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The Free-market, Hyper-individualism… and a Culture of Cruelty?

15 July 2018 3 comments

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Up till recently, I had believed that there were two facets comprising to create a  neo-liberal economy (not “society” – neo-liberalism does not recognise community or society where individuals organise for a greater collective good).

The first was a free market predicated on minimal regulation; reduced government; greater reliance of private enterprise to deliver services; and a lower tax-take which forces future left-leaning governments to curtail vital infra-structure and social-spending.

As Coalition Finance Minister, Grant Robertson clearly told the told the country in March this year;

“We’ve put aside $42bn over the next four years for capital investment but you know what? It won’t be enough. We understand that we need to take a more innovative approach to the financing of infrastructure.”

Which was well understood by National’s former Finance Minister, Steven Joyce,  when he accused Labour of a so-called “$11.7 billion fiscal hole” in their pre-election costings.

National’s tax cuts of 2009 and 2010 were not just an election bribe at a time the country could ill afford them – they were a strategic move to constrain a future Labour-led government in a tight fiscal straight-jacket.

Then-Finance Minister, Bill English, said that the 2009 tax cut represented a $1 billion loss of revenue to the National government;

“About 1.5 million workers will receive a personal tax cut, injecting an extra $1 billion into the economy in the coming year.”

The following year, National’s tax would be estimated to cost the State at least $2 billion in lost revenue.

This was well-under-stood by commentators, analysts, politicians. National-leaning John Armstrong explained this in straight-forward terms;

The message is Labour – if it wins – is not going to spend money the new Government will not have…

… is not going to make promises in advance he cannot keep.

[…]

The yawning chasm of the Budget deficit meant there was no new money to spend. Some cherished policies would have to be introduced progressively – rather than in one go. Savings would have to be found; sacrifices would have to be made. And so on.

That was penned by Mr Armstrong in 2011. It still holds true today.

The second facet of neo-liberalism is promulgation and amplification of the Cult of the Individual. Whether this means cheaper imported goods at the expense of local industry and jobs; doing away with retailing restrictions (or even planned, deliberate breaking of the law); easier access to alcohol and subsequent social impacts; the primacy of the Individual’s rights for self-interest and gratification would trump communities expectations of collective  responsibility; social cohesion; the health and wellbeing of the population, and the greater good.

For example, attempts by communities to restrict and reign in plentiful availability of cheap alcohol is usually  met with a predictable vocal chorus of indignant outrage from people for whom the Right To Buy When/Where-ever supercedes any societal problems. The most spurious arguments are presented, attempting to portray consumers as hapless “victims” of “bureaucracy-gone-made”. Or “Nanny statism”.

Yet, the cost of alcohol abuse was estimated to be approximately $5.3 billion in 2016. That’s $5.3 billion that could have been invested in education, health, public transport,  housing, conservation and pest control, increased research in green technologies, etc.

The heavy  costs of alcohol abuse is socialised, whilst profits are privatised to business and their shareholders. For many, it is more important to be able to buy a drink at 4am in the morning than social problems arising from easy availability.  For some individuals, that convenience outstrips whatever harm is occurring elsewhere. “It’s not my problem”, is the thought that often runs through the minds of many who demand their rights – regardless of consequences.

But there is a third aspect – like a third leg to a three-legged stool – that must exist if neo-liberalism is to thrive: Cruelty.

A certain amount of callousness; disdain; and outright hatred must replace  compassion, egalitarianism, and a sense of community cohesion if the neo-liberal version of “society” is to operate successfully.

It is the reason why neo-liberalism never took hold in Scandinavian countries.

It is the reason why – once a foothold was gained in the late 1980s – successive governments ensured the neo-liberal model was maintained in this country.

Almost by definition, neo-liberalism cannot operate in a society which has values diametrically opposed to it. It took an “economic crisis” in 1984/85 for the Lange-led Labour government to impose Rogernomics.

In 1991, Ruth Richardson used the “BNZ Crisis” to implement drastic cuts to health, education and welfare. Housing NZ tenants were forced to pay market rents. User-pays was introduced for hospitals and schools – though the public resisted and ignored the $50/nightly charge for public hospitals.

Neo-liberalism could not have been introduced so easily without the convenient constructs of various so-called “economic crises”. The mainstream media at the time was complicit in the “reforms” sweeping every aspect of New Zealand’s cultural, social, and economic activity.

But once introduced, the speed of so-called “reforms” accelerated and opposition became harder. Mass protests seemingly had little or no effect. The change of government in 1990 from Labour to National only made matters worse – Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” plunged the country further into recession.

For the following thirty years, the neo-liberal paradigm ruled unchallenged, with perhaps the rear-guard action from the now-defunct Alliance, and a few stubborn media commentators who still asked uncomfortable questions where we were heading as a country.

By 2002, the Alliance was crippled and forced out of Parliament.

The remaining critical voices of media commentators grew fewer and fewer.

The “revolution” was all but complete. Neo-liberalism was bedded-in, supported by a propertied Middle Class feeling “wealthy” with bloated house-values and bribed with seven tax cuts since 1986.

But all was not well in Neo-liberal Nirvana.

There were embarrassing reminders that the notion of “trickle down” – now repudiated by the New Right as an ‘invention’ by the Left – was not working as per expectations of devotees of the Chicago School model. As Budget Director for the Reagan Administration, David Stockman, said;

“It’s kind of hard to sell ‘trickle down, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really ‘trickle down.’ Supply-side is ‘trickle-down’ theory.”

It became apparent that the promises of neo-liberalism were largely faith-based. Enormous social problems were being caused as corporate power increased;  union power waned; wages stagnated; wealth drained away to a tiny minority; and simple things like home ownership rates were falling dramatically.

Tellingly, it was the gradual loss of the great Kiwi Dream of home ownership that was a litmus test-paper for the toxicity of neo-liberalism’s false premises and empty promises.

Ironically, this was happening at a time when mortgage money was easier and cheaper to obtain from the banks. But only if you earned a high income or already owned property to borrow against. Or could rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Those who already had the assets could hope to get more.

Those at the bottom, or struggling middle classes, would miss out.

