Posts Tagged ‘Paula Bennett’

What we are expected to believe

datePosted on 07:48, May 24th, 2016 by Lew

In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.

Bullshit and its proliferation

I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.

That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:

  • That the Prime Minister, the former head of global foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch who in 2005 said that New Zealand should become “the Jersey of the South Pacific”, does not know how overseas trusts in places like the Cayman Islands, Panama and New Zealand work.
  • That the Minister of Health, a former GP and health sector business consultant, does not think the quality of hospital food has declined as a result of cost-cutting he has forced upon the Southern DHB.
  • That the head of the Ministry of Primary Industries says there is no problem with fish being illegally dumped at sea, when internal documents from within his own department contain proof that such dumping is “widespread”, and further, that the contradiction between these two positions is “absolutely not a cover-up”.
  • That the Prime Minister thinks homeless people should see WINZ, when WINZ routinely refuse to deal with anyone who doesn’t have an address.
  • That putting those homeless people in $1300pw rental accomodation, the cost of which they must repay at a rate of $10-$20 per week for decades to come, is the best solution that the Ministry of Social Development can come up with, notwithstanding its annual budget of $24 billion and hundreds of qualified staff whose job it is to work out solutions to problems like this.

Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.

What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.

How we know it is bullshit

In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.

At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.

To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:

  1. Lack of automated, objective and repeatable metrics that can measure progress.
  2. IT engineers tend to be optimists. (In government, we might substitute policy analysts.)
  3. Managers like to look good and to give good news, because
  4. Upper management tends to reward good news and punish bad news, regardless of the actual truth content. Honesty in reporting problems or lack of progress is seldom rewarded; usually it is discouraged, subtly or at times quite bluntly.

So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”

[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]

This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.

Bullshit is the enemy of democracy

But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.

Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:

If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that we’re watching unfold.

The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.

The electoral risks of taking the piss

Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.

At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.

That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.

While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.

Double impunity

datePosted on 23:18, August 15th, 2012 by Lew

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has been said by the Director of the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, Robert Hesketh, to have breached the privacy of Natasha Fuller by making private information about her public in 2009.

Bennett does not accept Hesketh’s “opinion”; in a letter released by Hesketh she expressly states that “I do not believe I have breached privacy.” Moreover, she goes on to explain that she still considers such a strategy — of releasing private, confidential information about a member of the public to make a political point — to be perfectly legitimate.

And, really, why the hell wouldn’t she? It worked. Not only has she not been found to have done anything wrong, but she has suffered no consequences for those actions. No sort of reprimand has been issued, nor obeisances levied. Hesketh’s “opinion” — with which the minister is free to disagree upon no grounds whatsoever — is not in any way binding, and as such, has exactly as little value as mine. All soft speech and no big stick. It has taken three years and change to get to the point where the massed battalions of our much-vaunted system of civil liberties have been able to issue nothing more robust than a statement that the situation has been resolved “to the satisfaction of all parties”, apparently notwithstanding the stark disagreement between the positions of Hesketh and Bennett.

In a political environment where ministers are required by their leader to employ whatever means they can get away with to achieve their KPIs, we can’t really blame Bennett for doing so. She has proven extremely adept at this sort of machine politics, running decoy lines when other, less-adept, ministers find themselves in trouble — the most recent example of which having also emerged today: that there really was no clamour from employers to drug-test beneficiaries. So we can’s blame Bennett; she’s just following the incentives. Similarly, we can’t blame John Key — after all, his ministers are getting results, and his polling is holding up, so he’s just following the incentives as well. I do not know their mandate, but we may be able to lay a certain amount of blame at the feet of bureaucrats like Robert Hesketh. However, given Bennett’s and Key’s demonstrated ruthlessness, perhaps such a supine position is understandable. Had he caused too much trouble his office might have been gone by lunchtime, or redeployed to some higher-priority task like finding technical justifications for Special Tactics Group action against Kim Dotcom.

But regulatory or statutory means are weak when it comes to punishing ministers for their misdeeds. Since procedural decisions governing what action could and would be taken against a minister in such as case are themselves determined by ministers, the Iron Law comes into play: Unless forced, a Cabinet will never implement measures that might seriously constrain it. The main function of regulatory recourse, then, is not to impose actual, “hard” strictures on members of the executive, but to provide their opponents with opportunities to attack them, either on political or ideological grounds, or on grounds of character or competence. These are “soft” constraints on behaviour, in that they are normative rather than objective, and they rely on tactical factors and on a high degree of competence and tenacity — as well as measures of opportunism and ruthlessness — on the part of opposition politicians. Impunity that arises from hard constraints as I’ve discussed here, and as Pablo has written about previously, is unfortunate but understandable; the lack of soft constraints is less so. Bennett has not suffered any consequences of her actions because she has not been made to suffer them by the only group that might viably do so: the New Zealand Labour Party.* So I return to an argument I’ve made before: the government gets away with all this is because the opposition lets it. In this case, Bennett took a calculated risk and released information in a way that nonpartisan experts consider to be obviously unethical and an abuse of her position. She didn’t even calculate it very hard — she took no official or expert advice before releasing Natasha Fuller’s private information, she just knew she could get away with it. Not only did Paula Bennett enjoy the ordinary sort of impunity that comes from being a minister of the crown, she also knew that she enjoyed the double impunity of being virtually unopposed at the political level.

