Speaker by Various Artists

16

1600 beneficiaries moving into work each week? When a lot is not a lot

by Michael Fletcher

In recent weeks the Prime Minister and other Government Ministers have been fond of claiming that 1,600 beneficiaries are leaving the benefit and going into jobs every week (see for example National’s election policy statement). It’s an impressive sounding claim. So impressive that it has led some to question its veracity. Even the usually reliable Radio New Zealand reporter Brent Edwards chalked it up as a porky on his ‘Fact or Fiction’ page covering election campaign claims.

The truth is the Prime Minister’s number probably is correct but, far from being an impressive statistic, it suggests that after all the turmoil of his welfare reforms, Work and Income New Zealand has got worse rather than better at helping people find jobs.

First, let’s clarify what the 1,600 figure is. The claim Government is making is that 1,600 people are moving off benefit each week with an ‘exit destination’ recorded as going into employment. Multiply by 52 and that is 83,200 people. But as Brent Edwards points out:

“The number of people on benefits did not fall by that amount. In June 2013, 309,782 people received main benefits. By June this year that had dropped to 293,586, a decline of 16,196. On a weekly basis that is 311 people moving off benefits, not 1600.”

The mistake Edwards - and others - have made is to confuse what economists call ‘stocks’ and ‘flows’. Over the year the total number of people on benefit (the stock) has fallen by 16,196. But labour markets are highly dynamic things and there’s a great deal of churning on and off benefit. The total number of people who left a benefit to take up work (the flow into employment) could well be 83,200. Indeed I have no reason to doubt the Government’s claim to this effect.

So should we be impressed by the Prime Minister’s 1,600 per week statistic? Not at all. It’s actually slightly worse than the equivalent figure his Welfare Working Group gave in its 2010 Issues report where it set out what it saw as the problems that needed fixing in our welfare system.

That report showed that between June 1999 and June 2005 the average number of people leaving one of the four main benefits to go into employment was 1,690 per week. The figures come from Table 3.2 on page 11 (the Issues report is available here). Comparisons at different points in time can be tricky, but this one is a reasonable approximation – both relate to periods of strong labour demand, and the total number of people on benefits is roughly the same then and now.

The ‘1,600 per week’ figure has two worrying implications. First, it is evidence that the welfare reforms have done little or nothing to improve Work and Income’s performance at helping people into work.  So far we have had scant evidence of the impact of the reforms. This figure is the first suggestive information that they may in fact be failing at one of their fundamental objectives – that is, to significantly increase the number of beneficiaries moving off benefit and into a job.

Second, it raises the concern that the reduction in the ‘future liability’ of the welfare system, which Minister Bennett announced so proudly a while back, is the result of preventing access to benefits and encouraging non-work exits, not promoting access to work.

Roughly speaking, the ‘future liability’ is an estimate of likely life-long future benefit costs of those currently on welfare. Government wants it to be the key performance indicator for Work and Income, even though the measure provides no information about people’s lives or employment circumstances once off the benefit.

Work and Income can get the future liability figure down in two ways – getting people off benefit, or reducing enrolments. The 1,600 per week figure can’t prove the point but it is another piece of evidence suggesting the Government’s focus is more on preventing access to welfare and on discouraging benefit receipt than it is on finding jobs for beneficiaries.

59

The End of Trust

by Paul Brislen

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading the Dirty Politics book and associated stories, emails, blog posts, tweets and rants, it’s that I’ve got a thing or two to learn about PR.

This worries me somewhat, because while I’ve only been a practicing PR consultant for three months now, I spent five years working in corporate PR and thought I knew enough to get by.

I’ve also spent a decade as a journalist, fending off PR trolls, and four years as a lobbyist (well, more properly an advocate) and so have a pretty good grasp of the world of communications.

I can honestly say I’ve not seen anything like this before.

When I was a journalist I used to delight in not doing what PR people wanted. Attend an event on the basis that I’d write it up favourably? Well that depends on the content. Feel warmly about a client because they are friendly and hold a Christmas party? We’ll see when your annual result comes out, shall we?

At Computerworld we held it as a point of pride not to bother with press releases.  So much so that when a new sub editor started and felt her job was to put press releases on my keyboard for my reading pleasure, I upset her greatly by actually laughing out loud and chucking the lot in the bin. We don’t do that, I imperiously informed her.

