Wednesday, June 29, 2022

More on that Roe v Wade feeding frenzy

■ In the New Zealand Herald this morning, Richard Prebble says Christopher Luxon made “politically the exact right decision” in instructing his backbench MP Simon O’Connor to take down his tweet welcoming the reversal of Roe v Wade.

The key word here is “politically”, which is not the same as “morally”. A past master of the political dark arts himself, Prebble tends to view politics through a Machiavellian lens.

As the days pass and the New Zealand media continue to revel in a self-generated feeding frenzy over Roe v Wade, Luxon looks more and more compromised. On Morning Report this morning, he described the US Supreme Court’s decision as “really distressing” and “a real shock”. How does he square this with his professed pro-life beliefs?

His equivocation can only be interpreted as an attempt to ingratiate himself with the woke cabal that seeks to control the national conversation. There would be no inconsistency in Luxon unambiguously affirming his personal stance on abortion while simultaneously making it clear that a change to the abortion laws would not be on National’s agenda under his leadership, but he can’t even bring himself to do that. Conclusion: he lacks the moral courage to stand by his principles.

Two points on which I do agree with Luxon:

He is right to point out that he has repeatedly made it clear that National has no intention to relitigate abortion, but the media refuse to leave the issue alone, no matter how many times he says it. Luxon says he doesn’t want to import the culture wars from overseas but of course he’s whistling in the wind, because they’re here already.

In this instance the conflict is being stoked by media whose motive appears to be primarily ideological. This extends to journalists seeking out MPs who exercised their right to a conscience vote by opposing the 2020 abortion legislation, effectively demanding that they explain their defiance of  ideological orthodoxy and inviting them to recant. There is an ugly undercurrent of authoritarianism here, and it’s highly effective; politicians of all stripes were scuttling for cover. But the witch-hunt (for that’s what it looked like) produced delicious unintended consequences when Labour MPs Rino Tirikatene and Jamie Strange, both of whom voted against the Abortion Legislation Bill, explained that they would have been aborted had their mothers not defied medical advice. Game, set and match, you might think, but no; journalistic hubris is not so easily squelched.

I’m sure Luxon is also correct when he says most people are more concerned with the cost of living than with a judicial decision made 14,000km away and with no direct relevance to New Zealand. But the media no longer reflect the concerns and priorities of ordinary New Zealanders. The world as seen from newsrooms and TV studios in central Wellington and Auckland is very different from the world as seen from living rooms in Opunake, Manurewa and Gore.

■ Simon O’Connor, whose tweet provided abortion rights agitators and their media allies with the flimsy excuse they needed for their display of confected outrage, now offers a confusing and rather contradictory explanation for removing it.

On the one hand, he says he took down his comment because the online reaction was spiralling out of control. But almost in the same breath he says he did it at Luxon’s request, so it appears it wasn’t entirely his own decision and the headline on NewstalkZB’s story – “I have not been gagged” – doesn’t look entirely convincing.

He’s quoted as saying he doesn’t resile from his comment that the reversal of Roe v Wade was a good day, yet he now admits it was a “misstep” and “a distraction from our core messaging” and said he would apologise to the National caucus. This political jargon comes straight out of the spin doctor’s playbook and can mean only one thing: that the party control freaks have got to him and he’s capitulated. Why O’Connor should feel it necessary to apologise to caucus when abortion is supposed to be a personal conscience issue isn’t explained.

In the circumstances, his insistence that he hasn’t been gagged has a hollow ring. This is particularly disappointing in the light of his impassioned advocacy for free speech in the House recently, and will leave people wondering (not for the first time) where his party stands on issues of individual freedom. National looks like a party that demands conformity above all else.

And here’s another disturbing thing. If the online reaction to O’Connor’s tweet was overwhelmingly hostile, as seems obvious, then removing it was a triumph for the online equivalent of the so-called heckler’s veto, whereby agitators and disrupters negate people’s freedom of speech by the simple expedient of shouting them down. Asked what he had to say to people who agreed with his tweet, O’Connor said they could email him – but he must know that’s not the same. When you withdraw from open, public debate for fear of an adverse reaction, the other side has won by default.

Having said that, I feel sympathy for O’Connor because he must feel isolated. In a supposedly free society where all he did was express a legitimate opinion, he shouldn’t be in that position. But the media wanted to make an example of him, and they succeeded. He has been hung out to dry.

