Saturday, April 18, 2015

The frantic quest for the Next Big Thing

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 17.)
Ever get the feeling the consumerist society is getting just a bit out of hand?
I certainly do. For the status-conscious, life seems to be an endless, frantic quest for the Next Big Thing.

Allow me to give you an example. A year or so ago a New York bakery started selling something called the cronut, so named because it’s a cross between a croissant and a donut. People queued for five hours to buy them.
Inevitably the cronut craze quickly spread to New Zealand. We like to be up with the play on such things.

They weren’t cheap but they flew out the door. Everyone wanted them. Suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand.
In foodie circles, admitting you hadn’t tried a cronut – or worse still, didn’t even know there was such a thing – was tantamount to revealing you had a paedophile in the family.

Having scoffed a few cronuts myself, I can confirm that they are indeed wickedly desirable. But here’s the thing: I haven’t seen a cronut in months, or even heard them mentioned.
Cronuts, it seems, are just so last year. Exciting new diversions, such as Lewis Road Creamery Fresh Chocolate Milk, have elbowed them out of the way.

As for cronuts, so for the Lewis Road product. The Waikato dairy factory that made it (which is not, as far as I can ascertain, in Lewis Road) couldn’t keep up with the demand when the product was launched.
Wellington’s temple of gastronomy, Moore Wilson, had to ration it: one bottle per customer. On Trade Me, 750ml bottles – retail price $6.29 – were selling for up to $26.

Supermarkets had to put out signs advising when stocks had run out. Anguished shoppers who missed out were dousing themselves with petrol and setting themselves alight in New World car parks. (All right, that’s a slight exaggeration.)
As with cronuts, though, the Lewis Road chocolate milk frenzy quickly subsided. You could probably stroll into your local Countdown this morning and fill your trolley with the stuff.

Better still, you could try making your own at home. It was just chocolate milk, after all.
So what made this particular brand so desirable that everyone simply had to have it? I’ve never tasted it, but logic and experience tells me it can’t have been that sensational.

As advertising people know, creating demand for a product is often about selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Words like “creamery” and “fresh” seem irresistible in a world obsessed with naturalness and authenticity. And it’s surely no coincidence that Peter Cullinane, the man behind Lewis Road, is a former worldwide boss of Saatchi and Saatchi.
Clever advertising (and I suspect social media was a key tool in this instance) can build an aura of mystique around a brand. The same happened with the New Zealand vodka 42 Below, which made a multi-millionaire of another former ad man, Geoff Ross.

I’m not suggesting Cullinane’s and Ross’s products were not good to start with, but their success was about much more than quality. It was about creating a sense of desirability and exclusivity.
The marketing campaign for Lewis Road didn’t just tap into a hedonistic society’s hunger for new sensory experiences. More subtly, it exploited that peculiar form of social anxiety known as FOMO, or fear of missing out.

Psychologists define this as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) Status-conscious people can’t bear the thought of being excluded from something new and exciting. 
You see this same phenomenon played out when a trendy new restaurant opens. It’s typically swamped by fashion-conscious foodies … that is, until another trendy new restaurant opens. Then they move on, like so many reef fish.

There are innumerable other examples of our cultish obsession with newness.  In the 1990s we were captivated by wine, in the noughties it was coffee, now it’s craft beer.
Our forebears, who fretted about being able to put food on the table and having enough warm clothing to survive the winter, would find it very puzzling. They would call us an effete society, if they knew the word existed.

And what does it all amount to? Ultimately, the longevity of any brand relies on much more than novelty. In the long run it’s consistent, dependable quality that counts.
The women’s fashion business is hilariously capricious, yet the little black dress, created by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, endures virtually unchanged. Will we be queuing for cronuts and Lewis Road chocolate milk in 90 years? Somehow I doubt it.

When getting there was half the fun

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 8.)

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when air travel was an adventure.
My first trip outside New Zealand was to Melbourne in 1972. The plane was a Lockheed Electra, the last turbo-prop aircraft to fly the Tasman.

Air travel was expensive then. It took me months to save for the trip.
There was a sense of occasion; I wore a suit and tie. You dressed up to fly in those days. Now it’s track pants and jandals.

