Thursday, July 30, 2020

Institutional overkill? The case of Deborah Hugill

I wonder if anyone else felt uneasy reading the story on Stuff today about a Taranaki nurse, Deborah Hugill, who was deregistered by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making racist comments.

Hugill was held to be guilty of professional misconduct after a social media post – prompted by a news report about the absence of Maori voices from a mental health and addictions inquiry – in which she described Maori nurses as lazy, cunning and underhanded [sic]. She also said they got a lot of unfair handouts and spent too much time eating and going to meetings.

It was a statement that even staunch upholders of the right to free speech would have trouble defending, and Hugill asked for trouble by posting it on a New Zealand Nurses Organisation’s Facebook page.  Yet Stuff’s account of the tribunal hearing left the discomforting impression that the proceedings had the hallmarks of a show trial.   

The tribunal chair, Maria Dew QC, rebuked Hugill for her “failure to show a sustained and genuine understanding or remorse for her highly offensive and racist comments”. That suggests she was punished not just for her offence but for not being sufficiently contrite.

Dew also acknowledged “mana whenua” – by which she apparently meant local Maori, though that’s not the Maori Dictionary’s definition of the term – for their “very special contribution” to the hearing, saying it was important for the tribunal to be part of restoring mana for Maori. “Ms Hugill’s conduct has damaged that mana.”

Really? I would have thought the purpose of the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal was to ensure professional standards are upheld.  Restoring mana for Maori suggests a broader agenda that goes beyond the tribunal’s warrant. This is fashionable ideological rhetoric, not the dispassionate language expected from a quasi-judicial body. Was this a case of the tribunal buying into the culture of grievance and victimhood?

Perhaps it was Hugill’s misfortune to be subjected to disciplinary proceedings at a time when confected fury over supposed white supremacy, fanned by the Black Lives Matter movement, has fuelled an appetite for retribution against anyone bold or foolish enough (and this case involved a bit of both) to expose themselves to charges of racism.

Cherene Neilson-Hornblow, who laid the complaint against Hugill, told the tribunal that Hugill had “trampled on the heads of our people”. Later, when the hearing was over, she said: “I’m just overwhelmed, I’m so pleased. It’s thousands of years of injustices, it’s tears of joy.” Hyperbole, much? Remember, we’re not talking about the righting of grievous historic wrongs here. We’re talking about a lone woman who expressed racially offensive (but, we must presume, sincerely held) opinions and has paid what some would regard as a disproportionate penalty.

As well as having her registration cancelled, Hugill was formally censured and ordered to pay 15 per cent of the costs of the hearing: $8362.95. She was barred from practising for two years and before working as a nurse again must complete what Stuff called a cultural confidence course (I think they mean cultural competence). Used punitively, as appears to be the case here, this is a more benign form of the re-education camps favoured by Pol Pot and the current Chinese communist regime: a means of moral purification by which ideological transgressors are persuaded to see the error of their ways and given a chance to purge themselves of their sins.

Stuff also reported that after the tribunal had come to its decision, proceedings were closed with a karakia. Well, of course.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Rediscovering a Wellington guitar hero

In 1968 I was the bass guitarist (not a very good one, I regret to say) in a Wellington band called the Regency Set. I don’t remember much about most gigs we played, but one that stuck in my memory was a Friday night dance in the Khandallah Town Hall where we shared the bill with an outfit called the Supernatural Blues Band.

It was, to put it mildly, an incongruous mix. We wore jackets and ties and played a middle-of-the-road repertoire that erred on the side of mature. (I was the youngest in the band by several years.) We got plenty of bookings but no one would have called our music edgy. Build Me Up, Buttercup was about as raunchy as we got.

The Supernatural Blues Band, on the other hand, wore jeans and sneakers and looked slightly disreputable. They were an antipodean extension of the British blues boom – think John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Peter Green – that was then in full cultish cry.

To use an automotive analogy, if the Regency Set were a bourgeois Hillman Hunter, the Supernatural Blues Band were a Ford twin-spinner with a couple of missing hubcaps and primer paint on the mudguards.

The SBB had a bunch of fans who had come only to hear them and who regarded us, when they acknowledged us at all, with eye-rolling disdain.  Whoever selected the bands for the night either had a mischievous sense of humour or was trying to cover the field. But as my musician brother recently reminded me, bizarre combinations were not uncommon back then: Jimi Hendrix once shared a bill with the Monkees, and the Rolling Stones toured New Zealand in 1965 with Roy Orbison.

Anyway, the point of this reminiscence (trust me, I’m getting there) is that the star of the Supernatural Blues Band – who later simplified their name to the Supernatural – was an uncommonly talented teenage lead guitarist and singer named John O’Connor.

I vaguely recall that O’Connor was then still at school, or perhaps I just made that up, but his playing was masterful. He had a natural feel for the blues and coaxed sounds out of his Jansen Beatmaster guitar (remember, those were the days when the import substitution policy made it difficult to acquire a Fender or Gibson, and most guitarists had to make do with inferior, locally-made lookalikes) that made it sound damned-near respectable.

