New Zealand politics stirs ghost of Norman Kirk

Norman Kirk meets Gough Whitlam in 1973. Photo: Archives NZ

I became aware of New Zealand politics, circa 1960 when a tall Kiwi farmer with coiffed hair and a plummy accent won an election in his own right. After serving as interim PM in 1957, Keith Jacka Holyoake went on to become Sir Keith and later the country’s Governor-General, the only person ever to hold both offices.

The National Party (Conservative) leader ruled New Zealand politics from 1960 to 1972, ousted by a Whitlam-esque Labour figure, Norman Kirk (left). After a promising start, Kirk battled ill health through 1974 and died in office, aged just 51.

Kirk, a working class man who built his own h0me at Kaiapoi, could have been anything. He once said, “People don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

As Labour scholar Vittoria Trevitt recounts for the Chifley Research Centre, Kirk immediately set about turning New Zealand politics on its head. Social security benefits were increased and new social programmes introduced. Like Whitlam, Kirk ushered in a single parent’s pension. He encouraged Kiwis to build new homes, formed appeal boards so tenants could oppose rent increases and introduced ‘second chance’ re-finance loans for divorcees and others.

Workers benefited from a ‘no fault’ national accident compensation scheme. The Kirk government also increased the minimum wage, improved leave entitlements and fast-tracked equal pay legislation.

As an aspiring scribe in the early 1970s, I became a Kirk fan when he established a fund for writers. And idealists initially embraced the “Ohu Scheme”, where marginal land in remote rural areas was granted to people who wished to establish alternative settlements or intentional communities.

By Trevitt’s account and other sources, it was Norman Kirk who scrapped compulsory military service; Kirk who on day one called NZ troops back from Vietnam; Kirk who ensured that people who had served in the military would have entitlements and employment opportunities. He refused to host a Springbok tour in 1973 because of South Africa’s apartheid policies and confronted France over nuclear testing in the Pacific. And he turned Waitangi Day into a public holiday. Not bad for just 21 months in office.

Kirk’s successors, Hugh Watt and Bill Rowling, lasted until late 1975 when they were rolled by Rob Muldoon’s National Party. In turn, Muldoon was ousted nine years later by David Lange, whose term as Labour Prime Minister is possibly best remembered by his refusal to allow US nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand waters.

(Vin Garbutt sings Lynn Clark’s anti-nuclear song Send the Boats Away (song starts at 0.58)

As head of New Zealand politics, Lange held office for two terms and Labour reigned until 1990. After Jim Bolger’s stint as National PM (1990-1997), the National’s Jenny Shipley had a two-year spell before being evicted by Labour’s Helen Clark, who held a coalition together for three terms before resigning from politics, seemingly disillusioned.

Since 2008, the National Party’s John Key has held sway, until his surprise exit from New Zealand politics last year in favour of caretaker PM Bill English.

So to the Kiwi Labour Party (they spell it with a ‘u’). Exiled since 2008, they have been buoyed by polls, a young, positive leader in Jacinda Ardern and a Whitlam-esque slogan: “let’s do this.” (kia mahi a tenei). Ardern stands a better than 50/50 chance of becoming New Zealand’s third female prime minister and the eighth Labour leader since Joseph Ward in 1906. If so, Australia’s government ought to be worried.

She may have to form government with the Greens and the Maori party, but the polls are saying it could happen. Roy Morgan election poll projections show Labour with 49 seats, Green with 11 seats and Maori Party two seats (62 seats).  The poll predicts National will win 50 seats, NZ First seven seats and Act NZ one seat (58 seats).

I had lost touch with what is now known as the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, after a flirtation in the early 70s with the vanguard movement, the Values Party. As has happened here, many staunch Labour voters in NZ have drifted to the Greens. As a former Labour diehard source puts it: “Labour has sold us out before and they’ll do it again. They can only be a real government of progress with the guidance and support of a Green coalition partner.” 

Lobbying Kiwis living abroad

This week we got an email from James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa.

“Kia Ora,” he began, meaning G’day or What’s up Bro?

