Posts Tagged ‘Gordon Campbell’

No democracy on the honour system

datePosted on 21:47, September 14th, 2010 by Lew

This morning I posited a conspiracy theory that the government would use the temporary deregulation measures undertaken in response to the Canterbury earthquake to progress another tranche of wide-ranging reforms to the resource management regime and building and construction industries after the 2011 election.

Absurdly, if the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill is passed without very extensive amendments of the sort proposed by the Greens and voted down by both major parties (it’s going through all three stages right now), then all that and much, much more could happen this week, no election required, and without any review by the courts. The executive powers granted to the relevant Minister (that’s Gerry Brownlee) in this bill are so sweeping as to permit him to do almost literally anything as long as it has something to do with quake recovery — amend or suspend almost any piece of legislation, overturn any electoral decision — really, Dean Knight, Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis (themselves no wide-eyed conspiracy nuts) are just three of the constitutional law experts who are boggling at the possibilities; Idiot/Savant is also much more than usually incandescent, and Gordon Campbell pulls few punches, either. Geddis says the law gives him “a case of the screaming collywobbles”. How’s that for a technical term. Their argument — contra government speakers such as Nick Smith — is that, because there is no real oversight to test whether actions taken are “reasonably necessary or expedient for the purpose of the Act”, the bill’s scope is not strictly limited in black-letter law to those matters, nor indeed to the region impacted by the quake, and the minister and his commission basically enjoy immunity. These are sweeping powers such as those which might be accorded an executive head of state in a command-government situation such as a major war.

Not would happen, mind. I don’t think anyone genuinely thinks Gerry Brownlee will decriminalise murder, approve mining across all schedule 4 land, enact wartime conscription or overrule the results of the forthcoming Supercity election. I don’t. But the point is (assuming Dean Knight knows what he’s talking about) that Brownlee can. Or will be able to tomorrow, until April 2012, which astute readers will note is a good half-year after the next general election must be held. There are no real checks or balances, much of the actions taken under this legislation are able to be taken in secret, and actions taken will not — at least on paper — be subject to judicial review. This means that we are relying on Gerry Brownlee to not be evil. But democracy doesn’t work on the honour system. It can’t. It doesn’t work on the basis that you give a government power in the hope that they use it legitimately; you give it power on the basis that you have the authority and ability to wrest it back from them if they misuse it, and on the assumption they will misuse it. The honour system is fine for bouquets being sold at the cemetery gates. It’s no basis upon which to run a country.

As I’ve often argued here and elsewhere, what sets liberal democracy, with all its failings, apart from authoritarian systems is the ability for the electorate to transfer power by the exercise of these sorts of checks and balances. Under orthodox authoritarian socialism for examplem — more or less the only form of socialism ever fully implemented on a nationwide scale, in the USSR and China, for instance — the transitional dictatorship is empowered with the sole authority and means to put down any such counter-revolution as might endanger the transition to genuine communism; and because of this, the dictatorship enjoys impunity. It has no reason to work in the interests of the people it purports to serve, inevitably becoming inefficient, corrupt and brutal. (Thus, the problem with socialism is authoritariansm which accompanies it, not so much the economic aspects, but that isn’t my point here).

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill, of all the ridiculous things, brings into being the potential for just such a regime in New Zealand, and we can only hope it is not used to that effect. It is a colossal, hypervigilant overreach. And if any ill comes from this, Labour — and even the Greens and the māori party — will bear as much responsibility as National; they are all supporting it out of “unity”.

Where now are those who railed against the Electoral Finance Act, who speculated darkly that Helen Clark might not relinquish power after the election, or might suspend the operation of the free press; who shrieked about the Section 59 repeal; against ‘Nanny State’ and the illusory Stalinism of lightbulbs and shower heads, drink-drive limits and alcohol purchase ages and compulsory student union membership? Here the papers are being signed to dismantle robust constitutional democracy right under our very noses, and there’s barely a whimper.

(Updated to add Lyndon Hood’s fantastic image of Brownlee VIII, link to Campbell’s article, and tidy the post up a bit.)

L

Incoherence about national education standards

datePosted on 08:21, February 3rd, 2010 by Lew

There’s incoherence in the government’s rollout of the new national educational standards regime which goes beyond the unreasonable use of statistics I noted yesterday, and it’s illustrated most crisply in the differing approaches taken to mainstream schools and kura kaupapa Māori. Simply put, standards are being implemented on a trial basis (audio link) in KKM, and without a trial process in mainstream schools. The problem is not about a lack of background: Anne Tolley made this clear last year in response to a Parliamentary question from Te Ururoa Flavell, saying that there existed “a significantly robust research basis from which to develop national standards in kura kaupapa Māori.”

