Hamish McKenzie - lucky, Alexandra

Monday, December 27, 2004


A close friend of mine was swept away from his breakfast table on a Thai beach by the most devastating natural disaster in my living memory. In an email to his parents in Alexandra, at 8.37pm while we waited for any news, he wrote: "I am very lucky to be alive". Lucas always was the master of understatement.

Lucas was on a diving holiday on the west coast of Thailand in a resort called Ko Lanta, about 60km south of Phuket. News reports told us that Thailand's tourist beaches around Phuket were badly affected by the tsunami. Nearly 400 hundred confirmed dead, over 1000 injured, thousands still missing, including at least 100 divers.

Lucas had planned to go to the Phi Phi islands for some diving expeditions. He was just about to board a bus for Ko Phi Phi, as the islands are called, when the driver told him it was too crowded and he'd be better off in Ko Lanta where it was less crowded and more relaxed. Bloody good job. Almost everyone on Ko Phi Phi was killed by the wave.

So, Ko Lanta it was. He was having a great time. Then this morning, as he munched his breakfast at a restaraunt on the beach, he noticed the first tidal wave. Didn't seem that big. But the second got him. The speed and force of the wave was amazing, he said. It's times like these when you actually realise how abused words like "amazing" actually are. He was "taken on a ride" and was lucky to avoid cars and trucks carrying bamboo. He managed to scramble to safety. One lady from his resort was killed, and many of his friends had very close calls.

"I think I'm still in shock," he wrote.

He was taking refuge with many others in a house on a hill in Ko Lanta. They were running out of water and would probably be stranded in the area for two or three days, but they were alive.

Sitting with Lucas' parents and brother, waiting for that call, was excrutiating. Nothing could be said to improve the situation. It was a horrible waiting game. Phone lines into and out of Thailand were jammed. His Japanese cellphone didn't work. Cruelly, even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' hotline was inaccessible. The final respite came silently, via the superhighway, appearing as coded binary in an inbox on a waiting laptop. Lucas' brother Dean announced the arrival of the precious missive. His parents breathed for the first time since 2am. There were embraces, tears, and afterwards, wine.

What a day.

Guest Post: Keith Ng - aspiring scatologist, Wellington

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Much A-Poo About Nothing

The comparison is a little icky, but bear with me: why is it that chopsticks - a traditional, Eastern way of eating - are okay, exotic, and becoming part of "high-culture" in Western society, while squat toilets - a traditional, Eastern way of taking a dump - are seen as backwards, filthy and an object of "cultural cringe"?

I still remember the first time I visited Japan. It was for a stopover, so I had a room in a rather nice hotel, with an incredible contraption of a toilet (of the sitting variety). It had so many built-in gadgets, in fact, it needed a control panel to work them all.

So, you know, I was just sitting there, minding my business, and I started to... (I'm struggling to find a description that won't be misinterpreted by href="http://www.salient.org.nz/blog.php?p=186&c=1" target="_blank">some people. Damn, I can't.) toy with the control panel.

One made the seat warm up, another made more toilet paper come out, and when I pressed the third, I looked down and saw... there's no easy way of saying this... a robotic arm "magically extend about six inches, and then start spraying!"

In the ignorance of my youth, I didn't know what a bidet was, what it did, or how it was spelt. But after that dreadful night, I couldn't forget if I tried. It's spelt B-I-D-E-T, and it's what backwards European people, who have not yet discovered toilet paper, use to spray water up their bums. Disgusting.

I leapt from my seat, feeling very, very confused.

It's bizarre that people would eat raw fish wrapped in seaweed with wooden sticks, listen to Hindi-pop that they don't understand a word of, even pretend to respect deities whose name they can't pronounce - but react with such apprehension to the idea that one can poo in a different manner.

The difference is that some domains are recognised as "cultural" (such as food, music, language, religion), while others we take for granted as objective and universal.

A little-known fact about Asiatics is that we do dishes in a different way, too. We rinse the dish, apply detergent using a sponge and scrub, then rinse again. Crazy!

My mother, who lived in New Zealand for a decade, still refuses to do dishes the Kiwi way. She can't stand the idea that dishes get washed in the same water that other dirty dishes have been washed in, or the idea that the detergent and dirty water doesn't get rinsed again.

Similarly, I've had flatmates demand that I "do the dishes properly", in a sink of hot water.

The connection between all this is that cleanliness is one amongst many culturally-specific ideas that aren't recognise as such. One man's "clean" can be another man's "oh-my-god-why-did-it-just-squirt-me-down-there?".

As much as we like to conceive of hygiene in scientific terms, with cartoon boogey-germs hanging off our toilet seat, most of our ideas surrounding hygiene and cleanliness are cultural artifacts, sometimes even really dubious cultural artifacts.

None of the people who got interviewed were willing to just come out and say it, but the reason why some would prefer squat toilets is that they don't like the idea of placing their bums where strangers' bums have been.

Yes, it's a strange cultural quirk, and one that's pretty unsustainable in a Western country. But this is the thick end of multiculturalism, it's every bit as "cultural" as choice of cuisine, or music, or deities. Besides, Western culture has just as many of these irrational quirks.

There are arguments to be made in support of assimilation and monoculturalism, but for the self-proclaimed multiculturalists, I humbly suggest that you put your money where your arse is.

Lyndon Hood - committed atheist, Lower Hutt

Friday, December 17, 2004

Mormons! Mormons on the Train!

