Monday, May 31, 2021

Journalism or indoctrination?

We should be deeply suspicious of the phrase “public interest journalism”. It sounds harmless – indeed, positively wholesome – but it comes laden with ideology.

Like “social justice”, it’s a conveniently woolly term with no settled definition. It sounds like something we should have more of. Who couldn’t be in favour of it? But those who promote “public interest journalism” generally have a very clear idea of what they mean, and it’s not necessarily how ordinary people might interpret it.

This becomes especially problematical when “public interest journalism” is cited as the raison d’être of a government fund set up with the supposed aim of enabling journalism to fulfil its vital purpose in an open democracy, but which closer investigation suggests is intended to create a vehicle for state-approved indoctrination. But more of that later.  

In a sense, the phrase "public interest journalism" is tautological. Most journalism serves the public interest in some way or another, simply by informing people about matters that it might be helpful to know about. At the risk of repeating myself, I can only quote from The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel: “The purpose of journalism is … to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”.

That remains as good a definition of journalism as any. Note that Kovach and Rosenstiel make no mention of telling people what to think. But when leftist media academics (another tautology) use the phrase “public interest journalism”, they have a specific purpose in mind. To them, public interest journalism is journalism that actively works toward political, economic and social outcomes that they perceive to be in the public interest. In other words, it serves as a cover for the pursuit of a progressive agenda.

Public interest sounds noble. I mean, who could object to something being done for the public good? The crucial question, though, is who decides where the public interest lies. That’s the trap with so-called public interest journalism, because it usually reflects a narrow, fixed, elitist and ideologically slanted view of what’s best for the public. Whether or not the public actually wants it is often immaterial. They're left out of the equation. 

To put it another way, public interest journalism is a coded term that disguises an ideological project. Far from viewing the role of journalists as being to convey information in a non-partisan way, advocates of “public interest” journalism regard journalism as a tool for the pursuit of particular goals.

This highlights a fundamental change that has taken place since the training of journalists shifted from newsrooms, where it was based on practical experience attained under the supervision of older hands, to academic institutions where tutors – many with minimal or no journalism experience themselves – approached the subject from a theoretical rather than a practical standpoint, often influenced by the ravings of deranged left-wing sociologists.

Journalists of previous eras had no fanciful notions about functioning as champions of social or economic reform. Very few had been to university, where such ideas tended to be promulgated. They regarded themselves as gatherers of information and tellers of stories. Any with pretensions beyond that were likely to be sharply pulled into line.

That now seems almost quaint. Journalism training has long been ideologically captured, resulting in the emergence of a generation of journalists who see themselves not as passive and impartial observers, conveying important information and leaving it to readers/listeners/viewers to form their own views, but as active agents of change.

This not a hidden agenda; it’s out in the open for everyone to see. In a recent Letter from the Editor, Dominion Post editor Anna Fifield, as is her habit, introduced readers to one of the paper’s journalists – in this case, reporter Ethan Te Ora. Asked what was the best thing about being a journalist, Te Ora answered: “The trust shown to you by people, often at distressing times in their lives.” Fair enough; journalism can’t function properly without trust. But then he added: “The responsibility to frame those experiences in ways that can lead to systemic change.”

That dangerously blurs the line between journalism and propaganda. It’s true that journalism can lead to systemic change, and often does, but that shouldn’t be its purpose. To put it another way, journalism provides the information that often serves as a catalyst for change; but to actively work toward that end leads to the arrogant assumption that idealistic young reporters know what’s best for society and should be free to angle their stories accordingly, emphasising whatever supports their case but excluding evidence or opinions they disagree with.

Objectivity in journalism is fashionably denounced as a myth, thereby giving reporters licence to decide what their readers should know and what should be kept from them. The worthy idea that journalists could hold strong personal opinions about political and economic issues but show no trace of them in their work, which used to be fundamental, has been jettisoned.

All of which leads us, in a roundabout way, to the government’s proposed Public Interest Journalism Fund, which should be viewed in the context outlined above – in other words, with deep scepticism. 

The PIJF should be seen not as evidence of a principled, altruistic commitment to the survival of journalism, which is how it’s been framed, but as an opportunistic and cynical play by a left-wing government – financed by the taxpayer to the tune of $55 million – for control over the news media at a time when the industry is floundering and vulnerable.

The guidelines covering applications for funding from the PIJF are explicitly politicised. Media operators seeking funding are advised, for example, they must “actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection [their capitals] under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Maori as a Te Tiriti partner”. All applicants must show a “clear and obvious” commitment to the Treaty and te reo; no exceptions.

Another of the guidelines (drawn up by New Zealand on Air, which is administering the fund) requires that applicants must “seek to inform and engage the public about issues that affect a person’s right to flourish within our society and impact on society’s ability to fully support its citizens”. Insofar as this gibberish can be interpreted as meaning anything at all, it suggests a leaning towards activist journalism that seeks to improve the status of disadvantaged groups. Identity politics, in other words.

This interpretation seems to be supported by a further suggestion – no, let’s call it a very unsubtle  hint – that applicants  are likely to be regarded favourably if their journalism proposals “meet the definition of Maori and iwi journalism” or “report from perspectives including Pacific, pan-Asian, women, youth, children, persons with disabilities [and] other ethnic communities”.

"Maori and iwi journalism", incidentally, is defined as being “made by Maori about Maori perspectives, issues and interests prioritising the needs of Maori”. But that’s not journalism; that’s advocacy. The two are quite different and may often be at odds.

