looking for leadership, in all the wrong places

The best steak I’ve ever had washed down with an out of my price range red, was in a pub in Wellington, offered by a very pleasant, very inebriated woman. She’d invited me over after I’d gone there to find my flatmates (to whom us girls had stupidly given our rent money in cash) to try tracking it down seeing as the landlord had been calling. I declined. She insisted. The flatmates were way past the signpost that reads ‘speaking to this person now will only end in homicide.’ So I accepted.

When I asked her why she was squandering money on such a lovely lunch to a random student who was obviously not dressed for the occasion she told me her story.

She’d cooked a perfectly good meal but her husband had come home blind drunk – he’d won big time on the horses. She was excited – they’d been struggling financially.

He told her to pack her bags. But not for a holiday. For good.

Then, for good measure (she took off her glasses which she’d been wearing the entire meal to show me) gave her the last black eye she was going to take.

She’d taken all of the money which lay scattered on the bed where he’d passed out and in a rucksack which was now, half open on the floor. She’d then been to the bank and cleared the joint account and now, she was officially on the run. “Where will you go?” “North. Maybe.” “What will you do?” “Who knows – I might get lucky and meet someone nice” she said surveying the insalubrious patrons in various forms of degeneration.

“Umm. Where did you meet your husband?” I asked trying not to sound rude. “In a pub.” “Like this one?” “Mmmm.”She wasn’t joining the dots.

Lately I’ve been feeling like that woman. Not in love, but in local politics.

It seems I’ve been looking for leadership, in all the wrong places – mainly in the established group of caudillos who have been holding the reins for a very long time.

I know there are lots of intelligent, well-adjusted and fiscally savvy people who understand the concepts of ‘public good’ and ‘conflict of interest’ living in Whangarei.

So where the bloody hell are you?

Like Bonnie Tyler, I’m holding on for a hero to fix everything that’s wrong in this lil ol’ town. (For the benefit of Gen Yers – check out the video clip and soberly consider that many of us lived through those hairstyles so you don’t have to.)

And it’s not this council’s fault.

Ostensibly ‘They’ are ‘Us’ – at least 49% of us voted in the last election and a majority of those, voted to return 62% of incumbents, up from only 38% in the previous two election rounds.

Is this a ringing endorsement or just an example of what that enthusiastic letter writer Paul Berks calls ‘rational apathy’ where the pay off for change is not worth the effort?

Certainly fewer of us are voting and in the seats where there is no challenger it’s impossible to even find the statistics of who or how many voted.

We have two such seats in Whangarei. It’s simply listed as ‘non-contested.’

Another stunning victory for democracy.

China has a similar system except officially it’s still called communism.

One way of looking at successful smooth government is when a ruling elite lets the silent majority know that governance is in good hands by ensuring that all seats are uncontested in the next local election.

Succession planning is then an easy matter of tapping your mate or cousin on the shoulder.


Sometimes it’s just easier to go back to what you know.

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Staterra's snails on ice

“It’s beautiful up there man. Real beautiful. I know what I think - even though I’m not a local I know who owns that place. It’s ours man. All of ours – not an Australian mining company’s." Not dreadlocked nor wearing too much jewellery. I was surprised, principally because this man was not the standard issue green protestor but a hard working miner. Miners don’t usually get excited about the places they’re about to dig up. There was a not so gentle hum of internal conflict as he spoke but as he said; what was he to do? It was a job. The mistake he’d made with the Denniston Plateau of which he was talking was to see it in its untouched state – to see it as it really was. In corporation world this is never a good idea. Reality is not hard currency in the world of big corporates – better to create an internal dialogue amongst like-minded people that will serve to confirm your own vision of how the world should be. It should be full of profit and preferably (but not yet thanks to the unions), low paying jobs. Except they are only ever short term in an unsustainable industry as the miners at Spring Creek know, dependent as they are on such vagaries as international coal prices and the economy of China. In corporate land, mining is also green – if you go to the Straterra website you will read about ‘green’ and ‘boutique’ mining which must be something like ‘helpful homocide’ or ‘precision bombing’. Since the Pike River disaster there is no more talk of the ‘keyhole surgery’ approach so often cited by Wayne Brown. It is what it is. A big open hole in the ground – in the Denniston’s case; 150- 200 hectares of it. In May a ‘bio-blitz’ caught several as yet unidentified species on the Plateau but this does not blend easily with Staterra’s story that their efforts are just a gentle continuation of a long history of mining in a less than virgin environment. This disingenuous argument is akin to saying that corporate whaling on modern vessels is the same as hunting a whale in a walrus skin canoe. Straterra again; “On Solid Energy's landsnail conservation work, the real picture is less gloomy than painted by Forest and Bird. Of 6140 Powelliphanta augustus snails collected, some 4000 have been released back into the wild. Varied results have been obtained, with some sites recording promise.” A link took me back to Forest and Bird site; “To mine the site Solid Energy picked up every last snail in the hope of translocating them. All three attempts are failing, and now the only ‘safe’ population lives in a fridge.” Or they did. Until someone turned down the thermostat and they all froze to death. But it’s not the mining company’s fault. Apparently it’s DOC’s. Staterra; “Forest  and Bird may disagree with the adequacy of the proposed mitigation package, however, their concerns should be taken up with DOC, and not the mining company, who has gone to great effort to do the right thing based on the Department's advice.”    DOC are now captive. I believe experts in that Department are no longer free to offer their opinions on what might best protect our environment. Instead they’ve become the mining industry’s whipping boy. And so it’s left to Forest and Bird to take an Australian mining company to court to protect land that supposedly was already protected under our conservation estate. Meanwhile submissions on changes to our Reserves Act and Wildlife Act which will give mining easier access to our National Parks close this Friday. DOC has no comment.

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Subsidising the real cost of tobacco

Agree. Disagree. It doesn’t really matter if you’re dying of cancer. Or cardiovascular disease. As a matter of fact I agree with the tobacco industry that health is a personal choice which can be made by rational individuals. Bloody nanny state always taking the fags off the kids and stopping them setting fire to themselves. I also know that advertising will do just about anything to get around the rational and bypass the conscious mind. It goes for the glide; where the brain is acting on instinct and emotion and never chocs down to a lower brain gear that will question anything at all. Years ago a friend landed a dream job working as a market researcher in London for the tobacco industry and later for a brand of rum. The money was huge; the perks ridiculous. After years of slumming it as a student she’d finally hit pay dirt. Except she felt like dirt. She left within a year saying she felt ‘soiled’ and ‘squalid’. Her job description could well have read ‘Find a group of young women, prod every insecurity and psychological weakness you can and find the way to exploit these to better sell them stuff that will do them harm.” She went into documentary film-making. The tobacco industry agrees that smoking does harm. They’re quite clear about that – which is great. Surely they shouldn’t have to submit to the indignity of plain packaging when their concern would be much better directed at picking up the health tab at their local DHB. The co-relation between smoking, cancer and heart disease is irrefutable. Despite the persistent myth that heart attacks are an old man’s disease the numbers of women who die from them are about 7 times higher than for breast cancer. If smoking were a rational choice no one would do it. If eating healthily was a rational choice the best growers’ market in the country – right here in Whangarei would be full of people buying enough fruit and cheap vege to supply the family with the requisite ‘5 a day’ for a week for the same price as a family pack of original chicken at KFC. Every piece of which consists of as much saturated fat as protein. But it’s not a rational choice and that’s why tobacco needs advertising. As do most businesses. This time last year I read an excellent piece by the Guardian columnist George Monblott on the high social cost of being awash in constant advertising. “Academic research suggests a link between advertising and both consumer debt and the number of hours we work. People who watch a lot of advertisements appear to save less, spend more and use more of their time working to meet their rising material aspirations. All three outcomes can have terrible impacts on family life. They also change the character of the nation. Burdened by debt, without savings, we are less free, less resilient, less able to stand up to those who bully us.” In short the more advertising – the less rational and the more slave-like we become. The tobacco lobby points to other countries who have rejected plain packaging. Global pillars of social justice and cohesion all; Indonesia, Russia, and Mexico. Let tobacco keep the packaging but stop socialist subsidising of the real cost of their product through the health system. That way there will be more in the public purse to fund our local health heroes like Buddhi Wilcox who runs the Food for Life Trust and who currently feeds hundreds of hungry kids every week right here in Whangarei for free.

