Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Traffic cones and the precautionary principle

Driving between Eketahuna and Masterton recently, I came across some road works.

The road was reduced to one lane each way. There were the usual Stop/Go controls at either end, but this time there was a new twist.

I was at the head of a queue that was stopped at one end. A line of vehicles coming the other way was led through by a white ute with flashing lights.

As they reached my end of the road works, the ute pulled over to the verge. Then it did a U-turn and positioned itself at the head of the line of traffic waiting to go the other way.

On the back of the ute there was a sign saying “Please follow me”. Needless to say, I was pathetically grateful for this guidance because otherwise I would have had no clue where to go.

I’m being facetious, of course. The section of road works was only a few hundred metres long. There was nowhere else for me to go but forward. There were no side-roads that I might have inadvertently veered off onto, and therefore no risk that I and the cars behind me might have ended up hopelessly lost somewhere in the back of beyond.

So I wonder, what genius decided that I and my fellow drivers needed to be escorted by a ute with flashing lights through routine (i.e. non-hazardous) road works that we were perfectly capable of navigating without assistance?

Incidentally, there was a man in a hi-vis vest sitting in the ute’s passenger seat. For what purpose, exactly? Perhaps he was there to ensure the driver didn’t take a wrong turn himself, or – far more likely, given the tedium of their duties – fall asleep.

In other words, two men doing two non-jobs – guiding other vehicles through road works that generations of New Zealand drivers have miraculously coped with in the past without risk to life and limb.

Here was one of the great cons of the 21st century, the cult of traffic management, carried to new levels of absurdity. Some inventive pooh-bah in Worksafe (sorry, Mahi Haumaru Aotearoa) had found yet another way to waste public money, needlessly inflate the cost of highway maintenance and pad out an already bloated and largely superfluous industry.

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown recently highlighted the scale of this racket, revealing that Auckland Council and its associated bureaucracies spend an astonishing $145 million a year on traffic management. And that’s not counting the money spent by private companies such as Vector, which says traffic management costs it $30 million a year.

Factor in wasted time and needless disruption, and you have an even bigger economic cost to the country.

Brown has shrewdly zeroed in on a 21st century phenomenon that causes millions of New Zealanders to burn with frustration and resentment. No one can drive anywhere and not be aware of the scale of the traffic management fetish.

It’s attested to by vast forests of road cones – frequently arranged in complex configurations that seem more likely to cause accidents than prevent them – and by patently absurd speed restrictions, often where no road works are in progress or have long since ceased.

Perhaps the most ostentatious symbols of the traffic management cult are the big trucks with flashing arrows that appear to be mandatory even for jobs as routine as mowing grass verges. The occupants of these vehicles seem to spend most of their time looking at YouTube videos on their phones.

I’ve observed situations where one man driving a tractor mower – i.e. the solitary bloke actually doing real work – has been protected not by one, not by two, not by three but by four accompanying safety vehicles with flashing lights and arrows.

In many instances, as in the recent case of my escort vehicle, there are two men in the cab. The passengers seem to be there for no other reason than to keep the drivers company.

It’s astonishing to think that New Zealand’s highway network was built without any of this palaver. What changed to suddenly make it necessary? Did I miss a swathe of news stories about road workers being killed and maimed by careless motorists?

The emphasis on safety would be more tolerable if visible progress was being made on the projects that these elaborate precautions are supposed to facilitate, but the NZ Transport Agency has a woeful record for getting jobs done on time and within budget.

I can’t count the number of years NZTA has been upgrading a relatively small stretch of State Highway 58 between the Hutt Valley and Porirua. Bizarrely, even on the sections where work has been completed and the road is now wide, smooth and safe, a speed limit of 50kmh is still in force. Most motorists sensibly ignore it.

The traffic management cult is itself an outgrowth of a longer-established cult, the cult of health and safety. Both proceed from the assumption that most New Zealanders are imbeciles who can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions for themselves and must therefore be protected by ever-proliferating rules and regulations, the economic costs of which are incalculable.

Both also reflect a mindset that has become embedded in the bureaucracy and largely goes unchallenged by the politicians who are nominally in charge. I’m referring to something called the precautionary principle, which holds that every theoretical risk – and I stress theoretical –must be mitigated by appropriate safeguards, often without regard for sensible cost vs. benefit assessments.

I wonder what proportion of the national roading budget is consumed by traffic safety management. My guess is that the amount must have increased exponentially over the past couple of decades.

Perhaps more to the point, has anyone calculated the cost of traffic safety management against deaths and injuries avoided as a result? I doubt it. Someone has got very rich providing services that for the most part are not needed.

Evidence of the precautionary principle is everywhere. Yet ironically, and tragically, the principle isn’t always followed where the need for it is obvious and urgent – as in the case of Whakaari/White Island, where Worksafe stood aside for years, apparently happy to allow tourists onto a high-risk active volcano, then had the gall to prosecute tourism operators and even rescuers after an entirely predictable 2019 eruption caused 22 deaths. In a breathtaking act of self-exoneration, Worksafe let itself off the hook.

The precautionary principle appeals to the bureaucratic psyche because it provides an excuse for every control freak’s dream: the perpetual expansion of an oppressive and intrusive state apparatus that’s constantly looking for new ways to exercise power over people’s daily lives. And for the most part we obligingly comply because we are essentially passive people, programmed to submit to authority. We may mutter with resentment and metaphorically shake our fists, but ultimately we fall into line. The bureaucrats know this, so are free to proceed with impunity.

Examples of the precautionary principle are everywhere. A few examples:

■ Children’s playground equipment – for example, swings and old tractors that have entertained kids for decades – being declared unsafe because of the theoretical risk of an accident. How many children were killed or maimed playing on them? Good question.

■ Compulsory scaffolding for even the most routine housing construction and maintenance jobs. It has made scaffolders rich, but has anyone bothered to measure the accidents prevented against the additional costs imposed?

■ Increasingly restrictive limitations on who can donate blood. I wonder how many prospective donors have been put off because the rules kept being tightened. It certainly strikes many people as ridiculous that they still can’t give blood if they spent six months or more in Britain between 1980 and 1996, and hence were theoretically exposed to mad cow disease.

■ Airport security screening. Admittedly, this is a biggie. Most travellers put up with the inconvenience, indignity, delay and legalised bullying because they’ve been convinced it’s essential for their safety. But if terrorists wanted to attract worldwide attention by killing a lot of people in one hit, they could do it on a provincial flight (no security checks) or even a suburban bus. Could it be time for a rethink?

■ Nitpicking employment rules that discourage initiative and even basic compassion – as in the case of a rest home employee who was sacked for operating a hoist by herself, against the rules, when a desperate patient in a wheelchair needed to go to the toilet and there was no one available to help. (The Employment Relations Authority, to its credit, held that she was unjustifiably dismissed and ordered that compensation be paid.)

■ Small-scale makers and sellers of cheese and raw milk being hounded by bureaucrats with demands for risk management plans, testing fees and hygiene compliance rules that drive them out of business.

■ The Covid lockdown. Say no more.

■ Worm farms and cat breeding being classified in health and safety legislation as “high risk”. The same legislation rated mini-golf as more dangerous than the actual sport and putting up curtains as more hazardous than demolishing buildings, thus providing a rare insight into the Alice in Wonderland mentality of the health and safety cultists. (Note: while checking this, I stumbled across a document entitled “Health and Safety Guide for Community Gardens – Worm Farm Risk Assessment”. It ran to six pages and included such hazards as sunlight and dehydration. Just to be clear, these were presented as risks for humans, not the worms. I rest my case.)

■ Page after page of safety instructions – e.g. please do not use this hair dryer while you are submerged in the bath – with every electrical appliance purchased. (Okay, the hair dryer example is a slight exaggeration – but only a slight one.)

These are just a few examples off the top of my head. I’m sure readers can think of others.

Interestingly, even people on the Left – normally the most eager to impose controls on their fellow citizens – are starting to rebel against the dead weight of all-controlling Big Government and its inevitable tendency to deter individual initiative. Can anyone guess who said the following after Auckland bureaucrats were caught napping by the disastrous late January floods?

