Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rate moments in history

All day the battle had raged; Napoleon’s troops had surged
again and again, forcing the Duke’s men back to a barely
defensible ridge. The field below lay littered with the
bodies of the slain. It seemed that, come the morrow, the
Bonapartists must triumph when they renewed their
terrible onslaught. But with nightfall there came a lull, and
the Duke, withdrawing to his tent, brooded on what
possible manoeuvres he could devise to withstand the foe.
Then came a messenger, who had ridden like the devil
from the capital far behind. The note was pressed into the
Duke’s bloodied hand. He took it. He read it. It said: ‘The
Reserve Bank Governor has decided to keep the official
cash rate on hold.’ A glimmer of hope dawned in that
famous face. 'Tell the men,' he said softly to an aide, 'tell
the men that we will fight and fight again.' In that instant—
as history has since recorded—the battle was won.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

For the birds

I wonder if people are actually thinking about what they
are saying when they use the phrase ‘kill two birds with
one stone.’ If they thought about it for a moment,
they’d realize what a grisly image it evokes. It’s a worn-
out old cliché handed down for several generations but
now utterly meaningless and inappropriate. Yet there it
is again in a headline in today’s Dominion Post: HOW
. Yecch. Many terms once in common use have
been dumped because, as times change, they come to
seem offensive or silly; along with other ugly phrases
like ‘room to swing a cat,’ this is one of them. With a
little imagination it could easily be supplanted by, say,
‘sew two buttons with one thread’ or ‘score two goals
with one kick.’ Whatever. But leave the birds alone.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Another glorious example of the tyranny of unregulated
exchange rates, the kind New Zealand has, the kind that
make a mockery of what ought to be the straightforward,
fair and honest business of making money out of what a
nation produces and sells to other nations. I quote Rick
Curtis, speaking for the citrus growers of New Zealand,
who said on Radio New Zealand the other day that it’s
getting harder to sell fruit like lemons and mandarins on
overseas markets because competition is getting tougher
and, guess what, fluctuations in the exchange rate of the
New Zealand dollar—that bauble—make it virtually
impossible to judge how profitable a market will be. ‘It’s
like playing Russian roulette,' said Curtis. 'except you've
got no gun and no bullets.' Actually, now that I look at it,
the extended simile doesn't really make sense; but we
know what he means. 'You have,' he added, 'absolutely
no control.' Thus do we penalize and handicap our
exporters while rewarding faceless currency speculators
sitting in front of screens in foreign cities.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Walk the pork

I’m sure the Mad Butcher deserves his knighthood for the
charity work he has done but it’s hard to listen to him
rasping away on commercial radio telling us over and
over that the price of the pork he sells can’t be beaten
when you know that the pigs the pork came from must
spend part if not a good deal of their lives indoors. That’s
the only conclusion you can draw from the deafening
absence in his ads of the words ‘free-range.’ The other
conclusion you inevitably come to is that the meat’s so
cheap because it’s the product of no-frills industrialized

Say it isn’t so, Mad B! What a power of good you could do
if you sacrificed a little of that much-vaunted cheapness
for the assurance to consumers that any pig slaughtered
to provide pork, ham or bacon for your shops has lived its
life in the open, snuffling about, mud-bathing, rootling
around or whatever it is that pigs do to occupy the
unforgiving minute. I am not a vegetarian. I like eating
meat. But I won't buy chicken or pork products that are
not clearly certified 'free-range' because I think farmers
and producers who don't qualify for that label are treating
chickens and pigs in a way that goes beyond the humane,
the sensible and the sane. A mad butcher could nail his
colours to the mast of humanity and sanity here. What
about it, Sir Peter?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gone in 30 seconds

