the mouse that quibbles

the mouse that quibbles

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tightrope in the Air

Tightrope in the Air

This is not a particularly new story. And it’s probably one that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention outside New Zealand, or the Southern Pacific region. But it is a story that has continued to grow, and is an interesting study of just how far Bush’s War has pushed other nations’ politicians into self-serving self-survival. It’s the story of a scandal that wasn’t, which then became a scandal anyway, mostly because it wasn’t one in the first place, but revealed an even bigger scandal underneath. The gist of it is this – while the vast majority of New Zealanders are adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq and view any military collaboration with the United States as intolerable, commercial carrier Air New Zealand (rather than the Royal New Zealand Air Force) has been flying Australian and US combat troops to staging areas for the Iraq war. And the New Zealand government has quite possibly been lying about how much they knew.

On August 15th, Prime Minister Helen Clark appeared on prime time television, livid with anger, demanding answers from Air New Zealand. She and her ministers were publicly outraged when Air New Zealand ferried 600 Australian combat troops to the Iraq border in Kuwait and United Arab Emirates last May, with US fighter-jet escort, openly using ordinary passenger aircraft bearing the distinctive blue and white Air New Zealand koru livery. These 600 Australian troops were then deployed to military duty in Iraq. On the 29th and 30th of July, Air New Zealand flight ANZ1921 transported US troops deploying for missions in Iraq on a secret flight between Darwin to Hiroshima. Hiroshima is not on Air New Zealand’s regular flight schedules, but it is rather conveniently next to the US Marine Base in Iwakuni.

The Prime Minister, Defence Minister Phil Goff and Foreign Minister Winston Peters have all declared they knew nothing of the flights until revelations were published in Investigate magazine. But 78% of the airline is government-owned, and Air New Zealand decisions on this level aren’t taken without consultation with their major shareholders, the government. Foreign Affairs secretary Simon Murdoch, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFaT) was told in advance of Air New Zealand’s plans and asked for advice on the matter, something Air New Zealand officials were able to prove, rather quickly, by producing official documents from the ministry okaying the proposed charter. While Simon Murdoch, it seems, ‘forgot’ to inform the rest of his government of these charter flights, the General Manager of Air New Zealand operations and planning, Glen Sowry, was able to confirm all the proper enquiries with government officials had been made long before the charter was committed to. The company never made any secret of these flights, which had been ‘widely publicised within the company’ and well-known in the international aviation marketplace.

And I know this is true, as The Boss showed me the July issue of Crews News, the Magazine for Air New Zealand’s Air Crew (which - completely unrelated to this post - was amazing for the number of cosmetic teeth whitening ads, ads for dermabrasion and this gem: ‘Irritating Passengers? Express yourself on the inside with Botox’ – I kid you not. Also darkly amusing was the checklist of ‘Top Ten Things Not To Say When Applying for Your New US Crew Visa’, which included, ‘Are you all that fat?’ Charming). Right there on page ten is an article, ‘A Journey to Kuwait’, by Wayne Mitcham, reporting ‘on a unique journey that took him to Darwin and Kuwait’, complete with bubbly details on shopping and photographs of happy smiling flight attendants dressed in black chadors standing next to a white robed Kuwaiti official. If this was an official state secret, it was a pretty poorly kept one.

Moreover, while the Prime Minister might have been publicly chewing the carpet, it seems she may have been aware of these foreign troop transports all along, despite her Foreign Affairs secretary's convenient amnesia – only weeks before the first flight of troops into Kuwait and US troops into Japan, Helen Clark met with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and it is unlikely they were merely discussing the menu and table decorations for the next state visit.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, Prime Minister Helen Clark deployed two frigates and a troop of sixty army engineers to Iraq for ‘peacekeeping’ exercises with the British troops in Basra. Yet Paul Wolfowitz considered the New Zealand’s military support as ‘contributing forces’ to the post-invasion occupation of Iraq, and in return made New Zealand one of the countries eligible for commercial contracts in the United States. But after it became all too rapidly obvious that Iraq was turning into a disaster, Clark’s Labour government withdrew the army engineer unit and has increasingly endeavoured to dissociate itself from the war, and the Bush administration.

Or… at least, as far as the New Zealand public was concerned. Privately, it seems the government has been less than inflexible on its anti-war position. So these clandestine and not-so-clandestine flights of combat troops into the Middle East has not gone down well with the Kiwi public.

Nor with the Australians. The Australian government expressed its ‘extreme displeasure’ with the Clark government’s hypocritical anti-war posturing, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called in New Zealand Ambassador John Larkindale for an official reprimand. Australia has now forbidden its military to use Air New Zealand under any circumstances, including commercial flight travel. Helen Clark’s response was to declare that Downer should keep his nose out of New Zealand’s political affairs.