“I can’t begin to fathom what was going through their [Auckland Council’s] heads, but I’ve definitely seen over the past few years that we have continued to build out our bureaucracies at every single level of Government to effectively be super risk-averse.

“And being super risk-averse when we are facing the greatest kind of flooding and crises that any of us have in our lifetimes here in Tāmaki Makaurau at this scale didn’t benefit anyone.”

Waddya know: that was Chloe Swarbrick, whose party probably holds the world record for the number of control freaks per square metre. The aversity to risk that she criticises is what underpins the precautionary principle.

Then there was this commentator, writing about the book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block: “These writers warn us of the dangers of the dependency that results from governments fixing our problems for us; robbing us of our capacity to problem-solve, and reducing our ability to build resilience. And that is something we are going to need in spades as we confront the challenges we know are coming our way.”

That was former Christchurch mayor and Labour cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel, writing in Newsroom in January. She went on to talk about the need to empower citizens to solve their own problems rather than rely on the government.

When even people like Swarbrick and Dalziel are sounding the alarm about bureaucracies stifling initiative and resilience, perhaps the message is getting through that New Zealanders don’t need to be infantilised by governments that insist on wiping their noses and their bottoms for them.

But back to traffic and roads. Nowhere are the loony excesses of the precautionary principle currently more evident than in the Wairarapa, where the NZTA has imposed an 80 kmh speed limit all the way from Masterton to Featherston in place of the previous standard 100 kmh.

No rational case has been made for this. The NZTA is doing it because it can. It’s an agency that’s out of control and answerable to no one.

The 36 km stretch of road between Masterton and Featherston is entirely flat and mostly straight and wide. In the 13 kilometres between Greytown and Featherston there are only two bends. There can be few straighter or safer stretches of highway in the country.

According to the Wairarapa Times-Age, citing figures obtained under the OIA, there have been 10 fatal crashes on the Masterton-Featherston section of State Highway 2 in the past 22 years. But get this: speed was a factor in only one – that’s right, one – of those deaths. Of 43 crashes that were rated as serious, speed was a factor in only nine.

On this flimsy basis, NZTA has imposed a speed limit that will unnecessarily add time and expense to the journeys of everyone – commercial transport operators as well as private motorists – driving through the Wairarapa. A local commercial real estate agent, Chris Gollins, has pointed out that the additional travel time will serve as a disincentive to anyone thinking of moving to the region or setting up a new business there. Does NZTA care? Of course not. Not their problem.

The NZTA staged a pretend public consultation process but ignored the hundreds of submissions opposing the new limit. Now the heat is on local MP Kieran McAnulty, who after initially pooh-poohing NZTA’s plan then seemed to change his mind but now, observing the public backlash, has executed a second U-turn.

NZTA’s argument is that the 80 kmh limit will make the road safer. But by that reasoning, a 50 kmh limit would be safer still.

In any case, will the road be made safer? I predict that if anything, the new limit will have the reverse effect. Law-abiding drivers will conscientiously comply, even if they think it’s absurd. But others, chafing with impatience at being delayed where there’s no obvious reason for it, will pull out to overtake and risk hitting someone coming the other way. 

In other words, expect the law of unintended consequences to kick in – as it so often does when bureaucrats make decisions that defy common sense.

And lest readers think this is purely a local issue, consider this: if the NZTA gets away with it in the Wairarapa, it will try it elsewhere. There’s nothing surer.


Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Moana: sacrificed to the culture wars

This may be the most painful story you read today:

'Hardest decision of our lives': Foster parents return Moana to state care |

If you’ve followed this saga, you’ll get the gist from the headline. Marty Sharpe’s story will very likely make you angry. Unless you’ve got a heart of flint, it should also deeply sadden you.

It’s a story about good people who tried to do the right thing and have been ground down to the point where there was no option left but to capitulate.

More to the point, it’s about a vulnerable girl who found love, affection and security for the first time in her life with foster parents who wanted the best for her, but who has now been taken away from them to face an uncertain future.

It’s a shocking indictment of a perverse system that appears to have callously sacrificed a child to the culture wars.

The most depressing aspect is that the whole wretched affair appears to be rooted in a particularly cruel and destructive form of racism – only not the type of racism we normally hear about, because that’s supposed to flow the other way.

And we, the taxpayers, are involuntarily complicit in this process, because the government department pulling the strings in the case is acting on our behalf. It's not a day to feel a proud New Zealander.


Neo-Nazis 1; free speech nil

With their masks, their black uniforms and their Sieg Heil-type salutes, the knuckle-dragging neo-Nazis who turned up at British feminist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull’s Melbourne rally are a truly pathetic bunch of human beings. All that’s missing is the word “LOSER” tattooed in large letters on their foreheads.

But they gave the media and the woke Left the perfect excuse to whip up a storm of hysteria over Keen-Minshull’s pending visit to New Zealand, with even Wellington’s already tiresome look-at-me mayor gratuitously getting in on the act. Tory Whanau says Keen-Minshull’s views are strongly condemned and unwelcome in Wellington. But condemned by whom? And how would Whanau know what the people of Wellington think, beyond her own tight little circle of swooning admirers?

The presence of the neo-Nazis at the Melbourne rally enabled Keen-Minshull’s opponents to smear her by association, no matter how emphatically she declares her contempt for them. So the controversy over her speaking tour is now framed in the shock-horror media as a contest between liberal (yeah, right) progressives and admirers of Adolf Hitler, when it’s nothing of the sort.

The neo-Nazis are not remotely interested in supporting Keen-Minshull (aka Posie Parker). Why would they be? She’s a feminist. Last time I checked, neo-Nazis weren't exactly big on women's rights. All they’re interested in is promoting disruption and destabilisation – and they’re succeeding. The tragedy is that the principle of free speech is being trampled underfoot in the process.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Hang on - who are the real inciters?

The Greens, displaying their customary enthusiasm for free and robust debate, want a British anti-trans activist barred from speaking in New Zealand. They say her meetings are likely to provoke violence. But who are the real inciters?

RNZ reports that three people were arrested during clashes between supporters and opponents of Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, in Melbourne yesterday. That was the cue for Green MPs Ricardo Menendez-March and Elizabeth Kerekere, tireless free speech champions both, to insist that the government deny Keen-Minshull a visa.  

Failing that, Kerekere thinks Keen-Minshull should be denied access to speaking venues, as happened to the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2018. (Still unsure what hateful ideas the Canadians supposedly intended to disseminate? Me too. We were prevented from hearing them, so couldn’t judge them for ourselves. The protesters made sure of that.)

Kerekere claims Keen-Minshull’s meetings will incite violence against trans-gender and non-binary people. But hang on a minute: judging by media accounts of the Melbourne meeting, pro-trans protesters outnumbered Keen-Minshull’s supporters. By turning out in force and thus ensuring a confrontation, the pro-trans activists are giving oxygen to the very people they profess to want silenced. Has it ever occurred to them to stay away?

Here’s a radical suggestion. Anti-Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s used the slogan “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came”. The same idea could be applied to speaking tours by people the woke Left dislike. They could just ignore them. But of course that would deny the woke Left a chance to parade their outrage in the front of the TV cameras. Publicity opportunities like that are just too good to pass up, especially when sympathetic media are always keen to frame the confrontations as a fight against the dark forces of the far Right.

From a broader perspective, the denial of a visa or speaking venues to Keen-Minshull would again signal to the enemies of free speech, as with Southern and Molyneux, that they can shut down people they don’t like simply by threatening disruption. What could be simpler than to orchestrate a confrontation with the other side and then blame them for any unpleasantness that eventuates? In the meantime, freedom of speech has taken another hit – which of course is the objective.

Here’s another radical suggestion. Is this whole furore essentially a contest between two sets of noisy exhibitionists? I suspect both sides are immensely gratified by all the attention. I know nothing about Posie Parker, but the cute moniker suggests that she’s not averse to a bit of self-promotion. Then of course there are the tut-tutting media, who are part of the problem. In an ideal universe, they would all be locked in a room together. The rest of the world could be left to get on with things that matter.