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Stirring the Pot

I have become the inheritor of spoons. It’s indicative of my character that fate has bent the silver divining rod and chosen me as the benefactor of the residue of the familial cutlery drawer. Other people get the Lladro and the Wedgewood dining sets. The spoons choose me. There’s the gaggle of wooden heads set at angles sitting in a pot. Holders of vast familial history, they have stirred oceans of viscous orange marmalade and whacked not a few fast moving bums when that was still ok. They keep good company when I go to the old-school psycho-analyst’s couch: the kitchen. There is nothing that can’t be worked out while meditatively beating butter or knocking some sense into a good bit of dough. Mostly I like them because they don’t answer back. Some of these spoons have waded through Christmas puddings and coddled lemon butter into being while listening to radio reports of Hitler’s advancing troops. Were these the spoons my grandmother used to set eggs in tins of fat to send to the boys on the front? They belong to a lost world of female lore where the needlework on your apron could start a nasty rumour about your character and thrifty women made fake whitebait fritters out of grated potato and pepper. They remind me that there was a time when it was ok to boil mutton chops in fat with a newspaper on top to catch the malignant spitting underneath. Luck was living long enough to develop heart disease. Some of them belonged to the island dwelling Nana. The owner of the beloved and sadly, now lost recipe book which started with the glorious line; Pigeon Pie. Killem dead blong you one big pigeon.” There is the tiny silver teaspoon marked with the name of the ship that carried boxes of biscuits, bolts of cloth and trunks of crystal and china up to the islands and came back loaded with phosphate; a legacy of hacked up moonscapes on fragile atolls left to fuel the new agricultural colonial boys back in New Zealand and Australia. One of the pieces of cargo on those ships was my Dad. An eight year old kid chucked on a coal tramp steamer to go to boarding school on the cold side of the Pacific Ocean. I’m too scared to put my girl on a bus to Auckland. It’d be a year before he saw flying fish or his parents again. The freighters came from the shipyards with an entire set of monographed crockery and cutlery - the teaspoon the orphaned remnant of another life. I doubt a plastic fork from the inter-islander will be worth a column in 50 years. The queen of my kitchen stirring hoard is the giant silver serving spoon engraved with an owl – the old family crest on the handle. The spoon itself is ground down like a cigar chewers smile worn lopsided by well over 100 years of dishing up the best the back yards and the farms had grown. That spoon – the last surviving relic of an entire set of engraved status symbols shouldn’t be with me at all. Instead it should have passed to the legitimate inheritors of that family emblem of wisdom and loyalty and not to the offspring of my wild great grandmother who took off and got pregnant to the farm-hand before getting married long before it was fashionable. That particular adventure got her disinherited from the family farm and the silverware and status that went with it but somehow the spoon always finds its way back to the cook. Without the staff – and with a happy and fruitful marriage she became an excellent cook as did her daughter and grand-daughter who not long ago – passed the spoon to me.

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Missing women, handcuffs and sexy thoughts

“Where the hell are you?” she hissed. “You promised. They’re making cocktails, I’ve heard a 40 minute relationship breakup story and the demo thing is starting. Apparently she also does a side line in jewellery.” “What ? Prince Edward or Micheal Hill?” “Very funny. Just get here.” Finishing a 12 hour shift and making what could be described as the world’s worst dinner, I really wasn’t in the mood. “I’m not trying to be mean… ‘ said the small person ‘but is this poisonous?” She’s not joking. I get a text; ‘Hurry Up. I’m getting scared.” I go. She makes me swear I won’t be immature or an absolute female cur -which was not the word she used. If she didn’t have good grounds for extracting that guarantee based on past form I may have worked up the energy to take offence. Like many women I’ve found there are layers of energy deficit that can be reached which would make a Greek bank feel smug. You know when you’re heading there when you’d rather silently watch your child do something appalling than fire up to tell them off. Or when you agree to buy the boat/go into some random business/dive for lobster in Spain just so you don’t have to argue with your co-pilot in life. Those are the days when you wonder if perhaps your co-pilot was trained in pre-war Japan and also know how family violence happens. Sitting at the back with M. I try to think mature ‘we’re all adults here’ thoughts. Except today is the first Girl Child day to mark the millions of missing women in developing countries, a 14 year old girl has been shot in the head in Pakistan because she wanted to go to school and we’re all supposed to be celebrating 50 years of feminism. The missing women could well refer to Northland’s political elite but that’s another story – maybe they’re all just too tired to run for power. Meanwhile I’m trying not to be embarrassed and depressed that I’m sitting at the new millenium equivalent of the tupperware party; the ‘woman’s zone’ sex toy home-sell. I ask M. if they do a line in lunchboxes or something for frozen slices while trying to maturely assess a range of dildos that are being passed round. I accidentally set one off that seems to have a purple rubber cockroach on it (I’m later informed it is a butterfly) and very immaturely scream and drop it. Best to regroup over a rum punch with the smokers outside. Not because I smoke but because the conversation is better and because an instrument named ‘Kelvin’ is being passed around and now I’m feeling scared. Seriously. It could be multi-use – like if your 8 year old child lost a limb it could be a fit as a prosthetic or it could be used to kill home invaders. M suggests I buy some pink fur handcuffs but I know the kamikaze co-pilot would just use them to tie me up so he can go and watch more soccer without me talking over the top of the commentary and wrecking it for him. Sexy. At the end of the working week about the sexiest thing I can fantasise is that the co:pilot will mow the lawns. Or (and bear with me here) that Murray McCully will give our entire aid budget to girls’ schools in Pakistan. Or even better; he sends a message of terror and destruction to the guys who shot that young girl in the head. Send Kelvin. Works for me.

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Just food

“It’s Gluten Free!” Gluten being the new cholesterol, I thought extolling the treat as a virtuous dietary addition would make the customer even happier. Wrong. “It’s food. That’s all it is and if you don’t eat it you die. And that’s that.” Got it. Getting all cute with food was probably not a smart approach to a customer who had been a white farmer in Zimbabwe on a small holding which she ran for 20 years on her own after her husband died. Obviously her life had been ruled by priorities other than if her morning biscuit contained wheat proteins or not. It was hard to be affronted by her brusque manner because I agreed with her – and I had become….. one of THEM. I used to cook for THEM. THEY were young models and actors in the heart of Auckland who’d go through a menu querulously hunting out and forgoing forbidden gluten, dairy, meat, calories, additives or anything which contained food. The head chef lost her job the day she threw a plate of pasta across the kitchen, just missing the glass fridge doors and rollicked out front wondering aloud why one young wannabe didn’t just: “Order a glass of fresh air and #$@##%^^ Off!” That was also the week I made star-anise kangaroo hotpots. It wasn’t my fault the smart aleck waiter had changed the menu board to ‘Skippy Surprise’ which caused a scene not unlike the painting ‘The Scream’ out the front door as the vegans fled. All just good food. Not a political statement. Not an intention of status or ambition and certainly not a fetish or religion. Master Chef cooking shows are the new food porn – all that closed eye wriggling in delight at deep fried pig’s ears by Nigella_Lawson or her multi-ethnic counterparts is really just 50 shades of golden brown. There’s the bejewelled Peta Mathias and her ilk; sandalled and with enough hand jewellery for Mao Tse Tung to make a wok out of. Trundling through Moroccan markets on our way to an afternoon affair, the modern day madam; the celebrity chef, guides us to new realms of culinary lasciviousness. Forget the reality that most working Mums could write our own cookbook entitled ’50 Shades of Mince.’ Or that many chefs working in flash restaurants all day come home and collapse while eating takeaway supermarket shrimp salads and other mortal culinary sins. Which brings us to that other fetish. If it’s not sex – it’s religion. Novice chefs approach the sacred altar where the high priests of taste masticate mouthfuls of preciousness and declare it either holy or unfit. I honestly feel like slapping them and telling them to either just eat it or bugger off. It is after all, just food. The unreality TV shows bely the fact that fewer people are cooking and that there are an ever increasing number of Fast UnFood chains taking over every main street in Northland. While diabetes rates sky rocket and health budgets are the fat kid running behind, who’s never going to catch up. Somewhere between Hell’s or Hestor’s kitchens and McDonalds there has to be ‘just food’ and people knowing how to cook it. When a friend worked in the emergency food relief team in Christchurch after the quake, a young couple gave back the mince from the food parcel saying they didn’t have any pets. They had two small children though and noodles and canned tomatoes. Somewhere ‘just food’ has got lost on the road to fetish and high fashion. We’ve traded cooks for kooks.

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Crims and Commercially Sensitive Cons?

Swindle. Con. Sting. Same thing – just the methods evolve.

Although the All Blacks applauded the crowd in La Plata stadium, I was pleased the darker side of Argy street life was still ferretting a living outside.

The traditional street con ‘the mustard dash’ netted a kiwi cameraman’s 7K camera. A couple of kids run past and throw mustard at the unwary and then a helpful stranger wanders up to dust you off and shout at the kids while fleecing you of every piece of coin you have while you are gormless.
I shared a flat with in Buenos Aires with a recovering cocaine addict who spent a lot of her spare time manufacturing counterfeit currency in her bedroom. She gave me the best advice on how to avoid cons. This was after paying $72 US to have 3 knives sharpened on a peddle pushed bicycle contraption outside my house. Unsolicited and in a hurry I was rushed to agree. He told me it would be ‘dos’ (two) pesos a knife. Which he later insisted was ‘doce’ 12 ‘per side’ and that it was just my crap Spanish that had led to the misunderstanding. As everyone knows a knife has 2 sides. He also had a very scary ‘Uncle’ who was 7 foot 2 and mentally challenged who said he’d come and collect with a crow bar if I didn’t cough the cash. I coughed. The flatmate found this hilarious.