For many, they discovered that hitting rock-bottom wasn’t as low as you could go. For growing numbers of New Zealanders, “bottom” meant a shredded welfare safety-net  that had gaping holes in it under the National government;

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Added to a mounting housing crisis, various National ministers exploited every opportunity to portray the poor; the homeless; the chronically sick; unemployed; young people; in the worst possible light. They were authors of their own misfortune, according to former PM, John Key;

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National’s Bill English disdain for young unemployed was made abundantly clear on several occasions;

In 2016;

“ A lot of the Kiwis that are meant to be available [for farm work] are pretty damned hopeless. They won’t show up. You can’t rely on them and that is one of the reasons why immigration’s a bit permissive, to fill that gap… a cohort of Kiwis who now can’t get a license because they can’t read and write properly and don’t look to be employable, you know, basically young males.”

Last year;

“ One of the hurdles these days is just passing a drug test. Under workplace safety you can’t have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can’t pass that test.”

And again in December this year;

Government’s fees-free policy will ‘soak up staff out of McDonald’s’...”

English’s demonisation of unemployed and young New Zealander’s appeared at complete variance with those same people desperate for paid work. But that did not make him pause in his attacks.

Housing for the poor, the homeless, and vulnerable was also on National’s “hit list”, as they pursued their agenda to down-size state activity in housing.

First came the “reviews” and people’s live upended as National ended tenancies based on an ideological notion that state houses were not for life. The social problems resulting would be euphemistically known later as “unintended consequences”;

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National’s response was predictable,

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Therein lay their own seeds for electoral  defeat three years later.

In the years that followed, National portrayed welfare beneficiaries and Housing NZ tenants as negatively as they could possibly get away with.

The meth-hysteria portrayed HNZ tenants as hopeless, lazy drug fiends. National was only too happy to fan the flames of demonisation, as it allowed National to evict tenants and sell off state houses.  Their policy in September last year was unequivocal, and linked gangs and drugs, with Housing NZ tenants;

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The press statement above was issued by former welfare beneficiary-turned-National Minister, Paula Bennett. The same Paula Bennett who, only eight months later, lamented on Radio NZ;

“I’ve always had concerns… I just didn’t think that the 0.5 [microgram limit] sounded right. I questioned [the Health Ministry] in particular who had set that standard, questioned Housing NZ numerous times, got the Standards Authority involved.”

She suggested tenants should be compensated. That was ‘big’ of her.

She also stated,

“[I] was horrified that people might be smoking P in houses, I’m not going to shy away from that.

Then I started seeing reports and I remember one in particular from an expert – he said, ‘You can just about get more P residue off a $5 note than you could have at some of these houses with 0.5 micrograms’ and so that raised alarm bells for me.

But … then who am I to be standing in and saying at what level I felt that [the limit] should be?”

Maybe she could have asked Sir Peter Gluckman. He was the government’s Science Advisor at the time. The one appointed by John Key. Yeah, that one.

Or, she could have paid more attention to a 2014 MSD report which revealed a staggeringly low rate of drug-use amongst welfare beneficiaries;

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Yeah, that one!

But that would have gotten in the way of National’s cunning plan.

Plans that drove thousands of welfare rolls, as Key’s administration struggled to balance the government’s books after two unaffordable tax cuts in 2009 and 2010;

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In September 2017, on TV3’s ‘The Nation‘,  then Welfare Minister, Anne Tolley, described National’s drive to reduce welfare recipients in the most Orwellian way;

“But we do have a significant number of people who are looking for work, who are capable of working, and so most of them, it’s just a light touch to help them along the way.”

In the same interview, Lisa Owen challenged Minister Tolley on the fate of welfare beneficiaries who had been pushed off welfare. Minister Tolley admitted that she and the National government had no idea what had happened to the thousands of people, including families with children;

Lisa Owen: How do you know that they’re going on to a better life?

Tolley: Look, there’s a whole lot of people that don’t want the state in their lives. Tracking people is awful. They go off the benefit—

[…]

Anne Tolley: They go off the benefit for a whole variety of reasons.

Lisa Owen: How can you claim success, though, for that when you don’t actually know if they’re earning more money than they were on the benefit—?

Anne Tolley: We do track if they come back on to benefit, and we do have a close look at what has happened. As I say, we do do a lot of training. We do provide a lot of opportunities for people to retrain.

Lisa Owen: But you don’t know what’s happening to those people. You’ve got no idea.

Anne Tolley: We have 44% who self-identify to us that they’re going off into work. You know, people go overseas. They age into superannuation. There’s a whole lot of reasons why.

Lisa Owen: All right, so you don’t know.

Thankfully, former PM John Key was more forthcoming in 2011 that New Zealand’s “under class” was growing.

As National ramped up it’s campaign of  denigration and punitive action against welfare beneficiaries and Housing NZ tenants, compliant State organisations were reaping their victims.

One was forced to suicide;

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One was a victim of damp housing and poverty-related disease;

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One was chased for a welfare debt she could have no chance of repaying – but MSD pursued it “in case she won Lotto“;

MSD was trying to recover approximately $120,000 from a chronically-ill beneficiary in her 50s who will never be able to work again. The Ministry has pursued her for years and spent a large amount on the case, even though it is plain the woman has no money and her health will never allow her to work again.

The judge asked the Crown lawyer whether it was worth continuing to pursue the beneficiary.

The lawyer responded that it was, as the beneficiary might win Lotto and would then be able to repay the money.

And the most recent example of victimising the homeless simply defies comprension;

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Homeless men at the “drop-in centre” were shaken awake through the night every half hour.

All because the facility was not compliant with fire and building consents. To it’s credit the Rotorua Lakes Council said “fire and building consents were being rushed through so people could sleep at the shelter“.

But Mr Deane – the organisor of the facility ” was told yesterday [5 July] that they had to remain awake until the necessary  consents were granted”.

The common term for this is sleep deprivation.

It should not be forgotten that the practice of sleep deprivation was one of the five techniques used by the British government against Northern Irish citizens arrested in 1971. Subsequently, in January 1978, in a case taken by the government of Ireland against Great Britain, in the the European Court of Human Rights, ruled that the five techniques – including sleep deprivation – “did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture … [but] amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment“.

