November in Dallas – (Farewell to the 20th Century). Mike Lee concludes his 1999 ‘political travelogue’

This article was the final of a 3 part series covering my trip around the world in October and November 1999 – appeared in the NZ Political Review in September 2001.  I have republished it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

At the end of my stay in France, I caught the high-speed Eurostar train which took me via the channel tunnel all the way to London.The next day was 11 November, Remembrance day, I attended the ceremonies commemorating the Great War armistice outside Westminster Abbey officiated at by the old-as-the-century Queen Mother.  A couple of days later I flew to Dublin, hired a car and drove down the coast to stay with my grandfather Lee’s family in Cork and to gaze at the little stone house (now a farm implement shed) on the Dingle peninsula of Kerry where my mother’s mother Johanna Kavanagh was born. Time was running out for the 20th Century by the time I left Dublin bound for Dallas, Texas. Soon we were out over the west coast of Ireland and the Arran Isles.  We were still climbing as I gazed down at these lonely outliers of Europe – fringed with surf from the Atlantic swelIs – lit with the last rays of the winter sun.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy 29 May 1917-22 November 1963

November 1963 – Wellington NZ.

As the saying used to go everyone knew exactly where they were and what they doing on the day President Kennedy died.  It’s rather a sobering thought that this event happened 50 years ago and most people alive today weren’t even born then.  But I am one of the aging majority who can still remember with crystal clarity that day in November 1963 – still remember and can never forget.

I was 14 and I remember the day was fine with a fresh breeze.  That morning I walked to Hataitai Park to take part in an athletics meeting.  I can see this all quite clearly but just like everyone else I’ve talked to, I find it just about impossible to remember anything about what I did in the days or even weeks before and after the assassination.

I must have hung round the park most of the day because I remember walking home through the Hataitai tunnel late that afternoon.  By then the significance of what had happened had begun to sink in.  I didn’t know much about death in those days.  As the last person in my family to die was my grandmother, just a few days after I was born, I was still innocent of the horror and finality of death.

So Kennedy, because of his larger than life celebrity I suppose, and because we all looked up to him, especially being a catholic, was the most significant person I felt I knew who had actually died.  I mused on this all the way home.  It was quite a shock when you thought about it. As I turned into my street I could hear the televisions in peoples’ houses. When I got in the door everyone was up in the front room – crowded around the TV.

They had arrested a man, a ‘loner’ with communist connections called Lee Harvey Oswald.  (A studio picture and bio details were already in the Evening Post several hours before Oswald was formerly charged in Dallas).  A couple of days later, the alleged assassin was himself assassinated – on TV –‘rubbed out’ as it were – by a character straight out of a gangster movie by the name of Jack Ruby.  This was unprecedented and difficult to make sense of.  It seemed as if the world had gone crazy.  When I look back November 1963 was really when the Sixties began.  As if to underline this, a few months later the Beatles arrived in town.  Like everyone around my age I soon became caught up in the excitement of ‘Beatlemania’ and pop music in general.

Almost unnoticed, the report of the Warren Commission, the eminent members of which had been hand-picked by the new President Lyndon Johnson, had confirmed the initial speculation that Oswald had acted alone.  No motive was established.  In time the events in Dallas faded like a bad dream – but never completely.  Life went on – but things were never quite the same again.

We couldn’t escape politics even if we wanted to – not in the sixties.  Night after night on the television it became increasingly apparent that under Lyndon Johnson, the war in Vietnam was escalating into a major conflict, with more and more troops committed and more and more people dying.

Three years to the month after Kennedy’s death, in November 1966, Johnson made the first US presidential visit to New Zealand.  LBJ came to put pressure on the NZ government into increasing its token commitment of troops to the Vietnam War.

Then in 1968, in two shocking events civil rights leader Martin Luther King and then President Kennedy’s younger brother Senator Robert Kennedy were both assassinated within weeks of one another; again, according to the authorities by ‘lone nut assassins.’ Both men had become influential opponents of the war in Vietnam.  With their removal the war was to drag on for another seven years.

The mounting public scepticism at the single assassin explanations – especially in the wake of the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 74 – led to public pressure for a new official inquiry into all three assassinations.

In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations, after a three-year inquiry marred by political argument and controversy concluded ‘...on the basis of evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.’  The report raised the possibility that Kennedy may have been murdered by organised crime.  The conclusion of conspiracy was based on acoustic evidence of a fourth shot (and therefore a second gunman) recorded on a police radio channel.  Though this was later challenged by another Government panel, it was the first chink in the wall of the ‘lone assassin’ explanation that was the Warren Commission.

Dallas. The fateful day.

Meanwhile a growing number of Warren Commission critics found much in the House Committee investigation reports to reinforce their own suspicions; that behind the assassination of President Kennedy lay not the mob – but something much more powerful.  They argued that while organised crime may have had the motive and means to carry out the killing, the mob did not have the means to organise such an extensive cover-up.  Only the United States government they argued had the power to do that.

In 1992 the controversial Oliver Stone movie ‘JFK’ was released, reawakening old memories and provoking intense debate. ‘JFK’ was based on the story of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who had taken an unsuccessful prosecution against one Clay Shaw in 1969 for being an accessory to the Kennedy killing.  Stone’s movie was a synthesis of the work of the leading conspiracy theorists, including Mark Lane, David Lifton, Jim Marrs, Garrison himself and Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty.

Stone’s movie contended that Kennedy was murdered as the result of a conspiracy involving anti-Castro CIA agents and U.S. Army intelligence, and that the crime was covered up at the highest levels of the U.S. Government.  The movie went on to propose that the motive for the murder was a series of policy decisions by Kennedy which in the eyes of militant cold warriors amounted to ‘treason.’  These especially related to Cuba.  In particular, Kennedy’s failure to back-up the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles with U.S. military force. Also in the eyes of these hawkish elements, Kennedy’s ‘victory’ in the 13-day confrontation with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 was in reality a defeat.  Rumours had spread through Washington that in return for a withdrawal of the missiles Kennedy had permanently cancelled any U.S. invasion of Cuba.  Kennedy was considered to be ‘soft on communism.’

In the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy’s limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets (signed against the advice of his military advisers), his decision to accept a neutralist government in Laos rather than intervene militarily and his suggestion that the race to the moon be abandoned and be replaced by cooperative exploration of space with the Russians, alarmed an influential section of the American elite.

Stone pointed to the role of the American ‘military-industrial complex,’ a term coined by Kennedy’s predecessor President Eisenhower.   The Allied supreme commander in World War ll, Dwight. D. Eisenhower in his televised farewell address to the nation in January 1961, had gone to some lengths to warn the American people about the ‘rising influence of the military-industrial complex’.

Most sensationally, Stone’s movie argued that Kennedy was removed because he was attempting to back away from a ‘big war’ in Vietnam which would be worth billions of dollars to the military-industrial complex – ($220 billion as it turned out).  That the elected President was murdered and replaced with another, more amenable to the aims of the military, meant the Kennedy assassination was in effect a coup d’état. This is an astounding proposal and one could imagine the shock it would have had on America and the world had it been made at the time of Kennedy’s death.  Needless to say, Stone and his movie were excoriated by the mainstream media, (Stone responded memorably by calling his media critics.  ‘Doberman-pinschers’ – trained to protect the government.’

The possibility that the Vietnam tragedy, could have been avoided and the proposition that the two defining events of the sixties, the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination, were somehow linked, obviously has significant implications, not only for the interpretation of the history of the second half of the 20th century but raises questions about political legitimacy and the world’s greatest power.

I was aware that conspiracy theorists and a dwindling number of the more than 50 witnesses, who rejected the Warren Commission’s findings and believed that shots came from a ‘grassy knoll’ gathered there together each year on the anniversary of the assassination.  (The phrase ‘grassy knoll’ was originally coined by witness Jean Hill, who had bravely charged up the hill in pursuit of the gunmen but was stopped by unidentified ‘security men.’)

The conspiracy people, tilting against the mightiest of windmills appealed to my imagination.  I made up my mind that one day I would go to Dallas and stand with them on the grassy knoll and pay my tribute to the assassinated president.  Maybe there would be some answers, some new evidence – something to make sense at last of the greatest murder-mystery of the 20th century.

