Monday, August 30, 2021

Testing the limits of spin

We crossed a significant threshold in the Covid-19 crisis yesterday, and I’m not talking about the number of new cases.

Commenting on the potentially problematical disjunction between current high inoculation rates and dwindling supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, Jacinda Ardern had this to say: “It’s not a matter of running out [of the vaccine], it’s a matter of whether or not we are in a position of where we need to have a little less demand.”

Er, pardon me? I've read this sentence several times and I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to mean, or indeed whether it means anything at all. Communication is normally one of Ardern’s great political strengths, but this statement was, at best, cryptic. At worst it was nonsensical, and I’m wondering whether it’s a sign that the government is almost past pretending it’s in control of the pandemic.

It certainly stood in striking contrast to the optimistic pep talk last week in which she said tracing the origin of the current outbreak would help the government “circle the virus, lock it down and stamp it out” – a phrase that gave the impression of a resolute government in command of the situation, while also conveying the patently false impression that Covid-19 could be extinguished as easily as a candle.

Similar punchy phrases – “the team of five million”, “go hard and go early”, “be strong and be kind” – have been an essential part of the government’s tool kit in managing the pandemic. If PR spin was all we needed to defeat a virus, Covid-19 might have been vanquished by now. But there comes a point when the Beehive communications wizards run out of snappy lines and the government’s vulnerability is exposed for all to see. Perhaps we’ve reached that point.

Spin gets you only so far, and I suspect Ardern’s daily press conferences no longer work the same magic that won the loyalty and support of New Zealanders last year. Covid-19 was new to us then and we were prepared to put our faith in her. We were all in uncharted territory.

This time is different. We’ve had months in which to observe the effects of the Delta variant overseas knowing it must eventually arrive here, yet the government appears to have been caught napping. Even the media, which with a few honourable exceptions (Newshub’s Michael Morrah, for one) was previously happy to go along with the government’s spin, finds itself unable to ignore the daily catalogue of flaws and failings in its management of the pandemic.

We have learned, for example, that the government passed up the opportunity to buy other vaccines besides Pfizer’s, even though going with one supplier meant waiting months for stocks  – and this on top of delays that had already made a black joke of Chris Hipkins’ boast that we would be at the front of the queue.

Similarly, we now know that the government could have ordered reputable saliva-testing technology that would have permitted people to test themselves, thereby avoiding the frustration of long queues at testing stations and delays in getting results.

On three key metrics – testing, vaccinations and contract tracing – the government’s performance has been, to put it politely, tardy and sub-optimal. Protection at the border has been slack and the MIQ system appears to be a shambles. Meanwhile vulnerable essential workers, from police to port employees, have inexplicably been left unvaccinated.  

Puzzling anomalies have reinforced the impression that the Covid-19 response is being decided on the hoof, despite the government having months to prepare. Pharmacies weren’t able to offer vaccinations, and then suddenly they were. Ditto general practitioners. Why barriers were placed in their way, when they were eager and impatient to help, remains a mystery. Control freaks in the Beehive and the bureaucracy seem the most likely explanation.  

New Zealanders know all this and have become justifiably sceptical about the government’s propaganda offensive. As a result, Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield may have burned off much of the goodwill they accumulated in 2020. The next political opinion poll is awaited with more than usual interest.

Myself, I’m conflicted on Covid-19 and the lockdown. I instinctively bridle against the government’s gloss and spin. I’m over Ardern’s patronising entreaties from the Beehive Theatrette and I know lots of people – apolitical people, in many cases – who feel the same.

I also take the cynical view that the Covid-19 outbreak gifted a floundering government with a priceless publicity opportunity and a rare chance to give the appearance of being in control of something. But while the crisis initially looked good for Labour, it turned out not to be, because it served to cast light on the multiple glaring deficiencies in its preparedness.

Having said that, it’s hard to argue that the government hasn’t done the right thing (albeit in an inept fashion) by taking the lockdown option. Most New Zealanders probably consider that a temporary curtailment of their liberty is a reasonable price to pay for avoiding large-scale mortality.

Management of the pandemic comes down to a difficult trade-off between the need to keep people safe and the imperatives of maintaining economic activity and respecting individual freedom. My guess is that most New Zealanders, being essentially pragmatic people, would probably argue that the government has got the balance about right – for now, at least. Ultimately, it may be futile to pursue the objective of keeping Covid-19 out; but in the meantime, while everyone’s getting their jabs, it’s in our collective interest to keep the virus confined as far as that’s possible.

Ironically, the most effective PR line Ardern could run in validation of the government’s approach is one she’s unable to use. She could point to the striking difference in Covid-19 mortality statistics between New Zealand (26 deaths) and Australia (999) or Britain (132,000).

That’s a compelling vindication of New Zealand’s approach and a perfect answer to all the snide, condescending overseas commentaries about New Zealand being a “Covid prison” and an “isolated dystopia”. But of course it would never do to highlight those figures, because it would look like gloating at other countries’ misfortunes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Traffic cones and white utes: symbols of NZ's decline as a road-builder

I’ve figured out who the wealthiest man in New Zealand is. It’s not a property developer or a software billionaire or a dairy industry mogul. It’s the bastard who makes those orange-and-white traffic cones.

You can’t drive more than 10 kilometres in any direction without encountering thickets of these cones, often sprouting in circumstances where there’s no obvious justification for them. Every time I see them, I hear the sound of a cash register going “ker-ching!”

I wish I’d bought shares in the company. They must rank with Tesla, Amazon and Apple in terms of value growth.

In the BTC (before traffic cones) era, New Zealand managed to build a national highway network with just a bloke standing at each end of a road construction job with a roll-your-own in one hand and a “Stop” sign in the other.

