Intimidator-in-Chief: For eight years Dr Nick Smith has worked hard to convince voters that he is the National Party's chief point of environmental resistance; the one brave voice raised in opposition to the milk-before-water lobbyists of Fonterra and Federated Farmers. Now we know that it isn't true.
DR NICK SMITH’S crude intimidation of the Fish and Game Council points to the bleakest of environmental futures should National be re-elected on 20 September. It is now considerably clearer than 60 percent of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and streams that there are no serious points of environmental resistance in John Key’s Cabinet. For eight years Smith has worked hard to convince voters that he is, indeed, one such point of resistance, the one brave voice raised in opposition to the milk-before-water lobbyists of Fonterra and Federated Farmers. Now we know that it isn't true.
Smith’s threats to “tweak” the legislation establishing the Fish and Game Council is of a piece with this Government’s proven impatience with all forms of institutional dissent. It will not, it seems, be happy until every official check and balance against unbridled executive power has been neutralised.
Unless it is absolutely forced to (as in the case of Environment Canterbury) the Government’s strategy is not to make this suppression of dissenting voices explicit. Its preference is rather to intimidate these legislatively mandated watchdogs into silence. This can be effected in two ways. Either by appointing new and more malleable individuals to quasi-governmental boards and councils, or, by stripping those not subject to ministerial manipulation (like Fish and Game) of all their effective regulatory and/or advisory powers.
To casual observers it will appear as though nothing has changed because all the institutions created to permit democratic participation in the management of irreplaceable public resources will still be in place. But they will be looking at a regulatory ghost town. Behind the fading signage, nobody will be home.
A succession of National Party ministers have perfected this process by using the Department of Conservation as their guinea-pig. Since 2008 John Key’s government has systematically starved the "DoC" of the resources needed to properly manage and protect the vast estate it administers on the public’s behalf. Constant restructuring has allowed the Minister’s hand-picked managers to purge the Department of its experts and visionaries, wipe clean its institutional memory and leave in place only those willing to make the best of a situation which long ago made the transition from bad to worse.
Smith calls Key’s administration a “Blue-Green Government”. But the veteran conservationists, Guy Salmon and Gary Taylor, who established the original blue-green political party, the Progressive Greens, would almost certainly disagree. Much has changed since the early 1990s when Nick Smith and his fellow “Brat Packers”, Bill English, Roger Sowry and Tony Ryall, first entered Parliament.
Back then it was still possible for a National Party Environment Minister, Simon Upton, to seriously pursue the idea of a Carbon Tax. Over the past twenty years, however, the ideological and political consolidation of Neoliberalism has downgraded the natural environment to the status of a mere sub-set of the economy when, in reality, it is the other way round.
Neoliberals quickly grasped the deadly threat the science of ecology posed to the re-emergence of laissez-faire capitalism. In Marxist terms, the planet’s finite capacity to absorb the deadly externalities of carbon-based industrial civilisation constituted “the final contradiction”. Capitalism must either be tamed or it and the civilisation which created it will perish.
Rather than accept this last, irrefutable, existential challenge to Capitalism its defenders have opted instead for the politics of outright denial. But climate change “scepticism” is only the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg when it comes to the political and cultural consequences of Neoliberalism’s refusal to face the facts of anthropogenic global warming.
Resisting “the final contradiction” requires neoliberalism to destroy the rationalist and scientific foundations of the industrial civilisation upon which it stands. This can only be accomplished by undermining the public’s faith in the scientific method and investing all opinions – no matter how absurd – with a spurious equivalence. Evidence-based decision-making, which former National politicians like Simon Upton accepted as the sine qua non of competent and rational governance, is being supplanted by ‘evidence’ commissioned and purchased on the open market from ‘experts’ who specialise in telling Capitalism and its political agents exactly what they want to hear. (Alister Barry’s documentary film, Hot Air, shows how the Carbon Lobby and Federated Farmers utilised this technique to delay and/or defeat every attempt by successive New Zealand governments to combat climate change.)
The politics of denial also requires the complete hollowing out of those state institutions deliberately constructed to collect evidence from individuals and groups best placed to provide it. Institutions – like Fish and Game – whose democratic composition protects the processes of gathering evidence from those with a vested interest in suppressing information antithetical to their purposes.
When it comes to the Department of Conservation, Nick Smith and his colleagues know they have nothing to fear – as the censoring of the evidence DoC's scientists had gathered about the ecological effects of the proposed Ruataniwha Dam made clear. But Fish and Game and uncooperative Regional Councils still have an evidential sword to draw in defence of Mother Nature.
Shut them down.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 28 July 2014.