November in Dallas 1999

Some hours later after leaving Dublin, our plane made its landfall over frozen Labrador. I watched the display screen as we steadily swooped in a southwestward arc across the continentaI United States.

I was on my way to attend a Kennedy assassination research conference in Dallas, coinciding with the 36th anniversary of the assassination. I hadn’t been back to the States since the 1980′s and was awed at the vast grids of lights from the huge conurbations stretching from horizon to horizon.  I had the clear impression we were flying to the heart of a great empire.

We landed in Memphis Tennessee – and after clearing customs and being questioned by a stoney-eyed faced immigration official I suddenly felt a little self-conscious explaining why I was travelling to Dallas.

If Memphis was the ‘heart’ of America, then Dallas could be said to represent the dark side of its soul.  A cow town fattened by the fabulous wealth of the nearby East Texas oil field, Dallas became the financial and banking centre of the Texas oil industry.  It was also the post-war strong-hold of the extreme right.  In the early sixties at the time of Kennedy visit, it was known as the ‘hate capital of America.’

By the time we arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth, I had that feeling of strung-out weariness the traveller gets from extending the day across too many time zones.  I caught the shuttle to the Dallas Grand Hotel.  It was here that the annual JFK-Lancer ‘November in Dallas’ conference on the Kennedy assassination would be held.  Once upon a time the Grand, originally the Dallas Hilton, was one of the places to stay in Dallas – but now its late-fifties modernity had aged into Texan stateliness.  By the time I had checked in and gratefully unlocked my room I was exhausted.  I remembered I had been up since 5.30 am and by now it was 3am the next day in Ireland.  But I had made it. Relief is a tonic.  It occurred to me, that while yes, it was that time in Ireland, on the other hand, it was still only 11pm in Dallas.  Maybe I should go down to the bar for a nightcap.  After all as I pointed out (to my more sensible self) – I had made it here safely.  That was cause for modest celebration – wasn’t it?

Down in the lobby bar the lights were low and background music was playing.  The beer on tap was ‘Coors Lite’ which was something of a shock after Guinness.  (Why is it that the greatest country in the world makes such indifferent beer?). The southern belle tending the bar wore dangling ear-rings, pearls, a white silk blouse, designer jeans, her platinum blond hair was piled up high.  A badge identified her as ‘Rosemary’ – I estimated she was at least seventy.  Rosemary was serving a group of men around my age deep in conversation at the other end of the bar.  As Rosemary moved back and forward taking orders, I overhead her say in her Texas drawl  “Oh I knew Jack back in the 1950s – he was around here all the time handing out candy.”

When I ordered my second drink I said ‘Excuse me Rosemary – I couldn’t help hear you mention a ‘Jack’.  May I ask – Jack who?’  ‘Why’, she replied , ‘Jack Ruby.’ ‘Right. Of course’. I had come to the right place.

I went over and introduced myself to the group.  They were all assassination researchers, here for the conference.  There was Russ Swickard from California, Ed Sherry from Florida and Joe Backes from New York.  With them was a woman with striking blonde hair almost to her waist somewhat younger than Rosemary. The lady was Shari-Angel, a former dancer at Jack Ruby’s notorious ‘Carousel Club’ and something of a local identity.

The next day still somewhat jet-lagged I made my way to the Grand Hotel conference room.

The Conference

JFK-Lancer, the entity which organises the ‘November in Dallas’ seminars is a non-profit, private company dedicated to research and publications on the Kennedy assassination (www.jfklancer.com).  It is run by Texans Debra Conway and Tom Jones.  (‘Lancer’ was Kennedy’s rather dashing secret service code name – quite apt given what we now know about his private life.)

The conference was to last for two and a half days to be followed by a commemoration ceremony on the grassy knoll.  As it got underway I took a look around the room.  Most of the participants were people were around my age (middle-aged) – the baby boom generation and from all across the U.S.  The only non-Americans, was a small party from the U.K. and myself.

As a result of the uproar caused by the Oliver Stone movie there was renewed political pressure on the government for the release of millions of pages of classified documents on the assassination.  In response, Congress in 1992 had passed a bill called the’ JFK Assassination Records Act.’

This legislation established an ‘Assassinations Records Review Board’ (ARRB), which had reviewed and declassified 4 million pages of documents before ‘sunsetting’ in September 1998.   This substantial body of new resource material is still apparently being worked over by researchers and is being added to.  New fragments of information painstakingly gleaned from it, has given the assassination research movement something of a boost.  This particular conference was very much focussed on the work of the ARRB.  The presentations as you would expect were varied and I don’t propose to cover them all.  The ones I found the most absorbing were interestingly enough from former career military men, John Newman, Doug Horne and Craig Roberts.

Roberts, the first speaker was a former combat sniper in Vietnam – ’18 hits confirmed, 21 probable.’ His presentation was on technical aspects of the shooting from your sniper’s point of view.  He reviewed and dismissed the so-called ‘magic bullet theory’ – by which the Warren Commission maintained a single bullet had caused multiple wounds to President Kennedy and Governor Connally.  The theory was proposed by an ambitious young Commission attorney called Arlen Specter, now a senior Republican senator.  Roberts also dismissed the likelihood of an indifferent marksman like Oswald getting away three shots in 5.6 seconds at a moving target using a cheap bolt-action rifle.

Discussing the number, trajectory and angle of shots, Robert suggested there were likely three teams of shooters in Dealey Plaza.  One, at the west end of the sixth floor of the school book depository building – not the east end location of Oswald’s alleged ‘snipers nest’), another in the nearby Dal-Tex building, and finally a team on the grassy knoll.

Roberts mentioned that an old un-provenanced shell case had been recently found on the Dal-Tex building under some roofing material.  He also proposed that the explosive kill shot which blew open the president’s head was a slug loaded with mercury – traces of which would have been detectable in a brain examination.  Unfortunately the President’s brain had disappeared from the National Archives soon after his death.

Moving on from blood and bullets, Doug Horne’s presentation was much more low key.  A former naval officer and civil servant in both the navy and army, Horne gave an insiders view of his time as an official working for the ARRB.  The bureaucratic workings of the Board were obviously of deep interest to the conference participants, many of whom had testified before it.  This is where I first heard the word, ‘redacted.  ‘Redacted’ is officialese for when certain words or phrases or even whole paragraphs of documents are blanked out.  It became clear from Horne’s presentation that a significant amount of the documents released by the ARRB have many words, and sometimes whole passages redacted.

The most impressive presentation came late in the first day from John Newman Ph.D., a former military intelligence officer, author of two books on the assassination and a lecturer at the University of Maryland.

I guess I’m going to introduce myself – I’m a conspiracy theorist!

Kicking off with that opening line John Newman’s presentation seemed to electrify the conference.  It was based on 130 newly-released ARRB documents which covered Lee Harvey Oswald’s mysterious visit to Mexico City in September/October 1963.

Using slides and over head transparencies, [the early versions of PowerPoint were not widely used in 1999], Newman skilfully juxtaposed declassified documents to outline what appeared to be an elaborate and, (if I might say so), elegant stratagem involving Oswald (and someone impersonating Oswald) to clearly link Oswald with both the Cuban and Russian embassies in Mexico City.

Furthermore the Russian consular official Oswald had been linked to by tapped phone calls, was a man called Valery Kostikov.  Kostikov was known to the American intelligence as a member of the notorious KGB department 13 – the section in charge of sabotage and assassinations (“wet jobs” as those in that particular line of government service call it).

This explosive information was not made known to higher authorities at that time but was left to lie dormant, as Newman put it, ‘like a virus’ ready to activate after the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.

Newman showed how the released documents which covered the first 24 hours after the assassination referred to tapes and photographs made in Mexico, ostensibly of Oswald which upon examination were found to be impersonations.  Someone was impersonating Oswald!  The most likely way such a conclusion could be reached, argued Newman, was if the tapes were flown to Dallas for comparison while Oswald was still alive and being interrogated.  Again Newman produced evidence of a special Navy flight from Mexico City carrying an FBI agent with a package containing photographs and apparently tapes which arrived at Dallas in the early hours of the morning, the day after the assassination.