Nowhere in the guidelines is there any explicit commitment to the publication of a range of competing views on vital issues – for example, race relations and the Treaty. In fact the guidelines pretty much rule it out, since recipients of public money won't be able to acknowledge the existence of Treaty sceptics, still less give them space or air time, if they’re required to promote the principles of a Treaty “partnership”, the very existence of which the sceptics challenge.

Overall, the guidelines read like an identity politics charter. In other words the PJIF, for all the fine words about the importance of the Fourth Estate as “a central feature of a healthy democracy”, promises to deliver unprecedented power to government commissars who will serve as media gatekeepers, using our money to facilitate content they deem acceptable and shutting out anything (such as, for example, scepticism over climate change policy) that doesn’t conform with officially approved orthodoxy – and all this under the guise of helping the media though a rough patch. 

Ask yourself which is preferable: a hollowed-out news media, unable to properly fulfil its functions (which, to all intents and purposes, is what we have now), or a more powerful one whose priorities are determined by apparatchiks of the state? I’m sure I know which presents the greater hazard.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Men who cling to power because they think it's theirs by right

You could draw a straight line right now between Apia and the Belarus capital of Minsk – or to be more precise, between Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi and Alexander Lukashenko.

The obvious link: two powerful, arrogant old men who hate having their authority challenged.

Lukashenko, the president of benighted Belarus, has been in power for 26 years; Tuilaepa has governed Samoa for 22. The latter is so convinced of his divine right to rule that he recently told reporters he was appointed by God.

Lukashenko is currently in the gun internationally over his extraordinary act of piracy in forcing a Ryanair jet to land so that his thugs could detain a dissident who made the mistake of taking a flight through Belarusian air space.

Sanctions and condemnation are raining down on the ageing tyrant, but they are unlikely to worry him as long as he retains the support of his fellow despot, Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, far closer to home, Tuilaepa shows no sign of bowing to popular will and handing power to Fiame Naomi Mata’afa,

There is an unhappy pattern in the Pacific of men reacting badly when democracy threatens their grip on power. We saw it most dramatically in Fiji, when first Sitiveni Rabuka and later Frank Bainimarama – both military bully-boys – deposed legitimate governments. At the heart of those coups lay a stubborn refusal to share power.

At times like this we’re reminded that Pacific societies are typically hierarchical, male-dominated and authoritarian. As was noted in a recent Agence France Press story (written, I suspect, by old Pacific hand Mike Field), respect for one’s elders is deeply ingrained in Pacific cultures. This doesn’t sit comfortably with democracy.

Tonga’s royal family and chiefly caste have ceded power slowly and grudgingly. In Fiji, those accustomed to calling the shots reacted badly when they saw their power being threatened by Fiji Indians. In Samoa, Tuilaepa’s bitter resentment of the recent election result is no doubt compounded by the fact that he was beaten by a woman.

This is a man whose status is enhanced by a string of traditional chiefly titles and who is therefore accustomed to deference. His bloated sense of self-importance was evident in 2014 when he ordered a teenage boy arrested and put in prison for his part in a video mocking him – this after the boy’s family had already been punished by being fined more than $NZ5000, 30 cartons of tinned fish and two cows.

What this tells us is that traditional Polynesian culture can serve as an excuse for a form of feudalism. If a transfer of power in Samoa helps to erode the power of pompous old men like Tuilaepa, that can be no bad thing.

[As an afterthought, perhaps that line linking Apia and Minsk could take a detour via Invercargill, where Tim Shadbolt has been mayor since 1998. He’s now 73 and exhibits all the symptoms of an old man who refuses to accept that he’s past it.

Right now he presides over a plainly dysfunctional council. He’s refusing to reveal why his driver’s licence was recently suspended and his frustrated deputy mayor, who revealed today that he hasn’t spoken to Shadbolt for weeks, has indicated he’ll stand down at the next elections.  He’s the third deputy mayor in as many years.

But don’t expect Shadbolt to take responsibility for this mess, any more than he accepted any blame when an independent review found that tensions on the council were caused by a leadership void.

No doubt he’ll rely on his goofy grin to get him elected yet again, but surely the long-suffering voters of Invercargill must see through him by now. ]

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

We're all in the same waka

One thing that struck me about the background profiles published about Dame Cindy Kiro this week was that while listing her tribal affiliations, they also mentioned that her father came from the north of England.

It was only an incidental point, but it stood out because prominent Maori often don’t acknowledge their Pakeha antecedents.

It has become the norm for people of part-Maori descent to recite iwi connections, but without any reference to their European lineage. That inconvenient part of their ancestry is routinely erased.

I say “inconvenient” because I suspect it suits many part-Maori activists not to acknowledge their bicultural heritage, the reason being that their bloodlines demonstrate that New Zealand is a highly integrated society. This conflicts with their aim of portraying us as intrinsically and irreparably divided, with one side exerting dominance over the other.

Here lies a central paradox of Maori activism that is never confronted, still less explained. It has possibly never been more relevant than now, when a radical agenda of change is being aggressively promoted by people whose mixed ancestry ironically gives the lie to the notion at the heart of their grievances – namely, that this is a country indelibly stained by racial prejudice and divided along racial lines into privileged and disadvantaged.

The truth, to put it in simple terms, is that we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same waka.

