Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Digging With Teaspoons

An Honest Shovel: The intimate nature of New Zealand society has taught it's citizens to call corruption by other, less troublesome, names. When asked to dig, the responsible agencies almost always set out with a teaspoon - not a spade. Who knows what levels of corruption an honest shovel would now uncover in "the least corrupt nation on earth"?

A GROUP of wealthy ranchers and industrialists importunes the man most likely to lead their party to the White House. He hears them out politely, takes a contemplative sip from his glass of whiskey, and replies: “Boys, I’d like to help. But, like every man, I have my price. If you want me to run, it’ll cost you a well-watered ranch in prime cattle country.” The party big-wigs exchange glances and nods. Their spokesman rises from his big leather chair, extends his hand towards the beaming candidate, and exclaims: “Done!”
Now who would you say this politician was? A Texan, surely? Lyndon Baines Johnson? George W. Bush? Some corrupt citizen of the Lone Star State where elections were regularly franchised out to party bosses who, when it came to vote-rigging, only ever had one question: “Do you want us to count ‘em, or vote ‘em?” (Meaning: Do you want us to stuff the ballot boxes, or merely round up the required number of bribed and/or intimidated electors?)
Well, to be honest, this story isn’t about Texan – or even American – politics. I only used words like “ranchers” and “White House” so that you’d have no difficulty in recognising all the behind-the-scenes deal-making for what it was: political corruption.
Had I told you from the beginning that we were talking about New Zealand farmers and businessmen, and that the politician negotiating the price of his co-operation was the future National Party Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, then you would already be objecting: “So what? That’s not corruption. It’s not illegal to buy somebody a farm!”
I remember my old editor at The Independent Business Weekly, Warren Berryman, shaking his head in wonderment when, once again, some international outfit declared New Zealand to be the least corrupt country on Earth. Warren was born in the United States and had lived what might, euphemistically, be called “a colourful life”.
“This is one of the most corrupt countries I’ve ever lived in”, he told me. “It’s everywhere you look – but you Kiwis just don’t see it. New Zealand tops all these surveys not because it’s corruption-free, but because New Zealanders have become experts at looking at corruption and calling it something else.”
How much longer, I wonder, is the rest of the world going to be hoodwinked by Kiwis’ perverse willingness to substitute an ornamental teaspoon for a spade?
Imagine a foreign corporate investor reading an account of the New Zealand Government’s management of the process of securing a world-class convention-centre for its largest city. Can’t you just see his eyes flicking back to the top of the story to make sure that he’s reading about New Zealand – and not some dodgy regime in the developing world.
Because, let’s be honest: if we were reading about a Prime-Minister meeting privately, over dinner, with the operator of the country’s largest casino; if we learned that his government was seriously considering changing the gaming laws to the advantage of said casino operator in return for it stumping-up the cash for said convention-centre; if we discovered that civil servants were operating outside official procedural guidelines and that Treasury concerns about this lack of proper process were being ignored; then wouldn’t the last place we’d think we were reading about be “the world’s least corrupt nation” – New Zealand?
And hasn’t the Deputy Auditor-General, Phillippa Smith, proved the late Warren Berryman absolutely correct by first detailing an extraordinary series of highly irregular activities on the part of New Zealand politicians and civil servants, only to conclude that she has no “substantive” issues with the outcome?
And doesn’t it remind you of those movies in which an obese southern sheriff interposes his sweating bulk between the bloodied bodies lying face-down in the street and the gathering crowd of townspeople, saying: “Nothing to see here, folks. Y’all just run along home now. Everything’s under control.”
Because isn’t that precisely what Prime Minister John Key’s Mr Fix-it – Steven Joyce – has been telling us to do all week?
And isn’t that because New Zealand is much closer to that sleepy southern town than we’d like to think.
Ours is an extremely intimate society in which “ordinary” citizens know (and are known by) all manner of “important” people. In such close-knit communities it is often unhelpful to rely too literally on the black letters of the law. When everybody knows where everybody else’s bodies are buried, setting forth in search of wrong-doing with an ornamental teaspoon arguably makes more sense than marching off with a spade.