Then, 24 hours after the assassination, Newman revealed, throwing document after document on the overhead projector, the official line suddenly changed.  Investigators were now informed that the Mexico City tapes had been routinely wiped soon after they were recorded.

It was a little more complex than this of course, but in summary, there appeared to be a two-level strategy running.  Oswald was in Mexico with the objective of obtaining a visa to travel to Cuba.  As it turned out the Cubans (fortunately for them) refused give him one.  As Fidel Castro told representatives of the House Assassinations Committee, ‘I said to myself, what would have happened had by any chance that man come to Cuba…gone back to the States and then appeared involved in Kennedy’s death?  That would have been a provocation – a gigantic provocation.’

That part of the apparent strategy, the provocation of a retaliatory military invasion of Cuba didn’t work out.  However when alarm bells rang in the corridors of power in the hours and days after the shooting, Oswald’s connections seemed to be not with the anti-Castro extreme-right or the FBI or the CIA, but with the Cubans and Russians.  The threat appeared to be from the Left not the Right, and to be external not internal .  The link to Kostikov and department 13, raised the possibility of war  - ‘the death of 40 million people’ – as Lyndon Johnson repeatedly stated privately in the days after the assassination.

Though, as Newman demonstrated, Johnson was made aware of the Oswald impersonation – as early as the morning after the assassination by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The awesome consequences of this avenue of enquiry appeared to act as a sort of brake on investigating agencies from following up too hard on these leads.  The threat of world war was also used by Johnson, again demonstrated by Newman using documents and tapes, to gain support at the highest levels of government, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren for a tacit consensus to support the ‘lone assassin’ explanation.

More conspiracy theorists

The bar of the Grand, run by the remarkably efficient Rosemary became the meeting place after conference sessions. I buddied up with researcher Russ Swickard (most everyone is a ‘researcher’ in this milieu).  Russ, whom I guessed was around my age and who looked like (and in fact was) an original California surfer from the Beach Boys era.  Russ had an extensive knowledge of the case and I found his shrewd insights quite valuable.

Russ introduced me to his friends from COPA (Committee on Political Assassinations) a sort of rival body to JFK-Lancer, headed up by John Judge which was also meeting in Dallas.  More of an activist group it was COPA which successfully led the lobbying for the JFK Assassinations Records Act.

In between discussing the finer points of the case, Russ and I would take our turn buying bourbon and coke for Shari Angel.

Another local character who put in an appearance in the bar of the Grand was Madeline Brown, a petite woman now quite frail, whom people openly referred to as ‘Lyndon Johnson’s mistress’.  Madeline was the author of a couple of books and once made the claim that LBJ had pre-knowledge of the assassination. Other researchers have placed doubt on her credibility.

Another ubiquitous figure in the conspiracy movement, if I may call it that, is Beverly Oliver – another former dancer.  Beverly a vivacious blonde, and a larger-than-life personality, appears in most documentaries on the assassination and claims to be the famous ‘Babuska lady’.  This person, shown in photographs wearing a coat and head scarf (hence Babushka) who with Jean Hill was perhaps the closest witness to the assassination, has never been officially identified.  Beverly also claims to have seen Lee Harvey Oswald with Jack Ruby in the Carousel Club.

I used to share the same table in the hotel dining room with two older gentlemen, both who happened to be called ‘Hal’.  Neither, I noted at the time, would have been out of place at an Alliance conference (or perhaps nowadays a Greens conference nowadays.  The first Hal, Hal McDiarmid, was in his sixties and more your strong-willed individualist.  At the time of the assassination, Hal told me over breakfast, he was a young white lawyer working for a black law firm on the south side of Chicago.  When he saw Lee Harvey Oswald on TV, making a plea for a lawyer ‘to come forward’ to represent him, Hal placed a long distance call to the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry.  ‘Curry wouldn’t take the call’, Hal told me, and the hapless Oswald was left without legal representation until his murder the next day.

When he heard I came from New Zealand, Hal told me that he was a keen jogger.  He said he had once met Arthur Lydiard, the famous New Zealand athletics coach and long distance running guru, in a bar in Los Angeles.  Hal claimed Arthur had talked him into running a marathon the next day – which Hal claimed he did, of course in a very slow time.

The second Hal, Hal Verb, was down on the programme as a conference presenter.  Hal Verb, was described as ‘a first generation conspiracy theorist’ and was a sort of father figure in the research movement.  A dignified, quietly spoken, rather humourless man in his late sixties, Hal was a member of the ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee at the time of the Kennedy assassination.  It will be recalled that the mysterious Lee Harvey Oswald had attempted to set up a chapter of the ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ Committee in New Orleans in the months prior to the assassination and was arrested after a street fracas when handing out ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ leaflets.  That incident, conspiracy theorists suggest had all the hallmarks of being staged.

Hal Verb, by his accent a native New Yorker, was apparently an old-style left-winger of the Militant variety.  He was active in the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.  At the time of the assassination, Hal told me he was horrified to learn of Oswald’s alleged connections to the Fair Play for Cuba committee and feared a right wing back-lash.  The Fair Play for Cuba committee was disbanded soon after.

As the conference drew to a close, an awards session and dinner featured a number of luminaries of the assassination research movement such as Jim Marrs author of the important assassination book ‘Cross-Fire’, and Mary Ferrell (now in a wheelchair), the Dallas researcher and archivist who was one of the original critics of the Warren Commission.  Also featured was Kerry McCarthy, a first-cousin-once-removed of President Kennedy, a one time senior official in the Democratic Party and a TV host.  Whether her presence meant a change in the Kennedy family position on the assassination conspiracy movement was not clear – the Kennedy’s have always maintained a strict silence on the assassination.  I studied her carefully – she was a handsome women in her late forties, she spoke very well (with a touch of the blarney) and bore quite a strong family resemblance to her famous cousins of whom she spoke fondly.

The Kennedy legacy

In reviewing Kennedy’s political career even in the most critical of his detractors trace an interesting political journey.  First of all, perhaps most importantly, Kennedy, thanks to the enormous wealth of his ambitious father, was financially self-sufficient.  This gave him a degree of political latitude virtually unique in the American experience where big corporate donors have a decisive influence on the political process.

In 1960 Kennedy campaigned as a cold warrior who strove to be harder-nosed than his rival Richard Nixon.  After the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco, the new President appeared to become distrustful, even embittered with his military and Intelligence advisers.  Kennedy’s sacking of CIA director Allan Dulles, was a direct consequence of the abortive Cuban operation.

In the aftermath of the ‘Bay of Pigs,’ in 1962, faced with a political crisis in Laos in which his military Joint Chiefs urged intervention, Kennedy opted for a diplomatic solution, resulting in a neutralist government, which included members of the communist Pathet Lao.  This suggested a President (despite the militant cold war rhetoric) who was aware of the limitations of military force.

In October 1962, and the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy again over-ruled the generals and together with his brother Robert contrived a solution which narrowly averted a catastrophic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

This seemed to mark a turning point in history.  In the following months the cold war tensions seemed to ease.  A nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was signed and a ‘hot line’ set up between the White House and the Kremlin.  Kennedy’s move away from the cold war was best articulated in his famous commencement address to the American University in June 1963.  Here Kennedy called for a profound reassessment of the U.S. attitude towards the Soviet Union and Communism, a move toward nuclear disarmament and an end to the cold war.  ‘And, if we cannot end now our differences at least we can make the world safe for diversity.  Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.’

The President and his son John. 'We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.’

A few weeks before his death Kennedy went on a pre-campaign swing through the conservative mid-western states.  He had been prepared with speeches on nature conservation.  Half through one of his first speeches (which he sensed seemed to be not connecting with the audience) Kennedy departed from his notes to talk about the nuclear test ban treaty and an end to the cold war.  The audience immediately responded.   Sensing this Kennedy increased the force and tempo of his remarks. The speech was met with enthusiastic applause. The crowd response was similar wherever he spoke.  It appeared that Kennedy had discovered a deep well of cold war-weariness, a yearning to come out from the shadow of years of Russophobia and nuclear war intimidation – and a heartfelt desire for peace amongst ordinary middle-Americans.