On August 17th, Helen Clark – rather than shifting her righteous annoyance onto an apparently incompetent member of her government – decided to try and shrug off the Air New Zealand fiasco instead, declaring Simon Murdoch had simply had a ‘bad-hair’ day. Yeah, right.

The very next day – and three days after Clark’s denunciation of the airline – Air New Zealand flew fifty-five Tongan soldiers enroute to Baghdad where the Tongans are to provide security at the US base Camp Victory.

Air New Zealand has had a rough past decade, six years ago barely surviving a loss of 1.4 million dollars (NZ) when its subsidiary Ansett Australia bit the dust, and the government stepped in to rescue the beleaguered airline. Stripped to the bones, Air New Zealand has cut every corner possible – work diverted from unionised staff to outside contractors, mass redundancies, inflight meals more suitable for workhouse inmates than commercial air passengers, flights made with just enough aviation fuel for the scheduled trip and not a drop more to lighten air weight, and allegations of recruiting cheaply paid trainees who fail security checks or can’t speak English. And, of course, accepting any charter deals it can wrangle. Such practices have meant a demoralized air service, but it has also meant plenty of profits for its primary shareholders – the New Zealand government. Small wonder, then, when the Prime Minister has tried Bush type tactics, rewriting history and scapegoating blame, the airline has fought back.

It might seem this is just a Kiwi problem, but as long as the Bush administration can exert pressure on other nations to secretly ferry soldiers and contractors heading into Iraq, as long as commercial businesses like Air New Zealand are struggling for economic survival from a worsening global economy and compelled to make unpopular, if not unethical, business deals, the longer this war is going to last.

And that makes it everyone’s problem.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where is Pumpkin’s Daddy?
Homeland Security Doesn't Know...

A few days ago, the photo of a sad-eyed little Chinese girl from New Zealand finally pushed Madelaine McCann off the front pages, except this time it isn’t the child who has gone missing; it’s her father, Nai Yin (‘Michael’) Xue.

On Saturday morning, 15th of September, CCTV recorded Mr Xue, 54, walking onto a platform at the Southern Cross train station in Melbourne, pulling a suitcase and holding his three-year-old daughter’s hand. At an escalator, he bent down to speak to her before walking away, without looking back. The camera then recorded the little girl wandering aimlessly for twenty minutes as people passed by before security guards found her. Mr Xue took a taxi to the airport and two hours later boarded a plane to LAX.

It hasn’t taken long to piece together the sequence of events: Mr Xue’s 27-year-old second wife, An An ‘Annie’ Liu, was last seen alive at a childcare centre on Tuesday, September 11th. On Wednesday, Mr Xue – a naturalized citizen of New Zealand, martial arts expert and well-known owner of a Chinese-language newspaper – went to the Henderson Police Station in Auckland to retrieve a ceremonial sword and his passport, which had been confiscated after he had been convicted of assaulting his wife in a violent domestic dispute last June. Mr Xue has several times in the past threatened to kill his wife, according to friends, and Mrs Xue had sought refuge at a woman’s shelter. After collecting his passport, Mr Xue then went to the KVB Kunlun bank on Queen St in central Auckland and withdrew $8800 New Zealand, (US$6445). On Thursday evening, he was seen eating with his daughter, Qian Xun Xue, at a restaurant in Auckland, before he later drove his wife’s car to the Auckland airport and fled to Australia with the child. His own car, a Honda Rafaga with Xue’s Chinese Times prominent logo, remained parked outside the couple’s home for two days before it was moved by police and searched. A body presumed to be that of his wife’s was finally found, stuffed into the boot on Wednesday, September 19th, a week after Mr Xue had collected his passport and fled New Zealand…while during the previous two days police searched his home on Keystone Avenue (and yes, the irony hasn’t been missed here in Auckland.)

The abandoned little girl, nicknamed ‘Pumpkin’ by the police, is being cared for until custody issues can be sorted out, and her grandmother arrives from China. The little girl has been in a state of shock, not speaking for two days, until she finally cried for her mother.