Sean Plunket’s farewell to Morning Report this morning
was a slightly cloying affair; many a listener will have
been close to wincing at the syrupiness of it. Fact is,
Sean was never the most-loved guy on the RNZ block,
and it’s hard to get warm and fuzzy about him at the best
of times. They got it right in the last 30 seconds, though,
with a great quick-cut montage of the Plunket interview
style (‘Just answer the question!’), and hit the 9 o’clock
pips with a voice purring ‘Radio New Zealand National’
just as it does after each bird call. So the booming hoot
of the Plunketbird will be heard no more on Radio NZ,
and Morning Report will be the poorer for it. I know
many people don’t like him (a fellow journalist whose
views I respect simply despises him) but for some years
now he has been possibly the only journalist in New
Zealand capable of making politicians nervous and
flustered when being interviewed. They all have far too
soft a ride, controlling the news agenda with ease, so
any journalist who can discomfort them is pure gold in
my book. Newstalk ZB have already snapped Plunket
up as their morning talkback host but it wouldn’t surprise
to see him turn that show into more of a challenger to
to Noon, with less talkback and more interviews.
Radio New Zealand, in the meantime, needs to let us
know soon who his replacement will be—and it must be
someone with a sharp edge and a highly developed shit

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Commenting on a Tri Nations game in Melbourne a few
weeks ago, a British sports columnist wrote that the All
Blacks destroyed Australia 49-28 in a 'mesmerising game
of such bewildering running, passing, immaculate
handling and implacable ferocity, it did, quite literally at
times, take your breath away. It was a sport unlike any
other we get to see up here, in the northern hemisphere. I
know it always get said, and is always wrong, but who can
stop these All Blacks from taking next year’s World Cup?'

Well, golly gee and shucks. That was Roger Alton,
executive editor of The Times, writing in the Spectator of
7 August. But I'm not sure whether we should regard his
rave as thoroughly deserved praise or the kiss of death,
because unfortunately there is an answer to his question
'Who can stop these All Blacks from taking next year’s
World Cup?' and the answer is: Themselves. But thanks
for asking anyway, Rog.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Come again

To the launch of David Grant’s biography of Ken Douglas
at the Brierley Theatre, Wellington College. Yes. I never
got to say hallo to the biographer or shake hands with the
biographee, and left before the formal part of proceedings,
on account of a congenital condition that prevents me
from standing for hours on end with an empty glass in my
hand listening to people make speeches, or even, in some
horrifying cases, read long extracts from their newly
published work. I was there long enough however to clock
a large and varied crowd of launchgoers ranging from old
lefties to new righties, all giving the impression that
whatever hard-fought struggles there had been in the past,
that was all over now, and all that remained to be done,
politically speaking, was a tweak here and a top-up there
and Rodney’s your uncle. The hegemonic domination of
the centre-right is almost total; as one former cabinet
minister said to me, he was blessed if he could see much
difference between the major parties these days. He’s
right. There isn’t. Much difference. There never was,
actually, not since 1935, and it’s the same across the
Tasman, where Gillard’s Labor and Abbott’s Liberals are
really only factions of the same party. Can the left—a real,
thriving, thought-through, rambunctious left—ever come
again? Don’t doubt it. History isn't finished with us yet.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Truth to power

A gathering at Te Papa: for the first time I meet Judith
Binney, whom I interviewed by phone a few weeks ago
for the Listener. She was in Menorca, Spain, and I was
in Wellington. I had read her book Encircled Lands in
a kind of white heat in order to interview her about it.
The book, which has since won the supreme award in
this year’s national book awards, tells in relentlessly
clinical detail how Tuhoe were stripped, cheated and
robbed of their land by the predatory Pakeha in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries. Binney is still
dismayed, as she was in the interview, by the Prime
Minister’s about-face on granting Tuhoe authority over
Te Urewera National Park. Much has changed, and
improved, in the past 30-40 years in terms of Pakeha
recognition of what was done to, and what is owed to,
Maori—when she and Binney were young academics,
Claudia Orange told the gathering, Maori were all but
invisible—but John Key’s abrupt announcement
seemed to kick us right back to the 1890s. Binney’s
book is, however, not only a landmark but a lighthouse,
and I believe that the illumination it casts will shine so
strongly that, in time, it will help to change attitudes.
It will last longer than Key or any government; it will
never stop speaking truth to power.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Workers are human too

In view of my criticism of the New Zealand Herald for
milking cheap emotion out of the Auckland hospital
radiographers’ strike it’s only fair to record that two
days later the paper belatedly published a report
explaining precisely why the workers were planning to
strike, backgrounding the issue and interviewing a
radiographer who said how distressed she and her
colleagues felt about the effect the strike would have
on patients and people expecting surgery. ‘To come to
a decision to go on strike takes huge emotional effort,’
she is quoted as saying. As I said, these decisions are
never made lightly where public services are involved.

