Last drinks

My Last Ever Drink, a long anticipated and much scoffed at affair, took place on the stroke of midnight, October 2nd, 2006 — nine years ago today. Later that morning, I finally took the bed in the much sought-after Melbourne detox facility I had reserved several wildly booze-soaked months earlier. Tremors of withdrawal and craving made it impossible to scrawl my signature on the admission forms, but the kindly male nurse — Canadian, from memory — told me, with the knowing smile of a seasoned pro, we could wait until the 20 milligrams of Valium he had just administered took effect.

By the end of my decade and a half long bender, the DTs had become so severe I couldn't get the first couple of drinks from receptacle to mouth without spilling it everywhere. The trick was to make a quick diversion home en route from work to the pub, improvise a sling from a bath-towel or t-shirt to hold one arm steadily in place, and wrestle to my lips a sufficient quantity to quell the shakes: precisely two cans of beer. 

Newly settled, steady as a surgeon, I would arrive minutes later at my favourite watering hole – the Rising Sun in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond turned out to be the last in a series of locals – whereupon I would consume twenty or thirty pots of Carlton Draught. That’s between fifteen and eighteen pints –  or roughly eight litres of beer.  One day in twenty, perhaps having pushed my luck at work to the nth degree, I might convince myself to take it easy; this meant staying clear of the pub and keeping my intake to a dozen or so cans – or until I was drunk enough to sleep.  

A futile but insistent habit of my so-called recovery is to sort endlessly through the debris of what came before, rearranging shards of memory like stray jigsaw pieces, scarce and scattered across fifteen mostly unremembered years. Little reveals itself, unless you count a stubborn ambivalence: drinking, and ceasing to drink, are totemic events in my adult life, but the familiar narrative arc, with its crescendo of recovery and redemption, eludes me. Instead, the question that burns most, and shames me to put into words, is not why I chose to drink myself to an early grave – the reasons for doing so are abundant and obvious – but why instead I stopped. 

Before booze, in my late teens and early twenties, I was outwardly ambitious and supremely self-assured; enough to irritate myself considerably in retrospect. Active in politics and elected to my local city council at nineteen, the future brimmed with promise. And yet I was paralyzed in mute turmoil over my homosexuality — a source of deep foreboding I refused to confront until I was twenty-seven, after three years of marriage.  Even with the superhuman equanimity of my former wife, and the love and acceptance of friends and family, coming out was a profound trauma. I hated being gay – everything about it – and had convinced myself, to unreachable depths, that it ended any prospect of a congenial or purposeful life.  

And so, escaping my hometown of Wellington for Melbourne, I gave alcohol my undivided embrace; days into weeks into months into years, drinking through and over and underneath everything. As consumption escalated, health, finances, career and relationships duly suffered – but nothing before or since has matched booze's knack for coaxing me into believing all is right with the world.  I was a good drunk, insofar as there is such a thing — never weepy or obstreperous; until I blacked out (every night, without fail), I was generous and sociable and reliably euphoric. In that mission, booze never once let me down.   

The view that alcoholism is a disease for which abstinence is the only cure has congealed into accepted wisdom over the past century, not least among many "recovering addicts" themselves.  The disease theory,  propagated most aggressively by Alcoholics Anonymous and its offshoots, works much better, in my opinion, as a metaphor than as scientific or medical truth. I’ve long been troubled by many of AA’s foundational ideas: that they grant quasi-mystical powers to the abused substance – alcohol in my case – while downplaying the psychological factors that compel the addict to abuse;  the insistence that the sufferer engages in irrational and self-destructive acts for reasons beyond their control; and, most egregiously for a devout secularist like me, subservience to a “higher power” which, for all their dogged denials, really means the Protestant conception of God.   

AA has doubtless saved many lives by offering addicts respite, positive reinforcement and camaraderie, but its core assertions strike me as all wrong. Alcohol has the power only to sit, inert, in bottles and glasses until free agents pour it down willing throats.  I did not drink in spite of its mind-scrambling effects, but because of them – consciously seeking out the haze. Yes, drinking in such reckless quantities was killing me, but such a death was far less troubling than the prospect of a dreary sober existence in all its pitiless clarity.  Inebriation makes perfect sense to a distraught mind. 

Unlike cigarettes, which I surrendered around the same time, I do not miss drinking. Even as bouts of depression have grown in frequency and duration, I’ve barely endured a single craving. Don’t ask me why. For all that I reject the claims of AA, Ifollowed their prescribed abstinence path – in part because I haven’t been tempted otherwise, but mostly because“moderate drinking” alternatives carry no appeal whatsoever.    

A few years sober, I moved from Melbourne to New York City, taking an apartment on the Upper West Side and a job in Greenwich Village. Later, I picked up some consulting work in Central Africa, moving back and forth between Rwanda and New York. It was, on paper, living the dream. Hitting the gym with the monomaniacal focus only a recovering addict can summon, I lost 20kg, grew a fleeting six-pack.  I even managed a semi-serious relationship until his patience ran out.  

Appearances deceive. For all the surface accomplishments, the past nine years have been mostly unhappy ones, often desperately so. It often feels as if I've merely traveled full circle, back to the point at which I first deemed drinking myself into a daily stupor preferable to not doing so. Except, today, I am a fraction wiser. I imagined recovery from alcoholism would transform my life, inject it with meaning and purpose. A necessary delusion. But, these days, I have learned to lower my sights. Being sober keeps me alive, gives me a chance to salvage something from the wreckage. It’s not much — but it's something. The rest is up to me. 


Latest Business Spectator Column on our False Socialist Dawn

Here I write about Corbyn, Sanders and the "frenzied delusions" of the far-left – misplaced adulation for "conviction politics":

Like Tony Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are described as 'conviction politicians', a term meant as praise. We're meant to admire politicians who cling doggedly to a fixed ideology amid whatever else, including the emergence of contradictory evidence, is happening around them. This is why Corbynistas assert Labour can win elections not by appeals to the electoral centre, but by inspiring with 'conviction' and 'authenticity' hordes of non voters. Like anti-vaxxer conspiracies, the 'missing millions' thesis refuses to die despite being shot down in flames, study after study, election after election.


