Saturday, March 10, 2018

The snarling and hissing of the illiberal Left

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 9.)
It’s hard to imagine now, but censorship was a cause celebre in the 1960s and 70s.

The banning or restriction of movies, books and even records was never far from the headlines. Post-war liberalism was colliding head-on with traditional morality and the official censors were struggling to draw new boundaries between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

The film censor featured in the New Zealand media so often in those days that he (it was always a “he”) became virtually a household name. Between 1957 and 1973, cuts were made to 37 per cent of films because of sex, violence or bad language.

Even without the film censor or Indecent Publications Tribunal standing over them, some government agencies took it on themselves to act as moral guardians – including the monopoly New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which refused to play any record deemed subversive (for example, the pacifist protest song Eve of Destruction) or sexually suggestive (the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together).

It was the era of the indomitable Patricia Bartlett, secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. The former Catholic nun became the scourge of movie distributors and book publishers, pouncing on smut – a word almost never heard these days – wherever it raised its lubricious head.

Why am I recalling all this? Because in the censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s, it was the liberal Left that led the push for freedom to choose what people could see, read and hear.

Ultimately they won the battle against the moral conservatives. But at some point in the intervening decades, something strange began to happen.

The New Zealand Left executed a gradual 180-degree turn. Now it’s the Left who are the self-appointed censors, mobilising to shut down any ideas and opinions that offend them.

The old term “liberal Left” has become a contradiction, because many of the strident voices on the Left are frighteningly illiberal – not on questions of sexual morality, where anything is now permissible, but on matters of politics, culture and ideology. Their antennae twitch constantly, acutely alert for imagined evidence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

This is especially true of the social media generation, who block their ears, drum their feet on the floor and hum loudly to block out any idea or opinion that upsets them.

This is a generation of New Zealanders who never experienced a sharp smack when they misbehaved, were driven to school every day by over-indulgent parents and were taught by teachers and university lecturers who lean so far to the left that many need corrective spinal surgery.

The threat to freedom of speech and opinion no longer comes from bossy government agencies (although the Human Rights Commission makes a sterling effort to deter people from saying or thinking anything it disapproves of) but from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where digital lynch mobs indulge in snarling, hissing gang-ups against anyone who challenges leftist orthodoxy.

An example was the hysterical outcry against Sir Bob Jones over a column written by him for the National Business Review, in which he suggested that Waitangi Day should be renamed Maori Gratitude Day and marked by Maori doing nice things for Pakeha, such as bringing them breakfast in bed and weeding their gardens.

It was obviously satirical – a classic piece of Jones mischief – but humour is lost on the prigs and bigots of the new Left. Someone launched a petition to have Jones stripped of his knighthood and NBR, to its shame, removed the column from its website, using the weasel-word justification that the column was “inappropriate”.

Public discourse has reached the point where almost any mildly right-of-centre opinion is liable to bring forth frenzied denunciations and calls for the offender to be silenced, fired or boycotted. The silly, melodramatic term “hate speech” has come to mean anything that upsets someone.

New Zealand has so far largely been spared the extremes of intolerance shown on overseas university campuses, where violent protests force the abandonment of lectures by anyone the Left doesn’t like.

Could it happen here? Of course it could. Only last year, University of Auckland students tried to exclude a pro-life group from campus activities, Yet 50 years ago, New Zealand student newspapers were at the cutting edge of demands for free speech.

I wonder what the old-school liberal Left make of all this. It took generations for New Zealand to mature into a tolerant, liberal democracy and now it sometimes looks as if we’ve not only slammed on the brakes, but engaged reverse gear.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Playing the blame game over "Polish" death camps

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 7.)
Truth can be elusive. Consider the recent furore over the Polish government’s introduction of a law that, according to some critics, will greatly restrict public discussion of Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War Two.

The new law prohibits mention of “Polish death camps” – on the face of it, an interference in the right of free speech. Yet it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Poland’s lawmakers.

Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, as it’s properly known in Polish) and other notorious extermination camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek – may have been sited on Polish soil, but they were not put there by Poles.

They were built and administered by Nazi Germany, which preferred to conduct its programme of genocide outside its own borders. Perhaps that was the Nazis’ way of pretending their hands were clean.

