Survivor: the National Party edition

And so farewell, Bill English. No more stupid snaps on Twitter of him grinning over a spaghetti-topped pizza. No more inane photocalls to ‘liven up’ his image. No more celebrity boxing matches. Politics is often a shallow business: this is unsurprising, if you consider how fickle and shallow most of the electorate’s grasp of policies actually is. It is also why gobshite populists often thrive, sadly. And this is what makes the step from nerdy policy wonk to Prime Minister a difficult one. If, for good or ill, as diverse a bunch as Kirk, Muldoon, Lange, Bolger, Clark, Key and Ardern all had or have that wretchedly indefinable quality of “X factor”, to Bill English, the phrase probably just meant a lowbrow piece of reality TV that his kids might have enjoyed. At his resignation presser, flanked by his family, you could almost see a few brown hairs had come back. Now he could take on a new challenge, untrammeled by the thankless task of being Leader of the Opposition. I am sure he could compare notes with Andrew Little on the restorative health benefits of quitting the Worst Job In Politics.

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No longer interested in a pizza the leadership action.

Whatever one thinks of his political and social beliefs, English at least showed a willingness to think the unthinkable, and base it on evidence, such as his infamous quote that “prisons are a fiscal and moral failure”. This is not infamous, of course, to any progressive who has long understood the utter failure, social and economic, of ‘easy’, tough guy, custodial solutions that much of our corrections system offers. But for the National faithful, for whom prison is a deserved moral outcome for wrongdoers, and no two ways about it, this would have caused more than a little disquiet. Garth McVicar screeched ‘betrayal’. Even his flagship Social Investment Agency always seemed something that many of his colleagues liked to champion to the media without walking the walk, so to speak.

But Bill snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last spring, and the buck had to stop there. His decision to call it a day was his to make, but only so long as he made it, sooner rather than later, before the 2020 election. And around 11am today, his successor will be chosen.

To say this leadership election is uncharted territory is a huge understatement. David Farrar thinks that the fact that five candidates have chucked their hat in the ring is a positive for National as it opens the debate. Certainly, a ‘proper’ contest is taken by political parties as a sign of good health. But the truth is, wide open contests like this are rarely a good sign. They are also rare.

Virtually every change of leader National have ever had has involved a replacement rolling an incumbent or a straight two-horse race when a leader has stepped down. The one exception, when Muldoon fought on after his 1984 snap election loss, and stood against McLay and Bolger, hardly counts, as Piggy was a busted flush with most of his caucus colleagues by this point, and was obstinately trying to save some face. The benefit of this is that a clear winner is anointed who has sufficient momentum to see off potential rivals for the medium term.

Labour, too, have historically had either caucus coups to depose a struggling leader, or a no contest coronation (Goff succeeding Clark). The recent exceptions, when the party changed the rules to allow ordinary members and affiliates a say, illustrate the point I am trying to make. David Cunliffe cultivated a lot of support from ordinary members but was loathed by his caucus – a recipe for infighting culminating in Labour’s nadir of 25% in 2014. The election that produced Andrew Little as leader was nailbitingly close, and so there was always a sense of doubt as to whether Labour had got the right guy. Labour knew the public had tired of leadership contests, and so they showed admirable public support for Little, but it did not show in the polls until his replacement with Ardern: a good old-fashioned retirement to the study with revolver and whisky, followed by an emphatic coronation of his successor.

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Bucks Fizz haven’t aged well. The National caucus are now “making their mind up”.

Whoever wins today – and the smart money says it is a toss-up between Bridges and Adams – will call for unity. But unity emerges from successful leadership, and not the other way around. And the elephant in the room is Judith Collins. She is a formidable opponent with a strong level of support among National grassroots (just read the comments on Kiwiblog and WhaleOil if you have the stomach for it). Yet, she has too many caucus enemies and too few friends, and so her candidacy, like Mitchell’s and Joyce’s is about raising or maintaining profile for frontbench place. Or, like Cunliffe, going directly over the heads of her caucus colleagues and pitching herself to the grassroots. She wouldn’t connive to get the rules changed to allow members a say in future contests, would she?

This is where it gets interesting: if the winner feels obligated to offer plum roles to his or her defeated opponents, it reduces the scope for rewarding one’s supporters. And yet leaving someone like Collins out in the cold is also dangerous. For once, the size of National’s caucus is an issue here: too many MPs with ambition will be sitting on the sidelines, watching and waiting.

