Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Occupational hazards

What—now whales are occupying beaches? When will this occupy madness end?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Nail scissors

'So what can we do to prevent child abuse in New Zealand—or at least minimize its incidence?' Thus Graeme McCormick, a retired Family Court judge, in a long thinkpiece in the December North & South. He goes on: 'I strongly advocate early identification of children at significant risk… Resources could then be targeted at the parents and caregivers… I envisage existing domestic violence coordinators would make a referral to the organization most able to assist in the particular circumstances…'

And so on. There is a great deal more in that vein. All incredibly worthy and well-intentioned, and if that sounds like sneering, it's not, because Graeme McCormick, like countless other unsung people, will have done much in his career to combat or ameliorate child abuse, and will know what he's talking about.

But I find this kind of contribution to the debate terribly saddening, because as I said yesterday, child abuse will never be truly prevented or minimized unless fundamental economic changes are made—changes of a kind neither major political party is willing to address. (Mike Williams put it simply on Nine to Noon this morning when he said we just need to help poor people get wealthier.) So anything short of that may make a little bit of a difference here, and a little bit of a difference there, but will not stem the horrific incidence of child torture, abuse and murder. It would be like trying to empty a river with a teaspoon, or hack back old man's beard with nail scissors.

Am I being naively idealistic in believing it's possible to completely put a stop to child abuse and murder? Before a chorus of 'Yes, you are, you mug' rises to a crescendo, I will just cite two examples of what a society can do if it really puts its collective mind to it: the extraordinary reduction in smoking in the course of just one generation, and the dramatic drop in the road toll by means of a sustained and determined campaign. The fact that we can't apply the same determination to tackling child abuse tells me that, at bottom, we have somehow resigned ourselves to it as a 'fact of life'—a belief made all the more palatable if we allow ourselves to see the abuse as a symptom of moral failure. Maybe it is in some cases; but the pattern of abuse coincides remarkably with the patterns of disadvantage, unemployment and low income. And when you see the problem in those terms, nail scissors just don't cut it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

No hand unflapped

News item: Deputy prime minister Bill English and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia are setting up a ministerial committee on poverty under the Maori Party's post-election agreement with the National Party.

News item: Labour's social development spokesperson Jacinda Ardern says with poverty and child abuse so interlinked, the committee could be an opportunity for parties to work together.

News item: Children's commissioner Russell Wills says attacking child poverty should be the first of seven goals in an action plan arising out of the government's green paper on vulnerable children.

News item: Spurred into action by Bryan Bruce's television documentary on child poverty, Whangarei schoolgirl Jazmine Heka plans to spend the summer collecting signatures for a children's rights petition that she hopes to see translated into law.

What do all these plans and statements have in common? Good intentions, yes; familiarity too—how many times have we heard them promoted? That they are being promoted, again, tells us how little progress has been made on tackling 'poverty' and/or 'child poverty' (to borrow the usual definitions for the moment).

But what they most have in common, I'm sorry to say, is their futility and, in the case of the politicians, their hypocrisy. The only honest-to-goodness approach is Jazmine Heka's, because it comes out of idealism, compassion and hope. Good luck with that. Sometimes, just sometimes, public pressure pays off. In this case, however, I don't think a law change is going to cut it.

The politicians' plans are futile and hypocritical because they know perfectly well that child poverty, or any kind of poverty, will never be 'solved' or 'eliminated' or even dramatically improved without fundamental economic changes of a kind neither major party is willing to contemplate, let alone embrace. The very fact that 'poverty' and its close relation 'child poverty' are defined the way they are gives the game away. They're like 'unemployment.' (Sorry about all the inverted commas, but we're dealing with the toy bricks of economists' and politicians' playpens here.) Unemployment, as a mass phenomenon, is not something that happens in spite of the economic system we have: it happens because of it. It's built in; it's no accident. Similarly with poverty, the main driver of crimes like child abuse.

Already a small child has died this year from non-accidental injuries and nothing is surer than that, by the end of the year, the roll of severely abused and murdered children will have risen to at least a dozen. The direct connection between such cases and the social and economic circumstances of the perpetrators is often acknowledged, but when it comes to tackling the root causes of those circumstances, all we get, if we get anything at all, is resource reallocation, greater frontline funding, committees, reports, anguished declarations etc. Hand-flapping, in short. Meanwhile the rich get rich, the poor get poorer and the killings go on.

