Friday 29 January 2010

The Power of One

Power to the People: There will always be situations in which the collective needs of society must over-rule the personal preferences of the individual.

SO, IT HAS come to this? Seventy thousand people can be seriously inconvenienced because one individual is determined to assert his "rights".

The National Grid Emergency which Transpower was forced to declare on Tuesday evening would never have happened had Mr Steve Meier behaved like any other reasonable citizen over whose property power-cables carrying vital electrical energy to New Zealand’s largest city are strung.

For months now, Transpower has been attempting to gain access to Mr Meier’s land. According to Chief Executive, Patrick Strange, numerous letters seeking his co-operation in keeping the crucial power-cables clear of foliage have been sent to his Waikato address – without success.

And even when Transpower’s worst fears were realised – an electrical arc igniting a stand of trees located directly beneath the cables – it required the intervention of armed police to get Transpower’s linesmen up to the site.

Thirty years ago, the behaviour of Mr Meier would have been universally condemned. In 1980 New Zealanders understood that citizenship confers not only rights, but also responsibilities, and that there will always be situations in which the collective needs of society must over-rule the personal preferences of the individual.

Thirty years ago, anyone who deliberately obstructed the necessary maintenance of the country’s National Grid would have attracted a mixture of anger and derision. And someone who’d refused to help the authorities put an end to a National Grid Emergency? Well, they’d have been dismissed as either very bad, very mad, or both.

How things have changed. On Wednesday morning I awoke to hear Radio New Zealand – National’s Sean Plunket repeating Mr Meier’s angry denunciation of Transpower as though it was – to quote the Minister of Energy, Gerry Brownlee – "the Gospel truth". To my utter astonishment, Mr Plunket was framing the story as a David and Goliath struggle between a bullying, state-owned behemoth (Transpower) and a plucky – if somewhat "grumpy" – Waikato cockey (Mr Meier).

The use of the word "grumpy" I found particularly galling. In using it do describe the behaviour of a man against whom Transpower’s linesmen were unwilling to proceed without armed Police protection, Mr Plunket must have known he was affording Mr Meier priceless rhetorical protection. The word "grumpy", unlike its synonyms – sullen, testy, irritable – has an almost affectionate quality to it. Just think of the "Grumpy" character in Walt Disney’s Snow White: sure, he’s acerbic and irascible, but underneath that bluff exterior beats a heart of pure gold.

But, experienced linesmen: workers who dangle tens-of-metres above the ground; men who regularly repair machinery capable of reducing them to a blackened corpse in a split-second; are not afraid of "grumpy" farmers.

In using the word "grumpy" Mr Plunket was deliberately minimising the threat – real or imagined – which Mr Meier clearly represented to those who were required to deal with him face-to-face.

But Mr Plunket wasn’t the only public figure taking Mr Meier’s side against Transpower and its CEO. The Mayor of Auckland, John Banks, unleashed a long (and mostly erroneous) catalogue of accusations against Mr Strange and the SOE.

One can only suppose that, with the Auckland "super-city" elections looming, Mr Banks saw considerable political capital to be made by charging-off down the populist road.

As one of his potential electors, however, I have to say that I was unconvinced – especially when he appeared to suggest that Transpower was at fault for not using its vast wealth and top-flight lawyers to simply make Mr Meier and his legal claims "go away".

Are we to take from this remark that an Auckland led by Mr Bank’s will willingly pay-off anyone lucky enough to have his city over a strategic barrel – and ruthless enough to demand a ransom for allowing it to go about its lawful business? I hope not.

That such a question can even be posed, however, shows how very far we have sunk as a society. Where the whole concept of the Common Good can be heedlessly cast as some sort of overbearing ogre; and where the individual – regardless of his or her behaviour – is always the hero; we are perilously close to passing the point-of-no-return.

Beyond that point lies Margaret Thatcher’s world. The world to which our neoliberal political class has been driving us for the past thirty years. A world, where "there’s no such thing as society – only individuals and families".

And darkness.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 29 January 2010.


XChequer said...

A bit sensationalist really, Chris. I agree that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few - or the one (Thanks Spock). Society (and more particularly Aucklanders)has already adjudged Mr Meier an errant given the fact that Armed Police were called in. Does anyone realistically think that a person trying to hold a city hostage is fit to hold the moniker "citizen"? So really there is no "breakdown of society" as the response shows.

As for Mr Banks, well... given his reputation and, as you said, the upcoming election Gerry Brownlee was quite right in saying, "the mayor's comments were hot air and very unhelpful".

He did have a point though in saying that Transpower should have taken more decisive action previously to stop this occurring. And he does make a valid point about the upcoming Rugby World Cup not being held hostage by some dissident farmer - an attitude one would have thought would be inline with your own given that society as a whole has the potential to benefit from the event.

And ascribing the breakdown that "shows how very far we have sunk as a society" to the use of the word grumpy is a little far fetched. One word by one commentator on one radio station doesn't exactly mean the end is nigh.

In fact, Mr Meier seems to be getting it in the ear from everyone so how does that pertain to your thesis "the Power of One" when clearly no-one is prepared to put up with his behaviour.

Still, there is no doubt that the traditional "familial" structure of society as we know it seems to be changing. The era of portable communication devices means that we are more individual than ever. Even our parliamentary system reflects this in that MMP must take in a wider number of voices than previous generations and the FPP structure. Not many people would advocate for a return to FPP - even those on the right. Everything has to change and we along with it - thats what Jordan Carter was saying in the post that you commented on previously.

Perhaps the many need to start getting on with coping with change instead of trying to stall its inexorable march.