And once the tradition of digging with teaspoons becomes established the use of a spade becomes even more dangerous. Who knows what dirty deals, sleazy quid-pro-quos and ghastly miscarriages of justice might be uncovered if an honest shovel was ever allowed to turn over the topsoil of “corruption-free” New Zealand?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Charging The Train

Collision Course: Following Charles Chauvel's resignation from Parliament - allegedly after being told that, as an ally of David Cunliffe, he would have no role in a David Shearer-led Labour government - what will the Member for New Lynn do? The Labour Caucus's refusal to promote Cunliffe, its most electable member, to the party leadership offers grim evidence of its political and moral decline. (Photograph by John Chapman/Alamy)

AS LABOUR’S TRAIN rolls on towards 2014, I feel a bit like the bull in the Georgia politician’s story. Describing yet another doomed campaign waged by his liberal opponents in the Senate, the all-powerful leader of the segregationist Southern Caucus, Senator Richard B. Russell Jnr, observed that their position “reminded him of a bull who had charged a locomotive train. That was the bravest bull I ever saw, but I can’t say a lot for its judgement.”
I should have known that in championing the leadership credentials of David Cunliffe I was backing a bull over a locomotive.
After all, Mr Cunliffe could only boast a Harvard MPA, ministerial experience, a telegenic personality and the ability to string together a coherent English sentence. He was, moreover, the only member of the Labour caucus to have fully grasped the meaning of the Global Financial Crisis. The only Labour MP who understood how few of neoliberalism’s shibboleths remained politically serviceable to the Twenty-first Century Left.
There is always one who stands out in any party caucus: a man or woman who, in spite of their faults, is recognised by their colleagues as the only person who can beat the incumbent. Norman Kirk, Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key: they may not have been liked by their colleagues; they may even have unseated a leader beloved and respected by the party’s rank-and-file; but they were the ones who could win; and they were the ones chosen.
I don’t think it is drawing too long a bow to say that the moral health (not to mention the historical success) of any political party depends upon its caucus’s ability to both recognise and engineer the promotion of the one/s most likely to succeed.
The elevation of the woefully inexperienced and chronically inarticulate David Shearer to the Labour leadership revealed a caucus no longer capable of identifying “The One”. Indeed, the very notion of a candidate possessing outstanding leadership qualities is now condemned as both disruptive and demoralising. Anyone promoted on the grounds that they possess superior talent or, God forbid! – charisma – is immediately blackballed by their less talented and charisma-bypassed colleagues.
The personality structure best suited to a Labour caucus overpopulated with MPs who owe their parliamentary seats to a high ranking on the Party List is that of the passive-aggressive courtier; the intriguer; the secretive collector of his or her colleagues’ political IOUs.
Robust egos and forthright personalities are proving easy meat for such folk.
Charles Chauvel, “Champagne Charlie”, that wilful roisterer whose liberal disposition and utterly brilliant legal mind promised a Labour Attorney General and Justice Minister of rare ability and enduring achievement, is merely the latest victim of a Labour caucus which, increasingly, is distinguished by nothing other than its dreary mediocrity.
I ask myself: “With Champagne Charlie gone, can the talented Mr Cunliffe be far behind?”
New Zealand now faces the dismal prospect of a change of government by default. It is entirely possible that, in twenty months’ time, Mr Key and his National Party, in spite of enjoying a ten percentage point advantage over their nearest political rival – will, nevertheless, lose the 2014 General Election.
Replacing him will be a man of whom it can only be said: “He was loathed less than his opponents.” Mr Shearer will enter office not like David Lange – on the updrafts of his own soaring rhetoric. Nor will he possess the menacing mandate of a Rob’s Mob, or even John Key’s “Labour-lite”. Mr Shearer will sit at the head of the Cabinet Table by virtue of simple arithmetic. Because Labour’s Party Vote, plus the Greens’ Party Vote, plus NZ First’s Party Vote, together, add-up to a Prime Minister.
The mandate of these three, ideologically distinct, political parties will be impossible for the electorate to discern. Inevitably, New Zealand’s policy direction will default to the usual bureaucratic suspects: Treasury, MFAT and the Ministry for Primary Industries. Their attached ministers are unlikely to cause any trouble. The ambition of courtiers is to climb things – not change things.
