Saturday, September 5, 2015

A high price to pay for media adulation

I was never a fan of Hello Sailor. I didn’t like the jerky, disrupted tempo of their most celebrated song, Gutter Black, and the lyrics made little sense. To me it was just a noise, but one that was annoyingly hard to ignore.
That’s okay, though. Enough people loved Hello Sailor to make them one of the most popular New Zealand bands of the 1970s.

You can’t argue with that, although I do wonder whether both their popularity and significance have been overstated. Gutter Black only went to No. 16 on the chart. Blue Lady did marginally better, rising to No 13.
I suspect the band was liked for a lot of reasons that didn’t necessarily have much to do with music. They personified a new urban cool that was fashionable in Auckland at the time. They had a raffish, subversive quality that made them attractive to a particular demographic.

They struck a pose that was particularly appealing because it was so markedly at variance with the politics of the time, when the authoritarian Robert Muldoon was at the height of his power. Hello Sailor wouldn’t have been on the top of Muldoon’s playlist. Brendan Dugan would have been more to his liking.
Drug use was big among New Zealand musicians at that time and Hello Sailor were at the heart of that culture, which only served to enhance their appeal to the Ponsonby crowd.

So we come to the sad death of the band’s singer Graham Brazier, which has presented the media with another opportunity to cement the band’s place in New Zealand’s rock mythology.
I say it’s a sad death because 63 is too young to die, and Brazier was obviously regarded with affection by many who knew him. He was undeniably talented too.

But does that really warrant a full page in my Saturday morning paper? I think not.
The media treatment of Brazier’s death, at least that I’ve seen, has been predictably hagiographic. You had to read to the very end of the Fairfax obituary, for example, to learn that Brazier had convictions for assaulting two former partners, and even then it was mentioned only briefly.

It had to be included, because it’s a matter of public record, but it was played down because it’s inconveniently at odds with the Graham Brazier the obituary writer clearly wanted to portray.
Drugs, alcohol, hard living, the “socialist” leanings that Brazier was apparently proud of – these are fine because they all line up with the standard media image of the debauched rock star. But bashing your partner is not the sort of behaviour fashionably liberal-minded people - the type of people who love Hello Sailor - approve of, so it’s relegated to a footnote. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.

Part of the problem is that the journalists who float around on the periphery of the music scene are enthralled by people like Brazier, just as some sports reporters are in awe of the All Blacks.
They get a vicarious buzz just from knowing them. That’s illustrated by today’s piece in which Fairfax’s Grant Smithies lets us know he phoned Brazier to apologise for an article which apparently upset the singer.

I suspect Smithies was delighted by the fact that Brazier had reportedly threatened to give him “the bash” (a telling disclosure in itself, if it’s true). He wanted us all to know about it, because it suggests that what Smithies wrote mattered to Brazier; that his opinion counted. But why would you apologise for something you’d written unless (a) it either wasn’t accurate or sincerely meant in the first place, or (b) you were keen to ingratiate yourself with him?
Smithies was clearly flattered that this “hard drinking junkie rock singer” spent half an hour on the phone to him. I’m sure Brazier would have seemed far less exciting had he not been a hard-drinking junkie. But the sad fact is that the hard living that so impresses journalists like Smithies is probably the reason why Brazier is dead at 63, and why his former bandmate Dave McArtney died two years ago at 62. That's a hell of a price to pay for media adulation.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Williamson does it again

Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson became the darling of the so-called liberals (I say “so-called” because people who like to think of themselves as liberal are often anything but) when he made a speech in Parliament ridiculing opponents of the same-sex marriage bill.
I wonder what those people think of their hero now, in the light of his puerile, oafish and sexist antics as MC at an information technology dinner – a performance that so embarrassed the host company that it emailed an apology to its guests.