There were only 2 things to avoiding a con she said;

1) Good things always want an audience. Bad things like to happen when there’s no one around. If it looks like a good thing but someone is insisting on no one else knowing – it’s not very good.

2) Beware helpful strangers who insist on anything rushed. No one hurries a good thing.

Two weeks later I was saved from a con thanks to the above tips. Walking through a crowded bus station festooned with knee deep paper trash I spy a wad of US dollars neatly folded in a rubber band at my feet. I stoop to pick it up but a guy with what looks like sump oil on his hair swoops before me. He insists we ‘go somewhere quiet but we’d better go fast – who knows who has already seen us’. “We’ll split the cash he says, it’s only fair. I remember my flatmate and refuse to go – meaning I get to keep my real cash and my backpack.

The raw cheek of the street con might be laughable but it’s a lot more honest than the current version we have here; the corporate con.

A helpful stranger – usually a consultant, approaches the public purse. He pretends that the holders of the purse strings (councillors, ministers, heads of departments) are captains of industry and treats them like private sector dons when really they are employees in drag.

The money is not theirs and won’t really hurt when the invoice comes in.

Too easy. Secrecy is imperative.

Words like “commercially sensitive’, ‘need to know basis’ and legal privilege’ will be tossed about like mustard.

The deal must be signed off quickly – the threat of some unspecified doom awaits the backsliders who dally.

Corporatese will befuddle. Bedazzled public servants and elected representatives can then toss aside boring apps like due diligence and await the brilliant future the helpful stranger has promised.

High tech sewerage systems to subsidise private developments, unsolicited stadiums, art centres and bridges to nowhere are the result.

Give me the mustard any day.

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Key Political Theatre with Banks and Kim

John Key needs to start channelling Jacques Chirac in dealing with Banks and Kim right now. Chirac had a particular technique that would be useful for the local police called into ratepayers meetings. My friend uses it on her pre-schoolers when they’ve upended paint on the carpet, are involved in various forms of;‘she started’, ‘but she said’ ‘but I didn’t’ when invariably one wets her pants or the other starts crying. When things have gone beyond the rational or reasonable, rationalising or reasoning becomes invalid. She then reverts to her best dictator-with-a-French-accent voice she learnt from Chirac and demands that everyone cease and desist. “Stop eet. Stop eet now!”

It’s worth a look on YouTube.

Chirac, the then President of France is bush-bashing through the crowds of reporters and security people, hustling like only a born politician can and demands of the journos “What do you want me to do? Get back on my plane and go back to Fronce?!”  He is outraged. But not so outraged as to forget to smile at the camera and wave a friendly Bonjour almost simultaneously.

A perfect blend of the image outshining the substance – political theatre in motion.

John Key take note.

People. Seriously. What do you want him to do? Hop back on his space shuttle and rocket back to planet Key? Um. Yes actually, but it’s crucial for him to see, hear or speak no evil of Banks. He must continue refusing to read the police report on the donations for Banksy’s mayoral candidacy whilst murmuring “Move On. Lets all Move On” like a deranged dalek.

While at a South American barbeque recently, it was chastening to be laughed at by Columbians, Mexicans, a Venezuelan and an Argentine. I’d asked; what John Banks meant when he said ‘I want to help you Kimmy?’ What kind of help was he offering? They knew exactly because they deal with those kinds of relationships on a daily basis. When they go wrong someone ends up in a dumpster from which they do not return. It was probably the same kind of help that Shane Jones wanted to offer David Liu. They laughed at me again when I coyly referred to some local issues as ‘conflicts of interest’. It was just plain old ‘corruption’ where they came from but they enjoyed my delicacy. I admonished them for using the ‘C’ word, because of course that doesn’t exist here. They laughed again but stopped, saying it was giving them wrinkles or rather ‘lines of expression.’

Why is anyone surprised?

Banksie’s political hero was Joh Bjelke Petersen – the ex premier of Queensland and one of our most loathed exports principally for his record breaking reign over a local government infamous for its institutionalised corruption. A person, who Jim Hopkins said was the only man who could mistake democracy for dictatorship and get away with it.” Banks cut his political teeth in the WDC, a place where it has become a sport to call people ‘niggers in woodpiles’ and the bizarre and the demeaning has become the wallpaper.

The rational and the reasonable, if critical of the status quo, are simply pushed out.

Helen Clark’s droll comment that Banks ‘wouldn’t know an ethic if he tripped over it’ probably says more about the environment he’d come from than anything else. She described his and his ‘long, old and close friend; Stan Semenoff’s’ bid to buy the Waitangi Hotel all those years ago as a serious conflict of interest. To Banksie – it was probably just business as usual.

John Banks is sure to be jobless by next year.

If we’re not careful, he’ll be back. Please. Stop eet. Stop eet now.

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Lesson from Little Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood was lame! I hadn’t considered that the one in the red hoody had been slower than the rest of the roving targets in the wood possibly contributing to the wolf picking on her.

“Why?” I ask, noting the small person is taking notes and chewing the end of the pencil the way a horse does a fence-post. Theatrical.

Her homework; to write an ‘argument’ about how Red Riding Hood got into so much trouble. I look over her shoulder and read: ‘I believe that LRRH should have known not to speak to strangers especially not a wolf, although if I was little red riding hood I would have spoken to him and if I knew karate I would beet him up.” Nice.

The piano teacher’s droll remark drifts through my head; ‘So much confidence. And so misplaced.”

Annoyed that once again the wolf gets a free pass and the little girl takes the blame for his bad behaviour I suggest that perhaps the wolf is at fault and should be punished as a lesson to other wolves that might get ideas. She looks at me like I’m red riding hood’s even lamer cousin. “ Mum. He’s a wolf. It’s what wolves do.” A pragmatist. She’s going to do better than me in life.

There will be no bitter wailing on the wayside of delusional idealism. I hope this extends in later life to general wolf avoidance rather than trying to change them or sticking round to make them love her.

“Anyway “ she says, “ Red Riding Hood’s Mum should have gone with her. I mean it was nice of her to make the buns and stuff but that doesn’t mean she gets not to go just because she’s busy.” I think of the baking handed over as a free pass not to attend various social events. Guilt flourishes even in the little things. I’m a Mum. It’s what we do.

It’s not the wolf’s fault; continues the wolf’s defence attorney, “The whole hiding the nana in the wardrobe and then dressing up as her – it was a bit over the top. He’s got some problems. Any normal wolf would just eat them both. He didn’t have to get all weird.” Mental illness. Good defence. Late night little girl walkers beware. The thing is, any girl working nights on the rough side of town knows to walk fast, never have hands in pockets and walk like you’ll be a problem if someone tries to deal to you. Mostly you do anything you can not to cop the late night shifts. You certainly don’t wander round smelling the roses with a basket of goodies. Maybe Reddy hadn’t had the rules. “Anyway, Red riding hood saying things like ‘Oh my, what big ears you have,’ is seriously lame and would only wind the wolf up. She should have just left.” I nod. Good point. Don’t go playing psychological games with people who are bigger and scarier than you and who spend their spare time dressed in nana’s nighties. I hide all amusement – the small person is taking this extremely seriously as well she might.

Later, driving home in the early hours after a meeting I see a young grey riding hoodie wandering home by herself. Hands in pockets. Head down. I silently tell her: ‘I know it’s always the wolf’s fault and you have every right to walk here if you want but I’d rather you were tucked up safe in bed. So little lamb, if you’ve got to be out here you’d better grow yourself some wolf skin pretty fast. That – or learn karate'.

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Provincial Council 5 Minute Management

Who’d have thought he had an MBA?!” she said incredulously of a local leader. Me for one. I used to be impressed by MBA’s. Until I found out Eric Watson had one. And Wayne Brown.

MBA’s to me now, are less about excellent management practice by people who’ve been in industry, and all about clandestine cult training in the Machiavellian arts of speculation and the manipulation of statistics. It’s only the owners of them who fail to acknowledge that post the GFC they are, well, toast.

An MBA is the pass to a technocracy from whose management style it will take us about 10 years to recover. A style particularly favoured by local councils and developers for the last 15 years. “Always get on with the person with the money” Is Wayne Brown’s number one rule in his book ‘5 minute MBA.’ If he were a woman there’d be another title he’d be given for this maxim.

The problem is that it’s not the majority who have that kind of money. As John Ralston puts it in his excellent book ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’, ‘These leaders are masters of backstairs battles and withholding information. They are merchants of knowledge, selling it in return for power and set enormous value upon secrecy. Intentionally or otherwise, their methods induce fear among those who must deal with them regularly. Almost without exception they are bullies. Combined with the use of secrecy, it is used to frighten people on the practical level of their incomes, pensions and careers.” It doesn’t favour memory or reflection either and it depends on a highly specialized dialect, unintelligible to normal people therefore depriving them of the vocabulary with which they might complain. Anyone having experienced the displeasure of asking a provincial council for information will know what I’m talking about.

