Monday, July 31, 2006

A Brash Reception

Passionate, well-informed, articulate, even witty. These are not words you normally associate with New Zealand media columnists. And you can be assured I would not use them within a mile of the heavily recycled bitterness and negativity served by up by the likes of the McLeod / du Fresne / Haden axis.But they do sit pretty well when applied to Public Address blogger Tze Ming Mok, who has also recently started writing a column for the Sunday Star Times.

Once I get past the inevitable surge of Martin Amisian envy at someone who is younger than me, writes excellently, attracts an audience, and gets paid for doing it, I have to like her style.The things I particularly admire about Tze Ming are her obvious intelligence, her (sometimes over-enthusiastically expressed) sense of outrage, and - perhaps aided by her oft-analysed Chinese-New Zealander perspective - her readiness to point out that received wisdom about New Zealand and its culture is often bullshit.

My specific reason for mentioning this right now is that I had an almost identical response as she did to an opinion piece on immigration by Don Brash in the New Zealand Herald.

Brash actually says a good deal in his speech that I agree with, nowhere more so than where he criticizes the horrendous, Kafkaesque treatment handed out to prospective applicants for New Zealand residency, notably to foreign-born spouses of current citizens. I've seen some good examples of rhetoric and action heading off in opposite directions. But no gulf greater than that between public pronouncements that the country wants to attract motivated migrants - in particular to reclaim its own exiles - and the bizarre bureaucratic hoops that such people are made to jump through.

Read some of Brash's examples (plus the reader comment), and tell me you don't know of similar examples within two degrees of personal separation. Dumbly draconian policies, apparently enforced by sadistic fools.

I guess there may be a risk of New Zealand-resident serial bridegrooms conspiring to bring in a string of undesirables as their spouses. But you'd think there'd be a better way of controlling for this than demanding that a Kiwi and his wife of nine years, with two children, provide proof that they have an exclusive sexual relationship.

So much for being welcomed to NZ with open arms. You'd have an easier time opening a French bank account.

As heartening as it is to see Brash take on some actual, genuine examples of public sector incompetence and stupidity, he ruins it all the end with this concluding paragraph:

It's important to recognise that there's an implied contract between New Zealand and would-be citizens: New Zealand offers you citizenship with all the rights and privileges of being in every respect a Kiwi, but in return you owe New Zealand your loyalty and commitment. You can't be a New Zealander and seek to undermine New Zealand. You can't be a New Zealander and claim that some other law takes precedence over the law of the New Zealand Parliament. You can't be a New Zealander and write to foreign newspapers urging a boycott of New Zealand exports, as one would-be citizen did recently in reaction to the publication by two newspapers of some cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

Tze Ming and others have done a much better (and earlier) job than I could at critiquing this, but I will utter this exclamation: What? Is he serious?

Here was I, thinking he was arguing we should largely, apart from in special categories, accept people who will be of net benefit to the country. But then, having already won on the deal, he wants to hold immigrants to a higher standard of “loyalty and commitment” than other citizens?

Any citizen of this country can properly be expected to obey the law of the New Zealand Parliament (including things like the Human Rights Act), but surely not to believe that it “takes precendence” over all other law. Can a Christian who believes that God's law overrules all others, not be a New Zealander?

And if there is some narrow definition of “New Zealand interests” that basically equates to “export earnings”, does that necessarily make traitors of the likes of Keith Locke and others who upset Chinese trade delegations, rather than, as many see them, brave and principled New Zealanders?”

Dear me, should a recent South African immigrant not be allowed to support the Springboks against the All Blacks?

Having argued that there are a core set of “our values” which include freedom of conscience, thought and speech, Brash is effectively saying that immigrants to Aotearoa should cleave to the nation state with the kind of blind and absolute loyalty demanded by a tribal chieftain.

