Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cut that out

Are we in an election year or what? In the past couple of
days both Helen Clark and John Key have ruthlessly
cracked down on political embarrassments that might
have got out of hand and damaged their electoral chances.
First, when backbencher Kate Wilkinson implied that
National would not support compulsory contributions by
employers to KiwiSaver, Key bluntly said “She got it
wrong.” Had he tried to defend or excuse her in any way,
or fudge the issue, Labour would have partied merrily at
National’s expense. As it is, the Government got only
limited play out of Wilkinson’s slip—though the suspicion
lingers that National has not been straight with the public
about its intentions for KiwiSaver.

Though she’s National’s labour & industrial relations
spokesperson (who knew?), Wilkinson could hardly be
said to be close to Key, or a major player in her party. On
the other side of the House the same can’t be said of
Housing Minister Maryan Street, former Labour Party
president, long-time ally of Clark’s and, in my view, a
potential leader of the party. On Tuesday she robustly
defended the Housing Corporation’s spending of
$65,000 for a two-day conference for 94 staffers at a
so-called luxury lodge in the central North Island. An
examination of the value for money in this case suggests
that the cost and location were defensible—as Russell
Brown points out in his Hard News blog, $250 per head
per night cost for accommodation, meals and conference
facilities is not exactly wildly extravagant, and not even
in the same ballpark as the infamous WINZ retreat under
Christine Rankin in 1999 (when National was in power),
which cost four times as much. Also, despite the bandying
about in the media of the word “luxury,” you will not find
the venue in question, Tongariro Lodge, listed on any
major tourism websites as a “luxury lodge.” The emphasis
is, rather, on the fishing opportunities it affords.

Nonetheless, Clark rose in the House yesterday and cut
Street adrift, forcing the latter to take a much meeker line
and humbly promise that Housing Corporation conference
venues in future would be more “appropriate.” It was an
unlovely but brutally impressive sight, seeing a perfectly
competent senior politician like Street reduced to the status
of a junior being rebuked by her boss. But that’s what Clark
did, and that, it seems, is what you do when you want at
all costs to win an election. You don’t let any kind of
potential embarrassment get legs; otherwise it will run and
run, whipped on by your political enemies and spotlighted
by a media desperate to beat up the differences between
two major parties that are actually getting harder and
harder to tell apart.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This just in: Experts are expressing concern about
a likely shortage of National Party policy this winter.
“The National Party policy pool quite often runs dry,”
says policy consultant Nigel Strange, “but most years
they manage to dredge up something that more or
less passes muster. This year I’m afraid they’re
scraping rock bottom.”

National Party policy traditionally relies on a light
drizzle of ideas that, while erratic and often
insufficient to stimulate intelligent life, goes some
way towards filling the yawning crater of caucus,
from which the party usually draws sustenance.
Unfortunately, not one worthwhile idea has landed
on caucus this year, leading to a dramatic drop in
mental activity. Most parts of the caucus have been
without brain for at least three months.

Dr Strange advises voters not to panic, because it is
not clear, he says, that an increase in National Party
policy would in fact make any difference to the
country’s well-being. There is also, he adds, an
element of risk after such a drought: anyone spotting
an original National Party idea should proceed with
caution, as conditions may be extremely slippery.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Beyond the mindset

The 2008 Budget delivered by Finance Minister Michael
Cullen on May 22, and the media coverage since, have
both been remarkable for the striking absence of the
burning issues of our time: global warming and the
exhaustion of the fossil fuels upon which modern society
has relied so heavily. Cullen made only glancing reference
to these issues and their enormous impact on every aspect
of the economy, and then only to say that householders
needed and deserved "relief"—in the form of tax cuts—from
such pressures. It was further evidence, as if we needed
any, of the mindset that pigeonholes "environmental"
issues separately from "economic" ones. They are of course
one and the same, but unless our politicians can get their
heads around that, we're stuck in the same old rut. John Key
is no better: he spoke the other day of balancing economic
and environmental needs, as if the latter were just trees and
water and stuff inimical to the real business of making
money. Only the Green Party stands outside that mindset:
as co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons told Kathryn Ryan on
Radio New Zealand National this morning, the proposed
Emissions Trading Scheme—in all its glorious inadequacy—
is actually a far more significant piece of legislation than
any of the Budgetary measures announced last Thursday.
To deliver a Budget of which the post-oil age is not the
centrepiece is like having a party without the host being
present. And running out of food and drink very fast.