I have been to Auschwitz, but even standing on the site of the gas chambers, it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what happened there.

The Germans alone were culpable, but the commonly used phrase “Polish death camps” carried the implication that Poland was somehow responsible for these abominations. And as the generations who remember World War Two gradually die out, there was a risk that people who don’t know any better might be misled into thinking that Poland as a nation was complicit in the Holocaust.

Seen in this context, who could object if the Polish government wanted to prohibit usage of the term? Yet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strenuously denounced the law change and even implied that Poland was guilty of Holocaust denial.

Really? Weren’t the Poles entitled to protect their national reputation?

My 95-year-old Polish mother-in-law, who remembers the war only too well, was seriously indignant at Netanyahu’s objections, as I imagine most New Zealand Poles would have been. She interpreted his statements as suggesting that the Poles collectively bore some responsibility for the Nazi death camps, which would have been a grievous slur on Polish honour.

But this is where it gets complicated. Some Israeli critics argue that the Polish law change threatens to stifle debate about Poles who killed Jews during the war.

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between extremes. Polish people were neither fully complicit in the Holocaust, nor wholly innocent.

There were documented cases of Poles, police included, playing an active role. As in some other eastern European countries, a degree of anti-Semitism was rooted in Polish culture.

Against that, as my mother-in-law would point out, there were many well-documented cases of Poles risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. The Polish nurse Irena Sendler was credited with smuggling 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and thereby saving them from the gas chambers – a feat of extraordinary courage for which she was honoured in 1965 by the state of Israel.

The Polish underground organisation Zegota, of which Sendler was a member, operated secret cells that supplied aid to an estimated 50,000 Polish Jews in hiding.

These examples run counter to the narrative, promoted by some Jewish critics of the recent law change, that portrayed Poland as complicit in the Holocaust.

An article by Alex Ryvchin, director of public affairs at the Australian Council of Australian Jewry, made the scurrilous claim that “Poles were often only too happy to see the demise of their Jewish neighbours”. There you have it – an entire country casually libelled in a few words. 

As a public relations strategy, the tendency of some Jewish activists to stridently allege anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial everywhere they look seems doomed to produce diminishing returns. It has become a kneejerk reaction to allege anti-Semitic motives even where none exist. A possible consequence of this tendency to play the blame game is that people will take the phone off the hook.

Like the Polish politicians who worry that ignorant people might interpret the phrase “Polish death camps” literally, Jewish activists are concerned that generations will grow up knowing nothing of the atrocities committed against Jews during the war.

But in their eagerness to remind us of the terrible things that happened to Jewry, they run the risk that they will be seen as promoting a perception that only Jews are allowed to be seen as victims of Nazism. And in their determination to portray themselves as being at war with an implacably hostile world, they risk alienating people who might otherwise be their friends.

No one can deny that Jews were uniquely targeted for extermination, but others suffered terribly too.

Poles, like Jews, were considered an inferior race by the Nazis. Nearly six million Poles died under German occupation. Many of those who survived, my parents-in-law among them, were forcibly displaced and put to work in slave labour camps.

The truth, as I said at the start of this column, can be elusive. The Polish death camps were Nazi creations – that’s one truth. Some Poles collaborated in the persecution of Jews – that’s another truth. These truths can co-exist without cancelling each other out.

The ultimate, incontrovertible truth is that war is brutally dehumanising; terrible things happen.

The Madonna crossed with Wonder Woman: how the media portray Jacinda Ardern

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 23.)

Living in a country as small and intimate as New Zealand can sometimes feel like being wrapped in a cuddly warm blanket. These occasions arise whenever the nation is enveloped in a state of feel-goodism and self-congratulation.

It happened when we won the America’s Cup and it happened when Lorde swept the world pop charts. On such occasions it can seem unpatriotic not to share the general mood of elation.

It happened too when the Labour government took a stand against nuclear weapons in the 1980s and prime minister David Lange faced down American critics in a celebrated Oxford Union debate. Even New Zealanders who were uncomfortable with the government’s stance took pride in Lange’s famous killer line (actually pinched from an Australian cartoon, according to Sir Gerald Hensley) that he could smell the uranium on his opponent’s breath.