Lay off the insanity offence

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In light of the John Brogden story in the Sydney Morning Herald today, I had a minor Twitter rant about the use of mental illness as a weapon of political combat. When I worked in politics in NZ in the nineties, it was commonplace to accuse enemies of instability; spread rumours of supposed breakdowns; characterise the alleged use of medications as evidence of frailty. In one instance, there were even persistent whispers that past treatments for cancer had triggered insanity. Not least because of my own struggles in subsequent years, I've come to regret whatever part I played in this. There are plenty of other, better ways to demean your opponents – like, I dunno, going after their bad ideas?

(Forgive me my self-righteousness – it's the quality I loathe most of all in others).


Bertrand Russell's "The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed"

Because of essays like this, I'd like to think I could have been a Bertrand Russell scholar if my life had worked out differently (and my meagre brain was up to it).

The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed
Bertrand Russell

ONE of the persistent delusions of mankind is that some sections of the human race are morally better or worse than others. This belief has many different forms, none of which has any rational basis. It is natural to think well of ourselves, and thence, if our mental processes are simple, of our sex, our class, our nation, and our age. But among writers, especially moralists, a less direct expression of self-esteem is common. They tend to think ill of their neighbors and acquaintances, and therefore to think well of the Sections of mankind to "which they themselves do not belong, Lao-tse admired the "pure men of old," who lived before the advent of Confucian sophistication. Tacitus and Madame de Stael admired the Germans because they had no emperor. Locke thought well of the "intelligent American" because he was not led astray by Cartesian sophistries. 

A rather curious form of this admiration for groups to which the admirer does not belong is the belief in the superior virtue of the oppressed: subject nations, the poor, women, and children. The eighteenth century, while conquering America from the Indians, reducing the peasantry to the condition of pauper laborers, and introducing the cruelties of early industrialism, loved to sentimentalize about the "noble savage" and the "simple annals of the poor." Virtue, it was said, was not to be found in courts: but court ladies could almost secure it by masquerading as shepherdesses. And as for the male sex: 

Happy the man whose wish and care
A lew paternal acres bound.

Nevertheless, for himself Pope preferred London and his villa at Twickenham. 

At the French Revolution the superior virtue of the poor became a party question, and has remained so ever since. To reactionaries they became the "rabble" or the "mob." The rich discovered, with surprise, that some people were so poor as not to own even "a few paternal acres." Liberals, however, still continued to idealize the rural poor, while intellectual Socialists and Communists did the same for the urban proletariat - a fashion to which, since it only became important in the twentieth century, I shall return later. 

Nationalism introduced, in the nineteenth century, a substitute for the noble savage the patriot of an oppressed nation. The Greeks until they had achieved liberation from the Turks, the Hungarians until the Ausgleich of 1867, the Italians until 1870, and the Poles until after the 1914-18 war were regarded romantically as gifted poetic races, too idealistic to succeed in this wicked world. The Irish were regarded by the English as possessed of a special charm and mystical insight until 1921, when it was found that the expense of continuing to oppress them would be prohibitive. One by one these various nations rose to independence, and were found to be just like everybody else; but the experience of those already liberated did nothing to destroy the illusion as regards those who were still struggling. English old ladies still sentimentalize about the "wisdom of the East" and American intellectuals about the "earth consciousness" of the Negro. 

Women, being the objects of the strongest emotions, have been viewed even more irrationally than the poor or the subject nations. I am thinking not of what poets have to say but of the sober opinions of men who imagine themselves rational. The church had two opposite attitudes: on the one hand, woman was the Temptress, who led monks and others into sin; on the other hand, she was capable of saintliness to an almost greater degree than man. Theologically, the two types were represented by Eve and the Virgin. In the nineteenth century the temptress fell into the background; there were, of course, "bad" women, but Victorian worthies, unlike St. Augustine and his successors, would not admit that such sinners could tempt them, and did not like to acknowledge their existence. A kind of combination of the Madonna and the lady of chivalry was created as the ideal of the ordinary married woman. She was delicate and dainty, she had a bloom which would be rubbed off by contact with the rough world, she had ideals which might be dimmed by contact with wickedness; like the Celts and the Slavs and the noble savage, but to an even greater degree, she enjoyed a spiritual nature, which made her the superior of man but unfitted her for business or politics or the control of her own fortune. This point of view is still not entirely extinct. Not long ago, in reply to a speech I had made in favor of equal pay for equal work, an English schoolmaster sent me a pamphlet published by a schoolmasters' association, setting forth the opposite opinion, which it supports with curious arguments. It says of woman: "We gladly place her first as a spiritual force; we acknowledge and reverence her as the 'angelic part of humanity'; we give her superiority in all the graces and refinements we are capable of as human beings; we wish her to retain all her winsome womanly ways." "This appeal" that women should be content with lower rates of pay "goes forth from us to them," so we are assured, "in no selfish spirit, but out of respect and devotion to our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. . . . Our purpose is a sacred one, a real spiritual crusade.

Fifty or sixty years ago such language would have roused no comment except on the part of a handful of feminists; now, since women have acquired the vote, it has come to seem an anachronism. The belief in their "spiritual" superiority was part and parcel of the determination to keep them inferior economically and politically. When men were worsted in this battle, they had to respect women, and therefore gave up offering them "reverence" as a consolation for inferiority. 

A somewhat similar development has taken place in the adult view of children. Children, like women, were theologically wicked, especially among evangelicals. They were limbs of Satan, they were unregenerate; as Dr. Watts so admirably put it: 

One stroke of His almighty rod
Can send young sinners quick to Hell.

