Thursday, September 30, 2021

Mental health gets the standard Labour treatment

Labour governments typically have two standard responses to a political problem, or even the mere perception of one. They either throw vast amounts of money at it, or they create an unwieldy, centralised bureaucracy to give the impression something is being done. Sometimes it’s both, since these solutions often overlap.

We’ve already seen several examples of both approaches under this government and it’s not even one-third of the way through its term. In health and education, Labour is re-inventing the wheel by setting up potentially cumbersome bureaucracies that will strip away all pretence of local representation – and in the former case, create a co-governance structure that will give Maori power vastly disproportionate to their numbers. Reform of local government is still to come, and we can expect it to follow a similar path.

Even more egregious is Labour’s proposed Three Waters upheaval – a project so flawed and obnoxious that even the mayors of Auckland and Christchurch, both former Labour cabinet ministers, have declared their opposition.  

Another former Labour minister, Richard Prebble, succinctly describes Three Waters as the biggest robbery in our history. “The government is taking over $35.7 billion of ratepayers’ water assets and leaving the ratepayers with the debt,” Prebble writes in the New Zealand Herald.

Once again a centralised, opaque governance structure will be created that will give grossly disproportionate power to unelected Maori, sweep away local representation and discard generations of local knowledge, investment and experience.

Arguably the most offensive aspect of Three Waters is its audacious dishonesty. Rather than solving a problem, the government has invented one. The entire exercise has been sold to the public on the basis of a one-off incident – Havelock North’s 2016 water crisis, when four people died and thousands fell ill as a result of contaminated groundwater.

Using that isolated event as its primary justification, Labour has insulted our intelligence by spending millions on an infantile advertising campaign aimed at scaring us into believing the entire country’s water infrastructure is in such a parlous state that only the imposition of a new layer of remote, unaccountable bureaucracy can save us. In fact most councils manage their water safely and effectively without help from the Big State, still less any need for a dodgy Scottish governance model.

Another striking example of textbook Labour kneejerk-ism is Health Minister Andrew Little’s action plan (I use that term sardonically) for mental health.

It bears all the familiar hallmarks of Labour box-ticking: a Maori name, Kia Manawanui (apparently it means “have patience”, which seems apposite given how long the mentally ill may have to wait for anything to happen); a blizzard of empty buzzwords (two examples: “joined-up investment” and “a digital eco-system of support”); a 10-year plan (Stalin and Mao were fond of visionary plans too); and the creation of yet another new bureaucracy, in this instance an "external oversight group” headed by a dependable Labour favourite in the person of Professor Judy McGregor.

All this is intended to create the illusion of decisive, meaningful action, but it’s merely the announcement of a plan that has yet to be formulated. It contains nothing substantive or concrete – not even any goals or targets (they’ll come later, presumably).  It will provide work for lots of highly paid consultants and hangers-on but do nothing in the short term to help people suffering from mental illness. In short, it’s a disgrace and a travesty.

It’s not as if the government hasn’t had plenty of time already to assess the problem. It commissioned a mental health inquiry (another thing Labour’s good at) that produced a doorstop of a report in 2018, and it has budgeted for $1.9 billion to sort things out – money that it doesn’t seem to know how to spend. Responsible governments decide what needs to be done then work out what it’s likely to cost. But this one appears to work backwards, plucking a sum out of the air then wondering what to do with it.

In the meantime, Little continues to huff and puff over National’s supposed neglect of mental health (which may have been a fair criticism in 2018, but voters allow governments only one term to blame the previous lot; after that the excuse just doesn’t cut it) and wrings his hands in frustration at his inability to get anything done. Pardon me, but isn’t he supposed to be in charge?

And now, after all that, it seems we’re being told that what’s needed is more talk, more planning and ... oh yes, a layer of "oversight". If words and reports were all it took to solve the problem, New Zealand would be the most mentally robust nation on the planet.

Someone who has monitored the deepening crisis in mental crisis over many years is Andy Espersen of Nelson, a regular commenter on this blog who spent his entire working life in psychiatric hospitals. Following the announcement of Labour’s mental health “plan” he wrote the following letter to Little, part of which I reproduce here with his permission:

Dear Andrew Little.

Your government uncritically followed He Ara Oranga [the 2018 inquiry into mental health and addiction] by almost immediately accepting 38 of its 40 recommendations –  practically rubber-stamping them. You simply did not leave enough time to properly investigate, understand and weigh up the recommendations.

This inquiry was set up exclusively to solve the following New Zealand mental health problems:

 1. The increased number of suicides among clients of our mental health services.

2. The obvious shortage of fully serviced, psychiatric in-patient beds.

3. The number of atrocious murders of innocent people by known mental health patients.

4. The chaotic and dangerous state of affairs in our acute mental health units where both staff and patients are regularly assaulted by insane patients.

5. The never-ending complaints from carers (usually parents) of schizophrenic sufferers re lack of realistic support for them.

6. The problem with our many single, homeless people now slumped in our streets – of whom at least 70% are suffering from schizophrenia. 

7. The fact that whereas before 1992 we did not have one single schizophrenic sufferer in prison (it was actually illegal to imprison a schizophrenic person) – we now have ca. 2000 mentally ill prisoners (20% of our total prison population!). Tony Bouchier, then President of the NZ Criminal Bar Association, in an RNZ interview on Feb. 18th 2016, stated, “One of the main reasons the prison muster is so high is that our prisons are our proxy for our mental health institutions which we no longer have. And everybody in criminal law will tell you this, from judges through to defence counsel, if there was another way to deal with these people through proper mental health legislation our muster would be a lot smaller”.

