Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Public image

We are in the hall of mirrors and we will never get free
except by shattering the glass, not once, but every day.
Probably the most destructive force in the Western
world today is the belief that we ought to have a
consistent and presentable image of ourselves.

‘Personality is an unbroken series of successful
gestures.’—F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Honesty to the moment is dishonesty to the day.

Monday, March 30, 2009

True stories

True stories from the House of Parenthood Horrors. The
father who left his infant daughter baking to death in the
back of the car on a hot day, all windows rolled up, while
he went to work; it was only when his wife called from the
creche in the afternoon, wondering where the child was,
that he realized he had utterly forgotten to drop her off in
the morning—had been so used to driving straight to work
that he didn’t even look in the back seat when he got out.
The father who, stepping out of a helicopter on his return
home, swept up his four-year-old daughter as she ran
towards him and swung her high, happily, over his head,
into the path of the still-rotating blades. The mother
looking out of the kitchen window at the large cardboard
box on the vacant ground next door, knowing that her two
children were playing inside it; as she watched, a truck
taking a fast shortcut across the section drove over the
box. And the two little sisters walking home from school
along a Christchurch street, taken out by a trailer that
came loose from a passing car and careered across the
pavement, killing them instantly. It was a normal day.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


‘I’m always finding very tricky and hidden ways to
sabotage any beautiful moment. And it’s something
so internal that I don’t think my friends or family
can catch me doing it.’—Penelope Cruz

I do this. Do you? Something in us resists completion,
fulfilment, joy. Doris Lessing once called it the ‘self-
hater,’ the part of us that functions like a suicide
bomber at a wedding reception. To recognize this little
fucker lurking inside your head is a great step forward
in anyone’s life. It will still ambush you from time to
time, but you’ll be much more wise to its tricks. Check
out its whakapapa too: it’s not an orphan. Its parents
are self-pity and shame, and its sibling is false pride.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Aid memoire

With regard to the argument over foreign minister Murray
McCully’s decision to pull the semi-autonomous NZAid
program back under the umbrella of Foreign Affairs, that
tinny sound you can hear is Labour being hypocritical in
its attacks on the move. In the course of research for my
book on Helen Clark I interviewed Matt Robson, the
Alliance MP who was disarmament minister and
associate foreign affairs minister 1999–2002. He told me
that he and Clark ‘clashed mightily over the setting up of
NZAid, to the point of warfare. She backed Foreign Affairs
keeping the aid division with only a few minor changes.
The review that Phil [Goff] and I did, and Phil had
intellectual honesty, said that this is an absolute disgrace,
Foreign Affairs haven’t got a clue how to do development
aid, they have a hotch-potch of programs around the
world, nobody’s the less poor for anything they do, they
put people in there who haven’t got a clue about
development issues, they’re diplomats on their way up or
their way down—either young ones who’d rather be
somewhere more glamorous or older ones looking for a
soft cushion.' Projects were incomplete or half-arsed, said
Robson: ‘It was a shambles.’ And Clark? ‘She fought that
tooth and nail.’ In the end NZAid was established but not
as a fully separate department. Now it won't even be semi-
autonomous. That's a poor decision by McCully. But
Labour doesn't exactly occupy the moral high ground here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A fate worse than debt

Debt, once the toast of Broadway, has fallen on hard
times. It used to lead the high life. It was seen in the
company of glamorous people. It travelled the world
in securitized convoys. Now it’s toxic. It’s distressed.
It can’t find anyone to look after it and probably
spends the night huddled in doorways.

What a heartbreaker. Poor old debt. I’m almost
beginning to feel sorry for debt. Almost.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

One side to every story

headline over the front-page lead story in yesterday’s
New Zealand Herald
read the
subhead. The first half of the story itself was entirely
about the trouble the strike would cause the airline, how
staff would have to be redeployed, how it would disrupt
bookings already made, and what a bad time it was for
this to happen. In short, the story, by aviation reporter
Grant Bradley, was told very much from the point of
view of Air New Zealand management, and the strike
was consistently depicted as problematic and
disruptive. We were then told briefly what those
identified in the first paragraph as ‘some international
cabin crew’ were planning to strike about. In the
second half of the story, nearly twice as much space
was given to the airline’s version of this ‘sharp
breakdown in staff relations’ than was given to the
views of the union (the EPMU) and one crew member,
who had a whole three lines to herself at the very end
of the story saying she and her colleagues were sick of
being ‘treated as second-class citizens.’