Back then, the term jet-setter was used to denote the glamour and excitement of international air travel. I felt I had been admitted to this exclusive circle even though the Electra was driven by conventional internal combustion engines.
I marvelled at the quality of the in-flight meals and made the most of the free booze. I felt pampered and sophisticated.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when flying ceased to have that delicious allure, but I think things began to turn sour in the 1990s.
What happened, of course, is that flying became just another form of mass transportation – as exciting as catching a bus to Woodville, and only marginally more luxurious.

Low fares put air travel within reach of just about everyone. While this demonstrated capitalism’s wondrous ability to make available to the masses what had previously been the preserve of the rich, it would be pointless to pretend it didn’t have its drawbacks.
One is that airlines have screwed down their costs to the point where nothing is complimentary any more, at least on short-haul international flights. Even the in-flight entertainment is ingeniously contrived so that nothing remotely worth watching is free.

In place of the simple old hierarchy of first-class and economy, there’s now a more complex division between those passengers who buy “the works” – baggage check-in, food and liquor, movies – and the untouchables like me, with their carry-on bags and home-made sandwiches in clingwrap.
One inevitable consequence of the tiered fares is that supposed limits on carry-on baggage, which no one ever took seriously anyway, are now treated with total contempt.

Airlines solemnly warn that the number and size of on-board bags is strictly policed, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it. People struggle aboard with vast amounts of luggage and there’s a fierce contest for locker space. It doesn’t pay to board late unless you’re encumbered with nothing larger than an iPhone.
But of course the most important factor in keeping fares low is squeezing more people in. Accordingly, leg room has been reduced to the point where passengers of my height spend the three-and-something hours to Sydney or Melbourne with their knees up around their ears.

Of course all this can be justified by those cheap fares, but Air New Zealand finds other ways to torment you that have nothing to do with keeping costs down.
Those supposedly quirky safety videos, for example. These seem to go on longer every time I fly. They have assumed Cecil B DeMille proportions.

They’re supposed to show the world how cute and witty and original we are, but they make me want to scream and lunge for the exit. Besides, I can’t help thinking they’re counter-productive, since the safety message risks getting buried under all the celebrity appearances and visual gimmickry.
And is it just my imagination, or have in-flight announcements become more frequent and intrusive? Every few minutes there’s a raucous interruption over the intercom, invariably delivered by a voice that would make fingernails on a blackboard sound euphonious.

Speaking of which, I wonder why we still need so many flight attendants. The only contact most passengers have with them is when they’re boarding, at which point the attendant looks at your boarding pass and helpfully tells you your seat number, presumably on the assumption that you can’t read it yourself.
And while we’re on the subject of useless information, can anyone explain why tradition demands that the pilot always announces the altitude you’ll be climbing to? I mean, who cares? Just get us there.

I could go on. I could talk about the frustration of the long queues at security and immigration. When I flew out of Sydney a few weeks ago, we queued for more than 40 minutes at passport control. I was told it was a relatively quiet day. Thanks, Al Qaeda.
It also irritates me that every time you arrive at or leave an international airport, your route now takes you through a duty-free store in the hope you’ll be seduced by the overpriced designer-label goods on display. Who’s dumb enough to buy this stuff, when cheaper equivalents are generally available downtown or online?

No, flying these days is an ordeal; there’s no disguising it. Passengers are just so many units to be processed.
No one pretends anymore that getting there is half the fun. The drug company that develops a pill to knock you out for the duration of your flight will make zillions.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Six reasons why National deserved to lose Northland

The National government richly deserved the lesson it got in Northland. Since its re-election, it has treated voters with an attitude bordering on contempt.
The day after the election, John Key warned his party against third-term arrogance. He promptly proceeded to disregard his own advice and has continued on much the same path ever since.

Yes, the government has plenty of reason to be cocky. The economy is humming. Migration is running at record levels, indicating New Zealand is seen as a desirable place to be.
A run of sporting successes – the Black Caps, the Wellington Phoenix, the Breakers, the Hurricanes, Lydia Ko – has contributed to a feel-good mood that will rub off on National, which is no doubt why Key is in Melbourne today watching the cricket, rather than in Singapore attending the funeral of Lee Kuan Yew (as Tony Abbott is).  He wants to share in any glory that’s going, just as he did in the embarrassing three-way handshake at the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

National and Key are holding up well in the polls, too. But for how long?
Virtually every action the government has taken so far in this term has been tainted with the odour of hubris and, far worse, deceit. Even when it got something right, as it did with its decision to commit a modest force to Iraq, it brought discredit on itself by Key’s childish crowing in Parliament.

