Friday, October 31, 2008

A week out

A week out from the election, the fact that we can even talk
talk about the possibility of a Labour-led government being
elected is a tribute to the nerve, desperation and sheer
ratlike cunning with which Helen Clark and her Labour
Party colleagues have fought to retain power. Though
distasteful at times, it has been quite refreshing to see them
having to go for it like this. In a perverse sort of way it
seems more honest. At least it has got Clark off her pedestal
and onto the pavements again. She is even acknowledging
now that up until recently it had been impossible to ignore
the fact that voters wanted a change of government; but in
her view the global credit crisis has got people thinking
again. Well, she would say that, wouldn't she; but the first
part of that (reported) statement is quite an admission for
the PM to make. In fact, I think it's a first.

By all odds National should still win this election and take
power, even if only propped up by Rodney Hide and Peter
Dunne; but you just can’t rule out Labour squeaking back,
along with some combination of the Greens, the Maori
Party and maybe New Zealand First. Suggestions that such
a result might somehow be undemocratic if Labour wins
fewer votes than National betray a misunderstanding of
how MMP works; they indicate, in fact, how persistent the
“two major parties” mentality still is, as if only Labour or
National had the God-given right to rule this nation till the
end of time. MMP is not about making it easier for a “major
party” to govern; it’s about authentically reflecting the will
of the people, as the first-past-the-post system hardly ever
did. A three-, four- or five-party coalition is just as valid an
expression of that will as any. One reason alone for not
voting National, actually, is their transparent willingness to
tamper with or even abolish MMP. We’ve got this baby this
far; let’s not deny it the chance to grow up and reach

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who whom?

David Farrar on Kiwiblog has come up with a rather sad list
of 85 things he reckons the Greens would ban. This is his
attempt to paint the Greens as “the ultimate nanny state
party.” For instance, he says, they would ban smacking,
factory farming, coal-mining, nuclear power and fizzy
drinks from schools. Such rhetoric is useful for filling
blogspace because it requires no original thought, just the
closing of one eye and the shutting down of half the brain.
If you want to talk bans, it would be just as valid to say that
the political right, among whom Farrar is proud to count
himself, would ban the minimum wage from going up, ban
Kiwibank from being a true people’s bank, ban freedom of
choice for workers in favour of freedom of choice for
currency speculators, ban students from critical thinking,
ban whatever gets in the way of the sacred right to make
private gain at public expense. The list is endless. There’s
one ban I would like to see, though, and that’s a ban on the
inane phrase “nanny state.” Fact is, the “free market,” with
its insidious ideology and its economic power, puts far more
restraints on the way we live than any state or government
ever does.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hand over fingers

It would be amusing if it weren’t so bloody serious to
observe the governments of the world faffing about
and flapping their hands over “solutions” to the
“global crisis.” One can only view with the deepest
cynicism the cloudy bluster of politicians who now
undertake to "fix" the problem with "strong" action.
(Barack Obama is no better than the others in this
respect; to make a real difference, once in the White
House, he would have to promote an economic
revolution.) The fact is that by a series of considered
decisions from the 1970s on, these same governments
deliberately fostered the conditions in which capital
markets could run free from virtually all restraint. The
borders of nation-states melted away as sharebrokers,
investment bankers and currency speculators pretty
much did what they liked, especially when
computerization lent wings to their transactions. Nor,
at the global level, was there ever a regulatory body
such as commodity trade has with the WTO, however
ineffectual it might be. You could say it was a licence to
print money but hey, not even a licence was required.
Now we (viz, the vast majority of the world’s population
who are not market players) must all bear the negative
consequences of a speculative bubble that we never
shared or even saw the benefits of.

