensive too, she added. Perhaps she was referring to the insistence by pro-lifers on using the word “babies” rather than the dehumanising “foetuses” favoured by the pro-choice movement.

Then the coup-de-grace. Was this emotive language a way of distracting people from the “bare bones” of the law change? (Translation: is the anti-abortion lobby trying to derail the bill by wittering on about the right to life?) “Absolutely”, Paterson said.

Talk about having your feet held to the fire. Somehow I can’t imagine Ferguson giving anyone from the anti-abortion lobby such a cruisy run. That is, in the unlikely event that they’d be invited on to Morning Report in the first place.

Disclosure: I am opposed to abortion on demand. However you don’t need to be pro-life to believe that a publicly owned broadcaster has an obligation to cover the abortion issue in a neutral and balanced way.

Now let's cross to Mt Eden Prison, where nothing is happening

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, August 7.)

One night last week on NewsHub Live at 6pm, or whatever TV3’s news bulletin calls itself at the moment, I watched journalist Adam Hollingworth reporting “live” from outside Mt Eden Prison with the breathtaking news that an inmate had been diagnosed with measles.

I felt sorry for Hollingworth. It was dark and probably cold and he fumbled his lines.

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, any story containing the word “measles” seems to get editors’ pulses racing. But more to the point, it was impossible to see what purpose was served by Hollingworth reporting live from a locale where nothing was happening: no flashing ambulance lights, no stricken felon strapped to a stretcher, just a sign in the gloom identifying Mt Eden. 

He could just as easily have delivered his report from a warm, familiar newsroom where, if he fluffed his lines, he could start again – an option not open to him when he was speaking live to camera. But the assumption in both main TV networks’ newsrooms seems to be that “live” reports convey a dramatic sense of immediacy, even when there’s nothing to see.

Later in the same bulletin another NewsHub reporter, Cleo Fraser, reported from the scene of an incident in the Hutt Valley in which the rogue driver of a road roller had terrorised a gathering of boy racers.

Again, why? The event she was describing – let’s call it road roller rage – had taken place nearly two days before. (And no, the story wasn’t about the roller driver being hailed as a national hero, although it would have been no surprise if he was.)

Fraser was reporting from a darkened stretch of road that could have been anywhere. She could just as easily have been standing in a service lane behind the NewsHub studio. No one would have been any the wiser and her employers would have saved some petrol money.

Now before I go any further, I should disclose something. When it comes to the television news, I’m a fundamentalist. I like my news delivered without unnecessary embellishment.

For a start, I regard the dual newsreader setup favoured by both main TV networks as pointless gimmickry, and for that reason I often opt for the no-frills Prime News read by Eric Young at 5.30pm.

Imagine that – a solo newsreader! But it’s how all our TV news used to be delivered, and it’s still the method of presentation used by most respected broadcasting organisations overseas.

Our TV bosses, however, apparently don’t think we can be trusted to tune into the nightly news bulletin, still less persevere through a full hour of it, without endless frippery to hold our attention.

And so we get ever-more-intrusive window-dressing. It’s no longer enough, for example, for the bulletin to open with a boring shot of a newsreader sitting at a desk. Instead, he or she now often stands, ever-so-carefully posed, against a wall-sized backdrop representing whatever story has been chosen – usually on the basis of its perceived emotional impact rather than importance – to lead the “news hour”.

The emphasis on “live” reports when they add nothing to the story, and are often beyond the competence of nervous reporters, is just one of many pointless elements in a news format that can best be described as selling the sizzle rather than the steak.

Add to that the silly and awkward gesticulating and flapping of hands in an attempt to dramatise whatever point the reporter is making, the increasing use of elaborate three-dimensional graphics that distract the viewer rather than enhance our understanding of whatever’s being reported, the use of “vox pops” to tell us what ordinary New Zealanders think about the complex issues of the day (as if questioning half a dozen shoppers chosen at random in a mall reveals anything of value or insight), the reporting of hysterical tweets by social media non-entities and the contrived chumminess of the interactions between newsreaders and reporters, and it all adds up to what I regard as debasement of the news.