It is in the nature of bulls to defend their own. Mr Cunliffe’s supporters should, therefore, console themselves with the knowledge that while they lacked the judgement to avoid a head-on collision with Labour’s locomotive, they retained just enough courage for one final, redeeming, charge.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 February 2013.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Living Wage Campaign: Solidarity Or Charity?

Morality vs Cold Hard Cash: The Living Wage Campaign depends for its success upon inciting mass moral outrage against low wages. But it's not the charity of fellow citizens that low paid workers need - it's their solidarity. The restoration of universal union membership and national awards would secure a living wage for working-class Kiwis a lot faster than a campaign to mobilise the better angels of New Zealand's notoriously fickle middle-class.

“CALL UP THE CRAFTSMEN, bring me the draughtsmen, build me a path from cradle to grave. And I’ll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage.” In just thirty-three words the English songwriter, Billy Bragg, captures the essence of the grand social bargain that became the post-war Welfare State.
What does it say, then, about New Zealand’s social and economic priorities in 2013 that “a living wage” has, once again, become something to which hundreds of thousands of working-class New Zealanders can only aspire?
When I first learned about the Living Wage Campaign I was dubious. Not, I hasten to add, about its ultimate purpose – who can dispute the sorry state of New Zealand wage-rates? No, what bothered me were the means which the promoters of the Living Wage (calculated this past week at $18.40 per hour, or $736.00, before tax, for a 40-hour week) were employing to achieve their objective.
Moral suasion is a powerful force and certainly not one to be underestimated. New Zealanders, of all people, should have no doubt about the ability of a strong moral argument to mobilise public opinion against clear and present evils. Those of us old enough to recall the turmoil in which New Zealand was engulfed during the 1981 Springbok tour will readily attest to the consequences of moral force. David Lange’s extraordinary speech to the Oxford Union bore similar testimony to the power of a well-marshalled ethical argument.
But all the 1981 protests and Mr Lange’s Oxford Union speech achieved was the exclusion of apartheid sport and nuclear weapons from New Zealand territory. They certainly did not end apartheid or nuclear weaponry. Moral suasion can only take you so far.
How far The Living Wage Campaign’s moral arguments will take it depends on how vulnerable its targeted employers are to public sentiment.
I was not surprised to learn that practically all the successes of similar initiatives overseas were achieved in the public sector. Where the ultimate employers of poorly-paid working people are local or central government politicians there is clearly room for leverage. If the electors can be persuaded to pressure candidates (like London’s Boris Johnson) into supporting a living wage for low-paid council and/or government staff, then a favourable outcome (even one that comes at the rate- and tax-payers’ ultimate expense) is highly likely.
Large monopoly suppliers of goods and services might also be persuadable. The opportunity to burnish their public image by stepping-up to the plate as good corporate citizens can easily be paid for by adding a cent or two to their prices.
In more competitive marketplaces, however, rising labour costs cannot be passed on so easily. In small to medium enterprises the sharing-out of any surplus tends to be a zero-sum game. Higher wages all-too-often mean lower profits. Moral suasion in these circumstances is unlikely to take you very far at all.
Most perplexing of all about the Living Wage Campaign is its origin in the trade union movement. It is hard to think of a more glaring admission of defeat than launching a campaign whose success is ultimately dependent on melting the hearts of the employing class. As if the events of the past three decades hadn’t supplied all the evidence a trade unionist could ever need that, when it comes to serving the shareholders (and securing their bonuses!) the employing class has no heart to melt.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the period in our recent history (the mid-1980s) when the share of national income going to the top 1 percent of income earners was at its lowest, was the very same moment at which the number of workers belonging to a trade union was at its highest.
Or, to put it more bluntly: the most effective instrument for securing a living wage for all workers is a large, strong and confident labour movement. A movement strong enough to secure the restoration of the national award system (which removes the cost of labour from the arena of inter-enterprise competition) and the return of universal union membership (which is the only way of guaranteeing a living wage for workers in the now almost entirely de-unionised service sector).
