Pike River: not laissez-faire but lackadaisical

The Pike River commission’s report must, finally, represent the low-water mark of economic de-regulation in New Zealand.

A dictionary definition of “laissez-faire” gives two meanings:

  1. individualism the doctrine of unrestricted freedom in commerce, esp for private interests
  2. indifference or non-interference, esp in the affairs of others.

Read the section What Happened, in volume one of  the report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy.  It difficult not to draw the conclusion that, in New Zealand’s deregulated and commercially-oriented economy, laissez-faire means not just indifference, but callous indifference, to the well-being and even the lives of others.

Rod Oram, in the Sunday Star-Times on 11 November, damns the “She’ll be right” culture that seemed to pervade the Pike River company, saying:

It wasn’t an anomaly. It will happen again. Deep in our psyche we believe improvisation is innovation. We believe cutting corners copes with complexities.

Rod’s opinion piece is a good read, and a damning indictment, but it doesn’t entirely get to the heart of the matter.

Over the last three decades, New Zealand’s ruling elites have developed a culture of indifference and unconcern – not just to workplace safety, but also to child poverty; to the integrity of the democratic system of government; to our economic future in the post-carbon age.

The term “lackadaisical now correctly describes New Zealand’s political and economic system. The proof of that is given in the Pike River tragedy; and in this government’s gutting of the ETS; and in the programme of road-building it has undertaken; and in the child poverty statistics.

And it is not just this National Party government that is to blame.  It is the cosy duopoly of National and Labour governments that have led us down this path, playing pass the parcel in parliament – both following a neo-liberal agenda, since the mid-1980’s.

The Pike River tragedy must serve as the nadir of neo-liberalism: the point at which we should turn away from those corrupt ideas, and start to restore and re-develop our public and private institutions.  Market systems are fine when they are effectively self-regulating: but the concept of self-regulation does not imply a lack of regulation.  Market mechanisms can, and must, be used if they do in fact serve the needs of society and all its members. In any other case society must, unapologetically and thoughtfully, regulate to serve its best interests.

The antonyms of lackadaisical include: active, careful, caring, energetic, enthusiastic, and hard-working.  These words are more than mere adjectives: they also describe values.  Values that should describe the Green Party in the public mind, and a Green Party government after the 2014 election.

Broadcasting in Godzone: it’s Beached as, Bro.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at a conference on the future of public broadcasting. My presentation was tilted Beached as, Bro: The current state of New Zealand’s Broadcasting Industry.

The “beached as” reference was not to a popular YouTube video, but to Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach.

The novel is set in Melbourne, in the months after a nuclear war has wiped out human civilisation in the northern hemisphere. The characters portrayed in the novel face up to the reality, with greater or lesser degrees of dignity and compassion, that they too will die as the radiation moves relentlessly south.

In the closing chapter, the rock-steady Australian Navy captain is comforting his distraught wife and slightly dazed wife.

If can forgive the 1950’s sexism, their poignant final conversation went like this;

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?” she asked.

“I don’t know…(he replied) some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop… the only possible hope would be to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could they have done that, Peter?”

“Newspapers” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we were wise enough.’

She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’ she said. “It’s been much nicer without them.”

On the same PowerPoint slide I showed the following graphic, which is not a map of nuclear radiation creeping south from the northern hemisphere. It is the global temperature anomaly for 2010; the average temperature from January to December 2010 , compared to the average annual temperatures for the 30 years from 1951 to 1980.

Source: Goddard Institute of Space Science, NASA
New Zealand’s broadcasting policy framework is based on the idea that a competitive market of broadcasters will provide socially optimal outcomes, and if not, then:
“If the government or community groups considered that the composition or level of outputs of the broadcasting industry was not socially optimal, then the most effective and efficient intervention would be to directly contract with broadcasters to alter outputs in the desired direction be it wider coverage, more cultural programming, no advertising or more local content.”

That quote is  from the Treasury submission to the Royal Commission on Broadcasting and Related Telecommunications in 1986, which became the basis for our current broadcasting policy framework (in 1999 I completed a fairly lengthy Master of Public Policy thesis on the subject).

