Saturday, July 31, 2021

Anti-tour protesters pushed their luck that night in Molesworth St

Trevor Richards, who led opposition to sporting contacts with South Africa during the apartheid era, has written an opinion piece for Stuff recalling the famous Molesworth Street incident that occurred 40 years ago this week.

You know the one. A crowd of more than 1000 anti-tour marchers found their path blocked by lines of police armed with batons.  In the ensuing confrontation, protesters were bludgeoned and some were injured.

I was there that night and my memory differs from that of Richards in one or two significant respects.

He says the crowd assembled in Parliament grounds. “The plan was for a peaceful march from Molesworth St to the home of the South African Consul-General, three kilometres away in Wadestown.”

That’s not quite how I recall things. Memory is notoriously unreliable, and either mine or Richards' is faulty. But I took part in that protest and I remember it forming uptown, in the vicinity of Civic Square, then marching without incident through the city to a spot at the bottom of Lambton Quay, near the Cenotaph. There it stopped and the crowd was addressed by protest leaders.

The marchers had been told the protest would finish at that point. I understood that was the basis on which it had been cleared beforehand with the police. But suddenly we heard through the megaphone that the organisers intended to press on to Wadestown.

Though that wasn't in the previously disclosed plan, the crowd had built up a head of steam and was raring to carry on.

I decided to pull out. As far as I was concerned, we’d made our point. To carry on to the South African Consul-General’s house, blocking roads and causing further public inconvenience, seemed gratuitously provocative. (You’ll deduce from this that I’m no one’s idea of a wild-eyed revolutionary.)

But I had some time to kill so out of curiosity, I decided to tag along for a while – this time as an observer rather than a participant. The result was that I was able to view proceedings from close range as the protesters closed on the police lines and the batons started flailing.

With the benefit of hindsight, what happened was entirely predictable. It became clear from the heavy police presence on Molesworth St that the cops had anticipated the protest organisers’ tactic.

Neither should it have been a surprise that the police responded with force. Having been humiliated only days before when protesters forced the cancellation of the Springboks vs Waikato match in Hamilton, they weren’t going to be outmanoeuvred again.

For their part, anti-tour protest leaders were on a high after Hamilton and may have thought they were unstoppable. It was never going to end well.

It didn’t help that the marchers at the rear couldn’t see what was happening 100 metres ahead of them and kept surging forward, forcing those at the front into the unyielding police defences. For those in the vanguard – including the veteran communist Rona Bailey, whom Richards says ended up in hospital – there was no escape.

It wasn’t pretty, but the protesters – or at least their leaders – asked for it. I thought so then and I still think so now. They were pumped up and unable to see past the self-evident righteousness of their cause. And I say that as someone who supported their aim, if not their methods. (I refused to take part in any protest that prevented people from going about their lawful business, such as attending tour matches. You can see I would have been utterly useless at the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace.)

Richards’ account, four decades on, implies that the police reacted violently without warning or justification. Naturally, he doesn’t mention the possibility that the protesters invited retaliation by going beyond what had been agreed. It’s not entirely cynical to suggest that the injured were casualties of the protest leaders’ eagerness to test police resolve.

Molesworth St was a line in the sand and a test of wills. If the police had capitulated in the face of that direct challenge to their authority, their standing and credibility – not to mention their own morale – would have been toast.

The martyrdom of the Molesworth St marchers has become a bit tiresome. Richards should just admit that the protesters pushed their luck too far that night.    

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Another dismal setback for intellectual freedom

Attacks on free speech – even freedom of thought, since that’s what the enemies of free speech ultimately want to control – are coming so fast, and from so many directions, that it’s hard to keep up with them.

The latest involves seven University of Auckland professors who have effectively been blacklisted for writing a letter to The Listener politely but firmly challenging the notion that matauranga Maori – which can be defined as the traditional body of Maori knowledge – should be accorded the status of science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.  

In the febrile ideological climate of 2021 the professors’ stance counts as heresy, and it brought the full, vindictive fury of the woke academic left down on their heads. Already the pressure has proved too much for Prof Douglas Elliffe, who has stood aside as acting dean of science. In an email to his colleagues, Elliffe said he was concerned that his involvement in the controversy would cause “division” within the science faculty. That doesn’t say much for the intellectual open-mindedness of his colleagues, but there you go.

What a triumph for the enforcers of ideological conformity, and what a dismal setback – another one – for intellectual and academic freedom. How much longer will universities maintain the sanctimonious pretence that they serve as the critics and conscience of society? In truth, they promote and protect an authoritarian culture in which dissenters risk ostracism.  

University vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater, who should have been the first to defend the letter-writers’ right to express themselves, came up with the all-too-familiar mealy-mouthed copout:  they’re entitled to their opinion, but

There’s always that pregnant word “but”. When you hear the upholders of identity politics and cancel culture make ritual noises about freedom of speech, you automatically brace yourself for the disqualifying proviso that you know will follow. Usually this can be summarised as “You’re entitled to express your opinion, as long as it’s one we're happy with. Otherwise we’d rather you kept your primitive, reactionary views to yourself.”

In this case, Freshwater didn’t want her university’s reputation tarnished by association with the letter-writers. In an email to staff, Freshwater said the Listener letter had caused “hurt and dismay among staff, students and alumni”. Really? I wonder how many she consulted.

It doesn’t appear to have occurred to Freshwater that the university’s reputation has been tarnished anyway, and in a much more damaging way, by her eagerness to cut the heretics adrift when all they were doing was expressing, in a non-inflammatory manner, a considered opinion backed by sound academic credentials.   

