Wednesday, December 30, 2020

In New Zealand today

My learned and respected former colleague Gordon Campbell (blessings be upon him) writes in his Werewolf blog that “Voters gave Labour a mandate to deliver radical left-wing responses to social needs, and on the environment”. But did they?

I don’t think they did, and I suspect Jacinda Ardern doesn’t either.

Gordon’s unhappy that Labour hasn’t achieved more in the 10 weeks since the election, especially considering that it’s no longer encumbered by a socially conservative coalition partner. “Rather than barrelling along in the fast lane,” he writes, “the government has been driving ultra-carefully down the middle of the road at 40kph, with social needs banking up behind it. In 2021, Labour is really going to have to pick up the pace.”

Two things.  The first is that the 2020 election result shouldn’t be seen as voter endorsement of a radical political agenda. For one thing, New Zealanders are wary of radicalism. For another, the result reflected the unusual circumstances of the time.  The main opposition party was in abject disarray and voters were prepared to reward Ardern (as Gordon himself says) for her astute management of the Covid-19 pandemic. That doesn’t translate into a green light for the transformational change Gordon seems to want.

But more to the point, I’m sure Ardern senses that her stonking election triumph presented Labour with its best chance in a generation – possibly ever – to position itself as the natural party of government. She’s not likely to throw that away just to satisfy Labour’s far left.

Politics, after all, is ultimately about winning and holding onto power. Parties achieve little while languishing in opposition. National has always recognised that, which explains why it governed New Zealand for 47 of the past 70 years. It’s a party of pragmatists and compromisers, for which it has been rewarded by voters suspicious of fire-breathing ideologues. Left-wing zealots in the Labour Party, on the other hand, tend to frighten voters away.

With her pledge to govern for every New Zealander, Ardern signalled on election night that she wants to cement Labour in the political centre and thus pull the rug out from under National. Arguably the last Labour leader capable of doing that was Norman Kirk. I think Gordon may have to resign himself to three years of frustration.

■ Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council has described the recent unpleasantness in the Rangiora branch of Farmers as an example of hate crime. I think we should be very wary of such hyperbole.

To recap: Aya Al-Umari was sampling lipstick with her mother and speaking in Arabic when she noticed another shopper, an older white woman, observing them.

The woman said to her husband: “She shouldn’t be doing that”. When Al-Umari challenged her, the woman pretended not to hear and said to her husband, “It’s okay, it won’t be long before they leave our country.”

In the subsequent exchange, which was captured on video, the woman asked Al-Umari whether she was born and bred in New Zealand. Another shopper intervened, telling the woman she should be ashamed of herself (good on her), and a staff member subsequently escorted the female Archie Bunker off the premises.

Bigotry? Yes. Ignorance? For sure. But “hate”? That’s implying a level of malevolence that wasn’t necessarily present. Shooting law-abiding people at prayer is a hate crime; making an idiot of yourself in a department store falls far short of that threshold.

Al-Umari (who has spent most of her life in New Zealand, although that should be irrelevant, and who lost a brother in the mosque massacres) is absolutely right to say that such people need to be challenged. Otherwise, she says, “hate escalates”.

But rhetoric escalates too, and the danger in labelling such incidents as “hate crimes” is that it creates a climate of moral panic and helps prepare the ground for laws that might unreasonably restrict what we can say – which I suspect is Anjum Rahman’s intention.



Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A potent antidote to toxic wokeism

I’ve been enjoying a book that an old friend gave me for Christmas. This Is Us: New Zealanders in Our Own Words was written (or perhaps I should say compiled) by Pete Carter, whom I’d never heard of, and was inspired by the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings.

It might seem downright perverse to say I’m enjoying a book inspired by one of the darkest events in our history, but it isn’t about the shootings. Rather, it was written as a reaction to them. The title is a play on Jacinda Ardern’s famous comment in which she said of the victims, “They are us” – three words that encapsulated the ideal of a culturally diverse and inclusive New Zealand.

Carter took that as a cue to interview 200 New Zealanders about their lives. The resulting book is a resounding affirmation of the values and qualities that make this one of the world’s most tolerant, civilised and liberal (in the classical sense) societies.

This Is Us thus serves as a potent antidote not just to the poisonous ideology that motivated Brenton Tarrant, but also to the shrill, embittered disciples of wokeness – and their many supporters in the media – who condemn New Zealand as hateful, bigoted and oppressive.

Carter’s interview subjects represent a snapshot of contemporary New Zealand. The book touches almost every point on the demographic spectrum: white and coloured, young and old, urban and rural, blue-collar battlers and prosperous blue-bloods, New Zealand-born and recently arrived. There are shearers, schoolkids, checkout operators, butchers, tattooists, ski instructors, solo mums, hairdressers, artists, winemakers, hospitality workers, nurses, cops, road workers, bus drivers, ex-cons and bank managers.

Refreshingly, only two or three of the interview subjects could be described as famous. Most are unknown and all are identified only by their first names. The Usual Suspects - the wearisomely familiar people who normally dominate the public conversation - are conspicuous by their absence, and the book is all the better for it.

The interviews are short, mostly taking up only half a page and each accompanied by a photo of the interviewee. They are engagingly frank and idiosyncratic, touching on everything from jobs and careers to sport, religion, mental health, family history and relationships. All the subjects have interesting stories to tell.

This Is Us is not a whitewash. As Carter notes in his introduction, there is racism in New Zealand (undoubtedly, but it doesn’t define us). Mental illness is a problem, he says, and there are too many have-nots.

But if there’s a unifying theme running through the interviews, it’s one of positivity and optimism. Whether they were born here or arrived as immigrants, the interviewees convey a powerful feeling that New Zealand is a good place to be. I defy anyone to read it and not feel the same.

Perhaps this explains why I’ve seen very little publicity about this book, and no reviews. It’s far too much at odds with the relentlessly negative, self-flagellating message promoted by woke ideologues and pushed daily by their hand-wringing accomplices in the media.  

■ This Is Us: New Zealanders in Our Own Words is published by Exisle Publishing and is widely available for $39.99. I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Nothing could have been done - so why are we apologising?

Here are some of the things we know about Brenton Tarrant.

He was a loner. He didn’t draw support from a New Zealand cell of right-wing extremists. He was more influenced by Anders Breivik and You Tube.

He came to New Zealand because it was a place where he could fly under the radar. He didn’t move here because he saw New Zealand as having a far-right network that could help him carry out his plan. If anything, probably the reverse was true. As a country with no history of right-wing extremism, New Zealand enabled him to develop his murderous plot without attracting attention.

The only way in which we unwittingly abetted him was through sloppy administration of loose gun laws that asked him (how incredible is this?) to declare that he wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone if he owned a gun, that took his word for it when he wrote “I’m a responsible person” and “I don’t have any enemies”, and that allowed him to name a referee who apparently barely knew him. And the only clues to his aberrant behaviour – significant in hindsight, if not at the time – were gun club sessions where he practised rapid firing and changing of magazines, and the unease felt by his mother after a holiday with him (but which she evidently kept to herself).

Much of this can be gleaned from an excellent summary of the Royal Commission’s report written by Martin Van Beynen – one of the last old-school reporters to have survived at Stuff – and Sam Sherwood.

The key thing to note here is the absence of any evidence that Tarrant was inspired or encouraged by rampant racism or white supremacy in New Zealand. The report says nothing could have been done to prevent the attacks. So why are we going through continuing paroxysms of guilt and remorse? Why are we apologising? Is it to make ourselves feel better about events which couldn’t be foreseen and over which we had virtually no control? Or is it to present ourselves to the world as virtuous and to burnish our prime minister’s global image as a paragon of compassion and champion of inclusiveness?

