Saturday, February 26, 2022

Why the woke Left is so rattled by Camp Freedom

[A technical glitch occurred with the original version of this post and I had to take it down. This version is the same except that it no longer contains links to the source material I refer to, which were the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, in taking down the post, I couldn't avoid deleting some thoughtful comments.  I apologise to those who posted those  comments and invite them to re-submit them.]

 It’s been fascinating over the past couple of weeks to observe the intellectual contortions of people who forcefully uphold the right to protest, just as long as those ghastly lowlifes on the other side don’t do it.

Veteran old-school leftist Don Franks deftly skewered the hypocrites in a poem published on this blog, but it hasn’t deterred them from continuing to recoil in disgust at the sight of the “rabble” (a word suddenly much favoured by the illiberal Left, as opposed to those like Franks who believe in free speech) on the lawns outside Parliament.

There’s an unmistakeable note of panic in the posturing of the woke Left. They suddenly realise they no longer control the public debate and are wildly lashing out at the scruffy mob that usurped their right to make a nuisance of themselves.  How dare they!

Over the past few days we’ve seen a stream of desperate attempts to argue that the Freedom Convoy has no legitimacy; that the only "proper" protests are those endorsed by the leftist elite. By definition, no other protest can have any validity, least of all one mounted by a loose coalition of mostly working-class, provincial people driving utes and house trucks.

Camp Freedom is something new and threatening. In the eyes of its critics, it can only be explained by seeing it as an imported phenomenon – an ideological virus, smuggled in by the global far-Right, to which stupid and gullible New Zealanders have allowed themselves to be exposed.

The level of condescension and intellectual snobbery on display from people who think of themselves as liberal has been breathtaking. The tone has alternated between sneering at this supposedly feral underclass and alarm at their sudden, forceful presence on the national stage – a stage the wokeists are accustomed to hogging for themselves.

Mandy Hager – president of the Society of Authors, sister of Nicky and a fully paid-up member of the leftist cabal that normally dominates the public conversation – revealed the Left’s anxiety, hypocrisy and intellectual confusion in an opinion piece for Stuff last weekend.

As the author of a book entitled Protest! Shaping Aotearoa, Hager evidently regards herself as an authority – perhaps the authority – on New Zealand protest movements. But it was clear from her article that her definition of protest is a narrow and self-serving one which excludes any group that could be classified as conservative or right-wing.

She applauded historic protests in support of homosexual law reform, women’s suffrage, MMP and New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance. Their end goals, she wrote, were “designed to strengthen our existing political frameworks, social cohesion and civil rights”. They were based on the values of the “greater good”.

Peaceful resistance and civil disobedience is fine in Hager’s eyes if it’s against the 1981 Springbok Tour or climate change, but she isn’t at all happy with what’s happening in Molesworth St. That’s different.

“For a start, there are many factions, and no one concrete outcome articulated” … “a disparate group awash with grievances, much of it stoked by insidious overseas interference” … “dubious scientific backing only from the fringes”.  In other words the Molesworth St protesters aren’t playing by the usual rules. And who sets the rules? Apparently, people like Hager.

She concludes: “This protest works against the overall needs and values of a healthy, cohesive, inclusive society.” Apparently that’s not allowed. And who decides what a healthy, cohesive, inclusive society looks like? Why, people like Hager, that’s who. As I said in a letter to The Dominion Post: “[Hager’s] article confirms the impression that the Left claims the right to protest exclusively for itself and its own favoured causes.” 

(Bizarrely, Hager also dived down a blind alley with the assertion: “Of course we’ve also seen the ugly side of protest here, a pick and mix of racist, anti-Maori/migrant/LGBTQIA+/Muslim/Jew/Asian/women and other prejudices given air.” Really? Apart from thankfully very rare offensive gestures against Jewry, which are presumably the work of a tiny, attention-seeking lunatic fringe, I can’t recall protests against any of these groups and suspect they are figments of Hager’s febrile imagination. Or perhaps she includes late-night talkback calls from angry old men in her definition of “protest”.)

On Tuesday morning it was the turn of someone named Byron C Clark, supposedly a “disinformation and conspiracy researcher” on Morning Report. The theme was that stupid people had allowed themselves to be indoctrinated. Ergo the protesters have been misled and their grievances should be disregarded.  

Obligingly fed a series of soft, leading questions by the Usual Suspect, aka Susie Ferguson, Clark sounded the alarm about the Freedom Campers being radicalised by sinister alien forces and global disinformation networks. Oddly enough, we never hear experts on Morning Report expressing alarm about people being radicalised by the extreme Left, although it’s been happening for decades and has succeeded in transforming New Zealand into a country that some of us barely recognise.

Similarly, we should conclude that ideological manipulation is a problem only if it’s practised on an ignorant lumpenproletariat, but not when it happens to gullible middle-class students in university lecture theatres, where it flourishes unchallenged.

Clark talked of nefarious far-right conspiracies and distrust of the government (you're kidding me) and media (no, surely not). It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that if New Zealanders have been driven into the arms of dodgy alternative news sources such as Counterspin, it might be because they have learned not to trust the mainstream media. (As it happens, I don't either.) 

Asked by Ferguson who might be bankrolling the protest, Clark mentioned the name of Steve Bannon. Donald Trump was also mentioned. You can see the irony here: a man who professes to investigate conspiracy theories was indulging in them himself.

Prior to this, I’d never heard of Clark, who described himself as an amateur, freelance conspiracy researcher. Despite his flimsy credentials, the interview was allowed to run for nearly 8 minutes – slightly more time than the woman who runs the country got on the same morning. Say no more.

The ubiquitous Morgan Godfery, whose column mugshot suggests an overweening self-regard, also chimed in again yesterday and made no attempt to conceal his contempt for the protesters, ridiculing them while at the same time acknowledging that “constructing an ‘us versus them’ situation isolates the protesters further, plunging them deeper into their personal paranoias and collective conspiracies”. So he recognises the danger of marginalising the protesters but goes ahead and does it anyway.

What we can infer from this barrage of anti-Camp Freedom propaganda is that the woke Left is terrified of losing the initiative in the culture wars. It’s desperate to reclaim its sole right to lecture the rest of us and wants to do so without the distraction of an unruly mob that has the effrontery to adopt the Left’s own tactics.

The irony here is that having spent most of their lives kicking against the establishment, the wokeists are the establishment. They have won the big ideological wars and are on the same side as all the institutions of power and influence: the government, the bureaucracy, the media, academia, the arts  and even the craven business sector.

The dissenters, disrupters and challengers of the status quo – in other words the people protesting outside Parliament – are the new radicals. This requires the moralisers of the left to recalibrate their political thinking, and I get the impression it’s more than some of them can cope with.

Footnote: For the record, I neither wholeheartedly support nor oppose the Molesworth St protesters. This may sound like a copout, but it’s hard to take a position because their causes are too disparate and there are too many rogue elements among them. What gets my back up is people who have long claimed the right to protest for themselves seeking to deny it to others for no better reason than that they don’t like what they’re saying.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Jim Hartley, journalist

Dear me. It was never my intention - still less my wish - that this blog become a Roll of Honour, but that’s the way it seems just now. I learned last night of the death of Jim Hartley, a greatly respected former journalist who became a journalism tutor at what was then Wellington Polytechnic (since absorbed by Massey University).

Jim will no doubt be fondly remembered by the hundreds of journalists who were taught by him, but I recall him from his time as a reporter at The Dominion in the early 1970s. He came to the Dom from the New Zealand Press Association, where he had recently covered the inquiry into the sinking of the Wahine with his NZPA colleague Max Lambert. The two collaborated on a book that became the definitive account of the tragedy.