Those were the reasons for setting up the Paterson Inquiry. Jonathan Coleman (former  Minister of Health) resisted an inquiry into mental health, dryly observing :”We know the problems – why set up an inquiry?”. Those were the problems Dr Coleman and all other people working with the mentally ill then knew as facts.

Nevertheless, in came your Labour party –  up came Ron Paterson [the inquiry chair] – and out came He Ara Oranga.

My proofs for your being ill advised by your public service employees consist of the following facts :

 1. Nowhere in the 219 pages report will you find any reference to any of the above mentioned 7 stark, accepted mental health problems, except suicide.

2. Nowhere in its 219 pages will you find any mention of the treatment of mental illnesses -  schizophrenia, human insanity, dementia, endogenous depressions  or any of the neuroses. You won't even find the words for those conditions mentioned (except schizophrenia once, in passing,  in chapter 1, page 33).

3. Nowhere in the 219 pages will you find any reference to the most drastic changes happening to New Zealand's philosophy of treating mental illness in 150 years, namely the enactment of the 1992 Mental Health Act -  which you are now blithely revoking and replacing. As none of the 7 problems mentioned above existed prior to 1992, one can hardly avoid suspecting that those changes might be a factor behind those problems!

4. All you get from the report is an incredibly vague treatise on something the commission calls   “mental well-being” -  which has nothing whatsoever  to do with mental illness. We are advised that we shall all attain that state of  eternal bliss when we have enough mental health personnel  to reach 20% of our population rather than the miserable 3.7% as at present!

5. The report lacks any practical suggestions how to initiate working towards this eventual utopia. It is all just fine words and sentiments  – all politically correct. There is nothing to hang your hat on – as is  amply proved by the fact that nobody has yet  figured out how to even begin to spend the $1.9 billion so generously promised by Labour!!   And by the way,  we who are passionately concerned about mental health were jubilant when Labour came out with that fantastic budget.

It beggars belief that your Mental Health Directorate advised you to follow the recommendations from He Ara Oranga  - ignoring  the facts shown above.

So far I have only criticised  -  which is easy.    I wish to finish on a positive note: How then should we proceed to repeal and replace the 1992 Act?  In 1991 British social historian Waltroud Ernst wrote a paper on 19th century psychiatry in New Zealand.  Our first mental health legislation was The Lunatics Ordinance 1846.   Ernst wrote that it aimed to “provide safe custody and the prevention of offences by persons dangerously insane and for the care and maintenance of persons of unsound minds”. This brief synopsis  shows the foundation for the building of all our designated,  psychiatric hospitals  for 150 years - together with our whole philosophy of our treatment of all our mental illnesses. 1. It authorised society to contain acutely psychotic persons and charitably protect them from their own actions over which they have no control. 2. It gave all mentally ill persons the right to remain as a wards of the state under protection for the rest of their lives, if they so desired.

We enjoyed this mental hospital based system for 150 years – and everybody, including the mentally ill, were very satisfied and content.  I here must stress that other groups of people who eventually became patients in our mental hospitals (e.g. the intellectually disabled and the epileptics) were never happy here. This system was destroyed for ideological reasons only by the enactment of the 1992 Act – and its consequential closure of our charitable, residential institutions.

Our ten-year mental health plan should be simply to revert to the charitable philosophy of yesteryear. And would it not be good if  the whole of parliament would agree to that plan?

I have been in touch with Shane Reti  [deputy leader of the Opposition] and happen to know  that he sympathises with my views – he is an old time medical doctor who spent part of his training working in mental hospitals but, of course, like you he is thwarted by the convictions of our present mental health ideologues.  It would be ideal if you and he  could get together to talk about all this.  And why not include Brooke van Velden [ACT deputy leader]?  Please, please – do try to work towards a multi-party solution to the mental health issue.   It is ironic (and saddening)  that Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern both claim to have mental health as a priority  but don't get together to work something out.

You politicians are supposed to be running the show – not your advisors.  It is the same with all this Covid nonsense. Here you are legislating and issuing decrees  – all terribly destructive  to New Zealanders, with long-lasting,  devastating effects both economically and psychologically.  And meekly excusing it  by saying that  you are following expert advice. But you are not obliged to follow “expert advice”.   Your job is exclusively to do the best, the most humane, the most charitable, the most rational for your fellow New Zealanders who have honoured you and elected you to govern –  and if that runs counter to scientific, epidemiological opinions, so be it. 

Yours sincerely,

Andy Espersen

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The media's calculated insult to public opinion

How much longer will the political and media elites persist with their extraordinary arrogance in referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa?

We have now, in the space of two weeks, seen two reputable polls showing conclusively that the majority of New Zealanders prefer the status quo, and by a very substantial margin.

First there was the Curia poll, commissioned by the lobby group Hobson’s Pledge, in which 39 per cent of respondents were “strongly” opposed to a name change and nearly 10 per cent were “somewhat” opposed, making a total of 49 per cent in favour of keeping things as they are.

Against that, 18.4 per cent "strongly" favoured Aotearoa and a further 9.7 per cent were “somewhat” in support, with 22 per cent of respondents neutral. That’s a decisive majority – 49-28 – who want no change.

No doubt there were aggrieved supporters of a name change who pooh-poohed the findings because (a) the poll was commissioned by a group opposed to the change and (b) Curia was formerly the National Party’s pollster and is therefore associated in some people’s minds with the centre-Right.

But hang on a minute. TVNZ last night reported a 1News Colmar Brunton poll that found even stronger public opposition to the adoption of Aotearoa.

Asked “What do you think the country should be called?”, 58 per cent of respondents said New Zealand.

1News put its own slant on the findings by then saying that 41 per cent “opted for Aotearoa to be in the mix”. But in fact only 9 per cent – I repeat, 9 per cent – wanted New Zealand renamed Aotearoa. 

