Friday, December 31, 2021

What that Hipkins press conference tells us about the state of journalism

The government’s media managers play the press like a violin. Just look at how giddily excited reporters got at the novelty of Chris Hipkins conducting a press conference in a nature reserve.

How cute! The Covid-19 Response Minister was on holiday with his family on the Kapiti Coast, so briefed the gaggle of journos in plein air. Even better, he sent his Mum out to apologise for the delay while he rushed home to get a suit.

(Er, a question: why bother to put on a suit when he’s on holiday? Wouldn’t boxer shorts and jandals have been more in keeping with the beachy vibe? And if he really felt it necessary to get dressed up, why didn’t he have a suit on hand, given it was always on the cards that he’d be speaking to the media while on holiday?)

No, this had the unmistakeable appearance of a PR stunt. It was all of a kind with the media’s depiction of this government as laid-back, sweet-as Kiwi. (Think Jacinda Ardern’s folksy night-time address to the nation on Facebook being interrupted by 3-year-old Neve, which played to the carefully crafted Ardern stereotypes and caused The Guardian to wet itself with excitement.)

Oh, and something else I almost forgot to mention about the Hipkins presser: his two young kids emerged right on cue for a heart-warming photo of them cuddling their dad.

Call me a sceptic (a label apparently unfamiliar to the current generation of press gallery reporters, though it’s one that all journalists should wear proudly), but I have a nagging suspicion these things don’t happen by accident. The management of the media is carefully orchestrated – and the thing is, it works every time. The journos cooed with delight at the sight of Hipkins emerging from the trees in white shirt, suit pants and tie.

The characteristically mature – one might almost say cerebral – reaction of the assembled reporters was captured by Katrina Bennett, Wellington Head of News for NZME, who gushed on Twitter: “Nice thing about working at this time of year, is that rather than a horde of political minders at today's Covid presser, @chrishipkins' mum came & apologised to us for her son running late [here Bennett inserted a tears of joy emoji]. She didn't need to, but mums will be mums. Such a treat.” 

The Herald went on to quote Bennett as saying of Hipkins’ mother: “She was so lovely, it was a really nice gesture to come and apologise. Big Mum energy coming down to apologise, mums are the best.”

Good grief. It reads as if written by an over-stimulated teenager. Jason Walls from NewstalkZB took a similarly grown-up line, tweeting over a video of Hipkins emerging from the trees: “I’m so here for these ‘spotting him in the wild’ Bigfoot-esque photos of Chris Hipkins making his way to the press conference today.”

Double good grief. Clearly, the government’s communications advisers don’t need to get up super-early to come up with ways of impressing the media pack. The assembled reporters were so mesmerised by the gimmickry of the occasion that their stories neglected to tell us what Hipkins actually said (which may have been the intention – who knows?).

Stuff’s coverage struck a similarly effusive note, informing readers that after a delay of 10 minutes, “the minister finally appeared at the top of a nearby hill [almost like a biblical vision, one supposes]. Camera crews zeroed in and filmed him gracefully strolling his way down a path as the grass, flowers and trees blew in the breeze.

“It was the intro New Zealanders didn’t realise they needed, and caused great delight online. Memes, gifs and light-hearted quips quickly popped up on Kiwi news feeds, with one journalist saying it appeared Hipkins was speaking from ‘The Shire’.”

Does anyone notice something else about the reportage of the Hipkins press conference, apart from its breathless credulity and awe-struck tone? That’s right, it’s appallingly written. “Gracefully strolling his way down a path as the grass, flowers and trees blew in the breeze” – really?? Surely the unnamed reporter could have said something about the birds too? Oh, that’s right, he/she/they did:  “In the background, birds were chirping, adults were laughing and children could be heard playing on the playground nearby.”

I used to broadly divide journalists into two categories: those who were great at digging up useful information and those who had a facility for stringing words together. Some could do both. We now see acutely depressing daily evidence of reporters who can do neither.

All the puerile silliness outlined above is explained when you see a photograph of the current crop of political reporters. Almost invariably they are young, bright-eyed with idealism, woke, self-absorbed (you can see that from their social media posts) and besotted with the government and the excitement of their proximity to it. They learned their journalism in lecture theatres and never experienced the bracing humility of having their work hurled back at them by an irascible, hard-nosed boss (not all of whom were male, incidentally) and being told it was crap.

Happy New Year, everyone. I wish 2022 held the promise of an improvement in the quality of New Zealand journalism, but I can’t see it happening.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Some notable gains and a disappointing own-goal for the Free Speech Union

There are not a lot of warm fuzzy feelings to cherish from 2021. Most people will be happy to put the year behind them, for a whole lot of reasons not necessarily related to Covid-19. But there was one luminously bright spot. I refer to the establishment of the Free Speech Union last May.

The FSU evolved from the Free Speech Coalition, which in turn arose from outrage at the denial of a public speaking platform to the Canadian provocateurs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2018. Readers of this blog will recall that Phil Goff – whom I described at the time as the Gauleiter of Auckland – personally meddled in a process which resulted in council-owned Regional Facilities Auckland Ltd reneging on an earlier decision to make one of its venues available to the Canadians.

I should stress here that the coalition wasn’t formed because its founders endorsed the views of Southern and Molyneux, whom the media demonised as “far right” or “alt right” (whatever those terms might mean). The coalition was simply concerned with protecting the principle of free speech and the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to ideas not everyone agrees with.

Speaking for myself, I still have no idea what supposedly poisonous beliefs the Canadians were peddling, because we weren’t allowed to hear them. That was the whole point. They were “cancelled” on the pretext of threats to health and safety – the so-called thugs’ or hecklers’ veto, whereby officials can use the possibility of disruption as an excuse to de-platform controversial speakers (a fate also suffered later by Don Brash at Massey University).

The FSU initiated legal action challenging the Auckland cancellation but ran into an unsympathetic High Court decision, elements of which it then got overturned in the Court of Appeal, and is now going all the way to the Supreme Court. That the country’s highest court agreed to consider the issue is significant, indicating it should be seen as a test case on whether threats of violence should be allowed to over-ride free speech rights.

In the meantime the FSU, which is modelled on a similar organisation formed in Britain by Toby Young, associate editor of The Spectator, has busied itself with other worthy causes which it listed in an end-of-year summary put out by union spokesman Dane Giraud. These included:

■ Successful court action that forced Palmerston North City Council to reverse an earlier decision denying the feminist group Speak Up For Women, which opposed legislation allowing people to change the sex recorded on their birth certificates, the right to hold a public meeting in the city library. Other councils (Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington) got the message and also backtracked on similar speaking bans.

■ A petition signed by 40,000 people opposing the government’s plan to introduce “hate speech” laws that are so ill-defined and poorly thought out that neither the prime minister nor the Minister of Justice could explain how they would work.