Sleep deprivation was determined to be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2010, the British government lost a Court appeal to prevent public release of a report revealing the practice of sleep deprivation torture had been used against British resident, Binyam Mohamed. The Court judgement stated;

“The treatment reported, if it had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom would clearly have been in breach of  [a ban on torture].

Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could be readily contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of BM by the United States authorities.”

In 2014, the UN committee against torture condemned the United States for allowing sleep deprivation to be used as a torture technique against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The United States governments calls such practices “enhanced interrogation”.

To discover that sleep deprivation is being used against homeless men in New Zealand is disturbing.

To realise that a practice considered torture by various international organisations has barely been reported by the mainstream media – is deeply troubling.

We have reached rock-bottom as a society when people are being subjected to “a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment” – simply because they are homeless.

This is the definition of  abuse against the vulnerable: they are unable to fight back because they are utterly powerless.

If this practice of sleep deprivation was carried out in our prisons, there would be a major Royal Commission of Inquiry.

But not when the subject of this abuse is the homeless. Their powerlessness is worse than men and women incarcerated in our prisons, despite being “free”.

The cruelty shown to our welfare beneficiaries; to Housing NZ tenants; and to the homeless, has been sanctioned by a sizeable ‘chunk’ of our population;

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(2008) (2011) (2014) (2017)

Fully a quarter of the country’s population has continued to endorse the National Party at four consecutive general elections.

What does this say about a quarter of the population’s attitude to what has amounted to a campaign of vilification and  denigration against those at the bottom of our social-economic ‘ladder’ – a campaign that has been skillfully carried out to facilitate pushing people off welfare and selling off state houses.

This degree of callous cruelty has been led by various  ministers in the previous National government who have mis-used information; misled the public; and made derogatory comments against those whose sole ‘crime’ was to be poor.

This was bullying from the highest level of power, toward those at the lowest level of powerlessness.

National’s subtle and graduated vilification of the poor made cruelty permissable in a country which once valued tolerance, fairness, and egalitarianism.

When depriving homeless men barely merits a mention in our media, and few bat an eyelid, what other possible conclusion can be made?

This Coalition government is constrained fiscally when it comes to welfare and state housing.

It suffers no such constraints when it comes to showing strong moral leadership to reject State-sanctioned cruelty.There is no fiscal cost to compassionate leadership that lifts up the powerless.

There are good men and women in Labour, the Greens, and NZ First. That is perhaps their strongest common bond between all three; a rejection of the culture of callousness that has seduced and poisoned the hearts and minds of so many New Zealanders.

Every Minister in this coalition government can reject decades of a culture of cruelty by reaffirming the humanity of the unemployed; solo-mums; youth; sickness beneficiaries; state house tenants; the drug and alcohol addicted; and the homeless.

Every Minister in this coalition government can use their position of power to speak on behalf of the powerless.

Every Minister in this coalition government can remind all New Zealanders that we are not bullies; we are better than that. If we cannot look after the powerless in our own society – then what possible hope is there for us and our children’s future, to be a compassionate society?

This will be the defining point of difference between what we have been – and what we hope to become.

This is what will inspire New Zealanders to choose what we aspire to be, and what kind of leadership will take us there.

Cruelty or compassion? Hopefully that will be the true point of difference in 2020.

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~ In Memory ~

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~ Emma-Lita Bourne ~

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~ Wendy Shoebridge ~

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References

Radio NZ: Robertson on infrastructure – $42bn ‘won’t be enough’

Fairfax media: Steven Joyce sticks to $11.7 billion hole in Government budget

Scoop media: Government delivers April 1 tax cuts, SME changes

Scoop media: Govt’s 2010 tax cuts costing $2 billion and counting

NZ Herald: John Armstrong – Labour confined to a fiscal straitjacket

Dominion Post: ‘Pressure valve’ medics patch up night’s drunks

Fairfax media: Alcohol – How can we reduce the harm it causes?

RBNZ: Banking crises in New Zealand – an historical perspective

NZ Herald: July 1984 – When life in NZ turned upside down

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand – Te Ara: The ‘mother of all budgets’

Wikipedia: The Alliance

NZ Initiative: Defeating the trickle-down straw man

The Atlantic: The Education of David Stockman

NZ Herald: Home ownership rates lowest in 66 years according to Statistics NZ

Interest.co.nz: Housing mortgage rates are more likely to go down rather than up

Fairfax media: Bank of mum and dad could be NZ’s sixth largest first-home mortgage lender

NZ Herald: Auckland teen couple face sleeping in car

TVNZ: More homeless people sleeping in cars

Mediaworks/Newshub: The hidden homeless – Families forced to live in cars

NZ Herald: Minister spells out $43,000 ‘salary’ claim for solo mum

NZ Herald: Benefit cuts for drug users defended by PM

NZ Herald: Bennett increases pursuit of welfare ‘rorts

Fairfax media: Key – Mums of one-year-olds better off working

NZ Herald: Food parcel families made poor choices, says Key

NZ Herald: Beneficiary birth control ‘common sense’ – Key

Fairfax media: House call plan to nab benefit fraudsters

NZ Herald:  Unions demand Bill English apologise for describing jobseekers as ‘pretty damned hopeless’

Fairfax media:  Bill English says employers are regularly telling him that Kiwis can’t pass drug tests

Twitter: Newshub – Bill English “soak up staff out of McDonalds”

Frankly Speaking:  Fact Sheet – Employment-Unemployment and Queues for Vacancies

Dominion Post: State tenants face ‘high need’ review

Fairfax media: Nearly 600 state house tenants removed after end of ‘house for life’ policy

Fairfax media: Housing policy will destabilise life for children

NZ Herald: State housing shake-up – Lease up on idea of ‘house for life’

Fairfax media: Housing policy will destabilise life for children

NZ Herald: ‘No point’ in new state houses – Bill English

National: New crack down on gangs and drugs

Radio NZ: Paula Bennett: HNZ too cautious on meth testing

Beehive: PM appoints Chief Science Advisor

NZ Herald: Minister claims low drug result as victory

NZ Herald: Bennett trumpets 5000 fewer on DPB

Fairfax media: Number on benefits drops, reaction mixed

NZ Herald: Over 5300 benefits cut due to info sharing

NZ Herald: Benefits cut for 13,000 parents in new regime

NZ Herald: 11,000 disabled children lose welfare benefit

Radio NZ: About 2000 children hit when parents lose benefits

Radio NZ: Thousands losing benefits due to paperwork

Mediaworks/TV3: The Nation – Welfare Debate

NZ Herald: Key admits underclass still growing

Fairfax media: Aggressive prosecution focus at MSD preceded woman’s death, inquest told