Oh, and did I mention the tendency of some newsreaders to comment on whatever item has just been screened, apparently in the misapprehension that we might be interested in what they think?

Meanwhile, basic but essential things – such as captions identifying the people talking on screen – are commonly overlooked, leaving us scratching our heads about who they are and where they fit into the story.

In an informed democracy, news deserves to be treated seriously. It doesn’t need to be propped up by gimmickry.

To surround it with silly contrivances indicates disrespect for both the news and for the audience watching it - a sense that the news isn't capable of standing on its own merit and must be gussied up to make it more appealing. But to borrow the nightly sign-off line of the legendary American newsreader Walter Cronkite, that's the way it is.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Balanced coverage of the abortion debate? Don't hold your breath

Justice minister Andrew Little has announced details of the abortion bill to go before Parliament, and already it’s abundantly clear that we shouldn’t expect balanced media coverage.

The tone was set in an opinion piece today in which Stuff political reporter Henry Cooke wrote that the government was finally moving after years of “shameful inaction”. Politicians had put abortion in the too-hard basket ever since the “absurdity” of the current law was passed in 1977, he said.

Well, at least we now know not to expect neutral coverage of this divisive issue from Cooke. So how do things look elsewhere?

Er, not good. TV3’s 6 o’clock news last night, in an item foreshadowing today’s announcement, featured a sympathetic interview with a woman who said she was made to feel like a criminal for wanting an abortion and didn’t think there should be any statutory limits on when terminations could be carried out.

Political editor Tova O’Brien didn’t declare an explicitly partisan position but the thrust of the item was unmistakable. In a three-minute item, there was no room for anyone from the pro-life lobby.

How about state radio, then? The signs are not promising there, either. Radio New Zealand last month ran an Eyewitness programme eulogising the women who ran the Sisters Overseas Service for pregnant women wanting abortions in the 1970s.

Again, the documentary wasn’t explicitly pro-abortion, but it didn’t need to be. The women of the SOS were presented as heroines fighting for a self-evidently noble and righteous cause.

As an aside, Eyewitness recalled events of that time with such confidence and authority that listeners could have assumed the reporter/producer had personally lived through it. In fact Claire Crofton, who made the item for RNZ, is a recent arrival from Britain. She revealed in another recent programme that she’s a Brexit refugee, which possibly says something about her politics.  

Is it too much to expect that on a highly sensitive political and moral issue such as this, one that resonates deeply with New Zealanders on both sides of the debate, we might be spared propaganda made at public expense by an outsider?

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion organisation Voice for Life has accused another RNZ journalist, Susan Strongman, of collaborating with Terry Bellamak of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand in an exercise apparently aimed at discrediting pro-life pregnancy counsellors.

According to VFL, a post by Strongman on the ALRANZ Facebook page was introduced as “a request from a friendly journalist”. It said she was keen to hear from anyone who had sought pregnancy counselling “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

The post continued: “Have you ever been shown tiny fetus toys, offered baby clothes or given inaccurate information on the risks of abortion? If so, I would love to speak with you for an investigation into New Zealand’s crisis pregnancy centres.

“You can remain anonymous, and Terry can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist.”
Strongman finished by giving her Radio New Zealand email address and added “or you can get my mobile number off Terry”. How cosy.
VFL complained to Radio New Zealand, claiming the purpose was to undermine the fund-raising efforts of organisations such as Pregnancy Help and Pregnancy Counselling Services.
The reply from Stephen Smith, acting CEO and editor-in-chief of RNZ, blandly assured VFL there was no collaboration between Strongman and ALRANZ and that the story she was working on was not initiated by Bellamak’s organisation.
It went on to say: “RNZ journalists have contacts in many organisations and are committed to following a well-established editorial process to ensure that stories are fair and balanced.” Not exactly a resounding denial, then.
In the meantime, anyone wanting to satisfy themselves that Strongman’s stories on abortion are fair and balanced is unlikely to be reassured by a tweet that she posted on May 16. It concerned a story Strongman had written for RNZ about a woman whom she claimed contemplated suicide after being refused a second-trimester abortion.
Strongman then added: “This is what can happen when an abortion decision is not yours to make.” In those few words she segued from reportage to activism. On the strength of that, I wouldn’t trust her to write balanced stories about abortion.
As the abortion debate heats up, we can expect to see many more examples of advocacy journalism for the pro-abortion case. Overwhelmingly, the default position in media coverage is that the abortion laws are repressive and archaic and that reform is not only overdue but urgent.