Now, one more radical idea. LGBTQIA+ activists bombard us constantly via the media with their breast-beating laments about how oppressed they are. They are endlessly inventive in creating new definitions of sexuality or minority status – QTBIPOC, MVPFAFF, BBIPOC – that no one previously knew existed. I have even read one activist complain - seriously - that there are not enough terms to capture all the variants of sexuality that queer people might identify with.

A tiny but very vocal minority have succeeded in capturing the institutions of power with their bullying diversity agenda. They have done this so effectively that they have co-opted mainstream society whether we want it or not.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think most New Zealanders give a toss about how their fellow citizens identify sexually. They rightly regard it as none of their business. On the rare occasions when a person’s sexuality has become a matter of wider interest – for example, Georgina Beyer – the public attitude has been one of acceptance and tolerance.  

This, apparently, is not good enough for the activists. It’s not sufficient that the rest of us consider it their right to adopt whatever identity and lifestyle they choose and just get on with it – preferably quietly, as sexual minorities did in the past. They insist on being noticed.

Call it exhibitionism, attention-seeking, whatever. “Look at me – I’m different.” Ultimately, that’s what a lot of the activism over sexual identity seems to be about.

ADDENDUM: To his credit, Nathan Rarere on RNZ's First Up this morning invited Kerekere to explain why Tusiata Avia, author of a so-called poem (ejaculation of bile would be a more appropriate description) encouraging retribution against the descendants of white colonisers, had a right to free speech, yet Keen-Minshull didn't. There was an awkward (I hesitate to say pregnant) pause before Kerekere replied that the latter was guilty of "clear and obvious hate speech". Then she sought refuge in a string of standard woke cliches ... marginalised people blah blah ... rainbow communities blah blah .... that totally failed to substantiate her answer. 

Hate speech? Really? We don't even know what Keen-Minshull has been saying at her rallies (the media don't bother to tell us), but as far as I'm aware she's a feminist who insists that men can't be women - a proposition that the vast majority of New Zealanders would consider harmless and unremarkable. Avia's poem, on the other hand, can't be interpreted in any way other than as an explicit approval of racially motivated violence.  But there are no prizes for guessing which one of the two will be on the guest list at the next round of literary festivals.

Friday, March 17, 2023

On the ritual humiliation of the radio hosts Leah Panapa and Miles Davis

What a despicable outfit MediaWorks is. It’s beyond contempt.

Two of its TodayFM talkback hosts, Leah Panapa and Miles Davis, have been bullied by their bosses into apologising for doing what people in talkback radio are supposedly employed to do – namely, say what they think.

In an on-air discussion last week, Panapa and Davis apparently made mocking comments about the prevailing pronoun hysteria and ridiculed the phrase “pregnant people”.

Panapa reportedly commented “It’s pregnant women, not people” and urged listeners: “don’t buy into this bullshit”. Cruel, hateful stuff, as anyone can see.

According to Stuff’s account, Davis agreed and said he and Panapa were like suicide bombers who would have to sacrifice themselves to make a point.

Trouble was, they didn’t sacrifice themselves. On the contrary, they capitulated almost immediately to pressure from the furious enforcers of work orthodoxy. The ignominious ritual apology came the following day.

Worse still was the even more abject ritual humiliation of agreeing to attend a re-education course – or to be precise, something called Rainbow Tick training, which supposedly demonstrates that companies are diverse and inclusive.

Pol Pot was very fond of re-education courses. Just saying.

Someone named Martin King, director of the rainbow excellence awards (reminder to self: must enter them next year) described the exchange between Panapa and Davis as toxic, inappropriate and shocking, condescendingly adding that the two broadcasters would greatly benefit from potty training (my term, not King’s). How sad that flogging and the stocks are no longer an option.  

“Toxic” and “inappropriate” are words that the wokeists have stripped of all meaning, but obviously MediaWorks’ director of news and talk, Dallas Gurney – a careerist too young to have heard of Pol Pot – concurred with King. “Once Leah and Miles were made aware of the impact of what they said, they were devastated about those they have hurt,” Gurney was quoted as saying. More nauseating condescension.

As Steven Cowan has pointed out on his blog, Gurney hasn’t explained exactly who was hurt, or how. We’re just supposed to take his word for it.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this is the unconditional surrender by the two broadcasters. Panapa is reported as saying their comments were “inexcusable, inappropriate and deeply offensive”, and apologised for any distress they may have caused. Standard wording, straight from the HR department.

But hang on. Which Leah Panapa are we to believe: the one who rightly ridiculed the nonsensical expression “pregnant person” or the one who, only a day later, said her remarks were deeply offensive? Assuming that most people don’t suddenly change their minds so completely, which of the two Leah Panapas was saying what she truly thought?

For his part, Davis said the comments came from “a place of ignorance rather than malice” and added, “We are sorry – we’re better than this.” If that’s not a grovelling climb-down, I don’t know what is.

I’m not familiar with Leah Panapa as a broadcaster but I’ve often enjoyed Davis on NewstalkZB, his former station. His speciality seems to be cheeky banter with callers. With his signature Cockney accent (which he exploits to the hilt), he portrays himself as a Jack the Lad. But we now know that when push comes to shove, Davis will quietly fold. It seems his bravado is just that: bravado.

I’m reluctant to condemn people too harshly for doing whatever they have to do to save their jobs. They may have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay. I’m always conscious that as an independent blogger with a guaranteed income from national super, I’m in the very privileged position of not having to answer to a cowardly employer.

Nonetheless, it has to be said that if everyone cravenly backed down as Panapa and Davis did, freedom of speech would be even more imperilled than it is already. If you say something, you should be prepared to stand up for it.

As it is, the enemies of free speech have triumphed once again – game, set and match. The message is clear to anyone brave or reckless enough to speak their mind. But we should have no doubt who the real villains are here, and they are not the hapless talk show hosts. Panapa and Davis are merely bit players.

No, public wrath should be directed squarely at MediaWorks and the totalitarian zealots who have succeeded, despite representing only a tiny, demented fragment of the population, in so intimidating the corporate world that broadcasters are punished not even for expressing controversial opinions (although that should be their right), but for affirming incontrovertible biological facts, such as that only women can get pregnant. 

As recently as a few years ago, this entire preposterous scenario would have read like something from a futuristic, dystopian satire. Now it's happening. The irony is that 99-point-something percent of TodayFM’s dwindling audience would have regarded the statements by Panapa and Davis as not only harmless but unremarkable. 

MediaWorks doesn’t deserve the privilege of operating in a free and open society. It enjoys the rights and benefits of freedom while at the same time insidiously subverting them.

It should be noted that the company has previous form. It was MediaWorks that ditched John Banks and Sean Plunket for offences against wokedom, and where Peter Williams quit – I suspect because he was no longer considered a good “fit” for the station, being in his late 60s and of a conservative disposition.

Oh, and one other thing. How do the other TodayFM broadcasters – Tova O’Brien, Duncan Garner, Lloyd Burr, Rachel Smalley and Polly Gillespie – feel about their colleagues’ humiliation? Had they all stood together in solidarity, MediaWorks might have had second thoughts about throwing Panapa and Davis to the wolves. But they didn’t. Shame on them.

The picture isn’t entirely bleak, however. Martyn Bradbury reported in December that TodayFM’s ratings had slumped to a record low. The MediaWorks CEO who got rid of Banks and Plunket scarpered last month and has returned to the airline business from whence he came. Good riddance, I say.

Perhaps the best possible outcome is that MediaWorks will continue on its present course and in the process, commit slow-motion hara-kiri. No one will miss it.



Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Hipkins has no time to lose

Some commenters on this blog and elsewhere are saying we shouldn’t be deceived by the Labour government’s sharp tack toward the political centre under Chris Hipkins. He’s merely doing what he needs to do to get back into power in October, the reasoning goes.

In other words, it’s an audacious con job. Just wait, they warn; if Labour wins the election, we should expect the entire woke project to be revived and pursued with renewed zeal.

