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.

Bad news for Grey Power Electricity: I think I'll stick with them

On Friday morning I got a phone call from a marketing person at Grey Power Electricity, of which I’m a customer. She was responding to my email three days earlier in which I complained that I’d wasted a day because I wasn’t advised in time that a scheduled power outage that was supposed to affect my property had been cancelled.

To recap: I’d been advised weeks earlier that the outage would take place from 9am till 3pm last Monday. As I work from home I put in time over the weekend to complete the work I would normally do on Monday. My wife and I ended up going to Palmy for the day – not because we needed or wanted to, but because it would have been pointless sitting at home with no power. But at 1.55 pm, nearly five hours after the power was supposed to be switched off, I got a call on my mobile from GPE telling me that there had been no outage after all.

My email to GPE last Tuesday morning, which I posted on this blog, asked for (a) an explanation and (b) an offer of compensation for the time wasted and inconvenience caused. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I received neither.

What I got from the GPE representative who phoned me was a chronology of events which showed that Powerco, the lines company that was supposed to be doing the job that got cancelled, didn’t notify GPE of the change until 10.21am. So as I surmised, Powerco’s incompetence was the starting point for the screwup.

However, that was compounded by GPE’s slack response. According to the timeline given to me by GPE, it was 12.30 before they started phoning affected customers. So, a two-hour delay. Why? That wasn’t clear.

All affected customers were contacted by 2pm, I was told, as if this was a satisfactory outcome. I must have been one of the very last customers to get the call. But given that it was five hours too late, why even bother?

I asked how many customers were affected, but she wasn’t sure; perhaps “a couple of hundred”. Neither could she tell me whether Powerco had explained the reason for cancelling the outage, or why it apparently sat on its hands for nearly an hour and a half before it occurred to someone that perhaps the customers should be notified.

More than once she “sincerely apologised”. She also said these things happened often – to which I responded that if that were the case, you’d expect the company to have systems set up to deal with them. She then corrected herself to say these things happened “from time to time” – but the same applies.

I asked whether GPE would consider any form of reparation, to which she replied, “Not at this stage” – which kind of implied that they might do so at a future date, which I think is about as likely as a herd of wildebeest stampeding through my backyard. It was the response I expected, since any olive branch extended to me would need to be extended to other disaffected consumers too, and GPE wouldn’t want to set a precedent.

She also noted, with what I thought was a faint tone of disapproval, that I had blogged on the subject, and subtly let it be known that she hoped I wouldn’t so again, as if this should be our little secret. 

But here I am doing exactly that, and for a very good reason. In the grand scheme of things, one day’s inconvenience is a mere bagatelle. I’m mindful that there would very likely have been other consumers far more put out than I was, such as elderly or disabled people stranded at home. However I’m writing about my wasted Monday because consumers too often feel powerless when they get dicked around in myriad small ways. They are entitled to use every tool at their disposal to expose poor service and to shame slack companies into lifting their game. Negative publicity – even if it’s just a blog post from a solitary kvetcher in the provinces – is one thing risk-averse, image-conscious corporates hate.

Of course I always have the option of shifting to another electricity retailer. But while that might give me some moral satisfaction, it would likely be a pyrrhic gesture. Grey Power Electricity is hardly likely to mourn the loss of one customer, and in any case I’m not confident that other suppliers are necessarily any better. I think the better course is to stick with GPE and make a nuisance of myself.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Activism disguised as journalism

Radio New Zealand continues to exhibit utter contempt for its obligation of impartiality.

In a story published on the RNZ website yesterday under the headline NZ's right wing turn up in force for controversial free speech case, reporter Matthew Theunissen painted a lurid picture of “notable right-wing figures” turning up at the Auckland High Court, where the Free Speech Coalition was challenging Auckland Council’s right to deny a public speaking venue to Canadians Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux.

Theunissen reported that Don Brash, “the man behind the Orewa speech”, made an appearance and Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers’ Union was listening intently in the gallery, “a few seats down from a man wearing a MAGA (Make Ardern Go Away) hat”.

He added that “old” Conservative Party leader Colin Craig (I think Theunissen meant “former”, but hey – who expects journalists to have a command of correct English?) “poked his head around the door at one point”.

There you have it, then: as sinister a collection of shadowy right-wing rogues and conspiratorial schemers as you could wish for. Theunissen seemed intent on making it sound like a clandestine meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, or perhaps a reunion of old Nazis. I'm not sure they turned out 'in force', as the headline said, which implied a room full of menacing men in brown shirts and jackboots, but let's not get too picky. 

Theunissen went on to describe one of the applicants appearing in support of the Free Speech Coalition's case as “would-be Dunedin mayor, climate change denier, Donald Trump supporter and rare books dealer Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle” (whose name Theunissen misspelt, but hey – who cares about getting names right when it’s the sneering tone that matters?).

The relevance of Moncrieff-Spittle’s views on climate change and Donald Trump wasn’t clear, but never mind; the important thing was to convey the impression that this was a court action brought by a bunch of crazy and possibly dangerous old men.

Even Jack Hodder QC, who represented the Free Speech Coalition, didn’t escape. Theunissen’s assiduous research had established that Hodder also acted for the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners in opposing aspects of the recent changes to the gun laws.

No further evidence needed, then. It was left to readers of Theunissen’s piece to conclude that the disreputable figures congregating in the Auckland High Court were racists (Brash – ref. the Orewa speech of 2004), religious cranks (Craig), champions of heartless free-market capitalism (Williams) and probably white supremacists (Moncrieff-Spittle). Oh, and possibly gun nuts too (Hodder).

The unmistakeable purpose of the article was to denigrate those involved in the Free Speech Coalition’s case and by doing so, to discredit the court action.  Never mind that the coalition’s motivation is to defend the freedom of speech that Theunissen and his colleagues – all funded, incidentally, by the taxpayer – depend on every day for their livelihood.