NZ Herald: Damp house led to toddler’s death

Catriona Maclennan: Loans to feed kids are income and disqualify benefit, says MSD

Radio NZ: Homeless shaken awake as Rotorua shelter awaits consents

European Court of Human Rights: Case of Ireland v. The United Kingdom

BBC: Binyam Mohamed torture appeal lost by UK government

The Guardian: UN torture report condemns sleep deprivation among US detainees

Wikipedia: New Zealand general election, 2008

Wikipedia: New Zealand general election, 2011

Wikipedia: New Zealand general election, 2014

Wikipedia: New Zealand general election, 2017

Additional

Gordon Campbell:  Ten Myths About Welfare – The politics behind the government’s welfare reform process

Other Blogposts

Public Address: We are, at last, navigating out of the “meth contamination” debacle

Pundit:  Beneficiary ‘impact’ highlights poverty of social policies

The Daily Blog: A Fair suck of the sauce bottle!

The Daily Blog: New Government response to MSD sadism is just not good enough

The Standard: Loans to feed kids are income and disqualify benefit, says MSD

Previous related blogposts

Week Watch – 7 June

Easter Trading – A “victimless crime”?

Professor Bill English lectures young New Zealanders on free education

The Mendacities of Ms Amy Adams – “hidden borrowing”?!

Tracy Watkins – Getting it half right on the “Decade of Deficits”

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 10 July 2018.

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The Legacy of a Dismantled Prime Minister – Revisited

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Following John Key’s sudden (and largely unexplained) resignation on 5 December 2016, I wrote a piece lamenting that he had left no positive  legacy of significance;

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… much  has been said of Key’s “legacy”. Pundits have been scratching their heads, trying to figure out what  “legacy” can be attributed to eight years of a Key-led administration.

Despite screeds being devoted on the subject, it appears that little can actually be attributed to any form of Key “legacy”.

[…]

[Brent] Edwards contrasted Key’s administration with that of Jim Bolger and pointed out the latter’s legacies, which have had a lasting impact of New Zealand’s social and political landscape. The first was the advent of MMP which forever changed politics as it is done in this country. The second was Bolger’s courage to stand up to his party’s redneck conservatism and engage with Maori to address Treaty of Waitangi grievances.

[…]

In an era marking the rise of nationalistic political movements (Brexit, Trump, et al), Key’s “package of reforms” will be rolled back and many, like Charter Schools, swept away entirely.

These legacies of a failed economic ideology – neo-liberalism – may rate a mention in the footnotes of future history books, but not much more. In fifty years time, no one will point to Key’s supposed “reforms” as people still do to Michael Savage’s achievements.

[…]

… and I leave this brief assessment for future historians;

John Key – Master at spin, photo-ops, and PR, but nothing else. When the teflon was stripped away, there was nothing underneath.

And that will be his legacy: nothing. We simply couldn’t think of a single damned one.

As I pointed out then – and which has subsequently been proven – National’s  “growth” was illusory, based mostly on high immigration and unsustainable ballooning house prices in Auckland.

Unfortunately, my dismissal of Key’s administration as historically inconsequential may have been a rush to judgement. I regret that I failed to pick up a vital policy change that has had a long term – albeit utterly unforeseen at the time – beneficial impact on  this country.

On 21 May 2009, John Key announced the appointment of Professor Peter Gluckman as the first  Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. At the time,  Key stated;

“This appointment delivers on the Government’s goal of including science at the heart of our decision-making.

I campaigned on creating this role because I recognise that New Zealand’s prosperity rests on our ability to make full use of the expertise that our scientists can contribute.

Professor Gluckman will provide me with a direct line to advice when I need it. He will be an independent voice that will complement existing channels of advice such as government departments and the Royal Society.

This role is one of vital importance that demands not only a high level of science expertise, but also the utmost integrity to fairly represent the state of science knowledge.”

Fast forward to almost exactly nine years later;

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Sir Peter was unequivocal; there was no credible data to support the meth hysteria that had swept the country;

“There’s absolutely no evidence in the medical literature anywhere in the world, of anybody being harmed by passive exposure to methamphetamine at any level.

“We can’t find one case in the medical literature, we can’t find one case by talking to experts where there is evidence of harm … it makes no sense.”

It backed up a curious admission from National Party leader, Bill English, in August 2016, where he questioned the validity of p-contamination levels in state houses;

“Now, the test as I understand it, indicates the presence of any P at all which may be a very low health risk.

According to that guideline they should not be moving people into houses where there is P contamination.

They’re operating to a Ministry of Health guideline which I understand is internationally standard, but is regarded as not quite appropriate”

It would certainly help housing New Zealand if the scientists applied themselves to coming up with a new guideline.

We would hope that within a few months there will be a standard that all the scientists regard as more appropriate. In the meantime, Housing New Zealand are doing their best to ensure that they don’t inconvenience tenants any more than is necessary.”

Astonishingly, despite Bill English knowing two years ago that meth-testing levels were probably bogus, National’s current Housing spokesperson, Judith Collins, voiced ignorance to its validity;

“We didn’t know. I spoke to [then-Minister of Social Housing] Paula Bennett about it, and she’s absolutely adamant she didn’t know. She got advice from the Housing NZ and also the Ministry of Health, and apparently Standards NZ were involved. So it’s the first time that we knew.”

Ms Collins was happy to pass the buck;

“But Housing NZ needs to front up, because they have refused to front up to media, and their minister Phil Twyford, he’s not making them front up. Let’s just find out what they knew.”

In October 2016, the Ministry of Health repeated it’s assertions that P levels in houses were only dangerous if manufacturing – not smoking – had taken place;

Ministry of Health Director of protection, regulation and assurance, Stewart Jessamine, said;

“Underpinning those conversations has always been the Ministry’s view that the Ministry’s guidelines only cover clandestine laboratories and this has been routinely pointed out.”