There is also the prospect that this contest will bring National’s ideological tussle bubbling to the surface. John Key kept the lid on this effortlessly with strong leadership and high polling. But parties are simply less inclined to show self-discipline in opposition. Without the focus of governance and ministerial responsibility, MPs and members feel they have more luxury to consider the best ideological foot forward, and that is when the infighting starts.

National have always dismissed ideological infighting as a disease of the left, conveniently forgetting that the last stoush between the socially progressive neolibs and more Muldoonist interventionist conservatives led to a certain W. Peters walking out of the party in 1993. Get out your popcorn and watch it all unfold.

 

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A tale of two stadia

Six months since my last post – ouch! Apologies to my thousands hundreds two dozen admirers casual followers, but there was the little matter of an arduous yet ultimately successful election campaign (more of that in a later post) and then a long Christmas sojourn in Blighty and Singapore (more of that later too).

But all my gloating on FaceBook at being stuck on an equatorial island basking in 30 deg. over New Year, cut no ice with joyous Wellingtonians living the dream of Wellington-on-a-good-day every damn day of this summer. The one time Welly bakes in Auckland-esque sultriness, I’m overseas – typical.

So now I’m back, the natural thing to do was a visit to the cricket – well, two actually. I didn’t plan sporting gluttony, but after enjoying the Black Caps thrash a hapless Pakistan at the Basin on the Friday, I thought I might as well enjoy the Black Caps thrash a hapless Pakistan in the T20 at the Cake Tin too.

Two great results (from an NZ perspective, obv), but two quite different ambiences. And it’s the vibe of the thing, as Dennis Denuto might say, that prompted this post.

The Basin has come under fire in recent years. The player facilities are not particularly first class, let alone Test class, apparently. NZ Cricket were so ashamed that those connoisseurs of class, the Barmy Army, might turn their noses up at the Basin’s rather tired fabric, that they scheduled a day-night affair for the first Test at glitzy Eden Park – the suburban ground that’s always been a bit identity-fluid between rugby venue and cricket venue. Dire warnings were issued that if the grand old Basin didn’t tidy itself up with a haircut and a revamp, it might not host a ‘top’ side again…

Stung by this criticism, from torpor into a sort of mild lethargy, there have been some modest changes. Well, actually, the end result is excellent. Food and drink, often historically a poor choice at Kiwi stadia, is superb. A mini precinct was created by temporarily closing the little bit of the roundabout that passes directly in front of the main gate, and putting down a piece of astroturf. This was then filled with a delectable range of food trucks – Greek food, Churros, gourmet burgers, craft beer – where Fritz’s Wieners was perhaps the least imaginative of the bunch. And with a good clutch of them, the queues moved quickly.

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Wellington on a good day, squared.

In contrast, the Cake Tin fare was still grimly predictable: manky chips, petrol station pies and hot dogs. Our new arrival from Switzerland was mortified by the sausage-on-a-stick hotdog he mistakenly ordered: I tried to reassure him that had he stipulated the American hotdog he was hoping for, it wouldn’t have tasted much better. We were fortuitously close enough to the concourse bar, where one could at least purchase Chomp beer. For most of the plebs, it was a Hobson’s Choice of Tui or Heineken Light.

The food situation is insuperable for Westpac Stadium: there is a need to have a single onsite caterer (Spotless) for all the corporate catering. Their contract understandably precludes parachuting in Macca’s or Hell, let alone more gourmet food trucks, apart from the ubiquitous Fritz’s, which usually sells out well before the end of play anyway. Nor do I think the service or management is bad. There is a refreshment place by every other aisle, and so the queues were not long. But if the alternative is firing up the BBQ at home and putting on the big TV for its excellent, detailed coverage, I can see why many don’t bother. There is a closeness to the cricket at the Basin which can’t be replicated by TV.

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At least you’re not really required to stay in your allotted seat.

This isn’t really a problem for football codes. There’s only really enough time during the match to grab a few beers and some chips anyway. But when the shortest format of cricket weighs in at plus three hours, the customer experience needs more care and consideration.

The main issue, however, seems to be that Wellingtonians (well, the ones that like cricket) are making their preference plain. The crowd for the T20 was a lowly 8,500. In a 35,000 capacity stadium that makes for a lot of empty seats. There were at least as many at the Basin if not more; or at least it felt that way, and the atmosphere was somehow more substantial. Furthermore, Monday was a public holiday and a required commitment of just 3 hours, while Friday was a working day for many for a full-day ODI. Still, the Basin seemed to be where it was at, so to speak.

