Wednesday, May 25, 2022

A worrying precedent for National

Readers of this blog may be interested in the following speech by National MP Simon O’Connor, which I lifted from the Brash Bassett and Hide website.

MP Simon O'Connor: a fine speech about free speech (bassettbrashandhide.com)

O’Connor was speaking last week during the first reading of the Education and Training (Freedom of Expression) Bill sponsored by ACT MP James McDowall, under which tertiary education institutions would be incentivised to provide proper protection for academic freedom and free speech.

Of course this shouldn’t be necessary, since McDowall pointed out when his Bill was drawn from the ballot last year that statutes already require tertiary education institutions (including universities) to do exactly that. But as we know, some have sidestepped their obligations by using spurious health and safety excuses – such as the threat of “mental harm” – as pretexts for de-platforming speakers they don't like. McDowall’s Bill would have sought to prevent that by requiring institutions to adopt freedom of expression codes of practice at the risk of being defunded, or having their grants reduced, if they didn’t comply.

Needless to say, the Bill fell at the first hurdle. National and ACT supported it but Labour and the Greens ensured it proceeded no further.

Labour MP Shanan Halbert (no, I hadn’t heard of him either) argued that universities needed to protect students against homophobes, transphobes and racists. His colleague Angela Roberts talked about the need for "safe spaces" (was there ever a more perniciously whiny phrase?) and said Parliament should trust universities to regulate themselves so as to guard against falsehoods and misinformation. Chloe Swarbrick was worried about free speech absolutism and the need to achieve a balance between competing rights. Labour’s Jo Luxton said she believed in free speech, but … (ah, that “but” word again. It’s funny how often it comes into conversations about free speech). You can read Hansard’s report of the debate here.

But back to O’Connor. His speech was a tad theatrical – melodramatic, even – for my taste, but it was notable because here was a vanishingly rare political spectacle: a National Party MP speaking with conviction on a matter of important principle. This sets a disturbing precedent in the party and I can’t see it doing his career any good at all.  

Joel Maxwell's obsession with race

Last Saturday I sent the following letter to The Dominion Post. It was written in response to another bizarre article by Joel Maxwell – a talented writer but a man apparently so obsessed with painting the worst possible picture of race relations in New Zealand that many Dom Post readers now recoil at the sight of his byline.

Joel Maxwell (“On being a black-skinned mayor”, May 21) seems determined to frame everything in terms of race. His profile of outgoing Kapiti mayor K Gurunathan is littered with implications that Gurunathan has struggled all his life against racism. But surely the cogent factor here is that the citizens of Kapiti, an overwhelmingly Pakeha city, elected him not once but twice. That must count for something. 

I now notice that the online version of Maxwell’s piece is accompanied by video footage from Patu, Merata Mita's documentary about the 1981 Springbok tour, just to drive home the notion that New Zealand’s history is irredeemably stained by racism.

I also note that the headline on the online version of the article has been changed from the original, which incorporated the phrase referred to above (“On being a black-skinned mayor”). Perhaps that was because someone at Stuff realised K Gurunathan actually doesn’t look all that black, though Maxwell does his utmost to highlight his skin colour. (Which leads to the question, who’s being the racist here? I'm not aware that Gurunathan's ethnicity has ever been an issue in Kapiti, so why does Maxwell make so much of it?).  

It should also be noted that Gurunathan, while he talks in the article about his past association with anti-racism groups, is silent about the state of race relations in New Zealand generally. This is consistent with his image as a politician who, to my knowledge, hasn’t played the race card. That didn’t stop Maxwell from mining Gurunathan’s story for whatever negative slur he could extract about New Zealanders’ attitudes to ethnic minorities. But remarkably, as my letter noted, Maxwell doesn't acknowledge the inconvenient fact that the predominantly white voters of Kapiti twice elected Gurunathan as their mayor (“inconvenient”, because it rather contradicts Maxwell’s thesis that we’re prejudiced against people of colour).

My letter hasn’t been published and I don’t expect it to be. However, to its credit, the Dom Post published my previous letter responding to an earlier article by Maxwell. You can read that article here.

Friday, May 20, 2022

On Roe v Wade and the media frenzy

On May 2, someone leaked the first draft of a US Supreme Court decision proposing that the historic ruling in the case Roe v Wade be reversed. Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision, if adopted, would mean American women no longer had a constitutional right to abortion.

The reaction was immediate and frenzied. The overwhelmingly left-liberal (i.e. pro-abortion) media, not just in America but throughout the English-speaking world, erupted with fury at the prospect that a long-entrenched feminist article of faith – namely, that a woman’s right to abort a baby takes precedence over the unborn child’s right to survive – might be overturned. As Kerry Wakefield (a woman, in case you’re wondering) pungently put it in The Spectator Australia: “The feminist offence machine ratcheted up to full, wild-eyed stridency, with Democrat congresswoman Elizabeth Warren doing everything short of howling at the moon.”

The revisiting of Roe v Wade is a rare setback for a political class that has become accustomed to calling the shots. The tone of their outrage was perfectly captured by the whiny headline on a video published on the Guardian’s website: “It feels like such a betrayal”. Another Guardian headline pronounced that the Alito draft, if adopted, would be a "global catastrophe for women". Such restraint ...

Well, better suck it up, folks. The anti-abortion lobby knows all too well what it’s like to be on the losing side. Now the boot appears to be on the other foot and the champions of abortion rights are not taking it at all well.

But here's the thing. In the weeks since the leak I’ve listened to hours of discussion, analysis and speculation on the BBC and America’s left-leaning National Public Radio. Not once did I hear a pro-life voice. (Correction: the BBC’s Stephen Sackur included a question about the Alito draft at the very tail end of an interview with Victoria Sparz, a pro-life Congresswoman, but left no time for her to expand on her answer.)

Not surprisingly, Roe v Wade has aroused less interest in the New Zealand media. Why should it, when the New Zealand abortion rights lobby has achieved its aim of making abortion as simple, at least in legal terms, as a tooth extraction (and treats it as if it’s no more morally complicated)?

But there has been a certain amount of venting in solidarity with the American sisterhood. On TV Three’s dependably woke The Project, I saw an over-excited Kate Rodger shrieking with incoherent rage while her fellow panellists nodded and murmured in agreement. No surprises there.

Media coverage of the Alito draft, in other words, has been overwhelmingly and egregiously one-sided – a perfect illustration of where the media sit in the culture wars. Even people who believe in a woman’s right to have an abortion would struggle to argue that the controversy has been reported in a fair and balanced way.

As with climate change, a stifling and oppressive media groupthink prevails. And what’s particularly striking about the tone of media commentary is the obvious assumption that everyone shares the media elite’s anger, as if no half-intelligent or reasonable person could possibly be opposed to unrestricted abortion rights.

These are the new bigots – people who are not only intolerant of dissenting views but so convinced of their own rightness that they don’t even acknowledge the existence of counter-arguments.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. One thing that did surprise me, however, was to learn that the supposedly neutral and “fiercely independent” Wellington-based online news site Scoop declined to publish two news releases on Roe v Wade from the anti-abortion group Right to Life – this after running a pro-choice column by Scoop's leftist in-house commentator Gordon Campbell and two statements from abortion rights groups attacking the Alito draft.

I’ve admired Scoop in the past, naively believing it was willing to publish all shades of news and opinion, but its credibility now is shot – a shame, because if it had the guts and integrity to live up to its own hype, it could serve as a valuable platform for groups unable to gain traction in the mainstream media.

As for Alito’s draft decision, some pertinent facts appear to have been overlooked amid the backlash. The first and most important is that if the Supreme Court goes ahead and overturns Roe v Wade, abortion rights will become a matter for each state to decide. In other words, decisions on abortion law will be handed back to the elected representatives of the people – which, in a properly functioning democracy, is surely where they belonged in the first place. The 1973 decision overrode states' rights to determine their own laws and now they may get them back. But far from applauding this judicial nod to people power, the pro-abortion camp is aghast. Leftist ideologues tend to be distrustful of democracy because they can never be sure that people will vote the correct way.

To put it another way, a reversal of Roe v Wade would be only a partial unspooling of the law. It’s not as if the court is likely to rule that abortion will become illegal everywhere and in any circumstances (although some abortion rights activists, desperate to stir up opposition even if it means telling porkies, are suggesting that’s exactly what will happen).  

