Saturday, April 30, 2016

Trump v. Clinton: a democratic malfunction?


(First published in The Dominion Post, April 29.)
You have to say this much for Donald Trump: no aspirant for political office in America has created so much interest in distant New Zealand.
In fact you’d probably have to go as far back as 1964, to the contest between Lyndon Johnson and his arch-conservative Republican rival Barry Goldwater, to find a US presidential election that aroused more interest worldwide. Trump can take credit for that, if nothing else.

The difference with 1964, of course, is that he isn’t even the candidate yet. The Republican convention that will choose the party’s nominee is still three months away, but already Trump is the subject of conversation around the water coolers (or would be, if our workplaces had water coolers).
New Zealanders have watched the rise and rise of Trump with fascinated loathing and horrified disbelief. Distaste for him cuts across the usual political boundaries.

A recent UMR poll found that 82 per cent of National Party voters would back Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump. Even if it came down to a choice between Trump and Clinton’s “socialist” rival Bernie Sanders, National voters would support Sanders by a margin of 76 to 13 per cent.
New Zealanders can’t understand why so many Americans seem to love an uncouth sideshow barker. It tends to reinforce the common perception that all Americans are crass and ignorant. But America wouldn’t be the world’s strongest economic power, and the pacesetter in every field from technology through to art and entertainment, if it were populated by idiots.

We tend to forget that voting in the presidential primaries involves a relatively small number of people, and that Trump’s backing comes from a disillusioned faction within that minority. Far more Americans dislike him than like him.
A better picture of his standing among Americans generally is provided by an NBC-WSJ poll earlier this month that showed only 24 per cent of respondents gave him a positive rating compared with 65 per cent who saw him in a negative light.

So Americans don’t want Trump. They don’t want Clinton either, judging by the same poll which gave her a 56 per cent negative rating. Only 32 per cent liked her.
That leaves us with a puzzling question: how can a country so rich in human capital deliver such a dispiriting set of candidates for the most powerful office in the world?

You have to wonder whether we’re witnessing a failure of democracy. It’s not working the way it’s supposed to.
Trump and Clinton are polar opposites politically, but in their own way, each represents a democratic malfunction.

Clinton is the consummate political insider – a cold, calculating, slippery, artful schmoozer. Polls show that Americans don’t trust her, and neither should they. She can barely shut her closet door for all the skeletons rattling around inside.
Trump, on the other hand, makes a virtue of being an outsider. He feeds off a deep and widespread sense of alienation.

By posing as a man of the people, which he demonstrably is not, he has harnessed resentment of the political elite. Unfortunately, not being part of the political establishment doesn’t, by itself, give him presidential credentials.
And what of the other contenders? There’s Sanders, whose pitiful ignorance on crucial policy issues was shockingly exposed in a recent newspaper interview. And then there’s Ted Cruz, a repugnant Texan fundamentalist who manages, against the odds, to be even less attractive than Trump.

How has it come to this? How could American voters be faced with a choice between candidates so few of them want?
And what happened to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F Kennedy? All articulated noble visions for their country, even if their personal lives – especially in the case of the alley-cat JFK – didn’t always bear close scrutiny. But we’ve heard little in this presidential campaign that has been either noble or visionary.

Democracy seems to be on its knees in Australia, too, where the brazenly opportunistic Malcolm Turnbull seized power last year from a wounded Tony Abbott and is now floundering in the polls himself, raising the prospect of yet more political convulsions in a country that’s starting to make Italy look like a model of stability.
There are common factors here. Democracy, supposedly the property of the people, has been hijacked. Power now resides with elites, factions, spin merchants, wealthy donors, lobbyists and politically partisan media outlets.

It hasn’t happened here, at least not on the same scale – but that’s not to say it won’t.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, via Texas


Yesterday, with my daughter and two grandsons, I walked the recently opened Paekakariki Escarpment Track, aka the Stairway to Heaven – the 10-kilometre walkway linking Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington. It’s described as one of the highlights of the Te Araroa Trail, the 3000km network of tracks stretching from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
The Escarpment Track had been in the news only days before when a 62-year-old man, walking it on Anzac Day, collapsed and died. Although police said at the time that they weren’t sure whether his death was the result of a medical event or a fall, a follow-up report today gave the clear impression he suffered a heart attack.