That's only half as many as in the Curia result. Of the rest, 31 per cent took an each-way bet, preferring "Aotearoa New Zealand".

These figures should put the naming issue to bed once and for all, but don’t expect that to happen. The elites will continue using the inauthentic name Aotearoa because they are contemptuous of public opinion. The saddest part of this for me is that the poll results confirm the news media have completely lost touch with the society they purport to serve.

Notwithstanding the above, I remain more or less neutral on the naming issue. There are good arguments both ways. But the bottom line, as long as we continue to maintain that this is a democracy, is that the people should decide.

An exception can be made for privately owned news organisations, which are entitled to use whatever nomenclature they choose. This is a free society, after all. But they should realise that in calling New Zealand Aotearoa they risk alienating the viewers, listeners and readers who keep them afloat.

For publicly owned media such as TVNZ and RNZ, however, a different rule applies. I believe they have a clear moral obligation to respect the views of the people who provide their funding and to whom they remain accountable.

That means referring to this country by its official, recognised name. To do otherwise, in defiance of two credible opinion polls that clearly show what the people want, is a calculated insult to public opinion.

Addendum: The Dominion Post published the following letter from me yesterday:

Thomas Manch devoted a substantial article to the Aotearoa name change debate (“Name debate bubbles away”, Sept 27) but strangely omitted one very significant piece of information.

In a Curia poll released this month, 49 per cent of respondents opposed changing New Zealand’s name – 39 per cent “strongly” and 9 per cent “somewhat”.

Against that, 18 per cent “strongly” and nearly 10 per cent “somewhat” supported Aotearoa. Slightly more than 20 per cent of respondents were neutral.

The poll was conducted early in September and surveyed 1000 people.

It was commissioned by the lobby group Hobson’s Pledge, which strongly opposes a name change. Some would argue that this undermines the poll’s credibility, but Curia is a reputable research company and unlikely to  compromise its reputation by producing a dodgy result.

In any case, the media – including Stuff – frequently report on political polls carried out by UMR, which is the Labour Party’s pollster. This makes it puzzling that the Curia poll – the only one, to my knowledge, that has recently surveyed public opinion on this highly contentious issue – appears to have had no publicity whatsoever.

I left it to Dom Post readers to form their own conclusions about why Thomas Manch, a senior Stuff political reporter, failed to mention the Curia poll, which was painstakingly ignored by all the media.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

John Key's less than glorious re-entry into the political arena

If you wanted a measure of how dire things have become in God’s Own Country, the weekend provided it.

John Key wrote a comment piece attacking the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic and was rapturously welcomed by the centre-Right as some sort of messiah returned from the wilderness.

You know things are in a seriously bad way when Key is acclaimed as the nation’s saviour. Yes, I know he was a popular prime minister, but I never understood why and still don’t.

I never knew what, if anything, he stood for, and I never heard him say anything remotely insightful, still less inspirational. His one attempt at leaving a permanent impression on New Zealand, in the form of a new flag, was comprehensively defeated – not so much because it was a bad idea, necessarily, but because it was poorly managed and presented a sulking, resentful Left with an opportunity to prick his balloon. It was his only act of real political boldness and it failed.

Otherwise Key left virtually no footprint. You look at the political space that he occupied for eight years and there’s virtually nothing to indicate he ever passed through. He was at best a competent manager who had the good fortune to be supported by some capable cabinet ministers, among them Bill English and Stephen Joyce. But – and it’s a big but – Key was successful politically, which is what the National Party has always valued above all else. He won elections.

He appealed to New Zealanders for reasons that eluded me. Political journalists liked to say he had something called “Everyman appeal”, but in my case it was Everyman minus one.

I wasn’t the only one scratching my head over the Key phenomenon. In his book The Passionless People Revisited, the late Gordon McLauchlan referred to Key as “the Face” and suggested he was the perfect leader for a bland, passionless country. “I could sense the attraction of personal charm,” McLauchlan wrote, “but saw or heard nothing to hint at the gravitas [that] mature citizens should want from a mature leader, and nothing to excite admiration.”

For me, the true measure of Key – the real insight into his personality and character – lay not in anything he achieved politically, but in what he revealed of himself away from politics: for example, his idea that it was fun to tug a young waitress’s ponytail and his jokey admission on a blokey radio show (a milieu in which he felt right at home) that he urinated in the shower. Everyman appeal? Really??

In fact you can make a compelling argument that Winston Peters, who never served as prime minister (other than in an acting capacity), had a far more profound and lasting impact on New Zealand than Key, who served nearly three terms in the top job.

I don’t mean that as a compliment to Peters. He left his mark for all the wrong reasons and in the worst possible way. By anointing Jacinda Ardern as prime minister in 2017 when, morally, National had earned the right to govern with 44 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 38 per cent, Peters effectively set the course on which New Zealand finds itself fixed today.

By taking that step, he facilitated the installation in 2020 of the most radical left-wing government in our history – one that’s pursuing a divisive and destructive agenda for which it has no mandate, and which has the potential to cause long-term and possibly irreversible harm.  

I hope Peters is proud of his legacy. When he occasionally harrumphs in the media about the damage the Ardern government is doing, as he did again this week, people should remind themselves that Peters himself is the man to blame for the country’s predicament.

They should also remind themselves why he backed Labour in 2017. All the evidence suggests he did it not because he sincerely believed a Labour government would be better for New Zealand. He did it out of an urge to exact utu on National, his own former party; in other words, out of spite because of his fury over the embarrassing leaking of his personal superannuation details, an act for which he blamed the National government. He would also have calculated, no doubt correctly, that he would exert greater influence over Labour than would have been possible over a more experienced and battle-hardened National.