It's probably a sign but I hate to think what of.

I leave a post on Christmas and Christianity unfinished to go buy some presents. And when I get on the train home I find that in amongst the crowd is a flock of Latter Day Saints.

Is 'flock' the word? An ecstasy of Mormons? An persistence? A doorslammery?

I ended up talking to one woman. I'd love to think it was a kind of Christmas penance to spare my fellow passengers but it was probably more to do with the way I'm not naturally impolite and I couldn't get away. And it's always nice to have someone to chat with, however awkwardly.

I'm interested in religion from a kind of outside perspective. So I could have asked about life in the church, rather than, for instance, letting her keep the conversation on my spiritual wellbeing and how best to fix it. I did feel like I was being hard sold.

I also have to note that she had and absolutely unyielding stare and the kind of slow speech I normally associate with words like 'groovy' and discussions of the inner nature of flowers. Her pupils were the normal size, but I'm not sure if she blinked.

When she reached her stop she handed me over to a guy called Elder somebody. He was younger than I would have expected for an elder. As he was American, I had a gambit towards a more ordinary conversation; "So, you'd be from America then," I said. We also talked of the importance of thinking things over from time to time and how their method is based on encouraging people to introspection rather than ramming opinions down throats.

Though they do make sure people ask themselves the right questions in their introspection.

Anyway, we chatted. He seemed a lot less anxious to convert me, but that might just be a more experienced evangelist showing his chops. Or he might have decided I was a lost cause. Or he wasn't quite so stoned on the God-juice.

I got off the train and nobody tried to follow me home.

Anyway, here's the post I was writing...

Bah! Humbug!

I don't have anything against Christmas. I do resent the way my holiday plans are upsetting a lifetime habit of buying the presents just before I have to give them away. Not that I've actually finished shopping. That's tomorrow.

I suppose I should just relax and contemplate the true meaning of the season. Which is, of course, getting stuff. Oh, all right, it's about family and togetherness and giving. Which is what makes it so depressing for those for whom those things are unachievable mutually contradictory.

I personally find the whole birth-of-the-saviour-of-humankind thing kind of peripheral. Of course I am, though not devoid of spiritual instincts, a godless atheist.

But for a fair chunk of the population Christmas doesn't have much to do with Christ. Maybe some people should just deal with that. In much the same way that some linguistic conservatives (myself included) should admit that maybe sometimes it's not that the language is being abused, it's just that it has moved on.

And I do wish that certain Christians (that is, uppity ones with whom I disagree) would take the opportunity of the season to remember which book it is they're representing. I'm thinking of the actual teachings of Christ: the not judging, the not stone-casting, the turning of the other cheek and so on. Rather than all those fiddly rules in the introduction.

Though in fairness I think we should remember two things.

Firstly, in the context of loving the sinner (well not loving the sinner, obviously...) and hating the sin, it can be legitimate to hate legislation that makes it easier or more acceptable to do the sinning. And if there's one thing the Bible has, it's lists of sins.

Secondly, I actually quite like some Christian activists. I'm thinking of the muscular and vaguely marxist liberation theology that has a natural home doing stuff like resisting dictatorship. I don't mind someone acting with the courage of their convictions when what they're on about is, in Douglas Adams' summary of the New Testament, "how great it would be if people were nice to each other for a change".

Then again, as I recall, Desmond Tutu isn't all that pro-gay either.

Incidentally, while I was shopping I wandered by a radio: Linda Clark was asking Brian Tamaki whether that money might be better spent on good works than on Brian Tamaki. I could hear them shouting at each other as I finished browsing.

Anyway, I'm not someone who thinks that getting Israel and the Palestine together over a turkey and singing christmas carols will sort out the world's problems. Though I was interested in Tariq Ali's attributing of the rise of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism to the moral vacuum and collapse of social institutions associated with 80s monetarism. Perhaps they should issue a security risk certificate for Roger Douglas.

Max Johns - missing Geoff Robinson, Blenheim

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Speaking when appointed to

The surprise announcement that Margeret Wilson will be the next Speaker of the House - that is, Parliament's version of a square leg umpire provided by the batting team, who already get the benefit of the doubt - has been met with some pretty harsh opposition. This is more surprising than it first seems, because Speakers are usually given endorsement from both sides of the House (and often appointed unanimously) when they take over the big seat at the front. Even in politics, it's considered bad form to slag off the ref.

Act, who not so long ago were pushing for the job to go to Richard Prebble, are now advertising Ken Shirley as a candidate, but even he admits that he's only standing "as a matter of constitutional principle" (as he did against Jonathan Hunt after the 2002 election) and would prefer current Assistant Speaker Ross Robertson to be in charge. This is all academic, given the support pledged by United Future and the Greens (who support the job not going to an "old boy", but don't indicate which of those two adjectives the emphasis should be on, and claim to like Wilson's sense of humour) to Helen Clark's decision. Gerry Brownlee has led National's charge against the appointment-to-be, attacking both the reasons behind the decision and Wilson's ability to handle the job.