As a young and clueless reporter in the Dom newsroom, I benefited enormously by being sandwiched between two great role models. Jim sat on one side of me and farming reporter Judith Addinell, who would become the New Zealand Herald’s Wellington bureau chief and the first female chair of the Press Gallery, was on the other. (Judith, sadly, died in 1995.)

Dublin-born, Jim was gentlemanly, good-natured and softly spoken, with a quiet sense of humour. But no one should have made the mistake of thinking he was a pushover.

At the Dom he took over what was called the civic round, which meant reporting the affairs of the Wellington City Council. This was journalistic territory traditionally dominated by the Evening Post, but in his relatively short time in the job, Jim made it his own.

He was an investigative reporter before we became familiar with the term, putting the heat on the council in a manner to which it was not accustomed. He never did it in an aggressive, gung-ho way, but pushed and prodded patiently, politely and methodically. Accountability was another word rarely if ever heard in those days, but Jim believed it was the function of journalists to obtain and disclose information that those in power would have preferred to keep to themselves.

It was a loss to journalism when he went to the Polytech. He spent the rest of his career there.

In fact it was at the Polytech in the early 1980s that I last saw him. I was working for The Listener when Jim invited me to run a course for his students one afternoon a week on feature writing, in the mistaken belief that I could pass on some helpful advice.

At the end of the course Jim and his fellow tutors (one was Gill Shadbolt, former wife of the novelist Maurice Shadbolt; I can’t recall the third) were eager to find out which of their pupils had most impressed me. Jim was astonished when I told him it was a gawky young rooster named Steve Braunias. Braunias couldn’t write a formulaic news story to save himself, and accordingly Jim and his fellow tutors had written him off as a no-hoper.

Jim, who had lived in Greytown since retiring, died in Wellington Hospital on Tuesday, aged 81. He had apparently suffered a fall the previous week. His wife and a son pre-deceased him but he is survived by three daughters.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The unstoppable Brian Lambert

I was saddened this morning by the news that Brian Lambert, cyclist extraordinaire, had died in Masterton Hospital.

Brian was one of the most remarkable men I ever knew. He died, aged 70, still holding the record for the quickest bike ride ever between Auckland and Wellington: 19 hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds. He had extraordinary willpower as well as stamina and in his later years refused to allow Parkinson’s Disease to keep him off his bike, despite repeated falls.

I first met Brian when I bought our son a mountain bike from his Masterton shop in the early 1990s. After moving to the town I got to know him better and went on several group mountain-bike rides that Brian organised. He was first and foremost a road cyclist, but that didn’t stop him enjoying a challenging off-road excursion.

On one such trip organised by Brian in 2014, a group of us rode the Heaphy Track. His illness was already well advanced – he’d been diagnosed 12 years earlier – and he crashed repeatedly, finishing the two-day ride covered from head to toe in bruises and abrasions. “Take me out and shoot me,” he said after one gruelling day’s ride. But he bounced back and within a day seemed fully recovered. He was a man of indomitable spirit.

Brian Lambert (with bloodied knee) on the Heaphy Track, 2014.

I bought several bikes from Brian over the years, including an Avanti Competitor mountain bike that was the best bike I ever owned and possibly even the best purchase I ever made.

I'm still reminded of him almost every time I ride the Specialized road bike he sold me - not so much because of the bike itself, but because of the leather Italian seat he later persuaded me to buy. It was expensive, but insurance money paid for it after the previous seat was munted in a pile-up during a race in the Whangaehu Valley.

Brian reckoned it was the best seat available and naturally I believed him. It's still on my bike, but I've always found it a bit uncomfortable and it took me a while to figure out why he recommended it. It's an unusually wide seat that would have suited Brian perfectly because (how can I put this delicately?) Brian's bum was a lot more ample than mine. I guess I'll have to keep it now as a memento, despite the discomfort.

I wrote about Brian in the following story for The Dominion Post, published in 2011 and headlined The Unstoppable Brian Lambert. He will be mourned by Masterton’s large cycling community.

In 1984 Brian Lambert rode a bike from Auckland to Wellington. In 19 hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds. It’s a record that still stands.

It would have been slightly quicker if his bike hadn’t slipped on a greasy railway line that crosses Aotea Quay just one kilometre from his goal, throwing Lambert off. And it would have been quicker still if his support team hadn’t unthinkingly consumed all the food they’d bought at Taumarunui, leaving Lambert with only fluids to get him from Wanganui to Wellington.

They hadn’t bargained on all the shops being closed when they rolled through Wanganui at 5am, he explains, and after that his stomach was no longer in a state to digest solids.

It was an epic ride for which Lambert prepared by going on 290 km solo training rides. Starting from his home town of Masterton late at night, he would complete a loop that took him north to Woodville, through the Manawatu Gorge, south to the Kapiti Coast – where he would stop at a mate’s place for breakfast – and back home via the Akatarawas and the Rimutakas.

For variety he would sometimes do the route in the other direction. When the former Olympic Games cyclist Neil Lyster, in a car, came across a bicycle light piercing the darkness near the lonely summit of the Akatarawa road in the middle of the night, Lambert jokes, “he didn’t have to guess who it was”.

On the wall of Lambert’s bike shop there’s a photo commemorating his Auckland-Wellington ride. It’s the sort of achievement that has made the Masterton man, now 56, something of a legend in cycling circles.

It’s years since he rode competitively – a 1989 Nelson-Christchurch race, which he won in just over 14 hours, was one of his last triumphs – but he continues to cycle recreationally, both on the road and on mountain bikes.

For the past 10 years he has taken part in the stamina-sapping 106km Rainbow Rage mountain bike race from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs, and every year he rides the 42 Traverse – a 46km route through wild bush country in the Central North Island.

Twice in the past three years he has travelled to France with a group of fellow enthusiasts to ride part of the Tour de France route. On the toughest climbs in the French Alps, he still leaves some of his companions in his wake.

Okay, you might say; he’s just another very fit 56-year-old. But what makes this all a bit unusual is that in 1999, Lambert was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s Disease – a chronic degenerative disorder, caused by a deficiency of the hormone dopamine, that typically causes stiffness, slowness and tremors.

He first noticed something odd when his left leg began twitching during a training ride up the steep Limeworks Hill, east of Masterton. At first he attributed this to an accident on his mountain bike on the Wairarapa coast the previous week, when he hit a sheep and dislocated his shoulder. But when the problem persisted, he visited a specialist. The diagnosis was immediate.

He realised then, with hindsight, that the symptoms had been evident much earlier. In 1990, he had won two veterans’ titles at the national road cycling championships. The following year, he couldn’t even complete one lap of the same event. He noticed that his training rides didn’t seem to be making him any fitter or faster, that he was tiring more easily and taking longer to recover after each ride.

For several years now Lambert has been under the care of Wellington neurologist Stuart Mossman, an authority on Parkinson’s. Happily, Mossman is also a keen cyclist. It was he who invited Lambert to join a cycling trip in France in 2005, confident that the Masterton man was up to it and knowing they had a support van in case of emergency.

Lambert relates that on last year’s 1500km Tour de France ride from Paris to Marseilles, again with a group that included Mossman, he beat half his companions up the 2600m Galibier Pass, finishing the 18 km climb with a sprint.

And he’s still going. On Wellington’s Anniversary Day last month, he was part of a group that completed a punishing six-hour mountain bike ride in withering heat in steep Wairarapa hill country.

Another member of that group, Martinborough winemaker Clive Paton, describes Lambert as an inspiration. Paton knows only too well how debilitating Parkinson’s Disease can be – he watched his father suffer from it for 15 years – and marvels at Lambert’s ability to “ride over the top of it and carry on”.

Like many accomplished sportspeople, the unstoppable Lambert is not entirely helpful when you ask what drives him. He simply says it’s a great feeling to be fit and active. “You might feel scungy at the start of a ride, but you always feel better at the end.”