In response, I would suggest that if there's anything which drags hard-working, smart people down to this draughty spot at the bottom of the world, it just might be that they're attracted by the well-known New Zealand tradition of thinking and saying what you bloody well want.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shoot the Whole Aid Down

You don't have to like Bob Geldof, and I can kind of see why the blunt language he used to criticize New Zealand's level of foreign aid (one of the very lowest in the OECD) would have raised some people's hackles slightly.

But I've been a little taken aback by the outpouring of boorish, hypersensitive responses from NZers, in forums such as the Kiwiblog comments section and the Stuff website feedback. They range from the straightforward "how dare he come here and criticise us" to the ill-informed cop out, "their corrupt leaders will take it all", to the openly racist "I'll give aid when they stop having ten kids".

And it's the Americans who are supposed to be arrogant, insular and unable to take criticism? God, I would hate to see what kind of superpower NZ would make.

It's the "aid will just be wasted and encourages corruption" line that is perhaps the most insidious. People use this as an excuse to absolve themselves completely of responsibility and not to have to think about the issues again.

It's true that a lot of aid has been squandered in the past. But how hard was anyone trying to make it effective and well-targeted? During the cold war, both blocs squandered a lot of foreign "aid" buying the support of corrupt elites, in the service of their respective geopolitical strategies.

But if you have the right motivations, getting good value for aid money is far from impossible.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' international aid unit, NZAid, works with proven, reputable partner organisations in selected countries, and directs funding towards specified projects that aim to support human development, especially in health and education, in these countries. The ones I have seen look well-designed, at least on paper.

The aid we do provide is actually quite transparent and well-targeted; generally, we aren't handing out pork in exchange for political influence. But we could do more; additional $ going in from New Zealand would probably make a genuine difference to people in the developing world.

In Peru, I talked extensively with a local NGO that ran a number of projects, some of them quite innovative, and very much driven by the "hand up not a hand out" philosophy. They were able to answer my "and how are you evaluating this project?" questions, rather better, I might say, than in some examples I could identify closer to home.

They are supported by Italian, US and Swedish organisations, but resources are of course limited. Again, I would be reasonably confident that more funding for them would not go amiss.

Some argue, like Helen Clark, that NZ helps in other, less quantifiable ways, such as by contributing to peacekeeping and having open trade policies. But there's no reason why we can't do those things AND increase our level of direct aid. Then we could more genuinely argue that we are an example to others.

On David Farrar's Kiwiblog (this post seems not to be presently available) , there were the usual responses from the"government shouldn't be spending my money for me" types (including Farrar himself), arguing that private citizens should be making personal donations, rather than the government spending our tax dollars.

That's fine; I would agree that in some circumstances individuals can make more effective, better targeted contributions. This is an area that interests me - so I would be genuinely pleased if those people could describe their experiences in contributing aid at an individual level, and their strategies for ensuring its effectiveness.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

I Take (Some of) It Back

OK, I admit my errors. After posting "As long as it's not Italy vs. Germany" and writing off the World Cup as a disappointment after the quarter finals, the semi-final match between those two teams turned out to be the game of the tournament.

It was a contest of great skill and tension, helped along by an excellent refereeing performance and a positive attitude by both teams. Italy won deservedly with two brilliant goals in the last three minutes. Could have been a script written by Verdi.

The Italians played a beautiful passing game, as attractive as any of my past or current flaky teams, but added to a resilience and self-belief that the latter always seem to lack. Germany were relentless, and contributed hugely too.

France vs. Portugal wasn't a bad game either, though not up to the same standard. In my view, Portugal have been wrongly vilified at this tournament, and were a bit unlucky in this game. Their neat, skillful midfield play is as good or better than anyone, but their lack of a striker was never more painfully obvious than when they went behind to a marginal penalty, and battered away impotently for most of the second half.

So then to the final...

After their great performance in the semi, I was almost about to do the unthinkable, and support Italy for the first time in my life. Then, when France began to play some scintillating stuff early in the second half and threatened to overwhelm the Italians, I decided that it would be poetic justice for les vieux to take a second World Cup.