Of course Peters couldn’t have foreseen subsequent events: the mosque shootings, the Whakaari eruption and Covid-19, all of which contributed to the elevation of Jacinda Ardern to politically stratospheric levels of popularity, internationally as well as at home. Nor would he have foreseen the collapse of the National Party as it cycled through several embarrassingly ineffectual leaders. But most ironically for Peters personally, he wouldn’t have foreseen that Ardern’s management of those crises would so impress the electorate that voters would reward her with the right to govern alone, thereby consigning his own party to the political scrap heap.

Poetic justice, some would say; Shakespeare would have loved it. But what a price the country is now paying. 

So while New Zealand politics has taken a sharp turn to the left that Peters would have neither wanted nor intended, no one should be in any doubt that he set the country on its present path. It all started with that cynical decision in 2017 to put his own political interests ahead of the clearly expressed preference of the voters. Who knows how different things might have been had Peters opted to go with National?

That’s why I say he had a more profound and long-lasting impact than Key, who always gave me the impression he regarded the prime ministership as a milestone to be ticked off on the career pathway he had mapped out for himself before moving on to something else.

But back to Key’s weekend article, which broke new ground by being published in both the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times.  

There’s no doubt that many New Zealanders were waiting for someone to articulate the building sense of resentment against Ardern and her government over their management of Covid-19, and Key stepped up at the right time. He always did have a good sense of timing – an ability to sense and seize the moment, which was possibly what made him such a formidable international currency trader.

He was also able to use his status as one of our two most successful living politicians (the other being Helen Clark) to command a degree of media prominence that few others would have been granted. Even NZME and Stuff, media organisations not noted for their tough and rigorously even-handed scrutiny of the Labour government, could not ignore the opinion of a man who won three terms in government, a record rarely achieved in New Zealand. Besides, Stuff and NZME need to sell papers, and Key’s still a big-enough name to do that for them, especially when he’s expressing the frustrations and misgivings of an electorate that is becoming immune to Ardern’s magic dust and has grown tired of the daily spin.

So Key got a lot of media traction, even though the points he made have all been made previously by other people. His opinion piece made an impact not because what he said was original, but because it was John Key saying it.

What was surprising was that Key unnecessarily blunted the impact of his piece by making a silly mistake – one so fundamental that any half-decent PR adviser should have been able to point out the risk.

It lay in Key’s description of New Zealand under Ardern as a smug hermit kingdom akin to North Korea. As a piece of rhetorical hyperbole it served the purpose of capturing public attention and triggering a media feeding frenzy. But it also undermined the credibility of what Key was saying, simply because the comparison with North Korea was so demonstrably outlandish.

More to the point, it enabled the government and its media defenders to scoff in disbelief. And they were entitled to, since no one seriously believes New Zealand can be compared with the world’s most repressive state – a country where millions starve, dissent is brutally suppressed through imprisonment or worse and a high-ranking politician was executed with an anti-aircraft gun for making the mistake of falling asleep during a speech by the Supreme Leader

Thus the ensuing debate, which should have been about Covid-19 and lockdown, predictably focused not on the good sense in much of what Key said – for example, about the lack of a clear pathway out of lockdown, the massive cost of borrowing to compensate for economic inactivity, the stranding of New Zealand citizens overseas and, perhaps most crucially, the imposition of restrictions on civil liberties that are disproportionate to the risk of catching Covid-19 – but on whether New Zealanders should feel insulted by the North Korea analogy.

When Key went on Morning Report, the reference to North Korea seemed to be the only thing Corin Dann was interested in. On Stuff, Dominion Post editor (and frequent North Korea visitor) Anna Fifield rushed into print – unnecessarily, I would have thought – with an explanation of all the ways in which New Zealand differs from the Kim Jong Un regime. Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins was another who eagerly latched on to the North Korea angle, grateful no doubt for the opportunity to deflect attention from Key’s more cogent arguments. Simon Wilson in today’s Herald? Ditto.

So while Key may be baaack (as a headline on the far-Left website The Standard put it, in a nod to the The Terminator), his re-entry into politics has hardly been an unqualified triumph. Yes, he put some runs on the board on behalf of the growing number of New Zealanders disenchanted with the government’s pandemic management. But when he could have knocked the ball out of the park, he lofted a soft catch into the hands of the other side.  

Friday, September 24, 2021

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Why we should be more sceptical than ever about the media

Freelance journalist Graham Adams has written an excellent piece for The Democracy Project on the government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project, and its implications for media impartiality. You can (and should) read it here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A chance to end the dishonest shadow-boxing

It’s probably no bad thing that the Maori Party has initiated a petition calling for New Zealand’s name to be changed to Aotearoa. It may have the effect of forcing action on an issue that needs to be resolved.

What we’ve been observing for the past few months is a sort of phony war in which politicians, government officials and the media have been freely using Aotearoa despite the name having no official status and without any public mandate.

This practice began almost hesitantly and often in tandem with “New Zealand” as a sort of each-way bet. But the use of Aotearoa as a stand-alone name has become steadily more brazen and confident, to the point where it seems unexceptional – which is exactly the aim of those promoting it.

The purpose, clearly, is to impose the name on us: not by stealth (you could hardly call it surreptitious) but by sheer frequency of usage, in the hope that it will stick – or to quote the prime minister, that Aotearoa (which, incidentally, isn’t recognised by my Spellcheck) will be adopted “organically”.

By launching its petition, the Maori Party has put the issue formally on the public agenda. This might at least serve as the catalyst for a free and open debate that’s well overdue. It would be no surprise if calls for a referendum gather momentum to the point where they can no longer be ignored.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there are good arguments for adopting Aotearoa. Setting aside all the arguments about its dubious authenticity, the name at least says something about us and our place in the world which New Zealand does not. It also acknowledges the people who were here first, which must count for something.

