• Australia Is Burning Up

    The “lucky” country’s luck has, it seems, run out. The fires that have raged in New South Wales and Queensland have created a major natural catastrophe – with shocking loss of life and property, wild life such as koalas and kangaroos burnt to death, exhausted fire crews, huge economic damage and a continuing threat to the viability of human settlement in large areas of Australia. The country seemed to be, quite literally, burning up.

    The pictures shown on our television screens testify to what is surely more than an isolated episode. They took my mind back to a lunch I attended in Oxford in the early 1990s. The lunch was hosted, if my memory serves me correctly, by David Butler, the renowned psephologist, and he had for some reason invited me and three or four young, Oxford-based, Australian academics to join him.

    My abiding memory of the occasion is of the pessimism of the young Australians about the future of their country. Their primary concern was the failure of their government to recognise the threat posed by the endemic shortage of water.

    Their greatest fear was not that the country would catch fire and burn out of control, as has now happened, but the related issue of the effects of drought on Australian agriculture. They bemoaned what they saw as the government’s apathy and the absence of any remedial action.

    I recall that they made a comment which I have since heard repeated many times. “If we could only prepare for our summer heat as well as the Canadians prepare for their winter cold,” they said, “ we would be in much better shape.”

    I have often thought since that their pessimism and concern have been amply justified by events. Long before the bush fires filled our television screens, we saw grim evidence of the toll taken by drought conditions on farmers and orchardists – thin sheep searching in vain for something to eat on dry and grassless plains, and crops wilting in the heat.

    If ever we needed evidence of the impact that climate can have on human activity and that, even in an advanced country, the authorities struggle to deal with its consequences, the Australian droughts and fires should settle any doubts.

    The Australian experience is a particularly dramatic illustration of the damage risked and suffered if warning signs are ignored. And we in New Zealand should be careful to avoid feeling smug or complacent as we watch the travails of our trans-Tasman cousins.

    We are also at risk, though not perhaps so obviously and dramatically. For us, global warming will not necessarily mean direct economic loss but rather a more diffuse deterioration in our environment and ecology. It will mean less acceptable air and water quality, it will require us to adapt to new climatic conditions in respect of land usage, it will produce a range of destructive weather events, and it will threaten the survival of endangered species whose contribution to our ecological balance is hard to measure.

    Our government may not be receiving the same messages of impending disaster as were delivered to the Australian government, but we should not merely sigh with relief at our relative good fortune and then subside into inaction. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can escape, relatively cost-free, the ravages of climate change and global warming.

    As the Australians are now discovering, possibly too late, the early evidence of damage due to global warming should not be ignored. We are – failing any positive action – quite possibly next in line. The notion that we can deal with the threat on a “business as usual” basis could prove to be a calamitous delusion.

    The news that a new political party, called Sustainable New Zealand, has been formed, with a supposed commitment to protecting the environment while at the same time (and improbably) prioritising “business as usual” policies and activities, is not encouraging. We have some hard choices to make if we are to escape the worst consequences of global warming. Deluding ourselves that we can carry on without making fundamental changes will not cut it – as we will quickly discover if we continue to bury our heads in the sand.

    Bryan Gould

    11 November 2019

  • A New Zealand Voice in International Affairs

    New Zealand, as we all know, is a small country – not just in terms of our population and physical size, but in economic heft as well – and, from the viewpoint of the rest of the world, we are a long way away. There have even been instances when our very existence is forgotten by international map-makers.

    The danger for us is that we are not front of mind and are easily overlooked when decisions affecting us are made – that we are, in effect, no more than a cork bobbing on an ocean governed by currents and storms of which we have little knowledge and over which we have no control.

    This makes it all the more important that we should have a voice that is listened to in international forums, and that, when leaders overseas get together, we have a presence that is recognised and welcomed.

    A New Zealand Prime Minister, in other words, has responsibilities that go well beyond the domestic environment and faces problems in being heard on the international stage that are greater than those faced by most other world leaders.

    Our leaders have, accordingly, seen it as important that they should develop an International profile. In recent times, both Helen Clark and John Key have made their presence felt in international affairs – and Jacinda Ardern has been brilliantly successful in doing likewise.

    Her most recent foray, at the East Asia summit in Bangkok, has been capped with a resounding success. We have secured an updated trade agreement with China, our most important trading partner, and have helped to lay the groundwork for a wide-ranging multi-party trade agreement, embracing countries that account for about half of the world’s trade.

    Critics at home will of course complain that time spent overseas is wasted and is a distraction from pressing domestic problems, but these are views held only by the short-sighted and narrow-minded. The government does not grind to a halt when the Prime Minister is overseas – but only the Prime Minister can speak for our country when significant international meetings are held and decisions are taken that affect us directly.

    Nor is it the case that it is only when our own national interest is directly affected – as in the case of trade relations – that the Prime Minister should bother to attend International gatherings. New Zealand has an important interest in helping to shape the developing international agenda.