The Living Wage Campaign that I could lend my wholehearted support to would be the one which set out to explain why these two radical employment relations reforms were crucial to the reconstitution of a workforce that could enter the workplace every morning with dignity and confidence and depart every evening without fear.
It is not the pity and charity of the middle-class New Zealanders being targeted by the Living Wage Campaign that low-paid workers need – it’s their solidarity.
The only melting of hearts I have ever witnessed is when people stand and struggle together – for justice.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 February 2013.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Whither Goest Thou, Joseph Ratzinger?

Quo Vadis? Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff in six centuries to permit any power but Death itself to precipitate the processes of the Petrine Succession.
“UPON THIS ROCK I will build my church.” Not from these words, alone, does the Catholic Church trace its universal authority. But Jesus’s bestowal of the name “Peter” or Petros  (the Greek word for “rock”) upon Simon Bar-jonah, the first of his disciples to recognise him as the Christ, is by far the most familiar justification for what Catholic scholars call the “Petrine Succession”.
The full quotation from the Book of Matthew bears repeating. When Jesus asks his followers “Who do you say that I am?”, only Simon answers ‘correctly’. “You are the Christ,” says the fisherman, “Son of the living God.”  Blessing him, Jesus goes on to offer his famous benediction:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
As anyone who has ever visited the Vatican will tell you, the papal symbol of the crossed keys are everywhere. That’s because, according to Catholic tradition, the Bishopric of Rome (which, by virtue of Rome’s supremacy, confers leadership of the entire Church) has been passed, through God’s divine guidance, directly and in unbroken succession from Jesus’s right-hand-man to the present Bishop of Rome, Joseph Ratzinger – Pope Benedict XVI.
The very same pontiff who, on Tuesday morning, stunned the entire, one-billion-strong, Catholic Church by announcing his abdication.
Can a Pope really do that?
Well, it has been done before. Nearly 600 years ago Pope Gregory XII relinquished the papal throne – but only because the two other princes of the church who were at that time also claiming to be Pope had bigger armies at their backs. Since 1415, however, the pontificate has only been vacated when God called the incumbent home.
Given the proposition that it is God, himself, who guides the deliberations of the College of Cardinals (one of whose number will become the next Pope) this seems only right and proper. After all, when Simon identified him as the Christ, Jesus said: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.”
The Petrine Succession: [T]hou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18
In other words the authority of the “rock”, upon whom Jesus would build his church, was not the product of Simon-Peter’s own will – born of flesh and blood – but of the will of God. Peter’s authority is God’s authority. If it were otherwise the Petrine Succession would make no sense.
So, is it really possible to step away from God’s will? Is the pontificate an office from which one can calmly announce one’s resignation? Is being the Pope just like being a Chief Executive? And the Papacy nothing more than a job?
Pope Benedict’s predecessor certainly didn’t think so. As Pope John-Paul II’s body was slowly and agonizingly broken on the cross of Parkinson’s Disease, the doughty Polish pontiff wore his pain as a blessing, saying it brought him closer in spirit to the suffering of Christ.
How many times must he have recalled the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”
Dame Lindsay Freer, speaking on behalf of the Auckland Catholic Diocese, told TV3’s Firstline: “I think that Pope Benedict has clearly become frailer, and it is a huge burden of office that he carries … I think he feels that out of respect for that office and the ministry that’s been entrusted to him, it’s time for somebody younger, stronger to take over.”
But that would make the Petrine Succession a purely human construct, and the Pope nothing more than a holy CEO.
According to Catholic legend, as Peter fled from certain crucifixion in Rome he encountered Jesus walking in the opposite direction. “Quo vadis?”, asked Peter. “Whither goest thou?”
“To Rome, to be crucified”, Jesus replied.
Peter turned around.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 February 2013.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Kiwi Citizens Cry In Vain

Last Post? The Aussies and the Kiwis were "mates" once. Since 2001, however, New Zealanders living across the Tasman have been subjected to the most extraordinary legal discrimmination at both the state and federal levels of Australian society. In spite of their rising clamour for equal treatment, New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, has, to date, proven deaf to his compatriots cry for a fair go.