Brownlee claims that the appointment hasn't been made because Wilson will be a good speaker, but because it will remove an unpopular Minister from Cabinet and solve a problem Clark has with working out what to do with Wilson. Already she's been relieved of a former post overseeing the foreshore and seabed mess, and could well be seen as not fulfilling her current duties adequately. But even if this is a convenient reshuffle of a problem Minister, that's not something any opposition could ever prove. That might be why Brownlee left such accusations to the side when interviewed on National Radio this morning, and instead focused on Wilson's suitability for the role. He took issue with her lack of parliamentary experience, particularly given that she has never sat either on the backbenches or in opposition (Wilson first joined Labour's list at number 10 for the 1999 election). Moreover, that Wilson has been working in ministerial capacities since she became an MP means that her time in the debating chamber has been limited more than that of most MPs with five years under their belts. There has already been something of a concession that experience isn't on Wilson's side - she herself told the Herald that she thinks she will "learn on the job".

But should a Speaker learn on the job when more experienced candidates are available? Brownlee was told by his interviewer (who is this mysterious women on my airwaves and what has she done to Geoff Robinson?) that "surely" there must have been Speakers in the past who were appointed before they'd served years in opposition, and on the backbenches, and aged suitably. He knew the answer, but correctly guessed that the interviewer didn't: "Name them," was his simple reponse. The short silence that followed (would Geoff ever let a subject stump him like that?) was good radio, but bad interviewing. "Well...you'd have to go back a long way..." our national broadcaster admitted.

How far back? Is National just making this sound worse than it is? After all, most people can't name the current Speaker, let alone previous holders of the title. Isn't it the sort of job you can flick to anyone with a reasonable ability to memorise a few rules (okay, 402 Standing Orders), regardless of how much they've played the game? I did a bit of hunting, and history would suggest not.

Since 1943, there have been sixteen speakers fill seventeen appointments (with Sir Roy Jack playing the part on two different occasions). The least experienced in terms of time in the House was National's Matthew Oram, who'd been around for seven years before his promotion. He hadn't spent any of that time as a Minister, and so it can be assumed that he'd seen a lot more of the debating chamber than Wilson has. Of the other fifteen, four had spent twelve years as MPs. The rest even longer: Jack waited thirteen years, two each sat through fifteen, sixteen and eighteen years, while others had waits of nineteen, 22, and 25 years. The soon-to-retire Hunt set a record of 33 years from first election win to Speaker appointment. The sixteen post-WW2 Speakers had spent, on average, over sixteen years in the House before their appointments.

History is also on Brownlee's side with his other claims. Every single Speaker since 1900 had spent time in opposition and as a backbencher prior to appointment (before then, the fluid nature of political parties makes "opposition" difficult to define). That this breadth of experience in the House would make a Speaker better in the job seems fair enough - the Speaker is expected to allow balanced debate to take place while also apportioning time to parties depending on the electorial weight they have to throw around. It can't be easy, especially for someone who has only experienced parliamentary debate from one privileged angle. So why is Captain Clark sending someone so inexperienced to judge the run outs? Possibly to remove her from the batting line up without having to make her 12th man, or possibly because, as she claims, Wilson's got what it takes by virtue of her seniority in the current Government and her legal abilities.

These benefits she touts will prove to be only slight at best. A Speaker should be as neutral as is practical while the House sits. This requirement sits uneasily with the inevitable interest that a recent senior member of Cabinet will have in the Government's continued implementation of its policy. Looking at post-war history again, only six out of the sixteen Speakers had ministerial appointments prior to becoming Speaker. Of those six, Sir Peter Tapsell was entirely free of any conflict (being a Labour MP presiding over a National Government), Sir Basil Arthur served as a Minister in the Kirk administration but was Speaker for the first few months of Lange's fourth Labour Government (death cut his reign short), and Hunt held his portfolios under Lange, Palmer and Moore before spending nine years in opposition prior to his appointment by the Clark administration. Jack's first term as Speaker pre-dated his brief membership of cabinet and ended in 1972, when a major reshuffle followed Sir Keith Holyoake's voluntary departure from the Prime Minister's office. Jack filled the roles of Attorney-General and Minister of Justice through the last few months of that National Government (under new PM John Marshall), and next became Speaker after Muldoon's 1975 election win. Only Douglas Kidd and Thomas Burke leapt, as Wilson will, straight from Cabinet to the Speaker's chair.

The legal ability that Clark touts, meanwhile, is no replacement for an intimate knowledge of how Parliament works. A knowledge of rules needs to be backed up with the ability to apply them in the spirit of the game. I read with interest in the short parliament.govt.nz biography of Sir Robert Macfarlane that
Labour had a majority of only one during his term of Speaker in the second Labour Government. Then Labour Party Leader Wallace Rowling noted at the time of Sir Robert's death that no Speaker had worked under more difficult conditions. Sir Robert had controlled the situation by using common sense rather than the rule book, he said.
I hope that similar praise will one day be given to Wilson, and that she will allow common sense to rule over a strict application of rules. But without a reasonable chance for her to first develop her parliamentary commonsense, it doesn't seem likely.

Matt Nippert - navel astronomer, Auckland

Monday, December 13, 2004

Clowns and mirrors

Ever take a look in the mirror? I mean aside from popping zits or spreading the bryl? It's a strange experience, and self-reflection is a lot harder than self-help gurus make out. I've been doing a bit lately, thinking back on how I got into the journalism gig. It wasn't really planned, more a bail-out option after realising the life of a civil servant wasn't for me.

I remember the first place I got a news story published (outside of the crackhouse-cum-club newsletter of student media), in 2001. It was on party drugs, specifically the 'P' of it's day, 'G' aka 'GBH' or 'Fantasy'. The latest issue of Pacific Journalism Review has a good piece by the Herald's Mr Science Simon Collins, and Jeremy Rose, on the paper that printed it: the progressive 90s paper City Voice.