Monday, May 26, 2008


"Goodness is something so simple: always to live for
others—never to one’s own advantage." Someone
once pinned this thought of Dag Hammarskjold’s to
a noticeboard in Nelson Cathedral. Why does one’s
heart sink at the prospect? At any rate, it would be
impossible. Simply to exist is to live for one’s own

How beautiful the river flows
and the birds they sing;
but you and I are messier things.
—Bruce Springsteen

Thursday, May 22, 2008

O happy day

This just in: Opposition leader John Key has unreservedly
welcomed the Finance Minister’s announcements of tax
cuts taking effect from October.

“We’ve been calling for tax cuts for some time,” exclaimed
the National Party leader excitedly, “so you can imagine
how delighted we are. It’s pretty much what the doctor

Asked whether the Government hadn’t stolen National’s
thunder, Key crisply replied: “You mean we should
begrudge the people of this country more money in their
pockets? Don’t be foolish. We’re not in politics for petty
partisan gain but to ensure New Zealanders have better,
healthier, more prosperous lives.”

As for other Budget announcements, Key said he and his
colleagues were “over the moon” about the big funding
boost for faster rollout of broadband and “positively
ecstatic” about money being poured into workplace
training and skills development.

“Cullen’s really nailed it,” said Key. “We couldn’t have
done better ourselves. Now let’s all roll up our sleeves and
get on with doing the best we can for New Zealand.”

The media conference was interrupted at this point when
journalists spotted a fleet of flying pigs in the sky and
crowded to the window for a better look.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Ewen Alison, in an obscure old book called A New
Zealander Looks Back, makes the unusual claim that
New Zealand has a particularly heavy atmosphere—
about 15lb to the square inch—that tends to make
people, especially in the north of the country, sluggish
and slow-moving. Robin Hyde seemed to reinforce
this notion in her comment on the sickness of New
Zealand soil: she said that it was more obvious in the
north, where it was "bled white and has never been fed
up again, and is a sort of beautiful skeleton." Discuss.

Even cleaner

Further to my blog of May 15 about book and film titles
doubling up, especially in the case of The Cleaner, the
wonderfully named Brett Battles, author of just such a
book, emails to say there's also a show in development
at an American cable network called The Cleaner. It's
good to know hygiene plays such a significant part in
our culture. That must be why we call them soaps.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bombs away

A television news item about the 65th anniversary of
the "Dam Busters" raid during the Second World War
showed Richard Todd laying a wreath on the
Derwent dam in England's Lake District, where in
1943 the Royal Air Force's 617 Squadron tested the
special bombs they were later to drop on the dams of
Germany's Ruhr Valley. Todd didn't take part in the
raid; he was actually an actor who played squadron
leader Guy Gibson in the 1955 film The Dam Busters.
Yet it seemed right. Todd had a distinguished war
record of his own, and he was one of those leading
men who stamped the idea of British pluck on the war
and adventure movies of the 1950s (he also played
Robin Hood and Rob Roy). Kenneth More was
another: sturdy chaps with hearty no-nonsense
attitudes, capable of felling you with a pat on the back.
Todd, I must say, still looks in good shape at 88. On
my ninth birthday, October 8, 1955, I was taken to see
The Dam Busters as a treat and for years thereafter,
growing up in small-town New Zealand, still deeply
under British cultural influence, I remained stirred by
the imagery of that film, and indeed other war films,
through which we early post-war baby-boomers
vicariously experienced the great conflict from which
our fathers had returned, not least for the purpose of
having us. We were the last offshoots of the British
Empire; the last generation to stand for "God Save the
Queen" in the cavernous picture-houses of the day.
Our colonial cultural fortifications, such as they were,
were bombarded mercilessly by the imperious Brits,
who kept dropping the Queen Mother and the Duke of
Edinburgh on us. It has taken years to fix the damage.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The jig's up