Not anymore. No job, whether it’s mowing a grass verge or filling in a couple of potholes, is so minor that it doesn’t require truckloads of men in high-vis vests laying out rows of traffic cones and other safety appurtenances lest a feckless motorist causes carnage.  

And we mustn’t forget the traffic control trucks that cruise back and forth with their giant flashing arrows. Observation has led me to suspect that the traffic control trucks which patrol the Hutt motorway – closing lanes, laying down endless lines of cones and forcing traffic to slow to a crawl – sometimes do so not because of any actual work in progress but out of sheer devilment. And there always seems to be more than one bloke in the cab, no doubt so that someone can take over if the driver collapses from the sheer stress and exhaustion of it all.

It should never be assumed that the presence of cones signifies actual work being done. Sometimes they denote a project already completed or intended to be tackled at some indeterminate point in the future. 

Often they are accompanied by speed restrictions whose purpose is similarly unclear. How many times have you seen a sign instructing you to slow to 50 kph on a stretch of road where whatever work was supposedly under way had long since been finished – or alternatively, had yet to start – and any need for reduced speed had either passed or hadn’t yet arisen? And how many times have you passed a sign saying “Works End” when there was nothing to indicate they had started?

Small wonder that motorists have learned to ignore such signs, recognising there’s often no justification for them. The danger, of course, is that they will treat speed restriction signs with contempt even where they have been put in place for a good reason.

But those traffic cones are simply a manifestation of a bigger and more puzzling phenomenon. I call it the white ute syndrome.

Observe any major highway construction project and the first thing you notice is the number of white utes with flashing lights. Most of these vehicles are stationary and apparently doing nothing. Someone drives them to the job in the morning and home again at night, but I wonder what they do in between to justify the expense. Four-wheel-drive utes don’t come cheap, after all, and they’ll cost even more after Labour’s diesel tax starts to bite.

The second thing you notice is the legions of men (and very occasionally a woman) in high-vis vests standing around doing … well, not much at all.

The third thing you’re likely to notice is that you can drive past one of these major highway construction sites at regular intervals over weeks or months and see little or no evidence of progress. This has led me to conclude that New Zealanders have become the world’s least efficient roadbuilders.

For years I’ve travelled every few weeks between the Wairarapa and the Kapiti Coast. This has enabled me to observe progress – or the lack of it – on the Transmission Gully expressway and more recently the Haywards Hill (State Highway 58) safety upgrade. I have plenty of time to do this because traffic is routinely reduced to a crawl over a stretch of several kilometres.

Progress on both projects has proceeded at a glacial pace. I look in vain for any evidence that work has advanced since I last passed through, but mostly what I see is more traffic cones arranged in ever-changing configurations. 

One constant, however, is that there are always plenty of white utes with flashing lights and lots of blokes in high-vis vests standing around.

Make no mistake, Transmission Gully will be a fantastic asset when it’s completed, but it has become a byword for delays and cost overruns. Originally budgeted at $850 million, it’s now past $1.25 billion and climbing. Meanwhile the completion date – originally April 2020 – has been pushed out to the end of next month, and only the most deluded optimist expects it to be achieved. 

It will then be six years since construction began. A small point of comparison: the Suez and Panama canals were built in 10 years.

Okay, Transmission Gully is a big, complex project on difficult terrain, and it was disrupted by earthquakes and Covid-19. But an independent inquiry identified multiple flaws in the way it’s been managed and the New Zealand Transport Agency, as the public partner responsible for spending the taxpayers’ dollars, must ultimately carry the can.

Could there be a less competent government department? Almost everything the NZTA gets involved in turns pear-shaped.

All of this raises an intriguing question. I’m old enough to remember when the Ministry of Works and Development successfully undertook some formidably challenging highway construction jobs. The Napier-Taupo road – once fiendishly dusty, twisty and hard on gearboxes, brakes and radiators – was one. Another was the Mangaweka/Taihape stretch of SH1.  

It beggars belief that they were built without the benefit of white utes, high-vis vests and traffic cones. How the hell did they do it? Whatever their secret, those old-school MWD engineers and roading contractors must have carried it to their graves.


Saturday, August 21, 2021

The disturbing case of Moana, the heavyweight influencer and the judges

Dominion Post journalist Marty Sharpe has reported a disturbing case in which Oranga Tamariki and a Hawke’s Bay iwi tried to have a young Maori girl removed from a safe, loving and secure Pakeha foster home because her cultural needs were supposedly not being met.

That in turn has led to an even more disturbing development, also reported by Sharpe in today's paper. I can’t recall a New Zealand judge ever rebuking two of his judicial superiors and effectively telling them to pull their heads in. But that’s what Family Court judge Peter Callinicos did when two senior judges appeared to interfere in a case he was hearing that related to the girl.

Their action created the appearance of the judges, both of whom were appointed during the term of the Ardern-Peters government, exerting influence behind closed doors in a matter that raises politically sensitive race issues. It’s not a good look.

But more of that later. First, the back story, which you can read here.

The little girl, whom Sharpe calls Moana, was traumatised and neglected at the time she was placed in the care of a Pakeha couple living in rural Hawke’s Bay. Moana had been removed from her mother, who had three other children and a fifth on the way, three times in the first three years of her life. Oranga Tamariki couldn’t find suitable whanau to look after her and her father’s identity was unknown.

The Family Court heard that she thrived in the care of the otherwise childless couple, who wanted to raise her permanently. The foster carers appeared to accept the importance of meeting Moana’s cultural needs, and to that end placed her in a school that had a Maori language programme and asked Oranga Tamariki (to no avail) for help in tracing her whakapapa.

A social worker reported that Moana was being raised in a “safe, nurturing and stable environment”, but also told colleagues the little girl was being stripped of her Maori identity. The couple were not aware of these misgivings.