“CIVIS ROMANUS SUM!” “I am a Roman citizen!” That was the cry that echoed from a lonely Sicilian headland two thousand years ago. A cry that roused the Senate and People of Rome to fury when the celebrated lawyer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, described how the corrupt Governor of this wealthy province had treated a humble Roman citizen who had come before him seeking justice. The Governor, Gaius Verres, had ordered the man, Publius Gavius, flogged and crucified. Gavius’s last words, shouted over and over again from the cross, were a ringing declaration of his political identity and legal rights. Three Latin words that invoked the sacred relationship between the Roman state and its citizens. No matter whether the speaker lived in Sicily or in the heart of Rome itself: “Civis Romanus sum!” was a cry that could not be ignored.
As anyone who has ever glanced at the words printed on the front page of their passport will know, that relationship between the state and the citizen remains as strong as it was in the days of the Roman Empire. Those opening the little blue book are enjoined by the New Zealand Head of State to allow “the holder to pass without delay or hindrance and in the case of need to give all lawful assistance and protection.”
But, for the more than quarter-of-a-million New Zealand citizens living across the Tasman those words have acquired a hollow ring. Australian law singles out New Zealanders for special treatment. Not only does it delay and hinder the progress of Kiwis in “The Lucky Country” but it specifically denies them assistance and protection. Our government is well aware of this legal discrimination against its own citizens and yet it does nothing to assist them.
As recently as this past weekend, when the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, met with our own Prime Minister, John Key, in Queenstown, to celebrate thirty years of the Closer Economic Relationship (CER) agreement with Australia, the opportunity to forcefully address that country’s unconscionable discrimination against New Zealand citizens was allowed to pass.
Mr Key’s position is that it ill-behoves a New Zealand prime minister to attempt to dictate to an Australian prime minister how her country should be run. We would not appreciate an Australian prime minister telling us how to run our affairs, says Mr Key, so he’s in no hurry to tell the Aussies how to run theirs.
That would be fine if New Zealand had not, thirty years ago, signed up to an agreement specifically intended to create a single Australasian market. Fundamental to the Australia-New Zealand CER was the acknowledgment that in economic (and, increasingly, in legal) terms the much larger Australian economy couldn’t help but influence the way New Zealanders earned their livings and pursued their careers. Ask a New Zealand farmer about how much – or how little – the big Aussie banks run his affairs. (But be prepared for more than a few hair-raising expletives in his reply!)
Back in 1983, a rising level of Australian influence did not unduly worry most New Zealanders. Since colonial times dwellers upon the great Australian island and its smaller “shaky isles” neighbour to the east have considered themselves members of the same “Australasian” family. We were governed by the same London-based imperial system and we came and went in each other’s territories without the slightest need of passports or visas. At Gallipoli, in 1915, we fought and died together under a single acronym – ANZAC. Mickey Savage, our most beloved prime minister, was born in Tatong, Victoria. Aussies and Kiwis were “cousins”. More importantly, they were mates.
Who else but a mate would have come to the aid of little Johnny Howard by helping him out of the embarrassing mess surrounding Australia’s illegal detention of the Norwegian-protected refugees aboard the cargo vessel Tampa in August 2001? Who else but a mate, this very weekend in Queenstown, would have agreed to receive 150 souls from Australia’s refugee gulags in Papua-New Guinea and Nauru? Who else but a mate (or a bloody fool!) would have struck such a morally repugnant deal without asking for something in return?
Maybe it’s time we just accepted that Australia stopped being New Zealand’s mate more than a decade ago. Time we realised that Aussies no longer even see the NZ in ANZAC. We are welcome to fill the gaps in their labour force, and the taxes Kiwis pay are gratefully received by the Australian Treasury, but when it comes to affording New Zealanders the same assistance and protection as Australians its: "Sorry, Cobber."
A closer economic relationship we may have with Australia, but when it comes to admitting us, without delay or hindrance, as equal participants in their society – forget about it .
Crucified Kiwis in Australia can cry “I am a New Zealand citizen!” until they are hoarse. Their state is deaf.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 February 2013.