    On issues like climate change and the fight against terrorism, small countries are at least as much, if not more, at risk as our larger friends. New Zealand, having developed a voice that is listened to with attention and respect, can have a valuable role in using that voice to speak for and to champion other countries that have difficulty in being heard and whose fortunes are likely to suffer if damaging mistakes are not avoided.

    And, it is sadly the case that the Pacific is increasingly becoming an area of contention and tension between the great powers. We – and our smaller friends and neighbours – need to do all we can to avoid becoming collateral damage as the big boys push and shove each other.

    Our chances of surviving unscathed are much increased if the big players have become accustomed not only to the fact that we exist but also that we are worth listening to. It is very much in our interests that we have a Prime Minister who has earned the respect of her International colleagues and that she is able to show them that their views of issues and events are, on occasion, too narrow and self-focused.

    We can all feel a sense of pride as New Zealanders, if our small country is able to take its place as of right when matters of great significance are being discussed by the world’s leaders. And, we can all derive some comfort from the knowledge that our particular perspective will be brought to bear on issues that will affect the future of us all.

    Bryan Gould
    5 November 2019

  • The Origins of An Icon

    Many of us are still getting over the shock of the All Blacks’ semi-final World Cup loss. We are beginning to accept that it happened, not because the All Blacks didn’t try hard enough or did not want it enough, but because they came up against what was, on the day, a better team.

    As we begin to adjust to the fact that a national icon has lost a little of its lustre, it is perhaps worth delving into our history to explore the origins of another national icon.

    It was in this week, 133 years ago, that the Anchor brand was launched. Its birthplace was a dairy factory at Pukekura, in the Waikato, owned by a local farmer and entrepreneur, Henry Reynolds. The name for his butter was inspired, so the story goes, by a tattoo on the arm of one of his employees.

    The recipe for the butter he produced was provided by an American, David Gemmell, who was farming near Hamilton and who eventually moved back to America. The market for the new product was greatly enlarged by the development of refrigerated shipping during the same decade.

    Reynolds recognised the immense potential market that would be opened up by the advent of refrigeration. He established a cool store in London and sold Anchor butter direct to a range of shops in the capital. He also exported butter to Australia and Asia.

    The butter rapidly became a consumer’s favourite, impressing with both its taste and its keeping quality. As well as their success in overseas markets, Anchor’s butter, milk and cheese found their way on to tables across New Zealand and remain familiar items to this day.

    And I can still hear and see, in my mind’s eye, my small niece, who grew up on a Waikato dairy farm, excitedly welcoming the daily arrival of the “Anchor tanker.”

    And, in all the years I spent in the UK, I am proud to say that my wife and I remained loyal to the Anchor brand, regarding our regular purchases of Anchor butter in English supermarkets as a reminder of home – and the fact that it tasted so good was also a factor.

    The success of Anchor has of course played a huge part in New Zealand’s economic development and it can take a good share of the credit for the living standards we enjoy today.

    We may be well recognised for our rugby, but the presence of Anchor butter on so many breakfast tables in far-flung countries has probably done more than any other factor to remind people that we exist and of who we are.

    And it is worth reminding ourselves that, prominent as have been the All Blacks and great innovators like Ernest Rutherford and adventurers like Edmund Hillary in offering the rest of the world a sense of what New Zealanders can achieve, there are less celebrated figures such as Henry Reynolds who have also made their contribution.

    We should also recognise the contribution made by those thousands upon thousands of dairy farmers who have, over nearly a century and a half, and by dint of freezing on countless early mornings and by putting in hours of hard work, produced the fresh and pure milk on which the Anchor brand and New Zealand butter in general base their reputation.

    Their role in helping to feed the world should earn the gratitude of us all. As we begin to recognise the threat posed in some respects to our environment by the dairy industry, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Our task now is to ensure that we develop new ways of farming that will reduce the emission of climate-warming gases. We can expect our dairy farmers to address that task with the same determination, expertise and sense of purpose that have underpinned the success of New Zealand butter in home markets and those around the world.

    We can all help by spreading a little more butter on our toast each morning. What could be nicer?

    Bryan Gould
    29 October 2019

  • Democracy At Work – Or At Risk

    The world seems to be in uproar. From Hong Kong to Chile, from Spain to Syria, disaffected groups are taking to the streets, if not actually taking up arms, to express their dissatisfaction with the regimes under which they live.

    If we add to that picture of revolt and revolution the rise of populist, not to say extreme right-wing, factions in countries, like Germany, that are normally orderly and law-abiding, we can be excused for thinking that something unusual is in the air.

    And, if we then take note of the policies advocated and implemented by Donald Trump, many of which seem to run counter to the values traditionally embraced by American democracy, we can again see evidence of a loss of faith by ordinary people in the forms of government that rule their lives.

    These insurrections of varying kinds may be understandable enough in cases like Hong Kong and Syria, but they are less easily explained away in those countries with well-established democratic governments.

    It is in those cases that we are most justified in expressing concern about what is happening. Representative democracy has long been accepted as the best, fairest and most effective and efficient form of government. We would have to think long and hard about the remedies that would be required if it were indeed the case that people have lost faith in the democratic ideal.