Mossman describes him as a hero. He confirms that Lambert rode up the Galibier pass like a steam train, leaving two cycling companions “wobbling all over the place” in his wake.

It’s the nature of Parkinson’s that sufferers have good days and bad days, says Mossman, but on good days Lambert is able to out-perform most healthy people his own age. He says there is some evidence that physical exercise is beneficial to people with Parkinson’s, though it has not been well studied.

Personality and attitude can also be important in how people react to the illness, Mossman says, although ultimately “you can’t fight the chemistry of dopamine deficiency”.

Lambert is quietly proud of his achievements, but he’s no boaster. A naturally reticent man with a quiet, wry wit, he speaks slowly and quietly – more so since his illness developed. On the frequent group rides he organises, he’s content to be just one of the bunch.

He says he started riding as a boy in Masterton because it was good way to get around and it gave him independence. He gave it away for several years when he worked on a diamond drilling rig in the Australian Outback but picked it up again when he came back home, entering the Dulux seven-day race from Auckland to Wellington in 1974 and finishing a creditable 26th. He competed in three Dulux events and thinks his best result was 15th.

A thickset man, heavy-boned, he admits he doesn’t have the ideal physique for a cyclist – least of all on hills. But he makes up for it in stamina and mental grit.

And though he never made the top rank of New Zealand cyclists, his endurance rides command respect. In 1984, the same year he set his Auckland-Wellington record, he finished second in an 800-mile (1300km) preliminary qualifying event for a planned race across America.

The race consisted of eight laps around a 100-mile circuit in California in temperatures that ranged from searing heat to near-freezing point, and took him 54 hours. But when he returned to the US to take part in the main event, the sponsors had withdrawn and the promised prize money had evaporated. Faced with the expense of competing and no reward at the end, a frustrated Lambert came home.

Cycling was starting to seem like an unpaid job, he says – and besides, he had a wife and four children to consider.

Lambert opened his bike shop in the mid-1980s and has since seen cycling boom in popularity to the point where 12,000 people take part in an annual ride around Lake Taupo. He has had staunch support from his wife Barbara and recently managed, after 35 years, to coax her into joining him on tandem rides.

Of his illness, he says the symptoms have become steadily worse. Drugs help control the symptoms, though they can’t treat the cause, and medication can create its own problems, such as drowsiness. In the long term, stem cell research holds out the best hope for a cure.

He says he has to be careful not to overdo things and to ride at his own pace. “I’m only as good as my last pill,” he says with a grin.



Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Not a bad team


I've been searching for a photo of my old friend and colleague Barrie Watts, whom I obituarised here, and I finally came across this gem from about 1968, sent to me several years ago by Robin Bromby. It shows the editorial staff of the Dominion Sunday Times. On the left, Jack Kelleher (then editor of the Sunday paper, later of  The Dominion); standing at rear, left to right, Robin Bromby, Frank Haden (then chief sub-editor) and George Taucher (printer); in front, left to right, reporter Graham Billing (also a published novelist, best known for Forbush and the Penguins), sub-editor Neil Anderson, Barrie Watts (at typewriter) and sub-editor Paul Taylor. Quite a team.

Dial an abortion

New Zealand women will soon be able to procure an abortion simply by lifting the phone, and the taxpayer will obligingly pick up the tab.

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall has proudly announced the government will fully fund a telehealth service called Decide, describing it as the latest milestone in the provision of abortion services.

I can think of only one word for this: grotesque.

It means pregnant women will be able to obtain an abortion as easily as they can dial up a home-delivery pizza or order a movie from YouTube. And why not? I mean, what’s so special about human life that makes it worth protecting?

Users of the service will be able to order two pills which, when taken during the first nine weeks of pregnancy, will induce a miscarriage.

It’s called a medical abortion as opposed to a surgical one. It’s less gruesome, in so far as the unborn baby isn’t scraped or vacuumed out of the womb, and hence it’s a much easier sell to women who might have qualms about the process.

But both types of abortion involve the extinguishing of a human life. And if society measures its humanity by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, this latest “milestone” marks a shocking new low – one that’s strikingly at odds with the our prime minister’s carefully cultivated image of compassion and the Left's supposed concern for the powerless.

Generations of New Zealand women have now been thoroughly inculcated with feminist ideology which treats the unborn child as an inconvenient lump of tissue that prevents them from fulfilling their social or professional aspirations. They have been encouraged to believe that removing this encumbrance is a matter of no more consequence than the extraction of a problem tooth.

Stuff’s story on the new service comments that while the law changes of 2020 have made abortion more accessible, which is a euphemistic way of saying New Zealand now has one of the most wide-open abortion laws in the world, “there is still a long way to go”. In other words, it’s not enough that nearly one in five New Zealand pregnancies already ends in a human life being snuffed out. We must redouble our efforts!

I wonder what they’ll call the new abortion hot line. Presumably something easily memorised, such as 0800-killmybaby. That’s pretty catchy.



Monday, February 21, 2022

Sterile video is no substitute for flesh-and-blood court proceedings

Today the Supreme Court in Wellington continues hearing the Free Speech Union’s appeal arising from the controversial banning of Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2018.

It’s a significant case – the fact that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal confirms that – and I was looking forward to watching proceedings. In fact I was on the verge of heading into Wellington yesterday morning when I received an urgent email from the FSU saying that because of Covid restrictions, the case would be heard entirely by video link.

Even the lawyers are not physically present. The FSU urged that the hearing be live-streamed so that its supporters could watch remotely, but the Supreme Court judges wouldn’t have that. Instead it's a virtual hearing, conducted via the sterile medium of VMR (Virtual Meeting Rooms) software. Interested parties were told that a maximum of 100 participants could register in advance so that the court could send them a link.

I declined. I find it utterly absurd and slightly alarming that when New Zealanders are able to attend sports events, go to movies, eat in restaurants, drink in bars and travel on public transport, the nation’s highest court locks its doors in apparent terror of the pandemic. Whatever happened to transparent, accessible, open justice?

In its email yesterday, the FSU cited the disruption caused by the protest at Parliament as an additional factor in the court’s decision. But the fact that the judges issued their ruling on Friday, when the protest was well contained within the immediate parliamentary precinct (in fact still is), suggests Covid was uppermost in their thinking. 

I suppose it's possible the judges' hand was forced by an over-cautious bureaucracy panicking at the Omicron outbreak, but there’s an important matter of principle here. As the FSU points out, any member of the public can normally walk into court and watch what’s going on. Only extreme circumstances would seem to justify suspension of that right, and you have to ask whether the almost negligible risk of infection from Covid meets that test. I mean, a Supreme Court hearing is hardly likely to be a super-spreader event.

There are other considerations too. I’m no lawyer, but I’ve sat through enough judicial proceedings to know that courtroom dynamics can be important. The way lawyers interact with the judges and with each other can have a bearing on the way the hearing plays out. Body language can tell you something.

It might seem an odd analogy, but I recall it being suggested at the inquiry into the Wahine sinking that if the ship had had open wings on its bridge, the captain would have been able to step outside and physically feel the brute force of the storm. But he was cocooned in a fully enclosed bridge and might not have fully appreciated what his ship was sailing into.

In the same way, it seems reasonable to suggest that it makes a difference when the participants in court proceedings are physically together in the same room – appropriately masked and distanced, of course – rather than forced to engage via the arid means of digital technology, even when the case is likely (as in this instance) to involve a lot of dry legal argument.

To put it another way, the quality of the judicial decision-making may be influenced by the circumstances in which the case is heard. Justice is ultimately a flesh and blood business, after all, and judges shouldn’t allow it to be dehumanised. 

