Electric Trains in Auckland – here at last!

It’s been a long time coming, and believe me, it wasn’t easy getting there, but Auckland’s new electric trains have now entered service – opening a new era in Auckland’s history.   While Wellington’s rail electrification began in the late 1930s and Melbourne’s even earlier in the 1920s, electrifying Auckland rail proved to be much more difficult.  It was first proposed in the late 1940s, and then again in the early 1970s (Mayor Robinson’s ‘rapid rail’) but both these projects foundered for lack of government support.

It turned out to be 3rd time lucky.  Auckland’s third push for electrification began in the early 2000s.  As the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council from 2004-2010 I was involved in a long campaign to persuade first the Labour-led government to grant its support and then, after National came to power in late 2008, starting all over again to persuade them. This was a challenging, sometimes frustrating experience that certainly confirmed Arthur Schopenhauer’s words.

“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed.  Second it is violently opposed.  Third it is accepted as being self-evident.”

New EMUs at Britomart Station. A long time coming - but worth the struggle.

But we got there. Now looking to the future, Auckland’s new fleet of 57 EMUs (electric multiple units) will be a quantum leap forward for rail commuters, both in performance but also in comfort and design.  Built by the Spanish rail company Construcciones Y auxillar de Ferrocarriles (if that’s hard to say, call it ‘CAF”) after a world-wide tender, these trains are more powerful and much faster (maximum speed 110km per hour) than our present diesel fleet – allowing services to run more often and get travellers to their destinations quicker. Each 3-car unit (two motor cars and one trailer car) can carry 375 passengers. The new trains are also more environmentally friendly: energy-efficient, quieter, and produce no air pollution.  The central car has level boarding for pushchairs and wheelchairs and room for bikes. Regenerative braking will enable them to recover 20% of the electricity used.

These trains are going to be popular with Aucklanders.  As an indication five thousand people got a free ride after the official launch today, Sunday 27 April. The tickets were snapped up in a few hours after they became available early in April.

The first electric trains are now in service on the Onehunga Line (which is also a buzz given the long battle I had to get that line re-opened) and will be progressively put into service after completing their checks at Auckland Transport’s vast new high-tech depot at Wiri. Towards the end of this year they will be in service on the Eastern Line, running from Britomart via Orakei, Glen Innes and Panmure etc., to Manukau. Early next year it will be the turn of the Southern Line: Britomart to Papakura via Newmarket etc., followed by the Western Line, Britomart to Henderson, Swanson and all stations in between.  The project is a credit to Auckland Transport who bought the trains and to KiwiRail supported by the government who erected 80kms of wiring, masts, new signalling and a major amount of civil engineering to make it all happen. But many people played a critical role in this historic achievement. As I often said during the long campaign to secure central government support, new electric trains for Auckland will not only change Aucklanders’ attitudes to rail and public transport but also the way we think about our city.

Published in the May issue of Ponsonby News.


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Saving the Hunua kokako – speech at the 20th anniversary celebrations

It is an honour to be with you today, 20 years after the establishment of the Kokako Management Area in the Hunua Ranges, to share in the celebration of your great achievement.

As we know, about thirty years ago it became evident that the North Island kokako was critically endangered.  At that time a cohort of older birds – long-lived males – some of which had ‘paired’ amongst themselves – died off, thereby unmasking that the numbers of breeding birds were actually very low. So low that populations were nearly unsustainable.  Many of them were unsustainable and some disappeared almost overnight.

My personal role in this long difficult project was actually quite easy because the decision to actively protect the Hunua kokako was (rather unusually) a political initiative.

I was elected to the former Auckland Regional Council (ARC) in a by-election in early 1992 – the most junior member in the 28-member body that was in effect still the old Auckland Regional Authority.  As a result of the local government reforms of that year – a new 13 member ARC was elected at the elections in October and in a few months I went from being the most junior member of the Council to being chairman of the Regional Parks Committee.  The Auckland Regional Parks Service was one of the most prestigious in New Zealand local government at that time – built up over many years by the famous Phil Jew, its General Manager.

As an active Forest & Bird member, I was aware of the plight of the kokako and I was also mindful of the special conservation values of the Hunua Ranges.  As Sir Charles Fleming once put it, one of those ‘skylines of native forest, that represents the mystery and adventure of the unknown to every youngster on farm or suburban homes.’