The March 15 massacres were an awful atrocity – a merciless, cold-blooded attack on people peacefully exercising their right to practise their religion. But we have already shown our remorse. We did that in the days and weeks following the killings. The world knows we mourned the dead and stood in support of the bereaved.

We have nothing to be ashamed of, other than that the police didn’t properly vet Tarrant’s firearms licence application. That’s the only failing that cried out for an apology. It was a crucial point at which his plan could have been derailed. Yet even then, it’s questionable whether more rigorous inquiries would have given any clues to Tarrant’s sociopathic personality. And we should remember, before making the police a scapegoat for everything that went wrong, that two heroic constables risked their lives by pulling the gunman over and halting a rampage that might otherwise have taken more lives.

Was the SIS so pre-occupied with the threat of Islamic terrorism that it didn't consider the possibility of a terrorist act by a Brievik-style white vigilante extremist? Perhaps so. But intelligence agencies act on the basis of evidence, and the evidence of the past 50 years indicates overwhelmingly that we have more to fear from jihadists than from white fanatics. We should not allow that fact to negate the right of law-abiding Muslims to live peacefully among us, but it remains a fact nonetheless.

Anjun Rahman, of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, keeps saying that her organisation’s warnings of rampant Islamophobia in New Zealand went unheeded. But verbal abuse hurled at New Zealand Muslims, reprehensible as it is, doesn’t indicate a level of hatred so all-consuming that it could be predicted as leading to the slaughter of 51 innocent people. That’s a very big jump.

And we need to keep repeating the key fact that Tarrant was a stranger among us, acting alone. Regardless of anything that a minority of disaffected Muslim agitators such as Guled Mire might allege, Jacinda Ardern was right when she said this was not us. New Zealand was not responsible for this hideous event, and it’s a calumny against an entire country to imply that it was.

Why, then, do we need to signal our regret all over again by confessing to supposed failings that reflect badly on us as a country?  The obvious explanation is that it provides the government with an opportunity to advance an agenda which it knows the country would otherwise resist.

That brings us to the government’s proposals – conveniently vague at this stage – to crack down on “hate crime” and tighten the laws controlling what people are allowed to say (in public, at least).

Where is the evidence that lax hate speech laws allowed or even encouraged Tarrant to kill? There is none. To my knowledge, no one has presented any evidence to show how tighter controls over New Zealanders’ right to free speech would have prevented the March 15 atrocity. On the contrary, the Royal Commission points to You Tube, which is beyond the reach of New Zealand laws, as the most pernicious influence on the shooter.

Why, then, is the government using the massacres and the commission’s report as justification for the possible criminalisation of “hate speech”, however that might be defined? A case can certainly be made for better police recording of “hate crime”, so that we know exactly what we’re dealing with, and for religion to be added to the existing categories (race, colour, nationality and ethnicity) that are protected from discrimination under the Human Rights Act. It seems extraordinary that it was excluded in the first place.

But beyond that, the most likely explanation for the proposed tightening of laws governing freedom of expression is that it has been on the wish-list of the neo-Marxist left for a long time, and the royal commission’s report provides an excuse – albeit a wholly invalid one – to press ahead. Predictably, left-wing academics are already urging that hate speech laws should extend beyond race and religion to gender and sexual orientation. Expect fat-shaming to be criminalised next.

Where will this lead? An obvious risk is that police will be given the power to determine what people are allowed to say, as in Britain. Those who express ideologically unfashionable views may risk prosecution. That would make us a police state. It would mean the end of New Zealand as a liberal democracy.

So who might we expect to lead the political pushback? Not Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, apparently.  Judith Collins has done little more than express half-hearted misgivings about Labour’s proposals. She leads a demoralised and spineless National Party that has long forgotten what it’s supposed to stand for. This is ACT’s moment – its opportunity to assume the role that National has abandoned.

Footnote: None of the above comments should be construed as criticising the families of massacre victims who have found fault with the Royal Commission’s report. Like the Pike River families, they have been traumatised by an unimaginably tragic event and understandably want someone held accountable.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The curtain of secrecy around abortion

Ken Orr of Right to Life New Zealand, a tireless campaigner for the unborn, has revealed that as a consequence of the radically liberalised abortion law passed this year, information about abortions that was previously required to be publicly disclosed by the Abortion Supervisory Committee (which no longer exists) will now be withheld. 

The oddly named Abortion Legislation Act includes a provision requiring the Director-General of Health to “collect, collate, analyse and publish” information about abortion services, but it’s so loosely worded and non-specific as to be worthless. And the Notification of Abortion form that abortion providers are required to fill out doesn’t include crucial information about why the abortion has been performed. Presumably this is because no justification is required.

Orr points out that the disbanded ASC produced a 30-page annual report with 11 pages of statistics, but under the new regime the curtailment of life in the womb will conveniently be carried out behind a curtain of secrecy. We won’t know, for example, whether babies have been aborted because they have Down’s Syndrome, or for reasons of sex selection. (The Act states that Parliament opposes abortion for the "sole purpose" of sex selection, presumably because it offends feminists, and requires the D-G to conduct a five-yearly review to establish whether there’s any evidence of it happening. But that’s no guarantee of anything, and crucially there appears to be no public disclosure requirement.)

Neither will we know, apparently, whether abortions have been performed because of rape or incest, since abortionists aren't required to provide that information, or how many abortions are carried out at the point in the baby’s gestation when it’s capable of survival outside the womb. It’s not in the government’s interests for us to be told how many babies have been aborted alive, because even people who think abortion is a matter of a woman’s right to choose are likely to be appalled at the thought of living babies callously being left to die (and with no pain relief, because pro-abortion MPs voted against providing it). But it will happen, and we won’t know about it.

The public will thus be unable to assess the impact and consequences of the Act. The purpose can only be, as Orr says, to avoid public scrutiny and debate. The new law thus raises important issues of transparency and freedom of information. But that’s okay, because we’re told the 2020 Act, in the bloodless language of the lawmakers, is simply about “better aligning the regulation of abortion services with other health services” and presumably of no more consequence than a tooth extraction. 

Stuff's racist history

Most readers of this blog will be aware of Stuff's front-page apology to Maori on Monday for supposedly racist reporting dating back generations, and of the series of subsequent articles setting out the many ways in which the newspaper titles now owned by Stuff have supposedly perpetuated negative racist stereotypes.

This was my response in a letter published in The Dominion Post this morning:

The accusation of racism is an extremely serious slur – or would be, if the meaning of the word hadn’t been so weakened by overuse.

Racism is the belief that some races are intrinsically superior to others and that discrimination is therefore justified.

Adolf Hitler was a racist. The Ku Klux Klan is racist. So were the apartheid-era leaders of South Africa.

And now we’re told that the former editors and editorial executives of some of this country’s leading newspapers, of whom I am one, were (are?) racists too.

If the accusation of racism still meant something, it would be damning. But in the 21st century the word racist simply means anyone who doesn’t conform to the authoritarian orthodoxies of identity politics.

So I refuse to take it seriously when I’m lumped in the same category as Adolf Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, and I hope my former colleagues don’t either. But it’s saddening to see the papers we once proudly worked for confusing polemics with journalism.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

WorkSafe lets itself off the hook

 It intrigues me that WorkSafe has apparently let itself off the hook with its decision to prosecute those it holds responsible for the Whakaari-White Island tragedy.

Surely WorkSafe, as the government’s workplace safety regulator, must bear some responsibility for the accident? It must have known tourists were visiting an active volcano. I mean, it was hardly a secret. So why is it prosecuting GNS Science and Civil Defence, among others, while ignoring its own apparent culpability?

