Sunday, October 30, 2022

Why the culture wars are being lost by default

We have a moral problem in this country. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a cowardice problem.

One of the reasons the other side is winning the culture wars – and no one should be in any doubt that they are – is that too few conservatives and genuine liberals (as opposed to authoritarian neo-Marxists who have hijacked the term) have the guts to stand up and declare themselves.

Look at the comments on this blog and others such as Bassett, Brash and Hide or Muriel Newman’s Breaking Views.

The people who comment know what’s going on. They realise that liberal democracy and capitalism are under unprecedented attack. They are thoughtful and perceptive in identifying the threats posed by the cult of identity politics and they know what’s necessary to counter it.

They understand that we are in an ideological war to protect and preserve the values of the free, tolerant society we grew up in. So why do so few of them identify themselves?

The people driving the culture wars have no such qualms. Confident in the knowledge that their world view is shared by the institutions of power and influence – government, the bureaucracy, academia, schools, the media, the arts, even the corporate sector – they promulgate their divisive, corrosive messages without fear.

They are winning by default because too many people on the other side - that is to say, our side - keep their heads down and their identity secret. People whose political instincts are essentially conservative may not be outnumbered, but they are certainly outgunned.

It’s a given that conservatism often equates with passivity and apathy. The vast mass of people who are broadly happy with the status quo will never compete with the ideological zeal of the social justice warriors, and it would be idle to expect them to. But I’m not talking here about the masses who are primarily concerned with raising a family, paying the mortgage and watching rugby; I’m talking about those who are deeply worried about the radical re-invention of New Zealand society and who recognise the need to oppose it. They’re the people who need to raise their heads above the parapet.

They could take their cue from commentators like Chris Trotter and Martyn Bradbury – old-school lefties who have the courage to take on the identity politics cultists, even at the risk of alienating many of their former political allies (and who, perhaps even more uncomfortably from their point of view, now find themselves aligned with conservatives in defence of the core democratic value of free speech). Don Franks, an occasional commenter on this blog, is another Marxist free speech champion who finds himself vigorously at odds with the new generation of middle-class, university-educated social justice warriors.

In fact the Left in New Zealand has historically been far more fearless than conservatives about expressing unpopular, non-conformist opinions. When I was in charge of letters to the editor at The Evening Post during the 1990s, hardly a week would pass when we didn’t publish provocative missives from diehard socialists such as Rene (R.O.) Hare, Arthur (A.P.) Quinn and the Reverend Don Borrie. It didn’t worry them that they were out of step with the mainstream. We could learn from their conviction even if we didn’t agree with their ideology.

The anonymity issue was epitomised for me by someone who hides behind the pseudonym of Redbaiter, formerly an occasional commenter on this blog with whom I recently had an increasingly impolite email exchange (now terminated). His online nom-de-guerre suggests a fearless crusader for freedom, but he’s too timid even to identify himself in private emails.

He justified his anonymity to me by citing threats and abuse he supposedly received when he previously used his real name. (I don’t think I’m betraying any confidence in revealing this, since no one, to my knowledge, knows who Redbaiter is. I certainly don’t.)

Other anonymous commenters on this blog have used similar arguments. But threats and abuse, as unpleasant as they are, are surely a price worth paying for the free and open exercise of free speech. The neo-Marxists must derive great satisfaction from the fact that many of their opponents so lack the courage of their convictions that they keep their names secret, as if there's something shameful about their opinions. Perversely, it enables the other side to feel morally superior.  

Another argument often heard in defence of anonymity is that jobs and careers can be jeopardised by the expression of politically incorrect opinions, which in itself indicates how seriously democratic values have been subverted in the prevailing climate of intolerance.

Some followers of this blog don’t hesitate to point out to me that I’m in the privileged position of not being dependent on income from a job, which is true. But I’m sure many people who comment on blogs like this have, like me, moved past the point where careers might be at risk. What’s stopping them from naming themselves?

It’s worth mentioning here that the Free Speech Union, which is officially registered as a trade union, has corresponding legal rights to protect freedom of speech against interference by employers, and has successfully done so. Speaking of which, the union will be having its first annual conference in Auckland next weekend and can look back on a remarkable year of achievements (mostly ignored by the mainstream media, which should be at the forefront of the free speech movement) in the fight against the insidious phenomenon known as cancel culture.

The emergence of the FSU is a heartening sign that resistance to authoritarian censorship is slowly gaining momentum, but there’s a long way to go. In the meantime, it would help if more people demonstrated their support for free speech by openly and unapologetically exercising it. The more who step forward, the more they give courage to others. It’s called critical mass.