The mainstream education sector — without whose buy-in any such implementation will certainly fail — are understandably furious since their main problem with national standards has not been one of principle so much as a lack of confidence in the details of any regime’s implementation and an understandable desire to have input into a system which will fundamentally change the nature of their work. A substantial part of the reason they are suspicious is because National spent its nine (long) years in opposition taking every possible opportunity to deride the education sector as Labour toadies and teachers as walk-sock-and-cardigan-wearing fat-bottomed do-nothings, and as NZ Principal’s Federation president Ernie Buutveld says in the interview above, the sector’s suspicions have been confirmed: national standards is less about measuring students and more about measuring teachers, with a punitive view to demonising them in the eyes of parents. This is the political motive: driving parents to vote for National rather than for Labour. I suppose the reasoning goes something like, if teachers are well-respected and regarded and generally vote Labour, Labour will be similarly well-respected and regarded amongst parents. Or something like that.

The problem with measuring teachers on the performance of their students, however, (and I speak as a former teacher), is the same as the problem of judging a football team by its fans. A team doesn’t choose its fans, and schools or teachers don’t choose their students. There is only a certain extent to which a given teacher, however inspired or well-meaning, can influence the social, cultural, economic, health and other factors which feed into educational success; even more so when there exists a strictly results-focused teaching culture, rather than an improvement and engagement-focused culture, as there certainly will once standards are bedded in.

This is not to say that KKM should be denied their national standards trial process. But that is what National should be saying, in order to be consistent. Because the stated reason a similar trial has been repeatedly denied the mainstream education sector is urgency — the sense that we must move swiftly and make the changes so that not one more child will be left behind. This sort of incoherence in policy and rhetoric (or, as it is in this case, between policy and rhetoric) always yields flaws which can and should be exploited, and here’s the flaw in this. One of the two following statements is necessarily true:

  • The Government’s justification for rolling out national standards in mainstream schools without a trial period (urgency) is false and misleading, and accordingly the government’s motives in rolling out the trial period are different to their stated motives; or
  • The Government doesn’t care about kura kaupapa Māori students or schools, and doesn’t consider their educational standards a matter of urgency or substantial importance.

So, Anne Tolley and John Key, which is it?

L

Update: Sage wisdom on this topic from Gordon Campbell.

Howling at the moon

datePosted on 10:38, June 9th, 2009 by Lew

It’s not very often I get excited about a new entrant to NZ’s media ecology. The last time I did was for MiNDFOOD, based on the pre-release PR, and that only lasted until I opened the thing up and realised it was just another glossy ad-filled waiting-room mag with skinny celebrities on the cover.

But this morning I’ve read most of werewolf, the latest offering from Scoop’s Gordon Campbell and others, to be published every full moon. I’m pleasantly surprised. The debut edition features a reasonably thorough survey of Helen Clark’s little-considered but much-valued arts policy through the Oughties; a good bag of the smacking petition which drew immediate fire from petition backers Bob McCoskrie and Larry Baldock in comments; a satire primer from the dependably excellent Lyndon Hood; and a bit about the effect of electoral systems on democracy – case in point: Lebanon. Music and travel writing as well. Go read some of it.

I can only assume that Gordon’s choice of masthead is drawn from the same place as my title, the name of Ian Wishart’s publishing company. In some ways werewolf reminds me of Investigate: a niche publication which will try to carve out its niche from a critical, complicated, politically and philosophically-engaged, media-aware, somewhat geeky audience and specialising in long-format, analysis-rich material which digs a bit deeper than that published (and re,re,republished) by the usual suspects.

Like Investigate/TGIF/TBR, it has potential to bridge the divide between traditional and new media formats essentially by providing the best of both worlds – periodic, reliable and high-quality content which doesn’t demand too great a commitment in time or resource from its audience but which provides blog-style opportunities for engagement should readers want them. Since I don’t imagine Gordon and co. would overly appreciate being compared to Ian, I should note that that’s where I think (and hope) the similarity ends – NZ doesn’t need another ideologically-bound narcissistic soap-box publication, and that this first edition is not. Nevertheless, I wish them all the success Ian has had, and bring on the next episode.