As the writer David Halberstam recalled on his last night in Salt Lake City, the crowds along the route were the biggest yet.  When he entered the Mormon tabernacle, thought to be the heart of the enemy camp – Birch country, Goldwater country  – the President received a 5 minute standing ovation.  Kennedy knew by then that Goldwater was to be his Republican opponent in 1964.  He believed he had found the issue to defeat the Goldwater and the right and move to America on during his second term, beyond the rigid fear and paranoia of the Cold War.

The Kennedy charm seemed to mesmerise most journalists.  An exception was the outstanding young correspondent, David Halberstam of the New York Times.  Halberstam’s despatches covering the early days of the war in Vietnam conflicted with the upbeat line of the American mission in Saigon and embarrassed the administration.

Halberstam best-selling book, The Best and the Brightest, which appeared in the early seventies is a brilliant study of U.S. politics and government of that era.  The book is a penetrating critique of how the Kennedy/Johnson administration became entrapped in Vietnam.

Recently it was republished and in it Halberstam rewrote his introduction, a reappraisal of the book from the perspective of thirty years.  As one of Kennedy’s earliest critics Halberstam’s views are worth noting.

On reflection, Halberstam claimed his book to be ‘the first revisionist book on Kennedy, though on the increasing scale of what was to come later, it was rather mild.  I did not see Kennedy as a romantic figure (although, later, I saw his younger brother Robert that way) but rather as a cool, skillful, modern politician.  Sceptical, ironic and graceful.  The best thing about him was modernity, his lack of being burdened by myths of the past.

Because I saw him as cool and sceptical it always struck me that he would not have sent combat troops into Vietnam.  He was too sceptical, I think, for that:  I believe that in the last few months of his life, he had come to dislike the war, it was messy and our policy there was flawed and going nowhere, and he was wary of the optimism of his generals.  His first term had been burdened by his narrow victory over Nixon and the ghosts of the McCarthy period; with luck he would be free of both of these burdens in his second term, and I do not believe he intended to lose in the rice paddies of Indo-China what he considered this most precious chance for historic accomplishment.

That being the case Kennedy’s second term raises intriguing possibilities.  No big war in Vietnam, continuation of the post-war economic boom without the chronic inflation set off by the Vietnam War and even the possibility of a U.S. opening to China before the Cultural Revolution.  History could have been very different.

Kennedy’s second term because it didn’t happen, takes its place as one of the great ‘what ifs’ of the 20th century.

The political orphans of JFK

As the conference draw to its conclusion, I began to feel as a non-American something of an intruder – an outsider at a family gathering. And yet looking around the room I realised I had quite a lot in common with the people here – something that transcended nationality.  The post-war baby boom generation was said to be the best nurtured and best educated in history.  With such preparation and moved to high idealism by Kennedy’s sweeping rhetoric, the new generation promised great things. The Peace Corps and the civil rights movement seemed only to be the beginning. As it turned out the promise and high expectations were never.   After all, we should remember, it was really the World War II generation which reached the moon and last walked there thirty years ago – the baby-boom generation has never really gone anywhere.   A commentator once observed that in the wake of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the youth of America suffered a ‘collective nervous breakdown.’  Things never quite worked out after that.  High idealism turned to self absorption and then to cynicism.  Personal experiments with drugs were followed by political experiments with neo-liberalism – (and most baby-boomer private lives are unhappily complicated compared to those of their parents’ generation).

If you talk to most people in the assassination research movement about their motivations for being involved, they will tell you first of all the Government’s lone assassin explanation insults their intelligence – there are just two many loose ends.  But there is also the impression of an underlying feeling that somehow they have been robbed -ripped-off.  That as young people at the time, the violent removal of Kennedy had stolen something important from their future – and the unfulfilled promise of the second term had somehow detracted from their lives. As I looked around the room, at the now middle-aged faces turned expectantly towards the podium, in their eyes I could see the youthful idealism of the sixties was still there.  That’s what they were, I decided,  that’s what we all were, I suppose – the political orphans of JFK.

"I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought we had a little more time." – Kennedy official and later Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reacting to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, November 1963

The Grassy Knoll

The next day 22 November 1999 was the 36 th anniversary of the assassination and the last item of business on the conference agenda – the ceremony on the grassy knoll.

We made our way out of the hotel in the bright Texan sunlight, along the arid canyon which is Commerce Street, walking the few blocks to Dealey Plaza.  The weather was fine with a mild breeze – not too different from the weather I remember in Wellington on that day back in 1963.

The giant stars and stripes flags in Dallas flew at half mast that day – but this had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination.  A number of students at Texas A&M university had just been killed by collapsing lumber when they were building a huge bonfire as part of a campus ritual and Texas Governor George W. Bush had declared a period of official mourning.

Dealey Plaza lies at the western side of downtown Dallas where Commerce, Main and Elm Streets come together.  Named for a famous Dallas civic father (a right-wing newspaper proprietor) its features were immediately familiar.  The little white colonades and the picket fence of the grassy knoll, the railway underpass and looming above, the sinister red brick Texas school book depository building.  I realised that this place had been burned into the collective imagination of my generation – the setting for the original nightmare on Elm Street.

I visited the school book depository building much of which is now a tourist attraction – On the sixth floor is a museum dedicated to the Kennedy assassination.  A video tape of Kennedy’s funeral was playing and as I watched it old memories came flooding back.

Out on the grassy knoll out-of-state assassination buffs mingled with Dallas locals – among which were a few remaining witnesses. A banner was unfurled, there were speeches and at 12.30 a minutes silence.

Here I met Tom Blackwell one of that hardy breed, a leader of the Dallas Democratic Party.  Tom runs an email information service constantly sending out news items and research developments on the JFK case, other political assassinations and general information on Dallas history and politics (http://web2.airmail.net/radio).  (I sometimes receive emails addressed “to you and other Texas Democrats”).  Tom kindly showed me over the grassy knoll and we walked around the railway yard behind the picket fence.  Here we stood behind the now dilapidated fence right on the spot where witnesses (and some photographic evidence) suggest two men were standing, one of whom many believe delivered the kill shot – blowing open the President’s head.  My feeling was that the assassins must have had ice in their veins to execute such a crime so close to where people were standing.  But no-one was looking their way, and nobody in those more innocent days would be expecting such barbaric audacity.

Standing there, I reflected morbidly of the words of Warren Commission critic Vince Salandria as told to the Congressional investigator Gaeton Fonzi. ‘I’m afraid we were misled – all the critics, myself included, were misled very early.  I see that now.  We spent too much time and effort micro analyzing the details of the assassination when all the time it was obvious, it was blatantly obvious that it was a conspiracy.  Don’t you think the men who killed Kennedy had the means to do it in the most sophisticated and subtle way?  They chose not to.  Instead they picked the shooting gallery that was Dealey Plaza and did it in the most barbarous and openly arrogant manner.  The forces that killed Kennedy wanted the message clear: ‘We are in control and no one – not the President, nor any elected official – no one can do anything about it.’

Boston psychiatrist Martin Schotz once pointed out ‘It is so important to understand that one of the primary means of immobilizing the American people politically today is to hold them in a state of confusion in which anything can be believed but nothing can be known, nothing of significance that is.‘  And while the overwhelming majority of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy – the don’t know it. And as I stood there looking out over Dealey Plaza, I wondered whether they ever would.

On the grassy knoll. November 22 1999

When I saw the Pacific Ocean again I felt I was nearly home. After the usual excruciating middle of the night stop over in Honolulu and flight in a crowded Air New Zealand 767 we landed in the early morning at Rarotonga.  An old friend Helen Browne and her son Ken were there to pick me up.  I went home to their rambling colonial bungalow in the Takuvaine Valley, had a cold shower, took some sleeping pills and with the rumble of thunder and the sound of rain drumming on the roof, fell into a deep sleep. I slept most of the day and from time to time I was  aware of the people talking in Maori somewhere in an another room.  I rested in Rarotonga a few days, swimming in the lagoon, reading and relaxing preparing for re-entry back to routine working life. That moment arrived when I received an email – my youngest daughter Annabelle had given birth to a little girl.  I was a grandfather again.  My journey and the 20th Century’s was almost over.  I would go home to meet Omiha Pearl and her new century.