■ Action to uphold the academic freedom of a Waikato University lecturer who faced a disciplinary hearing because his views about religion upset a student. The lecturer’s own union hung him out to dry but university officials did a handbrake turn after the FSU’s lawyers reminded them of their obligation to respect academic freedom under the Education Act.

■ In the most celebrated free speech case of the year, the FSU took up the cause of the seven eminent academics who were blackballed and pilloried by 2000 censorious (for which read bigoted) colleagues – again, with no support from union representatives or university authorities – after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the idea that traditional Maori knowledge (matauranga Maori) should be equated with science. The controversy attracted international attention and brought down a richly deserved hail of ridicule on the Royal Society of New Zealand when it announced its attention to subject two of the Listener Seven to the 21st century equivalent of a heresy trial.

■ Action was also taken in support of local government councillors, including former MP Michael Laws, who contravened stifling “codes of conduct” that restrict what the elected representatives of the people can say about council policies or council performance - in other words, censorship of the elected by the unelected. Dane Giraud comments: “There is a worrying trend of Codes of Conduct within organisations being weaponised to undermine free speech. This is true across numerous sectors, not just local government, where vague provisions can be twisted to suit just about any purpose."

All this serves to confirm the importance of the FSU in protecting freedom of expression at a time when it’s under attack on a scale unprecedented in the memory of most New Zealanders. It shouldn’t be necessary, of course, since free speech is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act. But most of the institutions that we once counted on to uphold free speech – including the news media, academia and the government itself – have deserted the cause and even worse, become complicit in its erosion.

Against this backdrop, however, it’s disheartening to note that the FSU passed up an opportunity to speak out in support of blogger Cameron Slater when he reported that he was under surveillance by a police “scanning and targeting team” for holding “anti-government” views and “denigrating” Labour Party policies.

I continue to support the FSU, but in my opinion they got things badly wrong here. It was a serious and seemingly inexplicable lapse in an otherwise laudable first few months.

In a statement belatedly issued on Christmas Eve, presumably in response to the concerns of members sympathetic to Slater (who wrote a trenchant post attacking the FSU), the union justified its silence by explaining that it had considered the issue and decided it involved “civil liberties” rather than free speech. But free speech is a civil liberty – arguably the most important civil liberty of all, since it goes to the very heart of participatory democracy. Look up almost any definition of civil liberties and you’ll find it includes freedom of speech along with other rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly. To treat it as something separate and discrete is to draw an artificial distinction.

The FSU went on to explain that Slater had not had his freedom of expression infringed in any practical way, which struck me as a narrow and rather legalistic assessment. It’s true, as the FSU says, that the police report on Slater didn’t stop him from writing columns or standing on a soapbox (metaphorically speaking). But active interference and outright coercion are not the only means of discouraging people from exercising their rights. The very knowledge that writing or publishing “anti-government” rhetoric might invite police attention would in itself serve as a deterrent to people less bold than Slater. The disclosure that police covertly monitor dissenters could have a potent chilling effect on public debate and is therefore something I believe the FSU should concern itself with.

Even more worrying was the suggestion from a senior sergeant that police should pay Slater a visit. This is how police states begin.

The FSU said the police had a legitimate role in monitoring sites where extremists congregated but conceded that they showed poor judgment in thinking the BFD, the site Slater is associated with, was one of those places. Here we get to the core of the argument. Slater might have invited police attention had he been inciting violence or insurrection, but he wasn’t. His putative offence was criticising the government – a legitimate, indeed necessary, function in any open democracy.  That’s why we should all be alarmed that he was under police scrutiny. Slater expresses himself very forcefully and certainly rubs people up the wrong way, but he’s not a political extremist.

On the other hand, we should be reassured that Slater's Official Information Act request flushed out the police zealots and that senior officers stepped in before things went too far. But none of this was a reason for the FSU to sit on its hands. The union could have acknowledged those redeeming factors while still pointing out that the OIA disclosures pointed to an unhealthy and potentially dangerous mentality within sections of the police. In fact to look at the issue from a different angle, what harm would have been done by issuing a statement cautioning against abuse of police powers? None that I can see. But it would have signalled that the union was vigilant in upholding free speech across the board, and perhaps more importantly it would have avoided the inevitable suspicion that the union decided to stay silent because of the identity of the individual concerned.

Slater, after all, has a complicated history and has made lots of enemies. His many critics would say he doesn’t make it easy to like him. We can only hope that wasn’t the reason the FSU held back from defending him. As Noam Chomsky (a lefty) observed, if we don’t believe in freedom of speech for people we dislike [although Chomsky used a much stronger word], we don’t believe in it at all. Or as someone close to me put it, you can’t pick and choose who you’re going to support when it comes to a scrap over free speech.

As it was, the FSU did itself no credit by eventually making a statement – to its members, not the public at large – on a day when people had other things on their minds. That’s what governments do when they want to hide something.

I respect the leaders of the union and I admire them for all they have achieved in a short time, but they didn’t so much drop the ball on this occasion as refuse to pick it up. Sadly, I suspect their credibility will have been damaged as a result.

FOOTNOTE: At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t know Cameron Slater, although the BFD has published pieces by me. I should also acknowledge that the Free Speech Union republished my original blog post on the police surveillance issue, noting that “reasonable minds can differ on these issues”.



Friday, December 24, 2021

Joy to the world and all that

To all those who have followed this blog in 2021, Happy Christmas and thanks for your support.

New Zealand at the end of the year is a radically different country than it was at the start. I think many of us are slightly stunned by the sheer speed of the transformation.

It has been a year of division and polarisation. I’m not referring to the social tensions brought to the surface by Covid-19, although that hasn’t helped. I’m talking about the relentless promotion of identity politics, by both politicians and the mainstream media, and the deliberate fostering of a sense that New Zealand is no longer a society of diverse people with common interests but one in which aggrieved minorities seek to overturn a supposedly privileged and callously indifferent ruling class.

The year has been an object lesson in how a determined and ideologically driven government, supported by allies in academia, the bureaucracy and the media, can deconstruct one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies. Many of us – perhaps most of us – don’t recognise the new country that’s being created and were never asked whether we wanted it.

Indoctrination of the young and impressionable in schools and universities is a crucial part of the transformation process. Unencumbered by knowledge of their own history, they are ripe for the picking. Karl Marx never saw his revolution of the proletariat realised, but I’m sure he would heartily approve of the disruption generated by 21st century activists who share his view of Western democratic society as rotten and irrevocably divided between oppressed and oppressors.