The two founded and ran the Wellington weekly for a decade. I only read it myself for a few years before it folded in 2001, while I was at university sifting through barrooms, boardrooms, newsrooms and the occasional lecture.

I remember City Voice as feisty and, as as with the Shipping News' Gammy Bird, it had a hard bite. The article traces the dream to a sad and messy end, hopefully giving the next generation of idealists something to think about - as well as preserving a genuine media legacy.

By the time the axe fell at City Voice, the Wellington evening daily Evening Post had also been swallowed by the Dominion. If you're a print junkie, this city would send your paralytic. Hence, I moved to Auckland. Although, now as I'm looking across the Pacific, even New Zealand feels small.

Despite the close of the US election, I'm looking eastwards for a reason - naval gazing isn't as fruitless as I once thought. There's the potential for overseas study if I can somehow navigate my way through various bureaucratic mazes, including university admissions and scholarship applications.

Last month the blogosphere intruded into my serious quest. At a scholarship interview in Wellington I fielded questions surrounding media treatment of the US elections ("it's an echo chamber"), the origins of Fulbright awards ("an educational Marshall plan"). I was feeling pretty good, answering a panel of seven including 5 PhDs and the press officer from the US embassy is a little intimidating. But as I was preparing to leave, they asked a clanger that left me flumoxed, ruining my serious facade.

"So, how's the air guitar going?"

DogBitingMen, you bastards.

Fortunately, this was some time ago, and I've recomposed and can end this post on a positive note. In the spirit of adding something new (as I believe all good blogs should do), I've attached below an internet exclusive. Which is, of course, a euphemism for the bulging folder of scribblings I've got stashed under my bed.

But this editorial I wrote for Salient has got a certain spark; I hear the National Party were tossing up legal action after it was published. It's an election autopsy special, written in the hours following the results of the student election being announced. Don't let that put you off though, I'm assured it's funny, and it even has a moral:
Why not to not give a shit (originally published Salient, October 2003)

A lackluster public can provide appetising opportunities. Many years ago now I got involved in party politics for the first and last time. It was part of an experiment into how desperate and corruptible the National Party was. The Rimutaka electorate was ripe for the picking, recently being overrun by New Zealand First and all present party officers well into their retirement years. A vast influx of youngsters would surely convince them all to retire early to fully enjoy their privately paid pensions.

It was easy to begin with, a simple election where showing any interest whatsoever was enough to guarantee victory. Overnight, I became the blue-blooded Treasurer and Policy Officer for a party for which I had no sympathy and even less respect. Too easy, I found. We changed the constitution, and my flatmates and I were able to reach quorum whenever the mood took us. We had sloshed funds.

Many nights were enjoyed at the expense of Shipley and Birch. Membership request forms went unanswered, party membership dropping from hundreds to 50 within one year. Cheques weren't cashed, and my end-of-year financial report was sparse to say the least, dodgy to say the best. Of course it passed scrutiny: my flatmates weren't concerned with my irregularities. We had all gotten drunk on our criminality.

We didn't care about the aims of our supposed leaders. We delighted in contradicting them. Attending conferences became an excuse for getting wasted and feigning respectability, arguing republicanism beneath portraits of Queen Elizabeth in Masonic halls.

But we never were looked down on. Despite subtle insults, a lack of respect for our supposed constituents, and often absolutely outrageous comments (I remarked that Shipley's Code of Social and Family Responsibility was "prescriptive fascism on stilts"), we were never held accountable. Indeed, I was often praised for my commitment to alternative and colourful views, and my passion was attributed to youthful zest. Despite our incredulous agenda, the virtue of our positions meant we had credibility. Faith without foundation is a powerful agent of hallucination.

National politics weren't even beyond our reach. "Our" candidate for the electorate was the most evil man available . He was a former policeman, and a baton-instructor to boot. The Springbok Tour was his proving ground, and his view on race relations and social harmony were a product of his profession. In Upper Hutt, he passed muster, but only barely. The votes of my subversive flatmates ensured baton-man got the nod.

I don't know what I'd have done if our kamikaze candidate succeeded. I'd probably have got a job as parliamentary secretary, but that's an aside, and our best-laid plans came to fruition. He lost heavily, and Rimutaka has been a Swain lock since.

My career as a political saboteur, a sapper beneath enemy lines, came to a natural end. A combination of boredom and a lowered tolerance for conversational pain led me not to renew my membership after only one damaging term. But if real power had been involved, beyond that of frustration and petty machinations, I could have moved beyond being merely tipsy, to being fully drunk.

Until last Thursday this story had been one of celebrating my role in National's misfortunes. While I cannot claim sole responsibility, the paltry performance of Bill English is something I am personally gratified by. However, it also illustrates that when the public, any public, loses interest in who its leaders are and what they stand for, the public's opinions matter for nought. Because a representative unobserved is almost always a representative moving in directions you wouldn't envisage or condone.

Student elections have not had notable participation in recent years. Reasons for this are myriad. Students are busy, there's less time for communal communication and activities. Candidates are boring. Student politics doesn't matter.