At times like this there can be a certain amount of subtle pressure not to deviate from the national script, which demands that all New Zealanders’ hearts should swell with pride.

This phenomenon no doubt affects many countries, but it’s magnified in our case because of our isolation and diminutive size. It’s plucky little New Zealand standing up and demanding to be noticed. Whether the rest of the world pays attention or not seems almost immaterial. We do it mainly for our own sense of well-being.

Not falling into line with the national consensus on such occasions is seen as letting the side down. Nothing must be allowed to dampen the mood.

Right now feels like one of those times. If the media are to be taken as an accurate barometer of the national psyche, the country has been in a state of almost preternatural contentment since last year’s election.

Not only do we have a young, likeable, left-of-centre female prime minister, but she’s going to have a baby while in office. Even hard-nosed and normally sensible Wellington press gallery veterans almost swooned with delirium at the announcement of Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy. What could be more 21st century than giving birth and then going back to work after six weeks, leaving the baby in the care of her partner? 

In the outpouring of gushing media comment, there was much puffing of chests at the idea that New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote, was again showing the world how things could and should be done.
Journalists promptly coined a term for this phenomenon: Jacindamania. They seem to see no irony in the fact that they delight in using the word even when they exhibit symptoms of the affliction themselves.

Some of the most cringe-inducing journalism was prompted by Ardern’s attendance at Waitangi, where her hosts invited her to have the baby’s placenta buried in line with Maori custom. Political reporters cooed their approval.

Much was made too of the fact that she pitched in and helped cooked the steak and sausages on the barbie. This simple but effective PR ploy – the prime minister presenting herself as an ordinary, unpretentious Kiwi, which she genuinely appears to be – was applauded as if it were a latter-day miracle of the loaves and fishes. 

But it’s hardly surprising that journalists are attracted to Ardern. She’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, New Zealand journalists.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive.

For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits.  Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, personable and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Her pregnancy is the icing on this cake, although it raises questions that have been delicately sidestepped by the media. What if she experiences complications, or struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership? No one discusses these possibilities because they conflict with the presumption that women can do anything.

Of course the prime minister can’t be blamed if the media portray her as a cross between the Madonna and Wonder Woman. But it may make the eventual reality-check more painful when the long media honeymoon ends, as it eventually must, and the strains of office start to tell on her untested government with its incongruous assortment of political bedfellows.  

My inauspicious introduction to Airbnb

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 21.)

I used Airbnb for the first time during the summer holidays. It wasn’t an experience I’m in any hurry to repeat.

I had booked the house several months in advance. Our son and his family were coming from overseas and we were looking forward to spending some time with them.

The property wasn’t ideal, but accommodation in the area we wanted was already getting tight and I was worried that if we waited for something better to come up, we might miss out altogether.

The house boasted five-star reviews, but no photos of the interior – in hindsight, a warning sign. Instead, the listing emphasised the lovely view (true enough) and the appealing location.

Alarm bells started ringing when the owner told me, after I had booked, that Airbnb had made a mistake with the listing by understating the rental fee.

Call me naive, but I agreed to pay the extra amount she requested. The advertised fee did seem modest compared with other houses we’d seen listed, but it occurred to me that she might have deliberately pitched it low to attract business in the hope she could then talk the renter into paying more.

My suspicions about the owner’s modus operandi were heightened when the time came to pay the extra money and she asked me to transfer the amount to her bank account, rather than pay through the Airbnb site. By doing this, she presumably avoided paying a share of the fee to Airbnb.

She also asked me to label the payment in such a way that it wouldn’t look like income. Why do that unless it was to avoid paying tax?

I should have questioned this dodgy-looking arrangement, but by this time we were in the house and I didn’t want to spoil our holiday, which was brief anyway, by getting into a potentially unpleasant dispute with the owner. In any case, I was philosophical about the sum of money involved. It bought us precious whanau time.

Later, when the owner came up with a far-fetched justification for claiming still more dosh, I politely but firmly declined.

Now, the property. The owner lived there herself and had vacated it for our stay.

We arrived in the early evening – too late to make alternative arrangements when we saw the state the house was in. It was a matter of making the best of a bad job.