If this were truly a racist country, those “Maori” activists with distinctly European features and Anglo-Saxon surnames – testimony to a high degree of historical intimacy between Maori and Pakeha – would not be here. They exist because somewhere in their past, Maori and European partners were attracted to each other and procreated on equal and willing terms. That hardly seems indicative of a racist society.

It suits 21st century agitators to overlook the fact that they carry the DNA of their supposed colonial oppressors and therefore have inherited their supposedly racist legacy. But if those of us who are descended solely from European colonisers carry the taint of racism, then so do they. Have they disowned their Pakeha bloodlines, or are they in denial? Do they, in dark moments of the soul, confront their forebears’ wicked acts as colonisers? I keep waiting for someone to explain how they reconcile these contradictions, but I suspect it’s easier to ignore them.

Of course it’s the absolute right of anyone of part-Maori descent to identify as Maori if they so choose, and to take pride in that side of their heritage; no one should deny them that, and to my knowledge no one wants to. But when they exploit that point of difference to procure political advantage over their fellow citizens, despite sharing the same stain of European ancestry, I think we’re entitled to be sceptical. 

This selective exploitation of racial heritage seems to illustrate the powerful allure of the politically fashionable culture of grievance and victimism. It's just one of many awkward incongruities and half-truths that go unremarked in the divisive propaganda with which New Zealanders are bombarded daily.

Here’s another one. We’re told that Maori were profoundly disadvantaged by colonialism, and that’s true – but only up to a point. Pre-European Maori were a warrior culture that lived by violent conquest and showed no mercy to tribes that were subjugated. Cannibalism, mass murder (including of women and children) and slavery were the norm.

So while it’s incontestable that colonisation resulted in Maori being dispossessed of their lands, a loss that had enormously damaging and demoralising consequences, it’s also incontestable that the British Crown treated Maori with far more respect and dignity than pre-European Maori tribes demonstrated to each other before they were pacified by colonisation. Dare I even mention the peaceable Moriori of Rēkohu (the Chatham Islands), who were massacred and enslaved by invading tribes from the mainland?

It’s also a fact that some Maori chiefs were themselves instrumental in the process of dispossession, sometimes for personal gain and without their peoples’ consent. But don’t expect any of these truths to be highlighted, or even mentioned, when the teaching of New Zealand history becomes compulsory in schools next year (as it should be, but only if the teaching isn’t ideologically skewed in favour of the woke interpretation, as seems likely).

And since I’m on the subject of inconvenient truths, what about the determined campaign – with tacit if not active government endorsement, but no public mandate whatsoever – to replace the recognised names of towns and cities with Maori ones? Like them or not, names such as Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton reflect the fact that these cities are colonial, not Maori, creations. That’s an historical reality. The fact that the locations where these cities sprang up were once occupied by villages called Tamaki Makaurau, Otautahi and Kirikiriroa – the names now bestowed on them by media such as RNZ and Newshub – is neither here nor there. The cities are not Maori and never were.

By all means, rename these places if that’s what the people who live there want to do. Personally I’d be very happy if New Plymouth were changed to Ngamotu, Napier to Ahuriri and Levin to Taitoko, to give just three examples.  Any significance the English names may have had when they were conferred in colonial times has long been forgotten. But these decisions must be left to the people who live in these places, not foisted on them by virtue-signalling elitists in the media.

The same applies to "Aotearoa" – but even more so, since it’s a name of doubtful authenticity. If the country votes to adopt it in a referendum, fine. But it’s an act of supreme arrogance to introduce Aotearoa into official usage without even a pretence of seeking, still less obtaining, the people’s consent. Such contempt for the public tells us a great deal about the prevailing cultural ethos.

None of this should be taken as meaning we shouldn’t honour and respect our Maori heritage. It is a rich part of our history and one that’s too often invisible, certainly to most Pakeha.

We still tend to think of our history in monocultural terms, assuming it began with the arrival of Tasman, Cook and de Surville. New Zealand’s centuries of pre-European history and its imprints on the landscape are largely ignored. Likewise, there is too little appreciation of the Maori achievement in navigating across the Pacific and establishing a society that, while technologically still in the Stone Age, was otherwise remarkably accomplished and sophisticated – a fact recognised by the first Europeans, who quickly grasped that Maori were not to be trifled with.

There is much about Maori culture that I respect and admire, and I’m sure I am not alone. I believe the Maori heritage has rubbed off on all New Zealanders. It’s one of the distinctive qualities that defines us as a country. The clichéd example is the All Black haka, but you can see the Maori influence elsewhere – for example, in the armed forces, which have traditionally had a high Maori participation rate (the army especially), and which are beneficially imbued with the Maori spirit of pulling together. The Maori influence is one of the reasons New Zealand forces are so respected overseas, especially in Third World countries; they have an easy affinity with locals that Australian forces apparently lack.

As an aside, I was recently reading about the exploits of the British army’s Long Range Desert Group, which initially consisted largely of New Zealanders, in the Second World War. Many of the soldiers in the LRDG were Pakeha farmers, but I found it interesting that they proudly painted Maori names on their vehicles – a tiny thing, perhaps, but indicative of pride in New Zealand’s Maori heritage and a telling signifier of cross-cultural solidarity.

We forget, too, that Maori men were able to vote 12 years before Pakeha males and that a Maori politician, Sir James Carroll of Ngati Kahungungu (Timi Kara to Maori, though his father was Irish) not only won election in a general seat as long ago as 1893, but twice served as acting prime minister. Mention these facts next time an ill-educated young zealot tries to tell you what a racist past New Zealand has.