Ronald Wright’s 2004 book A Short History of Progress
ought to be read by everyone. Read it and teach it in
schools. Distribute copies at Chamber of Commerce
meetings. Hand it out on street corners, whatever. It is
indeed short (just 132 pages of main text, though the
notes at the end are compendious) and it’s highly
readable. Picking up on themes first comprehensively
articulated by Alfred Crosby in the less accessible
Ecological Imperialism
(1988), Wright argues that, like
many a civilization before us, we in the “West” today are
in a progress trap, slaves to runaway consumption,
waste and pollution that will bring us to ruin—unless we
act now to avert it. Which, one has to say, does not look
very likely, notwithstanding various hand-flapping
gestures by politicians. We may think, says Wright, that
somehow we’ll muddle through, but the difference
between us and the Roman Empire, say, is that we are
consuming not just the past (fossil fuels) and the present
(air, water etc) but our future (the resources that our
descendants—not just regionally but globally—might
have hoped to sustain themselves by). It's no accident,
I might add, that the global financial markets are based
more and more not on production and work in the real
economy but on tradeable futures; in that respect, too,
we are becoming, in the words of Tim Flannery's
memorable book title, future eaters.

Wright is particularly good in showing how the
Industrial Revolution that raised the West to such
prosperity and political dominance was funded by
the looting of North and South America.
Consequently, he writes,

We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our
two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal
and inevitable… Yet this new order is an anomaly: the
opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow.
Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet,
extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and
has been sustained by spending down new forms of
natural capital, especially fossil fuels. In the New World,
the West hit the biggest bonanza of all time. And there
won’t be another like it…

So. The jig’s up. The party’s over. There will now be
a period of, at the very least, adjustment. Hang onto
your hats.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Title fight

When book titles have commonplace words in them, it's
hardly surprising that they get used more than once. For
instance, Christchurch author Paul Cleave called his first
novel The Cleaner; almost simultaneously an American
writer with the wonderful name of Brett Battles came out
with his own first novel—The Cleaner. There's also a new
Samuel L Jackson movie called Cleaner, which may
explain why another new movie has been clumsily called
Code Name: The Cleaner. Slightly less predictably, the
film title Blindsight rips off Maurice Gee's clever book title
Blindsight (there's no connection between the two).

You'd have thought, however, that there would only ever
be one Foreskin’s Lament in the world. Not so. After
nearly 30 years of having the field to itself, Greg McGee's
seemingly uniquely titled New Zealand play is now
outgoogled by Foreskin's Lament, a new book by Shalom
Auslander about growing up Jewish in New Jersey. Still,
I guess it's no skin off McGee's, um, nose; it could even be
a backhanded tribute to him for having coined such a
memorable title that it warranted a revival.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Chancing to catch a train from the towering structure
in Lower Hutt known as the Waterloo Interchange,
I found myself on a cold wet Saturday morning waiting
on the platform with nowhere to shelter. I huddled
behind a wall to stay out of the wind. Astonishingly,
this vast edifice contains no warm waiting-rooms, no
ticket office, no refreshment kiosk, no staff. You can’t
even buy a daily paper there. If ever there was an
argument for revitalizing the railways, then this is it.
I foresee the day, as people swing back to public
transport, when stations such as this once again hum
with activity, instead of being just draughty barns.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Thanks to a friend, last Wednesday I was able to see for
the first time the two new current-affairs programs on
TV7. Of the first, Back Benches, the less said the better.
It should be taken off the air at once. The other one,
Media7, has a potentially useful life as kind of television
equivalent of Mediawatch (Radio New Zealand National’s
excellent Sunday-morning show). Russell Brown makes
a totally credible presenter, though he might have let the
discussion among his guests—on this occasion, Kim
Griggs, David Cohen and Deborah Hill Cone—run more
freely. Griggs is a television natural and the saturnine
Cohen should probably have a Jon-Stewart-style show
of his own. With Phil Wallington coming on board as
producer, Media7 should get even better. The awesomely
well-informed Brown deserves this kind of television
exposure and I’m glad he’s got it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


