Paul Little: There's a dark side to Dotcom farce

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The Dotcom affair has shown excessive incompetence in areas where we need to have confidence in those acting on our behalf.Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Dotcom affair has shown excessive incompetence in areas where we need to have confidence in those acting on our behalf.Photo / Mark Mitchell

Espionage and farce have always gone together in this country. The first director of what became the SIS, Major Kenneth Folkes, was tricked by conman Syd Ross into believing that Nazis had infiltrated New Zealand and were preparing to sabotage dams.

In 1974, surveillance of suspected spy W. B. Sutch degenerated into a ludicrous chase on foot through Wellington at night.

In 1981 an agent lost his briefcase in Wellington.

It would have been comforting to think the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of today was better organised, given its links to the Prime Minister, especially if Bill English remembers to pass on the message.

But before we label the Kim Dotcom affair a farce we should be sure of what we're talking about. My dusty old dictionary of literary terms notes that farce is typified by "exaggerated physical action which is often repeated, exaggeration of character and situation, absurd situations, and surprises in the form of unexpected appearances and disclosures.

The characters and dialogue are almost always subservient to the plot and situation which are so complex that the events happen with bewildering rapidity."

So far, so Kim Dotcom.

When I think back on other farces that have entertained me over the years the elements that stick in my mind include many others that feature in the Dotcom story: people hiding in cupboards, mistaken identity, bumbling authority figures, characters making decisions based on the wrong information, grotesque and venal persons motivated by money, and characters working at cross-purposes.

But although it meets the definition of farce, the Kim Dotcom case is turning into something much darker. Initially it was about a failure to recognise that the world of information is changing and the digital future, represented by Dotcom, is here.

Then it became an example of how eager some provincial local entities were to compromise themselves to impress big-talking foreign friends.

This week it showed up excessive incompetence in areas - national security, sticking to the principles of the justice system - where we need to have confidence in those acting on our behalf.

So, while in most respects the Dotcom affair still resembles a farce, for the country it is starting to look more and more like a humiliating and tawdry melodrama.

The price of humanity

The Ministry of Health is proud of the policy it has in place to ensure resthomes maintain good standards of care. But we are used to government agencies congratulating themselves on doing a great job despite blindingly obvious evidence to the contrary. The ministry must have been taking feelgood lessons from CYF.

The country's 670 resthomes are certified and audited by the ministry. Certification lasts for between one and four years with a "spot" audit in the middle of the term. So many resthomes can keep doing business for about two years without fearing any official scrutiny.

But when a resthome such as Christchurch's Wiltshire Lifecare Home and Hospital is able to stay in business after someone who has been in its care dies suffering from bedsores and urine scald, that system isn't working.

Calls for stricter standards and more thorough and frequent checks of resthomes have been met with predictable bleats about the prohibitive cost of such measures. It's hard to know how you estimate what the comfort and wellbeing of an old person is worth, but it should be worth more than urine scald and bedsores.

It is resthome owners - those profiting from the inability of some elderly people to care for themselves or their families to care for them - who should have to meet those costs.


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- Herald on Sunday

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