The truth is that a great deal of beneficial cross-fertilisation has taken place between Maori and Pakeha, and a deep reservoir of mutual goodwill accumulated. Most New Zealanders would probably agree this is something unique in the world and worth preserving. We should steadfastly resist those who place it at risk by trying to drive us into angry opposing camps.  


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

On Cindy Kiro

I have to admit that on hearing Cindy Kiro was to be the next Governor-General, my reaction wasn't positive.

As I recall, she made little impact in her five years as Children’s Commissioner, a position to which she was appointed by Helen Clark's government.

She seemed to come out of nowhere and when her term expired, she withdrew into relative obscurity. The next the public heard of her, if they noticed her at all, was when Jacinda Ardern’s government made her a dame in the most recent New Year Honours. We can now see this was a necessary preliminary step before announcing that Kiro would be the next tenant of Government House.

Even so, yesterday’s announcement came out of the blue. A common reaction might have been: Cindy Kiro – really? Is she still around?

The immediate, and crucial, question was whether she was chosen because she was the best available person for the job, or because she was Maori and a woman – in other words, to send a virtuous signal to the world about what an inclusive, bicultural government Ardern runs. (I suspect much the same motive lay behind the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as Minister of Foreign Affairs, though it’s possible she may yet surprise us.)

Much has been made of Kiro’s Maoriness and sex (“our first wahine Maori Governor-General!” Newshub gushed excitedly), but these should be irrelevant. They have no bearing on her ability to do the constitutionally crucial job she’s taking on.

A perusal of Kiro’s CV wasn’t encouraging. For starters, she lacks legal qualifications, which once seemed to be considered a pre-requisite in vice-regal appointments. But to be fair, that’s not necessarily an impediment; neither did Keith Holyoake, Paul Reeves (at least as far as I know) or Jerry Mateparae.

Even less promising is Kiro’s background in social work and academia. This may endear her to a government overloaded with people from the same professional caste, but these are not obvious credentials for someone who will effectively function as our head of state. (Speaking of which, can someone please explain to Kiro that the Queen, not the G-G, is officially the head of state? It’s a pretty basic point, after all.)

I note that my very respected fellow blogger, Lindsay Mitchell, is sceptical about Kiro’s appointment. Lindsay says it’s political (well, yes it is, as is every decision governments make, and this one especially), and reminds us that Kiro’s performance as Children’s Commissioner wasn’t one to inspire confidence.

Neither was it encouraging that in an interview yesterday, Kiro said she will be working for people who can’t speak for themselves and don’t have a profile. That’s not the Governor-General’s job; that’s for politicians. The Governor-General is supposed to be above politics.

Perhaps, having been thrust into the media spotlight, Kiro felt compelled to say something that sounded inspirational. She has until October to change gear mentally.

But hang on a minute. Having heard her interviewed by RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan this morning, my reaction to Kiro’s appointment has softened.

She came across as intelligent, personable, thoughtful, warm, grounded and articulate – a woman of some depth, which wasn’t evident in her last high-profile job.

She came from a humble background but didn’t make a big deal about being disadvantaged by it. Both are points in her favour.

One thing in particular impressed me. She said at one point: “We [meaning New Zealand] have a history we can be proud of.” That’s a welcome antidote to the poisonous rhetoric of identity politics, which seeks to persuade us that ours is a shameful society built on injustice and discrimination.

Kiro didn’t come across as an ideologue, which was refreshing. She admitted having “briefly” been radicalised as a student, particularly over Treaty issues, but said she was sharply put in her place by her grandmother, who forcefully reminded her that Maori have solemn obligations under the Treaty too.

Oh, and one other thing impressed me. When Ryan asked what Kiro's role would be when contentious issues such as Maori rights to water came up, she replied without hesitation: “To stay out of it.” If she sticks to that line, she shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Okay, a cynical view is that it was a masterful PR performance, calculated to reassure us that we shouldn’t feel threatened by her appointment, but I prefer to take Kiro at face value.

We’ll never know whether there were other people on Ardern’s list of prospective appointees with better credentials on paper (I’m sure there were), but perhaps we should give Kiro the benefit of the doubt for now.

Then again, perhaps I’m going soft in my old age ….




Monday, May 17, 2021

The advertising industry's suspiciously sudden embrace of diversity

Noticed anything different about TV commercials lately?

Take a look at the people in them. They used to be overwhelmingly white – in fact almost blindingly so. Not anymore.

From being virtually invisible in TV advertising, ethnic minorities – Maori, Pasifika, Indian, Chinese, African – are now highly conspicuous.

We’re seeing other types of diversity too, with hints that some of the characters in our TV commercials are gay and lesbian. Nothing too overt, mind you.

This is not, in itself, a bad thing. We’re now seeing commercials that more accurately reflect New Zealand as it is.

We live in one of the world’s most diverse societies. In the last Census (2018), 1.2 million of us - that's 25 per cent - were born overseas. New Zealand is home to people of more than 200 ethnicities. 

The number of New Zealanders who see themselves as European is in steady decline – down from 74 per cent in 2013 to 70 percent in 2018. It seems ad agencies have only recently woken up to these facts.

If anything, the ad industry has swung from one misrepresentation to another. Ethnic minorities that were previously ignored are now centre-stage, but they're still minorities - so the society we see reflected in TV commercials in 2021 is probably no more an accurate mirror of reality than the one we saw when white faces predominated. It’s the old, familiar pendulum effect.