Saturday, October 29, 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis: last of the original rock and rollers


This is where it all began: the church in the Mississippi Delta town of Ferriday, Louisiana, where Jerry Lee Lewis - who has died aged 87 - first experienced the thrill of performing to an audience.

I took this photo in 2012 while gathering information for my book A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis. The humble building on Texas Avenue was a Pentecostalist Assembly of God church when Lewis began playing piano and singing for the congregation in about 1945, but it later became the Latter Rain Revival Tabernacle (make of that name what you will).

It was a whites-only church but black families would gather outside during Sunday services to hear the music. The young Lewis was sometimes joined by his cousins Mickey Gilley - later a country star in his own right - and Jimmy Swaggart, of televangelism infamy. They would perform gospel songs such as Blessed Jesus, Hold My Hand and He Was Nailed to the Cross for Me.

All this seems incongruous considering Lewis's reputation in later life as the original wild man of rock and roll, but as I wrote in my book: "Some of the most wayward debauchees in show business (Johnny Cash was another) came from the Bible Belt and learned their chops giving praise to God." Lewis's biographer Rick Bragg wrote that he went through life alternating between world-class sinner and penitent - "sometimes in the space of a single song".

I was a great fan of Lewis from the time I first heard Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On when I was six years old. As I recalled in my book, my teenage brother Justin brought the record home and played it for hours on end, occasionally flipping it over to the B-side, It’ll Be Me. (To this day I think It’ll Be Me was as good as the A-side. Have a listen.)

I interviewed the man himself at Wellington Airport when he toured with his band in about 1971 and my main memory is that for someone known as the Killer, he was almost disappointingly courteous and obliging.

Lewis was one of the three singers who introduced me to rock and roll. The others were Elvis Presley and Fats Domino and now they're all gone. Pat Boone (aged 88) is the only survivor from the first wave of rock and roll and he'd probably be the first to admit he's not quite in the same league.

Friday, October 28, 2022

The problem with Luxon

Three days ago I heard Christopher Luxon being interviewed by Mani Dunlop on Morning Report. It was profoundly depressing.

Dunlop introduced the item by saying that with a by-election approaching in Hamilton West, the National Party was under pressure – she didn’t say from whom, but we can assume she meant media commentators – to “add diversity” to a “largely male” caucus.

RNZ had done the sums and calculated that National’s caucus was 33 percent female, 6 percent Maori, 3 percent Asian and “zero percent” Pasifika – a statistical breakdown that would have looked pretty good a few years ago, but which clearly doesn’t meet RNZ’s diversity threshold.

Dunlop (and I won’t even begin to discuss the ethics of National’s leader being interrogated on state-owned radio’s flagship news programme by the partner of a Labour cabinet minister) accusingly threw these figures at Luxon and demanded to know what he was going to do about it.

You can imagine how Winston Peters or Robert Muldoon would have responded to a question like that, but Luxon is cut from different cloth. He appears desperately eager to convince the media that he’s sympathetic to the woke agenda.

This is known as pushing shit uphill with a fork, since the media are fundamentally hostile to the centre-right and will correctly interpret Luxon’s attempts to ingratiate himself with them as a sign of weakness.

Luxon has yet to grasp this, so proceeded to humour Dunlop – you might even say kowtow to her – by assuring her that National was determined to build a more diverse party and to overcome any “unconscious bias”. To this end the party was re-educating (my word, not Luxon’s, but that was the thrust of what he said) its electorate chairs.

Here was the leader of the country’s principal conservative party – or perhaps I should use the initials CINO, as in Conservative In Name Only – adopting the terminology of the woke Left in a pathetic attempt to persuade the public that he’s no right-wing ogre, as if anyone could be in danger of having thought that in the first place.

(It didn’t help that Luxon’s answers to Dunlop’s questions were laced with wretched corporate jargon presumably brought from Air New Zealand, such as the need to do better “in this space” and to be “more competitive in our offerings”. God spare us.)

Dunlop must have struggled to conceal her glee at the satisfaction of having the leader of the National Party dancing so obligingly to her tune. The tone of his responses was essentially submissive.

Someone should explain to Luxon that every time he indulges in these appeasement games in an attempt to persuade the Left that he’s no threat – a strategy that won’t win him a single vote, since they won’t vote National anyway – he alienates more of the people whose support he should be seeking.

In fact he gives conservative voters another reason to find a different party to support. ACT stands to be the major beneficiary, but it’s also likely that right-of-centre voters will gravitate to smaller parties such as New Zealand First or former National MP Matt King’s DemocracyNZ – and by splitting the anti-Labour vote, allow an incompetent and destructive far-Left coalition to squeak back into power.