Solution (or should I say 'solution'): change the system, really change it; don't just fiddle with a few knobs and levers. That doesn't require revolution; it doesn't even, in my view, require the wholesale rejection of capitalism. An example of genuine and far-reaching economic change would be the abandonment of growth as the be-all and end-all of national achievement and the adoption of a genuine progress indicator (GPI) that measures all the factors involved in economic activity. This is hardly a new idea; it has gained a little traction in recent years—even the Treasury has canvassed it; but National and Labour appear to regard it as the political equivalent of Ken Ring's moon meteorology.

Switching from GDP to GPI won't bring people out of poverty overnight, but I'm willing to bet it would be a big step towards practising economics as if people mattered (as E F Schumacher subtitled Small Is Beautiful) and therefore away from the aggressive growth-at-all-costs materialism that inexorably widens the gap between rich and poor. Like a capital gains tax, or amending the Reserve Bank Act to make full employment the main goal, it would start the reorientation of the economy away from its current principal purpose, which—let's be frank—is to serve the interests of shareholders and investors, not working people.

There are many things we could do; but given the persistence of child abuse, child murder and child poverty in our society, you'd have to be very obtuse to believe that simply repeating what's already been tried is going to succeed this time. As Einstein famously said, 'Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.'

Yet in his foreword to the government's green paper, the best the prime minister can come up with is: 'We will all need to work hard across a number of fronts and develop new, integrated solutions to improve outcomes for young people.'

That sounds like business as usual to me.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A greater distance

Reading the old writers, one is constantly struck by the simplicity of their moral attitudes. We seem such craven, complex characters by comparison. Yet were they so simple? Of course not. Less tormented explorers of the ego, perhaps; they knew themselves at a greater distance.

In old music one hears a greater distance between the self and the song.

‘The Thou is older than the I.’—Nietzsche

Friday, January 20, 2012

That makes two of us

As threatened a few blogs ago, detecting some disturbing implications in an article published in the New Zealand Herald by Josie Pagani, Labour's Rangitikei candidate at the November election, I had intended to write about them. But Chris Trotter has stolen whatever thunder I had by saying pretty much exactly what I intended to say. So I'll take the rest of the day off and let him say it for me here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Don't ask

I had to go back and listen again this morning when I thought a BBC news item said: 'At his annual press conference, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov...'

I heard right. He has one a year. Suddenly I feel better about New Zealand politicians' relative accessibility. All right, they may not actually say much of value at their media conferences, but at least they have them regularly.

It was only after a year in office that Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh gave his first media conference. I'm not sure if he has had any since. Nestor Kirchner, president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007, gave no media conferences at all during his four years in power. And those are both democracies, not dictatorships.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Loose talk

Television New Zealand and TV3 are coming under fire for their controversial decision to screen weather reports in the run-up to last year's election.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority says it is deeply concerned that some of the reports could have influenced voting.

It has had a flood of complaints from National Party members who claim that repeated references to a depression moving onto New Zealand were clearly prejudicial to National's election chances.

Many complaints have also been received from Labour Party members objecting to forecasts that a large high would soon cover the country with fine spells increasing.

The Green Party has formally protested about the use of the term 'blue skies,' pointing out that at no stage did any presenter refer to green skies.

The TV networks say they are giving consideration to running neutral weather reports in which presenters do not commit to a particular forecast but give viewers balanced options instead.

The funding agency New Zealand on Air says it doesn't fund weather programs but if it had done so, it would now be really, really worried about its own reputation and would probably want to run and hide and put its head in a toilet bowl.

Meanwhile, the police in Auckland are interviewing a man about an incident on a city street the day before the election. The man is understood to have been saying something out loud that sounded like it was political in nature, as a result of which several women fainted and two men had nervous breakdowns.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Include me out

Something has been happening to the word 'include.' For reasons I don't understand, its meaning has begun to shift, or at least to widen. Up to now, if you prefaced some statement with the word 'include' or 'includes,' whatever came after it would be partial. For instance, if I began a sentence with the words 'The list includes...,' what followed would by definition be some of what was on the list, not all of it.

Like, 'The Beatles' line-up includes John Lennon and Paul McCartney.' If I said or wrote that, no one once would doubted that there were others in the line-up too.

Yet it is not uncommon now to read, as one could in the New Zealand Herald the other day, something like this:

The shortlist for the 2012 New Zealander of the Year includes Dame Suzie Moncrieff, visionary and founder of the World of Wearable Art Awards, Weta Workshop's Sir Richard Taylor and Dr Sharad Paul for his medical breakthrough in skin cancer treatment.

