Friday 24 July 2009

Beyond Reasonable Rout

No room for reason: "Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don't quite understand you,' she said, as politely as she could." New Zealand politics and Lewis Carrol's "Wonderland" seem to have more and more in common.

IT’S one of the most alarming sentences I’ve ever read – made all the more disturbing by being written by one of this country’s most respected journalists.

This is what The New Zealand Herald’s political correspondent, John Armstrong, wrote: "However, her major political crime was to be guilty of sounding reasonable."

Is this where we are now? At the point where a Minister of the Crown can expose herself to serious political criticism for behaving reasonably?

The event which prompted Mr Armstrong’s "guilty" verdict was the controversy surrounding the addition of folic acid to bread.

When this measure was first suggested by health professionals trying to reduce the number of babies born each year with neural tube defects like Spina Bifida, it was met with broad cross-party support by our legislators.

The overwhelming consensus among the international scientific community was that fortifying the population’s dietary staple in this way was not only extremely safe, but that it would also contribute significantly to reducing the individual and family suffering inevitably associated with such serious disabilities.

The Australians were ready to join the other Western nations (including the USA and the UK) already protecting their expectant mothers by fortifying flour-based products with Vitamin B, and New Zealand’s Labour-led Government voted to follow suit.

And that is where the matter should have rested. Tragically, however, a substantial proportion of the general public, whipped into an irrational frenzy by the Food & Grocery Council’s CEO (and former National Party MP) Katherine Rich, and kept in that excited state by a handful of journalists and politicians, has spooked the National-led Government into suspending the folic acid programme.

As Mr Armstrong put it: "In such circumstances, scientific logic and reason is the first casualty."

There is no disputing that the new Food Safety Minister, Kate Wilkinson, lacked the requisite media savvy to withstand the live-to-air joint assault by Paul Holmes and Green MP, Sue Kedgeley, on TVNZ’s Q&A programme. Crucially, it was the Minister’s poor television "performance" – not the merits of the case – which, it’s generally agreed by New Zealand’s leading media commentators, doomed the folic acid programme to defeat.

As political commentator, Matthew Hooton, put it on Radio New Zealand-National’s Nine-to-Noon programme: "You do wonder: if Kate Wilkinson had been representing the Food & Grocery Council, and Katherine Rich had been the one who ended up being the Minister, whether there would have been a different result."

But is this really the way we want our country to be governed? Are we really content to let the fate of a scientifically sanctioned, utterly reasonable, and socially compassionate policy be determined by how well a particular minister performs in the intricately scripted and crassly artificial world of television? If it is, then we will have exchanged government policies based on scientific evidence and reasoned argument, for policies based on electronic demagoguery and the baying of the mob.

And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that there’s nothing morally wrong with the idea of turning politics into a kind of reality-tv show, in which unpopular policies are "voted off the island" by an electorate motivated by carefully contrived anxieties and insatiable greed.

Over the course of the next three years, more than a dozen babies who need not have been will be born with Spina Bifida. They and their families will suffer horribly – and unnecessarily – for the rest of their lives because the Food & Grocery Council demonstrated a more effective grasp of the principles of public relations than a handful of over-worked doctors.

Their mistake was to believe, along with the political philosopher Maurice Glassman, that: "The distinction between necessary and unnecessary suffering defines the limits of political rationality. In delineating a domain of pain which is amenable to concerted public amelioration from a sphere of grief that is immutable, it defines the power of society to respond to the miseries of life."

Confronted with the misery of Spina Bifida, and given the opportunity to ameliorate that misery through concerted public action, New Zealanders, through their government, have opted to leave the "domain of pain" undiminished.

We had the chance to reduce the unnecessary suffering of our fellow citizens, and we chose not to.

The best we can say of ourselves now, is that Mr Armstrong is unlikely to find us guilty of either "political rationality", or "sounding reasonable".

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 24 July 2009.

1 comment:

Richard McGrath said...

Why mass medicate all bread-eaters when it's only the children of bread-eating pre-pregnant women who will benefit from the folic acid? What about women who are gluten intolerant or for some other reason don't eat bread? And will the makers of organic free-range bread be forced to add folate to their bread too?