This is such a tired old approach to news stories about
industrial relations. Time and again the emphasis is on
the problems for management and the negative
consequences for the public. They are factors, of course,
but why does the coverage invariably give them priority?
Would the Herald ever have the imagination to lead the
paper with a headline like WORKERS ‘SICK OF BEING
and then tell us what the flight
attendants’ grievance was and why they felt they had to
take such drastic action—before putting the management
side? The inexorable tendency of this kind of coverage
over time is anti-worker and pro-boss.

I admire tremendously much of what the Herald does—
it's easily the country’s best newspaper, in my view—but
in this respect it has not bothered to think clearly and
independently; the result is a story that is unbalanced and
unfair. Since then, in fact, nothing has improved: the two
latest stories about the issue on the Herald website are
. Get the picture?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Two lanes good, four lanes bad

At last the tide seems to be turning against the overblown,
shortsighted, off-planet idea known to people of the
Wellington region as ‘Transmission Gully.’ This proposal
to build a four-lane highway through the hills inland from
Porirua to Paekakariki should never got off the drawing-
board but somehow it escaped several years ago and has
been given shelter and nourishment ever since by people
who can't see further than the front of their cars. There’s
already a perfectly adequate coastal highway; and to those
who say ‘No way is that route adequate,’ because they get
stuck in tailbacks on it at rush-hour, I say I know what it’s
like, I used to drive it myself, and it’s crazy stuff. If you
want to live half an hour out of Wellington on the Kapiti
coast, yet go into the city to work each day, then take the
train. That’s what it’s there for. And you’ll need it more
than ever soon. To keep talking about Transmission Gully
is to dwell in some fairyland where the petrol will never
run out and the more cars on roads the better. Besides, if
you really do consider it a national tragedy that State
Highway 1 narrows to one lane each way at Pukerua Bay,
then the coastal part north of there can be four-laned at
far less trouble and expense than the gully route would cost
(see a good interview in today’s Dominion Post with former
Ministry of Works head Bob Norman). I'm glad to see new
transport minister Steven Joyce is lukewarm about
Transmission Gully
, if only for financial rather than
environmental and energy reasons. 'What's now needed is
the big tick to go ahead,' says Ohariu MP Peter Dunne,
who's always been pro-gully, but even the Ministry of
Transport is advising that it'll add to traffic congestion in
the capital and that the 'economic benefits are low.' Time,
I think, to quit private-car fairyland for the real world.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Flipping heck

John Ralston Saul’s book The Collapse of Globalism, which
I’ve just finished reading, is a bit of a worry. He says a lot
of wonderful things but when he writes about New Zealand
he’s so glib and superficial that it makes you doubt the
merit of the rest of the book. The chapter entitled ‘New
Zealand flips again’ purports to show that under the Clark
Labour government the globalization trend was reversed
and New Zealand got back on track. True, the book was
published in 2005, but it was clear even by then that, for
all the progressive moves they’d made, Clark and Cullen
had left untouched the core legacy of Rogernomics and
kept the country wide open to foreign investors, currency
speculators and the volatile variables of the global money
markets that determine so much of our economic health.
Saul says the change has been ‘only partially about
economics’ but I detect no deeper change: the ease and
swiftness with which the Key National government is
rolling back Labour’s policies in many areas testifies to
that. Perhaps only the generally critical reaction to Key’s
reintroduction of knighthoods etc indicates a genuine
shift in cultural attitudes over the past nine years. New
Zealand never ‘flipped again’: the Rogernomical
paradigm remains essentially intact. For all their good
intentions, and indeed their many admirable
achievements, Clark and Cullen were not up to
de-rogering New Zealand; the country’s economy is now
so globalised that it’s arguable whether we even qualify as
an independent nation-state any more.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Little boxes

Truly, it has been said by (I think) Colin Espiner of the
Press that the next Labour prime minister is almost
certainly not even in Parliament yet: just as, six years
before he became PM, John Key wasn’t even an MP.
In a highly volatile economic time it can’t be ruled out
that Labour led by Phil Goff will win the next election;
but it’s unlikely. More likely is: Goff loses, abdicates
leadership, some poor sod takes over for 18 months
or so before Andrew Little, who will have entered
Parliament at the 2011 election, surges to the top and
leads Labour to victory in 2014. I say this having just
seen Paul Holmes’s interview of Little on TV1’s latest
current affairs program, Q&A. Little looks the goods
and ticks all the boxes for Labour in a way that other
mooted leadership contenders like Shane Jones and
David Cunliffe don’t. Cunliffe’s a finance minister at
best; Jones may yet scrub up—good idea to get rid of
the beard, Shane—but has a way to go yet, certainly as
far as public perception is concerned. In the meantime,
I do think Little has a problem simultaneously being
Labour Party president and head of the EPMU, no
matter how plausibly he evaded Holmes’s questions
about the potential—no, actual—conflict of interest.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dream on