    If a significant number of countries were to opt out of democratic and representative government in favour of government by despots, dictators and demagogues, the whole balance on which world peace and stability depend would be disturbed.

    Fortunately for us here in New Zealand, such fears and concerns seem remote. We might or might not like and support our current government, but we have no reason to fear for our democracy. We can be sure that, if we so decide, we could change the government in a properly democratic election and that the newly elected parliament would be properly responsive to our wishes.

    But any complacency about the unchallengeably democratic basis of our system of government should not, perhaps, survive the contemplation of what is currently happening in another and similar country – one with an unequalled history of democratic experience.

    In the UK, a democratically elected parliament has quite deliberately and repeatedly refused to endorse and give effect to a decision taken by the British people in a referendum authorised by that same parliament.

    The procedural machinations to which the various factions on the Brexit issue have had resort have given rise to accusations from some quarters of undemocratic sharp practice.

    It is no doubt true that, in any struggle between parliament and government, most democrats would instinctively side with the elected representatives. But, in respect of the difficulty encountered by the British government in giving effect to the Brexit decision, that does not seem to be so obvious.

    While it is true that the British government has itself tried at times to by-pass constitutional principles in trying to implement the Brexit decision, it is those who are using parliament to reverse that decision who are responsible for the greatest breach of democratic principle.

    The basic fact is a simple one. More than three years after the referendum decision, a parliament stacked full of MPs elected on a promise to “respect the result” of the referendum has contrived to frustrate any attempt to give effect to the people’s decision.

    These MPs have taken it upon themselves to “correct”, as they see it, a mistake made by the people. They have set themselves up as a counterweight to that democratic decision on the self-proclaimed ground that “they know best” – the classic claim by anti-democrats through the ages.

    They seem not to understand the risk they are taking. If the British people once conclude that their elected representatives no longer recognise any duty actually to represent them, there is then the real danger that they will lose faith in the whole concept of representative democracy.

    They might then conclude, like those elsewhere, that they have no other option than to take to the streets. History tells us that democracy is a fragile flower; if is not constantly nurtured, it will die.

    Bryan Gould
    22 July 2019

  • The Luck of the Draw

    “Everyone should have a New Zealand childhood.” These are the opening words of the memoir I published as I left British public life to return to New Zealand.

    It was an attempt to express my perception that, having been born and brought up in New Zealand, I had started life with a head start. My wife feels similarly about her early life in the UK.

    She, however, was not quite so fortunate. She was born in London in the middle of the Second World War, to parents who had to grapple with the hardships of nightly German bombing raids. Her mother worked in a wartime munitions factory, and her father was a fireman who was kept busy as the bombs fell.

    But she shared with me the great advantages of loving parents and a stable family life. Neither family was well-off by today’s standards but we were well-fed, adequately clothed and warmly housed. And we both grew up in a world of family support, educational opportunity and expert health care.

    These thoughts often come to mind for my wife and me as we watch the daily parade of human misery in international news bulletins on our television screens. So many of these heart-rending stories seem to involve small children, who are completely innocent of any responsibility for the calamities that have befallen them and their families. They are completely at the mercy of events.

    Sometimes they are the victims of war – civil war, as in the case of Syria, or international conflict, as with Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds. In either event, the damage and victims are the same – the bombings and shellings, the fatalities and injuries, the disruption of families, the destruction of homes, the search for refuge. The small children who bear these burdens necessarily start life with enormous handicaps.

    Sometimes, it is natural disasters – storms, floods, earthquakes, fires, heat waves – that wreak havoc. Or, it may be man-made crises – disease, starvation, homelessness and poverty – that set little innocents back as they begin life’s journey.

    My wife’s and my response to these sad stories is a realisation that we are among the luckiest people who have ever lived, and we feel of course enormous sympathy for the suffering endured by so many – especially when the brunt of that misfortune is borne by little children. What are they to make of a life that is so fraught with peril? What chance do they have of a peaceful and fulfilling life, such as most of us can take for granted?

    International agencies, like Unicef, and charities, like Oxfam, need and deserve our support; they offer a beacon of light and hope for parents and families at their wits’ end, and for children who are struggling for survival.

    But we can also try to transplant ourselves mentally away from our comfortable lives, sitting in front of our television screens, and to imagine ourselves in others’ shoes – to understand that we enjoy our good fortune, not by virtue of any special or superior qualities we may think we possess, but for the simple reason that we were lucky in life’s lottery. We were born in the right place and time.

    That does not guarantee us, of course, happiness and fulfilment, but it does give us a pretty good start. We at least have the chance to allow native ability, hard work and determination to produce their expected rewards. Our life chances are not blighted by forces we only dimly understand and have even less chance of controlling.

    What we see are, of course, images from a distant world. But, across the globe, we all share a common humanity. We should find it easy to share with the victims of disaster that natural human impulse to do the best we can for our families and to recognise the duty of care that we and they must feel when our little children turn to us for love and support and for the chance to make the most of their lives.

    And we should all share the anguish of parents whose circumstances make it impossible for them to protect their children from harm, and the bewilderment, pain and despair those children suffer as a result.

    Bryan Gould
    13 October 2019