We are witnessing nothing less than a cultural revolution. It’s not one in which supposed enemies of the people and capitalist running dogs are being dragged from their homes and sent to re-education camps, as in Mao’s China, but there is a similar underlying tone of authoritarianism and denunciation of dissenters. We saw it in the savage reaction to the Listener Seven, who were howled down for their heretical attempt to uphold scientific values.

Jacinda Ardern has cleverly contrived to remain aloof from all the ugly stuff, but as prime minister she has given her implied consent. While smilingly uttering pious bromides about social cohesion, she presides over a government that is busily undermining that same sense of solidarity. The country will have a chance to assess her record in 2023, but by that time, even if a new government engages reverse gear, the damage will be deep and possibly irremediable.

In the circumstances it seems a bit incongruous to be wishing everyone the compliments of the season – but hey, Christmas is one institution they haven’t hijacked. Not yet, anyway.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Sorry, but this blog is no longer ad-free

Readers of this blog will notice that they may now have to navigate around pop-up ads. Having run this site for more than 10 years with no revenue I've decided, reluctantly, to see whether I can generate a very modest income from it. Maintaining the blog is time-consuming and no longer subsidised by other income sources. If the ads become a nuisance to readers, I'm sure you'll let me know. Thanks.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Why I'm no longer compiling the Five-Minute Quiz

For the past sixteen and a half years I’ve contributed a daily quiz to Stuff. It’s called the Five-Minute Quiz and although it wasn’t originally my creation, I was asked to take it over in May 2005. Since then I’ve written roughly 50,000 questions.

I originally contributed the Five-Minute Quiz solely to the Dominion Post (I was given the gig by the then editor Tim Pankhurst, who has long since gone from the scene) but it was later picked up by other papers in the Stuff group, from Hamilton to Invercargill. (It shouldn’t be confused with Stuff’s online quiz, which has nothing to do with me. The Five-Minute Quiz appears only in print publications.)

It would be fair to say the quiz has acquired a very substantial following, though I’ve never quite understood why. It’s a daily ritual in thousands of homes and workplaces. Devotees include judges, professors, cops, farmers, public servants and trades people (who I’ve heard will often ring each other at smoko time to compare scores and brag when they’ve done well).

The quiz was sponsored for some time by Massey University, whose name appeared at the top each day. But Massey had nothing to do with the content; I guess they just saw it was popular and wanted to take some of the credit.

The authorship of the quiz, while hardly a state secret, has never been publicly disclosed. I preferred to remain anonymous because for much of the time that I compiled the quiz I also wrote opinion columns for papers in the Stuff group. Not all readers agreed with my opinions and I didn’t want the quiz to suffer because of any opprobrium I might have incurred as a result of my writing. I was always careful to ensure the quiz remained strictly non-political.

Anyway, the reason I’m outing myself now is that my last quizzes will appear next week. I’ve told Stuff that I no longer want to be associated with a company whose editorial values and policies are at odds with mine. Whether or not the quiz will continue is up to them.

For me, it’s the end of an association with the Dominion Post that dates back to 1962, when I became a Dominion delivery boy in Waipukurau. That association continued through several stints as a journalist and editorial executive for both the Evening Post (the “Post” in Dominion Post) and The Dominion, of which I was editor from 1989 till 1992.  

The better part of my career as a journalist was spent on those two papers. I look back fondly on much of that time, but I’m severing the connection with no regrets. The Dominion Post as it exists now bears little resemblance to the titles it evolved from, and which I was proud to work for.

I should finish by saying there’s a possibility that the quiz will reappear elsewhere – most likely online – under a new name.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

New Zealand: where being "anti-government" results in police surveillance

Things are worse than we thought. 

Blogger Cameron Slater recently learned from an OIA request that the blog he’s associated with, The BFD, was under police surveillance. An unnamed police intelligence analyst was concerned Slater would “continue to publish uncorroborated information to denigrate labour [sic] party policies and individuals linked to them”.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are people in the police hierarchy who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This was also the mentality of East Germany’s Stasi, South Africa’s BOSS (the Bureau of State Security) and Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier’s murderous Tonton Macoute.

(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin didn’t care for dissenters either, as he made clear in a 1920 speech: “Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticised? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?” Lenin subsequently set up the OGPU, which eventually morphed into the KGB, to ensure he wasn’t bothered by such irritations. Someone like Slater would have gone straight to the Gulag.)

The documents released to Slater also included a request from an unnamed officer, couched in military-style jargon, describing him as racist and “anti-government” and asking for a “rundown” on him. The documents note that Slater’s reporting on Siouxsie Wiles, whom he labelled a hypocrite for appearing to flout lockdown restrictions that she had urged the public to comply with, was “consistent with past behaviours” such as defamation, breaching name suppression and “publishing erroneous reports on political opponents” – all of which are matters for civil, not criminal law, and therefore not the business of the police.

Ominously, a police intelligence briefing disclosed concern that Slater “will continue to public voice opinions on topical matters which may add to conspiracy theorist engagement across social media”. And an unnamed senior sergeant wondered whether the cops should pay Slater a visit because he posted “possibility [sic] controversial racist comments” about the September terrorist incident at LynnMall.

It’s hard to take this alarmist nonsense seriously, but we must. The documents reveal there are people in the police who think it’s their function to protect us against the free exchange of ideas and opinion – a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act. To put it more bluntly, these commissars-in-waiting apparently regard democracy as dangerous.

So being anti-government is now seen as a potential threat to public safety? This is the type of state paranoia that ultimately leads to monitoring of phone calls and knocks on the door at midnight. Slater was right to describe it as sinister.

As recently as two years ago I wouldn’t have imagined this sort of thing happening in one of the world’s most open democracies, but it’s surprising how quickly freedoms can be eroded. It starts with the marginalisation of unapproved views (the mainstream media are complicit in this) and advances rapidly to the point where dissent is denounced, suppressed and even made illegal. All it takes is a passive and apathetic populace – oh, and politicians too timid and too unsure of their own values to make a stand for individual freedoms.

Couldn’t happen in a liberal democracy like New Zealand? Don’t be so sure. During the 1951 waterfront dispute a National government invoked extreme powers under the Public Safety Conservation Act. These gave the police power to censor all publications, broadcasts and even private letters; seize printing presses and typewriters; arrest people who provided food, money or other support to striking workers and their families; ban public meetings; arrest people without warrant; and enter and search properties without a court order.

All of these powers were exercised by the police on the pretext that it was for the public good – and what’s most disturbing is that a compliant public and press went along. Who can say that under an equally determined government of the left, supported by a similarly sympathetic media, police won’t again be empowered to interfere with basic democratic freedoms? The appetite appears to be there, at least among some officers with dangerously inflated (and deluded) ideas about their function. 

What next, I wonder. Will we hear people like Slater described as “enemies of the state” or “enemies of the people” – phrases used by brutal totalitarian regimes of both the extreme right (Nazi Germany) and extreme left (the Soviet Union) to justify the incarceration of troublesome individuals on the pretext that it’s for the good of society?