Two respondents challenge assertions I've made in my
last two blogs. Sanctuary says it's a complete myth that
the British guns in Singapore were pointed the wrong
way in 1942: preparations had been made for repulsing
an attack from the north, albeit inadequate ones.
Thanks, Sanks. I just repeated the old story uncritically.
And Deborah says she's unimpressed with the idea that
everything we've ever experienced is lodged somewhere
in our minds. Well, it wasn't my idea so much as another
Denis's, but happily none of us can prove it either way.
I do agree with Deborah that our conscious brains seek
to impose some kind of order on the apparently random
events in our dreams – and, as she says, our ideas of
order do probably spring from what we're most familiar
with. I love it, though, that we can make whatever we
wish of these extraordinary scenarios that unwind in our
heads when we sleep. According to the Talmud, for
instance, a dream is one-sixtieth prophecy. How did they
work that out?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In dreams

It’s generally a bore to hear people describe their
dreams. In books I’m always irritated when a writer
does it; it’s a weak literary device. But I will say this
about the dreams I have, that most of them, when
not completely fantastical, are set in the two places
I’ve lived longest in my life: my childhood home for
10 years and a house I later lived in for 15 years. I’ve
lived in many different flats and houses—probably
about 30 addresses in my life—and spent seven years
overseas but these locations never figure in my
dreams. Never. This suggests that sustained exposure
to a specific domestic environment creates a
permanent base in the subconscious: in some buried
part of our mind we continue to inhabit those rooms.
For me, an intimate sense of their spatiality remains,
even though, as happens in dreams, the action jumps
crazily about. Waking, I realize how much I must have
absorbed from what I’ve been most familiar with, and
how it keeps spooling away in the darkened theater of
the mind.

The French philosopher Denis Diderot believed that
everything we have ever seen, known, heard or
experienced exists within us, right down to a tint of
light or the look of grains of sand on a beach. We retain
these things in our minds but fail to consciously
remember them. We can dream them, though.

Memo to self: remember harder.

Friday, March 20, 2009

That reminds me

To hear, as I did on the news the other night, that the
New Zealand Government plans to pump millions into
roading projects is to be irresistibly reminded of the
British fortress of Singapore before the Second World
War, which, with all its big guns facing seawards,
whence any serious attack was supposed to come, was
considered impregnable (in 1942 Japanese forces
swept down the Malayan peninsula from the north and
conquered Singapore with ease while the guns, in their
fixed positions pointing south, stood idle). I think also
of American farmers stripping and tilling the Midwest
soil so intensively that they turned the land, their own
livelihood, into a giant dustbowl; and of palaces built
overlooking slums. These, however, are probably just
idle fancies, the products of an over-active imagination.
Memo to self: must get out more. In the car, every time.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Smoot point

Further to my blog on the demonization of protectionism
by the likes of Federated Farmers president Don Nicolson,
I find this in The Collapse of Globalism by John Ralston
Saul: 'Whenever anyone wants to say something that
sounds knowledgeable about the Depression, they trot out
the villainy of Smoot-Hawley.' Well, that’s exactly what
Nicolson did in the New Zealand Herald opinion piece he
wrote, though I have a horrible feeling it was probably
written for him by someone like Roger Kerr. He said, and
I quote, ‘It was not the 1929 crash that created the Great
Depression but a protectionist response following in its
wake. The United States Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930
was a template for economic suicide.’

I’ve already chided Don for alarmist hyperbole; Saul utterly
refutes him by pointing out that a study by American trade
historian Alfred Eckes ‘found no convincing evidence that
Smoot-Hawley caused the stock market crash or made the
Depression worse.’ It’s hard to see how it could have, since
the tariffs imposed by the act left two-thirds of American
imports untouched. The real reason for the 30s Depression
is the same as for the one we're in now: unregulated
financial activity, excessive bank lending, a quasi-religious
belief in the ‘free’ market. Saul is very instructive on that
last point, tracing the origins of the faith back to at least the
1840s, when British free-trade evangelist Richard Cobden
declared that to legislate against free trade was to
'interfere with the wisdom of the Divine Providence.'