It was necessary that they should be "saved." At Wesley's school "a general conversion was once effected, . . one poor boy only excepted, who unfortunately resisted the influence of the Holy Spirit, for which he was severely flogged. . . ." But during the nineteenth century, when parental authority, like that of kings and priests and husbands, felt itself threatened, subtler methods of quelling insubordination came into vogue. Children were "innocent"; like good women they had a "bloom"; they must be protected from knowledge of evil lest their bloom should be lost. Moreover, they had a special kind of wisdom. Wordsworth made this view popular among English-speaking people. He first made it fashionable to credit children with

High instincts before which our mortal nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.

No one in the eighteenth century would have said to his little daughter, unless she were dead:

Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year
And worships't at the temple's inner shrine.

But in the nineteenth century this view became quite common; and respectable members of the Episcopal church or even of the Catholic church shamelessly ignored Original Sin to dally with the fashionable heresy that

. . . trailing clouds of glory do we cone

From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy. 

This led to the usual development. It began to seem hardly right to spank a creature that was lying in Abraham's bosom, or to use the rod rather than a high instincts "to make it "tremble like a guilty thing surprised/' And so parents and schoolmasters found that the pleasures they had derived from inflicting chastisement were being curtailed and a theory of education grew up which made it necessary to consider the child's welfare, and not only the adult's convenience and sense of power. The only consolation the adults could allow themselves was the invention of a new child psychology. Children, after being limbs of Satan in traditional theology and mystically illuminated angels in the minds of educational reformers, have reverted to being little devils not theological demons inspired by the Evil One, but scientific Freudian abominations inspired by the Unconscious. They are, it must be said, far more wicked than they were in the diatribes of the monks; they display, in modern textbooks, an ingenuity and persistence in sinful imaginings to which in the past there was nothing comparable except St. Anthony. Is all this the objective truth at last? Or is it merely an adult imaginative compensation for being no longer allowed to wallop the little pests? Let the Freudians answer, each for the others. 

As appears from the various instances that we have considered, the stage in which superior virtue Is attributed to the oppressed is transient and unstable. It begins only when the oppressors come to have a bad conscience, and this only happens when their power is no longer secure. The idealizing of the victim is useful for a time: if virtue is the greatest of goods, and if subjection makes people virtuous, it is kind to refuse them power, since it would destroy their virtue. If it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, it is a noble act on his part to keep his wealth and so imperil his eternal bliss for the benefit of his poorer brethren. It was a fine self-sacrifice on the part of men to relieve women of the dirty work of politics. And so on. But sooner or later the oppressed class will argue that its superior virtue is a reason in favor of its having power, and the oppressors will find their own weapons turned against them. When at last power has been equalized, it becomes apparent to everybody that all the talk about superior virtue was nonsense, and that it was quite unnecessary as a basis for the claim to equality. 

In regard to the Italians, the Hungarians, women, and children, we have ran through the whole cycle. But we are still in the middle of it in the case which is of the most importance at the present time namely, that of the proletariat. Admiration of the proletariat is very modern. The eighteenth century, when it praised "the poor," thought always of the rural poor. Jefferson's democracy stopped short at the urban mob; he wished America to remain a country of agriculturists. Admiration of the proletariat, like that of dams, power stations, and airplanes, is part of the ideology of the machine age. Considered in human terms, it has as little in its favor as belief in Celtic magic, the Slav soul, women's intuition, and children's innocence. If it were indeed the case that bad nourishment, little education, lack of air and sunshine, unhealthy housing conditions, and overwork produce better people than are produced by good nourishment, open air, adequate education and housing, and a reasonable amount of leisure, the whole case for economic reconstruction would collapse, and we could rejoice that such a large percentage of the population enjoys the conditions that make for virtue. But obvious as this argument is, many Socialist and Communist intellectuals consider it de rigueur to pretend to find the proletariat more amiable than other people, while professing a desire to abolish the conditions which, according to them, alone produce good human beings. Children were idealized by Wordsworth and un-idealized by Freud. Marx was the Wordsworth of the proletariat; its Freud is still to come.

The meaning of Trump, and then what?

Today in the Business Spectator, I wrote about the state of the GOP race, focussing on the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump – and what happens when he inevitably falls. 

Trump’s persona – the stratospheric self-regard, that confounding hairpiece – is too outlandish for fiction, except maybe as an Austin Powers villain. In the end, that’s why he won't win the GOP nomination. In fact, he probably won’t make it as far as the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Whether it’s picking an unwinnable fight with Megyn Kelly, the popular Fox News anchor, or some other hubristic overstep, 'The Donald' cannot withstand the unyielding pressures of a serious presidential bid. Until he flames out, though, he's milking the publicity for all it’s worth. In his Federal Election Commission filings, Trump claimed his name alone is worth $3 billion – and he’s counting every day of this media circus as a boon to his bottom line.

Rubio wins, Kasich shines, Bush flatlines, Trump lives on: my take on the GOP debate for Business Spectator

I wrote a quick scorecard of the first GOP Debate that was held on Thursday night in Cleveland and hosted on Fox News.  For me, Rubio was the winner, pipping Kasich at the post.  Jeb Bush did nothing beyond confirm that he lacks mojo.  Trump didn't entirely self destruct. 

Marco Rubio: He won the debate. Fluent in delivery, specific on issues, and a compelling personal story. The junior senator from Florida will also benefit from Bush’s poor night. One quibble: on banning abortion, Rubio denied supporting exemptions for victims of incest and rape. This pandering to GOP voters could hurt him in the general election if he makes it either as presidential candidate or as VP. No surprise that Bill Clinton apparently sees Rubio as the greatest threat to Hillary. 


Opinion: What plagiarism says about the state of Labour


Last week, a friend sent me a discussion paper Labour has written about the role of technology in the future of work. An interesting and important subject.  I was struck immediately by how well written parts of it were — a far cry from the jargon-infested torrents of drivel that typically pass for political prose in New Zealand. 