In this case, thank God, the unnamed police busybodies were over-ruled by wiser and more grounded senior officers. But the realisation that this type of censorious zealotry exists within the police should strike a cold chill in the heart of anyone  who values open democracy – and all the more so when it remains possible that under so-called “hate speech” laws, the police will be given power to determine what we can and cannot say.

Disclosure: I haven’t met Cameron Slater, but I have written guest posts for The BFD and it has republished some posts from my blog by agreement. I have publicly disagreed with some of Slater’s tactics in the past. But freedom of speech is not a right that depends on the acceptability of the opinions expressed. Orwell (as so often) put it best: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

That accountability thing that Susie Ferguson doesn't seem to get

Now here’s a surprise (or on second thoughts, perhaps not): one of the two presenters on Radio New Zealand’s flagship news and current show appears not to understand why a functioning democracy depends on accountability mechanisms.

Interviewing Manawatu District mayor Helen Worboys, one of 23 mayors who have formed an action group to resist the Three Waters project, Morning Report co-host Susie Ferguson wanted to know what was the point of their opposition.

Worboys’ answer (and here I’m paraphrasing): The councils the mayors represent want to retain control of the water infrastructure that their communities have built and paid for. They believe they can come up with smarter and more acceptable ways of reforming water management and want the government to hit the “pause” button until they can put forward alternative proposals. Having paid for the assets, their communities want a say in how they’re run, but under Nanaia Mahuta’s master plan there will be no line of accountability back to them. (If I could interject here, that’s surely the key objection to the Three Waters project. It’s not so much about whether there’s a need to impose uniform standards and bring inadequate infrastructure up to standard; what’s at issue is the process by which this would be achieved, which involves transferring control to opaque, unelected and remote “entities” with no lines of accountability to, or even direct connection with, the communities whose water assets they’ll be appropriating.)

Ferguson didn’t quite seem to get any of this. As long as water assets remained in public ownership, she asked, what did it matter who controlled them? To which Worboys explained that the issue of ownership was actually quite a big deal. “The government says we will still own them, but they won’t sit on councils’ balance sheets.” (You might call it a Clayton’s type of ownership, then.)

Worboys again made the point that communities would have no voice and there would be no accountability. To which Ferguson, by now sounding slightly impatient and querulous, demanded to know: “Why does that matter?” Good grief.

After Worboys had patiently explained – again – that it indeed mattered to communities which had invested in good infrastructure that met the required standards, as in Manawatu (which Ferguson had wrongly suggested was one of the poor-performing councils that Mahuta is using as an excuse for her radical master plan), Ferguson – now sounding positively obtuse – insisted: “But you still haven’t explained why the ownership matters.”

At this point you could have forgiven Worboys for getting impatient herself, but she tried again. “Because we want a local voice in what happens to our infrastructure ...” Ferguson then imperiously talked over the top of her, again demanding to know: “Why?” Worboys' answer (and I’m again taking the liberty of paraphrasing her) was that every council’s situation is different and they want the right to make their own decisions, specific to their own needs and circumstances – a right that will be denied to them once they’re absorbed into an amorphous entity with 21 other councils, as would happen in Manawatu’s case.

It’s the accountability thing that Ferguson seemed either unwilling or unable to grasp, and it’s worrying – to put it mildly – that someone in her position professes not to see the massive accountability deficit that arises when control over billions of dollars’ worth of assets is transferred from councils, which are directly answerable to local voters, to remote bureaucracies appointed by a political and tribal elite accountable to … well, who, exactly? We don’t really know. (Coincidentally, Three Waters is based on a model from Scotland, which is where Ferguson came from. Former Far North mayor Wayne Brown explained here why the government would have learned more from Madagascar.)

Ferguson gave the impression she saw no harm in a bullying government using its power to push through radical changes, unmandated by voters. Her line of questioning could be summarised thus: "What's the problem? Why are you getting in the way?" But accountability lies at the heart of a functioning democracy. Take it away and we might as well also dispense with Parliament, councils and all the other institutions that are supposed to be ultimately answerable to the public. Come to that, there’d be no place for programmes like Morning Report either, because they depend for their existence on acceptance of the notion that in a democracy, people in power must be held accountable.

But then, democracy is notoriously untidy and inconvenient. How much cleaner and more efficient it would be if we delegated all power to an unelected central authority that knows what’s best for us. There’s even a ready-made name for it: the Politburo.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

New Zealand's march toward condominium-style co-governance

(The following is a guest post by my long-ago colleague Peter Isaac, who regularly posts at I think it's a succinct and insightful summary of the ideologically driven madness gripping New Zealand.)

Unbeknownst to most of its inhabitants an Oceania nation is transforming itself into the world’s newest condominium, a rare form of governance in which sovereignty is shared by two legally defined categories.

In New Zealand’s case the two categories are Maori and non-Maori.

This transition is incremental and the change is imperceptible to all but the political activists driving the split governance scheme.

This imminence of it was reinforced by the New Zealand government serving notice that it intended to nationalise municipal water.

This followed the announcement of a centralising of public health currently run by 20 elected boards centred on district local hospitals.

In both these shakeups there is scheduled to be a substantial if not dominant role for those claiming Maori heritage.

Maori electoral districts known as wards are being shunted through for local government authorities.

State broadcasting channels are ramrodding through the Maori language at every and any opportunity.

In this whole evolving framework the government taps into a deep-seated craving for New Zealand to achieve recognition on the world stage wherever progressive values command the agenda.

This is variously described as “holding our head high,” or more colloquially and more famously “punching above our weight.”

The Labour government is acutely conscious of this yearning to be seen to be leading any social advance. It now sees what amounts to condominium government as its instrument for attaining its international “best in class” status, as it sees it.

It knows it has the power to implement a condominium bipartite or two-system form of governance because its polls continue to tell it that it has the allegiance of the commanding blocs of the electorate.

These voting blocs include the entire education system and anything to do with the media-arts, along with most other public institutions.

In contrast this leaves its National Party opposition holding only the property and real estate sector and clinging with an increasingly tenuous grip to its traditional agribusiness base.

As a condominium looms for the nation it is salutary to examine the last one in Oceania. This was the New Hebrides before it achieved independence in 1980 and became Vanuatu.

Governance was shared between Britain and France. Everything existed in mirrored pairs. There were for example separate British and French governments, which meant two immigration policies and two corporation laws.

There are signs that the New Hebrides condominium experience has been studied by the local condominium governance architects. This is because language in practical terms became in the New Hebrides era the most serious impediment to smooth running, since anything official at all had to be interpreted and then re-interpreted into French and English.