In New Zealand, currently, public broadcasting is officially thought to be a “nice to have”, provided to meet interest group whims and and political fancies, and funded by New Zealand on Air. The underlying assumption is that a competitive commercial broadcasting market will provide what people want, and therefore what they need.

My view is that some broadcasting outputs are a Public Good in economic terms. That is, their presence on-air serves to benefit the whole of society, just as the presence of a national defence force does, or the judicial system, or a parliament of elected representatives.

But I take that a step further and say that, in a parliamentary democracy, the existence of “public good” broadcasting is essential to the creation and maintenance of an effective democracy. In particular, a living democracy requires the presence on-air of high-quality and in-depth news, current affairs and investigative journalism. And that needs to be present at every level of government; national, regional and local.

So why do I think the broadcasting system is not providing this public good?

Because if it were, there would be neither debate nor uncertainty in the public mind about the need to urgently reduce carbon emissions in order to combat global warming.  The key political issue in this election year would be the need to decide which of the political parties has the most effective policy platform for dealing with that issue.  The best metaphorical equivalent would be if New Zealand were at war, and we had to choose a government to most effectively defend us. Climate change is, in fact, that important.

However, that is not the case – either metaphorically or in fact.  We like our television with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government is wise enough to stop us having them that way.

The absence of meaningful debate about climate change on our radio and television services is sufficient evidence to state with certainty that New Zealand’s broadcasting system is  suffering from market failure on a scale, and to an extent, matched only by the market failure of global warming itself. QED; the broadcast media’s systematic ignorance of, and silence about, the threat of global warming means it is “beached as, bro”, while the people of New Zealand are On the Beach.


The Politics of Change

This is my favourite Green Party slogan: Neither Left nor Right but out in Front.


In this post I discuss what it means to be “out in front”. I argue that:

  • There is a new dimension to the political spectrum, which defines the Green Party’s point of difference from both National and Labour;
  • Going into the 2011 general election, it is the Green Party’s willingness and ability to effectively lead change that should define our political positioning, and
  • In order to lead change effectively, the Green Party must first change itself.

While Jared Diamond was preparing to write “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” he discussed some of his ideas on the edge.org website, under the title “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions (while others succeed)?”

Diamond identifies four factors in group decision making that lead a society to fail:

1. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.

2. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem.

3. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem.

4. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so.

Over the course of human history, these have been failures to meet the challenges of depleting resources such as fertile soils, fresh water, and energy.

Last year I was doing some work for Manukau City Council, on futures thinking. I applied Jared Diamond’s four factors to the “four-room apartment” model of change. The four “rooms” represent four psychological states involved in the typical human response to change: contentment, denial, confusion, and inspiration. Success (or failure) in adapting to change is a matter of dealing with the condition of being in each of the four “rooms”, and successfully moving between them.

Taking a lead from Jared Diamond, I wanted to focus on the factors that bring about successful change. So I worked through the model, changing the language and concepts as appropriate, and came up with the one that appears in the picture below.

Positive Cycle of Change

This is how it works:

  • We start at the top left corner, in a state of contentment, but without complacency or ignorance. When a potential problem becomes evident, we can anticipate the problem before it arrives.
  • Being aware of the problem, we accept responsibility and resolve to deal with it. Taking responsibility is the precise opposite of being in a state of denial, and its attendant anger, blaming, and self-excusing.
  • Because we have accepted responsibility, we are willing to discover solutions. In the original four-room apartment model, this room is labelled confusion, chaos or conflict, but seen in a positive sense can equally be a state of creativity, innovation and “flow”. The key to success here is obtaining really good information and then making good decisions.
  • Having identified successful solutions, we implement them with determination, commitment and discipline.

This model provides a useful way of re-drawing the political spectrum, in terms of the process of change that the world is currently undergoing (or failing to undergo). The four-room apartment model can be “unfolded” in a way that re-defines where New Zealand’s major political parties stand, in terms of their willingness and ability to deal with the looming ecological, economic and social crises of the 21st century.