The good news is that the Government led by Helen
Clark has bought back the national railways network,
which should never have passed out of state hands
in the first place. Put this alongside the Government’s
move to ensure that Auckland International Airport
does not fall into foreign hands, and we have, I think,
a turning of the tide. And not just because it’s election
year in New Zealand. It could be argued, in fact, that
more-market mania has passed its zenith, and that,
from here on, Western governments are going to be
much more pro-active in matters of public utility
ownership and national control of key assets. This
view is certainly held by British left-wing commentator
Martin Jacques, who has argued in the Guardian that
the British Government’s nationalization of the
Northern Rock bank, to prevent it from going under,
is highly significant. It marks, he says, the end of one
era (that of neoliberal economic orthodoxy) and the
beginning of another, in which state intervention and
control will no longer be seen as the Devil’s work.
Jacques even foresees a swing back to protectionism;
don’t rule it out in New Zealand either, heretical as
that may be to say.

The bad news is that the Clark-led Government, having
apparently grasped the nettle of global warming, has
partly withdrawn its hand with exclamations of pain
and dismay. The decisions to postpone various aspects
of the Emissions Trading Scheme—not exactly the
most enlightened way to tackle global warming in the
first place, but at least a gesture in the right direction—
send all the wrong signals about petrol use and private
transport. It makes a political football out of something
too important to be kicked around every time the cost
of living goes up. The Government may think it's
being kind to people by sparing them extra expense
as the scheme begins to phase in, but it’s only going
to make matters worse in the long run.

We have to accept that the great age of the private
car is over. No kidding. No stalling. No pretending
otherwise. No putting off the day when serious
alternatives (and not soft options like the ETS)
must be thought about, planned and introduced.
That day is now. Actually, it was several years ago;
but encouraging people to go on pumping fossil-fuel
carbon into the air like there was no tomorrow is
no way of making up for lost time.

Monday, May 5, 2008


“The great epochs of our life come when we gain the
courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.”
—Nietzsche. That is a tremendously brave thing to
say—to think, even. I have wrestled with the idea for
years. Can it be that the same impulse underpins
both good and evil?

This dog bites

I am not sure how much longer John Key’s mantra “If
elected, National will not sell any state assets” is going
to hang onto whatever tattered shreds of credibility it
has, so long as it keeps being followed by the rider,
“not in our first term anyway.” With the first part of the
statement Key sends a flag up the flagpole; with the
second part he shoots it full of holes. Believe part one
at your peril. That his advisers could allow him to spout
such politically feeble stuff is a sign that all is not well in
the National Party, where compromises are clearly
being made almost weekly between those, like Key, who
will do anything rather than expose the party to
accusations that it has a radical right-wing agenda, and
those who still swear by the blood of Don Brash.
Desperate to get back into power, yet terrified of showing
its true colours, National is yapping like a muzzled dog at
the moment, virtually rolling over and waving its paws in
the air in order to show the voters how cute and cuddly it
is. Beware: this dog bites.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Think again

Further to my blog of last Tuesday ("Go figure"), I have
belatedly caught up with the news that one of the first
things Nicolas Sarkozy did on becoming President of
France last year was to ask economists Amartya Sen
and Joseph Stiglitz to advise the French Government
on the way in which it calculates its economic and
social well-being.

Well, good on him. Whatever his politics, Sarkozy has
shown a refreshing willingness to think outside the
square. He has also announced that advertising will be
removed from state television channels. Dare we hope
that a New Zealand government would ever do the
same? Dans nos rĂªves.

A recent opinion piece in Time argues that GDP is still
far and away the most reliable measure we have of a
nation’s prosperity but let’s see what Sen and Stiglitz
come up with. Every time someone objects to more
enlightened means of measurement, one cannot escape
the feeling that, just as the big oil companies were
reluctant to develop less quick-profit alternatives to
fossil fuels, so alternatives to GDP don’t suit the people
with most to gain from exhorting us all to produce more,
spend more, waste more.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Enrol now

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