In support of their thesis, the doubters point out that as a senior minister in Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet, Hipkins supported the policies he’s now ditching. No one changes their political colours that abruptly, they suggest. The implication is that it’s all being done to seduce voters into thinking Labour under its new leader is a different ideological beast.

Their cynicism is understandable, but I think (and hope) they’re wrong. I think Labour under Hipkins is undergoing a fundamental and genuine reset; one aimed at realigning the party with its traditional constituency.

Of course he supported the disastrous initiatives pursued under Ardern. As a loyal minister he had little alternative, short of resigning his portfolios and being blacklisted by his colleagues. But now he’s in the driver’s seat and Ardern is literally history. The King is Dead, Long Live the King, as the saying goes. In other words, there’s a new guy in charge and all bets are off.

The speed with which Hipkins is cutting away Labour’s radical ideological baggage has taken everyone by surprise. Who would have guessed that the boyish MP for Remutaka – a politician cleverly characterised by the cartoonist Garrick Tremain as a wide-eyed schoolboy – could be so decisive and even ruthless?  

Hipkins isn’t just burying Ardern’s legacy; he’s prepared to take on Labour’s powerful Maori caucus and the party’s Green allies as well. This is a politician who seems absolutely confident that he’s doing the right thing and can carry the party with him. His boldness will surely be reinforced by his showing in the latest polls.

The obvious explanation for Hipkins’ U-turn is that he realises Labour squandered its historic majority after the 2020 election by wasting it on ideological projects for which there was no mainstream support. What should have been a glorious chapter in the party’s history was looking like three years of lost opportunity. Presumably he also grasps that his government’s survival has been put at risk by the cabal of committed activists who have driven the political agenda, and that they must be stripped of their power and influence.

He now has only seven months in which to repair the damage. There’s no time to lose, and certainly no time for political niceties.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Meng Foon should pull his head in

Going by what little I know about him, Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark doesn’t strike me as a man likely to back down in a fight.

And neither should he. Meng Foon’s call on him to apologise for using the n-word should be brushed aside as the grandstanding it is. The Race Relations Commissioner should pull his head in.

It would be different if Clark had casually used the word in circumstances indicating he approved of it, but the reverse is true. He says he finds it abhorrent, would never use to refer to anyone and is offended when he hears it used in rap music.

His purpose in using it was to ask how far artistic licence should be allowed to go in tolerating words that cause offence. He cited other examples including the phrase “f*** you, Bitch”, which the poet Tusiata Avia uses in a poem that appears to relish the idea of exacting revenge on the descendants of white colonisers such as James Cook.

Avia’s poem, parts of which ape the jargon of American rap culture, drips with allusions to violence against white people. But far from her work being condemned by the Race Relations Commissioner (no one would be so naïve as to expect that), $107,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent through Creative New Zealand on a stage show called The Savage Coloniser, which is based on the book the poem comes from.  

ACT recently called for the funding to be withdrawn, accusing the government of supporting a work that incites racially motivated violence, but Creative NZ says one of its functions is to uphold people’s right to freedom in the practice of the arts.

As it happens, that’s exactly the subject Clark was exploring. He asked whether poetic expression overrides social norms – a perfectly legitimate question. We need to have these tough debates, he says. But the same right of expression that Creative NZ invokes in defence of Avia is one that Meng Foon apparently wants to deny Clark.

The striking thing here is that it’s not Avia’s provocative and mostly incomprehensible poem that attracted the mainstream media’s attention, despite its references to shoving a knife between Captain Cook’s white ribs (aren’t everyone’s ribs white?) and a car full of brown girls driving around looking for his descendants, with the suggestion that a pig-hunting knife might be used. On the contrary, Stuff’s Sunday magazine carried a long article by Michelle Duff purring with approval.

Neither was it the spending of public money on a stage show based on Avia’s work that generated headlines.

No, what got the media fired up was Clark using the n-word in the course of a discussion about how far artistic licence goes and who controls it – fair and reasonable questions.

Fortunately, it’s true as a general rule that the further you get from the epicentre of the culture wars in Wellington, the more impervious people become to the posturing of people like Meng Foon.  

Demands that people apologise for speaking their mind may work elsewhere; in fact they work far too often, much to the gratification of the bullying class. But they carry less weight in places like Invercargill.

In any case, Clark is not answerable to Meng Foon; he’s answerable to the laws of New Zealand (none of which he has broken) and to the people of Invercargill. If they don’t like the things he says, they can vote him out at the next election.

Sadly the same can’t be said of Meng Foon, safe in his highly paid (and unelected) sinecure.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

On free speech and where not to find it

The Free Speech Union has been touring the country with its documentary ‘Last Words’, which records last year’s visit to NZ by Danish free speech campaigner Jacob Mchangama. Local speakers have talked at these screenings and I was invited to address the ones in Masterton and Pahiatua. The Masterton event (pictured above) was well attended and the Pahiatua turnout was pretty good too, considering the size of the town. The following are my speech notes.

I would like to start with a few words about so-called hate speech:

Hate is a very powerful word. If you hate someone you want to do them harm and possibly even kill them. I don’t think New Zealand is a hateful society. The perpetrator of the Christchurch atrocities, which have been cited as justification for hate speech laws, was an Australian. Speaking for myself, I can truthfully say I don’t hate anyone. Well, maybe Vladimir Putin when he murders defenceless civilians, but I can’t think of anyone else.

What is characterised as hate speech is more often simply speech that upsets or offends someone. But there’s no human right not to be upset, or to be protected from having your values and beliefs questioned and criticised. So I think it would be helpful to get rid of that loaded term “hate speech” because it’s a misnomer.

Moreover I think the pressure for so-called hate speech laws was based on a false premise. The supposition is that tougher hate speech laws would have prevented the Christchurch atrocities, but there’s no evidence to show that. You heard the sociologist Mike Grimshaw say in the documentary that in fact it would have gratified the perpetrator of those atrocities if hate speech laws were enacted, because it would legitimise his warped, paranoid world view. It would have confirmed his view of himself as someone the establishment wanted to silence – a martyr.

My second point is that free speech is not a standard left-versus-right issue. You heard Jacob Mchangama make that point in the documentary.

You would also have heard Kim Hill implying, when she interviewed Jacob on RNZ, that the free speech movement was a right-wing thing, simply because he had addressed the Ayn Rand Institute. But Jacob is happy to talk to groups from any point on the political spectrum, as he said in the documentary.

Kim Hill also said, quite untruthfully, that the opponents of hate speech laws in New Zealand were all from the right. Wrong: some of the most vocal proponents of free speech are old-school lefties such as Chris Trotter, Martyn Bradbury, Don Franks and Matt McCarten. The political scientist Bryce Edwards is also a free speech champion, and I don’t think anyone would mistake Bryce for a right winger.

The traditional Left believe in free speech because they know it has been a vital tool in fighting for the causes they believe in, such as civil rights in the United States. Jacob makes that point in his book.

Free speech is important to the traditional Left because they know better than anyone what it means to suffer under authoritarian regimes that put you in jail for saying what you think.

You’ll note that I refer to the “traditional” Left. That’s because the opposition to free speech mainly comes from what you might call the new woke Left. I know a lot of people hate that term “woke”, but until someone comes up with a better word, it will have to do.

As a general rule the woke Left are younger and have come through the university system. They have a very limited understanding of history and apparently think they have a human right not to be exposed to opinions they dislike or which challenge their world view. Unfortunately they seem to be encouraged in this belief by their university lecturers.

Universities used to be regarded as bulwarks of free thought and freedom of expression. That’s no longer the case. Universities throughout the western world – even august institutions such as Oxford and Harvard – frequently bring down the shutters on speakers who are deemed provocative or even merely controversial.

There’s no sadder example than the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which was the birthplace of the radical free speech movement in the 1960s but in recent years has earned a reputation as the home of cancel culture, where speakers who challenge ideological orthodoxy are branded as unsafe and de-platformed.

I experienced a very mild form of this phenomenon myself when I spoke at a Free Speech Union event at Victoria University last year. Posters advertising the meeting around the campus were repeatedly torn down and replaced with ones saying “Stop Hate Speech” and labelling the Free Speech Union as racist, homophobic, transphobic hypocrites.