But it is when politics seems not to matter, that it really does. When eyes and interest are removed from decision-makers, the decisions made become more removed and odious to those they directly affect. I'll go out on a limb here, and suggest that my experience with the Rimutaka is a humorous anecdote, but only to those outside the National Party. If we could imagine for a moment that we were all members of the Tory brigade, then suddenly the joke is decidedly unfunny. There's no giggling, only lamenting. By the time you realise those around you are laughing, you've long been the butt of the joke.

Despite the fact Victoria's enrolments are the highest they have ever been, the number of people turning out to vote in the VUWSA elections actually decreased this year. We're getting dangerously close to indulging in black comedy, and students won't be the ones laughing at the tragedy - the chuckles will be coming from outside the university. We'll have finally become the sad parody critics have called us: apathetic, delusional, blind while led by real nutcases.

I don't regret gutting the National Party in Rimutaka, far from it, but I am disturbed about how easy it was to corrupt a supposedly democratic process. While I got a decent story to tell, if you leave decisions up to a few the only likely outcome is a tyranny of the minority. Benevolent dictators are few and far between, and amongst opportunists even more rare.

So if you want a moral from all this; 1) Don't join the National Party, even if only to destroy it, and; 2) Pay attention to the world surrounding you, so clowns like me don't play with your future for a few cheap laughs.

Keith Ng, Asshole, Wellington

America - FUCK YEAH!

Team America: World Police is a reductive typological analysis of international affairs. The movie is philosophically underpinned by the premise that there are are three categories of agents in the world: dicks, pussies, and assholes.

"Pussies think everyone can get along, and dicks just want to fuck all the time without thinking it through. But then you got your assholes, Chuck. And all the assholes want us to shit all over everything! So, pussies may get mad at dicks once in a while because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes, Chuck. And if they didn't fuck the assholes, you know what you'd get? You'd get your dick and your pussy all covered in shit!"

It makes me wonder why I wasted five years studying international relations.

It's hilarious, and it's certainly crass, but it's nothing we haven't seen from South Park. (Except for the puppet sex - nay, puppet porn - which is unimaginably wrong.) It's full of scatological humour and geek references, which is not for everyone, but the political satire is top notch.

The whole movie walks a fine line between mocking its subjects and satirising those who are mocking its subjects. For example, the Arab characters' dialogue:
"Durka durka, Mohammed jihad."
"Jihad jihad? Mohammed durka durka."

It's hardly intended as a mock of Arabs.

I thought Michael Moore didn't come out too badly, whereas the "Film Actors' Guild" (FAG) was brutally... er... taken apart. (Think puppet gore.)

The critics complain that TA depicts "leading liberals" from Hollywood in a very negative way, and is therefore pro-Bush. But this illustrates TA's very point - that these cocksuckers hog the international limelight when they're just fucking actors, with no moral, intellectual or legal authority to "lead" the left.

Moreover, the whole movie mocks the ideas and actions of the hawks/dicks, whereas the attacks on the left have been merely against personalities - morally and intellectually insignificant ones, at that (except for the Tarantino-eqsue diplomacy in the Hans Blix/UN scene).

Still, it would be inaccurate to say that the movie was anti-Bush, either. In the tradition of the darkest satires, it simply denies the proposition that someone has to be right. It suggests that dicks are necessary, but that doesn't make them good, or any less dicks. Same goes for pussies, and maybe even assholes.

But to paraphrase Freud, sometimes, a dick is just a dick.

Max Johns - office dweller, Blenheim

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Supreme Beings

Helen and Margaret's new toy doesn't seem to like playing with them much. It's not long now since the PM and Attorney-General decided to give the Privy Council the flick and build the country a Supreme Court (which is actually more of an average meeting room). As its prime champions, they couldn't have been happier to be rid of those damn part-time foreigners poking all around our laws and telling us what to do. What they possibly failed to realise in all the excitement of creating their own lasting monument to Labour 5 is that a bunch of full-time locals poking around the laws and telling us what to do could get to be a little more difficult to stomach, and could even get personal.

The name-calling and bitching that occured even before any cases had been heard by Sian Elias's gang of learned elders was embarrassing. Two of our nation's leading ladies struggled to share the spotlight, and it showed painfully. But one of the downsides of allowing your latest monument to yourself to speak its mind in an independent capicity is that it might just say what it thinks. And it might just think that you didn't understand what you were doing when you started all of this. And you might think that it should shut up, and just quietly go about its business. And then things might get a little nasty.

Luckily for us cringing observers, the pair of top cats stopped the fighting and got on with their normal lives. Sian Elias judged a court case, and Helen Clark fucked off overseas. The case that Elias and co. chose to take on - Richard Prebble v. Donna Awatere-Huata - allowed the Supreme Court's first run to take place all over one of Clark's most shameless lap dogs, Jonathan Hunt. One of the few men who have successfully sat, rolled over, and begged enough to finally earn a treat has spent a good long while pretending that eight equals nine, somehow convincing himself that a party's number of seats in the house isn't affected by trifling matters like one of those seats' members being declared independent. Difficult to do with a straight face, but easy enough when the loser is an enemy of your boss.

A pity for both Hunt and Clark, then, that the newest, highest court in all the land wasted no time in delivering a maths lesson to all involved and removing Awatere-Huata from parliament for good. That the speaker spent so long blinding himself to the fact that ACT was not as widely represented as it had been, while at the same time accepting that the number of ACT MPs had changed, had all been pretty convenient for Helen. That her shiny new court put everything back to how it ought to have been would have hurt. (And that the new guy in the House, Kenneth Wang, immediately earned glowing headlines for his direct hit on prized Government pooch Michael Cullen would only have made things worse).