Chris Trotter said...

Well, XChequer, I'd agree with you 100% if I hadn't seen the Herald readers' poll showing a whopping 46% siding with Mr Meier against Transpower.

A sign of the times, I'm afraid.

The rot goes a lot deeper than you might think.

XChequer said...

Lmao! Fair one, Chris.

Two things however:

1) The Heralds polls are not exactly the most representative of life. An internet poll like these are merely populist opportunities added to the online newspaper formats to let readers feel like they are "engaging" with the news. Also, given the Lefts aversion to the Herald (read: Right Wing Mouthpiece) any "poll" therefore would be suspect.

2)Shouldn't Mr Meier, in the spirit of being a good citizen and thinking more of the country than just himself, just "suck it up"? He's obviously just being selfish.


P.S. A Friday Funny for you, courtesy of Democracy Mum, to round out the working week.

Anonymous said...

Yes, tragically, ever since the privately-owned media embarked upon its thinly-veiled misogynistic "nanny" campaign to dislodge Labour, we've had to endure hordes of these pale, pot-gutted, auto-stimulated testosterone-generating semi-literates suddenly empowered with utterly unrealistic atavistic notions of assumed self-importance ranting incessantly from blogs, editorials, council chambers, letters-to-editors, pulpits, bars, beach-heads and bear-pits - spewing bombast and faux-outrage like wounded bulls rolling their terrified, empty eyes in one final lunge at the foot of the shute as their disgusting creators shamelessly milk every last advertising advantage from their sad, pathetic, waltz to oblivion.

The humble cull-cow accepts her fate with the comely resignation due her immense contribution: the Laws, Shadbolts, Moores, Bassets and other assorted lesser curs unfortunately feel the need to exacerbate and emphasise their history of tawdry disloyalty and venality with a final, repulsive display of mindless, random defecation.

But where there's muck there's brass: sadly, Mr Meier and his ilk are the de facto crappeurs and thus staple diet for the dying, once-proud fourth-estate defenders of democracy, rationality and humanity.

Eat up. Or assiduously promote this new medium.


Phil Sage said...

Good post chris. I believe Meier bought the land with easements. Making him even more of an uncitizen than if they had been forced upon him. It would be interesting to declare him unwelcome on roads and other public areas. It seems to me that he is simply after money. Why should Transpower renegotiate that contract?

Shona. said...

Oh ak how I have missed your poetic commentary over at the Standard. There's only Felix flying the flag of the literate and witty commentator at present. Get your arse over there more often.
oh and Chris I couldn't agree more!

Anonymous said...

I interpret this episode differently than through the tired individual-vs-society ideologies. It demonstrates how NZers, like citizens in other "advanced" nations, have become permanently reliant on their bottle-fed energy inputs.

Rather than seeking smaller models of energy self-sufficiency, this nation of wage-slaves and punch-n-judy media celebs suffers fits of hysteria when a few wires can't be accessed. Oh no, their beloved "juice" might dry up.

Reminds me of how most people "need" a gas bottle to have a barbie these days!

Anonymous said...

I think this episode is representative of a general distrust these days of big businesses (and I include SOEs in this too) that show little inclination to worry about things other than profit. I would say that a good many of those people 'siding with' Mr Meier are in fact simply swallowng the "'big company' bad" line.

As for assertions that Mr Meier needs to suck it up, I don't see that many Aucklanders would volunteer to have an electricity pylon in their backyard or company car park.

Mr Meier should have been offered some form of compensation: perhaps in the 1940s when the pylon were first placed and government agencies supposedly at least acted in the best interest of the people this wasn't seen
as necessary, but these days when there is little to distinguish many government agencies
from any profit-first corporation, then perhaps the major shareholder in Transpower
ought to cough up.

All in all though, the situation should never have been allowed to come to a head like it did.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Adolof confesses to being by profession a rural valuer.

My understanding is that if the subject of your post bought the farm before the pylons were erected on it, he would have been paid generous compensation at the time. The property would have been valued on a 'before and after' basis and he would have been paid the difference. Such would have taken into account all future diminution of value brought about by the need to allow entry to power company maintenance crews.

If the pylons were there when he bought it, then he has no case at all and John Banks is quite right to be highly critical of Mr Strange's handling of this saga. The police should have been brought in a year ago at least, to see to it that this bumptious prick met his responsibilities under the property easements to allow entry to maintenance staff so that the fire hazard could be cleared.

He should now be prosecuted, convicted and jailed.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% , He purchased the land with the pylons on it so he would have had a fair idea what he was in for. I noted that a large no. of fire arms were removed from his property which points to where his head is at.

In a society such as ours we all have rights but also obligations...

John Banks is a nutter, I remember my mum used to listen to his Homophopic ravings on I think it was Radio Pacific ? He disgusted me then, and despite all his efforts he is still, to me a remnant og NZ's sad and sorry past.

gregster said...

Property rights equate to human rights.

He wasn't compensated for the cables hanging over his property.

You are anti-humanity Chris. That's the true rot.

Anonymous said...

"Property rights equate to human rights".

Hmm, wonder if this argument would apply to the myriad families living underneath the cables in South Auckand and poor areas of other NZ cities?

Or the thousands living near cell-phone towers?

One or two farmers, maybe, but any more would amount ot a proverbial "added burden on the business sector". Virtually an abuse of their "human rights", eh?

Victor said...

It might be considered a human right to have far more of our transmission system underground than it is at present. Both health factors and aesthetics militate in that direction.

A Keynesian approach to our current economic situation might suggest this, and other essential infra-structural projects, as a good way to keep the economy stimulated.