■ Ah yes, the media again. TV Three’s nightly wokefest The Project began last night with a vox-pop in the streets in which the people interviewed were overwhelmingly against the US Supreme Court’s decision. Quelle surprise! But the problem with vox pops, of course, is that they don’t tell us a thing, since the respondents are chosen at random and it’s always possible that some ended up on the cutting floor because they didn’t give the answer the producers were looking for.  Never mind; it served the desired purpose of giving the impression New Zealanders are united in their firm belief that abortion is a human right guaranteed by the US Constitution, which is what the overturned Roe v Wade judgment argued - not that the question would have been put to them in those terms. 

Then The Project rolled out the writer Catherine Robertson, who was presented as an authority on abortion for no better reason than that she’s one of the hundreds of thousands of New Zealand women who have had one. (What’s different is that Robertson is prepared to go on record about it, as she did here.) On The Project, nodding heads and murmurs of assent from the panellists as Robertson held forth served to reinforce a familiar aura of self-reinforcing groupthink. But here’s a question: would The Project have featured a woman who had had an abortion and now bitterly regretted it? There are such women, and I’m sure any pro-life organisation could have put the show’s producers in touch with one. Perhaps The Project mislaid their phone numbers.

That raises another point. In all the white noise in the media about Roe v Wade, one voice has been conspicuously absent – namely, that of the countless unborn children denied life, mostly because of “mental health” justifications that even the Abortion Supervisory Committee was forced to admit were often spurious. But of course the victims of abortion are forever silent, which is convenient for pro-choice activists. There are plenty of people prepared to speak for them, however, and they are silent not by choice, but because the media denies them a platform.

One last thing. In recent years there has been a striking change in the tone of pro-abortion rhetoric. Abortion is no longer portrayed just as a measure of last resort for desperate women. It is now proudly embraced and celebrated as an assertion of female autonomy. To put it another way, feminism – which was once defined simply as a belief in sexual equality – has taken a grotesque turn and now appears to measure its success in terms of the ease with which society can dispose of its most helpless and vulnerable.  Is this really its crowning achievement?





Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A few thoughts on Roe v Wade

It’s universally accepted that life begins at conception. To quote the American College of Pediatricians: “At fertilisation, the human being emerges as a whole, genetically distinct, individuated zygotic living human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens, needing only the proper environment in order to grow and develop. The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is one of form, not nature.”

This is not some fanciful doctrinal pronouncement from a bunch of desiccated old men wearing weird clothes in the Vatican. It’s a clinical statement from medical professionals describing a biological reality.

The point here is that it’s impossible to arbitrarily determine any moment after fertilisation when a foetus suddenly and magically morphs from being a lump of tissue to becoming “human”, since it’s already a genetically unique and complete living being. Any such theoretical point (12 weeks? 20 weeks? The point at which the baby can survive outside the womb? The moment of actual live birth?) can be chosen only for reasons of convenience, pragmatism or sentiment – or perhaps all three.

If we accept the biological fact that life starts at the moment of conception, then it follows inexorably that abortion at any point during the development of the foetus involves extinguishing a human life. Whether you choose to call that murder is another matter. Society chooses not to, generally preferring to regard murder as a crime that can be committed only on a living, breathing, sentient human. (I say “generally” because the Crimes Act provides for a jail term of up to 14 years for someone “who causes the death of any child that has not become a human being in such a manner that he or she would have been guilty of murder if the child had become a human being”. I’m not a lawyer, but I think this offence is used in cases where a pregnant woman is violently assaulted, resulting in the loss of her unborn baby.)

The idea that abortion is murder is usually dismissed as unrealistic and absolutist, even fanatical, yet it’s one that can reasonably and logically be held.  Society rejects it, however, because a consensus view has evolved that there are circumstances in which abortion is justified, necessary and humane. Placing time limits on it, as most abortion laws do, is essentially a pragmatic compromise aimed at making acceptable what might otherwise be unthinkable. Thus society is prepared to approve thousands of foetuses being aborted at, say, 12 weeks – although even then a baby is fully formed, with all its organs, muscles and limbs in place – but recoils in disgust at the idea of a near full-term baby being removed from the womb alive and left to die, cold and gasping for breath, in a hospital back room. (Couldn’t happen? Oh, but it did.)

At whatever point the abortion takes place, the timing is still arbitrary. There is no magic line marking a point beyond which snuffing out a human life (often by violent means, including dismemberment) suddenly becomes unacceptable. But what has happened in New Zealand, as in other “progressive” democracies, is that as society has become more inured to the idea of abortion, limitations on when the procedure can be carried out have been stretched to the point where they eventually disappeared altogether. Under the Abortion Legislation Act 2020, there’s nothing to prevent babies being aborted even when they are capable of surviving outside the womb. All that’s required is for two doctors to agree that the late-term abortion is “clinically appropriate”.