And it looks something like this:

This political spectrum shows what it means to be “out in front”. The Greens are not only more advanced through the cycle of change than other parties, but we promote a positive model of change that could ultimately succeed.  The other parties are less far advanced, and are practicing a model of change that will ultimately fail:

  • The ACT party is clearly stuck in ignorance and denial.
  • The National Party is quite aware of the looming problems, but accepts minimal responsibility for them. It is less ignorant than ACT, but still solidly in denial, and unable to develop effective and creative solutions.
  • The Labour Party is slightly better: it accepts the problems but it cannot deal with them effectively, because it is confused about the solutions (e.g. adopting an ETS instead of a Carbon Tax).
  • The Maori Party is on a positive path for change: the concept of kaitiakitanga is embedded in its kaupapa, so it accepts responsibility. But doesn’t yet have workable policy solutions.

Now to return to the slogan “neither left nor right but out in front”. Being “in front” actually does mean being “left” in two senses:

First, our acceptance that we live in a world constrained by limited resources is followed by a commitment that the those resources will be justly shared in three ways:

  1. within our own society,
  2. between developed and developing nations, and
  3. between current and future generations.

Second, being “left” also describes the Green approach to managing change. The Green Party’s mission is to bring about a transformational change in New Zealand: rejecting unsustainable growth and inequality, and implementing our vision of a sustainable and just society. But creating an ecologically sustainable economy will require change and dislocation on a massive scale. The transformation that we are seeking will make the major economic upheavals of my generation – the era of Thatcherism, Reaganomics and Rogernomics – pale by comparison. Our commitment to social justice means people will be treated fairly and well throughout the transition period, which they were not during those right-wing transformations.

We have to acknowledge that the transformational change can be profoundly unsettling and uncomfortable. When major changes are wrought in our social or economic framework, they will inevitably cause dislocation and conflict. The majority of people will benefit from the change we intend, but many others will lose out – and typically many of the latter will be those who benefit from the economic status quo.

If the Green Party genuinely intends to succeed in our mission, we to think carefully about how change occurs; what brings about change, how people respond to it, and how we will go about it when we are in government. But first, we must take responsibility for ourselves, and ask how we might change, in order to effectively lead change.

David Hay – Candidate for Epsom 2011
Originally published in Te Awa, the quarterly members’ magazine of the Green Party, November 2010

Ha ha. Can’t you take a joke? (Paul Henry and all that)

The whole debacle was predictable. In a previous blog I talked about how economic and policy drivers have shaped contemporary broadcasting:

In a highly privatised and competitive media market, each outlet must strive to gain the attention of an audience at the lowest possible cost. To win an audience they have to indulge in “attention seeking behaviour”. This can be positive – giving the best of themselves and offering us what we want and need to gain our approval.  However it can also be negative, consisting of showing off, constant interruptions, whinging and tantrums. And at the extreme end of the spectrum, it can be sociopathic:  sexually inappropriate, hysterical, bullying and harmful to others.

Paul Henry was a classic ‘attention seeker”, and TVNZ nurtured and supported him in that role.

One of Paul Henry’s gibes, on the now infamous segment, was reported on Radio New Zealand’s MediaWatch (17 October).  At about 21 minutes in, Tom Frewen points out that John Key makes a weekly appearance as part of a comic double-act. He says whereas Paul Henry is sometimes genuinely funny, John Key isn’t – but desperately wants to be. Then he rolls tape on this exchange:

Paul Henry: “Can you please promise me you will not make Jeanette Fitzsimons the Governor General?  Will you promise me that right now?
John Key: “I’m going to rule her out right now.”

I guess that’s funny if you agree with them both. But if you don’t, then this is not public broadcasting, it’s propaganda.

The state-owned broadcaster employs a failed National Party candidate as a breakfast host, who then interviews a National Party prime minister, and they agree on air that a previous leader of an opposition political party will not be considered for the position as New Zealand’s head of state.  A PR flack for the company then issues a press release that encapsulates the classic bully’s response, when called to account: “It was a joke. Ha Ha. Can’t you take a joke?” Ultimately the interview so embarrasses the PM, both for his flat-footed performance and the storm of disapproval that follows, that the host then resigns (rather than being sacked, most likely).