Supreme Court 1, Labour 0.

Still, what were the odds of the very first Supreme Court case being so squarely focussed on the Government? Maybe it was just bad luck, and the next case would give Sian something less political to chew on. Or maybe round 2 would be even more likely to take skin off the PM's nose, depending where Chief Justice went fishing for it. Maybe round 2 wouldn't just end a bit of mainly harmless parliamentary game-playing, but would instead wade straight into a mess that Clark, by virtue of her position, is ultimately responsible for (no matter how much she hides behind her outward faith in due process). And maybe that mess would be one of the bigger messes around these days, one that might be described either as "NZ's Guantanamo Bay", or simply as a terrible fuck up.

Terrorism, national security, espionage, international relations, "human rights", Goldenhorse. This case had it all.Two years ago, the Keep New Zealand Safe Brigade announced that Zaoui had admitted to being a terrorist. They were absolutely mistaken, but that's now a trifling matter. Since he might be Osama's mate, they locked him up. The Belgians don't trust him, you see, and so neither should we.

They had two years to come up with a better reason for imprisoning a man. The difficult bit, as far as things like "justice delayed" and "human rights" go, is that he's been in prison all that time. Have they found anything? We don't know. There are at this stage two possible outcomes of the mysterious work that's been done to keep us all safe. It's possible that they haven't come up with anything yet, and it's all proving to be a bit embarrassing that we're actually nice and safe no matter what we do with Zaoui. So they're just waiting around for something to come up. Until then, they're not saying anything. Also, it's possible that some sort of super-secret, incredibly incredible information has been gathered on Zaoui. Something so amazing that the moment anyone's told about it, they'll heartily agree that, yes, he should be left to rot behind bars. Problem is that the work the SIS does in support of global security is so mega-secret that they can't tell anyone what they know, not even a court wanting to grant the man bail. So they're not saying anything.

Funnily enough, winking and nudging wasn't enough to convince the judges. Also, the SIS probably didn't help themselves by admitting that the threat they've investigated can't actually be linked to New Zealand.

Supreme Court 2, Labour 0.

This one was a direct hit on the government. The acidic press release from Margaret Wilson (which I can no longer find a link for, sorry) was scathing in its brevity. Something like "The Court has had its say. Good on it. ENDS." But don't be fooled by all that blank page: this will be far from a white flag.

Steve's Bill

Meanwhile, it's now illegal to smoke in bars. Or to be accurate, it's illegal for bars to allow you to smoke in them. This is all thanks to the the Smoke-free Environments Amendment Act 2003, which was sponsored through Parliament by Rotorua MP Steve Chadwick. By far the most interesting thing I've learnt about this recently is that Steve's a girl.

Lyndon Hood - not a lawyer, Lower Hutt

Friday, December 10, 2004

This morning Linda Clark interviewed a logician. Quite a contrast, I know. A bit like those old movies where one guy was fat and the other one was skinny. The punchline is that she conducted what one Jamie Whyte presumably thought was going to be a promo for his book as an adversarial interview. As in, what's the point of rational thought anyway?

Her arguments made no sense and she looked like a fool. But that's hardly news so we'll move on.

It's often interesting to listen to the headlines on the radio evolving hour by hour as the subeditors come to grips with something complicated. Like a legal argument. For a good few bulletins the tidbit of reasoning accompanying news of the Zaoui bail verdict was the court's opinion that transfer to the refugee centre would constitute continued detention. Kind of a peripheral point compared the finding that there was no great peril in letting him go in the meantime. Even, it seems, taking into account whatever it says on that summary of accusations.

One concludes that even the SIS don't expect him to be blowing up any landmarks in the next few months.

The case was decided much like other bail applications - taking into account the risk to society. From a general point of view, the significant ruling was made the other day: that a person waiting for a review of a security risk certificate can in principle be bailed.

I really have heard it suggested, by persons not unmentioned earlier in this post, that these decisions spring from the Supreme Court's supposed ongoing battle with the Government. Perhaps I'm being overly charitable, but personally I'm prepared to assume it's more due to the weight of hundreds of years of legal tradition with respect to habeus corpus and the rights of the accused, an honest interpretation of the law as a whole, and the facts of the case.

If the Government had meant to deny even the possibility of bail, that's sufficiently radical that they should have said. And to my mind, if the law is changed so it does say that, it will be a bad thing. Those hundreds of years of precident came out the way they did for a reason.

I digress.

I don't mean to imply that the media are particularly stupid. It's just that they're no more clever that the other schmucks. Witness the disturbingly successful attempt by defense lawyers to convince juries that if it wasn't planned in advance, it wasn't murder. Folks, the relevant point according to the law isn't whether it was premeditated, it's whether it was deliberate. And that includes deliberately stabbing somebody lots of times, even if you didn't particularly mean to kill them.

Its like that Jamie Whyte guy said: sense isn't all that common.

Perhaps I should get myself an ivory tower.

But I wouldn't want to slaughter all those elephants.

Lyndon Hood - political corrector

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The term 'political correctness' has become intensely pejorative since it started appearing in dictionaries in the early 90s. It's ironic (as in, genuinely ironic; not like Alannis Morrisette) that things like gender-inclusive language have been widely accepted but the movement responsible is repressed because of the dominant vocabulary.