At this point, abortion really is tantamount to murder, albeit carried out with the sanction of the state; in other words with our concurrence. But we’re not told how often this happens in God’s Own Country, because since the passing of the Act there’s no longer any provision for the collation and publication of information about abortions* [see footnote]. It’s legal now, you see, so the public is deemed to have no more interest in knowing about abortions – how many are performed, the reasons for them and the gestational age of the baby – than it has in knowing about tooth extractions, facelifts or hernia repairs.

This probably suits most people perfectly well, since what they don’t know won’t trouble them. Society has been conditioned by decades of feminist indoctrination into believing abortion is a human right and a women’s health issue. What it actually entails – that is to say, the moral implications as well as the physical detail – is something people prefer not to dwell on. Easier just to ignore the whole thing.

The morality (or otherwise) of abortion has suddenly been brought back into sharp relief by the furore over the US Supreme Court’s reversal of the Wade v Roe judgment. Much of the reaction – for example, the grotesquely hysterical scenes at American protest rallies and the ostentatious displays of hand-wringing by the likes of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi (both nominally Catholic, incidentally) was predictable. What was less so was the desperate attempt by abortion rights activists in New Zealand, assisted by their allies in the media, to make political capital out of the decision despite it being of no direct relevance here.

Even in America, the primary consequence of the majority ruling is simply that decisions on abortion laws will be handed back to the states, which is where they belonged in the first place. This has been wilfully misrepresented as a deliberate assault on American womanhood when in fact it’s an acknowledgement that decisions on issues like abortion should be made by elected legislatures in state capitals, not by a judicial elite in Washington DC. (Last time I checked, American women were allowed to vote, so are free to exert influence on their politicians via the ballot box.)

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, we were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of politicians from across the spectrum scrambling to clamber aboard the abortion rights bandwagon, each trying to outdo the others with their pronouncements of woe and despair. Even David Seymour, who has arguably the least to gain and the most to lose by pandering to leftist feminists, couldn’t resist joining the chorus of denunciation. It wasn’t the first time Seymour had allowed his obvious antipathy toward the anti-abortion lobby to get the better of his political judgment. So much for ACT’s greatest political virtue, which is that it isn’t like the other parties. On this issue Seymour hunted with the pack.

Less surprising was Christopher Luxon’s eagerness to convince the media that a National government would leave the abortion laws alone. This was a no-win situation for Luxon; people who hate National didn’t believe him anyway, while people who might be inclined to support the party probably thought less of him for his moral equivocation, given that he has previously declared himself to be pro-life. He should have taken a less defensive stance. As it is, voters are entitled to wonder whether Luxon (a) has any bedrock values or (b) has been intimidated by the media into watering down his personal principles in order to appear more woke.

Instructing his MP Simon O’Connor to take down a tweet welcoming the Roe v Wade decision didn’t help. Abortion has traditionally been treated as a personal conscience issue for MPs, so O’Connor’s exercise of his right to free speech need not have been seen as a threat to the party. By censoring him, Luxon achieved the unusual feat of simultaneously appearing timid and a control freak.

As for the New Zealand media – well, needless to say they covered the issue with their customary detachment and unstinting commitment to neutrality and balance. The tone of the TV coverage was a blend of despair, denunciation, alarmism and moral panic, and overall only marginally less hysterical than the footage of a woman shown on her knees sobbing inconsolably in the streets of Washington. The dominant narrative, shared across all mainstream media but with no obvious basis in fact, was that women’s abortion rights were threatened in New Zealand too, although exactly how or by whom wasn’t explained.

I was able to predict with almost 100 percent accuracy the pro-choice activists who would be wheeled out to tell us what an appalling setback for women the court’s decision was. Both channels had 87-year-old Dame Margaret Sparrow (Newshub honouring her with the adjective “legendary”) and the voluble American Terry Bellamak - media favourites both -  plus an unfamiliar (to me) American academic from the University of Otago who baldly pronounced, with no basis, that Luxon shouldn’t be believed when he said National would leave the abortion law intact. In an item that took up much of the first segment of Sunday night’s 6 pm news, Newshub could find no room for a single pro-life voice. (TVNZ, to its credit, did.)

At the heart of the protests over Roe v Wade is the notion that abortion is a human right - a very recent idea that has somehow taken precedence over the right to life, which is at the core of most moral values systems. This can only be explained as a triumph of ideology over humanity.

