Friday, May 26, 2023

A fresh appraisal of an unfashionable subject

I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by my friend and long-ago boss, the Sydney-based New Zealand author and journalist Robin Bromby.

Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp is subtitled Life and Work in Outposts of the British Empire in the Twentieth Century. It’s a very detailed and substantial piece of work on an aspect of history that most scholars either shy away from or approach in antagonistic terms because it’s considered ideologically beyond the pale.

Robin himself acknowledges that the history of the British Empire is “a subject one addresses now with caution”. From a 21st century perspective, the idea that European imperial powers could claim ownership over foreign territories at will, even when they had no particular purpose for them (as was sometimes the case), is unthinkable. But there was a time in living memory when it was considered entirely natural – in fact a matter of pride – that the sun never set on the British Empire. And as Robin notes, the administrators who ran those distant outposts were often motivated by high ideals.

They needed to be, because the rewards were often scant. Contrary to popular belief, the typical colonial official did not lead a life of luxury and privilege. Conditions were often brutally harsh. Heat (and sometimes cold), disease, primitive housing, inadequate remuneration and unimaginable loneliness were some of the prices colonial officials paid for the privilege of serving the Empire.

Communication with the outside world was chancy and erratic at best, as were visits from supply ships. More often than not, fresh food was unprocurable. In particularly remote locations, the colonial officer could go weeks or even months without seeing another European. Conventional family life was out of the question; officers often had to leave their children behind in England or were forbidden from having a family at all. It certainly wasn’t all polo, pink gins and punkahwallahs waving pandanus fans to keep the sahib cool, as readers of Somerset Maugham might imagine.

Perhaps surprisingly, given Britain's imperial wealth, the Colonial Office in London was a parsimonious employer. Not only did it pay its officers poorly, but they were strictly limited in the creature comforts they could take with them and were only rarely allowed trips home. Long-suffering wives were expected to entertain visiting dignitaries despite not being given the means to do so. Even alcohol allowances were miserly.

Robin reveals that colonial administrators were typically the best and brightest of their era – graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, accomplished at sport and well-connected socially. The demands on them were immense. A district officer in his early 20s was likely to find himself in sole charge of an area the size of Wales or Scotland and responsible for everything from the maintenance of law and order (both as police chiefs and magistrates) to the building of schools and roads, the conduct of inquests, the settling of tribal disputes, the conduct of inquests, the collection of taxes and even the dispatching of marauding wild animals. Some colonial administrators eventually returned home and went into politics but many spent their lives being cycled through postings that could take them to places as scattered as Sierra Leone, Hong Kong, Sudan, Aden, Trinidad, the Solomon Islands, Somaliland, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands.  

Robin doesn’t gloss over the rampant economic exploitation that took place under colonialism or the shameful way Britain took advantage of native manpower from the colonies in wartime, but he points out that British administrators built schools, roads, hospitals, railways and sanitation systems. Much of that infrastructure is still in use today. Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp is not only rigorously researched – a prodigious feat in itself – but presents a nuanced and non-judgmental appraisal of a period in history that generally gets a bad press. The book is available here.


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Just another day at Wellington City Council ....

There are some situations so absurd that only humour can adequately capture their lunacy. Wellington city councillor Nikau Wi Neera, who was elected last year to represent the city's Maori ward, has filed a notice of motion calling on the council to mark Nakba Day – a commemoration of Palestinian displacement in 1948 – by officially recognising the state of Palestine and lighting up the Michael Fowler Centre in the colours of the Palestinian flag.

This is too out-there even for Wi Neera’s fellow Greenie and avowed Palestine supporter, mayor Tory Whanau, but that doesn’t mean the proposal is dead in the water. It will come before the full council next month, and there are enough ideological zealots (i.e. Tamatha Paul) and flakes (Iona Pannett, Rebecca Matthews) around the table to give it a reasonable chance of success. In the meantime, someone has wickedly spoofed it using a now-familiar meme from the movie Downfall, deftly skewering the council’s fatuous woke pretensions and neatly making the point that ordinary Wellingtonians probably have more pressing issues on their minds than Palestinian liberation.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Hipkins goes the full sausage roll

Labour’s re-election strategy is now blindingly clear. Chippy Hipkins is going the full sausage roll.

Hipkins’ fondness for the humble pastry snack has already become entrenched in New Zealand political mythology. On his trip to Britain he was presented with sausage rolls not once but twice – first by King Charles and again at No 10 by Rishi Sunak. It would be no surprise if his benefactors had been tipped off in advance that this would be an appropriate gesture.