Once you’ve recovered from being beaten around the head with the Official Information Act it feels like being trapped in a Dilbert cartoon; “I Mordac, the Preventer of Information, reject your questions because you used the wrong words and so I feed on your anger and frustration! And now I will eat like a king!!” “Good luck with that. I’ve been dead on the inside since the signing off of the HAC.”

I object to being told by Craig Brown in Sunday’s paper that the biggest thing holding Northland back is apathy, because the apathy is learnt. It’s a rational self-protective response of resignation by the little people to an established elite who have no intention of relinquishing power.

We see the same faces and the same management style repeated over and over again.

If Boards were boyfriends some of these guys would be the town bike. They pop up on almost every one and it’s a merry-go-round of recycled public sector CEO’s and board members that the public seem unable to shake. They can leave behind a train-wreck and rate-payers have to fork out 240K as a thank-you gift. They can oversee a financially ruinous public works blow out in one council and get re-hired in another town as a reward. Just don’t question them about it. ‘The talents of the technocrat do not suit public debate or an open relationship with the people.” This is amply evident when a WDC councillor says of protesting rate-payers at a recent meeting; ‘Ignore them this is our meeting not theirs.” Ralston again; ‘This self-protective, self-satisfied provincialism resembles the dialect and mannerisms of declining aristocracies.”

The biggest thing holding Northland back is a lack of real-world leadership working with, and not at cross-purposes to, the public good.

Unfortunately, what we’ve had is anything but with an ever-burgeoning debt and a litany of lost business opportunities.

If I had an MBA I could tell you why that was a good thing.

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Newmonts Virgin Bride

If Northland is already in a pre-arranged marriage with a mining company the virgin bride needs to have a close look at the contract regardless of what her godparents (in this case Phil, Shane, Wayne and of course, the marriage celebrant; Steven Joyce) have to say about it.

The fine print may well read:

Virgin Bride must hand over body and lands principally: Puhipuhi. She is not to argue or negotiate because she will be labelled a socialist loony and kept in an attic room (but not before the dowry is handed over).

The groom (who herewith will be referred to as Newmont) will provide an income for some of the brides’ family provided they have the skills useful to Newmont. (Getting young blokes in Northland to pass drug tests might be optimistic yet if Northland’s youth sobered up and realised they have the numbers to change things if they bothered to act together and vote that could only be a good thing.) The groom is not responsible for aiding young workers to get these skills and will just fly them in from elsewhere if they can’t be found locally. Although mineral deposits belong to the bride (herewith known as Puhipuhi) they will be acquisitioned by Newmont and a percentage may be paid to the executor hereby known as the government in Wellington.

In the case of the marriage of Newmont and Puhipuhi’s cousin; Waihi, this percentage is non-existant.

Although royalties are now insultingly low and not tied to such things as a superannuation fund as in places like Norway, Newmont promises a few jobs and Uncle Phil says that’s enough. 60% of adults in Waihi however now live on under $20K a year. Hardly get rich quick. It’s hard to keep the love alive when you don’t see the profits either. Ask any dairy farmers who owe money to overseas banks right now.

To quell disquiet, Newmont Waihi found putting up signs on the beaches around Coromandel telling people to take care of the environment was enough to convince people you have a pulse – if not exactly a heart. The unease around the extreme toxicity of the mercury laden rocks round Puhipuhi and what seepage may do to the water catchment in a flood prone area might prove trickier to put a sugar coat on.

Newmont and Waihi was only to be a temporary affair and declared null and void in 2007. Waihi, now not so virgin and looking fairly haggard, was looking forward to that. Although consummated – Waihi’s relatives started to get nervous about the marriage around the time the houses in Waihi began falling into big holes. That had nothing to do with the mine though. I know. I asked PR.

Some family members were worried depending as they do on the mine for wages. Other sources of income have been neglected in the area common in mining towns meaning a guaranteed bust after the boom. But for now the mine extends and the good people of Waihi live in a land of shifting goal posts every time the price of gold goes up.

Any questions here from the relatives of Puhipuhi, now irate at their girl being sold off behind their backs without due discussion or process are being dismissed as irrelevant by the Minister of Resources Mr. Phil Heatley. I’d ask him myself only I’d have to send out a search party. There is an election soon so no doubt he’ll be back, but by that time it will probably be too late. He recently declared that ‘all the issues (regarding mining in Northland) have been discussed.” But with whom? Steve, Shane and Wayne I’m guessing but is that really good enough? Maybe Phil has discussed them with you in which case let me know.

Until I see the fine print though, leave me off the wedding guest list.

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Drugs to make the Olympics a Spectator Sport

Will bog snorkelling make it to Rio? I hope so. I can’t imagine the Brazillians entering a team but apparently snorkelling in freezing cold peat bogs is big in Wales and it’s about time the Welsh got to be known for something other than that old sex bomb Tom Jones. I’d cheer for them.

If the equivalent of aquatic Morris Dancing; synchronized swimming, counts I don’t see why bog snorkelling can’t also be an Olympic sport. At least it wouldn’t affront Yuksel Aytug – the columnist who was so deeply offended by the ruination of women’s bodies at the Olympics that he managed to insult almost every female athlete that made it to the games. “Their breasts” he ranted, “the symbol of womanhood, motherhood – flattened into stubs as if they were seen as hinderances to speed.” He advocated a scoring system based on giving extra points to female athletes who were ‘traditionally attractive.’ I agree with him – but only if the Olympic committee allows a male cheer-leading team who scores for attraction rather than prowess. They can cheer the women weight-lifters and that way spectators won’t die of boredom in the stadium.

Does anyone really care if the stick with the tyres at the end gets lifted? Does anyone’s soul soar?

I feel I need to take drugs to make this a spectator sport.

The cheer-leading idea would only work as long as North Korea didn’t enter. If there were a nation the equivalent of a ballet mother on steroids – it would have to be North Korea. Or Naughty, as opposed to Nice, Korea as stated in an Australian medal league table. Funny. But deeply inappropriate. The editor of that newspaper will be sent to the Naughty Seat of some North Korean labour camp where all the athletes who lose get sent. It seems that any kind of loss may precipitate an Olympic meltdown in the North Korean political elite which could lead to Kim Jong Un pushing the nuclear button just to make sure that no one ever found out.

Luckily Om Yun Chol the weight-lifter has saved us all from obliteration. If there were medals for hyperbole and ridiculous claims the North Koreans would make a clean sweep. The dead but obviously very Great Leader helped him to victory from the grave, which is pretty impressive even considering he played 24 holes in one when he was only a foetus. He even managed to be the Chinese badminton teams’ style icon for hairdos which just goes to show how inspiring he truly was. As for that scandal where the Chinese and Korean girls tried to throw a game so they’d get more favourable opponents in the following rounds; that wasn’t bad. That was brilliant. They’ve spent the last 10 years of their young lives being told that winning by any means is everything and then they get thwarted at the last minute by the western girl guides of sport getting all prissy with their clip boards.

In order for me to upgrade my olympic response from ‘that’s fairly interesting’ to ‘That’s seriously Impressive’ the Olympics will need a revamp.

What we really need to do is get away from being so uptight about the whole doping issue. That way we don’t need to guess if the women still qualify as women based on the fact that they’ve sprouted new bits and the whole world can go for broke on free-style drug taking. Lets just see how fast everyone can go and bugger the consequences. I say this because deep down I can’t wait to see, with the help of the syncronized swimmers make-up team; an androgynous drug fuelled sparkling bog snorkelling NZ Olympic champion in Rio.

I start my training tomorrow.

