Island Life by David Slack

515

Good on ya, Paula

The Polaroid of John Key's Cabinet is beginning to colour up now. The vague blobs take solid form to reveal….the 10.00 am Monday meeting at your office. Can-Do men and women who love their bullet points. So far, no David Brent; but there are moments when you squint at Nick Smith and believe you see Gareth.

Consider today's Minister in the spotlight, Paula Benefit, about whom the Listener reports the lament of a Chief Executive:

You have got senior government officials trying to reduce complicated ideas to graphs and pictorials because they know otherwise she won’t read them. We are trying to convert quite complex ideas into flow charts and graphs and diagrams. It’s astonishing.

Consider also the careful step she took before releasing personal details about the benefits received by two solo mothers: she looked it up on the web.

Consider next the line of argument deployed by Nick Smith this week to justify making only a feeble effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "Here's a report that says it'll cost us $15 billion a year by 2020 if we drop them as much as Greenpeace wants," he said. But as Keith Ng demonstrated yesterday, the report didn't say that, not even a little. Nick Smith might as well have brandished a copy of Novel About My Wife and made the same declaration. Not only did the report say nothing to support his claim, it expressly stated that it was not fit for the very purpose to which he put it.

This concept is enormously liberating for those of us who trade in what is said to be 'fact'. I will now, for example, make the assertion, without bothering to check, that Nick Smith pulled this same stunt about the ACC, just after he became Minister. "It'll be broke in six months if we don't fix it," he said. Or something like that.

See, that was fun. It only took me half a minute to think that and write it. Fact checking is such a pain in the arse, and it only makes the story duller.

You want more bullet points? I've got 'em. How about the "eleven slices" line in the Folate controversy. Oh, I bought that one. I was feeling rueful within ten minutes of writing a blog about it and getting put right by the well-informed readers at Public Address. Fool me once, shame on you, Katherine Rich. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Katherine Rich is one of our best cabinet ministers, of course. In bullet point land, I get to tell you that, and if it gets reported in enough news bulletins, you'll believe me. See how efficient this is?

The irony is that Kate Wilkinson who really is a minister is probably now on shaky ground because she hasn't mastered the art of adducing the snappy one liner as though it's proven fact, even if it is, in fact, utter bullshit.

The guiding rule is: make it easily digested and if it appeals to people's intolerance or prejudice, all the better. It may not be true, but if it bloody well ought to be, well, that might do. The further rule appears to be: don't make it hard work.

All of this has probably contributed to the framing of today's debate about solo mothers. It could have been on a matter of public policy - is it desirable to fund solo mothers into further education? Instead it has become one in which bullying and shaming has been used to mute the voice of a querulous private citizen. This tactic plays very well with people who like to make angry declarations concluding with the words "end of story " or "full-stop." She is our very own Sarah Palin. Good on ya Paula. You're right, they're wrong, end of story.

On these rules of engagement, I fear for good people like Chris Finlayson, and maybe even Bill English. But Nick and Paula should be sweet as.

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