On that note, it’s amusing – in an ironic way – to hear activists wailing that a bunch of mostly male judges in Washington DC have made what they condemn as an “ideological” decision. Isn’t that pretty much what happened in 1973 when the court (which was then entirely male) ruled in favour of women’s right to terminate a pregnancy? The only thing different is that the dominant ideology on the court bench has been reversed. The current is now running in the other direction and the feminists, having had things their way for 50 years, don’t like it.

As my friend and former colleague Bob Edlin observed, “the ruling effectively demonstrates that one bunch of judges can determine something one day, based on what they argue the US constitution allows or disallows. Another bunch of judges with different ideological leanings can rule to the contrary several years [or in this case decades] later.”  

As Bob points out, the US constitution hasn’t changed; only the composition of the court has. This highlights a fundamental flaw in a system that places enormous power in the hands of judges appointed on the basis of their political and ideological leanings in the expectation that they will interpret the constitution accordingly.

The court is expected to release its final decision next month or in July. In the meantime we can expect to be bombarded with canards such as “abortion is a health issue”. (Not for the unborn baby it’s not. And in any case, since when were pregnancy and childbirth classified as illnesses?)

Placards waved by Roe v Wade demonstrators also assert that “abortion is a human right”. Since when? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948, which was the distillation of centuries of thinking and writing about the subject, makes no mention of abortion. It does, however, unequivocally assert the right to life. The fiction that abortion is a human right is an invention of late 20th century feminism, but the slogan has an undeniably catchy appeal to people incapable of thinking above bumper-sticker level.  

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Callinicos fire is still smouldering

Remember the saga of Moana and Judge Callinicos? You know, the case of the little Maori girl whom Oranga Tamariki removed from her Pakeha foster parents, who had given her a loving and secure home for the first time in her short and miserable life, and placed with a Maori family she didn’t know so that her cultural needs could be met? And how two senior judges – the so-called Heads of Bench – interfered in the case after the then acting head of Oranga Tamariki, the late Sir Wira Gardiner, complained that Family Court judge Peter Callinicos (who ruled that Moana should stay with her Pakeha carers) had “bullied” Oranga Tamariki social workers who gave evidence in the case – social workers whose conduct Callinicos was scathingly critical of? And how Callinicos had to remind his judicial superiors that it was wrong to approach a presiding judge during a part-heard case, since it might compromise the judge’s impartiality? And how the Judicial Conduct Commissioner looked into the case without even bothering to interview Callinicos and found that the Heads of Bench hadn’t acted inappropriately? And how it eventually emerged that an even more senior judge – from the Supreme Court, no less – had involved himself in the case behind the scenes and given his opinion? (You may pause for breath here.)

Well, it’s taken a few months, but the Dominion Post’s dogged Hawke’s Bay reporter Marty Sharpe has reported a further development. Sharpe’s story, which the Dom Post, for reasons best known to itself, placed on page 9 despite its disturbing implications, contains good and bad news.

Sharpe reported that the Law Society’s Rule of Law Committee, made up of legal heavyweights including Sir Geoffrey Palmer and other experts in public and constitutional law, looked into the Callinicos affair and produced a 12-page report which concluded that the actions of the senior judges were “highly unconventional” – an admirable legal euphemism – and had the potential to undermine public confidence in the judicial system. On the face of it, those are damning words. (The Rule of Law Committee, incidentally, was established in 2007 to “assist the profession to meet its fundamental obligation to uphold the rule of law and to facilitate the administration of justice”. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog, as it did to me, to discover that a special committee had to be created to encourage something as basic as respect for the rule of law, which you'd assume was a pre-requisite for, er, lawyers, but there you go.)

Anyway, the good news is that there are still people in the legal system who seem concerned with the need to maintain public confidence in the independence and integrity of the judicial system – although the fact that the Law Society has apparently been sitting on this report since last October doesn’t say much for its concern about transparency on an issue that raised serious doubts about judicial conduct.

The bad news is that having been presented with the report, the society has done … well, nothing, apparently. The committee made several recommendations, including “urging the use of conventional mechanisms … when dealing with alleged inappropriate judicial conduct”, but Sharpe reports that the society appears not to have acted on them.

That prompted the society’s Wellington branch to write to the then Law Society president, Tiana Epati, expressing concern at the society’s silence on an issue involving “what appears to be a breach of the principle of judicial independence”. Branch president Christopher Griggs, who was also on the Rule of Law Committee, said the society "should communicate to the Attorney-General its concern at the prospect of senior public servants seeking private audiences with the Heads of Bench touching on matters before the courts”.

Epati, who has since finished her term, replied that the Law Society board stood by its earlier decision not to take any action. She pointed out that Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann had already established a conduct advisory committee to review judicial guidelines and consider how improvements could be made. (Again, it seems surprising this should have been considered necessary, since the official judicial guidelines stress the importance of judges remaining independent – a principle so fundamental that naïve lay people like me would think it hardly needs to be spelled out.)

Net result: the Law Society board didn’t see that any further action was necessary “at this time”. But as Griggs pointed out, the conduct advisory committee can only consider matters that relate to the judiciary. That leaves another issue to be tidied up – namely, the conduct of government department heads, which appears to be the Attorney-General’s territory. “We remain of the view that it is not okay for the head of a government department to have a cup of tea and a bickie meeting with Heads of Bench to discuss matters subject of a part-heard hearing,” Griggs told Sharpe.

Some lawyers, then, clearly think the Law Society could have taken a more pro-active role in asserting the importance of judicial independence. The Callinicos affair is a fire that’s still smouldering despite official attempts to smother it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the last thing the judicial and legal establishment wants is to be exposed to awkward public scrutiny.

 

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Free Speech Union meeting that earned a trigger warning from Salient

The latest edition of the Victoria University of Wellington student newspaper Salient contains an account of the recent Free Speech Union event at the university, at which I spoke.

It’s prefaced with a trigger warning advising, in bold type: This article examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist, and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question. Please exercise caution when reading.

My first reaction was that this was written as a satirical comment on the preciousness now rampant in Western universities and the hysterical aversion to any ideas that run counter to woke-think. Alas, no; it was deadly serious. I forgot that this generation of students isn’t noted for its sense of humour.

Given the alarmist tone of the warning, it wouldn’t surprise me if the student union had arranged for ambulances and mental health counsellors to be placed on standby in advance of publication, or perhaps ordered emergency stocks of smelling salts. Fortunately I can report that no one fainted at the actual meeting.

The article accused me of describing the Black Lives Matter movement as a “crusade” (guilty as charged – that’s exactly what BLM was), of making derogatory remarks about trans women (I described transgender activists as virulent and aggressive) and of spreading harmful misinformation about the 2019 mosque massacres (what I said, if I recall correctly, was that there was no evidence that tighter laws against “hate speech” would have prevented the shootings, which is true).

The Salient reporter also latched on to my criticism of the media as a “woke elite”. Exactly how all this was “harmful” wasn’t explained.

What was potentially harmful was the article’s emphasis on the role of two admirable VUW academics, Michael Johnston and James Kierstead (whose name was misspelt), who helped organise the event. Johnston was quoted as making the heinous statement that it was a great honour to introduce the union on campus.

The tone of the story seemed to suggest Johnston and Kierstead had brought the university into disrepute through the subversive act of promoting free speech. The purpose of the piece, clearly, was to put pressure on the VUW administration to follow the shameful example of other universities (most recently the Auckland University of Technology) by ensuring no such event happened again. The students’ association president was quoted as saying VUW would be “potentially reviewing guidelines at [sic] having external organisations book campus spaces” – wishful thinking on his part, one would think, since that’s not a matter for the association to decide.

(As an aside, the article was notable for demonstrating that today’s students have only the most fleeting acquaintance with the rules of grammar and syntax. The notion that the ability to express yourself clearly denotes clarity of thinking appears foreign to them.

Salient has a distinguished history, with a roll of former editors and contributors that includes Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Hugh Rennie QC, the late Michael King, economist Brian Easton, the late Supreme Court judge Sir John McGrath, broadcaster Sharon Crosbie, Sir Tipene O’Regan, cartoonist Sir Bob Brockie (he’s not really a sir, but I like to think of him as one), Sir Bob Jones and others who went on to successful careers in journalism and publishing. They must shake their heads in despair at what it’s become.)

Salient’s article noted with apparent approval that posters on the campus advertising the FSU meeting had been taken down – repeatedly, in fact – and replaced with substitutes proclaiming “Hate Speech is Not Free Speech” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and labelling the FSU as “racist, homophobic and transphobic hypocrites”. The paper quoted one unnamed student as saying “the event is full of violent misinformation and sends [sic] an unsafe agenda for many communities who study here”.