(As an aside, I note that Freshwater is another import, this time from Britain. It was an Australian, Jan Thomas, who barred Don Brash from speaking at Massey University in 2018. Are our universities really so useless that they can’t produce New Zealanders capable of running them, or is it the case that overseas appointees are more likely to have the desired ideological sympathies?)

This nasty little episode shows in stark relief just what academic dissenters are up against. They not only risk the wrath of censorious colleagues but must also face the probability that they won’t get a fair run in the media. Radio New Zealand broke the story yesterday, and its account – written by Maori news director Mani Dunlop – consisted mostly of quotes from activists and academics condemning the Auckland renegades and questioning, or perhaps I should say trying to undermine, their credibility. The primary object seemed to be to snuff out the Auckland professors’ (supposedly) bigoted ideas before they had a chance to take hold, much as one might stamp on a cockroach.

Special mention should be made of Victoria University professor Joanna Kidman’s impeccably thoughtful, mature contribution to the debate. In a sneering tweet reproduced (with implied approval) by RNZ, Kidman referred to the Listener letter signatories and asked, “Where do these shuffling zombies come from? Is it something in the water?” It was accompanied by a video clip from a zombie movie.

Now there’s intellectual engagement for you. If you ever wondered why the once honourable title of professor no longer commands the respect it once did, there’s your answer, right there. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that Kidman (Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Raukawa) is a sociologist - an academic discipline steeped in strict scientific rigour.

The takeaway message from all this? As usual, it’s that even respected academics speak their minds at their peril. Depart from ideological orthodoxy and you can expect to be howled down, possibly even at the expense of your career. The aim is to deter dissent and discussion, and the tragedy is that it works.

Friday, July 16, 2021

In New Zealand this week

■ The online news service BusinessDesk reported the result of the first round of funding handouts under the $55 million Pravda Project, officially known as the Public Interest Journalism Fund. They include:

     More than $2.4 million to NZME, Maori Television, Newshub, Pacific Media Network and 11 “support partners” to train and develop 25 cadet Maori, Pasifika and “diverse” journalists. The latter category will presumably include those who identify as transgender or non-binary and other aggrieved minorities that we haven’t got names for yet.

$300,000 to Stuff to produce a “cultural competency” course (could there be a more ideologically loaded phrase?) for journalists which will later be shared across the industry “to fundamentally shift representation in NZ media”.

    $207,000 to woke-friendly digital platform The Spinoff for a podcast series “to explore Maori issues".

$433,000 for Paakiwaha, a bilingual current affairs show to be produced by UMA Broadcasting for waateanews.com. UMA, which was established in 1999 by Manukau Urban Maori Authority and Te Whanau a Waipareira Charitable Trust, operates Auckland Maori station Radio Waatea.

 $440,000 to NZME, which owns the New Zealand Herald and NewstalkZB, to produce a weekly bilingual section in the Rotorua Weekender newspaper on local iwi issues.

The allocations were announced by Raewyn Rasch, head of journalism for state funding agency NZ on Air, which is administering the Pravda Project for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Rasch, who identifies as Ngai Tahu, is a former general manager of Maori and Pacific programmes at TVNZ and more recently was involved in promoting higher education for Maori@Massey.

BusinessDesk reports that NZ on Air received 123 applications for the first funding round and recommended 34 for approval. Forty percent of the money will go to Maori journalism projects.

The biggest single allocation is to RNZ, which already receives roughly $48 million a year from taxpayers and will get an extra $806,000 for its podcast The Detail.

As for those other allocations, I predict most of our money will end up being spent on advocacy journalism. As with the $3.5 million Three Waters propaganda campaign, taxpayers will be paying for their own indoctrination.

The line that once separated journalism from activism is being erased, and it’s happening with the eager co-operation of the mainstream journalism organisations that are lining up to take the state’s tainted money. We are witnessing the slow death of neutral, independent and credible journalism.

Last month, The Dominion Post published a letter from me in which I challenged an article by Stuff editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson headlined Why government money won’t corrupt our journalism, in which Crewdson insisted Stuff’s editorial integrity wouldn’t be compromised by accepting government funding.

I wrote: “ … what he doesn’t mention is that before applying for money from the fund, media organisations must commit to a set of requirements that include, among other things, actively promoting the Maori language and ‘the principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi’.

“In other words, media organisations that seek money from the fund are signing up to a politicised project whose rules are fundamentally incompatible with free and independent journalism.

“Despite what Crewdson says, sceptics will take some convincing that the fund isn’t an expensive, taxpayer-funded indoctrination exercise.”

I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

■ New Zealand is experiencing an epidemic of gun crime. Yesterday, a man was shot and wounded by police in Auckland as he held a gun to the head of a motorist in what appeared to be an attempted car hijacking following a chase. This followed the fatal shooting on Wednesday night of a man who confronted police with a firearm in Hamilton during a standoff in which at least 10 shots were reportedly heard.

Last weekend, also in Hamilton, a police officer was shot in the arm and shoulder during a routine traffic stop. An accomplice stole the officer’s car.

Meanwhile, the country has heard some of the chilling detail surrounding the fatal shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt in Auckland last June. Eli Epiha has admitted murdering Constable Hunt with a military-style semi-automatic rifle but bizarrely insists he didn’t intend to kill Hunt’s partner, Constable David Goldfinch, despite shooting him four times. A witness said Epiha, who fired 14 shots, looked so calm that he might have been window-shopping at a mall.

But perhaps the most brazen shooting incident of all occurred in April at Auckland’s 5-star Sofitel Hotel at 9am, when a gun was fired in what police described as an escalation of a dispute between the Head Hunters and Mongols gangs. Days earlier, the Head Hunters’ pad in Mt Wellington had been peppered with an estimated 30 bullets.