Significantly, this story was written by regular health
roundsman Martin Johnston, whereas the tear-jerking
front-page lead wasn’t. The Herald should have run it
up front right at the outset.

Little slack can be cut, however, for TV1 and TV3, both
of which ran reports about the strike last night, and
both of which went unerringly for the ‘human’ angle of
the patients who would suffer because of it. Both Garth
Bray (TV1) and Melissa Davies (TV3) focused on the
problems the strike was causing, which is fair enough
up to a point but, reported in isolation, carries the
inescapable message that the people doing the striking
are heartless bastards. Both gave airtime to the head of
the health board but neither deigned to put the strikers’
side of the argument. Davies said she’d tried in vain to
contact the union but that was just to get a reaction to
the case of guess who? the same family featured on the
front page of the Herald on 31 August.

A cynic would be strongly tempted in this case to modify
the old media saw ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ to ‘If it weeps, it
keeps.’ Neither reporter necessarily set out to
deliberately cast the striking workers in a negative light
but that's what happens when you take the easy option
and tell your story simplistically and one-sidedly. You
want a 'human' angle? Workers are human too. The
radiographers in Christchurch instantly called off their
strike there because of this morning's earthquake.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Country sides

To read some Australian media reports you’d think that
any rural resident west of Sydney despised the Green
Party as tree-hugging, latte-sipping urban wankers, out
of touch with the gritty realities of living on the land.
Yet Bob Windsor, one of the independent ‘country’ MPs
holding the balance of power across the Tasman at the
moment, had this to say yesterday:

‘A lot of people in the country are concerned about the
Greens, I'm not. In fact over time I've developed a
good relationship with [Greens leader] Bob Brown.

‘We've got to recognize that every environmental policy
is not necessarily bad. I don't agree with everything the
Greens do, but I'm not petrified about the circumstances
of them being in the Senate.

‘I say to the farm groups that these people are going to
be in a very prominent position in the Senate for some
years. Rather than just write them off as being just anti-
agriculture, which in my view they're not, go and talk to
them, go and raise the issues.’

ABC News, reporting a Sky News interview, also says
that ‘even self-described anti-Green Bob Katter (another
rural independent MP) said there were areas of policy
that he agreed with the Greens on, such as restricting
food imports, biofuels and the power of the major
supermarket chains, and quotes him as saying: ‘I was
surprised that there was common ground—and very
aggressive common ground.’

Well, how about that. Fact is, for all the negative
imagery peddled about them, and for all the sad
nonsense spouted by Federated Farmers’ current
leader, the Green parties in Australia and New Zealand,
both countries with strong pastoral sectors, have by
definition a lot in common with farmers and rural
people generally, and I have watched with interest the
way this commonality has been developing in recent
years. The New Zealand Greens have certainly not been
shy of getting involved in the practical side of
agriculture and making constructive suggestions about
farming methods and care of the land and animals.
Despite, as I say, Don Nicolson’s obstructionist bluster,
my feeling is that many farmers are not averse to taking
a greener approach. Most farmers are in fact ecologists
at heart, but the industrialization of agriculture and the
corporate pressure to keep ramping up profits has
driven some of them into taking damaging shortcuts
and ignoring the downstream (literally) consequences.
But every day in the media you will see or hear reports
of farmers adopting or considering more sustainable
and ecologically responsible practices. The Greens are
well placed to capitalize politically on this in a country
like ours, and notwithstanding some misgivings about
their current leadership, I believe Russel Norman and
Metiria Turei are the ones to take the Greens forward.
They both just need a couple more years on them; the
sense of shrewd maturity projected by Bob Brown is
clearly a big electoral asset for Australia's Greens.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