Either is certainly possible. The Te Araroa website describes the track as steep, narrow and exposed, all of which is true. It rises from near sea level to 220 metres and there are 492 steps. Some of the stepped sections are very steep and it’s not hard to imagine someone stumbling or tripping, in which case they could fall a very long way. There are no handrails and the website suggests you shouldn’t attempt the walk if you suffer from vertigo. An additional complication is that apart from the high point of the track, which is accessible across farmland by 4WD vehicle, there’s nowhere for rescue teams or a helicopter to quickly reach anyone in trouble.
People shouldn’t be deterred by publicity about the death, but they should take heed of the warnings. Judging by a couple of the walkers we saw yesterday, some people tackle the track not realising how challenging it is. It’s not a casual stroll and it’s certainly not practical for dogs, although the website makes no mention of them.

But it is a spectacular walk, and I’d like to do it again in better weather. Yesterday, unfortunately, was overcast and cool, with a cold, blustery wind. On a still, sunny day the views would be sensational.
The website suggests you allow 3-4 hours. We did it in slightly less than three without rushing. Paradoxically, we would have taken longer had the weather been better, because we would have spent more time enjoying the views while we ate lunch.

I’m pleased to say the grandsons, aged 10 and 7, did it uncomplainingly and probably had more gas left in the tank at the end than I did. As we approached the finish in Pukerua Bay the younger of the two startled his mother by bursting into Deep in the Heart of Texas, which I put down to a recent stay at our place during which they enjoyed a DVD of The Muppet Show featuring Roy Rogers. Teaching them appreciation of the outdoors is one thing, but you have to ensure their cultural needs are met as well.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Agenda-driven reformers untroubled by human consequences

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 20.)

The American economist Milton Friedman once said that it’s a great mistake to judge things by their intentions rather than by their results.

Unfortunately it’s a mistake repeatedly made by agenda-driven reformers on a mission to create the perfect society. A Radio New Zealand Spectrum programme brought one such instance to public attention earlier this month.
Until 2007, intellectually disabled people in New Zealand were exempted from minimum wage laws. This meant they could be employed doing menial work in facilities known as sheltered workshops.

It was a system whereby thousands of New Zealanders who were incapable of holding down proper jobs were nonetheless able to occupy themselves each day doing simple, repetitive work.
They were paid only a token sum, but the money wasn’t important. What really mattered was the companionship they enjoyed in the workplace and the satisfaction they got from having a job to go to each day.

It was an arrangement long supported by the IHC (originally the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society) and by parents with working-age disabled children. The IHC was itself the country’s biggest operator of sheltered workshops.
Then ideology intervened. Disability became politicised.

Sheltered workshops may have admirably met the needs of those working in them, but reformers looked at them and saw only exploitation and discrimination. 
Where others saw contented workplaces, left-wing activists saw a vulnerable minority being deprived of their rights. Sue Bradford, then a Green MP, called it “systemic oppression”. 

Pumped up with reformist zeal, the Labour government in 2007 repealed the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act, which since 1960 had allowed disabled workers to be employed for less than the minimum wage.
A system was adopted whereby everyone working in sheltered workshops was individually assessed to see whether they were capable of mainstream employment at normal pay rates. Those who were judged incapable were given a continuing exemption from the minimum wage law.

The IHC applauded. It too had been ideologically captured. Over opposition from many of its bewildered members, the IHC seized the opportunity to shut down 76 workshops and “business units”.
In Blenheim, locals were so appalled by IHC’s plan to sell a nursery and plant centre which employed intellectually disabled workers that a community trust was set up to buy the business and keep it going.

Part of the problem was that the IHC itself had changed radically. Originally an organisation run largely by parents and volunteers, it had evolved into a government-funded Wellington bureaucracy led by disability-sector careerists.
The reforms had predictable consequences. True, a minority of the more “able” disabled found paying work. But the closure of those sheltered workshops deprived hundreds of intellectually disabled people of the satisfaction of going to work each and enjoying the camaraderie of others.

Despite extravagant promises, no satisfactory form of alternative activity was found for most of those tipped out of work.
Where previously they had delivered firewood, done ironing, mowed lawns, made letterboxes, worked in garden centres and sorted goods for recycling, they now watched TV, sat idly in “day bases” or went for walks. This was euphemistically called community participation.

