Truth Please

I will say this again in a different way: the persistent unethical and ignorant emphasis on secrecy and on making decisions for partisan advantage or to pay off campaign contributors and select insiders is not sustainable.

Robert David Steele

I believe in the truth.  I’m not supposed to because I teach History, and anyone who has read history knows that people and time play freely with the truth.  Because of this we are supposed to accept reasoning along the lines that “we can never really know what really happened”.  While this is true about many things I feel like we sometimes forget that the reason we never really know is not because of human subjectivity but because people in power often lie and conceal things for as long as possible.  Sometimes we are a bit too ready to make moving speeches about nuance, ambiguity and the passage of time when we should really just be blaming liars and obfuscation.

I detest hierarchy, secrecy, and the control of information and there are – in my opinion – only a handful of times where the control of information is legitimate.  Most of these are around a person’s health or physical safety and are in the field of justice and concern the rights of the victim.  When it comes to the matter of government policy and day-to-day decision making there is no excuse for it.  There should be no divide between us and our representatives.  The people we vote for are doing a job for us because we don’t have the time, and someone has to do it.  We all pay them a little bit of money so that they can afford to do the job (I don’t begrudge politicians a healthy wage), and we hold them to account every three years and – hopefully – in the media.  It is therefore totally unacceptable for those people to lie to us, control information, and make decisions in secret in our names.

Some people reading this will roll their eyes and call me naive.  If you are rolling your eyes then you should know that I am not naive, and I would accuse you of being cynical.  What I outlined above is actually how democracy is supposed to work as I understand it.  If it doesn’t work that way then it should, and we should insist on it.  Any other version of government is not actually democracy but some kind of oligarchy with a three year voting cycle to rotate the oligarchs around.  Smug oligarchs with special rights to ignore us and control what we “need” to know.  None of us should be happy about that whatever our political leanings might be.

I am in a position of “power” in my job.  I am a Head of Department and a Dean (note the capital letters of self importance; there are no capital letters for the role I spend most of life in – teacher).  In these roles I have observed two things.  Firstly, decisions are better when you listen to people.  Secondly, if you consult people about everything all the time they get sick of it.  This is the exact balance we should expect from any person in a decision-making role.  They should facilitate discussion on key decisions, and use their judgement on everything else.  Sometimes this is a difficult line to judge: key decision versus everything else.  I have lost confidence in the current government’s ability to judge this line.  For people in power who are complacent I think that it’s just easier to call most things “everything else”.  It’s quicker for those who think they know best.  In my experience the people doing 90% of the core business know best.

This is not a new idea.  If you read Sophocles’ play Antigone written c.440BCE you will find that the Athenians knew what bad government was.

King: Am I to rule this land by other judgment than mine own?

Haemon: This is no city which belongs to one man.

King: Is it not the ruler’s?

Haemon: You would make a good king of a desert.

A few months ago now there was a select committee on the Education Amendment Bill (No.2).  The PPTA called an emergency meeting and urged its members to submit to the select committee.  I take a lot of things that the PPTA says with a pinch of salt, but this time – for the first time – I sent a submission to the select committee.  It was a perfect example of why unions and the media are important in a democracy because when it comes to something like the Education Amendment Bill (No.2) it is only those two groups who are likely to flag something so boring as important.

Like most professional bodies, teachers have a council that regulates registration and creates a code of conduct that it then polices.  Currently this body, the Teachers’ Council, is made up of  a mixture of ministerial appointments, union reps, and members elected by teachers.  The equivalent body for doctors, and the equivalent body for nurses (minus the union representation) are the same.  Hekia Parata’s amendment suggests that this newly reformed body for teachers could, in fact, have no people on it elected by teachers.  All the people on this new council could be directly appointed by the minister.  I don’t care which political party the Minister of Education is from; they should not handpick every single person on a body that is supposed to judge professional standards in education.  As I said above, if you want to reform something ask the people doing 90% of the core business.  Teachers think this new idea of the Education Minister is terrible.  People doing the job should be on that council in significant numbers, as they are for the Medical Council and the Nurses’ Council, and anything else suggests that teachers are totally incompetent and unprofessional.

But this is the detail of democracy that most people really just don’t have time to deal with.  Who, outside the teaching profession, is really going to pay attention to the Education Amendment Bill (No.2)?  No one.  That’s why rules and unions and the media are important.  It checks dishonesty and agendas.  Governments abusing urgency and supplementary orders should be checked.  A functioning union and media system should be adding ballast to politicians’ claims when needed, and we should be paying for one news service that reports without any consideration except balance.  When John Campbell asked Helen Clark about Corngate he was doing us all a service.  Just like he was when he reviewed the trail of disinformation around Kim Dotcom.  We can be thankful for that considering that TV3 has no public charter.