No one should quibble with Luxon’s aim of making National more diverse. Not only is it desirable as a matter of democratic principle for the party to reflect more accurately the demographic makeup of the country; it makes sense politically too.  Certainly National should have learned a lesson from its disastrous propensity for choosing egotistical, entitled young Anglo-Saxon males as candidates, which seemed to be the pattern under the party’s previous president.

The problem with Luxon is essentially one of tone. In his eagerness to come across as unthreatening - a nice guy - he sounds weak. He needs to be more assertive in promoting and defending conservative values and less deferential in the way he allows the media to dictate the agenda.

He’s no longer a corporate chief executive who needs to be careful to protect the brand and not upset customers. Politics calls for a tougher approach and a realisation that to be effective, he must occasionally offend some people. He also needs to grasp – as Muldoon and his protégé Peters did – that there’s little political downside in taking on the media, because the public generally don't like journalists any more than they like politicians.

The bigger issue here is that National has an identity crisis. In two perceptive columns today, Josie Pagani and Matthew Hooton consider what it means to be a conservative party and the risks of abandoning the values that once defined conservatism. National has lost sight of what it means to be a true conservative party and lacks the confidence to uphold honourable conservative values.

I believe the party has been intimidated by the media into behaving as if conservatism is somehow shameful, and I can’t see it rediscovering, still less re-asserting, its ideological roots with Luxon as its leader. At least, not unless he radically changes gear.




Tuesday, October 25, 2022

How the word misogyny has been twisted to suit woke ideology

Misogyny is one of those words, like homophobia and racism, whose meaning has been stretched to the point where its misuse is now routine.

Strictly speaking it means hatred of women (from the Greek misos, meaning hatred, and gunē, for woman – no room for ambiguity there).

Genuine hatred of women is extreme and, I would guess, relatively rare. A man who literally hates women would surely be classified as borderline psychotic.  I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who fitted the description.

But this hasn’t saved the word from being co-opted in the furtherance of the culture wars. As used by feminists – and increasingly by journalists who are either ignorant of, or have no concern for, the accurate use of language – “misogyny” has become a synonym for any sentiment or opinion that happens to be at odds with feminist dogma.

This is explicit in Wikipedia’s definition of misogyny as “a form of sexism that keeps women at a lower social status than men, thus maintaining the societal roles of patriarchy”, which makes it clear that the meaning of the word has been bent to suit woke ideology.

Just as the word homophobia has been stretched far beyond its original meaning (that is, a hatred or fear of homosexuals) and the accusation of racism is routinely hurled at anyone who challenges the cult of identity politics, so the claim of misogyny is frequently used as a smear against people who refuse to bow to feminist orthodoxy.

Just how casually the word has been subverted was evident on Morning Report this morning. In an item on the swearing-in of new Labour list MP Soraya Peke-Mason, who replaces Trevor Mallard, reporter Anneke Smith noted that for the first time, women will occupy more seats than men in the New Zealand Parliament.

That goes some way, although admittedly not very far, toward redressing an historical imbalance. But rather than celebrate this milestone, Smith soured the tone of her report by recalling that at the time of feminist MP Marilyn Waring’s election in 1975, “misogyny was part of the fabric” of Parliament (although how Smith would know that, when I suspect she wasn’t even born then, is a moot point).

What was the evidence for this extravagant statement? Bearing in mind misogyny’s definition, one might assume Waring’s parliamentary colleagues subjected her to hateful abuse and harassment. In fact the former renegade National MP cited the traumatic experience of attending meetings – presumably of caucus – where those present were addressed as “gentlemen”. 

All this tells us is that MPs were unaccustomed to having a woman present. Call it archaic, call it ignorant, call it insensitive, call it bigoted … but misogynistic? Hardly. I can't imagine it left Waring emotionally scarred. It simply reflected the ingrained habits of a time when women didn’t feature much in public life. That falls far short of hatred.

Waring went on to recall that an MP once objected to Ruth Richardson breast-feeding her baby in an ante room adjacent to the debating chamber. The MP’s point of order motion drew attention to the fact that there was "a stranger in the House".

“A stranger?” asked Smith incredulously. “Yeah, the baby,” Waring explained.

The implication was that this epitomised Parliament’s oppressive sexism. Waring highlighted the use of the peculiar word “stranger” as if to demonstrate how bizarrely out of touch and anti-woman Parliament was. But as a former MP she should know that in the arcane language of Parliament, a “stranger” was anyone who was not either an MP or an officer of Parliament.

As the distinguished law professor John Burrows once pointed out, Parliament had the right to exclude “strangers” (including, in theory, press gallery journalists). “Any Member of Parliament can move that strangers be ordered to withdraw, and if the motion is carried they must leave.”