“Get some guts and join the right side,” Key shouted at the opposition benches. It didn’t just detract from National’s principled decision (at least we hope it was principled, and not just a pragmatic attempt to stay onside with more powerful allies); it also gave Labour leader Andrew Little the perfect opportunity to respond that the people with real guts were the soldiers being sent to a dangerous war zone, not Key in his comfy seat in the House of Representatives.
I detect signs that the old born-to-rule mentality – never the Nats’ most endearing quality, but mercifully out of sight for most of the MMP era – is re-asserting itself. It was evident in the government’s smug certainty (at least initially) that it would retain Northland, despite the cloud hanging over its former MP. But there have been several other clues that Version 3 of the Key government is of a subtly different character from those of the previous two terms.

Exhibit One: The dust had barely settled after the election before the government pushed through a bill exempting employers from the obligation to provide paid rest and meal breaks.
As the first significant legislation of National’s third term, it seemed a deeply symbolic statement. There seemed no other way to interpret it than as a signal that the Key government was reverting to a National Party archetype from an earlier era, shedding its friendly, centrist face in favour of a more classical right-wing hard line on employment relations. 

To be fair, that message was modified by this week’s introduction of legislation providing tougher penalties for companies that breach employment laws. But given that it coincided with the increasing preponderance of zero-hours contracts, which tilt contractual terms entirely in favour of employers, the tea-break bill suggested a return to the days when conservative governments were seen as unsympathetic, even hostile, to workers.
You don’t have to be a staunch trade unionist (I’m certainly not, as most readers of this blog would know) to believe this runs counter to the New Zealand belief in a fair go, especially for those with little or no power to protect themselves. All else aside, it just looks mean-spirited that at a time of robust economic growth, with the share market humming and most companies reporting healthy profits, National passes legislation whittling away workers’ traditional entitlements.

Until recently, this government had done a pretty good job of convincing people that it didn’t just represent the sectional interests from which National draws much of its financial backing. No doubt that’s one reason why its popularity has remained steady. But you have to wonder whether the party is abandoning that broad-church approach in favour of preferential treatment for favoured groups.
Which brings me to Exhibit Two: Auckland’s proposed Skycity Convention Centre. From the outset, this looked like a dodgy sweetheart deal. But it began to look even more shonky when it emerged that the taxpayer was likely to be left footing the bill for a massive cost blowout.

It seemed clear the government was prepared to go along with this, and had indicated as much in cosy chats with Skycity. It was only when the public revolted that National hastily engaged reverse gear, insisting that a generous taxpayer handout to the casino company had only ever been a technical option.
That’s not how it looked, and I don’t think people were fooled. Either the government was incompetent in entering an arrangement that was loaded in Skycity’s favour, or it was pandering to wealthy friends. Either way, it smelled.

For Exhibit Three we need to go back to November, when National bulldozed potentially intrusive new security laws through Parliament on the pretext that urgent action was needed to save us from terrorists.
Nothing had been said about this in the lead-up to the election only weeks before. No doubt the government would explain that by saying the terrorism threat wasn’t apparent then, but a more likely explanation is that electronic surveillance was a hot issue during the campaign and National strategists didn’t want to give its opponents any more oxygen than they already had.

Instead, we were asked to believe that the security risk had escalated so suddenly and alarmingly that the government couldn’t afford the luxury of normal parliamentary process.  Only two days were allowed for submissions on a bill that greatly increased the power of the SIS to pry into people’s lives.
When Radio New Zealand interviewer Guyon Espiner asked Chris Finlayson, the minister in charge of the SIS, to explain the unseemly haste, Finlayson testily replied that the government had no time for “chit-chat”. He subsequently apologised, but didn’t look at all contrite.