Whoever took down those posters had no idea what I was going to say. They just decided that whatever it was, it was bound to be “unsafe” (and there’s another loaded word that should have no place in rational discourse).

There was a subsequent report of my speech in the Victoria University student newspaper Salient. This report was prefaced with what’s known as a trigger warning, which read: “This article examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question. Please exercise caution when reading.”

As far as I know, my speech is still available on the Free Speech Union website. Anyone who’s interested can decide for themselves whether it was harmful. I’m not aware of anyone who needed medical treatment after hearing it.

I noted in a post on my blog that Salient in its heyday was a lively student paper that thrived on controversy and debate. Many of the people associated with it went on to occupy important positions in public life, including one who became a Labour prime minister. They must shake their heads in despair at the modern version of the paper.

But that’s what universities have become: institutions where groupthink, ideological conformity and intolerance of dissent rule. That was never more evident than when seven eminent professors wrote a letter to the Listener in 2021 in defence of the traditional definition of science and were subjected to a vicious gang-up, led by the Royal Society and supported by the University of Auckland and the Tertiary Education Union.

One Victoria University professor posted a sneering tweet calling the seven respected academics “shuffling zombies” and wondered if someone had put something in their water. There’s a mature, open mind for you.

The furore attracted the attention of leading international scientists and was rightly characterised by the likes of Richard Dawkins as an attack on the professors’ academic freedom. In the end the Royal Society and the university were forced to pull their heads in. I think they were embarrassed by the international outcry. But in the meantime, of course, the Listener Seven had been publicly pilloried and portrayed as pariahs.

It used to be the case that three institutions could be relied on to uphold free speech: universities, the courts and the media. I’ve already mentioned the first of those, so what of the other two?

The courts have a mixed record. My impression is that historically they have taken a liberal approach, but a High Court judge decided it was okay for Auckland Council to bar two Canadians, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, from speaking at a council-owned venue. This was after protesters threatened to picket the event.

The unfortunate consequence of the judge’s decision was that it conveyed the message that all anyone had to do to get a speaker cancelled was to threaten disruption.

The Free Speech Union took up the case, managed to win a partial reversal in the Court of Appeal and took it to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the FSU’s case on what I believe were dry, technical legal points rather than approaching it from a broader human rights perspective.

But there have been legal victories too. A city council that tried to ban anti-transgender feminists from holding a public meeting in the local library was forced to back down, and other councils duly took note. So that’s something.

That brings me to the media, and I’m afraid that there the picture is not encouraging.

Print, broadcast and online media tend to take a uniform, homogenous ideological and political line and publish just enough dissenting opinion to enable them to claim they’re open to opposing views.

Letters to the editor, fortunately, remain an important platform for alternative points of view. But I’ve spent a long time in journalism and I can say with certainty that the media are not as committed to diversity of opinion as they used to be.

I’ll give you just one small example: in all the media furore that raged for days over Roe versus Wade last year, it was virtually impossible to hear an anti-abortion voice. It was as if that side of the debate simply didn’t exist.

It was also depressing to hear Jonathan [Jonathan Ayling, of the FSU] say in the documentary that he invited journalists and researchers to meet Jacob Mchangama, but got no uptake. Journalists – and for that matter, broadcasters such as Kim Hill – should be in the front line of the battle for free speech because they depend on it every day. They couldn’t function without it.

I’ll also note that when the Free Speech Union held its inaugural annual conference last year, not one journalist from the mainstream media covered it.

I’d like to go slightly off-topic here and comment briefly on the Public Interest Journalism Fund, or the Pravda Project as I call it, which has made $55 million of taxpayers’ money available to media outlets provided they fulfil certain conditions relating to the Treaty.

I won’t go so far as to say the media have been bought, although some people put it that way. However I certainly think the media have compromised their independence and created a damaging public perception that they’re beholden to the government. They should hardly be surprised if people question their openness to a wide range of opinions.

I can offer a small personal insight into some individual journalists’ commitment to free speech.

I earlier mentioned the political scientist Bryce Edwards. Bryce compiles a daily summary of political news and comment that he makes available online to anyone who’s interested. He provides links to the source material, which ranges across a very broad spectrum of political comment encompassing left as well as right, although more of the former because that’s the nature of most commentary in the mainstream media. Occasionally Bryce includes links to my own blog posts.

I learned recently that a senior journalist in the parliamentary press gallery had emailed Bryce asking, in a wheedling tone, whether he had given any thought to excluding my blog posts. In other words this journalist wanted me, a fellow journalist of 55 years’ standing, cancelled.

He apparently took this step because he was offended by critical comments I had made about some of his colleagues in the press gallery. Bryce, to his credit, ignored the suggestion.

Perhaps more to the point, this journalist, who has never met me, described me as a racist, a sexist and a misogynist. Not only are these lazy, simplistic stereotypes that shouldn’t belong in any mature journalist’s vocabulary, but they are defamatory and I believe untrue. I would happily challenge my accuser to substantiate them.

In an unrelated event, I was recently invited to participate in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio discussion analysing Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership, Ms Ardern having just stood down.

A senior and highly influential New Zealand journalist was also approached to take part but on learning I was a panellist, declined. The explanation she gave was that I was a racist, a sexist and a misogynist – those very same words again – and she didn’t want to “legitimise” me by appearing on the same show.

Again, this person has never met me and had no idea what I was likely to say on the show. As it happens, I deplore the vicious personal attacks made on Jacinda Ardern and believe I was fair in my assessment of her performance as PM.

If this person disapproved of my views, then surely the thing to do was challenge them. But rather than engage in a rational, civilised discussion on air, she recoiled as if the mere act of appearing with me would expose her to the risk of biological contamination.

Is that the response of a mature, rational adult, open to debate? I think it was cowardly and childish.

In a Free Speech Union newsletter sent out only this week, Jonathan [Ayling] points out that the leader of the so-called Disinformation Project, Kate Hannah, has repeatedly declined invitations to meet with him, saying it would be – get this – “unsafe”. That word again.

Now Jonathan doesn’t exactly strike me as a threatening individual, but this is a typical reaction. Rather than engaging in a mature, intelligent exchange of views, the opponents of free speech squeeze their eyes shut, block their ears and run shrieking from the room.

Incidentally, I have yet to see any explanation of where the Disinformation Project gets its money. I entered the word “funding” in the search box on its website and nothing came up. Interesting.

But getting back to those two journalists: I suspect neither of my accusers had taken the trouble to actually read a cross-section of my work as a journalist, columnist and blogger. If they had, I don’t believe they could possibly substantiate their attacks on me. I’m happy to be judged on my record.

But here’s the point: if two senior and influential mainstream journalists have such resolutely closed minds, what hope is there of the media facilitating open and balanced debate?

The really worrying thing is that the latter of the two was in a position to exercise editorial control at the highest level. I could no longer have any confidence in the editorial integrity of any publication this individual was involved with.

Before I finish, three bullet points:

■ First: We shouldn’t count on the National Party to champion free speech. That’s obvious from the way Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis pounced on Maureen Pugh a couple of weeks ago for having the courage and honesty to ask questions about the theory of human-induced climate change.

Neither can you rely on the Human Rights Commission to defend free speech. In fact, quite the reverse. The commission has actively campaigned for restrictions on what New Zealanders can say. It’s possibly the most ironically misnamed government agency in our history.

■ Second: There is a moral panic over misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. My question is, who decides which information is permissible and which is not?

Misinformation and disinformation are terms that are too easily used to delegitimise dissent and confine public debate within “safe” channels.

In any case, in a free society you have the right to be wrong. The way to determine truth – insofar as that’s possible – is by allowing open debate, not by driving dissenting opinion underground.

As John Milton wrote in his poem Areopagitica, which you heard mentioned in the doco: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

■ Third, and to finish on a slightly more optimistic note, I wonder whether the tide may be starting to turn.

Many book publishers now employ what are called sensitivity readers, who are paid to read authors’ manuscripts and intercept anything that might be construed as upsetting. That’s how precious we’ve become.