L

I do believe it's not butterA few weeks ago, Gordon Campbell wrote an excellent fisk of the Media Biz 09 conference advertising bumpf. This morning on Mediawatch (from 06:30) Colin Peacock covered the issue in characteristic depth, interviewing the conference organiser and two of its luminary speakers, the ones who would “share the secrets of getting your message across positively”, help delegates “get inside the minds of the men whose leadership shapes what the viewing audiences see” and enable them to “get your story to the top of the pile”. Three wise and grizzled industry heads, when questioned by Peacock, emphasised two things; first, that the marketing material was breathless over-hyped bullshit, and second, there were in fact no secrets to impart:

Mark Jennings, TV3 Head of News and Current Affairs:

“I think the marketing for this event has been over-egged […] I can tell you right now that if anybody coming to this conference thinks they’re going to learn any super-secrets on how to handle the media, they’re mistaken. There aren’t any great big secrets, and if there was, we wouldn’t be divulging them.”

Mark Sainsbury, TV One Close Up Host:

“I paid no attention to the marketing of this thing. I had quite a simple inquiry from Rob Harley saying they were doing this conference, that it was mainly for voluntary groups, community organisations in terms of how to understand the media […] This is the conference as it was sold to me, and the marketing, of course, as you well know, is something totally different. You don’t go along to, almost a semi-public conference, and people are somehow going to be handing over the secrets. […] I mean, there is no great sort of secret to hide or anything to impart.”

Rob Harley, Media Biz 09 Organiser:

“I’m wondering what they [journalists not involved in the conference who have expressed concerns] think those secrets are. […] we could argue the toss all morning about how we worded the brochure, or whether if we’d spent a bit more time workshopping it we could have got it right, fair point.”

I have a few questions in response to this rather remarkable set of statements.

1. Given that there are in fact no great secrets, why would anyone attend such a conference, at a cost of $2k per delegate?
2. If the conference is in fact pitched at the voluntary sector, community groups, educators and the like, variations of which were affirmed by all three speakers including Harley, why is it billed as “the ultimate conference for business people seeking more effective use of the media”, and why does it cost $2k per delegate (a cost far beyond the budgets of most such groups)? Come on, the word `biz’ is even in the conference title!
3. Why would anyone take communications advice from a bunch of people who have so abjectly failed to: a. communicate the purpose of their conference; b. correctly identify its target audience; c. market their conference material in such a way that it actually has some relationship with reality; d. avoid negative publicity for all of the above; and e. make any sort of justification to combat negative publicity stemming from the above failures, other than `well, yeah, the marketing is bollocks and there are no secrets anyhow’?

It’s possible to view this either as sinister or incompetent: either the conference organisers and the news agencies involved are just utterly incompetent and are now making excuses, or there is a co-ordinated post-hoc damage control programme underway, as those same people try to spin the story away from Gordon Campbell’s argument that this was a sinister meeting of the news and PR industries and an assault on media independence.

According to all three interviewees, the real purpose of the conference was to allow news professionals to try to help people understand how the media works at an operational level so as to help them make it easy for the media to run their story: essentially, promoting media literacy among sectors who are traditionally not media literate. This ostensibly to combat cases like the example Rob Harley gave, where “everybody lost because the requisite information was not included in the news, stuff that had been said overseas which really needed to be commented on in New Zealand went begging for an explanation.” He’s absolutely right – there is a strong public good in having all sectors of the community meet a minimal standard of communications expertise. This sort of training can be a hugely important service, imparting skills (not `great secrets’) which are already widely exercised in business circles to groups without the capacity to employ trained comms staff or PR firms.

So, in my view, Rob Harley and the others involved in Media Biz 09 have a great opportunity to match their actions to their fine words about media literacy and the community and voluntary sector, by inviting a few delegates from key community or voluntary organisations to attend on a pro-bono or subsidised-fee basis. The conference is (presumably) too close to deadline to cancel, according to Harley it probably won’t break even anyhow, and I can’t see this epic PR fail helping to lift enrolment among the monied businessfolks at whom it’s targeted. But there’s no doubting the credentials of the speakers, and it’ll probably be a cracking two days. An opportunity for those involved to do some good, restore a bit of goodwill in the media, and wipe some egg off their well-known faces.

Edit: Gordon has emailed me to point out the seemingly-obvious, that they’re not so much knaves or fools, but apparently knaves then fools.

Edit, 20090217: Event director Richard Nauck told bFM’s Jose Barbosa a few interesting facts. First, he says half the registrations are non-profit organisations, while most of the remainder are small-business and schools; second, all the non-profits got in for half-price, and only about 20% of attendees have paid full-price; third, he “truly regrets” the use of the word `secrets’ in the advertising bumpf. In the same session, Jose also interviewed Brian Edwards, who does this sort of thing himself, but retains grave concerns about the conflicts of interest for the media people involved.

L