The whole episode raises serious issues about TVNZ’s ownership and governance, it’s lack of political independence, and the failure of the “Charter”, introduced by a Labour government, to produce even a semblance of public broadcasting.

The Green Party’s broadcasting policy would create a genuinely independent public broadcasting service out of Television One. Then we should get rid of the Charter, with all its pedantic, bureaucratic, blather , and give our public broadcasting services a mandate to pursue the goals set out in the Green Party’s vision for broadcasting. We want a television service that will:

  • Entertain us all, so that we may enjoy each others’ achievements, triumphs and laughter; share our hopes, dreams and sorrows; and through story, song, documentary and drama, learn to respect and appreciate our common humanity and develop our sense of shared identity and purpose.
  • Educate the peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand, so that they can understand their own and each others history, place in the world, and possible futures;
  • Inform the citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand, so they will know whom they are voting for, be able to assess political parties’ visions for the future, and judge for themselves whether their elected representatives are acting in New Zealand’s best interests.

If the Green Party could cut through, or get around, the media’s “gate-keeping” and get its message across,  the New Zealand public would see the 2011 general election as time for change. Time for a Green Party government.

And, if she would accept the role, time for Jeanette Fitzsimons to be New Zealand’s next Head of State!

Who holds the media to account?

It’s good to see the Minister of Broadcasting asking questions about TVNZ boss Rick Ellis’s credit card spending.  After weeks of ‘revelations’ about the use of credit cards and expense claims by Members of Parliament and Mayors, finally the spotlight has been turned on the media itself.

It is unlikely, however, that  reporters at APN News and Media, John Fairfax Holdings, Sky TelevisionMediaworks, or The Radio Network will reveal the credit card expenditure of their senior management teams.

Which is a pity, because these five companies, between them, own and operate almost the entirety of the Print, Television and Radio industries in New Zealand.  Along with the state-owned broadcasters, TVNZ and Radio New Zealand, they are the fourth estate. It is their role to act as the watchdog for democracy, to hold to account the public and private elites who govern this country.  They are an essential part of New Zealand’s system of democratic government.

But who holds the fourth estate to account? Whose role is it to question, assess and judge whether these companies are, individually and collectively, serving the public interest and not just their own self-interest?  My answer to that question is “nobody”.  Their answer to that question would be “everybody”. And we would both be right, sort of.

The credit card story makes an interesting case study. The story itself is trivial, of course. The spending habits of elected representatives and public sector chief executives tell us a little about their personal qualities and integrity, but less about the rules they are supposed to follow or how well these are monitored and enforced, and absolutely nothing about the quality of the work they do in governing our society and its economy.

The focus of attention and energy in this story is, almost perfectly, in inverse proportion to the importance of its content.  The media failed to ask the really hard questions about the performance of our social and economic leadership, seemingly incapable of making good stories out of complex information, so instead they have fed us a story that was cheap to research, easy to report, and just barely interesting enough to capture our attention so they could sell some advertising.

There is a simple reason for this inversion of their priorities.  In a highly privatised and competitive media market, each outlet must strive to gain the attention of an audience at the lowest possible cost. To win an audience they have to indulge in “attention seeking behaviour”. This can be positive – giving the best of themselves and offering us what we want and need to gain our approval.  However it can also be negative, consisting of showing off, constant interruptions, whinging and tantrums. And at the extreme end of the spectrum, it can be sociopathic:  sexually inappropriate, hysterical, bullying and harmful to others. The economics of a highly competitive (and therefore low-cost and  low-wage), media tends to push the quality of political reporting toward the negative and destructive end of the spectrum.

The credit card story makes a good case study because it is partly, but only superficially, about holding our political leadership to account.  It can also be seen as the collective bullying of New Zealand’s political elite by a self-interested economic elite of private media companies.