Simultaneously, there appeared to be a suspicion that the couple were trying to obstruct visits with Moana’s birth mother. They were required to undergo a “cultural assessment” – two words that should strike fear into the innocent and well-meaning – but refused to be involved, suspecting it was a ruse aimed at justifying Moana’s removal. Their concern appears to have been justified, since the “expert” cultural assessor raised doubts about their ability to raise a Maori child in the correct cultural manner.

Long story short: Oranga Tamariki arranged to place Moana with a Maori family in Wellington who weren’t aware of her stable living situation and later said it would have changed their thinking had they known. 

When the Pakeha couple found out, they sought a parenting order from the Family Court. Judge Callinicos ruled that Moana should stay with them until a full hearing could be held, recording his “serious concern that a child who has been in long-term placement would suddenly be uprooted … and sent to new caregivers whom I understand the child may have had no relationship with”.

That was in October 2019. Fast-forward to January this year, when social workers, acting on concern arising from a social worker’s conversation with Moana that had been secretly recorded, filed a without-notice application – meaning the couple weren’t told – to remove Moana from their care. The application was supported by Ngati Kahungungu iwi chair Ngahiwi Tomoana, though his legal standing in the case (if any) isn’t explained.

Moana was duly removed from her day care centre and placed with another caregiver. Oranga Tamariki intended to keep her from her long-term caregivers pending an investigation, but an unnamed judge was having none of it and ordered that Moana be returned after just one night away.

At a subsequent hearing, Judge Lynne Harrison was scathing about the behaviour of Oranga Tamariki social workers, accusing one of “entirely unprofessional, grossly inappropriate and psychologically abusive behaviour”.

After delays reportedly caused by Oranga Tamariki’s failure to produce relevant background information, the case eventually came back before Judge Callinicos last month. In the meantime, a psychologist who wrote two reports on Moana said breaking her attachment to her long-term carers could be extremely disruptive and have significant long-lasting implications for her mental health. “The gains made to date could be lost.”

At the end of the hearing, Callinicos promised to explore the background to what he called a terrible situation. “Some things have to be explained as to how we got here because hopefully from that there will be lessons for the future. No child, no whanau, no family should be going through what people here have had to go through.”

The judge’s decision is awaited with interest. On the face of it, this is a case where a vulnerable child’s best interests, if they have been considered at all by those with power over her future, have been treated as a far lesser priority than the heartless demands of race politics and the culture wars.

The case is also a striking counterpoint to the furore in 2019 (also in Hawke’s Bay) over police uplifts of new-born Maori babies who were considered at risk. On that occasion, Oranga Tamariki was accused of riding roughshod over Maori concerns. Ministry head Grainne Moss lost her job as a result. But the case reported by Sharpe suggests a strong current pulling in the other direction.

I suggest you read Sharpe’s full account, because I’ve omitted quite a lot of detail. But in the meantime, the case has taken a worrying turn.

According to Sharpe, Sir Wira Gardiner, who took over Moss’s job at Oranga Tamariki with instructions to sort the troubled ministry out, objected to the way Callinicos questioned social workers in the “Moana” case and made his concerns known to the Chief District Court judge, Judge Heemi Taumaunu, and principal Family Court judge Jackie Moran. Gardiner reportedly claimed that the social workers had been bullied.

What was said between Gardiner and the judges isn’t known, according to Sharpe’s account, but it led to meetings between the two senior judges – known as the Heads of Bench – and Oranga Tamariki. There was a phone call and letters.

When the judges later relayed their concerns to Callinicos, he reportedly responded by reminding them that it was inappropriate to approach a presiding judge to discuss any aspect of a part-heard case.  It was, he said, a breach of judicial independence.

I’m not a lawyer, but I wouldn’t have thought this was something that needed to be pointed out to two senior members of the judiciary.

Callinicos told parties to the hearing he believed the judges’ actions could be seen as having the potential to affect his impartiality. He invited the parties to apply for him to be recused from the case, but only the lawyer acting for Moana’s mother did so. Callinicos rejected her application.

I’m aware that Callinicos himself has come in for criticism during his time on the Bench, notably for his role in a previous Family Court case that was cited in the application for his recusal, but on the face of it he appears to have been justified in calling out his seniors.

Appearing to exert influence behind the scenes – which, if Sharpe’s report is to be believed, is what happened here (and you can be sure the story would have been rigorously vetted by Stuff’s lawyers) – seems fundamentally at odds with the notion of open justice. The involvement of a heavyweight Wellington influencer like Gardiner (who coincidentally stood down this week, citing health reasons) does nothing to diminish the impression that the judges’ intervention in a case with political overtones was – how can I put this? – irregular.

We pride ourselves on having a judicial system that’s untainted by politics, but people reading Sharpe’s story will be justified in wondering whether that principle is inviolable.


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Afghanistan? Remind me - where's that again?

One of the most dramatic news stories of my lifetime was unfolding yesterday. The collapse of Afghanistan is a massive human tragedy and a catastrophic foreign policy and military failure for the world’s most powerful country and its allies – one that’s at least as humiliating and ignoble as Vietnam.

International media have given Afghanistan saturation coverage, and rightly so. Few countries have endured greater agony, much of it inflicted by the clumsy, brutal and ultimately futile intervention of foreign powers.

But how much time did Newshub give this epic event in its 6 o’clock news bulletin? None, other than a passing introductory spiel that promised (but never delivered) “horrific scenes at Kabul”.

You see, there was a far more momentous story to cover. A man in Auckland had tested positive for Covid-19 and it was suspected (and has since been established) that he had the highly contagious Delta variant.

As far as we know, the man’s life wasn’t in imminent danger. Neither was anyone else's. But the government was about to make an announcement so important that Newshub was prepared to clear the decks of all extraneous material – including, as it turned out, coverage of the Taliban’s awful triumph in Afghanistan, which didn’t even squeak in at the tail end of the bulletin.