New Zealand signed up to all this, of course, in the 1980s,
so can hardly complain now. Maybe we had no choice in
certain matters, eg, unpegging the dollar, given the way
the US and Britain were moving in those days; but we
could have done a lot more to protect our national
economy and the people who make it work. Imposing GST
on financial transactions above a certain limit, for instance.
But no, the “markets” were not to be trammelled in any
way; they were supposed to be our saviours, ensuring that
by means of “the invisible hand” everything would work out
fairly in the end. Well, we can see the invisible hand now:
and it turns out, all along, to have been giving us the fingers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Remember, you are only form

Some figurative paintings by Toss Woollaston on a wall.
I like these. A self-portrait from 1976; Edith at the piano;
a young man called Jeremy Classen on a rocky slope.
The human figures are so blended with their environment
that you can’t tell where they end and it starts. This art
tells us the physical truth about ourselves, namely, that
the matter of which we are made varies only in form—and
even then by not much—from all other matter. The same
spirit animates all. There is in fact no such thing as "the
environment” supposedly existing apart from us human
beings. We are as much a part of it as the leaves on the
trees or the worms in the soil. Even to speak of “nature”
betrays a modern urban consciousness.

In Woollaston’s painting Edith and the piano are one; the
man is the mountainside is the man. The artist himself is
the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Still reasoning thing

“In a sense, I am a moralist, insofar as I believe that one
of the meanings of human existence—the source of
human freedom—is never to accept anything as
definitive, untouchable, obvious or immobile.”
—Michel Foucault, 1980

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.
But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted
deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing
puts forth the moulding of its features from behind the
unreasoning mask.”
—Ahab to Ishmael in Moby-Dick.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thrush hour

At 5 o’clock this morning a bird somewhere nearby sends
out a single piping call over and over, like radio time pips.
The other day, from my car window I heard a musical
phrase, five evenly spaced notes, the fifth falling away.
What birds these are I don’t know. Frankly I can scarcely
tell one from the other. Sparrow, blackbird, thrush, tui,
fantail…sure; after that, however, my ornithological
awareness rating is low. But I seem to have grown more
sensitized to birdsong, because I hear it clearly and often
now, often above the roar of the traffic. (Then again, if you
train yourself, walking down a city shopping street like
Lambton Quay, you can isolate the clopping, clacking,
shuffling sound of thousands of human footfalls
ceaselessly hitting the pavement; and sometimes,
especially as dusk comes on in winter, the birds make a
tremendous noise in the trees on the Quay as they sort out
their roosts for the night.) Whatever the street, though, I’ll
be walking along and suddenly my attention will be caught
and held by some mighty outpouring of song and I’ll look
up and there’s one of the little fuckers chirping his tiny
heart out on the top of a lamp-post as if the continuance of
the universe depended on it.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

—“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy, December 31, 1900

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What Forster foresaw

I'm glad to see the New Zealand Book Council drawing
attention in its latest e-newsletter to E M Forster's short
story "The Machine Stops." Written in 1909, and unlike
anything else Forster ever wrote, it's a remarkably
prescient vision of the future as imagined by a great
writer 100 years ago. He got it far more right
than Wells or Verne ever did. "The Machine Stops" can
be found in Forster's Collected Short Stories and also in
its entirety here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thin soup

The deep structure of news reporting requires certain
narrative loops to be regularly, repetitively completed.
This is particularly true of election campaigns, which,
in a way that is highly satisfactory to the media, have a
clear beginning, middle and end, and can be easily
reduced to their baldest, most obvious form: the
contest, the race, the fight. The metaphors are
irresistible when you don't have the time, resources or
incentives to think harder and report deeper.

At some point, you can bet, the gloves will come off. A
debate will take place at which a knockout blow could
occur. But the knockout blow isn't delivered. It never
is, actually. What would it look like if it was? No matter.
The stale imagery, into which the mind can slide with
minimal brain strain, does the job. At any given time
someone has to be on the back foot and someone must
have the upper hand. At some point there will be a stark
contrast between two parties or politicians—but, lo,
they will then be singing from the same songsheet.
Someone else will play the get-tough-on-crime card...

We have an impoverished language for this kind of
reporting and commentary, and as George Orwell said
in "Politics and the English Language," the more
slovenly the language, the lazier and vaguer the thinking.

In the information society there is only one
news story permanently running—an endless
pseudo-event cooked up according to an
invariable recipe and operating on a basis of
financial viability. It’s just that the corpses
floating in this soup come from different
places at different times of the year.—Victor Pelevin

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Happy campers


—headline, Dominion Post, 17.10.08

Time is a choice. We choose time: the pace, feel, shape,
length and location of it. It could be a room, a road, a
stage, a step, a presence, made from what we remember
of the past and what we imagine of the future. Time is
memory and imagination; there is, literally, no time like
the present.