Reading this, I wondered who else had been shortlisted, and why only those three were mentioned. Then I found it that they were it: they're the whole list. In that case, why not just say 'The shortlist is...'? A curious and seemingly unnecessary shift in the meaning of a word has occurred.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lying low

Halfway through January, the political temperature is starting to rise, but still the parties are lying low. And up to a point, that's fair enough: most politicians work bloody hard all year, and for the party leaders, ministers and major spokespeople especially, the relief of three or four weeks out of the public glare must be sanity-restoring. Just meeting their families again—'Hallo, which one are you?'—can only be life-enhancing, if not ego-humbling. Wellington anniversary day (this year, the 23rd) is usually the day when the cabinet has its first meeting of the year and that's when the politicians come bounding out of their boxes again, like greyhounds after the lure.

Having said that, it still seems remarkable that virtually none of them have said a word about the Ports of Auckland dispute. The dispute is no petty squabble; quite apart from its economic significance for a major Auckland employer and the people of Auckland, who (you might have forgotten this) actually own the port company, it raises urgent questions about workforce casualization, worker rights, union power, the privatization debate and the nature of business competition and productivity. Yet no government minister to my knowledge has even passed an opinion on it, let alone proposed a way out of the impasse.

Some will say it's no business of theirs, but by that criterion no minister would ever say anything about anything. Even during these holidays Gerry Brownlee has popped up to comment on government departments relocating out of the Christchurch city centre, Nick Smith fronted the media when the Rena broke, and Phil Heatley has ventured a view on oil exploration. It seems they have all sorts of thoughts, but not of ports.

There is, it's true, a perceivable political rationale for the National Party government staying out of this. Not so with the Labour Party, or at least not a rationale that reflects very well on a party whose very name, if it still means anything, suggests—no, insists—that it should take a stand on the dispute. New leader David Shearer has now been in the job for five weeks, but has said not a thing (about pretty much anything, actually, let alone the port dispute).

Extraordinarily, over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar argues that if Shearer spoke up in sympathy with the Maritime Union workers involved, 'it would just pigeonhole him as captive to the unions which fund the Labour Party... He is the leader of the parliamentary Labour Party and of the Opposition—he is not a union spokesman.'

Eh? A party leader can't comment on a major issue without being seen as somehow compromised? To buy this line would be to accept that politicians should be bland neuters above the fray; spectators in their own country.

One Labour person who has said something at length in public during the past two weeks—Rangitikei candidate Josie Pagani—says Labour will get nowhere if it doesn't reconnect with working people and their aspirations. Leaving aside some disturbing implications of Pagani's article, which I hope to revisit when I've fully digested them, her argument begs the question why Labour has not visibly connected with the Auckland watersiders. If they're not working people of the kind the party claims to represent, then who are?

At the very least, Labour MPs need to counter the kind of spin being put on the dispute by one National politician, albeit a very junior one, who has commented: the new Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, who argues for a 'significant overhaul' of legislation to stop unions occupying a 'privileged position in New Zealand’s employment law.' Even the Labour MPs' blogsite Red Alert has not responded to that.

One can accept that the Labour Party collectively is having a Very Big Think about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and its place in the scheme of things, but I'm not sure that staying shtum on the big issues of the day is entirely the right way to go about it. All very well to speak out boldly against 'asset sales' but that's a bit like being anti-whaling: a relatively safe stance to take. Engaging vigorously in more contentious, complex debates is the real test of a party. To paraphrase E M Forster, one might say to Labour: how do we know what you think until we see what you say?

ps If it's true, as Farrar says, that Labour's labour spokesperson Darien Fenton at one point joined the Maritime Union's picket line, then I apologize for implying she hasn't taken sides in the dispute. But we still haven't heard from her this year.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2011 in quotes

Having just come across someone else's list of the most memorable one-liners published or publicly uttered last year, I remembered belatedly that I'd kept my own running list. Here it is.

The underarm incident should be taught as part of the national syllabus. [Sean Plunket, column, Dominion Post 1.1.11]

Young folk love John Key they way they love an American Idol judge. [Tumeke 26.1.11]

Asking Treasury to advise on the wisdom of selling minority stakes in state businesses is like asking kids if they want cabbage or ice-cream. [Vernon Small, Fairfax 27.1.11]

There is no lesser life form. You’re either a plodder with ambition or a plonker with ambition. [Michael Laws 30.1.11 on being a backbench MP]

TVNZ is a dinosaur whose asteroid has already been sighted. [Jane Clifton, Dominion Post 4.3.11]

‘Nobody will question someone in a bright orange vest.’ [Auckland apartment building manager, New Zealand Herald 23.3.11]

‘He wanted to be leader. I said the way you become the leader or co-leader is to join the party and work your way up.’ [Rodney Hide on what he told Don Brash, Herald on Sunday 24.4.11]