For those interested in the background of the hearing, the FSU issued the following media advisory note:

Supreme Court to hear appeal of Moncrieff-Spittle v Regional Facilities Auckland Ltd

21 February 2022


Time: 2.15 pm Monday, 21 February and continuing Tuesday, 22 February

Location: Supreme Court of New Zealand


This is the first case to come before our appellate courts of attempts to de-platform by resorting to the heckler’s veto. Backing our case, Professor Philip Joseph, the author of New Zealand’s leading textbook on Constitutional and Administrative Law, will appear with the Free Speech Union’s lead barrister, Jack Hodder QC.

The Free Speech Coalition (now Union) was born out of an effort to crowdfund for this legal fight after Mayor Phil Goff ostensibly ‘banned’ two controversial Canadian speakers, Lauren Southern and Stephen Molyneux, from speaking at a Council-owned venue.

What happened in the Courts previously?

Once we filed proceedings in the High Court, we found out that Goff had lied. The decision to cancel the event was actually made by Regional Facilities Auckland Ltd (RAFL) personnel only hours after receiving an email threat from Auckland Peace Action to blockade the event venue four weeks before the event was to take place. No investigation into the credibility of the threat or what measures might have been taken to manage it took place at any stage. The Court ruled that our plaintiffs were on a “personal crusade” and didn’t have standing to bring the case. The Court also held that the decision to cancel the event was not judicially reviewable because RFAL’s decision did not, in the Judge's opinion, involve an exercise of public power and the venues were technically held in trust.

To our relief, the Court of Appeal reversed the most disturbing parts of the High Court Judgement, holding that RFAL must uphold free speech rights as if it were the Council. It also held that our plaintiffs did have standing to bring the case and we were relieved by the appeal decision to cut the costs awarded against us by 70% because of the importance of the issues and public interest in our bringing the case.

That being so, the Court of Appeal ultimately found the decision to cancel the event to be a ‘justified limit’ on freedom of expression under section 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. In holding that the decision to cancel the event was a justified limit on free expression, the Court of Appeal considered the purported failings of the event organisers (in particular the Court of Appeal was critical of the event organisers for not warning RFAL venue management of the possibility of law-breaking protest at the time of booking), the experience of RFAL personnel, the venue hire agreement and the protest noise over the preceding week. The Court of Appeal held that the “heckler’s veto” concept we put forward had a general application as part of the section 5 analysis but did not go on to analyse it or consider its implications under section 5 in any detail.

Why this further appeal?

The Court of Appeal judges stopped after describing the thug's veto problem as if solving it was not their job, instead treating it like some sort of abstract long-term project when they had a perfect opportunity to​ address it head-on. We asked them to say how much should be done about thuggish threats before they can override free speech rights but after summarising the different approaches in other countries, they passed that ball into space.

While the Court of Appeal Judgement improved upon the High Court Judgement, it leaves the right to freedom of expression vulnerable to vague threats of violence. We wish to argue that the Court's failure to address the heckler's veto concept was wrong. The judgement allows for a threatened unlawful action (a blockade, with an implicit threat of intimidation) to effectively curtail the lawful exercise of fundamental rights. Free speech rights in public spaces and venues across New Zealand need protection from such a dangerous precedent.

Further, cancelling the contract for the event didn’t serve any objective aimed at substantive and urgent concerns (RFAL had other options to deal with the security concerns rather than outright cancelling the event). For example, RFAL took no genuine steps to obtain professionally based, reliable information about the security concerns, either by engaging with the police, its own security personnel or the event organizer. Rather, RAFL cancelled the event having succumbed to unsolicited threats of unlawful action. This is a disproportionate response to a breach of fundamental rights.

The Court of Appeal judgment also emphasised the event organisers’ non-disclosure of security arrangements for comparable events in Australia, and labelled this “contributory fault” but they were under no such obligation to disclose these (they were required to submit a health and safety plan 10 workings days before the event but RFAL cancelled the contract 28 days in advance.). In any event, it is standard for human rights cases to involve conduct that is near the margins.

Footnote: I originally posted this column yesterday, but took it down when confusion arose as to how the hearing was being conducted. I'm now satisfied that what I've written is a fair account of the situation.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

How to Protest Properly

We support the right to protest, but
and the But is important,
It can’t be any sort of protest,
You should not have any persons disapproved of
at your protest, no one whose ideas are amiss
Who are they? Don’t worry, we'll provide a list

We support the right to protest, but
There must not be too many
How many is ok? We’ll tell you,
Not any.

We support the right to protest, but,
It cannot be connected with
Some other protest overseas
From other countries there is nothing whatsoever you need learn
Be contented gazing on the silver fern

We support the right to protest, but
It must not be too loud
No amplifiers thank you, chanting is ok
No, not as loud as that, or with those words
Be silent if you can’t chant in
a proper way

We support the right to protest, but
it must not disrupt anything
The normal flow of life must be protected
Have all your placards disinfected

We support the right to protest, but
Preferably, you’ll postpone.
If you really really must protest,
make sure to do it silently,
at home,

(Don Franks is a Wellington musician, poet and veteran left-wing activist)

In memory of Barrie Watts

Barrie Watts died last Tuesday. That name may not resonate in the public consciousness now, but it certainly did once. Barrie was one of the most notable New Zealand journalists of his generation, although he spent most of his working life in Australia. Older newspaper devotees on this side of the Ditch may remember his Watts in the Wind column in the Dominion Sunday Times, which broke new ground in mainstream New Zealand journalism with its withering contempt for the establishment at a time when the press was overwhelmingly conservative and deferential.

Barrie, who suffered from dementia in his last years, died aged 83 in a Melbourne retirement home. His beloved wife Elizabeth pre-deceased him in 2018.

Spiro Zavos was one of several former colleagues who paid tribute to Barrie, comparing him with the legendary New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. “In my working life as a journalist in New Zealand,” Spiro wrote to me in an email, “there were two standouts, journalists of personality and ability who were the equals of any in the rest of the world – Warwick Roger and Barrie Watts.” Barry Durrant, the leading New Zealand news photographer of his era, described Barrie as one of the best journalists he ever worked with. And former National Business Review managing editor Nevil Gibson, who as a young sub-editor worked under Barrie at The Dominion, recalled: “Barrie had a great impact on my early journalism and I count him as one of my main mentors.”

I have a personal reason to mourn Barrie’s death. Like Nevil, I regarded him as a mentor. In a journalism culture not much given to praise, he took the trouble to write me a note complimenting me on a feature story I wrote for The Dominion when he was its features editor and I was a floundering junior reporter with not a clue about what I was supposed to be doing. He was to exercise a lasting influence on my career, encouraging me to move to Australia in 1972 and finding me a job there, and later recruiting me to work with him on a newly launched Victoria edition of Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph as part of a tiny team that also included a very young Mandy Wilson, who ended up decades later as editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

More importantly, Barrie was a close and generous friend with whom I stayed in regular contact until his cruel illness robbed him of the ability to communicate in the last months of his life.

If any phrase could summarise Barrie’s career, it would be square peg, round hole. He had his own firm ideas about how things should be done and too often they didn’t correspond with those of his employers.

A Lower Hutt boy (his father managed the Griffin’s biscuit factory), Barrie was educated at Hutt Valley High School and began his career, like several other outstanding New Zealand journalists of his era, as a cadet reporter at The Dominion. It was an idiosyncratic working environment where, in his own words, “prodigious quantities of alcohol and universal lack of respect sustained a newsroom staffed by anti-social misfits and amusing psychopaths”. He felt instantly at home.

A short stint followed at the New Zealand Herald, then a bastion of political and journalistic conservatism, but the Herald proved ill-suited to Barrie’s temperament. He pronounced it the world’s most boring agglomeration of dull-witted conformists.

Australia beckoned, as it did for many ambitious New Zealand journalists craving excitement that our own papers couldn’t offer. Barrie joined the staff of Sir Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney, where he made his debut as a columnist, and later moved to the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial, then Australia’s biggest-selling daily.