It didn’t surprise me that he went on to enjoy an illustrious career in music, though he never acquired the reputation he deserved. When I next heard him play, in a steamy and crowded Wellington club called The Cabin during the mid-1970s, he was with the fondly remembered Wellington funk band Redeye, whose members formed the core of an elite group that provided backing on recording sessions – you can hear them on the Mark Williams hits Yesterday Was Just the Beginning of My Life and It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, among others – and the TV shows Grunt Machine and Ready to Roll.  

A Google search indicates that in the ensuing decades, O’Connor evolved into a player of consummate versatility and professionalism, touring and recording not only with rock and blues luminaries (BB King, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry) but also with Kiri Te Kanawa, Ron Goodwin and the NZSO.

But it wasn’t until last Friday night, when the Laura Collins Back Porch Blues Band played to a full Carterton Events Centre, that I again heard him playing live. I’d heard the band before, albeit with a different guitarist, and knew to expect a good show, but O’Connor’s virtuoso playing added an exhilarating new dimension to their sound. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to describe him as world-class.

The soulful feel evident in the Khandallah Town Hall more than a half a century ago is still there, in spades, but it’s combined with dazzling flair and technical skill. (It probably helps that the Jansen Beatmaster has been replaced by a semi-hollowbodied Gibson. For the benefit of guitar nerds, it looked like an ES 336, although I couldn’t be sure from where I was sitting at the back of the room.)

And my point in writing this is? Simply to indulge in a bit of self-vindication. O’Connor mightily impressed me in 1968 and it was a real pleasure to rediscover him in 2020, still playing his heart out.

In singling him out, I certainly don’t mean to downplay the contribution from the rest of the Back Porch Blues Band (who actually play a lot of other stuff besides blues). Keyboard player Wayne Mason’s impressive mastery of the blues idiom, and especially of New Orleans-style rolling boogie-woogie piano, may surprise those who remember him from the Waratahs and (going back into the mists of antiquity) the Fourmyula. George Barris on upright bass is another respected veteran with nothing to prove, although I did wonder whether a bass guitar would have had sharper definition and cut-through. Pete Cogswell is unobtrusive but rock-solid on drums and the exuberant Laura Collins does much more than just sing, although she does that with power and grit.

All in all, a tight band of redoubtable old hands who still get an obvious  charge out of playing together, and who communicate that energy and enthusiasm to their audience. Even without O’Connor, they were a great band; with him, they’re even better.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

We're all immigrants here

I recently read an interview with the Sri Lankan-born Wellington novelist Brannavan Gnanalingam. In it he talks mainly about the challenge of being male in a culture that he sees as clinging to a narrow and not always attractive idea of masculinity. But he also comments on the frequency of “casual racism” and his regret at having lost touch with his heritage, presumably as a result of feeling pressured to fit in to a predominantly white society.

One thing in particular struck me, and I quote directly from the article:

Being asked where you’re from, for example, is a “ridiculously common” experience for a non-white person, he [Gnanalingam] says. If it’s someone at a hostel overseas, or someone wanting to establish whakapapa links, that’s one thing. If it’s someone who’s noticed your skin is a different colour from theirs, that’s another. “I often get slightly sassy and respond, ‘Well, where are you from?’” he says. “It always throws them.”

But hang on a minute. I’m happy to admit that I’ve often asked people with dark skin or unfamiliar accents where they’re from – taxi drivers especially, since I’m sharing the front of the car with them and it’s an obvious way to get a conversation started.

I supposed I could play it safe and make meaningless small talk about the weather, but I ask about their background because I’m genuinely interested. It’s posed as a friendly inquiry, not as a demand that they explain their justification for being in New Zealand. Still less is it intended to imply judgment of them on the basis of their appearance or way of speaking. I see it as a way of establishing a connection with a fellow human being. Can that be so bad?

Sometimes they have an interesting story to tell, like the irrepressibly cheerful cab driver from Bhutan I met in Christchurch a couple of years ago, or the lugubrious Afghan who once picked me up from San Francisco Airport. If I sense that they’re not comfortable (which I don’t recall ever happening), there’s always the weather option to fall back on.

I welcome the fact that New Zealand has become a multicultural society, as do virtually all the people I know. To me it seems the most natural thing in the world to want to learn more about people’s cultural origins and the circumstances that led them to settle here. Quite apart from anything else, it adds to my knowledge as a journalist about the demographic forces shaping this county. It’s not intended to make immigrants feel like outsiders, still less that they’re not welcome. We’re all immigrants, after all; some just more recent than others.

Would it be better if I said nothing and completed the taxi ride in silence? That would seem far more cold and unfriendly.

And really, is it so different from someone asking about the origin of your surname, which happens to me all the time? Or inquiring where your accent comes from, as in the case of my Polish wife (who never minds being asked, although she’s been a New Zealand citizen for more than 50 years)? Or are such questions okay if you’re white, but somehow different if you’re brown or black – in which case, should we be asking whether the people who condemn the question as racist in those instances are themselves perversely promoting a sense of “them and us”, which is the very thing they profess to oppose?