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Machismo Bollocks

Rumours a few weeks ago that a papier Mache sculpture-making festival of our civic leaders was taking place deep inside Forum North were incorrect. The public were informed that the drippy slaps coming from council chambers were the sound of wrists being lightly caressed with soggy bus tickets by councillors disciplining a staff member again. I would warn anyone entering with a question to back out deferentially whilst making flattering remarks about inspiring leadership – that seems to be the preferred modus operandi. It’s one of the problems of living in a company town – it’s just that in this town the council is the company. But deference can be lethal. It’s deadly for business but it can be just as dangerous politically and socially. Years ago I was given a class of Latin air traffic controllers for English classes. After the first lesson it was obvious they were wasting their money and that their English was flawless. The director insisted that there had been several near misses in recent years at various airports and all the problems had been with English. I asked for the transcripts of some of them. The problem, it transpired was not an English one. It was an over-abundance of testosterone. Younger flight engineers, pilots and air traffic controllers continually deferred to older macho pilots who would bully them into believing their incorrect assumptions. This is one of the more stupid outcomes of a machista culture that insists that you are only gay if you ‘take it’. A pity 250 passengers have to die to prove that you had the bigger bollocks on the day. It is also one of the great gifts that living with Latin machismo gives one; and that is; to understand that the authority and sheer weight and aggression with which some bollocks are thrown around is entirely disproportional to the veracity or validity of the point being argued. Dumb decisions are invariably the outcome of these kinds of work environments – women do not thrive in them and cease to contribute and clever blokes – you know; the ones that think before they open their mouth - often struggle to be heard. In the sinking of the Tongan Ferry “Princess Ashika’ one surveyor and the Tongan Port Chief found the vessel to be unseaworthy. The Captain later admitted he had been pressured by government to override all advice and sail without the delay of repairs. Arrogance over intelligence won and the boat sank in a one metre swell with the loss of over 70 lives.Last month the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years was found by a parliamentary enquiry to have been a ‘man made disaster.’ It was due, not to the Tsunami, but to ‘a dangerous culture of deference’; the Japanese ‘reluctance to question authority.’ It also pointed to an unholy allegiance between government officials and the owners of the facility who all bought into a convenient ‘safety myth’. ‘The regulation of the plant was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion’. It would be unfortunate to be saying the same of the mining industry here in 20 years time. Although there are elements of this same problem in the Pike River disaster too. The lack of transparency and civil alienation from the decision making process – i.e. one that was conducted ‘behind closed doors’ were also contributing factors to the Fukushima disaster. It was noted that by ‘staying silent, (managers) were on the upward promotions escalator.’ Promoting and rewarding silence as opposed to the due consideration of constructive criticism and beating the odd recalcitrant critic into submission, allows the mediocre and the sociopathic to quietly percolate to the top. A point that seems to be playing out in the CTV building enquiry which seems to prove that a dangerous culture of deference is not unique to the Japanese.

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The Weather Girl Blues

“I’m your weather girl. Ah.Huh. I’ve got news for you. ‘Cause tonight round about half past 10 – for the first time in history. It’s gonna start raining men.”

 The song has promised me that Whaangaarrain is going to start delivering more than precipitation and I’m counting on it.

I’ve listened to Aretha belting out ‘RESPECT’. I’ve sung the words loudly to every rousing song ever sung by every drag queen ever born including “I will survive” and “It’s raining Men,’ in order to cheer myself up and I’m done. If it doesn’t stop raining soon I will have to break out the Janis Joplin LPs.

Once expelled from a flat for over indulgence in Janice, the flatmates made me choose; her or them. Two of them were dairy farmer’s boys and watched Neighbours so were hardly the arbiters of good taste. I chose her.

The small person learnt the words to ‘Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedez Benz’ when she was four. It is true that I told her that we’d have to give her away to another family if she wasn’t up to the task.

It is also true that the Latin went mental when she told on me.

In the end I told him it was a church song and of deep political and social import and also part of my cultural heritage. He calmed down – he’s big on inter-cultural respect.

I also told him when we came to live here that Whangarei was beside the sea and that you could grow tropical fruit – he was thinking Rio and what he got was Raumanga. Not that he’s ever complained. But seriously this incessant rain must be driving more than a few of us more insane than usual.

I decide to get all Pollyanna with it and get with the Sunday rainy day groove. I go for all those crafty things the small person gets for Christmases that I never seem to have the time to sit and do with her. Small pieces of glitteriness flutter everywhere. Paint leaks through the newspaper. Then the cat walks through it. I remember that I got expelled from Brownies on the craft day. The look of horror on my Mum’s face when I had to tell her I’d been kicked out which was why I was home early. It was a rainy day. Now I get it.

Then I have the brilliant idea of ‘More Me Time.’ This is very big in the women’s mags that I read in A and E when the small person has either broken another arm or has an asthma attack due to the incessant rain.

I start on Eric Fromm’s ‘The Sane Society’ and am on page three when a bugled rendition of the theme song to Sponge Bob is channelled into my frontal lobe via a rolled up poster. I go nuclear. There is shouting which would make the Hulk look like a patsy. Variations on the theme of roaring and apologising for bad behaviour on both sides. My family gangs up and repeats a theatre piece of me losing it. It’s funny the first time. 

Baking! Only; everything chosen needs ingredients which necessitates forging into the tempest. Bread. Flour – water. How hard can it be? Samoan sea slug loaves accompany zombie brain loaves. Meanwhile the dog kennel floats out to sea.

I look to the modern oracle of Google for salvation. ‘Weather men’ gets nothing but some rock band.

‘Weather girls’ however gives pages of porno lite. It’s then that I notice a clip entitled ‘Why God sends rain to Latin America and not to the Middle East.’ There are the usual Latin lovelies falling out of a variety of outfits made from the off-cuts of g-strings. Nobody is noticing the approaching low. Rain is irrelevant. They are followed by women in full burkas pointing to maps. It seems to be working. It’s all desert there.

I’m writing to TVNZ and suggesting the new dress code for the weather women before I have to consider living with these guys on an ark.

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Mining Rhetoric

Bugger. I was lining myself up for a PR job with the mining companies and Shane Jones has beaten me to it.

I had my fingers crossed when I promised the mad Latin I’d never spend another cent on horses after that time I tried to ride to Bolivia and I still want another horse before I need a hip replacement. Obviously one can’t pay for the chaff by writing so I was thinking I’d change my name to something funky and write the press releases for the mining companies as a side line. I’d call myself Saffron DuFont and wear expensive silk floaty stuff and big jewellery and organise a pay packet which ordinarily would be about 4 times that of an investigative journalist .

That was the idea until Shane stepped up.

He’s good though. I’d pay to listen to him but I hadn’t reckoned on him being the local tongue for hire.

At least, I hope the mining companies are paying him because he’s doing a really good job – and credit where credit is due. I’ve got some catching up to do. The first thing I’d do go for is division – make an issue that is essentially about long term sustainability, real wealth and water into a brown or white issue. I’d blame those annoying pakeha greenie fundies. I’d point out that they only show up on their skates to hold signs and wear too many scarves before retreating again behind their white picket fences and good jobs. I’d then make it seem as though the whole kaitiaki guardianship and future proofing for the next generations was a throwback to some mythological past and that any real groovy Maori will get with the programme and hop on the mining magic train of quick cash. That way those annoying pakeha tree huggers will never gain the benefit of learning about social action from a people who have spent the last 150 years honing their skills and Maori environmentalists will be shamed into silence, accused of not thinking of the good of their community.

Nice. Keep them separate.

The trick is to sell the false dichotomy between having to choose between feeding your kids and looking after the environment.

Make it seem like there are only two options and mining is the better one – it’s very important at this stage of the game to make sure that NONE of the other options that could have been pursued over the last 15 years of political neglect in the North are ever mentioned.

It’s best to ignore, that there is very little in the way of central government and local joint ventures for aqua-culture or fisheries - Thames is looking at the creation of 400 jobs by expanding their mussel industry for example. Can’t go there.

The idea is to keep the eyes firmly focussed on getting quick cash now.

 Dammit! He’s already done all of the above – I’m going to have to think harder.

The problem is that the one model that Phil Heatley keeps holding up as an example of gilded goodness is Newmont’s Waihi and the numbers aren’t adding up. While there may be billions in mineral wealth buried in Northland, the model that we have in Waihi shows that it does not get shared around the place it is extracted from. In Waihi, with the mine, the unemployment rate still sat at 8.3% when the economy was booming in 2006. Northland has an unemployment rate of about 8.7% today. In Waihi, with the mine, the median income is $15,200 – about $9000 a year less than the wider area of Waikato and 5000 less than the North.

Most poignantly - in Waihi – with the mine, 43.1% of the people aged 15 years and over have no formal qualifications compared with 29% for the Waikato as a whole.

 This PR gig is harder than I thought. I might leave it to Shane and his mining rhetoric rumbling like houses falling down mineshafts. Because at some stage I know someone will come and ask me ‘Show me the Money.” And so far, at least I don’t know what I’d have to tell them. nickie.muir@clear.net.nz

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Protestors or real people?

Words are funny things. Some carry weight while others are frivolous frippery.

 Like the last two.

They frame how we see the world in such a way as to change our mind about it. Which is why, smooth guys in PR get paid such a lot to put a good spin on them. It’s also why an honest argument can be blindsided with good bluff and a lot of quick banter. Actual numbers and information is not necessary – it’s all in the delivery, which is why the recent HAC debacle has a lot to do with the mining argument that is just starting to wind into gear.  Dr. Martin Esser is right when he said in Monday’s letters to the ed. that the financial burden to be carried long term from toxic mining will far outweigh the costs of the museum. We should all save our breath. 

But he’s wrong in thinking that the issues are completely separate and irrelevant to each other.

Any argument that there has been a real consultation process on either issue is moot if only one group in the community has been consulted.

