John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Little sympathy for middle-age angst

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John Roughan writes that ageing activist Peter Bethune should cut the antics and enjoy a much improved world.

A bloke who sounds a bit like the sort of adventuring sailor New Zealand esteems, has been locked in a Japanese jail for several weeks now and it is difficult to care.

Peter Bethune mortgaged his house to build himself the boat of his imagination, a weird biofuelled motor trimaran, and set out to race around the world in it a few years ago. That adventure ended when his craft collided with a fishing skiff of Guatemala and a fisherman was killed. He was detained by Guatemalan authorities but not charged and was allowed to leave after paying compensation to the dead man's family. He sounded like a decent bloke on radio interviews at that time. Accidents can happen.

Then he looked for a new purpose of sea-going adventure and found it, like another Kiwi we could name, in an environmental cause. This summer he and his speedboat turned up in the Southern Ocean with the aggressive American Sea Shepherd campaign against Japanese whaling.

On January 6 his boat was sliced in two by a whaler it had been chasing. A film of the collision supplied by Sea Shepherd was featured on TV3 news bulletins for several nights while John Campbell analysed the whaler's conduct but I didn't watch it closely.

If someone wants to hurtle around a working ship with the expressed intention of getting in the way of its operations I don't have much difficulty deciding where fault lies. If he had been deliberately rammed, it had obviously been done in a way that ensured there need be no loss of life.

Then late in February, more than six weeks after the collision, Bethune jet-skied to the same whaling ship and went on board with the intention, he said, of making a citizen's arrest of the captain for sinking his boat.

Predictably, the captain arrested Bethune, made him a guest of the vessel for the rest of its expedition and turned him over to the Tokyo police at the end of its voyage. He awaits Japanese justice on charges of assault, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property and obstruction of business.

He has a few sympathisers in this country. Labour MPs like Chris Carter call him a "great New Zealander". They and the Green Party urge the Government to do more to get him released. They should be careful what they wish for. In their next breaths they castigate the Government for supporting a proposed commercial whaling quota to be discussed at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission next month, and for its lack of interest in a possible Australian challenge to whaling at the International Court of Justice. If Bethune is released before the IWC meeting the Greens may have the Government's "soft" line to thank for it.

Fortunately for their cause, Bethune's captivity does not seem to be of urgent concern to our Foreign Minister, Murray McCully. Whenever a reporter asks what he is doing, McCully makes an excruciating effort to express the protective sentiments expected of him when a New Zealander falls into the clutches of a foreign jurisdiction and somebody cares.

In this case Bethune is probably content to stay where he is for a while, drawing continuing attention for his cause. Back here, his family may be missing him but they are accustomed to long absences. When he got himself taken by the whaler his wife Sharyn said: "Nothing really surprises us these days." She estimated that over the past five years he had been home for a total of one.

Immature acts of protest were once confined to the young. Bethune is 44. Like the saboteurs of the Waihopai spy base, he is simply too old for sympathy.

The protest movement is coming into its dotage and a few of its members have gained nothing from the passage of time. Possibly they are feeling the march of mortality and can see too little improvement in the world. If so, they're in a different world from mine.

The planet is much more peaceful now for the passing of the Cold War and its nuclear nightmare. It is more wealthy for the wider adoption of capitalism and liberal trade, more integrated by the world wide web and the wireless phone.

Most species of whale have been saved from threat of extinction by IWC covenants disgracefully defied by Japan, Norway and very few others. To risk life or resort to vandalism in protest that progress is less than perfect, is neither admirable nor defensible.

Bethune deserves to experience the gentle, ego-challenging influences of Japan for a good while yet.

- NZ Herald

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