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Death of a soldier – my tribute to Ted Lees.

(Eulogy presented at St Mary’s Church, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, 18 November 2013).

Daniel Edward (Ted) Lees. 2 March 1923 – 11 November 2013

I wish to thank Mrs Shirley Lees for asking me to speak here today. I am honoured to be given the opportunity to offer my tribute, just as I was honoured to be considered a friend – of a man of the calibre of Ted Lees.

I bring the condolences of the Mayor and members of the Auckland Council and heartfelt thanks for Ted Lees’ many years of service to Auckland and New Zealand.

When the American writer Stephen Ambrose referred to the young men and women who served in World War ll as ‘the greatest generation’, he could not have more aptly described Ted Lees as an embodiment of that generation.  A  generation which has sadly now – the menfolk at least – all but passed into history.

It could be said of New Zealand that its finest hour was in the great global struggle of World War ll.  New Zealand’s performance during that conflict was out of all proportion to its size.  During the War New Zealand had a higher proportion of its citizens in uniform than any Allied nation apart from the Soviet Union.  During the exacting years of 1942-1944 New Zealand committed in terms of war expenditure, as a percentage of national income, more than any of the other Allies apart from the United Kingdom.

As with the New Zealand Infantry Division in the Great War, the First NZ Division of the Second World War, in which Ted Lees served from 1942 to 1945 came to be considered by friends and foe alike as an elite formation. Indeed the German commander of the Afrika Corps Field-Marshal Erwin Rommell considered the NZ Division, the best in the British 8th Army.  It was hard-won accolades like these that led the British war historian John Keagan to write ‘New Zealanders whose settler independence with rifle and spade would win them a reputation as the best soldiers in the world during the 20th century.’

The quality of New Zealand’s armed services, the commitment and resourcefulness of its civilian soldiers, airmen and sailors was to bring New Zealand significant international prestige.  Because of this New Zealand and its prime minister Frazer became highly respected by the Allied war leaders Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt. This hard-won prestige earned on the battlefield meant that New Zealand, punching well above its weight, would became a key player in the post war settlement – especially in the formation of the United Nations.

As we have heard Ted trained as a commando but Ted’s war contribution was not so much with rifle and spade but as a mechanical engineer with a flare for organisation.  Mobility in World War ll was the difference between tactical success or failure – between life and death. Ted’s job was to ensure the tanks, armoured cars, bulldozers, trucks and jeeps in his care were maintained in the best possible condition – and when they were hit or immobilised to go out and rescue them, and if possible repair them and get them back into action.

He fought with the NZ Division in North Africa and Italy – all the way to Trieste.

Surviving being blown up by an enormous land mine Ted Lees came back from the war determined to live his life – to marry and raise a family and become a successful businessman in his chosen field of engineering.  His vision was not just for himself.  He saw his post-war career as extension of his service to his country – his contribution in the building of a modern post-war New Zealand.  He had seen first-hand how with the proper preparation and motivation New Zealanders could compete with the very best during times of war -  and he believed New Zealand could do it – had to do it  - in times of peace.

Proper preparation meant having the best gear, the best equipment, the best machinery – and if New Zealand didn’t have it – then New Zealand should make it – he would make it.  Ted set up his own company Lees Industries – repairing and manufacturing marine engines, agricultural equipment and equipment for airports

Indelibly influenced by his experience in that most successful of organisations, the NZ Division, Ted travelled the world as often as he could to search out the latest engineering innovations, to pick up the best ideas, to imitate, to improve and adapt for New Zealand conditions.  He built up a loyal team of friends and colleagues – many of whom were returned servicemen like himself; and together they created a real technology hub. So much so that he and his colleagues didn’t just supply New Zealand but exported and supplied Australian factories, airports and port companies, including his setting up factories in Australia and Singapore.

Out of his love and experience of travel Ted also established a large inbound travel company to promote Tourism – and a network of travel agencies around New Zealand. He became the representative for the Asia Pacific region for the American Society of Travel Agents (Asta) and  Pacific Asia Tourism Association (Pata).

Trade and travel also led to him being invited to become the Honorary Consul for Spain in New Zealand. He tackled this role with his usual enthusiasm, serving for nearly 30 years in the Consular Corps. His diligent efforts in building relations between Spain and New Zealand were rewarded with his being Knighted (Civil Merit) by the Spanish King Juan Carlos.

Ted Lees never accepted that being at the bottom of the world was a barrier for New Zealand in terms of trade and tourism.  But what he had learned about infrastructure and logistics in the war made him determined to ensure that Auckland had the best possible seaport and airport supported with the best equipment.

Ted therefore made time to serve for many years as an elected member of the Auckland Harbour Board.  The Auckland Harbour Board was close to his heart and while Ted actively pushed for continued technological and industrial improvements he always valued the wider responsibilities of the Harbour Boards – in terms of maritime planning, its harbourmaster role, its building of marinas, boat ramps and maintenance of moorings and its general support of marine-based recreation – as opposed to the more narrower, purely commercial focus of the port company which replaced the Harbour Board in the reforms of 1989.

Ted’s role in the Auckland Harbour Board chimed in well with his love for the Hauraki Gulf and his being a founding member of the former Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board.  Like the Harbour Boards the Maritime Park Board was to be swept away in the reforms of the 1980s. As a coherent, focused, hands-on management agency for the Hauraki Gulf islands, the old Maritime Park Board has never been matched – and its historic contribution has yet to be fully appreciated.  It was through our mutual interest in the Hauraki Gulf that I first met Ted in the early 90s.  Ted and I were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to secure Pakatoa Island into public ownership – and then in an

Campaigning for Christine in the mayoralty race on 1998. Ted leads a combined operation putting up signs made up of both Lees and Lees (plural)

eventually successful attempt to acquire Kaikoura Island off Great Barrier.

 

Ted simply loved the Hauraki Gulf and he was passionate about giving New Zealanders access to it.  His daughter Christine Fletcher recalls that during the grim winter fighting that went on around Monte Casino – Ted kept a vision of the Hauraki Gulf in his mind.

While Ted was a most canny and successful businessman it was never just about the money – there was always a bigger picture.  That is where the inspiration for Lees Marine came from – Ted wanted Auckland families to have reliable engines for their launches and runabouts – so they could get out on the water and enjoy the Hauraki Gulf.

If I could I would like to share with you some other things Christine recalls about her dad.

Dad was passionate about apprenticeships and employment. He treated staff well and always liked to include families. The annual staff family picnic was a huge affair with presents for everyone. He was exceptionally proud that there was never a strike in the history of the business, quite a feat when you think of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Growing up in the depression and his experience of war shaped Dad. He could never bring himself to throw anything away. He worked hard himself and expected that of everyone else. I know this well as I was made to work in the family business. Monday morning meetings with all the managers at 7.30AM were compulsory to get things started for the week! He was tough and frustrating at times. An ideas man, who led from the front, he was not so interested in detail. A handshake to him was all that was required to cement a deal. There had to be a trail of people behind him attending to the paperwork!

He was quite personally humble but knew to be successful for your community and business you had to get out and to sell the proposition.

He couldn’t have done any of this without Mum. They were the perfect team. Others will talk of this but I just want you to know how she was the cornerstone that allowed all of this activity to take place.”

Christine of course became a popular Member of Parliament and rose to be a cabinet minister and a Mayor of Auckland – achievements for which Ted was enormously proud – but Ted was just as proud of his other daughters Jan and Susie and their families.

In 2010, I was thoughtfully invited by Ted to join with his family and friends to the formal dinner which celebrated his well-deserved induction into the NZ Business Hall of Fame.

Shirley and Ted in 2010 when Ted was inducted into the NZ Business Hall of Fame

It was in August that I last saw Ted – he was clearly suffering and though he accepted the grim fact that he was dying – he didn’t agree with it – he wanted to live a bit longer, he had more things to do.  But for all that he was still cheerful.   He dealt with his illness courageously – just like the brave soldier he always was.  We spoke of his time in the Division – about the fighting in Italy – and the last days of the war NZ Division racing northwards through Italy, liberating Florence and then all the way to Trieste. His recollections of those days were still vivid in his memory.