Two points stand out here. One is the rising power of criminal gangs, boosted by the arrival of Section 501 deportees from Australia. Small wonder that Phil Goff, following the Hotel Sofitel incident, warned that Auckland couldn’t risk becoming like “gangland America”.

Personally, I would have thought Mexico was a more appropriate analogy. When people start shooting at each other in a plush hotel frequented by wealthy business people and high-end tourists, Auckland starts to look like Tijuana or Juarez.

The other striking thing about the increasingly routine use of guns by criminals is that it’s happening despite changes to gun laws in 2020 that the then Police Minister, Stuart Nash, assured us would prevent firearms falling into the wrong hands.

This should surprise no one. The supposed tightening of the gun laws following the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacres was a piece of pure political theatre. While law-abiding gun-owners who never represented a threat to anyone dutifully handed over previously legal guns that were now deemed high-risk, criminal gangs continued to do what they’ve always done – ignored the law.

All this was entirely predictable. The new gun laws no more reduced the circulation of illegal weapons than the so-called anti-smacking law of 2007 magically eliminated the violent abuse of children. Matthew Hunt, if he were still alive, could testify to that.

The Hotel Sofitel shooting points to another alarming trend: an attitude among gang members that they can get away with just about anything. The same sense of impunity is evident in the way gangs use the excuse of a funeral to take over public highways in a show of strength, effectively defying the police to stop them.

When people are allowed to behave with obvious contempt for the law (as Hone Harawira and his supporters also did with their illegal, opportunistic road blocks during the Covid-19 lockdown), the legal mechanisms that ensure a civilised society start to break down.

But don’t expect the police hierarchy to stand its ground – not under a commissioner who appears to have been appointed for his willingness to fall into line with the agenda of an increasingly radical left-wing government.

Police Headquarters has signalled its favourable disposition toward criminal gangs by supporting the allocation of $2.75 million to a supposed drug rehab programme run by the Mongrel Mob – the same outfit that profits from the ruinous methamphetamine racket.

But there’s hope. To its credit, the Police Association has condemned the handout. Association president Chris Cahill said one of his members had described it as the most successful money-laundering scheme he’d ever heard of. “Police take $2 million of dirty money – as they recently did from the Notorious Chapter of the Mongrel Mob in Operation Dusk in Hawke’s Bay – and the government returns $2.75 million in clean money to people so closely linked with the same gang.”

Cahill didn’t bother to disguise his disgust. Rank-and-file cops – the people putting their lives on the line at the front end – can hardly be blamed for feeling betrayed when their bosses undermine them.

■ Farmers and tradies are turning out today for the “Howl of a Protest” against a government that seems, at best, indifferent to the people who keep the economy functioning and, at worst, is perversely hostile to them.

Nationwide protest rallies are a sign of mounting resistance to policies and ideological projects, some of them kept safely under wraps until after last year’s election, that attack productive sectors of the economy and seek to centralise power at the expense of local democracy and accountability.

As the sheer scale of Labour’s transformational agenda becomes more apparent, so a counter-revolution is slowly gathering momentum. This is nowhere more apparent than in the provinces.

The government might yet get away with its extreme hate-speech proposals and its brazen bid for control over the media. As alarming as they are, these are not necessarily issues that excite fervent popular opposition. But punitive taxes on utes, imperious land grabs under the pretext of environmental protection and grandiose cycling bridges for the privileged urban middle class are something everyone can understand. Meanwhile, the government is encountering unexpectedly stiff resistance over its planned seizure of local water assets, which may yet prove to have been a step too far.

All that’s missing from the picture is an opposition capable of exploiting public unease over Labour’s radicalism. At some stage, Judith Collins and David Seymour will have to start talking to each other.

■ The leaked draft script of the planned Hollywood movie They Are Us has provoked uproar. Objections centre on the likelihood of the March 19 Christchurch massacres being graphically depicted with little regard for the feelings of survivors and those bereaved by the killings, none of whom appear to have been consulted.

Again, no one should be surprised. Hollywood is doing what Hollywood does: taking a real-life event and fictionalising aspects of it for maximum dramatic impact, and to hell with irrelevant niceties such as the truth.

Remember Argo, the Oscar-winning 2012 movie starring (and directed by) Ben Affleck, which purported to tell the true story of how several fugitive American diplomats were smuggled out of Tehran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution? It wilfully misrepresented events by claiming the New Zealand embassy in Tehran refused to help the Americans when the reverse was true.

So if you’re na├»ve enough to expect They Are Us to be faithful to actual events, you probably also believe Titanic was a documentary. We shouldn’t try to stop Hollywood making the film, because it’s a free world; but if the movie goes ahead we can show our disapproval by boycotting it.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Updates on propaganda, Piney and the Pravda Project

Three postscripts to recent blogs:

■ Political scientist Bryce Edwards, who runs The Democracy Project out of Victoria University, has stitched together a very useful summary of media comment on the Three Waters project, opposition to which is rapidly mounting as its implications – mainly relating to centralisation of control and the consequent erosion of local accountability – become more obvious.

As already noted in an addendum to my post last Friday on the subject, the government has committed $3.5 million to an advertising blitz intended to soften us up for this massive power grab. The egregiously patronising tone of the campaign indicates that neither the government nor its advertising agency think much of the public’s intelligence.

But Edwards’ wrap-up reveals something equally disturbing. He cites an article by Stuff local democracy reporter Chloe Ranford which suggests that the boundaries of the four proposed water authorities, which some perplexed commentators have called illogical, were drawn to align with iwi boundaries.

Coming on top of the He Puapua report, with its vision of 50-50 co-governance with Maori, this will stoke suspicions that the Three Waters project is as much about power-sharing with iwi as it is about reducing costs and ensuring consistency of water quality and administrative efficiency.