The fridge was filthy and half-full of the owner’s own food, much of it looking well past its use-by date. The oven, one element of which had burned out, was in a similarly disgusting state. The first hour of our stay was spent getting the two appliances clean.

The dishwasher, which still had some of the owner’s soiled dishes in it, was even more vile. Its interior was coated with a layer of scum. We bought some dishwasher cleaning fluid the next day and ran a two-hour cleaning cycle.

The cutlery drawer, too, was thick with grime. We removed as much cutlery as we needed, thoroughly cleaned it and kept it separate for the duration of our stay.

There were bins full of rubbish, the bed linen was tired, and when my wife mopped the bathroom floor it turned out to not be the colour we thought it was.

Half the light bulbs in the house didn’t function and the two gas bottles for the barbecue were empty. (After I had confirmed with the owner that there was a barbecue available, my wife asked me whether I’d established that full gas bottles were supplied. “Of course they will be,” said I. “If there’s a barbecue, there’ll be gas bottles.” Ha! More fool me.)

We couldn’t believe anyone could live in such conditions, let alone have the nerve to charge others for the pleasure, but perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some people that their houses are a mess.

I should also mention that there were the owner’s two cats to be fed and a couple of sheep in a neighbouring paddock that needed to be kept supplied with water. We were basically house-sitters, paying to look after the place while the owner enjoyed a holiday. The grandkids did, however, love the sheep – a rare sight where they come from.

The crowning indignity – which now seems almost comical in retrospect – came early one morning when, padding down the darkened hallway in bare feet, I stepped in something slimy and repulsive. Close investigation revealed the disembowelled remains of a small furry animal, obviously brought in by one of the cats, and next to it a pile of cat excrement, which is what I trod in. You've gotta laugh, as they say.

I know from talking to friends who have used Airbnb that our experience was atypical, but I’ll need some persuasion before I risk it again. I pulled no punches in the review I wrote for the Airbnb site and wasn’t surprised to note later that the property was no longer listed.

The remarkable thing is that we managed to have a good time. Some readers will no doubt think we were mugs for putting up with the conditions, but we’re a resilient lot, and our time together was too short to ruin it by being miserable or waging war with the owner.

Oh, and did I mention the cockroaches?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I reckon eventually, something will blow

Barry Soper made a surprising statement on Newstalk ZB yesterday. I didn’t take down his exact words, but essentially he said nothing was going to happen in the next three years (he meant politically) except that Jacinda Ardern was going to have a baby.

Perhaps it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the media’s fascination with the prime ministerial pregnancy. But if not, it was an astonishingly bold pronouncement from someone who has covered politics as long as Soper has, and who must surely know the risks of making predictions.

Just hours later, Bill English announced he was retiring, and immediately the political landscape looked very different. Presto – just like that.

Now Wellington is buzzing with speculation about who will succeed English and what difference it might make. The consensus seems to be that National must look to the 2023 election rather than 2020 to regain power. This is based on the conventional wisdom that National’s fatal strategic mistake in 2017 was that it lacked a strong coalition ally, and that it’s going to take longer than three years for one to emerge.

This is an entirely plausible scenario, but it overlooks one possibility. No one can predict with any certainty that the present Labour-led government will hold together for a full term. Its internal contradictions and tensions are such that it could easily tear itself apart, in which case all bets will be off.

The greatest challenge will be reconciling the strains between New Zealand First and the Greens, who represent polar opposites on the ideological spectrum. There will be ample opportunity for this fault line to rupture, and I think we got a glimpse of one this morning with the announcement that the government might scrap plans to put video cameras on fishing boats to monitor bycatch (albatrosses, seals and so forth) and possible illegal dumping of fish.

This is hardly likely to play well with Labour’s Green allies, whose attitude toward fishing companies was summed up by former Green MP Kevin Hague’s statement that the industry couldn’t be trusted. This puts the National Party – which supports the video cameras proposal – in the unusual position of being able to claim the moral high ground with environmentalists, which won’t go down well with the Greens.