Against that, as I said on this blog a few weeks ago, New Zealand is the name by which the rest of the world has known us since we first existed as a national entity. It may have been bestowed by historical accident, but 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.

What matters is that the issue must be resolved through a transparent, democratic process in which the majority will prevails. So let’s have a debate and put an end to all the dishonest ideological shadow-boxing.

The same should apply to the names of towns and cities. If the citizens of New Plymouth, Gisborne, Christchurch and Dunedin want their cities to be renamed Ngamotu, Turanganui-a-Kiwa, Otautahi and Otepoti respectively, so be it.

But that seems improbable. While many Maori place names have greater cultural resonance  than English ones, whose origins are mostly forgotten and of minimal historical relevance anyway, I suspect the sense of local identity attached to existing names is too strong to be renounced.

Besides, it’s absurd to suggest, as Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi does, that these cities and towns originally had Maori names. They didn’t. New Zealand’s cities and towns are wholly the creations of British colonialism. They are therefore totally distinct entities from any Maori settlements that may have originally occupied the same sites.

Take Auckland, for example. That it happens to occupy a general location originally known to Maori as Tamaki Makaurau is hardly a compelling argument that historically, that’s the city’s rightful name. The current fashion for using Tamaki Makaurau to refer to a vast metropolis far beyond the wildest imaginings of any 19th century Maori (or British settler, for that matter) is virtuous posturing. That doesn’t mean Auckland shouldn’t change its name – merely that the people who live there should be the ones who decide.

How about this for a rule of thumb? We should retain or restore the Maori names of everything that existed pre-colonisation and for which Maori had their own established nomenclature. That includes geographical features such as mountains, lakes, rivers, coastal features and islands – yes, even the North and South Islands (Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu respectively) and Stewart Island (Rakiura).  This wouldn’t require a seismic adjustment because many are referred to by their Maori names anyway – even some that were once known by English names, such as Mt Taranaki/Egmont.

But for everything created post-colonisation and given an English or European name, the status quo should prevail unless the people decide otherwise. This would acknowledge both the Tangata Whenua and the Tangata Tiriti (i.e. non-Maori), but wouldn’t preclude the citizens of any locality from deciding to ditch their English place name in favour of a Maori one. I for one would rather live in Ngamotu than New Plymouth and Taitoko rather than Levin.

The bottom line in all cases is that decisions should be made democratically, not imposed by the political elite or the raucous proponents of identity politics.

Update (added at 3.40pm): A Curia Research poll published today found that 49 percent of respondents opposed a change from New Zealand to Aotearoa - 39.2 percent "strongly" and 9.6 percent "somewhat". There was support for the change from 28 percent of respondents (18.4 percent "strongly") and 22 percent were neutral.

Monday, September 13, 2021

A few thoughts on that Moana decision

 As a matter of record, I should note that Family Court judge Peter Callinicos delivered his judgment last week in the case of “Moana”, the six-year-old Maori girl whom Oranga Tamariki wanted to remove from her Pakeha caregivers because her “cultural needs” were supposedly not being met (these apparently taking precedence over all her other needs, such as warmth, love, affection and physical wellbeing, which were). I was away when the judge’s decision was announced but mention it here in case people who had read about the case on this blog missed the news stories.

As Stuff’s Hawke’s Bay reporter Marty Sharpe reported here, Judge Callinicos ruled that Moana, who was traumatised and neglected before being placed with the Pakeha couple, should remain in their care. His decision will be widely applauded as a triumph of compassion and humanity over the grotesquely cruel and inhumane demands of the culture wars.

Sharpe reported that the 145-page decision “includes stark criticism of Oranga Tamariki, its chief executive and numerous of its staff”.

“The judge was particularly scathing of Oranga Tamariki staff members’ failure to appreciate the need for honesty and accuracy when compiling statutory reports, and concluded that social workers appeared to place little importance in documents that were vital to a child’s wellbeing.”

Judge Callinicos said the ideal goal in such cases was to have children of a specific cultural group placed with caregivers from the same family or cultural group, but “sadly that may sometimes not be achievable”. The key flaw in such a belief-driven approach was that it distracted from the mandatory consideration of what was holistically best for the child, he said. (Pause here for further applause.)

Most tellingly, the judge said Oranga Tamariki’s insistence on removing Moana from the couple’s care showed the agency was either incapable of seeing the wood for the trees or that it was driven “more by ideology than workable child-centred outcomes”, or both.

Oranga Tamariki’s claims that the couple were “stripping [Moana] of her whakapapa” were found to be groundless. In fact Callinicos noted there was overwhelming evidence that the agency failed to provide the couple with any support to build their "cultural capacity", and neglected their requests for more information on Moana’s whanau and whakapapa.

This suggests the agency’s professed concern for her cultural needs was a sham, serving only as a pretext to get her away from caregivers whose sole failing was that they are not Maori.

The judge clearly wasn’t unsympathetic to the view that Moana should know about her cultural heritage. He ruled that while she should remain with the Pakeha couple (whom Stuff called the Smiths), her guardianship should be shared by Mr Smith, Moana’s birth mother and the Maori caregiver Oranga Tamariki had intended to place her with, who will look after Moana for several weeks each year and who has “strong and competent links to whakapapa and whanaungatanga (kinship)”.

So – all done and dusted, then? Er, no. A follow-up story by Sharpe revealed that Moana’s birth mother – no doubt funded by the taxpayer and egged on by activists – will appeal the judgment. The social justice zealots in the front line of the culture wars don’t give up easily, especially when they know there’s a good prospect that a higher court will be more easily swayed than the redoubtable Judge Callinicos by ideological arguments that place racial considerations above human needs.