There's nothing wrong with free trade as such, provided
that it really is free, which it rarely is; in any case, like
protectionism with its bagful of subsidies, tariffs and taxes,
it's just one of several tools in the international trade
toolbox. You use the right tool in the right context. And you
don't—Don—get hysterical when some nation in the grip of
depression reaches for the odd subsidy or tariff. Frankly,
we'd all be better off if Fed Farmers stopped squealing
about free-trade heresies and did something more useful,
like depolluting rural waterways and curbing the carbon
emissions their stock produce.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Four months in a leaky boat

Is there one person in or associated with New Zealand’s
new National-led government with the imagination,
intelligence and strength of mind to grasp the full nature
of the challenges facing the world at the moment? On the
evidence so far, four months on from the election, no.
The emphasis is on business as usual, with a few minor
adjustments—most of which involve stopping or cutting
back moves towards a greener, more sustainable
economy. This is like pouring water into an already leaky
boat. Out of that wretched, virtually meaningless ‘job
summit’ in Auckland, there even came the idea of a
moratorium on air and water standards—ie, leave them
as they are and make no attempt to improve them for the
time being. The idea of a cycleway from one end of the
country to the other is an insulting sop to greenthink. The
‘summit’ was a foothill at best, a walk in the park, a light
picnic (lunchboxes supplied) for business leaders. What
one looks for in vain is any recognition that there is not
‘the economy’ on the one hand and ‘the environment’ on
the other; the two are inextricably interlinked. Try making
a habit of saying ‘the ecology’ every time you want to say
‘the economy’ and you’ll get the picture.

Einstein reputedly said, ‘We cannot solve our problems
with the same thinking we used when we created them.’
That, unfortunately, is precisely what John Key and his
colleagues are doing: wedded, or rather welded, to the gdp
growth model, they're unable to think outside the square.
Their idea of positive forward-thinking action is to repeat
the mistakes of the past in the vague belief that if you
keep banging your head against a wall you might break
through it somehow. What's needed is a totally new way
of thinking about the economy/ecology—or perhaps we
should call it the ecolomy. The first step is to reject the
conventional method of measuring economic activity,
so that a true picture emerges, not the false one that
governs all decision-making now.

Marilyn Waring's 1988 book Counting for Nothing says
it all, spelling out for the uninitiated the utter idiocy of
attributing economic value to activities that damage the
environment, as the gdp method does. As recently as last
November a (somewhat belated but better late than
never) review in the Atlantic magazine called Waring's
book 'truly groundbreaking.' It is. And it should be
required reading for all politicians.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Origins of World War II

He’s at it again. Federated Farmers president Don Nicolson,
whose demonization of trade protectionism I mentioned
the other day, is back in the New Zealand Herald saying,
and I quote, ‘Protectionism is emerging from its economic
crypt and seeping back into legislation from Cairo to
Washington.’ Oh, come on, Don. Don’t be a big baby. Full
marks for a colourful figure of speech, but go to the bottom
of the class for half-baked alarmism. After parroting the
New Right mantra that it was not the 1929 Wall St crash
that created the 1930s Depression but the protectionist
response to it, he then produces this extraordinary non
sequitur from his cocked hat: ‘The United States Smoot-
Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was a template for economic
suicide. One emulated from Paris to Wellington. It created
a crisis so severe that it took a world war to end it’ [my
italics]. There’s not much more to say after that. Don, I
think, should go back to the farm and have a long lie-down.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thank you

At last, a front-page lead story favourable to CYF, the
Child, Youth & Family service. This much-put-upon
agency invariably gets blamed by the media every
time a terrible case of child abuse occurs. No matter
how hard its people work to save children from toxic
domestic situations, fault will somehow be found by
those who think CYF should have done more. These
are usually cheap shots, in my view. Having as a
journalist seen a little of it for myself, I have nothing
but admiration for the kind of work the agency does,
going into private homes and trying to sort out the
most dreadful messes. So it’s good to see the
Dominion Post today telling us that ‘Dozens of
newborns are being taken from their mothers every
year because of fears for their safety,’ and that such
custody orders have doubled in the past five years.
That’s awful news in one sense but positive in another:
thanks to better awareness among health and social
workers, potentially abusive situations are being
anticipated before they erupt and lead to the kind of
headlines with which we’re all too sadly familiar.
Remembering the brutal revelations that came out in
1992 about the abuse and death of two-year-old
Delcelia Witika I’m tremendously impressed and
relieved to see that as soon as CYF learnt last year
that Delcelia's mother Tania was pregnant, it got a
custody order for the child, and duly took it into care
once it was born. The chief executive of the Ministry of
Social Development, of which CYF is part, says they’re
working to create an environment in which abuse and
neglect will not be tolerated. Absolutely. Thank you.