What’s driven this change? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a simple case of ad agencies belatedly realising that the people shown in TV commercials no longer reflect New Zealand as it really is.

If that were the case, the worst they could be accused of is being slow off the mark, and perhaps trying to atone by over-correcting. But I think there’s something else going on here.

I suspect that ethnic minorities are suddenly being showcased not so much because it’s the right thing to do, but because the advertising industry is terrified of being labelled as racist, white supremacist and insufficiently inclusive. In other words, the change is probably driven by fear of the aggressive ideological phenomenon we know as wokery.

What gives the game away is the speed with which this has happened. It’s not as if the transformation of New Zealand society, from overwhelmingly European to vibrantly multicultural, happened suddenly; it’s been going on for years, if not decades, under the industry’s noses.

What has suddenly changed is the slavish, craven and witless embrace of identity politics that has swept through government, academia, the media, the arts, the corporate sector and even sport. In effectively signing up to this woke agenda, the advertising industry is playing it safe by going with the crowd.

This should surprise no one. The advertising business likes to celebrate itself as edgy, idiosyncratic and anarchic, but it strikes me as deeply conformist, risk-averse and prone to groupthink. Its suspiciously abrupt, across-the-board conversion to the virtues of diversity suggests much the same level of fearlessly independent thought as you’d find in a mob of romney ewes.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

That "Safe Areas" bill: hypocrisy on a grand scale

This is a story you can be sure we won’t see in the leftist-dominated mainstream media.

The indefatigable Ken Orr, of the Christchurch-based organisation Right to Life, made an Official Information Act request to New Zealand’s 20 district health boards asking if they had received any complaints of intimidation or harassment from women attending abortion clinics over a two-year period from 2019 to 2021.

Not one had. No complaints from staff, either.

So why is the government pretending that harassment of abortion patients is an issue so pressing that it requires special legislation to protect them – legislation that even the Attorney-General admitted cuts across freedom of speech rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act?

An estimated 26,000 women had abortions during the period covered by the OIA request, yet there’s no record of any complaining that they felt intimidated or harassed by anti-abortion protesters, who typically maintain a passive vigil outside clinics.

This explains why Terry Bellamak, the voluble American abortion rights activist who led the charge for the creation of 150-metre “safe zones” around abortion clinics, was forced to resort to evidence from her home country to demonstrate the supposed need for New Zealand abortion patients to be “protected” from right-to-life protesters.

As Orr says, the emotively titled “Safe Areas” Bill seeks to address a problem that doesn’t exist.

Not content with passing one of the world’s most radical abortion laws, the government has followed it up with legislation that curtails the right to protest. How ironic that this is being done by a government laden with people who cut their political teeth in the protest movement and would be outraged if restrictions were imposed on demonstrations in favour of approved left-wing causes, many of which impinge on the rights of others.

The right they claimed for themselves, they now wish to deny others. This is hypocrisy and double standards on a grand scale, and yet another manifestation of the cancel culture flourishing with the government’s tacit and sometimes active (as in this case) approval.

Footnote: Seventeen of New Zealand's 20 DHBs responded to Orr's request. Of the three that didn’t, two don’t perform abortions. Orr says Tairawhiti (Gisborne) is the only board that provides abortions but failed to meet its obligations under the OIA.


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Maori wards: what councillors who vote 'no' can expect

“Tears, anger and heartache followed tangata whenua out of the room as an historic opportunity became, in the eyes of some, cynical sidelining.”

That was the opening sentence on Stuff’s report of last week’s meeting at which Manawatu district councillors voted 6-4 against the creation of Maori wards.

Stuff reported that the council voted to defer a decision until 2024, “amid accusations [that] aspirations of re-election were put ahead of their convictions”.

Now there’s a textbook example of objective, coolly dispassionate 2021-style journalism for you.

The story was written under the byline of Sinead Gill. I don’t recognise the name, but let me guess: she’s young, idealistic, university-educated, and has been taught to believe, like many journalists of her generation, that her role is to function as an advocate for repressed minorities.

Gill clearly disapproved of the councillors who voted “no”, but like all journalists she enjoys the benefit of not being accountable to voters. This makes it easy to claim the moral high ground. Power without responsibility, to quote Stanley Baldwin’s famous utterance about the British press.

Stuff’s emotive story demonstrates what councillors who oppose the creation of Maori wards, for perfectly proper and legitimate reasons, are up against. In having the courage to act on their convictions, they risk denunciation from partisan news media.

But they have a responsibility to vote as they believe their constituents would want them to, and those councillors can fortify themselves with the knowledge that their decision was almost certainly in line with the majority view as reflected whenever the question of Maori wards has been put to a popular vote (that is to say, before the current government, in a flagrantly anti-democratic manoeuvre, abolished that option). In the Manawatu, 77 percent of respondents voted against Maori wards in a 2018 referendum.

Stuff’s account also shone a light on another, more visceral disincentive faced by councillors brave enough to consider voting “no”. The council chamber was reportedly crammed with “marae representatives, tamariki and mokopuna” who performed a haka ahead of the vote. It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to stand firm in the face of such a highly charged demonstration, as the organisers would have known. A haka may be friendly or unfriendly, but in this type of context its effect can be intimidating.