In many cases, denied constructive work, their behaviour deteriorated. Some became difficult to manage.
Parents and caregivers were left bitter and disenchanted. Many felt betrayed by the IHC, the very organisation they looked to for support.

Of course none of this directly affected the well-paid ideologues, politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington, who were safely insulated from the consequences of their policies.
Now it seems the reformers aren’t satisfied with the damage already done in the name of bogus “inclusiveness”. As Spectrum reported, the exemption permits issued to more than 800 disabled workers nationwide are now under threat of cancellation.

This is presumably Phase II of the project commenced in 2007 – the final solution, if you like.
Let’s give the reformers the benefit of the doubt and assume they want to create an ideal world in which no one is disadvantaged.

The problem is, they’re willing to make people suffer for it to happen. 
Spectrum focussed on Southland Disability Enterprises in Invercargill, one of a small number of independent sheltered workshop operators that continued to function after IHC abandoned the field.

The 80 disabled people working at SDE were all issued with exemption permits, but now the government wants to cancel those permits. If that happens, SDE will cease to be viable and the people who happily work there will be out of jobs. This is madness.
The Wellington bureaucrat driving the change explained that exempting disabled people from the minimum wage law was “out of step with modern thinking”.

She went on to pronounce that people with disabilities mustn’t be treated differently from others. Problem is, they are different. Or perhaps she hasn’t noticed.
And what’s being offered in return? Nothing at all, if you unpicked the bureaucrat’s vague and non-committal reference to possible subsidies, employment supports and training schemes.

I was reminded of the far-fetched promises made in 2007, when the reformers cruelly misled intellectually disabled people with phantasmic visions of the fulfilling new life that awaited them.
I wonder what National’s Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie (no, I hadn’t heard of her either) is doing to save the jobs of the SDE workers. This is her government, after all. Or do politicians find it too hard to resist agenda-driven public servants? If that’s the case, we’re in deep trouble.

I started this column with a quotation, so I’ll finish with another one – this time from the great Christian writer C S Lewis, who memorably said: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A bit rough and ready, but who cares?


(First published in The Dominion Post, April 15.)
You get spoiled living in a small (well, smallish) town like mine. For instance, you expect to find a parking place right outside the place you’re going to.
I have also come to assume that I can turn up at the local movie theatre only minutes before the film starts and not worry about finding a good seat. On one occasion there was just me and the projectionist.

Two Sundays back, though, an unimaginable thing happened. I turned up five minutes before screening time and the theatre foyer was jammed with people.
There was a queue ahead of me, and when I got to the counter I heard words I never thought I’d hear in the Regent 3: “We’re sold out. Do you want to come back another time?”

I reeled out on to the street, numb with shock. My vision was blurred and my breath came in convulsive gasps. I self-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
But we’re a resilient lot out here in the provinces, so I tried again the following Thursday night. Same film.

There were only four people ahead of me at the box office. Things were looking good. But when I walked into the actual cinema – phwoah! The place was packed.
I had to go right down the front. Then more people arrived, and we all had to move over and squeeze up to make room.

You’ve probably guessed by now that the film was Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Taika Waititi’s latest film has created a real buzz. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the tradition of Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie, and like Murphy’s film it’s unmistakeably and unapologetically a New Zealand movie.

It’s also, like Goodbye Pork Pie and Sam Neill’s first film, Sleeping Dogs, a bit rough and ready, which kind of adds to its charm.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it looks as if Waititi made the film up as he went along, but he certainly didn’t bother to smooth off the rough edges.

The opening scene, for example, shows a police car speeding along a remote gravel road and splashing through puddles. But when it pulls up at its destination, it’s sparkling clean.
Film crews are supposed to include a continuity person to ensure consistency between scenes, but the pristine police car was either missed or ignored.

Audiences might also have observed that the two dogs that accompany the Sam Neill character, Hec, and his young companion Ricky appear in some scenes but are inexplicably absent from others.
Then there are the sudden striking changes of scenery. I don’t know of anywhere in New Zealand where you can step straight from dense, sub-tropical rain forest onto a barren, Desert Road-type alpine landscape, but they do it in Wilderpeople 

It took me back to the embarrassingly bad 1964 New Zealand film Runaway, in which the action abruptly shifted from the coastal sand dunes of Northland to the Southern Alps, as if only a short drive separated them. Even as a 14-year-old, I cringed.
But Runaway purported to be a serious film. Wilderpeople can be excused because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a lot of fun.