I’m aware of the fashionable view that only the victims of racism can recognise and identify it. Using that yardstick, a taxi driver who thinks my question about where he comes from is racist must be right. But if the question is asked with goodwill and genuine curiosity, doesn’t that count for something?

Here, of course, we come to our old friend unconscious bias; the notion that you can be racist without realising it. If we accept the idea of unconscious bias, we also acknowledge the possibility of casual or unintended racism. But I reject the notion that by simply asking someone about their nationality or ethnic background, you’re somehow demonstrating racial prejudice. That strikes me as a complete non-sequitur.

In fact I’d suggest that treating discussion of ethnicity as a no-go zone is potentially an impediment to good race relations, because it risks amplifying awareness of difference rather than encouraging acceptance of it as normal. How can tip-toeing around questions of ethnicity in a “don’t mention the war” fashion be more inclusive than openly engaging with people about their origins?

I could go further and ask who’s more likely to drive a wedge between the predominant white culture and ethnic minorities: the person making an innocent inquiry about someone else’s race or nationality, or the person assuming it must be underpinned by racism?

So I intend to continue asking people where they come from. And if they turn the question back on me, as Gnanalingam says he sometimes does, it won’t throw me in the slightest. I’d be very happy to tell them that I come from Waipukurau and long before that, from Ireland on my mother’s side and France and Denmark on my father’s. There’s no stigma in that, and I wonder why it should be seen as potentially stigmatising if you tell people you come from Sudan, Taiwan, Iran or wherever. Perhaps more to the point, who exactly is doing the stigmatising by suggesting such matters should be off-limits? After all, as I said, we’re all immigrants here.

The dead cat bounce

I feel it’s my duty to call out ACT leader David Seymour for his misuse of the expression “dead cat bounce”.

The phrase cropped up in Parliament yesterday when Winston Peters, under the protection of privilege, tried to divert attention from the scandalous taxpayer-funded Antarctic junket he arranged for two wealthy friends by naming Seymour’s former partner as the person responsible for leaking details of his (Peters') superannuation over-payment. (As an aside, are we witnessing the increasingly desperate flailing of a politician who senses he’s on the ropes? First the pathetic invitation to Seymour to join him in the boxing ring, and now this?)

Seymour responded by accusing Peters of using “the old dead-cat bounce – throw something on the table in the hope that it would overshadow the bad news coming his way”. A Stuff journalist helpfully tried to explain that “the dead cat strategy is a common political tactic. It refers to the practice of unveiling a ridiculous, scurrilous story to take attention away from a more legitimate issue. It’s likened to throwing a dead cat on the table”.

But that makes no sense and it's not what the expression means. I first heard the phrase during the share market crash of 1987 and it came, as so many colourful expressions do (think “lonely as a bastard on Father’s Day”, “as flash as a rat with a gold tooth”), from an Australian.

Share prices had briefly rallied after a prolonged and spectacular fall, raising hopes that the worst might be over. But an Aussie analyst laconically punctured the premature optimism, explaining: “Even a dead cat bounces”. So the phrase has nothing to do with attempts to create political distractions, as Seymour and the Stuff reporter seem to think. The appropriate zoological metaphor in that situation is “red herring”, which supposedly derives from an attempt to throw hounds off the trail of a fox by dragging a smelly smoked fish across their path.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Collins must be well pleased

Two leading figures on the left have given Judith Collins the most ringing endorsement imaginable.

Matt McCarten and Nicky Hager have paid the new National Party leader a generous compliment by unleashing hyperbolic attacks on her. They wouldn’t have bothered to do this unless they were worried about the threat she poses to Labour and the Greens.

McCarten, purportedly one of the left’s smartest strategists, acknowledges that Collins has been one of National’s most effective MPs and warns that Labour shouldn’t under-estimate her. But though he says the vote gap between Labour and National will narrow, he baldly asserts that Collins will fail. He doesn’t mount a very convincing case for this other than to insist that voters will reject her supposedly divisive style of politics, preferring the “near flawless” leadership of Jacinda Ardern (whom most New Zealanders, according to McCarten, love and respect).

McCarten’s tone suggests he’s writing more out of hope than conviction. But if there’s a faint whiff of fear in McCarten’s piece, it’s even more palpable in Hager’s polemic. He purports to come up with five reasons why Collins won’t be prime minister, most of them based around rehashed claims made in his book Dirty Politics six years ago. Six years is a very long time in politics and Hager may be making a big mistake assuming that the Judith Collins of 2020 didn’t learn anything from the lessons of 2014. Like McCarten, he sounds as if he’s desperately trying to convince himself of her unelectability.

Another leftist commentator showing signs of alarm is Gordon Campbell, who complains bitterly about the commentariat’s “love affair” with Collins. Campbell apparently thinks it outrageous that the media, having been infatuated with Ardern since 2017, is suddenly paying attention to another formidable female politician. But the reason Collins excites interest is that she’s not just another bland, risk-averse National Party leader seeking the safety of the middle ground and pointlessly trying to court the left-leaning media.  