But at times like this the public more than ever look to the media for impartial coverage. Is it too much to expect that journalists set aside their personal views and concentrate instead on giving people the information they need to properly weigh the conflicting arguments and form their own conclusions?

Pull the other one, James Shaw

Asked on Morning Report this morning whether the Greens would again be partners in a coalition with New Zealand First in 2020, Greens co-leader James Shaw replied: “Ultimately the voters get to decide what the formation of government looks like.”

Actually no, they don’t. That’s an out-and-out falsehood.

I’m sorry to keep banging on about this, but under MMP the voters have a limited role in deciding the outcome of elections.  Their involvement ceases once they cast their votes, which is only the first half of the process. 

As the last election made dramatically clear, the crucial second half is controlled by the politicians. It takes place behind closed doors and the voters have no control over the outcome. They don’t even know the terms on which the government is being formed. They might be told later, after the event, but there’s no guarantee even of that.

This is a very large  pachyderm in the political room, and refusing to acknowledge it doesn’t make it go away.

In 2017, the government formation process resulted in a gross distortion of what the voters wanted, with a party that won only 7 percent of the vote exploiting a flawed system to demand – and get – a disproportionate share of power. The voters were shafted.  

Yes, I know the old first-past-the-post arrangements were flawed too. But please, let’s abandon the fallacy that under MMP, the voters determine who will govern us. More than ever, the last general election exposed that as a Big Lie.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

On Ihumatao, child uplifts, the media and a few other things

We live in excitable times. It’s hard to recall a time when politics was more febrile and overheated.

I don’t mean in Parliament, where it’s more or less business as usual (in fact surprisingly civilised, considering the intensity of the debates raging outside), but around the fringes – in the mainstream media, and more particularly in online forums – on issues that include race, gender, sexual identity, equality, climate change, women’s rights, freedom of speech, immigration and poverty.

For this we can blame several factors, all of which are inter-connected and feed into each other.

One is the sheer multiplicity of voices clamouring to be heard, which is a direct consequence of the digital revolution. For evidence of this you need only look at the daily online summary of political news and comment compiled by Victoria University political scientist Bryce Edwards, which has grown to the point where it’s almost indigestible. New commentators and hitherto unknown online platforms seem to emerge by the day.

Some people welcome this as true democracy in action, since access to public platforms is no longer controlled by a handful of gatekeepers as in the old “legacy” media. But it’s a very raucous, divisive form of democracy, and I question whether it’s representative of society as whole, since the loudest voices tend to represent extremes of opinion. We should never make the mistake of assuming that the voices given most prominence in mainstream and online media reflect what most New Zealanders are thinking. By definition, it’s the zealots who are most motivated to promulgate their ideas.

Another factor is the polarising effect of computer algorithms that herd people into online echo chambers on both left and right, where they reinforce each other’s prejudices and are comfortably insulated against competing ideas.

In the process, the middle ground gets lost. The moderating function of the old “broad-church” mainstream media, where people were exposed to a range of opinions that could sway the open-minded, has greatly diminished.

A third potent factor is the ascendancy of identity politics and neo-Marxist ideology which magnifies minority grievances and promotes a view of society as bitterly divided between privileged classes (typically white, older and male-dominated) and disadvantaged minorities demanding redress. This corrosive, Marxist-influenced view of society as a competitive arena where interest groups are intractably at odds with each other is hardly new, but it’s only in recent years that it has become a dominant narrative in public discourse.