The Green Party needs every vote we can get to ensure the outcome is the most environmentally-friendly and progressive result possible.”

Don’t sit this one out,” said James (Bob resisting the urge to add “to Red Molly”- this one is for RT fans- ed.).

Party Vote Green from anywhere in the world to make sure New Zealand remains a great place to call home.”

The Greens have a reformist agenda which includes a Zero Carbon Act, a Climate Fund and a 1.2 billion tree planting programme. The party opposes new coal mines, fracking, and deep-sea oil and gas drilling.

My sources in NZ and the UK reckon the campaign to recruit expat Kiwis (assisted here by the Australian Greens), is a smart move. “People living in London and elsewhere like the idea of ‘the clean green NZ’. We also have a lot of youth abroad and they tend to vote progressive,” one Green supporter said.

Last I heard there were 650,000 New Zealand citizens living in Australia. There’s no shortage of election issues in New Zealand politics: housing shortages and property prices, health needs/shortages, offshore drilling, water purity and river pollution are just a few. Swinging voters, the so-called “Middle NZ” – people who typically own more than one property – might be swayed to the conservatives by speculation of a Labour/Greens capital gains tax (NZ doesn’t currently have one).

In the Red corner, Labour’s effervescent leader Jacinda Ardern, 37, is gaining an international profile.

As this BBC article “Can ‘stardust’ beat experience?” reveals, Ardern’s elevation to the top job in Labour politics is no accident. A left-wing activist in her teens, she worked in former PM Helen Clark’s office and in the UK as a policy advisor to Tony Blair. She’s been a politician since 2008.

In the Blue corner, incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Bill English has been a politician since 1990 and Finance Minister twice. He was deputy PM under John Key from 2008 to 2016. In December 2016, When Key suddenly resigned as prime minister, English won the leadership unopposed (with Key’s endorsement).

A new National Party promotional video seeks to counter Ardern’s appeal to women by portraying English, a father of six, as a family man. Bill’s wife Mary recalls the era of cloth nappies when her husband was a stay-at-home dad.

“Bill ran the nappy bucket. That was his job.”

The video includes positive interviews with Education Minister Nikki Kaye and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. Former PM John Key praises English for keeping a cool head during the global financial crisis and shrewdly notes Bill’s love of rugby.

Now that ought to do the truck.


North Korea – 21st Century Missile Crisis

Workers in North Korea tending crops on Migok Farm, Sariwŏn. Photo by ‘Stephan’

If you’re old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis, you’re probably less inclined to see the North Korea/US standoff as a prelude to the End Time.

In October 1962 (I was 13), President John F Kennedy and his Russian counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, arm-wrestled over Soviet missile sites built on Cuban soil. Russia had taken steps to build missile silos on Cuba as a response to similar US installations in Turkey and other central Europe locations. As Cuba is just 90 nautical miles from Miami, Florida, this news prompted urgent meetings of defence and intelligence chiefs and then-POTUS John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In October 1962, an American spy plane spotted what looked like a missile site being built on the island of Cuba. Thus began a tense, 13-day stand-off, during which time many people genuinely believed the world was about to end. Wealthy Americans commissioned fallout shelters (some are still being used today to take refuge from hurricanes).

You can say this about the US defence apparatus, they keep detailed historical records. Whether it is the unexpurgated truth is another matter. As Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Nathan R Jessup in A Few Good Men famously says to prosecutor Lt Daniel Kaffee, who presses him for “the truth” – “You can’t handle the truth.”

In this instance, US intelligence agencies identified 15 SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites in Cuba.

The Soviets established a missile base on Cuba because they feared the US would invade Cuba, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group.

At the time, there was still a lot of angst about Cuba; members of the CIA-sponsored Brigade 2506 were still being held captive after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

President Kennedy needed to resolve this situation, quickly and peacefully. The crisis ended with the Kennedy-Khrushchev “agreement” of October 28, 1962. Less well-known was a dispute over Soviet IL-28 bombers based in Cuba. The US claimed they were “offensive weapons” under the October 28 agreement. Kennedy also made a (then) secret agreement to remove US missile sites from Turkey. These events ended the crisis but continued the “Cold War” (which ended in 1991) between Russia and the US.

