Saturday, 5 June 2010

The A list

We can all sleep sounder now we know who are Canterbury's fifty most influential people – the Power A-Listers or PALs.

These sort of lists fall risk slipping into the category of junk journalism. They are as much about who isn't on them as who is, and say a lot about the priorities and values of the compilers.

We're constantly bombarded with lists of the most beautiful / sexy / wealthy / well-dressed or whatever and, despite trying hard not to, I couldn't resist doing an analysis of our home-grown 'movers and shakers'.

These human earthquakes are almost exclusively white, mostly male and (judging from photos and biographical details) are in, or heading towards the 'older demographic'.

In fact, there's only one person under 30.

Three quarters are male and all, bar one, are Pakeha. (I was also guided by biographical details and photos in arriving at this figure.)

Of the female PALs, 11 are involved in politics, the arts, education or health. The twelfth is a former maker of public policy who is now a consultant on public policy.

There are two current and one former National MPs; one former and one current Labour MPs, and one former Christchurch Mayor turned 'environmental entrepreneur'.

Three are married to prominent businessmen a fact which no doubt helps in carrying out the charitable works which affords them their PAL status. The Arts especially benefit from PALs with time on their well manicured hands.

National heads the overall party PALitics list with a total of 4 current and 3 former MPs.

Education makes a very good showing – well, that bit of it which deals with people over the age of 18. Of the 6 education A-Listers, 5 are men and 4 are involved in the tertiary sector.

Both in terms of secondary schools attended by PALs and the two princiPALs on the list, Canterbury's old boy network is – as you'd expect - well represented.

Clearly the days when the leaders of student politics were significant are long gone – but I cannot see why no-one from primary and early years' education figures.

There's only one churchman - the vicar of a suburban church and an outspoken supporter of the conservative Anglican Latimer Fellowship.

The sole media figure on the list is the editor who commissioned the list and who sees his newspaper as setting the City's agenda - to some measure one assumes, by publishing the list.

There are no practising doctors or nurses – the health sector PALs are both managers. Why am I not surprised?

There is no-one from the labour movement unless you count the Labour MP who was a union lawyer. So, no surprises there either.

There are no specific representatives from the older population - unless you consider that is covered by the average age of the members of the list. However, given the socio-economic location of the PALs relative to the bulk of the older population, that may be an assumption too far.

The two PALs from within the criminal justice system are the tough-on-crime top cop and the elegantly attired crown prosecutor. There are no human rights advocates or prominent defence lawyers.

In the green corner we have an entrepreneur, the Chairman of ECan and a wealthy patroness. So if you are concerned for the future of Canterbury's environment, you have every right to be.

In the 'business' sector which, predictably, leads the table in terms of numbers, Christchurch City Council is far and away the most influential organisation.

There's the Mayor, the CEO of the council, the Chairman and Chief Executive of the Council's commercial arm, Christchurch City Holdings Ltd, and the Chief Executive of VBase, which manages the Council's property portfolio.

Given the Council's majority stake in the Airport, Orion and Lyttelton Port, the inclusion of the CEOs of those three organisations makes the CCC federation pretty formidable.

As an aside, given the commercial arms are managed by boards and CEOs, there's no education or social services to manage and no large scale housing – how does CCC justify paying its CEO more than the PM?

In addition to the heavy hitters from CCC Inc there are 3 heads of state owned or former state owned enterprises, 3 notables from the finance sector, 2 from retail and 1 each from insurance, recruitment, real estate and property.

And – ONE who heads up a company that actually makes things.

And that brings me to the 40 also-rans – the 16 women and 24 men who are listed as examples of the social cement which holds the city together. They are granted the irritating title of 'Community Hero', but let's face it – they are the B-listers.

However, their efforts are pretty important for the PALs because if you move and shake something that isn't stable, it might well fall to pieces.

Most of the B-listers run a heroic business or work in a heroic job; others (the true heroes in my book) volunteer in various community projects.

One panellist (rather naively) suggested that this is not a 'rich list' but is about 'influence and outcome' .

Hmm. The fact that there are so many B-listers beavering away among the physically, intellectually, economically, generationally disadvantaged in our city does raise the question of how effective the PAL's influence is and how good their outcomes can be said to be.