Violent? Really?? The atmosphere was about as menacing as a meeting of the Country Women's Institute. There’s nothing to indicate the anonymous student actually attended. Why risk having your smug prejudices contradicted?

Similarly, a former president of the Queer Students’ Association was quoted as saying the FSU event “showcases an individual [I guess that means me] who sees his attempts at delegitimising Māori and trans individuals and their world views as promoting free speech. All this does is uphold the sexist, racist, and transphobic status quo and is in no way actually a valuable contribution to academic discourse.”

Like the aforementioned anonymous student, she appears to have reached these conclusions without bothering to acquaint herself with what I said. Far easier to leave your mind unencumbered by knowledge.

Just in case there remained any doubt that the FSU consists of unreconstructed, spittle-flecked, white supremacist haters, there was also this comment from students’ association “engagement” vice-president Katherine Blow (who apparently prefers to be known by the pronoun “they”): “VUWSA does not support the Free Speech Union event, because the group is known for their extremist, trans-exclusionary, homophobic and racist views.” “They” added that “ideally, the event wouldn’t have taken place”.

It’s heartening to know that Victoria’s students are driven by fearless open-mindedness, a spirit of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a willingness to engage with dissenting opinions. Is this the best New Zealand can expect from our supposed thinkers of the future: nonsensical slogans and playground-level name-calling?

(You can read the article here, but have a Valium tab on hand just in case it induces an anxiety attack.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Squeeze your eyes shut, cross your fingers and hope

The Three Waters project is a con and a fiasco on every level.

First, it fails to satisfy even the most basic democratic test. A system in which the nation’s water infrastructure is run by opaque “entities” where 16 percent of the population wields 50 percent of the power (and that’s assuming the representatives of the iwi elite truly speak for all people of Maori descent, which is far from assured) makes a mockery of representative government.

Second, and in addition to the above, it severs the links by which the public is able to exercise control over infrastructure that it owns. The recent attempt to overcome opposition to Three Waters by tweaking the shareholding arrangements, so as to create an illusion of financial control by councils, was a feat of prestidigitation that fooled no one.

Those two failings could be described as the primary constitutional objections to Three Waters, but there are others – such as the absence of an informed mandate from the public (co-governance wasn’t mentioned in Labour’s 2020 manifesto) and not even a pretence of adequate consultation. (Far from it. Once Nanaia Mahuta realised dozens of councils intended to fight her asset grab, she resolved to bulldoze it through whether they liked it or not.)

A cynic might say such arrogance should be no surprise coming from a minister who enjoys quasi-regal standing within the Tainui confederation and is thus steeped in a hierarchical tribal culture that dates back to the Maori King Movement. While her manner is quiet and understated, it’s possible she’s accustomed to getting her own way by virtue of her hereditary status. (Just a personal theory …)

Against all that, we have a vague promise that the country’s water infrastructure will be better funded and more efficiently managed under the new mechanisms. But while even critics of Three Waters acknowledge there’s scope for improvement, the failings of the existing arrangements – and especially the supposed health risks from poor water – have been grossly overstated in an attempt to frighten the public, with assistance from a crude TV propaganda campaign that would have embarrassed even Joseph Goebbels.

So much for the constitutional flaws (for want of a better term) in the Three Waters project. But on top of that, and just as glaring, are the potential bureaucratic and administrative fishhooks.

Today’s Wairarapa Times-Age reports concern within local councils – or should I say panic? – over the cost of the transition to the new structure. Carterton District Council, one of the smallest in the country (population 9700), expects to spend $850,000 preparing for Three Waters over the next two years. The council’s chief executive says the plan has imposed an “enormous” programme of work that the council’s not resourced to cope with it. Mayor Greg Laing describes the process as “absolutely appalling”.

The Times-Age quotes the Department of Internal Affairs as saying funding will be provided to cover transition costs, but it’s obvious that councils haven’t seen any of the money and don’t know when they will. In any case, South Wairarapa’s mayor Alex Beijen, who presides over a district with a population of only 11,000 (and one that’s already financially stretched to breaking point), says resourcing will be a big challenge even with extra government money.

Reading between the lines, it seems clear the process has been so rushed that no one thought to put transitional funding arrangements in place – or alternatively, didn’t have the time. Could this urgency have anything to do with the fact that there’s an election next year and Labour is anxious to lock in its audacious ideological projects before it gets booted out of office, as seems more likely with every passing day?

Similar unseemly haste is evident in health, where the consequences, at least on a personal level, could be even more catastrophic. In a scathing assessment, Ian Powell – former executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists – points to the massive disruption and destabilisation likely to be caused by Health Minister Andrew Little’s madcap scheme to abolish district health boards and replace them with … what, exactly? 

If anyone knows, we haven’t been told. That's exactly Powell's point. But in the meantime, God alone knows how much money, energy and expertise will be diverted from the provision of health care – to the detriment of sick people desperately in need of treatment – as the health system struggles to restructure itself to comply with Little’s ill-defined vision.

As Powell points out, “With only 40 working days to go, DHBs have no more information on what will replace them on 1 July than they had on 21 April last year when the health minister announced their abolition.” You can read his damning appraisal here – and if that’s not depressing enough, Richard Prebble has more to say about the state of the health system here.

All this has a wearying familiarity. Labour governments tend to come into office bursting with grand ideas but lacking the ministerial talent necessary to convert their missionary zeal into effective action. Their ambitions consistently outstrip their ability to deliver, resulting in reliance on obscurantist jargon and slogans (Powell cites the empty vow to end the “postcode lottery” in health care) and promiscuous spending binges as a substitute for good policy. Little, who should have been one of Labour’s more competent ministers, has turned out to be anything but.

When it’s plain to everyone except fervent true believers that the wheels are falling off, Labour collectively squeezes its eyes shut, crosses its fingers and hopes everything will magically turn out okay. That’s what Mahuta and Little appear to be doing now, metaphorically speaking, and by the time voters are able to do anything it will be too late. The damage will have been done.

 

 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The past doesn't define us

I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Dominion Post in response to a lengthy article in which journalist Joel Maxwell, writing about an apparent reluctance to give Maori names to sections of the former SH1 on the Kapiti Coast, somehow contrived to mention killings perpetrated by James Cook. The Dom Post published the letter this morning and a reader of this blog suggested I post it here:

Joel Maxwell (Kapiti coasts around Maori road names, May 7) gratuitously reminds us that James Cook’s crewmen killed several Maori at what is now Gisborne in 1769.

He could have mentioned, but didn’t, that 10 crewmen from the Adventure, sister ship to Cook’s Resolution, were killed, butchered, cooked and eaten in the Marlborough Sounds in 1773. Cook resisted the urging of his men to take revenge.

My own namesake, Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne (actually, no relation) was killed and cannibalised in 1772 in the Bay of Islands, along with 26 of his men, although most historians seem to agree that the French explorer was totally benign in his dealings with local Maori. He unknowingly caused offence by breaching tapu and paid the penalty.

The point is, things happened 250-odd years ago that look appalling when viewed through a 21st century lens. But as long as we allow ourselves to be defined by those awful events, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Karl du Fresne, Masterton

Friday, May 6, 2022

Further thoughts on the press gallery

A postscript to yesterday's post about Simon Bridges and the parliamentary press gallery:

If you look at this photo of the gallery, taken last year on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, you'll immediately observe that most of its members are relatively young - too young to have much, if any, personal recollection of the forces and political figures that have shaped the country's recent history. This is bound to limit their understanding of politics and their ability to interpret current events and trends against the backdrop of past experience. Unfortunately that doesn't stop some of them them from boldly pronouncing on the meaning of political events and even professing to know what the country thinks. 

It's also in line with a tendency over the past 20 years or so to manage older journalists out of the industry.  Appointment to the press gallery was once a reflection of seniority. Younger political hacks worked under the tutelage of more experienced hands. But the gallery appears to have been afflicted by a mysterious age-related malaise that wipes journalists out about the time they hit 40. 


Thursday, May 5, 2022

Simon Bridges' parting shot at the press gallery


I’ve never known quite what to make of Simon Bridges; he always struck me as a bit of a political shape-shifter. But I was pleased that he gave political reporters a serve in his valedictory.