I was also aware of the recent breakthrough success achieved at Mapara State Forest by Department of Conservation (DOC) field scientists Phil Bradfield, Phil Thomson and Hazel Speed and John Innes of Landcare Research.  Together they pioneered by ‘research by management’ the ‘mainland island’ concept, protecting kokako nests (and everything else) from possums, rats and stoats, with grids of bait stations and traps.

At my first meeting with Phil Jew late in 1992, I raised the question of the Hunua kokako and asked for a report on their status. I followed this up with a letter (there being no such things as emails in those days).  As it happened a kokako survey took place in the Ranges a few weeks later, the participants a combination of ARC rangers, DOC people, OSNZ members and volunteers.

A report on the survey was written up by Parks scientist Brenda Green in time for the March 1993 Parks Committee agenda.  The report confirmed the serious decline in kokako numbers (very accurately as it turned out) to less than 30 birds.  The report concluded in the standard way ‘a.) that the report be received.’ At my meeting with the General Manager to go over the agenda, I decided to add a ‘b.) that the Regional Parks Service intervenes to actively protect the kokako’.   This drew raised eyebrows from Phil Jew who explained that protecting endangered species was DOC’s responsibility – not the ARC’s.  But he accepted it in good grace – being the great public servant that he was

The recommendation was duly passed at the meeting of the Parks Committee.  I said my role was easy.  To be honest, given its far-reaching implications this was one of the easiest decisions I have achieved in politics. There was no serious opposition, no heart-stopping, knife-edge votes that I was to experience for instance with the regional parks acquisitions of that era. I just pushed on the door and it swung wide open. To this day, any local government being actively involved in endangered species management is very unusual.  In fact I believe the role of the ARC – now Auckland Council – in this field is quite unique.

Armed with this political decision Brenda Green was able to gain the support of DOC for the project – a successful relationship that has lasted to this day.   So far, so easy.  But to put the concept into effect was quite another matter.  There were major problems to overcome which required an enormous amount of hard, physical work. The remaining kokako were located in the highest part of the Hunua Ranges around Mount Kohukohunui – one of the highest parts of the upper North Island.  It was a 2 hour walk up from the nearest dirt road to even get to the area.

The environment was difficult, especially in winter when freezing mist can hamper visibility (it is very easy to get lost in the Hunuas). The logistics were challenging to say the least – much more difficult than for instance at Mapara State Forest.  Worse the scientists were to find there was only one breeding pair of kokako left.  We had stepped in, just in the nick of time.

In order to create the necessary grid of hundreds of bait stations and traps, a network of tracks had to be cut, the main track up had to be progressively rebuilt, in parts to the stage of a boardwalk, with benching and wooden risers.

But fortunately there were people willing, indeed passionate about doing this work.  Here I want to thank the ARC park rangers, especially Hugh Downham, who dedicated himself to this mission for years. It was Hugh who carried out much of the back-breaking task of lugging up the wood to rebuild the track and camp sites.  Hugh had the full support of his bosses, the late Peter Rowberry, and Manager Southern parks, Tony Oliver. Also I want to thank the volunteers, especially Rosemary Gatland who was soon joined by Tony Woodroofe.  Together these two worked tirelessly with Hugh to create the Kokako Management Area.  Also I want to acknowledge Oliver Overdike from DOC. In 1995, Dr Tim Lovegrove came from Auckland University to head up the project working closely with Hazel Speed of DOC.

The story of how the project played out over these years is referred to in a section (written by Tim), in Graeme Murdoch’s wonderful ‘Dreamers of the Day – a history of Auckland’s regional parks’. The details of the science, reintroductions to achieve critical mass, egg exchanges to enhance genetic diversity, experiments with sound-anchoring etc., are in the many unpublished reports written by Tim and Hazel for the Council and DOC.

Now 20 years on, over 100 kokako chicks have fledged and there are now over 30 breeding pairs. The project is well on target to achieve its objective of 50 breeding pairs by 2020.  But the KMA has also had much wider environmental benefits for the Hunua Ranges, restoring previously damaged ecological processes and enhancing a wide range of fauna and flora including bellbirds, North Island tomtits, long-tailed bats and Hotchstetters frog.