He thrived in the rumbustious, swaggering, almost piratical world of Australian tabloid journalism in the 1960s and was more than capable of holding his own against larger than life, alpha-male reporters and columnists such as Jack Darmody, Tom Prior, Ron Saw and Barrie’s fellow New Zealander Neal Travis.

By his own admission he became a byline addict and his stories soon attracted the attention of an upstart young newspaper publisher named Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch at the time had acquired a majority interest in the Wellington Publishing Company, owners of The Dominion – his first acquisition outside Australia – and thought the paper could benefit from some lively, aggressive Australian-styled tabloid journalism. Who better to show the locals how it should be done than one of their own? So Barrie was head-hunted on a 12-month contract and ended up spending six years back in the Dom’s Mercer St offices, where he served as features editor while also covering major news events such as the Wahine sinking and the anti-Vietnam War protests that greeted US vice-president Spiro Agnew in Auckland in 1970. (I specifically remember the latter occasion because I happened to be the reporter to whom he dictated his copy late at night from a pay phone. Barrie called it the Battle of Waterloo Quadrant, after the street where the protesters clashed with the police outside Agnew’s hotel.)

That was the start of Barrie’s long association with Murdoch, though The Dominion’s Wellington managers were distinctly less enthusiastic about the arrangement. Barrie liked Murdoch personally and admired his enthusiasm for newspapers, but it would be fair to say that as time went on he became less enamoured of the way the Australian magnate used his media power to wield political influence.

Barrie would later say that he preserved his sanity at The Dominion by undertaking lengthy assignments to Europe, the US, Southeast Asia and Australia. Spiro Zavos remembers Barrie's coverage of the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic Party Convention for the Dom’s sister title, the Sunday Times (which was absorbed many years later into the Sunday Star-Times), as “reportage of the highest calibre. With no back-up or support staff he wrote a set of brilliant, colourful and insightful reports that trumped the big guns like [Norman] Mailer et al.”

Barrie brought what was then an unconventional approach to New Zealand news reportage: highly personalised, full of what journalists call colour – observed detail, not necessarily central to the story – and often archly opinionated. Unlike standard, formulaic news reports which excluded anything not considered strictly factual, his stories were usually animated by quirky observations and his fondness for clever word play.

His Sunday columns often infuriated the Wellington establishment and caused acute discomfort to the management of the Wellington Publishing Company. Barrie didn’t care who he offended and never took a backward step. He had the backing of the Sunday Times’ then editor, the late Frank Haden, who had a similarly disrespectful disposition (and eventually lost his job because of it).

In the early 70s, Barrie, by now married to Elizabeth (pictured above on their wedding day), returned to Australia, where he worked in the Melbourne bureau of Murdoch’s Sydney-based flagship daily The Australian. He was subsequently shoulder-tapped to launch a Victoria edition of The Sunday Telegraph, which by then had become part of the Murdoch empire. It was a valiant but fatally under-resourced attempt to break the iron grip of the Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times group, which responded by starting its own Sunday title. The bid was abandoned and Barrie returned to The Australian as its deputy bureau chief in Melbourne.

Never one to back away from a fight, in the mid-1970s he initiated a celebrated court case in which he alleged that Bob Hawke, then the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (and later prime minister), had defamed him at a press conference by attacking him over a derisive comment Barrie made about Hawke in what was supposed to be a private telex message to The Australian’s Sydney office. The outcome of the case is lost to memory, but it said something about Barrie that he wasn’t afraid to take on one of the most powerful men in Australia. He shared with many good journalists a contrarian, iconoclastic streak.

The vendetta with Hawke had nothing to do with Barrie’s politics. He leaned sharply to the left, a tendency that became more pronounced as he got older. But he was admirably – and volubly – even-handed in his scepticism toward all politicians and his suspicion of their motives.

The defamation action created an awkward situation for Murdoch’s News Limited group which Murdoch resolved by removing Barrie from the scene, transferring him to New York to beef up the reporting team on his freshly launched US tabloid weekly The Star. That was never going to work. Barrie’s assignments took him all over the US, but he eventually drew the line at writing for a paper that specialised in salacious stories about celebrities, not to mention the occasional scoop about babies born to aliens. By 1978 he was back in Sydney with the Sunday Telegraph.

The Murdoch connection was eventually severed when Barrie quit in the midst of an acrimonious strike. A subsequent gig as editor of the newly launched Packer magazine Sydney City didn’t last either. Barrie was constantly at loggerheads with the magazine’s owner (you can see a pattern here) and was fired after two years.

Robin Bromby, another old friend and colleague from Dominion days, wrote several articles for Sydney City and blamed the magazine’s failure on the conservatism of Sydney advertisers and readers who weren’t ready for such a publication – a lament that would have sounded familiar to the late Warwick Roger, who encountered similar resistance when he launched Metro in Auckland.

Barrie subsequently took up a position as communications manager for the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, a statutory body charged with regulating the wine industry. Barrie noted the irony that he (a) was colluding with authority for the first time in his life, and (b) had crossed to the dark side by becoming a PR man. But the job suited him, enabling him to immerse himself in an industry he believed in and whose products he had long consumed with gusto. He was knowledgeable about wine, enjoyed the company of winemakers and made long-lasting friendships in the industry.

He subsequently used his PR experience to set up his own editorial services company, Editors Ink (Barrie always had a weakness for puns), which he ran with Elizabeth’s help. The firm won contracts to edit professional journals and technical publications – not exactly Barrie’s natural metier, but it had the great virtue of being his own show. He eventually retired in 1988 to, as he put it, shout daily invective at a semi-literate society that no longer had any decent newspapers and wouldn’t read them anyway.

It goes without saying that Barrie was opinionated and not averse to saying exactly what he thought, no matter to whom or about what. The same lack of restraint pervaded his journalism. One of his old Daily Telegraph colleagues recalls a column in which he described Elizabeth Taylor, then visiting Sydney, as looking like a dumpy hausfrau. 

He also had an uncanny knack for provoking a reaction from pompous or thin-skinned interview subjects. I remember his account of a press conference at which Patrick McNee, the English actor who played the urbane and unruffled John Steed in The Avengers, was visibly discombobulated by Barrie's line of questioning. "Mr Unflappable Blows His Cool" was Barrie's gleeful headline in The Dominion the following morning. On another occasion, the singer Nina Simone objected to what seemed a legitimate question from Barrie about performing in South Africa and chased him from a press conference at Tullamarine Airport, trying to hit him with her shoe. (It should be noted that Simone was mentally fragile, as became painfully obvious to her audiences on that Australian tour.)

He had no patience for little men (metaphorically speaking) who insinuated themselves into positions of power, and he had a rich vocabulary with which to express his disdain. It probably helped that he was a big, physically imposing man himself.  

But he knew how to enjoy life. He was a bon vivant who loved good food, good wine and whisky (especially Irish whiskey) and congenial company. In his Australian wife he found an ideal match, which is not to say she was a yes-woman – in fact anything but. Elizabeth was a woman of sharp intelligence and strong character in her own right, and not beyond putting Barrie in his place when he stepped out of line.

Though he spent most of his adult life in Australia, Barrie remained an emphatically patriotic New Zealander and All Black supporter. In his last years he often spoke fondly of Wellington and the Hutt Valley, to which he hoped one day to return permanently. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

He is survived by his unstintingly devoted daughter Megan, his brother Tony and sister Cheryl, and four grandchildren.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Mallard must go

The Free Speech Union has launched an online petition calling on Parliament to remove Trevor Mallard as Speaker of the House. I've signed it and I urge others to consider doing likewise. You can find it at

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Well, at least we now know who the real defenders of free speech are

Parliament passed the so-called Safe Areas Bill, which I wrote about on Tuesday, by a majority of 108-12 at its second reading. That’s a slightly bigger margin than at the first reading last year.