So to 2017 and North Korea’s threat to target Washington or New York (or more likely Tokyo), with nuclear-tipped missiles.

You may have watched Monday’s Four Corners/BBC expose on the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. This documentary was, I thought, a little bit too informed by ex-CIA sources, US think-tanks and North Korea-watchers. It would be good to sit down in a bar with a regular DPRK citizen to see if they really are oppressed.

“Howzit goin’ Choi? Gettin’ enough to eat? Been threatened or beaten up lately?” Mate, do you get Outback Truckers on DPRK TV?”

If reports about poverty, famines, repression, reprisals, executions and endemic surveillance are true, you could hardly blame a DPRK citizen for having a drink or four. Communist regimes commonly keep alcohol prices down and relax access to it as a means of helping citizens cope with a bleak lifestyle.

North Koreans predominantly drink hard liquor; Soju, a colourless spirit akin to vodka, taken neat. Its alcoholic content ranges from 17% to 60%.

“North Koreans’ main hobby is probably drinking,” said Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who has led more than 100 trips to the DPRK for foreigners.

But the World Health Organisation ranks North Korea below 128 countries whose alcohol consumption per capita is vastly more than the DPRK’s modest 3.7 litres (94.9% of which is spirits). Australians and New Zealanders drink four times as much.

If you want some raw insights into life in North Korea, cartoonist Guy Delisle’s 2001 graphic novel of his time in North Korea is a good start. The first part of Pyongyang – a journey in North Korea begins with a customs official in the dimly-lit airport terminal suspicious of Delisle’s tatty copy of 1984. “What kind of book is this?” The official relaxes when Delisle tells him he has a work visa arranged with a North Korean animation studio.

Once in country, Delisle kept a diary, illustrated with his drawings of Pyongyang and things that happened as he was chaperoned around by minders. I borrowed it from the local library a few years back and found it blackly fascinating and a little subversive.

A Hollywood movie was planned based on Delisle’s book starring Steve Carell. But the movie was cancelled, reportedly because of the kerfuffle over Sony’s film, The Interview.

Love, love, love is all you need

Last weekend, we spent four glorious days and nights away from the constant stream of doomsday news. About 1,000 people from a broad spectrum of society congregated at a bush campground on the fringes of the D’Aguilar National Park. When people ask me what a folk festival is like, I tell them it’s not so much about the music (often heartfelt songs of equality, justice and humanitarianism), but the harmonious atmosphere.

Many performers took time out between songs at the Neurum Creek Music Festival to observe how sweet it was to have some respite from the constant barrage of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Comedians and folksingers Martin Pearson and John Thompson, reunited as Never the Twain, took a moment from manic wisecracks and parodies to touch the collective soul. The Fred Small song Scott and Jamie is a five-minute story about a gay couple who adopt two boys and are living the dream until social services intervene. The refrain – ‘Love is love, no matter who, no matter where’ rippled out across the festival venue. A hush fell; dogs dialled it down to rapid panting. Even the bar staff fell under the spell.

Four people sitting in front of me rose to their feet at the song’s end, to applaud the splendidly rendered version and the sentiment. It may be a forlorn hope to think that we can cure the world by singing songs of love and peace like ‘Imagine’, ‘Redemption Song,’ or ‘All you Need is Love’. But what else can a pacifist do?

She Whose Family Immigrated from Canada in 1964 thinks her Dad picked this place on the map to escape proximity to a looming nuclear war between two super powers. It didn’t happen then, but there have been scary moments since – September 11, 2001 in particular.

What now? Will we see a new surge of refugees from Japan and the US testing Australia’s world-famous, inclusive asylum seeker policies? Perhaps, as the latest issue of Popular Mechanics suggests, people will invest in bomb shelters instead. Those with wealth enough can spend tens of millions on ‘Doomsday Condos’, shelters big enough to cater for the extended family, friends, pets, the family lawyer…

Or you could travel to a village in Ontario, contribute ‘sweat equity’ and join other idealists maintaining the world’s biggest nuclear shelter, Ark 2.