Friday, 8 February 2013

"Seven Sharp" Needs A Point (Of View)

Perfecting The Sales Pitch: Seven Sharp's young target audience was raised in a culture completely saturated in commercial values. The measure of the show's success will be in how successfully it subverts those values; how viciously its presenters bite the hands that feed them. Seven Sharp's producers should look for inspiration not to the late, NZ Establishment-loving, Paul Holmes, but to the bitingly satirical US broadcaster, Jon Stewart.
BY THE TIME you read this Seven Sharp will be four shows old. Some of the nervousness evident in the first outing of TVNZ’s new prime-time product will be gone – replaced, one hopes, by the easy rhythms and rapport so essential to this kind of television. On the basis of that first outing, however, Seven Sharp does have a future. Traditionalists may balk at the judgement, but to my eyes, at least, the show has positioned itself squarely in the zeitgeist’s postal-code.
Seven Sharp’s critics will object that the show lacks seriousness: that the multiple economic and social challenges currently assailing New Zealand deserve something more from prime-time free-to-air television than the hip flippancy of Ali Mau, Greg Boyed and Jesse Mulligan.
Those critics will certainly get no argument from me concerning the seriousness of the problems facing New Zealand. Where we may part company, however, is over the tone in which a commercially-driven television network might best address its target audience.
Just consider the 18-34 year-olds at whom Seven Sharp is directed. At the top of the band we’re looking at people born in 1979;  at the bottom, at kids born in 1995. All of these young New Zealanders grew up during or after the Rogernomics “revolution”. None of them have any personal memories of what “public service television” looks like. Most of them grew up with a TV remote in one hand and a computer mouse in the other. The doctrine enunciated by Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, that broadcasting should “elevate, educate and entertain” the ignorant masses (and in that order) would be laughed out of court by Generations X and Y.
Many older New Zealanders like to dismiss these generations as narcissistic know-nothings. But Generations X and Y aren’t so much selfish as sceptical. The grand transformational “narratives” of the Twentieth Century were all busted flushes by the time they were old enough to even notice capitalised nouns like Socialism and Fascism. And their relationship to the last grand narrative left standing – Capitalism – is analogous to the relationship of a fish to the sea. They live in it, they live with it, and they can’t live without it.
These are the generations who regard just about every attempt at communication – including their own – as a sales-pitch. Only a sap takes words and images at face value. Maturity is defined in terms of how completely one is able to see through and decode the World’s deceptions: by how finely-tuned one’s ears have become to its “spin”.
Jon Stewart: Exposing the absurd realities behind the Establishment's ever more elaborate lies.
The name we give to those who guide us through the world’s deceptions, exposing as they go the absurd reality behind the lies - and who then reward our attention with the gift of laughter - is “comedian”. It’s why, to so many members of Generations X and Y the journalists sound like clowns, and the clowns sound like journalists. President Barack Obama owes more to comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show than he does to the New York Times or Washington Post. It’s why YouTube has more to say to Generations X and Y than TVNZ or TV3.
Seven Sharp’s producers, Raewyn Rasch and Tim Wilson get this – sort of. It’s why they’ve set the ambient mood of the show to “Sceptically Humorous”. Mr Mulligan understands – sort of. And Ms Mau and Mr Boyed will pick it up soon enough. But they’ll only “nail” that flibbertigibbet zeitgeist when they summon up the courage to ride their comedic horses off the reservation.
On Monday-night’s show it was Heather du Plessis-Allan who came closest to escaping TVNZ’s leaden conservatism. Revealing a PM who eats Wattie’s Baked Beans from the can at the end of a long day. Somehow – please don’t ask me how – that mattered.
But why-oh-why did Jesse Mulligan think it was funny to follow the lead of TV3’s Patrick Gower and put horns on David Cunliffe? Since when do we laugh at comedians who kick the victims of political duplicity? And why didn’t Seven Sharp ask their army veteran what lay behind his PTSD-induced nightmares? What had he and the NZ Army done to those Afghan civilians?