Stuff quoted Manawatu mayor Helen Worboys and her deputy, Michael Forde, as saying they personally favoured a Maori ward but were worried about the public reaction. “I favour equity over equality,” Forde was reported as saying, “but as an elected representative, I represent the community. I’d say the community isn’t ready for a Maori ward just yet.”

Other councillors voted “no” because they wanted more time to “educate” voters about Maori wards so that if one was adopted, it would be with majority support.

But here’s a better idea. The next local government elections will be held in October next year. What’s to stop Maori candidates from standing under the existing arrangements, in which case there can be no arguments about democratic legitimacy?

Barbara Cameron, whom Stuff describes as Maori, was on the Manawatu council for 15 years before stepping down in 2019. Clearly, then, voters will elect good Maori candidates, just as they have done many times in other parts of New Zealand. Cameron was quoted as being disappointed with the council’s decision, but her own example exposes the fallacy of the argument that Maori can succeed only via race-based wards.  

Meanwhile, it’s reported that Kapiti District Council, on the advice of its iwi “partners”, unanimously agreed last week not to establish Maori wards – for now, at least.

On the face of it, this looks encouraging; but reading between the lines, I’d guess the local Kapiti iwi have made a shrewd strategic decision to take a different route – one that could ultimately secure them far more influence in local governance than could be achieved by a mere one or two seats at the council table.  

Footnote: This is a slightly amended version of the original post.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The most revealing story you're likely to read today

From the "You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up" file: the latest press release from the Taxpayers' Union. This is a telling snapshot of New Zealand in 2021 and quite possibly the most important story of the day, but don't expect to see it widely publicised.  

7 MAY 2021


Taxpayers shelled out thousands of dollars transporting a dead turtle from Banks Peninsula to Wellington, storing it in a freezer for 21 months, then sending it back down to where it washed up for a high-powered and fully-catered powhiri, complete with a helicopter ride and a handmade coffin constructed by public servants. No scientific research was performed at any stage.

Based on responses to several Official Information Act requests, plus earlier media reports, the Taxpayers' Union can set out the timeline:

  • In March 2019, a dead leatherback turtle is found on the shore in Banks Peninsula. He is never named though he is known at the Taxpayers' Union as Michelangelo.
  • DOC advises Te Papa that the local Banks Peninsula marae, Koukourārata, has provided approval for Te Papa to receive turtle.
  • A DOC ranger uses a tractor to transfer the turtle to the back of his ute, then commissions a truck belonging to a pet food company to keep the turtle chilled. The ranger warns that transporting the turtle to Wellington will be a "logistical nightmare". The ranger's wage costs are $200.
  • The turtle is collected by Te Papa from the Department of Conservation office in Christchurch and driven up to Wellington in Te Papa’s Toyota Hilux, at a reported cost of $475.75.
  • The turtle arrives at Te Papa's Tory Street facility, where staff plan to perform a necropsy, check its gut for plastic, gather biological information for "the global turtle research community", and ultimately skeletonise the corpse.
  • In an apparent change of heart from the local iwi, Ngāi Tahu representative Matui Payne tells media of "a sense of grief and sadness that we didn't have the opportunity to grieve for our kaitiaki, for our tipuna." Te Papa cites "issues relating to consultation and support" and enters into discussion with Koukourārata "regarding the return and repatriation of the honu [turtle]."
  • The late turtle spends 21 months in Te Papa's freezer.
  • No scientific research is conducted. Te Papa explains, "To enable scientific research to be undertaken, the turtle would have had to be skeletonised (i.e. processes undertaken to reduce the turtle remains to a skeleton). In conjunction with tikanga, it is usually important that all parts of the taonga or specimen (in this case, the turtle) should be buried, if possible. . .In terms of science objectives, Te Papa has not conducted any research on the turtle during its time at Te Papa so has not gained any research insights."
  • At some point, Te Papa staff build a "te honu crate" or turtle coffin, with materials costing $580.85.
  • On 11 December 2020, Te Papa staff are joined by a contingent from Koukourārata for a karakia (prayer) in Wellington.
  • DOC transports the turtle from Wellington back to Bank Peninsula in a refrigerated truck. The three-day journey includes reported costs of $940 in mileage, $448 for the Cook Strait ferry crossing, and $500 in wage costs. A Koukourārata representative accompanies the turtle during this journey.
  • Eight Te Papa staff, including members of the Board and the senior leadership team, fly to Canterbury for the deceased turtle's powhiri.
    • Domestic travel, car rental and accommodation: $4,327.77
    • Powhiri and kai for 40 people: $880.00
  • At the powhiri, the eight Te Papa staff are joined by seven DOC staff.
    • Four of the DOC staff are paid by the hour, for a total cost of $600.
    • DOC pays a $200 koha to the Koukourārata.
    • DOC spends $130 on mileage.
  • The turtle arrives at its powhiri, is removed from its coffin, placed on an altar to thaw while speeches are given, and eventually strapped to a crate and flown via helicopter to its burial site: a hilltop on a nearby island. DOC pays $1600 for the helicopter service. Video and photographs from the day capture these events.
  • Two DOC staff conduct an archeological survey of the burial site, and three staff dig the hole. Reported wage costs for these activities are $900.

Union spokesperson Louis Houlbrooke says, "The total cost to taxpayers for Michelangelo's eventful afterlife is difficult to quantify, but we would place it in the tens of thousands. Te Papa and DOC's total reported expenses were $11,742.31, but that excludes the time cost for high-level salaried staff."