When I did a rough calculation in 2018 (the last statistics were published in 2019), the number of babies aborted in New Zealand since the law was first liberalised in 1977 was creeping up towards the half-million mark. In the US, more than 40 million babies were aborted between 1973 and 2019 – more than the population of Canada or Poland. Pro-abortion lobbyists celebrate this as a triumph for women’s rights, but it seems a tragically perverse way to assert women’s autonomy. 

Footnote: I was incorrect in saying abortions statistics are no longer published. In fact the Ministry of Health has published detailed statistics for 2020, which can be seen here. I apologise for the error.



Monday, June 20, 2022

The cabinet minister and the RNZ editorial executive

A couple of updates:

Last week I posted complimentary remarks about cabinet minister Kiritapu Allan. Today I read that her partner for the past three years has been RNZ’s Maori News director Mani Dunlop. Presumably this was common knowledge around Parliament and in media circles but it was the first time I’d learned of it.

Why mention it? After all, Allan’s private life should be her own affair. Who can begrudge her the freedom to enter relationships with whomever she chooses?

I see no reason to revise my assessment of Allan. But at the same time, the disclosure of the relationship will have consequences. Politicians lead public lives and they inescapably invite the judgment of voters – not in this case because it’s a lesbian relationship (I would like to think New Zealand has passed the point where people object to the idea of a cabinet minister being lesbian, although doubtless many do), but because of who the other party happens to be.

Many people (I’m one) will feel uncomfortable that Allan is in an intimate relationship with an influential figure in one of the country’s major news organisations – one that happens to be state-owned.

I can’t put it any more strongly than that: just “uncomfortable”. I’ve always believed journalists and politicians should remain at arm’s length from each other, but that seems a futile ideal in a hothouse like Parliament where they mingle every day and are often on chummy terms socially (witness the Press Gallery Christmas party, a highlight of the politicians’ social calendar).  

Many journalists get a buzz from being on first-name terms with powerful people and are not beyond having their egos stroked by politicians eager to burnish their public image. The danger is that journalists’ credibility is fatally compromised if they choose to remain on good terms with a politician rather than risk damaging the relationship by reporting something that reflects badly on them.

Does it happen? You bet it does. Better to avoid that hazard by not getting too close to them in the first place. The old adage about supping with the devil comes to mind.

The picture is complicated in Allan’s case because RNZ seems untroubled by the unfashionable notion that it’s obliged, as a state-owned media organisation, to observe political impartiality. While many RNZ journalists conscientiously observe traditional principles of fairness and balance, the overall tone of the institution is overwhelmingly leftist and therefore sympathetic to the government. Dunlop herself has sometimes caused me to doubt her journalistic objectivity and accuse her of using her position to promote an ideological position.

The issue, then, is this: while in one respect the relationship between Allan and Dunlop is their own business, they must accept there are unavoidable wider implications.

One consequence is that sceptical RNZ listeners now have an additional reason to wonder whether, given the nature of the relationship between a senior editorial executive and a cabinet minister, the state broadcasting organisation can be relied on to observe strict neutrality in the way it reports politics, and especially in the way it presents and interprets news and opinion involving Maori. This applies no matter how conscientiously Dunlop tries to do her job, because it’s a matter of public perception, and public perception is impossible to control.  

The other inevitable upshot is that the large body of disaffected New Zealanders who already suspect their country is under the control of an elite cohort that calls the shots in vital areas of national life, notably politics and the media, will treat the Allan-Dunlop hookup as further evidence that they’re right.

Supporters of the couple’s right to decide how they live their private lives, free of judgment or interference by outsiders, may complain that this isn’t fair; but such is the febrile quality of New Zealand politics in 2022, for which the woke Left can largely take responsibility, that appeals to fairness don’t necessarily cut it anymore.

Oh, that other update: a reader of this blog has pointed out the latest development in the Judge Callinicos affair, which I’d missed (thanks Steve). To their great credit, some lawyers are refusing to let this scandal be buried. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

On virtue signalling, Kiri Allan, Three Waters and secret donations

Newly promoted minister Kiritapu Allan has said what a lot of people think but feel unable to say.

She lashed out in a tweet against “tokenistic” use of te reo by employees of DOC “as an attempt to show govt depts are culturally competent”. She told Stuff she encouraged the use of the Maori language, but wanted it used “with integrity”.

“You want to use te reo, you use it with integrity and use it responsibly,” Stuff quoted Allan as saying. “This isn’t a ‘everybody go out and use mahi and kaupapa’ and say you have a deep and enduring relationship with te ao Māori.”

