ARE there no grown-ups left in this country? No one capable of grasping the full significance of the multiple crises through which New Zealand is passing? Not one person with the authority to ‘round up all the spoilt and noisy children currently playing at being responsible adults – and send them to their rooms?
Rodney Hide, for example, is in dire need of some "time out". Confronted with expert advice from the Ministry of Health that up to 20 percent of New Zealanders are at risk of catching something nasty from their drinking water, what does our Minister for Local Government do?
Does he pound the Finance Minister’s, Bill English’s, desk – demanding a budget allocation sufficient to secure for the entire population that most fundamental of civic amenities: a secure supply of potable water?
No, he doesn’t. He demands that the Ministry of Health’s findings be "urgently reviewed".
Now every civil servant knows exactly what "urgently reviewed" means: it’s politician-speak for "take this report away and come back with a set of policy recommendations more in line with the Minister’s views".
Whether or not the Ministry of Health bows to Mr Hide’s astonishing temper tantrum over water quality standards will be a measure of just how grown-up a nation we truly are.
Either the water supplied to citizens by New Zealand’s local authorities is safe, or it is not. If it is unsafe, then a grown-up government initiates the processes required to make it safe. Only a child attempts to wish away the obstacles reality places in his path, and adult behaviour enabling such "magic thinking" is not only very wrong, it is also extremely dangerous.
Mr Hide is, of course, an enthusiastic convert to the ideology of neo-liberalism – an infantile conceptual system especially prone to magic thinking. At it’s core lies a childlike faith in the omniscience and omnipotence of "free markets". Central to this faith is the naïve conviction that, left to its own devices, the market is capable of fulfilling all of humanity’s needs.
Not surprisingly, nothing enrages the neo-liberal child more than being presented with evidence of market failure.
Anyone who identifies circumstances in which the disciplines of the marketplace simply don’t apply (as in the provision of such basic civic amenities as clean water, hygienic sewerage disposal and street-lighting) should expect a very short shrift.
It is no accident that Mr Hide holds the portfolio of Local Government. Because at no other point in the complex edifice of the State is neo-liberalism’s capacity for magical cogitation and wishful thinking more urgently required than at this crucial intersection of theory and reality.
The economists may refer to the destructive and unaccounted-for effects of market interactions as "externalities", but you and I experience them as pollution.
Allow the market for dairy products to operate freely, without effective regulation, and what do you get? Filthy streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries; exhausted acquifers; and constantly rising levels of expenditure for keeping New Zealand’s water supplies – especially those in rural areas – uncontaminated by harmful bacteria.
It simple enough. You’d think even a child could grasp it.
Not that infantile behaviour is restricted to the politicians.
Only last week I was reading about the judge who put away a gang of Chinese "P" (pure methamphetamine) dealers. They’d been running a sophisticated importation and distribution business out of the VIP Room at the Sky City Casino. So alarmed had the judge become at the scale of the operation (millions of dollars-worth of "P" had been traded) that he insisted on sending his sentencing notes to the Sky City Casino’s CEO.
So far, so grown-up.
Then I read about a group of media and sporting celebrities who’ve banded together to combat the use of "P" in the New Zealand community – reportedly the highest per capita in the world.
Rather appropriately, this star-studded bunch have come together under the auspices of the Stellar Trust.
To get the fund-raising ball rolling, the group has decided to "celebrity roast" the veteran broadcaster, Paul Holmes. At just over $3,000 for a table of ten, it promises to be a real red-carpet event.
Then I discover where the fundraiser is being held.
Yep, you guessed it: at the Sky City Casino.
Would the last grown-up leaving New Zealand please remember to switch off the lights in the VIP Room.
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday 27 March 2009.
POST-SCRIPT: Right on cue, the day this column appeared, the host of TVNZ’s Breakfast show, Paul Henry, provoked consternation and outrage by reading out an e-mail commenting unfavourably on one of his female guest’s facial hair.
The saddest aspect of Henry’s gratuitous discourtesy is not so much that the host of a supposedly serious news and current affairs programme sees nothing wrong in insulting his guests on air, but the deafening silence from TVNZ management.
Many (perhaps most) television "personalities" suffer from a grossly inflated opinion of their own significance – it sort of goes with the territory. And that’s why shows like Breakfast have producers – to keep the egos of their "talent" in check.
The lack of grown-up behaviour on the set of Breakfast is unfortunate – if unsurprising. But its absence in the control-room, and, it would seem, the ranks of TVNZ management, is unforgivable.