It made me curious. Either Labour had hired a gifted wordsmith to draft every second or third sentence, or something more nefarious was at work. Thirty minutes of Googling later, it became apparent Labour had lifted several  passages, mainly from news articles, and plonked them, without citation or attribution, into their text. In one section, "On-Demand Economy", just under half of the copy (47 percent by my tally) was ripped directly from other sources. The best bits, too. Keep in mind I am not talking about inartful paraphrasing here — where an author covers their tracks by changing the order of sentences or tactically swapping out synonyms — but verbatim plagiarism. 

Hoping to minimise things, Labour called it a referencing error and promptly added footnotes in the four cases where I had uncovered sentence theft.  They should have retracted the document for two reasons: the presence of footnotes doesn’t excuse the pasting in whole passages of other people's work without quotation marks or in-text attribution; and because, as I made clear in my blog post on the subject, my quick examination was far from exhaustive. Other examples were bound to pop up — and have. Labour claimed to have fixed the problem by hastily appending footnotes but did so before checking for themselves whether there were other, as yet undetected, examples. They quickly emerged. A reader emailed me a few hours after the initial revelations with another glaring case, this time involving a NZ Herald article from January this year. My own research uncovered another instance of copy and paste from the Economist. There are probably more. The pattern is clear.  

This is no earth-shattering scandal, but I reject the idea propagated by some on social media that plagiarism in politics is unimportant. Why focus on this, I was asked, when the TPPA is set to rob New Zealand of its sovereignty? Or when poor kids are going to school hungry? This is a version of the old Soviet propaganda trick of whataboutism: "why are we talking about Labour's plagiarism when National are tearing our country apart?". It's a clever technique aimed at stifling dissent and casting dissenters, whose criticisms are said to deflect attention from the "real enemy", as traitors to the cause.  

The plagiarism revelations are important because they raise questions about Labour’s competence, ethics and readiness to govern. And since the party has placed great store in the Future of Work Commission as an engine room of the original thinking and new ideas that will propel it into office, it seems worth noting its first major document is rife with plagiarism. The irony alone makes it hard to dismiss. 

It shouldn’t be acceptable for any political party,  let alone one presenting itself as an alternative government, to engage in demonstrably unethical conduct. If a first year Uni student handed in an essay with half the content ripped from other sources, they would be failed, reprimanded, and possibly suspended. A journalist or academic would be looking for another job. Shouldn't we hold our elected politicians at least to the same standard?  

Weak oppositions produce bad governments. National is complacent, slow-moving, prone to own goals, and way too pleased with itself. But they thrive in part because Labour lacks the basic political skills necessary to hold them properly to account. With the notable exception of Kelvin Davis’ ongoing prosecution of the Serco prisons fiasco, Labour rarely, and barely, lays a glove on John Key or his Ministers. Their failure to gain traction through the dreary, painstaking but essential work of opposition leads Labour to resort to 'Hail Mary' stunts like racially profiling homebuyers with Chinese surnames (the issue over which I resigned from the party last month).  

Many in Labour think the electoral tides make their victory in 2017 inevitable. They have been busy leaking internal polls that reinforce that conviction. Maybe they're right, and the unwritten 'three term rule' is an unstoppable force, impervious to the respective talents and shortcomings of the people and parties involved. If that's true, the question becomes: if it really is Labour's 'turn', what kind of a government will they be? The kind of ethical misconduct and incompetence we witness from Labour in opposition will seem far from trivial when it coincides with actual power. 

Labour didn't remedy the plagiarism. Not even close.

Soon after I posted four examples (here and here) of how Labour plagiarised news articles in its Future of Work discussion document, the party reacted in three steps:

  1. They pushed Clare Curran under a bus;
  2. They copped to plagiarism while dismissing it as a case of omitted footnotes;
  3. They appended footnotes to address the four instances I had highlighted. 

This was a profoundly inadequate response in many respects, but it worked wonders as an exercise in media management. Credit where it's due. To be honest, it probably helped Labour that it was me who revealed the plagiarism since I am easily dismissed as embittered and angry – over the Chinese surnames affair that led to my resignation, but also the more general perception in sections of the political Twittersphere that I am a full-time malcontent. While I would dispute those characterisations, I can't deny they diluted the impact of the revelations.  It may also be that plagiarism is just not that big a deal in New Zealand. Fair enough, I guess. 

Anyway, in Labour's haste to cover tracks, they failed to do the most obvious imaginable thing: rule out the presence of more examples of plagiarism.

First, I discovered another pilfer from the same edition of the Economist cited in an earlier post. 

Labour wrote:

Consumers may be winners, as can workers who value flexibility over security such as younger workers, those with portable skills in demand who attract higher wages, or those who don’t want to work fulltime.

But those who value security over flexibility, have families or have mortgages are all threatened. In addition, there are inequities for those who work in the on-demand economy but do not qualify for superannuation and other benefits.  

In Workers on Tap, Economist, Jan 2, 2015:

Consumers are clear winners; so are Western workers who value flexibility over security...

But workers who value security over flexibility, including a lot of middle-aged lawyers, doctors and taxi drivers, feel justifiably threatened. And the on-demand economy certainly produces unfairnesses: taxpayers will also end up supporting many contract workers who have never built up pensions.

Labour failed to append a footnote in this instance. It's time to test the proposition that this is a footnoting problem.

Let's examine one section in the Future of Work paper: 

It speaks for itself.  It is laughable to explain this away as a referencing error. It is the wholesale cutting and pasting of the large tracts of text presented as original work. Clearcut plagiarism of the most rampant, unambiguous kind. 