Of course this shouldn’t apply only to DOC, where Allan was in charge before this week’s cabinet reshuffle resulted in her elevation to the justice portfolio. The same message could be directed at all government agencies where middle-class Pakeha public servants, eager to demonstrate their solidarity with the tangata whenua, indulge in an ostentatious display of virtue-signalling by using token Maori words and phrases. I wonder whether Radio New Zealand also got the memo.

Being Maori, Allan could get away with this rebuke. No Pakeha could; the cries of racism would be deafening. But to me it has always seemed patronising that many Pakeha liberals flaunt their cultural sensitivity with expressions such as “morena”, “nga mihi” and "doing the mahi” (the latter a term practically unknown in the Pakeha world until a couple of years ago).

If they were truly committed to the use of te reo, they would take the trouble to learn the language. I think that’s the point Allan was trying to make.

Many people do make the effort, of course, and good for them. The rest of us should stick to English, since it’s our lingua franca – the language everyone knows and understands. And the primary purpose of language, as Joe Bennett reminded us in a recent column for which he predictably got caned, is to communicate, not to signal cultural empathy or indulge in a form of verbal snobbery.

I like what I’ve seen of Allan. She’s Maori and lesbian, but she doesn’t appear to play the woke card and deserves better than to be dismissed as someone who got where she is simply by ticking fashionable diversity boxes.

She’s a former KFC employee who got a law degree – big ups for that, as they say – and who represents a real electorate (East Coast), so earned her seat in Parliament in the honest, old-fashioned way. She also impressed a lot of people with the gutsy, no-nonsense way in which she confronted a life-threatening cancer. And though I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, she has an open, honest face. We now know she’s blunt too, a refreshing quality lacking in the majority of politicians on both sides of the House who prefer to play it safe.

I tested my opinion of Allan on Clive Bibby, a politically alert resident of her electorate. He largely confirmed my impression, saying that Allan had served the electorate well and National would have a hard job finding someone to stand against her (this from a retired Tolaga Bay farmer whose political inclinations are firmly to the centre-right).

Another good friend and long-term East Coast voter – again, not a natural Labour supporter – agreed that Allan was well-liked in the electorate. The fact that Gisborne’s population is 50 percent Maori probably helps, although her tribal roots (Ngati Ranginui and Tuwharetoa) lie outside the district.

Clive noted that Allan had resisted any temptation to serve as a flagbearer for the radical rainbow movement, which he thought was a smart tactic in conservative Gisborne. But he wasn’t sure that her impressive performance would be enough to save her in the event of the expected anti-Labour backlash in 2023, and he hoped she would secure a good position on the Labour list.

He thinks Allan is marked for higher office – a view shared by political commentator Tim Watkin, who speculated this week that she and Michael Wood, who were both promoted in the “minor” (ha!) reshuffle, might be a Labour leadership team of the future.

Wood strikes me as a bit too polished and smiley for comfort (I’m reminded of a politician from a former era of whom it was said, “Behind the thin veneer there’s a thin veneer”), but Allan has an aura of authenticity – an impression reinforced by her obvious exasperation with the virtue-signallers. If we must have Labour governments – and history suggests they’re the yin to National’s yang – then we could probably do worse.

Then again, maybe I’m so desperate for something to feel positive about that I’m reduced to searching for promising omens on the Left. Certainly the picture is pretty bleak everywhere else.

The past week was a particularly depressing one. Consider the following:

■ The blandly named Water Services Entities Bill, aka Three Waters, passed its first reading – an event virtually ignored by most mainstream media outlets, reflecting their wilful indifference to an issue arousing acute agitation in the heartland (or as on-trend journalists would say, “across the motu”). Cynics will quite reasonably suspect that the media’s failure to subject the Bill’s co-governance provisions to anything resembling critical analysis is linked to their craven acceptance of the ideological conditions attached to funding from the Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project. (You can read the Hansard record of the first reading debate here. It’s worth reading for Nanaia Mahuta’s speech, which raised the bar for bare-faced spin to a new level, and for Labour’s arrogant failure to explain, still less defend, the co-governance proposals that are driving much of the opposition to the Bill.)