The best-selling British author Anthony Horowitz recently revealed that one of the characters in his latest novel was a Native American doctor who attacked someone with a scalpel. Horowitz had to delete that word “scalpel” for fear that some people might associate it with the Native American tradition of scalping. Although there’s no etymological connection between the two words, Horowitz was told to replace “scalpel” with “surgical instrument”. That’s how absurd things have got.

However (and here’s the optimistic bit), Puffin Books pushed the boat out too far last month when they tried to render Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books politically correct by removing words such as “fat”, “ugly”, “mad” and “crazy”, and by making the Oompa Loompas gender-neutral.

Waddya know: there was an international backlash, and within days Puffin had announced that the texts would again be made available in the original form. In the battle for free speech, such small victories must be cherished. Thank you.

Footnote: Although I’m a member of the Free Speech Union, I don’t purport to speak for it. The views expressed here are my own.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Please remind me - who's Jacinda?

How quickly things change in politics.

The Ardern era is behind us. Just as water instantly closes over a stone that’s been thrown into a river, leaving no trace of where it fell, so the former prime minister has already assumed the character of a political ghost.

The change in the political tone of the country that followed her departure has been dramatic and immediate. It’s now clear that Ardern had come to be regarded – and very likely regarded herself – as a liability in election year.

Her leadership will forever be associated with the ascendancy of identity politics, which polarised the country in a way not seen since 1981 – if ever.

She was careful to personally remain aloof from the culture wars, in keeping with her image as someone who avoided unpleasantness. She couldn’t be accused of actively inciting them because she didn’t need to. Merely by doing nothing to discourage them, she gave the impression she approved.

With Winston Peters out of the way after the 2020 election, her assumption of complete power sent a signal to the forces of wokeness. It said, “This is your moment”.

They seized the opportunity with gusto, zealously pushing – with the mainstream media serving as state-subsided cheerleaders – an agenda of radical change that principally revolved around divisive issues of racial and sexual identity, with a generous side-order of climate change panic.

Under Ardern, Labour became a genuinely transformational government – one of only a few in New Zealand’s history (Richard Seddon’s Liberals in the 1890s, the first Labour government under Michael Savage, the Lange administration that ushered in Rogernomics) that could be so described.

In 2023, New Zealand feels like a very different country from the one Ardern inherited only three years ago. Problem was, as with Labour under Lange, much of that change was unmandated.

Unlike Rogernomics, it was a cultural transformation as much as a legislative one. The similarity was that it caught people by surprise because they couldn’t remember voting for it.

Now Chris Hipkins has thrown Labour into reverse gear. The most obvious sign is Labour’s abrupt jettisoning of Transport Minister Michael Wood’s Government Policy Statement on land transport, which prioritised emissions reduction. That would have meant more cycleways and bus lanes, higher fuel taxes and fewer new roads.

We first learned about the land transport policy statement yesterday morning. By afternoon it was gone. Now you see it, now you don’t. How quickly things change in politics …

It was a reminder that politics is ultimately about winning and retaining power, regardless of which ideological side you’re on. Policies that are seen as an electoral risk are likely to end up on the bonfire.

In the broader context, Cyclone Gabrielle changed everything. By placing Hipkins and some of his key ministers front and centre in the national consciousness, it has given vital oxygen to Labour. They have been presented as politicians able to roll their sleeves up and act decisively in a crisis.

That in turn has aligned neatly with Hipkins’ obvious desire to reposition Labour as a party of the people – its traditional image – rather than one representing the urban, university-educated elites, which it had become under Ardern.

Cancelling a hostile-to-cars transport policy was the pragmatic thing to do, even if it meant alienating Labour’s Green allies. It won’t have escaped the public’s notice that politically unfashionable diesel SUVs come into their own in a crisis; or that electric cars – the favoured mode of private transport for virtuous urban liberals – are useless when there’s no electricity.

Cyclone Gabrielle also had the effect of snatching the political initiative back from National. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Labour, because it provided a platform for Hipkins when he needed it most. The combination of Labour’s leadership change, followed almost immediately by Gabrielle, arrested the government’s decline and relegated National to the sidelines.

Suddenly all bets were off. A general election that had looked like National’s for the taking now looked like a real contest. There was even speculation that Hipkins might seize the moment and call an early election.

But whoa! Back up the truck! Now the pundits are saying National has got the jump on Labour – and raided its territory – by announcing a family-friendly childcare subsidy. Election calculations are being revised … again. How quickly things change in politics.

What was perhaps just as significant about National’s policy announcement was that Christopher Luxon, for perhaps the first time, seemed to take a genuinely red-blooded position rather than reciting safe, PR-crafted sound-bites.

His promised crackdown on government handouts to wealthy corporate consultants cleverly plays to the public perception that far too much power and influence is wielded by shadowy, overpaid, unaccountable consultants and political hangers-on. Political parasites isn’t too strong a term.

What’s more, Luxon for once didn’t allow the media to bait him or trap him into equivocating. Asked whether he was concerned for the jobs lost by consultants, he replied: “I feel very good about that.” Does this mean he finally has the confidence to say what he really thinks?

Oh, and by the way, please remind me – who’s Jacinda?

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Everything you need to know about Te Anamata a-Kai o To Tatou Taone

A press release from the Wellington City Council advises that the council has formalised Te Anamata a-Kai o To Tatou Taone. This is described as “an action plan for a sustainable, equitable, healthy and resilient food system in Poneke”.

By Poneke, which is an old transliteration of Port Nicholson ("Port Nicky"), the council PR flunkies obviously mean Wellington. Where this leaves Te Whanganui-a-Tara, which is the more commonly used Maori name for Wellington these days, isn’t clear. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up.

Anyway, the press statement went on to explain that the Action Plan is part of “Te Atakura First to Zero framework” and is aligned with something called the Tupiki Ora strategy. “It is an integrated, co-ordinated approach across Council to support food systems’ shifts in business-as-usual workstreams”.

What this means in everyday language is anyone’s guess. The statement was heavy on buzzwords – “resilient”, “sustainable”, “equitable”, “culturally appropriate” – with the mandatory references to climate change and social justice. Wellington City Council isn’t quite the madhouse that it was in the last term but there are still some flaky operators in the council chamber and deputy mayor Laurie Foon, who issued the press statement, is apparently one of them.

There’s a strange, Year Zero quality to pronouncements like these. They are so freighted with ideological jargon that it can be almost impossible to work out what they actually mean in practical terms. But what they do reveal, vividly, is that council bureaucracies have become highly politicised and detached from the pressing everyday concerns of ratepayers.  

As an aside, I used to work with Richard MacLean, who for many years has been the Wellington City Council media manager. He was a good newspaper reporter and a very funny man with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous. As a journalist, he would have laughed heartily at this sort of bullshit.

The encouraging thing is that people have grown wise to woke PR flannel. The comments under the press release on the Scoop website oozed cynicism. TrevorH, for example, wrote: “What is ‘soil sovereignty in relation to the cultural landscapes’? [Yes, that’s a line from the press statement.] Does any of this psychobabble have any relationship to reality whatsoever?”

There was a lot more in a similar vein. Ian Apperley commented: “I often wonder if the WCC can produce even more gibberish, and then they prove to me that they can.” Someone called Barb added: “New logo for WCC should be 110 per cent B.S.”.

Interestingly, no one commented on the use of te reo in the press statement (and also on the council website, where it takes precedence over English). Presumably that's because it's now taken as a given. 

For the record, Maori make up 8.6 percent of Wellington's population.

Deaf to everything but their own righteousness

I woke up yesterday morning to hear an RNZ newsreader refer to something that had happened in Kirikiriroa. That’s a name that’s almost as hard to type as it is to pronounce, but that’s not the point.

To my knowledge, no one has asked the residents of Hamilton whether they approve of their city’s name being changed. My guess is that they don’t – but hey, only 10 percent of the population want the country renamed Aotearoa, and that hasn’t stopped newsreaders, weather forecasters, reporters, politicians and academics using it as a substitute for New Zealand.

I’ve yet to hear anyone use Kirikiriroa in everyday conversation. Until relatively recently, few people had even heard of the name. But the political/academic/media cabal that controls the national conversation has decreed that henceforth, that's how Hamilton is to be known.

