Hard News by Russell Brown

Wellington Again

I crane my neck and look down the public gallery. Yes, it really is Brian Tamaki; slick-haired, chewing gum, at the centre of a cohort of burly, self-conscious men. The men on the outside are wearing radio earpieces - ready, presumably, to ward off assassination attempts and unexpected outbreaks of sodomy. I'm sure he thinks he appears cool and powerful, but it really looks like embarrassing play-acting. It's not threatening so much as a bit naff.

Like the rest of us, Brian is in the House for the debate on the second reading of the Civil Union Bill. His attention span isn't up to the job, however. About half an hour in, he gives the nod, like some rinky-dink mafia don, and departs with half his crew. I'm not sure what the remaining dudes are supposed to do now, apart from looking aghast and incomprehending at Georgina Beyer.

The galleries aren't full, but there's a reasonable crowd in: students, queers and Eltham from Shortland Street, who is attending with his Dad. They are clearly in favour of the bill. The fiftysomething Maori man sitting next to me clearly isn't. It's a little like sitting next to an opposition fan at a footy match, and it is surely one of the good things about New Zealand that we can rub shoulders this way.

My neighbour nods, murmurs assent and starts taking notes when Don Brash declares that hundreds of thousands "and indeed probably millions of New Zealanders" see the bill as an attack on the institution of marriage. And then palpably stops cold when Brash declares that if there were a referendum he'd vote in favour. My neighbour probably has a right to be confused.

In his speech, Stephen Franks constructs his familiar, unconvincing straw man, advancing the view that the "right to discriminate must be protected" before same-sex unions can be allowed. If that's what he wants, he should put up an amendment to the Human Rights Act where it might actually be relevant. Curiously, he doesn't cite a single instance of someone losing their right to discriminate now, and only the theoretical possibility of churches being forced to hire out their halls to civil unionising couples. It's a speech of remarkable intellectual dishonesty.

Beyer gives a rip-snorter of a speech, and is followed by the National MP for Rakaia, Brian Connell, who declares that the bill is actually "a recruiting drive" by the homosexual lobby. I have a why-am-I-listening-to-this-crap moment and decide I need some fresh air.

Paul calls me later to tell me the result: 65-55 in favour. "I'm up at the bar, trying to do some recruiting," he says. "But I'm afraid I'm not having much luck." I suggest he tries offering Fly-Buy points.

I'm at the opening drinks for Te Papa's 'Out on the Street' exhibition, which, in the familiar Te Papa style, is a mix of art, social history and domestic appliance. It's worth seeing although, like the associated conference, largely captured by the baby-boomers. I meet publisher, poet and critic Peter Simpson (father of bFM's Saturday morning co-host Steve) and we go and eat Malaysian with a couple of other interesting chaps.

Friday morning starts with a nicely-crafted long black at Felix, and then it's up to Radio New Zealand House for interviews with Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis and Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson about media scare stories on medical misadventure. (Two days later, the Herald on Sunday conflates three wholly different and unrelated such stories into a be-very-afraid lead yarn. Sigh …)

Afterwards, I head on over to New Zealand in the 1970s: A Decade of Change, for the film and TV session. Roger Horrocks' rundown on how we came to have a film industry - thank the druggies, weirdos and commune-dwellers, basically - is excellent.

He notes that in 1975 almost half the films submitted to the censor were either cut or banned outright. He also tells a story I'd forgotten: that when New Zealand's first gay feature film, Squeeze was in production in 1980, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards scared the government into passing a legislative amendment explicitly forbidding its support by the Film Commission. But I'm sure those liberal fascists had it coming, right?

Horrocks also notes that in the 1980s some of the protagonists took their "rebel attitudes" and justifiable suspicion of the public sector to the heart of the establishment, in the form of the post-1984 economic and social reforms.

The other lectures aren't as good; Trish Dunleavy's survey of the flourishing of New Zealand TV drama in the 1970s has fascinating subject matter but wants a bit for structure. I guess I'd rather hear the people who actually made the programmes talking about them. The last lecture does not, so far as I can tell, have anything to do with either film or television, so I nip out for lunch with Tom Frewen and Colin Peacock at Leuven, where the service is quite odd, in that it proves necessary to order every beer three times before it actually arrives.

Outside, Wellington is at play in the Sun. Colin and I pop into Quilter's bookshop in Lambton Quay, which turns out to be staffed by my old schoolmate Ross Humphries. Half the reason I'm in Wellington is to scour the bookshops for Great New Zealand Argument-type material (it seems easier than engaging with the libraries at this point) and I find a couple of gems, most notably Bookie, a "miscellany" published in an edition of 200 in 1948 by Christchurch's Nag's Head Press. The title is both a play on that of a similar work by the rival Caxton Press and a reference to the horseracing theme that crops up throughout. It's amusing and informative and I can't believe it's only $20.