‘Last weekend, I was standing behind my leader. This weekend, I will be standing behind my leader.’ [Hilary Calvert, Otago Daily Times 29.4.11]

His basic pitch to the electorate is that he is a nice guy who can be trusted to take the pain out of politics—and, to some degree, the politics out of politics. [Bryan Gould on John Key, New Zealand Herald 17.5.11]

‘While people wish to have continuity and certainty, life does not work that way. Everything passes on in due course and business activity which seeks to protect itself from change simply destroys value, as does government or other social activity which does not embrace impermanence.’ [Rob Campbell, Dominion Post 8.6.11]

'I am absolutely satisfied with the performance of the agency. That’s not to say we can’t do things better.' [EQC chief executive Ian Simpson, online interview, Listener 21.6.11]

'She has a great knowledge of New Zealand. I talked to her before Prince William came out to open the new Supreme Court building. She not only knew a lot about it, she also seemed to know where all the major shops were on Lambton Quay.' [John Key on the Queen, North & South, July]

Appealing to people's better judgment when it comes to paying an extra tax is risky stuff. [John Armstrong, New Zealand Herald 15.7.11]

'We're not going to spend all sorts of money on hair highlights, face waxing, eyebrow plucking and lip gloss for John Minto.' [Hone Harawira, Stuff 8.8.11]

'There are times when you are swimming with the tide, and times you are swimming against it.' [Phil Goff, Dominion Post 27.8.11]

'Why do people do stupid things? People who are in a good paid job don't do stupid things.' [Far North mayor Wayne Brown on a spate of arson, Sunday Star-Times 4.12.11]

Saturday, January 14, 2012

What's not there

What is not there is often more instructive than what is there. The eye ought not to be satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. A word never heard in the thousands and thousands of pop songs: student.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The people speak

Jean Davis, in a letter to the editor of the New Zealand Herald yesterday, writes: 'How many former teachers remember the days of trying to motivate their pupils during the heat of February and early March?' The education minister, she says, should give serious thought to rescheduling the summer school holidays so that they run from mid-January to early March, with Christmas becoming a four-day break, like Easter.

This is exactly what I have argued in two posts already this year, and not only Davis but other correspondents, bloggers and columnists (eg, John Roughan) have argued the same. Clearly there is a growing mood about this matter. I don't think anyone is about to occupy city centres demanding immediate action from the government on it, but by the same token it's no longer an idle theory but a genuine issue of public interest.

If it ever comes to it, changing the school year will probably not be the biggest obstacle; after all, the length and timing of school terms have been a lot more fluid in recent years. No, the thing that will be hard for many to swallow is the apparent diminution of Christmas to the rank of public holiday followed by a return to work. But Christmas is already doing a pretty good job of diminishing itself; and Matariki is on the rise. Fifty years ago, calendar events like Lent and Advent were far more prominent—who knows anything about them now? Fifty years from now, I predict, Christmas will still be observed but all the nonsense about snow and sleighbells will have gone, and the religious significance will be minimal. It always was a hit-and-myth business anyway.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Probably the most significant news about Christchurch since the February earthquake seems to have slipped out of sight astonishingly quickly. No doubt it's in the interest of the government, the recovery authority and the city council to downplay its significance, but there should have been more media follow-up and analysis than we've had. The news in question is the decision of the IRD and the Ministry of Social Development to take a nine-year lease on office space on the western edge of the city, at the airport business park on Russley Rd.

This is big. This is huge. For all the fine talk and 'consultation' and planning for the rebuild of central Christchurch, here is a hard-ass actual practical decision not to go back there—for obvious reasons. Even if the central city is rebuilt within, say, two years (unlikely, but let's just say), for seven years beyond that we're talking about 500 workers who will no longer have their lunches and coffees or do their shopping or banking in the CBD but in western Christchurch instead.

I was out that way a few weeks ago. Western Christchurch is booming. There is a tremendous amount of commercial development along Russley Rd and a giant mall at Hornby further south. The area can only boom. Will only boom; as will Riccarton and Addington (where it has been reported that ACC has taken a six-year lease on office space).

A Stuff news report tells us that the draft plan for rebuilding Christchurch's central business district says the government is expected to contribute by 'committing to return all government operations and departments back to the area.' Yet the earthquake recovery minister, Gerry Brownlee, has made light of the departmental moves, saying it won't have a big impact because it's only temporary and 500 workers are only a small proportion etc etc.

