Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Just in case you forgot what Tory Whanau looks like, the Dom Post has some more photos of her

I remarked to a friend this morning that if the Wellington mayoralty is determined by the number of times Tory Whanau’s photo appears on the Dominion Post website, she’s a shoo-in. The other candidates might as well go home.

From the time the paper reported her campaign launch in June with a massive splash of publicity – one that could be described as unprecedented for a candidate virtually no one outside the Green Party had heard of (note the four photos, plus a video) – Whanau has been given the type of exposure her rivals can only dream of.

Today the Dom Post website featured not one but two stories simultaneously about the Green Party-backed candidate, both accompanied by prominent photos. The stories concerned a petty spat with fellow contender Paul Eagle over the placement of billboards, so were of no great consequence, but when I checked at midday one was the lead item on the website. Whanau’s face was the first thing readers saw.

If you accept that facial and name recognition are crucial in local government elections, especially when voters often have little else to go on, Whanau may have a head start even against putative frontrunner Eagle, a former deputy mayor who became Labour MP for Rongotai and now appears to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of that career move.

You can see why the Dom Post loves Whanau. She’s young, Maori, female and Green; the dream woke candidate. Eagle ticks only one of those boxes, and against that, he’s a bloke.

But is the Wellington mayoralty Whanau’s real objective? The above-mentioned friend, who’s a lot more politically savvy than I am, speculates that the true purpose of her tilt at the mayoralty is to build her profile with the aim of securing a high place on the Greens’ list in next year’s general election.

It’s called doing a Chloe, after the Green Party wunderkind who made a well-publicised bid for the Auckland mayoralty in 2016, subsequently got on the Greens’ list at No 7 and was ultimately rewarded with the Auckland Central seat.

In fact if Whanau really is modelling herself on Chloe Swarbrick, I wonder whether she might have her eyes on Wellington Central. She’d have to elbow aside the party’s 2020 candidate, James Shaw, but anything’s possible with the Greens. And it’s worth noting that Wellington Central (aka Woke Central) was where they won their biggest share of the party vote in 2020, with 30 percent – far higher than the 19 percent support achieved in Swarbrick’s constituency.

Whatever Whanau’s strategy, she can only benefit from the apparent undeclared endorsement of Wellington’s daily paper. What the steadily diminishing number of Dom Post readers might think of it is another matter.



Monday, August 29, 2022

And they wonder why media credibility has nosedived ...


Readers may have noted David’s comment yesterday under my post about the Stuff documentary Fire and Fury.

David, a journalist of long experience, remarked on the current media witch-hunt for local body election candidates suspected of holding the “wrong” views on issues such as vaccination. As an example he cited Masterton mayoral candidate Tina Nixon, who was “outed” - along with several others - by the Wairarapa Times-Age for having “links to alternative politics or conspiracy theories”.

The page 1 story (above) was based on unsubstantiated claims by an activist group calling itself Fighting Against Conspiracy Theories Aotearoa (FACT). No one from FACT was identified.

The story was presented in a melodramatic fashion under the headline “Who is pulling the strings?”, complete with a graphic depicting puppet strings.  Most of the candidates named had no chance to respond.

Today on page 3, the Times-Age followed up its story with an apology (below) which acknowledged that it didn’t give the named candidates a proper opportunity to respond to the claims against them. As David noted in his comment yesterday, the shadowy FACT has also apologised to Nixon on its website.

To its credit the Times-Age stated: “Publishing the story without sufficient opportunity to respond falls short of the expectation of responsible journalism from our paper.” I would go further and suggest the decision to run the story at all was questionable, given that it implies the beliefs attributed to the candidates are a threat to society and therefore not ones that can legitimately be held in a liberal democracy.

There’s a second mea culpa on the paper’s editorial page from journalist Mary Argue, who as the recently appointed chief reporter acknowledged responsibility for the way the story was covered.

Good on her, but I don’t think she should bear the sole blame. Argue hasn’t been with the Times-Age long and only a year ago, judging by something she wrote for The Spinoff,  was still a journalism student. No one with her limited experience should be in a position that requires tricky editorial calls.

Meanwhile, other media outlets continue to go after local body candidates who are deemed political harijans. The Dominion Post locks on to an anti-vax GP and Morning Report asks whether the media should be doing more to expose others of her ilk – to which journalism professor Jim Tully, who can be relied on to say exactly what RNZ wants him to say, unsurprisingly agreed.

If people like Fire and Fury narrator Paula Penfold genuinely want to know why so many people no longer trust the media (although somehow I doubt that she does), she could start right there.


Sunday, August 28, 2022

A few thoughts on Stuff's Fire and Fury documentary

I didn’t intend to watch Stuff’s video documentary Fire and Fury, but after reading Stuff columnist Jenny Nicholls’ gushing review (headlined “Fire and Fury documentary shows journalism at the peak of its powers”, and of course given great prominence on the Stuff website), I felt compelled to.

The one-hour doco, which describes itself as “an investigation into disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand”, got a wholly uncritical tick from its in-house reviewer. But I watched it this morning and came to the conclusion that Fire and Fury (which, incidentally, brazenly pinches its title from a book by American author Michael Woolf about Donald Trump) is part of the very problem the makers purport to deplore.

Let’s start with the positives. Fire and Fury is unquestionably well made. The editing is slick, the photography is first-class (the riot on the last day of the Camp Freedom protest at Parliament has never been more graphically captured) and the music is suitably dark and ominous.

The makers have dug deep, unearthing a wealth of damning video footage and exposing a web of connections between various malignant “influencers” and conspiracy theorists who stand accused of poisoning the public conversation with misinformation and toxic rhetoric.

So it showcases formidable journalistic skills. But to say it’s well made isn’t necessarily, by itself, a ringing commendation. Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi Party’s favourite film-maker, made impressive documentaries too.

As with many propaganda projects (which Fire and Fury is), the producers appear to have started out with a particular premise and set about gathering whatever information and images were necessary to substantiate it. But an equally skilled documentary maker might arguably approach the subject from the reverse direction and come up with something just as persuasive.

Here are some of my misgivings, in no particular order:

Fire and Fury paradoxically amplifies messages that the producers tell us are a threat to democracy and national wellbeing. It provides a platform for extremist fringe activists who I suspect will revel in the exposure. If there’s a common characteristic the main players seem to share, it’s that they are egoistical loudmouths and fantasists who are gratified by their notoriety – none more so, I suspect, than Damien De Ment and Kelvyn Alp, founder of the website Counterspin. Fire and Fury gives them more of the oxygen they crave. The documentary will also serve to reinforce their conviction, and that of their followers, that a corrupt mainstream media is deaf to legitimate grievances, has no interest in the truth and is determined to discredit them and suppress their messages. But more on that later.

■ Because the makers set out with a preconceived objective, there’s not even a token attempt at balance, and most notably no attempt to understand what drove the Camp Freedom protesters, many of whom gave the impression of being fairly normal, conservative, middle-class New Zealanders who had never before engaged in protest activity. It’s almost axiomatic in journalism that there are always two sides to a story, yet Fire and Fury makes no attempt to get to the bottom of whatever sense of discontent led an extraordinarily disparate group to converge spontaneously on Wellington from all over the country – an unprecedented phenomenon.

