Wednesday 10 April 2019

Convenient Fictions

Abstract Noun: Do our political leaders still cleave to the Jeffersonian principle that government derives its just powers “from the consent of the governed”? Or do those who now inhabit the upper echelons of the New Zealand state consider themselves beyond the reach of democratic sanction?

THE APPALLING CONDUCT of the Waikato DHB raises broader questions about the robustness of New Zealand’s liberal democracy. Most particularly, it challenges the whole notion that the administrators of New Zealand society remain accountable to the people they administrate. The DHB’s treatment of Dave Macpherson, Jane Stevens and their family; its consistent refusal to accept its responsibility for the avoidable death of their son and brother, Nicky, poses a further question. Do our political leaders still cleave to the Jeffersonian principle that government derives its just powers “from the consent of the governed”? Or do those who now inhabit the upper echelons of the New Zealand state consider themselves beyond the reach of democratic sanction?

Because it’s not only Dave Macpherson and his family who have been on the receiving end of a state apparatus that seems completely unconstrained. Consider the treatment of investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, and the editor of The Daily Blog itself, Martyn Bradbury, at the hands of the New Zealand Police. Recall the efforts of the New Zealand Defence Force to destroy the reputation of New Zealand’s leading war correspondent, Jon Stephenson. The extreme lengths to which the NZDF was prepared to go to undermine Stephenson’s credibility; and the hundreds-of-thousands of taxpayers’ dollars expended in the process; beggars belief.

The situation would appear nowhere near so grim if there was the slightest sign that the election of a progressive coalition government had led to the rapid correction of these abuses. To date, however, there is no sign that anyone in the new regime is seized with an urgent desire to put things right. Has the new Minister of Health instituted a full inquiry into the extraordinary decision-making of the Waikato DHB? Has he been there for Dave and Jane? Is there the slightest evidence that David Clark is committed to making his health administrators accountable to the people they are being paid to serve? Not so far.

It’s the same story with the supposedly independent inquiry into the NZDF’s “Operation Burnham”. What was supposed to be an open and transparent inquiry into allegations of officially undisclosed civilian casualties, has become an exercise in keeping the public at bay. The excuse of “national security” has been accepted by former prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, and former Solicitor-General, Sir Terrance Arnold, to the point where the possibility of the NZDF being held to public account – let alone charged with breaches of military and civilian law – has diminished to near zero.

The legal and political assumptions on display at the Operation Burnham inquiry bear closer scrutiny. Palmer’s and Arnold’s acceptance of the proposition that national security concerns over-ride the right of New Zealand citizens, in whose name the NZDF supposedly acts, to judge for themselves both the objectives, execution and consequences of military operations, implies the existence of secret set of state protocols from which even the most basic democratic principles have been rigorously excluded. The disturbing inference to be drawn from the rulings of Palmer and Arnold is that National Security and Democracy have very few – if any – areas of overlap.

As above, so below. If those on the lower rungs of the state apparatus are confident that the principles of democracy and accountability are regarded by their masters as convenient fictions, then they are hardly likely to pay them much mind themselves. If the preservation of the secrets of the state’s most daunting institutions is accorded an over-riding priority, then hiding their own failures from close public scrutiny is unlikely to strike them as objectionable. And, if they see the Police and the NZDF engaged in the ruthless pursuit of troublemakers, then why shouldn’t they screw over the likes of Dave Macpherson and Jane Stevens?

The repudiation of democratic accountability at the highest levels of the New Zealand state cannot help but contribute to the dangerous derangement of the moral compasses of its civil servants. Pressures from actors outside the state apparatus: business leaders; public relations firms, lobbyists, bloggers and press gallery journalists; are less and less likely to be resisted. Indeed, it is probable that the distinctions between public and private interests will blur and fade to the point where the only factor worthy of consideration is whether or not the persons or groups seeking the services of the state apparatus are powerful, or powerless.