Among those who swung behind Louisa Wall’s Bill after opposing it first time around were National MPs Christopher Luxon, David Bennett, Jacqui Dean, Joseph Mooney (no, I’d never heard of him either), Scott Simpson and Tim van de Molen. Labour’s Rino Tirikatene also changed his vote, while his fellow Labour caucus member Neru Leavasa courageously switched the other way.

National MPs Penny Simmonds, Louise Upston, Melissa Lee, Maureen Pugh, Harete Hipango, Simeon Brown, Simon O’Connor, Michael Woodhouse and Chris Penk opposed the Bill, as did Labour’s Anahila Kanongata’a Suisuiki, Jamie Strange and Leavasu.

Although it was a conscience vote, the Green Party caucus supported the Bill without exception. No surprises there. Chloe Swarbrick probably reflected the Greens’ confusion (a less charitable word would be hypocrisy) when she wrote an impassioned defence of the right to protest last year and apparently saw no contradiction in wishing to deny that right to people opposed to abortion.

More surprising than the Greens’ vote, and infinitely more disappointing, was the bloc support for the Bill from ACT. So much for the party’s posturing as champions of free speech. Perhaps the novice ACT MPs were influenced by their leader’s oafish attack on the anti-abortion movement during the first reading debate last year when, at the same time as declaring his commitment to free speech (yeah, right), he confessed to detesting the “odious ogres” who maintain protest vigils outside abortion clinics. Want to see a bigot masquerading as a liberal? There he is, right there.

There’s no disguising or softening the fact that yesterday's vote was a betrayal of free speech and a blow to the right to protest. New Zealanders who place a high value on those democratic principles will just have to note the names of those who voted for and against the Bill and remember them at the next general election.

Footnote: Someone asked me why I keep referring to the legislation as the “so-called” Safe Areas Bill. My explanation is simple: the space around abortion clinics is anything but safe for the unborn.



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Oh dear, how sad, never mind

Word reaches me that the mischievous, publicly funded three-day wananga (forum) entitled Imagining Decolonisation, which was to have started in Wellington this Friday, has been put on hold. Oh dear, how sad, never mind, as the Sergeant-Major in It Ain't Half Hot Mum might have said.

The reason given is that the Covid-19 red traffic light setting made it too risky to proceed, but another likely factor not mentioned by the organisers is that hard questions were being asked behind the scenes at Wellington City Council about who authorised this flagrantly ideological event and how much it was likely to end up costing long-suffering Wellington ratepayers.

Either way, the postponement should be regarded as a win and may yet become a cancellation. The organisers say they are still committed to holding the event, but councillors and citizens outraged by this misuse of public money now have more time to mobilise in opposition.  Council staff are not employed – and more to the point, councillors like Tamatha Paul are not elected – to pursue divisive radical agendas at the public’s expense and with no mandate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Safe Areas Bill should be seen for what it is

The so-called Safe Areas Bill will have its second reading in Parliament tomorrow. It’s a brazen attack on freedom of speech and the right to protest, made more offensive by the fact that some prominent MPs who support it cut their political teeth exercising that same right.

The Bill, sponsored by Labour MP Louisa Wall and subject to a conscience vote, would allow the Minister of Health to designate 150-metre “safe areas” around abortion clinics from which protesters would be barred. It appears to be  a unique protection accorded no other public buildings.

Officially named the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill, the legislation threatens to curtail the right of anti-abortion activists to maintain even silent, passive vigils near abortion clinics.

It has been promoted on the pretext that vulnerable patients attending abortion clinics risk being intimidated, obstructed and harassed. Yet the Christchurch-based anti-abortion group Right to Life submitted Official Information Requests to 20 district health boards inquiring whether patients or staff had suffered any such harassment or intimidation during the two years from 2019 to 2021, and none reported any.

So the need for “safe areas” has not been demonstrated and the Bill should be seen for what it is: an attempt to shut down legitimate protest against a practice that conservative Christians regard as profoundly wrong, but which is celebrated by the political Left as a defining triumph of feminism.

The Bill passed its first reading last March by a margin of 100 to 15 with two abstentions, but that’s not necessarily an indication of how MPs will vote the second time around. ACT’s 10 MPs all voted in favour of the Bill then, but party leader David Seymour said he had concerns about freedom of expression and wanted the Bill properly examined by a select committee.

Only three Labour MPs – Anahila Kanongata’a Suisuiki, Jamie Strange and Rino Tirikatene – voted against it. All Green MPs supported it and National was split: 19 in favour and 12 against. Christopher Luxon, who has since become the party leader, was one of those opposed.

Trevor Mallard and Chris Hipkins supported the Bill. Both were arrested for protest activity before they launched their political careers but later had their convictions overturned. They apparently see no inconsistency in denying others a right they once vigorously asserted for themselves.

The Bill is bound to become law because of its overwhelming support from Labour and the Greens, but interest will centre on whether any MPs change their position now that the Bill has been through the select committee process. The vote will be a test of their commitment to the principles not just of free speech but of freedom of assembly and religion.

Seymour wasn’t the only person concerned about the threat to free speech. Even David Parker, who as Attorney-General was statutorily obliged to report to the House on whether the Bill complied with the Bill of Rights Act (BORA), conceded that a clause which would have criminalised the act of “communicating” with abortion patients in a manner likely to cause distress was “overly broad” and appeared inconsistent with BORA.

In its submission opposing the Bill the Free Speech Union agreed with that conclusion, but pointed out to the select committee that the legislation wasn’t necessary in the first place because protection against intimidation or threats is provided under existing law. The Summary Offences Act, for example, makes it an offence to direct insulting or threatening words at another person. There is also a legal prohibition against harassment – a word whose definition, the union said, would be expanded under Wall’s Bill.

The union went on to say: “It is not the speech of the majority that requires vigilant protection. It is the speech of the few that must be jealously guarded.” The union cautioned that the traditional legal test of what is “reasonable” was in danger of becoming one of what was “comfortable”.

In a spirited defence of the right to dissent, it said: “We are flummoxed by the suggestion that in a democracy, where government is created by people of different interests and beliefs, some ideas are deemed too different or disagreeable to be allowed. This suggestion is antithetical to democracy.”

The Bill that’s returning to the House tomorrow gives the impression of having been toned down, but it’s illusory. While the clause that failed the BORA test has gone, that doesn’t make the Bill any more palatable. Under the amended version, any person who “engages in protest about matters relating to the provision of abortion services” within a “safe areas” zone would be committing a criminal act.

It’s hard to imagine a more sweeping provision. The new section would give activist judges – who have proliferated in the 32 years since the passage of BORA, as the union noted in its submission – licence to convict people for doing nothing more menacing than silently praying on a public street anywhere within 150 metres of an abortion facility.  This can only have a chilling effect on the right to protest.

Regardless of their views on abortion, those who believe in free speech and the associated right to protest should take careful note of how MPs vote. National and ACT MPs, in particular, will be watched to see whether their votes align with their parties’ supposed commitment to freedom. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

The fascinating new fault line in New Zealand politics

Some further thoughts on Camp Molesworth:

■ A fascinating political and sociological fault line has opened up – one that defies the normal understanding of New Zealand’s political dynamics. People at the bottom of the heap, as political scientist Bryce Edwards describes them – many of them working-class and provincial, with no formal organisational structure – have risen up in defiance of the all-powerful political class, the urban elites who are accustomed to calling the shots and controlling political discourse. I would guess most of the protesters outside Parliament have not previously been politically active and may not feel allegiance to any particular party. They appear to be angry about a number of things.  Covid-19 and the vaccination mandate galvanised them into action, but it’s possible there are deeper, less easily articulated grievances – such as perceptions of powerlessness and exclusion – simmering beneath the surface.