"To be conscious is not to be in time."—Eliot

Yet I am haunted by the impression that time is passing...
I shape my day, each day, to satisfy this ghost.

You could say for instance that 53 years have passed
since, at the age of eight, I was sent to the Otaki health
camp for three months—because apparently I was too
small for my age and needed building up. Certainly I was
something of a runt, nearly always the smallest boy in
the class till my mid-teens. The ethos then was that
children needed lots of fresh air and sunshine and dairy
products and as little as possible skulking around inside
reading books and stuff. Having thoughts. I remember
faintly the dining-hall and dormitory at Otaki, and some
incident in the classroom in which we were taught
(normal school lessons continued). It was winter; we used
to be taken for walks down through the pines to the beach,
but I can't recall whether or not we swam. I do recall
lashings of tripe and cod liver oil, administered daily.
Ironically, shortly after coming home, having put on weight
if not height, I was assailed by a wave of headaches so
excruciating that I had to go into hospital for observation.
These have not recurred since.

“Life is a busy, happy business at a Health Camp.”
—advertisement, Listener, 24.9.54

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Will there be a worldwide financial crash? This question
was asked more than a year ago by Brian Easton in his
Listener Economy column
. He spelt out the whole chain
reaction that in his view must inevitably occur sooner or
later in international financial markets—and indeed it
has happened just as he said it would. It was a very
prescient column. Easton also wrote: “As far as can be
judged, our financial system is sound, and can bear
significant pressure from the world economy.” If that’s
right, then in my view Finance Minister Michael Cullen
should get a big chunk of the credit for keeping New
Zealand relatively stable.

Also able to see what was coming, with an unswerving
eye, was Bryan Gould, whose 2006 book The Democracy
laid out the whole grisly scenario. “We are,”he
wrote then, “a heartbeat away from a global crash.”

Should we pay more heed to voices like these? I think so.
They are still speaking—Easton in his Listener columns
and on his website, Gould in his new book Rescuing the
New Zealand Economy

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Drive, they said

Hearing the Greens on Checkpoint wrestling with the
vagaries of the Auckland transport system, if system it
can be called, I'm reminded of a blown opportunity
right up there with IBM turning away Bill Gates and
Decca saying no to the Beatles. In his memoir
A Lifetime in Politics
, former Labour MP Warren Freer
recalls that in the early 1960s the Auckland City Council
agreed to an inner-city underground rail system
connecting the northern and southern suburban lines.
Good grief. Was it so? “Mayor Dove Myer Robinson
even got to the stage of being photographed operating
a pneumatic drill where the work would be commenced.
Goosman put a finish to that! The Auckland motorway
system was born…”

Stan Goosman, the Minister of Works at the time, was,
Freer notes, a successful roading contractor whose
“natural leanings were towards development of roads and
motorways rather than rail.” The National government
also stopped—in its tracks, as it were—the Nelson railway
project started by its Labour predecessor. Drive, they said.

Your call

Between parent and child the messages pass invisibly
back and forth, like electrical impulses along a wire.
Not all of them are clear or even comprehensible;
many go completely unheard—at the time. But they
all register in the tangled circuitry of the heart and
may be reactivated years later by memory, chance or
circumstance. No communication is ever expunged.
The blow struck in 1955 or the word said in 1982 still
vibrates in time, like the echo from the formation of
the universe.

Diderot believed that everything we have ever seen,
known, heard or experienced—right down to a tint of
light or the look of grains of sand on a beach—continues
to exist within us. We retain these things in our minds
but fail to remember them.

Then one day the phone rings; and the call is for you.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I’d have thought John Key was on shaky ground in touting
his credentials for governing New Zealand by boasting, as
he did yesterday in his campaign launch speech, “I’ve
actually worked in the world of finance and business.
Helen Clark hasn’t. I’ve actually picked up a struggling
business and made it grow. Helen Clark never has. And
I’ve actually got stuck into a business, trimmed its sails,
and delivered some profits to its shareholders.”