She had good grounds to know this. The Labour party, even as far back as mid-2009, had been so dysfunctional and so ineffective for so long that it could hardly come as a surprise. How many times, over the past five years, have Labour supporters seen some egregious outrage from the government and thought, “this time — surely even this lot can’t screw things up! If they can’t make the government pay for this, they don’t deserve to win!” I know I have written these sentiments many times, and spoken them aloud countless more.

And yet they keep failing. As long as they keep failing, these outrages will still happen. Even if not for its own sake, Labour owes the people of New Zealand a duty of competence that it is not currently fulfilling.

L

PS: Given this result and Bennett’s refusal to rule out such actions in the future, here’s a handy thing that Anita wrote at the time, expressly forbidding Bennett or anyone else from releasing our, or your, information for such purposes.

* But what of the Greens? I hear you ask. And fair enough — the Greens have in many ways been doing a better job of being a functional opposition than Labour have. But the Greens cannot apply direct zero-sum electoral pressure on National — they cannot hope for parity, and they cannot threaten the Treasury benches. The Greens are important as a source of pressure on Labour, but only Labour can pressure National.

Today has been a remarkable day. Rarely do we see such an epic failure of communication as we have seen from Alasdair Thompson. Because these events have played out mostly in public, they also present an unusually transparent example.

What follows is ten specific strategic communication lessons which are clearly evident from these events. My analysis isn’t political — I have political and ideological views on this matter, and I intend to write these up after some reflection, but the purpose here is to look at things dispassionately and pragmatically and consider what was done wrong, and what might have been done differently. They are framed quite generically and can be pretty widely applied. This is a long post, so I’ve hidden most of it below the fold.

Everything here is presented on an “in my opinion, for what it’s worth” basis, and should under no circumstances be interpreted as reflecting the views of my employer, or anyone other than me personally.

Read the rest of this entry »

Torpedoes?

datePosted on 12:21, March 25th, 2010 by Lew

Paula Bennett’s damn-the-torpedoes attitude toward the Attorney-General’s advice regarding the Bill of Rights Act — and Idiot/Savant’s observation that this is just the latest bit of policy in breach of that act — has me wondering. What happens if there are torpedoes?

What happens when a widower has his benefit cut by WINZ, having refused a work test which a woman in identical circumstances would not be required to undergo? Surely he has recourse to sue WINZ for that breach. If that’s so, and it seems like in a civil society governed by the rule of law it should be so, the government will surely open themselves up to considerable legal liability by implementing and enforcing this sort of policy (quite apart from the symbolic side of such cases getting hauled through the courts, and so on).

Can some of you lawyerin’ types out there in the internets give me a pub-argument explanation of the issues in this situation?

L

DPF pulls pin, leaves town

datePosted on 11:10, August 10th, 2009 by Lew

… and the resulting explosion is nothing short of spectacular.

Tara Te Heke is one of David’s four guest posters holding the reins while he’s on holiday. She is a single mum on the DPB who had three kids with a violent partner who left her in the lurch. Her story illuminates one of the problems with the bootstraps bootstraps bootstraps ideology commonly espoused on David’s side of the fence: not everyone can be on the top of the pile. Achieving the status Paula Bennett has may be something to strive toward, but those who fail to achieve such status aren’t necessarily failures – after all, there are only a few hundred such jobs in the country. Holding Paula up as an example is one thing; it’s quite another to say ‘Paula did it – there’s no reason you can’t too’. It just isn’t so. Markets are stratified by nature: there are some to whom the whole market is open; many more who may only access the lower reaches.

Perhaps it’s Tara’s awareness of the KBR culture, her status as an outsider to it, and her ironic adoption of the its lexicon (‘rorting the taxpayer’ to describe her drawing the DPB, etc) which has stimulated responses from the laudatory to the self-congratulatory, to the defensive, the typically heartless to the genuinely compassionate and understanding, and even questioning whether she’s a Hone Carter-esque ringer. It’s a rare beast, the second thread, and worth reading in its crazy two-hundred-plus-comment entirety.

Update: But wait, there’s more! Watch, as (when they don’t suit your argument) stereotypes are declared, well, stereotypical. Or just plain made up.

L

Allowing people a voice

datePosted on 12:29, August 1st, 2009 by Anita

Sam speaks out publicly about the fact that ACC payments for counselling do not cover the full cost of each counselling session and victims of crime like Sam are left to scrape together the difference. What information should Nick Smith be able to release about Sam’s circumstances? Should that include that Sam, who was sexually abused by a female caregiver when he was a child, insists on seeing a male counsellor, and in his small town there is only one appropriately qualified male counsellor and his rates are higher than average?