Despite clear statements from the Ministry of Health and from then-Prime Minister Bill English, Housing NZ continued its policy to evict around 300 families from State houses; disrupting lives; and demanding compensation from some former tenants.

On 6 June this year, Housing NZ’s CEO,  Andrew McKenzie, denied point blank ever being advised by the Ministry of Health that they were mis-applying P-levels;

“We weren’t warned repeatedly.

No, we weren’t  [told].

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So, certainly, the organisation is very clear, we were not told. There’s no record of being told that we were mis-using the guidelines.”

Evidently, the Prime Minister of the day’s public comments on national radio, questioning meth-testing levels,  did not constitute “being told”.

National party current-leader, Simon Bridges gave a belated qualified “apology” – of sorts;

“I’m sorry that the advice we got was wrong and has made this situation what it is.”

Bridges’ apology was for “advice we got was wrong” – not for wrongful eviction of tenants.

But not one single individual has taken responsibility for 300 families losing their homes and $100 million of tax-payer’s money flushed down the toilet on pointless testing.

Since Sir Peter’s meth-testing bomb-shell, Housing NZ has been forced to apologise to tenants who were caught up in the hysteria; cease demanding repayment for unnecessary clean-ups; and taken evicted tenants’ names of a Housing NZ black-list. There is also consideration of making compensation payments for Housing NZ tenants who lost their homes and possessions (though tenants in private “social housing” may miss out).

The policy of evicting tenants for flawed meth-levels, and where culpability for who (if any of the current tenants) smoked the drug, has been put to a stop.

For 300 people whose lives have been unnecessarily disrupted, it is too late. But at least no more vulnerable families will be put at risk of summary eviction and imposition of hefty punitive financial penalities.

In a curious way, this is due to Key’s decision to implement the role of a Science Advisor nine years ago. Sir Peter’s description of his new role in 2009 was remarkably prescient;

My primary task is to give the Prime Minister strategic and operational advice on science and science policy issues.

[…]

… I have a role of advising on specific matters related to science. In general this will be in the form of formally commissioned reports that will summarise the evidence base to suggest a specific mode of action or secondly where new scientific developments create either opportunity or risk. Again, I anticipate that my role will be limited to situations where my independence and hopefully high public respect can add value beyond what can come from departmental or sectoral advice.

[…]

… I will serve as a conduit of alerts that might arise where scientific progress shows either opportunity or threat for New Zealand. I will not be a lobby for individual science projects, but where scientists see something emerging that they think policy makers need to be aware of, I can assist with communication.

More recently, in an interview on TVNZ’s Q+A with Corin Dann, Sir Peter expanded on the role of Science Advisor for sound policy-making;

“So most of the things that governments really need help from the science community over are remarkably complex. The water system, the climate system, the agricultural system. That’s what we can try and do is explain both to the public and to the policy maker and to the politician. What are they options that then emerge? Complexity always means there are multiple options.

[…]

…the whole question of, ‘How do we have complex conversations over difficult matters in a constructive, collegial manner. Because this is a matter where, clearly, people come to it with different personal perspectives. We have put the evidence on the table, and I would hope that over time – we said that when we released the report – it would hopefully promote a conversation where people would look at the evidence across all the political parties, and with the public, and perhaps reflect that perhaps we’ve gone too far into the retribution model of justice and not enough into the restorative, rehabilitative and particularly preventive form of justice which other countries, such as Finland, Germany, have done. And the evidence there is, in my view, that we could have a conversation…

[…]

And what a science advisory system can do is provide the evidence on the basis that it will help, over time, governments and societies make better decisions.”

For far too long, New Zealand’s policy-making by our elected representatives has been predicated on knee-jerk reactions and populism. Whether it was Muldoon’s disastrous  decision to abandon compulsory superannuation payments which left New Zealand at the mercy of overseas financiers – or the current explosion in incarceration rates in our prisons based on “tough on crime” jingoism – political decisions have hardly been predicated on sound science.

As a nation we have paid heavily – in both social and financial measures – for flawed political decision-making.

Sir Peter’s revelations that meth testing was a sham was based on science. The data was hard (if impossible) to refute.

It is high time that Science Advisors should be mandatory and well-resourced for every single Ministry and department in this country. Their advice should be critical in all aspects of crucial policy-making.

Otherwise we lurch from one ineffectual populistic policy extreme to another. All to win votes in a vacuum of real information and hard data.

Make no mistake, we end up paying for policy extremes that are not founded in sound science. National’s populistic tough-on-crime mantra and harsher bail laws has resulted in a massive explosion in our prison population.  The number of prisoners (including non-sentenced people awaiting trial, whose guilt/innocence has not yet been decided) now exceeds 10,000 and approaching 11,000.

As Justice Minister Andrew Little pointed out;

“The Netherlands, where I was last week, a country of roughly 15½ million, has a prison population of 7000. We’re a country of 4.7 million and we’ve got a prison population of approaching 11,000. What is happening in New Zealand is abnormal, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”

National would have wasted $1 billion of our taxes on a new mega-prison in Waikeria. They have lambasted Labour’s attempts to grapple with a burgeoning prison muster by parroting the “soft on crime” mantra. Simon Bridges and his National party MPs have capitalised over fear-mongering on this issue;

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Sir Peter Gluckman weighed in;

“Cabinet will be considering a range of questions and issues in the next two to three weeks, and a range of decisions will be taken about stuff to do in the short term and stuff we’ll be able to do in the longer term.

I was shocked by the rate of rise in the prison and justice system costs in the past 30 years, and in particular that this rise has continued and is actually enhanced at the very time that crime rates are actually declining.

We say, ‘Lock ’em up, lock ’em up, be tough on crime.’ But all that’s going to do is keep driving up costs.”

Of course, some offenders still needed prison time for retribution and to protect the public.

But if you look at what’s driving the costs – it’s that we’re making more severe sentences.

Now is that sensible when we know people who are in prison for longer often become professional criminals? It’s an inevitability of what the environment creates.

Evidence in the report suggests prisons are often training grounds for further offending. Prisoners can build their criminal careers by learning criminal skills in prison, which damages their employment, accommodation and family prospects, and compounds any existing mental health and substance use issues.