She’s a natural disrupter, which is why the left is so vehemently gunning for her. They would have been comfortable with a colourless consensus politician in the mould of Todd Muller, Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams, none of whom would have been subjected to the furious attacks now being directed at Collins.

That’s all the vindication she needs. She must be well pleased.

The latest on that aerodrome spending spree - and it's not encouraging

Today’s Wairarapa Times-Age confirms that the people of Masterton will pay twice for an airport that no airline wants to use.

As taxpayers, they will pick up a share of the $10 million government tab for the Hood Aerodrome upgrading announced amid much fanfare last week by Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

But they’ll be hit as ratepayers too, because the Times-Age reveals that the other $7 million for the project will come from Masterton District Council. The source of this additional funding was mysteriously unidentified in last week’s announcement but has now been confirmed by MDC chief executive Kath Ross.

According to Ross, the project will “transform Hood from a community airfield, supporting recreational pilots and a select group of commercial operators, to a centre for cutting-edge commercial activity, manufacturing and training, alongside existing and new tourism attractions and businesses.

“This work will open the door to some exciting opportunities for future business development.”

This is a statement heavy on pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking and empty PR clichés (“cutting-edge”, “exciting opportunities”). Not one of the cheerleaders for the project – Ross, Robertson, Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson and local MPs Ron Mark and Kieran McAnulty – has identified a single new user of the upgraded aerodrome.

On the contrary, the one regional airline named as being potentially “interested” in flying out of Hood has cast fresh doubt on the viability of the plan. The Times-Age reports that Doug Emeny, general manager of Air Chathams, said the airline had to be persuaded to submit a business case to the council last year.

“You know it’s getting hard when they come to you and say, ‘Can you please put an application in?’

“We thought about it and decided ‘Yes, we will’. But in all honesty, we limped into it. We weren’t overly impressed with the research that had gone on into what service there would be.”

It’s hard to imagine more damning words from the man running an airline identified as a key prospective user. In fact I'd suggest that on the basis of what we know so far, the project looks a complete dog.

Masterton District Council’s media statement on the Hood upgrade reinforces the impression that the government and the council are taking a massive punt. There’s more hollow PR blah-blah from both Patterson (“The funding for Hood Aerodrome will enable us to transform this treasured asset into a modern, functional airport with increased capacity over the longer-term”) and Ross (“We have a dedicated team that have worked hard over a significant period to fine-tune the future focus for Hood Aerodrome”), but not a single hard fact – and no mention anywhere of a business case to support spending $17 million at a time of enormous pressure on government and council finances.

Astonishingly, the council’s media statement last week avoided any mention of the millions that Masterton ratepayers will contribute to this potential white elephant. So much for transparency.

When the Hood announcement came out of the blue, I wondered whether I had missed something. I couldn’t believe the government and council could so airily commit $17 million to a project with no assured benefits other than the creation of 53 short-term construction jobs. In the absence of any compelling case for the upgrade, we’re left with no other conclusion than that it’s a brazen vote-buying exercise.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Resounding vindication of Hood job creation scheme

The Dominion Post reported today that regional airline Air Chathams would be “interested” in establishing a regular link out of Masterton once $10 million of public money has been spent upgrading the town’s Hood aerodrome.

Wow. If the government wanted a ringing vindication of its plan, there it is, right there.

The story was a follow-up to one in the Wairarapa Times-Age (which I covered in a sceptical blog post yesterday) announcing the proposed investment of $17 million – $10 million from the government and the remainder from a mysterious source so far undisclosed – in a project that would see Hood's runway lengthened and widened, along with improvements to other aerodrome infrastructure.

My scepticism didn’t relate to the actual construction project, which I’m sure will proceed, but to the promised benefits, which seem as substantial as a wisp of smoke.

I pointed out that previous attempts to run scheduled services out of Hood had failed and no one seemed in any hurry to try again, regardless of whether the airport was improved. Well, we now have Air Chathams general manager Duane Emeny saying his company would be “interested” once the job is done – but that’s hardly an emphatic commitment, so we’re left with the prospect that Masterton will end up with a flash new airport with no more users than it has now (most of whom, judging by my own admittedly limited observations, seem to be recreational fliers and topdressing planes).

What’s more, Emeny pointed out that because starting a new regional air service was not without risk, Air Chathams would seek a “significant support package” to underwrite potential losses. So as well as stumping up for the airport upgrade, the taxpayer would be expected to subsidise whichever operator, if any, is prepared to use it - at least until such time as it's proven (again) to be uneconomic.

Pardon me, but am I missing something here? Finance Minister Grant Robertson says the project will transform Hood into a “modern, functional airport, with capacity for growth beyond its current activity” – but where will the users come from? Has anyone undertaken any research into potential demand, or is the government simply taking a punt and hoping for the best?

Alternatively, should the good people of Wairarapa, once the upgrade is complete, expect instructions to concentrate very hard and by sheer force of collective will, wait for planes laden with tourists to appear magically over the horizon? It almost looks that way.