The imperious Finlayson gave the impression of believing the government was under no obligation to explain itself. Dammit, why couldn’t we just trust National to get on with things without the inconvenience and nuisance of public scrutiny?
Exhibit Four: The selloff of state housing. Either this was poorly conceived and executed (it was certainly poorly explained to the public), or the government’s real agenda all along was less admirable than it wanted us to think.

Either interpretation is open. The first is supported by the fact that the Salvation Army, whose acceptance of the deal appeared crucial to its credibility, decided it wasn’t feasible.
If things had been handled properly, the Sallies’ support would surely have been locked in earlier. After all, the disposal of state housing was a centrepiece of the government’s programme for the year; you’d expect every T to be crossed and I dotted.

The second interpretation, the conspiratorial one, is that the Salvation Army’s putative involvement was always just a smokescreen to make the proposal look respectable, and that the real purpose was to get state housing off the government’s books whatever it took.
And hey, if the Sallies weren’t interested, private developers might be. Could that have been the government’s preferred option all along, and one that would play well to business interests eager to make a buck from cheap state assets? Given past experience, in the energy sector especially, people could hardly be blamed for being cynical.

Exhibit Five is the nonchalance with which National initially approached the Northland by-election. Key talked as if all the party’s candidate, the hapless Mark Osborne, had to do was turn up. Never mind that the sitting National MP, Mike Sabin, had gone AWOL in circumstances that remain unexplained. It seemed to be assumed that loyal Northland voters would unquestioningly fall into line regardless.
But even Winston Peters gets something right occasionally, and he did the country a favour by making National squirm in the North. It was almost a pleasure watching the government’s complacency turn to panic as it realised it had a fight on its hands.

It’s hard to recall a more naked display of schmoozing and vote-buying than that which followed, although whether swarms of Cabinet ministers in leather-upholstered limos did National any favours in impoverished Northland is a moot point. More likely, the so-called charm offensive simply reminded locals of how rarely they’ve featured on the government’s radar.
Overshadowing all the above is Exhibit Six – arguably the most damaging of all, because it suggests Key plays fast and loose with the public’s trust.

I refer here to his shifty response when he faces questions from journalists. He is slippery and evasive, often batting legitimate questions away with bland, airy-fairy dismissals.
His consistent refusal to give satisfactory answers, especially on matters relating to electronic surveillance and the GCSB, has become embarrassing to watch. What’s more, it plays into the hands of Nicky Hager and the conspiracy theorists, since it suggests Key and his government have something to hide.

Voters signalled clearly last September that they would not allow Hager’s strategically timed anti-government disclosures to sway the election result. But the election is six months behind us now and the revelations just keep coming. Far from dousing speculation about what the GCSB gets up to, Key gives it momentum by adopting that familiar blank “I know nothing” look whenever reporters start asking questions.
Arguably the most damaging of the leaks related to Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser’s bid to become head of the World Trade Organisation, where it’s claimed the GCSB was used to spy on Groser’s rivals.

Most of the allegations previously swirling around the government spy bureau involved esoteric issues, too far removed from the reality of most people’s lives to register as important or relevant to them; but eavesdropping on rival candidates for a job is something anyone can understand.
And while the public may be persuaded that electronic monitoring is necessary where national security is involved, even if it’s illicit or duplicitous and risks getting us offside with friendly countries, it becomes much harder to justify when the purpose is merely to help a National insider score a prestigious international job.

That just seems sneaky, and it was made worse by Key’s dismissive comment that Groser’s rivals “wouldn’t give a monkey’s”. That type of flippant dismissal might be acceptable with his mates on the golf course, but it falls far short of what New Zealanders are entitled to expect from their prime minister.
It both trivialised and sidestepped the issue. If Key isn’t willing to answer legitimate questions fairly and squarely, he should stop making himself available to journalists. As it is, he plays the public for suckers and makes a mockery of the principle of accountability.

Even Bill English, usually a straight shooter, seems to have adopted a Key-like approach to uncomfortable questions. In his case, this sometimes involves denying what is screamingly obvious – for example, that the Salvation Army’s withdrawal from the proposed state housing split-up was a setback for the government. Not at all, said Bill, unblinking. Hmmm.
It’s as if, having survived the firestorm of the 2014 election campaign with his personal popularity intact, Key has decided he and his government are bulletproof. But like water on rock, suspicions about government integrity have the potential to gradually erode his credibility.