The media loved it, of course. “Chris Hipkins charms London with sausage-roll diplomacy”, read a headline in the Left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald.

This plays to Hipkins’ carefully cultivated image as an unpretentious working-class boy from the Hutt. We can expect the sausage roll to become a defining emblem of his prime ministership as he seeks to erase the ideological taint left by his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern.

Labour’s survival at the next election hinges on the party retaining at least some of the middle-New Zealand voters who crossed over from National in 2020 and delivered Ardern the first clear majority of the MMP era.

To achieve this, Hipkins must convince those swinging voters that this is a different government from the one Ardern led – one that’s concerned with bread-and-butter issues rather than the polarising identity politics that have caused Labour’s support to collapse.

The sausage roll, with its reassuring connotations of the less confrontational New Zealand that predated Ardern, meshes neatly with this objective.  Hipkins needs to convince middle voters that he’s no threat, and the sausage roll is the perfect political prop. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a sausage roll? It’s tailor-made as a comforting symbol of national unity at a time when people fret that the county is being torn apart by the ugly ideological forces unleashed during Ardern’s term.

But Hipkins’ “Boy from the Hutt” shtick extends further than sausage rolls. He told Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass that he gets his most useful “informal” advice while shopping at Pak’nSave. Forget all those highly paid apparatchiks cluttering the Beehive; if Hipkins is to be believed, it’s the Pak’nSave checkout ladies who keep him in touch with what’s going on in the real world.   

Note that he shops at the correct supermarket chain – the egalitarian, no-frills one. None of your fancy-pants New World snobbery where they pack your shopping bags for you.

Oh, and Hipkins wants us to know he can be found with other Mums and Dads on the sidelines at Saturday morning sport, where he’s brought down to earth by the realisation that there’s more to life than politics. It’s his way of assuring us that he’s one of us – or if not, that he’s at least in touch with the public mood.

Even in his anachronistic use of language, Hipkins seems keen to evoke the tone of a less fractious era. “It’s a blimmin’ good day for Kiwis living in Australia,” he quaintly said of Canberra’s decision to create a pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders – conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s in Australia’s interests, and potentially very damaging to New Zealand, to smooth the way for skilled and highly educated Kiwis looking to jump the Ditch.  

The folksy vernacular, the sausage rolls and the paeans to Pak’nSave and Saturday morning sport should all be seen as part of Labour’s big rebranding project – a distancing of the party from ideological crusades that alienate the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Another critical component in this transformation is up-and-comer Kieran McAnulty, whom New Zealand Herald political writer Audrey Young recently described as perhaps Labour’s most important politician after Hipkins and Grant Robertson .

If Hipkins is marketed as the boy from the working-class suburbs of the Hutt, McAnulty is presented as the boy from the rural heartland. You don’t get much more country than Eketahuna, where – as he was eager to stress to Young in her complimentary profile of him - his family roots are. McAnulty is Labour’s point of connection with the vital provincial electorates that abandoned National in 2020. The party needs to lock them in come October and you can be sure it will work the former TAB odds calculator like a drover’s dog.

There’s nothing unsubtle about McAnulty’s pitch. He may have sold his ancient Mazda ute, a political prop that charmed the media as successfully as Hipkins’ love of sausage rolls, but he still positions himself as an uncomplicated Kiwi bloke whom ordinary voters can relate to and trust to do the right thing. Except that he's not that idealised person, any more than Hipkins is. They're both politicians to the tips of their toes.

No doubt it was because of his affable, blokey quality that Labour chose McAnulty to sell Version #2 of the diabolical Three Waters proposal. Labour strategists would have reasoned that if anyone could make the rehashed package seem harmless, despite its racist co-governance provisions remaining essentially intact, it would be him.

He played his assigned role to the hilt, even to the extent of opening the press conference with the words: “The guts of it is …” As Young remarked, it was as if he’d just walked off the set of a Fred Dagg skit. Labour would have counted on voters feeling reassured that Three Waters had been stripped of its obnoxious bits. After all, how could a straight-shooting, daggy Kiwi bloke like McAnulty hide ulterior ideological motives?

And it may have worked. Even Young, who gives the impression of having fallen under McAnulty’s spell, said he seemed to have taken the heat out of the issue.

There’s one other crucial element in Hipkins’ attempts to persuade the public that Labour has shed the toxic ideological skew that it adopted under Ardern. While the party’s top people work hard at promoting an aura of benign Kiwi authenticity, Labour is simultaneously keeping its scary monsters out of sight.