Right. Wait a minute. Doesn’t Key come out of the same
right-wing camp that has insisted for the past 25 years
that it’s a mistake to give executive control of social
institutions and government departments to people
who actually know something about the work being
done in those places? That’s why, consistently since 1984,
we’ve seen accountants being appointed to run places like
hospitals and Treasury wonks to take charge of ministries
like Education. By the same token, Key would be the last
person qualified to run an economy, especially as the
particular business he was in—investment banking—is all
about maximizing profit pretty much regardless of other
considerations, and doubly especially given the current
crisis, which has been visited on us by the colossal
mismanagement of, you guessed it, investment bankers.

Key’s long speech, it should be noted, contains not a single
reference to the environment, global warming, climate
change, peak oil or anything of that nature (this nature,
our nature); even the centre-right's favourite weasel-word,
"sustainable," fails to get a look-in. His 11 "commitments"
are so bereft of ecological awareness that they amount to
giving a drowning man money instead of a lifeline. So much
for the future. Oh well, it’s only a planet we're talking about.

Happy birthday, Paul

I am a great lover of the popular song, and have no
preconceptions about what qualifies as a great one.
Cole Porter’s “Every Time You Say Goodbye” is an
exquisitely made song; you wouldn’t call “Knowing Me,
Knowing You” by Abba exquisite exactly, but on its own
terms it’s a tremendous song too. So is “Wuthering
Heights” by Kate Bush, though she never came near to
doing another like it. For exquisite you could also go to
Paul Simon’s “RenĂ© and Georgette Magritte With Their
Dog After the War,” which is near perfect as dammit.
I love the sheer craft that goes into the making of these
songs and the way they touch universal emotions with
their particular combinations of music and lyric. "Safe
in My Garden" by the Mamas & the Papas moves me to
tears. Nick Cave's "Into My Arms," Rodgers & Hart's
"Where or When" as sung by Lena Horne...I could go on.
I won't. We all have our favourites. So I thank the
makers of those songs, who have given me such pleasure
and even joy, not to mention emotional guidance, over
the years. From "The Boxer" to "Born at the Right Time,"
from "My Little Town" to "Graceland," Paul Simon is
unquestionably one of them. Happy birthday, Paul.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shrink big

Amid the raging tumult of the election campaign, it may
have been possible to miss the significance of the
announcement by Kapiti Coast District Council that the
status of the proposed Western Link Road has been
reduced from “highway” to “local road.” At the moment,
the only way to drive north from Paraparaumu Beach to
Waikanae is State Highway 1, which means that the
thousands of people living between the highway and the
coast have to cover much more distance than the crow
would if it flew. The Western Link Road, much nearer
the coast, would have made the journey more direct.

I was living on the Kapiti Coast when this project was
initially mooted; at that stage, a few years ago, it was
going to be a four-lane highway with major intersections.
The term "super-highway" gained some currency. A few
weeks ago, however, the council knocked two lanes off
that concept and now they're cutting right back on feeder
lanes and hormone-fed intersections. According to some
council panjandrum, quoted in the Dominion Post,
reducing the number of lanes at intersections will reduce
the road's environmental footprint, "making it more of a
local road than a highway." Let me quote further:

The council commissioned Common Ground
Studio, of Auckland, to come up with a more
environmentally friendly, lower-impact design
that preserved landscape features such as large
dunes, rather than bulldozing through them.

Glory be. Could the blinding reality of Peak Oil finally be
becoming perceivable at municipal level? We are going to
see a lot more of this from now on: fewer new roads, and
less grandiose ones if they get built at all. You don't have
to be an environmentalist to get your mind round this, just
an economist—though truth to tell, the two jobs are one
and the same. Kapiti councillor Peter Daniel has got the
hang of it anyway. "We are facing hard economic times,"
he says. "If we do not think small, I do not think we will get

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A good word

Anticipate is a lovely word with a precise and very useful
meaning, one that no other word supplies. It means to
successfully guess or figure out what’s going to happen
and to act accordingly. A rugby player who anticipates a
pass by a member of the other team is one who correctly
picks which way the pass will go and intercepts it or in
some way negates its intended effect. Many years ago,
however, anticipate began to be used in the sense of
expect, and now it’s commonly used that way,
particularly by politicians who think a long word sounds
more important than a short one. Thus John Key in
today’s New Zealand Herald, commenting on the state
of the nation’s accounts, as disclosed by Treasury:

We had anticipated they would be bad, but they
were a bit worse than we had anticipated.