Does anyone remember Labour being up-front about this in last year’s election campaign? I don’t, but of course that could be incipient dementia.

■ One of the regrettable things about sports radio station SENZ’s sacking of producer Sam Casey for saying what he thought (always a risk in the mainstream media these days, unless you’re a certified, card-carrying wokester) was that Jason Pine got caught up in the controversy.

For those who don’t know him, "Piney" is a veteran NewstalkZB sports broadcaster who was head-hunted by the new Australian-owned outfit to host its night-time show and help put the station’s team together.

Pine, a close colleague and friend of my late brother Justin at Newstalk, is well-liked and respected. I imagine he would have felt acutely uncomfortable at being required to issue a media statement on behalf of his new employers confirming Casey’s dismissal. It wasn’t the type of start he would have anticipated.

Well, waddya know? The digital news service BusinessDesk reports today that Pine has handed in his resignation and is believed to be heading back to Newstalk, where I imagine he’ll be welcomed home with open arms.

Sources told BusinessDesk there had been no falling-out between Pine and SENZ and that he’d simply decided the new job wasn’t the “right fit”. But that sounds to me like HR-speak designed to gloss over an embarrassing situation for the company. More likely he formed the opinion, after the Casey episode, that SENZ wasn’t the type of outfit he wanted to work for.  

So I’m pleased to report that Pine’s honour is intact. But as BusinessDesk says, it’s hardly an auspicious start for SENZ, which doesn’t launch till July 19. The immortal words of Sergeant-Major Williams from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum come to mind: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind”.

■ Further to my previous references to the government’s $55 million media bribe (sorry, I meant to say its heroic attempt to save journalism, which you can read about here and here), Graham Adams on Muriel Newman’s Breaking Views website reports an exchange in Parliament last week that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere.

Judith Collins and David Seymour were putting the heat on Jacinda Ardern over Labour’s so-called Public Interest Journalism Fund. Collins wanted to know whether the fund – applicants for which must commit to Treaty principles and support for te reo, among other things – was influencing the editorial decisions of media outlets. Seymour more pointedly asked what would happen to a media outlet that had accepted money from the fund but wanted to report something deemed inconsistent with Treaty principles.

Ardern brushed off the questions as if they weren’t worthy of an answer, but that’s by the bye. What interests me is whether the exchange in the House was reported by any media outlet that has accepted, or has its hand out for, money from the fund.

This highlights another potentially disturbing and insidious aspect of the media slush fund. Can we expect mainstream media outlets to report criticism of the fund or possible revelations and concerns about its misuse, or will that be left to independent journalists such as Adams?  

You see what's happening here? I'm already wondering whether the media are choosing to ignore stories about the fund that might not reflect favourably on it or them. The mere fact that it’s necessary to ask this question shows how media companies compromise their credibility by accepting money from a highly politicised government agency.  

Incidentally, “Public Interest Journalism Fund” strikes me as a bit of a mouthful, and time-consuming to type, besides. So I’m giving it a shorter, punchier name: the Pravda Project, after the old Soviet Union’s esteemed official press organ, on the assumption that the PIJF will exhibit the same fearless independence and unstinting commitment to the truth.


Friday, July 9, 2021

Funding our own indoctrination

A couple of weeks ago I was confronted by an unusually puerile full-page advertisement in the local paper. I say “unusually” because it goes without saying that a lot of advertising, on TV especially, could most charitably be described as less than cerebral. But this took infantilism in advertising to a new low.

The text was written as if intended for pre-schoolers. But rather than try to convey the tone of this nonsensical doggerel with a mere excerpt, I’ll reproduce it in its entirety:

IMAGINE AOTEAROA WITHOUT GOOD WATER

What a stink as place that would be.

Trout would be grumpy.

Boating no fun.

And dirty ducks a sad sight to see.


Mean as manus wouldn’t be mean.

Showers a complete waste of time.

Bathrooms would be just rooms.

Togs just undies.

And our awa, all filthy with slime.

 

That’s why we’ve got a plan,

‘cos we’re water’s biggest fan.

So let’s make it better than fine.

The accompanying illustrations, crudely drawn comic-style, showed a pipe belching noxious-looking waste into a river, a duck swimming through sludge and a horrified child bather coated in muck, all eye-catchingly presented in full colour.

It finished with the inspirational slogan “Better Water is Better for Everyone”, complete with a Maori translation for the benefit of the many readers who don’t understand English.

You may have figured out by now that it was a government ad promoting the Three Waters project, and I now note that TV viewers are being bombarded with an animated version.

That’s right: we’re paying for an extravagant advertising campaign aimed at persuading us that the government’s grab for control over the nation’s water infrastructure is in our own best interests.

Even as the government is going through the motions of seeking endorsement from the 67 local authorities that stand to lose control over a crucial part of their operations, it’s trying to go around them by pitching directly to us – in effect, circumventing its own process. And we’re picking up the tab – in other words, funding our own indoctrination.

If nothing else impresses you about Jacinda Ardern’s government, you have to gasp at its sheer hubris. This is a government that thinks the public so passive and malleable that it can get away with anything.

Regardless of what you think about the Three Waters proposal (and my main concern, as with many of this government’s initiatives, is that it represents a further centralisation of power and erosion of local autonomy), it’s a breathtakingly brazen misuse of taxpayers’ money.

There might be a case for a fact-based information campaign (Ha! Faint chance, I hear you say) setting out the arguments for and against the plan. That might have provided some helpful context for the debate the country needs to have before deciding whether Three Waters is worth supporting.

But this campaign doesn’t pretend to explain anything. It doesn’t have so much as a fig-leaf of legitimacy. It’s targeted at the same gormless, credulous lot who swoon with admiration for Greta Thunberg. Not content with misusing our money, the government and its advertising agency (Who are they? They should be named and shamed) insult the nation’s intelligence with a propaganda campaign that’s thumb-suckingly fatuous.  