By the numbers

Judt, whose book begins with the words ‘Something is
profoundly wrong with the way we live today,’ is
particularly strong on ‘economism’—the reduction and
compression of virtually all political debate to matters
of profit and loss, growth and gain. The way we live now
is essentially by the numbers. It has become very
difficult, if not impossible, in current conditions to
sustain any kind of argument about, say, the care of the
aged or early-childhood education without being forced
back onto purely financial calculation (and made to feel
as though you are naive and woolly-headed if you don't
think purely in dollars and cents). This, in a large sense,
illustrates the atrophy of our conception of the state and
the triumphalism of the ‘market.’ But it is not, Judt says,
an instinctive human condition; there was a time when
we ordered our lives differently, and were no worse for it.
Taking my cue from him, I believe that one of the most
fundamental challenges for the left is to confront the
blatant and insidious permutations of economism, and
thus shift the ground of debate from ‘Can we afford it?’ in
a narrow accounting sense to ‘Can we not afford it?’ in a
fully contextualized ecological sense (which is also an
economic approach in the truest sense of the word).
A very challengeable recent example would be the report
of the Welfare Working Group, which seems to have
emerged from a hermetically sealed space
uncontaminated by the real world in which people work
and live. It also means addressing the role of the state,
which, like it or not, remains the best counter to the power
of globalized capitalism, because, as Judt says, it embodies
notions of collective trust, communal identity and social
cooperation that no 'market' will ever truly reflect or
answer to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Illfare state

I have just read Ill Fares the Land, the last book by the
British intellectual Tony Judt, and, for two reasons, a
painfully sad one to read. First, because it’s a lament
for the lost values of what Judt settles for calling
social democracy—the worldview of the broad left, if
you like, in westernized societies. Second, because
Judt was dying as he wrote it, dying from Lou Gehrig’s
disease, which he contracted in 2008. He has since
died, aged 62, on 6 August; though paralysed from the
neck down, he continued to the last to dictate essays
and intensely affecting memoir pieces that have been
regularly published throughout this year by the New
York Review of Books

His last book takes its title from a couplet in Oliver
Goldsmith’s 18th-century elegy The Deserted Village
—a poem that captures the irreversible shift of labour
in Britain from country to city as the Industrial
Revolution applied its crushing weight to a way of life
previously unchanged for centuries:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Judt’s thesis is that the Keynesian social contract that
underpinned and defined Western society for about 30
years after the Second World War has been smashed
by the rise of the neoconservative right. He is horrified
by the recrudescence of 19th-century ‘individualism’
and, while striving not to succumb to sentimentality
about the ‘good old days,’ which weren’t all that good,
argues that we need to revive and articulate the values
of social democracy—otherwise we are condemned to
continue our lives as little more than atomized,
depoliticized consumers—living proof of Margaret
Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society.’

So far, so disenchanted liberal-left baby-boomer. But
what is to be done? That indeed is the title of Judt’s fifth
chapter (and didn't some other bloke write a book with
that title?), but unfortunately he loses his way, never
quite answering the question outright and putting forth
no political program other than something like ‘Let’s
talk more boldly about what we believe in.’ Still, given
the hegemonic dominance of global capitalism and the
relentless chorus of its acolytes, there are worse things
to do. The left is intellectually stagnant at the moment,
desperately in need of clear thinking and clearer
speaking. The only left-wing energy of any genuine
meaning and relevance is coming from the green side
of politics but that has yet to be integrated into a wider
movement such as those for which the labour and
social-democratic parties of the ‘West’ became the
parliamentary vehicles in the first half of the 20th
century. There needs to be a crucible of ideas and
debate, and maybe, in lieu of town-hall meetings and
the tired rhetoric of street marches, the blogosphere is
it right now. In New Zealand anyway I certainly don't
see any significant left-wing exchange going on
anywhere except in the blogs of people like Bryce
Edwards, Gordon Campbell, Chris Trotter and No Right
Turn. Those are flames that must keep burning. We
need to hear, as Judt says, the 'resurgent language of
civil society.' Above all, he says, ‘We need to learn to
think the state again,’ and stop letting it—by default of
our silence—be vilified as a lumbering, incompetent
source of economic dysfunction.