The young people whose eyes Seven Sharp is so determined to capture will not stay focused on humour that butters-up the Establishment, or watch pre-recorded items that gloss over its crimes.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 February 2013.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Sir Paul Holmes 1950 - 2013: The Passing Of A Conservative Champion

Conservative Champion: Over four decades of broadcasting to suburban and provincial New Zealand, Sir Paul Holmes never tired of presenting his inherited prejudices as the very essence of common sense. With his death the forces of conservatism have lost a powerful spokesman.
THE DEATH of Sir Paul Holmes has been received with genuine dismay and grief by conservative New Zealanders. Like the many progressive Kiwis who mourned the death of left-wing writer, Bruce Jesson, in 1999, the forces of conservatism understand that they have lost a formidable champion. At Sir Paul’s funeral, as they did at Bruce’s, mourners will hear the tributes of many illustrious New Zealanders and murmur: “We will not see his like again.”
To read that Sir Paul was a champion of the Right may startle many of his admirers. The man, himself, would have bridled with characteristic theatricality at such a description. Throughout his long career Sir Paul had worked tirelessly to perfect his public persona as the Kiwi “Everyman”. Inspired by that other gargantuan egotist, Charles De Gaulle, Sir Paul would likely have insisted that “Holmes is not of the Left; Holmes is not of the Right: Holmes is above!”
But it was precisely in his “Man of the People” costume that Sir Paul’s usefulness to the forces of conservatism inhered. Over four decades of broadcasting to suburban New Zealand, Sir Paul never tired of presenting his inherited provincial prejudices as the very essence of common sense.
In London and Vienna, the precociously clever boy from Hastings may have rubbed shoulders with all kinds of sophisticated cosmopolitans, but he was careful to avoid the contagion of their critical intellectualism. His hatred of intellectual “elites” was life-long and visceral. Sir Paul’s voracious appetite for information was almost entirely dedicated to defending his listeners’ and viewers’ right to be wrong.
The contrast with Bruce Jesson, one of New Zealand’s rare public intellectuals, could hardly be starker. Bruce devoted his life to dissecting and exposing the hollowness of New Zealand society. He investigated the cosy networks smothering its business community; attacked the Labour Party’s and the trade unions’ narrowness of vision; and castigated the universities for their failure to act as New Zealand’s critic and conscience. Bruce was the implacable foe of New Zealand’s provincial mediocrity – most particularly of its ingrained anti-intellectualism and its spineless deference to the contrived hierarchies of monarchy. Even had a Labour Government been brave enough to offer him a knighthood – Bruce would never have accepted it. He died a convinced and proud republican.
Progressive Champion: The contrast between the left-wing public intellectual, Bruce Jesson, and Sir Paul Holmes could hardly have been starker.
Sir Paul has been hailed as a broadcasting wunderkind and identified as the leader of a revolution in radio and television current affairs. Had he been the inventor of talk radio and personality-centred current-affairs television such titles might have been justified. More accurately, Sir Paul should be remembered as the broadcaster temperamentally best suited to providing the “infotainment” product that the new, commercially-driven radio and television networks were demanding. In this endeavour his ability to stroke the prejudices and inflame the grievances of suburban and provincial New Zealanders is justly celebrated.
As his audiences grew and his unique broadcasting talents propelled him into the extremely influential 7:00pm time-slot, Sir Paul and TVNZ’s Holmes Show found themselves in an extraordinarily powerful political position. Inevitably, the forces of conservatism lost little time in exploiting that power.
In October 2000, for example, Sir Paul and the Holmes Show lent the weight of its influence to a campaign supposedly organised by young and talented Kiwis driven offshore by the policies of the Labour-Alliance Government. In reality, the “Generation Lost” campaign was the work of the Business Roundtable and its public relations firm. As I wrote in The Independent Business Weekly of 11 October 2000:
“Mr Holmes has declared that he did not know of the Business Roundtable’s involvement when his show went to air last Wednesday evening. If this is correct, then Mr Holmes should immediately resign his position as the nation’s premier broadcaster. No one with the years of journalistic experience that Mr Holmes boasts should have accepted [the campaign’s] advertisement at its face value. The blatantly anti-government message at the heart of [the] campaign would normally have sent alarm bells ringing throughout Television New Zealand. To put [it] on air without checking the bona fides of [its] claims to political neutrality was an unforgivable lapse of professionalism.”