According to its website, WorkSafe’s roles include “targeting critical risks at all levels (sector and system-wide) using intelligence” (whatever that might mean) and “delivering targeted interventions to address harm drivers”.

Notwithstanding the predictably flatulent bureaucrat-speak, I would have thought that broad brief included scanning the landscape for possible risks – such as a smouldering volcanic island where boat-loads of unprotected tourists wander among sulphurous steam vents – and taking action to mitigate them.

As WorkSafe CEO Phil Parkes said yesterday, “This deeply tragic event was unexpected, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable”. Exactly. So should we assume WorkSafe regards its function as to be wise after the event rather than pro-active in promoting safety and managing risk?

Admittedly there’s a much bigger issue here. New Zealand is full of potentially hazardous tourist experiences, and there would rightly be an outcry if the government tried to shut them down or even limit access. The Tongariro Crossing (through a volcanic landscape subject to extreme weather) and the trip to Cape Kidnappers (beneath unstable cliffs) are two where the risks seem to be understated. Those just happen to be ones I’m particularly aware of because I’ve done both of them relatively recently, but of course New Zealand is full of tourist attractions where the risk is part of the appeal.

Perhaps the answer is for adventure tourism operators to be much more up-front about potential hazards so that their customers can make a properly informed decision on whether they want to take the risk. If they give fully informed consent, that must surely remove some of the onus from the operators (while obviously not removing their obligation to take sensible precautions). But I suspect that familiarity breeds contempt. If an operator has been running incident-free tours for years, as at Whakaari, you can understand them growing blasé.

Perhaps that should be part of WorkSafe’s role: monitoring risky tourism ventures to ensure that they tell their customers exactly what risks they’re taking. At that point individual choice and responsibility should kick in. But for the government agency to conveniently absolve itself of any responsibility for what happened at Whakaari seems fundamentally unfair, and a bit gutless.

Footnote: Immediately after posting this blog, I played a Morning Report interview with Nigel Hampton QC in which he seemed to express much the same view. To paraphrase my late former colleague Frank Haden, he agrees with me so we must both be right.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

And now for something completely different ...

We went out to dinner last night, my wife and I. We ordered a Misha’s pinot noir from Central Otago and it arrived on the table accompanied not by traditional stemmed wine glasses, but by two elegant tumblers.

It was a lovely, lighter style of pinot noir and it looked, smelled and tasted just fine in tumblers. They were tapered inwards at the top, so you could still swirl and sniff the wine if that’s your thing.

We have a similarly shaped set of glasses, made of an usually fine plastic material, that we use for wine when we're camping.

It set me thinking: why don’t we use glass tumblers more often? We’ve encountered them in Germany and Italy, where they’re regarded as acceptable alternatives to stemmed wine glasses. Admittedly some were a bit clunky, but that couldn’t be said of the stylish ones we drank from last night.

Then this morning, quite by chance, I happened to read a column in The Spectator by the always entertaining and thought-provoking British ad man Rory Sutherland.

According to Sutherland, the stemmed wine glass is the world’s most ludicrous object. Allow me to quote him:

“Nobody briefed to design a [wine] receptacle from scratch would say: ‘Let’s give it a high centre of gravity for maximum instability, with a base so small and a stem so long that one misjudged gesticulation will catapult the contents into the lap of someone three feet away. We’ll also make sure it doesn’t fit in the dishwasher’.”

Sutherland continued: “So why does this idiotic item persist? Because restaurants already own hundreds of the things. And most homes contain six or more. While these do break, tragically they rarely break simultaneously. And so, when you break one stemmed glass, you replace it with another to maintain the set. The whole hideous business becomes self-perpetuating.”

Most wine enthusiasts would argue there’s a reason why wine glasses were designed the way they are. They have a stem so that the temperature of the wine is unaffected by body heat from the drinker’s hand (especially relevant for white wines, which are served chilled), a wide bowl so that the wine can be swirled to release the aroma and a tapered opening which minimises the risk of spillage (especially when swirling) and which, in theory anyway, traps the aroma in the glass so that it can be better appreciated by the nose.

But these are considerations that matter only to wine nerds. Most people drink from stemmed wine glasses because custom decrees that’s what sophisticated wine consumers do.

It’s true that some wine glasses are preposterously ostentatious. We have some that were given to us years ago that are 260mm tall. I don’t think we’ve ever used them. They were designed to be smashed by over-exuberant dinner guests, of whom we’ve had a few (not all of them guests, in fact). But even with normal-sized stemmed glasses, the risk of breakage, either at the table or in the sink or dishwasher, probably outweighs any benefit to the casual consumer who drinks wine primarily for social enjoyment rather than the aesthetic experience.  

So maybe Sutherland has a point. Perhaps the traditional stemmed red wine glass, if not those for white, will go the same way as the spectacularly impractical glass known as the coupe (supposedly inspired by the Empress Josephine’s breasts), which was once the fashionable way to drink champagne.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Ferguson method

 This interview with Lady Tureiti Moxon is a classic example of Susie Ferguson’s modus operandi.

Ferguson obviously approves of her interviewee so treats her gently, obligingly prompting her with leading questions – rather like a good lawyer – knowing what the answers will be. (Example: “Is Grainne Moss’s position untenable?”)

I think we can safely assume they are answers Ferguson agrees with. They are the answers she wants. If they weren’t, you can be sure she would take a more aggressive approach.

At the end of the interview we are left with the impression that uplifts of Maori babies were primarily motivated by racist malevolence. But even allowing for the possibility that Oranga Tamariki’s practices were flawed, shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that the department’s social workers – some of whom may very well be Maori – were motivated by sincere and genuine concern for the babies’ wellbeing?

It seems to me that by not putting that possibility to Moxon, Ferguson was party to an unjust calumny.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

In New Zealand today ....

 On Morning Report, we heard again that structural racism was behind the forced uplifts of newborn Maori babies from mothers whom Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, deemed incapable of looking after them properly.

We hear a lot about structural, aka “institutional”, racism. It falls into the same category as so-called unconscious bias, which can be defined as the bias you have when you didn’t know you had a bias. (So how do you know you have it? Because woke activists tell you. They recognise it even when you can’t.)

Structural racism is an ingenious notion because it means racism no longer needs to be intentional or even conscious. We’re told it’s an intrinsic part of the power structure created by privileged Pakeha.

By this yardstick all whites are racists. We are all smeared with the taint of racism, regardless of how much goodwill we might feel toward Maori or people of other ethnicities. The purpose of this is to make us feel guilty and ashamed of the society we’ve created, and therefore more amenable to radical change. That’s what makes it such an ingenious concept.

But back to that Morning Report item, in which we heard from RNZ’s Maori news director, Mani Dunlop, that besieged Oranga Tamariki boss Grainne Moss now concedes that the “structural racism” represented by baby uplifts has had detrimental consequences for the relationship between Maori and the Crown. (Incidentally, the line between journalism and activism is now so hopelessly blurred that I’m not sure we can rely on Mani Dunlop for neutral, balanced reportage on issues concerning Maori.)

We’re told there’s an urgent need for change in the way Oranga Tamariki operates. Dunlop reminded us that Maori babies are five times more likely than non-Maori to be taken from their mothers, as if that’s conclusive evidence of structural racism.

Taken at face value, it’s certainly a damning statistic, and few people would deny that forced uplifts must be a very traumatic experience. But rather than accepting the five-to-one figure as proof of racism, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that Maori babies are disproportionately at risk of harm, and ask how that might be remedied?