In that respect Fire and Fury is an epic fail because it gets us no closer to comprehending what happened outside Parliament six months ago, possibly because the producers didn’t want to know. Perhaps they convinced themselves that the protesters couldn’t possibly have a valid reason to think the way they do and so the question wasn’t worth asking.  The documentary makers preferred to get the truth, or at least their version of it, from approved voices of the left-wing establishment such as law academic Khylee Quince, Kate Hannah of the Disinformation Project (whose funding isn’t clear from its website, though I suspect we pay for it) and the Australian “misinformation expert” Ed Coper, whose LinkedIn profile indicates he’s well marinated in woke dogma. It goes without saying that none of these people could possibly be suspected of having an ideological agenda of their own – and if they do, we're expected to assume it’s an honourable and righteous one.

Again, this perpetuates the yawning them-and-us gap – no, let’s call it a chasm – and sense of alienation that generated such ill-will toward what was seen during the occupation as an elitist, hostile media. There was no more telling image than that of Trevor Mallard and a press gallery pack looking down on the protesters (that is, looking down both figuratively and literally) from the balcony of Parliament. It was predictably characterised as a Marie Antoinette moment.

■ The reporter and narrator of Fire and Fury, Paula Penfold, doesn't reveal whether she tried to confront any of the figures she identifies as the villains of the piece. She did, however, interrogate a genteel-looking elderly woman who's presented as some sort of public enemy after being caught on camera at the protest telling a media crew to “get out”.  Quite apart from the fact that Penfold chose the softest of targets, challenging the woman to justify herself when she had no obligation to do so (and this in her own home, months after the event) looked perilously close to bullying.  When an experienced TV journalist puts questions to a private citizen unaccustomed to being in the public eye, and has the power to edit the interview in such a way as to emphasise whatever message she wants to convey, there’s never any doubt which side the power is on.

■ Crucially, Fire and Fury doesn’t ask a central question that arises repeatedly: namely, why so many people no longer trust the media. It’s more convenient to leave that particular stone unturned.  Yet distrust of the media was a potent issue at Camp Freedom, as Penfold concedes when she comments: “Since they [the protesters] distrust journalists, they bypass the media entirely.” She goes on to say she and her colleagues have never encountered that level of hostility anywhere in the world. Well, there’s a rather big clue, right there. I deplore threats against anyone lawfully doing their job, but rather than sounding hard done by, Penfold might ask herself how things got to this point.

I have my own ideas about that. I believe the mainstream media in New Zealand have lost sight of what was previously their primary objective, which was to reflect society back to itself and report, as neutrally as possible, on matters of interest and concern to the communities they purported to serve. Instead they have positioned themselves in the front line of the culture wars and put themselves at odds with their diminishing audiences by haranguing them with an ideological agenda largely driven by disaffected minorities. The subjects of Fire and Fury just happen to be the wrong disaffected minorities.

To summarise: While purporting to be concerned about the potential harm done by wacko extremists (and some do have the appearance of being truly wacko), Stuff's big-statement documentary drives another wedge into an already dangerously fractured society. Oh, and by the way: did I mention that it was made with funding from the Public Interest Journalism Fund?



Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A few thoughts on the Sharma affair

Overwhelmingly, the opinion of press gallery journalists – including some for whom I retain a degree of respect – seems to be that Gaurav Sharma deserved what he got. Luke Malpass says so; so does Audrey Young.

But I wonder whether the public thinks the same. Political events often look different from a distance than they do from the close proximity of the press gallery, and what journalists think is often wildly at odds with public opinion. As I’ve argued before, they’re ill-equipped to know what the public thinks about anything.

Besides, reporters form their opinions based on information from political sources who have positions to protect, and no matter how conscientiously press gallery hacks try to take a neutral, objective line, their perspective is almost inevitably skewed by the views of whoever’s briefing them.

They also have a natural interest in remaining onside with their sources. All this needs to be taken into account in assessing press gallery opinion, which is often suspiciously homogeneous.

Even accepting the government line that Sharma is a problem child who got himself into trouble with his own staff and apparently refused offers of intervention, some aspects of the controversy remain unsettling.

My own antennae twitched when the story first broke. Not only did the full weight of the Labour Party machine come crashing down on the hapless Sharma – that’s politics, baby – but the media, almost without exception, obligingly parroted the government narrative from the start. The hit job on the Hamilton West MP was not only instantaneous and overwhelming but gave the impression of having media buy-in. Guilty as charged; done and dusted. It looked to me as if reporters were briefed and primed to go.

I couldn’t help but contrast the press pack’s apparent acceptance of the government line with their refusal to cut National any slack over the Uffindell saga. The difference was striking.  

Of course I can no more claim to discern what the public thinks about the Sharma furore than the press gallery, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the public view has shifted over the course of the affair. I’m inclined to agree with the talkback host I heard last night who sensed that the balance of public opinion, which he thought was initially in the government’s favour, had probably moved as the controversy evolved and the perception grew that Sharma may not have been the guilty party – or at least not the sole bearer of blame.  

The secret caucus meeting on Monday night certainly wouldn’t have helped. Gang-ups are never a good look. The irony is that this controversy arose out of bullying claims and ended up showing in plain sight exactly what political bullying looks like.

Even accepting that Sharma broke caucus rules, the manner of his punishment – no, let’s call it humiliation, which is what it is – doesn’t play well to a public concerned with fairness and due process. It’s the ugly face of politics laid bare, and the government can’t escape being damaged. 

As a talkback caller said, whatever happened to Ardern’s kindness shtick? Her earnest, imploring facial expression, so wearyingly familiar to viewers of news bulletins, has never looked more strained – some would say fake – than when she was defending the brutal demolition job on her wayward MP. The empathetic look has worked remarkably well for her, but its magic may be wearing off.



Tuesday, August 23, 2022

"Coconut"? I thought New Zealand left that sort of language behind in the 1960s

Simon Wilson reports in the New Zealand Herald that Auckland mayoral frontrunner Efeso Collins, who is of Samoan and Tokelauan descent, declared at a public meeting: “I’m sick of being called a coconut”.

I doubt that I would vote for Collins if I lived in Auckland, seeing he’s endorsed by Labour and the Greens, but it’s shocking and depressing that such crude bigotry survives in New Zealand in 2022. I thought we had put it behind us.

I don’t know much about Collins, but this didn’t seem a deliberate play for public sympathy in the hope that it might win him a few more votes. The way Wilson describes it, he blurted out the words in a spontaneous show of emotion. “People like me have a right to do this,” a tearful Collins said of his run for the mayoralty.

Of course he does. For the past six years he has represented Manukau on Auckland Council. That’s a ward with a population of more than 164,000 people, of whom only 18 percent are Pakeha. More than half are of Pasifika descent, 27 percent are Asian and 16 percent identify as Maori.

