January 26, 2005

Come In and Burn

Mr Neil Falloon writes from the war room...

This early in an election year, there are always more questions than answers.

Why is it so hard to catch a rogue monkey, but so easy to catch the simian-herpes B virus? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? What will Dr Brash’s Singaporean Wife™ wear to Orewa II? And how can the media cover it, deprived of ‘Hurricane Brash’ and similar natural disaster epithets by recent events in Asia?

I ponder these questions as I sit wearing my pyjamas in the war room of the conservative media underground. Garth George’s body, suspended in fluid, pulses ever so slightly, twitching violently when the room’s televisions display advertisements that show people's bare midriffs.

Rotarians, the media, the nation… all are ready for the National party leader's Words from the Mount.

Brash's church upbringing shows – on the pulpit he channels the spirit of Murray McCully (may he rest in peace). The banker starts speaking in tongues; gibberish about "fiscal penalties" for sole mothers who do not give up the names of their babies' fathers.

I sigh and my pyjamas crinkle. This is not the first time National has failed to articulate a clear message to the electorate. Brash keeps repeating “I ask myself the question” but what New Zealand needs is an answer. The answer they need is the reassurance that it is Dr Donald Brash who is Their Daddy.

Then Brash mentions the unemployed, and I perk up. He could be on to a winner. Traditional notions of employment and unemployment are losing their meaning – many scratch out a living from alternative income sources like
trademe.co.nz and a few of us, like Olivia Kember, even reap unheard-of fortunes as superstar authors for DogBitingMen. Many, though, are unemployed bums.

To be fair, not all the jobless are bludgers. Deposed Hobson community board member Aaron Bhatnagar turned up to his local Post Office at dawn to be assigned work the very day after he lost his local government job.

Never mind that it was a Sunday, or that work-for-the-dole had been abolished in 1999. These things don’t matter to a proud struggler like Bhatnagar, and in days gone by they didn’t matter to New Zealand.

But for every Aaron, for every Battler, there is a Matt Nippert. A long-haired layabout (
photograph here, next to telling headline about "street walkers") who signed up for multiple benefit payments under the false names “Tom Goulter”, “MediaCow” and – to add insult to injury – “Lyndon Hood”, a still-born distant relative of the hard working Bhatnagar.

Bhatnagar may be as strong as an ox, but even his broad, powerful, manly, rippling shoulders will strain under the crippling yoke of supporting three fictitious beneficiaries through his taxes.

But tonight the National leader chooses not to talk about fraudsters. His main target is the Dependent Person’s Benefit, or Dee Pee Bee. Originally devised as a back-stop for solo mothers, the benefit has spiralled out of control like a royal dress-up party.

Brash’s plans are bold. Beneficiaries who choose to have more children will be refused benefit increases; solo parents will be made to work. Sole mothers may be encouraged to put their children up for adoption as a way of reducing the numbers on Work and Income’s rolls.

It is unclear whether the Post Office will become a one-stop shop. Will unemployed mothers be able to leave behind their unwanted babies for adoption as they jump on the bus to go to community work? If so, we can once again thank the reforms of the 1980s. Pre-deregulation, the bureaucratic NZ Post was completely unsuitable for handling delicate packages, and did not even bubble-wrap infant children mailed in their boxes. [Source: the polemical masterpiece I’ve Been Thinking by Richard Prebble and possibly a self-effacing

It surprises me that Brash has not come to the natural solution to the conjoined-triplet-tasks of
All could obviously be achieved by simply deregulating the market in baby sales.

On the other hand, Brash's three-month trial period for workers should succeed in getting more long-term unemployed into work. Many employers say difficulties in terminating employees stops them hiring. Although you can't prove a negative (or, as United Future's voluminous press release
output shows, multiply zeroes), a thought experiment should suffice:

A government-funded beneficiary – let’s call him “Dick Hubbard” – should be able to try his hand at a job for which he may initially be deemed too “risky”. Say... being Mayor of New Zealand’s largest city. If he turns out to be unsuitable, he should be allowed to be fired after three months on a no-fault basis (no personal grievance claims, no three years of dizzying continued incompetence). He can then, like other New Zealanders, fall back on the
subsistence safety net of $180,000 per annum.