Which brings home to me that in saying farewell to Ted Lees we are saying more than farewell to one man – we are closing a chapter of our country’s history – and so farewelling a unique and great generation of New Zealanders that we will never see the like of again.

I offer the most sincere condolences to the Lees family, to Ted’s dear wife Shirley and his dearly loved girls Jan, Christine and Susie and the whole family.

Daniel Edward (Ted)  Lees. 2 March 1923 – 11 November 2013

Eulogy delivered at the funeral held in St Mary’s Church at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell. 18 November 2013.

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First Tall Ship Festival – an outstanding success and reminder of Auckland’s maritime heritage

Labour weekend will stay in the memory of those estimated 200,000 Aucklanders* who witnessed the spectacular arrival and departure or who came down to the waterfront to see the magnificent tall ship fleet.  It was my privilege on behalf of the Mayor to formally welcome the eight ships and their crews at an official powhiri, after the captains and some 600 sailors, some from as far away as Great Britain and the Netherlands, Canada and Australia marched on to Queens Wharf led by the band of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The visit of the tall ships was a reminder to us all of our beginnings in New Zealand – and in Auckland.

Auckland is a harbour city. It was the superb advantages of the beautiful Waitemata Harbour that prompted the first Governor of New Zealand – who happened to be a Royal Navy Captain – William Hobson to select this place in 1840 to found the city of Auckland.

And just as Auckland is a harbour city – a port city – New Zealand is an island nation – lying at the furthest reaches of the world – dependent on the sea and ships and the maritime trade for our very existence.  Not only is the sea our economic life blood –  the sea is in our blood – in our DNA.

We are a sea people and the great harbour of Waitemata has welcomed so many of our ancestors – from the great voyaging canoe Tainui  and the other waka which sailed here bringing the ancestors of the Maori people from tropical Polynesia – to the tall ships of the explorers and the immigrant ships from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

My own ancestors arrived here in 1851 – my great grandmother born at sea in the Southern Ocean en route to Auckland from the Cape of Good Hope.  And most of us have similar family histories.

Aucklanders deep interest in the sea and ships is abiding – this is not just a matter of nostalgia but of ongoing economic importance to us – apart from our vital sea-based import and export trade through the Port of Auckland, growing cruise ship visits, the fishing fleet and as the principle base of the Royal New Zealand Navy, the Auckland region has a vital stake in recreational boating and competitive sailing vessel technology.  And as the recent Americas Cup demonstrated the maritime industry in New Zealand – and Auckland in particular – is a world leader in developing cutting-edge sailing technology.

During the ships stay thousands Aucklanders young and old visited Queen, Princes and Hobson wharves to see the ships up close, to marvel at the complex technology of ropes and timber and canvas and iron which brought the ancestors of so many us from half-way round the world. Many people and organisations contributed to the success of the Tall Ships Festival but special thanks must go to John Lister the inspirational Festival director, the Spirit of New Zealand Trust which first proposed the idea to the Council, and the Voyager Maritime Museum of NZ which hosted the event. And an Auckland Council family supporters including Waterfront Auckland, ATEED, Auckland Council Events, Ports of Auckland, and others.

(* Or to be precise an estimated 200,000 visits. I went to see the Tall Ships four times!)

A shortened version of this article published  in the November issue of Verve.

 

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Election battle won – but the fight goes on

First of all I wish to sincerely thank the people of Waitemata & Gulf for re-electing me with such a resounding majority.

 

During the election campaign getting out and about meeting local residents and walking the streets of the electorate – seeing the lovely old homes and gardens reminded me how uniquely lovely this place Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, and the Bays is.  We are all so very fortunate to live here and I think of myself doubly so to have the honour of representing the area which I have done now since February 1992 – both as a member of the former Auckland Regional Council and now the Auckland Council.

 

I was so glad to see City Vision’s Shale Chambers, Pippa Coom and Chris Dempsey returned to the Waitemata Local Board along with talented new members Vernon Tava and Deborah Yates.  But I was saddened to see my friend Tricia Reade did not make it back.  Tricia was a key member of the last Waitemata Local Board and a wonderful community person.  I guess the seriously large amounts of money spent by my two leading opponents while apparently making no impact in the contest for the single Councillor’s seat, did at least ensured them a place on the Local Board – which meant there was no room for Tricia.  Also unfortunate to miss out was City Vision’s Russell Hoban – who is in my view a seriously good prospect for the future. And I would also acknowledge unsuccessful independents like Gerry Hill, Alan Matson, Kris McPherson and Charlotte Fisher who fought honourable campaigns.

 

While the council election was in full swing the hearing into a planning consent application by the Australian warehouse chain Bunnings to build a big box retail outlet on Great North Road was held in front of an independent commission.

 

Though the application was non-complying, disappointingly it was supported by our ‘business-friendly’ but rather less community-friendly council planners.

I was asked to speak as a witness by Arch Hill Residents Inc, a group of local residents led by Sue Lyons, Katie Sutherland, Anita Aggrey and David Batten, which has sprung up to fight the Bunnings application.

 

The Arch Hill residents hotly oppose the application and its team of experts led by Alan Webb and Brian Putt put up a formidable legal and planning case opposing the application.  One of the key concerns is the enormous amount of heavy truck movements – up to 80 a day – and customer traffic which will have a hugely negative impact of the quality of life of the people who live in this historic part of Auckland.  Arch Hill’s steep, narrow streets are a reminder that they were laid out long before the invention of the motor car.

 

Frankly it outrages me that the ratepayers of Arch Hill and Grey Lynn are being forced to pay out of their own pockets the serious costs of running a legal case against a wealthy big business – and their own Auckland Council that is meant to represent them.  Putting a Bunnings in Arch Hill is not sustainable management – rather planning madness.

 

On the other hand, Great North Road is a major transport arterial and a key public transport corridor with over 500 buses per day planned to run along it – the site would be ideal for intensive residential housing – on top of the ridge – lying to the sun with views out over the harbour.

 

As I told the hearing ‘my message to Bunnings is that quite clearly the people and community of Arch Hill and wider Grey Lynn do not want your big box warehouse imposed on their neighbourhood.  Such a development will have significant adverse effects, on that historic quarter, their chosen homes and lifestyle,… and on them I fear, personally.  Such a development will deeply oppress them.  I ask Bunnings therefore on behalf of the community to revise your plans and consider numerous other locations across Auckland, which are more suitable in terms of the district plan and where a Bunnings warehouse would be welcome.  You are not welcome here.’

as published in the November issue of Ponsonby News.

 

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Decision time for Auckland

I have been very proud to serve the Waitemata & Gulf Ward over the first three years of the Super City.  The ward based around the parliamentary seat of Auckland Central but including Parnell and Newmarket comprises Auckland’s most historic suburbs Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Arch Hill, Newton, Grafton, Herne, St Mary’s, Herne and Freeman’s Bays, the CBD, the waterfront, and the beautiful islands of the Hauraki Gulf – is in my view the ‘capital’ of Auckland and Auckland at its best.  Similarly the people of Waitemata & Gulf represent Auckland’s at its most creative, liberal, progressive, generous and go ahead.

The last 3 years have been challenging for the new Super City but led by an energetic and visionary mayor we have achieved something which should not be taken for granted and which many thought impossible 3 years ago – a cohesive, unified Auckland which is going forward.

I have served in local government for 18 years now – most of that time as member of the Auckland Regional Council – and from 2004 to 2010 as its last chairman.

As its legacy the ARC delivered to the Super City the regional parks network, the Ports of Auckland 100% in public hands, the exciting Wynyard Quarter redevelopment, with provision for a headland park on Wynyard Point, the opening up of Queens Wharf to the public and the decision to save Shed 10 and refurbish it as our premier cruise ship terminal. We delivered a public transport system in renaissance, including hard-won approval from first the Labour, then National-led governments for the electrification of Auckland rail – and laid the groundwork for City Rail Link project.

This legacy was taken up by Mayor Len Brown and incorporated into his wider Mayoral vision for Auckland, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by Aucklanders in 2010.  Its centre-piece the City Rail Link – is now supported by the government as announced by the Prime Minister in June.