If the word is correctly used, then it's impossible for
something to be worse than you anticipated. Expected,
yes. Expected would have done the job perfectly well. If
you must cut taxes, John, then cut back on the syllables
too. And help conserve a good word while you're at it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nice cushion

Of all political issues, “law and order” is the slipperiest
banana in the bunch. Short of a genuine terrorist
threat, it is far and away the easiest issue to whip up
fear and loathing about, and that goes both for
politicians and the media. Actually it is not even an
"issue" separable from society as a whole but seizing
on it and hyping it up is the first resort of the under-
stimulated news editor and the overblown politician.
I issue them both a challenge: try and debate these
complex matters without once using the words “law
and order” and see where it gets you. The phrase has
lost all genuine meaning, so you won’t miss it,
believe me. But not having to fall back on it, like a
soft cushion, might just make your thinking learn to
stand on its own two feet.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Every 12 years, as a rule, a New Zealand general election
coincides with an American presidential election. The
last two times it has happened, the latter scarcely
impacted on the former, mainly because the presidential
campaigns were one-horse races. Nixon was a shoo-in in
1972 and Clinton equally so against Bob Dole in 1996
(there was no clash in 1984, because of the snap election
here in July that year). In any case, the electronic media
were far less pervasive then; and besides, the presidential
contest is all over by the first Tuesday in November,
whereas New Zealand’s elections tend not to be held till
later in the month, leaving at least a couple of weeks for
an unovershadowed campaign. Not this time; the two
countries’ elections are only four days apart, and the
shadow of the Obama/McCain contest looms so large that
it’s making the Clark/Key tussle seem even more
insignificant than it actually is (in global terms). The
financial crisis only deepens the shadow; Tom Scott sums
it up well in today’s Dominion Post with a cartoon
showing Clark and Key saying grumpily to Wall St, “Do
you mind—we’re trying to run an election down here.”

Most elections are decided by swing voters, many of whom
make up their minds pretty late, so we can say with some
certainty that America’s choice on November 4 will be a big
influence on New Zealand’s choice on November 8. In that
sense a win for John McCain would, ironically, be good
news for Helen Clark, suggesting that in times of economic
upheaval you should stick with the known and the safe, of
whatever political stripe. Some New Zealand voters may
already have reached that conclusion, especially given the
National Party’s vagueness about its economic policy. For
that reason, clearly, the Nats have indicated that they’ll
announce the details of their proposed tax cuts earlier than
intended, ahead of the official campaign launch on October
12. The Wall St crisis and the “global credit crunch” have
put them in a tricky spot, however: how can they fund their
lavish promises without being improvident at the very time
when governments ought to be being fiscally conservative?

John Key reassures us that the economy is fundamentally in
good enough shape to allow such tax cuts to proceed, but
that argument cuts both ways too: by advancing it, he’s only
validating the Labour Government’s economic

Equally ironically, an Obama win would favour Key. But
either way, as the respective campaigns proceed, New
Zealand interest in the US election is tending to swamp
domestic issues: as I write, the airwaves and the internet
are alive with talk about the Biden/Palin vice-presidential
debate. It’s hard to imagine a Michael Cullen/Bill English
debate arousing such fascination; in fact, such a debate is
not even scheduled to take place. The whole election
campaign is dribbling along in an inconsequential way.
Genuine policy debate is virtually invisible; we get stirred
up only by personalities and peccadilloes. The truth is,
fellow Kiwis, we’re barely interesting to ourselves. Or
maybe we know, deep down, that what happens in
Washington is far more likely to influence our economic
and social well-being than what happens in Wellington.
Therefore, with such tiny power as we have, pen poised
over the ballot paper six Saturdays from now, we might
want to consider the extent to which we wish to encourage
or discourage the kind of mentality that has made Wall St
a byword for greed and hubris. Vote locally, think globally.