Nor is it the format: I’ve seen the Basin three-quarters full for a weekday Super Smash T20 game, commencing at 4pm, which had nothing riding on it because Wellington were unable to qualify for the playoffs. An earlier fixture featuring big Jesse Ryder tonking sixes was played on a mild Saturday evening to just a few hundred spectators at an eerie, echoing Westpac. Perhaps the most damning evidence is that NZ Cricket has been signalling its intent by moving most domestic matches and more and more internationals to smaller ’boutique’ stadia, largely to make the smaller crowds look better. The quintessential Kiwi cricket experience is found at the Basin, Pukekura Park, University Oval and the like. I doubt Kiwis will ever embrace live cricket attendance in the same numbers as Aussies or Poms: 80,000 turned out at Etihad (or whatever it’s called these days) to watch the Melbourne Stars play crap again in the BBL. Cricket certainly matters to Kiwis – just not with the intensity that rugby does.

There is even scope for relatively inexpensive improvement. If Wellington can ever come to any agreement on the transport ‘solution’ around the Basin, a mild reboot of the venue is surely worth factoring in: floodlights, a strengthened Museum stand, some more covered areas and competitive stand pricing for those who don’t want to melt on the bank. The ‘Gabba even has a pool, although a cluster of hireable hot tubs might be more suitable for the cooler Wellington climate.

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Oh yes. Definitely.

Oh look – I seem to have indulged in my annual Cake Tin hatchet job again. I don’t wish to rub further salt in: its location and facilities are still light years ahead of rickety, exposed Athletic Park. And it has hosted some cracking events in recent years – AB Tests, the odd Warriors game, the Bahrain qualifier, the Sevens in its heyday, Elton John, Bowie in the rain and that England v. NZ Cricket World Cup match – but it just isn’t cricket anymore for me. The wisdom of hindsight only fuels pointless regret, but the decision to build the Cake Tin as an oval, rugby-cricket composite stadium without a roof was probably a mistake. Such multi-sport stadia are quite normal in Oz, but only really in the AFL states, where both summer and winter sports are supposed to be played on the same size field anyway. And the weather is consistently better.

Ominously, WCC are looking seriously at a new, medium-sized indoor arena to bring more entertainment acts to Wellington, with opportunities for netball and basketball. When you consider that Guns ‘n’ Roses came this close to canning their last gig at the Cake Tin due to the swirling wind and drizzle that is hardly unusual for Welly, it’s not hard to see more events being lost. Even for football, league and rugby, one often feels too far away from the action. Yet the costs of installing a roof or converting the stadium to a rectangular one are prohibitive, and much more costly than my suggestions above for improving the Basin.

The resolution of how best to use, manage and improve Wellington’s group of sporting and entertainment facilities will surely keep the councillors’ thinking caps on for quite some time. I’m just not sure that cricket has a worthwhile future at Westpac Stadium.

Jacinda Ardern to be new Dr. Who

Consternation is mounting among political nerds that the latest incarnation of the TV timelord will be a woman. While some have praised the decision, others are less than impressed.

“She may well be charismatic and have youth appeal, but what’s going to happen when she is faced with real challenges on a cosmic scale,” moaned Ol’ White Guy in a tweet. “You need experience, and what has she done exactly? I mean, if Frank Bainimarama starts throwing his weight around, will she have the balls to use her sonic screwdriver.”

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Jacinda’s famous toothy smile

Outgoing Doctor Andrew Little wished his successor all the best, and said he was proud to have piloted the TARDIS for a few episodes. “The dematerialisation circuit’s a bit of a mess (we can’t seem to change the colour away from blue, for example), but our internal systems are holding up fine. I’m sure Jacinda is the one to reverse the poll-arity and get us back to where we should be heading,” he said.

Speculation had been rife that Little might quit after polls showed the timelord over 20% behind the evil Daleks. Supreme Dalek Bill English, whose party has enjoyed unprecedented success largely by promising not to exterminate people, said he was up for the challenge. “I know what it feels like to be polling in the low 20s, so we thought we’d cut out seeking galactic domination and try a bit of social investment instead, and it worked,” he said. “To be honest, I’m a bit jealous. I’d love to borrow the TARDIS to send Todd Barclay back to the Stone Age.”