Actually, make that scary monster, singular. Nanaia Mahuta has done more than any other single figure to promote unease and distrust about Labour’s agenda. Hipkins realised she had become a liability and moved quickly to demote her from eighth to 16th  in the cabinet rankings while also stripping her of responsibility for Three Waters and co-governance.

The 13-strong Maori caucus, however, remains a powerful force within the government – in fact stronger than ever, with a record eight Maori members in the cabinet. It would be wildly fanciful to assume that Treaty activism, the single most virulent source of potential political conflict in New Zealand’s future, has been conveniently neutered within the government following the change in the party’s leadership. More likely the extremists and agitators have been instructed to lie low so as not to imperil Labour’s bid for a third term.

Two questions arise, then. The first (and there are no prizes for guessing the correct answer) is whether the Treaty activists within the government will revert to form if Labour, with the support of the Maori Party and the Greens, secures a third term. The second is how long Hipkins and McAnulty can persist with the already strained Kiwi bloke routine before the voters cry for mercy.


Friday, May 5, 2023

Don't mention Hunga Tonga

For months the country has felt as if it’s under a state of siege – not from a hostile foreign power, but from extreme weather. 

This week, the north of the country has been pummelled again by torrential rain, gale-force winds and high seas. RNZ reported this morning that more heavy rain warnings had been issued for the west coast of the North Island and the top of the South. 

But please, whatever you do, don’t mention Hunga Tonga.

Constant weather warnings have created a pervasive sense of anxiety. Night after night, the TV weather maps show heavy rain. I’m surprised that the graphics people even bother to redo them.

We’ve become familiar with scary colour codes denoting storms of varying severity. Meteorologists whom no one had previously heard of have been thrust into national prominence in the same way that epidemiologists became household names - celebrities, almost - during the Covid crisis. 

But the experts don’t say anything about Hunga Tonga, and quite rightly. We wouldn't want people to get the wrong idea.

In some areas, Taranaki being the latest, residents have been advised to have emergency grab bags prepared in case they have to be evacuated suddenly. In Nelson last night, the city council opened emergency accommodation as a precaution.

In Hawke’s Bay, Tairawhiti, Coromandel and West Auckland, traumatised farmers, orchardists, grape growers and home owners are still cleaning up after Cyclone Hale, Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland Anniversary Weekend floods. In parts of Hawke’s Bay, people are still digging themselves out from under several metres of silt.  But please don’t make the mistake of thinking this has anything to do with Hunga Tonga.

Vital highways remain closed by storm damage. SH2 between Napier and Wairoa, closed for three months, is scheduled to reopen on May 14 once a Bailey bridge has been completed on the devastated Waikare Gorge section. Repairs to SH25A on the Coromandel Peninsula may take until next year. But it would be pure mischief to implicate Hunga Tonga.

The Wairarapa, where I live, has largely escaped the worst of the mayhem, although floodwaters inundated the Tinui School, on the road to Castlepoint, and forced its closure. But even here, we’re lamenting a summer that never was. One rural contractor, in business since 1988, said it was the wettest season he’d experienced. Crops went unharvested because the rain was almost constant.

Masterton got through summer without water restrictions, which is almost unheard of. Lawns that would normally be mown every few weeks, and then only to keep the weeds down, just kept growing. The glorious hot, dry spells that we’ve come to expect since moving here 20 years ago just didn’t happen.

The statistics tell the story. In January, 182mm of rain fell at Masterton Airport compared with the historical average of 83mm. In February we got 159mm compared with the average of 25mm.

And when it wasn’t raining, it was threatening to rain. It was a summer of gloom. NIWA figures show that Masterton had 536 hours of bright sunshine during summer compared with the average of 649. That may not sound like a huge difference, but ask any family camping on the coast how much fun they had this summer. Not bloody much, they’ll tell you. But Hunga Tonga? Nah.

By now you’re probably muttering, “Hunga what?” and wondering what the hell I’m on about.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is the underwater volcano that erupted near Tonga in January last year. I wrote about it here.

To recap a couple of key points from that blog post, Hunga Tonga was the most powerful eruption so far this century. According to NIWA, it was the biggest atmospheric explosion recorded in more than 100 years, measuring nearly 6 on the volcanic explosivity index – roughly equivalent to that of Krakatoa. The eruption created a volcanic plume that reached 58km into the mesosphere.

An article in the scientific journal Communications Earth and Environment – one of many devoted to the event – noted that major volcanic eruptions are well-known drivers of climate change and said the magnitude of the Hunga Tonga explosion ranked it among the most remarkable climatic events in the modern observation era. Researchers calculated that it resulted in a 13% increase in global stratospheric water mass and a fivefold increase in stratospheric aerosol load – the highest in three decades.

