Friday, June 9, 2023

Three thoughts for today

■ If Michael Wood deliberately sat on his shareholding in Auckland Airport despite knowing it represented a flagrant conflict of interest, he was guilty of ministerial impropriety bordering on corruption.

If, on the other hand, he simply didn’t get around to selling his shares despite being constantly reminded that he should, presumably because he was preoccupied with other things, he was guilty of inexcusable procrastination, rank incompetence and shockingly bad judgment. This should automatically render him unfit for any ministerial portfolio.

So he is either dodgy, hopelessly disorganised, or perhaps both. Either way, the case for Wood’s dismissal is overwhelming. Chris Hipkins is playing for time because he’s running out of cabinet ministers, but Wood’s situation is hopeless. You can hear the Death March playing.

We have been here before. The hazard for Labour governments is that they come to power bursting with zeal and ambition after years of frustration on the opposition benches, then burn out spectacularly when their ability falls woefully short of their aspirations.

It happened in 1975 and it seems to be repeating itself now. A notable exception, as Matthew Hooton reminds us today, was the Clark-Cullen government of 1999-2008, but the Ardern-Hipkins regime has reverted to type. Incompetence and indiscipline are a fatal combination. 

Michael Johnston and James Kierstead have written a piece for the NZ Initiative highlighting the precarious future of universities. They suggest a crucial part of the problem is that universities have abrogated their defining purpose – namely, to serve as incubators of ideas and nurturers of free thought and inquiry. This traditional function becomes impossible, they point out, when academics and students are scared to say what they think.

Johnston and Kierstead know what they’re talking about, having both experienced the chilling effects of the all-pervasive cancel culture that prevails in universities.

Their article also refers to the financial crisis that has forced several universities to consider laying off staff. Perhaps a useful starting point for embattled university administrations would be to focus on academics who use their privileged positions to promote polarising identity politics agendas for which they have no mandate.   

This blog yesterday identified one such figure, Massey University’s Professor Mohan Dutta. A trawl through Dutta’s online activism and his involvement in the activist organisation CARE – or to give it its clumsy full name, the Centre for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation – revealed a web of far-Left connections, much of it appearing to operate under Massey’s aegis. (CARE’s 2023 Activist-in-Residence was indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata, whose on-campus events at Massey last month bore the clear stamp of approval from the university – in striking contrast to vice-chancellor Jan Thomas’s hysterical 2018 ban on Don Brash.)

Dutta is hardly unique in using his academic status to pursue an ideological agenda. If university administrations wanted to save money and simultaneously regain lost credibility, they could strip back to basics by demanding a more rigorous level of accountability from academic staff and giving notice to those who treat their position as a licence to indoctrinate. Those who don’t comply should be shown the door.

That might have the additional benefit of breaking the repressive ideological stranglehold that Johnston and Kierstead allude to and creating an academic environment in which people again feel able to speak freely.

■ I had an exchange of emails yesterday with a fellow retired journalist who lamented the tendency for reporters to embellish their stories with personal opinion, something that was firmly discouraged in our time.

I offered two possible explanations. One was the adoption of bylines – the practice of putting the reporter’s name on the top of the story, often accompanied by their photograph.

Until the 1970s, bylines were used only sparingly, usually to indicate that the reporter was a “name” or had done an exceptional job. Sports writers often got them, as did some political reporters whose knowledge and expertise were acknowledged.

Now bylines are used automatically, even on the most routine news items. The inevitable consequence is that the reporter’s ego is inflated even if he or she has done only a ho-hum job. From there, it doesn’t take a huge leap for the reporter to think his or her opinion must count for something.

Another possible explanation for the intrusion of comment into what should be “straight” news stories, unembroidered by the reporter’s personal views, is that a high proportion of journalists in the 21st century have university degrees, which was rare a couple of generations ago.

Human nature being what it is, journalists who hold degrees may think themselves wiser than their readers, and therefore empowered to give us the benefit of their insight.

When I began in journalism, there was a prejudice against the hiring of university graduates for exactly that reason; they were suspected of being "above themselves”. It seemed an inverted form of intellectual snobbery, but I now sometimes wonder whether there might have been something in it.

Of course, not having been to university myself, I would say that.



R Singers said...

I'm not opposed to bylines but think how much better Stuff would be if you could filter out articles based on them. No Verity Johnson, no Max Rushford, you might end up stumbling across some actual news! :-)

Michael Johnston said...