CCTV cameras and airline records clearly show Mr Xue at both the Melbourne airport and at LAX. But while all this is tragic on a personal level, here’s the real kicker:

Los Angeles police have confirmed that they are not searching for the father who has clearly abandoned his child and quite possibly murdered his wife. Why? It seems that while New Zealand informed the Interpol agency in Washington of the situation, Interpol didn’t pass on that information to the police in Los Angeles, because they had yet to receive a formal warrant from New Zealand for his arrest. The L.A. police contacted Interpol themselves, after hearing about the case in the media

So much for the effectiveness that aggressive fingerprinting and photographing of every passenger into LAX Homeland Security insists upon – including every member of the flight crew who flew Mr Xue into LAX – yes, even pilots and crew are not exempt from such treatment as I experienced on my flight from Heathrow to Auckland two months ago. So while the United States continues to invade the privacy of tens of thousands of innocent American citizens with warrantless wiretapping, and even more innocent non-Americans arriving in – or just in transit through – the United States, a man with a previous conviction of domestic violence, who has abandoned his three-year-old daughter and is suspected of murdering his wife… walks off a plane at LAX and vanishes into the large Asian community in Los Angeles. It does beg the question why Mr Xue chose the United States to escape, rather than his native China (who are fully co-operating with both Interpol and the New Zealand police for Mr Xue’s capture).

But I suppose since Mr Xue isn’t a Muslim or an Iraqi, or fits any particular profile as a possible terrorist, Homeland Security isn’t bothered by his fleeing into California. Meanwhile… Cate Blanchette and Russell Crowe have been tipped to play the McCanns in a Hollywood movie about the missing British girl.

The absurdity that is American life goes on…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Mouse Goes Down Under

A couple months ago, I gave up my sweet little house in the wild northern borders of England, said goodbye to dear friends and neighbours and just about everyone else I knew, and moved to New Zealand. My entire lifestyle has been turned completely upside down - literally, in this case. After nearly a decade of living peacefully and quite contentedly on my own (albeit most of that time sharing my home with an elderly cat who supplied the vast majority of any company and conversation I required), surrounded by all the accumulated possessions of around five decades of existence, in the heart of a tiny rural village where neighbours behaved more like a bunch of eccentric relatives wandering in and out of each other's houses for tea and gossip, I'm now living in the middle of an Auckland city suburb, with a family of two young girls and their widowed father - as a nanny. My new home is a tiny basement flat with basic amenities and borrowed furniture while what fraction of my possessions I could afford to keep are now in storage, waiting to be shipped. My dear old friend the cat has stayed behind in the UK, buried under a couple of apple trees in a neighbour's garden, overlooking the Tyne River.

I've been talking about moving to New Zealand for a number of years now, but it was always something that would happen... sometime... later. In the future. Once I earned my Master's degree (check), once the elderly cat had passed on (check), once I'd found a viable job opportunity (check)... I eventually ran out of 'onces', and it happened. Almost overnight. Almost out of the blue. It stopped being simply a pleasant hazy daydream and suddenly became a very lucid reality, hard edges and all.

Regardless of how many other times I've moved from one country to another, I have always either done it in the company of other people, or knew people already there to supply the company. As wonderful as New Zealand genuinely is, I honestly had no concept of just how damned emotionally difficult it would be to move halfway around the planet, all on my own, to a place where I knew precisely... no one. After nearly a decade of living peacefully and quite contentedly on my own, where I could happily go days without seeing or talking to anyone, I'm now constantly surrounded by people and never felt lonelier. It's been much harder than I expected; being intimately involved with yet entirely peripheral to other people's lives, in it but not of it, welcome but not welcomed. In Britain, I had everything I ever wanted, but nothing of what I desperately needed. Here, I have everything I could possibly need, and damned close to nothing that I so viscerally want.

Not yet, anyway...

I have no regrets. Because I know this is, of course, a temporary inconvenience and trying to force relationships in a bid just to lessen the loneliness has been a bad idea (oh, such a very bad idea!) It will simply take a bit more time, and patience, but I will again find kindred spirits floating past by sheer chance, make new friends and enemies who will mature into comfortably old friends and enemies, find my footing and stop stumbling over the smallest cultural difference made much harder to spot before tripping when (most) everyone speaks English and it all looks so bloody normal. Contrary to the hype, New Zealand... or more accurately, Auckland... is not like England at all. Nor is it like the States. Nor anywhere else I've ever been. It has its own culture and nuances, still completely alien to me, and I'm far from understanding it enough to relax. But I've made a start, met a few other writers and academics in New Zealand's literary circle, looking forward to sailing with the ladies group at the local yacht harbour in a couple weeks, even had a lovely lunch and deeply satisfying conversation with a regular poster off C&L. Soon enough, I'll start to understand the politics here as well. And then I really will be back in my element at last...

But for now, I have this photo that I took on a chilly winter's day in the middle of July, on a drive down the coast not that far from the desolate Kafke-Californianesque sprawl that are the soul-destroying suburbs of Auckland, to remind me of why I wanted to come here in the first place. A little initial loneliness is a small price to pay for a shot at a brighter future in such beauty and peace.