You read that correctly: Newshub devoted the entire news hour to Covid-19 and the announcement of the lockdown.

Fourteen minutes in, after a long preliminary buildup, the bulletin cut to the start of Jacinda Ardern’s press conference. Nothing gets TV editors’ juices flowing like the words “breaking news”. What followed, astonishingly, was nearly 48 minutes of live coverage from the stage of the Beehive Theatrette, complete with the prime minister’s now-familiar exhortations to the “team of five million” to defeat the pandemic and “be kind to one another”. (Well, it worked last time.)

On the face of it, there was some seriously warped news judgment at work here. Granted, the first infection with the Delta strain from an unknown community source was a big story. But no one had died, and as things stood, the worst we faced was being deprived of some of our liberties for a few days.

A sensible editorial decision, in the circumstances, would have been to wrap up the coverage once Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield finished their prepared pep talks. By then we were already more than 30 minutes into the bulletin, which still left time to cover some of the other news of the day – like, for example, that little sideshow in Kabul.

No such luck. Newshub decided we hadn’t had enough of Covid-19 and proceeded to cover reporters’ questions to Ardern and Bloomfield, which took up a further 23 minutes. For what purpose, exactly? The questions were barely audible and the answers added little to what we already knew.

Predictably, the reporters’ inquiries were mostly as soft as marshmallow (surprise!), and any that weren’t – such as one inquiring whether low vaccination rates might have left New Zealand exposed – were quickly kicked into the long grass.

All of which left me wondering whether the decision to give Ardern the entire bulletin, rather than being simply a case of bad news judgment, was another striking example of media capture by the government. Consider the following:

This is a government that’s floundering. Its support is waning with every poll and it would be in an even worse position if the National Party wasn’t firing on only one cylinder. The lockdown, then, has come at an ideal time for Ardern, enabling her to do what she does best – namely, deploy her achingly empathetic (some would say patronising) “Mother of the Nation” shtick.

Don’t forget that Ardern’s daily appearances on television during the last lockdown were cited as a crucial factor in her stonking election win. No one ever denied she was a good communicator. Last night was an opportunity to reclaim that mojo, and Newshub delivered it to her gift-wrapped, with bells on.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Ardern was in her happy place when announcing the nation was about to go back into lockdown, but she was certainly in her element. This was a stage-managed occasion that enabled her to command public attention in prime time and pretty much on her own terms – priceless exposure for a prime minister whose government is stumbling.

It was also an opportunity to reprise her line about the benefit of going hard and going early, in contrast to benighted New South Wales (a Liberal Party-controlled state whose predicament she repeatedly and pointedly reminded us of, while not once mentioning Labor-governed Victoria, though its Covid-19 statistics are infinitely more dire). And it must have come as a very welcome distraction from multiple intractable problems that even the Labour-friendly media can’t avoid reporting.

Covid-19 is a problem too, of course, but it’s one in which Ardern can present herself and her government as being decisive and on top of things, in contrast to all the others where it looks incompetent and bereft of ideas. Crucially, it’s also an issue on which Ardern can count on the vast majority of the public being on the government’s side, because who doesn’t want to stamp out a potentially lethal disease?

The question I’m asking myself is whether Newshub’s decision to devote the whole hour to the Ardern and Bloomfield Show wasn’t made on the basis of normal news criteria. By any yardstick, it was overkill. 

On any day, it would have been odd. On a day when the world’s attention was riveted by the drama unfolding in Afghanistan (to say nothing of the tragedy in Haiti and the multiple other events that would have normally competed for time in the bulletin), it was more than odd; it was incomprehensible. Unless, that is, Newshub has a political agenda.

A charitable explanation might be that Newshub was simply displaying the parochialism and insularity of a small, self-absorbed country at the bottom of the world, or alternatively that its over-stimulated journalists got carried away. But I don’t buy it. Political editor Tova O’Brien reinforced the impression that this was a political propaganda exercise by obligingly parroting the government’s message at the conclusion of the bulletin. She’s too experienced not to be aware of what she was doing.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist and I’ve been in journalism too long to cry “Bias!” every time I see or read something I object to. But how else do you explain last night’s weirdness, other than by facing up to the realisation that parts of the media are now so brazenly politicised that they’re beyond caring whether anyone notices?

Footnote: I don’t know how TVNZ handled the lockdown announcement. I could have watched it on demand, but there’s a limit to my masochism.


Saturday, August 14, 2021

Diversity training isn't much help when you're staring down the barrel of an AK47

The military has always had a distinct culture of its own – one that depends on the acceptance of order, discipline and authority. Its rituals, traditions and rigid hierarchical structure may seem peculiar to outsiders and out of step with the rest of the world, but that’s how it functions.

Most people who have served in the military would argue there’s no other way. In combat, soldiers must be able to rely on others to do what they’re told, even if it means risking their lives. This ethos permeates the armed forces even in peacetime.

But how much longer this will remain the case must be in question as the New Zealand Defence Force shows signs of succumbing to the tide of Marxist-inspired ideological upheaval sweeping through the rest of society.

It almost goes without saying that the military represents much that neo-Marxists despise. Three obvious marks against it are that it’s still largely male, it relies on deference to authority and it exists – at least in the febrile imaginations of the woke Left – to enforce power structures, if necessary by killing people. It follows that anything that can be done to emasculate the military, and to break down the culture of order and discipline on which it depends, must be encouraged.

I’m told, for example, that some army personnel recently used an army intranet site to promote the idea that the terms “Sir” and “Ma’am” be dropped when addressing officers, since this could be offensive to those who identify as non-binary. In a similar vein, “Mr” and “Mrs” are no longer used in army correspondence as they are deemed to be examples of gender stereotyping. Nothing is safe from the creeping tendrils of woke ideology.