Most media interviews of politicians these days consist of attention-seeking behaviour (“showing off, constant interruptions, whinging and tantrums”) on the part of the interviewers.  Politicians are regularly and systematically disparaged, or bullied, in the name of of “holding them to account”. The standard recipe is to them on the spot and make them squirm, generating as much drama and conflict as possible, but often at the expense of shedding any real light on motives, ideas or performance in their governance role.

The systematic disparagement of politics and politicians eventually brings democracy itself into disrepute. The audience of citizens is enthralled with sport, celebrities, reality TV and infotainment. Politics is merely a variation on one or more of those categories.  We come to expect little of our political leadership, and they begin to live down to our expectations.  People of good will, ability and integrity refuse to play the game and won’t put themselves forward for election.  Politicians adapt to the game. Those who rise to the top can fill in expenses claims and keep their noses clean, and they are good at dealing with the media’s bullying tactics. But if they were hopeless at governing the country, we would never hear about it. And we don’t.

Knowing little about our politicians (and occasionally knowing far too much), we stay away from the ballot box. Because we either don’t know who to vote for, or we come to believe that voting will only encourage them. Disenchanted and disengaged, we come to disbelieve in the whole project of democracy, and democracy suffers as a result.

The journalists themselves are mere pawns in this game: they have too little time and resources, and often too little experience or expertise, to do real investigative journalism.  The media companies will point to the competitive environment and claim, quite correctly, that they are only doing what the must to survive and make a profit for their shareholders. The government has a broadcasting standards authority, which can only deals with complaints when things get really out of hand. And the audience is so overwhelmed and distracted, by the cornucopia of the mental junk food on offer, that it just switches off or switches over.

So that’s the way things are: the world is on track for profound and irreversible climate change. The oil, which is the life-blood of our high-carbon economy, is rapidly running out. The oceans are dying.  But the fourth estate is too busy making a buck to tell us about these problems, or help us learn and decide what to do to tackle them.

And nobody is holding them to account.

A “radically serious” Green Party

The Green Party is coming of age: it is rapidly changing from a coalition of “seriously radical” activists, to a “radically serious” political party.

The punditry has had much to say about the Green Party, surrounding the 2010 Annual General Meeting at Queens Birthday weekend (also the party’s 20th birthday).

Prior to the conference John Hartevelt, in the Dominion Post, focused on the departure of Sue Bradford and a perceived lack of “x-factor and activism” in the party.  John Armstrong, in the Herald, said the party was now a “Paler shade of Green“. Colin James’s column in the Press said the party was “still trying to win political influence“.

That tone has changed following the conference, and the co-leaders’ two outstanding speeches.  Metiria Turei took on the National Government with her focus on the Greens Minding the Gaps” initiative, and pinged Labour for lacking the political courage to talk about a capital gains tax.  Russel Norman took on the government with the message “No environment, no economy“, while also giving Labour a serve for investing in “clean green branding PR” but failing to make it real.

The message from the party’s leadership is this:  the Green Party is ready, willing, and able to challenge the status quo and take its place as the third major party in New Zealand politics. That message came through crisp and clear, at least to the editorial cartoonist in the Herald.

This is where Colin James misread the Greens: the party’s objective is not merely to win political influence; now it must seek the mandate to govern.  Sue Bradford’s departure symbolises this transformation: her staunch activism was an asset for the party while it was establishing itself, but it was too much for the mainstream Kiwi voter whose trust and confidence the Party needs to earn. The party may be a ‘paler shade of Green’, but that lighter shade will be more appealing to the electorate.

There is still a long and difficult road ahead for the Greens. It currently lacks the resources and the membership to run effective electorate campaigns, and it will never govern while it remains a “list only” party. The key to future success will be growing the party membership, which currently is only a few thousand. To lead a government the Greens will need tens of thousands of members, and many more financial supporters and volunteers.

Some of the Party’s “seriously radical” members may not willingly make the transition, as the Greens increasingly present the “radically serious” image that will appeal to a greater range of voters and attract a broader membership. The party that wants to change the world, must first learn to change itself.