Failing that improbable outcome, the project looks suspiciously like an extravagant job creation scheme – but one with potential side-benefits for Labour in an electorate that the party has held before and would love to win again.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Fairy dust spotted falling over Hood Aerodrome

A story on the front page of today’s Wairarapa Times-Age announced that the government will spend $10 million improving Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome. An obvious, if inconvenient, question immediately arises: Why?

Sound economic initiatives in the Wairarapa deserve to be applauded, but it’s hard to see any benefit in upgrading an aerodrome that no airlines use. Scheduled services in and out of Masterton have been tried twice since I moved to the town, first by the now-defunct Air Wairarapa in 2002 and later by the Air New Zealand subsidiary Eagle Airways from 2009 till 2014. Both were abandoned because they made no money, and I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests upgrading the aerodrome will magically increase demand or make flights to Masterton profitable.

Certainly there was no suggestion in this morning’s story that Air New Zealand or any regional operator is eagerly waiting to provide a service once Hood’s infrastructure is upgraded. The only regular user quoted in the Times-Age was the Life Flight trust, which operates air ambulances from the aerodrome. Life Flight’s chief executive welcomed the announcement, saying the weather in Masterton was often a challenge (Really? To pilots who constantly fly in and out of Wellington?) and the length and width of the runway could be “a little bit of a challenge as well”.

That hardly sounds like adequate justification for committing $10 million of taxpayers’ money to widening and extending the runway (which will involve buying more land and re-aligning the adjacent road), upgrading lighting, improving effluent, water and power on site and funding improved security. It rather looked to me as if the Life Flight CEO was roped in because they needed someone to make positive noises about an announcement that otherwise didn’t make a lot of sense.

Alternatively, I wondered whether the Times-Age might have inadvertently omitted a vital paragraph explaining why all this investment was justified. Perhaps that missing paragraph referred to an imminent announcement that Air New Zealand ATR 72s bulging with tourists will be flying into Masterton as soon the project is completed.

Then again, this act of regional boosterism may be primarily about creating jobs for people put out of work by the coronavirus. That seemed to be the focus of Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s speech, in which he talked of the 53 construction jobs that would be created and airily speculated about the prospect of 200 employment opportunities once the airport was fully operational. The government went looking for projects that were ready to go, Robertson was quoted as saying, and this one ticked all the boxes.

There seem to be a lot of wildly optimistic assumptions built into his prediction and I wondered whether a rigorous business case had been prepared. If there was one, I could find no mention of it on Robertson’s website; in fact no mention of Hood Aerodrome at all.

Naturally there were other people on hand yesterday to applaud Robertson’s announcement. Wairarapa-based New Zealand First MP and cabinet minister Ron Mark said the proposed upgrade would improve viability for a commercial airline – something he had advocated since he was mayor of nearby Carterton. “We’re back in a good space again,” Mark was quoted as saying. “What I’m really keen to see is an airline recommence flights from Masterton to Auckland.”

This falls somewhat short of a cast-iron assurance that the taxpayer’s investment will pay dividends. A couple of phrases come to mind. One is wishful thinking; the other relates to carts and horses. Or perhaps Mark is placing his faith in the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, [they] will come.” There’s something distinctly cargo-cultish about the expectation that if only you throw sufficient quantities of money at something, providence will reward you.  

Labour list MP Kieran McAnulty, who lives in Masterton, lined up to claim his share of the credit for the announcement too, proudly declaring that his proximity to ministers as the party’s junior whip meant he was able to promote awareness of key local projects and arrange meetings with influential Wairarapa figures such as former Masterton mayor Bob Francis and veteran government trouble-shooter Dame Margaret Bazley.

Not mentioned in the story was that both Mark and McAnulty are standing for the Wairarapa seat in the general election and both fancy their chances, especially since sitting National MP Alastair Scott is standing down after two undistinguished terms and the man hoping to replace him, local farmer Mike Butterick, has virtually no profile.

Join the dots and you get a distinct whiff of unashamed, old-fashioned pork-barrel politics. The only name missing is Shane Jones, and that’s presumably because he’s busy promoting the New Zealand First Survival Slush Fund – sorry, the Provincial Growth Fund – in Northland.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Politics: brutal, petty, vain and alarmingly disconnected from the world most of us inhabit

It would be a gross overstatement to say we’ve seen politics at its worst over the past few weeks. Politics at its worst can involve assassinations, coups, repression, persecution, nepotism, violence and corruption, all of which we’ve been spared. But we’ve certainly seen politics at its most unlovely, at least in a liberal democracy: freighted with hubris, schadenfreude, vanity, infighting, score-settling, folly and self-pity.

If the drama surrounding the two changes of leadership in the National Party achieved nothing else, it at least served as a reminder of how unpleasant politics can seem to those outside it – and how damaging it can be to those seduced by its allure. We all know that politics is ultimately about the acquisition and exercise of power, but rarely do we see it displayed so nakedly.