In comments addressed to the press gallery, but which you may not see reported, Bridges said:

I love you all, and Claire Trevett [New Zealand Herald] you're my favourite, although your story this last weekend certainly tested that favouritism. But I do despair how narrow the viewpoints are here, as opposed to in the UK, the United States, and even Australia. More viewpoints are tolerated, actually encouraged, in their deeper media environments. Our press gallery can hunt as a pack — OK, then there's Barry [Soper] — but basically, as a pack. And I say to you, if every one of you has the same basic position on a complex matter, you are probably all engaged in group thinking, quite probably wrong. Go spend some time in the provinces or one of our bigger cities that's not this one to recalibrate, and get a fresh view.

And then this: While I'm on my friends in the press gallery, your most important job is to hold the powerful to account, and let me give you a clue: it's the Government that has the power.

I imagine many politicians regularly bristle with fury and resentment at their treatment by the gallery but bite their tongues because they think they dare not risk making enemies of the media. (Winston Peters was a notable exception, often going out of his way to provoke fights with reporters in the manner of his model, Robert Muldoon, and it didn’t seem to harm him. Unlike most politicians, Peters grasped that the public don’t like the media much either.)

On his last day in Parliament, Bridges obviously felt freed from any restraint, although I would have admired him more if he’d taken a whack at his tormentors when he was still a serving MP and therefore had something to lose. Getting his own back on his last day in the House was a bit like giving the fingers to someone you don't like from the safety of a passing car.

There’s nothing new in his statement about the press gallery hunting as a pack. That’s been the case for decades. There’s courage in numbers. (I wrote about the bizarre antics of the gallery pack here and here.)

But Bridges identified other concerns, such as the uniformity of their views (it’s reassuring when everyone thinks the same way) and their tendency to highlight the supposed failings of opposition parties rather than hold the government's feet to the fire - a tendency never better demonstrated than by Tova O'Brien's vicious hounding of a stricken Judith Collins.

Bridges also alluded to another occupational hazard among political journalists - namely, the conceit that working in the press gallery and rarely venturing outside Wellington tells them all they need to know about politics. In fact they exist in an artificial bubble where they are largely insulated from the real world.

They may have some grasp of the machinery of politics, but politics is about much more than what happens in Wellington. Ultimately what counts most in a democracy is what the public thinks and why people vote the way they do, and there can be few people more poorly qualified to assess the public mood than press gallery journalists. The narrow world they’re exposed to is simply not the world most New Zealanders live in.

It would be a useful grounding exercise for them to listen to talkback radio for an hour or so each day. I wouldn’t pretend that’s the key to understanding what real New Zealanders are thinking, but it would expose press gallery reporters to a more authentic world than the one they inhabit, which is largely populated by fellow members of the political class. (Of course it wouldn’t happen, because the typical political journalist probably regards talkback callers as the untermenschen.)

There’s another problem that Bridges didn’t specifically mention, namely the apparent homogeneity of the gallery. A bit more diversity of age, background and life experience might be helpful.

A few more mature political journalists are still active – Soper, Audrey Young, Brent Edwards, Jane Clifton, Peter Wilson, Luke Malpass, to name a few – but most of the press pack have the disconcerting appearance of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealists, eager to avoid (as Bridges intimated) making things too difficult for a government that they are ideologically sympathetic with. Soper must sometimes feel like a grizzled old bulldog confined in a pen with a lot of over-excited young poodles.

If this seems a rather sweeping condemnation of the entire gallery, I plead guilty. I acknowledge there are capable political journalists who make an honest attempt to do the job well. It's just unfortunate that they are tainted by association with others who come across as self-absorbed, over-confident and, dare I say it, sometimes not very bright. 

If you want to read Bridges’ valedictory in full (it’s worth it), you can do so here:

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

My reply to Shelley (whoever she is)

I received the following comment last month from someone identified only as Shelley. (We can’t be sure Shelley is female, because we can’t know anything about people who shelter behind pseudonyms. However for the sake of convenience I will assume she is a woman and therefore use the appropriate pronoun. The woke “they” will never be used on this blog to refer to a single person.)

Shelley’s comment was written in response to my post Pssst ... don't mention the iwi and ran as follows:

It really is hilarious each time I read or hear ideas such as yours that 50/50 co-governance with Iwi is simply the worst thing since Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye teamed up… stop it, nothing could ever be worse than that. Your blog is as polarising as a fart in an elevator, scattering people to each far flung corner and then out the door. And so predictable. Talking about the elephant in the room - that Māori may ask for more, massa? Please, sir, I want some more? Oooh aaah! Gosh, sorry bout it but the elephant in the room is dead! Māori are rockstars of our little country. Pākehā who don’t want to be Tangata Tiriti are like old beans on a bean rack - they will shrivel up and fall off, while all the young shoots thrive! The racist assertions spouted here are as old and worn out as Chris Luxon’s bic razor. This blog and the blogger are passé - like yesterday’s shrimp cocktail. Fear mongering about Māori is a yawn. There is nothing new in this space. Find somebody else to pick on [phrase deleted here because it smears someone not in a position to defend herself]. Cos we’re not gonna take it anymore. Ngā mihi ki a koutou. PS: I love mixed metaphor. Shelley.

I’m breaking my own rule by publishing a comment that directly attacks me anonymously, but I’m doing so for several reasons. One is that it illustrates what we’re up against in trying to argue rationally with people who resort to crude, simplistic caricatures and indulge in ad hominem arguments.

Another is that by running it, I deny Shelley the satisfaction of saying “See, this racist blogger shut me down because he doesn’t like what I’m saying”.

While Shelley has no right to be published here, since she breaks the rules of this blog by directly attacking me without identifying herself, I decided to publish her comment because I believe in free speech, and because she expresses opinions that some other people almost certainly share. Even people who hide behind pseudonyms have a right to free speech, although the rest of us are equally entitled to take no notice of them.

But I have another reason for publishing her rant, which is that it gives me an opportunity to put one or two things straight.

She makes assumptions about me that play to her perception of me as a racist bigot. It suits her to do that because then she can dismiss anything I write as racist bigotry. But the truth is more complex and nuanced than that.

The first political issue I ever got stirred up about was the brutal denial of civil rights to blacks in the American South during the early 1960s. I was about 12 then and my feelings about human rights have never changed.

Ah, I can hear Shelley say. It’s safe to support the rights of racial minorities thousands of miles away where they don’t represent a threat to me personally, but it’s a different story here on our home turf, right?

Well, no. All races are entitled to freedom, dignity, safety and a say in their own future, and no racial group has the right to subjugate another. That applies universally.

Now, that word “racist”. I believe a racist is someone who thinks certain races are inherently superior to others and therefore entitled to rights not available to supposedly “inferior” races. That’s a meaning we can all agree on. But the moment you stretch the definition beyond that, the word can mean anything the user wants it to mean. In the contemporary New Zealand context, that means it can be applied to anyone who disagrees with you – for example, on issues such as 50-50 co-governance with iwi. But the people who throw the term “racist” around don’t realise that they have stripped the word of its potency. “Racist” should be the most offensive epithet imaginable, placing the accused person on a par with Adolf Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan. But the word is so overused as to have become meaningless, so Shelley’s wasting her breath there.

On a more personal level, there’s a lot about Maori culture that I respect and admire – for example, its emphasis on a communal rather than an individual ethos, from which I think we can all learn. I marvel (as the British army probably did in the 19th century) at the courage and resourcefulness of a warrior society defending its land against interlopers and I share the widely felt reverence for the generations of Maori soldiers who served with such distinction in our own armed forces. I am stirred by kapa haka and revere our many great Maori musicians. New Zealand’s bicultural heritage is a unique part of our national makeup that we should all be proud of (and I think most of us are. When the Springboks narrowly defeated a Maori side at Napier in 1921, a South African reporter was appalled that the predominantly Pakeha crowd cheered for “coloured men” playing against their fellow whites).

On the down side, we should all be concerned at high rates of Maori imprisonment, illness, sub-standard housing and low educational attainment. These not only hurt Maori but diminish the country as a whole. Some activists talk as if such outcomes are the results of deliberate, structural racism that suits the interests of the dominant group, but I have yet to hear anyone explain how anyone, including the supposedly privileged class, benefits when such a significant segment of the population is struggling. It's in everyone's interests for Maori to do better; the question is how that might be achieved. Ostentatious virtue signalling, such as the use of te reo by broadcasters and journalists, won't do it. Nor is it likely to be achieved by transferring power from democratic institutions to an unelected tribal elite that hasn't historically shown much concern for urban Maori with no iwi affiliations.