The condominium scheme, the new one for New Zealand, is well under way. So anticipating the same New Hebrides language operational obstacle, government agencies daily increase their double-up of Maori and English in announcements as well as in correspondence and documents.

Officials in any capacity understand that their career prospects will be much enhanced should they use every opportunity, and at the expense of effective communication, to apply Maori words and ideally whole phrases or, better still, entire sentences.

In the old New Hebrides condominium inhabitants were given the choice of which government they wanted to be ruled by: the French one or the English one. This is the evolving pattern in the New Zealand scheme.

Matiu Rata was the Minister of Maori Affairs in the nation’s third Labour government and he was renowned for bluntly yet concisely summarising any state of affairs as he saw it.

On one occasion he was asked who exactly was a Maori. “You are a Maori if you think you are a Maori,” he declared.

As New Zealand incrementally but so purposefully moves toward condominium governance Matiu Rata’s yardstick, like the New Hebrides experience, demands earnest evaluation.

Peter Isaac is a former journalist and public relations consultant. He lives in the Wairarapa.

A nice idea, but no thanks

A regular commenter on this site has suggested I institute a Daily Post open to anyone with something “intelligent, reasoned and non-vitriolic” to say about the issue(s) of the day. (I’m replying to him here because I have no other way of making contact.) I can see why the idea appeals, but it would change the character of this blog and potentially take it in a direction that I never intended. Besides, the job of moderating and editing contributions could take more time than I’m prepared to commit. So thanks, but no thanks. I'll continue to publish the  occasional guest post, as I've done today, but not on an "all comers welcome" basis.  The way is open for anyone else to start a new blog along the lines suggested.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Journalistic prejudice exposed (#149 in a continuing series)

Stuff political columnist Andrea Vance maintains the pretence of objectivity until about halfway through her latest column, in which she analyses Christopher Luxon’s performance in his first couple of weeks as National leader.

Then she loses it, totally.

Turning to Luxon’s views on abortion, she remarks: “He claims to be pro-life, a phrase American conservatives use to cloak the underlying misogyny of anti-abortion legislation.”

Ergo, anyone who opposes abortion must be misogynistic. But hang on a minute. My wife opposes abortion. My sister opposes abortion. The head of Voice for Life, New Zealand’s main anti-abortion organisation, is a woman, as are many - perhaps most - of its members. Ten of the 35 MPs who voted against last year's liberalisation of the abortion laws were women. (My mother also opposed abortion and once exposed herself to howls of denunciation at a so-called United Women’s Convention for insisting on her right to say so.)

Does that make them all women-haters? Really?? How does that work? This is a case of simplistic sloganeering in place of rational argument. Either it’s dishonest or it exposes a limited intellect.

Now let’s go back to Vance’s statement and try reconstructing it. We could just as accurately say of someone who’s pro-abortion: “He claims to be pro-choice, a phrase women’s rights activists use to cloak the fact that abortion involves the extinguishing of a human life”. These arguments can cut both ways.

Vance goes on to say: “… where National has previously dabbled with fundamentalists it has not worked out for the best … just ask Don Brash”.

At first glance she appears to be implying that Brash is a fundamentalist. I’m sure that’s how most readers would interpret it. But although Brash was the son of a high-profile (and liberal, in the classic sense) Presbyterian minister, religion has never been part of his political pitch.

What’s more, Vance perpetuates the canard, popular among left-wing journalists whose memories don’t go back very far, that National crashed and burned under Brash’s leadership. In fact the exact reverse happened: in the 2005 election, he lifted the party’s vote by nearly 20 percent and came within two seats of dislodging Helen Clark.

I’m going to be charitable here and give Vance the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she was referring to Brash’s flirtation with the Exclusive Brethren prior to that election. But the public knew about that and delivered National a 21-seat gain anyway.

If that’s what Vance was talking about, she should have made it clear. If not, then the reference is misleading. Either way, it’s not a good look from a senior political journalist – but who’s surprised?

Friday, December 10, 2021

Why the judicial conduct panel's secret inquiry can't possibly be about Judge Callinicos

There was an intriguing report in yesterday’s Dominion Post about a secret inquiry by a judicial conduct panel.

It was a classic case of a story raising more questions than it answered. Quoting a press statement issued by the panel, the story revealed that the unnamed judge at the centre of the inquiry had questioned its legitimacy.

More specifically, the panel said the judge had challenged its jurisdiction to conduct the inquiry “in the particular circumstances of the case”. That would be the first question the panel had to decide.

The panel made interim non-publication orders covering the judge’s identity and the background of the case. Even the judge’s gender wasn’t disclosed. The question of what could be published about the inquiry would not be considered again until that issue was decided, “at the earliest” (which suggests that even then, the panel may reserve its right to keep the proceedings secret).

All this furtiveness was bound to arouse feverish speculation – and sure enough, conspiracy-minded people were soon mischievously putting it about that the unnamed judge under investigation was Hawke’s Bay Family Court judge Peter Callinicos.

This wild gossip was based on no firmer foundation than that Callinicos was reported earlier this year as being the subject of complaints about his conduct in the racially sensitive “Moana” child custody case, in which he subjected Oranga Tamariki social workers to some robust questioning.

While the Moana case was still in progress, a complaint about Callinicos from the then head of Oranga Tamariki, Sir Wira Gardiner, resulted in the judge being contacted by two of his superiors – an apparent breach of judicial independence. It later emerged that Callinicos had been investigated behind his back by even more senior members of the judiciary.

Attorney-General David Parker subsequently accepted Judicial Conduct Commissioner Alan Ritchie’s recommendation that an unnamed judge be investigated by the panel, to which Parker appointed Chief High Court Judge Susan Thomas, District Court judge Lawrence Hinton and former diplomat Jacqueline Caine (Ngai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Waitaha). The Dominion Post disclosed that in his latest annual report, Ritchie said that “[O]n my assessment, the [judge's] conduct, if established, would fall well short of accepted judicial standards”. (As far as is known, no inquiry has been announced into concerns about an unnamed judge’s judicial independence being compromised.)

Putting two and two together and adding a generous dollop of irrational conjecture, some people have assumed that the unnamed judge at the centre of the current proceedings must be Callinicos. On the face of it, this supposition appears to be supported by the fact that judicial conduct panel hearings are rare and there are unlikely to be two running simultaneously.

But I can put their minds at rest. These proceedings cannot possibly be about Callinicos. By a highly unusual coincidence, they must relate to another case.

My reasoning is simple.

■ There is a well-established presumption of open justice. Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done etc etc.

■ The judicial conduct panel would be aware that the Callinicos case has been well-publicised and has therefore become a matter of keen and legitimate public interest.

■ It will be aware too that the case has raised concerns about the clubby nature of the judicial establishment and the opaque nature of almost everything related to judicial affairs, from the appointment of judges to the way disciplinary matters are dealt with.