And I'm guessing that at least half of the times something is called 'politically correct' it means nothing except 'I don't like this thing', perhaps with the added hint that said thing smacks of do-goodery. This effect applies most particularly to 'political correctness gone mad'.

So I would have though that a group interested in maintaining the quality of the language would dot their eyes and cross their tees when dealing with such a fuzzy concept. Mind you, I'd have thought they'd be more careful about the spelling on their website, too.

The Global Language Monitor* has released its list of the 10 most politically correct terms of the year. I'm not sure how the list was generated, And I don't think even they know what they mean by politically correct language. Any attempt to find an explanation on their site is doomed to painful failure and the list itself is just inconsistent.

About half the list deals with archetypal PC cases of trying to change language with social engineering in mind. Whether for better or for worse may be a matter of opinion. The rest I just don't get.

The first-place-getter ('Device/Captured Device' for 'Master/Slave', a substitution demanded by an anonymous county official for the new computers) is indeed obviously silly. Mr Monitor describes this as "... but one more example of the insertion of politics into every facet of modern life." Possibly. Though it seems to have been then work of a lone nut and it also seems to have been fixed.

And it's more a question of degree. If the primary and secondary hard drives had through some historical fluke been called 'Planter/Negro' or 'Rapist/Slut' then I think even Monitorboy would have to concede the point.

Though 'Waitron' to describe the person giving you food probably won't take off. Here's a hint: the theatre profession eliminated the rather dismissive 'actress' by calling everyone 'actors'. Next time you see a female thespian referred to as and 'actor' you might discreetly point out that she's etymologically male.

On the other hand, is it really fifth-place-gettingly terrible that somebody tried to encourage a religiously neutral descriptor of the absolute ('higher power' for 'God')?

New Zealanders might take note of 'non-same-sex-marriage' (number two on the list). This seems to have appeared in exactly one speech and sounds more like someone having trouble expressing themselves than dogmatic linguistics. I'd certainly like to know what the whole sentence was.

What our man should have said, apparently, was 'marriage'. Since exactly what constitutes marriage is one of the points at issue, I'd have thought some odd vocabulary was permitted or even required.

So I'll be disappointed if I don't see some really stupid suggestions for what to call people bound by civil union. Uniees? Civil unicants? I imagine we'll just settle on 'partners'.

Seems there was a spree of reverences to George W Bush as 'incurious' after the 9/11 commission results were released. This came in at number seven. I guess this is but one more example of the insertion of politics into even politics. Clearly the Language Monitors believe in calling a spade a spade. While Mr Bush does share many qualities with a spade, surely that doesn't mean the media is required to insult the President during a time of war. And anyway: incurious George, ha ha ha.

That is similar to several other items, most notably 'insurgents' for the people rising up against established authority in Iraq, in that it's an entirely accurate description. Sometimes more so than the alleged original.

Still, at least they don't seem partisan.

The rest of the GLM site is kind of interesting. They track buzzwords in media reports and rate how hot they are using some secret algorithm. There's also a user-submitted list of reported words and phrases, though I can't say whether it's for new words or abused words or 'hot' words or just made up words or what (looking at that page I considered nominating 'LanguagePolice' and 'WatchList'). Especially since once again they are shorn of all context.

Someone who imagines that a word can carry much meaning outside a sentence is unlikely to grasp the fraught relationship between form and content in language. So they should probably give up on the political correctness thing.

* From my experience of American English I take it that a 'global language monitor' is someone whose job it is to clean the global language when the teacher has finished using it.

Max Johns - unwilling alter-ego, the dark mind of Matt Nippert

So it’s looking like rain in Sydney today. Nice. Cricket fans can expect a few showers, which don't sound so bad, and thunderstorms, which do. The second ODI against Australia could well be a non-starter. And to think that Melbourne had the foresight to build a bloody great big roof for the first game. With no reserve day scheduled, that throws a spanner into the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy’s debut series. If today's game is lost and the Australians win the next, a tied series is a rather weak start to what will hopefully become a strong and popular (as well as regular) sporting competition.

New Zealand's win on Sunday (ha!) has set up a decent contest between ourselves and the Aussies (at long bloody last), and it's a pity that a spot of weather might ruin it. Especially since, as reported by this pessimistic Australian sports writer (is there anything more rare in today's cricketing world?), there's a lot more than a single trophy riding on the trans-Tasman cricket played this season.

It’s been well-publicised that a World XI is going to be picked to play against Australia next September. But that's not exactly true. The World XI's opponents will in fact be whichever team is top of the ICC's rankings on April 1, 2005, in either form of the game. That is, the top test team plays the World XI test, and the top ODI team takes them on in the shorter game. For years it's been unimaginable that any team other than Australia would be the top test or one day team between now and approximately forever and fucking ever, and so the deadline hasn't been a subject of much discussion. Instead, the assumed World vs. Australia series in both forms of the game has been the focus.

Australia is quite possibly fielding the best team in world cricket ever right now, so it's a quite rational assumption that that they’ll be on top of the world in five months’ time. But what that quite rational assumption fails to take into account is that it's a funny old game, cricket, and anything can happen . It also failed to take into account New Zealand's recent employment of coach John Bracewell, who is something of a King Midas when it comes to one day cricket (and let’s not mention any other sort of cricket for a while, okay?). Not that he exactly had to start with a bunch of mugs, but recent months have been particularly good ones for the Black Caps.