Turning to the contentious issue of our history, I support in principle its inclusion as a compulsory school subject, but with the important proviso that the curriculum isn’t ideologically loaded. Pupils should be given a warts-and-all view that doesn’t whitewash (pun not intended) either Maori or Pakeha.

I think all New Zealanders should know more about the country’s pre-European history. There was another New Zealand (Aotearoa, if you prefer) that existed before the arrival of the Europeans; one that was still technically in the stone age but was strikingly advanced and sophisticated for all that. We know far too little about it – or indeed about how the first voyagers got here, which is a remarkable story in itself.

Speaking of “Aotearoa”, let’s have a referendum. That’s more honest than having the name insinuated into the language at the behest of a cultural elite too arrogant to put it to the test knowing there’s a very good chance it would be defeated. What can be more fundamental to a country’s identity than the name by which it’s known? Those who resist the idea of a referendum, preferring to impose the name without any mandate, are subverting democracy. (For the record, and not for the first time, I’m okay with Aotearoa just as long as the majority endorse it.)

In teaching New Zealand history, we need to be honest about the circumstances in which Maori lost so much of their land, and we need to acknowledge that they were often the victims of rampant settler greed. (Two instances I’m personally familiar with, because I’ve written about them, are Lakes Wairarapa and Horowhenua, both shamefully and deceitfully taken from their rightful owners and subsequently subjected to shocking environmental degradation.) But we also need to acknowledge that Maori were sometimes betrayed by tribal leaders who sold their land from under them.

We also need to acknowledge that pre-European Maori society was violent and cruel. Territory was taken by conquest and no mercy was shown to the losers, who were slaughtered, enslaved and cannibalised. Rekohu (the Moriori name for the Chathams) comes to mind.

We need to teach that, too. Perhaps we could do a deal whereby if part-Maori activists stop promoting grievances about the negative effects of colonisation, which are undeniable but balanced by some rather significant (but commonly overlooked) benefits, those of us who are Pakeha will avoid mentioning the terrible things Maori did to each other before the Europeans arrived.

We can agree that white supremacy was common - in fact the norm - in an earlier time when Europeans believed implicitly in the superiority of a culture that dominated the world. Do white supremacists exist still? Probably, although I don’t know any personally and I don’t believe they’re anything more than a tiny, pathetic minority whose attitudes appal most New Zealanders. Of far more consequence are the millions of New Zealanders who happily work, play sport and engage socially (which includes having sex) with people of Maori descent, and have done so for generations. The terrible danger is that this history of mutual goodwill will be undermined and may even eventually unravel as a result of the wedge being driven between the two main racial groups by activists who insist we are inherently different and that our rights and interests are in competition.

We also need to acknowledge that there was a high degree of historical goodwill toward Maori on the part of many colonial officials, from James Cook onwards. Little known fact: 10 sailors from the Adventure, sister ship to Cook’s Resolution, were gruesomely killed and eaten in the Marlborough Sounds in 1773, but Cook resisted the urging of his crew to exact revenge (and ironically, incurred disrespect from local Maori for not invoking his right to utu).

And not a million miles from there, Governor Fitzroy took the side of the Ngati Toa after the so-called Wairau Affray of 1842 in which 22 whites were killed. Fitzroy was firmly of the view that the settlers provoked the incident by claiming land to which they were not entitled. It’s hard to imagine that happening in other colonial societies where brutal reprisals would have been a more likely outcome.

We should acknowledge that Maori were encouraged to engage in the political system. Maori men were allowed to vote from as early as 1853 and got their own electorates in 1867. (I know comparisons don’t always get us far, but Australian Aborigines weren’t able to vote in federal elections until 1962). By the early 20th century New Zealand had a Maori acting prime minister, Sir James Carroll. Australia didn’t even get its first Aboriginal MP until the 1970s. Will these facts be taught in the new history curriculum?

We need to acknowledge that there have been instances of shameful racism, such as the well-documented case of a distinguished Maori doctor (although it would have been just as disgraceful if he’d been a bulldozer driver) who was denied service in the lounge bar of the Papakura Hotel in 1959. But racism can cut both ways. A Pakeha friend of mine who stopped for a drink at a Hawke’s Bay country pub in 1969 was told in no uncertain terms that it was a Maori pub and he’d be safer if he went elsewhere.

But these are exceptions. There is a unique record of co-operation, harmony and goodwill between the two main racial groups. That’s manifested in the history of inter-marriage which today ensures that every person who identifies as Maori must also own up to some European blood, which means their supposed oppressors included their own white forebears. I’ve yet to see anyone reconcile those awkward truths. If we’re to move forward as a society we need to acknowledge that all our forebears did bad things in the distant past and then put them behind us. We have too much in common to risk fracturing a society that the rest of the world has long seen as exemplary.

Where we run into trouble is where the Maori activist agenda collides with democracy. Democracy isn’t a white supremacist invention imposed to keep minority groups firmly under the heel of their oppressor. On the contrary, it's a system whereby every citizen’s vote – Maori, Pakeha, Pasifika, Chinese, Indian, whatever – carries the same weight. I believe absolutely in democracy because ultimately, everyone benefits from it and everyone has a say. It is the basis of every free and fair society in the world, and those who undermine it need to think very carefully about what form of government might replace it. I can’t think of any that would appeal to me – certainly not one that grants special rights, privileges and entitlements on the basis of ancestry. We have a name for that: feudalism. We were smart enough to abandon it several centuries ago.

To finish, I am Tangata Tiriti and proud to be so. Like all Pakeha New Zealanders I’m here by right of the Treaty, a point often overlooked by Treaty activists who talk as if it grants rights only to Maori. My forebears came here in the 1870s and 1890s and New Zealand, therefore, is my turangawaewae. The thing is, we’re all beneficiaries of the Treaty and we need to think very long and hard before unravelling the many threads that bind us.

What the public thinks about the Pravda Project

Don't hold your breath waiting to see anything about this in the mainstream media:

Poll reveals distrust of taxpayer-funded media - Taxpayers' Union

Monday, May 2, 2022

Bryce Edwards on Three Waters

Possibly the most damning condemnation yet of the pernicious Three Waters project comes today from Victoria University political scientist Bryce Edwards. You can read it here:

Political Roundup: Is Three Waters really about water infrastructure or iwi co-governance? (mailchi.mp)

Edwards' denunciation carries great weight because unlike some who have attacked Three Waters, he is not a habitual critic of the Labour government. If anything, he naturally leans toward the left.

Edwards makes the important point that there are two issues here. One is the need for better administration of the country's creaking water infrastructure, on which there is wide agreement. The other is the way Nanaia Mahuta has cynically used this as an excuse for a massive asset grab and transfer of power to unelected iwi interests, all without any mandate or explanation.

Mahuta's propaganda machine has focused exclusively on the former while pretending the idea of 50-50 co-governance isn't an issue - in fact sidestepping it altogether, with the help of journalists who have obligingly parroted the government's talking points. It's hard to recall a more brazen example of political dissembling.


Friday, April 29, 2022

On the threats to free speech

I delivered the following speech (little of which would be new to regular readers of this blog) at a meeting of the Free Speech Union at Victoria University last night. Most of the approximately 80 people who attended were middle-aged or older, suggesting freedom of speech isn’t exactly top of mind for the students the FSU had hoped to attract. On the other hand, it’s possible the poor student turnout had something to do with the fact that posters advertising the meeting were repeatedly taken down and replaced with ones saying “Stop Hate Speech” and labelling the FSU as “racist, homophobic and transphobic hypocrites”. It’s hard to engage meaningfully with that level of undergraduate bumper-sticker mentality, but at least they didn’t try to disrupt the meeting.

My old friend and former journalism colleague Barrie Saunders, who’s also a member of the union and is here tonight, sent me an email last week ahead of this talk.

Barrie has always written very concisely and his email consisted of just one line. “Karl”, he said, “did you ever think ten years ago you would be speaking about free speech?”

The answer, of course, is no. Ten years ago we smugly believed that all the big debates about freedom and democracy had been won and we could all relax. Ha! More fools us.

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book about it, called The End of History and the Last Man, in which he postulated that with the end of the Cold War, humanity’s ideological evolution had reached its end point and we could all bask forever in the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy.