By the time it all petered out and Italy won on penalties, there had been Materazzi's nipple-twist, the rumoured racist insults, and Zidane's headbutt. You wouldn't really have been surprised if Buffon and Brathez had then engaged in a drawn out swordfight, before leading the rest of the players in a rousing final chorus as the curtain was lowered.

Time may well be kind to this World Cup. There were so many close contests, and more controversy and drama than since at least 1986; before long the dives, the punches, the crotch-stamp, the wink, the nipple-twist and the headbutts will becomes as mythical as la mano de dios.

But despite the redemption served up by Germany vs. Italy and the operatic finale to the final, the overall point of my previous post still stands: there wasn't much on the field of play to truly inspire.

Games in the knockout rounds were tight, skillful, and with some positive intent, at least in theory. But goals were undeniably few, and those that came were mostly been from set pieces (including several dubious penalties). Excluding the third-place match, there were just two goals scored from open play in the post-second round stages: Italy's two last-minute strikes in the semi-final.

There was a lot of good defending, but it was just a bit too easy for the defenders. With modern day fitness levels and carefully-coached systems and tactics (the dreaded 4-5-1), even a pretty mediocre team can shut out and frustrate the opposition (as Greece showed par exemplar in Euro 2004).

Not only were goals scarce, but even opportunities for scoring were few and far between. In most of the knockout games, keepers hardly needed to make more than two or three serious saves a game. Much attractive build-up play ended somewhere just outside the penalty area.

There's been a lot of debate and comment about whether there need to be changes to the rules to open up the game and allow more scoring opportunities. Some of the suggestions are radical, such as widening the goals, or removing the offside rule. Others scoff at any such suggestions. But football is a game that can adapt itself to changing times like any other; indeed, it has a history of rule changes such as outlawing the back pass in the early 90s, which led to a period of more open play.

In my view it's more tweaks than transformations that are needed; football is a simple game, and the main thing will be to change the attitudes - from an overpowering fear of failure, to a situation where there's some incentive to take risks. Here are what I see as the priorities that most need addressing:

-Retrospective awarding of, and appeals against, yellow and red cards. This should do something to quell the epidemic of diving, exaggerating fouls, and trying to get people sent off. There's no question that this is a somewhat despicable aspect of the modern game.

-Better use of the advantage rule by referees, a la rugby. The Mexican referee in the Germany-Italy game was the best example I saw in the tournament of how this could be done.

-Some way to reduce the significance of penalties for minor fouls in the penalty area when a goal is not really likely. This is a very tricky one, as any law change I can think of is likely to have unintended consequences. Nevertheless, options should be put on the table.

-World Cup format: I think we need to go back to the - not particularly popular - second group stage format which predominated from 1974 - 1982. With at least two games each, this gives teams a chance to really show how good they are, and reduces the overpowering fear of making a mistake which makes otherwise creative sides choke up in high-stakes, knockout games. Knockout can wait until at least the semis, and perhaps the final.

-An extra suggestion here is a possible bonus point for scoring three or more goals (again, a la rugby) in either the first or both the first and second rounds.

-Do not decide games on penalties!! Some of what made the Italy - Germany contest so good was that neither side really wanted it to go to penalties, and the Italian were absolutely desperate for it not to. As many have suggested, one solution could be to take players off the field, one from each side every ten minutes after 90 minutes. Once it gets to seven against seven, somebody has to score. If the final itself ends in a draw, it should be replayed.

-For now, leave out widening the goals, broadening the field, or changing the offside rule. Let's see if tweaks like the above work, then take it from there.

Of course, it would be fantastic if some new, great coach and team just went out there and played irresistible, attacking (and winning) football, and everybody wanted to become like them. For a while in this tournament, I thought Argentina could be that team. But it wasn't to be. Within four years, such a team may emerge, perhaps from Africa. But I wouldn't count on it.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Starting to Lose the Faith

Following the quarter-final stage, the World Cup has already turned into rather a disappointment for me - perhaps I was naiive to expect things to be different this time.

The second round of matches, were, as the weather report used to say, a mixed bag.