In the case of the HAC – the results of the consultation were ignored and in the case of mining, only those with a vested interest have been invited into the discussions. Yesterday a few sustainable living advocates showed up at the stadium to show that there is a part of the community that questions the benefits of mining in Northland. Undoubtedly they will have been made a joke of by those inside and classified under the‘ protester/activist’ label, and their opinions filed under ‘ vexatious misc’ where they can be forgotten.

Officially, a ‘protestor’ is no longer one of the ‘real people’, who can be whoever you want them to be depending on where your interests lie.

Substitute ‘real people’ for ‘the silent majority’ and it’s just another way of saying ‘the people I choose to listen to’, unless you’ve got the verified numbers to back you up.

It’s unfortunate that those with concerns over mining have already been forced into ‘protestor’ mode by being excluded from the process from the outset. Perhaps mining is good for Northland. But who will ever know if this is the level of debate that is made available to the community by our political leaders?

Recently I attended a Mine watch Northland meeting and was surprised to find there were no professional protestors there. Everyone I spoke to had jobs. There were business people, farmers, tourism operators, refugees from ex-mining towns, an entomologist, a physiotherapist, a retired nun, an engineer, a trustee of a local marae, health workers, educators and more than a few Mums. And yes. There was one, dreadlocked and very entertaining advocate for the ecology who works for Forest and Bird. There was ‘no whining’. But there were a lot of questions. Questions that had not been answered by Phil Heatley blithely telling those left on the outside of the non-information meeting at Waitangi to; ‘go ask a geologist.’

But what would happen if we reframed the labels a little? What if the ‘anti-mining’ lot took on the mantle of ‘pro-healthy waterways’? Because that was what most of the people there were concerned about.

If I were a dairy farmer relying on rivers that could be contaminated by a potential mine I would be worried about what could be in the milk concentrate that I was sending away as baby formula. I wouldn’t be an ‘anti-mining’ lobbyist. I’d be a ‘concerned business man.’ The same would apply if I had an oyster operation and the mine was in the catchment, or I had a license to fish eels, or was a small holding agriculturalist.

What if ‘protesters’ were just Mums who were not sure that a bit of Persil would be enough to get rid of the dirt once it’s been through Newmont’s mill? So if these people’s questions are entirely invalid, if in fact these are not ‘the people’, then someone please – tell me where the ‘real people’ are.

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Political ninja in the dark

I have a few vices which I am embarrassed about but over which I have no self-control.  Talking to newsreaders when they give the same gravitas to such things as a civil war in Syria as to the reformation of some girl band full of sulky middle aged women in pony-tails pretending not to hate each other. This was how I came to be rolling round the living room moaning: ‘Argentina has just privatised it’s energy sector and you’re telling me about the bloody Spice Bints’. Wendy Petrie did not answer back.  Another is finding double meanings funny. The loosely veiled slight. The intended but politely gloved dig. Last week’s handshake between the Queen and former IRA commander Martin McGuiness is a case in point. ‘Goodbye and Godspeed’ in Gaelic, were his words or so he said. ‘Bugger off and Good Riddance’ seems more likely. Odd choice of words. But definitely funny. I became over-sensitised as an exchange student in Thailand when I gave the traditional introductory speech at the school assembly. Out of cross cultural respect I decided to give it a go in Thai and so phonetically wrote down an inane greeting mentioning something about my likes and hobbies. Classic student drivel. What I hadn’t yet discovered was that Thai is a tonal language which means any sound can have 5 different meanings depending on what tone you use. “Hello. My name is Nickie. I am from New Zealand and I like horse riding and Thai fruit especially the big bananas.’ Or I thought that’s what I said. Why then did the kids fall down laughing, and as they were rolling around crying, why were the Thai teachers smacking them with rulers? The English teacher rudely pushed me out of the way, grabbing the microphone and made some form of explanation while berating the unruly students. When she could get over her embarrassment she explained that what I had in fact said was “Hello – I am Nickie and I like horse poo and big Thai willies.” It took nearly a year for the Dean to stop looking at me like I was the epitome of Western degeneracy and the very reason that it was important to uphold good Buddhist values within the school.   The worst vice of all however is the one I can’t give up. There are no 7 step programmes. It is a dirty secret that I keep going back to knowing it will lead to mental deterioration and futile rage. Parliamentary TV When I can, I watch it in the full knowledge it will lead the mind to dark places.  Last week’s effort was a living theatre piece based around the concept of ‘filibustering.’ I watched Tony Ryall in political drag, speaking on behalf of Kate Wilkinson - the minister for Conservation and not answering anything at all. I have to give it to him – he’s good. Unlike our own MP Phil Heatley, who constantly repeats the party line as a substitute for giving a straight answer. If words were numbchucks Tony Ryall is a ninja warrior. While impressive it still leaves everybody in the dark with no idea where the bodies are and the lurking worry that there’s a legislative lunatic on the prowl waiting to ambush those of us who still give a toss. It also manages to circumnavigate the whole democratic process. It even drove Lockwood Smith to stop the proceedings and insist that “If Ministers don’t want to be held to account – the answer is very simple: don’t be a Minister.” One way of telling our elected representatives to straighten up and fly right. “Members have a right to ask questions, and in a parliamentary democracy – the House deserves an answer.” It’s also up to the public to make a habit of getting the questions straight and putting them to MP’s so that they may put them to the House. Which is the only place I can think of where double or nothing meanings are not amusing at all.

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High decibel education

“I don’t want my kid to go to a low ‘decibel’ school”. She was adamant.

Her child’s need for a high decibel school did not include her having a hearing problem. Not having too many students for whom English was a second language or those who had the behaviour issues that are sometimes associated with poverty seemed important. She didn’t seem concerned about the behaviour issues associated with wealth: i.e. unrestricted access to money and alcohol and parents who sometimes opt out of the hard balancing act of gentle guidance and guerrilla parenting because they feel they’ve ‘paid the fees’ to make sure the kids turn out alright. Couple this with an encouraged view of entitlement rather than service and I’d have thought it was a recipe for disaster.

She was convinced that a high ‘decibel’ school was the key to a good education, genuinely believing it was an indicator of the school’s performance.

I’d come back from overseas and it took me awhile to realise that her daughter did not suffer from any hearing impairment requiring amplified sound in the classrooms but that she was in fact talking about deciles; a relatively random rating of the material backgrounds the kids at the local school came from.

It was odd that she was telling me this because my kid, although just a pre-schooler at the time, also had English as her second language and wasn’t it the low-income immigrant kids who were under the most pressure from home to perform well at school?

What I didn’t tell her about the school in which she had enrolled her child and which I also attended for 6 years was the down side of being in a high ‘decibel’ catchment. Although there were a number of stellar teachers who were visionary and for whom teaching was a true vocation and not just a job – they too were constrained by the expectations of an unofficial ‘league table’ of exam pass rates. At the end of the year all students who were expected to fail were sent home a letter asking them to seriously consider not sitting the exam – thereby giving them an official excuse not to; effectively making this cop out legitimate to their parents. In terms of life lessons it was a big failure of the system but it did ensure that our school ranked right up there and echoed loudly in the chambers of the upwardly mobile at a very high decibel indeed. People wanted to send their kids there regardless of the fact that our school pass rates showed no indication of what a truly gifted teacher can do which is; to get the kids at the very bottom through while still letting the ones at the top shine.

Another thing I didn’t tell her is that I learnt a lot about other kids who were… well… just like me. In a school of 800 girls only 6 of us took Te Reo and in that class there were only 2 brown faces. Amongst the well-heeled I also learnt about the great kiwi cultural pastime; binge drinking. The headlines over the last 2 years have shown that nothing much has changed in those high decile schools in Auckland.

In all the arguments about ‘white flight’ and whether or not league tables would bring about more teacher accountability what has been forgotten is that the New Zealand education system and therefore teachers are doing very well.

“The performance of New Zealand students is significantly above the OECD average in all areas assessed by the Programme for International Student Assessment . But while on average New Zealand students are among the top performers in the world, there is a large dispersion of achievement scores. Performance differences are most pronounced within schools rather than between schools.”

No amount of flitting between schools will allow parents to escape the disparities in achievement that stem from wider societal problems rather than weaknesses in the education system itself.

Until we address those, whatever the ‘decibel’ it seems that school is the answer – definitely not the problem.

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I am intensely impatient

Patience. Such a lonely word. It doesn’t feel virtuous. It’s annoying – prissy even. Sitting there on the page doing embroidery and waiting for something to happen. I prefer Patience’s naughty sisters: Impetuosity and Imprudence. They’re good time girls that don’t hang around twiddling their thumbs. But they’re also like the girlfriends you can go out and have a few drinks with but then have to go home before it ends in tears or the police station. They may be fun but I’ve learnt to not hang around them long enough to pay too high a price for the good times.

Patience is one of the many virtues I seem to have missed out on (Chastity and Temperance left their business cards somewhere in the education I got from the Sisters – I left a message but they never got back to me.) I blame it on genetics.