Later in the programme we were told that transgender people are having trouble accessing “gender-affirming” health care. Some have to travel to other towns to obtain prescriptions for hormone treatment or see a psychologist. One such person, who identified as neither male nor female, complained that “they” (RNZ uses the gender-neutral pronoun) couldn’t get public funding for surgery to remove breast tissue and had to raise the money from family members.

Apparently it’s now the taxpayers’ responsibility to ensure that free “gender-affirming” health care is available on tap for people with every permutation of sexual or gender identity, including some that were unheard of a few years ago. They’re a tiny minority, but their needs are evidently so urgent that we must have a national strategy to deal with them. We even learned there’s an organisation called the Professional Association of Trans-Gender Health Aotearoa. (Of course there is, Karl; don’t be silly.)

Meanwhile, over on NewstalkZB, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta was trying to explain to Mike Hosking why she intends to abolish a law that allows voters to veto council proposals to create special Maori wards.

While emphasising how much she valued local democracy, Mahuta clearly didn’t think this should extend to voters exercising their right to reject the idea of race-based wards that provide Maori with a short cut to power.

All the evidence indicates that when strong Maori candidates run for councils, they have a good chance of being elected. If more Maori could be encouraged to engage in the democratic process (or as Kelvin Davis put it in 2016, “get off their arses and vote”), their prospects would be even better.

But Mahuta wants guaranteed seats for Maori, which strikes me as extraordinarily patronising. It suggests Maori can’t get elected on their own merits, when history shows otherwise. But worse than that, it amounts to differential treatment on the basis of race – surely the essence of racism.

As I wrote in a column when Northland Maori were lobbying for a greater say in local government last year, what we’re really talking about here is power through the back door. The advocates of guaranteed Maori representation want to bypass the democratic hurdles that other candidates for public office must leap over.

I pointed out in that column that in the 2016 local government elections, Porirua elected its first Maori mayor, Mike Tana, who beat a favoured Pakeha rival. Wellington acquired a Maori deputy mayor, Paul Eagle – now an MP – and a new Maori councillor who succeeded Eagle in the deputy mayoralty. Eagle, incidentally, had increased his majority in three consecutive elections.

In those same elections, South Wairarapa voters elected three Maori to their district council, Napier gained a Maori councillor and a Maori was elected to the Horizons Regional Council. All this happened without the benefit of separate Maori wards or other forms of special treatment. (I haven’t checked to see how Maori candidates did in the 2019 elections, but it doesn’t matter; the point is made.)

I also mentioned Georgina Beyer and Ron Mark, former Maori mayors of Carterton, and rugby league hero Howie Tamati, who served on the New Plymouth District Council for 15 years (and then contradictorily insisted that Maori needed their own ward). Case made, surely.

On NewstalkZB this morning, Mahuta had no convincing answer when Hosking put it to her that all Maori had to do to ensure better representation in local government was to run for office. But at least the question was put.

On Morning Report, by contrast, people promoting the identity politics agenda are rarely, if ever, challenged with awkward questions. State radio’s flagship news and current affairs show has morphed into a Woke Chronicle: a daily recitation of grievances and demands by minority groups whose special pleading is accepted without so much as a raised eyebrow.

New Zealand has to decide what type of place it wants to be: a diverse, harmonious, tolerant, multicultural country with a common interest in prosperity and freedom, or a splintered one in which multiple groups jostle for special treatment on the basis of real or imagined differences of ethnicity, sexual preference, culture, religion, gender or any one of the many other divisive “identities”. I think I know which society most New Zealanders would opt for.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Why Guled Mire irritates me

I see Guled Mire was back in the media last week, complaining again about what a racist place New Zealand is.

It’s a recurring theme from Mire, but this time he came up with a slightly different slant. Invited to speak at a forum on Wellington’s future, the Somalian refugee and Black Lives Matter activist suggested Wellington was missing out economically by not tapping into the potential of its migrant communities.

That might be a valid argument as far as it goes, if it’s true. But Mire typically took it a step further by implying that this was due to racism.

He recalled moving from Auckland to Wellington and how he “struggled for the longest time to feel that this was home”. Wellington, he said, felt like a “very white city”.

“I just would walk around and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never felt so black in my life before.” Apparently we’re supposed to accept his personal feeling of alienation as proof that Wellington is a racist city.

Mire went on to talk about the economic case for addressing racism, apparently without offering any evidence (other than feeling black in a predominantly white city) that immigrants were somehow being prevented from contributing economically.

To reinforce his point, he tweeted a picture of himself with some of the other speakers at the forum with the caption: “As always just adding some much-needed colour to the room.” Witty, or snide? You be the judge, but he doesn't strike me as the jokey type.

I’ll be honest about my feelings toward Mire. He irritates me intensely. Even more irritating is the fact that the media obligingly provide a platform for his tiresome discourses.

Mire has been a regular fixture in the news since the March 15 massacres. His comments in the aftermath of that event, when he claimed New Zealand was in denial of the racist hatred that supposedly exists here, was conspicuously at odds with the conciliatory tone struck by members of the Christchurch Muslim community.

He sounded a similarly discordant note three months ago when the mosques shooter (who, it bears repeating, was not a New Zealander and as far as we know, acted alone) was sentenced. On that occasion we saw Muslims and Pakeha police embracing outside the court. The TV news showed a member of the Muslim community kissing a New Zealand flag. We heard praise from Muslim leaders for the comments made by the New Zealand judge who put the murderer away for life, and we again saw ordinary New Zealanders placing flowers at the scenes of the killings.

But when Mire was invited onto Morning Report the day after the sentencing, he preferred (with plenty of encouragement from interviewer Susie Ferguson) to talk about the racism and white supremacy that he claimed was being swept under the carpet.

This is the country that gave Mire and his family – a mother and eight siblings, refugees from a violent, oppressive, corrupt society – a fresh start (and in his case, enabled him to go to university and win a Fulbright award). You’d think that might count for something, but all he can talk about is how racist we are. Mire is the person who’s invited to dinner and spends the evening complaining about the food and criticising the furniture.

His is not the language of acceptance and inclusiveness. It is the language of divisiveness and polarisation. Far from fostering harmony, Mire’s rhetoric emphasises and exacerbates points of difference – and the danger is that in the warped minds of the tiny, subterranean right-wing extremist fringe that very likely does exist in New Zealand, it will be taken as an invitation to crank up the race war.

I welcome cultural diversity and I welcome Muslim immigration. We are all immigrants here, Maori included, and it would be wrong if those of us who benefit from being New Zealanders were to deny that same opportunity to others – though always with the important proviso that immigration must be carefully managed so as not to destabilise the host society, as has happened with disastrous consequences in Europe.

That said, I object when, having taken advantage of the freedom and opportunity this country offers, people such as Mire use their right of free speech – a right not available in the countries they came from – to bad-mouth the place that gave them sanctuary.

I object too to the politicisation of religion. We no longer tolerate the Catholic Church exercising political influence as it once did. And when Don Brash, then leader of the National Party, held secret meetings with members of the Exclusive Brethren who wanted to promote a clandestine campaign against Labour, he was rightly excoriated.

The same rules should apply to Islam. Muslims must be free to practise their faith without discrimination or harassment, but this is still a secular society. It’s possible to deplore the despicable bigotry and racial hatred that resulted in the mosques massacres while simultaneously objecting to attempts by Muslim activists to exploit that atrocity for political leverage, as Mire and the Islamic Women’s Council seek to do.