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Bill English: ‘not worried’

The final straw for some had been the decision to bring dozens of new time-travelling companions over from other countries without checking there was sufficient room for them in the TARDIS. “The TARDIS is certainly bigger on the inside than the outside, but it’s not that big,” a spokesperson admitted.

The Master was unavailable for official comment, although he was happy to chat over a beer or seven in the Backbencher. “A change of Doctor certainly doesn’t alter our bottom lines: either immigration gets cut or the universe gets it,” he growled menacingly.

Peter Dunne was relieved. “When I was the Doctor I wore natty bow ties. It was my trademark. So I’m pleased Jacinda’s got the role because she doesn’t strike me as a bow tie wearing person, and it’s all about me obviously.”

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Peter Dunne

Jacinda gave a positive first speech, stressing the need for unity and for Labour Gallifrey to get back to what it does best: saving the universe from the forces of neoliberalism. When quizzed as to whether this would look like a last minute, desperate move, Jacinda flashed a smile and said, “but the Doctor always saves the day right at the last minute. Why change the habit of a lifetime?”

 

 

 

An open letter to Mrs. May, MP (not PM)

Dear Maggie

Ah no, not Maggie. Maggie May is just a song by Rod Stewart. You thought you were a Maggie Mk II (that Maggie), but you’re just a poor imitation, a sort of Poundshop Thatcher. Sure, there are the snazzy M&S suits and the occasional blue handbag, but the similarities end there, I’m afraid. All soundbite over substance, as Mr. Blair wouldn’t say.

So, Dear Theresa

Voters, eh? Bloody hell!

Pollsters, eh? Double bloody hell!

Your face was a picture on Friday. It reminded me of the face of Boris’s on June 23rd last year. Nasty surprises are always more entertaining for everyone else, of course, but I’m not getting a sympathetic vibe for you from anyone: right now I’d say you are about as popular as the Pope in a Loyalist pub in Belfast.

Speaking of which, it must be pretty galling having to do a deal with Britain’s answer to the Westboro Baptist Church. So when you criticised Jeremy Corbyn (well, when your mates in the press did) for his dialogue with the IRA in the 80s, what we didn’t realise at the time was that it was only his particular choice of Northern Irish extremists that irked you. So long as they have a Union Jack in their logo, their batshit creationism, anti-abortion and anti-gay rhetoric, and former links to UDA paramilitaries are all tickety boo, presumably.

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Have you tried the bacon sandwiches? Deliciously strong and stable.

And those nice people in the Dinosaur Unionist Party will take some bribing negotiating with, won’t they? They’ll want shiny new hospitals and roads and whatnot. But that’s OK because we can just pay for it with your magic money tree. You know, the one you kept banging on about during your ‘campaign’. That same awesome tree has just shelled out about 140 million for this political masterstroke almighty cock-up. Indeed, the electorate enjoyed it so much, we’ll probably have to splash 140m on another one later in the year. All of the above was impeccably costed in your ‘manifesto’, I’m sure.

There were a few other things you kept banging on about in your electrifying campaign. Something about stability, I think. And a red, white and blue Brexit. It sounds very whizzy. I’m sure it was meant to appeal to the youth who turned out to endorse it in record numbers. I mean they must have done, mustn’t they? Their heads can’t possibly have been turned by the chance to go to university without saddling themselves with large debts. Let no one say you have a tin ear for the wishes of the electorate.

And so you made the campaign all about you and your team – an understandable strategy given your charismatic personality, your soft skills, your warm rapport with the people.

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This is a school and these are children, Theresa. Not lepers. Or Marxist saboteurs. HTH.

So it must have been more than a little annoying to see so many voters go for the other guy: Mr. Corbyn – an inoffensive looking chap who seemed to have wandered away absently from his allotment into the political maelstrom. You wasted no time in labelling him (or getting your nice friend Mr. Dacre to label him) ‘Jezbollah’ and a frightful Marxist. You even suggested that all his promises were an unaffordable wishlist of pie-in-the-sky nonsense that would wreck the economy. The trouble with this line is that your cherished Brexit is also an unaffordable bit of pie-in-the-sky nonsense that will wreck the economy, and so here we are.