The supposed champion of gay rights revealed himself as a childish sniggerer, happy to play for laughs at the expense of homosexuals. I wonder, will he be feted internationally for that, as he was for his “gay rainbow” speech? Somehow I doubt it.
His gig as MC confirmed – not that confirmation was needed – that Williamson is a buffoon and a compulsive showboater with the emotional intelligence of a fourth-form schoolboy. I wonder how long it will be before either the National Party or the voters of Pakuranga decide they’ve had enough and pull the pin.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The wit of Bart Cummings

In the obituaries for the great Australian racehorse trainer Bart Cummings, who died at the weekend, much has been made of his dry sense of humour and talent for one-liners. I recall one myself when I interviewed him at the Trentham Yearling Sales, circa 1980. The price of thoroughbred horseflesh had gone crazy; colts and fillies were fetching record prices. I asked the great man about this and he was ready with a typically deadpan reply. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s what they call galloping inflation.”

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Workplace safety debate reduced to farce

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 26.)
Opportunistic grandstanding on one side, incompetent political management on the other. That was my take on last week’s furore over workplace health and safety legislation.
It’s probably not necessary, but let’s revisit the background to this stoush.

Twenty-nine miners died in the Pike River mine explosion in 2010. A subsequent Royal Commission exposed shocking deficiencies in the way the mine was managed.
Warnings of dangerous methane levels went unheeded and there was no second exit from the mine. Production took priority over safety and monitoring by the Department of Labour was scandalously slack.

Following the commission’s damning report, the government set up an independent taskforce to review workplace health and safety more generally. It found that safety standards, monitoring and accountability were lax across the board in New Zealand industry and recommended a comprehensive rewrite of workplace health and safety laws.
As if to underline the message, in the year the taskforce report came out (2013), 10 men died in forestry accidents.

Out of that came the Health and Safety Reform Bill. Everyone supported the legislation – not just unions, but the government and business groups too. Pike River seemed to have shocked all the players into a rare state of accord.
But last month something unexpected happened. The National Party, having previously given the impression of being fully committed to workplace safety reform, watered down what the Labour Party and the unions saw as a key provision.

Under the amended bill, businesses with fewer than 20 employees in industries deemed to be lower-risk were to be excluded from an obligation to have elected health and safety representatives.
Why National had second thoughts isn’t entirely clear. Most political commentators put it down to last-minute lobbying by farming interests, worried that the new law would impose too great a burden.

Others said it was an act of defiance by stroppy National backbenchers and pointed the finger at disaffected former Cabinet ministers Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson.
The Left worked itself into a fine old lather, angrily protesting that the change meant the new law would be worse than the one it replaced.

You could understand why unions felt betrayed by the government’s back-pedalling, but that was a wild overstatement.
Certainly the bill was weakened, especially when you consider that 97 per cent of workplaces employ fewer than 20 people. But the majority of those workplaces are not high-risk, so the outcry was a bit theatrical. So was the carefully orchestrated presence at Parliament of widows and families bereaved by workplace accidents.

It was only to be expected that the unions would extract maximum leverage from the situation. After all, they don’t get many opportunities these days to put runs on the board. But there were moments when I felt those widows and families were too blatantly being used in pursuit of a political agenda.
As Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse pointed out, larger workplaces – which, although relatively few in number, employ 75 per cent of the labour force – will still be subject to the requirement to have elected health and safety representatives. And all the other provisions of the legislation will still apply to smaller workplaces, so they’re not “off the hook”, in the minister’s words.

It was on the question of risk that the workplace safety debate descended to the level of farce. National’s support parties, sensing an opportunity to assert themselves, refused to simply wave the amended bill through. They wanted more certainty on which industries would be defined as high-risk and therefore required to have elected health and safety representatives, even in small workplaces.
The government appeared not to have anticipated that complication and was forced into last-minute negotiations. In its haste, it adopted existing, arbitrary classifications of risk that were riddled with bizarre anomalies, much to the media’s delight. 

That was how worm farms and mini-golf ended up being defined as high-risk while livestock farming conveniently (from National’s perspective) escaped the net. A smarter minister might have seen the potential for embarrassment in advance and had a Plan B ready, but Woodhouse doesn’t give the impression of being the sharpest knife in the drawer.
In the end, I don’t think anyone emerged from this imbroglio with a lot of credit. The government not only appeared to have pandered to special interests, but looked incompetent politically. A case of third term-itis, perhaps.