And that’s essentially what we’re talking about here: integrity. A government that can’t be trusted to be honest with the people doesn’t deserve to stay in power.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alcohol panic crosses a new threshold

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 25.)

You know hysteria over alcohol has reached an entirely new level when a waitress refuses to serve a glass of sparkling wine to a pregnant woman.

It happened last week in Auckland. The woman, 36 weeks pregnant with her second child, was out for dinner with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She said she was flabbergasted and embarrassed when the waitress refused her request.
The duty manager backed his staff member, claiming he had discretion under law to refuse service “for health reasons”. (Wrong: the law stipulates only that minors and intoxicated people are barred from being served.)

The woman, a teacher, was compensated with a free ginger beer. How bloody humiliating.
To his credit, the co-owner of the bar subsequently apologised for his over-zealous staff and acknowledged they had no right to do what they did. But he added – and here’s the significant bit – that he could understand why they acted that way, given health warnings about the effects of intoxication and growing pressure from society and the authorities to exercise “host responsibility”.

So this is what it has come to. Alcohol is now so demonised that an apparently intelligent, mature, sober woman in the last weeks of a healthy pregnancy is denied a single glass of wine because busybody bar staff are worried that it will pose a threat to her baby’s health.
To be sure, foetal alcohol syndrome, whereby chronic brain damage is done to babies exposed to excessive alcohol in the womb, is a terrible thing. But I suspect its risks have been greatly overstated.

A generation ago, we’d never heard of it. Women knew intuitively not to drink heavily during pregnancy, but I know of none who abstained completely.
My wife drank in moderation throughout her pregnancies and all four of our children are normal (at least as far as I can tell). The same was true of our friends.

But women are now are so intimidated by health warnings that they daren’t touch a drop of alcohol from the moment their pregnancy is confirmed till the baby is safely delivered. This is crazy.
The mantra promoted by anti-liquor obsessives in public health agencies and universities is that no amount of alcohol is safe. No doubt that’s true, in a strictly theoretical sense, but it’s also theoretically correct that you can’t venture out in your car without risking an accident.

That doesn’t deter us from driving. As with so many things in life, we make sensible, balanced judgments about what poses an unacceptable degree of risk. If our lives were to be governed by fear of theoretical harm, we would spend our lives cowering indoors.
The trouble is, control freaks and moral crusaders in positions of influence within the bureaucracy and academia don’t trust ordinary people to make common-sense decisions about how they conduct their lives.

Through a long campaign of scaremongering (mostly funded by the taxpayer), they have largely succeeded in persuading society that because a small minority of drinkers over-indulge in alcohol and do bad things to themselves and others, everyone must be subjected to prohibitions.
Because a few women recklessly binge-drink during pregnancy, at obvious risk to their babies, all pregnant women are now made to feel guilty and irresponsible if they have a single glass of wine.

This is absurd. Britain’s National Health Service guidelines state that experts are still unsure how much alcohol is safe in pregnancy, so the best approach is not to drink at all. Call this the failsafe option.
More realistically, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says small amounts of alcohol (not more than one to two units once or twice a week) have not been shown to be harmful.

It’s a big leap from there to saying that pregnant women must abstain totally.  But the anti-liquor obsessives have created such a climate of moral panic that even bar staff now feel empowered to tell a sober, mature woman what she may or may not drink.
The police, too, have been caught up in this moral crusade, enforcing the new drink-driving laws with a rigour that comes close to harassment. Drivers are likely to encounter police checkpoints anywhere and at any hour of the day – even on their way to work in the morning.

Police justify this by saying people can still be over the limit from the night before. But really, how many serious accidents are caused by drunks driving to work? It’s ridiculous, and it lends weight to the suspicion that it’s more about revenue gathering than road safety.
Of course the statistics look good if they show that police  have trapped hundreds of slightly over-the-limit drivers, thereby preventing (or so they would like us to believe) mayhem and carnage on the roads. But this over-zealous crackdown risks alienating public goodwill, especially when anecdotal evidence suggests that people dialling 111 about what might be called “real” crime – break-ins, shoplifting, stock thefts and the like – are often told the police don’t have the resources to respond.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Top Gear and its tedious laddishness

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 20.)
THEY’RE a strange lot, the Poms. They eat something called supper. They “take” baths (one a week is the norm, I believe). They drive lorries.
They wear quaintly named garments (mackintoshes and vests, for instance), they get terribly excited about something they call foopball, and they invented the world’s only sport where you can play for five days and not get a result

As if all that weren’t weird enough, the Poms adore Top Gear.
My idea of torture is to be strapped into a chair and forced to watch endless repeats of Top Gear. I would rather be tethered to a pole in front of an Islamic State encampment with an insulting cartoon of the prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) hung around my neck.