But of course we did. We took the lunches, the free software, the dinners, the trips abroad. I went to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Singapore, Orlando, Stockholm, Hannover and Amsterdam on someone else’s ticket as a journalist. Every time I took great pains to not be swayed, but of course I was to some degree. Famously, one colleague attended a conference in Beijing (I think) where an analyst rubbished the organiser’s products and so she got a lovely “Company Sucks, says analyst” headline, followed by the “Computerworld travelled to Beijing courtesy of the Company” disclaimer at the end of the story.

Our motto was “you buy our time, not our copy” and at Computerworld we stuck religiously to that. Yes, we’d attend your conference and meet your speakers and interview your CEO but on our terms. I felt pretty good about that, but I do remember receiving anti-virus software every year for half a decade and not once writing “man, this stuff just doesn’t work very well” because they were so lovely.

But what I didn’t realise is that  PR isn’t about journalists, it’s about influence. The reporters and the editors are just a means to an end – we want to influence someone somewhere to do something and so we push stories at media folk in the hopes they’ll write a piece that supports our mission. If they do, we take all the credit for “placing” a story. If they don’t, well we move on and try someone else.

It’s a funny business to be in. It’s based on trust, in no small part, and in relationship building and if Dirty Politics has done anything, it’s completely shatter that trust.

Journalists shouldn’t trust PR people, but they have to, to some degree. We have things they want, just as they have things we want. We want stories, column inches, interviews and photographs for our clients. They want access to clients, interesting stories that will appeal to their readers (or viewers or listeners) and a scoop on the competition.

Normally this works well. When I ring a former journalist colleague and pitch a story idea I hope they’ll listen because they know I understand something of their job. I don’t ring when they’re on deadline, I don’t pitch a business story to a consumer reporter, I don’t pitch stuff they’ve seen before.

Similarly, I trust that if they like it they’ll treat it fairly and ask questions where they don’t understand, aim to be balanced in their writing and not waste my time and energy.

What Whale Oil and co have done is destroy that trust.

David Fisher and Matt Nippert have both written excellent pieces about how they were suckered in, how they’ll think twice before blindly following a promise of a scoop in future and how they’re sorry their readers were not treated better.

They’re not the only ones.

Various other journalists are guilty of not “following the money” and asking why this person is leaking this information, who benefits and who suffers as a result.

On top of that there seem to be a number of companies that are complicit to one degree or another with the attack blogging that’s gone on.

Attack blogging. I can believe it’s a thing but I can’t believe we’ve got it in New Zealand. Surely that’s something the Americans would do, or perhaps on a bad day former tabloid journos in the UK. But here?

I’ve been on the receiving end of a mild dose of it myself and it’s not pretty, but having read Dirty Politics we’ve all seen how low these things can go.

This is the dark, dark side of PR. The unprincipled, the unpleasant and ultimately unrewarding side. Companies that are considering employing some of these tactics will now have to think twice because it is coming back to bite those that have been involved.  It’s cost a government minister her job and apparently any future in cabinet, triggered a couple of inquiries and more to come including, I suspect, some kind of criminal action to go with the civil.

Most organisations I know, certainly all the ones I work with, wouldn’t have a bar of running a negative campaign like the ones we’ve seen recently. I sincerely hope the adverse publicity puts any future black ops work on hold indefinitely.

Paul Brislen is executive director of the Anthem public relations company

42

Vote for Water

by Hilary Stace

It is not aspirational to swim in our rivers or go whitebaiting in spring. As New Zealanders we take it for granted. We need water to survive and thrive but it has become highly political. Dr Mike Joy is a scientist who publicly advocates for the protection of the (rapidly diminishing) quality of the water in our waterways. He is effective.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, dismissed his expertise on a May 2011 BBC Hardtalk interview, ‘He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview’. Dr Joy was later accused of sabotaging New Zealand’s tourist industry for daring to suggest as fantasy the ‘100% pure’ New Zealand label, following a November 2012 article in the New York Times.

Dr Joy’s academic achievements are impressive. Following his 2003 PhD in Ecology at Massey on The development of predictive models to enhance biological assessment of riverine systems in New Zealand, he helped develop software for an index to biotic integrity (a tool for analysing ecoystem health). His CV cites numerous articles and book chapters (sometimes with his colleague Russell Death: joy and death ‒ an apt aquatic metaphorical pairing).

This on top of a full load of teaching and student supervising as a senior lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Palmerston North’s Massey University. Honours include the 2014 Royal Society’s Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement and North and South magazine’s 2009 Environmentalist of the Year.