I am  glad to say the project is in the best of hands, with Su Sinclair taking over from Tim and Dave Bryden the new on-site manager.

The 20-year collaboration of Council and DOC has been an outstanding success – and it needs to go on.

Rather like the Hunua kokako, regional government in Auckland has been through rather challenging times. Similarly the Department of Conservation has had its own difficulties with budget cuts and major re-structuring.  We are not through these challenging times yet.

This should not be a reason to retreat into our shells.  We need to keep the vision alive and the programmes advancing.  Keep in mind that while official thinking has its phases and fashions – the public is always on our side when it comes to conservation.

We therefore need to think how we might extract best conservation value from the labour and money already invested in these projects.   That is why I welcome the proposed introduction of brown kiwi into the Hunuas. I think we also need to focus more on the future and what happens after we achieve our goals here.  Do we expand the Kokako Management Area from its present 1050 ha.  Or do we set up more secondary zones like the one we are in now. Or do we diversify and translocate to other areas, areas such as Motutapu-Rangitoto – or even Tawharanui.

I make a plea for the consideration of all of these options.  There are two good reasons to do so.   First we need to capitalise on the investment already made in creating existing pest free areas and, secondly, reintroductions of birds like the kokako capture the public imagination and public support for conservation is our greatest ally.

So, leaving you with those thoughts, let me thank you all again.  Everyone here today has made a contribution to this success.  You know and I know just how significant this achievement has been.  It is our great privilege to be involved in such a campaign that changed the course of history.   If anyone doubts this, we should remember that there were two populations of kokako in the Auckland region 20 years ago – not one. Apart from the Hunuas, there was a population of kokako in northern Great Barrier Island.  Monitoring throughout the 1960s and 1970s revealed broadly similar numbers of birds in both population and a similar rate of decline.    We should not be in any doubt, had we not taken a stand and intervened 20 years ago – what happened at Great Barrier would have happened here – local extinction.

So we have just cause for celebration – you know and I know that we made a difference here – and such achievements makes life fulfilling.

See: https://www.facebook.com/Hunua.kokako




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Unitary Plan’s parallel iwi consent system causing dis-unity.

As we know the Unitary Plan was rushed through the Council last year with extraordinary speed.   Little or no time was given to consider the huge amount of public feedback – nor did the Council officers allow discussion on the serious criticism of the draft plan by legal reviewers.  In fact they went to some lengths to conceal its existence absurdly claiming it to be ‘confidential to management.’

But there are always consequences to such haste, and one of the more serious is now starting to emerge.  The revelation that the Council in adding 3600 sites of ‘cultural and heritage value to Maori’ to the 60 or so previously accepted sites, without first confirming their precise location or even their archaeological merits, is starting to cause concern.  As Brian Rudman pointed out in his recent Herald column, this will impact on potentially thousands of Auckland properties located with 300 metres of such sites.  I’m all for heritage protection but this seems a bit extreme, especially when you contrast it to the Council’s cavalier attitude to the demolition of 19th century villas.

What is even more concerning, is that rather than going to the Council for a consent, the householder living within proximity of these sites now has to first seek permission from an iwi authority to obtain a ‘Cultural Impact Assessment’ before the Council will do anything.  Given there are 19 iwi now claiming manawhenua over Auckland, you can get an idea of the potential cost and inconvenience to residents.  The Council is now trying to head off the growing public backlash by hiring ‘facilitators’ to act as go-betweens between the public and iwi.

While the issue is getting coverage in the media, the full story has yet to come out.   What most people don’t realise is that also affected are properties within or near Auckland’s many and extensive Significant Ecological Areas (SEA’s).  These residents too have to first obtain ‘Cultural Impact Assessments’ from iwi before they can get resource consents for work around their properties.  One of the many criteria iwi will be assessing is whether your driveway job, vegetation clearance or earthworks is consistent with the ‘principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.’

What the Council has done is to sneak through what is in effect a parallel RMA authority in Auckland based on race.   This creates a precedent that could have important future consequences.

Already resource management law experts like Professor Ken Palmer are challenging the legality of ‘Cultural Impact Assessments’, but the fact is these new provisions are now in force.   Unless the Auckland Council reverses them, these provisions of the ‘Unitary Plan’ are likely to become a source of major social dis-unity in Auckland.

