Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Is New Zealand heading up shit creek?

It's a slightly crude infographic (in may ways than one).

But it highlights one of New Zealands main issues - that 'spin' is more important than science.
We tout New Zealand as 100% Pure. I have publicly stated that I think it is past time for that positioning line be rethought. But slogans aside it is more important that we actually do something constructive about solving the problem.

The government needs to pull its head out of its backside and stop denying the problem. As Dr Mike Joy has said time and again - the science is real.

It's not a superficial issue - it is a core environmental problem that demonstrates New Zealand's medieval approach to science. If the prime minister's office canonises one point of view that conveniently coincides with the government agenda as the orthodox 'truth' to the exclusion of all others (which are deemed heresy) it invalidates all science funded by the government - one part per thousand of bullshit makes the claim of 100% pure pure nonsense.

Is New Zealand Heading up Shit Creek? Water Pollution in New Zealand – An infographic by the team at Is New Zealand Heading up Shit Creek?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Curtains for New Zealand's Death Flag Proposal?

Young Kiwis and Canadians have long enjoyed some magical passport status with their flags stitched to their packs when travelling overseas.

I have even heard that American travellers use the maple leaf to disguise their origins - vs the Yankee Go Home effect of the stars and stripes. It's not that they aren't patriotic, its more a matter of pragmatic backpacker realpolotik.

The prime minister has intimated a referendum about the future design of the New Zealand flag. The relevance of the inclusion of the Union Jack to New Zealand's national identity is questioned by many. Mr Key's preference, which he made clear from 2010 is for a silver fern on a black ground.
There are other flags that have been proposed including a widely accepted Maori motif that is in current use and other solutions to the problem of colonial symbolism representing bygone traditions and connections with the United Kingdom and ignoring New Zealand's contemporary socio-cultural composition and our aspirations for a distinctive identity (separate from Australia).

The fern idea is a bold statement but it has its detractors (there are no shortage of voices eager to be heard - which is hardly surprising, given all kiwis are stakeholders in the outcome). It asks the question of a flag's purpose in the modern era. It isn't an identifier for the battlefield - a place for troops to rally around. It doesn't represent a lineage or geneology, like a medeival heraldic standard - in fact in a digital era it barely serves any purpose. The 'ping' released by a ship or aircraft will identify it more exacltly than a piece of cloth.

The obvious answer is that the issue at stake is one of national branding. That topic in itself is fraught with its own issues as the change from Telecom to Spark made clear. Expensive and risky. Equally clear is that the new supra-states are the corporate brands of McDonalds and Coca-Cola whose simple, iconic brand identities are recognised the world over.

It is tempting to look at Canada and Switzerland's flags and argue that they are powerful, contemporary brand identities and to want something akin to their trademark simplicity. I agree with the argument - but I have qualms about a black flag. In our culture black is the colour symbolising death. It is the negative colour (if it is a colour at all). The suggestion that, because it is the colour adopted by many national sporting teams, it already applies may be valid to some extent, but there is (hopefully) more to New Zealand than sporting prowess.

The referendum about the flag seems to have hit a bump in the road. It may not be the done-deal that New Zealand adopts the black flag with silver fern. Because another black flag has stolen the march.
I for one won't be saluting the prospect of a national flag that reminds the world of ISIS, the islamic terrorist group. And I think when kiwi soldiers are deployed in Iraq and Syria they would need extra body armour if they were marching behind a black and white banner.

Things are never as black and white as they seem, are they?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Campbell Jive - In which a media star sees fit to set me straight.

I don't know John Campbell personally. But he rang the other day. He was in a thinly veiled fury that I had dared to suggest his post election interview coup with John Key was really a triumph of the party's will - cleverly stage managed. It seemed to me that National have their heads around managing the media spectacle (giving TV3 access, on their turf with an intimate inaugural address). To be fair, I did refer generally to Leni Reifenstahl and Goebels' mastery of staging a political event - and Brian Edwards wilfully misconstrued that as invoking Godwin's Law - which I wasn't. Mr Campbell also inferred I was conjuring up some 'conspiracy theory' (I wasn't - but hmmm…that trope sounds familiar…)

By comparison David Cunliffe had allowed himself to be lured into the lion's den to discuss his resignation and his interview in the full glare of the Campbell Live studio. I said I thought Cunliffe had mis-stepped.

The call was quite intense. Campbell told me how deeply offended he was that I had suggested any inference that the interview with the PM was anything other than a routine situation managed by his producer who had arranged the venue and lighting etc. He was also at pains to say that Cunliffe had asked to attend the studio for his interview*.