It’s not that I’m not interested in cars. I always read the Dom Post’s Saturday motoring pages and can even tell you that Fairfax Media’s motoring editor is 1.88 metres tall. (I know this because he tells us at least once a month, under the guise of illustrating the headroom in the car he’s testing.)
No, it’s the juvenile antics and relentless “laddish” humour of Top Gear that I can’t abide. In fact I abhor the whole British cult of laddishness, which seems contrived to give grown men licence to remain in a state of perpetual adolescence.

Top Gear strikes me as a slightly desperate celebration of Britishness in a world where being British doesn’t quite cut it the way it used to. Its male fans are probably the sort of people who have erotic fantasies involving Kate Bush, or perhaps Nigella Lawson, and who yearn for Pink Floyd to reform. 
I cringe at the sight of James May. He’s one of those shabby, ageing Englishmen who seem to think it cool to still wear his hair long even when it’s grey and straggly. I can’t think of any older man with long hair who wouldn’t look better if it were cut short, but May probably imagines it makes him look like a rock god.

Then there’s the little guy whose name I can never remember – the cute, perky one that women probably feel like mothering. I can’t look at him without thinking of Davy Jones from the Monkees.
But most of all Top Gear is associated with Jeremy Clarkson, whose main function seems to be to get into trouble on a regular basis so as to reinforce the programme’s image of irreverent laddishness (that word again) and devil-may-care disregard for propriety.

This plays well to Top Gear’s gormless fans (you know they’re gormless from the uncritically rapt looks on the faces of the studio audience) and ensures the show is never out of the headlines for long.
Clarkson comes across as a loudmouth – a clever and witty loudmouth, but a loudmouth nonetheless. He’s a big man and I imagine he was probably a bully at school.

He’s casually disparaging toward other cultures, which reinforces the sense that Top Gear represents the old English mindset that the wogs start at Calais and all non-Anglo-Saxon cultures exist to be mocked.
It was no surprise to learn that he’s a Chelsea Football Club supporter. That’s a laddish outfit too, of a deeply unattractive kind, with a history of hooliganism and xenophobia. (The racist yobbos who monstered a black man trying to board a train in Paris recently were Chelsea supporters. No surprises there.)

I can, however, understand why a petition supporting Clarkson would attract lots of signatures. People feel cowed and oppressed by political correctness and get a quiet thrill when someone has the balls to defy it, as Clarkson frequently does. Someone has described him as television’s answer to the Duke of Edinburgh, a man widely admired for the same reasons.
We have yet to learn exactly what triggered the latest Top Gear furore. There was some sort of altercation in a hotel restaurant. One report said Clarkson punched a producer when he found out no hot food was available after a long day’s filming.

I was right, then – he’s a bully. It’s easy to become irritable when you’re tired and your blood sugar levels are low, but most people stop short of throwing punches.
Clarkson has now been suspended by the BBC and the three remaining episodes of the current Top Gear series were cancelled.

The whole pantomime unfolded as if following a script, but it stirred up the tribal Top Gear fans and might breathe enough life into the tired old formula to keep it wheezing along for another series.
Clarkson himself seems unchastened, as well he might be. It would be surprising if the BBC sacked its most precious talent for doing exactly what his fans love him for.

More likely the whole circus will blow over. The besotted fans will keep watching and Clarkson will bank a few more million. As I say, a strange lot.
Footnote: Quite by chance, I caught a glimpse of a promo for Top Gear this week. It was the night before my column was published and I observed that James May appeared to have had a haircut. Clearly he did it purely to embarrass me, but he does look much improved.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Since we're talking about the taking of human life ...