Chris is on the sickness benefit and speaks out publicly about the fact MSD won’t help with the high transport costs of getting to specialist appointments. What information should Paula Bennett be able to release about Chris? Should that include the fact that since Chris’ last psychotic episode, in which she threatened to stab her nieces and nephew, she has moved out of her sister’s home near the specialist and back to her parents who live in a semi-rural area with no public transport?

Moana, who has a full time job, speaks to the select committee considering leave provisions about the hardship that compulsory christmas closedowns cause non-custodial parents and talks about her employer requiring a three week closedown. What information should Moana’s employer be able to release? Should that include the fact that Moana’s leave situation is atypical in that workplace and is due her taking extended leave earlier in the year to attend a residential alcohol programme and using annual leave to have supervised contact with her children whose father moved them out of town when her violence and drinking became dangerous?

Sam, Chris and Moana should feel safe speaking publicly about those issues of government policy. None are lying, none are misrepresenting their own situation, each is raising a genuine issue of policy. For each the disclosure of their personal circumstances could cause significant shame, damage to relationships and support networks, and provide a huge disincentive to speaking publicly.

Being a democracy is about more than giving everyone a vote, it’s about allowing everyone a voice.

[This post was originally a comment in reply to jcuknz in this thread.]

On this blog it is likely that, from time to time, the authors and commenters will criticise government policy, speeches, and political tactics.

We would like to reassert that this is neither explicit nor implicit consent to release any private information about the authors or commenters that is held by any government agency, minister’s office, local government organisation, political party, or any other person, organisation or agency.

For the purposes of clarification this non-consent includes, but is not limited to, the following information:

  • benefit status or history;
  • family status or history;
  • ACC status or history;
  • health status or history – including information held by DHBs, PHOs, central government agencies and private providers whether directly or indirectly contracted by the state;
  • interactions with justice or law enforcement – including complaints, interviews, interactions, documents supplied;
  • employment status or history;
  • any grants applied for or received; and
  • tax payments, status or history.

In addition we would like to restate that posting or commenting here does not give implicit or explicit consent for any private information held about any author or commenter to be used for a purpose other than the purpose for which is was supplied. This non-consent includes, but is not limited to, the reuse of personal information for political purposes.


[Update after r0b’s comment – any other blogger or author of any internet or other commentary or correspondence critical of the government is welcome to reproduce this with or without alteration]

Guidelines on a website are not advice

datePosted on 15:31, July 28th, 2009 by Lew

I’m not a big-city lawyer either, but Paula Bennett might have done well to consult one here.

In response to a parliamentary question from Charles Chauvel asking whether she’d taken advice as to whether the two women whose details she revealed after they questioned the government’s decision to cut the Training Incentive Allowance could be deemed to have given consent for the rest of their details to be released by going to the medias. Her answer was, more or less, “I looked at the guidelines that were on the Privacy Commissioner’s website” and a wee bit of misdirection about the previous Labour government.

The guidelines specify that a minister “need only believe, on reasonable grounds, that the individual has authorised the disclosure”, and later admitting that she did not make enquiries of “her officials or anyone else” as to the details she released. Without checking precedent or taking legal or policy advice, how can she claim “reasonable grounds” for implicit consent from a few brief and specific quotes in the Herald on Sunday?

The problem her stance raises – and perhaps the very reason for her taking it – is its chilling effect on political speech. If anyone who is dependent on the government for any part of their income (or other services) is liable to have the details of their cases made public for criticising the department upon which they rely, then that department is very effectively insulated from criticism. Being insulated from criticism means not being held to account for failings, and not being held to account for failings leads to a culture of impunity, a central plank of National’s election campaign against the former government.

I expect there will be a few smart privacy lawyers who’ll offer their services to the two women in question for a nominal fee, and the government would do very well to sharpen up. This is political gold for the opposition if the minister does not immediately back down and offer mea culpas of some sort. If the Prime Minister is required to pick sides, this is an important juncture for the government. She didn’t take advice. She can’t know what reasonable grounds are. Being a cabinet minister requires high standards of conduct and certainty. An employer would never get away with ‘I checked the website and then fired him’. If this goes to court, it won’t matter who wins or loses the case – the government will lose a bit of its shine, and so will its beleaguered Minister of Social Development.

There are good threads about this at the Dim Post.

Edit: Eddie has done some further digging to nail this down, too.

Edit 2: Woah, simultaneous linkage. There is no cabal, really.

Edit 3: It occurs to me that this is a political n00b’s monkey-see-monkey-do response to the Burgess case, where Labour and the media released some but not all details, and National used the remainder of the details to invalidate the political points being made. The differences with this case are that someone’s property holdings are a matter of public record, not information held by the government; and even if they were, property holdings are directly relevant (implied consent clearly applies) since the issue at hand hinged on the Burgesses losing their house, a matter which they brought into the public sphere.

I reckon Bennett saw what a big win the government had with the Burgess case, figured she’d do the same with this case, and overreached. Schoolgirl mistake. But I think it’s giving far too much credit to call this a rope-a-dope by Labour.

L