■ In the circumstances, the panel would presumably be anxious to dispel any suspicions, far-fetched though they may be, about important issues being dealt with behind closed doors and out of public view. The last thing it would want is wild allegations about secretive Star Chamber-type inquisitions.

It follows, then, that the inquiry reported by the Dominion Post must relate to something entirely different.


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

What this photo tells us about the state of political journalism


Many readers will have seen this picture. It shows three political journalists sprinting across the forecourt at Parliament.

My first thought on seeing the photo was that something or someone very frightening must have been chasing them. But no, the three women were themselves the chasers. They were in pursuit of Christopher Luxon's hired car as he arrived at Parliament for the first time as National leader.

Apparently the reporters were taken by surprise when Luxon was driven to Parliament from his apartment across the street rather than walking, thus presumably thwarting their plans to waylay him. They then had to take to their [high] heels to keep up, something for which they were clearly ill-prepared. 

My second thought was: do they realise how ridiculous they look? Admittedly it probably didn’t occur to them that the moment would be caught on camera, but the photo reminded me why I've made it a lifelong rule never to run unless my physical safety is in imminent danger. I've missed a few trains and buses as a result, but I'd like to think I've avoided the indignity of being seen doing something for which I'm clearly not suited. This photo reinforced the soundness of that rule, though I must say the reporter on the left (whom I couldn't identify) ran quite elegantly despite wearing inappropriate footwear, which suggests she may have done this sort of thing before. 

The question remains: why were they running, exactly? Luxon's limo would be pulling to a halt in a few seconds, giving them a chance to do what political journalists typically do in such situations, which is ask trite and pointless questions that they have no real expectation of being answered in any meaningful way.

Perhaps the three runners share the same instinct as sheep and cattle, whereby if one starts running, even when there's no obvious reason, all the others do too, as if by some mysterious trigger. Or to use another animal comparison, maybe, like dogs, they just can't resist the urge to chase anything that appears to be trying to get away from them. 

Chasing cars, of course, is a common canine sport, though the dog never quite knows what to do if and when the car stops. But let’s not take that analogy any further.

Setting aside these possible explanations, my guess is that the journalists were running because of that well-recognised psychological disorder common among press gallery journalists: FOMO, or fear of missing out.

In the few seconds between Luxon getting out of his car and disappearing inside Parliament Buildings, hounded by a scrum of over-stimulated reporters all asking questions that were unlikely to reveal anything even if they were answered, there might have lurked a sound-bite. Who knows? It might have been as trivial as Luxon commenting on the weather, but hey – with skilled editing, any meaningless remark has the potential to be stitched into a package for the 6pm bulletin that conveys a sense of intense political drama and momentous events unfolding even when nothing much is happening. Newshub does it almost every night.

And what, say, if Luxon had tripped and fallen as he tried to fight his way through the media pack? What would Jessica Mutch McKay (that's her on the right) have said to her bosses if TV3 had captured the moment and TVNZ didn't, and her only excuse was that she and her camera person were five seconds late getting there? There's big-time professional humiliation, right there.

The photo, then, tells us quite a lot about the state of political journalism. It's less concerned with the substance of politics than it is with the excitement of the chase and the ambush, the irrational, adrenalin-charged excitement of the media scrum and the  desire to bail politicians up, catch them out, trip them up and trap them into saying things that will backfire on them; the “Gotcha!” moment.

Not all these elements are present in the picture, of course, but nonetheless it encapsulates the sense that coverage of politics, for broadcasting journalists especially, has become an infantile game in which almost all sight has been lost of journalism's key purpose, which is to inform the public about things that actually matter to them.

Media coverage of politics has become a circus in which the media themselves act as ringmasters. To their shame, politicians are complicit in this, allowing alpha journalists such as Tova O'Brien to bully and goad them. Politicians are thus instrumental in trivialising politics and demeaning themselves. They should remind themselves that they at least have the honour of being elected and publicly accountable (those who represent actual electorates, that is – list MPs not so much), which is more than can be said for journalists. In that sense politicians have the moral high ground over their tormentors. They need to remember this and stand up for themselves.

A friend of mine who has experienced political journalism from both sides recently suggested, not entirely jokingly, that we need a politician like the late Robert Muldoon to put egotistical reporters in their place. Neither my friend nor I were admirers of Muldoon and his take-no-prisoners attitude toward journalists, but the relationship between politicians and reporters today is just as unhealthy as it was then – albeit with the roles reversed. 

What makes things worse is that the media have almost entirely abandoned coverage of parliamentary proceedings – that is to say, debates and select committee hearings where important issues are debated and decided, and where our laws are shaped. This stuff is way too dry and tedious for the media, who prefer to confront MPs outside the debating chamber and pepper them with questions about the latest confected controversy-du-jour.

Parliamentary proceedings appear to interest the media only when there’s blood on the floor or when (as happened yesterday) there’s the tantalising prospect of a showdown or shootout. As a result, we sometimes learn about new laws months after they have been passed, by which time they have taken effect and are starting to bite – often to the complete surprise of those affected by them. I often wonder whether there's anyone even sitting in the press gallery, that section of Parliament that Edmund Burke honoured by labelling it the Fourth Estate – one he described as "more important [by] far" than everyone else sitting there. 

Where, for example, was the press gallery last month when Parliament quietly changed the law to allow “iwi representatives” – for which read nominees of unelected vigilante Hone Harawira, a politician booted out of Parliament by the very people he purports to speak for – to obstruct people going about their lawful business on public roads? Was there no one in the gallery that day? (It was a Saturday, after all – sleep-in day for exhausted hacks.) Or were the journalists obligingly looking the other way?

Nearly two weeks passed before news of the law change filtered out. Inexplicably, National and Act were silent; missing in action. Winston Peters issued a statement, but it was ignored. Despite saturation media coverage of Covid-19, this unprecedented interference with New Zealanders’ common law rights strangely went unreported. It was only when Police Commissioner Andrew Coster was interviewed by Mike Hosking that the public became aware of the law change.

Hosking’s fellow NewstalkZB presenter Heather du Plessis-Allen subsequently ripped into the government for going to ground and refusing to answer questions once the news got out about iwi-manned roadblocks, but she let her media colleagues off the hook. They were complicit too, either though dereliction, laziness, incompetence or connivance.  

The government’s action might have been “shady as all hell”, as du Plessis-Allan says, but governments get away with these things only if the media let them. And as long as cynical politicians can rely on the mainstream media being distracted by sideshows and political soap operas, they will continue to escape tough scrutiny on things that really matter.