Naturally, Ngahiwi Tomoana, head of the Ngati Kahungungu iwi that supported Oranga Tamariki’s bid to remove Moana from her Pakeha caregivers, supports the appeal. Stuff’s stories don’t explain Tomoana’s legal standing in the case (if any), and neither do they reveal what (if anything) the iwi did to provide practical support for Moana’s birth mother or help her Pakeha caregivers trace her whanau. But that hasn’t stopped Tomoana from grandstanding on the case and using it to promote separatist models of care.   

“The days that [sic] judges can tell us we’re not good enough anymore are over,” Stuff quotes Tomoana as saying. “This is just another case of other people thinking they know what’s best for Maori.”

No, it’s not; it’s a case of a judge humanely stepping in where others – including Ngati Kahungungu, quite possibly – failed to protect a vulnerable, damaged child.  Why should Moana be made an innocent pawn in the culture wars? That’s ultimately what this case was about.

The matter still has some way to run, and not just because of the pending appeal. There’s also the small matter of the two senior judges who allegedly intervened in the case at the urging of Sir Wira Gardiner, who was then acting head of Oranga Tamariki. The two judges’ actions, for which they were rebuked by Judge Callinicos, are now the subject of a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner – although no one who has observed how the legal and judicial establishments protect themselves will be holding their breath in the expectation of a salutary outcome.

Beyond that, there’s a risk that Labour’s powerful 15-strong Maori caucus – almost a government within a government – will push to change the current Family Court rules so that iwi input in similar child care cases will be prioritised over other factors. Respected welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell thinks Judge Callinicos, inadvertently or otherwise, has pointed the way in his judgment.  

What, then, of Oranga Tamariki? In normal circumstances, scathing judicial criticism of a government agency – including implications of dishonesty – would prompt, at the very least, a rigorous internal review. But these are not normal circumstances, and it’s likely that the febrile internal culture at Oranga Tamariki is too securely entrenched to be threatened even in the unlikely event that the bosses feel moved to act. Stuff quotes chief executive Chappie Te Kani as saying he will take time to consider the judge’s findings. I bet he will. And you can be sure there’ll be no pressure from the Beehive for Oranga Tamariki to change its ways.

Still, the case is encouraging for a number of reasons. A Pakeha couple cared enough for a vulnerable Maori child to fight on her behalf against Oranga Tamariki and its scheming social workers, and an independently minded judge cared enough to rule in their favour despite knowing, as he must have done, that there would be a backlash.

Oh, and a reporter brought this important case to public attention, reminding us why society still needs good journalists. Full credit to Marty Sharpe, then, and to Stuff for publishing his stories. There’s still some hope.  


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Guled Mire urges Twitter followers not to give an apology that no one asked for or expected in the first place

In the hours following the Countdown terrorist incident, serial race agitator Guled Mire tweeted the following:

“To my Muslim brothers and sisters, while we all condemn today’s attacks, please remember you don’t owe anyone an apology. You have done nothing wrong. And the actions of this individual does not [sic] and will not ever represent what we truly stand for.”

As it happens, I agree with the sentiment. New Zealand Muslims are not to blame for what happened last Friday.

But I wonder what Mire’s reaction would have been if a white commentator had posted a similar comment in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch mosque massacres. “To my white Christian brothers and sisters, while we all condemn today’s attacks, please remember you don’t owe anyone an apology. You have done nothing wrong."

My guess is he would have been apoplectic. He would have denounced it as racist and inflammatory. More to the point, he would have seen it as an attempt to evade blame for an atrocity that Mire seems to think, judging by his many comments about racism in New Zealand,  all white New Zealanders share collective responsibility for.

The obvious point to be made in response to Mire’s gratuitous tweet last Friday is that no one actually asked his Muslim brothers and sisters to apologise, for the very good reason that no one blamed them. Not that this deterred Mire, who rarely misses an opportunity to foment mischief.

Here’s the thing about Mire. Even when he’s saying something that no reasonable person would disagree with – namely, that New Zealand Muslims shouldn’t be blamed for the Countdown stabbings – he manages to do it in an overtly (and I suspect deliberately) provocative, confrontational way; one that’s calculated to foster the impression that New Zealand is irreconcilably divided on ethnic and religious lines. The pernicious ideology of critical race theory underpins almost everything he says.

Ironically, the person most likely to excite ill-will against New Zealand Muslims (and I hope it doesn’t happen, because they deserve better) is Guled Mire.

Historical footnote: The New Zealand History website informs us that on this day in 1921, the South African Springboks played a New Zealand Maori side for the first time.

The match, played at Napier, was notable not just for that fact, but also for the reaction of a South African journalist who was astonished that the predominantly white crowd cheered for the Maori XV.

In a telegram to his paper, he gasped: “Spectacle thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on band of coloured men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who [were] frankly disgusted”.

The incident is worth recalling because it tells us something about the unique nature of race relations in New Zealand, which were far more amicable than left-wing revisionist historians would have us believe.

As an aside, one of the reasons I recently backed away from writing a weekly column for the National Business Review was that the paper’s co-editor, Tim Hunter, objected to a paragraph in my inaugural column in which I wrote that race relations in New Zealand had been mostly “harmonious and respectful – a fact attested to by the number of Maori activists with European features and Anglo-Saxon surnames”. Hunter (an immigrant from Scotland) disagreed with that statement and wanted to delete the sentence, along with one other. I refused and decided to cancel the contract I had signed with NBR only days before.

New Zealand history is threaded throughout with examples of Maori and Pakeha  not only collaborating closely but exhibiting mutual goodwill and respect, and in the process creating a unique culture that, as I wrote in a recent post, incorporates admirable elements from both constituent parts. The rugby match at Napier was a small but revealing example.