Aside from this new example, a reader emailed me with an instance where Labour has ripped words and ideas from a NZ Herald article in January:

In 2.2 Work and Workers,  Labour wrote:

Workers of all generations want flexible working conditions and a flexible working environment. Younger workers rate flexible conditions twice as important as other work factors.

Yet organisational practices are lagging behind technological change. Employers are often concerned about the costs flexible work can create and the additional management skills needed. There are also negatives to remote working such as loss of career and training opportunities and social isolation which need to be tackled.

In article entitled Flexibility High on Wishlist, (NZ Herald, 24 January 2015), Raewyn Court wrote:

...employees of all generations overwhelmingly want flexible working conditions and a flexible working environment, with millennials even rating flexible work conditions twice as effective as any other engagement strategy.

...organisational practices are lagging behind technology-mediated changes... Employers say [...] flexible working puts a greater burden on managers and supervisors, who need new skills to manage remote employees.

Dallimore says there are negatives to remote working in that employees can be "out of sight, out of mind" in terms of promotions, career and training opportunities, and can suffer social isolation.





The New York Times' alarming complicity in Burundi's "Blame the Tutsis" strategy

Here is the New York Times piece I refer to:

Rarely will you read a more scurrilous piece of journalism than this prominently featured New York Times story on Burundi and Rwanda. 

The story reports that top Burundian officials are accusing Rwanda of interference in their messed up political affairs. There is no evidence – not one shred – to support these potentially explosive claims. The article concedes as much, relying entirely on the self-serving claims of Burundian regime officials. The article's very existence can only serve to fuel tension in the region, directing suspicion and animosity at Kigali. 

To be clear, it is not surprising that Burundian officials are making such claims about Rwanda. It is a run of the mill political tactic in that region.To deflect attention from its own dysfunction, corruption and failure, of course the Burundian regime will resort to blaming the Tutsis in Rwanda. It is directly analogous to Tehran ramping up anti-Israel rhetoric in reaction to domestic strife.  

What is shocking is that the New York Times has allowed itself to be you used as the mouthpiece of the Burundian regime, and therefore complicit in fomenting the dangerous Tutsi-bashing instincts that have long plagued the region.  

Read this section as a case study in disingenuous reporting:

As Mr. Nkurunziza struggles to retain control, his top officials accuse Rwanda of tacitly aiding his enemies.

Then on Sunday, a top general close to the president was assassinated, threatening to further inflame a volatile situation.

The general, Adolphe Nshimirimana, had an outsize personality. He was feared for his brutal tactics and a linchpin in the president’s control of his security forces. He played a major role in crushing protests in the spring, leaving scores of people dead, and was credited with helping foil the coup. No one has yet claimed responsibility for his death.

There is no suggestion that Rwanda had any hand in it. But top Burundian officials say that Rwanda played a part in the failed coup.

“We know that some of the coup leaders now live in Rwanda, at least three of them,” said the foreign minister, Alain Nyamitwe, in an interview on July 22, the day after the presidential election.

While the Times has no proof – because no proof exists – that Rwanda is involved in the attempted coup in Burundi, let alone the assassination of Nshimirimana, words are expertly juxtaposed to allow the accusations to hang in the air.  

"His top aides accuse Rwanda...then a top general was assassinated". 


The entire case against Rwanda in this article is made by apparatchiks from the Burundian regime and a member of a virulently anti-Rwanda militia group. Oh, and a disgraced Belgian academic, obsessed with imposing a form of ethnic apartheid between Hutu and Tutsi, who advised Rwanda's genocidal regime, and who has spent the 21 years since the genocide attacking the people who stopped it.  

Quick Notes on a Minor Scandal

The likelihood of plagiarism struck me when several of the sentences in Labour’s Future of Work paper stood out for being curiously well written, especially in contrast to the empty jargon, the “noise shaped air”, that surrounds them (Veep, HBO, Season 4, Episode 1).  

For example, consider the following two sentences:

Exhibit A 

The role of government becomes essential with important challenges around the redistribution of incomes and ensuring the state maintains a share of the intellectual property it protects in order to address rising inequalities. 

Exhibit B 

Complex tasks such as programming a computer or writing a legal brief can now be divided in component parts and subcontracted to specialists around the world. 

No prizes for guessing which was produced by an actual writer as opposed to the random blah-blah generator responsible for most political prose in NZ.  

Exhibit B, as we now know, came from January 3rd print edition of The Economist. Even now, Labour does not place the pilfered quote in quotation marks. Nor do they cite the source, except as a hastily appended footnote.  An ethical way of citing The Economist’s insights would be to put it like this:

As The Economist reported in January, “complex tasks such as programming a computer or writing a legal brief can now be divided in component parts and subcontracted to specialists around the world”. 

By simply cutting and pasting the quote as if it is the original work of Labour’s drafters – with or without a footnote credit – is plagiarism of the most straightforward kind. 

I feel a bit sorry for Clare Curran over this. The Future of Work Commission is Grant Robertson’s baby but clearly he has decided to palm it off to lesser colleagues whenever it soils its nappies.  Hardly a profile in courage, but I can see that Robertson’s reputation, as Finance Spokesperson, is worth preserving.  

Sadder still is Curran spinning the plagiarism as “referencing errors” or accidentally omitted footnotes. A bit like Nigel Haworth insisting his email reproaching members over Twitter use was actually an offer of free training, this is another example of Labour seeming to believe that people are morons.  

To be clear, there are at least four examples of whole passages lifted from news articles and presented as original work. No effort was made to distinguish the plagiarised material from the non-plagiarised; it was blended together and presented as a cohesive whole.  There were no quotation marks or mentions of sources until after the plagiarism had been uncovered.  A “referencing error” would be using a quote from the Economist without correct citation, or paraphrasing inaccurately. This is not the case here. Words (and the ideas attached to them) were stolen, pure and simple. 