Brash easily convinces the impressionable Susan Wood. His speech may not be enough to win an entire election.
Still, in the conservative underground I can survive another three years of Labour. I look over to the corner, where Ian Wishart has built himself a fort out of tins of food that he is stockpiling for the Apocalypse. His cans reach almost as high as a nearby pile of Dr Muriel Newman’s angry press releases.

“Ian,” I say, “our time has not yet come. If we were to work as close advisors for the National government after the election, we would be sell-outs every bit as bad as those corporate whores Patrick Crewdson and Damian Christie who gave up such promising careers as researchers for the Maxim Institute.

And for what? For the flimflam of
fame and glory?

“No, my friend Ian, you and I must fight from outside the system, like Russell Brown fights the crepuscular onset of old age, and like David Farrar fights the impulse to bed glamorous women.

“We must remain steadfast and true. We must ask ourselves: What Would George W Do?

“And Ian…

“Pass me some sardines.”

January 25, 2005

Debrief: You Had To Be There

Olivia Kember writes...

Ah, the Big Day Out. You had to be there. It was explosive. It was mind-blowing. Best day of my life, ever, since last year's Big Day Out.

Really, just amazing.

The Hives and Le Tigre were my highlights. At first I thought it was incompetence on the part of the organisers to put on two major international acts that would probably appeal to a similar audience at the same time. How wrong I was. To stand midway between them, soaking up the glorious mélange of sounds, was very heaven. As I said to Russell Brown, it was "Le Hivres". He guffawed mightily and told me he had his own carpark. Good on him, too. The organisers must have remembered his gout.

And kudos to them. What a line-up! The Beastie Boys, and the Chemical Brothers! One group cool from the last decade, and the other from the decade before that - how audacious to flout superficial trends and recognise the ancient masters.

Apart from Scribe, of course. Such passion, such soul. Such fine local product. It made me proud to be a white girl who does hip hop classes at the gym.

Such lies. I didn't go. I went to Devonport. Oddly, the streets were filled with people not at the Big Day Out. We kept our gazes averted, silently recognizing each other's shame. Rightly so, too. The media coverage has been extensive, as if, across the nation, journalists decided the Big Day Out would make a nice antidote to the tsunami stories. After all, we're a bit light on local activity at the moment.

And it's easy, you just play a lot of music videos and interview a few bands. If you're trying to make it a bit newsier you turn up at Ericsson Stadium and persuade a St John's Ambulance person to make a statement about the importance of drinking water and not taking too many party pills.

It must be infuriating if you're not at all interested. It must be even more annoying if you are interested and you can't go. I'm guilty. I did my bit, putting together a vacuous little piece for Breakfast TV, which featured snippets of bands selected on the availability of their videos and perhaps the most asinine conclusion I've ever written ("with so much to choose from, the only problem is how to see them all!", or something). It wasn't much, I know. It wasn't a live cross at 8am to see how the set-up crew were getting on; it didn't even carry a sunblock warning. It wasn't enough to get me a carpark. But then, it takes more than a single promo piece to get a pass and others have years of ligging on me.

Hence, Devo. And my day was not without adventure. We ate posh bakery goods under a tree in the park. Around us people did all the things you're supposed to do in parks. My friend bought an ASB Bank 7 inch, a double A-side entitled Bank on the Move: "We're the Bank going up/ Gonna shine like the sun/ We're the Bank on the move / You're number one", etc. A stirring ballad and a piece of history for fifty cents.