So the MP in question was acting in accordance with the rules, possibly in an attempt to clarify whether they applied to Members’ babies. (It wasn’t until 2017 that people sitting in the public gallery officially became known as visitors rather than strangers, though I understand the latter term still applies to anyone entering the debating chamber or lobbies.)

All this tells us is that Parliament is slow to adjust to the times. It may have seemed quaint, but it was hardly misogynistic.

Footnote: Anneke Smith also noted in her report that Jacinda Ardern was “the first female prime minister to have a baby while in office”. No one should hold their breath waiting for the first male PM to do the same, but I suppose anything’s possible.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

Pahiatua is where it always was, despite what the Dominion Post says

It will have come as a revelation to readers of the Dominion Post to learn today that Pahiatua is in the Manawatu-Whanganui region. But there it was, incontrovertibly in black and white, in André Chumko’s obituary for Zdzisław (Eric) Lepionka, a prominent member of Wellington’s Polish community who died in August.

Here was further evidence – not that we needed it – that journalists’ ignorance of their own country is even more woeful than their legendarily unreliable arithmetic.

Experienced sub-editors of past generations knew never to trust either, and there’s the problem. Newspapers got rid of sub-editors in the extraordinary belief that reporters could correct their own mistakes – but as I wrote recently, how could they be expected to correct something that they didn’t know was wrong?

My guess is that Chumko is one of that generation of journalists who rarely venture beyond the city limits. Pahiatua is where it has always been, in the northern Wairarapa and thus separated from the Manawatu and Whanganui districts by the Tararua and Ruahine ranges. I rang a mate who lives there this morning just to confirm it hasn't been moved. Older locals would identify the town as being in the heart of the region once known as Bush, from the 19th century name Seventy Mile Bush (which lives on in the names of the NZME-owned community paper the Bush Telegraph, based in Pahiatua, and the Wairarapa-Bush Rugby Football Union).

I would further guess that Chumko got his information from Wikipedia. If you look up that website's entry for Pahiatua, it mentions that the town is in “the far east of the Manawatu-Whanganui region”. But that doesn’t locate it geographically, because the Manawatu-Whanganui region in this context is essentially a local government construct. (The same is true of the illogical name Tararua for the district that’s centred on Dannevirke – illogical because it’s a long way from the mountain range of the same name and in much closer proximity to the Ruahines. My old journalism colleague Nick Hill, a long-time resident of Dannevirke and an unsuccessful candidate for the mayoralty in the recent elections, has campaigned to no avail for a name change.)

On a related note, I often see newspaper stories that erroneously refer to something happening in, for argument’s sake, Masterton when in fact it may have taken place 50 kilometres or more away from the actual town. This is due to a peculiar inability on the part of today’s journalists to distinguish between towns and local government entities that bear the same name.

It seems that as far as most reporters are concerned, if it happened anywhere within the vast rural hinterland covered by the Masterton District Council, it happened "in Masterton". I can’t begin to imagine the head-scratching that goes on among local newspaper readers when they see a reference to a fire "in Masterton” which, on further reading, turns out to have burned in a remote locality more than an hour’s drive away.

This is another consequence of the hollowing out of newsrooms which wiped out a cohort of older, more experienced journalists whose job was to save reporters (and the paper) from their own failings.

But back to that obituary. The reference to Pahiatua arose because Eric Lepionka and his wife Halina were among 732 Polish refugee children, the victims of appalling wartime suffering and treachery, who were brought to New Zealand in 1944 and placed in a former army camp just south of the town. Many, like Eric (whom I once interviewed for an article in The Listener), went on to build successful lives in New Zealand, but their generation is inexorably passing away. Earlier this year my wife and I attended the funeral of another “Pahiatua Pole”, the mother of an old friend, who was also obituarised in the Dominion Post.

Have I made too much of the obituary writer’s mistake this morning? Most people would think it harmless. And so it is, except in one vital respect. A newspaper’s reputation rests on credibility, and credibility in turn depends on accuracy. When readers can see that a journalist has got something so obviously wrong as the location of a town, they naturally wonder whether the story includes other inaccuracies that they’re not aware of. That’s why sub-editors were employed – as a vital defence against error.

We now have a generation of journalists who are trained to tiptoe ever so carefully through the minefield of identify politics - Chumko himself specialises in articles promoting the cult of diversity - but who often get facts wrong and in many cases give the impression of not even having mastered basic literacy. And the tragedy, at least in the case of the Dominion Post, is that no one seems to care anymore.