And as long as we’re paying to subject ourselves to a blatantly politicised ad campaign, is it too much to expect that it should at least be semi-literate?

“Stink as” and “mean as” would make marginally more sense – only marginally, mind you – if they were written as stink-as and mean-as, indicating that the expressions were adjectival. And what about that culturally inappropriate “s” on “manus”? Why would the copy writer carefully omit the “s” when he/she pluralised the Maori word for river (awa), recognising that there’s no “s” in te reo, but leave it on the word for bird?

I guess this is the sort of confused mess that sub-literate advertising creatives (as they like to call themselves) get into when they try to ingratiate themselves with a target audience that never reads newspapers anyway. Then there’s “’cos we’re [plural] water’s biggest fan [singular]” – but now I’m starting to sound like a grammar Nazi.

The final affront in all this is the knowledge that the ad agency will have banked a preposterous sum of money for this juvenile dreck. How do I know? Because that’s what ad agencies do. The Three Waters campaign is further proof (not that it was needed) that in the advertising racket, there’s no ad too inane and no client too gullible.

Footnote (added July 11): I see $3.5 million has been budgeted for the advertising campaign. My case rests.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Another contender for the free-speech Hall of Shame

I’ve suggested to the Free Speech Union that they establish a Roll of Dishonour. This would consist of an “Enemies of Free Speech” list that could be updated as and when required (probably daily, given current trends).

I proposed that they start the ball rolling by naming and shaming the recently established sports broadcaster SENZ for firing a new recruit over an opinion piece he wrote before he even joined the station. Great start, SENZ.

Sam Casey (no, I hadn’t heard of him either, but then I’m no sports aficionado) upset a few people – including political journalist Barry Soper’s rugby-playing daughter Alice – with a column in Rugby News in which he criticised Rugby New Zealand for spending too much money on the women’s game. Casey also took a swipe at the Black Ferns for “always putting their hands out”.

Alice Soper, who was singled out in Casey’s piece as a vocal advocate for women's rugby, fired back on Twitter, as she’s entitled to do. She probably didn’t expect that Sports Entertainment Network NZ would oblige by terminating Casey’s contract only three weeks after he had joined the station.

SENZ’s justification consisted of the usual tiresome weasel words. The tone and language in Casey’s column, it said, “were inconsistent with the company’s values of equality, respect and inclusiveness among all sports and athletes”. This is the standard copout from companies that jump at the sight of their own shadow and cower in fear of social media witch hunts.

You’d think a media company’s values might also say something about commitment to freedom of expression, given that the media can't function without it; but no. Like Magic Talk, which dispensed with the services of Sean Plunket because he was prepared to swim against the prevailing ideological current, SENZ appears to have the spine of an earthworm.

I haven’t read Casey’s Rugby News piece. I don’t need to, because it’s irrelevant. The fact that it passed editorial scrutiny at Rugby News, a long-established publication, indicates that it conformed with Media Council principles covering legitimate expressions of opinion.    

In any case, whether or not you agreed with the column is immaterial. Casey may have expressed bigoted, ignorant and oafish views, but in a free society people are allowed to be bigoted, ignorant and oafish. In other words you don’t have to agree with what he said to support his right to say it. You’d think this principle was settled and understood in 2021, but here we are fighting for it all over again.

Besides, big egos and loudmouths are not exactly unknown in that strange blokeish fraternity whose members earn their living talking and writing about sport. Good luck to SENZ if it thinks it can succeed without having at least a few of them on its payroll.

Footnote: Speaking of loudmouths and egos, Casey’s column was the subject of a sneering critique on The Spinoff by a rival sports broadcaster, Scotty Stevenson. But Stevenson didn’t confine himself to criticising Casey for his views; he went a step further by arguing that women’s rugby would be in a better state “if only opinions like [Casey’s] had the good grace to just fuck right off”.

The fragility of free speech is strikingly demonstrated right there. Stevenson wants to deny Casey a right that he asserts for himself. But that’s okay, you see, because Stevenson is right and Casey is not. His moral superiority would have ingratiated him with The Spinoff’s woke readers, but it’s just a form of bigotry and intolerance in disguise.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

I'm okay, but the resentments keep piling up

Further to my June 30 post headlined The Hillman Hunter option, I feel it’s only fair to record that my wife and I had our first Covid-19 vaccinations yesterday in Masterton.

A sluggish system suddenly lurched into action last Thursday, only a day after that post, with a text message inviting us to ring an 0800 number. This I did, and we were given an appointment yesterday afternoon with a further booking for the second jab in three weeks.

We joined dozens of others in a temporary vaccination centre and the process was conducted with admirable efficiency. It would be stretching things only slightly to say there was an almost festive atmosphere.

So it took a while, but in our little corner of the world the vaccination programme finally seems to be working. The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for other parts of the country where vulnerable people are seething with frustration at the lack of reliable information, still less action.

While my wife and I have been taken care of, that doesn’t alter the perception that the vaccination rollout has been characterised from the start by delay, uncertainty, confusion and false assurances. This will add to a mounting pile of resentments against a government that consistently over-promises but under-delivers.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

A nation of smiling zombies

[I wrote the following article for the Australian edition of 'The Spectator'. It was published in the issue of June 26.]

In his best-selling 1976 book The Passionless People, the late author and journalist Gordon McLauchlan characterised his fellow New Zealanders as “smiling zombies”: polite, cheerful and hard-working, but smug and compliant. It was cruel but not inaccurate.

It takes a lot to provoke New Zealanders politically. The last time it happened was in 1981, when a tour by the South African Springbok rugby team tore the country apart.