All well and good but it was simply my opinion, as a reasonable viewer like any other - it was not the Spanish Inquisition and my comments were contained to a niche site about media spin - it was Brian Edwards' site (he coached Helen Clark into being media friendly enough to be elected which quite an accomplishment).

What fascinates me is that a mainstream current affairs host would call me randomly to berate and school me. He told me I should have called him directly about issues I had with his material. That is ludicrous. Firstly it was a trivial, ad-hoc discussion on an obscure blog. Flattering though it might seem that I have a direct line to media influence it was a silly thing to suggest. In fact after the call I had a wee think -  I had some questions - I texted him to ask him to send an email address I could use to send those questions. That was Thursday. No reply - today is Saturday. To be fair, he is a busy man and his call was just before he went on the air.

I did ask John what he wanted me to do as a result of his call - what redress did he seek? He didn't have any response to that. I asked twice. Maybe he was just letting off steam? That's ok. We all lose our cool sometimes and if that is the case - well, I forgive him. If I was wrong, I'm sorry, but I can only go by what I see and if the producer chooses soft lighting and even softer questions, that is their choice - perhaps luring the PM back into the studio is a strategy for the next term of office - he and his ministers seem pretty slippery about fronting up; especially after Bridges was burned.

In our house we watch Campbell Live - in part because we watch 3News and it just follows partly because Seven Sharp has only gotten worse since its inception. The only time I want to hear what Mike Hoskins has to say is when it is uttered by Jeremy Wells.

News is never going to be the balanced, interesting, informed thing I would like to see. That realisation is a like coming of age - kind of like Ferris Beuller's Day Off without the laffs or Y Tu Mamá También without the sexy bits.

The news will continue to be less about news and more about rehashed spin, sport and weather. The 6.30 slot will be a weird mix of populist telethon-style campaigning, oddities and Fair Go Lite (if such a thing is possible). It's just the way of the world. I will just have to reconcile myself with The Guardian, The Atlantic and Last Week Tonight. 

We quite like John Campbell in our house - he seems a perfectly intelligent, affable chap, a man of the people. Just don't cross him people.

I don't think that I'll stop expressing my views about what I see in the media - it's there for our edification - not as a vehicle for presenters to be 'stars'. Unlike journalists, I have no obligation to be fair or balanced, though I try not to be ugly or unreasonable and I have no particular agenda. I always comment as myself for the purpose of discussion (it was easy for John to track me down - there was link to my phone number with my comments). I don't always agree and neither should you. Agreeing isn't thinking and I welcome debate.

*As a footnote to the Cunliffe episode - I don't think there was any obligation for 'balance' - the electoral campaign period was over; he had lost and had resigned as leader of the main opposition party. Campbell Live had no more obligation to equal time than they would if they were interviewing the mayor of Toronto about some antic or other. My comments were mainly about how much better National are at spinning their message to the media in general.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Slow, steady radicalisation of everyday life.

The other day I posted this image on Facebook. It's one of those things that does the rounds. It illustrates the absurd conundrums and entanglements of western involvement in the middle east.
It elicited a curious response. From the comments of people I know and their associates whom I don't necessarily know - because my Facebook profile is open (I don't share much that is private) I realised that there is a thin veneer of civility in the public square. I doesn't take much to rupture the veneer.

I should add that my commentary on the item also referred to the fact that I am concerned about fear mongering by politicians and media (for both of whom exaggeration makes a better story) is creating a conversational loop. I ventured that terrorists don't have to wear black and wield knives. When a government goes out of its way to alarm - let's just call it terrify - its citizens then that is an act of terrorism. Bear in mind that the threat of violence is a form of violence - that is why assault doesn't need bruising to be a crime.

The comments began reasonably enough. But by the time I deleted the post it had become absurd - calls for violence and vengeance. Radical stuff from otherwise sane, reasonable people with whom I interact quite normally on other matters. Other commenters called me anti American (blimey, Joe McCarthy would have been delighted) which I am not, a liberal - which I am (though interestingly enough liberality is a pivot point on both ends of the notional political spectrum - so I'm ok with that) and a Green Goose (which is a new one on me).

Having gone through a toxic election process here in New Zealand and having seen through the information in the book Dirty Politics that there is a real commitment to factionalisation of the population and an understanding that social media is a perfect covert tool for political parties to radiate spiteful memes I think we are at a dangerous pivot point.

There is little difference in my mind between a brown shirt mob in the streets of Berlin roaming freely under the 'moral' protection of being on the side of The Party' and hostile, declamatory, defamatory and menacing behaviour on social media platforms.

I removed the post because a) I found the remarks ugly b) effectively sponsoring their publication on my timeline allowed the message to radiate - I'm not a public service broadcaster and have no obligation to offer 'balance' - especially when the opinions expressed are unhinged and c) I felt that there was a looming tipping point where the comments would go from loud and obnoxious to threatening.