One study estimated the amount of water displaced as 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or about 10 percent of the entire water content of the stratosphere. That’s a helluva lot of water and it has to go somewhere. Communications Earth and Environment said the eruption had “potential long-lasting repercussions for stratospheric composition and climate”.

Similarly, Atmosphere magazine devoted a special issue to the eruption, calling it an epic event that would have a continuing effect on the climate, both locally [that probably includes us] and globally.

It seems reasonable to conclude that an eruption of that scale might at the very least be a factor in the freakish weather patterns of the past few months. Yet I can’t help suspecting that the eruption of Hunga Tonga is the climate event none of the New Zealand experts want to talk about, possibly because it cuts across the official narrative that the extreme weather of the past few months is all due to climate change.

In a New Zealand Herald article published two months ago, New Zealand meteorologists seemed to go out of their way to play down the Hunga Tonga factor. While acknowledging that eruptions can have climatic impacts, they attributed our wayward summer weather (and now autumn as well) to other causes. James Renwick said much of the excess moisture from Hunga Tonga would have been rained out within weeks. He and Jim Salinger posited that La NiƱa and something called the Southern Annular Mode were far more important. The other big factor, of course, was background climate change. Nothing new to see here, folks.

Obviously I can’t contradict them. They’re experts and I’m not. But can we rely on the likes of Renwick and Salinger being rigorously objective? I’d like to say yes, but both have nailed their colours to the climate change mast and the subject is so politicised that we can be excused for having doubts. Science is not immune to ideological contamination, as we learned from the shameful gang-up that followed the Listener letter about matauranga Maori.

Setting aside all the arguments about whether climate change is human-induced, and to what extent (if at all) we can mitigate it by riding bikes, buying Teslas, planting trees and punishing farmers, I think most people can accept that the climate is changing. Even my own amateur observations suggest it’s happening. One admittedly crude measurement is the frequency with which the Remutaka Hill road is closed by slips. When we moved from Wellington in 2003, such events were infrequent. Now they happen regularly. That can only be the result of the ground being saturated and destabilised by constant heavy rain. The frosts, too, are fewer and less severe.

But what’s happened lately feels different. 
Gabrielle was New Zealand’s worst weather event this century. The Treasury puts the likely combined cost of the cyclone and the Anniversary Weekend storm at $9-$14 billion.

Climate change is surely a gradually evolving trend, and that doesn’t gel with what New Zealand has experienced this year. The recent extreme weather events have been freakishly violent and abrupt. They feel like outliers – striking departures from the norm – rather than the predictable continuation of a long-term pattern. If I'm wrong, such events are the new normal and we face an unimaginably dismal future.

Just by suggesting this, I probably risk being labelled as a conspiracy theorist from the alt-Right and put on the watch list of the Disinformation Project (which, incidentally, has so far failed to respond to my requests for information about who funds it – a novel approach for activists who like to promote themselves as champions of transparency). But where climate change is concerned, as in all issues where ideology intrudes, I’m inclined to follow the advice of my late colleague Frank Haden: doubt everything with gusto.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Catfishing and how to avoid it

I’m on the wrong side of 70. This means there are a lot of things about contemporary New Zealand life and manners that I don’t understand.

For one thing, I don’t know what catfishing is. At least, I didn’t until I looked it up online this morning. It turns out that catfishing is what happens when a person assumes someone else’s identity online and uses it to deceive people. It appears to be one of those terms that have crossed over from [anti]social media to mainstream platforms.

NZME – the company that publishes the New Zealand Herald and provides news to a chain of provincial titles – assumes that I, and all its other readers, know what catfishing is, since it used the term in a news story this morning without explaining the meaning. NZME even used it as the key word in the headline: “Teacher’s catfishing ruse”.

Of course there comes a point when every neologism is absorbed into popular usage and no longer needs any explanation, but I don’t think that time has arrived in this case. “Catfishing” is in the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries, but that says nothing about the word’s uptake. Prestidigitation and toponymy are in the dictionaries too, but you don’t hear the words in everyday conversation. If I’m derided as a dinosaur because I’m not familiar with catfishing, I’ll wear it.

My guess is that the reporter who wrote the story is of a generation that’s familiar with Twitter-era jargon and didn’t think any clarification was necessary. This is a safe assumption because there seem to be very few working reporters left over the age of 40. Any trained journalist older than that is likely to be working as a strategic communications adviser in a government department.