A further example of plagiarism in Labour's Future of Work discussion paper

UPDATE: Labour has now added citations as footnotes which is inadequate since they continue to use material lifted directly from elsewhere without appropriate attribution and no quotation marks.  Please note, however, the addition of footnotes occurred only after the plagiarism was revealed on this blog and elsewhere in the media. 


 While I have yet to apply a fine-tooth comb to the document, a further example of outright plagiarism has come to light:

In the SECOND SENTENCE of the Introduction, Labour writes:

Work done in entirely new technology businesses, the huge range of knowledge and media endeavours, the factory floor, and even family businesses have been reshaped by new pathways to information and new ways of selling goods and services. For most office workers now, life on the job means life online.

On December 30, 2014, Kirsten Purcell and Lee Rainie at the Pew Research Center released a paper entitled "Technology's Impact on Workers" in which they wrote:

Work done in the most sophisticated scientific enterprises, entirely new technology businesses, the extensive array of knowledge and media endeavors, the places where crops are grown, the factory floor, and even mom-and-pop stores has been reshaped by new pathways to information and new avenues of selling goods and services. For most office workers now, life on the job means life online.

Plagiarism is never acceptable...but really?  You're going to copy and paste someone else's work without attribution in the second sentence of the Introduction?  

Judging by their discussion paper, Labour's future of work involves a lot of cutting and pasting

UPDATE: Labour has now added citations as footnotes which is inadequate since they continue to use material lifted directly from elsewhere without appropriate attribution and no quotation marks. Please note, however, the addition of footnotes occurred after the plagiarism was revealed on this blog and elsewhere in the media.


I have reviewed one small section of Labour's Future of Work discussion paper, and uncovered three clear cases of plagiarism. I can only imagine other such instances are rife throughout the document.  

The section in question is titled "Emerging Challenges and Opportunities".  In total, the section comprises just over 1,200 words.  Among them, a straightforward Google search uncovered three occasions where the drafters of the report directly lifted whole sentences and paragraphs from articles in the Economist and Business Insider.  None of them were attributed, but presented in the body of the text as if it were the drafter's original work. Straightforward plagiarism, in other words. 

Labour wrote:

Complex tasks such as programming a computer or writing a legal brief can now be divided in component parts and subcontracted to specialists around the world.  

On January 5th this year, in an article titled "Workers on Tap", the Economist reported:

Complex tasks, such as programming a computer or writing a legal brief, can now be divided into their component parts—and subcontracted to specialists around the world.

Labour went on to write:

Fast-moving tech companies competing in this arena have developed new models – such as Uber, Handy and AirB&B – that are transforming industries which have been historically slow to innovate. Transportation, grocery, restaurant and personal service industries are seeing hyper-growth in the on-demand world.

On July 13, 2014, an article in Business Insider titled "The 'On-Demand Economy' Is Revolutionizing Consumer Behavior — Here's How", Mike Jaconi wrote:

The fast-moving technology companies competing in this arena have developed new models that are transforming industries which have historically been slow to innovate. The ground transportation, grocery, and restaurant industries are prime examples of hyper-growth categories in the on-demand world.

Labour also wrote:

The “on-demand economy” is the result of pairing that workforce with smartphones and other devices, which now provide far more computing power than the desktop computers which reshaped companies in the 1990s, and reach far more people.

Also in the January 5th 2015 edition, in an article titled "There's an App for That", the Economist wrote:

The on-demand economy is the result of pairing that workforce with the smartphone, which now provides far more computing power than the desktop computers which reshaped companies in the 1990s, and to far more people.


Labour to members – check with us before you tweet...

Nigel Haworth opts for a Hail Mary defense.  

Nigel Haworth opts for a Hail Mary defense.  

 UPDATE: You'll see above Nigel Haworth's defense to RadioLive's always excellent Jessica Williams. Apparently, Haworth was merely offering party members free Twitter training. Really, Nigel?  I'm just not seeing it.  Even if I set aside the fact the comments below were preceded by a paragraph emphasizing "unity" and "discipline", and ignore that the words themselves, however drearily euphemistic and obfuscatory, were a perfectly self-evident admonition against unauthorized political tweeting, I cannot find in those paragraphs the meaning Haworth is trying to retroactively attribute to them. In fact, I defy anyone to read those sentences and conclude that Haworth was offering members help with how to use the Twitter and the Facebook.  Coincidentally, Haworth last week went out of his way in an email exchange to assert proudly that he writes all his own stuff. Judging by this latest own goal, I'm not sure Labour should take any comfort in that. 



In another tone-deaf display, NZ Labour President Nigel Haworth has used the latest email newsletter to urge party members to check with party officials before tweeting.  

Equally, the modern era provides multiple opportunities to comment publicly on political issues. Blogs are one thing, but I think media such as Twitter are probably more important.
It is easy to read a newspaper report, or pick up a news item on the TV, and launch immediately into a commentary that may be widely shared.
We see this regularly, and it is sometimes founded on incorrect information, as events subsequently show. Spokespeople in Caucus, staff in Party HQ, Council members, members of Policy Council and I are available promptly to respond to queries about issues before public comments are made.

We are happy to talk to you if you hear or read something that worries you, or makes little sense. And a quick check with the Party about the issue allows you to comment in an accurate and informed way, even if you disagree! We are all the better for debate founded on accurate information.

Under the guise of "discipline", Haworth wants ordinary party members to clear tweets with party bigwigs. 

I'm no longer a member but, if I was, I would have a few questions about this extraordinary and revealing new injunction.

  1. What will this Twitter Pre-Authorisation Process (TPAP) look like? Where, and to whom, do members send their draft tweets for approval?
  2. Given the fast-moving nature of social media, what's the likely turnaround time between submitting a draft tweet to the Party Committee for the Authorisation of Social Media Commentary (PCASMC) and receiving the final, approved version for dissemination?
  3. Will there be an appeal process when a member disputes or rejects the PCASMC's recommendations?
  4. If a member fails to follow TPAP protocols and goes ahead and tweets willy-nilly, will he or she be answerable to PCASMC or any other body of the party?  
  5. Before retweeting politically-themed tweets, how can members know whether the tweet in question is PCASMC approved?  Will members be held to account for retweeting items that have not undergone the appropriate TPAP protocols? 