Issues have also arisen over uniforms, which some women soldiers consider unflattering. I understand that as a result, they are no longer required to tuck their shirts in.

No big deal, outsiders might say. But some experienced soldiers cite such developments as pointers to a possible breakdown in a military culture that has evolved over centuries and proved itself fit for purpose. More specifically, they are alarmed that the intrusion of ideology is a distraction from the real purpose of the armed forces – which is to protect the country’s interests, if necessary by the use of force – and diminishes its ability to carry out that function.

It was against this backdrop that a competition-winning soldier’s essay recently caused conniptions in the NZDF (and yes, I know I’m coming late to this subject, but you can’t rush into these things).

To refresh your memory, the essay was headlined Can the Army Afford to go Woke? It argued that the army “cannot reconcile a more diverse and inclusive workforce with the maintenance of a warrior ethos and war-fighting culture”.

The writer, identified as “N Dell”,  went on to say that “increasing focus on these identity-based notions of Diversity only sews [sic] greater division and discord in society and, I fear, within the Army too”. He excluded Maori from this assessment, noting that “During basic training we are taught that the cultural foundation of the Army is built upon a proud tradition of Maori warrior culture being interwoven with regimental British military doctrine”. He added that this synergy of cultures was one of the unique features of the New Zealand Army and had probably contributed to its reputation for punching above its weight in international theatres.

What he was arguing against, the writer said, was the army’s attempts to “engineer” identity-based diversity by focusing on race, gender and sexual orientation. The type of diversity that should matter to the army, he wrote, was diversity of opinion, experience, attitude, class and background – areas in which the army excelled.

Every resource devoted to diversity and “inclusion” was a diversion from the army’s only responsibility, which was to protect New Zealand. While considerations of diversity were okay for private companies, there was no room for them in the military “where performance is, by definition, a matter of life and death”.

It was a thoughtful, articulate and bold essay. Essentially the writer was arguing that the army is fundamentally different from other institutions and can’t afford the luxury of being fashionably woke.  

The essay also stood out as being politically aware and sophisticated in the writer’s grasp of the so-called culture wars. It obviously impressed the Chief of the Army, Major General John Boswell, who judged it the best entry in the “private writing” category of an army writing competition.

But then something happened. Boswell changed his mind, saying his decision had been an error, and the essay disappeared from an army website where it had been displayed along with other winning entries.

Boswell said he backtracked “when it became clear that publishing [the essay] was being seen as endorsement of the views contained within it, which could not be further from the truth”.

Actually, I can see why Boswell may have been spooked. Reading “N Dell’s” essay, I detected similarities with some of the rhetoric used by the white nationalist group Action Zealandia, whose covert activities have recently been exposed in a series of articles in the Otago University newspaper Critic.

The essay writer himself had anticipated trouble, signalling in his introductory paragraph that he was aware his essay would provoke a backlash, but invoking the values of free speech, free inquiry and self-criticism. 

Be that as it may, taken at face value and in isolation, the essay raised legitimate points. The army could have published it while simultaneously making clear that it didn’t share the writer’s views, but Boswell appears to have waved a white flag following a backlash from activists in the ranks. Stuff reported that women and “rainbow members” of the Defence Force had voiced their anger, calling the army hypocritical for embracing “gender-inclusive” projects while amplifying “harmful” views.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare weighed in too, saying he had reminded the chief of the NZDF of his expectations of “inclusivity and diversity”.

From the other side, National defence spokesman Chris Penk said he would be concerned if the essay had been removed because it didn’t fit a pre-determined narrative. “If you run an essay competition and pick a winner based on merit, then there should be no good reason that essay mysteriously disappears,” Penk said. More pointedly, David Seymour observed that “the New Zealand Army used to fight for free speech, now it’s fighting against it.”

There are two issues here, one of which is freedom of speech. The Free Speech Union called Boswell’s action a troubling attack on free speech, pointing out – like Seymour – that this was one of the values New Zealand soldiers had given their lives for.

Admittedly, the military isn’t usually noted for encouraging impertinent, independently minded  soldiers to say what they think. But having decided the essay was worthy of the prize, Boswell should have stood his ground. Backing down looked spineless, which possibly did more harm to the army’s image than getting offside with the offenderati. It also ran counter to the military ethos that lower ranks don’t second-guess the boss.

The other issue, of course, is whether the Defence Force should yield to the woke ideological tide sweeping through the rest of society, at potential risk to its ability to do the job it was created for.

 A retired senior army officer of my acquaintance was sharply critical of Boswell. The writer of the essay, he said, had addressed the values of courage and integrity, “which are at the heart of what the army lives and dies by. When the senior officer of the army fails to follow these core values and surrenders to political correctness, he has also surrendered the moral authority to lead.”

He went on to say that the Christchurch mosque attacks had been the catalyst for significant changes in the military relating to issues of ethnicity, religion and gender. The current government had launched this agenda and demanded that everyone accept it without question.

That should surprise no one. Since the 1970s, when the last of the Second World War veterans were retiring from politics, the Labour Party has been, at best, ambivalent about defence. I’m told that Jacinda Ardern’s visit to Linton camp two months ago was her first to an army base since she became prime minister in 2017. The armed forces just don’t rank highly in Labour’s priorities, other than as an institution ripe for ideologically inspired transformation.

While my ex-army acquaintance acknowledges that the army can’t and shouldn’t isolate itself from wider society, he was clearly uneasy about the current agenda and its likely impact on the army’s combat capability.

He agreed with the hapless essay writer that diversity, inclusion and identity politics should not be the building block for a combat culture. Rather, it should be based on selection of the best and most competent people, regardless of factors such as race or sexual orientation.