Since then, Kiwis have largely reverted to their default setting of complacency and passivity. Which makes it all the easier for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government to push through an agenda of radical transformation quite unlike any the country has experienced before.

New Zealanders returning after a few years abroad might wonder whether they’ve blundered into a parallel universe. A government that is pitifully thin on ministerial ability and experience is busy re-inventing the wheel, and doing it at such speed that the public has barely had time to catch its breath. To quote one seasoned political observer:  “It seems like a hostile takeover of our country is underway, and most people feel powerless to do anything about it.”

The most visible change might crudely be described as Maorification, much of it aggressively driven by activists of mixed Maori and European descent who appear to have disowned their problematical white colonial lineage. Self-identifying as Maori not only taps into a fashionable culture of grievance and victimism, but enables them to exercise power and influence that would otherwise not be available to them.

In the mainstream media, Maori place names, most of them previously unknown to the great majority of New Zealanders and unused even by people of Maori descent, have displaced the official names bestowed by British colonists – ignoring the inconvenient fact that New Zealand’s cities and towns are British, not Maori, creations.

The government has done its best to ensure continued media support for this ideological project by creating a $55 million slush fund supposedly created to support “public interest journalism” but available only to news organisations that commit themselves to the promotion of the so-called principles (never satisfactorily defined) of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. 

What has been framed as an idealistic commitment to the survival of journalism is, in other words, a cynical and opportunistic bid for control over the news media at a time when the industry is floundering.  This is a government so shameless, or perhaps so convinced of its own untouchability, that it’s brazenly buying the media’s compliance. 

Not that bribery is necessary. Turn on Radio New Zealand’s flagship news and current affairs programme and you’ll routinely hear virtue-signalling presenters making announcements in Maori, a language spoken fluently by only 1 per cent of the population.

Similarly, the country is routinely referred to by the media and political elites as Aotearoa, despite the name being of dubious authenticity. All this has happened with no public mandate, but encouraged by a government that seems determined to promote division between New Zealanders of Maori and European descent. 

In local government, city and district councils have rushed to create exclusively Maori wards – an innovation made possible by an abrupt legislative change, despite being previously rejected when challenged in local referendums.  Result: a previously colour-blind system has been changed to one where representation can be based on race.

The politics of race are equally evident at the national level, where the government proposes to establish a Maori Health Authority which will exist alongside a new national health agency and have power to veto its decisions.

Changes in the health sector reflect another dominant trend under Labour: a return to Big Government.  In education and local government as well as health, power is being stripped from local administrators and placed in the hands of unwieldy central bureaucracies, remote from the people they supposedly serve.

In other radical changes, union power is being restored through a return to a discredited national pay agreements system, and proposed “hate speech” laws will place new restrictions on freedom of expression.

Meanwhile the government is showering money on pet causes such as cycling, announcing recently that it would commit $785 million to a second Auckland Harbour bridge that will be used only by cyclists and walkers. The plan was rightly ridiculed as humouring a small but vociferous minority of the affluent middle classes.

It didn’t go unnoticed that this indulgence was announced only days after nurses, with overwhelming public support, staged a national strike in support of pay claims that would have cost the government far less. It was a telling demonstration of Labour’s priorities.

So far, the smiling zombies – five million of them – have tacitly condoned all this radical transformation through their silence. This can partly be attributed to the still-potent Ardern Effect, the political fairy dust that a charismatic young prime minister scattered over the country following the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacres and again when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

But it’s possible to sense a mounting pushback, particularly in those parts of the media – such as commercial radio – that haven’t been ideologically captured. Opposition to Labour’s agenda has been fuelled in recent weeks by concerns over a compulsory school history curriculum that will indoctrinate pupils with neo-Marxist theories of colonisation and white privilege; by the ascendancy of violent criminal gangs that the police seem unwilling or unable to challenge; and by the announcement of generous taxpayer subsidies for electric cars (another handout to the privileged middle class), with corresponding punitive taxes on diesel vehicles that will hit farmers and tradies – two groups that are crucial in propping up an economy severely hit by the downturn in international tourism.

Potentially even more damaging to Ardern’s government, because it hits ordinary people at a very basic level, is the shambolic incompetence of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, and the growing perception that the public has been continually fed falsehoods about the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

Ardern’s famous charisma is faltering and the earnest, imploring expression she wears whenever she faces the media, so effective in Christchurch two years ago, is wearing thin.

It’s widely assumed that she’s still unassailable, and her poll ratings appear to support that. But if Ardern has studied 20th century history, she’ll know that even Winston Churchill’s nation-saving leadership of Britain during the 1939-45 war wasn’t enough to guarantee re-election once the voters decided they’d had enough of him.

Friday, July 2, 2021

A few thoughts on hate speech (so called)

There are so many things wrong with the proposed “hate speech” laws that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with an obvious problem: those words “hate” and “hatred”.

Politicians and activists toss these words around as if they have some agreed, settled meaning, but they don’t. What to one person might be a valid and reasonable comment, or even a mere question relating to ethnicity, religion or gender identity, might be construed by an over-sensitive “victim” as hateful. Some activist representatives of ethnic communities, seemingly eager to take offence when none is intended, even object to well-meaning inquiries about their ethnic origins, perceiving them as hostile and unwelcoming rather than motivated by innocent curiosity and a desire to make a connection.

A similar problem arises with some of the other language used in the government’s tortuously wordy (deliberately so?) discussion paper. Terms such as “threatening”, “abusive”, “insulting”, “inciting” and “stirring up” are highly subjective and liable to be interpreted in different ways, depending on who’s doing the interpreting.