To achieve this vision for Auckland requires unity of purpose, and a shared determination to stay the course.  That is why I am seeking your support as Councillor for Waitemata & Gulf for 3 more years. I have mentioned the achievements of the recent past, but the achievements over the next 3 years can be truly transformational.  Powerful, fast, quiet, new electric trains are now arriving in Auckland and will be in service early next year.  We will be getting a completely reorganized frequent bus system – to get people where they want to go.

I will also be pushing hard for new Light Rail, extending the Wynyard Quarter tramway across the bridge to Britomart making feasible a Light Rail option for inner city Auckland. I will also be pushing to complete a heritage train station at Parnell, and as I mentioned last month, supporting Skypath cycling and walking across the Harbour Bridge, and a Headland Park on Wynyard Point.

To achieve these goals, just as I will be supporting the Mayor, we need a Local Board working supportively with the Ward Councillor. It has been a pleasure to work with Shale Chambers and his City Vision Local Board members these past three years. Shale, Pippa, Tricia and Chris are hard-working, dedicated, and eager to serve this community.  They deserve to be re-elected along with Vernon, Deborah and Russell – please vote for the whole City Vision team.

The next 3 years will be absolutely critical for Auckland and so now the spotlight turns to you the voter.  Auckland is poised as if at a threshold – with the promise of a truly great city almost within our grasp.   But it is decision time and we must not falter.  If we do we will slide back to the same-old, same-old, fractious Auckland local body politics as usual. Rather we must push on – to build an Auckland where the quality of our civic infrastructure, our civic amenities, and Auckland’s built environment aspires to the truly sublime levels of Auckland’s natural landscape.

Mike Lee

Councillor for Waitemata & Gulf

(as published in the October issue of Ponsonby News)

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Walking and Cycling on the Harbour Bridge – let’s do it

The 1954 decision by the government of the day to build an Auckland Harbour bridge with only four lanes was one of Auckland’s original ‘sins of the fathers’.  Well transport sins anyway. The others were the cancellation of rail electrification the same year and – the most mortal sin of all – the termination and destruction of Auckland’s highly successful electric tramway in 1956.

The original penny-pinching on the Harbour Bridge resulted in the ‘Nippon Clip-Ons’, but the short-sighted exclusion of walking and cycling has lasted to this day.

In May 2009 I was one of thousands of Aucklanders who walked and cycled across the bridge to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its opening.  The authorities at first tried to stop the crowd but sensibly soon gave up.

Since that time the organiser of that ‘Get Across’ rally, Bevan Woodward, has come up with an exciting proposal he calls ‘Skypath.’  This is a specially built enclosed walking and cycling lane on the eastern side of the bridge.   The $30m proposal has been ticked off technically by the bridge owners NZTA, and backed by private money (Morrison & Co and the PIP Fund).  But it needs a council underwrite to work. Over the last couple of years Skypath has worked its way through the Council bureaucracy, periodically pushed along by my Transport Committee. The Council has given leadership of Skypath to ATEED’s ‘can-do’ chief executive Brett O’Riley, and due diligence work is now underway. There are technical issues to be sorted out with the approaches on both sides of the Harbour and our Council transport staff and Skypath will be working through them with the St Mary’s Bay Association, the Northcote residents Association and the Westhaven Users Association.  Once these are sorted, hopefully by December the new council will be able to sign off on the underwrite and work can begin at last to make walking and cycling on the Auckland Harbour Bridge a reality.  The Skypath will add value to our Harbour Bridge and enhance quality of life for Aucklanders and our visitors.

In terms of dealing with the other ‘sins’ – Auckland’s first electric train arrived in the Port on 25 August, the first of a whole fleet. As for the trams, if we can extend the tramway to Britomart Auckland can look forward to a light rail renaissance in the 21st century. See: http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2010/05/sins-of-the-fathers-the-decline-and-rise-of-rail-transit-in-auckland/

This article was published in the September editions of Ponsonby News and Verve Magazine

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Unitary Plan – our historic houses and townscapes well worth fighting for

The announcement by Prime Minister John Key about the City Rail Link is enormously encouraging – I intend to deal with the issue of transport and how it affects the Waitemata ward in the next issue – but in the meantime I am keeping my focus on the Unitary Plan which is still being rushed towards a notification deadline of September.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem because in normal circumstances notification then enables a further round of public submissions.  The problem is that the Auckland  Council has negotiated a deal with the government that in return for a truncated appeal period, the Unitary Plan hearing commission would be handed over to a panel dominated by government appointees. Therefore once the Unitary Plan is notified further influence by the community’s democratically elected local board members and councillor is going to be minimal.

In a discussion about my last month’s article in the Ponsonby News a colleague asked me why I talked about urban sprawl in an article aimed at inner city Ponsonby readers.  In other words why do I feel that the Unitary Plan’s proposed 20,000 ha lateral expansion into rural greenfields would be of interest or consequence to people in Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and the Bays?  My reason in pointing this out was to demonstrate why the Unitary Plan is not really about a compact city, as has been repeatedly claimed but about intensification (which is a different matter)  – and growth – everywhere.  Because most of us would believe a compact city would be an ideal and environmentally sustainable type of urban form– we can assume most reasonably-minded citizens would be willing to make certain sacrifices to help achieve it. But if on the other hand the compact city objective is really largely hype then there are good reasons to think very carefully about plans to intensify our area, at the expensive of the present built environment and amenity – especially our unique and lovely old bungalows and villas.

For instance there is every good reason for communities to push back on council plans to replace large swathes of historic and character townscapes such as in Grey Lynn with new and more intensive apartments and units.

The Unitary Plan is a massive exercise and there is considerable momentum behind it – standing up to a juggernaut such as that is not always easy.  However pushing back is what a lot of residents are asking us to do and that’s what we are doing – and I believe pushing back is starting to pay off.

On a recent Saturday afternoon the Mayor Len Brown, Shale Chambers the chair of the Waitemata Local Board and myself met with members of the Grey Lynn Residents Association who are opposed to the planned rezoning of much of Grey Lynn into new and intensive ‘terraced housing and apartments’ zone.  Instead the ‘Grey Lynns’ are wanting the council to focus intensive housing along the Great North Road ridge and transport corridor in place of the present mixed-use car yards etc., (including the awful Bunnings proposal).    That is a great idea which I fully support. Apart from this very sensible planning advice from the community, the fact that the meeting took place at all in my view was significant. The Mayor is listening and there are signs that this is starting to filter down through the bureaucracy.  So therefore let’s keep on pushing back. Our beloved historic and houses and townscapes which have been handed down to us – are what makes Auckland unique –and what makes this place so different. They are well worth digging in and fighting for.

This article was published in the August edition of Ponsonby News.

 

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Taking up the Prime Minister’s challenge

The recent announcement by John Key swinging government political and financial support behind the City Rail Link – starting 2020 – was great news. The decision was a political
masterstroke by the PM, though apparently some of his cabinet colleagues were not so enthusiastic.   They needn’t worry no-one will regret this. The City Rail Link project will be enormously beneficial to Auckland.  An inner city underground with metro stations – apart from the obvious transport benefits – will be transformational giving Auckland a truly international feel.
But the PM’s announcement does raise some hard questions. The first is funding.   A mayoral think tank, ‘The Consensus
Building Group,’ has come up with ideas on sourcing extra funding – these (road pricing and tolls) don’t seem very appealing to me, Aucklanders are already paying their way.  And actually nor are these measures very efficient revenue gatherers.  Perhaps the best solution is the one suggested in a recent interview by Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee – some of the national fuel tax being redirected into non-road projects like the CRL. In other words this is pretty much what the previous Labour government worked out with the ARC in 2007 – a regional fuel tax.