It would be pointless to deny racism exists in New Zealand; you don’t need to be a “person of colour” (to use the fashionable phrase) to realise that. But that doesn’t make this a racist country. This is a crucial distinction that the activists and promoters of identity politics prefer to ignore.

People emigrate because they see something of worth in the country they’re moving to – typically, something not available to them in the place of their birth, such as freedom, prosperity and opportunity. This is true of virtually everyone who has settled here, right back to the Polynesian voyagers who first discovered the place.

But there’s never any acknowledgement from Mire that New Zealand has been good for him, and rarely any concession that New Zealand’s race relations are anything less than shameful. When there is, as when he briefly acknowledged the aroha that prevailed post March 15, he quickly reverts to his central theme, which is that New Zealand is a racist society.

Moreover, he gives the impression of believing the onus is on New Zealand to reshape itself to meet his particular needs rather than on him to adapt to the society that welcomed him, as immigrants worldwide have done through history.

Note his apparent indignation at Wellington being a “white” city. Well, hello; we’re dealing with the world as it is, not as Mire might prefer it to be. Wellington doesn’t exist for his personal gratification. Adjusting and adapting to a society in which you’re a minority is part of every immigrant’s experience; it’s not a symptom of repression or discrimination.

Yes, Wellington’s a predominantly white city, just as Mogadishu is black. White people would probably feel just as out of place in the Somalian capital as Mire apparently does here (and very likely a lot less safe than Mire when he strolls down Lambton Quay). If he went to Guangdong, he’d probably feel just as conspicuous there. I guess that means China’s a racist country too.

By a striking coincidence, the day after Mire made his comments at that Wellington forum, Stuff published an interview with Mohamed Hassan, an Egyptian-born poet who emigrated to New Zealand with his family when he was eight.

The article quotes Hassan as saying that while the transition from Cairo to Auckland was difficult, moving to New Zealand was the best decision his parents could have made. “We got the opportunity to grow up in this really beautiful, caring country and it’s obviously shaped everything about me.”

Later he talks of his feeling that he has a responsibility to “feed this place the same way it has fed me”. Make of that what you will.


Friday, November 20, 2020

Doris Ferry and the phonics debate

 In 1994 I wrote an article for the Evening Post (R.I.P.) about a remarkable woman named Doris Ferry. Doris, who was then 78, was a retired teacher who lived on the Kapiti Coast. All she wanted to do was devote herself to her large garden, but instead she found herself spending half of each day providing individual tutoring at home to local kids who had fallen behind at school. The reason they were failing, without exception, is that they couldn’t read. Parents came to her in desperation after word got around that Doris was succeeding where schools were failing. By the time I interviewed her, she had brought 1500 kids up to speed with their reading – kids who, in many cases, had fallen hopelessly behind at school, even after completing so-called reading recovery courses. The difference to their lives was dramatic.

I’m sure Doris’s empathetic manner and one-on-one tuition  helped, but there was no doubt in her mind that what counted most was her use of the teaching method known as intensive phonics, whereby children learn to read by recognising letters or combinations of letters and the sounds associated with them. Many readers of this blog will recognise that description, because until the 1960s it was how reading was taught in all New Zealand schools. Then, in one of those sudden theory-driven shifts in direction to which the education system seems fatally susceptible, phonics was supplanted by a method known as whole-language.  Under the whole-language approach, children are taught to recognise words by the context in which they occur.  Critics of the phonics method – and here I’m quoting from my 1994 article – say it takes a mechanical approach and inhibits understanding of words by divorcing them from their context. Advocates of phonics, on the other hand, argue that the whole-language method takes a “near enough is good enough” approach, encouraging children to guess words from their context or the illustrations accompanying them.

The results achieved by Doris, and the gratitude of the parents whose kids’ lives were transformed under her tuition, demonstrated convincingly that the phonics method often succeeded where whole-language failed. At least one academic – Tom Nicholson, now an emeritus professor of education at Massey University, and still an advocate of phonics – endorsed Doris’ approach. But what seemed both incomprehensible and reprehensible when I wrote that story was the education system’s single-minded zealotry in enforcing the whole-language approach. The teaching of phonics, which had previously been mainstream, was now deemed heretical. Official disapproval was so vehement that the parents of Doris’s pupils feared serious repercussions if their kids’ schools found out they were learning from her. Children would crouch down out of sight when their parents delivered them to Doris’s address, or make their way to her house using a neighbour’s gate further down the street. Parents spoke to me only on the strict condition that I didn’t use their names in my story.  I was exaggerating only slightly when I described Doris’s clandestine teaching activity as reminiscent of Resistance operations in Nazi-occupied France.

It had somehow been my impression in recent years that this battle was now history - that the Ministry of Education had relaxed its uncompromising opposition to phonics. But no: according to Morning Report today, some schools are raising large sums of money – hundreds of thousands of dollars in one case – to fund the teaching of phonics because the ministry still refuses to, despite clear evidence the officially approved method, which is apparently now known as “balanced literacy”, isn’t working. RNZ reporter Ruth Hill interviewed several principals whose schools had adopted phonics – sometimes against initial resistance from teachers who had to unlearn the officially approved method – and all were emphatic about the benefits, which one described as “phenomenal”. Another said it was impossible to put a price on what her pupils had gained. All sounded exasperated by the ministry’s refusal to provide funding for alternatives to “balanced literacy”, especially when the ministry throws more than $29 million a year at reading recovery programmes of dubious benefit. (Incidentally, no one from the ministry was available for an interview. Fancy that.)

These schools have learned, at considerable expense, what was obvious to Doris Ferry and the parents of her pupils 30 years ago, yet still the bureaucrats cling doggedly to their failed doctrinaire model.  We can only wonder how many New Zealand children – those not fortunate enough to attend schools that are prepared to buck the system – are being penalised as a result by being denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

In New Zealand today ....

 ■ Lots of reminders this morning that today is the 10th anniversary of the Pike River mine disaster. Morning Report devoted two lengthy items to it, including an 8-minute interview with Sonya Rockhouse and Anna Osborne, who lost a son and husband respectively when the mine exploded. Much has been heard from these bereaved women over the years, to the point where there’s little that hasn’t been said already – in fact many times. Oddly, the media seem to be less enthusiastic about interviewing another bereaved mother, Marion Curtin, whose take on Pike River is strikingly at odds with that of Rockhouse and Osborne.  Curtin has said she wants the remains of her son left undisturbed and that people shouldn’t assume the Pike River activists speak for all the bereaved. She has also been sharply critical of the public money spent on the re-entry operation, a piece of political theatre which the Taxpayers’ Union says has so far cost $50 million for negligible benefit. You can read the Taxpayers' Union statement here.  

■ The Dominion Post website had a story about a truck crash that blocked the Akatarawa Road, which connects Upper Hutt with the Kapiti Coast. The story was illustrated with a large, panoramic photo of the Paekakariki Hill Road – a different route altogether. Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? On paper, today’s journalists are the most highly qualified ever, yet they demonstrate over and over again that they know little about their country’s geography or history. On the other hand, their understanding of social justice issues such as sexism, racism and trans-gender discrimination is impeccable.

■ The Wairarapa Times-Age reported that Masterton district councillors voted 6-5 to reject an officials’ recommendation that two much-loved vintage tractors in the Queen Elizabeth Park playground be removed because they posed a safety hazard. Generations of children have played on the tractors and strangely enough, I don’t recall any reports of any being maimed or permanently disfigured. The council officials also have the playground’s popular flying fox in their cross-hairs. While they’re about it, why not demolish the park's swings? Or ban kids’ bikes because occasionally someone falls off and grazes a knee? Prediction: we have not heard the last of this. The council bureaucrats won’t let the matter rest until they’ve shown the elected councillors who’s boss.