How wrong he was, and how naive we were to believe it. Because in the past 10 years or so – and that’s how quickly it has happened – all our comfortable convictions about the unassailability of free speech have been turned on their heads. Suddenly we find ourselves fighting again for rights we assumed were settled.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing the words, “I support free speech, but ….” New Zealand is full of people in positions of power and influence who purport to defend free speech, but always with the addition of that loaded word “but”. You can’t say you support free speech and then, in the next breath, put limitations around it beyond the ones that are already clearly established in law and broadly accepted, such as those relating to defamation and incitement to hatred or violence,

We’ve been introduced to phrases unheard of a few years ago: cancel culture, speech wars, hate speech, gender wars, safe spaces, culture wars, trigger warnings, transphobia and no-platforming. We’ve acquired a whole new vocabulary.

We’ve seen the creation of multiple no-go zones where no one is permitted to say what they think for fear of offending someone or oppressing a supposedly vulnerable minority group.

We’ve seen the emergence of a media monoculture in which all mainstream media outlets adopt uniform ideological positions that effectively shut out alternative opinions, even when those marginalised voices may represent mainstream opinion.

We’ve seen traditional ideological battle lines totally redrawn as people on the left and right of politics unite around the need to save freedom of speech from a new and powerful cohort of people who have co-opted the term “hate speech” as a pretext for banning any opinion that they dislike.

We’ve even seen radical feminists, who were once at the cutting edge of politics, demonised as dangerous reactionaries who must be shut down because of their opposition to a virulent transgender lobby that appeared to spring out of nowhere.

All this has happened within a remarkably short time frame. Mainstream New Zealand has been caught off guard by the sheer speed and intensity of the attack on free speech and as a result has been slow to respond. But what’s at stake here is nothing less than the survival of liberal democracy, which depends on the contest of ideas and the free and open discussion of issues regardless of whether some people might find them upsetting.

I could recite a long list of incidents, but to save time – and for the benefit of people here who may not have closely followed the free speech debate – let me just remind you of some of the better-known ones:

First up, Don Brash – barred from speaking at what was intended to be a low-key Massey University seminar where he was invited to talk to political science students about his political career. Now regardless of what you think about his politics, the civil and scholarly Brash is no one’s idea of a dangerous demagogue. Yet the vice-chancellor of Massey, who as an Australian veterinary professor is eminently qualified to decide what opinions New Zealanders can safely be exposed to, cancelled Brash, citing “security” concerns – a fashionable pretext, as we’ll see shortly.

It later emerged that in reality, the vice-chancellor didn’t want Massey to be seen as endorsing what she described as “racist behaviours”. This was a reference to Brash’s involvement in the group Hobson’s Pledge, although Hobson’s Pledge is expressly opposed to racism and in any case had nothing whatsoever to do with the planned seminar.

Emails subsequently released under the Official Information Act showed the vice-chancellor frantically casting around for spurious “mechanisms” under which she could legally ban Brash from speaking. Even people fiercely opposed to Brash’s politics were appalled by this flagrant curtailment of his right to free speech.

Now let’s move on to the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at an Auckland Council-owned venue following the intervention of a grandstanding mayor – again, under the pretext that protesters might disrupt the event.

We still don’t know what poisonous beliefs the Canadians were supposedly peddling because we were never allowed to hear them. That cancellation was a catalyst for the formation of the Free Speech Union, which has taken a case all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to clarify whether threats of disruption should be allowed to override free-speech rights. The outcome of that case is currently pending.

The union has made it clear, incidentally, that it neither supports nor opposes whatever it is that Southern and Molyneux stand for. The point at issue is the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to opinions and ideas regardless of whether people like the mayor of Auckland and the Massey vice-chancellor personally approve of them.

The right of free speech, after all, means the right to hear as well as the right to speak. Our Bill of Rights Act doesn’t just talk about the right to speak freely. It refers to “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form”. That seems pretty clear-cut and unambiguous. To deny New Zealanders the right to hear opinions that some politicians and public officials don’t like is a flagrant abuse of power and must be challenged at every turn, which is exactly what this union is doing.

Now, another notable case – notable for all the wrong reasons. Seven distinguished academics wrote a letter to The Listener questioning the notion that matauranga Maori, or traditional Maori knowledge, should be given the same status as science. That triggered what was possibly the most shameful demonstration yet of intolerance toward ideologically unfashionable ideas.

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

The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril. Both the Tertiary Education Union and the vice-chancellor of Auckland University, who should have led the way in defending the seven professors’ academic freedom, shamefully did exactly the reverse.

What started as an academic debate on an issue of public importance thus took on the character of a 14th century heresy trial. Two of the Listener Seven faced expulsion from the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science.

Once again it was intervention of the Free Speech Union, combined with an outpouring of international derision from luminaries such as Richard Dawkins, that persuaded the Royal Society to pull its head in. Last month the union was able to announce that the society had called off its witch-hunt – but too late, I would suggest, to salvage its credibility.

Those three examples give some indication of what the defenders of free speech are up against, but not all cases attract that level of public attention. Please allow me to touch on a few others that show how insidious attacks on free speech have become.

There was a mini furore at last year’s Featherston Booktown festival, where organisers cancelled a Harry Potter quiz for fear that it might distress the transgender community, given that J K Rowling is a vocal opponent of transgenderism. In another exquisite irony, the same book festival included a panel discussion on cancel culture. As I wrote on my blog, this was the point at which real life did its best to outdo satire.

The Booktown organisers could have driven a stake into the ground and politely told the objectors to bugger off but they didn’t, and the result was another grovelling capitulation to the enemies of free speech.

In yet another exquisite irony, there was the case of the late Jim Flynn, an internationally acclaimed emeritus professor of political studies at Otago University. Professor Flynn wrote a book entitled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor, but was advised that his British publishers had changed their minds about publishing it because it raised “sensitive topics of race, religion and gender”. So a book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence was itself cancelled for fear of causing offence.

On a lighter note, there was a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in 2019 about an advertising sign for Streets ice cream that said “ice cream makes you happy”. According to the complainant, the sign promoted an unhealthy relationship with food. Now you might think the  authority would have politely told the complainant not to waste its time, but no; it solemnly ruled that the sign should be removed because “the implicit claim that there is a link between ice cream and happiness could potentially undermine the health and wellbeing of consumers”. The enforcers of free speech are not noted for their sense of humour.

Another case that might at first glance be dismissed as flippant involved a bulldozer in Marlborough. At the height of the Black Lives Matter crusade following the police murder of George Floyd, the bulldozer owner, obviously feeling things had got out of hand, spray-painted the words “ALM Equal Rights for Kiwi Whites” on the blade of the bulldozer – the letters ALM standing for “all lives matter”. For this dangerous act of incitement he received a visit from the local police. A neighbour had complained that the words were racist and the police persuaded the bulldozer owner to paint over them.

The particularly disquieting aspect here is the involvement of the police. There’s a very real prospect that with the proposed criminalisation of so-called “hate speech”, it would fall to the police to determine which opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what speech is “safe”.

Now, speaking of the police, I want to refer briefly to the blogger Cameron Slater. It emerged late last year through an OIA request that Slater had been under police surveillance. A police intelligence analyst was concerned that Slater was publishing information that denigrated Labour party policies and individuals linked to them. Another officer expressed concern that Slater was “anti-government” and a senior sergeant suggested they should pay him a visit.

In other words there are people in the police who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This is how police states begin. Fortunately in this case, wiser senior officers stepped in before things got out of hand.

Of course Slater is a highly controversial figure and a lot of people dislike him, but it’s cases like this that test our real commitment to free speech. As the left-wing American activist and writer Noam Chomsky has said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” [For the record, I don't despise Slater, though there have been many occasions when I've wondered about his judgment.]

Speaking of Chomsky, a striking aspect of the speech wars is that they cut right across the traditional battle lines between left and right. It’s a fact of history that suppression of free speech has far more often been used against the left than the right, which probably explains why veteran leftists such as Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten are supporters of the Free Speech Union. Martyn Bradbury is another on the left who advocates forcefully for freedom of expression; there's no one more vigorous in his tormenting of the woke. 

The reality is that the enemies of free speech have no fixed ideology. Control is enforced with equal brutality whether it’s Nazi Germany or communist North Korea. The only thing the enemies of free speech have in common is a desire to exercise untrammelled power and to forcibly suppress any speech which threatens that power.