"Te Papa was prepared to obtain this turtle for research on a rare species. That is valid. Koukourārata, who had expressed no interest when the turtle first washed up, suddenly wanted it back and intact. The result was a truly bizarre odyssey that saw a dead turtle travel by land, sea, and air, before ultimately being buried by public servants on a hilltop."

"After thousands of dollars and 21 months of fuss, the turtle ends up right back where it started, providing no scientific insights. In fact, Te Papa told us over the phone that they couldn't even verify whether the turtle was male or female. What a waste. Such a majestic creature deserved far better than to wait 21 months in a freezer while bureaucrats negotiated a protracted repatriation mission that would make the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blush."

"We have to give some credit to Te Papa and DOC for their thorough answers to our questions. We get the sense they're proud of the enormous time, attention, and staff hours they've devoted to Michelangelo's odyssey. Unfortunately, they've tarnished the turtle's legacy with this epic saga of government waste."

Source documents and photographs are available on the Taxpayers' Union's website here.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

It's official: free speech gets union protection

I'm publishing the following press statement from the newly launched Free Speech Union verbatim. I applaud the energy and initiative of the people behind the FSU. In my lifetime, freedom of expression has never been so endangered as it is today. Needless to say, I'll be signing up and I urge followers of this blog to consider doing the same.  

The Free Speech Coalition is relaunching as a trade union under the name “Free Speech Union” and has successfully registered under the Employment Relations Act. 

“That name is not ironic”, says Dr David Cumin, a founding member of the Union’s Council. “We think it says crisply just what is now needed to defend freedom of speech. We need to stand with people being intimidated, cancelled, de-platformed, piled on by social media, doxxed and threatened with bankruptcy if they seek legal protection. 

“Becoming a bona fide union is important because defending freedom of speech has come to need the collective solidarity, the mutual support, the kind of activism that made labour unions so important over 100 years ago. 

“For the last two years, the Free Speech Coalition has been campaigning to prevent the growth of anti-free speech case law and legislation. The Coalition was founded in response to statements by the Auckland Mayor and actions of his Council in banning two controversial speakers from hosting a talk at a publicly owned venue. The founding members of the Coalition saw the greatest threat to New Zealand’s tolerant and diverse culture of free public discourse as coming directly from the power of the state.  

“But over the past few years, it has been impossible to ignore the rise of a culture of intolerance of free speech,” says Dr. Cumin. “We have seen it expressed in the increasingly frequent instances of people suffering employment consequences for perfectly legitimate expressions of free speech. 

"The University of Canterbury dragged one of their academics through a lengthy disciplinary process for a paper critical of New Zealand Universities’ connections to the Chinese Government. A high school teacher was doxed by a blogger and investigated by his employer for wearing a MAGA hat at an Auckland BLM rally. An Auckland Transport staffer was harassed and intimidated on social media for a comment on a private Facebook group. 

“We’ve seen too many examples of people being ‘shut down’ for controversial views. We must defend the rights of workers to be able to express their personal beliefs without the threat of losing their job. We need to promote a culture of tolerance, including for those we disagree with. A flourishing civil society, where all New Zealanders feel they can contribute their ideas and engage in robust and even controversial debate, is only possible when employers know that disciplining workers for stepping out of line is not an option. 

“If you fear being punished by your employer for exercising your right to free speech, if you feel you may be targeted by the media or online mobs for comments expressed in a personal capacity, if a petition could be launched calling for you to be fired; or if you want to help protect those that might be, then join the Free Speech Union today.”

New Zealanders who agree with the Union's Statement of Values are encouraged to join, support, or volunteer via

The He Puapua affair makes Labour look shifty

The cat is well and truly out of the bag over the hitherto secret report He Puapua – no thanks to the media, which seemed to be in no hurry to dig into it when ACT began asking awkward questions in Parliament last month (see the comment posted yesterday by Trev1 under Joyous hugs and kisses as democracy takes another hit). Even now, some in the press gallery are playing things down with a “nothing to see here, folks” line.

If He Puapua (translation: “a break”) were to be adopted as policy by the government that commissioned it, the creation of Maori council wards and provision of council seats for unelected iwi representatives would be just the first step in a revolution that would entrench racial separatism over broad areas of our constitutional arrangements and methods of governance. Needless to say, this is potential political dynamite.

Jacinda Ardern says the report wasn’t released because the government was concerned it would be misconstrued as government policy. It’s been pointed out, in the government’s defence, that the report hasn’t been considered by Cabinet and remains just that: a report by a working party. But the very fact that it was kept under wraps makes Labour look shifty.

At best, Ardern looks as if she doesn’t have much faith in the public. It never looks good when a prime minister doesn’t trust voters with important information on the pretext that they probably wouldn’t understand it.

As Auckland political writer Graham Adams noted in an excellent analysis, critics are calling He Puapua an undeclared government manifesto. It took the intervention of the Chief Ombudsman, using the Official Information Act, to drag it into the sunlight.

The author of the report says the working party wanted it made public. Perhaps the government should have taken their advice, because now it has is a major damage control exercise on its hands. It has delivered a gift to the embattled Judith Collins and to David Seymour.

If Labour was genuinely worried that the opposition parties would make political capital out of He Puapua, the smart tactic would have been to pre-empt them by making it public. That would have taken much of the sting out of the backlash. More to the point, it would have been the proper course to take in the interests of transparency, which this government professes to be committed to. If Labour is genuinely interested in promoting debate on how best to eliminate Maori disadvantage, as Ardern has indicated in the House, then the report would be a starting point. As it is, Collins and Seymour are able to paint Labour as a party with something to hide.