The Argentina-Mexico clash was an excellent, absorbing game. Mexico were for periods the better side - they closed down Argentina's passing game, counter-attacked at pace, and can count themselves unlucky to go out to Maxi Rodriguez's wonder goal in extra time.

The Portugal-Holland match, which ended with nine players on both sides, was derided by some as a disgrace and a near farce. But in between the cards and controversies, I thought it was dramatic and entertaining, and there was three times as much skillful football as in the entire England-Ecuador match.

The flurry of red and yellow cards was partly due to loss of control by both teams, and partly to over-officious refereeing. In terms of actual fouls, it was nothing close to as bad as, say, a River Plate-Boca Juniors derby - as Portuguese coach Luis Felipe Scolari candidly acknowledged, saying “I'm used to that; I've coached in the Copa Libertadores” (S.American club championship).

Ukraine-Switzerland I understand was a predictable bore. I also found the Italy-Australia game very frustrating, in that Italy were patently the more talented side but constrained by a nervous lack of ambition. It was a great adventure for Australia, but in the second half, against ten men, they never looked like scoring.

Spain against France was, in the manner of things to come, a game of considerable skill but little incision. As I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn't a great surprise to see the experienced French shut out Spain’s pretty passing game and hurt them on the break.

When all the dust had settled, there still looked to be three classic match-ups in store for the quarter-finals, plus a chance for Italy to continue their sleepwalk into the semi-finals against Ukraine.

Italy duly obliged, with a 3-0 win suggesting that they are moving into their stride at the right time.

But the other matches were ultra-cautious battles of attrition played by teams afraid to lose. Three goals were scored in three games - from a corner, throw-in, and free kick - and two of the matches were decided by penalties.

The best of the bunch was probably France-Brazil, if only for the impressive performance of the French, and the heartening fact that a guy two years older than me – Zinedine Zidane – was easily the best player on the field. But it was rather depressing to see the much-vaunted Brazil show absolutely nothing, their “marvellous quartet” feeble and anonymous.

Great things weren't really expected from England and Portugal, who duly obliged with a 0-0 stalemate. The obligatory controversial sending-off / brave English battle with 10 men / penalty shoot-out debacle was so predictable it makes you groan. Someone come up with a new script, please!

But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all was the Germany-Argentina match. This should have been a classic, between the two teams who had impressed most to date. Instead, we saw a cagey, conservative encounter which was tense, but ultimately pretty dull.

There was always a good chance that Germany's resilience and power, with home support, would overcome even the best of teams. But Argentina should at least have made an attempt to overwhelm them with skilfull, attacking football. As it was, they knocked square balls around with excruciating caution for most of the first half, and hardly created a shooting opportunity.

They still managed to nick a 1-0 lead midway through the second half, with a header from a corner. But then, in a disastrous loss of moral courage, Argentinean coach Jose Pekerman decided that they were going to be Italy. With 25 minutes still remaining, he pulled off Juan Roman Riquelme for defensive midfielder Esteban Cambiasso and brought on the ineffectual Julio Cruz for Hernan Crespo. With an injury to the goalkeeper, all the subs were used up, and exciting young Lionel Messi had no chance to get on the field.

When Germany duly pinched a goal back, Argentina had nothing left. As the game went to extra time, Crespo, Messi, Riquelme, Javier Saviola, and Pablo Aimar - Argentina's best attacking players - watched helplessly from the bench.

After the game, as some Argentina players were involved in an ugly brawl, it was as if all their demons had returned at once. The philosophy of playing a confident, attacking style had been abandoned when it mattered most, and it seemed almost karmic to see the old petulance return.

It's probably unfair to France and Germany, neither of whom have done anything wrong, but for me the charm and romance has already gone out of the tournament and I don’t care much who wins.

The best we can hope for is that in four years time in South Africa, some team – perhaps an African one - will break the mould and show that it's still possible for football to inspire the imagination, rather than simply mimicking the calculating materialism which mostly governs our modern lives.