Dave Macpherson’s treatment by the Waikato DHB is instructive in this regard. Determined to get justice for his son, and for the children of so many other New Zealanders let down by this country’s woeful mental health system, Dave stood for – and won – a seat on the Waikato DHB. Democracy in action, you might think. Unfortunately not. Dave is explicitly excluded from all discussions relating to the death of his son, on the grounds that he has a clear conflict of interest. Not perceived to have any kind of conflict of interest are the persons who are currently pursuing every legal means of overturning the Coroner’s verdict on the death of Nicky Stevens.

So inured has the DHB Board become to its unelected staff calling the shots, that they see nothing unusual or wrong about this state of affairs. Neither does the Minister of Health. Nor the Labour-NZ First-Green Coalition. What’s more, until the governed get up on their hind legs and remind their government that every power it wields, it wields only because they will it; and that they and their servants are accountable to the people – and only to the people; then the slow but steady diminution of citizens’ democratic rights will continue until they become, in reality, the convenient fictions which politicians and administrators have, for the past thirty years, been working so assiduously to make them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 April 2019.


John Drinnan said...

Well said. Two important cases. But there appears to be a wider illness in the public service -largely due to a lack of discipline from op[ublic servants who wax lyrical about political activism. The State Services commission appears to shrug its shoulders. and say meh. This appears to have started
under Nats and become entrenched under the current regime.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Chris, Chris............. the whole point of reorganising the system was to make sure the government could be at arms length and deny all responsibility for "operational matters" – and incidentally give them a scapegoat for when things went pear-shaped.

Robert - said...

Pests and troublemakers. Hamilton is an alternative universe, which has had dysfuntional and useless politicians for half a century. Its sort of provicnial suburban, California and anything with a photo and a half credible CV could get elected here. Personally Im even less inclined to believe Mcphersons and Jane Stevens story than Hagers. Police are often narrow minded conservativ people and no one should be surprised if the son goes troppo, druggie or mental. The real blame might just be the parents or dumb father, bright mother a poor mix. In terms of the Hager story, Im not a marxist or pacifist like him and unlike Clark, Ardent and Petra Kelly my aim is an effective real military with good platforms and weapons operated by fit, intelligent people who follow orders immediately ( ie I reject he latest Military discipline bill as the have to get on the warships if ordered, and while it isnt time yet to introduce the Prussian administrative and miliary discipline model- we do not need civilain standardisation or that O'Connor speech-' the people , the people the people' subverting military discipline and calling for more jobs and pay for useless people. However being about Wellington much of the time I have noticed the nature of O'Connors the people,people, now other than the beautifully named Catholic Workers Party people they are huge anarchists , you know 6ft 4 inch skinhead 'peacenicks' with a huge A on the tee shirt, so are they plants or is what Trotter is supporting. Who knows, but actually, I can not say I am interested. I don't believe McPherson and Stevens for a minute. They aret oo stupid and communist to know the truth but in terms of the current Hager issue, fundamentally you need a 100,00 men and your own airforce to have an army, so where only a cog in the wheel and if we have SAS and soldiers presumably they are for fighting

Charles W Etherington said...

Shows who really governs, and it is not the people we elect.
Some brake on the elected is good, to help guard against the tyranny of a radical 51%, but these cases and so many more illustrate why perhaps an incoming government should be able to sack half the bureaucracy and get in fresh blood. Our employment law and unions prevent this.
Then again in the US where they can do that, it does not help much.
Shane Jones entirely agrees with you Chis. And David Seymour I expect.
Don't suppose that helps you ...

Larry Mitchell said...

Quote: "Or do those who now inhabit the upper echelons of the New Zealand state consider themselves beyond the reach of democratic sanction?"

Indubitably YES! They consider themselves above/immune to democratic principles.

Your (this) posting is as good a critique of a (NZ) democracy in crisis, as I have ever read.

I fear though, that to quote again, "citizens arising ... on their hind legs" is a very slight and poorly devised strategy for Reform.

I/we await a leader (s) who subscribes to your plaints Chris.

For by God ... we need her/him.

greywarbler said...