Of course this is not the full story of race relations in New Zealand, but it's one that's largely ignored in favour of versions that highlight only those actions and policies that disadvantaged or discriminated against Maori (of which there were plenty).

A courageous historian could write a book around this theme. The problem would be finding a publisher willing to defy ideological orthodoxy and risk the fury of woke vigilantes.


Saturday, September 4, 2021

Three things I'm scratching my head about this morning

A few questions to start the day.

■ Newshub’s 6pm news reported that the man who ran amok with a knife at a Countdown supermarket in Auckland was shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) before police shot him dead.

I could find no mention of this in other media coverage, apart from a Reuters story that cited a New Zealand Herald report. But I scanned the Herald’s stories this morning and saw no reference to it.

Neither was there any mention of the alleged shouts of “Allahu Akbar”, a phrase associated with Islamist terrorist acts, on the Stuff or RNZ websites. Yet Newshub referred to it several times and interviewed a witness who said she heard it.

This suggests three possibilities: 1. Newshub and/or its witness got it wrong; 2. Other witnesses either didn’t hear it or think to mention it to other media (though that seems unlikely, especially in view of the Herald report quoted by Reuters); 3. Other media outlets were told about it but chose not to mention it.

If it were the latter, why would the media engage in self-censorship? Presumably to avoid arousing hostility against the Muslim population.

That’s understandable up to a point, since New Zealand Muslims can no more be held responsible for the actions of the lone-wolf terrorist than New Zealanders can be blamed for the Christchurch mosque shootings, which were also the work of a solo perpetrator.

But it’s also misguided, because the duty of the media in such situations is to convey information. Yes, we know from the prime minister and the police commissioner that the Auckland terrorist was inspired by Isis, so it could be argued that the fact he shouted “Allahu Akbar” was just an irrelevant additional detail.

But in a major event like this, every bit of information is relevant because it helps the public build a fuller picture of what happened.  I hope I’m wrong in speculating that the media may have intentionally suppressed a significant detail. But since the culture wars permeated the news columns, we can no longer be confident that the media are concerned only with presenting the facts.

■ The Dominion Post’s Marty Sharpe reports this morning that human rights lawyer Tony Ellis has asked Attorney-General David Parker and Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann to take action over two senior judges who intervened in a Family Court case that didn’t involve them.

Readers of this blog will be aware of the background to this affair. Sir Wira Gardiner, then the acting boss of Oranga Tamariki, spoke to Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu and Principal Family Court Judge Jackie Moran about Family Court judge Peter Callinicos’s conduct in a part-heard case involving a Maori child placed in the care of Pakeha foster parents.

Taumaunu and Moran subsequently took the matter up with Callinicos and were sharply rebuked by him for interfering in the case and thus breaching the principle of judicial independence.

Ellis has now complained to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner about the judges’ behaviour, but thinks Parker and Winkelmann should take up the case because it raises issues of constitutional importance.

Sharpe reports that Parker has backed away, saying it’s not a matter for the Attorney-General, and Winkelmann has declined to comment. Well, fancy that.

Sharpe, who has the terrier-like qualities required of a good investigative journalist (and thank God we still have some), also approached the Law Society. It didn’t want to get involved either. In fact the society’s president, Tiana Epati, said the society was not aware of the facts of the case, other than what had been reported, and wouldn’t speculate on whether it raised issues of public importance.

This seems extraordinary. If you entertained the fanciful notion that the Law Society had an interest in ensuring judicial probity and upholding public respect for the law, you were clearly deluded. The society’s so unconcerned that it hasn’t even bothered to acquaint itself with the case beyond what the rest of us have read in the paper.

Here’s my question, then: why doesn’t the Law Society get involved? Perhaps it doesn’t have to, strictly speaking, but what’s to stop it? Shouldn’t it be concerned with upholding confidence in legal and judicial processes and institutions? Even a statement of concern or support for an investigation would count for something. Or is the society worried that if it looks into things too closely, it might find itself in the embarrassing position of having to take a principled stand?

I frequently hear from good, honest people whose dealings with the law have led them to the bitter conclusion that the legal and judicial establishments are adept at closing ranks and going to ground whenever awkward questions start being asked about dubious conduct.  The Law Society’s complacent, look-the-other-way stance will cement the impression that the law is a club that protects its own.

■ It’s also reported this morning, in both the Dominion Post and the Wairarapa Times-Age, that a proposed water storage dam near Masterton has been canned after 20 years of planning and a reported bill of $12 million. Just like that.

Tim Lusk, the chairman of Wairarapa Water Ltd, the company promoting the scheme, said the 20-million cubic metre dam had been abandoned because environmental planning rules had changed rapidly, making the obtaining of consents from Greater Wellington Regional Council “extremely challenging”.

No elaboration was provided. We apparently just have to take his word for it that a scheme described in July 2019 as “eminently consentable” is suddenly too difficult.

So the public who paid for the preparatory work are expected to stoically shrug it off and walk away? Good luck with that.

There are a whole lot of questions to be asked here. For a start, it would be helpful if someone could explain glaring discrepancies in the reported figures. Piers Fuller, the Dom Post’s Wairarapa reporter, says $12 million has been spent. He’s been covering it for years, so he should know.

But the Times-Age refers only to $7 million from the Winston Peters Re-election Fund – sorry, the Provincial Growth Fund – of which it says $5 million has been spent.

Either way, we’re talking about serious money. Where did it go? And while Lusk and local MP Kieran McAnulty are engaging in acts of conspicuous public lamentation over the death of the scheme (“I’m gutted,” said McAnulty), it would be a lot more helpful if they explained exactly why it turned out to be a crock. The public is entitled to more than a glib statement that it’s suddenly too tough.