But it’s not just about funding, part of the problem in local government – indeed our public sector in general – is that we are overly focussed on the supply side (increasing funding) but not the demand side (cost  and getting value for money).  For instance our PT operating costs are too high – and our construction costs are higher than any other country I can think
of.  It’s a rather taboo subject but our vertically integrated construction monopoly (or duopoly) impacts heavily on the
costs of highways, roads, bridges, tunnels, rail …and housing.  In other words on the future affordability of our national infrastructure.  Given this privatised monopoly culture a real concern is that if the public sector somehow came up
with extra funding, costs could magically rise to match that funding.
As for the CRL, I have always thought the price ($2.8b) to be gold-plated, with an additional new electric train fleet and a lot of other network costs thrown in.  So it’s not just about funding – we need to start looking hard at the costs. Perhaps when the time comes in 2020, hopefully earlier, we should encourage some of the big Chinese construction
firms to tender -  and get some competitive tension into our construction sector. Let me give an example of what I am talking about.  Early in 2011 the then Transport Minister Steven Joyce reviewed the regional plans for a second harbour crossing which we finalised in 2008.
The agreed option was a road/rail tunnel.  The Minister had the leading options costed.  The road/rail tunnel was costed
between NZ $4-$5b.  The cheaper option according to the minister was a second harbour bridge running parallel to the
existing harbour bridge. This cheaper option according to NZTA was costed at NZ$3-4b.  But if we look at the Millau bridge in France – the highest bridge in the world which is considered to be both an engineering and architectural masterpiece the cost was only $400m Euro equivalent to only NZ$660m.  The Millau bridge is 2.56km length – the Auckland
Harbour bridge is 1km in length.   Though this bridge was completed in 2005 there is still a vast difference to the construction price per km with NZ prices.  That’s just one indication from the first world about just how far NZ prices are out of whack with the world market.  Folks we are being ripped off.

There is another problem – the PM stated that if Auckland rail passenger demand increased to the required level, the government would advance its timetable closer to the Mayor’s preferred start date of 2015.
But currently public transport patronage (rail and bus) is
flat-lining.  This I believe is the consequence
of sharp fare increases – combined with continuing substandard punctuality. We need to remember we are in competition with the private car and fare increases
in this market are self-defeating.  We can still increase rail patronage by expanding weekend services, incentivising
off-peak travel, managing fare evasion (which has been recorded on occasions to have been near 10%) and opening new stations eg Parnell. And our new electric trains will be here soon. The Prime Minister has set Auckland a challenge to
increase rail patronage.  We should accept it.

An abridged version of this article appears in the August issue of Verve magazine.

 

Michael Lee

Auckland Councillor

For the Waitemata & Gulf Ward

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Unitary Plan – test of integrity

The Auckland Council draft unitary plan has drawn an enormous amount of submissions from concerned
Aucklanders – 22,700 in all.

But rather than pause to give public submissions the time and attention they deserve, the unitary plan process hurries on.  I and other councillors objected recently when the council political working party was led through public-excluded workshops by council managers, in which the views of selected
vested interests like Fletchers and the NZ Property Council were presented but not those of community organisations. I refer to the very sensitive public issues of building heights and volcanic cone view shafts.

I must confess to still being puzzled about what the mad rush is all about.

The official answer is that a million people will be turning up in Auckland by the year 2041.  To be fair 2041 is not exactly next year – it’s nearly 30 years away.  But even those projections are questionable.  The council is working on maximum growth projections but Watercare Services, the council-owned water and wastewater infrastructure provider is basing its planning on the medium growth scenario – and Auckland Transport - already struggling with an existing infrastructure deficit is questioning how Auckland ratepayers will be able to afford the cost of the transport infrastructure, on top of the CRL, needed for the high growth scenario.

All this does raise questions about the consequences of the unitary plan if council’s own agencies can’t achieve unity on the level of infrastructure needed.  An open-slather developer-driven Auckland which the council seems to be encouraging could leave Auckland with an even greater infrastructure deficit than we have now. An Auckland which for instance exceeds the carrying capacity of its water and sanitary services is not going to do much for our environment – or our quality of life.

So the council needs to get this right.  It would be sensible to wait for the national census figures to be released later this year to get the latest data on which to base future growth projections. This period should also be spent seriously
analysing the public’s submissions – to determine what Aucklanders really want for their city and their region.

I must say I have noticed a certain cavalier approach in the way the council deals with the public. The public is regularly assembled to provide applauding audiences for occasions like unitary plan launches and is called upon to write endless submissions (‘have your say’) – and is then dismissed. In other
words the council is in danger of treating the public like a crowd of Hollywood extras. This has to stop.

The way the Auckland Council deals with the 22,700 submissions from the people of Auckland will not only be a test of the integrity of the unitary plan but also the integrity of this council.

(As published in Verve Magazine July edition)

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Begging bylaw no ban – but step towards social responsibility

There has been a lot of heat and emotion about the issue of street begging in recent days – but unfortunately not much light.  So what is going on?

The proposed Public Safety and Nuisance Bylaw is designed to  replace  all the previous council bylaws with one; and because of the shared responsibilities, the new bylaw will be both an Auckland Council and Auckland Transport document.  The draft was released early this year for public consultation.

Public submissions closed in March and drew 117 submissions.  The council received responses on a wide variety of issues such as graffiti, glue-sniffing, vandalism in parks and public places.  Some of these issues came as a surprise.  For instance we received a surprisingly large number of submissions about conflicts caused by set-netting on northern beaches and surfcasting on Bucklands Beach – which had never previously been considered a nuisance or a hazard to public safety.  But lots of people in our communities think they are, and told the hearing panel so in no uncertain terms.

One issue of public concern though which came as no surprise was the issue of  begging.   In recent years this phenomenon has significantly increased, becoming more and more of a concern and a source of complaints from the public.  Especially so from mainstreet shopkeepers who say beggars permanently ensconced outside their doors are not only a nuisance but are putting off customers.  The legacy bylaws certainly dealt with begging or euphemistically termed equivalents but because of the way they were worded  they proved to be largely unenforceable.

The ineffectual wording of the old bylaws has been of concern to the police who tell us street begging is a problem which is linked with property crime, especially in the CBD.

The hearing panel therefore decided that along with all the other concerns brought to us by the public that this time we would try to do something meaningful to address  this and other  problems   – but in the most sensitive way possible.  Does this amount to banning begging – as the media and some critics have been saying? No.

The relevant bylaw clause in question is:

A person may not use a public place to: beg in a manner that may intimidate or cause a nuisance to any person.

The ‘qualifier’ (i.e. ‘in a manner that may intimidate or cause a nuisance to any person’) does not mean a total ban as alleged.  The council recognises that in some instances there are underlying issues as to why some members of our community are begging.  We are not interested in pursuing those who are passively begging but not causing any harm or nuisance.

However, what the new bylaw does mean that if begging – because of its location and/or duration, and the behaviour of the beggar – constitutes a nuisance or is aggressive ; and a member of the public makes a genuine complaint,  the council will now act on it.   The Council  compliance officers will talk to the beggar and ask them to leave. If necessary the beggar will be moved on from where he or she is causing a nuisance. Where the council ’s compliance officers identify an individual who needs help, assistance will be sought from the appropriate state agencies and charitable sector specialists, for counselling, medical treatment, income support and accommodation.

Recently council has utilised the New Beginnings Court to assist with individuals who have been on the streets for a number of years. Auckland City’s New Beginnings Court (Te Kooti o Timatanga hou), effectively a ‘Court within a Court’ operates out of the District Court at Auckland.

Established in 2010 the court is a pro-active multi-agency initiative aimed at dealing with persistent public place offenders, some who have continued to breach council bylaws, despite regular warnings and intervention. The court places them on programmes to address underlying issues and monitors their progress. The council intends to extend this practice to include persistent nuisance beggars under the proposed new bylaw. Without the bylaw there would be no opportunity to do this.

For too long the issue of begging has been ignored because councils have been unwilling to tackle the problem it seems due to well-meaning but misguided political pressure – this has effectively put the rights of beggars over the rights of citizens trying to make an honest living.

The process is by no means over – the draft bylaw will go before the Council Governing Body for final approval.  Hopefully the agreed provisions in the bylaw for socially responsible intervention to deal with the problem of street begging will remain intact.  Tossing a coin in the cup and walking on by is no longer a responsible option.

 

Michael Lee

Auckland Councillor

Chairman of the Public Safety & Nuisance Bylaw Hearing Panel.

Published in NZ Herald 9 July 2013.  See:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=10895520

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