John Drinnan
You confuse me. 'Public servants who wax lyrical about political activism'. Describe one case and give a link please. Or are you having a go at public service unions asking for appropriate conditions to enable their work? This is my Sherlock Holmes deduction from your note of the appearance of a stain on the escutcheon of public servants.

Nick J said...

GS is 100 percent correct, time to repeal the State sector act and go back to the uncorporatised civil service.

greywarbler said...

Join the tongue-in-cheek lobby group The Convenient Fictions now, or be the first to start it. And while tongue in and not out the group would be listening to the tenor of politicians' outputs and what lies beneath the surface of the chosen words.

And then what would they do? Have to be ready for serious surveillance I would think. A dangerous group of people thinking about stuff!

Plugger said...

Like sharks detecting blood in water, top bureaucrats detect weak ministers.

Clark is owned by his bureaucrats and top advisors.

Geoff Fischer said...

As I headed into the bush a couple of weeks ago Ms Ardern was heading to Beijing to tell XiJinping that the New Zealand government had no control over which companies were banned from supplying communications apparatus to New Zealand telecommunications companies. I imagine that Xi would have politely asked her to fly back home and send the person who does make the decisions here - in other words, why talk to the monkey rather than the organ grinder?
Ardern and Little could exercise power. They simply choose not to. They have abdicated power in New Zealand to the security forces, and that is where things will remain. We will see more and more disturbing developments as the rule of law is eclipsed by the growth in power of the deep state, with the silent complicity of the coalition government.
If anyone thinks that the Tirgiran massacre has been the subject of a cover-up (which it has) wait until we see how the aftermath of the Al Noor massacre is handled.

greywarbler said...

Wow Robert's stream of consciousness. Like a bad dream, or even a nightmare. The Defence Forces if they think like Robert are fighting for an entity, not the people but a familiar landscape perhaps, whether it has people in it or not. Or just to have something to spur one on in the morning in a world full of confusing possibilities. The military might seem an excellent career with understood boundaries and order. Not knowing people means not understanding them, or perhaps oneself. Then having a mission defines one's actions and future.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Some brake on the elected is good, to help guard against the tyranny of a radical 51%"
Christ yes Charles, I couldn't agree more. We could have done with some form of brake on them in 1984. And a brake would have been would have been totally welcome in 1991. Which is rather why I like MMP. It does provide something of a brake.

Charles W Etherington said...

GS we are in agreement about the Civil Service. Not civil and not serving.
Same goes for our local Councils. Salaries start at $200k+ for hundreds of them and they have a 'CEO' on $400+. CEO! It's not fucking IMB! I think a CEO used to be 'Town Clerk".

On this I agree the period you call neo-liberal gave us this crap. The bullshit of paying 'market salaries' should go. What market? We on the right tolerated it because the pay-off was indeed a liberalisation of the economy which hugely benefited whole nations like ours in the long run. But excessive salaries for civil servants is very damaging to the cohesion of society because all the rest of the PAYE world, a majority I expect, have to pay for it. At least the ludicrous salaries in large private corporations are just screwing investors like me. That may just give rise to a bit of envy. But resentment across the board of the public sector is seriously corrosive, and dangerous I believe. It is a type of corruption, which is what Chris is pointing at above.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Bugger me Charles. We do agree – 100% on this. Though to be fair, civil servants usually got relatively poor pay because they had job security – which they don't have so much now. Excuse me a second I've got to go and lasso a pig I see flying around outside my second story window.

greywarbler said...

GS There might be employment difficulties in the lower echelons, but at the higher in the government employ the old USA saying might be applied.
A rocket in development was dubbed with the ironic name, Civil Service, because 'It won't work, and they can't fire it.'

The golden yellow brick road seems often to be the exit pathway for those planning expensive computer and technology programs, to which the above saw appears to apply. It's rather appropriate to think of the Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy, the Lion and the Tinman all journeyed hopefully to the centre of Oz as so many NZs have and found a fog of confusion and disappointment. If they looked back to the centre of NZ, there was a cloud over Wellington also.