It’s true, then, as my mother always said, that honesty is the best policy. But Labour has given the impression its default setting is one of dissembling and prevarication.

Nonetheless, the government has one potent propaganda point in its favour. It can argue that by commissioning He Puapua it was merely following through on the National government’s decision in 2010 to sign up to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That inexcusably furtive act, which I wrote about here, shows that National is just as capable as Labour of going behind our backs.

I eagerly await John Key’s explanation for his shameful role in this affair, but he’s probably in a board meeting somewhere. Or playing golf.  

Footnote: If I seem even more than usually behind the eight-ball on this issue, it may be because I wrote this yesterday morning (Wednesday). But when I went to post it, my Internet connection was down. It was finally restored this afternoon. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Joyous hugs and kisses as democracy takes another hit

Democracy took centuries to build, but it’s being dismantled with frightening speed.

The latest step in the demolition job was Wellington City Council’s decision this week to give full voting rights on council committees to two unelected iwi representatives. They will each be paid a yearly fee of $111,225, the same amount as elected councillors, despite having undefined responsibilities and lines of accountability that could only be described as highly opaque. 

A triumphant council statement said the 11-3 vote was greeted with waiata, hongi, hugs and kisses. Cr Jill Day, one of two legitimately elected part-Maori councillors, said: “This is just a small step, but we need to make a start.”

Just a start – really? It’s anyone’s guess where Day envisages it leading to, but anything’s possible once you sever the vital, direct connection between voters and those purporting to represent them.

The council’s decision alters the basis of local government so profoundly that the word democracy, which hinges on people electing their representatives, will no longer apply. Once you start dismantling the checks and balances that ensure councillors are elected by popular vote under a transparent process, and can be tossed out if they don’t measure up to the people’s expectations, the line has been crossed between democracy and some other form of government for which we haven’t got a name.

How will the iwi representatives be chosen, and by whom? We don’t know.

Who will they be accountable to? That, too, is unclear. But we can make a safe guess that it won’t be to the wider public or the ratepayers who will fund their salaries, and who pay to keep the city functioning (after a fashion). The iwi representatives will owe their loyalty to the runanga, tribal leaders or hui that choose them. Whatever this is, it’s not democracy.

Naturally, the council’s vote was greeted effusively by iwi representatives, whose comments neatly avoided inconvenient issues of democratic principle.  John Coffey, chairman of the embattled and strife-torn Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, gushed that iwi and the council shared similar goals. “What you want as a council for the people of Wellington is what we want too,” he told councillors. “You will not succeed without us, and we will not succeed with you. It’s as simple as that.” Er, meaning what, exactly?

Better still was the stirring oration from the chief executive of Ngati Toa Rangatira, a man with the proud Maori name of Helmut Modlik: “I’m feeling very grateful that I’m living now, and that we’re at a point in history where there is a degree of honesty about the past ... it is a tragic story for my people in a lot of respects,” said Modlik. “But that’s the past, and a line’s been drawn. And I’m grateful to live today and to be a witness to what I expect to be an increasingly emergent determination by New Zealanders to do better for our children and our mokopuna than was done in the past.”

So … bad things have happened to Maori, which is unquestionably true, and the only way to remedy these grievances is by subverting and even destroying the fair and equitable form of government we know as democracy? I think that’s what he was saying, but who can tell?

Still to come, of course, is the introduction of Maori wards – a change facilitated under urgency with virtually no warning by a dishonest government, and one premised on the palpable falsehood that the only way Maori can get elected to councils is through the creation of a voting system that treats them as different, with special needs.

This ignores the fact that city and district councils throughout New Zealand, including Wellington, have had many Maori councillors – and mayors too (Ron Mark and Georgina Beyer in Carterton, Mike Tana in Porirua and Derek Fox in Wairoa are four who come to mind from relatively recent history) – who were elected by popular vote. So much for the lie that a racist system is loaded against Maori candidates, and that they can succeed only through preferential treatment. So much, too, for the condescending view – a view apparently held, remarkably, by most Maori leaders – that Maori candidates aren’t capable of being elected on their own merits

Wellington City Council, like many others, took advantage of the sneaky law change by voting in favour of the creation of Maori wards, knowing the decision could no longer be thwarted by a referendum, as it has been elsewhere. But Jill Day and her youthful, activist fellow councillor Tamatha Paul are living, breathing proof that Maori candidates don’t need Maori wards to get elected. 

Of course, whether Wellington voters will want Day and Paul back next year, after the current council’s embarrassingly shambolic performance, is another matter. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t give Mayor Andy Foster much for his chances in the 2022 local government elections.  Foster long ago proved himself ineffectual and now he’s been exposed as spineless too. He was one of six councillors who voted only a few weeks ago against the appointment of iwi representatives, saying then that he wanted to ask for public feedback. But at Wednesday’s meeting he performed an about-face of breathtaking brazenness, saying councillors needed to have faith that the community would support their decision. “While this is not something that has been consulted on, I think we should give this a go.”

That sounds to me like a man who no longer bothers to maintain even a pretence of being in control. Foster seems to have given up, and the only question is whether he'll cling to office till the voters toss him out next year, as they surely will, or cut short the pain and humiliation by walking now.