Published in the April edition of Verve Magazine.


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The plight of the South island kokako – extinction by arm-chair?

This month for once I want to get as far away as possible from local city issues – and travel to the remote deep forests of the west coast of the South Island, where the South Island kokako has long been considered to be extinct – suffering the same fate of its cousin the huia, that most remarkable and beautiful of birds.   Hunted for the price of its beautiful feathers (previously the preserve of high chiefs) by both pakeha and Maori, the last official sighting of the huia was in 1907.

The huia belonged to New Zealand’s ancient family of wattlebirds (Callaediae) as does the kokako. The North Island kokako – was highly endangered (in the 80s I used to have a ‘Save the kokako’ sticker on the rear window of my car), but is now on the road to recovery.

Late last year, like a lot of other bird lovers I was thrilled to hear that a sighting of the South Island kokako had been officially accepted by the prestigious ‘Records Appraisal Committee’ of the Ornithological Society of NZ. I will quote from the December issue of its journal Notornis.


South Island kokako (Callaeas cinerea)

One seen among red beech/rimu forest at Rainy Creek, Upper Inangahua Valley, Reefton, on 21 & 22 Mar 2007.

On 21 March 2007 at 0945 hours Len Turner heard a call he described as a haunting resonating call (“an eerie call like an Aboriginal wailing”) that he had not heard before. About 15 minutes later he saw at close range (10-15 metres) an unusual bird with the following description. The plumage of the bird was steely grey with a bluish tinge. Most distinct were the wattles on the sides of its bill. The base of the wattles was a deep matt blue and the remainder (the larger part) ochre (“fleshy orange-brown”). The bird appeared to be curious, looking at Len, turning its head from side to side. He viewed the bird for about 30 seconds then it glided away with some heavy dull wing flapping. Len noted the rounded edge of the wings in flight, and described the flight as clumsy.

Further evidence of the presence of kokako was obtained the following day when Peter Rudolf (an experienced North Island kokako observer ) and Len re-visited the site...’

This was stunning news but after my initial euphoria I realised that this sighting actually took place in March 2007 – nearly seven years ago.  My question is, how has the Department of Conservation responded to this information? Given the number of previously inconclusive sightings of this bird, should there not be a contingency plan for circumstances like this that the director-general of Conservation could pull out of his filing cabinet? One would imagine an emergency panel of scientists and expert field workers would then be convened to decide on the details of intervention with emergency conservation measures.  Kokako are not strong fliers and are normally long-lived.  So if this bird, or birds, managed to survive the pests that infest our forests it should be still in the area where it was seen.

The answer seems to be that DOC which has suffered funding cuts and been obsessed for years with corporate restructuring, has done nothing.  In fact from the reaction of its spokespeople, as one journalist remarked, one gets the impression that it almost hopes the South Island kokako is extinct.   As one scientist suggested that this is type of apathy is tantamount to ‘killing the birds off from our armchairs.’ Let’s hope DOC’s new director-general who has a noted field conservation background can make a difference here.

The Huia - the royal bird of the Maori. Last official sighting 1907. (Painting by Paul Martinson in 'New Zealand Extinct Birds' by Brian Gill & Paul Martinson

The extinction of the huia remains a dark stain on the history of this nation – though the government officials at the time, unlike today, had meagre scientific knowledge to go on, their efforts to save the huia over a 100 years ago were bumbling, inept – and too late.   The South Island kokako, should it still exist, is part of New Zealand’s and the world’s priceless natural heritage – we are all responsible for its survival.  The tragic fate of the huia should not be allowed to be repeated on our watch.

As published in Ponsonby News (March 2014 edition).


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Time to end the undeclared ‘civil war’ between motorists and cyclists

The terrible accident in which 37 year old cyclist John Tangiia was killed by a truck at the Parnell Rise, Stanley Street intersection early in January put the issue of cycling safety squarely back on the agenda. Mr Tangiia’s was the 8th death from cycling in Auckland in the last five years.

Ironically the year 2013 ended on a something of a high for cycling in Auckland.  At the last meeting of the Council before Christmas – we resolved to proceed to the next stage of developing the exciting Auckland Harbour Bridge walking and cycling project – SkyPath.