Granted, race should never be a deciding factor in an election, but on simple democratic grounds the people of south and west Auckland are entitled to have a candidate who speaks for them rather than someone from the more privileged suburbs that civic leaders typically come from. On the face of it, he has more legitimacy as a candidate than Wayne Brown – an undoubtedly capable man who nonetheless has the disadvantage of looking like an outsider.

But while it’s despicable that people disparage Collins using language that most of us thought belonged in the 1960s, we need to consider the possibility that this is a predictable result when leftist politicians, bureaucrats, academics and media commentators relentlessly promote the politics of division and encourage New Zealanders to see racial groups as being irrevocably in competition with each other. It’s bound to bring out KKK-type instincts in the more rebarbative elements of society.

■ Also in the Herald today, more revelations from the admirable Kate MacNamara about the conflict-of-interest scandal swirling around Nanaia Mahuta. As I wrote in the latest Spectator Australia, Jacinda Ardern’s government appears supremely untroubled by the implications of rampant nepotism. 

The story originally came to light via online platforms and has largely been ignored by most mainstream media, so credit to MacNamara and the Herald for pursuing it. I don’t think I’ve read anything on Stuff about the disclosures,  which reinforces the suspicion that the government has bought immunity from hard questions by the simple expedient of making mainstream news outlets dependent on its $55 million Pravda Project.

For its part, Newshub dealt with the issue by excusing Mahuta’s conduct on the ground that nepotism was unavoidable in the small Maori world – and anyway, National Party governments had indulged in it too. Newshub even quoted “political commentator” Shane Te Pou as saying criticism of Mahuta was “racism and double standards”, conveniently failing to disclose (like RNZ recently) that Te Pou is a former executive member of the Labour party.

■ Speaking of Stuff, a friend who has had a long professional involvement at the highest level in the media emailed me yesterday noting that the Dominion Post that morning carried not a word about the impending protest at Parliament and police plans to deal with it. The Herald, on the other hand, contained a detailed report about the protest and its likely effects on Wellingtonians.

This was nothing new. The Auckland-based paper regularly carries Wellington stories that the Dom Post ignores or misses. Not for the first time, I wondered whether the paper that inherited the honourable legacy of the Evening Post and Dominion has a death wish – or whether it’s so preoccupied with hectoring readers over issues of identity politics that it has completely lost sight of its proper role, which is to inform people about matters of interest and importance to them.

Still, the Dom Post at least manages to entertain us occasionally, even if unintentionally. I pointed out to my acquaintance a headline on the paper’s website yesterday announcing Sparactus actor Ioane “John” King dies, age [sic] 49. I think they meant Spartacus.

The headline is still there now, uncorrected, a day and a half later. I think they’ve given up caring.




Thursday, August 18, 2022

Let Arps stand and see what happens

There’s been a lot of squawking and hand-wringing over white supremacist Philip Arps’ bid for election to a Christchurch high school board. But why the fuss?

Yes, Arps seems a loathsome character. A texter to Morning Report used the word despicable, which I thought was a pretty apt description. But in a robust democracy, there are ways of dealing with despicable people.

The best way to signal to Arps that he’s despised is to let him stand for office and see how much support he attracts. My guess is none.

To bar him from running, as a lot of people are urging, would be an attack on free speech. As the great British commentator Bernard Levin wrote, “free speech is for swine and liars as well as upright and honest men”. (You’ll have to excuse the sexism, which I’m sure was unintentional.) 

Poisonous opinions, as Levin pointed out, are less dangerous promulgated than banned. Arps would probably relish the fugitive mystique of being cancelled.

The problem here is that many people on the Left – apparently including those who are huffing and puffing over Arps – don’t trust democracy. They don’t think their fellow citizens can be relied on to make the right decisions. They prefer to put their faith in state decrees that restrict people’s freedoms. In this respect they reveal their essentially elitist, authoritarian leanings.

As an aside, it’s almost comical to hear people accuse Arps of using the school board elections as a ruse to promote his supremacist ideas, then do him the enormous favour of going on TV and radio saying he must be stopped. He couldn’t have wished for more exposure, which is what he craves.  

Let Arps stand, I say, and put his support to the test. Provided the school community exercises its right to vote, I believe he’ll make an even bigger clown of himself than he is already. The votes of right-thinking people – and that means most New Zealanders – are the obvious antidote to extremists.



The obituary the Dom Post couldn't be stuffed publishing

Alan Burnet (pictured) died on July 18, aged 101. I offered to write an obituary for The Dominion Post but was turned down.

I assumed at the time that the paper preferred to have the job done in-house, which would have been fair enough. But here we are, exactly one month after Burnet’s death, and not a word has been published. I suppose it’s possible something will eventually appear, but it seems unlikely.

Why should this matter? Only because Stuff, the company that publishes the Dominion Post, wouldn’t have existed without Burnet. In fact it’s possible the Dom Post itself wouldn’t have survived.

You’d think that might have justified an acknowledgment on the Dom Post’s Saturday obituaries page, but evidently not.

As I noted in the obituary I ended up writing for BusinessDesk, Burnet was, for two decades, the dominant figure in the New Zealand newspaper business.

He started out in 1964 as general manager of the Wellington Publishing Company, owner of the Dominion – a job for which he was head-hunted by a young Rupert Murdoch, who had recently acquired a controlling stake in the paper – and built it into Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL). In the process, Burnet reshaped an entire industry.

Through a bold and deftly executed series of mergers and acquisitions, INL became by far the biggest player in the New Zealand print media, with a stable of newspaper titles that included the Sunday Star-Times, the Auckland Star, Wellington’s Evening Post, the Dominion, New Zealand Truth, the Christchurch Press and seven provincial dailies from Hamilton to Invercargill. 

Biggest isn’t necessarily best, but it was a profitable and well-run company that valued editorial independence (Burnet refused a demand from prime minister Robert Muldoon that he sack Geoff Baylis, the Dominion’s editor) and gave its journalists the freedom and resources to pursue important stories. It's not overstating things to say it was a golden era of print.

Burnet was managing-director of INL for 10 years and chairman for another 10, retiring in 1993. Murdoch remained in control of the company throughout but was content to leave decisions to Burnet and his right-hand man, former Evening Post editor Mike Robson (who took over from Burnet but died suddenly in 2000).

After Murdoch withdrew from New Zealand in 2003, INL was acquired by the Sydney-based Fairfax group – a wretched fate, as it turned out – and eventually morphed into what is now Stuff, a name originally coined for INL’s website when it was created in 2000.

I wrote in my obituary for Burnet that Stuff, which present proprietor Sinead Boucher bought from its Australian owners in 2020 for the token sum of a dollar, is a pale shadow of the company Burnet left behind. That was a gross understatement. Over a period of nearly 20 years, the company’s bosses unerringly took every wrong turning available to them.

I also wrote that what Burnet thought of the fate of the once formidable newspaper company he had painstakingly built up was not recorded. He was too polite. 

It's possible Stuff ignored his death because he was an old white guy and a capitalist. Being impeccably woke, the company may not want to remind present-day readers of its origins. But newspaper readers were infinitely better served in Burnet's day than they are now.