Last year we floated around seventh and eighth positions out of the eleven teams ranked by the ICC. Now, we're well above there. Sunday's win over Australia shifted us to second equal with Sri Lanka. In the last 21 matches the Black Caps played, they’ve won 17, lost 2, and had two end with no result (here's the last twenty). At home, their record is 19 wins of the last 25 matches, and 10 of the last 12. In short, New Zealand is good at this game.

Mouth-wateringly, both Sri Lanka and Australia are coming here later this summer. If we can beat them both – and form suggests we can – there's a very good chance that the World XI will be facing up to a team in black. The only problem goes back to the Australia-related assumptions mention earlier. The three-match series is scheduled for Melbourne.

Keith Ng - Dressed Down, Wellington

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Gardening implements, Simpsons barmen and all that hubba hubba

(This is a guest post from Keith Ng, Salient news editor and student media political correspondent. Apparently, he's on the inside.)

I was in the Press Gallery for the CUB debate today. The minute I walked through the door, I was greeted by the Herald's Audrey Young, who asked whether I was from the NZ Chinese Times. "Err... what?", came my eloquent reply. Then she explained the tie-and-jacket dress-code, and how my Matt-Nippert-inspired bogan attire didn't cut it.


It was an auspicious and entirely appropriate start for my term as Some Guy in the Press Gallery for the Aotearoa Student Press Association (coming to a student magazine near you in 2005).


Pastor Brian Tamaki was on his way out when I entered Parliament. His Holiness was impeccably dressed and generously greased, as always. The crowd was small and quiet, especially when compared with the Prostitution Reform last year. But it was pretty evenly - and very clearly - divided.

As for the speeches, even though nothing new was said, it was said very well. Stephen Franks managed to convince me that his rejection of the CUB was about not giving Margaret Wilson the power to marry everyone.

George "Loverboy" Hawkins talked of love and romance, and how everyone deserves to have it recognised, etc. The fact that it was *actually* rather sweet just made it more disturbing.

Wayne Mapp suggested that the CUB be put to a referendum, then spent his 10 minutes arguing for direct democracy, which leaves one wondering what his job in the House of Representatives is, if all decisions should be left to the people.

Tim Barnett lamented that, after thirty years, he's still being called a "practising" homosexual. (Maybe he'll get it "straight" one day. Ahem. Sorry.) He recalled some funny stuff from the submissions, like one that claimed homosexual Arab terrorists were roaming the mean streets of Christchurch lobbying for the CUB. Some not-so-funny stuff, too, like a 12-year-old who thought homosexuals deserved to die.

Interestingly, of the ten speakers I heard, the only woman was Georgina Beyers (and rumour has it that she use to be a man). Maybe this whole thing doesn't affect women?

The speech of the day went to Brian Connell, who denounced the "mistruths from the HOE-MOE-SEXUAL! community". (Ironically, the way he said it reminded me of Tim Curry's "I'm just a sweet TRANS-VES-TITE")

Connell described HOE-MOE-SEXUAL! relationships as "notoriously volatile", and the CUB as a "recruitment drive" for the HOE-MOE-SEXUAL! community. Judging from the laughs, he had the best received speech of the day.

Connell's punchline said it all: "Despite all the talk, I have no antipathy towards ho-mo-sexuals."

Lyndon Hood - power fighter, Lower Hutt

Exploding Gas Giants

The commerce commission says some gas companies are abusing their monopolies. I won't pretend to be shocked. I'm sure that if they were in a competitive market they would do their best to abuse that as well. What are people going to do? Stop using gas?

Anyway, the decision invokes the spectre of direct price controls. Nobody likes a private utility and the idea of the people's representatives sending Powerco and Vector a final notice will be appreciated. As with the typical final notice, we can expect howls of outrage from the recipients, followed by immediate compliance.

One assumes they will be falling over themselves to look like good corporate citizens, at least for the near future, and that direct intervention will only come if and when they fail to pull their head in. If price controls eventuate, they 'may' result in lower prices for the consumer.

I've written before about utilities and I do think that private power companies need to be closely monitored and well regulated. But I can't help thinking that maybe gas should be expensive.

This is mostly an environmental thing - the idea that the cost of something should recognise the way it degrades the value of everything else. The price increase would come in the form of a pollution tax, of course, rather than flowing into the coffers of evil corporations. Unless said evil corporations were made to clean up every little bit of the mess they made.

On the other hand, if your pollution tax works and people stop polluting, what will you do for revenue then?

There's also an argument from what they rather over-enthusiastically call 'green' accounting. Fossil fuel in the ground, it's argued, is an asset. When you dig it up you're not creating it at the cost of extraction, you're diminishing your inventory. If companies and countries worked things out in those terms, they might be a lot more reluctant to just throw the stuff away.

Some have suggested, or possibly assumed, that exploration encouraged by rising prices will overcome or delay the projected peak oil (the point where demand exceeds our ability to get it out of the ground). It's also possible that new technology will supercede petrol before things get really horrific. Based on human history I suspect that, unless it's really good technology, we'll go on using fossil fuel until getting it becomes impractical. And it's going to take something pretty remakable to stop us using it up as fast as we can.

So does it actually make much difference if we use it up quickly or slowly?

A higher gas price might encourage people to put what's left to optimum use. If it effected demand much at all, which it probably wouldn't while it's still cheaper than electricity. What are people going to do? Stop using gas?