Sigh. Détente would be easier, and cheaper. You know – détente as in ‘a relaxing of tensions between nations through negotiations and agreements’. Or rapprochement, even. But this would require Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to clasp hands across a table and sign an Accord.

We wish.

See more on this topic: ‘Surviving Armageddon’

Renewable energy vs climate sceptics

Renewable energy – Mount Majura solar farm, ACT (image courtesy Climate Council)

Have you ever noticed, after giving your dog a bath, how it will head straight for the nearest patch of renewable energy? Ours has a favourite sunny spot next to the dining room table where he will happily bask, while our solar-powered camping lamp, calculator and torches are recharging on the window sill.

Free sunshine – what’s not to like? As it happens, we have been preparing our little caravan for a weekend music festival in the bush. The 160 watt portable solar panel slides snugly under the bed. At $159, this has proved to be a worthy investment for our outback and bush music weekend adventures. It means you can keep topping up the caravan’s battery (if the sun is shining) and go to bed early if it’s not.

We are not expecting rain. No-one is expecting rain.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed the winter just past was the hottest since records began in 1910. It was also the 9th driest winter on record. The average maximum temperature was almost 2 degrees above the long-term average.

Meanwhile, Texas is suffering unprecedented flooding courtesy of Hurricane Harvey, the reporting of which has somewhat overshadowed devastating monsoon flooding in South East Asia. So far, in the latter disaster area, 1,200 people have been killed and almost two million children were unable to get to school.

As we ironically say in the privacy of our own home – “Just as well there’s no such thing as climate change, then!”

Now all, some of, or only a small part of these extreme weather events could be ascribed to global warming/climate change, which, 97% of scientists agree, is mostly caused by human activity.

Despite this consensus on behalf of an apparently overwhelming majority of scientists, sceptics disagree. I happened to read that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to deliver a speech, “Daring to Doubt,” at an annual climate sceptics group meeting in London on October 9.

You might remember Tony Abbott – his reign as PM at one year and 361 days (cumulative terms), was longer than that of Harold Holt and Billy McMahon, but not by much.  Abbott the Climate Change Sceptic is infamous in some quarters as the man who canned the government-funded Climate Commission as part of a Budget cost-cutting exercise.

The Climate Commission bounced back as the privately-funded Climate Council. A new report by the Climate Council concludes that the individual States are going their own way, with mixed results.

South Australia is a clear leader in the renewable energy field, the stakes raised by the government’s decision to replace ageing coal-fired power stations with a 150 megawatt solar thermal power plant.

FOMM foreshadowed this in 2014, when the SA government was trying to negotiate the future of the coal mine which fed its Port Augusta power stations. Now, after five years of lobbying and debate, the SA government is aiming to invest $650 million in renewable energy.

It hardly seems worth mentioning that 1,900 kilometres away, the Queensland Government, in a contrarian move, remains committed to the country’s largest Greenfield export coal mine. The Carmichael mine, which includes a dedicated railway line to take coal north to Abbott Point, is deeply unpopular among environmental groups because of the potential damage it could cause to the Great Barrier Reef, both by the number of ships traversing the narrow channels, and through coral bleaching as a result of human-induced temperature increases.

On the other hand, Queenslanders’ love affair with domestic solar panels is demonstrated by the fact that  32% of households are covered in 2017. Lobby group Solar Citizens (almost 100,000 members), welcomed last week’s decision by the Queensland Government to increase the regional feed-in tariff (FiT) program. This will allow solar systems up to 30kW to receive 10.1c per kWh – six times more than what was previously agreed.

Solar Citizens has an ambitious target of one million solar roofs by 2020.

“Queenslanders know a sensible idea when they see it – with 520,000 solar homes, our State has the highest rooftop solar uptake in the country,” a spokeswoman said.

However, critics of domestic solar energy say the flaw is that those who can afford to become self-sufficient do so, and those who cannot end up paying disproportionately more for energy.)