Stuff’s failure to honour him with an obituary simply confirms what had long been evident – that it’s a company with no respect for (and probably scant knowledge of) its own heritage.

Footnote: I worked for The Dominion from 1969 till 1972 and again between 1986 and 1992, including a period as editor. I also wrote the paper’s history for its centennial in 2007.


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

McAnulty hasn't put a foot wrong ... so far

I have observed Kieran McAnulty’s career with some interest. He’s my local MP, after all.

I’ve never met him, so I know only what I’ve read. (This is a legitimate basis on which to judge politicians, since it’s how the vast majority of voters must form their opinions.)

In his first term in Parliament, from 2017, McAnulty earned a reputation as a rising star in the Labour Party firmament. He’s now much more than that, having been appointed the government’s chief whip in 2020 and more recently made a minister outside cabinet. He’s on the up, in other words.

In my eyes he attained a new level of political credibility when the people of the Wairarapa chose him as their MP. Previously he got into Parliament by virtue of his place on the Labour list, which is no substitute for the endorsement of real voters. But he earned his place in the House by being hard-working and highly visible, first as a candidate and subsequently as an MP. He has positioned himself as a battler for the Wairarapa and always seems to ensure his name is mentioned when positive things happen in the electorate.  

What makes McAnulty an interesting politician is that he has adroitly cultivated an image as a traditional Kiwi bloke in a party that doesn’t generally have much time for blokedom. In that respect he displays similar characteristics to the late Mike Moore and to Shane Jones (the latter a Labour cabinet minister before deducing he had more of a future with New Zealand First).

McAnulty forms a useful bridge between urban Labour and the provincial heartland, much of which switched its support from National to Labour in 2020 and will be crucial in determining the outcome of the next election. His previous occupation (a bookmaker for the TAB) and his celebrated 1997 Mazda ute, which he used to great effect as a political prop, fed into his image as an unconventional Labour MP and something of a hard case.

Along the way he appears to have established a close rapport with the prime minister, who happens to share his provincial background. I don’t think any of this happened by chance. McAnulty’s blokey persona serves him well, but underneath it I’ve no doubt he’s an ambitious, calculating politician. Neither do I doubt that if it came to the crunch, he would defer to the woke and Maori factions in the Labour caucus, because that’s where power resides.  

Nonetheless, it could be said that the MP for Wairarapa hasn’t put a foot wrong … so far. But neither has he really been tested, and that may soon change. He now risks being collateral damage in the furore over renegade MP Gaurav Sharma, who alleges he was badly treated by the Labour whips. That implicates McAnulty, since he was chief whip for most of the period Sharma has complained about. Certainly he's in the political spotlight in a way he hasn't experienced before, and not in a good way.

Voters could be excused for wondering whether, under the surface bonhomie, McAnulty is a bit of a bully. After all, that’s what being a party whip requires, as Chris Trotter reminds us in a superb piece on the Bassett, Brash and Hide website.

Meanwhile I’m aware of potentially damaging information about McAnulty circulating on social media. His best hope is that the mainstream media will dismiss it as mischievous gossip – but as the Sam Uffindell saga reminds us, in the toxic political environment of 2022 there are no guarantees that embarrassing secrets will stay secret. Only those who are as pure as the driven snow – in other words, probably no one – can be assured of untroubled sleep.







Tuesday, August 16, 2022

RIP Gordon Spittle

I was sorry to see the name Gordon Spittle in today’s death notices.

Gordon was a sub-editor at The Dominion when I was there in the late 1980s. He also wrote Counting the Beat, published in 1997 – one of the best books about New Zealand pop music that I’ve read.

A comprehensive, authoritative and well-written history of Kiwi popular music from early folk songs through to Dave Dobbyn, Crowded House and the heyday of the Dunedin sound, it deserved far more recognition than it got. No New Zealand pop fan's book collection is complete without it.

Gordon died in Auckland on August 12, aged 72.

Monday, August 15, 2022

It's taken 32 years, but David Stewart's heroism has finally been properly recognised

On Saturday I was privileged to attend a ceremony at Linton army camp in honour of Private David Edward Whawhai Stewart.

Exactly 32 years previously, on August 13 1990, Private Stewart died in a blizzard on Mt Ruapehu in an army training exercise that went hideously wrong. He was 23. 

Stewart would almost certainly have survived had it not been for his selfless efforts to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. He could have saved himself by hunkering down in his sleeping bag, his only protection against the raging snowstorm. 

Instead he repeatedly exposed himself to the elements, moving around in 180 kmh winds and near-zero visibility in an attempt to help others in the party and keep up morale. He ended up dying of exposure after his sleeping bag blew away as he attempted to share it with two comrades.

Stewart was one of six young men – five soldiers and one naval rating – who died that night. It was the worst loss of life experienced by the New Zealand Defence Force in a single event since the Second World War.

Only now is his heroism being properly recognised. At Saturday’s event, a plaque in Stewart’s honour was unveiled at the Linton headquarters of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment’s 1st Battalion, of which he was a member.

It was jointly unveiled by his mother, Kathleen Kotiro Stewart, of Whakatane, and the head of the army, Major General John Boswell. Future generations of soldiers passing through the doors of the David Stewart Memorial Theatrette will see the plaque and be reminded of Stewart’s act of self-sacrifice.

The ceremony marked the completion of the first step in a patient and long-running campaign by former army officers to ensure that Stewart’s actions are belatedly recognised. In the second phase, they will try to persuade the government that he should posthumously be awarded the New Zealand Cross, New Zealand’s highest honour for acts of bravery in peacetime. It’s hard to see what argument could be made against their case.

Stewart’s heroism has been recognised previously – but inexcusably, not until nine years after the event. Even then he was awarded only the New Zealand Bravery Medal, the lowest possible honour. The Bravery Medal is awarded simply for unqualified “acts of bravery” as opposed to the New Zealand Cross, which is given for “acts of great bravery in extreme danger” – a more appropriate honour for a man who knowingly risked (and ultimately sacrificed) his life for others.

Stewart wasn’t the only hero on Ruapehu that night. Fellow soldiers Sonny Te Rure (now known as Sonny Tavake) and Brendon Burchell were similarly honoured in 1999. Both survived the 1990 ordeal and attended Saturday’s dedication ceremony.

Tavake’s actions on the mountain were no less courageous and selfless than Stewart’s. The two men ended up sharing a sleeping bag which blew away when they invited a third soldier, whose own sleeping bag had been lost (and who died), to join them.

Burchell, meanwhile, set out with one of the group’s two instructors to get help. But by the time the alarm was raised, it was too late; six young men lay dead in the snow from hypothermia.

Why no push for an upgrade to Tavake’s medal as well as Stewart’s? A pragmatic explanation is that two upgrades might have been too much for the honours system to cope with, and the case for Stewart was considered emotionally more compelling because his heroism resulted in his death.

A pertinent background factor is that for a long time, army chiefs gave the impression of not wanting to draw public attention to the tragedy on Ruapehu, even to the extent of being reluctant to acknowledge the heroism of their own men. 