Associate professor, Ian Lambie, a Science Advisor to the justice sector and clinical psychologist, stated with crystal clarity;

“This Government has clearly indicated they want some work done and are interested in reform.

Where we are heading is not where we should be, and it does not create a safer society, a safer New Zealand.

What we have to do, rather than building more prisons, is focus the money on ways to create fewer prisoners, and we have to look at early intervention.

We have to remember that the majority of people [prisoners] get out. They have mental health needs, literacy needs, housing needs – and those life needs need to be addressed. We need to give the support and services if we’re really going to turn their lives around.”

So who do we listen to?

Politicians such as tough-on-crime National MPs with an eye on the next election in 2020?

Or Science Advisors who act on information and are impartial and dispassionate on issues?

It is time that New Zealand put more weight on evidentially-based policies. Relying on emotive, political, headline-grabbing sound-bites designed to scare people and elicit their votes is a poor way to formulate sound policy.

The meth-testing scam is a clear case of where emotion and politicisation leads us. It is a warning we should heed as a nation if we are to learn from our mistakes.

That’s not a bad legacy from a Prime Minister who otherwise wasted nine years.

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References

Fairfax media: John Key dismisses rumours surrounding resignation

Radio NZ: PM to resign – ‘It feels like the right time to go’

NZ Herald: NZ’s half-trillion-dollar debt bomb

Beehive: PM appoints Chief Science Advisor

Radio NZ: Meth house contamination debunked by PM’s science advisor

Radio NZ: English calls for more specific housing meth tests

Mediaworks/Newshub: National had no idea meth guidelines were wrong – Judith Collins

NZ Herald: Housing NZ on the defensive over meth testing as it says just five state house tenants have been evicted over P use

Radio NZ: Housing NZ boss apologises over faulty meth tests

Radio NZ: Housing NZ boss ‘regrets’ meth-testing approach (audio)

Fairfax media: Housing NZ report into meth test saga to cover ‘every aspect’ of ‘policy failure’

Fairfax media: Housing NZ backtracks after saying it has no plans to stop taking payments for meth clean-up costs

TVNZ News: Social housing tenants evicted over meth contamination may miss out on compensation

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor: The Role of the Chief Scientific Advisor

Scoop media: TVNZ – Q+A – Sir Peter Gluckman interviewed by Corin Dann

Fairfax media: Compulsory super ‘would be worth $278 billion’

Interest.co.nz: English says NZ$1 bln capital cost and NZ$1.5 bln of operating costs for extra 1,800 prison beds reduces room for tax cuts

Fairfax media: Prisons under ‘immense pressure’ with only enough space for 300 more inmates

Fairfax media: Government aims to cut prison population and fix ‘abnormal’ system

Fairfax media: $1 billion prison expansion entering final stages of approval

TVNZ: Waikeria Prison expansion is ‘unfortunately’ needed and Government is ignoring the reality of high inmate numbers – Simon Bridges

Additional

Radio NZ: Sir Peter Gluckman: Meth fiasco shows science advisors crucial

Other Blogposts

Liberation:  Cartoons about John Key’s resignation

No Right Turn:  A tiny start

No Right Turn:  Priorities

No Right Turn:  Calling bullshit on “P-contamination”

Public Address:  “Meth contamination”: the making of a moral panic

Public Address:  We are, at last, navigating out of the “meth contamination” debacle

Pundit: Meth house clean-up only just begun

The Daily Blog:  Well, well, well – so the meth contamination hysteria was bullshit? When will the Mainstream Media & Paula Bennett apologise to NZ?

The Daily Blog: New meth hysteria allegations – Auckland Health Board narked on tenants using their addiction services to HNZ

The Daily Blog:  Shocking new details – HNZ kicked 300 onto street AFTER they were told meth hysteria was wrong

The Daily Blog:  Drug driving hysteria will become our new Meth housing hysteria

The Daily Blog:  Radio NZ continue to promote the lie that National didn’t know about meth testing scam

The Daily Blog:  Soper demanding answers over Metiria when HNZ blew $100m for meth testing hysteria – the double standards are unbelievable

The Standard: Gluckman – Methamphetamine policy was a crock

The Standard: Dud advice

The Standard: National’s strategy on the Housing Corp P fiasco

Previous related blogposts

The Dismantling of a Prime Minister – Completed

The Legacy of a Dismantled Prime Minister

Letter to the editor – John Key’s legacy?

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 2 July 2018.

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The Many Mendacities of Mr Bridges – The ‘Claytons’ Apology

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On 5 June, Simon Bridges presented himself on Radio NZ’s Morning Report to address the meth-hysteria that led to three hundred state house tenants being evicted over the  last three years where “P” had been detected in a property.  The evictions took place during National’s term in office.

He apologised for National’s part in the hysteria and wrongful evictions;

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“I’m sorry that the advice we got was wrong and has made this situation what it is. We got the wrong advice, we’re not technical experts, we thought we were asking the hard questions.”

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Or, did he…?!?

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from: Frank Macskasy <fmacskasy@gmail.com>
to: Listener <letters@listener.co.nz>
date: 18 June 2018
subject: Letter to the editor

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The Editor
The Listener

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When National’s Simon Bridges, fronted up on Radio NZ on 5 June, he apparently apologised for his role in the unjust evictions of 300 state house tenants for meth-testing results that have been shown by Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, as bogus.

Bridges said;

“I’m sorry that the advice we got was wrong and has made this situation what it is.”

Except – it’s not an apology for the wrongful evictions at all. It’s a lamentation that “the advice we got was wrong”.

He hasn’t expressed regret for 300 people and their families being evicted. He is sorry that the so-called “evidence” no longer backs up National’s policy of ridding itself of pesky state house tenants so that they could sell six thousand properties between 2008/09 and 2016/17.

In August 2016, then Housing NZ Minister, Bill English, admitted on that the meth-testing standards were unsound;

“Now, the test as I understand it, indicates the presence of any P at all which may be a very low health risk.

According to that guideline they should not be moving people into houses where there is P contamination.

It would certainly help housing New Zealand if the scientists applied themselves to coming up with a new guideline.

We would hope that within a few months there will be a standard that all the scientists regard as more appropriate. In the meantime, Housing New Zealand are doing their best to ensure that they don’t inconvenience tenants any more than is necessary.”