I talked to Dr Joy to find out more about his motivation for promoting water quality. He told me that in the years following his PhD ‘all I was doing was cataloguing the decline of waterways in New Zealand and as a Kiwi I couldn’t do that because of my belief that I grew up in this clean green country’ and ‘I got angrier and angrier at how politicised the process was’. ‘Science was being negated by policy at a higher level and we have just seen that with the NPS’ (the Ministry for the Environment's recent National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management).

His answer is democratic engagement: ‘Democracy only works if the public knows what is going on and the public seemed to be so unaware about freshwater– I had to get that reality out to people so they could make that decision at election time’. He is angry that swimming and fishing in our rivers is now considered aspirational by a Government which has set standards merely for ‘secondary contact’ such as wading.

He was stunned by the Prime Minister’s assertion in the BBC Hardtalk interview that his evidence based on scientific fact and measurement was just ‘opinion’, with the implication that another scientist could provide a picture more favourable to the tourism image. But ‘you can’t change the facts’.

He explains that degradation is a consequence of human actions and economists and politicians may believe in unlimited growth but the ecosystem doesn’t work like that. The reaction to the New York Times article was nastier and more personal ‒ ‘classic blame the messenger’. ‘I felt horrible that I put so much of my life into this [work] because I do care, the opposite of what I had been accused of… but at the same time when something like that happens I get a huge amount of support’. It also encouraged him to keep speaking out.

The Prime Minister’s lack of understanding of science highlights a political standpoint that another opinion, in Dr Joy’s words, ‘would make it all go away’. It also seems that some water scientists are limited in their ability to speak out by their contractual obligations. Dr Joy is in a position to embody the ‘critic and conscience’ role of the university and he is using it. He’s also a skilled communicator, necessary when talking about the complexities of pollution, nitrogen, phosphorous, cyanobacteria and the impact on the land and water of 90 million people equivalents (a cow equals about 17 times each human’s environment impact) from intensive dairying.

It is scary that a small child might die from cyanobacteria – the black sludge that grows on the rocks, which has already killed dogs in the Hutt River. Some waterways already have notices warning against human contact.

I asked Dr Joy about some recent media comments others have made. Firstly, that our water quality is much better than other countries. Dr Joy explains that in many countries the headwaters, including in New Zealand, start cleaner and become more polluted the further down you go. New Zealand is particularly laden with nitrogen and phosphorous mainly from dairying, as well as other pollutants from industry.

On ecosystem respiration the Manawatu River has the worst measurement in the world. ‘But the new standards are extremely weak and will allow our waterways to become much more toxic before regulation is required. Under the National Policy Statement the worst rivers in the world would only score a B or a C. But the facts are that we have the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, and the highest proportion of threatened native species in the world’. Four out of five whitebait species are now on the way to extinction.

Another comment I’ve heard suggested that we only monitor the worst sites so the figures veer towards the negative end. Dr Joy says the opposite is true as the monitoring is mainly happening in areas of higher public use such as swimming sites which have better quality than the unmonitored (‘otherwise why would the public use them?’), but still 60% failed safety tests. On a robust Ministry of Health measure which the Government no longer uses ‘62% of all rivers would fail a [human] contact reaction’. Regional councils choose to monitor, on average, only 70 sites. The Land Air Water Aotearoa website reports water quality results.

A common political response is that we can’t afford to clean up the rivers as dairying and industry is too important for our GDP. But as Dr Joy says GPD and other economic measures are flawed models for the environment as the Christchurch earthquake and oil spills are also good for GDP. The current economic assumption is that if not used for dairying the land is not doing anything of value. For example a local wetland is valued at $43,000 per hectare per year for its use in flood mitigation, nutrient stripping, and other ecosystem services, but only about $3000 per hectare per year as a dairy farm – but only its potential value for dairying is considered for GDP.

The suggestion I heard recently that water running to the sea is just wasted draws an indignant response. ‘What about the cultural value, the swimming, the eels?’ The Ministry for the Environment’s latest NPS booklet suggesting 85% of water is ‘unused’ indicates a ‘total lack of understanding’.

Dr Joy speaks regularly with politicians and policy people including those at Fonterra and Federated Farmers and finds there are concerned people everywhere. However, effective regulation remains elusive.

Is he optimistic or pessimistic about the future? A natural optimist, he also despairs of the lack of awareness of the urgency of the problem and the strength of lobbying for vested interests and against regulation, as indicated by the NPS. But he has faith in New Zealanders to use democracy to take back our birthright of healthy waterways. He has contributed to a new book: Beyond the Free Market: Rebuilding a just society in New Zealand.Philanthropist Gareth Morgan now has a river monitoring website. So far Labour, the Greens, and the Māori Party have committed to swimmable rivers.