■ Most commentators in the mainstream media are framing the occupation of the parliamentary lawn as being orchestrated by sinister right-wing extremists, and therefore devoid of any legitimacy. How paper-thin their tolerance of the right to dissent has proved to be. The clear implication (where it’s not explicitly stated) is that the occupation is not a legitimate expression of the right to protest by sincerely motivated New Zealanders who present no threat to anyone, but an alarming phenomenon driven by alt-right agitators with an ulterior agenda. But there’s a very marked discrepancy between reports from people who have actually been on the ground at Molesworth St, who generally describe the event as peaceful and good-natured, and those who make judgments from afar and take refuge in simplistic stereotypes about the type of people who are protesting.  This was starkly encapsulated on Morning Report this morning when Bryce Edwards (who has been at Parliament) and Morgan Godfery (who hasn’t) presented strikingly different perspectives.

■ Do I detect a gradual change in the overall tone of media coverage? As more journalists and commentators take the trouble to familiarise themselves with the protesters’ concerns, so the tone is becoming more sympathetic, although most commentators are still careful to distance themselves from the anti-vaccination message and the tactics of the more extreme protesters. My own ground has shifted somewhat, as readers of this blog may deduce, as we've learned more about the nature of the protest action (and also learned to disregard some of the more hysterical media accounts). It would be no surprise if the attitude of the country gradually shifts too, from one of impatience and condemnation to understanding and tolerance. Trevor Mallard’s spectacularly childish, cack-handed and ineffectual attempts to drive out the protesters will very likely have helped bring about a national mood shift. Needless to say, it would also help if protest leaders (whoever they are, assuming they exist) could rein in the few wild-eyed extremists whose antics enable the pro-government media - apologies for the tautology - to discredit the event. But good luck with that, as they say.  

■ Jacinda Ardern displays a telling lack of empathy, one that’s strikingly at odds with her supposed embrace of inclusiveness, when she tries to discredit the protest by suggesting, apparently on the basis of a few Donald Trump and Canadian flags, that the idea was imported from North America, as if none of the protesters at Parliament are capable of thinking for themselves. A more valid comparison might be with les gilets jaunes, who rocked the French political establishment in 2018 in protests that predated Covid-19 by more than a year.

■ I get the distinct impression that politicians from all the parties in Parliament, even ACT, feel threatened by this sudden gesture of assertiveness by the great unwashed and don’t know how to handle it. MPs have done themselves no favours by refusing to engage with the protesters. For one thing, it looks cowardly; for another, it reinforces the perception that the politicians prefer to remain isolated in their bubble rather than sully themselves by talking to a bunch of scruffs who dared to challenge the political consensus. Unusually, this protest is a rebuke to the entire political establishment, which the politicians probably find unsettling because it's outside their realm of experience.  But they need to get off their high horse; the people standing in the mud outside Parliament are New Zealanders, after all.

■ The protest has brought to the surface a level of intellectual and class snobbery that is normally kept carefully concealed. I’ve already referred to Lloyd Jones’ savage putdown in which he basically characterised the protesters as ignorant bumpkins who don’t know their place. Yesterday, Stuff’s Andrea Vance exhibited the same admirable broadmindedness when she, like Jones, sniffily dismissed the protesters as a rabble. But the commentator who most carelessly dropped his guard, unblushingly revealing himself as a closet totalitarian, is the veteran leftist and supposed champion of free speech Chris Trotter, who condemned the police for not getting tough enough with the demonstrators – and who, by so doing, confirmed that at heart he remains a believer in the brute power of the state. When he was subsequently called out by blogger Steven Cowan, a frothing Trotter went even further, denouncing the protesters as a “dangerous collection of angry and deluded lumpenproletarians”. Well, I guess we should be grateful to this friend of the working class for letting us know where he really stands.


Saturday, February 12, 2022

How tolerant of diversity are we? I mean, really?

I had to go to Wellington last Tuesday afternoon. On the way home, rather than avoid the CBD and take the most direct route onto the Hutt motorway, I decided for no particular reason to go through town. I knew about the protest convoy that had rolled into town earlier that day but assumed it would have been all over by four in the afternoon.

Ha! More fool me. I intended to drive up Molesworth St but found my way blocked by protest vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from massive trucks down to cars that looked as if they were rarely driven further than the nearest supermarket. Most were bedecked with flags - New Zealand flags, tino rangatiratanga flags and others that I didn't recognise - and slogans.

The area around Parliament was hopelessly clogged. No one was directing traffic (I didn’t see a single cop), but an escape route opened up through the bus marshalling area at the bottom of Lambton Quay and I followed a line of cars through to Thorndon Quay and the open road.

Five days later, the protesters are still there. More than 120 have been arrested for trespassing, and some illegally parked vehicles have been moved. Others have been ticketed by council parking wardens, escorted by police. But despite violent clashes with the police on Thursday, more demonstrators kept arriving yesterday and it was obvious the occupants of the protest camp on the lawn in front of Parliament were in no hurry to leave.

What the hell is going on here? Wellington district police commander Superintendent Corrie Parnell described the protest as unprecedented, and I think he’s probably right.

Admittedly there have been bigger protest rallies. I remember massive union marches to Parliament during the industrial unrest of the late 1960s and 70s – in particular, one that followed the Arbitration Court’s nil wage order in 1968. Protests against the Vietnam War, the Security Intelligence Service and the 1981 Springbok tour also attracted thousands – far more, I would guess, than we saw on Tuesday*. Students and unionists typically made up the bulk of the protesters.

But what happened in Wellington this week was different. The protesters of the 60s, 70s and 80s made their point, let off steam and drifted off to the pub. There was anger, but it was often tempered by jollity and humour, especially on those union marches. The mood this time seems darker and more febrile.

And the differences go far beyond that. The public always knew what those protests were about. It was generally clear who organised them and what they were trying to achieve, even if their objectives were sometimes fanciful.

By way of contrast, the organisers of the so-called Freedom Convoy have kept a profile so low as to be invisible.  There seems to be no official spokesman or spokeswoman. Not until today did I learn on Stuff about the identity of at least one of the key figures.

Parnell has remarked on an “absence of leadership” that made it hard for police to deal with organisers. Yet someone initiated and co-ordinated it. These things don’t happen magically and spontaneously. Who’s behind the protest, and why have they apparently been reluctant to step out from the shadows? Public understanding of the protest, and possibly even sympathy for it, might be enhanced if someone was prepared to step forward and coherently explain their purpose. It's called transparency, and its absence breeds suspicion.

Ah yes, their purpose. That’s another thing. While the protest is nominally about the unfairness of the vaccination mandate that stops the unvaxxed from participating in society, even to the point of preventing them from earning a living, the message has been blurred by a miscellany of other grievances, not all of them related: Three Waters, Donald Trump’s supposedly stolen election and Maori sovereignty, to name just three. Plus there’s a strong element of religious fervour.

If there’s a common factor, it’s resentment and distrust of what is seen as a controlling, authoritarian government.  This hostility extends to people who are seen as agents of those in power – most notably the news media. In fact it’s possible that the reason we haven’t heard much from the protest organisers is that reporters have been unwilling, or perhaps too frightened, to seek them out, preferring to get their information from official sources such as the police and politicians. The result is a one-sided view that leaves us inadequately informed about the nature of the event, and the protesters more convinced than ever that the media are aligned with the government against them.

And just as the motivation for the protest hasn’t always been obvious, so too there has been a lack of clarity about the objective – a point made by John Minto, who should know a thing or two about protests. Minto says the Freedom Convoy lacks a strategy and an objective and is therefore bound to fail. That might be an overstatement, but it’s certainly true that the public is unlikely to get behind a protest if they don’t know what its purpose is. This brings us back to the lack of a spokesman or spokeswoman to clearly articulate the protesters’ grievance(s) and objective(s).