Housing NZ tenants weren’t just ” inconvenienced”. They lost their homes; had their possessions illegally destroyed; and were forced to pay reparations for unnecessary clean-up costs.

This was the full force of the State used against the most vulnerable people in our society.

Mr Bridges should try apologising again. This time, not for “the advice we got was wrong”.

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-Frank Macskasy

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(Address and phone number supplied)

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The “Clayton’s Apology”

The apology you’re giving when you’re not giving an apology.

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References

Radio NZ: ‘I’m sorry the advice we got was wrong’ – Simon Bridges

NZ Herald: HNZ boss Andrew McKenzie apologises to tenants evicted because of wrong meth guidelines

Radio NZ: English calls for more specific housing meth tests

Housing NZ: Annual Report 2008/09

Housing NZ: Annual Report 2016/17

Wikipedia: Claytons

Acknowledgement for cartoon

The Spinoff: The Side Eye – Renting in NZ means always moving out and never moving up

Additional

Radio NZ: Meth house contamination debunked by PM’s science advisor

Previous related blogposts

The Mendacities of Ms Amy Adams – 2,000 more state houses?!

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 23 June 2018.

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“Spinning” in a post-truth era

18 August 2016 3 comments

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ministry-of-truth-update

 

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Two recent media stories, on two utterly disparate issues, were clear examples of how tax-payer funded media “spin doctors” were guiding government ministers to respond to questions in a certain way.

Two interviews; two ministers; both on Radio New Zealand’s ‘Morning Report‘ – and both interviews left the audience none-the-wiser afterwards.

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“Guidelines”

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The first, on 5 August, featured Finance  and Social Housing Minister, Bill English, defending Housing NZ’s use of flawed testing regimes for methamphetamine-use in state housing.

On 20 June this year, Housing NZ admitted that the current testing for methamphetamine use (smoking)  was flawed;

“…The current standard guidelines were written to address meth ‘cooking’ and not use, meaning they are not entirely suitable for the contamination that occurs through use of meth.

The Ministry of Health guidelines were written a while ago. At that time it wasn’t perceived that consumption would be at the levels that it has reached. For this reason the guidelines do not cover all they need to.”

Drug Foundation executive director, Ross Bell, was scathing;

“I think they’re out of control…

[…]

I don’t know how they can justify that. Housing New Zealand has spent over $20 million in the last financial year doing these tests and these cleanups. Knowing that these are flawed the minister should step in and stop taxpayers’ money being wasted and vulnerable people being punished.”

Despite the testing regime  – which TVNZ’s  ‘Fair Go‘ programme used to “detect” methamphetamine on bank-notes – “not fit for purpose”, Housing NZ has continued to use the flawed guidelines to evict tenants;

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Expert questions meth contamination evictions

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Housing NZ Minister, Bill English, agreed that the testing for methamphetamine was flawed;

“They’re operating to a Ministry of Health guideline which I understand is internationally standard, but is regarded as not quite appropriate, particularly for dealing for use of P in houses…

[…]

Now, the test as I understand it, indicates the presence of any P at all which may be a very low health risk.”

The interesting aspect to Radio NZ’s Susie Ferguson’s interview with Minister English was not that he disagreed with the premise that the P testing regime  was flawed. He gave a straight answer to Ms Ferguson’s question;

Susie Ferguson: “Are these tests fit for purpose?”

Bill English: “Ah, no. And Housing NZ have said that.”

English then spent the next seven minutes defending the flawed testing regime.

In part of his interview, the “g”-word became glaringly  prominent;

“Housing New Zealand is in the position where there is currently a moh guideline, you can’t just wish that away – Housing New Zealand are not health experts.

Ministry of Health stand by the guideline, and the Ministry of Health are the statutory organisation that promulgates the guideline.

I think everyone involved with this is frustrated, I suppose except for the scientists that gave us the guideline in the first place.”

It is obvious what phrase English’s media spin-doctors told him to stay “on-message”.

He referred to “guidelines” no less than sixteen times within those seven minutes.

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“Technical matters”

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On 8 August, in an unrelated matter, our esteemed Dear Leader, John Key, was interviewed over  China’s threats to launch a trade war if New Zealand investigated cheap imports/dumping of sub-standard Chinese steel.

As Vernon Small described the situation on 4 August, in the Dominion Post;

Now let’s see if we’ve got this right.

In early June Chinese officials find a type of fungus (Neofabraea actinidiae) on board a bunch of kiwifruit heading into the country.

Nothing much happens.

Then in early July a message is passed, through back channels, to Zespri and Fonterra (and potentially other primary producers) that China is extremely peeved that a complaint has been laid about the potential dumping of cheap Chinese steel in our market.

A steel inquiry by regulators here could lead to the imposition of non-tariff barriers that could slow down our exports, the warning suggests. And, what’s more, China is angry that the complaint was even accepted for consideration by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

After some to-ing and fro-ing, China officially denies it draws a link between a potential steel-dumping inquiry and sales of our food products. The various New Zealand agencies and exporters chant in unison that it is an “unsubstantiated rumour” that such a link had been made.

Trade Minister Todd McClay at first tries to dismiss media reports as reflecting a single low-level source talking to Zespri. But he later back tracks and apologises to Prime Minister John Key and concedes the Zespri warning was not all. In fact, there had been “discussions and limited correspondence over the past few months as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has endeavoured to assess the veracity of these reports”. But in the end they were not verified.

[…]

On July 22, Zespri said it had experienced no problems. 

But on July 29, just a few weeks after the initial “warning” – and right in sync with that warning –  Chinese border agencies impose non-tariff barriers, involving a risk notification and strengthened inspection and quarantine processes, on our kiwifruit.

Zespri says their unwelcome fungal friend does not affect food safety and is not a pathogen. It exists in several countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Holland, the United States and Ecuador – and potentially China itself, the home of the chinese gooseberry to which the noble kiwifruit is whakapapa.

But in contrast with Zespri’s relatively sanguine view, the Chinese notice from the AQSIQ, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, describes Mr and Mrs Neofabraea actinidiae in very unflattering terms as a “rot pathogen” and a “major disease” that could infect other fruit such as apples and persimmons, thus inflicting “serious economic loss”.