As it happens, the present threat to free speech in New Zealand doesn’t come from either the traditional left or the traditional right. It comes from a powerful new cohort that largely controls the national conversation. This cohort is dominant in politics, the bureaucracy, academia and the media and regards the exercise of free speech as serving the interests of the privileged. Free speech to them means licence to attack oppressed minorities and is therefore something to be deterred, if not by law then by denunciation and intimidation.

Depressingly, this group is entrenched in universities and libraries – institutions that have traditionally served as sources of free thought and access to knowledge. Libraries were at the forefront of the effort to shut down the feminist group Speak Up For Women, which was targeted by aggressive transgender activists because it opposed legislation allowing men to identify as female. It was only after this union went to court on the feminists’ behalf that libraries in several cities were forced to back down and allow them to hold public meetings.

A common factor in these instances is the belief that people have a right not to be offended and that this right takes precedence over the right to free speech. It’s as if the woke elements in society have developed an allergic reaction to the robust democracy that most of the people in this room grew up in, where vigorous debate was seen as an essential part of the contest of ideas that democracy depends on.

If a statement can possibly be interpreted as a slur against one’s gender, race, body type or sexual identity, it will be, no matter how innocent the intention of the person who made it. Apologies will be demanded and the ritual humiliation of the transgressor inevitably follows.

The purpose is clear: it sends a message to others that they will get similar treatment if they’re bold or foolish enough to challenge ideological orthodoxy. Yet paradoxically, the same people who insist on the right not to be upset don’t hesitate to engage in vicious online gang-ups and ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with them.

A recurring theme in the speech wars is the notion of safety – not safety from physical danger, which is how most people understand the term, but safety from anything that might upset people or challenge their thinking.

Some of us first became aware of this phenomenon in 1991 when the Christchurch nursing student Anna Penn was effectively expelled from her course after being branded as “culturally unsafe”. Since then the highly inventive concept of “safety” has widened further, to the extent that it’s now invoked if there’s any risk that some fragile soul might feel psychologically damaged by something written or said.

This confected notion of safety was made explicit in law earlier this year when Parliament passed the so-called Safe Areas Act, under which people can be prohibited from maintaining protest vigils within 150 metres of any place where abortions are performed.

In this case the word safety had nothing to do with real threats of violence or intimidation. A pro-life group wrote to all the country’s district health boards asking if they had received any complaints about harassment or intimidation from staff or women attending abortion clinics. None had. In any case, the Law Commission had already advised the government that the legislation wasn’t necessary because existing laws had the situation covered.

As one pro-life activist said, the law change addressed a problem that didn’t exist. It was passed solely to reinforce an ideological shibboleth.

The Safe Areas Act was a test of this union’s commitment to free speech because the union had to disentangle the implications for free speech from the polarising issue of abortion, on which many of its members have conflicting opinions. But the union emphatically opposed the legislation and said in its submission, and I quote: “It is not the speech of the majority that requires vigilant protection. It is the speech of the few that must be jealously guarded.”

Regardless of your views about abortion, there are several worrying aspects of this new law. First, it appears to introduce a highly subjective concept of entitlement to protection against emotional distress.

Second, the anti-abortion group Voice for Life is concerned that it could create a precedent under which anti-abortion opinions could be classified as hate speech under proposed new laws that the government has so far kept under wraps.

Third, it creates the impression that the right to protest is subject to an ideological test. There are now two categories of protest group – those that are acceptable and those that aren’t.

The right to protest is conditional on the protest being one that those in power approve of. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Parliament would pass a law creating safe zones for people attending defence industry seminars. Yet in 2019 one such conference was cancelled because the organisers, citing past experience with aggressive protesters, were concerned about the safety of delegates. Needless to say the cancellation was greeted triumphantly by the disrupters.

Safety, then, is a highly elastic concept – critically important for women attending abortion clinics, even if no risk of harm exists, but not a problem if those who feel threatened are white guys in suits.

The enemies of free speech are blind to the contradictions in their position. They bang on about the right to be safe but applaud aggressive and intimidating behaviour against people they don’t like. And they demand protection against hate speech while freely indulging in it themselves on Twitter and other social media platforms, their purpose being to bully people into silence.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of other inconsistencies. Chloe Swarbrick apparently saw no contradiction last year in writing a newspaper column eloquently extolling the right to protest while voting to deny that same right to anti-abortion activists.

Similarly, Trevor Mallard and Chris Hipkins are both proud of having once been arrested for protest activity. Yet both supported the Safe Areas Bill and apparently saw no inconsistency in denying others a right they once vigorously asserted for themselves.

But perhaps the most shameful aspect of the Safe Areas Act was that it sailed through Parliament virtually unchallenged, save for a few courageous individual MPs – none more so than three from the Labour Party – who followed their consciences and voted against it.

To their lasting shame, National and ACT, the two parties that should have fought it, waved it through. If there are any representatives of those parties here tonight, I for one would be interested in hearing why they so cravenly rolled over. If National and ACT don’t believe in such a bedrock democratic value as free speech, we’re entitled to wonder what they do believe in.

Now if I may go slightly off-topic, I’d like to talk about the New Zealand media. It’s only slightly off-topic because free speech goes hand in hand with a free press - but it’s now clear that proponents of free speech in New Zealand can no longer rely on the media for support. That was made obvious when NZME, owners of the New Zealand Herald, refused to accept a perfectly lawful advertisement from Speak Up for Women. That advertisement consisted simply of the dictionary definition of “woman” as an “adult human female”, followed by the kicker line “Say no to sex self-identification”. Wildly inflammatory stuff, clearly – too hot by far for the Herald.

I can claim to be something of an authority on freedom of the press if only for the reason that I’ve written two books about it. Back then the concern was with threats to media freedom from outside sources, principally the state. But ironically we’re now in a position where I believe the New Zealand media abuse their own freedom.

They have fatally compromised their independence and their credibility by signing up to a government scheme under which they accept millions of dollars in taxpayer funding and in return commit themselves to abide by a set of ideological principles laid down by that same government.

Defenders of the Public Interest Journalism Fund justify it on the pretext that it enables the media to continue carrying out worthwhile public interest journalism at a time when the industry is financially precarious. They bristle with indignation at the suggestion that their integrity is compromised. But it is. You need only look at the projects approved for funding to grasp that this is essentially an opportunistic indoctrination project funded by taxpayers.

From a free speech standpoint, however, it’s the ideological uniformity of the media that is of even greater concern. The past two decades have seen a profound generational change in the media and a corresponding change in the industry ethos.

News outlets that previously took pride in being “broad church” – in other words, catering to and reflecting a wide range of interests and opinions – are now happy to serve as a vehicle for the prevailing ideology. They have abandoned their traditional role of trying to reflect the society they purport to serve. The playwright Arthur Miller’s definition of a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself is obsolete. The mainstream media are characterised by ideological homogeneity, reflecting the views of a woke elite and relentlessly promoting the polarising agenda of identity politics.

The implications for free speech are obvious. What was previously an important channel for the public expression of a wide range of opinions has steadily narrowed. Conservative voices are increasingly marginalised and excluded, ignoring the inconvenient fact that New Zealand has far more often voted right than left.

Dissenters still succeed in getting the occasional letter to the editor published, but most are forced to turn to online platforms; hence the growth of websites such as Kiwiblog, the BFD, Breaking Views and The Platform, which now fill the yawning gaps created by the mainstream media’s highly selective management of news and comment.

But it’s worse than that, because the prevailing ideological bias doesn’t just permeate editorials and opinion columns. Its influence can also be seen in the way the news is reported – in the stories that the media choose to cover, and perhaps more crucially in the issues they choose not to cover. The Maori co-governance proposals in Three Waters, for example.

Underlying this is another profound change. From the 1970s onward, journalism training – previously done on the job – was subject to academic capture. Many of today’s journalists were subject to highly politicised teaching that encouraged them to think their primary function was not so much to report on matters of interest and importance to the community as to challenge the institutions of power.

Principles such as objectivity were jettisoned, freeing idealistic young journalists to indulge in advocacy journalism, push pet causes and sprinkle their stories with loaded words such as racist, sexist, homophobic and misogynist. In the meantime, older journalists who adhered to traditional ideas of balance and objectivity have been methodically managed out of the industry.

Worse even than that, we now have mainstream media outlets that actively suppress stories as a matter of official editorial policy, and even boast about it. I’m thinking here of climate change, a subject on which major media organisations have collectively agreed not to give space or air time to anyone questioning global warming or even the efficacy of measures aimed at mitigating it. This would have been unthinkable 20 or even 10 years ago. People are bound to wonder what else the media are suppressing.