Presumably we can assume that if nothing else, the protesters at the very least want to attract wider public support – but there again, they blew it. New Zealanders generally support the right to protest and may even take the view that the grounds of Parliament are a symbolically powerful place to do it, regardless of Trevor Mallard’s preciousness. But tolerance of the right to protest soon runs out when the protesters obstruct other New Zealanders from going about their lawful business, and it runs out even more quickly when protesters abuse people for exercising their freedom of choice by wearing a mask, or when they lose their temper with café and shop workers who refuse to serve them because laws over which they have no control say they can’t. That’s no way to build public goodwill.

There’s a massive PR problem, right there. The majority of the protesters may be polite and non-aggressive – in fact I’m sure they are; but if a minority exhibits arrogance, irrational anger and antagonistic behaviour verging on hysteria, that becomes the defining characteristic of the event.

As I was writing this, an acquaintance who supports the protest sent me a link to a 50-minute video in which he wandered among the crowd interviewing people, apparently at random. It’s easy to dismiss the protesters as nutters, conspiracy theorists and people with an anger management problem, all of which is almost certainly true of a few; but many of the interviewees struck me as calm, articulate, intelligent and motivated by valid, deeply felt beliefs. The thought occurred to me that if the mainstream media had taken the trouble to do what the video-maker had done, the public would have a far more accurate picture of this otherwise perplexing event.

Sure, there was some wildly emotive rhetoric and hyperbole. One man referred to his grandfather who fought in the Second World War - allusions to New Zealand soldiers risking their lives for freedom seem almost obligatory in this context - and said “We’re fighting World War Three”. He was worried about the Pfizer vaccine making girls sterile. Another protester referred to MPs as "pieces of shit" and one expressed contempt for the “gutless fucking police” (exactly what he expected them to do  wasn't clear.) But others talked about losing their jobs, having to take their kids out of school, being excluded from family gatherings and being denied access to community facilities such as libraries and swimming pools. Some of it made painful listening. 

These people feel mainstream society has made them outcasts as a result of decisions sincerely made according to their conscience. We may disapprove of their beliefs, but at least we can try to understand and not reflexively condemn them as pariahs. Our attitude to the protesters may be seen as a test of our true tolerance of diversity.

Incidentally, the video I refer to was removed from YouTube hours after being posted.  The video-maker was suspended for 10 days, ostensibly for violating community standards, and put on notice that he risked being banned permanently. And we wonder why people like the Freedom Convoy protesters get paranoid about the suppression of minority views …

The novelist Lloyd Jones has no such problems getting published. In an open letter printed in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, he expressed a coldly elitist disdain for the protesters – a rabble, he called them – and implied they were no longer New Zealanders. “Prime Minister Ardern says you are part of New Zealand,” Jones wrote. “I beg to differ. You are of New Zealand, but longer part of it.”

“How dare they?” was the tone of Jones’ polemic. It was a chilling demonstration of the ease with which people who think of themselves as liberals can morph into excuse-makers for authoritarianism and enforcers of approved orthodoxy.

This is how the marginalisation, and ultimately the persecution, of outsiders begins. We’re surely better than that.

*Paradoxically, probably the biggest protest march of all was the “Kiwis Care” march of 1981, when 22-year-old sales rep Tania Harris led 50,000 people down Queen St. I say “paradoxically” because it was more in the nature of an anti-protest protest, motivated by public anger over militant unionism. It dwarfed a union march down the same street the previous day, when bystanders booed and hissed at the 4000 marchers.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

If we're going to talk about decolonisation, let's go the whole hog


Some of New Zealand’s most divisive mischief-makers are embedded in local government, where they appear free to pursue their ideological agendas unencumbered by any checks or restraints, generously subsidised by ratepayers who are given no chance to say whether or not they approve of their money being spent on extremist causes.

A perfect example is a forthcoming 3-day wananga (forum) organised by the Wellington City Council-funded Toi Poneke arts centre and entitled “Imagining Decolonisation”, for which the capital’s long-suffering ratepayers will pick up a big part – if not all – of the tab.

To convey the tone of this event, I can do no better than quote from an official council press statement:

The event … will bring together academics, students, artists, writers, treaty workers, activists, politicians and change makers to discuss and create steps towards what an equitable future in a decolonised Aotearoa could look like.

Wellington City Council’s Tati Heke Karepa Wall [translation: head of Maori strategic relationships] welcomes the event.

“Kua rewa anō te waka – piki mai inā koia te koronga o te Ngākau kia kakea rā ngā tāpuhipuhitanga o te whakaaro! So many in our community are now the new catalysts of decolonisation simply because our community now better understands and appreciates the complexities of Maori self-determination.

“We have been through a process of unlearning some of our past – and now the time is to come together and relearn in order for us to move forward together,” says Karepa.

The “Imagining Decolonisation” wānanga provides a line-up of speakers and workshop leaders including artists and musicians Ruby Solly and Ariana Tikao, Psychiatrist Dr Di Kopua, academic Emalani Case (VUW), campaigner Kassie Hartendorp (Action Station), environmentalist Catherine Delahunty (Kōtare), Councillor Tamatha Paul, Green Party MP Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, dance artist Lusi Faiva, and youth activist Safari Hynes. Experiential workshops across diverse mediums will provide an opportunity for discussion and creative expression.

Councillor Tamatha Paul is pleased to be a part of the event for a number of reasons.

“If Covid has shown us anything, it is the illumination of deep-rooted inequality in New Zealand. Amidst trying to keep our communities safe, trying to keep a roof over our heads and stay afloat, there has been little time to dream of a decolonised Aotearoa.

“I’m excited to be in wānanga with rangatira and rangatahi to collectively imagine a better, fairer society and to inspire action.”

(For a more detailed breakdown, if you have the fortitude, you can read the full programme here.)

It goes without saying that people are entitled in a free society to indulge in undergraduate fantasies to their hearts’ content. Problem is, they always expect to do it using Someone Else’s Money, and that Someone Else – in this case, the ratepayers of Wellington – usually gets no say in the matter. That’s the real issue here.

The event has been planned and organised using council staff, money and resources, so bears the council’s imprimatur despite its flagrantly – indeed, provocatively – political nature. Whether attendees will pay a fee to attend isn’t clear; but even if they do, we can be sure it won’t go anywhere near covering the cost.

What, I wonder, does Mayor Andy Foster, who’s nominally a conservative, think about the council’s backing for the wananga? Does he approve, or did he look the other way because he’s intimidated by aggressive activists on the council such as Tamatha Paul (whose fingerprints are all over the event) and has no stomach for a fight?

Advocates of decolonisation want nothing less than the total repudiation of Western civilisation, along with democratic government and all the other benefits that flow from it. To be replaced by … what, exactly? Participants in the wananga will have their own ideas about that, but their model for a decolonised New Zealand is unlikely to be one most New Zealanders would endorse. 

On Waitangi Day, it’s possible to acknowledge that some aspects of colonisation were catastrophic for Maori – most obviously the loss of their land – while simultaneously regarding the neo-Marxist notion of decolonisation as absurd and dangerous. Since when was it the cash-strapped Wellington City Council’s function to sponsor a gab-fest for fringe extremists bent on overturning the status quo?

One last thought. It’s probably too late to suggest it now, but I’d be happy to speak to the wananga about my own imagining of decolonisation. I would invite the participants to visualise a country where there’s no rule of law, no democratic government or accountability on the part of leaders, no wheel or internal combustion engine, no printed word, no science or literature, no Western music, clothing, art or entertainment, no cities, no schools or universities, no social welfare or government subsidies and no economic development. I mean, if we’re serious about decolonisation, let’s go the whole hog.