■ BTW, two iwi representatives voted to have the tractors removed. They are not elected councillors. No one voted for them.

■ Someone complained on Twitter that food books by the Australian celebrity cook Pete Evans, who is accused of sharing a social media post that included a neo-Nazi symbol, were still available from the Warehouse, Mighty Ape (an online retailer) and Kmart.  The Warehouse, obviously eager to display its woke credentials, promptly fell into line. “Thanks for raising this with us,” it tweeted. “We are currently in the process of withdrawing [his] stock in our stores and online.” Meanwhile, Stuff entered into the spirit of the witch-hunt by approaching other retailers wanting to know whether they’ll do the same. No pressure, mind. Stuff also reported that Mighty Ape had pulled a book by New Zealand author Olivia Pearson because she criticised Jacinda Ardern’s appointment of a Foreign Affairs Minister with a moko. Stuff reported that Mighty Ape was promptly alerted to Pearson’s tweet by other users. “Hey team, I see you stock her book,” wrote one. “Could you please consider removing considering she advocates for racism in our beautiful Aotearoa?” It’s hard to know which is more disturbing: the left-wing vigilante squads constantly patrolling social media like sharks (and in this case, trying to conceal their priggish authoritarianism behind phony empathetic language), or the gutless companies that so cravenly kowtow to them.

■ Back to the Times-Age, which refers to “students” at Gladstone primary school. There used to be a general rule of thumb that primary school kids were pupils and those attending secondary school or university were students. It was a useful, if informal, distinction which now appears to have been lost. By logical extension, it means that kids at kindergarten or day care can also now be referred to as students. Perhaps “pupil” is considered demeaning and not in keeping with the inclusive spirit of the times. “Boy” and “girl” may be on the way out too, if the gender-identity activists have anything to do with it.

That was New Zealand today (or at least a little part of it).

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A striking change of editorial tone

Is Newshub protecting the government? It seems a reasonable question to ask after last night’s 6pm News.

Once again Newshub found itself with an exclusive, agenda-setting story from its investigative reporter Michael Morrah, who has been ahead of the pack throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Morrah interviewed leading epidemiologist Professor David Skeggs, who was scathing – albeit in a politely restrained way – about repeated failures to intercept infected persons at the border.

This followed the announcement that a worker at the Sudima Hotel in Christchurch, where Russian and Ukrainian fishing boat crews are quarantined, had tested positive for the virus. This in turn led to concerns about a nearby Countdown supermarket, which the infected hotel worker had visited, and a close contact of the infected person who attended Cashmere High School.

Skeggs told Morrah that repeated failures at the border (there have been six in three months, starting with the Americold scare in August) posed the risk that New Zealand might have to go back into lockdown. He was particularly critical of people sharing rooms in quarantine hotels, which he said contravened basic isolation principles. "How many wake-up calls do we need?" Skeggs asked. "Soon our luck will run out."

Skeggs largely echoed what one of his University of Otago colleagues, public health expert Professor Nick Wilson, had told Morning Report yesterday morning. Wilson said the pattern of border failures showed the system wasn’t working properly. He urged a whole-of-system review and specifically called for pre-flight testing (why not, for heaven’s sake?) and a ban on people arriving in New Zealand from countries where the pandemic is out of control.

All this was decidedly at odds with soothing assurances from the prime minister and Ashley Bloomfield that the system is working exactly as intended, yet it was these bland assurances that led the 6pm bulletin on Three. In striking contrast with Newshub’s usual approach of leading the bulletin with its most arresting item, typically dressed up in florid, alarmist rhetoric, it served up Jacinda Ardern and Bloomfield saying officials were on top of things (“No horse has bolted,” in Bloomfield’s words) and nothing was happening that hadn’t been anticipated.

Morrah’s item squarely contradicting this anodyne message was deemed of less significance and ran second in the bulletin. Okay, it still ran; but its placement struck me as inconsistent with the aggressive, go-for-the-jugular ethos that Newshub normally favours, and which it used mercilessly to derail Judith Collins and the National Party during the election campaign.

Now that the election is over and National has crawled off to a cave to lick its wounds (job done, Newshub), I would have expected normal service to resume. That would mean fiercely and rigorously holding the government to account.  But someone at Newshub apparently made the decision last night that soft and reassuring trumps edgy and alarming, and I can’t help wondering about the sudden change of editorial tone. Just saying.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

An alternative narrative

Derek Daniell is a Wairarapa farmer who runs the internationally respected Wairere Romney stud. He is also a tireless and articulate advocate for pastoral farming, a sector that’s under sustained political attack at a time when the New Zealand economy has never been more reliant on it. I’m posting this link to Derek’s latest commentary because it’s important that people realise there is a counter-narrative to the one promoted by the mainstream media.

A golden opportunity missed

So Tova O’Brien sat down with Jami-Lee Ross for a Newshub Nation interview that has reportedly “gone viral”. This was a golden opportunity missed: the two most unpleasant people in New Zealand politics confined together in a Newshub studio. Couldn’t someone have quietly locked the door and tip-toed away?

Monday, October 19, 2020

At least there's no argument about who won the right to govern

Tell you what (as Judith Collins likes to say): there’s at least one thing I welcome about the election result. It’s that there can be no doubt about its legitimacy, and hence about Labour’s right to govern.

It was a clean win, an emphatic win. Even if it wasn’t the result many of us wanted, we were left in no doubt about who were the winners and who were the losers.

More specifically, I welcome the result because we’re likely to be spared the grubby, opaque post-election manoeuvring that has tarnished so many elections since New Zealand adopted the MMP system in 1996.

I’ve always maintained that we replaced one imperfect electoral system with another that was even more deeply flawed. The most egregious of MMP’s many defects is that once the citizens have cast their votes, they relinquish all control over what happens. The politicians disappear behind closed doors and indulge in horse-trading that we can neither see nor influence.

All bets are off. Never  mind what the parties campaigned on or what promises were made; pretty much everything is on the table in these coalition talks, and what emerges is rarely what people voted for.

The great irony is that we were sold MMP on the basis that it made politicians more accountable, when the exact reverse is the case. It’s the very antithesis of transparency.

We saw it at its worst in 2017, when Winston Peters leveraged his party’s puny 7 percent share of the vote into the assumed right to dictate the arrangements under which we were to be governed for the following three years – the apparent starting point being Peters’ insistence on his own appointment as deputy prime minister, for which there was no skerrick of a mandate.

All of which was bad enough. But what made things even worse – infinitely worse – in that instance was the realisation, after the event, that the coalition talks were an elaborate charade. Those participating assumed National and Labour were negotiating for Peters’ favour in good faith from positions of equal strength (as did the hapless voters trying to peer through the impenetrable smokescreen). It was only later that we learned Peters had quietly instigated legal action against senior National cabinet ministers over the supposed leaking of his superannuation over-payments, and was thus no more likely to enter a coalition with National than to announce that he was renouncing politics and entering a Trappist monastery.

Peters’ deception meant he was able to extract commitments from Labour that they might not have made had they realised he was bound to do a deal with them anyway. So we ended up with a Labour-led government that was established in shonky circumstances and whose legitimacy remained tainted throughout its term.

No one can say the same about the Ardern government Mk II. It commences its triennium free of any doubt about its right to govern.  