For their part, opposition parties and the unions overplayed their hand, accusing the government of putting profits before people and failing to acknowledge that even in its slightly watered-down form, workers should be much safer under the new regime than the old. And in all the fuss over the "watered-down" provision, no one explained how a system of elected health and safety representatives would work where farms are run by only one or two people, sometimes father and son or husband and wife. 
Some of the news media deserve a slap too, for playing heavily on the emotional scars of bereaved Pike River and forestry families when the debate had moved on and their experiences, painful though they undoubtedly were,  were no longer strictly relevant.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

No one's forced to eat junk food

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 21.)

When I think of Otago, I’m inclined to think of it as a place of solid, practical people – people like Henry Shacklock, who made cast-iron coal ranges, the original Sir James Fletcher, founder of the construction company that bears his name, and Bendix Hallenstein, a 19th century businessman whose name lives on in a national menswear chain.
Dunedin today still has an aura of Presbyterian sturdiness and self-reliance (although Hallenstein, of course, was Jewish). The Otago Daily Times is the last of the traditional New Zealand daily newspapers, still family-owned, still concentrating on what it does best – which is local news, delivered on paper – and faring pretty well compared with digitally focused papers elsewhere.

But I have to accept that my romantic view of Otago is hopelessly outdated. Because far from being a place associated with useful, functional things like stoves, houses and trousers, Otago has ironically become a name synonymous with the 21st century phenomenon of academic busybody-ism.  

Unlike the business enterprises of those early entrepreneurs, this is not a field of activity intended to ease people’s lives or make a raw young country more liveable.
On the contrary, it sets out to frighten and discomfort New Zealanders with an almost constant campaign of shrill hectoring and haranguing. Its only point in common with Dunedin’s Presbyterian founders is its unshakeable moral sanctimony.

I refer specifically to Otago University’s once admired medical school, which gives the public impression of having become a nest of tiresome academics whose lecturing, sadly, isn’t directed only at their students.
No doubt there are many in the university’s medical faculty who continue to work quietly and inconspicuously with the noble aim of training others to cure the sick, the lame and the mentally afflicted.

But the most publicly visible Otago University academics are those on a self-appointed mission to save us all from our own folly – people like professors Doug Sellman and Jennie Connor, neither of whom misses any opportunity to whip up alarm over our alcohol consumption (which, by international standards, is actually quite moderate).
The odd thing about their highly emotive rhetoric is that most of the people at whom it’s directed have nothing wrong with them.

Most New Zealanders are sensible enough not to binge on things that they know are bad for them if indulged in to excess, but the New Puritans in the universities don’t trust ordinary people to make their own decisions. They think the state – guided of course by learned experts – should determine how we live.
Alcohol isn’t the only supposed scourge that gets these moral crusaders fired up. Fatty foods, sugar and salt are all on the list of addictions that we’re apparently powerless to resist.

Neither is Otago the only university that employs them. But it’s unquestionably the go-to institution if you want to be badgered about your eating and drinking habits. The Dunedin campus produces self-righteous finger-waggers the way Ethiopia produces marathon runners.
A previously unfamiliar one popped up a few days ago on Radio New Zealand. Dr Lisa Te Morenga of Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition said an improvement in Maori health required a reduction in the socio-economic gap between them and non-Maori. More specifically, she said the government needed to intervene more to help Maori make healthy food choices.

Introducing class politics into the health debate is nothing new, but it was what she said next that particularly interested me. According to Te Morenga, it’s difficult to make healthy choices when constrained by poverty, "especially when there's a plethora of cheap, high-calorie food out there".
This is nonsense. It recycles the tired old mantra that people are trapped into eating unhealthy food because it’s cheap; that they are at the mercy of slick marketing campaigns.

Plenty of nutritious food – potatoes, rice, pasta – is much cheaper than the Big Macs and KFC that a lot of Maori people eat.
If some Maori don’t know how to cook healthy food, then let’s address that.  If people are miraculously still unaware that fatty food causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes, then perhaps we need to find a new way of reaching them through education campaigns.