But it was all worth it in the end, and that’s what counts, yes? What was it you wanted? A mandate. I recall there was a cheap, pungent 80s aftershave called Mandate. I used to wear it in the vain hope it would attract the opposite sex. Perhaps giving someone like you a mandate was similarly repulsive to too many voters, which is a real shame because when you’re not barking inanities about Brexit, you have one or two ideas which aren’t at all bad for a Tory. You got them from your adviser, the guy with the bushy beard, to be fair. Something about trying to protect industries in the Midlands and the North, and making the elderly make a greater contribution to the costs of their aged care rather than kicking the can down the road and dumping it all on the overworked and underpaid.

If Mr. Timothy had been a little more diplomatic in the way he pushed these policies, instead of infuriating your ‘colleagues’ in ‘TeamMay’ with his bullish ego and high-handed style, you might just have started a decent conversation on how on earth we’re going to support the old, and you might just have gone a little way to repairing some of the economic pain and decline suffered by those regions. You must remember that. It was wrought by your heroine, your idol, back in the good old days of the 80s when Tory majorities grew on trees and election campaigns were tiresome interludes to be endured. Instead, poor old Rasputin Nick’s political corpse is drifting in the Neva, an expendable victim of your ego.

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It’s not Little Red Riding Hood, it’s the Big Bad (toothless) Wolf

So, what now? The proverbial glass of whisky and revolver in the library, I suppose. You could always console yourself with a quick listen to your Desert Island Discs choices. One of them was ABBA’s Dancing Queen: allow yourself one last wistful thought of gliding across the world’s stage in those kitten heels. A more fitting choice would be The Winner Takes It All. As the next line goes, the loser has to fall. And even though you ‘won’, you lost really.

Fine dining and electoral timelords

Poor old Jay Rayner. All he wanted was a to be spoiled, pampered, indulged at a classic multi-Michelin Parisian restaurant; instead, he was inspired to write one of his most excoriating reviews. ‘Spherication’ gels that looked ‘like silicone breast implants’, ‘bitter watercress puree like a cat’s arse brushing against nettles’. Ouch. I’ll leave you to digest Rayner’s brutal similes and metaphors, and his devastating critique of an absurdly-priced ‘dining experience’, for yourself.

It made me reflect on the dining experience here in Wellington – or Australasia, for that matter. No Michelin stars down here. The French seem as oblivious to the possibility of fine dining in the Antipodes as the hapless, snooty garcons were oblivious to the possibility that Le Cinq might just be serving up outrageously fancy garbage.

Not that it really matters – in fact, I would suggest it is an asset. The cutting edge techniques and elaborate plating which have been championed by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria since the early 90s, have become almost mainstream. Dusts, soils, gels, foams are making an appearance at all types of eateries, with varied success. Indeed, the only escape to a more rustic, retro presentation is to opt for Italian, or curry, or a good old Eggs Benedict from the cafe: the day they serve me a hollandaise foam, I’ll know the hipster aesthetes have truly taken over.

Matterhorn, still tucked away quietly and inobtrusively on Cuba Street, illustrates this perfectly. A decade ago it was an excellent bar with a decent array of wines and cocktails which served tasty, unpretentious food. Today, the wines are as good as ever, the cocktails a little more eclectic and outre, but the dishes have been elevated to a much higher level.

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Duck ‘four ways’: rillette, parfait, breast, mousse-filled eclair. Quadruple yum!

The Mancunian bartender gently persuaded me to start with a cocktail; Lady E would have a preferred the safe opening of Prosecco, but was talked into a refreshing gin and rhubarb Negroni. I opted for a Call Lane Colada: the sort of twist on a classic which has purists reaching for their revolvers. It was reassuringly mostly rum and pineapple, but with a coconut butter infusion in a tea strainer. Weird, yet delicious.

Escorted to our table by a Canadian waitress who was the perfect balance of relaxed and punctilious, I reflected on the miserable outcomes for Wellington hospitality should the anti-immigration mob get their way on visa restrictions. Ravenous, we shared a quick fix of fresh Bluff oysters, with a delicate, palate-cleansing bitter lemon sorbet.

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Not sure what this was – blame the lack of light.

Matterhorn is still too dark, or else I’m turning into my Dad. The plating was a stylish riot of colours, but even my iPhone camera could not do it justice owing to the dim light. It was, of course, the perfect ambience for dating, and there was plenty of people-watching to be done, once Lady E and I had run out of chat about work and kids. The couple on the adjoining table were every bit the awkward first date, alas – folded arms, leaning away from each other, relying on the tome-like menu for conversation starters. Outside, the Matterhorn magic had obviously worked on one young pair, who were sharing a crafty post-prandial cigarette and oblivious to the chill.

