Stand up and be counted

Didn’t elections used to be more fun? I remember giving an entire class of Japanese schoolboys a lecture on the New Zealand electoral system as a response to a request for ‘information about election.’ Of course they had been liver –lafting that very week, which was nice, as were the 39 penises, small but perfectly formed in blu-tack that they arranged on the desks. I bored them to death about New Zealand elections as a form of punishment and as an obtuse lesson in the importance of correct pronunciation.

This election is shaping up to be an exercise in a similar form of the death of humour by boredom. Borges once described politics as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’ and watching Phil and John go at it is about as exciting as drinking tea at a fundamentalist wedding. They both look like fops with swords ritualistically slashing at each other without actually doing any damage or getting much else done.

This time round there is a lot more at stake. It may be, especially if you are young and unemployed, as Mr Key’s campaign kicks in; ‘time to stand up and be counted’ but the idea that questions about sustainability are the equivalent of a big stop sign to any form of development is – simplistic and just wrong. If it were all just a question of digging it up and shipping it out to build a well and wealthy community – Australian mining towns would not be the harsh, physically and psychologically damaged places they are and Waihi would have zero unemployment. New Zealanders made it very clear where it was inappropriate to mine when the idea of mining our National parks was raised. I don’t believe the protest was about stopping mining as much as it was about protecting the business interests of our tourism operators and the money that is engendered from the ephemeral nature of our image overseas. It was not about a bunch of hippies and actors walking off their lattes with a few placards – it was a rational undertaking of the mantle for the guardianship for the real world bottom line. A bottom line, which has significantly changed its definition over the last 20 years.

Ecuador; as are other countries in Latin and South America, is asking for the first time, not the worth of the oil underneath their national parks like the Yasuni, but what the value to the world is – of keeping it where it is. There will always be room for mining – I spent an hour listening to the benefits of sand mining over large-scale tourism from a well-respected ecologist on Stradbroke Island recently. She made a good case. It’s the ability to have a wide-ranging and constructive debate and the insight to be able to form the kinds of questions that lead to the redefinition of such terms as ‘value’ and ‘wealth’ as in the case of the Yasuni initiative, that will move the debate on from the lobbing of grenades between ideological bunkers. Failing that, if the politicians just keep randomly swiping at each other we can send our local representative a little blu-tak sculpture with a note saying. “Please. Stop being dicks.”

What is crucial for an interesting election is that young Northlanders get over their terminal apathy, get informed and stand up and make themselves counted. One way of motivating the under 25’s is: food. Call it the bribery barbie: it doesn’t matter whom they vote for as long as they understand what each party or candidate is offering them and that they exercise their right to choose. If I were a meddling kind of grandma with a big family, which I’m not and I don’t, I’d make sure they only got fed if they exercised that privilege – that civil obligation; to vote.

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Celebrating all our heroes

It’s the season of heroes. And this year, with the aftermath of Pike River, Christchurch, weird international unnatural disasters and an oil spill; as a country we really needed a win. There was a collective sense of the need for a real good time and a celebration of the good guys who really reaped the rewards of sporting resilience.

There are other heroes too. The quiet ones we don’t always celebrate or even know about but who nevertheless show a fortitude of spirit and courage deserving of honour. I didn’t want to write this column. I wanted to write another one. The one with the happy ending and miraculous recovery. The one where everyone lives happily ever after – or failing that; just lives.

About a year ago I wrote about the diagnosis of a brain tumour of a friend’s gorgeous little boy. He looks like the sort of little boy that 1950’s postcards depict; a tussle –haired blondie with a penchant for killing monsters with plastic swords. He is her beautiful baby boy and after a year of the kind of treatment that makes parents seriously consider not treating their kids at all – he’s not going to make it.

‘Sometimes’, she said, ‘there are just too many layers of hard.’ And there have been layers upon layers of hard for her and others like her this year in Christchurch. There is the rough unchartered terrain of a very sick child to negotiate and the brick wall hurdles of relationships that fracture under the strain and family that just don’t seem to get it. There is the creativity required to make a desolate quake destroyed city into a fun adventurous playground for a small child for a single Mum of limited means and unlimited imagination. Taking the remote control of the broken TV from their 3rd broken house and giving it to the small almost broken person – she told him it had super powers. Hearing that the demolition cranes and balls were in town she took him in his wheel chair and let him believe that every time he pressed the buttons he was in fact controlling the cranes and the demolition machinery. For an afternoon he was Bob the Builder’s destructive evil twin. He spent it happily smashing up an entire city with his remote control and an audience of quake battered citizens cheering him on. For that idea alone she deserves a medal.