The Hard to Find Bookshop's $2 trolley produced something by Rabelais which I eventually intend to read, and a small book called Killer Pine. We looked up my father in the New Zealand Rugby almanac of 1974, but didn't find him. He might not have been in it; I can't remember when he played or what position. We climbed up Mt Victoria, pausing halfway to sit on a bench and admire the view. Auckland really was looking unusually pretty. We pondered briefly why looking at water is so pleasant, and it occurred to me that sitting in the sun and enjoying the view would feel much the same when you're sixty as twenty-five, and therefore I was perhaps engaging in an experience prematurely, and should really be at Ericsson Stadium right then because when I'm sixty I probably won't enjoy concert crowds much at all... but the heat and the apple tart made the thought rather hard to focus on, and eventually I forgot it.

Up the mountain I was told the red and white toadstools surrounding the shipping station had been painted so as a prank, but thereafter absent-mindedly maintained by the local authorities. I hope it's true. We bought ice creams. On the ferry home I started to read Killer Pine: the story of micro-agent Matthew Dilke, his "luscious African mistress", and a "miniaturized Scots ecologist with a valuable genius for mountaineering". They have to figure out why Canadian pine trees have blight. As the SundayTelegraph said: "ingenious, gripping and entertaining".

At home, I discovered my second sunburn of the summer. Truly, it had been a big day out.

January 17, 2005

A Different Planet

David W Young writes…

Although I’ve never liked Rod Donald – he’s just a politician’s politician – I’ve had a soft spot for his Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons ever since I saw her fitting in poorly at an end-of -year parliamentary party that I was hating at the time. Fitzsimons looked like she would have preferred to be anywhere but there. Because I was feeling like an outsider at a back-slapping, matey, insiders-only gathering of preeners and sycophants, I related. We had a wee moment.

I support the Greens on lots of social issues. But when it comes to the environment, Fitzsimons and I live on different planets.

Yesterday, the female co-leader of the
Green Party of Aotearoa delivered a “State of the Planet” address as disingenuous and misleading as any political speech you are likely to see.

Although there are apparently three great threats to our existence – “ecological collapse, climate change and our reliance on oil” – Fitzsimons chose to focus on the third issue.

The Green Party blames oil for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on terrorism (I guess the planes that flew into the World Trade Centre weren’t run on coal), and even anti-terrorism legislation in New Zealand.

I have nothing new to add to debates about the Iraqi war, but David Farrar has penned a response to those claims.

I’m more interested in Fitzsimon’s catastrophic predictions. Here's her take on life: Using oil is catastrophic. Dependence on oil is catastrophic. The Earth is running out of oil really fast, and that’s catastrophic. Soon there will be none. And that will be… well… catastrophic.

Fitzsimons believes in a controversial theory about oil production and depletion. The Hubbert peak theory posits that the total amount of oil extracted over time follows a bell-shaped curve. The maximum output point is referred to as the peak. After the peak comes depletion.

In Fitzsimons' words: "The point at which demand outstrips the capacity of the wells to supply is the point at which oil prices rise inexorably and countries at the end of the supply line with little military power are likely to miss out. At first, it will cost you three dollars a litre instead of one to fill up your car. Later, there will be absolute shortages, no matter what you are prepared to pay. The cost of farming, fishing, manufacturing and international trade will skyrocket, and our international markets will no longer be able to afford our butter."

Frightening stuff.

So, when does Fitzsimons believe that the peak will occur? Well, although she dismissed New Zealand government predictions that peak-oil discoveries would occur in 2037, Fitzsimons is too modest to come up with her own figures. She isn't too modest, however, to clang some bloody loud alarm bells: “We may well have less than ten years before we reach this terrible tipping point”.

Strangely enough, if we plucked Fitzsimons from the Waiheke Island Picnic for the Planet she attended yesterday, we could plonk her down at almost any point in the past century and her predictions would fit right in.