But the media is not like that.  Having the media monoplised by Fairfax is not healthy.  It means that instead of many voices we have a few or, perhaps, just one.  That is not good.  Nor is it good when unions are belittled, denigrated and dismissed.  In the 1970s many unions deservedly got a bad press for being bloated, corrupt organisations milking their members for the benefit of a few cronies at the top.  David Lange was famously opposed to unions because of what he had seen of them in the freezing works.  That kind of union is bad.  All other unions serve an important service for workers, and protect workers’ rights.

Openness, checks and processes are very important in a democratic system.  This government has proven, consistently, that it finds all three expendable.  They are opposed to openness.  The “incident” with the Malaysian diplomat; the “memory lapses” of John Key around whatever is inconvenient whether it be the 1981 Springbok Tour, or Kim Dotcom, or the GCSB;  the drip feed of information around the execution of people via America’s drone strikes in Yemen, the list goes on.

They are opposed to checks.  Dirty Politics proves their low regard for the media.  Any journalist that exists as a check to their power can be smeared.  Journalists and opposition political parties are checks on power.  Organisations like Fish and Game New Zealand are supposed to be critical of things that they regard as damaging to Fish and Game in New Zealand.  Radio New Zealand is supposed to report and interrogate the news.  Neither organisation should be worrying about its funding or existence while it goes about its business.  Never mind who is in power.  Looking to discredit and smear these checks simply because they are checks on your power (i.e. they are doing their job) is an attempt to cynically dismantle a part of democracy for your own benefit, and to increase the feelings of distrust and powerlessness in the very community you are supposed to represent.

This government is also opposed to process.  They are reliant on the fact that most people do not have the time in their day to understand how a bill becomes an act, and why select committees are good, and that doing things under urgency is bad, and that supplementary orders are usually undemocratic.  The law making process is designed to slow things down because making good law takes time and should involve a lot of people.  The government seems to find this process irksome.  Processing Official Information Requests is another example.  So long as they all get processed at the same speed and in the same way that process works.  If there is a fast lane based on political expediency, and political agendas, then the process is abused and undemocratic.

There would also be a process, I imagine, for making decisions about energy in New Zealand, and I would like to think that it does not involve ferrying representatives from one hyper-wealthy sector (oil) around New Zealand at the expense of the government while excluding all other sectors of the energy sector (wind, solar, tidal…) from that conversation.  I would also like to think that we follow a process when it comes to making laws so that we don’t whip up laws that attack workers in New Zealand for the benefit of the film industry, or effectively eliminate the right to protest the actions of corporations in New Zealand waters.  Waters held in common for all of us.

On Monday and Tuesday I went on my annual trip to Parliament with my Year 9 Social Studies classes.  I have been a few times now but I always enjoy it and so do the classes.  While we were sitting in the education centre having our introduction and asking questions one of my students asked a question something like this: “does John have more power than everyone else?”  It was a pretty good question but we initially laughed because she called the Prime Minister, John.  The student, who is intelligent and curious, was surprised when the education officer said that people don’t usually call the Prime Minister by his first name.  On reflection, I side with the student.  We should call our Prime Minister by his or her first name.  A democracy is a system where we allow people – ordinary people – to represent us for as long as we feel like they are doing a good job.  That’s all.  No need for a title in day-to-day conversation.

After we visited the debating chamber we visited a select committee room.  I told the students that their form teacher had appeared at a select committee recently to explain her submission on the Education Amendment Bill (No.2).  They were surprised and kind of delighted.  Their form teacher is the opposite of the kind of person they might imagine appears at a select committee: bright, bubbly and warm-hearted.  It reassured them.  Actually, anyone could be involved in their democracy.  It wasn’t just teachers spouting nonsense.

I left a little buoyed as I always do from parliamentary tours; as I watched the students crossing the grass outside Parliament and heading towards the bus stops at the Railway Station.  Democracy is good.  Better than the alternatives.  There is the heat of debate, there is the steadiness of the law-making process, there are the checks of journalism, and courts, and other external bodies, and there is openness.  That’s what we tell our students, and that’s how it should be.  Anything else is unacceptable.

Anything else is plain wrong.

Right, John?


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