That is pure quakewash. Of course it will have a big impact; the chamber of commerce is already getting antsy about it. It can read the writing on the earthquake-damaged wall. But Brownlee is like the mayor of Amity, the town in Jaws, who kept minimizing the shark threat for fear of discouraging tourist business. Brownlee (and Christchurch mayor Bob Parker) wants to send the message that everything is going to go back to nice and normal. In effect, they are saying 'Read my lips: no more quakes.'

Who is going to believe that? The brutal reality—the one being acknowledged by IRD—is that central Christchurch will never again be what it was, and may not even be able to function as a genuine city centre. The true centre may move west, or south, or even north (Amberley and Rangiora are a lot busier than they used to be). One can entirely sympathize with Brownlee and the government; naturally they don't want to be seen to be giving up on the thriving city that was pre-quake Christchurch. But I wonder if they wouldn't win more respect if they got more real about the actual situation on (and in) the ground.

A further curious aspect to all this is that, while the government would not be expected to dictate where private business locates, surely it should be able to say where its own ministries, departments and agencies set up shop? As Labour's Grant Robertson says of the IRD's decision, 'It's hugely symbolic because the one thing that the government can control is where government agencies go.''

Yet when asked whether other agencies are likely to set up outside the central city, Brownlee is on record as saying that he cannot say, because those are operational matters for the departments concerned. Hallo?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Neither um nor ah

The Labour Party's silence on the Ports of Auckland dispute is getting louder. Robert Winter has drawn attention to this in an excellent post: he says the dispute has become, potentially, the first defining moment for Labour under the new leadership of David Shearer, and they have to 'step up and come out swinging on this issue.'

We wish. What is already remarkable about the dispute is how depoliticized it is, with not just Labour but all political parties keeping well clear of it. It's a far cry from the days when ministers personally intervened in industrial action and Labour politicians sided with striking workers, even joining them on the picket line. Market ideology so controls the commanding heights of this country's politics now that no one wants to get offside with business, or dare to do anything that implies 'the market' can't sort out everything out by itself.

I don't know if anyone has approached Shearer for comment or asked, um, wait a minute, who is Labour's spokesperson on labour issues? I just looked it up: it's Darien Fenton. Who knew? She may well be intensely credible on industrial relations but I don't believe we've heard from her yet on the ports dispute. The only Labourish public figure to even put a fingertip over the trenches so far is Auckland mayor Len Brown, and he has come down on the woolly side of woofterish by declaring resoundingly that he supports both sides.

There is an unhappy echo there of Walter Nash's infamous response to the 1951 waterfront dispute when he was Labour's leader: asked whether he supported the watersiders he said he was neither for nor against them. I have a horrible feeling that Shearer, if he ever does comment, will say much the same thing. Yet, thanks to some useful reporting by Bernard Orsman of the New Zealand Herald, there is much in this dispute that ought to concern a party with the very word 'labour' in its title.

I can no longer deny that every time I think of the current state of the Labour Party the image of Richard Pearse's convertiplane comes into my mind. Long after his failed attempts at sustained flight in South Canterbury in the early 20th century, Pearse devoted all his energy to perfecting this strange aircraft, which though visionary in some respects was clearly never going to get off the ground. It seemed to have far too many moving parts and, in repose, looked like a giant insect with an identity crisis. It drove him mad and he ended his days in Sunnyside mental hospital.

So perhaps I'm being unfair to Labour; maybe, while the rest of us sun ourselves by pool or beach, in between downpours of rain, the shed down the back of the Labour section is actually humming with activity. Let us picture the busy scene: amid the hand-mowers, garden tools and half-used cans of paint, the party's most progressive thinkers, and Trevor Mallard as well, are beavering away on a new model. Never mind that most of the electorate no longer has any idea what Labour stands for: party strategists are convinced that with Kiwi ingenuity, No 8 wire and lashings of aviation glue they can design a convertiparty capable of soaring into the political firmament. Unlike the old model, this baby will fly!

So there it sits in the Labour shed—the convertiparty, still half-built, not yet capable of sustained flight, but a potential world-beater. Above all (and here is the fiendish cunning of the thing) it will be all things to all people. And you thought the Labour Party had lost its way! The only outstanding issue, I understand, is reconciling the aerodynamics of the right wing with the tendency of the left wing to lurch. But technicians are working on this even as we speak.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

M without the fat

Chief executive John Allen is understood to have indicated to staff he expects more than 200 jobs to go as the ministry is restructured under Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully's plan to create 'a leaner, more adaptable organization, better able to meet New Zealand's future needs.' [NZ Herald 9.1.12]

The transformation of Mfat (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) into Mlean (Ministry of Low Expectations Among Nations) is well under way, and I'm sure I'm not the only New Zealander excited by the change. It has never been clear to me why we need so many diplomats and ministry staff, many of whom waste their time learning foreign languages and studying the customs and culture of other nations in order to represent New Zealand abroad. I think I would be right in saying that Murray McCully himself didn't get where he is today by learning other languages; a smattering of English generally gets the job done for most New Zealand politicians overseas, and if foreigners fail to understand what we're on about, well, that's their loss.