In 1914 the US Bureau of Mines estimated that there would be oil left over for only ten years' consumption. In 1939 (and again in 1951) the Department of the Interior projected that oil would last only 13 more years. In the 1970s and 1980s, worry about resource depletion reached fever-pitch.

In fact, if we replaced the word “oil” with “coal”, we could plop Fitzsimons on a soapbox in 1865, and she could happily do her thing alongside other concerned pundits.

Despite the fears in the late Nineteenth century, coal reserves have increased (since 1975 coal reserves worldwide have grown by 38 percent). So too have oil and gas reserves.

This is counter-intuitive: we use more and more oil, yet the world has more and more left. How can this be so? It's because known resources are not finite, but limited by what we know we can access. Companies and countries don’t pay for expensive exploration in advance of need. Also, technology and efficiency constantly improve. We have become better at finding oil and better at using it.

Eventually, people will stop using fossil fuels. But mainstream opinion away from Waiheke Island holds that there is enough left for 40 or 50 years at the current rate of consumption. If we include undiscovered resources, we probably have 100–150 years of supply. The shale oil that will become economically viable within the next 25 years will probably last another century. If we consider all available shale oil in the world, there is enough to cover current energy consumption levels for 5,000 years.

We’re not about to use oil for another 5,000 years, though. In around 1600, wood became increasingly expensive, and this prompted a gradual switch to coal. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, a similar substitution took place from coal to oil. It is not clear today what resources will replace oil. But substitution is bound to occur. An increase in price will drive innovation.

Fitzsimons acknowledged that a price increase will occur when she claimed (obscenely) that “the end of cheap oil is coming towards us with the force of a tsunami”.

It’s more like one normal-sized tide coming in as another normal-sized goes out: As oil increases in price, renewables decrease. These have decreased in price about 50 percent per decade over the last 30 years. Even if the price falls in future at a much slower rate, it is likely that renewables will become a serious competitor to fossil fuels by the middle of this century.

In the meantime, Fitzsimons believes we should use fewer resources, which means slowing down economic development and growth. This is an argument commonly made by

What would less growth and development achieve?

Making a middle-income Auckland family poorer is not going to help the global environment. At first it does seem reasonable to assume less industrialisation means less pollution. But the industrialised world has demonstrated general improvement in dealing with the environment. When we get richer, we can afford to care more about the environment. On the other hand, if we are poor and hungry, living in squalor, we will think only about the next meal.
In reality, most of the world’s pollution comes from the developing world, where the primary need is still to satisfy basic requirements. The problem is not consumption – it is poverty. Therefore the solution must be to ensure the developing world becomes wealthy enough to afford to worry about the environment.

Ruining a middle-income Auckland family won’t help the world’s most disadvantaged. A diminished Western economy will mean less innovation, less trade, and fewer opportunities for the developing world. Those in impoverished nations need better health, better education, and free access to the West’s markets. What is needed is more growth, not less.

Fitzsimons devoted the second half of her speech to badmouthing her political rivals. Some of her descriptions are amusing, others are just the predictable personal attacks that all politicians engage in.

She spoke of the four parties to the right of Labour who “seek to govern New Zealand divisively, by invoking fear and hatred of, among others, Maori, the poor, criminals, immigrants, homosexuals, and anyone who suggests that a culture of mass consumption cannot go on forever.”

In this statement, she sums up the reasons why the Green Party appeals to me on some social issues – but then, I wonder, is invoking fear of far-fetched environmental doomsday scenarios really any more principled?

January 14, 2005

Going Too Far

MediaCow is back...

Going Too Far is going to be big this year. Even bigger than Russell Brown was in 2004, if that is possible. Going Too Far is when you aim to do something just a wee bit outré, but end up being inappropriate and offensive instead. Ever-fashionable Prince Harry, the Party Prince, gave us a fine example of Going Too Far when he dressed like his great-uncle for a rather lame party (for a link to the pictures, go to any other weblog).