Court proceedings over hitherto secret donations to the New Zealand First Foundation revealed that wealthy business people contributed large sums to the party in the clear expectation that it would promote their interests, leading inescapably to the conclusion that New Zealand may not be the transparent, corruption-free democracy we all fondly supposed it to be. As political scientist Bryce Edwards put it: “That wealthy interests were secretly donating large amounts of money both before and after [NZ First] was elected into office should raise questions of whether [the] Government led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was corrupted in some of its decision-making.” Coming on top of accusations of nepotism swirling around Mahuta – largely unreported in the mainstream media – the NZ First court case will leave many New Zealanders gravely concerned about integrity in public life and wondering whether Central America or the Middle East now serves as our political model.

Again, superficial media coverage would have left most of the country in ignorance of what was disclosed in court, indicating that news executives were either unwilling or unable to grasp the significance of the case. Only Newsroom reported the evidence in all its damning detail. Conclusion: we can no longer rely on the New Zealand mainstream media to fulfil their vital function as one of the last lines of defence against corruption and abuses of power. While the media may have no formal constitutional role in a country such as New Zealand, a democracy can only function properly if people are informed about matters of public importance. It goes without saying that when the media fail in that duty, democracy is at risk. Do the leaders of the media recognise and accept that responsibility? If they do, then the evidence suggests they exercise it very selectively.

■ There’s no shortage of other uplifting news I could mention from the past few days, such as the failure by police to make any arrests, despite multiple witnesses, for a shocking assault by Tribesmen gang members on a motorist in the Waikato; the forcible snatching from Lower Hutt of a Maori man’s body by his Northland whanau, against the wishes of the man’s widow and immediate family (a violent act subsequently justified by his cousin, Hone Harawira’s wife Hilda Halkyard, as being in accordance with tikanga); another week of ram-raids and shootings, including one while children were being dropped at school; and the government’s cynical and vindictive emasculation of the job of Children’s Commissioner, despite overwhelming opposition from submitters, and evidently for no better reason than that Labour was fed up with Oranga Tamariki being criticised.

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget that the health system is collapsing and schools have run out of teachers. I don’t personally blame Jacinda Ardern for all this, but it adds insult to injury to be told constantly by the international media that we should feel blessed to be living in blissful Aotearoa under the world’s most empathetic and inspirational leader.

Monday, June 6, 2022

The vacuum at the heart of the democratic process

Ever heard of Naisi Chen?

No, me neither. Then how about Mark Cameron, Karen Chhour, Emily Henderson, Marja Lubeck, Liz Craig, Camilla Belich, Ibraham Omer, Teanau Tuiono, Damien Smith, Lemauga Lydia Sosene, Simon Court and Helen White?

They are all current, serving Members of Parliament. Chen, Craig, Lubeck, White, Belich, Sosene and Omer are Labour list MPs. Cameron, Court, Chhour and Smith got into Parliament on the ACT list. Tuiono represents the Greens and Henderson is the Labour MP for Whangarei.

My point in running these names past you is merely to illustrate that there are people sitting in the House of Representatives whom most of us have never heard of. I follow politics reasonably closely and most of those 13 names are unfamiliar to me.

You’ll note that most of the unknowns, if I may call them that, are list MPs and therefore less visible than those who represent actual electorates and who are therefore directly accountable to voters. Electorate MPs need to make themselves known to their constituents and local media because their re-election prospects depend on it. List MPs, on the other hand, answer only to the party machine and it’s theoretically possible that they could sit in the House for several terms and still not make the faintest impact on the public consciousness.

You may also note that there aren’t many National MPs on my roll of anonymity. This isn’t because of pro-National bias on my part (God forbid). It’s simply that most currently serving National MPs, even those in list seats, have been around longer than the wave of newcomers who entered Parliament in 2020, and have therefore had more time to become publicly known. (Labour won 19 list seats in 2020, many of them occupied by newbies; National won 10, of which several went to long-serving MPs such as Gerry Brownlee and Chris Bishop who had an established public profile. ACT won nine new seats, most of them occupied by MPs no one had heard of.)

One of the conclusions to be drawn from this is that MPs in general have become more distant from the public they purport to serve – so distant, in fact, that many of their names are unrecognisable. This is in part an inevitable consequence of electoral reform, and more specifically the creation of the mixed-member system and the expansion of Parliament from 99 to 120 MPs, 48 of whom have no electorate.

One of the claims made for the MMP system is that it has made Parliament a lot more diverse, although it’s likely this would have happened even under the old first-past-the-post system as a result of social and demographic trends. But one downside of the change (one of several, in my view) is that it eroded the direct connection between electors and elected.

We now have two classes of MP: those who are directly accountable to voters, who get out and about in their electorates and hence are publicly visible (at least if they’re doing their job properly), and those who are rarely, if ever, seen outside Parliament and about whom the public knows zilch.