It saying the fungus hails from New Zealand and Australia – the targets of Chinese suspicions that we are acting in league with Uncle Sam.

And through it all ministers and Zespri are ruling out any link to the “unsubstantiated” trade threat.  “China throws up these non-tariff barriers all the time” is the tenor of the message emanating from the Beehive. Nothing to see here.

(The full text of Vernon Small’s analysis is worth reading, and reminiscent of the sort of critical journalistic insights that we used to have in abundance in the Fourth Estate, and which could ultimately do great harm to an encumbent government’s reputation.)

On Radio NZ’s Morning Report, on 8 August, Guyon Espiner interviewed our esteemed Dear Leader on China’s blocking of our kiwifruit exports.

Key’s responses to Espiner’s questions were a tribute to the Prime Minister’s media spin-doctors. Throughout the entire four and a half minutes interview, Key stayed on-message, referring to the blocking of Zespri’s export as “a technical issue“.

The phrase “technical issue” was used three times.

Other answers given were verbose – but not very enlightening for the listener;

Espiner: “Did he [Todd McClay] tell the truth about that, though?

Key: “Yeah, he did, but he was-“

Espiner: “You said he was dancing on the head of a pin.”

Key: “He was very specific in the answer that he gave to a very specific question.”

Espiner: “He was misleading, wasn’t he?”

Key: “Well, I just think, in our business the problem is that even though often a journalist will ask me a direct and specific question, you really know they’re  asking a broader question. And it’s kind of tidier if you can at least give a, give them [a] more fulsome answer.”

So according to Key, if “a journalist will ask… a direct and specific question, you really know they’re  asking a broader question“?

This was quintessential Key silly-speak for “Yes, Todd McClay lied”.

The curious aspect to Key’s “spun” answers is that Guyon Espiner – a seasoned journalist of the calibre of Lisa Owen, Kim Hill, Simon Walker, et al – allowed Key to make his specious drivel unchallenged.

At the very least, Espiner should have challenged Key of his references to “technical matters” with the simple question,

“Prime Minister, is the phrase “technical matters” the on-message phrase you’ve been told to use?”

Key would have responded with a resounding “No, of course not!”.

But that would have blown that phrase out of the water from that point on in the interview. The carefully ‘spun’ message crafted by his spin-doctors would have been rendered neutralised, and Key would have had to rely on other answers to Espiner’s probing. Perhaps even something approaching the truth.

The best way to counter “spin” is to clearly identify it as such.

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Shades of Bill Birch

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In 1991, when former Finance Minister, Bill Birch, was promoting the Employment Contracts Bill to the New Zealand public and media, his constant mantra was that it would “raise real wages”;

” The challenge New Zealand faces in industrial relations is to create an environment that delivers high productivity, high income and high employment.”

The promise of “higher wages” was an attempt to justify  the de-unionised, laissez-faire bargaining aspects of the Employment Contracts Act (later passed into law as an Act of Parliament).

But such was not to be. As economist, Andrew Morrison, reported for the  Parliamentary Library in 1996;

“The content of employment contracts has also changed. There are more flexible work practices, greater multi-skilling and increased use of performance pay. Rates for overtime and penal rates have dropped.

[…]

Econometric work shows the ECA as having had no significant effect on the aggregate level of wages. There may have been some deterioration in working conditions, however evidence is not clear-cut.”

Birch’s claims of the ECA “raising wages” were utterly bogus of course.

In reality, the Act increased wages for a few – but either froze or reduced wages for the majority, as Morrison pointed out.

It was the first occassion when this blogger noticed an oft-repeated phrase used by a politician to promote a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. It may have been one of the first (?) uses of ‘spin’ in such a context (as opposed to mis-use of information or outright lies).

In 1991, the “raising wages” mantra was not challenged in any meaningful way (that this blogger can recall).

A quarter of a century later, we still seem to have a problem with political ‘spin’.

The scary thing is, that our elected representatives don’t really seem perturbed that we recognise their ‘spin’ for what it is. In a post-truth environment, it seems to be the “new norm”.

As Andrea Vance wrote in an opinion piece on 1 July;

Politicians are now playing a game in which it’s up to their opponents to fact-check, to catch out their lies. (“People have had enough of experts,” as British Tory leadership hopeful Michael Gove put it.)

They presume media and the voters should accept what they say as fact.

Earlier this week, Trump’s supporter Jeffrey Lord dismissed this “fact-checking business” as an “elitist, media-type thing”.

People only care about “what the candidates say”, he added.

But if what the candidates say are bare-faced lies…then where does that leave us?

Indeed, where does that leave us?

Perhaps needing new standards for political honesty?

We can call them “guidelines“.

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References

Radio NZ: Drug Foundation critical of meth contamination evictions

Housing NZ: HNZ supports new meth standards committee

Radio NZ: English calls for more specific housing meth tests

Radio NZ: Expert questions meth contamination evictions

Radio NZ: NZ braces for effects on Zespri’s halt of kiwifruit exports

Fairfax media: China’s attack on kiwifruit after trade reprisal warning ‘just a coincidence’

Radio NZ: NZ braces for effects on Zespri’s halt of kiwifruit exports

Parliamentary Library: The Employment Contracts Act and its Economic Impact – Andrew Morrison, Economist (November 1996)

Otago.ac.nz: Labour’s Labour Relations

Additional

TV1 News: A post-truth era in politics

TV1 News: Perhaps the Government might want to say sorry

Radio NZ: Is a ‘post-truth’ era upon us?

Radio NZ: Give facts a chance

Previous related blogposts

Military ‘spin-doctoring’ – the media catch-up

The Art of ‘Spin’

Paula Bennett on unemployment: spin baby, spin!

The Dark Art of ‘Spin’ – How It’s Done

The Dark Art of ‘Spin’ – How It’s Done (Part #Rua)

When spin doctors go bad

“Spin me a conspiracy”, said Dear Leader!

“Spin me a brain exchange”, said Dear Leader!

National Party spin on Aaron Gilmore and MMP

National spins BS to undermine Labour’s Capital Gains Tax

Housing Minister Paula Bennett continues National’s spin on rundown State Houses

The Mendacities of Mr English – Fibbing from Finance Minister confirmed

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quick it's an emergency - spin doctors

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 13 August 2016.

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