When you Go Too Far, you start with a good intention (“I want to be humorous” or “I want to make a political point”) and then your execution goes awry or you get unexpected results. Either way, you end with the sort of gulping, terrified feeling we get when David P Farrar hasn’t written anything for a whole twenty minutes.

Some people (such as those who believe it just might be funny to start a speech with the phrase, “
Ladies, gentlemen and niggers...”) were born to Go Too Far. Others, like the amorous couple that forgot to close the curtains on their living room window facing a childcare centre, just seize the opportunities that come to them.

The Asian Tsunami has provide many harrowing, heartwarming and miraculous stories and images.
It has also given us examples of people Going Too Far.

The Ayn Rand Institute (where all the little yellow ducks of freedom are trying to float to) got off to a flying start by circulating an op-ed titled “U.S. Government Should Not Help Tsunami Victims”, in which they argued:

According to altruism -- the morality that most Americans accept and that politicians exploit for all it's worth -- those who have more have the moral obligation to help those who have less. This is why Americans -- the wealthiest people on earth -- are expected to sacrifice (voluntarily or by force) the wealth they have earned to provide for the needs of those who did not earn it. It is Americans' acceptance of altruism that renders them morally impotent to protest against the confiscation and distribution of their wealth. It is past time to question -- and to reject -- such a vicious morality that demands that we sacrifice our values instead of holding on to them.

Take one political point, immerse in rhetoric and then set loose at exactly the wrong time. That is Going Too Far.

Then there was the Us magazine executive who declared: “For a celebrity weekly, this is our Tsunami". What was he talking about? The Brad and Jen break-up, of course. This executive actually realised he'd made a booboo. He subsequently apologised. In a reassuring demonstration that his sense of perspective had been restored, he told New York Post’s Page Six: “I wish I'd said that this was our equivalent of covering the presidential election.”

By the way, if you are the social democrat prime minister of a populous wee nation, it is probably best not to tell the grieving mother of a Tsunami victim to ‘write a letter’ to your office to sort out where her son’s body is. Especially when she calls you live on radio.

However, as hard as Tony Blair tried I don’t think his activities fit the criteria for Going Too Far.

On the other hand, a company that most definitely sails through the Going Too Far requirements on a daily basis is the group that is selling “
I Surfed the Tsunami 2004” t-shirts.

One disaster, many examples: Going Too Far is the thing to do in 2005.

January 11, 2005

Abusive and filthy

Ben Thomas fact checks and Mr Neil Falloon writes...

Locally, it has been a long, slow news summer. Thank God, then, for Rodney Hide. As he does every year, the ACT leader has beavered away over the holidays, weaseling through the country, ferreting out injustices and iniquities. He has uncovered one scandal that he believes may be the basis for a mainstream news item. It’s that darned employment legislation again (the following post from his weblog is reproduced in full):

You are a hardworking couple. You strike out on your own. You employ a local youth. He turns up drunk, abusive and filthy. He swears at your other staff and your customers. Not just occasionally – regularly.

You ring the Employment Service. They advise you to provide verbal warnings and then a written one.

The written one gets screwed up and thrown back at you. The young man quits. He tells you where you can stick your job. He physically threatens you.

He takes you to the Employment Relations Authority. The Authority finds that you summarily dismissed the young man and that dismissal was not justified. The Authority orders you to pay the youth $10,000.

You write to the business-friendly government. They write back sympathetically but explain there’s nothing that they can do.

You go bankrupt. You ask yourselves, what actually did we do wrong?

True story.

Hide provides enough information for anybody who follows employment case law to identify the parties involved.

The case referred to was a public decision issued by the Employment Relations Authority. However, linking names to Hide’s accusations of a drunk, abusive, filthy, potty-mouthed, aggressive employee would amount to an invitation for defamation proceedings against both us and Hide. Therefore, we are going to adopt Hide’s terminology and refer to “the employers” and “the employee”.