My take away message from my discussion with Mike Joy is that we will not get effective regulation until we the people demand it. Otherwise swimming, whitebaiting, eeling, fishing and other recreational uses of our waterways will become mere historic nostalgia. So please, vote for clean water.

182

Telling Our Own Tales

by Gerard Smyth

What happens in a community after a sizeable calamity has struck and there is very little mainstream television media presence?

To get to this question I shall tell a tale.

July 2012 – a year and half after the worst of the Christchurch earthquakes. The New Zealand government, in an effort to keep up momentum, gives a chosen group a deadline to come up with a plan for a new city centre. The Christchurch Central Recovery Plan is to become known as the Blueprint.

These were extraordinary days. Eighty per cent of the centre of my home town was in the process of being demolished. At the heart of the destruction, in a central city building, teams of designers and engineers were in ‘lock down’, creating a new city centre. This gathering was contracted to produce a plan in 100 days. Many rumours were circulating about just how radical the plans were to be. But not a word had escaped. Media had been kept well away.

It must have been on about day 90 that I rang the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) communications team and asked if television footage had been recorded inside the lock up. The very thought was met with incredulity. ‘Of course not - it’s a lock up. Plans will be made public at the launch in a month’s time.’

Of course CERA communications is well used to arranging media moments, as they did weeks later when the Prime Minister, in front of a selected audience and a live band, unveiled the Blueprint. ‘But,’ I argued, ‘this is an historic time. Do you really intend that no archival footage be taken of this achievement? Won’t these 100 days become significant in years to come?’

I could hear the hesitation, ‘Oh – well - I’ll talk to someone and we’ll get back to you.’

They did, and the next day I was invited to spend half an hour inside the epicentre of our recovery. Groups of elated and exhausted engineers, designers and kindred disciplines were hunched over tables deep in conversation with each other. A sense of urgency and purpose really did make for some memorable footage.

Extraordinarily, to my knowledge, I now own the only footage from the time of the ‘lock up.’ I have been asked by other broadcasting interests for the footage. It seems that this has already become the valuable footage it was always destined to be. But why was I the only one to knock on the door? Why was this 100-day event not eagerly filmed by all the major television networks in New Zealand? Obviously, the Auckland-based networks were just not interested. Surely this would be of significant interest to the 341,000 who live in the city of Christchurch? To the half a million who live in province of Canterbury?

Those thoughts beg a bigger question. The question I started with.

We in Christchurch have been blessed with a local newspaper and over the last three years their journalists have been prolific, investigative and inquisitive – and thank God for them. We are also fortunate that a nightly current affairs programme from one of the Auckland-based networks has featured countless tales from Christchurch. But of course these have to rate for the larger Auckland audience. So populist tales about the little guy being mistreated by the Goliaths – the insurance companies or the Earthquake Commission – are featured again and again. There is a local television channel that enthusiastically records daily events in Christchurch, but they are seen by only a small percentage of households, their budget is tiny and their staff ill-resourced to handle the complexities of so many stories.

In New Zealand, state-funded television is broadcast from Auckland in the North Island. A third of our 4.5 million population lives there, over 1000 kilometres from Christchurch. Increasingly over the last 25 years, the two-thirds of New Zealanders who do not live in Auckland have been largely forgotten by our national broadcasters.

In 2012 a study by Media and Communication students at the University of Canterbury analysed who told what stories on prime time New Zealand television. Over a three month period they watched and categorised all publicly funded programmes, with the exception of news and current affairs, that were broadcast on any of the six national free to air channels. Over these three months Christchurch appeared on national screens on average for 33 minutes a week. Aucklanders saw themselves for 659 minutes – twenty times Christchurch’s lot. And this was after we had had an earthquake.[i]

We, in Christchurch, have long been used to watching the lives of others.

What’s more, any story shot in Christchurch for network television has to be of interest to an Auckland audience. In that sense, we in Christchurch are without the ability to tell our own stories for our own needs – and that is why the lock up was not recorded. Auckland audiences were just not interested. So how were the earthquakes recorded here when the quakes hit? How well were we resourced to speak to each other via television about our traumatised lives? What vehicles did we have?

For the first weeks – months even – Christchurch was covered head to toe with television crews parachuting in from other lands. The world’s media were here. And they, along with our very own squadrons from Auckland, were fascinating to observe in action.