For every layer of hard that she has weathered this year I have seen in her another layer of diamond strength resilience. Given the worst possible news any mother can receive, she refuses to ‘live in that context’. She will not open the cards with the waterfalls and the silver writing. You know the ones. She will not do flowers or sorrowful faces and it is not because she does not know what is coming or she is in denial. She nursed her terminally ill mother through the last phases of cancer and she knows better than most what the outcomes are. Dancing on the brink of the abyss of loss – dancing lightly on that edge so that her only son remembers the last times as the best times, takes the courage and grace of true heroism. Loving to the extent that you do not allow yourself to fall apart until the job is done, in the border country of loss, shows resilience beyond the rational and is truly the stuff of heroes.

We need to celebrate all our heroes - it’s just that some don’t always get the street parades they deserve.

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Scrap metal in the bay

Fresh, primed and pristine as a Finnish sauna goer after the serious media soft-soaping we’ve been receiving at the hands of Maritime New Zealand. We are told to expect another major oil clean up on the beaches of the East Coast. Fair call; with a sick ship creaking on a reef with a bloody great crack down the middle of it and over 1000 tonnes of oil still on board. Catherine Taylor – the director of Maritime New Zealand seemed amazingly calm when she spoke on Radio NZ saying she’d spoken to a ‘wonderful young Maori person’ at a local marae and that they’d said they ‘could do the clean up’ and that she was going to go and inform other Maori communities down the line so that they could get organised to do their stuff. I wonder what it would feel like on those local coastal marae to be consulted about a clean up having been almost totally ignored when it came to the consultation process regarding off shore drilling.

If we get told to expect more oil on the beaches often enough – it becomes an inevitable fact of life rather than an abhorrent preventable disaster and the public are far less likely to get upset about it. We are distracted by images of swimming pools of frolicking salvaged penguins and forget to ask the bigger, harder questions. John Key is insisting on the ‘unfortunate series of events’ line – unaware perhaps that we are unconsciously sending out the message to all our international guests that we are clean green and 100% pure NZ by total accident rather than good management. There appears to be an underlying assumption that this disaster is ‘just one of those things that happens’ and that we should just get over it and leave it to the experts. It is also symptomatic of a government who continues to behave as if the environment and the economy are two separate entities encased in impermeable sheaths and that the latter is the poorer cousin.

This government is set to shed over 100 DoC technical experts as unimportant, unaffordable luxury items. He is right however in that oil spills and shipwrecks are incredibly difficult things to manage. Having failed 7th form physics, I can’t pretend to understand what is going on in that big creaking piece of scrap metal in the bay. The people getting winched onto that dark and dangerous ghost ship to crawl through spaces attaching hoses deserve to be awarded national hero status and never have to work again.  Would their job have been so dangerous if the decision to act unilaterally by MNZ could have been made earlier in the window of good weather? It appears that the salvage operation is always the owner’s responsibility and Ms. Taylor has already admitted that the owner’s response was ‘tardy’ at which point Maritime NZ stepped in. When exactly should it be MNZ’s time to take over a salvage operation when there is a risk of a major environmental disaster? Couldn’t the oil response team take immediate control and then pass the bill to the owners? To be blunt; does a Greek boat owner possibly up to his neck in debt, really give a rat’s arse about what happens to a wreck that already looks like it was on its last legs anyway?

The Director of Maritime New Zealand is an accountant. It is fashionable to have hospitals, schools and our environment managed by accountants. Managers managing managers who oversee a committee of clipboard armed administrators. They make nice flow charts. MNZ have the authority given by the International Convention on Oil preparedness response and Cooperation to which NZ is a signatory, to levy oil and shipping companies to fund any clear up of spills. They also have a minimum level of equipment immediately available for a spill of up to 3,500 tonnes of oil, which covers the amount on the Rena then. I know this because the flow charts say so.

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Oil Spill

We’re an optimistic lot us humans. Or deluded. We kid ourselves that we’re the masters of our own cleverness and then we get upset when things break – or crash or sink. How could this happen? This is a once in 100 year event! Surely there must be someone to blame for all of this! “As a species we are clever at developing fabulous stuff and shipping it round the world but we just don’t spend much time or money on wondering about avoiding worst case scenarios when it all goes wrong. Especially in our ‘positive thinking’ obsessed culture; dwelling on the possibilities of failure and general disaster is for losers. We hope it goes well, close our eyes and cross our fingers.

The thing with oil spills though is that this approach doesn’t seem to be serving us very well. The problem with the ‘this is a very complex and unique situation which would only happen every now and again and we have to be realisitic’ approach, that Mr. Key is in favour of, is that it doesn’t help if the now and again is in your life time and you eat from and live by the affected beach.