The army would justifiably have been embarrassed by the results of a military court of inquiry headed by Colonel Bernard Isherwood, which found the principal cause of the tragedy was that the two instructors were insufficiently skilled and inexperienced in extreme weather conditions. The inquiry also criticised the extraordinary failure to carry a radio that could have been used to summon help.

It’s perhaps a measure of the army’s discomfort that the full report of the inquiry was released only last year. Even Isherwood had to make an OIA request for his own report so he could write an account for the regimental history and was initially refused on the ground that he was no longer serving. 

Isherwood, who left the army in 1999, and former Warrant Officer Bob Davies have led the charge for Stewart to be appropriately honoured. Isherwood spoke at Saturday’s ceremony and was blunt about the army’s failings: “I feel a responsibility for what happened that day. Not because I had any role in the event itself, but because of what I heard at the inquiry and the subsequent management of it by the army.

“I would also like to think that after 32 years we should have the maturity to acknowledge that as an organisation, we don’t always get it right; and we certainly didn’t on this occasion. In essence, we failed in our duty of care to our soldiers, the most important responsibility vested in us as commissioned officers.

“We allowed 11 totally inexperienced young men to be exposed to a lethal environment without the appropriate risk management resources in place. They were led by personnel who, through no fault of their own, lacked the training, experience and, in one case, the leadership skills. The conditions the group was exposed to were little different to a high-intensity combat environment on active service.”

Isherwood called the army’s treatment of Stewart, Tavake and Burchell a travesty. Among the families of some victims and survivors there’s still a degree of bitterness and resentment at the way the Ruapehu affair was handled – a feeling that the deaths were swept under the carpet in order to minimise discomfort to the defence hierarchy. But clearly, enough time has now elapsed for a new generation of senior officers to acknowledge the failings of the past. Saturday's event wouldn't
 have happened without the army's support. 

I was invited to attend  because of an article I had written for The Listener about the 1990 tragedy. It was a moving ceremony that was well covered by both TVNZ and Stuff. (Newshub also had a story about the unfathomable – and insulting – refusal to correct a memorial plaque on the mountain which misspells of one of the dead soldiers’ names.)

For me, as a non-military person, the Linton ceremony was an insight into the esprit de corps that binds soldiers and can motivate ordinary men to do extraordinary things, as in Stewart’s case (and frequently in wartime). Most of the 150-odd attendees were former soldiers and the majority were Maori. Many had been Stewart’s comrades and had driven long distances to pay their respects.

Watching them greet each other as they gathered beforehand, it was impossible not to be struck by the obvious affection and rapport between them. There was a lot of good-natured piss-taking but underneath, there was an unmistakeable sense of loyalty, mutual respect and solidarity. This applied to Pakeha as well as Maori soldiers, and there was an easy familiarity in the way they all exchanged hongi.

The commanding officer of Stewart’s battalion, Lt Col Logan Vaughan, gave a speech in which he observed that while most soldiers join the army knowing they might be sent to war zones, death and danger would not have been on the minds of the men who went up Mt Ruapehu in 1990. Yet in what quickly became a life-and-death situation, Stewart’s soldierly attributes asserted themselves and he put his mates first. “I couldn’t think of a better example of comradeship,” Vaughan said. It’s easy for urban sophisticates to be cynical about such old-fashioned concepts as comradeship but in the context of Saturday’s event, it struck an authentic note.

Stewart’s mother, surrounded by whanau, also spoke. Her speech was quiet, dignified and free of any hint of reproach for what had happened to her son. The waiata that the crowd spontaneously launched into after she had spoken would have left only the most hard-hearted attendee dry-eyed.

A Maori dimension – call it tikanga Maori – was central throughout the proceedings, but this was no display of ostentatious virtue-signalling such as you might see in the Wellington bureaucracy. It seemed the most natural thing in the world in an army unit that has absorbed Maori values. Being a soldier calls for a collectivist ethos that comes naturally to most Maori, and their Pakeha comrades seem to have absorbed it as if by osmosis. 

Bob Davies (a Pakeha), in a speech in 2000, talked about the loyalty and solidarity exhibited by Maori soldiers, saying it encapsulated “what it means to exist for something other than oneself”. Davies tells me he was thinking of David Stewart when he said that.


Friday, August 12, 2022

Yes, the Uffindell affair is a sideshow - but that doesn't let National off the hook

Some commenters on this blog have chided me for joining the criticism of the National Party over the Uffindell fiasco. The implication is that I’ve added my rather insubstantial weight to a media offensive calculated to cause maximum damage to National at a time when things were otherwise looking good for the party. Conspiracy theorists are even speculating that Labour sympathisers in the media have known about Uffindell’s past for months but chose to break the story now as a distraction from the government’s shredded credibility across a range of issues that grows wider and more obvious by the day.

My response to those who suggest I shouldn’t support what is seen as a media gang-up against National is that no matter how bad Labour is, we shouldn’t let the major opposition party off the hook for its own failings. It’s not only possible but legitimate to hold what some people might regard as the contradictory ideas that while Labour is a disaster, National doesn’t automatically present an overwhelmingly attractive alternative. Only dyed in the wool National supporters would turn a completely blind eye to the party’s faults on the basis that the other lot is worse.

People accuse me of being anti-National, but I want the Nats to be an effective opposition and it irritates me that they aren’t. While it’s true that I’ve never been a supporter of the party, that doesn’t mean I don’t want it to be good at its job – which, right now, is to expose and highlight the damage Jacinda Ardern’s rogue government, possibly the most destructive in our history, is doing to the country. It’s in the interests of all voters for the main opposition party to do its job properly, and it can’t do that if it’s constantly distracted by the need to extinguish self-ignited bushfires. The media may delight in exploiting those screw-ups, but they don’t cause them.

Having said all that, it’s true that in the big picture, the Uffindell affair is a mere sideshow – albeit one that has come at a convenient time for Labour. It has given the media an excuse to shift the focus from issues of far greater concern, such as (to mention just two):

The Auditor-General’s finding that the Three Waters proposal would allow the four so-called water “entities” to operate without proper accountability, which is what critics of the scheme have been saying from day one. In a submission to Parliament, Auditor-General John Ryan said the Three Waters legislation “could have an adverse effect on public accountability, transparency and organisational performance” – an admirably polite and restrained way of saying Nanaia Mahuta’s plan overturns virtually all established principles relating to the management of publicly owned infrastructure assets.

Significantly, most media coverage of Three Waters continues to play down or completely ignore its most offensive feature – namely, the imposition of 50-50 co-governance with unelected iwi interests via deliberately convoluted and opaque mechanisms. RNZ’s otherwise thorough coverage of the Auditor-General's statement gave the co-governance issue only a brief, passing mention. Stuff managed to avoid it altogether. Sceptics, noting this strange reluctance to confront the taniwha in the whare, can hardly be blamed for wondering if it’s connected with the media’s acceptance of government funding conditional on endorsement of still-undefined Treaty principles.