Law that depends on such imprecise language is potentially messy – a problem already highlighted by inconsistencies in the attempts by prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her justice minister, Kris Faafoi, to explain how the law would work.

It would ultimately fall to the courts to determine exactly what constitutes “hate speech”, and fortunately New Zealand judges have a pretty sound record, overall, in upholding the right to free speech (with one or two notable exceptions, such as Justice Pherose Jagose’s lamentable upholding of Phil Goff’s right to bar Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from speaking in a publicly owned venue).

Until all this is clarified, however (and we know how long these issues take to work their way through the judicial process), a law that depends on such subjective terms is bound to have a chilling effect on the public conversation.

New Zealanders tend to be timid at the best of times about frankly expressing their views in public. The fear of being labelled a racist – a potent slur that’s constantly used to deter people from expressing moderate and legitimate opinions – is especially inhibiting. People tell me all the time that they don’t dare say what they think (for example, about Maori council wards) for fear of provoking an unpleasant backlash.

If people are frightened already, imagine the stifling effect on the public conversation if they were to worry about possible legal or even criminal consequences.  Yet the contest of ideas, which is the very heart and soul of liberal democracy, hinges on freedom of expression. Free and open debate is how we sort out the good from the bad. Our system of government can’t properly function without it.

There’s also the scary prospect that with the criminalisation of “hate speech”, it would fall to the police – initially, at least – to determine which opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what’s “safe”.

We had a foretaste in our own backyard earlier this year when Marlborough police knocked on the door of a Renwick man after he spray-painted the words “ALM equal rights for Kiwi whites” on the blade of a bulldozer parked outside his property (this at a time when the slogan “All Lives Matter”, a response to the Black Lives Matter protests, was being hysterically condemned as an expression of white supremacy).   

The bulldozer owner wasn’t inciting ill-will against anyone, still less hatred or violence. Nonetheless, a neighbour complained that the message was racist and the police came calling. The man subsequently “agreed to cover up the message”, according to a police statement. The spray painted message was said to have “caused concern for some members of the community”.

Case closed, then; all done and dusted. Very likely it was dealt with in a friendly, non-threatening manner, but that’s hardly the point. By leaning on the man to erase a lawful statement, the police had capitulated to ideological zealotry and crossed the crucial line that separates liberal democracies from authoritarian countries where agents of the state function as speech police.

The mere fact that a complaint was made illustrates what a febrile society we’ve become: quick to take offence and aggressively intolerant of opinions we don't like. Expect a lot more of this if the government pushes through its odious “hate speech” laws. It can only have an energising effect on people like the Renwick neighbour, and it will give the police licence to knock on more doors.

(Speaking of how febrile New Zealand has become, the point was reinforced by Stuff’s report of the Renwick incident, which carried a warning that “This story contains an offensive image”. This referred to a photo showing the bulldozer blade bearing the words “equal rights”, the rest of the message having by then been obliterated after the police intervened. If Stuff thinks its readers so psychologically fragile that the words “equal rights” require a trigger warning, it’s probably futile to expect the news media to champion freedom of speech as they have done in the past.)

Next, let’s deal with the canard that the proposed law changes are all about promoting “social cohesion”. If anything, they threaten to achieve the exact reverse. By designating certain selected groups as protected and therefore different from the mainstream, they will have the effect of magnifying social divisions.

If this is what the government means when it talks about fostering inclusion, it’s a very peculiar way to go about it. Labour has a choice between promoting a society where all New Zealanders feel they have interests in common and a shared stake in community wellbeing, or one that heightens a sense of “otherness” – in other words, a society where the polarising notion of identify politics prevails.

It has signalled clearly which way it wants to go. Everything this government is doing, from the co-governance proposals in the He Puapua report to the establishment of a new Ministry of Ethnic Communities, the creation of Maori wards and now the proposed “hate speech” laws, points to an emphasis on division rather than unity, and to the fostering of a sense that New Zealand society consists of multiple disparate groups – some privileged, others deliberately marginalised – whose interests are fundamentally at odds and can only be resolved by heavy-handed state correction. Is this the sort of society most New Zealanders want?

Now let’s go to the heart of the matter and look at the supposed necessity for tougher “hate speech” laws. The government has repeatedly cited recommendations in the report of the Royal Commission that investigated the Christchurch mosques atrocity. That’s Labour’s fig-leaf of justification. But we’ve seen no evidence that the Christchurch terrorist was encouraged by lax “hate speech” laws, or conversely that he would have been deterred by tougher ones. His realm was the dark web where the law is of no consequence. Would the massacres have been prevented if Labour’s hate speech laws were in place? Of course not. Brenton Tarrant was by definition an outlaw.

The proposed changes, then, are based on a patently false premise. And if the changes are made, will they deter other extremists in the future? Again, of course not. Right-wing extremists will continue to lurk in the shadows of the internet where laws don’t penetrate. Many derive satisfaction from being forced underground because it feeds into their self-image as outcasts and renegades dedicated to the rescue of Western civilisation.

The people who risk being silenced under tougher “hate speech” laws are not those who advocate violence and mayhem (which is a crime already), but those whose opinions and ideas are merely unfashionable or unpopular with the arbiters of ideological correctness. In other words, this proposed law change is not so much about preventing another atrocity as it is about controlling public debate and confining it within parameters that government ideologues regard as acceptable.

The discussion paper reminds us that New Zealand is a signatory to international conventions that prohibit the incitement of hatred, as if that somehow clinches the deal. But as Richard Prebble pithily pointed out in an opinion piece this week, “This government never saw a UN treaty it did not want to sign”. He might have added that the signatories to such declarations typically include despotic regimes that have no intention of honouring their commitments.