On top of all this, we’ve seen a profound change in the character of the mainstream media. Many journalists no longer see themselves as dispassionate chroniclers of events and disseminators of opinions held by others, but as active agents of political, social and economic change in their own right.

The professional scepticism that journalists once cultivated has largely vanished as older hands have retired or been purged. The younger journalists who have succeeded them are like blotting paper, uncritically absorbing fashionable ideological views. The more emotive the cause and the more passionate the rhetoric of its advocates, the more eagerly it’s embraced.

The explanation for this change is simple. It dates from the time several decades ago when the media industry decided that the training of journalists – previously done “on the job” – should be handed to tertiary education institutes, many of them staffed by ideologues who saw the media as part of the capitalist power structure and therefore ripe for subversion. Journalism students were encouraged to think their primary purpose was to challenge that power structure. The result – not immediate, but gradual and insidious – was the politicisation of a profession that previously took pride in neutrality and balance.

In this homogeneous environment, certain things are accepted as given. It’s assumed that anyone with a shred of intelligence or morality despises Donald Trump and his knuckle-dragging supporters. Commentators demonstrate their impeccably woke credentials by the vehemence with which they attack Trump, never pausing to think that they are preaching to the converted or that the message loses its potency with constant repetition, no matter how florid the denunciation. Meanwhile, ironically, a second Trump term looks increasingly likely as his would-be Democratic Party challengers tear each other apart.

Brexit is another touchstone of fashionable political sensibilities, being generally portrayed as the last desperate flailing of fossilised British reactionaries rather than as a legitimate attempt by a country to re-assert sovereignty over its own affairs.

Media bias is all-pervasive in print and electronic media but reaches its peak on shows like TV3’s The Project, whose smug, self-reinforcing groupthink and fondness for carefully selected, like-minded guest panellists verges on nauseating. But pockets of resistance remain, and they are mainly to be found in commercial radio.

I have no doubt that hosts such as Mike Hosking, Sean Plunket and Heather du Plessis-Allan are more in tune with mainstream public opinion than the left-leaning commentators who tend to prevail in most media outlets. Opinion polls and general elections consistently show, after all, that New Zealand generally leans to the centre-right – something a visitor from another galaxy would never guess from a sampling of media opinion.

One casualty of this bias is the old-fashioned idea that there are two sides to every story. If it looks like an injustice, it must be one. If an aggrieved party presents an emotionally compelling story, it should be accepted as true. No need to dig further.

We can see this in the overwhelmingly sympathetic media coverage of the Ihumatao occupation and Oranga Tamariki child uplifts, where the voices of those bold enough to defend the status quo have largely been crowded out.

It took quite some time for the media to acknowledge that the lawful Maori owners of the disputed land at Ihumatao were happy with their deal with Fletcher Residential and wanted the proposed housing development to proceed. That fact was conveniently obscured.

Ihumatao is not another Bastion Point or Moutoa Gardens, where the protesting occupiers wanted to reclaim land that was historically theirs but had been taken away. Many, if not most, of the protesters occupying the Ihumatao site appear to have no direct ancestral link with the land (busloads came from Northland and Taranaki) and can be seen as be usurping the rights of the Maori owners. NZ First’s Shane Jones derisively referred to them as “yoga pants” protesters and said they didn’t speak for the mana whenua. Yet it seems to have suited the media to characterise the dispute as a contest between greedy developers and dispossessed iwi, which it’s not.

The narrative has largely been dictated by the articulate and media-savvy young Maori lawyer Pania Newton, leader of the protest occupation.  You had to feel sorry for poor Te Warena Taua, spokesman for the land’s owners, who barely got a look in. No one seemed terribly interested in his protestation that Te Kawerau a Maki, the iwi authority that owns the land, supports the development, or that Fletcher had given back eight hectares and made special provision for Maori housing. These facts got in the way of a much more appealing story about racism and injustice. (That Taua happens to be Newton’s uncle demonstrates how tortuously tangled these affairs can be.)