Meanwhile we have been given fresh reason to be highly sceptical about Three Waters. A Wairarapa iwi organisation has complained that under the draft legislation, its voice and autonomy will be diminished because it will be only one of 40 iwi in the proposed entity “C”. “We believe,” Rangitane o Wairarapa told the government, “that the Crown has an obligation to listen to and honour each of the voices of the iwi, not through consensus [which the tribe described as “not how we work in te ao Maori”] and not by determining six people represent 40-plus iwi.”

You can see where this could lead. Brace yourself, if the legislation goes ahead in its present form, for disputes of the type that have repeatedly dogged Treaty settlement negotiations.

■ Then there's the broader but related issue of Labour’s attack on democracy and the principle of one person, one vote. The most recent manifestation was the passing of legislation granting the powerful Ngai Tahu iwi the right to appoint – that’s right, appoint, not elect – two members to the Canterbury regional council. The Ngai Tahu councillors will have full voting rights but won’t have to submit themselves for election and will presumably be accountable only to the tribal hierarchy. That’s how easily democracy is dismantled.

The supposed justification arises from a radical re-interpretation of the Treaty under which democracy is subverted in favour of automatic, guaranteed representation for people of Maori ancestry. The sponsor of the Ngai Tahu bill, Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene, airily pronounced that “Ngai Tahu are entitled to this representation. They’re entitled to this representation because that is the promise of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and this is a modern-day expression of that promise.” There you go, then – 182 years of constitutional practice and precedent discarded in a few words.

All this is in line with Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson’s decree earlier this year that democracy has changed from being what he derisively called “the tyranny of the majority”. But if democracy no longer means that the majority ultimately holds sway, which after all is its key defining feature, then the game is up: New Zealand is no longer a democracy and we will have to find a new name for whatever mongrel form of government has replaced it. Pardon me, but did I miss the reference to this revolutionary change in Labour’s 2020 election manifesto?

Jackson makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for the notion that in a democracy, all citizens should exercise equal rights, labelling it a “political stunt”. He attacks what he calls “dog whistle” politics by opponents of the Ngai Tahu legislation while he himself unashamedly indulges in what might be labelled kuri whistling that can only promote racial division and separatism. He’s the Labour Cabinet’s resident brown-neck, aggressively championing race-based policies that threaten to drive a wedge between New Zealand’s two main racial groups and ramp up antagonism among extremists on both sides.

This is the same Willie Jackson who, when it suits him, has a highly selective view of who counts as Maori, as was made obvious when he disparaged ACT leader David Seymour (who claims Ngapuhi descent) as a “useless Maori” because he opposes separatist government departments such as Te Puni Kokiri.

The message couldn’t be clearer: if you sign up to Jackson’s radical ideology, you’re a good, authentic Maori. If you exercise your democratic right to dissent, you risk being dismissed as someone who doesn’t deserve to call themselves a true Maori. Jackson is a loudmouth and a bully. At the risk of stretching an analogy to breaking point, he’s the Labour government’s attack kuri.

Alongside these big issues, of course, are the continuing, everyday reminders of the shortcomings of a government whose ambition greatly exceeds its ability to deliver. Look no further than the Te Pukenga Polytechnic debacle for evidence of that. Two other examples from today: new migration figures that show a continuing net loss as people leave the country for better prospects elsewhere (many of the departees were Brits and Americans, presumably disillusioned with life under the sainted Ardern), and a Treasury forecast that an extra 3423 public servants and consultants will be needed to fulfil commitments made in the latest Budget – an increase of 6 percent when most New Zealanders think we have more than enough bureaucrats and jobsworths already. The Treasury noted a particular demand for climate and Maori policy advisers. Quelle surprise ….

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

It's not just Sam Uffindell who's on trial here

Some more thoughts on the Sam Uffindell saga:

■ The tyro Tauranga MP front-footed the media yesterday about his boarding school transgression (he was reportedly ordered to by his boss) and came across as sincere and contrite. But in the meantime another depth charge has gone off with the claim by a former student flatmate that she fled their Dunedin flat in fear – through a window, in fact – because of Uffindell’s menacing behaviour. What else might be lurking in his past and waiting to be disclosed?

■ Christopher Luxon has acted decisively in standing Uffindell down, but the damage is done. Will this be one of the shortest parliamentary tenures in New Zealand history? And how will the voters of Tauranga react if they’re subjected to another by-election so soon after the last one? Will they punish National by transferring their support to the ACT candidate, who commendably used a chance to come clean about past mistakes by revealing a teenage drink-drive conviction while Uffindell chose to “confess” a much blander (and politically self-serving) failing – namely, not bringing his family home to New Zealand earlier. (I like David Farrar’s suggestion, reported here by Bryce Edwards, that Uffindell could have seized the opportunity to make an impressive speech about lessons learned from his past, particularly in regard to bullying.)

■ National’s culture and processes are as much on trial as Uffindell. Now the collateral damage has spread to senior MP Todd McLay, who’s accused of knowing about the King’s College incident but inexplicably failing to tell Luxon or deputy leader Nicola Willis. Former party president Peter Goodfellow is also implicated (surprise!), raising further questions about why Goodfellow was allowed to remain in a position of power – he’s still on the party board – when so many egregiously wrong-headed selection decisions were made on his watch.

■ The media love indulging in schadenfreude, or pleasure in others’ misfortunes, and never more so than when the politician whose feet are being held to the fire is a conservative. But journalists and interviewers need to mind their own behaviour. Guyon Espiner should be ashamed of his show-offy tough-guy questioning of Luxon on Morning Report today. (“Yeah no, mate – we’re not going to go through all that, mate”, Espiner said, cutting off Luxon in mid-sentence. His point was fair enough; he wasn’t going to allow the interview to be taken over by talking points prepared by National media advisers. But it was the arrogant, smart-arse way Espiner did it that grated. “Mate”, as a form of address, can be friendly or it can be used as an aggressively macho challenge more appropriate to a public bar argument. In this case it was the latter.) And bearing in mind that the whole Uffindell scandal is largely about being transparent, how about some transparency from RNZ?  On First Up, Nick Truebridge interviewed Shane Te Pou for more than six minutes about the Uffindell furore without disclosing that Te Pou – who admittedly is an astute and perceptive commentator – is a former Labour Party activist, and therefore not to be regarded as a neutral observer. It shouldn't be assumed that RNZ's listeners knew that; they were entitled to be told. Or does RNZ assume its audience takes it as a given that its commentators lean to the left unless explicitly stated otherwise?

Correction: In the original version of this post I said the candidates in the Tauranga by-election revealed their greatest regrets in a candidates' debate. In fact it was in response to questions from the Bay of Plenty Times.




Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Uffindell affair and what it tells us about National

I shook my head in disbelief when the National Party announced its candidate in the Tauranga by-election. Sam Uffindell seemed the ultimate white bread man.

He conformed to every National Party stereotype: white, male, with a privileged background and a successful business career. In other words, the perfect candidate for a party previously led by John Key (who lacked the privileged background, but ticked the other boxes) and now by Christopher Luxon, who between them seem to have laid down the template for National’s vision of the ideal politician.