First, there was hapless Todd Muller – an apparently decent man who allowed himself to be persuaded, or perhaps convinced himself, that destiny had chosen him to lead National out of the wasteland. He fell at the first hurdle, not so much because he failed the media’s confected front-bench diversity test as for his shambolic attempt, with comically inept assistance from Nikki Kaye, to justify himself to scalp-hunting political journalists.

You’d have thought that with all the media trainers available to them, Muller and Kaye would have anticipated the trap set for them and sorted out a response. That they didn’t marked them as ill-equipped to cope with a basic challenge facing every political leader – namely, dealing with an aggressive and querulous media that constantly probes for weaknesses.

It was basically downhill from there on. The media were never going to favour Muller – male, white, privileged, middle-aged and bland, if well-intentioned – with the honeymoon they gave (and are still giving) Jacinda Ardern.

Meanwhile, in the background, the deposed Paula Bennett was doing her strange disco-dancing thing with a comedian (a word which these days almost automatically calls for inverted commas) whom I would guess most New Zealanders – in other words, all those outside the political and social media bubble that some press gallery journalists apparently believe represents the real world – had never heard of.

Video of Bennett and Tom Sainsbury dancing to I Will Survive was repeatedly replayed on media platforms, no doubt to the puzzlement of many who watched it. We were told this was Bennett, the street-fighter from West Auckland, exacting her revenge on those who dumped her, but I suspect the point of the “hilarious” video (as the New Zealand Herald described it) was probably lost on anyone outside the incestuous and self-absorbed world occupied by press gallery journalists and political obsessives. In other words, it was a political in-joke. To coin a phrase, you had to be there.  

As it turned out, the sequence of events that eventually led to Muller standing down was triggered not by disaffected losers in the caucus power struggle, but by a rogue first-term MP who, in a clumsy attempt to defend himself after issuing an alarmist statement that sought to stoke fears about Asian immigrants spreading coronavirus, blindsided his leader by leaking the personal details of people who had tested positive for Covid-19.

Muller acted reasonably promptly in cutting Hamish Walker loose but by then the crisis had assumed almost unstoppable momentum, destabilising the party caucus and piling more pressure on a leader who was already clearly struggling to cope.

Walker thus becomes the second consecutive Clutha-Southland MP, after Todd Barclay, to march into political oblivion (and obloquy) after just one term in office. The irony is that as holders of the safest of all National electorates, Walker and Barclay, had they behaved themselves, could have looked forward to a job for life.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one junior MP in a deep-blue seat may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. Senior figures in National might do well to ask themselves what it is about the party’s selection process that results in the election of cocky young men (Barclay was elected at the age of 24, Walker at 32) with an apparent Masters of the Universe complex.  The name of Aaron “Do you know who I am?” Gilmore, who quit Parliament in disgrace in 2013 after bullying a Hanmer Springs waiter, also comes to mind.

But of course Walker’s was not the only head to roll as a result of the Covid-19 breach of privacy. Michelle Boag’s fall from grace, as the leaker who abused her position as acting CEO of Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, was far more spectacular.  

Boag has long been regarded as a political kingmaker, wielding influence behind the scenes (well, mostly behind the scenes) via a formidable network of political and business connections. Her strategy, as far as I can tell (and I stress that I speak with no inside knowledge), has been to make herself indispensable as an adviser to those in power and those who aspire to it. Go back as far as the Winebox inquiry of the 1990s, where she acted for merchant bankers Fay Richwhite, and you can see her fingerprints everywhere.

She has long struck me as one of those people who get an adrenalin buzz out of proximity to power. I suspect this can become something of an addiction, and Boag herself seemed to confirm as much with a remarkable mea culpa in which she admitted an “unhealthy” relationship with politics that had put her on a “self-destructive path”.

Power is the common factor here. We don’t need Lord Acton’s famous axiom to know that the desire to exercise power, or even simply be close to it, can erode values, warp judgment and compromise principles.

There have been other reminders lately of the seediness of politics. Judith Collins used her just-published memoir to settle an old score with John Key, but in doing so also revived memories of the opaque machinations surrounding her damaging association with the blogger Cameron Slater in 2014. 

And just to prove that politics can be equally unattractive on the Labour side, sacked minister and departing MP Clare Curran recently gave an exit interview to Spinoff journalist Donna Chisholm in which she oozed self-pity and, while purporting to nobly accept responsibility for her own failings, simultaneously sought to put the blame on the toxicity and bullying she claimed to have been subjected to.

All of this adds up to a deeply unflattering picture of politics and the politicians who supposedly represent and serve us. It looks petty, vain, self-centred and alarmingly disconnected from the world most of us inhabit.

Muller’s departure in particular raises a worrying question: if politics is this brutal and damaging (Audrey Young of the Herald reported today that Muller had experienced a breakdown), who in their right mind would put their hand up for election? Do we really want a political environment so toxic that only sociopaths and egomaniacs will be prepared to stand for office?

Unfortunately, the news media must accept some responsibility for this state of affairs. Coverage of politics has become a blood sport in which aggressive pack leaders such as Newshub’s Tova O’Brien constantly crank up the heat and the pressure on political players. To use a phrase made famous by the British Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin, the media exercise power without responsibility. They may claim to be acting on our behalf but their central purpose is to produce drama for the six o’clock bulletin. The blood they leave on the floor is someone else’s problem.