But to suggest that people don’t eat the right food because they can’t afford it strikes me as lazy and simplistic, although of course it aligns with the prevailing ideology in academia.
It also absolves people of personal responsibility for their choices. They can excuse their bad eating habits on the grounds that they are the victims of heartless, manipulative capitalists.

I’m no apologist for the fast food industry. I curse it every time I pick up discarded McDonald’s bags or KFC cartons in the street. But no one is forced to eat burgers or deep-fried chicken, any more than they are forced to smoke.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thanks for the attention, guys

In my line of work you tend to cop quite a lot of personal abuse – the more so since the Internet made it possible to make abusive comments instantly, effortlessly and under the protection of anonymity.

Much of this abuse occurs at a subterranean level, on blogs or Twitter streams that I might have no knowledge of. When I do become aware of it, which is usually when someone tips me off, there’s always the question: do I respond?
Mostly I don’t. Life is too short, and I have a living to earn. I marvel at people whose names (or more often pseudonyms) crop up constantly in the blogosphere or on Twitter. I can only assume they have nothing to do, which may explain why they seem perpetually peevish.

In any case, I have to accept that criticism goes with the territory. I dish it out, and I have to expect some back in return. As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”.
But every now and again, I come across something that seems to call for a response. It happened today, when my attention was drawn to a recent exchange on Twitter.

Someone called Dan (Why so timid, Dan? Tell us who you are) tweeted: “Karl du Fresne looks like he wears his 2001 Alcatel cellular telephone in a holster attached to his belt”.
To which New Zealand Herald journalist Matt Nippert responded: “And no low-slung holster either. That belt’s hitched high.”

Another Herald journalist, Juha Saarinen, joined the fun: “Right below the moobies”.
At this point, anonymous Dan weighed in again: “Visible, obviously, because his shirt is proper tucked in.”

Now if you were na├»ve, you’d laugh this off as a bit of harmless fun.  But of course it’s nothing of the sort. It’s malice masquerading as humour.
I have no idea what prompted this particular exchange, but I’m guessing these guys don’t much like what I write. So they resort to sneering and ridicule. They create a caricature of me as a sad old dinosaur who’s been left floundering helplessly in the wake of the digital revolution,  wears his pants around his chest  and doesn’t realise that it’s uncool to tuck his shirt in.

I’ve been subjected to far more vicious online attacks, so won’t lose any sleep over this one. But it’s worth commenting on for several reasons.
The first is that it’s a classic ad hominem attack, mounted via a medium perfectly suited to ad hominem attacks. Since Twitter imposes a limit of 140 characters, participants are conveniently excused from developing a coherent argument. Far easier to discredit someone by constructing a man of straw (based on what? The mug shot on my column?) and then tearing it down. Job done.

And let’s examine this crude caricature further. A newspaper column, or even something as expansive as a blog, often reveals only a small part of the writer and his or her private life (unless, of course, we’re talking about Deborah Hill Cone). Columns often tell you nothing about who the columnist’s friends are, what’s most important to them personally, what they wear, the books they read, the films they watch or the music they listen to.
The Three Mouseketeers of the Twittersphere mentioned above wouldn’t have a clue about the sort of person I am, but this doesn’t stop them from making assumptions on which to base puerile personal attacks. (There’s nothing new here. In the past I’ve been described as an ardent National Party supporter and a devout Catholic, both comically wrong.)

My second point is that in these situations, people typically hunt in packs. They post their comments in friendly forums where they are confident of attracting support.  They operate in the smug certainty that in the groupthink of the echo-chamber, their Twitter followers or blog commenters can be relied on to back them up.
In short, it’s the dynamics of the gang, where people seek reassurance and security in numbers. Not everyone in a gang is necessarily gutless, but by their very nature gangs attract cowards and curs.

My third and perhaps most important point is that if I really were the pathetic figure these people make me out to be, they would ignore me.  I wouldn’t be worth the time of day. So I regard their attempted ridicule as a perverse compliment, and should probably thank them for the attention.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Zealand's forgotten fallen

Bob Davies, a former Sergeant-Major of the New Zealand Army (in other words, the army's top non-commissioned officer), delivered this speech on Sunday in Auckland to mark Vietnam Veterans' Day. I'm happy to reproduce it here.