The regional council’s role in the debacle, in particular, needs explaining. It was a backer of the scheme, contributing $7 million to early investigations (it doesn’t sound a lot of money if you say it quickly, and after all there’s plenty more where it came from – i.e. ratepayers and taxpayers), but the same organisation, as the consenting authority, presumably imposed the environmental conditions that killed it off. How does that work?

The people of the Wairarapa deserve a more convincing explanation for what appears, on the face of it, to be a scandalously wasteful fiasco. But I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Covid-19: how New Zealand compares with the rest of the world

People can argue ad nauseam (and they do) about the merits of the government’s management of Covid-19 and its aim of eliminating the virus through a strict lockdown policy – a strategy that comes loaded with economic and social consequences. But whatever you think about the government’s approach, there’s no disputing statistics that prove its effectiveness when judged purely in terms of mortality rates.

America’s Johns Hopkins University keeps a running tally of global deaths from the virus. It uses two measurements: the case fatality rate (the proportion of infected people who die) and deaths per 100,000 population. Judged according to these metrics, New Zealand’s 26 deaths make this country one of the world’s standout performers in minimising Covid-19 mortality, with a case fatality rate (CFR) of 0.7 percent and 0.53 deaths per 100,000 people.

Compare those figures with some of the countries we think of as generally similar to us:

Australia (1012 deaths): CFR 1.8 percent, 3.99 deaths per 100,000.

United States (640,108 deaths): CFR 1.6 percent, 195.01 deaths per 100,000.

United Kingdom (132,859 deaths): CFR 1.9 percent, 198.79 deaths per 100,000.

Canada (26,989 deaths): CFR 1.8 percent, 71.80 deaths per 100,000.

Peru has the unhappy distinction of heading the Johns Hopkins table, with 198,263 deaths, a CFR of 9.2 percent and a death rate of 609.84 per 100,000. It’s followed by Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, in that order.

In a table of 192 countries with the hardest-hit at the top, New Zealand is ranked seventh from the bottom. If you measure the threat posed by Covid-19 purely in human, personal terms – that is, the virus’s direct impact on sufferers and their families – then these figures represent a powerful vindication of the Ardern government’s elimination strategy. But of course the political equation is far more complicated than that because it has to take into account broader concerns such as the economic costs of lockdown, the disruption to children’s education and the effects of social isolation on personal wellbeing and mental health.

So which six countries have kept their Covid-19 death rates even lower than New Zealand? If the statistics collected by Johns Hopkins are to be believed, we’ve been out-performed by China (ironically, considering it was the source of the virus), Bhutan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laos and Tanzania.

The data-gatherers may be too polite to say it, but these countries’ figures should probably be treated with some scepticism. Johns Hopkins does caution that there are inconsistencies in the way the statistics were compiled and that country-to-country comparisons may be misleading. The point should also be made that the figures don’t distinguish between the original virus and the much more contagious Delta variant.

Subject to those provisos, however, the Johns Hopkins table makes interesting reading. What else does it tell us?

■ Singapore is another standout performer, with 55 deaths, a CFR of 0.1 percent and 0.96 deaths per 100,000.  (Singapore’s CFR is the lowest on the chart, but that may be due to the exclusion of patients who had Covid but died of other causes.)

■ The shocking figures for Fiji (496 deaths, CFR 1.1 percent and 55.73 deaths per 100,000) are a stark reminder of the trauma experienced by one of our closest neighbours – a country that has dropped off the New Zealand media’s radar screen as a result of our absorption with our own imagined hardship.

■ Some commentators attribute New Zealand’s success in controlling the virus to the happy geographical accident of being surrounded by sea, and hence better able than many countries to protect its borders. But Malta (441 deaths, CFR 1.2 percent, 87.73 deaths per 100,000) and Iceland (33 deaths, CFR 0.3 percent. 9.13 deaths per 100,000) have been hit much harder despite being similarly isolated.

■ Sweden (14, 692 deaths, CFR 1.3 percent, 142.84 deaths per 100,000) controversially opted not to lock its population down, yet has fared markedly better than Italy, the UK, France, Spain and Portugal. On the other hand, its mortality rates have been much higher than in the other Scandinavian countries.

■ Israel’s vaccination programme has been held up as a model for the rest of the world, but with 7043 deaths, a CFR of 0.7 percent and 77.79 deaths per 100,000, it’s still in the wrong half of the Johns Hopkins table.

■ The countries that have suffered most from Covid-19 tend to be in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe (Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, in addition to those mentioned above) and Latin America (Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia), though there are exceptions to the overall pattern (such as Belarus and Venezuela, assuming their figures can be trusted).

■ Germany (92,229 deaths, CFR 2.3 percent, 110.94 deaths per 100,000) and the Netherlands (18,368 deaths, CFR 0.9 percent, 105.97 deaths per 100,000) have managed significantly better than the other major countries of Western Europe, of which Belgium and Italy (15th and 16th on the table, respectively) fared worst.  

■ There’s surely a thesis to be written on why Canada suffered far less severely than the US, despite being just across the border and spending significantly less per capita on health.

■ There’s another thesis to be written on the contrasting Covid-19 strategies adopted in Australia and New Zealand, and their strikingly different outcomes. Whoever writes it might like to consider, among other things, why New Zealand appears more amenable to lockdowns. Setting aside contrasting political structures, I think it’s another reminder that despite all our superficial similarities, the two countries are culturally and socially quite distinct. Some might say it’s the difference between a larrikin country with lawlessness in its DNA (that would be Australia, in case you’re wondering) and one whose people are meeker and more compliant - or if you prefer, more inclined to pull together in pursuit of a common goal. But I won’t stick my neck out by going any further than that. 

(You can see the Johns Hopkins table here.)