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.