"Kill violent people, bring back capital punishment"

Now that we have a 'centre, yeah right' government committed to considering ACT's 'three strikes and you're in for life' policy for violent offenders, maybe Garth McVicar will reissue his call for Arizona-style army surplus tent prisons.

Perhaps we'll see more bumper stickers like those produced by Carterton's Mayor, Gary McPhee -"Kill violent people, bring back capital punishment".

McPhee either has a great sense of humour or was blissfully unaware of the irony. He said at the time that it's not the American justice system he wants to copy but China's – ie where there are 68 capital crimes - over half of which are non-violent offences. He also said NZ had moved too far to the political Left, so will John Key's soft focus coalition go far enough to the Right to satisfy the law and order brigade?

A while back a circular email was extolling the virtues of tent prisons introduced by Sherriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona. Lo and behold, a Fox News item appeared on NZ television over the holidays which reported on Arpaio's latest tactic– a reality game show aimed at luring criminals out of hiding with the promise of fame and fortune.

It's not surprising that Arizona, the US state with most people on death row, should have spawned a law enforcement officer like Arpaio. An Irish judge said of him that "he gloated over the inhumane treatment he dishes out to his inmates" and "appeared to take a chillingly sadistic pleasure in his role as incarcerator."

Arpaio forces prisoners to wear pink underwear, allegedly to prevent theft. He's even extended his 'pink' theme into handcuffs. As a sideline, he flogs these items off to his adoring fans. Like his real estate deals, Arpaio's sale of these 'collectables' has been the subject of legal scrutiny.

He's an enthusiastic advocate of a 'restraint chair' the use of which has been condemned by Amnesty International and in which one remand prisoner died and a paraplegic's neck was broken.
The black and white striped pyjamas that members of his chain gangs (for men, women and juveniles) are required to wear are uncomfortably reminiscent of those worn by Nazi concentration camp inmates.

And then there are his army surplus tent prisons which Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesperson McVicar wants to see in NZ. In Arizona, the temperatures in these tents can reach 150 degrees F - hot enough to cause brain damage or death - not that Arpaio would lose any sleep over that possibility.

As another way of 'saving taxpayers' dollars', he limits prisoners' meals to two a day at a cost of around US30c. He denies them coffee and salt; the former, because he claims it causes violence and the latter, because it saves around US$20k a year. Given the body's need for salt in extreme temperatures, it might actually be in the hope that some prisoners will die and save even more tax dollars. Given he serves out of date, oxidized food, death by diet in Arpaio's jails is not a remote possibility.

To put Arpaio's workhouse–style parsimony into perspective, lawsuits have cost Maricopa County over $40 million in settlement claims so far during Arpaio's tenure. Many other law suits are pending and he's also facing a class-action lawsuit for violation of constitutional rights brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of remand prisoners.

Some people argue that his excesses are worthwhile because he has reduced crime but there is no evidence that his policies do anything of the sort.  This Hero of the Right has been responsible for the deaths in custody of a mentally handicapped man, a blind man and a drug addict who was in withdrawal and suffering delusions. His officers' use of a restraint chair resulted in a wheelchair bound paraplegic losing the use of his arms. The man was restrained because he demanded a catheter; he'd been arrested for possessing a gram of cannabis and calling an Irish bar owner an 'Englishman'.

The crimes of the others are as revealing. The blind man was serving 6 months for shoplifting; the mentally handicapped man was arrested for loitering; the drug addict was arrested for a minor assault on a police officer.  No doubt the crimes of the desperados netted in his TV sting operation are unlikely to fall into the category of the 'most wanted'.

But, enough of this nasty little man. Should we do as our own champions of law and order, McVicar and MacPhee suggest, ie introduce tent prisons and bring back the death penalty?

Whilst there are some criminals (and people whose money and power mean they never get labeled as such) who I'd be happy to see towed way out to sea in a leaky boat with no oars, my thirst for vengeance is always eased by the thought of an innocent person facing death at the hands of the state.  And it is slaked completely when I consider the implications of the socioeconomic and ethnic profiles of the prison population – in both Arizona and Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Of all executions carried out in the USA between 1930-1968, 1,751 of the inmates were white and 2,066 were black. Black people comprised around 6% of the general population but 53% of those executed for capital crimes. Even more chilling is the fact that, of the 453 executed for rape, 48 were white and 405 were black.

These statistics speak both to race and class and should speak to us if we contemplate learning lessons from the likes of Arpaio and his supporters.