This is an act of colossal arrogance and conceit by a self-ordained priesthood that regards itself as being above democracy and accountable to no one. 

What’s more, it’s not even honest. It's true there was once a village called Kirikiriroa where Hamilton now stands, but the city is a wholly European creation.

There’s a very good case for restoring Maori names to places and natural features – for example, mountains, lakes and rivers – where those names were usurped by colonists. That process is already well advanced, with public buy-in; who refers to Mt Egmont these days? But to apply Maori names to cities that were built by European colonisers is historically misleading and an ostentatious form of virtue-signalling.

Theoretically at least, there may also be a case for changing Hamilton’s name, given that it commemorates a British naval officer with no historical link to the city. But the same could be said of other cities and towns with colonial names that arguably have no modern relevance; for example Nelson, Napier, Hastings, Havelock North and even Wellington, all of which celebrate British imperial conquests in one way or another. 

Good luck with that, as they say. In any case, the bottom line is that any change must be endorsed by popular mandate, not imposed by the ruling political caste with no regard for public opinion.

And as for Kirikiriroa, so for Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland), Otautahi (Christchurch) and Otepoti (Dunedin). 

The lack of public uptake for these names by the citizens of those cities speaks volumes. Does the political class notice or care that the public don’t go along? No. They’re deaf to everything but their own moral righteousness.


Tuesday, February 28, 2023

How hard can it be to check a map?

RNZ News this morning described the Esk Valley as being west of Hastings and said it had been inundated by the Ngaruroro River.

Wrong - in fact doubly wrong. The Esk Valley is northwest of Napier and was inundated by the Esk River. You’d think the name of the valley was a clue. It’s nowhere near the Ngaruroro.

Credibility matters in the media. When people in Hawke’s Bay – or in fact anyone with basic geographical knowledge – hear something like this, they are entitled to wonder what else RNZ gets wrong.

In a blog post on February 15 which I subsequently withdrew because I thought it was too negative, I criticised the media for frequently getting geographical references wrong in their coverage of Cyclone Gabrielle.

I said this: Location matters, and never more so than in a story about floods. Do journalists ever consult a map? It’s not hard.

My criticism stands.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Are we allowed to suggest that Hunga Tonga is the cause of the weather mayhem?

The most powerful volcanic eruption of the 21st century happened on January 22 last year in Tonga.

Scientists measure the force of eruptions using something called the Volcanic Explosivity Index, or VEI. (I learned about this from my teenage grandson, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of volcanoes.)

The eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai had a VEI of 5 or 6, depending on which source you believe. According to NIWA, it was the biggest atmospheric explosion recorded in more than a century. As a point of comparison, the cataclysmic Oruanui (Lake Taupo) eruption about 26,500 years ago had a VEI of 8. Krakatoa (1883) scored a 6.

The Hunga Tonga (HT) eruption sent atmospheric shockwaves around the globe and was heard as far away as Alaska. The eruption plume rose 58 km, reaching above the stratosphere.

The subsequent tsunamis devastated parts of Tonga, claiming four lives there and even killing two people in Peru. The eruption also wiped out 55 km of undersea cable, but otherwise it aroused relatively little public attention. After all, it was a long way from anywhere in a very sparsely populated part of the globe.

Scientists, however, got very excited about it. An online search turns up numerous academic papers marvelling at the scale of the eruption and assessing its implications.

Why am I writing about this? Simply because I can’t help wondering whether Hunga Tonga might have something to do with the freakish weather the North Island has been enduring.

I can’t recall a wetter, more miserable summer. January rainfall in parts of the North Island was four times higher than normal; Auckland was the wettest ever. Campers, and especially those with kids, will remember 2023 as their annus horribilis.

The February figures will be far worse. We’ve just been through several weeks of catastrophic weather events and they may not yet be over.

In so far as there’s any explanation for these events, they are commonly (if vaguely) attributed to climate change, the implication being that it's human-induced. La Nina and “atmospheric rivers” have been cited, but in such a way as to imply that they are all part of the same pattern. Anyone who dares suggest otherwise, as Maureen Pugh did, risks being put in the stocks. But is there more to it than that?

Before anyone rushes to denounce me, I’m not a climate change denier. I’ m not in a position to deny anything, since I don’t possess the scientific knowledge to make definitive assertions. My own amateur observations tell me the climate is changing; the winters are warmer (we seem to get far fewer frosts in Masterton than 20 years ago) and the frequency of slips on the Remutaka Hill road is a very basic pointer to heavier and more frequent rain. Weather bombs that were once exceptional are now the norm.

Nonetheless, the science on climate change is contradictory and often freighted with ideology – so yes, I’m sceptical. I think journalists and scientists have a duty to be sceptical.

Oh, and another disclaimer: I’m generally clueless when it comes to science. When I began my fifth form year (today’s Year 11) at Central Hawke’s Bay College, I was thrilled to discover that science had quietly been dropped from my curriculum. I was such a no-hoper that my teachers decided, without any consultation, that there was no point wasting my time or theirs. The same thing had happened with maths the previous year.

But while acknowledging I’m an ignoramus, I think I have a legitimate question to ask. Even accepting that the climate is changing, what has happened this summer seems qualitatively different. It has not only been brutal and extreme but abrupt, persistent and viciously repetitive – too much so, surely, to have been simply a continuation of a familiar long-term trend. It just seems too easy – too glib, almost – to put it all down to human-induced climate change.

Which brings me back to Hunga Tonga. Notwithstanding my lack of scholarship, it seems obvious to me from the various academic papers published about the HT eruption that it had meteorological consequences. One study, published by the French National Center for Scientific Research, called it the most remarkable climate event of the past three decades. There’s a clue, right there.

Another paper, published by the American Geophysical Union, had this to say: “The violent Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption on 15 January 2022 not only injected ash into the stratosphere but also large amounts of water vapor, breaking all records for direct injection of water vapor, by a volcano or otherwise, in the satellite era.

“The massive blast injected water vapor up to altitudes as high as 53 km. Using measurements from the Microwave Limb Sounder [no, I don’t know what that means either] on NASA's Aura satellite, we estimate that the excess water vapor is equivalent to around 10% of the amount of water vapor typically residing in the stratosphere. Unlike previous strong eruptions, this event may not cool the surface, but rather it could potentially warm the surface due to the excess water vapor.”

The study also notes that “the H2O injection was unprecedented in both magnitude and altitude” and says it may take several years for the water plume to dissipate.

I admit that much of the paper is incomprehensible to me, but am I wrong to assume that a phenomenon of that scale is going to affect weather patterns?

Yet another study, published in Nature Climate Change, similarly noted that the HT eruption had expelled an unprecedented amount of water into the atmosphere and could cause an increase in global surface temperatures lasting several years. So there seems to be some sort of consensus.

I learned that volcanic eruptions can have a profound impact on the weather when, in a past life as a wine writer, I heard New Zealand winemakers bemoaning the Pinatubo years.

The 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo, in the Philippines, had a VEI of 6. It produced what’s called a volcanic winter, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface by 10 percent – hence the challenge of getting grapes to ripen even in distant New Zealand. Pinatubo’s eruption is also thought to have triggered the so-called Storm of the Century in 1993.

Hunga Tonga, being an underwater eruption that produced a plume of water rather than clouds of dust that absorbed sunlight, had a different effect, leading to the predictions of rising global temperatures.

Either way, it seems safe to assume the eruption will have had an effect on the weather. And being a lot closer to New Zealand than Mt Pinatubo, doesn’t it stand to reason that its impact is likely to be more pronounced?

Bearing all this in mind, it doesn’t seem fanciful to suggest that Hunga Tonga might have played a hand in the apocalyptic weather events of the past two weeks. But I wonder if that likelihood is being played down because it conflicts with the human-induced climate change narrative so feverishly promoted by the Greens and now apparently accepted by the National Party – and enforced by sections of the media.

To put it another way, are we in a Fawlty Towers-type scenario where no one's supposed to mention Hunga Tonga? (To quote Basil Fawlty, I just did, but I think I can get away with it.)