The mains were just magnificent: my duck ‘four ways’ (rillette, poached breast, parfait and mousse-filled eclair) tasted as impressive as it looked. Lady E’s snapper with bacon foam and a host of other esoteric treats barely had time to sit appetisingly on the plate for a quick photo before it was consumed with alacrity.

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Snapper with bacon foam et al. Any dish can be improved with lovely lovely bacon.

Never once did any of the quirks and twists detract from the cooking, especially the taste. They were just playful touches of imagination and inspiration firmly grounded in delicious flavour. The damage? $220; impressively good value for three courses each and copious wines and aperitifs. I did let the side down on the desserts, pathetically opting for a humble Irish coffee, while ogling Lady E’s coconut and pineapple surprise. I really am turning into my Dad.

Poor old Jeremy Corbyn. If it’s not the Tory press pummeling him for his beard, his clothes and his past IRA sympathies, it’s satirists monstering his nostalgic manifesto that pretends that Labour’s infamous suicide note of 1983 was a sure fire winner, if only the electorate had woken up to the truth.

The Daily Mash got stuck in with a whimsical jibe about Labour restoring Tom Baker to his rightful place as the Dr. Who. I don’t think 70s era politics are going to triumph on June 8th, but the article did stimulate a Facebook discussion about the possible political affiliations of each of the Doctor’s many incarnations.

Tom Baker is straightforward old Labour: the glory days of Wilson and Callaghan. The underlying themes of environmental disaster, peace and the rights of the oppressed pervade the scripts of this era. Jon Pertwee, with his colourful vaudevillian cape and imperious persona, is an eccentric, genteel Shire Tory, disdainful of Left Radicals and Thatcherites with equal measure.

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Jon Pertwee: strong and stable?

Peter Davison is surely a LibDem: just a touch too young and earnest to be taken seriously. Colin Baker, with lots of potential but ill-fated, screams SDP. Some of his stories were genuinely good and he is a fine actor, but he could appear a little smug and self-knowing and his controversial tenure ended in failure. Sylvester McCoy is like a slightly mad but jovial uncle who quotes Monty Python and votes Monster Raving Loony in permanent protest.

The $64,000 question, for those of you still reading this rather niche blog discussion, is what of the recent Doctors? Well, Christopher Eccleston’s brief reign nonetheless re-established the programme as serious, quality entertainment and took the role into the 21st century – a NuLab moderniser then. Scot David Tennant, with almost dizzying levels of popularity with viewers throughout his five year stint, is definitely SNP. I’m pretty sure canny Salmond and cannier Sturgeon both managed to shoehorn a photo opportunity with him.

Matt Smith, at 26 the youngest actor to play the role, would be a fresh-faced and enthusiastic Green supporter. Which leaves Peter Capaldi.  Alison Graham of Radio Times stated “Peter Capaldi is the Victor Meldrew Doctor Who; he’s abrasive, acerbic and has no truck with modern life”. That would make him UKIP, then! (Sorry, Peter…)

 

On male role models, and winning

Some wearily predictable tropes were wheeled out around the recent unpleasant FaceBook postings of two Wellington College students: insufficient male role models; teenagers’ ease of access to porn; the evils of social media. Yet, while there is no doubt that social media has given the kind of stuff that might have been scrawled on a toilet wall in my own childhood much greater public prominence, the exposure of the comments has presented an opportunity for boys (and men) to think long and hard about what it means to be a man, without necessarily engaging in a David Cunliffe style mea culpa.

I was going to avoid the topic entirely now that the media have deemed it ‘old news’, feeling that others have expressed what I wanted to say on the matter eloquently and succinctly enough. Then I recalled what I saw a couple of weeks ago at the tail end of a wet and frustrating cricket season, and it got me thinking about one source of the problem.

Junior cricket is most definitely a Serious Business. Junior Two, aged six, is quite content to hit and run and giggle. Junior One, however, plays with helmet, hard ball, proper wooden bat and so on. When out means out, there are often tears of frustration, and when they trudge off disconsolately after the finger is raised, bat tucked under arm, their demeanour is no different to a Taylor or a Williamson. Nevertheless an air of youngsters mostly having fun tends to prevail.