For conspiracy theorists, there’s a delectable note of intrigue here because of Winston Peters’ well-documented association with fishing industry interests. Fishing companies have been generous donors to New Zealand First and Peters was instrumental in the Labour-led government’s decision to kybosh the Kermadec marine sanctuary, which was initially championed by Green MP Gareth Hughes.

That backtrack ruffled Green feathers, and so will the retreat from the video cameras proposal. It will be nigh impossible to allay suspicion that Peters wielded his baneful influence behind the scenes.

There is potential for many more such irritants in the fraught relationship between New Zealand First and the Greens. We’ve seen a few already and the government is only four months old. Green MPs, who are driven by idealism and like to think of themselves as highly principled, will be able to button their lips and play the pragmatic game for only so long. I reckon eventually, something will blow. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pssst - don't mention asylums

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 9.)

We should always cherish the lone voice – the individual bold enough to go against the flow and to speak out against conventional wisdom when conventional wisdom has got it wrong.

Andy Espersen of Nelson is such a voice. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been reading his letters to the papers for years.

Like most lone voices, Espersen is a single-issue crusader. In his case, the issue is mental health. His consistent and persuasive message is that New Zealand made a grievous mistake when it shut down its mental hospitals three decades ago.

Unlike some lone voices, Espersen is not a crank. He spent 40 years working in mental hospitals as a staff nurse and psychiatric social worker (he’s in his 80s now), so he’s no armchair theorist.

In his most recent letter to this paper, he asked whether the mental health inquiry ordered by the new government would dare question the policy of de-institutionalisation and the airy-fairy concept of community care for the mentally ill.

I suspect he knows the answer to his question. Although prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised nothing will be off the table in the inquiry, community care is such an ideological sacred cow that no one, other than Espersen, even considers the possibility that the old way might have been better.

My prediction is that activists will do their best to ensure that the inquiry focuses on the supposed “drivers” of mental illness. These will include poverty, racism, colonisation, homelessness and homophobia. In other words, they will want to make it all about victims.

No one will want to talk about the virtues of the old “asylums”, because the word is deeply unfashionable. But they were given that name for a reason. An asylum is a place that provides sanctuary. That’s why we talk about political prisoners seeking asylum and asylum-seekers who have fled from unsafe countries.

An asylum was a place where the mentally ill were guaranteed a warm bed, three meals a day, medical care and company, if they wanted it. There were nurses to ensure they took their medication. It wasn’t an ideal existence, but it was safe and secure.

In the 1980s, however, mental health professionals decided the system was inhumane. Hospitalisation was little better than imprisonment, they argued. The mentally ill were entitled like everyone else to live independently and autonomously.

Wrapped in the warm embrace of that amorphous thing called the community, they would be liberated to fulfil their true potential as human beings.

It didn’t seem to matter if they were incapable of cooking, shopping, managing their finances, holding down a job, washing their clothes or showering. And so they ended up living in squalid flats, boarding houses and caravan parks where there was no one to ensure they took their meds. At best, a nurse or mental health worker might check on them occasionally.

It was an ideologically driven change, but the government bean-counters and deconstructionists liked it because it meant the closure of all those big, expensive old institutions.

Doubtless this bold experiment worked for some people, but its negative consequences can be seen in frequent heart-breaking newspaper reports about acutely ill patients living in the community who have committed murder or suicide. Ironically, the victims of their mad rage are often the people who are closest to them and care most about them – their families.

If you missed the last such newspaper story, don’t worry. They’re like buses – there’ll be another one along soon.

There’s a recurring pattern to the human tragedies described in these accounts. Usually they have stopped taken their medication. They may be abusing illegal drugs or alcohol. Often they are living in chaotic circumstances. None of this would happen if they were in a hospital.

Their families are driven to despair. Pleas for help fall on deaf ears or get swallowed up in a cumbersome and unresponsive bureaucracy.

The system allows district health boards to wash their hands of difficult patients the moment they’re out the door. Too often it’s left to the police to pick up the pieces.

Coroners repeatedly make recommendations about how the system needs to be improved. The authorities solemnly nod in agreement, then ignore them.

The prison system ends up bearing part of the burden too. Espersen estimated last year that there were about 2000 mentally ill prisoners who should be in mental hospitals.