This is not to say list MPs are inevitably doomed to anonymity. Some acquire a high profile because they are hard-working or adroit self-promoters or media favourites (Golriz Ghahraman and Chloe Swarbrick come to mind – the latter to the extent that she was able to win a strategically important electorate) while others mimic flatfish, metaphorically speaking, by concealing themselves in the mud with only their eyes protruding.

But there’s another important factor here that’s rarely examined. It concerns the crucial role of the media in ensuring the proper functioning of democracy, and it was brought into sharp relief by the member’s Bill recently introduced to Parliament by ACT MP James McDowall.

It’s just possible that one reason so many MPs are unknown to the public is that the media have largely abandoned their traditional function of reporting what happens in Parliament. And I mean in Parliament – not outside the debating chamber where members of the press gallery (sometimes known as the wolf pack, but perhaps more accurately characterised as a mob of sheep taking their cue from whoever happens to be the most aggressive among them) wait to ambush whichever politician they have collectively decided will be that day’s target.

We are largely ignorant not only about who represents us in Parliament, but also what they do there. The only time the mainstream media take an interest in the debating chamber is when something happens to excite them, such as a squabble involving the Speaker or the inflammatory hurling of an insult.

It wasn’t always thus. One way previous generations of New Zealanders became acquainted over time with the names of MPs is that the media regarded it as one of their core duties to report parliamentary debates, parliamentary questions and select committee hearings. Look at newspapers from 20 or 30 years ago and you’ll see entire pages devoted to coverage of parliamentary proceedings, all painstakingly reported by newspapers that took their role as chronicles of record very seriously.

The now-defunct New Zealand Press Association, the industry-owned co-operative that serviced daily papers from Whangarei to Invercargill and had its own team of reporters in the gallery, was meticulous about covering the day-to-day business of Parliament. In addition, the small, privately owned South Pacific News Service (SOPAC) provided papers with specific parliamentary stories on request and often pursued issues that were of local interest to individual newspapers.

That was the primary means by which the public learned who was who in Parliament and what they were doing, if anything. It was a guide – an imperfect one, but better than none – to how our elected representatives were performing and what they stood for.

Some papers, notably The Dominion, also published an irreverent “sketch” column reporting on parliamentary proceedings in a way that often revealed far more about MPs’ conduct and personalities than a truckload of Hansard transcripts could ever do. (Jane Clifton was an acknowledged master of this journalistic form and continues to entertain Listener readers with her political insights, all the while seeming to keep her credibility intact despite the delicate complication of being married to Trevor Mallard.)

But that was then and this is now. Much of the time we have no idea what business is being conducted in the House, still less any knowledge of which MPs are making speeches or asking questions. Often we don’t learn about important legislation until its consequences – not always welcome ones – become apparent long after it has been passed.

This means there is a vacuum at the heart of the democratic process. We elect our representatives every three years, and then what? To all intents and purposes they disappear into a void until the next election, with the exception of the handful of activist MPs already mentioned who attract journalists’ attention. The feedback loop that should tell us what all those other MPs are doing is broken.

Yet the right to observe and report Parliament is arguably the most fundamental of press freedoms. The 18th century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke is credited with the famous observation that there were three “estates” in the British Parliament – the Lords Spiritual (bishops), the Lords Temporal (peers) and the House of Commons – “but in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth estate more important [by] far than they all”.

Burke recognised that a functioning democracy must be an informed democracy. It would no doubt astonish him, and those who fought for press freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries, to see that the contemporary media in New Zealand have largely renounced this most basic of press functions.

In a previous era a Bill such as McDowall’s, which was aimed at ensuring freedom of speech in academic institutions, would have been reported. At least some of the MPs who spoke in the debate would likely have been named and quoted. The public might have learned that McDowall and National MPs Penny Simmonds, Simon O’Connor and Michael Woodhouse cared about free speech while several MPs on the other side (Angela Roberts, Jo Luxton, Chloe Swarbrick, Shanan Halbert, Gaurav Sharma and Ingrid Leary) didn’t think it needed special protection in universities. The media would very likely have felt a special responsibility to report the debate because it concerned an issue in which they have a stake, since freedom of expression and freedom of the press are directly related.

As it was, I didn’t see or hear a word in the mainstream media about McDowall’s Bill and its defeat. It vanished without a trace, other than in Hansard. I’m reminded of the tree falling in the forest: if no one heard it, did it make a sound? Or in the case of McDowall’s Bill and countless others like it: if no one bothered to report them, did they even happen?