This week, the Climate Council presented its annual ‘state of the States’ renewable energy report. CEO Amanda McKenzie said the State survey showed a major step up from last year. All States and Territories (apart from WA), have strong renewable energy or net zero emissions targets. South Australia is building the world’s largest lithium ion battery storage facility, and over 30 large scale wind and solar projects are under construction across Australia in 2017.

“The good news is that many States are surging ahead and doing the heavy lifting for the (Federal) government.”

Last week, the Victorian government flagged new legislation which would increase its renewable energy target to 40% by 2025. There is also an intermediate plan to lift Victoria’s clean energy target to 25% by 2020.

So yes, it does seem as if individual States (and Councils) are setting their own renewable energy policies, in the absence of clear leadership at a national level.

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington did not miss an opportunity to talk up his region’s commitment to solar panels. Noosa Shire, which de-merged from the larger Sunshine Coast Regional Council (SCRC), claims 9,000 households in Noosa Shire have solar installations, which is better than the State average. Cr Wellington told the Sunshine Coast Daily Noosa’s goal was to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050.

Not to be overshadowed, the SCRC opened a 15 megawatt solar farm in July. The SCRC was the first local government in Australia to offset 100% of its electricity consumption with energy from a renewable source.

But what can humble citizens do, as pro-coal lobbyists clash swords with the solar and wind farm warriors? The go-it-alone mentality arises from a failure on the part of our Federal Government to stimulate investment in the renewable sector. Australia has already promised, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030. But Tony Abbott’s call as PM to reduce the renewable energy target (and now he advocates scrapping it altogether), was unhelpful.

Whatever way you judge it, a former PM addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation is not a good look. The last Australian PM to do so was John Howard in 2013 (when he claimed global warming had stalled and was sceptical about the possibilities of an international agreement on climate change).

There have already been reports in the UK media which seized on old quotes by Mr Abbott referring to climate science as ‘bullshit’ and recycling his coal is ‘good for humanity’ comment. 

As readers will know, we spent a week out at Carnarvon Gorge in July, a time of year when it is common for the temperature to dip below zero at night. We packed accordingly, then spent four nights kicking off the doona and keeping each other awake as the mercury stayed above 15.

It should be cool at night for the Neurum Creek Folk Festival, but I packed my shortie pyjamas, just in case there is such a thing as climate change.

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The autoharp, recorders and other rites of spring

Autoharp player Evan Mathieson at Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival. Photo: Lindsay Maa

As today is ostensibly the first day of Spring, I am cleaning up the music room, starting with a dusty old autoharp. Honestly, I don’t remember where I got it from, I can’t tune it and don’t know how to play the autoharp in the first place. Yet it sits in the bottom of the cupboard, gathering cobwebs. Occasional bursts of enthusiasm about learning to play the instrument have all faded away. Like morning dew, if you will. When I catch up with Queensland folksinger and autoharp-maker Evan Mathieson (above) I might ask him what he thinks of my old relic.

The autoharp belongs to the zither family and in theory it is a cinch to play. Chords are played by pressing down on a felted bar which mutes all but the strings that make up the chord. You then lightly strum with the other hand. Start with a two or three chord-song like Catch the Wind or Banks of the Ohio.

The autoharp, though descended from a line of German instruments, was popularised in the American folk scene and taken up by some who later became pop stars. In 1965, John Sebastian’s band Lovin’ Spoonful had a hit with his song, Do you Believe in Magic. While Sebastian was highly regarded as an auto harpist and often played it on stage, it is not that discernible in this YouTube clip, although you can at least get a sense of how the instrument is played.

Do You Believe In Magic?

You’ll know the tinkling sound of the autoharp, even if you cannot describe the instrument or imagine how it is played. In 1979, the late Randy Vanwarmer’s lonesome ballad, You Left Me Just When I Needed You Most, was best known for its plaintive autoharp instrumental, played by John Sebastian.

I’m told that Queensland folksinger Evan Mathieson was inspired to start making his own instruments after hearing John Sebastian play a Bach piece on an autoharp. Hand-made instruments can be built to create chords not always available on commercially-made autoharps.

You can get caught up watching old (and new) clips on YouTube of people playing the autoharp. Dolly Parton’s there, so too Sheryl Crow, Maybelle Carter, Billy Connolly, Peggy Seeger and many more.