Part of the humour comes from the affectionate nods to other New Zealand movies – among them Goodbye Pork Pie, but also Smash Palace.
Waititi (who plays a wicked cameo as a deranged church minister) even managed to include a tribute to the famous Crumpy and Scotty Toyota Hilux TV ads. Lloyd Scott himself appears briefly as a startled tourist whose photo-taking is rudely interrupted by a rampaging 4WD.

There’s no doubt Waititi is a freakish talent, but we already knew that from Boy and What We Do in the Shadows.
Boy was misleadingly labelled as a comedy but was really a sad film with comic moments. Wilderpeople is the reverse – a comedy with some laugh-out-loud scenes and one or two sombre interludes.

Thank God we seem to have finally grown out of those bleak, dark New Zealand films that Neill labelled the cinema of unease.
As Ricky, the funny but troubled Maori kid whom Neill’s character is reluctantly saddled with, Julian Dennison is the star. But Neill anchors the film, even if his portrayal of the cantankerous Hec lapses slightly at times.

Neill is our one true international A-list actor. It says a lot about him that he still spends much of his time in New Zealand and gets obvious pleasure from old-style, seat-of-the-pants Kiwi filmmaking.
Good on him. He seems a genuinely nice man - the sort of A-lister we're happy to claim as one of us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A letter to Chris Hipkins

A bill proposing the abolition of charter schools has been drawn in the parliamentary ballot. It's in the name of Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins.

My friend Neil Harrap was inspired to write the following letter to Hipkins, which I endorse:

"Dear MP Hipkins,
 
"You're proving to be a disappointment in trying to stop charter schools.  Had charter schools been around when I was a kid I'd have been a candidate.

"My experience of state schools was how mediocre they can be in many cases.  Career teachers waiting for retirement were the norm in my school.

"Fortunately I have succeeded beyond my dreams, thanks to parental guidance, a strong will to succeed and some good luck.  Leaving school at fifteen isn't the best way but if school is that much of a waste of time then one is better out of it.

"You can google me and find that I've succeeded in many fields, become wealthy and helped many people in their lives.  This is not because of public education but in spite of it.  

 "You should be ashamed of yourself trying to stop diversity in education.  It shows the narrowness of your mind and your political beliefs."
 
Amen to all that. Of course the idea of charter schools challenges the Labour Party's cherished dogma that only the state can do things properly and that people are too stupid to be trusted to exercise freedom of choice. Besides, charter schools potentially undermine the power of the teacher unions to which many Labour MPs previously belonged.
 
I understand, incidentally, that Hipkins has never bothered to visit one of these schools that he's so keen to ban. Perhaps he's scared  he'll see something that might cause him to question his comfortable left-wing convictions.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A textbook example of third-term arrogance


Halley’s Comet visits more often than I agree with Sue Bradford, but she’s right to object to the indecent haste with which the TPPA is being pushed through Parliament.
Given the controversy over the trade agreement and the lack of public disclosure when it was being negotiated, I thought the limited time allowed for people to make submissions was bad enough.

After all, this is a document that runs to 6000 pages and was seven years in the making. Even if you accept arguments about the need for secrecy while it was under negotiation, people deserved time to digest its complex contents once the wraps were off. That they were expected to prepare their submissions even while the government’s explanatory road show was still touring the country just didn’t seem fair.
Now National has abbreviated the process further by giving Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee only five days – reduced from one month – in which to produce a report from the hundreds of submissions made. The National-dominated committee will be writing its report even as submissions are still being heard.

Appearances are important, and this just looks completely wrong. It makes a mockery of due process and will only confirm, in the minds of opponents, that the TPPA doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny.
More to the point, it will have the effect of making people who are neutral on the issue – and there are plenty of them – begin to suspect that the government really is being dodgy and evasive.