Wednesday, October 19, 2022

What history tells us about long-distance passenger trains

My Sydney-domiciled friend and former colleague Robin Bromby, a lifetime railways enthusiast, co-founder of Rails magazine and author of New Zealand Railways: Their Life and Times, sent the following comment on my post about the Restore Passenger Rail fantasists:

Here’s something that the Restore Passenger Rail mob might not like to hear: the body mainly responsible for the demise of passenger trains (and railcars) over the length and breadth of New Zealand was — wait for it — New Zealand Railways (NZR) itself, and that process began almost 100 years ago. It favoured buses for moving people! New Zealanders didn’t much like trains either: since the 1920s, whenever they had an alternative option to trains for travel, they took it. And this applied both to long distance trains and suburban commuter services.

The greatest number of rail passengers carried in any financial year was recorded in 1943-44 when NZR sold 15,733,306 non-suburban tickets (there was petrol rationing, which severely limited car usage). When suburban numbers were added, the figure totalled nearly 40 million journeys. Yet by 1980, long-distance ticket sales had shrivelled to 999,000 and suburban rail journeys had fallen to 15 million. When it came to long-distance journeys in 1980, people opted overwhelmingly for road: New Zealand Railways Road Services (NZRRS) was responsible for 19.8 million long-distance ticket sales.

True, many rail passenger services had been abolished by 1980, particularly on branch lines such as the Dunedin-Alexandra railcar and mixed trains (goods trains with a carriage attached). But even when services were maintained the trend was clear. In 1980 a typical working of the Southerner, which ran between Christchurch and Invercargill, would consist of eight carriages. But when I took it from Dunedin to Invercargill in 1988 it was down to three cars; and in 2000, when I passed it as I drove over the Canterbury Plains, there were just two carriages.

From the 1920s NZR was to turn increasingly to buses with the establishment of its road services division. The growth was spectacular. In 1930 NZRRS owned 60 buses; by 1965 the fleet numbered 787. Between 1936 and 1951 NZRRS operations grew to cover 9,635 route kilometres. 

The restoration of rail idea is not new. In the early 1970s, we saw a whole new generation of trains — the Southerner (Christchurch-Invercargill), the Endeavour (Wellington-Napier), the superb Silver Star all-sleeper train on the North Island Main Trunk (complete with dining car) and the Silver Fern railcars providing a daytime alternative.

But it was too late: quicker to book a flight on NAC. Or drive there in your own car. And too many New Zealanders had been switched off rail for life by their memories of the steam era — dining cars had been abandoned during the First World War and ever since it had been a scrum at the refreshment rooms to grab a pie which was washed down with tea served in thick industrial-strength cups. 

Nonetheless, the dreamers continue to want to bring back something that cannot work. Before the recent local body elections, the Dunedin City Council approved a study into restoring the Christchurch-Invercargill train service. The US had to establish Amtrak because none of the railroad operators wanted a bar of passenger trains; in Canada, VIA Rail was set up with government backing. Even Australia, with 25 million people, has lost most of its long-distance services; the remaining ones are largely tourist operations. It is telling that KiwiRail (apart from its Hamilton, Palmerston North and Masterton services) has only tourism-based trains — the Coastal Pacific, the TranzAlpine and the Northern Explorer. The people who use these are not worried about getting somewhere fast, which is the main concern of most travellers.

For New Zealand, with only 5 million people and challenging topography, to suggest restoring long- distance train travel is delusional.

(I might add that I would take a long-distance train any day in preference to using a bus; a gruelling Wellington-Rotorua trip by NZRRS bus in 1958 remains a hellish memory. But I don’t expect a government to invest millions just to keep me happy.)

Robin’s book 'New Zealand Railways: Their Life and Times' is available from Amazon in e-format or paperback. What's clear from what he has written above is that long-distance passenger trains in New Zealand will be patronised only if people are forced to take them, which the protesters probably think is a perfectly acceptable price to pay for their vision of Utopia. 

More desperate floundering at Stuff

Is Stuff stuffed? That’s a question that will inevitably be asked after the announcement of a restructuring that a rival media outlet predicts will result in savage cuts to staff numbers in the company’s provincial newsrooms.

According to RNZ, the Manawatu Standard, Nelson Mail and Timaru Herald will have their newsroom numbers cut from seven reporters to three. Two other Stuff titles, the Taranaki Daily News and Southland Times, would keep four reporters each.

The New Zealand Herald’s account of the pending changes isn’t quite so bleak. It reports merely that “positions are under review in several regions where [Stuff] has a presence”.  But anyone familiar with the loaded phrase “positions are under review” knows it almost never results in a good outcome.

No one should be fooled by the anodyne assurances given by Stuff in response to the Herald’s inquiries. The paper quotes Stuff’s chief content officer, Joanna Norris, as saying the company is “proposing some changes in tasks and roles in our local newsrooms.”