I continue to wonder how many of the other politically-charged causes championed by Sir Paul over the past two decades were of similar unacknowledged and highly-dubious provenance.
It would be remiss of me, however, to close without recalling Sir Paul’s extraordinary response to the 2004 hikoi opposing Labour’s Foreshore & Seabed Bill.
A lesser man (and a more convinced right-winger) might have used the day’s tumultuous events to further inflame New Zealand’s already tender race-relations. Instead, Sir Paul ended the programme’s coverage with these words:
“No New Zealander, frankly, could have watched proceedings today without a sense of pride, without being gripped by the heart, could have watched it – without love.”
Requiescat In Pace, Sir Paul Holmes.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 February 2013.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Sting In The Tail

Road To Ruin: If New Zealand is to remain a successful modern nation it must make the elimination of the "Tail" - the failing 15-20 percent of its people - the nation's No. 1 priority.

IT’S THAT PERSISTENT fifteen to twenty percent of the population which stubbornly refuses to disappear from all the wrong kinds of statistical data. Without the drag of its sorry performance New Zealand’s achievements would rival those of the most successful Scandinavian societies. Without the need to provide for its sustenance and support we’d be looking at budget surpluses – not deficits. And without the need to contain its propensity for crime and violence, the state could be funding much more positive and creative endeavours. It’s why, in any discussion of New Zealand’s future, one cannot avoid mentioning the “Tail” – because its sting is poisoning us all.
Getting rid of the Tail should be New Zealand’s No. 1 priority. The energy and imagination of our finest scholars – augmented by the unwavering support of our political class – should be applied unstintingly to its elimination. So much depends upon it.
As the nation ages, the mostly young constituents of the Tail will be called upon to take up the slack of its maintenance. Sullen, envious and hostile; as unmotivated as it is poorly educated; the Tail is simply not equal to that task. But if we cannot find a way to make it so. If we cannot conduct the Tail from the margins to the centre of our national life, then New Zealand as a successful modern nation is finished.
The task would be easier if the Tail was entirely white – but it is not. Overwhelmingly, the ethnic composition of the Tail is Maori and Pasifika. It is comprised of the children and grandchildren of those we hauled into our major cities to do the jobs we no longer wanted. From the farthest reaches of rural New Zealand and the most distant islands of Polynesia we marched these migrants into our factories and warehouses, set them to work on our roads and railways, asked them to clean our schools, hospitals, shops and offices. And then, when the economic game changed and their labour was no longer needed, we simply tossed them away. Pacified with welfare benefits, stupefied by alcohol and drugs, we simply cut them loose from “mainstream” New Zealand society. Instantly, they became the “Other”; the “Enemy”; the “Undeserving Poor”. And their children became the “Tail”.
And nobody, it seems, wants anything to do with them – except the promoters of the so-called “Partnership Schools”, who are quietly confident that, alongside the liquor retailers, the loan sharks, the pubs with the pokies and the private prisons, they, too, have found a way to turn the Tail into a paying proposition.
Certainly our politicians regard the Tail as a phenomenon of limited utility. Because so few of them vote their principal political function is to hone the resentments and bolster the self-esteem of the working poor.
Listen to Labour’s David Shearer as he reads his autocue to last weekend’s Young Labour Summer School. (Yes, he even needs an autocue for that!)
“[T]his Government has forgotten the hard-working and inspiring people I come across every day. In a pub in Napier, a guy came up and said to me ‘I’m working harder than ever, I pay my taxes, we’re trying to bring up our kids the best we can, but we simply can’t seem to get ahead’ … They’re not asking for an easy ride or a hand-out … They’re doing their fair share. Playing their part.”
He might just as well have added: “Not like those bludgers on the dole, DPB or sickness benefit!”
A Michael Joseph Savage or a Norman Kirk would have used all his persuasive powers to convince his audience that nothing is worth having if getting it means denying it to others. He would have warned them that either we enter the promised land together, or we do not enter it at all.
What hope have we of ridding ourselves of its malign influence – or protecting ourselves from its sting – if even the Labour Party has nothing to offer the Tail?
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 February 2013.