Island Life by David Slack


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.


The Prime Minister Has Spoken

My father earned export income for New Zealand and so did his father, and his father before him. So do I. They earned it by putting in strainer posts, and shearing, and drenching, and dagging, and sewing up wool bales. I earn it by selling noughts and ones to Americans.

I have had a profitable dotcom since 1996. I earn US dollars for my country with a web site that instantly generates speeches for people. I'm not talking chump change here. It has supported our family for the best part of a decade.

When John Key speaks of a structural imbalance in the economy between tradeable and non-tradeable sectors, he means there aren't enough people earning export dollars. At such moments I feel self-righteous. Over here! Yes, me! The guy posting updates on Facebook! Follow me! I know what I'm doing!

I read the Very Important speech our Prime Minister gave this week with the strongest feeling of deja vu. There is a predictable structure to such a thing. You rehearse the country's profound economic problems, you express your belief in the innate capacity of Kiwis to overcome difficulties, then you recite the pick of the projects from your long work-in-progress list. What I recognised most was the familiar posture of relative impotence. I've seen it in the speeches of several Prime Ministers now: much is expected, little is offered.

This government has a term of about 1,000 days; it has already used up about 250 of them. How are things going? Let's paraphrase the speech.
We're not earning enough, our standard of living is off the pace, there's one mother of a recession going on and the government will only be able to do a little bit to help if you should become a victim of Depression 2.0. In the short run.

In the long run, the government wants to raise our standard of living and it has exciting new plans to make that happen. There then follows the laundry list of plans which come under six headings, varying from cutting red tape to "creating a world-class tax system".

Each of them is laudable, but as is so often the way in a Grand Vision speech, each one comes up short when you hold it up to the light.

Take the the prescription for export growth. The speech clearly describes the problem:

We like to think of ourselves as a trading nation, yet we export less as a percentage of GDP than many other small OECD countries. And that percentage has only grown slowly over the last 30 years. Over 90% of our exports come from just under 5% of exporters, and these exports are also very concentrated in a few sectors.

Hear, hear. Now, what's the remedy?

We are working on ways to best deliver an "NZ Inc" approach on the part of all Government agencies operating offshore. A seamless network amongst these agencies will best support our trade and economic interests overseas, with Government working alongside New Zealand exporters.…..
In terms of innovation, our emphasis is on promoting a stronger interactive relationship between the business sector and our publicly-funded research institutions. Universities and Crown Research Institutes need to be more responsive to the needs of firms. Our innovation system also needs to encourage firms to increase their take-up and application of research. One of our first initiatives in this area has been the Primary Growth Partnership. This will invest in significant research and innovation programmes across the primary and food sectors.

This sounds pretty airy to me. There's not room in this kind of speech for screeds of detail, but the few lines we're offered here suggest that even with a spare ten minutes to develop the themes you wouldn't get much more flesh on the theoretical bones.

This dotcom exporter has some suggestions he would like to make. The speech mentions Free Trade deals. Well, how about the monster one we signed with China? How about the ASEAN one that followed it? Where's the follow-through? Why are we not doing more to capitalise on the opportunity? Couldn't the government take a more active role in identifying openings and making business aware of the possibilities? There are some intriguing possibilities - in that region - in environmental management, in information technology, in tourism, in education. Read what Bronwen Evans, the former RNZ journalist who's now in Thailand, had to say when I interviewed her recently.

The possibilities are already there, and yet 90% or more of NZ businesses are ignoring them.

There's a very obvious hands-on role here for the government: get people thinking. That's a dimension of leadership, after all. Why not fund TV programmes that take an interest in exporting? I don't mean trite propaganda, I mean decent docos; current affairs reporting that gets out into the world and follows our exporters around; programmes that explore the possibilities of new markets. Where once we had Charlotte Glennie running a (admittedly one-woman) bureau for One News in Hong Kong, we now instead have that clown Dominic Bowden reporting live from Hollywood telling us what we should say in our prayers for Michael. What the fuck is wrong with this picture? Instead of making another show about people fighting over hair gel, why not make one that gets people thinking about a new way to earn their living?

Call it social engineering or propaganda if you must, but there is a shift in perspective that needs to take place here. More New Zealanders need to see themselves as exporters. More New Zealanders need to ask themselves: what could I be doing instead of this?

I look around my extended family and I see people doing work that is of little worth to the economy. I see them making money by flipping real estate, I see them making money by being the expensive just-add-water middle man. I look at them and I think: everyone's family network probably looks like this this. One or two exporters, a host of hangers-on.

The irony is that a lot of the wealthy hangers-on endorse the nostrum that the government's role is simply to "clear out the roadblocks and let New Zealand business get on with things". That's more or less the closing argument of Key's speech.

The problem is: with all the roadblocks out of the way, will any of those hangers-on actually do anything new? I have my doubts. Perhaps if that world class tax programme should include a capital gains tax, it might happen, but I'm not holding my breath.


Tune in, turn on, score some Vogels.

The government wants to put acid in our food? Party Central!

But wait, what's this? The Prime Minister gets wind of it on the TV news. He immediately seeks the advice of experts. His Chief Press Secretary. Katherine Rich.

He airily tells us that laws are made to be broken, or at least ignored, if they're inconvenient. Bake your bread as you see fit, Mr and Ms Industry. If you don't feel like putting Folic Acid in your bread, then don't bother.

For all the good it seems likely to do, it's hard to understand why this rule has been devised.

Let's recap.The problem: babies being born with Spina Bifida. The remedy: giving mothers a boost of Folic Acid. But there's a further problem: if you unexpectedly conceive, you're not likely to have been taking Folic Acid. Even if you're trying to do so, it's possible you're not aware that you could take this precaution. And a further complication: you may believe that it is not in the interests of your - or your baby's - health to do so.

So far, so logical: just as we put iodine in salt to protect the nation from goitre, so we shall put Folic Acid in our bread. If you get pregnant, you'll be okay. All good, then, just so long as you eat eleven - count them, eleven slices - of bread each day. As we all do.

The only way this will work is if the nation consumes sufficient bread to compound its obesity problem.

I have an alternative proposal. Put the stuff in Coca Cola. It's consumed in vast quantities. Young people seem to subsist on it. And, of course, it's already doing incalculable harm to our children's health, so there is, to use the policy criteria of our Prime Minister, no downside.

Informed debate; I'm all for it. I offer these forum-suggested links:

Press Release: Coalition of Parents of Children with Spina Bifida

Food Standards Australia

Science Media Centre

Also: Paul Litterick suggests "Put it in RTDs – a major cause of unwanted pregnancies."


Adventures in English

Everywhere you turn these days, people are getting blown away. Stick a microphone in their face and they'll tell the reporter they were just blown away. Or totally blown away. Or completely blown away.
It especially seems to happen to the sort of person who wears their sunglasses as a cap.

Let me ask the question on their behalf: "David, I find myself saying 'blown away', like, all the time. Is there a crisper, clearer, more specific alternative I could use? "

Why yes; in fact there are dozens. Here are ten to get you started:


Or just plain Impressed.

No-one likes a wobbly table, but sometimes you have to ask yourself: "could I be putting that dictionary to better use?"