Thanks for the mention Karl. Interested readers can find the article here:

It also appeared in the NZ Herald.

Karl du Fresne said...

Readers could find your piece by clicking on your name, but I probably didn't make that clear.

Karl du Fresne said...

R Singers,
I presume you mean Max Rashbrooke?

R Singers said...

Yes I did mean Max Rashbrooke. Probably a good example of your point about university education.

Trev1 said...

I think we have reached the point now when there is a strong case for the creative destruction of the universities. There is no other way to break the neo-Marxist stranglehold which makes free thought and debate almost impossible without great personal risk (I have a lot of respect for James Kierstead in that regard). The funding crisis is an opportunity, not a threat. It will likely get worse. From the ashes of the present, failing institutions another more responsive and accountable model may emerge. But as I have suggested previously, the idea of the university today is dead.

Eamon Sloan said...

I placed this comment on one of the Breaking Views blogs. I have edited out the blog writer’s name and added to the final sentence.

As yet nobody, has shown us specifically, precisely, exactly, how Wood might have benefitted at any time by his position as Minister of Transport. Moreover nobody has shown us how he might benefit in the future through continuing to hold his shares.

My take is that any MAJOR government decision affecting Auckland International Airports share price would be a collective cabinet decision, where it could be expected he would abstain. I am not a share market expert, but if Auckland City Council dumped a container load of shares on the market would the price collapse or go through the roof?

There must be more pressing matters for all parties to be concerned with. In other words Politicians AND Blog Writers should not be chasing fire engines.

Kit Slater said...

Regarding the intrusion of reporters’ personal opinions, I would add another potential cause, that of ‘lived experience’. It permeates so much of social and mainstream media that reporters will, as of an unconscious right, allow it to influence their writing. With the decline of religion’s revealed truth and priestly (and now scientific) authority, the desire for acquaintance with truth is personalised.

Karl du Fresne said...

I think you might be missing the point. Setting aside everything else, Wood knew the rules about disclosure and chose - for reasons best known to himself - to flout them.

Gary Peters said...

Good lord, I love the contorsions to which those of the left will adopt to justify an action that is either gross stupidity or arrogant corruption.

52 in a 50 isn't really breaking the law coz it's only a tad more than the limit. Under declaring income by a couple of grand isn't really tax fraud coz it's only a few grand.

The left and labour worked themselves into frenzy in 2008 when it was discovered that Sir John Key owned a few shares in a blind trust that he had no control over but could fall under the purvey of his ministry so when first advised, notice "first" advised he had the administrator of the trust dispose of them.

Here we have a cabinet minister ignoring the rules, lying about his actions to not one but two prime ministers and needing to be told 12 times to act according to the rules. As Karl says, stupid or corrupt, either way, unfit for service.

And as for the "collective cabinet decision" making process, when a bunch of idiots are assembled you really expect them to make a rational decision? Not one of our cabinet have the faintest idea of downstream results of major decisions and have acknowledged that they repeatedly ignore official advice from those who do.

The sooner the "broom" of October 14 comes into play the better. Only 17 more weeks of embarrassment for this lot to suffer.

Kevin R said...

There's a song by the band Fontaines D.C. called "Chequeless Reckless", the first three lines of which run as follows:

"A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money
An idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking
A phony is someone who demands respect for the principles they effect"

A lot of academics and "journalists" would do well to heed these observations, which IMHO are spot-on.

Doug Longmire said...

Re:- Universities.
I am baffled how these places of higher learning have degenerated into ideological Left wing, travesties.
My recollection (I admit - it was 60 years ago !) was that we all went to university, or law school, or pharmacy school etc, to further our knowledge, and to obtain the skills and knowledge to provide us with a JOB, in the REAL world.

OMG !! How that has changed.

Max Ritchie said...

Eamon: you really have missed the point. This trivial matter you are dismissing is a rule which Cabinet members are obliged to observe. He was asked 12 times by the authorities. That he didn’t benefit is irrelevant. Wood is goneburger. With any luck Labour is goneburger.

Anonymous said...

Yes and with any luck a Nat/ACT Government will help clean out these institutions, root and branch.

Richard said...