NZ already has an appallingly high incarceration rate and half the prison population is Maori. If you are poor and/or brown in Godzone you are more likely to be arrested, charged with a more serious crime, found guilty and receive a heavier sentence than if you are white and/or affluent. This is a reality that the law and order brigade may be content to ignore or consider to be justifiable. I do not.

A town by any other name ...

Recently I overheard a woman in a shop in Rangiora loudly declaiming about the use of flaxes to replace herbaceous borders in public gardens. She was bemoaning the mindset that leads to this and other 'PC madness' such as Maori street names which English immigrants can't pronounce.

I asked her if she thought the town's name should be changed.

'Yes' she stated firmly, 'to something English'.

She was then distracted by the mental effort of having to enter her pin number so I wasn't able to suggest some English town names more in keeping with her mindset such as Nasty, Dull, Ugley or, especially apposite in her case, Pratt's Bottom.

This encounter reminded me of a column by Rosemary McLeod last year in which she wrote of her dislike of harakeke and wharariki - New Zealand flaxes – and her love of roses and all they symbolise. Well, with a name like hers who wouldn't love roses?

Perhaps, the woman in Rangiora also hankers for a simpler, whiter time when there was civic pride, band rotundas and a small army of gardeners to maintain the perfect lawns and formal plantings that spoke to some of 'home' - and 'home' was – well, not here.

The flax versus the rose is a semiotician's delight: the indigenous versus the exotic; the utilitarian versus the decorative; the authentic versus the artificial.

The native flax makes a sterling wind break; it feeds native birds, in the right setting it can be startlingly architectural, it is drought and flood tolerant, it more or less looks after itself and - it belongs here. I love it.

Roses on the other hand are about as unnatural and contrived as a plant can be and they are always trying to get back to what they were.

Hybridised roses are nutrient and water hungry, pest and disease prone and when they're not blooming they're miserable looking things. Pick them and they drop their petals in protest - sometimes within minutes; a shower of rain and the blooms rot or, let any one of our 3 prevailing winds blow and the petals fly off leaving stumps that have to be dead-headed.

If you don't prune them correctly they produce multiple small flowers or shoot out green branches from the root stock. The older they get the worse the thorns are - they become like some newspaper columnists – all spiky and defensive.

Rose growers have to use an array of chemicals to control the white, green and black fly, black and brown spot and scale insects that beset the poor hybrid things. This chemical arsenal includes products like imidacloprid which, along with killing plant pests, also kills bees and lady birds, causes egg thinning in birds, is acutely toxic to earth worms, freshwater fish and crustaceans and causes thyroid problems in mammals.

While there are organic sprays and disease resistant plant varieties the fact remains – most of the chemicals that are put into the ecosystem in NZ are to keep wanted exotic plants alive or to kill unwanted exotic plant, insect and animal species.

I love the tangle of an English hedgerow but here, for the most part, the vast array of exotic weeds that festoon our hills and road sides look fugly.

My house looks straight out at Maukatere - Mount Grey for those who don't know it by its original name – which is a lovely mountain despite all that's been done to it. There are a few tiny pockets of its original east coast beech forest left in gullies too steep for commercial planting but much of the mountain is a blighted landscape of pines and gorse. A few sad natives try to survive outside the gullies, and lupins do their best to brighten it up but mostly it's a miserable place.

I know that pre-European Maori did their own bit of species eradication but the scale and pace of European settlers' impact on this landscape in the 160 or so years of settlement is almost unparalleled. They set about deliberately trying to turn this unique group of islands into a little England.

Ironically, much of what was seen as quintessentially English was artificial. It featured plants imported from all over the world and hybridised by clever gardeners employed by land-grabbing men who became rich through the triangular trade.

The idealised 'English landscape' was a product of imperialism and about as natural as a tea rose.

That's not to say it isn’t glorious – it is - but it's also hugely expensive to establish and to maintain. The formal garden, like the perfect lawn, is an artifice and a status symbol – for those individuals and societies with the time, money, water and space to indulge in it.

Maybe, in these cash-strapped times, those who hate the humble but hardy native trees, flaxes and grasses, should volunteer to seed, pot up and plant out all the annuals, lift and divide the perennials, seed, feed, weed and mow the lawns; do the deheading, pruning, mulching and spraying to help maintain those blooming exotic emblems of empire.