Thursday, July 2, 2020

Shirley Smith: a strong woman strangely in awe of her ratbag husband

I recently finished reading Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, by Wellington writer Sarah Gaitanos. (Yes, I know the book came out last year, but you can’t rush into these things.)

It’s a fascinating biography, opening a window on a period in New Zealand history when a tightly knit coterie of leftist intellectuals attained positions of influence in the public service, the arts and academia. You might well ask, so what’s new? But the political tone of the period from the 1930s to the 1970s was very much of its time – an era when many leading thinkers, writers and influencers were so seduced by Marxist ideology that they clung doggedly to their beliefs even when Soviet-style communism was exposed as a monstrous fraud.

Smith was highly accomplished in her own right, particularly as a ground-breaking woman lawyer, but it was her unfair fate to be known principally as the wife of the prominent left-wing economist and public servant William Ball (“Bill”) Sutch, who was famously acquitted of espionage in 1974.  Few people reading this biography will be in any doubt as to which partner in the marriage was more deserving of respect.

Irrespective of her politics, which remained staunchly and unapologetically left-wing until her death in 2008, it’s hard not to admire Smith for her indefatigable energy and commitment to her political and social ideals. Her husband, on the other hand, emerges from the pages of this book as a phony, a liar, a fantasist, a philanderer and a hypocrite, especially when it came to the role of women.

Oh, and he was almost certainly a KGB spy. If there was any doubt about that when Sutch was acquitted in 1974, only his most diehard supporters could believe him innocent now. Yet it says a lot about Smith’s sense of honour that she remained doggedly loyal to him in public while privately harbouring grave misgivings about the type of man he was.

Not that the Shirley Smith we meet in the early chapters of the book is an instantly appealing character. On the contrary, the young Shirley comes across as self-absorbed, spoiled and rather precious. The only daughter of a doting father who became a Supreme Court judge and a knight of the realm, she lived a life of rare privilege for one growing up in the generally straitened circumstances of the 1920s and 30s: attending an expensive Anglican private school (Nga Tawa), enjoying childhood holidays in the family bach at Taupo, winning a scholarship to Oxford, swanning around Europe, engaging in a series of relationships with dashing young suitors and being fussed over in an exclusive sanatorium in the Swiss Alps when she contracted tuberculosis. 

At a time when few could afford to travel abroad, her life was a peripatetic whirl of continental train journeys and sea voyages, all financed by her father. She rubbed shoulders with an emerging elite of upwardly mobile leftists, many of whom she remained close to for the rest of her life. Yet parallel with this life of self-indulgence, and in line with the paradoxical spirit of the time in British and New Zealand intellectual circles (remember, this was also the period when the Cambridge Five – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross – were recruited as spies by the Soviet Union), she became a loyal servant of the Communist Party, remaining a true believer even after Joseph Stalin entered a pact with Hitler to crush Poland and carve it up between them. Like many of her gullible fellow-travellers, she found ways to rationalise and excuse communist infamy. When the facts conflicted with the theory, it was assumed that the facts must be wrong. It wasn’t until after Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 that Smith, like many other party members in New Zealand, renounced communism.

How she reconciled her Marxist belief with her rarefied existence as a member of a privileged intellectual elite, ironically funded by capitalism, is just one paradox that Gaitanos doesn’t, or can’t, explain. But Smith’s relationship with Sutch, whom she married in 1944 after he had divorced his first wife, strikes an even more discordant note. The reader is left to wonder how a strong, assertive and intelligent woman could allow herself to be so dominated by a cold, controlling husband. The only explanation is that she was in awe of him – although why, when she seemed a more admirable human being in every respect, is a mystery.

For all his professed belief in women’s equality, Sutch had conventional expectations of marriage and wanted a traditional, compliant wife. While pursuing her own increasingly demanding career, first as an academic and later as a lawyer (activities Sutch disapproved of), Smith was expected to fulfil all the traditional domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning. When Sutch entertained friends, it was she who prepared and served the food and cleaned up afterwards – all this after putting in a day’s hard work, and in a poky kitchen ill-suited to entertaining. (According to the book, Smith had little say in the planning of their showpiece home designed by the fashionable modernist architect Ernst Plischke. It rankled with her that it became known as the Sutch House, especially as much of the money that paid for it was her own.) 

As far as can be ascertained from the biography, the couple lived largely separate lives; Smith involving herself in political and community affairs – nuclear disarmament, civil liberties, the peace movement – while her husband progressed through a succession of high-profile government and diplomatic posts where his known communist sympathies aroused the attention of the Security Intelligence Service and alarmed New Zealand’s allies.