Norris went on: “The changes will strengthen our local news operations and ensure we continue to have journalists based right across New Zealand, deeply connected to covering local issues and people.

“This will allow our journalists with boots on the ground in our regional newsrooms to produce unique, enterprise [sic] journalism relevant to their readers and to engage regularly with our subscribers and future audiences.” But anyone who has followed Stuff’s fortunes in recent years will know there is a vast credibility gap between the company’s buzzword-laden rhetoric and reality. It’s a measure of Stuff’s decline that former journalists such as Norris unblushingly use empty corporate blather that any self-respecting, sceptical reporter should treat with disdain.

RNZ quoted Norris as saying Stuff would establish a new regional team made up of a group regional editor, four news directors and nine breaking news reporters in what she described as “a proactive step to strengthen our local reporting”. But how local reporting is strengthened by further eviscerating already gutted newsrooms isn’t clear. The changes foreshadowed today simply look like more desperate floundering by a company that lost its way long ago.

If RNZ’s report is correct, two points seem immediately obvious. The first is that Stuff’s journalist numbers in the provinces will be cut to the point where it will be impossible to maintain any pretence of comprehensive, quality news coverage.

The second is that it’s hard to see how the company’s editorial operations, at least in the regions, could ever bounce back from this degree of degradation. Stuff’s provincial titles are locked in a downward spiral where a continuing decline in editorial quality can only lead to further loss of support from advertisers and readers.

The impression is that Stuff is planning a retreat to its Auckland and Wellington metropolitan bases, but even there its future hardly looks bright. One sign of the company’s decline is that the Audit Bureau of Circulation no longer publishes Stuff’s newspaper sales figures. The reason can only be that they are so dire as to be embarrassing.  

As someone whose association with papers now in the Stuff group goes back to 1968, my immediate emotional response to today’s announcement is one of regret that a once formidable and competently managed newspaper company should have come to this. Naturally I also feel sympathy for journalists whose loyalty has been betrayed by a company that has made the wrong decisions at almost every turn and, in the process, systematically squandered a proud legacy. 

Some of those mistakes have been operational: for example, placing blind faith in providing free, online news at the expense of the traditional paid-for printed product – a baneful trend that began under the evangelistic leadership of then group executive editor Paul Thompson (now head of RNZ and a contender for the top job in the state-owned media giant hastily being cobbled together, despite the absence of any compelling business case, by the Labour government).  That resulted in a devastating hollowing out of news-gathering operations and a huge loss of talent and institutional experience as some of Stuff’s best editorial staff – notably including non-believers in the brave new world of digital – were “let go”.

Other wayward decisions could more correctly be described as philosophical, such as the fervent editorial embrace of identity politics and the culture wars. Somewhere along the line, Stuff abandoned journalism’s traditional role, which was to reflect the society it served, in favour of a radical new model in which the company’s newspapers and journalists promoted the type of society - a very different one - that they thought New Zealand should become. In the process Stuff alienated its most loyal readers, instead apparently seeking to attract a new, woke audience who would rather (to use the words of legendary British tabloid editor Kelvin MacKenzie) turn their left testicles into kebabs than read a paper.

The results are now all too plainly evident, and much as I feel sorry for the Stuff journalists whose jobs appear to be on the line, no one should be in any doubt as to where the blame lies for the company’s precipitous decline.




Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Making pests of themselves for our own good

Update: As of 8am this morning (Wednesday), Restore Passenger Rail fanatics were blocking Wellington-bound lanes on the Transmission Gully expressway. Stuff reported that motorists were leaving their vehicles to abuse the protesters. It would be no surprise if drivers' frustration escalated into something more serious than abuse - and who could blame them?

I can think of few more effective ways to show contempt for the rights of your fellow citizens than by preventing them from going about their lawful business in order to draw attention to a cause so precious (to you, if to no one else) that any inconvenience to others is assumed to be morally justified.

Neither can I think of a more surefire means of alienating people and ensuring hostility toward whatever objective you’re trying to promote. All it does is stoke fury and resentment.

But such thoughts apparently never enter the heads of the obnoxious protesters who keep blocking roads into Wellington because they think we should all be made to travel by train. Their minds are so tightly packed with sanctimony that there’s no room for any competing ideas.  God forbid that they should ever entertain a nanosecond of doubt about the absolute righteousness of their cause, still less dwell on the morality of interfering with other people’s right to go about their daily lives without let or hindrance (to use a delicious old legal phrase).