I want to conclude by saying I’ve been a journalist for more than fifty years and I’ve never felt that freedom of expression in New Zealand was in greater danger than it is now. Robert Muldoon was a tyrant who tried to bully the media into submission, but eventually journalists and editors stood up to him. In the past few years, however, we've gone backwards. We now live in a climate of authoritarianism and denunciation that chokes off the vibrant debate that sustains democracy, and tragically the media are part of the problem.

There are positive signs however, and this meeting is one of them. As I said at the start, the sheer speed and intensity of the culture wars caught the country off-guard. Ours is a fundamentally fair and decent society, eager to do the right thing and rightly wary of extremism. For a long time we stood back and allowed the assault on democratic values to proceed virtually unopposed. We were like a boxer temporarily stunned by a punch that we never saw coming.

But the fightback has begun and is steadily gaining momentum. In giddy moments of optimism I even sense that the tide might be turning in the media. Even the most cloth-eared media bosses must eventually realise they have alienated much of their core audience, as reflected in steadily declining newspaper circulation figures and in opinion surveys measuring trust in the media.

To finish, and to remind us of what’s at stake, I want to quote words that may already be familiar to some of you. They came from the courageous Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, who spent time in Nazi concentration camps for his opposition to Hitler’s regime:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Thank you.

Footnote: ACT MP James McDowall, who was at the FSU meeting, responded to an invitation from Jonathan Ayling of the FSU to explain why ACT MPs all supported Louisa Wall’s Safe Areas Act. The combination of a muddy microphone and my lousy hearing meant I didn’t clearly hear what he said, but I gather he defended his party by pointing out it was ACT that engineered the removal of the Safe Areas provision from the original Abortion Legislation amendment bill when it came before the House in 2020, citing concerns about the need to strike the right balance between defending free speech and protecting women from harassment. My response to that would be: having done that, which was laudable, why then perform an apparent about-face by voting for Wall’s bill when it came before the House as a separate piece of legislation? ACT apparently believed the Wall bill got the balance right. I disagree, and so did nine National MPs, to their great credit. It struck me as a pragmatic move on ACT’s part, inconsistent with the party’s supposed commitment to individual freedom, and I can’t help wondering whether it had something to do with David Seymour’s antagonism toward the anti-abortion lobby.

You can join the Free Speech Union at www.fsu.nz

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Journalists' offence detectors were switched off

When Scott Morrison says he was blessed not to have any disabled children, there’s an outcry. The media are constantly waiting to pounce on the Australian prime minister for any injudicious word or phrase, no matter how harmless the intent.

Yet when Jacinda Ardern is reunited with a former Japanese homestay pupil who stayed with the Ardern family 30-odd years ago and comments that “I grew up to be taller than you”, no one thinks to complain that she has belittled short people.

Of course no one should, because it was an innocent remark. Yet the contrast is revealing.

Morrison wasn’t callously asserting some imagined privilege or suggesting that parents with disabled children weren’t themselves blessed. Only people who are ideologically programmed to take offence – which, unfortunately, means most journalists – would have interpreted it that way.

Politicians are constantly at risk of making make off-the-cuff comments without considering how they might be wilfully misconstrued by opportunistic opponents and hostile media. They’re human, after all. But obviously the reporters who witnessed the meeting between Ardern and Madoka Watanabe had turned off their offence detectors for the day.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Making it up as they go

I sent the following letter this morning to my local paper:

Two phrases bring out the cynic in me. One is “joined-up government”. The other is “wrap-around support”. Both are ideals that are more easily talked about than fulfilled.

Reading the extraordinarily vague and woolly explanation of how the new health system is supposed to work, I fully expected to see at least one of those expressions.

Sure enough, there it was: “For example, it will be easier for someone’s GP to work with their in-home care nurse and pharmacist so they receive the wrap-around care they need” (Health New Zealand “interim localities lead” Martin Hefford).

From my observation, “wrap-around care” rarely lives up to its promise. Reality usually gets in the way. But we have a generation of politicians and bureaucrats who seem to think that as long as they get the jargon right, everything else will fall into place.

All reformist politicians have an urge to re-invent the wheel and thus bestow their own legacy, but I think we should be deeply sceptical about the extravagant promises being made for the new system.

Based on what we’ve been told so far, it looks as if its creators are making it up as they go. Good luck with that, as they say.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Free Speech Union event; the only catch is that you have to listen to me

Readers of this blog who live in or near Wellington may be interested to know that the Free Speech Union, of which I’m a member, is hosting an event in the city next Thursday evening. 

I’m the speaker, but please don’t let that put you off attending. I can’t recall a time when the defence of free speech – a cause that cuts across the usual dividing lines between Left and Right – was more urgent.

The event will be held in Lecture Theatre 2 at the Pipitea campus of Victoria University (aka Rutherford House, the high-rise building immediately adjacent to the bus shelters near the railway station). I understand the doors will open at 5.45 for a 6pm start and it should all be over shortly after 7pm. Admission is gratis.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Hallucinatory moments of optimism

Notwithstanding everything I wrote on this blog site yesterday about contemporary journalism (none of which I resile from), there are days when, in insane moments of giddy optimism, I imagine that the tide might be turning after years of largely sycophantic media coverage of the government.

Take last night’s edition of Newshub’s 6 o’clock news, in which the first item put the heat on the government over the alarming and apparently uncontrollable surge in inflation. Here was a news outlet doing exactly what the media are supposed to do in a liberal democracy: namely, report on issues that affect the community and hold those in power accountable.  

That report was followed by politically damaging coverage of the government’s refusal to ease harsh MIQ requirements, with heartbreaking consequences for the thousands of people affected, even after Ministry of Health officials had advised that it was safe to do so.

Later came an item asking why the government was dragging the chain over the resumption of economically beneficial cruise ship visits when comparable countries, notably Australia, have given them the green light.

All this seemed to represent a striking change in tone from Newshub’s usual political coverage. Admittedly the channel has exposed politically embarrassing issues before – most notably the glaring discrepancies between the government’s glib assurances about the steps it was taking to contain Covid-19 and what was actually happening on the ground, as revealed repeatedly by special issues reporter Michael Morrah.

But otherwise in the four and a half years since Jacinda Ardern became prime minister, it’s been hard to shake the impression that Newshub’s political journalists, along with those in other media organisations, have consistently given the government an easy ride while mercilessly hounding some of Ardern’s opponents (shamefully in the case of Tova O’Brien’s pursuit of the hapless Judith Collins).

Though it may be hallucinatory on my part, there have been other occasions recently when I thought I detected a subtle change in the tone of political coverage overall. I get the impression the media generally are now more actively publishing news that reflects unfavourably on the government (such as the scandal over multimillion-dollar tourism grants that appear to have been handed out selectively to companies that didn’t need them) when previously they were disinclined to do so.

If that’s the case, it could be due to a couple of things. Perhaps media decision-makers have taken note of recent surveys showing a continuing decline in public trust in the media, which has never been high even at the best of times. Alternatively, the sheer weight and volume of anti-media comment online may have reached a level they can no longer ignore. There must come a point, after all, when the self-preservation instinct kicks in.

A caveat to all the above is that the media continue to let the government off the hook over Covid-19 in one very specific respect. In the early stages of the pandemic, a single death was headline news. Now deaths occur daily in double figures and the total figure creeps steadily upward – to 602 at latest count, although we still compare favourably internationally (110 deaths per million compared with 263 in Australia).

Given the country’s continuing fixation with Covid, the media fleetingly pass over the death toll in a strikingly matter-of-fact tone, almost as if it’s no longer of any consequence. We are given no details other than age bands and location by region; nothing to show how many deaths were due to Covid or merely happened to coincide with the presence of the virus, and nothing to indicate whether those who died had pre-existing conditions and if so, what they were.  

I’ve heard it speciously argued that this is a matter of respecting people’s privacy, but privacy rules apply only where individuals might be identified – not an issue in this instance, since no one needs to know the names of those who have died.

It seems nothing changes in politics and the bureaucracy. Just as the Official Information Act is still constantly thwarted after 40 years, so secretive officials continue to use the Privacy Act as an excuse to suppress information of public interest. So much for the open society.

Deaths from Covid are a matter of public importance. Why does the government appear to be drawing a veil over them, and why do the media let them get away with it?