 I have looked around for examples of political movements who institute similar rules, to no avail. In my observation, parties prone to such inclinations tend to just ban Twitter outright. 



When did Labour get so scared of the future?

After rummaging through leaked property data for Chinese sounding names (then mightily bungling the aftermath), Labour pivoted to oppose changing the New Zealand flag, and then to stake out protectionist ground on the TPP.  Taken alongside Andrew Little’s baffling decision early in his tenure to ditch the capital gains tax even when the policy was more popular than the party at the last election, this embrace by Labour of 'small-c conservatism' is as transparent as it is disheartening. How has Labour become the party of 'turning back the tide', abetted by age-old tactics of exploiting fear and anxiety?

However clumsily executed (and the clumsiness is impossible to overstate), the transformation of Andrew Little’s Labour into a reactionary political movement may yet pay off electorally.  But early signs are not promising: the One News Colmar Brunton poll gave Labour a mere one point boost after the surname stunt, dismal when you take into account sharply declining economic sentiment. At this point in any government’s third term, it is without precedent for the incumbent party to maintain a consistent lead over its main opposition of between 15 and 20 points.  Yes, there are smaller parties who add to Labour’s pile, but the last election must surely have eradicated once and for all the dangerous fantasy that Labour can plausibly win office with thirty percent support. 

In my resignation letter over the surname stunt, I cited my three years living and working in Rwanda to explain why I consider the trawling for ethnic sounding names out of bounds.   Very quickly, party boffins attempted to discredit me by claiming, absurdly, that I was comparing Phil Twyford’s antics with the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Even after the party president, Nigel Haworth, conceded in an email that this was a mischaracterisation, asking me twice to reconsider my decision to resign, a paid employee of the party continued ad-hominem attacks unabated.  Rather than engage with the sincerely felt objections of party members and activists, this freewheeling staffer heaped scorn upon them. Point-scoring over principle. I shouldn't have been surprised since exactly such thinking lay behind Labour’s decision to scapegoat Chinese New Zealanders in the first place. 

In search of silver linings, there is this: Labour seems to have finally remembered it needs to compete with the National Party for the middle-ground of the New Zealand electorate. This suggests the destructive and self-defeating delusion that a ‘missing million’ of non-voters would rally triumphantly to the party and its allies has finally been debunked beyond resuscitation. 

Little, Twyford and co probably believe their recent manoeuvres on Chinese surnames and flag preservation are exactly what’s needed to persuade centrist voters to abandon John Key.  Little even said he knew accusations of racism over the housing data were “likely”, yet authorised their release anyway. Why? Whatever support they lose, he must have calculated, will be overwhelmed by a wave of new voters who will relish Labour’s sticking it to the Chinese.  

This is a crude and misguided assessment of what Kiwis want from Labour. They're not looking for NZ First sans twinkle.  In fact, watching Labour experiment with populist race-baiting is cringe-inducing, like seeing your Dad dance to Hip-Hop. 

Labour’s role in New Zealand’s political life is to bring about progressive change that reflects the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Kiwis and moves the country forward. It should never adopt a defensive crouch towards the future. It will win again when voters see that the party has reconnected with that mission and demonstrated the wherewithal to manage the country’s finances.  

If Labour believe that Kiwis will reward them for abandoning core values whenever they sniff a headline, it shows how little regard they have for the people whose support they seek.   

Labour's magnificent tangle

There will be a lot of attention given to Andrew Little's tantrum today, and for good reason. Among other things, it will lead many to ask (long simmering) questions of his temperament, as well as perhaps more generally his suitability to the job he seeks.  But the more interesting issue to me is what he got about so upset about, namely Patrick Gower's claim that the property data released by Phil Twyford eleven days ago was "cooked".  

Little was beyond outraged that anyone would dare suggest it was cooked data, hence the dummy-spit.  Is he really of the view that the data is reliable? How could that be?

Let's review what isn't cooked.

It is true that a greater proportion of people with Chinese sounding names bought houses through Barfoot and Thompson during the time period in question than the proportion of people with Chinese sounding names living in Auckland. Whatever we think of the methods Labour employed, we can agree the data says that. 

But that is all it says. 

To infer foreign ownership rates from that very limited dataset is the very definition of cooking data. 

To align that data with suggestions that Chinese home buyers are contributing to a massive economic problem that prevents anyone else from buying a home...a stupendous data barbecue.

If the extent of their defence is that "those names definitely sound Chinese to me!", then they have an argument.  Any assertion beyond that is pure cookery.  

Oh, and by the way, Patrick Gower's question of Little – "we have spoken to people on your list; have you? – was not only well in bounds; it was an excellent and important one.  

Nigel Haworth's revealing non rebuttal

I neither expected nor wished to receive a formal response from Labour to my resignation. It's unpleasant watching grown-ups lie through their teeth, and I've seen enough of it for one lifetime. Anyway, Nigel Haworth, the party's president, wrote to me. This is the crux of his argument: 

To refer to Chinese purchasers in such an analysis is not racist. Given, as others have also pointed out, that China is today engaged in massive international investment, much of it strategic, and is also the home of vast, and increasingly mobile, cash assets, it is right and proper for New Zealand to consider the potential impact of those assets and investment on New Zealand housing ownership, or, indeed, on other aspects of our economy. If it were Singaporean. or German or other investment that seemed to be dominant, it would be equally proper to name its source economy (for example, much as has been done since the Second World War in relation to US investment flows).

It reveals a deep disconnect between Labour and its critics on this issue. 