By deleting the post I bent to the pressure. That's how easy it is to intimidate and decry other points of view. In principle it is little different to shutting girls out of education because, if they attend school there might be violence. Menace people with a different point of view on social media and they wont express them. The mob begins to rule by degree - if not decree. Minorities and dissenters withdraw from the discourse. Or they become radicalised themselves. Every force in the universe has an equal and opposite one.

For the people who speak so vehemently and radically about the threat in New Zealand from terrorism I reiterate - there is little to be afraid of. You are statistically more likely to die from being tangled in your bedclothes. We  need to confront the shift to using more radical, extremist language in public. It doesn't help anyone and you ultimately become sucked into being the very thing you despise.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Where's the plan?

I can't say I have any sour grapes about the election result. It didn't matter to me which major party won. It was always going to be a triumph of the status quo and the continuation of the idea vacuum. 

New Zealand needs some kind of visionary leadership. Dairy and commodities are fine but they aren't sustainable and are entirely 'luck of the draw'.

We need a Callahan Solution.

After two terms and and right at the start of the third with enough support not to worry about pleasing any secondary political agenda there is a never to be repeated opportunity to take a step back and make some investment in a longer term vision.

It might seem odd but, instead of dancing on the grave of the Labour party in their defeat there should be some kind of cross party initiative to look, statesman-like, ahead and formulate some ideas (not cycleway pap and charter schools) for the future. National have nothing to lose except their hubris and Key has an opportunity to leave an enduring legacy instead of the memory of him as an infantile smear merchant. Great leaders from Alexander the Great (whom we know was great because it was his name) and Lincoln (because his memorial is life sized) knew that subjugating and humiliating the defeated only comes back to bite you on the arse later.

Do it now. For the good of all kiwis (if that's what you truly believe in - and you weren't just saying it to gull the gullible…with promises of a block of mild colby in 2017).

Update - since I wrote this Fran O'Sullivan columnist for the NZ Herald has published an op - ed piece advocating a similar stance - though not so cross party in her thinking as me. The risk is that another worthy, well meaning gab-fest occurs at the tax-payer's expense but with little tangible benefit in return. It is worth reading though. Where's the plan?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Mild Colby Report - Post election thoughts.

The New Zealand election is over. The right wing National government retained its hold on power - increasing the number of seats in the parliament to reduce their reliance on fringe parties to enact legislation on issues like dismantling environmental protections (Resource Management Act) and reducing the rights of workers.

But, by and large, life in New Zealand will continue - much as it did yesterday and much as it would have had the Labour party won. The trajectory of the New Zealand economy will progress, much as it has since statistics have been recorded, regardless of who has led. Global market forces and commodity prices will determine how much revenue the New Zealand Government collects in the form of tax. How that revenue is distributed is up to the government of the day - but by and large - the infrastructure for health and education will persist. No party wants ignorant unhealthy people.

These things are innately understood by the people of New Zealand. It leads to a banal apathy. The people most highly motivated to participate actively in government and process are those with the most to gain. Wins and losses on the margins are where they are felt the most. If you have 10 million dollars invested and get a 2.0% return that is $200,000 interest. Change the return by a quarter of a percent and that is an additional $25,000. Add the power of compound interest to that and you will understand the great distortion that liquid capital creates. The trick to making money is having some - not working for it.

At the other end of the spectrum a person on a benefit who depends on a small amount of money to subsist  and who has their stipend cut on the whim of a ministerial edict that people should be 'moved off' benefits is going to be catastrophically affected by the change of very few dollars to cover their modest living expenses.

You might say those are extreme examples but a large percentage of households in New Zealand are contributing the majority of their monthly income to servicing a mortgage. The ratio of income to cost of home ownership is amongst the highest in the world in this country. If a family servicing the mortgage on a home they have bought at the peak of an exaggerated housing bubble were to lose one income and be unable to find work for several months the effect would be significant and, in many cases irreversible. If the property market bursts or deflates then thousands of home owners will find themselves in a very awkward financial position - many young families, those starting out on the 'property ladder' (thank you Sarah Beeny, for that terrible expression) will find themselves riding the property snake to negative equity. I know less than economists about these matters (not that economists know much for sure) but the property bubble will burst. Banks will continue to loan money because, at the end of the day, they 'own' the property and can resell it at whatever price they can to a new buyer when they foreclose - at the prevailing rate of interest (the ultimate recycling). The middle are vulnerable to marginal shifts too. Owning a home is akin to gaming at a casino - rather than seeing a home as shelter it has become a gambling chip. And, because the money involved doesn't 'belong' to the home owner they are more willing to take a risk and continually 'double down'.