My father is hopelessly impatient – we had to buy a magnetic scrabble board when we were kids because he’d upend the whole game when it started testing the boundaries of his tolerance for sitting still. We timed it at a maximum of 8 and a half minutes. He also once burnt the paint off a brand new tractor by setting a fire under it to get it started on a frosty morning (it worked) and nearly killed my brother and I for not handing him the ‘donger knocker’ immediately on trying to haul in an enormous schnapper. We were about 7 and 8 at the time and while the Moby Dickian fight was ensuing, complete with colourful expletives we stared at each other nonplussed and wondered what a donger knocker could possibly be. He explained (having kicked the side of the boat and thrown the gaff over board in frustration to follow the now lost fish) that it was bloody obvious that a donger knocker was something with which to dong (hit) the knocker (head) of the fish that would have been the envy of all his fishing cabal if he hadn’t been so unfortunate as to have been lumped with two offspring who didn’t understand English and couldn’t obey orders immediately. We shrugged and decided he should have spent more time at the scrabble table and doing more reading like Mum said.

The sad thing is that I totally get the ‘donger knocker’ moment where I want something fixed (my way) right now. Spoilt with instant information and entertainment I can’t understand why – once I think something requires change that it can’t be done immediately.

World fish stocks replenished (kazoom!)

Next week! Child poverty. Magically vanished!

The brilliant absurdity of this cop out is that it requires no sustained effort or the requisite ability to maintain a long-term memory on the issues that matter. By election time I’ve usually forgotten why I even care.

In scanning the headlines (‘Man has giant Feet’ ‘Coca Cola kills Woman’) I am intensely impatient with myself and the universe when I find I’ve read the article before registering that it has absolutely no newsworthiness and will not contribute in any way to my understanding of the world.

Diligence would help here; an ability to focus on the important things, winnow the chaff and follow through with clear-headed constancy. A sober understanding of what needs to be done and when.

Considering all of this while icing the birthday cake for the small person I stand back to survey my handiwork. “It doesn’t look like the shape of a nine Mum– it looks like a circle with a random stick. No offense but I think you were in lala land’. In truth it looks like the kind of cake Homer Simpson would make and there’s a moment when I hear myself say ‘Why you little….” and have the sudden impulse to run around strangling her in the time honoured style of Bart and Homer. I’ve only just realised that this is not in fact a valid parenting technique that Ian Grant would endorse. I know it’s not ok but sometimes just losing it would feel so damn good.

Patience. The theory is great – it’s the practical that tests me.

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From the lemon farm or being paid a visit

Dear Readers, I am writing to you from the lemon farm. It’s nice here. Quiet. So many…er..lemons. Kerikeri is not exactly Siberia and as a destination for self-induced exile – there are worse places to be. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not hiding exactly but I have changed my name and now wear a moustache.

Last week I wrote a column expressing my opinion regarding some of the unusual decision-making processes that our council engages in. I mentioned the CEO’s salary and my personal opinion that 15 years in the job might be a call for a bit of fresh air.

Over a hundred families’ rates go towards paying Mr. Simpson’s salary, and, being a public servant, I thought a member of the public could freely express her opinion on how she felt she was being served.

My bad.

Hey – we can’t all be Russian developers with council numbers on speed dial.

Mr. Simpson paid me a visit. Which was nice – sort of. The café was spookily empty when he came in and I was alone. He shook my hand the way a father does to his daughter’s new boyfriend. Intimidating. 

He asked me how old my daughter was – which was odd. I told him and asked him how old his was and he told me. 

“Mr. Simpson, I fail to see the relevance of this conversation, “ I said. 

“Look, he thundered, my wife comes from one of the founding families, the Nova Scotia boats that came out from Scotland….” 

“Are we going back 200 years now Mr. Simpson?’ Lost, I shrugged. 

“Look, – she knows everyone in Northland and is related to half of them and you will find that there are a lot of people who back me and think I am doing a fantastic job.’ 

I agreed that there probably were and hoped they would write lots of letters to the editor and then we could all join in a big group hug. 

What I didn’t say was that I hadn’t been aware that Northland had a landed gentry or that they held any special privileges. If that were the case I wondered if Mr. Simpson had considered that some of the founding ships had actually been called waka and perhaps Mr. Harawira should be informed of his true status. 

‘You have slagged me and hurt me and my family’ he roared. 

This was getting more random by the minute and I hated to interrupt but I had never mentioned his family – he had, and he had started the conversation by mentioning my daughter. In South America that alone would be a call to arms. 

A small voice in the back of my head said ‘You’re not in Guatemala now Dr. Ropata.” I told it to shut up. Maybe this is the way things are done up here. Who knows? 

It’s nice to know that I can wander into Mr. Simpson’s office unannounced and with no appointment to randomly give my opinion on council decisions as Mr. Simpson had just done to me. Surely the arrangement is mutual and all citizens can do this. 

“Who are you?” he asked. 
“A rate-payer” I replied. 
He blinked. 

It was a Mexican stand-off with no sombreros. 

They give you all this power to write what you like…” he trailed off. 

“Nothing that is not factually accurate. The rest is just opinion and what I wrote is not personal. 

“ To me, it’s personal! he growled. 

No point in arguing the principle over the personal. He was just plain mad. 

“I’m the tea lady at the local café. If we’re talking power ratios I think you’ll find the difference in your favour Mr. Simpson.” 

But I was talking to his back as he stormed out. He hadn’t even bought a coffee. 

I went back to wash the pile of dishes that lay waiting. Powerfully. Masterfully. And so here I am; squeezing another bounteous lemon into my gin and sipping it through my moustache and I find I’m shaken, but strangely – not stirred.

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Picking Lemons or Whangarei District Council

‘Maybe you should go lemon picking up in Kerikeri’ he suggested. “Why?” I asked not getting where the conversation was heading. “ Well, you voted for Morris Cutforth, you said that Phil Heatley would romp home last election and you liked the idea of the Hundertwasser building – I’d have thought you’d be an expert in picking lemons by now.” Ha. Ha. He wasn’t laughing with me.  

I do support the idea of a Hundertwasser building or something (anything!) that will attract more people to Whangarei. Whether it’s the right time or place is questionable but there are things about the latest decision that rankle nonetheless. I’m grappling with what the Mayor was reported to have said at last week’s resolution to fund the Hundertwasser. I’m considering asking him for next week’s lotto numbers as his psychic abilities are astonishing. That you can receive 65% of submissions against a proposal in a community infamous for its pathological apathy and then ignore them entirely is astounding. That you can then claim to read the minds of those who are silent but by your own calculations; the majority, and then do their bidding is nothing short of miraculous. 

Forget the Hundertwasser I’m prepared to sell my house and follow Morris, Kahu and his merry bunch of minions towards the promised land. Which, according to the mouth-pieces for the mining industry could be somewhere north of Puhipuhi in a town near you. The dismissal of those councillors with reservations about community buy-in by our Mayor was on the brink of offensive. That they; ‘’have got ratepayers in their areas that are against it and they need to take notice of what they're saying to them, so they want a bob each way.’’ Taking heed of rate-payers or even (perish the thought) citizens’ concerns! Disappointing. Radical even in these parts. They should be punished! I’m sure they will be. 

 The message is very clear to those of you who took the time out of your busy days to write tedious things like submissions when you could have been fishing or with your kids. Next time – don’t bother. The Mayor can read our minds and he’ll do what’s good for us. 

What is of equal concern is that the business brain behind council which should be the CEO, has been a very public agitator for the Hundertwasser, spending, along with Kahu Sutherland at least a quarter of a million dollars on trips to Vienna to back the proposal. 

Perhaps I’m old school, but I thought CEO’s of councils were the shorts, socks and sandals kind of guys (what used to be called a Town Clerk I think) the steady hand on the cheque book. Didn’t they advise on a project as to whether the numbers stacked up and if it was good for the community rather than be an active proponent for or against? I know. That was before they got all sexy and said they were worth the same as the guys in the private sector. No one bothered to tell them that the private sector salaries were also entirely fictitious but I didn’t think, on nearly 300K a year it could be considered a job for life. 

Mark Simpson has been CEO of WDC for nearly 20 years. Wasn’t he around in Stan Semenoff’s first time as Mayor in the early ‘90’s? It shouldn’t be surprising that a CEO starts to merge the lines between stewardship and ownership when the timespan with that ‘enterprise’ is so long. It’s why private sector CEOs move on after 5years. It’s not his fault. These councillors, bar one voted for him. And we voted for them. 

Still it must have been nice for the councillors to have Stan back in chambers, eye-balling dissenters, to see finished what he’d started. Nice to have him back. Yup. Almost like he never left.

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Decorative womanhood

Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to care. I would genuinely like to care less. Unlike Winston I would crave the baubles of the office of decorative womanhood and in my fantasy world I would spend the day choosing sofa fabric and doing lunch with friends. Charming and entertaining friends. Not the ones whose husbands or kids are driving them mental, are ringing to tell me about the break up/down through they’re having with someone or something I don’t need to care about.  