As he said in one letter, "We as a society ought to be ashamed". The mental health inquiry has an opportunity to do something about this - but will it?

You can argue with Mallard's method, but not his motive

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 7.)

The census figures say it all, really.

Since 1991, the number of New Zealanders describing themselves as Christian has tracked consistently and quite sharply downwards, from nearly 70 percent to 48 percent.

There has been a corresponding upward trend in the number claiming no religious belief – up to 42 percent in 2013, the most recent census year.

If this pattern continues, it would be no surprise if the 2018 census showed non-believers outnumbering Christians in New Zealand, confirming our status as one of the world’s most secular countries.

As a point of comparison, 83 per cent of Americans described themselves as Christian in a poll last year and only 13 percent said they had no religion. In Australia the figures are 52 percent (Christian) and 30 percent (non-believers).

Meanwhile, there has been a steady rise in the number of New Zealand residents adhering to other religious beliefs besides Christianity – notably Hindus (whose numbers doubled between 2001 and 2013), Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs.

This is the consequence of a radical change in immigration policy dating from 1987, when the Lange government shifted from a system that gave preference to applicants from Britain, Europe and North America to one that was essentially skills-based. This opened the door to migrants of diverse ethnicities and religions from Asia and other parts of the Third World.

In the light of all this, it was unsurprising that Trevor Mallard, who became parliamentary Speaker following the change of government, decided that the explicitly Christian prayer which opens proceedings when Parliament is sitting was overdue for a rewrite.

When Parliament resumed after the 2017 election, reference to Jesus Christ and the Queen had been deleted. Mallard apparently made this decision unilaterally, short-circuiting what was expected to be a consultation process.

It seemed high-handed but it was consistent with his style. And he was within his rights, since the Speaker is the boss in Parliament in much the same way as judges decide how their courts are run. It may seem paradoxical, but Parliament is not an institution run on strictly democratic lines.

After the summer recess, however, Mallard back-pedalled. When Parliament resumed last week it was with a compromise version of the prayer. The Queen had been reinstated – as she should be, given that she’s our head of state. But of Jesus Christ, there was no mention. And just to rub salt into the wounds of traditionalists, Mallard recited the prayer in Maori.

Setting aside the question of whether he should have consulted before barging ahead in the first place, the muted public reaction to the change suggests that most New Zealanders are pretty relaxed about it.

That’s not surprising, given that fewer than half the population now profess to be Christian. I suspect that if the census drilled down a bit further and asked respondents whether they solemnly believed that Jesus Christ was truly the son of God, which is what defines a Christian, they might be even fewer in number.

Many people who think of themselves as Christian use the term in a much looser sense, denoting someone who tries to live according to Christian values. Such people are unlikely to take great offence at Christ no longer being mentioned in the parliamentary prayer, the wording of which was clumsy and archaic and thus due for revision regardless of religious feelings.

Those who believe in the existence of a supreme being will be consoled that the prayer still acknowledges “almighty God”, although in such a way that adherents of other religious beliefs besides Christians can feel it refers to their God too.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with this compromise. The TV news showed a rally at Parliament protesting at the change. The ecstatic singing, the blissful facial expressions and the waving of arms toward the heavens suggested this was an evangelistic fringe of New Zealand Christianity rather than the mainstream.

If I understood him correctly, the protesters’ leader argued that our system of government largely derives from Judeo-Christian principles and that Parliament should therefore acknowledge and honour Christ as embodying and inspiring those principles.

It’s a legitimate argument but it only goes so far, because modern democracy requires that we acknowledge and respect other religious beliefs.

Some devout Christians struggle with this idea, because their faith in Christ is absolute and allows for no alternatives. Most of us, though, accept that modern New Zealand is a pluralist society that accommodates a range of belief systems, just as long as they don’t intrude on anyone else’s rights.

We should thank God, if you’ll pardon the expression, that we live in a tolerant, liberal society rather than an oppressive theocracy, such as Iran, or one of those countries where religious passions can lead to murder and mayhem, such as India or Myanmar.  

Mind you, it does our MPs no harm to start their day with an acknowledgement that they are answerable to a higher power. If only they could make a more sincere attempt to live up to the sentiments expressed in the prayer, particularly the bit about humility.