Apart from the awful family tragedy – the recent accident has had a depressing effect on everyone involved in cycling in Auckland – myself as well.

Last year cycle advocates Audrey and Chris van Ryn lent me a fold-down bike in the hope that I would use it.  Well I have.  In fact I have found it invaluable – especially when the meetings started coming thick and fast before Christmas; enabling me to whiz about the city; dashing from my office at Graham Street to meetings at the Town Hall and Civic Building; then down Queen Street for meetings at Auckland Transport and often down to the waterfront for meetings there.

I used to be somewhat nervous about cycling in the city but familiarity has brought increasing confidence.  Indeed I have found it quite exhilarating. But John Tangaiia’s terrible accident has rekindled memories of the shocking death of Jane Bishop (both were crushed under the wheels of trucks) and is a reminder to all of us how unsafe Auckland roads can be for cyclists.The question of safety has always been a sensitive point with cycle advocates – some felt talking up the danger was likely to turn people off cycling – but Jane Bishop’s death changed all that. Cycling in Auckland has all sorts of benefits for personal health and for society – but yes it can be dangerous – unacceptably so.   The figures tell the story. In 2012 there was one cyclist killed and 205 injured in Auckland. Nationally there were eight killed and 828 injured.  There were 53 cycling fatalities across New Zealand in the five years from 2009 to 2013.  This is an unacceptable casualty rate and it’s time we did something about it.  In the wake of the latest tragedy there has been the inevitable finger-pointing and buck-passing, including thinly-veiled criticism of cyclists.  Indications of an unhelpful ‘them and us’ attitude between cyclists and motorists – and even worse unhelpful comments by transport officials who should know better but still don’t get it.

There is no need for a blame game here. The fact is public transport isn’t the only mode that has suffered from decades of officialdom’s excessive focus on highways and roads – and the result is Auckland has a major deficit in cycling infrastructure.  As Ralph Buehler and John Pucher pointed out in the journal Transportation:

The presence of off-road bike paths and on-street bike lanes are, by far, the biggest determinant of cycling rates in cities. And that’s true even after you control for a variety of other factors like how hot or cold a city is, how much rain falls, how dense the city is, how high gas prices are, the type of people that live there, or how safe it is to cycle.’

Dedicated bike paths are a key element in Generation Zero’s contribution to the Campaign for Better Transport and Auckland Transport Blog’s visionary ‘Congestion Free Network’. And cycle lanes are an exciting feature of the Waitemata Local Board’s draft Ponsonby Road Master Plan.  I have already mentioned SkyPath, Waterfront Auckland is building the Westhaven Promenade bike path and NZTA has built the Grafton Gulley bike path.  Auckland Transport planned to build 22 km of bike paths in years 2013/2014 but so far only 7km has been built and the important Beach Road connector is behind schedule.  Auckland Transport is also working on ways to improve safety on Auckland’s (dangerous for cyclists) Tamaki Drive – especially the Ngapipi Drive intersection.  But clearly it’s too little and it’s all too slow.  Auckland is well behind most international cities in its provision of cycling infrastructure and has even fallen behind Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.  We need a quantum change in the way we allocate spending for motor vehicles and bikes.  Dedicated bike paths are the best way to end the  undeclared ‘civil war’ between cars and trucks and bikes – and it will make cycling in Auckland a whole lot safer too.

As published in Ponsonby News February 2014

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Facing up to history – 2013 and the year of anniversaries

As the year 2013 hurries to its close it is worth noting how many important historic anniversaries occurred this year.  It is also interesting to note that we chose to ignore most of them.  But does this amnesia help foster national maturity? Our current attitude to history brings to mind the words of the Roman Cicero – ‘to live in ignorance of the transactions of the past – is to always live as a child’

Perhaps the most significant anniversary was that of the New Zealand Wars invasion of the Waikato 150 years ago.  On 12 July 1863 the British General Duncan Cameron leading his troops south from Auckland crossed the Mangatawhiri River into the lands of the Maori King.  On 20 November the first major battle in the war began at Rangiriri with heavy casualties on both sides.  The rows of graves of many of the fallen are still there within earshot of the traffic on State Highway 1. The invasion was followed by the confiscation of some 12,000 km² of Maori land. In 1995 the New Zealand government as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement signed by the Queen conceded that the 1863 invasion was wrong, apologised for its actions and committed to paying compensation.