And now, to complicate what was already a messy but essentially intra-Maori schism, Jacinda Ardern’s government – panicked by all the negative coverage and unnerved by demands that Ardern get involved – has clumsily crashed into the dispute and in doing so, has undermined the Treaty settlement process, property rights and the rule of law.

As with Ihumatao, so also for the emotive and largely one-sided media coverage of the uplifts issue. Oranga Tamariki’s practice of removing mostly Maori newborn babies from situations where their safety was considered to be at risk has been portrayed as cruel and culturally insensitive.  A protest rally at Parliament, with angry denunciations of supposedly callous, racist social workers, led the 6pm news on TV3.  

But hang on. Earlier that day on Duncan Garner’s AM Show on the same channel, Northland GP Lance O’Sullivan, a Maori and a former New Zealander of the Year, said he supported uplifts and moreover believed that Oranga Tamariki deserved more resources. He recalled being traumatised by the death of a two-year-old girl killed by her mother and insisted that children must be safe, “whatever that takes”.

“When I had this child die in Kaitaia two years ago I would have loved to have a rally,” O’Sullivan said pointedly. “I would love to have had a hui and had all the leading names of Maori come along to protest and cry out about the death of another Maori child, [but] there was no such thing.”

It was a clear rebuke of those organising the march on Parliament. But again, no prizes for guessing which opinion got maximum prime-time exposure. O’Sullivan was seen only by the relatively small breakfast audience (and then largely by accident, since he had gone on the show to talk about something else).

Winston Peters also supports Oranga Tamariki. He told a press conference that three Maori children had died since the uplifts controversy flared in May. “I don’t see many headlines about that and that’s a tragedy.”

Even Peters gets some things right. Yet the media continue to highlight emotive and misleading phrases such as “Our babies are taken” (1News) and “stolen children” (Reuters).

There was another reminder this week that child uplifts might not be altogether a bad thing. A story in the New Zealand Herald revealed that 16-month-old Malcolm Bell, who died in Starship Hospital after being admitted with suspected non-accidental injuries, was one of six children and that all his older siblings had been taken from his mother, Savanna Bell.

The story didn’t specifically mention uplifts and it wasn’t clear whether Malcolm was in the care of his mother or his wider whanau when he died. (A man has been charged with his murder.) But it did reveal that Oranga Tamariki had received calls from people who were concerned about the little boy’s welfare. The Herald also disclosed that Savanna Bell is the sister of the notorious murderer William Bell, who killed three people while robbing the Mt Wellington Panmure RSA in 2001.

Add all this together and it seems plain that Malcolm was born into a high-risk family. People say uplifts are racist, but the statistics show that Maori children are grossly over-represented in abuse statistics. Savanna Bell kept having children despite obviously being considered unfit as a mother.  In such situations, uplifts would seem to be the safest, if not the only, option. It has been shown too often that faith in the nurturing care of the whanau can be tragically misplaced.

As for those terrible abuse statistics, we’re repeatedly told that they’re a consequence of colonisation – another claim uncritically parroted by credulous journalists. There’s never a mention of the horrific endemic violence practised in pre-colonial Maoridom, or acknowledgment of the manifold benefits that colonisation brought.

Journalistic balance is what’s missing here, but balance is no longer the editorial requirement that it used to be. That was never better demonstrated than when Stuff announced last year that it would no longer give space to the views of climate-change sceptics.

Is there an over-arching ideological agenda here? That might be going too far. I don’t believe there are neo-Marxist cells in newsrooms. But it’s fair to ask whether the purpose of much alarmist journalism and overheated media comment is to induce a mood of national anxiety and shame, and thereby to soften the country up for the radical social and political change favoured by noisy activists. We can only hope the public is smart enough not to fall for it.