The protesters were at it again in Wellington this morning, this time causing the police to close the Mt Victoria Tunnel after two of them scaled the Hataitai side of the tunnel and erected a “Restore Passenger Rail” banner. Previously they had forced the closure of the Terrace Tunnel, blocked State Highway 2 at Melling and climbed onto a gantry over Wellington’s urban motorway.

It's a marvel that no motorists, outraged at being prevented from keeping a vital appointment or catching a plane, have taken matters into their own hands – at least so far, despite ample provocation. One grabbed a protest banner and threw it away, but stopped short of directly taking out his frustration on the people blocking his path. I sometimes think New Zealanders are too damned passive and law-abiding. After all, the protesters show no respect for the law. Why should the people they obstruct play by the rules?

Similarly, when a protester squeals that he can't be removed by force because he’s glued himself to the tarseal, there’s a good case for the cops to reply “Tough, mate, you should have thought of that before” and pull him off regardless, rather than solicitously inquiring – as one officer did last week – whether anyone happened to have any nail polish remover. Leaving a bit of skin on the road would serve as a reminder that there are consequences for inconveniencing hundreds of motorists.

For me, the right to protest stops short of conferring permission to obstruct others.  (I’ve commented before on this blog that I’d make a useless revolutionary.) But there’s a certain type of activist whose belief in their cause translates into an overweening sense of entitlement.

In this case, an obsessed and infinitesimally tiny minority is demanding that other New Zealanders defer to its will. This is profoundly anti-democratic, since the protesters have no mandate, nor any evidence of public support. But hey, why should that be a problem? It’s sufficient for them that they have right on their side – or so they’ve convinced themselves – and are therefore justified in interfering with the lives of others.

In fact it’s not just anti-democratic. It’s elitist too, if one accepts the classical definition of elitism as the belief that a supposedly enlightened few are entitled to impose their views on everyone else.

Ideological zealotry is often an expression of elitism. The devoutly Christian peace activists who cost taxpayers $1.2 million when they sabotaged the Waihopai electronic listening post in 2010 probably never thought of themselves as elitist; in fact they made a show of their humility. But elitist they were. They persuaded themselves they knew better than – indeed were morally superior to – the democratically elected governments that had decided it was in New Zealand’s interests for Waihopai to exist.

It’s also possible to detect, in the posturing of the newly emerged group that calls itself Restore Passenger Rail, the authoritarian tendencies that are characteristic of the woke Left. On the extremely shaky premise that getting us all out of cars and onto trains would prevent catastrophic climate change, Restore Passenger Rail is demanding that the government reinstate the passenger rail network that existed in 2000. (Why 2000? That isn’t explained. Neither is there any reference to the massive capital cost of providing trains and other infrastructure, the lack of any public demand for mass long-distance rail travel or the inconvenient reality that few countries are as topographically ill-suited to passenger trains as New Zealand.)

Unstated but implicit in Restore Passenger Rail’s agenda is the element of compulsion. New Zealanders love cars for the very good reason that they enable people to travel to a place of their choosing at a time of their choosing in comfort, at speed and in relative safety.

Such freedom is anathema to those on the woke Left, who dream of a tightly regulated society in which human behaviour is controlled wherever possible by a beneficent state – all for the common good, of course.  In their ideal world, a compliant and grateful citizenry would travel everywhere by public transport, with destinations and timing determined by state planners. The primacy of state control over individual choice remains a fetish among many on the Left.

All of which helps explain why the Restore Passenger Rail activists targeted motorists in the first place. They are, after all, the enemy. Since they have no right to be in cars, there can be no reasonable objection to the disruption of their morning commute. And the protesters will go on making pests of themselves until we accept it’s for our own good.



Friday, October 7, 2022

Is this what we've come to?

What sort of country have we become?

The New Zealand Herald broke the news this week that former cabinet minister Kris Faafoi, who resigned only 12 weeks ago, has set himself up as a lobbyist. It’s already an overcrowded field, but he should have a distinct advantage over all the other political hustlers who infest Wellington because of his inside knowledge and contacts. “We know how the government works at the highest level,” his company’s website boasts. Translation: Faafoi’s mates in the cabinet and his former underlings in the bureaucracy are only a phone call away.

The pseudonymous Thomas Cranmer – the same blogger who blew open the Nanaia Mahuta nepotism scandal – points out that Faafoi’s new gig wouldn’t be allowed in most comparable democracies. Australia, Britain and Canada all impose stand-down periods before former ministers and other public figures can profit as lobbyists from their connections and inside knowledge. In Canada it’s five years.

But here? Go for your life, mate. Fill your boots. We’re cool with it. No worries.