Given those sensitivities it is understandable (but probably not healthy) that the the government chose not to commemorate this event. If the New Zealand Wars were in some ways the New Zealand equivalent of the American Civil War (which was taking place at the same time) there were other resonances.

This year also saw the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in New Zealand.  The proclamation of manumission by the New Zealand government in 1863 freeing all slaves was aimed at Maori tribes then considered to be in rebellion against the Crown. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi had theoretically outlawed slavery in 1840 – but slavery had persisted, especially amongst the Taranaki tribes which had invaded the Chathams in the 1830s.  This anniversary of this little-known historical event not surprisingly also passed without acknowledgement.

November was also the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great Maritime Strike – a social upheaval which came close to civil war – this time a civll war between Pakeha.  In 1913 the newly-elected conservative Reform government led by a hardline Ulsterman William Massey set out to crack down on the unions – especially those associated with the militant ‘red’ Federation of Labour. In Waihi industrial unrest in 1912 had led to violence in which a unionist had been beaten to death.  In 1913 the sacking of miners at Huntly provoked a wave sympathy strikes.  The government in response recruited thousands of mounted ‘special constables’ mainly from the countryside (South Auckland and the Waikato in Auckland’s case) to suppress the strikers. On 8 November 800 mounted specials  armed with batons and revolvers – dubbed by the strikers ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ – invaded the working class suburbs of inner Auckland, cleared Quay street of picketers and seized control of the wharves.  Similar events took place in Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin.  This triggered a nationwide general strike. Royal navy warships appeared in Auckland and Wellington harbours. Bluejackets drilled with fixed bayonets. Machine guns were set up.

In Auckland 7000 unionists downed tools, trams stopped running, hotel staff walked out – even jockeys and paper boys struck. When the word got out that the specials had been issued with revolvers – the gunsmith shops in Auckland and Wellington were emptied (firearms not being licensed in those days).  Rather than being intimidated residents from the working class suburbs of Ponsonby and Freemans Bay fought pitched street battles with farmers from the Waikato. There was a great deal of violence, including shooting from both sides.  While there were many woundings and broken bones – miraculously no one was killed. In Wellington while the trams did not go on strike, nevertheless specials were thrown off trams if they tried to board. Tram drivers if they saw mounted horsemen anywhere near the tracks charged, bells clanging. Council workers refused to clean the mounting piles of horse droppings from the street. One of the special’s horses dropped dead and when the Cossacks thoughtfully donated it to the zoo to feed the lions – zoo workers refused to handle it.  Inevitably the government prevailed. But as Barry Gustafson wrote in Michael King’s History of New Zealand the use of and the brutality of the special constables ‘poisoned relations between town and country and helped polarise New Zealand politics for a generation’. That being said two of the Auckland strike leaders Michael Joseph Savage of O’Neill Street, Ponsonby and Peter Frazer across Freemans Bay in Hobson Street rose to become Labour prime ministers of New Zealand.

While Wellington commemorated the Great Maritime Strike with balance and objectivity – and a certain amount of flare (there were re-enacted street battles between ‘cossacks’ and ‘red feds’) Auckland chose to ignore it.  That is save for a one-sided dumbed-down tribute to Massey’s Cossacks’ (on Queens Wharf of all places!) headed ‘Who loves a scrap?’.  I am now working with Waterfront Auckland, the Maritime Museum and Trade Union historian Dean Parker to achieve a more balanced and considered interpretation.  Ironically it was the outbreak of the Great War in July 1914 that helped bring the country back together again.  But at what cost.  Next year will see the centenary of the beginning of the Great War. Thankfully preparations are well in train at both central government and local government level including service organisations like the RSA to ensure these events, which were so important to New Zealand and for so many New Zealand families, will be properly commemorated.  In doing this I am confident only good can come of it.

(and to commemorate another anniversary, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago see: http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2013/11/november-in-dallas-farewell-to-the-20th-century-mike-lee-concludes-his-1999-political-travelogue/)

This article published in the December issue of Ponsonby News


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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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