He predicted that the army’s capability would be eroded as it pursues its ideologically fashionable recruitment and promotion policy and diverts resources and energy into LGBT awareness courses at the expense of combat training. And he finished with the pointed observation that encouraging inclusion and diversity “is of little use if you’re staring down the barrel of a Chinese AK47 from the wrong end”.

Friday, August 13, 2021

How we define ourselves

I reckon New Zealand should stop describing itself as bi-cultural and instead use the term mixed-race.

This is more than a matter of mere semantics. Here’s my reasoning.

“Bi” is Latin for two. It therefore inevitably throws emphasis onto the differences, real and imagined, between Maori and Pakeha.

It’s this focus on separateness, rather than the things that draw us together, that has enabled a political culture to flourish in which people of Maori and Pakeha descent are increasingly at odds.

Politicians and activists who define themselves as Maori, but who in fact are a mixture of Maori and European, invariably focus on issues that divide us. They treat “Maori” and Pakeha as having interests that are inherently opposed and even impossible to reconcile.

This sets up a situation in which Maori and Pakeha view themselves as being in competition for resources and political power.

This in turn leads to a segment of the Pakeha majority feeling threatened. As Maori influence increasingly holds sway in politics, culture and the media, so the possibility of an ugly backlash arises.

This is in no one’s interests. It threatens to destabilise one of the world’s most admired democracies – a country historically noted as fair-minded, liberal (in the best sense), socially advanced and mostly harmonious, certainly by comparison with other countries of mixed races.

This backlash is likely to take unedifying forms – witness Hurricanes board member Troy Bowker’s lashing out at part-Maori entrepreneur Ian Taylor for supposedly “sucking up to the Maori left culture”. A balanced, nuanced debate on race relations in New Zealand is well overdue, but it won’t be achieved by disparaging people in crude racial terms – nor, for that matter, by kneejerk calls for people like Bowker to be punished by effectively being blacklisted.

That may deny them a platform, but it doesn’t magically get rid of the sentiment behind Bowker’s outburst. On the contrary, silencing people will almost certainly magnify resentment due to the perception that only one side of the debate is allowed to be heard.

Besides, we should admit that underneath what appears to be crude anti-Maori rhetoric, there is a legitimate grievance: namely, a feeling that the political agenda is largely being driven by people who represent only 16.5 percent of the population, and that other voices are increasingly excluded from the public conversation – or at least that part of the conversation controlled by the media and the government. A situation in which a minority group is perceived as wielding disproportionate power and influence is plainly at odds with fundamental notions of democracy.

Back, then, to that question of how we define ourselves.

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by arguing about what proportion of Maori blood one needs in order to be considered a “real” Maori, as Bowker did when he demanded of Taylor: “What percentage Maori are you?” That reduces the race relations debate to very simplistic terms. People of part-Maori descent are entitled to identify with, and take pride in, whichever part of their heritage they choose, regardless of the finer detail of their whakapapa.

But what’s undeniable is that most, if not all people, who identify as Maori are also part-European. We’re all citizens of New Zealand (or if you prefer, Aotearoa) and we all have crucial interests – freedom, human rights and prosperity, to name just three – in common.

We have all benefited from living in one of the best little countries in the world (if you doubt that, just look at how we perform over a range of global measurements) and we all have a stake in its future: a future in which everyone enjoys the same rights and opportunities and has every chance to fulfil their potential.  

This doesn’t mean denying that many part-Maori people are disadvantaged in many respects, or prevent us from doing whatever we can to put them on the same footing as the Pakeha majority. As a Pakeha, I can’t see how it could possibly be in my interests for Maori to fail. On the contrary, we would all benefit if Maori health, education and imprisonment rates were improved.   But I don’t see how this can be achieved by setting up a potentially destructive contest between the two main population groups.

That’s why I believe we need to focus on the things we have in common rather than the issues that divide us and threaten to polarise us. Inherent in the term “bi-cultural” is that we’re two peoples, when in fact 180 years of miscegenation has irrevocably melded us together and created a unique mix that combines admirable elements from both constituent parts. 

Factor in the high levels of immigration from other countries in recent decades, and we’re more accurately defined as a mixed-race society. That may provide a more harmonious pathway to a future that’s otherwise starting to look distinctly unpromising.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

A referendum? You mean, like, allowing people to have their say? We can't have that!

It’s fascinating to observe the force with which the government and its protectors in the media have jumped on the National Party’s suggestion that official use of the name “Aotearoa” should be the subject of a referendum.

If this is the most pressing issue Judith Collins can come up with, they scoff, then she’s gone off the road (Ben Thomas’s phrase on Stuff). In any case, they remind us, “Aotearoa” has been around for years. It’s on our passports and banknotes. And guess who was in power when it was put there, as Newshub reminded us last night: why, the National Party! Game, set and match, then. Hell, hasn’t even Judith Collins been heard using the name once or twice?

(As an aside, you almost have to admire the zeal with which Labour’s cheerleaders at Newshub trawl through their old files and video clips looking for anything that might embarrass National. I sometimes wonder whether they get a bit of discreet assistance from the Labour Party research unit. In another example last night, Jenna Lynch, Tova O’Brien’s understudy as chief tormentor of the opposition, portrayed Collins as a hypocrite for criticising a government grant to a Mongrel Mob drug rehab scheme. National had given money to the very same programme in 2017, Lynch sneered. But hang on: National gave $30,000, whereas Labour is giving the gang $2.75 million. Admittedly it’s an infinitesimal difference – like, a mere $2.72 million – but, you know, apples with apples and all that.)   