And it gets worse. Cranmer reveals that Faafoi will be working for Dialogue 22, a company set up by an Auckland ad man named Greg Partington. Dialogue 22 will presumably come under the umbrella of Partington’s Waitapu Group, which also includes the “cultural consultancy” Tatou. And Tatou’s CEO is Skye Kimura, who just happens to be the wife of Faafoi’s former cabinet colleague Peeni Henare, the Minister of Defence.

It all starts to look uncomfortably cosy. In fact cosyism is the word used by leftist commentator Max Rashbrooke, in a courageous column last week, to describe what he called a chronic problem in New Zealand public life. Rashbrooke wrote: “We are largely spared, thankfully, the envelopes-stuffed with-cash-corruption that infects other countries. [Editor’s note: Not necessarily, but we’ll come to that shortly.] But we’re suffused with overly close relationships: nepotism, jobs for the boys, all that jazz.”

He described cosyism as “those insidious processes by which public positions, jobs and contracts sometimes go not to the best-qualified applicants but to the friends, contacts and family members of people in power”. A cosy society, he went on, “tolerates the most colossal conflicts of interest”.

Rashbrooke cited several examples, but it seemed that what finally prodded him to sound the alarm was the Mahuta-Gannin Ormsby affair – a seething morass of nepotism and conflicting interests that Mahuta herself seemed to think was magically rendered acceptable because she met technical disclosure requirements so wide open you could paddle a double-hulled waka through them.

When even Labour’s friends start spitting the dummy – and I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that Rashbrooke’s natural inclination would be to support a social-democratic party such as Labour – then you know Jacinda Ardern has a serious integrity issue on her hands, even if she won’t admit it.

Cosyism is an appropriate word to describe relationships between people in power which, while not necessarily breaking any rules, nonetheless cause unease about the possibility of improper influence being brought to bear behind the scenes. Another example was back in the public spotlight recently when Justice Minister Kiri Allan and RNZ presenter Mani Dunlop proudly announced their engagement.

When I wrote about their relationship in June, I said many people would feel uncomfortable that a senior government politician was in an intimate relationship with RNZ’s director of Maori news, but I could put it no more strongly than that. I’ve had a rethink since then and come to a more emphatic position. I think it’s plain wrong that the partner of a minister holds a key editorial position – and a politically sensitive one at that – in a major state-owned news organisation. The only honourable remedy, though I don’t expect it to happen, would be for Dunlop to stand down and take another job within RNZ where there could be no suspicion of improper influence being exercised on news and current affairs.

Nepotism and cosyism, however, are not the only threats to the integrity of public life in New Zealand, nor are they necessarily the most worrying ones. We were reminded of another this week by the guilty verdicts in the trial of three Chinese businessmen charged with fraud in relation to political donations.

For me, by far the most significant revelation from the trial was the degree to which some New Zealand party officials seemed prepared to ingratiate themselves with potential foreign donors whose generosity, we can safely assume, wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to enhance New Zealand democracy.

Simon Bridges and the disgraced Jami-Lee Ross were both implicated in this scandal. Bridges was not charged with any offence and Ross was found not guilty, but both were tainted by their apparent eagerness to court potential foreign donors about whom they apparently knew little.

The groveller-in-chief, however, appears to have been former National Party president Peter Goodfellow, whose hunger for donations was such that he wrote a glowing testimonial for one of the defendants, Yikun Zhang, whom Tim Murphy of Newsroom has identified as a key figure in organisations that serve as a front for the Chinese Communist Party.

In a reference written on National Party note paper, Goodfellow wrote: “It gives me great pleasure to support the nomination of Yikun Zhang for a New Zealand royal honour, in respect of business, philanthropy, community services and NZ-China relations.”

Goodfellow went on: “Throughout the time I have known him, Yikun has been one of the most highly regarded members of the Chinese community in New Zealand, or in China. Yikun is well known for his genuineness, aptitude and generosity.”

The extravagant endorsement appears to have worked. Zhang was subsequently made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours. Now he’s a convicted criminal facing a possible prison term of seven years.

Was it pure gullibility, desperation for funds or a combination of the two that persuaded Goodfellow – who was reportedly admired by some within National for his fund-raising ability, though no other talent was publicly evident – to compromise his party by seeking Zhang’s patronage?

Whatever the explanation, the donations scandal - even though it was exposed - is a hugely damaging blow to New Zealand’s reputation as a country immune from the curses of bribery and corruption. The apparent readiness of New Zealand political parties - Labour as well as National - to snuggle up (almost literally) to donors of dubious repute was a signal that we’re available to the highest bidders, no questions asked (other than a polite request to break the money down into small amounts so they don't have to be disclosed).

Is this what we’ve come to?

Footnote: As an afterthought, I've inserted a link to the Waitapu Group. Readers can form their own conclusions about what sort of organisation it is.