My only criticism of McCully, as he wields his mighty axe like the Norse god he sometimes resembles, is that he has been too timorous in retaining the ministry at all. Keeping in mind that its chief executive formerly headed NZ Post, we should abandon diplomatic posts altogether and replace them with diplomatic postshops, minimally staffed but with stylish decor and interactive displays. I also support the idea, advanced last year by my old mate Johnny Globe, of a reality TV show in which ordinary Kiwis with potential international appeal compete for the right to represent New Zealand overseas. Contestants would be required to sing, dance, crouch, touch, pause, engage, look good in a swimsuit and know where places are on the map—though some latitude (and indeed longitude) could be granted in that respect. That'll widen the talent pool.

Monday, January 9, 2012

On the scene

Brian Edwards rightly takes the New Zealand Herald to task for publishing an interview with a clinical psychologist speculating on what might have been going through the minds of the 11 people in the hot-air balloon as they faced certain death.

'The events,' he writes, 'are simply too raw for the relatives and friends of those who died to see such horrific scenarios canvassed in the media.'

I agree. Needless comparisons with 9/11 are made in the interview and exaggerated into the desperate headline EXPERT SEES 9/11 LINK IN DECISION TO JUMP.


Having said that, I don't think it is entirely morbid for people to wonder what exactly happened when tragedies like this strike (in fact, it's very human—we all do it), and it is often because of the dearth of definitive information that speculative scenarios start to run rampant. Up to, say, 30 or 40 years ago media could often get close to the scene of a terrible accident and report what they saw. Old newspapers teem with extremely vivid descriptions of crashes, disasters and crimes. These days, disaster scenes are swiftly sealed off by the police, reducing journalists to picking up what details they can around the edges, while relying on the authorities to hold media conferences or make statements. Of course there are very good compassionate and forensic reasons for this, but I sometimes wonder if on behalf of all media a single, senior, pooled reporter shouldn't be allowed into a disaster scene to describe soberly and responsibly what she or he sees, without being offensive or insensitive. No pictures or film need be taken, though even that might be possible, within strict limits. Such a policy would help—in such cases—to satisfy the public hunger for information, which I don't believe is necessarily ghoulish; on the contrary, I think it is part of the instinctive sympathy we feel for the victims of tragic disasters. Responsible, controlled coverage just might avert the irresponsible stuff that arises in its vacuum when all we have is the 'official version of events' to go on.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Art and history

To an exhibition of work by Harry Watson at Aratoi, the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton. Watson's work certainly fits the gallery's brief: it marries art and history in a stunning series of meticulous wood carvings, most of them drawing on 19th-century colonial imagery. For example:

Yes, it's our old mate Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Actually, I don't recall seeing him in the show today, though he has been used to promote it. But he's typical of Watson's cast of Maori and Pakeha characters—some of them actual historical figures—depicted either naturalistically or surrealistically as stand-alone statuettes; in beautifully framed miniatures; or, in two or three cases, as tableaux set into magnificent wooden cabinets. Some hold guns but many offer flowers or feathers of peace. Watson seems to be satirizing the Europeans in particular while relocating them in an alternative narrative. Viewers of the exhibition will each have their own ideas about what that narrative might be; to my eyes it suggests the essential absurdity of the colonial enterprise while not being entirely unsympathetic to the players caught up in it. And they were players too, condemned to act out the parts dictated for them by British imperialism. One feels that they might just as well have been made of wood, so inflexible were they in their stuffed shirts and tight uniforms, so convinced of their own rectitude. Yet Watson is not unkind to them. As the exhibition's title says, That Was Then: This Is Now.

If this superb show comes your way, or if you're visiting Masterton, I urge you to go and see it. It's on until 11 March.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A terrible day

As it happened, we were coming over to the Wairarapa from Wellington today. Just before we left, we saw the news of the hot-air ballooning tragedy. We passed the road leading to the site of it at about 1pm. We had stopped in Carterton, which the TV1 report tonight described as a town in shock, but of course many people were going about their business as usual. What else do you do? Life goes on, as Auden memorably told us, even while terrible things are happening close by. I was also sorry to see TV1's reporter call Carterton a 'close-knit community,' because this silly cliche is wheeled out every time there's a tragedy in any place smaller than a big city. But it's petty of me to quibble about things like that at this time. Out of a clear blue sky, something unbearable to imagine happened in a field outside Carterton early this morning; and I think, like everyone, I am in shock about it. In Masterton we talked to a woman who has family in Somerset Rd, where the burning balloon came down, and I heard enough then to make me not want to know more. This is a terrible, terrible day.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Wise up

'Holiday misery drags on as more storms loom': thus the Herald this morning, rubbing in the point made here five days ago. Many holidaymakers have reportedly abandoned camp and gone home, and Weather Watch head analyst Philip Duncan says there'll be rain and cloud for at least another couple of weeks.