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 11.)
There’s something about capital punishment that chills me to the bone.
It’s partly that it’s so coldly deliberate and pre-meditated. Most murders are impulsive acts, carried out in the rage and heat of the moment, but state-sanctioned executions are meticulously planned and orchestrated.

The condemned are taken to the place of execution and given plenty of time to contemplate their fate. What would it be like, I wonder, knowing that you’re on a bus trip to a destination from which you’ll never return? What sort of refined mental torment is that?
They are informed of the time of their execution and can see the clock ticking away. I often think it would be more humane if they were taken from their cell and hanged (or shot, or given a lethal injection, or whatever) without warning.

A strange tradition requires that they be allowed to choose their last meal. It seems cruelly, almost sadistically, banal. I imagine deciding between fish and chips or a mushroom omelette would be the last thing on the prisoner's mind.
In most cases, families are allowed to see them one last time. What a strained, unreal meeting that must be. What would they talk about? You wouldn’t exactly use the occasion to remind Uncle Pete to return that book he borrowed three years ago.

No, capital punishment is a grotesque ritual in which the act of death is only part of the punishment. Arguably the bigger part is the agony of having months, often years, in which to anticipate your last moment alive.
I realise all this must sound pathetically touchy-feely, since people who go to the gallows or the execution chamber have often done unspeakable things. Usually they have killed, and perhaps tortured or raped as well.

In the case of the two Australian citizens now awaiting execution in Indonesia, their crime was less monstrous. They were the leaders of a drug ring that tried to smuggle 8.2 kg of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.
They didn’t kill anyone, but hard drugs destroy people’s lives. You could say drug dealers commit murder by indirect means.

Does that mean they deserve to die, then? Sympathisers, including Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, say the pair have earned the right to mercy because they have transformed themselves in prison. But a cynic might counter that it’s surprising how often criminals undergo a miraculous change of heart once they’ve been caught. 
Imprisonment might have conveniently awakened their consciences, but what if their crime hadn’t been detected? They would very likely have carried on to become wealthy drug kingpins, causing untold harm and misery.

Besides, the Bali Nine knew the risk they were taking. They could hardly have been ignorant of Indonesia’s hard line on drugs.
Those are some of the arguments being trotted out in favour of Indonesia’s right to execute, and there’s an element of truth in all of them. But they fall far short of justification.

Capital punishment - state-sanctioned killing - is supposedly acceptable because society is so horrified by certain types of crime that it demands the ultimate retribution. An additional argument is that execution serves as a deterrent to others, although that’s hardly borne out in the United States, where states that retain capital punishment (such as Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi) also have the highest murder rates.
But ultimately, the debate over capital punishment comes down to a question of human rights, of which the right to life is the most fundamental.

We place such value on human life that to terminate it is considered the ultimate crime. It’s surely contradictory as well as morally wrong, then, to punish people who kill by, ahem, killing them.  Where’s the logic in showing society’s disapproval by carrying out the very act disapproved of?
There are compelling pragmatic reasons, too, for opposing capital punishment, the most obvious one being the possibility that people could be executed for crimes they didn’t commit. What country would want the death of Teina Pora on its conscience, to take an obvious example?

But above all, it comes down to respect for human life – the defining mark of a civilised society.
And here’s something to think about. In New Zealand, nearly half a million babies have been aborted since 1974.

If you believe, as I do, that the right to life applies across the board, and that it can’t be apportioned selectively for society’s convenience, then our abortion figures are as shameful as hanging people or putting them in front of a firing squad – indeed some would say worse, since unborn babies have committed no greater crime than being conceived.
Acceptance of abortion is a shocking blind spot, a grotesque double standard, in a society that rightly rejects capital punishment.  We recoil in horror at the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, China and Texas, yet turn a blind eye to the snuffing out of human life on an infinitely greater scale right here in New Zealand.

It’s both hypocritical and contradictory to condemn capital punishment while condoning the quiet extinguishing of human life every day in abortion clinics. But we tiptoe around this issue because we feel uncomfortable confronting it, and because protection of the unborn is seen as inconsistent with the rigid orthodoxies of feminism.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Phil Quin on Northland

Another terrific commentary from Phil Quin. I might just shut up and hand over to him.