There are people who read this blog who are far better informed than I am on matters of science. I would welcome their input, even if it results in my theory being – for want of a better expression – blown out of the water.

Friday, February 24, 2023

A few more thoughts on Luxon, Pugh and the media - oh, and press secretaries too

The irony of the Maureen Pugh furore is that it has caused far more damage to Christopher Luxon than to Pugh.

Luxon has come out of it looking like a control freak, intolerant of any deviation from the party line.

This should surprise no one. He comes from a corporate background, and the corporate world values conformity above almost everything else. Original thinkers are seen as problematical and even threatening. Conventional men who play golf and wear suits are naturally most comfortable in the company of other conventional men who play golf and wear suits.

John Key came from a corporate background too, but of a different type: one that placed a high value on individual risk-taking. One difference between Key and Luxon is that Key, for all his faults, seemed to have more trust in his own judgment.

But that’s not the only reason Luxon has come out of this affair looking bad. Many New Zealanders are likely to have taken a dim view of the way he threw Pugh under the bus.

Loyalty is a two-way street; party leaders are entitled to it, but so are their MPs – even lowly backbenchers. To publicly demean Pugh by ordering her to read some books on climate change – in other words, to go and stand in the naughty corner – was a bad look. It seemed petty and vindictive.

The result: Pugh finished the week having won public respect for having the honesty to say what she thought, even though she was then bullied into a humiliating recantation. People would have realised her backdown was insincere, but would have excused her because it was forced on her by her leader.

There was a simple way to avoid all this. When confronted by scalp-hunting political journalists about Pugh’s supposed climate-change heresy, Luxon could have casually waved it away. “Well, that’s Maureen,” he might have said. “She has her own way of looking at things. National has room for non-conformists.”

But he didn’t. He responded exactly as the media hoped and gave them the “Gotcha!” moment they wanted.

I think the underlying problem here is that Luxon is scared of the media and allows himself to be intimidated. Political journalists play him like a fiddle and end up effectively dictating the political agenda. This is no basis for a healthy democracy.

Luxon seems to lack the guts or confidence to stand up for principled conservative positions, fearing that the left-leaning media will punish him. The same is happening in Australia, where the once-formidable Liberal Party has been cowed into a state of paralysis by media that are even more aggressively leftist.

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1970s, the boot was on the other foot: New Zealand political journalists were scared of politicians – or to be more precise, one politician in particular, Robert Muldoon. That wasn’t good for democracy either. There's an honourable middle ground between these extremes.

Control-freak press secretaries appear to be part of the problem too. They wield far too much power. It emerged on RNZ this morning that when word of Pugh’s verbal indiscretion got around, Opposition press secretaries went into panic mode, scurrying around to ensure that all the other National MPs were “on message”.  

Pardon me, but who’s in charge here? We don’t elect press secretaries to run the country. They are the modern equivalent of the palace courtier, wielding undue influence and orchestrating events out of the public eye. Political communications, aka the spin doctor industry, is a racket that’s out of control; a gravy train that needs to be derailed.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Why journalists' credibility is declining (No. 137 in a series)

In the past few months I’ve got into the habit of watching the Prime TV news at 5.30pm.

The timing is a bit inconvenient, but that’s greatly offset by the benefits. Eric Young has a very agreeable newsreading style, by which I mean he just sits at a desk and reads the news. There’s never any pretence of Walter Cronkite-style moral authority and no cues to viewers as to how they should respond emotionally to what’s on screen.

The bulletin is only 30 minutes long but that’s enough to cover the essentials. In fact the shorter duration is an advantage because it forces Prime to stick to the basics. It’s a no-frills, straight-down-the-middle bulletin that avoids the editorial posturing and embroidery common on the other channels; this, despite the fact that it uses some of the same reporters as Newshub.

Last night I was reminded what a blessed relief it has been to watch Prime. An important phone call meant I missed the 5.30 bulletin, so I took a deep breath and tuned into Newshub at 6pm.

I didn’t last long. I turned off after about a minute, but only after shouting a profanity at the TV set. I’m not sure what that was supposed to achieve.

The lead item – the event that Newshub’s editors selected as the most significant news of the day – concerned a low-profile Opposition MP who had expressed scepticism about the role of human-induced climate change in Cyclone Gabrielle.

So after 10 days or so when the New Zealand media had a real and vital story on their hands – a dramatic story about life, death and devastation on a massive scale (which, to the media’s credit, they generally handled admirably) – we were jolted back to normality with a mischievous sideshow.

Newshub was back to its default setting of political scalp-hunting, contriving to whip up a storm out of an injudicious comment from a relatively minor player whose chief failings appear to be that she’s honest and politically not very astute. It was a reminder of all I despise about television journalism.

The item should have been headlined News Flash: MP says what she thinks. This, of course, is the worst possible thing a politician can do, especially when media assassins are constantly lurking with their daggers poised.

Maureen Pugh’s statement of scepticism about climate change was seized on not because she’s an important figure in the party (far from it; although she’s National’s junior whip, she has retained her seat in Parliament by the skin of her teeth), but because her gaffe presented an opportunity to portray National as at odds with itself over a cause that the media push with totalitarian fervour.

Even watching the opening moments of the item last night, I could see political editor Jenna Lynch’s fingerprints all over it. When I held my nose and viewed it in full later, I confirmed that it bore all her usual trademarks. These included ambushing senior National MPs and demanding to know whether they shared Pugh’s scepticism – the purpose being to see them squirm – then going to government ministers and effectively inviting them to denounce her.  

I guess this is Newshub’s idea of balanced journalism. After all, both Labour and National had their say.

Predictably, Pugh’s colleagues from Christopher Luxon down scuttled for cover. I didn’t hear any of them defend her right to express a dissenting view. A sensible response would have been that National is a broad-church party, open to a variety of ideas and able to cope with minority opinions. But no: deviation from the party line is not permitted and will be punished – in this case, by Luxon giving Pugh some books and ordering her to read them. Does he not realise he risks losing more votes than he wins by throwing her under the bus? It serves only to gratify the witch-hunters in the media and enhance their sense of power.

As is so often the case, the Newshub item was infused with a moralistic tone. Lynch went so far as to imply that to deny the effects of climate change was to betray the thousands of people struggling with the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle. Brazen emotional manipulation is another part of her tool kit.

But she was able to adopt a gloating note at the end when she reported that a suitably chastened Pugh had “walked back” her comments. Job done, then; another scalp to hang on the belt. Journalists always win because they control the rules of the game.

Of course Newshub wasn’t the only media outlet to engage in the pile-on. The  sanctimonious Marc Daalder of Newsroom was in on it too, demonising Pugh as a denier, accusing her of callous disregard for flood victims (as Lynch did) and – get this – saying she should be disqualified from holding office. This from a journalist who has been in New Zealand for roughly five minutes.

Much as he might hate the thought, Pugh has a legitimacy Daalder will never possess. She’s at least answerable to voters, even if only indirectly via our cockeyed electoral system. Daalder, on the other hand, is accountable to no one other than his employers. I’ll take a wild guess and say there would be more sympathy for Pugh on the West Coast, where she comes from, than for the opinions of a privileged product of the American university system.

And even if they don’t specifically agree with her on climate change, I believe most New Zealanders would support Pugh’s right to express a non-conformist opinion. There has to be space in the political eco-system for mavericks. A parliament full of woke-friendly nodding heads, which would be the ultimate result if activist journalists succeeded in eliminating the ideologically non-compliant, would be a travesty of democracy.  

Am I saying these journalists are biased against National? Not necessarily. While overwhelmingly left-leaning, they are indiscriminate predators who, like hyenas, will instinctively seek out those they perceive to be weak and vulnerable. At the moment this means National, but there’s nothing to say that in a couple of years it won’t be the other side’s turn.

Journalism took a fatal wrong turn when it confused itself with activism and assumed the right to hector the public with ideological lectures, often tinged with an ugly spirit of authoritarianism. Journalists are not our moral guardians, and until they grasp that fact their credibility will continue to decline.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back to Prime at 5.30 this afternoon.