Something else I don’t understand, notwithstanding that last fact, is why there’s no longer anyone in the newsroom whose job it is to throw badly written, incomplete or factually erroneous stories back at reporters and demand they fix them.

There used to be such people; they were called sub-editors, or “subs”. But subs were pensioned off years ago in the belief that reporters could check their own stories. How that was supposed to work was never clear, because how can anyone be expected to correct a mistake if they don’t realise they’ve made it in the first place?

In any case, there could be no place in 21st century newsrooms for cantankerous, old-school subs like the one at the Dominion who once bellowed, in a voice loud enough to be heard in Petone, that he would stand me on the subs’ desk and kick my f***ing arse if I hadn’t learned how to spell “accommodation” by the following day.

If a sub tried that today he or she (there were some pretty tough women on subs’ desks) would be fired for bullying and I’d be on leave with post-traumatic stress disorder (I was 18 at the time). But I’ll tell you what: I never again spelled accommodation with only one “m”.

In the case of the catfishing story, it could also have been pointed out to the reporter that AFL stands for Australian Football League, not Australian Federal League. Many of NZME’s readers would know this and spot the error immediately.

Does it matter? Well, yes, because readers seeing that the reporter got this tiny thing wrong are entitled to wonder what else he might have stuffed up. Credibility is everything.

In fact there’s a bigger problem here, because the news media must now come to terms with the awkward reality that “consumers of content” (to use a vile, dehumanising media term for readers, viewers and listeners) are often far more knowledgeable than most journalists, and snort with derision at the obvious errors and solecisms that confront them every day.

But all this is by way of a preamble to my main topic. The NZME story reported that a female teacher had “catfished” two women colleagues by pretending to be a man, striking up relationships with them on dating platforms and persuading them to send her naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves. She used the photograph of an Aussie Rules football star – hence the reference to the AFL.

The big question here (the one I sat down to write about before being diverted by catfishing) is this: why do so many people get themselves into these humiliating and totally avoidable situations? It seems self-evident that sending compromising pictures of yourself to someone you’ve never met, and can’t be sure even exists, is freighted with risk. 

The answer can only be that it fulfils a need in people who are either narcissistic, exhibitionist or desperately in need of approval – possibly even a combination of all three. Sadly, [anti] social media provides fertile ground for predatory men seeking to exploit the vulnerable.

I started out by saying there are things about contemporary New Zealand life and manners that I don’t understand. This is one of them. The astonishing thing is that people continue to share intimate photos despite knowing the downsides (after all, countless cases have been reported), and then seem surprised as well as traumatised by the outcome.

This morning we also read about a woman, identified only as “Hazel”, who allowed her former partner to film them having sex together. After the relationship had broken up, the spiteful ex-partner placed the sex video on a global porn website.

It’s hard to imagine a more despicable or vindictive act – but in this case it has potentially far-reaching public consequences, because a District Court judge has overruled ACC’s decision to reject the woman’s claim for compensation. That could result in a flood of claims from others who have similarly had their trust betrayed. RNZ suggests they could run into the hundreds.

ACC made its decision on strictly legal grounds. It held that the harm the woman suffered wasn’t recognised under the relevant legislation.

The novel aspect of the claim is that Hazel’s lawyers argued in court – and the judge apparently accepted – that her consent to the video was voided when it was put online without her permission. It therefore became a case of sexual abuse.

It’s worth mentioning that she brought a civil case against her ex-partner and was awarded reparation, but it wasn’t paid – at least, not in full. It seems the public, through ACC, is now left carrying the can for her unwise choice of partner.

I can see this case provoking serious anger and resentment from the thousands of people who have struggled in vain, or had to jump through endless hoops, to get ACC cover for what they believed were legitimate claims arising from real physical injuries.

Such people would be justified in taking the view that what happened to Hazel, while deplorable, was not an accident in the customary sense. She agreed to the video and only later retracted her consent in the light of what was subsequently done with it. In other words, she had control – or to use a fashionable term, “agency” – over her actions. To put it another way, and to use a popular euphemism often used to excuse folly, she made a “bad choice”.

I hope ACC appeals the judge’s decision. Compensation for sexual abuse wasn’t on the radar of the scheme’s architects in the 1970s but now accounts for thousands of claims annually, and eligibility will be widened further if the decision stands.

In the meantime, the case should serve as an object lesson to all those women who think it’s a good idea to pander to the voyeurism of dodgy males. But that may be too much to hope for.

Useless information: Since posting this, I've learned that the term "catfish" comes from a reality TV series (so-called) of that name about online dating. The origin of the metaphor is explained on Wikipedia but hardly seems worth repeating here.