After World War One, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was formed to establish an appropriate way to discharge the debt of honour each country owed to its fallen.  By the end of World War Two and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s mandate, 1.7 million fallen were commemorated in 23,000 cemeteries and memorials across 157 countries.  Those who have had the privilege to visit any of these sites cannot but be overawed, not just by the scale of the casualties – for there is surely that - but by the overwhelming dignity and solemnity of the environment that enfolds the earthly remains of those who sacrificed all so that the rest of us may have a future.  While nothing can compensate for such sacrifice, at least their remains are protected in perpetuity as they lie alongside their comrades in peace.  They are our Glorious Dead.

Since New Zealand first sent troops overseas in 1899 to assist the British Empire in its fight against the South African Boers, we have lost 28,923 servicemen and women who were killed in action, died of wounds or who died of a result of illness or accident due to their operational service; service, I shouldn’t need to remind you, which was in pursuit of the government of the day’s international priorities.   It is very difficult to get one’s head around such a statistic so let me help you.  If we laid each of the 28,923 fallen head-to-foot, beginning at the Bombay BP Station on State Highway 1, they would extend to somewhere around the Northcote off-ramp on the other side of the Harbour Bridge. 

Almost, but not quite at the end of that line, you’ll find 32 men; they are our forgotten fallen.  These are men who were killed since World War Two.  They served in South East Asia, in Malaya and in Vietnam.  No longer under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, some of these men lie in obscure cemeteries, some in graves which are overgrown or in graves that are very difficult to access.  And because they are not subject to the same rules as those who lie in a Commonwealth War Grave, their resting places are not protected. 

They lie there because their families could not afford to have their bodies returned to New Zealand.  If you visit the National War Memorial at Pukeahu, the Army Memorial Museum in Waiouru, or the Auckland War Memorial Museum, their sacrifice is acknowledged alongside the rest of our fallen, except in their case their resting place is not so glorious.   Their next of kin have grieved no less than any other of the families from other conflicts, but to these families their treatment demonstrates that the country considers theirs to be of a lesser sacrifice as, unlike their forefathers and their sons, successive governments have failed to discharge the debt of honour that the country owes to them.

For some years now, there have been efforts to have these men returned to New Zealand, but without success.  The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs just in May this year stated the Government had no intention to change its policy and repatriate these forgotten fallen, this during the 100th commemorative year and despite a Cabinet paper that concedes the unfairness of their treatment.  He also gave a further reason: that historically soldiers were buried where they fell.  Clearly he is misinformed as none of the fallen lie in Vietnam – and more tellingly – nor do they lie in East Timor, Iraq or in Afghanistan.

With an ironic and questionable sense of timing, the Prime Minister decided this was the year to run a campaign to change the flag, the flag under which these men fell.  Whether this is a good idea or not is not only irrelevant but extraordinarily insensitive and thoughtless if most returned servicemen, those we are supposedly commemorating this year and next, object to it as the RSA informs us they do.

The 2007 Cabinet paper estimated the cost of repatriation of the 32 forgotten fallen to be considerably less than $500,000.  That may have increased somewhat in the years since but whatever its cost today, it will be miniscule in comparison to the $24 million dedicated to changing the flag.

The Prime Minister has made much recently of the importance of New Zealand contributing to ‘The Club’ when once again the Government has placed our young men and women in harm's way to demonstrate our solidarity with it.   On 20 May this year our closest ally in ‘The Club’, Australia, announced in Parliament it was repatriating Australian war dead from Malaysia.  Can we expect the New Zealand Government to again show solidarity by similarly repatriating our forgotten fallen?  Apparently not.

Fellow Vietnam veterans join me today in challenging this Government to return our forgotten fallen to the country for which they have sacrificed all and before the flag is changed.   Let the National Government, the Government that sent us off to our war and that has ignored us since, now make amends.

Lest we forget.