Unfortunately, Uffindell also came across as a dullard – stolid, uninspired and uninspiring. In that respect too, he could be compared with Key and Luxon, although if you were to be charitable you might concede that those two at least had some vestige of personality – unlike Uffindell, who displays all the charisma of a concrete block.

If you wanted to be cynical, I suppose you could say he was the perfect candidate for Tauranga, a city that gives the impression of worshipping Mammon more fervently than any other outside Auckland. But even so, Uffindell seemed a spectacularly tone-deaf choice.

Granted, the cult of diversity has been taken to dangerous extremes whereby important appointments are made on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation and other signifiers of victimism rather than ability. But at a time when the New Zealand electorate has never been more demographically dynamic, Uffindell was an anachronistic reversion to the 1960s, when everyone took it as read that those who represented us in Wellington would be middle-aged (or older) white males.

He reminded me in some ways of Alastair Scott, the National MP who represented my own electorate of Wairarapa for two terms. Scott was a wealthy merchant banker and vineyard owner whose main talent, apart from making money, was turning up for photo opportunities. He bailed out in 2020 – perhaps because he realised he had done nothing to earn advancement in the National hierarchy, or saw his Labour rival Kieran McAnulty looming large in his rear-vision mirror – and now the energetic McAnulty has a good chance of turning the seat into a safe Labour one. Has National learned nothing?

But back to Uffindell. Anyone thinking that the MP for Tauranga must have hidden depths visible only to the National selection panel would have been disabused of that notion by his maiden speech in Parliament. Maiden speeches are political set pieces that give neophyte politicians a rare chance to tell us something about themselves, their values and their vision, as Thomas
 Coughlan reminded us in the New Zealand Herald. But Uffindell’s told us little, other than giving the impression that he was mightily pleased with himself. Take this excerpt, for instance:

"I spent the first 12 years of my career in Sydney and Singapore—modern, forward-thinking, successful, advanced economies and societies. I led high-performing teams and high-performing cultures. I worked to reduce inefficiencies, to innovate, to problem-solve. We committed ourselves to utilising our resources to the best of our ability and to achieving set, measurable outcomes.”

And this:

“When I was young I played a lot of sport, and every time I played my dad taught me to play to win—and I did. And I loved it. Now we don't even keep the score.”

And this, which must surely make him a sitter for the title of parliamentary brown-noser of the year, assuming such an honour exists:

“In Christopher [Luxon], I have huge confidence that he will rise to be one of our great Prime Ministers, and it is and always will be an enormous honour to serve on his team. He inspires confidence, commitment, and belief, and he has all the skills, experience and vision necessary to drive our country to where we want to be. ”

As of yesterday, of course, we do now know something more about the new MP for Tauranga, although he didn’t mention it in his maiden speech and it’s something he would doubtless prefer to have kept secret.

Should Uffindell be punished for what appears to have been a nasty act of bullying that he committed as a teenager at boarding school against someone three years younger? That’s a tricky question. Many of us did things in our past lives that we now regret and are ashamed of.

On the other hand it can be argued that what he did, even though it happened 22 years ago, says something about his character. And more to the point, Uffindell must realise that when you put yourself forward for public office, you invite the public’s scrutiny and judgment regarding your past conduct. Such judgment can be harsh, but that’s the nature of a transparent democracy

We are also entitled to form opinions about the timing of his apology to his victim. Not everyone will be convinced he apologised because it was something that had weighed on his mind and he wanted to clear his conscience.

His victim certainly doesn’t seem to think that. He appears to have accepted the apology in good faith at the time but later wondered (as you would) whether it was given in an attempt to empty Uffindell’s cupboard of a potentially embarrassing skeleton before he announced his run for office. You don’t have to be a sceptic to regard the timeline as suspicious.

And then – oh, dear – there’s the National Party. Deputy leader Nicola Willis says she didn’t know about the unpleasant episode at King’s College until yesterday. This conveniently distances her from the now problematical MP for Tauranga and absolves her of any embarrassing implication in a cover-up. But it’s beyond astonishing that no one in the party thought to tell National’s leader or his deputy about the existence of a political landmine awaiting inevitable detonation under Uffindell and the party.

What does this tell us about National’s selection procedures and its internal lines of communication? You can only conclude that even after repeatedly choosing narcissistic, entitled, dysfunctional male candidates whose flashing neon warning signs appear to have been ignored, the party keeps re-cocking the selection pistol and aiming it in the direction of its feet. This puts a giant question mark over National's claim to competence and will leave people wondering whether the party can be trusted to govern us.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

On the joys of long-haul travel

International travel has always been a trade-off. You put up with cramped aircraft seats and long, tedious flights over featureless oceans because at the other end, you were rewarded with interesting experiences in new places. Even when those experiences weren’t always good ones, as when a flight was delayed or you got lost trying to find your way around an unfamiliar city, in time they became part of a collection of memories that were overwhelmingly pleasurable.

To put it another way, the bad was always more than offset by the good. But I wonder whether that’s still the case. The nature and quality of international travel has changed, and with it the balance between positive and negative. In the past, this balance invariably tilted toward the former. But as my wife and I exited the Wellington Airport terminal three days ago after returning from our first overseas trip since Covid-19 struck, I vowed to myself that I would need an extremely compelling reason before I could be tempted to travel abroad again.

What’s changed? Well, 9/11 for a start. The attack on the World Trade Centre triggered the introduction of increasingly intrusive and time-consuming security checks which mean you can spend as much time in airport terminals as you do in the air. Over time, those security measures have gradually become more oppressive and authoritarian. We grudgingly accept that they were instituted for our safety, but I often wonder whether the people who make and enforce aviation security rules are doing what officious types have always enjoyed – namely, exerting authority over fellow human beings simply because they can. Passengers are herded like livestock and made to feel as if all are viewed as potential terrorists. Some officials try to be courteous, but many make no attempt to ameliorate the inherent indignity of the process; on the contrary, their manner is brusque and hectoring. Object at your own risk; you’re at their mercy, and they know it.

This bossiness is clearly infectious, since it has spread to airline cabin crew. Almost from the moment you check in, but especially once you’re on the plane, you’re repeatedly assailed with announcements about what you can and cannot do. These are delivered without any redeeming note of graciousness or charm. I half expect to hear a shout of “Achtung!” followed by the clicking of heels.

The message is clear: they’re in charge, you’re their captive, and you’ll do as you’re told. Often the safety instructions are recited several times, as if directed at a classroom of slow learners.

I’m reminded of the great Roger Miller’s wickedly clever song Boeing Boeing 707:

Overcharge for excess baggage
Know your concourse, know your gate
Up this way sir, not that way sir
Airplane departs gate six-eight

Please sir may l see your ticket
Fasten seat belt, you can't smoke
Beverage, anything you'd care for?
Sorry but we're out of Coke

Destination de-plane slowly
Do this, do that, l comply
God bless Orville, god bless Wilbur
It's the only way to fly

Miller’s lyrics suggest that bossing passengers around has been part of airline culture for decades (the song was recorded in 1969), but it’s now more overt than ever. The effect is to make passengers feel less like paying customers than a burdensome inconvenience that must be rigorously marshalled and managed.