But back to that suggested Aotearoa referendum. Even David Seymour disses the idea, saying he would have thought New Zealand had more important things to grapple with. (After all, we’re merely talking about the name by which the rest of the world has known us since we first existed as a country. Nothing to see here, folks.) But of course that may just be Seymour seeking to score points over his main rival for the support of the swinging voters whom Jacinda Ardern and her government are doing their best to alienate. I mean, he’s a politician, after all.

What’s interesting here is the sheer weight of the attacks on the referendum idea. This tells us the government and its de facto PR operatives in the media are keen to snuff it out before it gets any traction.

The argument that “Aotearoa” has been around for years is utterly and wilfully disingenuous. Yes, it’s on our passports and banknotes, as an acknowledgment of this country’s bicultural roots. But it has always been secondary to our official name and for that reason, no one could reasonably have objected (and to my knowledge, no one ever has).

But what has happened in recent months is vastly different. With striking suddenness, Aotearoa – which we need to remind ourselves is a name of dubious authenticity – has become the term of choice for politicians, government departments and agencies, academics, teachers, virtue-signalling corporates and the mainstream media. Its use has become routine in government advertising and public statements. In other words, it has officially been adopted as a substitute for New Zealand. And all this has happened without so much as a skerrick of public endorsement.

The absence of a mandate is the issue here, and I suspect National, which otherwise appears bereft of ideas, is correct to latch onto it. Like low-energy light bulbs and cats in dairies, it has the potential to become a focal point for public unease about a barrage of radical government initiatives. That would explain why opponents of a referendum are so eager to kick the ball into the long grass.

They sneer at National’s claim that “Aotearoa” is being promoted by stealth and technically they’re right, since there’s nothing remotely surreptitious about it. “Aotearoa” has been brazenly imposed by a political elite in the hope that we will all adopt it as if by osmosis.  

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that we have nothing to fear from a debate about the country’s name. “New Zealand” has no intrinsic historical or cultural relevance and is almost comically inappropriate, considering our geographical contrast with the flat, low-lying Dutch province that inspired the name. But while it was acquired by historical accident, the name has come to stand for something in the world, as we’ve been reminded during the Olympic Games. It has acquired its own powerful resonance in all manner of spheres: sport, warfare, diplomacy, trade, tourism and the arts, to mention a few. That has to be weighed against the appeal of an alternative that is more distinctively our own.

Other countries (Sri Lanka, Iran, Thailand, Madagascar) have changed their names, but the ramifications are enormous. The only democratic way to determine the issue is by popular vote preceded by a thorough, transparent and informed public discussion of the pros and cons. But the left distrusts democracy, which may explain why the government would prefer that we compliantly adopted Aotearoa “organically” – to use a term favoured by the prime minister – rather than go through the inconvenient business of letting the people have their say.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

A transformational government unlike any other

[The following was written for The National Business Review. It was to have been the first of a weekly column that the paper invited me to contribute. However there was a polite dispute between us over some of the content in the inaugural column, as a result of which neither it nor any other will be appearing in NBR. But having written it anyway, I thought I might as well post it here. Nothing in it is likely to come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog.]

I received an email the other day from a friend, a retired journalist and self-described bleeding-heart lefty (most journalists lean to the left, though the good ones don’t let it influence their work), who complained that political correctness was sucking all the fun out of life.

Actually, I don’t think the phrase “political correctness” is adequate to describe what’s happening in New Zealand in 2021. Political correctness was a phenomenon whose absurdities were so obvious that we could safely ridicule them.

Being PC was mostly about superficial stuff: saying the right thing and putting on ostentatious displays of cultural or gender sensitivity. But what’s happening now is far more complex, deep-seated and unsettling. We can no longer simply laugh it off.

Real rights are under threat – for example, property rights, the right to fair and equal democratic representation and, crucially, the right of free speech. Mere political correctness, of the type we used to scoff at, now looks almost benign.

Identity politics, the culture wars, neo-Marxism, wokeness …these terms get closer to describing what’s going on. But none quite captures the scale and pace of the current upheavals in politics and culture.

To cite just a few obvious examples:

■ The Three Waters project, which represents a massive centralisation of power, seizure of community-owned assets and erosion of local democracy;

■ Vaguely defined “hate speech” laws, promoted under the dishonest pretext that they might have prevented the Christchurch mosque massacres;

■ Political control of the media via the Public Interest Journalism Fund (or as I prefer to call it, the Pravda Project) and the opportunistic creation – taking advantage of privately owned media’s weakened position in the digital era – of a new, state-owned media behemoth through the proposed merger of RNZ and TVNZ;

■ Proposals for 50-50 Maori co-governance and control over public assets and resources, which would turn fundamental concepts of democracy on their head;

■ Punitive taxes on economically indispensable farmers’ and tradies’ work vehicles, with corresponding subsidies for affluent (and Labour-voting?) urban buyers of electric cars;

■ Attacks on supposed white privilege and the rewriting of our national story, complete with indoctrination of school pupils through an ideologically loaded history curriculum;

■ Violation of property rights through the Significant Natural Areas provisions of the Resource Management Act;

■ The relentless promotion of Maori place names and te reo, unsanctioned by any semblance of public mandate.

I could go on, but you get the picture. This is a government that has raced way too far ahead of the people who voted for it and way too far ahead of its own competence.

New Zealand has had transformational governments before: Richard Seddon’s Liberals in the 1890s and early 1900s, Labour under Michael Joseph Savage in the 1930s, Rogernomics in the 1980s (note, never under National, the party of the status quo). But the current government is pushing through arguably the most radical transformation programme ever, and it’s happening at such speed that people are barely able to catch their breath.

Few if any of the voters who threw their support behind Jacinda Ardern and Labour in last year’s election realised they were effectively giving the green light to a grand ideological project.