That leads me to the other thing I welcome about the election result. Mr Seven Percent became Mr 2.7 Percent on Saturday night, and so was consigned to richly deserved political oblivion. Thus a man who has been a mostly malignant, vindictive presence in New Zealand politics for more than four decades has been banished at long last. I couldn’t help but think of Oliver Cromwell’s ringing words to England’s so-called Rump Parliament in 1653: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will enter some sort of governing arrangement with the Greens, but it’s hard to see why they should. As things stand, Labour will have 64 seats in the new Parliament, which is more than enough to govern alone.

Labour doesn’t need the Greens, and from a pragmatic standpoint would be better off without them. As both Helen Clark and Michael Cullen have reminded Labour in the past 24 hours, New Zealand elections are won in the political centre. Labour triumphed in this election by persuading voters they had nothing to fear from a second Ardern government. It’s clear that a large number of National voters switched their allegiance to Labour for one reason: to keep the Greens out of power. Labour will already be looking ahead to 2023 and will want to lock in those centrist votes, knowing it’s likely to face a far better-organised National opposition than it did this time. So it must weigh up the appeal of buddying up with the Greens, and thereby keeping faith with the hard-core left, against the risk of scaring off all those new converts to Labour.

Bear in mind too that Ardern pledged in her victory speech to govern for every New Zealander, and will be held to that. It’s hard to see how she can fulfil that promise while aligning herself with a radical left party that commanded only 7.6 percent of the vote. She will have to make a choice, and history suggests she will tack pragmatically just as previous Labour leaders have done (remember Clark and the Foreshore and Seabed?), and as she did herself when she ruled out a capital gains tax.

All that aside, from a purely democratic standpoint there’s another compelling reason why the Greens should not be in government, and it comes back to that 7.6 per cent. It’s a measure of how our thinking has been distorted by MMP that a party with so little popular support assumes it’s entitled to exercise power.  Since 1996, New Zealand has experienced tail-wagging-the-dog politics because the system gave it little choice; no party won enough votes to govern on its own. Now that a party is emphatically in a position to do so, it should act on the mandate voters have given it.

A few other thoughts about the result:

■ There will be a huge burden on David Seymour and his nine novice ACT MPs, who will probably have to do the heavy lifting in opposition to proposed hate speech laws – the crucial political and ideological battle of the next three years – and other woke initiatives. ACT shouldn’t count on receiving much support from National, which will be busy either settling scores or licking its wounds, and in any case has rarely shown much commitment to the fight against neo-Marxism.

■ Congratulations to the new “real” MPs: i.e. those former list MPs who now represent actual electorates and are therefore accountable to real people rather than to party apparatchiks. Chloe Swarbrick in Auckland Central is one; Kieran McAnulty in Wairarapa and Jo Luxton in Rangitata are others. The question for all of them is this: which comes first – loyalty to the party or duty to the electorate? It becomes especially pertinent in predominantly rural electorates where government policies could be inimical to farmers, especially if the Greens get into positions of power.

■ Kelvin Davis has rightly been excoriated for his oafish, churlish speech on election night – the one grating note during a generally good-hearted night when losing National Party candidates (Nick Smith, for one) were applauded for turning up at Labour celebrations to concede personally to their opponents, which was an example of New Zealand politics at its benign best. Any thought of the tone-deaf Davis remaining Labour’s deputy leader – or heaven forbid, becoming deputy prime minister – should have been extinguished right there and then.

■ Chris Luxon – really? If he’s the answer, then people aren’t asking the right question.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to "John" Luxon.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

What no one's talked about during this election campaign

 In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a celebrated book with the extravagant title The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued (I’m quoting from Wikipedia here) that the triumph of Western liberalism marked the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.

The rationale was that the Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of its own tyranny and sclerotic inefficiency. The decades-long Cold War that defined the post-war era was over and free-market economics (Reaganomics in the US, Thatcherism in Britain, Rogernomics in New Zealand and similar variants elsewhere, including Australia under Bob Hawke) had prevailed throughout the democratic West.

It seemed at the time that the epochal struggle between Marxism and capitalism had been emphatically resolved. There was a mood of smug triumphalism (guilty, your Honour) among advocates of what came to be termed neoliberalism.

Ha! We (and Fukuyama) could hardly have been more wrong. The supposed “end of history” turned out to be merely a brief, anesthetising lull. Far from the ideological contest between left and right being decided once and for all, the contest broke out anew in an insidious and potentially even more lethal form.  No one saw this coming; or perhaps I should say no one on the right side of politics.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Western civilisation and Western democratic values are under attack as never before in modern history. The breadth, intensity and viciousness of this attack is breathtaking.

Where it will lead is impossible to say. That will largely depend on whether society recognises what’s at stake and has the will to dig in and resist it.

At the moment, there’s little sign of that happening. Tragically, the only world leader putting up any sort of fight, Donald Trump, is a politician whose values are so bereft of any ethical coherence that if anything, his stand gives the woke left an illusion of moral credibility.

As yet there seems to be no settled term for the amorphous ideology driving this attack on Western capitalist values. It’s variously described as cultural Marxism, neo-Marxism, post-modernism, identity politics or, more colloquially, wokeism.  It has its ideological roots in Marxist theories about power structures and the oppression of supposedly disadvantaged minorities – people of colour, women, LGTBQ people, Muslims and immigrants, to name a few – by a privileged white elite. Its adherents see society not as a cohesive body of people with mutual interests but as an agglomeration of marginalised and victimised identity groups struggling to break free of repressive norms.  

Having realised decades ago that that the fight between capitalism and classical Marxist economics was lost, the extreme left opened a new front. They attacked liberal democracy’s soft underbelly: its values, conventions, institutions and philosophical foundations.

Suddenly a whole range of bedrock values, from the right to free speech to belief in fixed biological gender, was under savage attack. The underlying purpose is to destabilise society and therefore render it amenable to radical change.

Our supposedly shameful history and heritage also stand condemned. If we can be persuaded to be ashamed of our past, how much easier it becomes to persuade us that the society that grew out of it is deeply contaminated too.

As I wrote in a column in 2018: [Neo-Marxism]  grows out of the assumption that Western civilisation, and all that goes with it, is fundamentally rotten and therefore must be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.

 In the cockeyed illogic of the neo-Marxists, we should feel guilt and shame at having inherited a civilisation that has lifted untold millions of people out of poverty and introduced them to democratic government.

You can see Marx’s influence in neo-Marxism’s hostility to capitalism, its contempt for supposed bourgeois values – the family, for instance – and its emphasis on class and division.

But neo-Marxism takes classical Marxist analysis a whole lot further, examining every issue through the lenses not only of class but also of race, gender, sexual identity and any other potential point of difference that can be leveraged into a grievance.

It marches arm-in-arm with identity politics, seeing society not as a cohesive whole, sharing common interests and aspirations, but as a seething mass of oppressed minorities struggling for liberation – hence the ever-increasing number of aggrieved groups clamouring for special recognition. The result is polarisation and fragmentation.

Neo-Marxism also sets out to create a sense of continuing economic and social crisis, using this as justification for ever more intrusive state intervention and control. And it seeks to undermine our most basic understanding of human nature and society. How we see and interpret the world is dismissed by neo-Marxists as a social and political construct, a product of our conditioning. 

Nothing is fixed, not even the sex we are born with, and nothing has any objective value. Every belief and every value, no matter how soundly based in human experience and observation, is up for attack.

Paradoxically, while the neo-Marxists assail some belief systems as oppressive – Christianity for example – they make excuses for others, such as Islam, although it’s infinitely more controlling. But don’t go looking for ideological consistency in neo-Marxism; you’d be wasting your time.

Some woke ideas (most notably the belief that sexual identity is a mere societal construct, “assigned at birth” as if by some conscious and arbitrary human intervention) strike most New Zealanders as demonstrably barking mad, but that hasn't stopped them being  embraced by radical zealots and championed by sympathetic polemicists in the news media.