RNZ followed that up today with the results of an obviously laborious investigation (pun not deliberate) into Pregnancy Counselling Services, an organisation that offers support to pregnant women facing a choice between having an abortion or carrying their baby to full term.

It’s no secret that PCS is loosely affiliated with Christian churches and tries to encourage women to at least consider having a baby rather than immediately taking the abortion option, so that was hardly a “stop the presses” exclusive. RNZ reporter Susan Strongman concentrated instead on portraying PCS as dishonest in the way it promotes its services and highlighting the fact that it has received modest financial support under the government’s Community Organisations Grants Schemes (Cogs).

Trouble was, Strongman’s credibility as an impartial journalist was fatally compromised when she was sprung collaborating with pro-abortion activist group ALRANZ. As reported on this blog last month, Strongman used the ALRANZ Facebook page to seek information from women who had sought counselling from PCS “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

Strongman’s post on the ALRANZ page introduced her as a “friendly journalist” and said that “Terry [Terry Bellamak, president of ALRANZ] can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist”. Prospective sources were told “you can get my mobile number off Terry”.

It’s one thing for journalists to use contacts to go on a  fishing expedition for information, but another to align themselves so closely with one side of a divisive and contentious political debate, especially when the reporter is working for a state-funded broadcaster with an obligation of neutrality.

Certainly, pro-life groups were convinced that Strongman was out to do a hatchet job on PCS with the aim of cutting off an important source of funding. Reading Strongman’s 3400-word article does little to dispel that impression, although I can’t help wondering if it was toned down once she realised she’d been rumbled.

It includes, for example, an interview with the chair of the PCS board of trustees, but there’s no concealing the article’s partisanship. As with Theunissen’s piece on the Free Speech Coalition’s court action, it can only reinforce concerns about the increasing incidence of activism disguised as journalism, and further undermine public confidence in Radio New Zealand as an impartial source of information on matters of vital public interest.

NZ First ministers and their hats

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, September 4.)

What is it about NZ First ministers and their hats?

There’s Ron Mark, the Minister of Defence, who’s rarely seen without his trademark cowboy hat.

This might be explained by the fact that he’s a country music fan. But not being a tall man, it’s also possible he deduced a long time ago that wearing a distinctive hat ensured people noticed him.

He certainly likes to be seen. Years ago, when he was mayor of Carterton, I observed him working the crowd at a local country music festival that he helped organise.

It was almost embarrassing to watch. Mark was the MC for the day, and when he wasn’t on stage he paraded around the venue in a cringeworthy display of grandstanding. 

He got up and sang too – and to be fair, he has an okay voice, although no more than that.

I admit I’m in two minds about Mark. I used to appear with him occasionally on my brother’s radio show in Wellington, in a segment in which we discussed the events of the week.

I liked him and respected his clear thinking. It probably helped that we agreed on a lot of things. I would never doubt that he’s sincerely motivated by a desire to do the right thing for his country.

I also admired him because he came from a disadvantaged background but rose above it.  He would be the first to give his foster-parents credit for that, but it must have been due to his own efforts too.

Perhaps that background explains his determination to prove himself. He has something of the character of the bantam rooster about him – a quality that sometimes comes to the surface in parliamentary debates, where he has occasionally lost control of both his tongue and his judgment.

He makes much of his military background, of which he’s very proud, although I’ve heard mixed reports about how he was regarded by his army colleagues.(Of course that could be the tall-poppy syndrome at work.)

To give him his due again, he appears to have been an unusually effective Minister of Defence. On Mark’s watch, real progress has been made in replacing scandalously outdated Defence Force equipment.

That presumably reflects NZ First’s sway within the coalition government. The party has a degree of influence that’s unearned and undeserved, but which occasionally delivers good outcomes nonetheless.

But there’s still that troubling self-promotion shtick. At the Featherston Booktown festival earlier this year, I went to a well-attended session about Paddy Costello, the brilliant post-war New Zealand diplomat who was suspected of being a Soviet spy.

Mark was there and apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity presented by a captive full room. At question time he took the floor and talked for a good 10 minutes about the things he was doing as Minister of Defence. There was no connection whatsoever with Costello but the audience listened politely because that’s the sort of people New Zealanders are.

But back to those hats. The other NZ First minister with a penchant for headgear is, of course, Shane Jones, whose preferred styles are the fedora and the pork pie hat.

When these are worn in combination with a heavy overcoat, as they often are in Jones’ case, the visual effect is worryingly gangsterish. I’m waiting for him to complete the image by carrying a violin case, as was the habit of the notorious 1920s Chicago Mafia hitman Samuzzo Amatuna.

According to legend, Amatuna, who was an accomplished violinist, used his instrument case to conceal a tommy gun with which he would assassinate rivals. I’m not suggesting Jones is a mobster, but he does seem to take pleasure in cultivating a certain gangsterish swagger which sits uncomfortably with his propensity to play fast and loose when it comes to matters such as perceived conflicts of interest.

Jones’ other political trademark is his verbosity, with which he mesmerises journalists. He’s adept at using his loquacity to avoid giving straight answers to awkward questions and seems unable to decide whether his role model is Winston Churchill or Al Capone.

Yes, he’s a colourful, outspoken and charismatic character in a political arena where colour, charisma and risk-taking are in short supply. But are these the qualities we want from a minister charged with spraying $3 billion of public money around in the most undisciplined spending spree in New Zealand history?

The Provincial Growth Fund that Jones controls lacks contestability, transparency and accountability. It’s a recipe for political patronage, pork-barrelling and vote-buying on an unprecedented scale.

Colour and charisma are all very well, but I think most New Zealanders rate integrity as a more desirable attribute.