That he supplied information to the Soviet Union was confirmed in the early 1990s when New Zealand journalist Geoff Chapple tracked down a former Soviet diplomat who recalled Sutch passing him a package intended for the KGB. The former KGB agent Dimitri Razgovorov, whose rendezvous with Sutch on a dark and rainy Wellington night led to the New Zealander’s arrest, was subsequently reported in the Auckland Star as revealing that he had “inherited” Sutch from his predecessor at the Soviet Embassy. Later again, in 2014, newly released KGB files from the so-called Mitrokhin Archive appeared to identify Sutch as the New Zealand agent recruited in 1950 and code-named “Maori” – although it should be noted that Sutch’s daughter Helen, herself a high achiever with a glittering career working for international agencies such as the World Bank, didn’t accept that the details about “Maori” matched her father, and continued to defend him as a patriotic New Zealander.

Whether Sutch’s income from the KGB explained his ownership of multiple properties, some of them acquired without his wife’s knowledge, isn’t clear from the Gaitanos book. Much of his life appears to have been conducted in secret. Certainly he died a wealthy man, with a Swiss bank account and a fortune estimated, in today's terms, at $5 million. It wasn’t until long after his death that Smith learned he owned part of a luxury estate in the Bahamas – surely an incongruous investment for an avowed socialist (but consistent with my long-held belief that some of the most fervent leftists are, at heart, frustrated and envious would-be capitalists).

That wasn’t the only surprising thing Smith learned about her husband after his death. Going through letters he had written to his mother, she discovered that his claims to have walked across the Soviet Union and traversed the Arctic Circle in the 1930s – feats which contributed to the aura around him – were total fabrications. In fact he crossed the Arctic Circle on a ship, took a train across the USSR and flew over the mountains to Afghanistan. Though there’s no suggestion Gaitanos set out with the intention of demolishing Sutch’s reputation, all of this helps to construct a picture of a man who was sneaky, deceptive, selfish, chauvinistic, rigidly dogmatic and possessed of enormous self-regard (he reportedly longed for a knighthood). That Smith stayed with him is a marvel.

On the other hand Smith, whatever you think of her politics, was a woman of principle and integrity, putting in long days at her legal practice battling for underdogs who often couldn’t afford to pay her and immersing herself in the social and political issues of the time. She was also an inveterate and adventurous traveller into her old age, with a particular affection for Greece.

I met her once. While at Wellington’s Evening Post in the 1990s I organised an afternoon tea for a group of habitual writers of letters to the editor. I thought it would be interesting to put faces to their names and allow them to meet each other, but it was also a gesture of appreciation for their contributions to the correspondence columns. As you might imagine, the guests were a disparate and quirky group that spanned the political and ideological spectrum.  Shirley Smith was one of them, and I took an instant liking to her. She was a tiny woman but you could sense her fierce energy and intellect. She was immensely engaging and radiated charisma. As Gaitanos’ book reveals, she packed an enormous amount into her life. I defy anyone to read it and not feel inadequate.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

An inexplicable crime for which the law has no adequate remedy

Not one but two families will be struggling to come to terms with the tragic event of October 30, 2019, in the Southland town of Otautau.

Media attention and public sympathy is understandably focused on the family of nine-year-old Hunter McIntosh, who was fatally stabbed by his teenage babysitter, Daniel Cameron, while their mothers were enjoying a game of pool at the local pub. It may be a cliché to say, as Justice Rachel Dunningham did, that Hunter’s death was every parent’s worst nightmare, but the reason we use clichés is that they usually express some sort of essential truth.

What makes this case a bit different is that I imagine the killer’s family will be going through their own nightmare. Daniel Cameron, who was 15 at the time of the murder, now faces a minimum of 11 years in prison and no guarantee of release after that.

The judge would have had limited sentencing options, given the magnitude of the crime, but that’s still a grim fate for a presumably troubled teenager. You can only hope that Corrections finds an appropriate place to put him – one where he will get counselling and be shielded from the harshest aspects of the prison environment.

The court heard there was no obvious explanation for the killing. Daniel had looked after Hunter several times before and the younger boy reportedly liked him.

But I wonder if there was a small clue in the judge’s reference to the fact that Daniel had mildly autistic traits and possibly had difficulty coping with stress and provocation. The court heard that on the night of the killing, Hunter had been making loud noises on a device similar to an air horn and persisted when Daniel asked him to stop.

Acute sensitivity to noise can be a symptom of autism. Autistic people may also have difficulty comprehending the consequences of their actions. Is it possible that Daniel, rather than carrying out a coldly deliberate and calculated murder, lost control in a momentary fit of blind rage and is no more capable of explaining his actions than the judge or his lawyer, both of whom appeared mystified by his motive? The messages he sent after the killing as he walked the streets of Otautau – the single word “Help” to a friend on Facebook Messenger, “What would you think if I killed someone?” to three other friends, and finally “I’m sorry come get me” to his mother – suggest a confused boy struggling to comprehend the enormity of what he has done.

Of course no explanation can console Hunter’s family, who have been deprived of a loved son, grandson and nephew. His mother’s statement to the court was heart-wrenching. The family’s rage and sense of injustice is a very human reaction; Daniel still has his life while Hunter has been robbed of his, and no judicial remedy is capable of reversing that hideous fact. But this was a crime that I imagine will have torn apart the killer’s family as well as his victim’s.