On Morning Report this morning, Steve Hoadley of Auckland University, while criticising the haste, suggested people’s minds were probably pretty well made up already over the TPPA. I disagree. I think a lot of New Zealanders remain undecided on the benefits of the agreement and were counting on open and honest parliamentary scrutiny and debate before coming to any firm conclusion. They are entitled to expect that much.
If National wanted to give the impression it really wasn’t interested in giving the public a proper say on the TPPA, it couldn’t have done a better job. It seems to be saying, “We’ll push this through because we can. We have the numbers. Nyah nyah nyah.” This is the type of third-term arrogance that gets governments tipped out of office.

An Oscar-winning performance - but only five people were in the movie theatre to see it

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 6.)

I’m very grateful to the man who runs my local movie theatre. Let me tell you why.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a film called Room. Until about two minutes before it started, I was the only person in the theatre. Then two couples arrived.

This was not a new experience for me. Years ago I made the mistake of going to see a British film solely because the American directors Joel and Ethan Coen were involved as executive producers.
I reasoned that any film with the Coens’ names in the credits must be worth seeing, but it turned out to be an utter stinker; a film so bad that I’ve forgotten the title.

There was only one other person in the theatre – a man I knew, as it happened – and he left in disgust about 20 minutes before the end.
I stayed on, almost convinced that the Coen brothers were playing one of their tricks and that something would suddenly happen to justify the preceding 100 minutes of tedium. Alas, nothing did.

It remains one of the most pointless films I’ve seen. I soon forgave the Coens, although I sometimes still wonder whether they were having a laugh at the audience’s expense.
But I digress. The reason I’m grateful to the man who runs my local movie theatre is that he keeps showing films that he must know will appeal only to a minority audience.

There’s not a huge demand for arty films in the provincial town where I live, but it’s surprising how many turn up on our local screen. The theatre owner obviously depends on crowd-pleasing commercial films for his profits, but he always has something alternative up his sleeve for those who aren’t interested in the 37th Batman movie.
Room was a case in point. It’s a Canadian production (although set in the US state of Ohio) about a woman who has been abducted and kept for seven years as a sex slave in a locked, soundproofed room, during which time she has given birth to a son.

I won’t give too much away, other than to say it’s not quite as harrowing as it might sound. The relationship between the mother and the boy is extraordinarily warm and empathetic and the rapist is seen only briefly. In fact the most harrowing part of the film isn’t where you expect it to be.
Had it been an American film, I imagine Room might have been quite different. American directors aren’t generally big on subtlety, but Canadian films tend to be more understated – exactly the treatment Room needed.

I was pleased that Brie Larsen, who played the mother, was honoured with the Academy Award for best actress a few weeks ago. It was a rare case of an Oscar being richly deserved.
That brings me to the second point of this column: namely, the sheer novelty of the Academy Award judges actually getting something right. This year they did it not once, but twice.

The Oscar for best picture went to Spotlight, an exemplary piece of film-making about a Boston Globe reporting team’s determination to expose serial sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
It’s a no-nonsense, character-driven film, refreshingly devoid of gimmickry and razzle-dazzle. The journalists at the centre of the story are neither improbable heroes nor scumbags. I felt I recognised them.

But it’s a sad story too, because it reminds us that with the gutting of the newspaper industry (it’s set in 2002, before the Internet brought carnage on the print media), an institution vital to the functioning of an informed society has suffered huge damage.
But if the Academy Awards judges got those awards right, they reverted to type with some of the others. They pandered to public and media sentiment by giving the Oscar for best actor to Leonardo DiCaprio for his performance in the over-hyped 19th century wilderness survival story, The Revenant.

The Revenant is spectacular to look at but pretty ordinary in every other respect.  Emmanuel Lubezki certainly earned his Oscar for the film’s breathtaking cinematography but neither DiCaprio nor the director, Alejandro Inarritu, deserved theirs.  
The problem with the Academy Awards is that the judges are often swayed by extraneous factors. Industry politics, media noise and pre-awards lobbying can be more decisive than quality or even audience appeal.

In this case it was clear the Hollywood establishment had decided it was DiCaprio’s turn to win, and it scarcely mattered that his performance in The Revenant was utterly unexceptional.
These factors help explain why films that have won best-picture Oscars are sometimes not the ones that had a lasting impact. In 1998, for instance, the winner was Shakespeare in Love. That was also the year of Saving Private Ryan. But which film do people remember today?

Next year, expect to see a black actor take home a statuette. Given the uproar this year about blacks being excluded from consideration, you can almost put money on it.