Of course there are great cabin crew who do their best to treat passengers well and respectfully. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that the enjoyment factor in flying isn’t determined so much by the airline as by the quality of the crew. A good flight attendant can make the difference between a pleasant flight and one where you can’t get off the plane fast enough. You can strike a lousy crew on a supposedly good airline and vice-versa. But a consistent factor across virtually all airlines is that the worthy efforts of individual cabin crew members can be negated by the dehumanising authoritarianism of the total flying experience. The drivers of airport shuttle buses are often more genuinely affable than the people who are supposed to make your flight a pleasure.

To all this must now be added a more recent disincentive to travel: namely, Covid-19. This has delivered a double-whammy, placing huge strain on airlines and airport infrastructure as international travel ramps up again, but in addition giving bureaucratic busybodies all the excuse they need to place new obstacles in people’s paths.

On our recent trip to and from the US, my wife and I were relatively lucky. Despite reports of chaos at airports, all our flights left on time. Problems arose only when we arrived at LAX, where we queued for three hours to get through Customs and Border Protection. Despite having allowed what we thought was ample time to catch a connecting flight, we made it after a dash with only minutes to spare.

LAX is notorious for congestion, but we’d passed through it many times before and never experienced anything quite like this. Covid – or more specifically, staff shortages caused by the virus – seemed the only logical explanation. You just had to shrug and accept it, as our thousands of fellow queuers seemed to do. No one showed signs of anger or impatience.

The same issue, presumably, was responsible for a delay of well over an hour getting through transit at Sydney Airport on the way home, where a single security official was screening the cabin baggage of hundreds – possibly thousands – of passengers waiting to catch connecting flights. This time there were signs of restiveness, with one impatient man loudly demanding to know why only one X-ray machine was operating when it was demonstrably inadequate.

We had plenty of time, so the delay didn’t bother us greatly. However, not for the first time, I wondered why the hell we had to undergo security screening all over again having done it already before leaving LAX – surely one of the world’s most security-conscious airports. At no stage had we left a secure area. What lethal contents could possibly have found their way into our bags in the meantime? Or was this a case of overkill by over-zealous security functionaries eager to show us who was boss?

But that wasn’t the biggest cause of frustration on our homeward journey; far from it. Checking in at LAX, we were told we couldn’t enter New Zealand without first completing something called a Traveller’s Declaration. It was the first we’d heard of it, although we thought we’d carefully ticked all the required boxes prior to leaving New Zealand. At the very least, this is an abject communications failure on the part of a clueless government. I’ve since discovered the declaration was trialled as early as March, although our travel agent never mentioned it to us and nothing was said about it in the several text messages we received from Qantas supposedly advising us of all the formalities we had to complete before travelling.

The check-in clerk at the Qantas counter told us we could either complete the form online or fill in an old-fashioned hard copy. I chose the hard copy option for two reasons: (1) she gave us the impression it had to be completed there and then, as part of the checking-in process, so it seemed there was an element of urgency; and (2) I know from past experience that getting wi-fi access at LAX can be a hit-and-miss affair and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. But having hurriedly completed the forms while at the check-in counter on the understanding that this was a pre-requisite to re-entering NZ, we were surprised when they were immediately handed back to us with the instruction that they be submitted on arrival at Wellington. So much for the sense of urgency, then. But more on that shortly ….

The same check-in clerk tried to tell us that we couldn’t check our bags all the way through to Wellington as we had done in the past, but would instead have to uplift them at Sydney and check them in again for the last stage of the journey. This erroneous advice was repeated by a flight attendant on the plane. But since it defied common sense, we went straight to the transit counter on arrival at Sydney and were duly assured that our bags would indeed be carried on to our ultimate destination. Had we followed the advice from Qantas, we’d still be floundering around at Kingsford Smith.

And so to Wellington – at which point we learned that because we hadn’t completed our Traveller's Declaration online and therefore didn’t have a QR code to scan, we couldn’t enter via the E-gate but instead had to queue with a long line of foreign passport holders waiting to be processed manually. The Qantas clerk at LAX had failed to mention this pertinent fact, with the result that it took us an hour to clear Immigration while we watched fellow passengers breeze through in a matter of seconds. This is not something you relish after travelling for 35 hours. The same fate befell another New Zealand passport holder standing in front of us, who knew nothing about the Traveller's Declaration until he landed.

All of this was exasperating enough, but here’s the final affront: there was no information in the Traveller's Declaration that wasn’t also included in the standard arrival form we filled out on the plane as we approached Wellington. They were virtual duplicates of each other. The declaration was, in other words, totally superfluous; just another pointless hoop to jump through, devised by bureaucrats with not enough to do on behalf of an incompetent government intent on creating solutions to problems that don’t exist. Or to put it another way, just another example of the style of managerialism technically known as compulsive control freakery. The immigration official at Wellington Airport barely gave our completed forms a glance before adding them to an untidy pile behind her which, for all I know, could have been binned at the end of the day without any further scrutiny.

Incidentally, I’m not alone in concluding the Traveller's Declaration serves no purpose other than to provoke resentment from New Zealanders trying to get into their own country. Stuff travel writer Brook Sabin recently wrote about the frustration of having to complete the form and pronounced it a bureaucratic nonsense. All it achieved in our case was to delay us just long enough to ensure that we missed our train to Masterton.

Oh, and did I mention that after all this infernal rigmarole, we had to submit our bags for yet another X-ray screening – the third – before leaving Wellington Airport? Another queue, another delay. What the hell is the purpose of that, other than to satisfy some public-sector jobsworth looking to justify his or her existence?

The upshot of all this is that I’ve decided international travel post-9/11, and now post-Covid, has become altogether too difficult, too unpleasant and too stressful – in short, an ordeal I would rather avoid, and verging on masochistic. I haven’t even mentioned the tedium and discomfort of long-haul flight, which is only marginally relieved by paying extra for premium economy seats (almost a necessity when you’re 190cm tall and the flight takes more than 14 hours). Getting Covid on this latest trip didn’t help either, although fortunately the symptoms were relatively mild.

I think back to a two-week trip around the South Island with my wife several months ago when we were able to decide where we went and when, all in comfort and without delay or obstruction, rather than being at the mercy of pettifogging rules, officious and/or incompetent airline and aviation security functionaries and the totally unpredictable vagaries of immigration procedures. At no time was our South Island holiday anything less than relaxing and enjoyable, in marked contrast to our more recent overseas excursion. The old promotional slogan for domestic tourism, “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country”, has suddenly acquired new and unexpected relevance. (Besides, by staying in New Zealand you can feel virtuous about climate change.)

Okay, so this is just one person’s jaundiced reaction to a particular set of circumstances. But it wouldn’t surprise me if other travellers, having endured similar experiences as international air travel struggles to emerge from its enforced period of hibernation, will also now reassess the benefits of international travel against the multiple downsides and decide the equation has irrevocably changed - for the worse.