Crikey, they say even The Dude plays autoharp, though Jeff Bridges apparently prefers playing his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar when performing with his band, The Abiders.

American virtuoso Bryan Bowers (he’s in the Autoharp Hall of Fame), is credited with introducing the instrument to new generations of musicians. Lakes of Pontchartrain.

I’d love to say someone played autoharp on Song of the old Rake, from Paul Kelly’s Foggy Highway. Programme notes archived by the late lamented Lonely Planet, alas, inform us that Kelly’s band, the Stormwater Boys, used highly-tuned guitars to mimic the autoharp sound. They did it very well.

There are quite a few rock bands and recording artists who use autoharp in their arrangements, but none as effectively as PJ Harvey.

This is an unusual clip in that it starts with PJ alone in a room rehearsing The Words that Maketh Murder, then cuts back and forth between the band version and PJ alone in her room. The lyrics in this anti-war song (from Let England Shake) are brutal, so if you’re the sensitive type, don’t go there.

Evan Mathieson has made a life study of the instrument and also makes autoharps, complete with the signature ‘map of Australia’ sound hole. The instrument suits Evan’s strong baritone and is ideal for a solo act performing folk songs. I’m told he’s leading a shanty session at the Maleny Music Festival on Saturday night.

The music room in our house doubles as the collective home office in which many great decisions are made, petty arguments thrashed out (and where many of the 173 FOMMs were conceived). I believe there will be no argument from She Who is Also Spring Cleaning should I decided to give the autoharp away (SWiASP found a website for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation, which provides free instruments and lessons to disadvantaged children).

Hot cross buns, anyone?

Most homes harbour at least one musical instrument, upon which lessons were learnt and quickly forgotten. Recorders, harmonicas, ukuleles, tin whistles and guitars are the instruments most likely to have been bought on a whim and discarded once lessons got harder.

Most children have a stab at learning an instrument at school – usually a recorder as they are relatively easy to learn and affordable. Any parent who has endured the period where their child struggled to play the recorder without making the infamous ‘squeak’ might want to check out recordings by Maurice Steger. The world champion recorder player has taken on compositions by Vivaldi, Telemann, Handel and baroque music composed for the recorder.

As Steger told ABC Classic FM: “In its heart of hearts the recorder is an incredibly simple instrument and yet it is so hard to make it sound beautiful. That is what makes it so fascinating.”

So before your kids get bored playing ‘Hot Cross Buns’ and decide to pack the recorder away with the jigsaws and board games, get them to check out Steger’s amazing performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto RV 443.

Recorders are much favoured by schools as they can be bought for less than $10 and immediately give teachers some idea if the pupil has musical aptitude. They are also much-loved by musicians who form early music ensembles (typically using tenor, alto, bass and contrabass recorders). Like the clarinet, the recorder can sound dire in the hands of someone who has no aptitude and/or no inclination to practice.

You may notice how I have digressed from the opening paragraph which claimed I was spring-cleaning the music room. Actually it’s not all that bad – a few years ago I threw out old capos, out of tune harmonicas, a rusty tin whistle, and mailed a parcel of used guitar strings to a charity that sends them to people who can’t afford to replace their guitar strings. There’s still a lot of stuff in the cupboards: boxes of (unsold) CDs, boxes full of demo and rehearsal CDs and cassettes. I always meant to go through the cassettes and convert them to digital files (MP3s). The problem with that is the process happens in real time. So we’re talking not about hours or even days, but more like months of drudgery. So much easier just to take it all to the tip.

I found a commercial cassette – the first Spot the Dog album. After converting it to CD, I asked if anyone wanted the cassette. Not even Mark Cryle (and it was his band’s first recording), took up the offer. He told me he already had a few sitting around at home.

As for the autoharp, after a fitful hour or two grappling with the tuning key and an electronic guitar tuner, I concluded the real issue is it needs new strings. I looked up prices at and figured that at $100+ I’ll just give it a vacuum and put it back in the cupboard.

It’s still not in tune.