I make contact with my friends Kerry and Simon and, as we usually do on the first day of any meeting, we drink far too much wine. The Hummingbird, Matterhorn and Anise all take our money in the course of the evening.

On Saturday morning, I ought to have gone down to the conference again, but instead we are headed for the cancer ward at Wellington hospital, which stands amid the rubble of the hospital site. Our friend Claire was a lover of all things bright and shiny, and when she died two years ago, she made her friends promise to come down and decorate the ward every Christmas.

I feel uneasy as we set foot on the stairs: a flashback, I think, to weeks spent in wards as a child. When we reach the ward, I can see why Claire found it a difficult place. It's hard not to catch the eyes of the gravely ill people who stay here; to note their pallour, to glimpse the sad, why-is-this-happening-to-me air about them.

I suddenly remember that my Dad spent some time here. I recall a dream I had when he was ill: that it was me that was dying and how strange and wholly desperate that felt. It's stuffy in the ward: they have to keep the windows shut to keep out the demolition dust.

Eight or ten of us gather and unravel last year's tinsel and trees from battered cardboard boxes. I get into the rhythm of decorating and before long the halls are decked with everything we have. It feels right to be doing this. A nice Scottish lady who has been here only a couple of days, joins in. "Who would have thought?" she says "That I'd be here for Christmas?"

Later on, we make the pilgrimage to Moore Wilson, and I carry on to the conference. I'm just in time to hear Will Ilolahia's memoir of the Polynesian Panthers, which is riveting. I had no idea what they did. He has some fantastic stories: the best of which concerns the early-morning visits by three units of the Panthers' "military wing" to the homes of three cabinet ministers to protest the dawn raids.

They turned up with whistles, lights and loud-hailers and demanded the occupants emerge to present their credentials for living in New Zealand. Will teed up Fred Botica at Hauraki to make an on-air call to the then Minister of Immigration, Frank Gill, while the unit was outside his house. Gill, rather fatefully, fumed: "How dare these people visit us at this ungodly hour!" Dawn raids ended three weeks later.

An intriguing end-note to the Panthers' story is its connection to today's hip-hop boom. The Rev Mua Strickson-Pua, who ran the Panthers' homework centres (the first such centres in the country) is the father of Feleti Strickson-Pua of Nesian Mystik. The Panthers' Minister of Culture was Tigi Ness, father of Che Fu. And Scribe's dad was a member of one of the Panthers' prison chapters.

I had actually been keen to attend the closing session to introduce myself to Alister Taylor, and talk about republishing some of his books online. But Taylor, set to deliver a lecture on 'Politics, Pornography and Protest' fails to show. So the conference is closed by lectures from Sue Kedgely and Sandra Coney on the rise of the women's liberation movement.

Coney is good value, and quite funny, but I choke on her declaration that she and her sisters were inspired by radical left movements elsewhere, including Castro's Cuba and, gulp, China's Cultural Revolution. I don't think I'd have been a Maoist or a Marxist back then, but I'm glad to have missed the opportunity. Punk rock seems a much more defensible galvanising force.

I've ended up missing quite a bit of the conference, including what sounded like an excellent lecture by Wystan Curnow (which did encompass punk rock), but you get that. I nip down to the Te Papa shop to buy Christmas presents for my mother and my sister, who lives in Australia, then catch a taxi back to Melrose for a barbecue. I make a green salad with shaved parmesan and a little arrangement of buffalo mozzarella, drizzling both with the gorgeous Awatere River olive oil I bought at Moore Wilson.

Sunday morning, I pack up and totter blearily down the hill to Martin and Anna's place to see the second-string All Blacks win a fairly engaging but somewhat meaningless match with the Barbarians, then get a lift down to the railway station.

On the train to Paraparaumu to see Mum, I listen to my iPod and read Bookie cover-to-cover, quietly chuckling and finding two parts I would like to use online. Wellington is always a journey of the mind. I take Mum to lunch and talk with her for a couple of hours at home before returning to the station, where a biting southerly is now tearing down the length of the platform.

By the time I get to the airport, the weather has become fierce. As our plane is being loaded, a full backpack is blown off the luggage cart and tumbles across the tarmac like an empty chillybin on a windy beach. Even when we board the plane, we sit for 20 unexplained minutes. Turns out the pilot is waiting for a lull in the southerly. It comes, and we belt up the runway into the headwind to make what seems like an uncommonly steep ascent. When I reach Auckland, hundreds of people are queuing. Flights to Wellington and Christchurch have been cancelled, and aren't expected to resume any time soon. We were the last ones out of Wellington.