Monday, December 6, 2021

On the Royal Society and the stifling of free speech

Last week the Free Speech Union, of which I’m a member, asked me to write something about the modern-day heresy trial initiated by the Royal Society of New Zealand following complaints about a letter written to the Listener in which seven respected academics very civilly challenged the idea that matauranga Maori – traditional Maori knowledge – should be given the same status as science. My article was to be distributed to media outlets in the hope that it would help draw attention to the parlous state of free speech in academia.

My article, which was sent out last Tuesday, is published below. It doesn’t deal solely with the Royal Society controversy, since I wanted to contextualise the society’s inquisition (which has attracted attention in the latest issue of the UK Spectator) by setting the current issue against the backdrop of other free speech controversies, just to remind readers that there’s a pattern here.

I deliberately adopted a low-key tone, bearing in mind the article was to be offered to mainstream media and I didn’t want to give them any excuse to reject it. But as of today, I’m told that only one small provincial paper has published it. People may feel entitled to assume from this that the protection of free speech doesn’t rate highly in media priorities, although all media outlets depend on it for their existence. (Of course it's also possible that it was rejected because it's a crappy article. You be the judge.)

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in a liberal democracy – as important, even, as the right to vote, since people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.

This is one of the crucial factors that distinguishes a true liberal democracy such as New Zealand from authoritarian “pretend” democracies such as Russia, where people are allowed to vote but are denied access to information and opinion that doesn’t conform to the agenda of those in control.

Accordingly, the Bill of Rights Act, passed by a Labour government in 1990, states that every New Zealander has the right to freedom of expression, “including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. The wording is similar to that of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, except that the UN declaration goes a step further by asserting the right to “hold opinions without interference”.

Even before the Bill of Rights Act made it explicit, free speech was a right that New Zealanders took for granted. They exercised it (and still do) every day in letters to the editor and on radio talkback shows.

Yet a perception has grown in recent years that New Zealanders’ right to speak freely and to hear or read all shades of political opinion, short of those that incite violence and hatred, is under sustained attack. Concern at the fragility of free speech rights led to the formation this year of the Free Speech Union, which has drawn support from across the political and ideological spectrum.

One celebrated case involved the Canadian “alt-right” (so-called) speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at a council-owned Auckland venue in 2018. The excuse used for denying them a platform was that the event might be disrupted by protesters.

Activists quickly realised they could force the cancellation of speeches by people they didn’t like simply by threatening protest action – a tactic sometimes referred as the heckler’s or thug's veto.

A similar pretext, fear of disruption, was used by Massey University to cancel a speech by former National Party leader and Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, although it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to incite trouble than the unfailingly civil Brash. Emails released under the Official Information Act subsequently revealed that the real reason Massey’s vice-chancellor banned Brash was that she didn’t want the university to be seen as “endorsing racist behaviours”. In other words, she didn’t agree with Brash’s opinion on the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Southern-Molyneux controversy is still being played out in the courts, the crowd-funded Free Speech Union having gone all the way to the Supreme Court in a test case aimed at preventing public authorities from using the supposed threat of disruption as an excuse to “de-platform” speakers.

In the meantime, other developments have reinforced the perception that freedom of expression in New Zealand is imperilled. The feminist group Speak Up For Women (SUFW), which advances the unremarkable view that only people born female can call themselves women, has been barred from holding meetings in public premises and had a prominent advertising billboard taken down in central Wellington. Some newspapers refused to accept their ads.

SUFW’s struggle to get its message across in the face of determined opposition from trans-gender activists illustrates that the defence of free speech cuts across the usual ideological and political lines.

People who identify with the radical left have found themselves on the same side as conservatives and libertarians in pushing for the right to say what they think. The Free Speech Union’s supporters, for example, include veteran leftists Matt McCarten and Chris Trotter.

In the latest outbreak of the speech wars, the action has shifted to a new and worrying arena. Seven respected university academics found themselves blacklisted in July after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the notion that matauranga Maori – which can be defined as the traditional body of Maori knowledge – should be accorded the same status as science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.  

In an unprecedented pile-on, more than 2000 fellow academics, urged on by professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles, signed a letter denouncing the Listener Seven and implying they condoned “scientific racism”.

The response went well beyond legitimate disagreement. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril.

More alarmingly still, two of the Listener Seven are now being investigated by the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science – and may be expelled.  

What started as an academic debate has thus taken on the character of a heresy trial. Even more ironically, one of the professors under investigation, Garth Cooper, is a Maori who has earned international acclaim for his achievements in Maori health.  

Once again, the Free Speech Union has stepped up by creating an academic freedom fund to help defend the two accused. If the complaint against them is upheld, union spokesman Dr David Cumin says, academics will inevitably feel less safe expressing honestly held views on contentious issues.

The union accuses universities and research institutions of trying to muzzle the very people whose job is to ask questions. “Academic freedom is under attack.”

The bottom line here is that science and academia need people who challenge accepted wisdom, otherwise we would be stuck forever in the status quo. But in New Zealand in 2021, the price for deviating from approved orthodoxy is punishment and ostracism.

[Anyone interested in defending free speech is welcome to republish or distribute this article. The Free Speech Union website is here.]

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Competent management won't be enough to save New Zealand

I wrote the following article for the Insight section (paywalled) of the BFD. It was published on Friday.

The question everyone’s asking about Christopher Luxon – or to be more precise, the question everyone who’s interested in politics and New Zealand’s future is asking about Christopher Luxon – is this: what sort of leader (and potentially prime minister) will he be?

Judging by what we’ve seen and heard over the past few days, the answer is that he’ll probably be like most previous National leaders.

That is to say, he’s likely to be driven primarily by pragmatism – by whatever works politically, rather than by deeper philosophical motivations. In this respect he may be not much different from John Key, the party’s most successful (for which, read popular) leader in the modern era, and a man who has been described as Luxon’s mentor.

During an interview with Lisa Owen on RNZ’s Checkpoint on the day he became leader, Luxon referred in passing to National’s “core values”. He didn’t explain what they were, perhaps assuming we already know. But we don’t, because they haven’t been apparent for a very long time.

Certainly, I never had a clue what Key’s core values were, if they existed. I’m not sure he ever spelled them out – and to be honest, it wouldn’t matter to most New Zealanders that he didn’t. It was enough that Key kind of felt right to a majority of voters – the feel-good factor shouldn’t be under-rated – and mostly avoided doing reckless or unpopular things. (I say “mostly” because there was the poorly handled flag debate, which was a gift to his opponents, and the sneaky signing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which revealed that whatever else Key believed in, transparency didn’t rank highly in his priorities.) 

In fact National’s ultimate core value, for as long as most people can remember, is winning and holding onto power. Fundamentally, that’s what drives the party.

And speaking pragmatically, it’s hard to argue with. After all, a political party achieves nothing by languishing in opposition, other than by perhaps coming up with the occasional good idea that someone else then steals and takes the credit for.