In the season’s penultimate match, the opposition coach (and co-umpire) treated the exercise like Boot Camp. He berated his 10-year-old players for their misfields with exponentially unnecessary aggression. And when it became clear that his charges were not going to chase down our total, he resorted to increasingly poor behaviour. He disagreed with and overruled the other umpire on no-balls and runouts. He signalled four even though our players had stopped the ball inside the boundary. He suggested that there was one more ball left in the over on a number of occasions, to the puzzlement of both scorers.

My son’s team’s coach wisely avoided a full-on confrontation, although he might have felt it harder to turn his cheek, had these interferences made a material difference to the result. Nor is this confined to cricket. As a sometime Rugby League referee, the worst sideline abuse I have ever had to endure has been from dads and coaches of junior teams. I should add that invariably most of the young players themselves resent this aggressive scrutiny and would rather just get on with the game, competitively, but without malice.

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Remember this? The ultimate schoolboy cricket tantrum.

What message do such attitudes send to competitive and immature young sportsmen? An unacceptable one, for sure, and not without longer-term consequences. Those who are happy to brush off poor behaviour as “boys being boys” often refer to competitive spirit as being ‘hardwired’ into boys. Well, as members of the animal kingdom, there are a whole host of instincts ‘hardwired’ into us, male and female; surely the hallmark of a decent society is one in which we suppress these devices and desires from time to time?

Leaving aside the questionable underlying assumption that if ‘boys need male role models’ women must be incapable of providing them, what use is such influence from certain dads, coaches and older boys if it promotes competitiveness and aggression and winning at all costs as an approach to everything? It is easy to see how the pursuit of winning blurs into the language of dating: if boys didn’t fixate on ‘scoring’ with girls, then the more dubious attitudes of young men towards the opposite sex might be less prevalent, whether genuinely held or just bravado.

On a more positive cricket note, can we stop moaning about the Wellington summer that never really got going, and the disappointing, drenched conclusion to the Black Caps’ summer series? The received wisdom seems to be that NZ were a little underwhelming. Poor fortune should also be considered. The Wellington Test was lost by a NZ side missing its best bowler and second best batsman due to injury, while our best batsman scored 2 and 1. How would England have fared without Cook and Broad and with two failures from Root; or an Australia without Warner and Starc and two low scores from Steve Smith?

Moreover, more players cemented their place than caused the usual selection headaches. The obvious best XI is now pretty clear, injuries aside, except for the thorny question of the allrounder and spin spots. I would go with: Latham, Raval, Williamson, Taylor, Nicholls, Watling, de Grandhomme, Santner, Southee, Wagner, Boult.

Is there nothing to complain about? Sure there is. These guys don’t play a Test now until November, and only 5 Tests in the next 18 months. Without a decent diet of cricket, how can the team be expected to develop? As a case in point, Williamson’s stats put him on a par with Joe Root. Both have just over 5000 runs at 51 and 52 respectively (although Williamson has a superior conversion rate of fifties to tons) and there is less than a year in age difference. Yet Root will probably eclipse his Kiwi rival in terms of aggregate runs and centuries purely because he will have more opportunities, given that England play at least half as many Tests again as New Zealand. That’s worthy of a grumble.

 

On Her Majesty’s Public Service

The Australian Government has lost its marbles. Not the politicans: the idiotic Turnbull v. Abbott infighting is just the latest episode in a dysfunctional saga that goes right back to Rudd v. Gillard Phase I. No, I mean the hapless functionaries and denizens of Canberra who have brought out this dynamic diabolical recruitment ad for its Department of Finance. It’s so unwatchably cringe-inducing, I’m loath even to link to it and lend it some credibility with a few clickthroughs. But here it is – judge for yourself whether it’s a ‘game changer’:

It’s hard to know where to start with this. In its defence, it wouldn’t be the first recruitment ad that will probably achieve the opposite of its intended outcomes. Advertising and marketing ‘gurus’ really are the snake oil cult visionaries of this age, and ably confirm the adage that an older generation often has no idea about how to attract the younger generation, whether we’re talking employment, politics or sex.

I’m also reluctant to lay into the ad too much, misconceived as I think it is, when it is trying to ensure, painfully and methodically, that its protagonists are diverse in every way. It’s an achingly middle class diversity, mind. Shall I nip down for a paleo pear and banana bread or buy my colleague a flat white? The agony of choice. And if I get her a flat white, will she think I’m patronising her? Oh shit – she prefers almond milk, doesn’t she, or is it soy? Gosh – being nice can be so hard. Thank god for those awesome team building away days to help navigate the tricky stuff.