The speed with which all this happened caught what might loosely be termed the right off guard. The neo-Marxists have captured most of our key institutions: universities, schools, the media, the health sector, the churches, the public service, the arts and, to some extent, the courts. Even sport has succumbed (hello, Israel Folau).

Resistance to the woke agenda has been strangely subdued, enabling the activists to characterise those who openly oppose them as an extreme right-wing fringe. Note, for example, how the New Zealand media routinely stigmatises groups such as the New Conservatives as “far right” but never attaches equivalent labels to parties on the far left such as the Greens, preferring to treat them as mainstream. In doing so, the media have succeeded in creating the convenient illusion that the political centre has shifted sharply to the left.

Not only that, but by relentlessly focusing on the grievances of small, disaffected and highly vocal minority groups, the media present a warped and distorted image of society. The playwright Arthur Miller famously observed that a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, a metaphor that can be extended to all the media. But these days it’s a conversation dominated and largely controlled by left-wing political and ideological elites, and one in which the mainstream of the populace plays little part. The image of New Zealand that’s frequently presented in the media – that of a country sharply divided between a privileged white ruling class and a seething mass of the oppressed – is a gross caricature of one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies.

WE HEAR frequent reference to the "culture wars", but this is a misnomer. “War” implies two opposing sides, but in fact the offensive from the left has encountered little resistance – not because of any compelling force in its arguments (there usually isn’t any), but because the people who should be leading the counter-charge are cowering in their foxholes. Politicians who profess to adhere to conservative values have been missing in action, intimidated into silence by the sheer volume of white noise from the activist media. They apparently forget the old management adage that what you accept, you approve.

Corporate institutions have capitulated even more cravenly, scrambling to demonstrate their woke credentials by re-branding products to appease ideologically driven complainants. (A notable example was the renaming of Australia’s Coon cheese brand, a consumer favourite established in 1935 by Edward William Coon.)  Fear of boycotts is usually the driver.

A key part of the woke left’s strategy is to deny that any of this is happening, or at least that it’s part of any grand plan. On Wikipedia, the idea of cultural Marxism is dismissed as a “far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”. The Wikipedia entry goes on to characterise it as an idea peddled by religious fundamentalists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

This is a variant of the line taken in the 1950s and '60s by New Zealand Marxists who scoffed at claims of communist influence by ridiculing fears of “reds under the bed” (to which Catholic trade unionist Tony Neary, who staunchly resisted communist infiltration of the union movement, riposted that the Reds were sitting up in bed and having breakfast brought in).

As I wrote in that 2018 Dominion Post column: And how do the neo-Marxists respond when anyone resists their nihilistic theories? Typically, opposition is howled down as hate speech or met with sneering and ridicule. There’s no room in the neo-Marxist world for dissent or freedom of expression. 

The tragedy is that neo-Marxism is triumphing because the institutions of liberal, democratic government are too weak, too naïve, too complacent or too uncertain of the worth of their own values to put up a fight.

Neo-Marxism has now extended its influence far beyond universities, reaching deep into government, schools, the media, the arts and even the churches. The result is a society that is losing confidence in itself, which is precisely the neo-Marxists’ aim – because a society that has lost confidence in itself is easier to intimidate and control. 

AS I WRITE this, we are in the last days of an election campaign. If the opinion polls are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt them, Jacinda Ardern will be New Zealand’s prime minister for the next three years. The only real uncertainty is whether Labour will govern alone or in coalition with the Greens.

Either way, there will be nothing to stand in the way of a re-energised neo-Marxist agenda. New Zealand First has served as a restraint on the government since 2017 but the brakes will be off after Saturday if, as the polls predict, the Peters party fails to win a seat. (Disclosure: I held my nose and voted for Peters in the last election precisely because I reasoned – rightly, as it turned out – that NZ First could curb the ideological excesses of Labour and the Greens, but I can’t bring myself to vote the same way again. No one has done more to bring politics into disrepute in my lifetime than Peters, and even my fear of a left-wing juggernaut in government isn’t enough to justify supporting him a second time. I’ll be voting ACT, though not with whole-hearted enthusiasm.)

What might a Labour or Labour-Green government deliver? We have already had a foretaste in the form of one of the world’s most permissive abortion regimes and the proposal to legalise cannabis. Expect much more under a re-invigorated and unrestrained Ardern government, starting with laws to curb so-called “hate speech”. The putative justification – that the Human Rights Act doesn’t protect people from attacks on the basis of their religion (for which read Islam) – can be easily fixed by a simple amendment adding religion to the existing protections against discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, nationality and ethnicity. But don’t expect the government to stop there. Using the Christchurch mosque massacres as a pretext (a false one, since the absence of restrictive speech laws didn’t cause the shootings and the introduction of tough new ones wouldn’t prevent a similar occurrence), the government is likely to crack down on any speech regarded as offensive by members of supposedly vulnerable minority groups. Egged on by provocateurs in the media, an Ardern government might decide not only to lower the threshold at which speech is considered harmful, but to extend protection to other groups demanding special treatment – for example, trans-gender people.

We hear a lot from such groups about the need to embrace diversity, but the one diversity they don’t tolerate is diversity of opinion. Yet free speech is the currency of liberal democracy. Once we accept curbs on our right to engage in free and robust discussion of contentious issues (but stopping short of advocating active discrimination or incitements to violence, which present law rightly prohibits anyway), we risk becoming what might be called an illiberal democracy: one in which we may still be free to vote for the politicians of our choice, but without our votes being informed by full and open debate. Putin-style democracy, in other words.  

But it’s not just transformational legislative change that advocates of liberal democracy should worry about under a new leftist government. Even where it doesn’t take the initiative itself by passing radical or oppressive new laws, a Labour or Labour-Greens government will provide a political environment highly conducive to the advance of the woke agenda. Expect more agitation for separate institutional arrangements for Maori (including non-elected positions on councils), more unilateral adoption of Maori place names (fine, but let’s do it by referendum), more condemnation of supposed white privilege and white supremacy, more hysteria over so-called cultural appropriation, more humiliating, Salem-style public denunciations (accompanied by mandatory attendance at “cultural competency” courses) of people who refuse to toe approved  ideological lines, more pressure on companies to pander to exaggerated minority sensitivities (and grovelling apologies when they are perceived to have fallen short), more politicisation of the police, more judicial activism by courts incorporating tikanga (Maori custom) in common law, more virtue-signalling by academics and writers who proclaim themselves as socialists (and therefore unashamedly align themselves with a sorry history of tyranny, repression and economic ruin), more arrogant interference with people's freedoms by activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, more social media bullying of dissenters and more instances of “cancel culture”, where organisations are intimidated into abandoning legitimate speaking engagements for fear of disruption.

All of this is happening already, of course, but it’s likely to acquire far greater momentum with the encouragement, tacit or otherwise, of a government that doesn’t have to worry about humouring a socially conservative coalition partner.

The striking thing about the current election campaign is that barely any of this has been mentioned. It’s only slightly melodramatic to say there’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the country, but there has been little hint of this other than in New Conservatives campaign billboards calling for free speech. National, the party that supposedly represents mainstream conservative values and therefore should be manning the barricades against the neo-Marxist takeover, is timidly tip-toeing around it and pretending not to see it, possibly because it’s terrified of incurring media antagonism. Covid-19, the government response to it and the likely economic consequences have so dominated people's attention that the woke agenda has been allowed to proceed virtually unchallenged.  New Zealand in three years’ time could feel like a very different place, and not in a good way.