Further confirmation, if it was needed, that the true New Zealand summer has abandoned its washed-out camp in December-January and relocated in a drier, sunnier spot a few weeks further on. This actually happened some years ago and the pattern is well established now. Yet the insistence on starting the school year at the end of January condemns families to take their holidays just when the summer weather is worst.

'Keep in mind,' Duncan advises Herald readers, 'that February and March are often very settled.' QED. He knows, we know it. When is the Department of Education going to wise up?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hard done by

In industrial disputes like the current one at the Ports of Auckland the media are almost always at pains to tell us how much it costs the employers when workers strike. We learn today, for instance, that the industrial action at the Ports of Auckland 'has cost the port $2.82 million in lost revenue.' Quite how such figures—usually supplied by management —are arrived at is never explained, but let's take them in good faith. If normal businesses is impeded for whatever reason, naturally you're going to lose money.

But how come we never, never hear how much money the workers lose by going on strike? Reporters should ask. It would not be so hard, I imagine, for a union to provide the total amount of pay lost by its members over a given time. (Maybe in this case the Maritime Union has an arrangement whereby its members still get paid when they go on strike, and if so, I'd happily stand corrected; but I doubt it very much. They certainly lose pay when they get locked out, as has happened at the ports).

The net effect of this imbalance in reporting is to put the weight of sympathy on management's side. They're losing income, they're inconvenienced, they can't get on with what they want to do. What about the other side? Workers' incomes in the first place are lower and more vulnerable to depletion, and by striking, they also jeopardize their employment prospects. One doesn't have to take sides in the ports dispute to feel that there's something wrong about a scenario in which only the employers are portrayed as being hard done by.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Anarchy from the UK

The death of Ronald Searle, announced today, brings memories not so much of the St Trinian's illustrations for which he was perhaps most famous but of the Molesworth books he illustrated for Geoffrey Willans. For a boy like me growing up in the 195os they were part of a staple diet of British schoolboy fiction; others on the menu included the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, Richmal Crompton's William and of course Billy Bunter, who though dated by then still did the business for me anyway. I believe I read dozens of these kinds of books, which in their own way probably did for my generation what the Harry Potter series (another variation on schoolboy fiction) does for its.

The Molesworth books were more anarchic, though. Nigel Molesworth was a brute of a child who took no prisoners and was forever plotting evil schemes aimed at the downfall of teachers or fellow pupils. His withering characterization of the hapless Fotheringay ('He is utterly wet and a weed') stays with me still. He was also a shamelessly bad speller, as any fule kno. Searle captured his essential thuggishness brilliantly with a savage spiky style of drawing that was clearly a big subsequent influence on Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.

When I read in the news what I hadn't know before, that Searle was imprisoned by the Japanese at Changi during the Second World War and worked on the Burma railway, I remembered that someone else with an extraordinarily anarchic imagination—Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast books—was one of the first civilians to enter Belsen concentration camp in 1945, and his mind was seared by what he saw. On the same spectrum would be the ultimate anarchist, Spike Milligan, whose Goon Show creations were very much a product of his wartime experience. There is no pattern here. Millions of men went to war and didn't create brilliant works and memorable characters as a result. But these three did, and I thank them for it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Light years

It is a truth universally acknowledged among the Patagomanian people (an alien species who monitor the human race's antics from a distant planet) that the New Zealand fixation on the road toll is a form of psychological substitution. Unable to cope with addressing truly complex social problems—so the Patagomanian reasoning goes—the New Zealanders find satisfaction and even pleasure in simple numerical reduction. A falling road toll signifies progress, suggests collective responsibility, conveys a sense of the nation working together to save lives. Fair enough, as far as that goes (as an old Patagomanian proverb has it). Yet on that planet, where life is lived in an indeterminate, oblique fashion, they reckon the New Zealanders have no idea what to do about the problem they call 'child abuse,' and would rather, for the sake of not having to think too hard, reduce the number of road deaths than reduce the number of children's deaths at the hands of violent adults.