The employers were a couple who hired a teenage man to work in their small business. Following concerns about his performance and a discussion with the Employment Relations Service, the male employer issued the employee with a written warning. The employee screwed up the warning and threw it at the employer. The two argued and had a physical confrontation outside.

It appears the employee was a punk: he was accosted at the store by the mother of local youths he had bullied. His performance was allegedly shoddy.

Yet, when the teenage employee claimed he had been unjustifiably dismissed, the Authority found in his favour and ordered the employers pay $3,500 in lost wages, $5,500 for distress, and a $750 penalty for not having a written employment agreement. Costs took the total bill over $10,000.

Why did the Authority come down so hard on Hide’s couple? “What actually” did they do wrong?

They didn’t show up.

As the Zephyrs (the fictional band of Air New Zealand advertising) will tell you, being there is everything. The employers did not attend the hearing of the personal grievance claim against them. They did not instruct a solicitor to appear for them. They did not even lodge a statement of evidence. *

The only evidence the Authority member heard was that of the teenage employee and the teenage employee’s mother. The Authority did not hear that the teen was “drunk, abusive and filthy”, but that he was a fine young man doing his best to get ahead.

No one argued to the Authority that the employers may have followed a fair process of issuing verbal warnings and then a written one. The Authority heard instead that no prior warnings had been issued and that the teenager was handed a written warning when he was visiting his place of work as a customer, on his day off, in front of the public.

No evidence was presented to suggest the teen employee resigned. In a follow-up letter, the employer himself described the employment termination as a dismissal.

The Authority was not presented with any evidence that the employee physically threatened his employer. In fact, it heard that the employer ran after the employee, grabbed him by his collar and held him against the wall of a nearby shop.

Even with one-sided evidence, the Authority discerned that the employee was no angel. His initial awards were reduced by 30 percent because of his contribution to events.

It is possible that the result was unfair to the employer. Based solely on reading the case, it is hard to muster much sympathy for the teenage employee. However, most court and Authority cases are decided on disputed facts rather than disputed law. If one party elects not to be heard, the Authority misses out on at least half the information it needs for a fair decision. The Authority cannot be pilloried for failing to take into account material of which it was not aware.

Perhaps this is a simple case of a story that didn’t have legs that Hide decided to feed to his blog audience as a cheap feed of meat.

However, this brief article, titled Labour Justice, is emblematic of an unfortunate movement in internet-based political commentary. The generally accepted purpose of a weblog is to enable writers to include more information, particularly primary sources, than is possible in print. This allows for comprehensive yet brief articles (generally through hyperlinks, which are really just an efficient way to out-source footnotes). But the new trend in New Zealand is for weblogs to be used as tools for the instantaneous, and continuous, gratification of political prejudices.

Within four days, Hide’s employment case article had attracted 28 comments from supporters (decrying the Labour government) and opponents (denouncing Hide as a fraud). Neither side was fully correct because both were attempting to argue on the basis of a childish cartoon analysis of a complicated and unsourced Authority determination.

Meanwhile, Hide had moved onto posting unflattering pictures of Helen Clark's dentistry.

Hide’s blog is, at best, an interesting experiment in real-time democracy. The long-term significance of the experiment will be its success in making more information available to the electorate, not less. To put it another way: no one should leave the website dumber than they arrived. Willful obscurantism is unhelpful and even more unbecoming than publishing images of the prime minister’s teeth.

There is a second point that will be relevant mainly to the shrinking group of ACT voters. The party needs more firepower than this to avoid oblivion in the next election. Professor Jack Vowles, the head of the Politics Department at the University of Auckland, said in his analysis of the 2002 election results that core ACT support is steady around 3%, and any increases are due to situational campaigning. Performing to the echo chamber of a small online audience wastes both resources and time. The party has little of either.

* The employers claimed they failed to appear before the Authority because a daughter was in hospital. The hospital visit was in fact the day before the investigation. No explanation was offered for failing to submit a statement of evidence.

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