But some people – and I admit I’m one – look for something more in politicians than simply the desire to win. Accordingly, we talk about “conviction politicians”: people who enter politics because of a compelling belief in a particular set of values and a commitment to pursue them regardless of political exigencies. ACT was founded by conviction politicians, though it later lost its way. So were the Values and Green parties.

Granted, New Zealand voters tend not to be wildly keen about conviction politicians. The public is suspicious of ideologues and feels safer with pragmatists who don’t stray too far from the centre ground.

And it has to be said that voters sometimes have good reason to be wary. Leaders of some conservative Christian parties, for example, presented themselves as conviction politicians but didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. One was a conviction politician in the very worst sense, entering politics on the basis of his religious convictions and ending up with convictions of the criminal kind for sexual offences against young girls.

Notwithstanding all the above, conviction politics has worked for Labour. One of the defining differences between National and Labour is that the latter is perceived as having more clearly identifiable values than the former.  Labour evolved from the union movement and was seen as the party of battlers and underdogs. Remarkably, the blue-collar image persists despite the party being controlled by mostly middle-class, theory-driven political careerists and ideologues.

Ask most people what National stands for, on the other hand, and the answer – after a bit of hesitation – is likely to be more nebulous; something about belief in capitalism, individual rights and prosperity, perhaps. But these values are rarely, if ever, clearly and emphatically articulated, and voters can hardly be blamed for feeling a bit confused about the party’s identity.

Arguably, the last National prime minister who clearly and unequivocally espoused strong personal convictions was Robert Muldoon. Problem was, they were essentially socialist ones. Muldoon was the greatest socialist prime minister Labour never had.

What, then, of Jim Bolger? During his long political career, Bolger evolved from a staunch Muldoon loyalist to an enthusiastic proponent of the free market economy. Since retirement, he seems to have doubled back to a point where he often sounds more Labour than National – a turnaround that can possibly be explained by the social conscience imbued in him by Catholicism. Small wonder, then, if people are not sure what National stands for.

But back to Luxon. In his formal speech and other statements following his elevation, he talked a lot about revitalising National and winning back the 400,000 voters who deserted the party last year. He zeroed in on government failings in managing inflation, education, housing, mental health, crime and Covid-19. He stressed the need to get things done rather than just talking about it. He talked about rewarding hard work and initiative – virtues National has traditionally espoused.

The intended message was clear: National will be more competent managers than the present lot. As with Key, Luxon’s business credentials will be used to burnish his credibility. Provided the party can maintain discipline and not be distracted by the traps that will be strewn in its path by the media, we may see a sharper and more concerted focus than was evident under Judith Collins and her immediate predecessors.

(As an aside, Luxon has already had a taste of what he can expect from journalists. The first question at his press confidence, from Jessica Mutch McKay, concerned his Christian faith, which many journalists clearly regard as one step removed from total nutbar territory. Tova O’Brien then tried to unsettle him with a question about having to watch his back, to which Luxon replied with a deft putdown and the best line of the day: “You think politics is like House of Cards”.  Later, on Checkpoint, Owens wasn’t content with Luxon saying he was pro-life and demanded to know whether he regarded abortion as murder, improbably justifying the question by claiming it was one that all her female listeners wanted him to answer. Really?)

Luxon’s performance in the interviews I’ve heard was mostly articulate and assured. But is he a conviction politician? In his first speech as leader, he avoided some of the polarising, hot-button issues simmering in the public arena: Maori co-governance proposals (as in Three Waters), the appropriation without any mandate of English place names, Labour’s audacious and undemocratic re-apportionment of power and control, the increasing suppression of free speech, the centralisation of power and erosion of local democracy, the radicalisation of the education system, ideological coercion in academic institutions, confected furores over diversity and inclusion – in other words, the culture wars.  Most journalists and interviewers avoid these subjects, probably preferring to think they are the pre-occupations of an extreme right-wing fringe and therefore not worth raising.

Talking to Mike Hosking, Luxon was more forthcoming. No doubt feeling he was on safe ground with a host and audience who were likely to be broadly sympathetic, he opened up about iwi roadblocks (“nuts”), gun violence and gangs (“we’ve got a big problem with that”) and Three Waters, which he vowed to repeal.

On the other hand, he appears to have back-pedalled on his earlier opposition to so-called “safe zones” outside abortion clinics, which isn’t promising. And interviewed by Ryan Bridge on The AM Show, he was notably less unequivocal about iwi road blocks, saying only that they need to be monitored. He can’t afford to change his message to suit whatever audience he happens to be talking to.

The best advice for Luxon is that he should hold his ground and not allow himself to be browbeaten or unnerved by media needling. I believe there’s a large cohort of voters in the political centre who are alarmed by wokeism and want to hear unequivocal statements from the leader of the opposition, yet there remains a feeling that National is too timid about nailing its colours to the mast on issues of principle. Luxon needs to dispel the impression that National has no stomach for a fight over these big issues, which go to the very heart of New Zealand’s identity and the type of society we aspire to be. If he really wants to win back some of those voters who transferred their allegiance to Act, there’s the answer.

Underlying all this is a bigger question. What is the role of centre-right parties in 21st century democracies? Some say it’s simply to manage the economy, maintain stability, take whatever action might be necessary if there’s a genuine crisis and otherwise do as little as possible – the classic laissez-fair approach. By this yardstick, Key was a great conservative prime minister because he left virtually no enduring imprint.

William Hague, a former leader of Britain’s Tories, wrote last year that conservative politicians generally shun abstract principles and universal ideologies. In this respect they are at a marked disadvantage compared with their political enemies, who are energised and inspired by commitment to ideological goals.

According to this analysis, conservative parties are defined mainly by their opposition to “progressive” politics rather than by any core philosophy. This means in essence that they are in a state of continuous managed retreat, constantly giving ground to the left and adapting as best they can.

I no longer believe that’s good enough. In New Zealand, we are faced with parties on the left that want to deconstruct one of the world’s most exemplary democracies and rebuild it in a form we won’t even recognise. Mere competent management, as promised by the new National leader, won’t be enough to stop that.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Introducing the new Tova O'Brien, the voice of sweet accord

Rebranded radio station Today FM (formerly Magic Talk) has announced that someone named Mark Dye, who’s described as a former NewstalkZB presenter, will be co-hosting the new station’s breakfast show with Tova O’Brien.  

In one of those standard pieces of meaningless PR fluff that invariably accompany such announcements, Dye is quoted as saying: “The time is right for a station like Today. We all need a little less divisiveness and a bit more optimism.”

Less divisiveness? With Tova O’Brien?? Ha. Good luck with that, as they say – that is, unless we’re going to see a rebranded O’Brien too.