New Zealand is a big weather, rough water island on the bum of the planet so it stands to reason that accidents will happen and weather will hamper attempts to remedy the situation. Help will be awhile coming. Anyone trying to catch boats in the Pacific will tell you that there is many a rust-bucket out there and that the rules for carrying hazardous liquids on land in those expensive brand new rigs – seem to be very different from the ones that apply at sea. Given this, it would seem prudent to have a fairly well stocked tool box on our own shores when the need arises. As it does – often. Since 1998 New Zealand has had 4 significant oil spills with a combined leakage of over 500 tonnes of fuel.

The Maritime Safety Authority boasts on its website of having over 12 million dollars worth of gear on our shores for cleaning up oil spills. I think we’ve just spent more than that on an upgrade of ‘fan zones’ in Auckland just in case more people want to watch a footy match. Given the income from oil surely the oil companies themselves could contribute more to having the highest technology available for cleaning up when it all goes wrong. $12 million seems woeful in comparison to the cost of environmental damage to fishing grounds and recreational areas.

How do you factor the real cost of getting it wrong? And that’s the other thing; I remember watching the attempted clean up after the Exxon Valdez and various other documentaries on oil spills as a kid (normal kids played pacman) and the gear all looks the same. In the age of the ipad is there really nothing more that can be done other than spray detergent and put some ineffectual booms out? There is little point in focussing entirely on the hows and wherefores of one underpaid and possibly underqualified sea captain running aground. That’s what government spin doctors will want us to focus on.

The oil spill that happened in the Coral Sea last year, came as a result of a ship being about 8 kms off course. From what I could understand, the captain was navigating with something akin to a primary school geography book. We can’t just put it down to ‘human error’ and then pretend it won’t happen again. It will. If a real education is not the ability to have all the answers but the capacity to form the right questions – then there is a lot more to ask about than simply who we should blame. According to the MSA risk assessment survey in 2004, Northland is three times more likely to suffer from a major oil spill than the Bay of Plenty ever was. What then are the right questions that need to be asked in order to either prevent or minimise the damage from the same thing happening here?

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Who is Dan Carter?

I was going to send the above 4 words as my entire column. They would have looked pretty on the page floating there – in space; leaving readers time to think about things other than Dan’s groin. A philosophical question perhaps. Is Dan the Man or is there in fact an entire team of All Blacks and he just had a bad day at the office and now the other 29 have to go to work? I even thought about wondering out loud if Dan was in fact a rugby Jesus. We follow Dan into the light. He leads us out of the darkness of having to think about elections or listen to Don Brash. He fights against evil. Australians. In his undies. For example. But I’m not that silly. I’d still be opening hate mail from Christian fundamentalists at Christmas time, which would take all the fun out of it. Besides, I know that is not true because an ex-property developer in Brisbane is claiming that title.

It would have been fun to write an existential column consisting of four words but I chickened out and the editor would have gone mental anyway.  There would have been the embarrassing phone call, ending with the droll ‘Now give me the real bloody column because no one pays you to be a smart alec.’ And so, in the interests of responsibility, I’m not going to. Instead I’m writing to the Chinese Premier and asking him to invade. I will tell him to hurry up because if he does it right now… no one will notice. The first thing I will request in the new regime, is a reduction in free speech which I hope will curtail anymore stories of weeping women crying over Dan’s nether regions. Somehow I can’t imagine the Chinese getting so swept away in a Tsunami of irrational nationalism over a game of table tennis. Under the new authorities we could do away with elections all together which, given the lack of a credible opposition – it seems we’ve done here anyway. At this stage, John Key would actually have to streak across the field in green and gold body paint and knee Sonny Bill in the groin, rendering him incapacitated, to even make the election look interesting.

Thankfully, I can console myself that New Zealanders are minnows in the international arena of taking sport to the extremes of religious ecstasy and our ability to rope an entire country into a St Viticus dance of national pride, is still in its juvenile stage. For true professionalism in this quarter, we have the Argentines. I am under express orders by the mad Latin to never speak of the ‘superstitious bollocks ’ which is the Maradonian Church. Which is why I’ll write about it instead. A spiritual congregation of fanatics who have somehow taken the fact that Maradonna, perhaps the world’s greatest footballer, wore the number 10 (diez) on his shirt which is similar to the word ‘Dios’ to mean that he actually is God incarnate. White robed priests carry footballs crowned with barbed wire to altars with Maradonna’s image. The fans celebrate Maradonian Easter on the 22nd of June.  The day that Argentina knocked England out of the 1986 world cup.  Followers must name their sons Diego. It’s hard to tell how much of this is extreme football fanaticism, and how much is the general Latin American taking of the proverbial. I note that many of the makeshift shrines and altars seem to be placed in bars and pizzeria joints and I imagine there are many conversations with partners which begin: “I am going to worship.” “No you’re not, you’re going to the pub with your mates to watch 20 year old video clips of that old cocaine junkie Maradonna.” “How dare you question my spirituality?!” We’re not quite that bad. Yet.

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