At the time I was living in the heart of the city and recording events from the point of view of a freelance and unfunded documentary maker. With fallen buildings and unfolding stories all around I figured I didn’t need the accreditation pass hung around my neck. I chose to work alone.

I was learning first hand what veteran American news anchor Ted Koppel meant when he famously explained that it is not the task of mainstream media to be investigative – that is the domain of the fringe media. That sure was true of what happened here in Christchurch in those terrible first weeks. It does not seem to matter what the network, the stories by each were so often clones of each other – competing media were bussed together to the same events, all under the prescribed direction of governmental communication advisors.

But those days are well over now. These days the community of Christchurch is focused on rebuilding our city. Again the medium of television is by far our most effective resource when it comes to informing the people.

The statistics in Christchurch remain extraordinary. Around 91 per cent of homes were damaged,[ii] 17,000 houses uninhabitable,[iii] thousands of residents displaced. The heart of the city has been removed. The rebuild is said to be the second largest insured loss pay-out anywhere, anytime.[iv]

But in Christchurch there remains almost no vehicle on state-funded television for us to talk and debate with and for each other. We have no regular mainstream state-funded television outlet to speak specifically to local audiences.

Many would say that the New Zealand government has chosen a top-down approach to lead Christchurch’s recovery. One Minister of the Crown has been given extraordinary powers by New Zealand’s right-wing government to lead very much from the front. Minister Brownlee is famous for his hands on approach. CERA, his government department, likes to hang on to the notion that the Christchurch City Council’s public participation scheme Share an Idea has been the underlying motivation for decisions that shape the city. But many observe that the 106,000 ideas the community supplied are able to prop up or deny any proposed direction. The city partially retaining its one-way street system would be an example. Is this what the people requested in the Council’s survey?

Many residents protest that we are spectators on the sideline, unable to find a forum for public debate. How many of the peoples’ wishes about the future of the abandoned land in the eastern suburbs are likely to be realised? What debate is being heard? A very up-market central city swimming pool complex has been planned. What voice is the public having in this far-reaching decision? What do we know of our own psychological wellbeing? Are our people facing post-traumatic stress that has not been seen in New Zealand in previous times? How are our children faring? Our old people?

In some ways the lack of strong and functional mainstream television media in Christchurch must be a godsend to those who are making decisions. Their subjects are placid and have long learned to acquiesce to being voiceless. But is this really how a vital community best functions?

I am in my sixties, old enough to remember very different times. Twenty years ago publicly funded broadcasters TVNZ and the NZBC before them had over 300 staffers based in Christchurch. Each day a team of around 40 put together a five night a week, half hour show. It was made by us, about us and for us. From the middle of the city, journalists and camera crews produced daily in-depth stories about all manner of subjects. Interestingly most of the reporters were mature, intelligent and respected storytellers. Often not trained journalists, they were a far cry from today’s fresh young faces. Imagine if we had had this resource over the last three years! For on every corner in this town is a story that would make headlines for weeks in any other city.

I want to live in a city that, right now, is alive with debate. It’s ideas time in Christchurch and shall be for a long time to come. For the people to personally buy into a sense of our own recovery, we need to feel involved. A half hour breakout every evening on state funded television would help all of us enormously. Because only when we can tell our own stories in our own community will we be able to sense our own wellbeing.

That sense is foreign to so many of us here today.

---

Gerard Smyth began his screen career in 1969 as a cameraman for the state broadcaster NZBC. Since turning director 30 years ago, he has directed over 80 documentaries on everything from the disabled to the arts. Qantas-nominated for his 2008 feature documentary on cinematographer Alun Bollinger, Smyth was awarded ‘Best Director, Documentary’ at the NZ Television Awards for his 2011 When a City Falls, an acclaimed account of the quakes in his hometown of Christchurch.

This essay is drawn from the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch. The book's Auckland launch will be held at Q Theatre from 6pm on September 17. A discussion will be held in Wellington the next day -- details to follow.

[i] Sam Anderson and Zita Joyce, “What do Christchurch Viewers See of Themselves and Their Region on New Zealand Television” (unpublished research, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 2012).

[ii] Environment Canterbury, Preliminary Draft Land Use Recovery Plan, Fact Sheet 2: Housing (Canterbury, 2013), accessed May 15, 2013, http://www.developingchoices.org.nz/docs/housing-factsheet.pdf.