Actually, the Patagamonians are troubled by the very term 'child abuse.' On the planet where they live, the name of which is never the same two days running, to define something is essentially to destroy the meaning of it. To them, the term 'child abuse,' while useful in some respects, has come to be a convenient catch-all for a wide range of behaviours and conditions, enabling it to be isolated from the ever-changing activity systems that give rise to it and shape it. The term even has the curious effect of seeming to diminish the worst crimes of all—murder and torture—by lumping them in with everything from bullying to bad language.

Leaving that aside, however, what mainly disturbs the Patagomanians, among whom no hand is ever raised to a child, is the inability of the New Zealanders to recognize the economic connection with 'child abuse.' They would roll their eyes (if they had them) at the idea that the murder and torture and beating of children could be 'solved' by setting up a committee or commissioning an inquiry or putting more resources into frontline programs. They marvel at the wilful refusal to perceive that the way an economy operates is inseparable from the way the people who are part of it live. Though they hold no particular brief for the New Zealanders, many of them wish that perception could be politically acknowledged and acted on. As one Patagomanian elder (her words are translated) has said, 'The day I hear a New Zealand politician mention GDP growth and child abuse in the same breath, that's when I'll believe they're beginning to understand.' In fact, incredible as it may seem, one team of Patagomanian observers has traced a connection between the selling-off of state forests in the late 1980s and the brutally violent death of an Auckland toddler 20 years later.

Incredible. Patagomania is light years away from New Zealand.

Monday, January 2, 2012

He sleeps across the sea

All that summer, the people of Aotearoa New Zealand—a proud, fierce, independent people—waited for him to come. They knew he would. He had come before, and moved among them, offering opchunities, and it was good. But now he had flown away to the ancestral home of Hawaii-key. 'He sleeps across the sea,' mothers told their children. 'He is at peace with his ancestors. But one day, when the white foam is flying, and the godwits skim the ocean, in search of their hunting grounds, he will come.'

And so it will be. One morning he will awake at dawn, go down to the beach and push his canoe out into the surf. He knows that, far to the south, there is work to be done. Through the pounding breakers the canoe will lift and surge, driven forward by the muscular arms of the Young Nats, powering their leader towards a destiny greater than will ever be known by those who have served one term only. There is a second term, and he will serve it.

From Hawaii-key he will come, the redeemer, the smiling one, the welder of coalitions, the prophet of the mixed ownership model. And the great volcano of Media-o-Brouhaha will rumble and smoke, celebrating his return. And the people of Aotearoa New Zealand will go forth and seek the opchunities he offers; and if they are not there, great will be the lamentation thereof. But he will be quite relaxed about that.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Here comes summer

Every year, without fail, between Christmas and New Year campgrounds are flooded, wind wrecks tents, sodden holidaymakers pack up and go home, festivals turn into seas of mud. Yet still the plucky New Zealanders set out on their holidays at this time, headed like lemmings straight for the cliff. Some hereditary instinct, deeply implanted, tells them that once the last of the Christmas dinner has been slept off, and the kids have exhausted the novelty of their new toys, then it must be Summer. And Summer means Holidays. Long spells of Glorious Hot Weather. Not a drop of rain in sight. Get in the car and go.

Probably, eventually, by a Darwinian process of natural selection, a new kind of New Zealand holidaymaker will emerge who realizes that true summer has shifted. Maybe once those long spells of GHW did happen around Christmas/New Year—in fact, my memories of a 1950s childhood tell me they started even earlier—but for at least 15 or 20 years now it has been plain that the weather in late December is more likely to be wet and even cold than warm and dry. Even early January can be moody with cloud. The better summer weather (azure sky, baking heat) rarely kicks in before the middle of the month, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that the really hot stuff these days happens in February and even March.

Something's out of whack. The summer solstice may be fixed at 22 December but true summer peaks in February now. Just when the kids are back in school.

There is a way to fix this, and it will take the same kind of boldness Samoa has just shown by arbitrarily shifting its time zone west of the international dateline. It goes like this:

(a) Treat Christmas as a long weekend, like Easter.

(b) Everyone goes back to work and school after that.

(c) New Year's Day could be a one-day holiday but not necessarily: in many countries it's an ordinary working day.

(d) School breaks up mid-January and the school holidays run from then to the end of February (that's when universities already resume: why not primary and secondary schools?).

This way, everyone, especially children, gets to enjoy the best summer weather, instead of gazing longingly out of classroom and office windows during the burning heat of February. And (by the way) stop starting Super 15 rugby in February when the grounds are at their hardest. No wonder so many players get injured. Happy New Year.