I would be one of those women I admire; a floating, aloof island of nonchalance, someone who doesn’t have to write things on her hand in order that she remember them the same afternoon. Things like: ‘pick kid up from school’.

Someone who doesn’t need a diary because it’s just so great being flexible and ‘in the moment.’

I would also care deeply about skin products rather than fling the cheapest cream probably made from unfairly traded babies somewhere in Uganda into the trolley as I whizz past the wine isle where the small person last week suggested a Pinot Gris ‘because she knew I wanted to’ making both me and the demo lady think that perhaps I might have a problem. I would not care about politics. Or the environment.
I were a character in Animal Farm I’d be Molly. An indulged show pony; tricks for ribbons. I would guide writers from House and Garden through my house which would be full of tastefully arranged pieces of infinite interestingness contrived to elicit tales of intrigue and wonder. I would offer them coffee from civet poo or some exotic tea that no one has ever heard of. Actually my house does kind of look like a centre-fold for House and Garden. If they were doing a non-fiction piece about places that have been ransacked by child soldiers and then set up as Hippy Headquarters for the advancement of crochet rugs (sorry Nan.) Last time I checked there was a pohutukawa sapling actually growing from a windowsill - I could tell the House and Garden people that it was all part of the eco plan as I lounged against my designer worm

‘How come,’ said a friend recently, ‘other people seem to glide through life making everything look easy?’

I suggested that they might be really great actors or perhaps our self expectations are too high now we are supposed to look like models, have 5 children (preferably from 3 different countries) and make a short documentary film while redecorating the house according to much of the magazine fodder we love to read.

Berating herself for looking constantly like a ‘distracted mess on a mission’ she went on to say that she just couldn’t understand how come she couldn’t quite get it all together to glide through life looking like Beyonce and sounding like Hilary Clinton whilst baking macaroons in a whole NZ pink-aproned hottest baker scenario.

Can’t think.

Could have been the two toddlers she has or the autistic older child whom she has just taught to read despite the school and family telling her that would be impossible, or could it be her full time study schedule or the upcoming exams she needs to sit in order to practise? Could be her sick mother she’s been looking after or the advocacy work she’s been doing for other parents also battling with autism.

What my mate is missing as far as matching the high standards of perfect womanhood as set out by magazine land is; the staff. And an inability to care less. And there are lots of women I know who suffer the same malady. The working Mums who still run school gala committees or the bake sales for the sick friend with no funds despite having very little themselves. They could care less - they just choose not to.

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Council complacency

The peasants are revolting. Well, maybe not the peasants. More a mild uprising of refugees from Remuera; retired lawyers and judges - inhabiting the fair shores of Mangawhai.

Those bloody Aucklanders – coming up here and expecting such luxuries as transparency in public office and fancy stuff like ‘due process.’  Who do they think they are and what did they expect when they came ‘ere to dwell amongst us in our feudal kingdom? Democracy? Accountability?

We have mini-emperors and developer warlords who wield undue influence in the parochial passage-ways of power. Surely these rank outsiders should know that! Why don’t they know their place?

It’s the way it’s always been and until recently looked like it was the way it was going to stay.

Councils here seem to assume a general complacency gives an implicit mandate to swing free and easy with the public purse, and woe betide the ‘haters’ that criticise the tendency. They are being ‘negative’ or ‘anti-development’. Which is why we are so fond of publicly excluded meetings. Bloody public. Always criticising and asking annoying questions. Doesn’t the public understand that ‘commercially sensitive’ means ‘shut up and go away?’ But it seems the citizens of the Kaipara district have maxed out the credit on credulity towards the numbers being thrown at them by their council and have decided to ask some really tough questions like: how exactly were the figures arrived at for the now infamous sewerage system and who exactly signed off on it? As for who will pay for it; undoubtedly after the whole Mexican soap opera has played out -it will be rate-payers. Again. And we’re about to go another round with the release of the data for the mining survey yesterday.

Unfortunately those of us who own small businesses or are working 12 hours a day couldn’t make it to the big reveal by Phil Heatley at the Copthorne on a Tuesday lunchtime. I’m sure there’ll be other opportunities to attend public meetings regarding mining in Northland which the working public can attend. The numbers for mining are even more difficult to grasp than those for sewerage systems and it does little good for Phil to endlessly repeat that ‘we’ve been doing it’ for 50 years and it’s all been good so far because that’s simply not true.

Tax payers are about to fork out close to 22 million dollars on the most contaminated site in New Zealand; the abandoned Tui mine at Te Aroha. In 2009 the government estimate for the clean up was 9 million. The numbers have more than doubled in less than 3 years. The mining company has long gone and, like the Pike River disaster or even, to this point at least, the Rena clean up, it is the tax payer that is picking up the tab.

Nick Smith last year said that the Tui clean up was essential as the cost of the unstable tailings dam failing was potentially 168 million dollars. A conservative estimate at best because should that happen the livelihood of all the mussel farms and tourist operations in the Thames/Hauraki area would be decimated.

What is recreational fisheries for the entire Hauraki Harbour for the next decade worth? Scallops. Cockles. Pipi. All fish. Our international reputation for seafood exports?

A Japanese housewife is not going to differentiate between Hauraki mussels and those that come from Nelson – they’ll just stop buying NZ. It’s a lot to add up and there’s a lot to ask, like; ‘In the interests of corporate responsibility towards the environment and citizens will this government ask mining companies for an up front bond held in trust as in the reasonably successful arrangement at Golden Cross mine?’ Or; ‘Will the mining companies invest in upskilling Northland youth to work for them or will it simply outsource labour and service contracts ?’

If we’re given an opportunity to ask that is.

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Promiscuous thoughts of Colin Craig

I pine for Colin. Not Pine Tree Colin. Not me. None of that real bloke – break your nose and put it back and never talk about it stuff. No. I’m thinking more of a little man in a suit who, with those bedroom eyes called me hither from those billboards the last election.

It might have been the radiant moral purity emanating - I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t help thinking thoughts. Naughty promiscuous thoughts, whenever I think of Colin Craig. I guess I just have a special affection for people who say extremely bizarre things or maybe it’s just that we kiwi girls are, if you listen to Colin, so easy. According to the mad Latin – this is true. Which I find interesting, if slightly offensive. His theory is that the only way we have a sustainable population base is because the girls take the initiative – if mating were dependent on the conquest skills of Kiwi blokes, according to his anthropological studies conducted in pubs in Whangarei, we’d be extinct by the middle of the century.

But academia bores me. My mind is on Colin. He won’t take my calls. It’s two in the morning I drive round to his but John Banks and Dotcom are there.

Dotcom wants to give him money to support compulsory sterilisation of all politicians. He wants to organise supporters for a rally.

Colin tells him he’ll need at least a hundred bucks a head because that’s what it cost him last time he tried to organise a spontaneous outbreak of outrage in the populace over the anti-smacking law.

John has a bunch of flowers and a Mexican quartet singing songs of evangelical love to Colin on the balcony above.
Colin insists that he has chosen marriage as an alternative to a gay life. John says he’ll jump into bed with anyone as long as they’re paddling their cabbage boat somewhere politically advantageous to himself. He can’t see why Colin is getting so uptight.

The Mexican quartet start singing ’50 ways to leave your Lover’ in Spanish accents.

Dotcom asks John if he’s trying to tell him something. John thinks he might have been but he’s forgotten.

Dotcom leaves to get his inflatable tank and says when he comes back everyone will be very very sorry.

Dotcom gone, Banks declares his ability to change his ways. He says he can change teams, change games, pitch or catch whatever Colin thinks would work and couldn’t he just pop in for a quick cup of tea and a chat?

Colin calls him a pervert and says he’s already betrothed to Mr. Key, who is also married and has never been seen anywhere near Dotcom at the casino. He says that if John Banks doesn’t leave him alone he’ll call the police.

At which John Banks sputters: ‘ Transexuals, bisexuals and transvestites are not wanted in the police. The last thing we need in this country is policemen walking the beat wearing lipstick and pantyhose.”

I wonder if this applies to women – and also want to remind him that he already said this in 1992 but then remember he has short and long term memory loss.

Colin starts throwing the pot-plants at John who retreats to his helicopter and is attacked at about 20 metres altitude with a barrage of fireworks. The helicopter crashes and deflates the blow up tank and Dotcom, who is left with a permanent injury.

Dotcom decides to ring Nick Smith to see if he can get any action from ACC. The cell phone rings from deep under a rock surrounded by freshly dug turf. John looks a little embarrassed – or nervous – it’s hard to tell.

Michelle Boag shows up and says that she is Dotcom’s pakeha kaumatua and would anyone like a jar of plum jam. Strangely Michelle Boag is the perfect solution to quell anybody’s ardour and I’m relieved to find my promiscuous tendencies once again under control.

I head home for a cuppa with the mad Latin to whom I am happily unmarried.

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