Perhaps more to the point, these treaties are the result of esoteric diplomatic talkfests, mostly conducted far away and without our knowledge or consent (a prime example being the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed behind our backs on John Key’s watch). Accordingly they should not be regarded as imposing any obligation on us.

What opinions, then, are likely to be proscribed under the proposed laws? That’s anyone’s guess. In Parliament, Ardern made a joke of Judith Collins’ suggestion that the term “Karen” – a label for a woman who is pushy and demanding – might be construed as hate speech. But how would she know? It’s clear from what Ardern has said that she’s not sure what the proposed laws will cover, and neither is Faafoi (who is not a lawyer by training but a journalist, and a not especially distinguished one at that). It’s hardly reassuring that the prime minister and her justice minister are promoting a radical law change but can’t agree on what effect it will have.

As an aside, I wonder whether the Greens co-leader James Shaw would face repercussions under the proposed laws for making a derisive reference to “Pakeha farmers”, as he reportedly did recently on a Maori radio station. If I were one of those farmers, I would almost certainly regard Shaw’s comment as insulting. It was also a prima facie breach of Section 61 of the Human Rights Act, which prohibits speech that’s “likely to excite hostility against, or bring into contempt, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of colour, race [my italics] or national or ethnic origins”.

An aggravating factor was that Shaw presented a distorted picture. He attacked “Pakeha farmers” on the West Coast for resisting the government’s arrogant plan to designate substantial tracts of private land as “significant natural areas” (SNAs) and therefore subject to government controls – but Shaw would have known that SNAs are just as vehemently opposed by Maori landowners in the Far North, which made his singling out of white farmers gratuitous and misleading as well as egregious. That he was speaking to a Maori audience made it worse, because he appeared to be whipping up resentment by one racial group against another. But Shaw can make such statements with impunity, knowing that laws against discriminatory speech cut only one way.

One last important point to consider. What glaring deficiency in the existing law would the proposed changes remedy? No one has yet put forward a convincing case that the Human Rights Act doesn’t already provide adequate sanctions against people who use deliberately inflammatory language or try to incite violence against minorities.

Of course that’s not all the proposed new law will cover. As well as seeking to outlaw “hate speech”, however that might be defined, the government wants religious belief, gender identity, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, age and political opinion added to the list of existing provisions which protect people against attacks on the basis of their colour, race and national or ethnic origins. 

Of the proposed new categories, the easiest one to justify – especially post-March 15, 2019 – is the inclusion of religious belief, which is clearly aimed at protecting New Zealand’s Muslim community. But that could be achieved by a simple amendment to the existing law. It doesn’t require a comprehensive rewrite, nor an escalation of penalties.

Even then, people might well have reservations about granting protected status to religion as a gesture of inclusiveness aimed at Islam, simply for the reason that of all the religions in New Zealand, Islam is the one most prone to politicisation. While most Muslim New Zealanders probably want nothing more than to live quietly and peaceably in a society that respects their right to follow their religion without harassment, there are Muslim activists who use their religion to secure political influence and promote their own vision of what society should be. Would a tougher “hate speech” law shield them from legitimate criticism?

The point should also be made that New Zealanders’ natural sense of fairness would be offended if hate speech laws were used to protect Islam from the type of critical comment directed at other religions. The Christian Churches, and especially Catholicism, have endured mockery and derision for decades. They put up with it because that’s one of the prices we pay to live in a free society. But the furore in 2006, when several New Zealand newspapers were condemned (by Helen Clark, among others) for publishing the “Muhammad cartoons”, suggested that Islam is regarded as off-limits. Can we expect that special exemption to be enforced under new hate speech laws? I think you can count on it.

As for the other putative protected groups, the list reads like an identity politics charter. These groups want to be placed beyond the reach of normal political discussion because they insist on the right to feel “safe”. But in an open, democratic society, there is no right to feel safe from other people’s opinions. Considerations of “safety” have to be weighed against the right of people to express themselves freely, within the reasonable limits set out in existing law, on social and political issues of importance.

So where do we go from here? It was always on the cards that “hate speech” would be the defining issue of the Ardern government’s second term, and that could well turn out to be the case.

It came as no surprise that ACT immediately signalled its readiness to man the barricades in defence of free speech. What’s more significant is that National, which has been ambivalent and uncertain on issues that cried out for the party to take an unambiguous centre-right position, seems to have decided this is a cause it can commit to.

It could hardly do otherwise if it wants to retain (or should I say reclaim?) the respect it should command as the mainstream opposition party. Collins can’t risk leaving the field clear for David Seymour to position himself as the natural leader of the pushback against Labour’s move to control what New Zealanders can say.

Free speech, then, has the potential to become a crucial and even decisive battleground, especially as public alarm over the Covid-19 pandemic recedes – as it will, if the government ever gets its shambolic vaccination rollout sorted.

The picture that’s emerging is one of a government that’s not only pursuing a radical ideological agenda across a wide front, but getting too far ahead of its capacity to deliver, as demonstrated by the  confusion between Ardern and Faafoi. The technical term for this is the speed wobbles – the curse of left-wing governments with more ambition than ability.

What we don’t yet know is how strongly the electorate at large feels about so-called hate speech, but a Newshub straw poll earlier this week showed 87 percent of more than 9000 respondents were against the proposed law changes – not a scientific sample, but promising nonetheless.

Voters rewarded Ardern last year for her handling of the Christchurch mosque massacres and the Covid-19 pandemic, at least in its early stages. Thousands transferred their allegiance from a National Party that had lost it way. But that political capital is rapidly burning up as Labour oversteps its mandate with radical, top-down changes that the electorate hasn’t had time to digest and is rightly nervous about. 

It may be wishful thinking, but I suspect that the faint tapping I keep hearing is the sound of nails being hammered into Labour’s coffin – and it seems to be getting louder.