Nobody has said it's racist to state that mainland Chinese are investing heavily in the property market, or that it's not "right and proper" for the New Zealand government to devise a policy response to the vexed challenges of housing affordability and foreign ownership. (Haworth's eagerness to deliberately misconstrue an opposing argument in order to more easily knock it down led me to assume that Rob Salmond, a master of that tactic, must have drafted the email, but he assures me it is all his own work).  

The issue at stake relates to the stunt Labour employed, i.e. trawling through lists of buyers and counting up Chinese sounding surnames.  This is not a considered assessment of "the potential impact of those assets and investment on NZ housing ownership"; it is a rough as guts guesstimate designed to drum up fear among "Kiwis" of a Chinese takeover of the NZ property market, throwing an entire ethnic group under the bus in the process. (Keith Ng has torn shreds off the reliability of the data, and I can't recommend his posts on the subject highly enough). 

By claiming that Labour would treat Germans and Singaporeans the same, Haworth exposes yet again the flawed approach to this issue. How exactly would Labour tally up Singaporean surnames to distinguish them from Chinese, Indian, Malay and English names?  And how about the Germans?  What algorithm would Rob Salmond come up with to pick on them? 

There aren't enough white babyboomers alive  to convince me that Labour's tactics were anything but a transparent exercise in race-baiting.  Haworth and co. know it, too, which is why they resort to rebutting arguments that nobody's made. 

Lost appetite


FURTHER UPDATE: Salmond – surprise, surprise – was making stuff up about everyone else in the article too. Here's the indispensible Keith Ng. 

UPDATE: I just noticed Labour staffer Rob Salmond wrote an article in the Sunday Star Times where he repeated the offensive lie that I am comparing Labour's race-baiting tactics with the genocide in Rwanda. I have been crystal clear in multiple forums that my experience in Rwanda merely helped explain the strength of my reaction. Anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty knows that this is not remotely the same as comparing the two events.  As the post below concedes, misrepresenting an opponent's argument to make them look foolish is the kind of nasty, dishonest trick I might have played as a political staffer in my early twenties, so it's not like I can't see what Salmond is up to.  But his claim that I am comparing the genocide with his trivial racial politics is knowingly dishonest, and I am ashamed that my friends in Rwanda might for a moment think it is true. Of course it is not. Rob Salmond is lying, knowingly and with glee.  As I suggested to him on Twitter, perhaps the time has come when he needs to take some time off and rediscover some personal integrity. 


On Q+A this morning, Michael Cullen dutifully recited Labour’s talking points about how Phil Twyford's trawling through lists of home buyers looking for Chinese sounding names was not racist.

We shouldn't really blame Cullen because party loyalists serve up fatuous arguments like this every day of the week. I spent, or misspent, many years of my career compiling it into bullet points for them.

Cullen wants to remain a party elder statesman – a position he has well and truly earned – and would doubtless consider it it recklessly self-indulgent to throw Little and Twyford under a bus over what is arguably a trivial matter of tactics. It would involve paying a high price for no return, and I see why Cullen wouldn't make that play.

Equally, I  understand why many in the party, including friends of mine, have put aside their initial disgust at Twyford’s stunt because they think the broader issue – foreign ownership and housing affordability – deserves a proper airing.

Most of all, I fully empathise with the pragmatists who are neither here nor there on the morality of the ploy, but see it as a "game-changer” that has wrong-footed National and put Labour in contention.  The end justifies the means.

This was my attitude towards politics for a very long time. In fact, I worked hard at cultivating a reputation for a take-no-prisoners approach to winning marginal seats on both sides of the Tasman through the nineties and early noughts. I tore down and defaced more hoardings than I can count (once turning National candidate Arthur Anae’s name into “Fart Anal”). I drafted blistering direct mail letters and unauthorised “shit-sheets" in which I gleefully defamed opposing candidate, drumming up fears about crime in Taranaki and, most effectively, the entirely non-existent threat of a casino in Hamilton.

We didn’t engage in no-holds-barred campaigning merely because we thought it was necessary to prevail in what felt like an epic struggle between Good and Evil, although we certainly believed that.  We played hardball because we were young, stupid, often drunk, and high as kites on adrenaline. Or at least I was.

It dawned on me last week that I am no longer comfortable with the certainties of hyper-partisanship. Events also gave me cause to contemplate the ethical trade-offs politics requires of us; and to wince with embarrassment at the misdemeanours of my campaigning days, back when Twyford’s stunt would have had me high-fiveing perfect strangers.  


Is this the worst defence of Labour's racial profiling so far?

Politicians who engage in race baiting do not invent racial hatred; they play on existing enmity to inflame it and rally the majority against a common enemy. This does not seem an especially difficult point to grasp.  All of which makes the statement below the most head-scratching contribution to date to the debate around Labour's racial profiling of Chinese home buyers. 


According to this theory (I surmise), since hatred against Chinese pre-dated Labour's stunt, it's fair game to exploit it.  

What strange logic. 

One last time for clarity.


Persecution of certain ethnic minorities perceived as harming the majority's economic well-being is as old as history. It seems likely to me that Labour's housing stunt was designed to stoke anxiety among "Kiwis" about a Chinese takeover, and thus fits this historical pattern.

I cited several other examples, including Rwanda because I lived and worked there. While I was aware that this would leave me open to ridicule because it can be easily mischaracterised as "Phil Quin says the Labour Party is like Rwanda" (as Philip Matthews, whom I do not know, has done),  I cited Rwanda in my resignation letter because I doubt I would have gone as far as quitting were it not for what I learned there. I don't really care if that sounds ridiculous.  

As I said in a previous blog post, persecution of perceived "wealthy elites" takes far more mundane forms than pogroms or genocide – but these things have occurred in extreme cases. 

If Chris Trotter or anyone else wants to say that this means I am accusing Labour of planning genocide, then I will leave it for you to decide whether his is a fair reading of my argument.