My guess is that you’re more likely to see a polar bear in Bellamy’s than a row of reporters busily taking shorthand notes of speeches in the House. As a result, MPs largely escape the public scrutiny that should inform our votes. This magnifies an absence of accountability already inherent under MMP, where a substantial proportion of MPs are answerable not to the public but to their party hierarchy. Call them the invisible MPs.

Online platforms (Newsroom, BusinessDesk, Point of Order, to name three) fill some of the gaps in parliamentary coverage, and Radio New Zealand’s The House caters to a small audience of political obsessives. But it’s hit and miss, and the result is that we are arguably less informed about the business of Parliament than at any time in living memory. That can’t be good for democracy.

My apologies to readers who couldn't make the link to my post about James McDowall's Bill work. It seems to have come right with a bit of tinkering.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Things I don't understand (#1 in a series that could go on forever)

There are lots of things I don’t understand – new ones every day, in fact.

Some of these involve language. I accept that language is dynamic and fluid and constantly evolving, but some changes – many of them perpetrated by journalists who should know better  – are plain daft.

Being “across the news”, for example. Pardon me? And “going forward”, which is rightly mocked in the same way as the pompous phrase “at this point in time” was several decades ago, though it keeps popping up regardless.

The strange thing about “going forward” is that in almost all instances you can chop those two words off a statement without changing its meaning in the slightest. The phrase is superfluous, added in the mistaken belief that it somehow gives the statement greater weight or expands its meaning.

Language, of course, is prone to the whims of fashion and the human urge to conform to whatever ghastly phenomenon happens to be in vogue. “Going forward” is the linguistic equivalent of tattoos and mullets. I suspect a lot of trendy phrases originate in HR departments, which are fascinated by anything that conveys the illusion of being ahead of the pack (or should I say “cutting edge”?).

Some changes in pronunciation similarly defy rational explanation, other than the obvious ones of ignorance or laziness. I’m still wondering where the first “l” in “vulnerable” disappeared to, along with the “g” in “recognise”. Neither do I understand how “t” became “d” in words such as community and security.

But what most perplexes me most at this point in time (forgive me – I will have my little joke) is the practice of attaching words such as “up”, “out”, “down” and “on” to verbs so that they serve as intensifiers, as grammarians would call them.

Some of these grammatical constructions have been with us for a while. “Check it out” is endemic, although the “out” adds nothing.

"Watched on” seems to be a favourite of reporters, despite the “on” being totally (or should that be todally?) unnecessary. I suspect people confuse it with “looked on”, but the two constructions are different. “Watched” doesn’t need any elaboration because it stands alone; you can watch something but you can’t “look” something. You have to look at it or on it. "Watched on", therefore, is a nonsense.

“Covered off” is another usage that has inexplicably taken root in journalism, as in “we covered off that story”. (Even more bizarrely, I’ve heard “we’re covered off on that”, apparently with no awareness of the obvious contradiction between “off” and “on”.)

The same goes for “signed off”, which similarly often carries a nonsensical “on” – as in “the council signed off on the long-term plan”. What the hell happened to “approved”?

More recently I’ve noted “parked up” (“the caravan was parked up in the camping ground”), “chased down” (“witnesses chased down the robber”), “swap out” (“I had to swap out the old batteries for some new ones”) and even “bleed out” (“the patient was bleeding out when paramedics arrived”). More colloquially, there’s also “fessed up” for “confessed”. And when my teenage grandson wants to find the answer to something, he searches it up.

Oh, and then there’s “listen up”. Listen up where, exactly?

These are just a few examples off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty of others.

The common factor in all the above examples is that the second word adds nothing. As my edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (admittedly, published 20 years ago) remarks, it doesn’t affect the meaning of the verb it’s attached to.

I can see how “parked up” came about. Originally it signified a vehicle that was in storage or left in the same place for a matter of days, weeks or even longer, as opposed to one that’s parked overnight or for a few hours, but that differentiation seems to be disappearing.

As for those others, they are inexplicable.

There are precedents of a sort. Mothers used to urge their small children to “eat up” their din-dins and racehorse trainers are still heard to say that their charges “ate up” all their oats, which I gather is a sure sign of robust equine health. New Zealanders of a certain age will also recognise the phrases “cook up a feed” and “write up a story” (which in due course also became a noun, as in “I saw that write-up in the paper”). 

The question remains: where do these usages spring from, and what causes them to suddenly take root among people who are supposedly trained to use the language properly? All theories welcome.