They thought they were rewarding Ardern for her assured leadership through the mosque massacres and Covid-19 crisis, and at the same time sending a message to a fractious and enfeebled National Party to sort out its act. In politics, however, there’s no Customer Guarantees Act that allows you to demand a refund when the product you bought isn’t the one advertised.

But back to my retired journalist friend. Among other things, he was concerned about the characterisation of our history as a shameful chronicle of white supremacy, oppression and exploitation. 

There is a balanced, nuanced debate to be had about colonisation and its effects, but it’s not happening. A truly honest debate would acknowledge that while Maori suffered damaging long-term consequences, they also benefited. The abolition of slavery, endless tribal warfare and cannibalism must surely count for something.

An honest debate would also acknowledge that race relations in New Zealand have mostly been harmonious and respectful – a fact attested to by the number of Maori activists with European features and Anglo-Saxon surnames.

Now here’s the thing about my journalist friend. By disposition he’s left-leaning.  Run the standard check list of defining historical issues past him – the Vietnam War, the 1981 Springbok tour, homosexual law reform – and he ticks all the correct boxes. So why is he alarmed?

It’s partly the sheer pace of change – he uses the work “reckless” – and the fact that the public is being given little chance to adjust. “I just wish she [Ardern] would slow down so as not to alienate traditional and swinging supporters,” he writes.

I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by other friends whose normal inclination is to support Labour. Underlying their concern is a sense that the country is being radically re-invented without public approval, or even a proper debate.

When former union firebrand and political activist Matt McCarten joins the Free Speech Union because he’s concerned for the health of democracy, you just know the political planets are undergoing an unusual realignment.

The standard, sneering response from the so-called “progressive” left – let’s call them the “new” left to differentiate them from people like my friend – is that resistance to the government’s agenda is coming mainly from ageing white men like me. We’re supposed to get out of the way and shut up.

Woke people call us dinosaurs and reactionaries, but the counter-argument is that age gives you a loftier vantage point from which to survey the past and judge the present. To put it another way, it gives us a deeper appreciation of what we (and by that I mean all of us) stand to lose.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

In New Zealand this week

Someone sent me a copy of the open letter signed by 2000 academics and assorted hangers-on attacking the seven University of Auckland professors who wrote to The Listener challenging the idea that Matauranga Maori – traditional Maori knowledge – should be treated as worthy of equal status with Western science.

The open letter is an academic gang-up on a grand scale.  It cannot be interpreted as anything other than a determined attempt to deter dissenters.

It’s depressing and disheartening, but it should serve as a call to arms to anyone who values intellectual freedom and free speech. No one should be in any doubt that these fundamental values of a liberal, open democracy are at risk in the institutions where they should be most honoured and celebrated.

A large proportion of the signatories to the open letter appear to be academic also-rans from third-rate establishments. The numbers have been padded out with dozens of ring-ins from overseas. Predictably, many of the local names will be recognised as belonging to people with a history of attaching themselves to whatever fashionable leftist cause happens to be passing.

Disappointingly, the list also includes a few prominent figures who one might have hoped would hold out against invitations to sign, not only in defence of intellectual freedom but also for the reason that the open letter looks like bullying (which it is). Emeritus Professor Paul Spoonley is there, for example, as is Dr Colin Tukuitonga.

I’m not going to get into the debate about the relative merits of Western science and Matauranga Maori, (a) because other people are far better qualified to do that, and more importantly (b) because it’s immaterial. The real issue here is the right to engage in free and open debate on a matter of public interest – namely, how New Zealand children are to be taught about science, which is at the heart of the seven heretics’ concern – without being howled down.

That howling down has one object in mind: to enforce orthodoxy. The sheer weight of numbers shows how all-pervasive that orthodoxy is, and how intolerant of disagreement. I wonder how many signatories felt under pressure to sign because they were concerned about their career prospects.

I also fear for university staff who refuse to toe the approved ideological line and courageously insist on their right to hold and express their own informed opinions. It can’t be easy for them.

Now here’s the thing: all 2000 of those signatories enjoy the benefits of an academic environment that came about through freedom of thought and the right to challenge accepted beliefs. They are now betraying that heritage and denying it to others.

I recently read someone suggesting that the period from the 1960s on, when the conservative establishment was under assault from a wave of free thinking and open debate, was actually a temporary aberration, and we’re now regressing to a society in which censorious bullies are in control and non-conformists feel threatened and intimidated.

Sadly, I think the theory may be right. The people who signed the open letter are the new establishment, and they’re as intolerant of challenges to their authority as the old one was.

Morning Report this morning began an item about the dawn raids apology with Elton John’s line, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”.

Actually, it’s not. Not when you’re Jacinda Ardern and the events you’re apologising for happened so far in the past that they don’t reflect unfavourably on you. Neither is saying sorry difficult when your message is targeted at an audience whose votes you want in 2023.

Yes, from the vantage point of 2021, the dawn raids look bad. This is an example of presentism, when we judge historic events according to contemporary values and expectations. In the circumstances, a formal government apology makes good political theatre.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s true that Polynesian overstayers were cynically made scapegoats for a downturn in the economy which meant they were no longer useful as low-cost factory fodder. But we can see this with more clarity now than we could then. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It’s also true that early-morning police raids were a tactic associated with totalitarian states and that they would not have been used against middle-class white homes because that would have been considered intolerable.

But is it permissible to raise a couple of teensy-weensy mitigating factors? One is that the police pounced at 6am not out of gratuitous insensitivity or cruelty, but because that’s when they knew they would find people at home. They do the same with criminals; always have done.

Another is that the overstayers were here illegally, even if they’d been originally invited by the government because we needed their labour. And a third is that although Pasifika overstayers were targeted while those from countries such as Britain and the US were not, that may have been because there were far more of them.

I’m not saying the raids were something we should be proud of; merely that to portray them as a gratuitously callous act of racism may be a bit over-simplistic.