The other pitfall is that an excoriating critique of this just ends up reading like another pundit gleefully sticking in the boot, Gliding On-stylee, into bureaucratic ‘leeches’, sucking at the teat of the ‘bloated’ public sector. That would be terrible: some of my best friends are Wellington public servants! And knowing how horrified they would be by the goldfish bowl of TV, I could have advised the ad makers that choosing to use real people and not actors was fatal. Everyone sounds so awkward, as though they are part of some benign hostage video, where the threatened sanction is deprivation of, er, paleo pear and banana bread.

And so much of it is just a distraction: see how one guy is wearing a tie, and that’s cool, and then the other guy is choosing not to wear a tie, and that’s cool too. Yeah! Everyone gets listened to around here – the brown guy, the woman, the Asian guy – everybody! Do they think that the public sector is perceived as some kind of chauvinist Mad Men dystopia of brutal dress codes, dog-eat-dog narcissism and bullying? Naturally, that stuff isn’t confined to the private sector. It’s just that I think there are more pressing image problems for the public service. Maybe, just maybe, it might be seen as boring; full of Byzantine processes, uncool, staid, and riddled with PC jargon. So why use a clutch of awkward-looking people wandering from water cooler to water cooler and prattling on about projects, initiatives, competencies and presentations? It’s like a recruitment ad for the police in which they just fill out paperwork and book speeders.

“I’ve been here less than a year, and I’m already part of a project helping to modernise the public service,” chirrups one bright young marionette. One of many projects, no doubt, all running concurrently and not communicating with each other, but it’s the sentiment that counts, I guess. And what’s the inference from this: that the public service is in need of modernisation yet trying really hard to be hip and cool? It’s not exactly compelling. Compare it with this ad below. Yeah, yeah, I know they are targeting different audiences, but this is dramatic and spontaneous and it’s all about fun. Fun in Australia’s Department of Finance, however, is very carefully defined.

They even have a dreaded buddy program for the newbies, with mentoring. A student of mine opined that this sounded just like prefect mentoring at school. Hmm. Another nail in the coffin of the “we’re so totally not a monolithic institution” argument. It’s not that people don’t need support and advice and development, lest anyone start getting po-faced. It just smacks of a mindset which says that the best way to address any issues is through a committee and a process – this process. In trying to be too faithful to what a typical day in the Finance Team feels like, they actually tell you nothing about what the public service is for, and merely reduce it to a series of broad statements and worthy promises. Maybe that was the point: none of the people in this stilted clip look like they would so much as give the boat a gentle nudge with a paper clip, let alone be ‘game changers’. Unwitting honesty indeed.

And so farewell, Annette King. NZ Labour had better put on more than a few egg sandwiches and cups of tea for her goodbye in September, because they have lost a stalwart and a proven performer. There was always a casual ageism that seemed to follow King in recent years, encouraged by the media, but also espoused by left-leaning acquaintances who ought to know better. Winston, who is older, can still play the suave populist silver fox card, without having to worry about the whispers. Yet King was not stifling renewal within Labour; in the aftermath of the 2014 debacle, the destructive narcissism of David Cunliffe and the election of a new leader who had only received five votes from fellow caucus members, she acted as a vital bridge between Little and the rest of the MPs. She also knows the party inside out and knows the challenges of opposition from the 90s period. The alternative scenario might well have been the kind of abject, disunited, impotent opposition which UK Labour purports to be under Jeremy Corbyn.

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Old school politics works. Work hard in government and harry them like hell from opposition.

She was also a fearless big hitter in her Health portfolio, ready with the data to cause maximum embarrassment for the government. It’s worth comment that King has been one of the few shadow ministers to outlast some of her government opposites in the Health portfolio, whereas for most departments it has been Labour who have tinkered and changed and reshuffled personnel while Team Key has batted steadily on. Of course, as a former dental nurse, this should not be surprising. Yet there has always been a hint of disdain within Labour for those at the coalface, when considering potential MPs. God knows why. Norman Kirk left school at 13, but had far greater political astuteness in connecting with people and mastering his brief than many better educated contemporaries. Pulling in radio hosts and weathermen to raise party profile alongside the many policy wonks and union lawyers is all very well, but there is no substitute for MPs whose direct experience inspires their politics and gives them the candid honesty to fight for the policies which will really deliver..

Having helped pull her party through one of its doldrums, she has earned a peaceful retirement. The best tribute Labour could pay is to run a disciplined and committed campaign this year and prove that the only way is up.