It seems extraordinary that all the articles regarding the various Wood/Nash/Allan/Tinetti scandals, note that 'of course there in no suggestion that their actions involved corruption for personal gain', when each one clearly indicated corruption for personal gain. But I'm sure the journalist was on good terms with the minister, and thought he/she was a good sort despite all evidence to the contrary.

Eamon Sloan said...

My comment above does not make me a Labour voter. I recall commenting further back on one of Karl’s postings that I would not be voting Labour. I take the point that rules are rules though arguments about perception with regard to conflicts of interest can take us down all sorts of rabbit holes. As a political scandal Michael Wood’s issue is hardly a classic and is far from bordering on corruption as Karl maintains. I rate the whole affair as a Z Minus.

The real shares scandal may be brewing here if Auckland’s airport shares are finally shovelled off to Tainui and others as a Treaty settlement. Is that a rabbit hole? Maybe. Read about it here:

Hilary Taylor said...

As Richard says...the 4th estate here much keener on being mates with those they should be sceptically holding to account...these days they only do that to HMO.
Bylines mean I can shoot off an email to those with addresses in 'em and detour away from the editor. You're right, they're a wee ego trip but I suppose they may well get 'scoops' from time to time.
The unis are lost.

Frederick Williscroft said...

I agree that incoming Labour Governments are normally full of zeal and enthusiasm. However I don't think you can apply that to this Labour Government. I would suggest that they didn't give themselves much chance of becoming government and as such were totally unprepared when they found themselves in power.

They had been very lazy in opposition and hadn't done the work necessary to develop policy. Take Kiwibuild. Despite announcing it in 2012 and repeating the mantra "100,000 homes in 10 years" in an endless refrain they didn't have a clue how to get these houses built. Result - has there ever been a bigger big ticket policy flop in NZ history than this one.

Unfortunately they have a cabinet of absolutely hapless ministers who can't drive and implement policy and for the large part were presided over by a Prime minister who didn't seem at all interested in the performance of her ministers and was more interested in 1pm TV slots.

Despite throwing eye watering amounts of money in all directions this government record of delivery is appalling. The worst government by a large margin in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

The Universities are in a long term crisis because they do not make sense in the context of the 21st century for many people. Numerous questions have to be asked.

What is the role of the University in the 21st century? Is it the place of leisure, reflection and networking of 18th century English Universities? Is it the Research drive Scientific Institution of the 19th century German Universities? Is it the training place of the Professional Managerial Class as James Burnham outlined in the mid 1950s? Why do we go to university? Is it about careerism, vocational training for professionals? Or is it about knowledge?

For a thought experiment, if one reads all the literature for an English Literature, History or Philosophy degree in their own personal time, is that equivalent to the degree? Would you put that on your CV? The answer is no. The vast majority of the value is in the Vellum outside professional training. So why do so many young people have this assumption of 'Yale or Jail'? Because we promote it as the best option due to its outcomes. We berate people as failures for becoming university graduates.

We are always told about the employment and social outcomes of higher education, where the assumption is that the education itself produces these outcomes. Yet it is unclear whether it is simply the quality of the person who tend to have the time preference and ability to acquire such qualifications which matters. Given the obvious credential inflation and ease of assessment in NCEA, which is getting so bad that the highest achieving private schools are switching off NCEA to IB, why should we assume degrees haven't been degraded too?

Yet every child is told to pay an ever increasing price for a product which is increasingly common. It is no different to the mindset that underlies the Housing bubble. We encourage them to pay for something which is partially an investment, partially a consumptive good (three years of good times on the state's dime) for the nebulous promise of better life outcomes. This in turn has cultivated a set of institutions driven by business logic to expand enormously and to milk the inflow of students, foreign and domestic.

In turn, a Bachelor's degree simply isn't enough anymore. It is largely a mere idiot test to prove you can work conscientiously for three years on some subject as a CV signal that you can be trusted to stare at spreadsheets all day. So what is the next step? You have to earn a Master's Degree to prove you are even smarter than the mere Graduate peasants.

A historic parallel is the Tang Dynasty and Qing Dynasty County, Duchy and Imperial Exams to become Mandarin Bureaucrats. Thousands of young men would devote huge portions of their lives (up to the age of 45!) to be allowed into high prestige state bureaucrat roles judged by composing poetry, confucian philosophy essays and calligraphy.

It will end in an immense wave of anti-intellectualism, already consuming the Universities, where we merely attend University as adult playcentre where middle class kids waste their youths doing nothing productive.