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Information underload: We're all mushrooms now

Prime Minister Bill English, followed by a staffer, addressing journalists at Parliament. Photo / Getty Images

Kept in the dark and fed endless bullshit, it’s difficult for even engaged citizens to make sense of much in New Zealand’s public and political life. 

What struck me most about the release of video footage of the Pike River mine drift was not whether a re-entry should be attempted (which is far too technical a question for me to assess), but how ready people were to believe there had been a cover-up by the government or the police, or both.

Former Act MP Heather Roy worried about exactly that on The Nation in a panel discussion: “Before I was thinking it would be the wrong thing to go into the mine but the new evidence in the video footage that came out this week shows, actually, can we trust the police… can we trust the government? And that’s not a good thing when we’re starting to ask those questions as a society.”

TV3’s political editor, Patrick Gower, agreed, saying there had been a week of “misinformation” by the government over Pike River.

Roy is a little late to the party in starting to question the government’s willingness to bend the truth to its own ends, if not downright lying when it suits its purposes. Some commentators have been appalled by this for years.

John Key, of course, set the tone for eight years as his government’s King of Spin, and that tendency doesn’t seem to be abating in his absence. We are routinely told our economy is an outperformer among OECD nations and we’re the envy of the world, that there is no crisis in Auckland housing, and that many of our young are too drug-addled to work — despite extensive data contradicting each of these claims.

The same week the Pike River video footage emerged, Michael Reddell, a relentlessly reasonable and unexcitable critic of New Zealand’s immigration policy, posted an exasperated piece on his blog Croaking Cassandra titled: “A Government that Simply Makes Things Up”.

He wrote: “Perhaps all governments these days eventually do it, but one of the things that I've come to dislike most about our current government is the way they and their acolytes simply make stuff up. I could, I suppose, understand them not actually doing anything much. After all, they didn't promise to do anything much. But the endless spin, and stuff that is just made up, sickens me.”

What gave his complaint extra bite was his moral objection as a committed Christian: “Apart from anything else, I try to bring up my kids heeding the biblical injunction to honour those in authority over us. I don’t read that as suggesting people won’t disagree with those who hold office, but there is something quite sick about the political process –  and perhaps about a society that tolerates this stuff –  when so often one reads comments from senior ministers or the Prime Minister to which one can only explain to kids interested in such things that ‘they are just making it up’. We should expect much better than that.”

Reddell went on to point out that outgoing Foreign Minister Murray McCully was overreaching in a recent speech with his claim: “Had it not been for the dramatic expansion of trade and economic relations with China in the early years of the Key government, New Zealand would have suffered a long and sustained recession, and all of the associated social challenges that we have seen in some European nations.”

As Reddell notes, the implication is that New Zealand has done well over the term of this government. But that isn’t borne out when comparing our per capita GDP and productivity with many other OECD nations. Also, he points out, the “fawning” line about China as “our saviour” doesn’t acknowledge that since 2007 our exports have fallen as a percentage of GDP and, even if a free trade agreement with China has been helpful, “it has hardly transformed our economic fortunes”.

And, of course, it’s not just ministers; it’s also government apparatchiks spouting half-truths, distortions and lies. There is a huge body of experienced former journalists employed by the government massaging messages to the public to hide or distort what is really happening behind the scenes.

In fact, in 2015, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) had 56 publicity flaks to spin its take on events, which was more than the entire Press Gallery in Parliament.

Journalists on the Kiwi Journalists Association website complain that it’s difficult to get past the police media teams to talk to officers who actually know what’s going on. And try getting any information out of District Health Boards that isn’t sanitised and processed by their PR handlers first.

It came as no surprise that in early May international journalists organisation Reporters Without Borders pushed New Zealand down from eighth to 13th on a global register of 180 countries it surveys each year measuring the basic principles of press freedom.

“Our lower standing is due to the growing list of government agencies trying to hide information by thwarting the Official Information Act, and these agencies are ruining our reputation,” Dr Catherine Strong, from Massey University’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, said.

The result is that anyone who cares about what’s going on in society will have a very difficult job trying to work out, say, how much dodgy Chinese steel has been used in the Waterview tunnel, how many foreigners are buying our houses, or why Fletchers have such a stranglehold on building supplies that German insulation giant Knauf quit the New Zealand market after barely a year.

And the list of the things the government doesn’t want us to know gets longer by the month. There will be no inquiry into the allegations made by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson of civilian deaths in a SAS operation in Afghanistan because the Prime Minister was advised by the Defence Force that there was no need. It is simply staggering that those accused of behaving illegally effectively get to decide if their actions should be examined more closely.

The government will not set up a foreign land ownership register, even though Australia and other developed nations have one. As Winston Peters said after his bill to set up a register was defeated in Parliament last December: “New Zealand voters can now conclude that the government does not want this information to get into the public domain.”

It also rejected suggestions that we should have a public register for foreign trusts. When Andrew Little recommended a public register in a parliamentary debate after accountant John Shewan’s report appeared last year, then Revenue Minister Michael Woodhouse dismissed it with: “Any suggestion that the salacious searching of the public register would be necessary or appropriate is just inappropriate.”

Wanting to know what dubious transactions are being made behind New Zealand trusts is apparently “salacious” according to this government.

And the same National Party that wants to push ahead with its much-vaunted “social investment” approach to child welfare doesn’t want to know what happened to thousands of children entrusted to the care of state institutions over the past 50 years, despite our prisons being stuffed with their graduates. "Would an inquiry add anything?” asked Bill English, a man who likes to parade himself as a champion of data-driven analysis of social problems.

The other question that arises, as Reddell pointed out, is why as a society we tolerate being treated like this. The government, from the Prime Minister down, are our employees, on three-year contracts. What makes them think they can behave with such contempt for their employers?

My suspicion is that it’s in our genes and our history. New Zealand was mostly settled by a swathe of lower-middle-class Brits whose descendants pretend to be disdainful of authority but are at heart forelock-tuggers in the presence of their rulers and imagined betters.

We really, really want to believe the best about our nation, but increasingly the only way to do that is to ignore the chasm between the rich and poor, our bulging jails and filthy rivers, and accept the bland reassurances that pour from the lips of our political masters that all is well, even as we quietly suspect there is a lot going on we’re not being told about.

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