People in the majority for whom the vague promise of a tax cut in 2017 - maybe $500/1000/1500 a year (who knows?, we'll see) were nonplussed by the debate between the Reds and the Blues. The 'block of cheese' argument became the most compelling metaphor of the entire election. All the thorny discussion about privacy and spying, the vile revelations about Dirty Politics, child poverty or affordable housing made little difference to the majority. They seemed extreme or absract and 'otherworldly'. But a block of cheese - everyone could understand that in its banal, flavourless, rubbery nothingness. "I couldn't understand the ins and outs of the Greenwald argument, I thought Dirty Politics was what just happened anyway…but a block of cheese I can understand. Look, John Key and David Cunliffe both seem like decent blokes, all this bickering - over what, a block of cheese? It's raining. I've got to pick up some things for a 10th birthday party, Briscoes have a sale on donut makers with nothing down, no interest and 36months to pay…It doesn't really matter who gets in…I won't bother. If National win I'll back them, If Labour win I'll back them…"

And so it goes.

The turnout to vote was the lowest in 100 years.
Some newspapers have reported a landslide victory to the National party. It wasn't. That's hyperbole.
National won 48% of the vote. The majority of New Zealanders who voted (52%) didn't vote National. But the troubling statistic is that as many people who voted for National who were enrolled and eligible didn't exercise their right to vote at all. The incentive was obviously too low. There was too little at stake to overcome inertia.

Except on the margins where there is too much to gain or lose. The balance of power was determined by a 750g Valumetric block of tasteless cheese. Too few cared. It proved the assertion that the opposite of love isn't hate. It's indifference.

She'll be right, mate.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Australia's wonderfully terrible media manipulation

In which you will learn:

  • How to crack a nut with a sledgehammer
  • How turn the threat of terror into the promise of terror with terrifying stupidity
  • How to distract people from what really matters by spooking them.

The Australian terror circus that headed the six o'clock report yesterday is fascinating.
Apparently 800 police were mustered. 15 suspects were detained. One was arrested.
The threat was that a cell of disaffected muslims were plotting to capture and behead a stranger, randomly selected from the street.

Putting it into context - Abbott's Australia has thrown its chips into the kitty to return to the middle east. This is a divisive policy. After a long, inconclusive, possibly failed and very expensive previous expedition the decision needs to be sold to the electorate. What better way than to 'demonstrate' the need to be vigilant and persistent in 'the war on terror' than to pour terrifying petrol on the terror fire.

Terror works both ways. Yes it is terrifying that one minute you could be browsing for a souvenir didgeridoo in Woolamalloo then next you're kneeling blinking in the light before a camera in an orange jumpsuit while some unhinged nutbar has a rant while wielding a nasty looking blade. No doubt about it. Terrifying. We've seen the pictures on TV - nobody should have to endure something like that.

The propaganda value for ISIS has been enormous. It is a striking image. The orange of the jumpsuit. The black of the tormentors. It is a study in contrast that has been art directed for TV.

It is only natural that governments will want to turn, jujitsu-like, the power of that image back on their foes. Or perhaps the government can turn the terror on against their own population to reinforce their own goals?

Whether it is the spectacle of beheading (made worse by news organisations teasing with the footage - but telling you it is too distressing to show you - very Blair Witch) - or planting the timely seed of fear that you could be the victim of a beheading in Gods Own Country - both are acts of terror. Both are designed to create an asymmetrical, irrational fear. By creating a circus around the operation to heroically foil the plot the Australian government are not conducting a war on terror but staging a battle with terror.

If you want to silence a population what better way than with a phantom menace? Here in New Zealand there are plenty of people who are either genuinely, irrationally afraid (of anything from change to chinese migrants or rising mortgage rates) and there are others willing to exploit that fear to advance their own ends and suppress debate about inhibiting the government's ability to spy on citizens with indiscriminate, unwarranted surveillance of private communications. It has been called 'manufacturing risk' - making the population fearful - first with a traffic light system of announcement then with a very public crackdown. Create the problem and then ride in on a white charger with the solution (Before Viagra was invented there was no such thing as 'erectile dysfunction').

Don't get me wrong - I don't support any kind of violence (and I include the threat of violence as a form of violence). But the events of the past week in Australia would be comical if they weren't so cynical and sinister.

It begs the question why so much energy is put in place to engage in chasing will-o-the-wisp 'threats' when so little energy is put into preventing harm to forestry workers - 30 deaths between 2007 and 2103. Of course you can pick your own statistic - children abused and killed…rape and violence towards women…