Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Where have all the grown-ups gone?

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 na├»ve 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.


TM said...

Goodness, I'm not sure how one construes local bodies supplying tainted water as market failure.

Self-delusional cogitation? Something about pots and kettles stirs in the back of my mind...

Anonymous said...

We want potable water for people, but the standards imposed on rural water supplies by the previous government would have required expesnive treatment of all water, most of which is drunk by stock.

It's not potable water vs dirty water, it's affordable water for people rather than expesnive water for everything.

Nick said...

On the post script issue: Dont you understand the "media" are the story, they told us this, and sales of womens magazines with "celeb" stories proves it! Real news, oh so dull, and dangerous to boot. And if we heard it we might not like it, so best not tell us. Anyway weather floozies and their affairs with other "celebs" are far more satisfying fare. Get with it Chris, this real stuff is very intrusive, even you might say subversive.

Nick said...

On the issue of Rodney Hide, somehow the man got a PHD, proof that so long as you work hard, and do good parrot impressions, thinking too deeply can be avoided with no detrimental effect to your graduation as a "Dr"..

You failed to mention the Auckland super city which Rodders is so supportive of. He is working on the principle of bigger is better (from my extensive business experience I can conclusively demonstrate that it rarely is). There may however be an unexpected paradox in the right wings obvious support for this anti democratic concept......what if Otara and Manukau decided enmasse that they really should have a Pacifica mayor for sunny Aukalofa...how great would that be? Now theres an idea Rod.

DW specialist said...

Homepaddock - Suppliers of drinking water need only take 'all practicable steps' to comply. Therefore if it's really too expensive for the community to make their water safe then they will not be required to do it. I understand that a new section in the standards is being developoed (section 12)to address the concerns that some rural people have when their water supply is used primarily for stock.

Steve Withers said...

It's amazing watching the present government behave like the Bush Administration did in the US.....completely failing to understand that this is the sort of behaviour that lead to the crash last year:

* Deny reality
* Distort or dismiss evidence you don't like
* Cut funding to regulators and appoint cronies to run them
* Implement tax cuts conceived in a boom and now re-jigged to be "stimulus" in a crash....just as bush did in 2001 after the tech Crash.

Amazing. Yet so dreadfully predictable.

Steve Withers said...

Homepaddock: I owned a farm and provided myself and my family and my stock with potable, filtered water for barely more than $2000. I installed a UV cylinder, three filters for house (20 micron, 1 micron and a carbon filter) and a 20 micron filter for the stock water. With farms worth millions, there is no excuse for not providing even this basic level of water treatment while somehow finding the money for flash new SUV's and wide-screen TVs.