[iii] Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, Housing Pressures in Christchurch: A summary of the Evidence 2013 (Wellington, 2013), accessed May 15, 2013, http://www.dbh.govt.nz/UserFiles/File/Publications/Sector/pdf/christchurch-housing-report.pdf.

[iv] Alan Wood, “February Quake ‘Third Most Expensive’,” The Press, March 3, 2012.

78

On the upland road

by Colin Jackson

I spent the first two weeks after the release of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics in a state of anger – how dare our elected leaders and their friends treat us like this? How dare they try to control the media, to assassinate people’s characters, to exact their utu on anyone who stood in their or their paymasters’ way?

That was before the later allegations, in emails that Hager didn’t have access to, that are said to point to real corruption of the kind I see in developing countries, the kind that New Zealand doesn’t think it has. We’ll need a shed load of luck to hang on to our “least corrupt nation” status from Transparency International now. How dare they besmirch all of our reputations for their pathetic little self-interests?

That was then, this now, halfway between the book launch and election day. The media seems finally to have awaken from its long sleep and is starting to ask hard questions about its members’ relationships with attack bloggers. People are starting to realise that their views of Opposition politicians, not to mention the fates of recent party leaders, may be entirely due to image manipulation by shadowy figures who can phone the Prime Minister. It’s time to move the conversation on to ethics, specifically how we can ensure that behaviour like this from ever tarnishing our country again.

I’m going to use a loaded word: moral.

Morality is a set of restrictions we mostly agree to with the aim of not hurting others. We are held to some kind of morality – our laws ensure that morality violations are often criminal acts. People in leadership positions are expected to be at least as moral as the rest of us, and we are all expected to obey the law and for good reason.

The Prime Minister spluttered when Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner asked him after the book launch if accessing private information on other people’s computers – something he condoned being done to the Labour Party – was the kind of moral leadership New Zealand could expect from him, but Guyon’s point was well-made. And yes, downloading that private information was a criminal act as well as being unethical. But this isn’t a party-political tirade, there are plenty of those about at the moment. It’s a call to arms to fix the underlying issue.

New Zealand needs moral leadership right now. That’s not some religion-driven statement about telling others what to do lest it offend someone’s god, rather that we need leaders who uphold the law, are seen to do themselves what they tell others to do and do not abuse third parties for their own ends.

But, while installing a new prime minster (if that were to happen) and running a sufficiently wide-ranging enquiry into what has gone on (ditto) might exorcise some of the current evil, it will not be enough to events like these happening again. We need to change aspects of the system to prevent a race to the ethical bottom.

So, how can we as citizens of our polity and country, change things so that politicians and their friends do not have the incentive or the ability to control our perceptions to fulfil their own ambition, so that they remain moral? I can think of a few things.

First of all, the Official Information Act needs to be strengthened. The Act begins:

The purposes of this Act are…to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order—

  1.                                  i.         to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and
  2.                                ii.         to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,—

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand…

That’s right, the framers of the OIA thought that information should be made increasingly available to people, and tied this to good governance and enhancing the respect for the law. Seems we have the opposite going on right now.

That Act, written during the oppressive government of Muldoon, has been sadly abused in recent years, and by governments of both stripes. Departments won’t release information without clearing through Ministers’ offices, they almost invariably leave it until the last possible minute (and often later) and they quite frequently, when the enquirer is a journalist, tip off some other media first so the journalist’s story gets told by someone else. It’s no surprise that one of the core allegations in Dirty Politics relates to the OIA. We need to strengthen the OIA and remove ministers from the ability to control the manner of their departments’ releases.

But we also have to ask how media and bloggers, (disclosure: I’m an occasional blogger) should be required to make clear their allegiances and their motivations, to prevent, or at least shine a light on, their abuse of others. Some of the core allegations of Dirty Politicsare that bloggers were presenting others’ copy as their own, often because they were being paid to. 

Political blogs don't have to be balanced, we all understand that.  But perhaps we need to find a way to make them subject to at least a basic level of transparency and fairness as the media are, as recently proposed by the Law Commission.  

I’m looking for other ideas, but most of all I’m looking for some ethical politicians who will run with the idea of fixing the system after the election. I’d like to see conversations being led by those we elect to govern us on how we remove the incentives to outdo each other in nastiness. Otherwise we run the risk of the same elected dictatorship, or a different one.

Back to the present: maybe we’ll see more despicable rage vented on our families by ministers and their friends, but I sincerely hope not. Our main task is to change the system so they can’t do that any more.