Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Hair, hair, we don't need to be fighting

Gerry Brownlee's comments fell wide of the mark. Photo / Greg Bowker
Gerry Brownlee's comments fell wide of the mark. Photo / Greg Bowker

This week Gerry Brownlee was added to the long list of those who have found out the hard way that comedy is a tough gig.

The first rule of stand-up comedy is, know your audience. In Brownlee's case this was no easy task, seeing his audience was the entire world, not that he seemed remotely aware of that. There was little to indicate that he even managed to get much of a laugh out of his parliamentary colleagues; further afield, the reviews were uniformly negative.

Mind you, if Brownlee missed the mark, so did most of the reactions. The Prime Minister told the Finnish President that Brownlee's spray - according to Gerry, Finns are malnourished, misogynistic, homicidal illiterates - was just an example of our "robust political debate", as if it's a rare day in the Beehive when an MP doesn't direct an unprovoked, uninformed, unfunny rant at a distant country.

A Finn - TV entertainer Tuomas Enbuske - reminded us that you don't have to be original or funny to call yourself a comedian with a riposte that zeroed in on the soft targets of Brownlee's bulk and the fact that we have a lot of sheep.

As John Armstrong pointed out midweek, the online version of the US newspaper the Christian Science Monitor ran a story on the brouhaha headed "Is New Zealand the new international bully?"

I wouldn't have thought so, but if I've missed this rather thrilling development, let's make the most of it. Instead of being rude to a nation most Kiwis would have trouble finding on a map, let's kick sand in Australia's face until they cut us in for a share of their mineral wealth and apologise for the underarm incident.

Beneath this headline, quite possibly the most absurd extrapolation in the history of journalism, a Stockholm-based economist tested the validity of Brownlee's assertions. He concludes that while Finland has a marginally higher unemployment and murder rate than we do, the other stuff is baseless.

Really? I didn't see that coming.

Instead of going to the trouble of trawling though the comparative statistics, he could've just quoted a recent exercise by Newsweek magazine which set out to identify the best countries in the world based on five criteria - health, education, quality of life, economic dynamism and political environment. Finland came first; New Zealand didn't make the top 10.

The problem with such surveys is that a) they're a dime a dozen and b) each one reaches a different conclusion.

For instance, last year the American network CNBC conducted a quality of living survey of the world's cities, factoring in the usual things plus stability, law and order and the socio-cultural environment.

Wellington emerged as the 13th most liveable city and Auckland the third. Sydney, which placed 11th, was the only Australian city in the top 15 and Finnish cities were conspicuous by their absence.

Which raises some questions. First, if Auckland is that wonderful, how come so many New Zealanders can't stand it? Is it because they loathe the people, as opposed to the place? And if our cities are as good if not better than Australia's, why are so many Kiwis living across the Tasman?

Maybe those who crossed the ditch paid more attention to the Economist intelligence unit's survey which ranked Melbourne as the world's most liveable city with Sydney sixth, Perth and Adelaide eighth equal and Auckland 10th. (Helsinki, incidentally, was seventh.)

Instead of tipping a bucket on the Finns, Brownlee could have deflected Opposition leader David Shearer's contention that we should strive to emulate Finland by referring him to the annual United Nations Human Development Index. This evaluates nations using a broader measure of national development and well-being than the conventional criteria of income and economic growth.

Last year, Finland was ranked 22nd, New Zealand fifth and Australia second. Norway, with its oil wealth and enviable blend of Nordic efficiency and cradle to grave welfare, was number one.

When all is said and done, however, this squall in a teacup brings to mind Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges' dismissive characterisation of the Falklands conflict. For Britain and Argentina to go to war over a stony outcrop in the South Atlantic was, he said, "like two bald men fighting over a comb".

Whichever way you look at it, New Zealand and Finland are among the best-off countries on earth. (Interestingly, they have the same population density: 16 people per square kilometre.) For them to squabble over which is better is, to paraphrase Borges, like two men with full heads of hair fighting over the hair restorer.

- NZ Herald

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