Pandemic Diary – May 18-24
What price a reality cheque? [18.5.20]
An email conversation started yesterday among members of the Christchurch branch of 350.org, and the XR group, about what could be done to make the climate crisis issue more politically and economically salient leading up to the general election in September, and what the prospects for a Citizens Assembly on climate change were. Other activist groups are doing the same, and on the Better Futures Forum website Mike Joy posted his alternative vision for New Zealand in one year’s time on May 16. Action Station sent me an email asking me to “take our survey to help set our campaign priorities as we head into the election”. Greenpeace NZ had already proposed 5 big choices to transform New Zealand for good after Covid in April and launched a petition to support a green Covid-19 response. It had also launched a proposal for the government to invest $1 billion in regenerative agriculture as part of its Covid-19 environmental response.
It’s that time of the three year election cycle again, pandemic or no pandemic. The 2020 Budget was presented last Thursday, and today the latest political opinion poll was released, putting Labour (on 56.5% support) a whopping 25.9 points ahead of National on 30.6%. This is an unprecedented lead for any party in living memory. If an election were held tomorrow Labour would have 72 seats to National’s 39, and would not have to cobble together a government with other parties, as it did in 2017.
Come election day, four months from now, the lead is unlikely to be so impressive, if only because what goes up must come down. Nevertheless, it would seem like the best opportunity ever for activists who are serious about getting government action on climate change to present their action plans (and budgets) to whoever really makes policy in the Labour caucus. Which at present seems to be Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson, with some assistance from David Parker and Andrew Little on specific issues. As Labour is currently on track to be re-elected with a mandate to do whatever it pleases, convincing the Minister of Finance to produce a 2021 budget which directs funds towards sustainability and equity and away from business-as-usual would seem like the most important thing that any public good lobbying organisation could engage in. As I write, you may be sure that the BAU lobbyists are hard at work on making the case for their particular ‘shovel-ready’, ‘economic recovery’, ‘re-opening the economy’, ‘getting back to growth’ proposals.
I am pretty confident that their squeaky wheels will get the grease they seek, and that having a majority of New Zealanders (as shown by political polling on things like freshwater pollution, for example) wanting something different will not make any difference. I say this not as a cynic who has given up on democratic politics, but as an historian of politics who looks back on the Labour governments of the past forty years and their record of ignoring the popular will as regards the needs and wants of the majority of New Zealanders and their natural environment, and going with what works better for global big business instead.
This is not just because money speaks louder than words, and buys access to politicians and influencing them, but also because the Market and the State are not separate entities, as they are popularly portrayed, but are two sides of the same coin. They are human inventions which first arose mutually at the same point in time and place, in what is now called the Middle East, some 12,000 years ago. That story is told by political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott in his 2017 book Against the Grain, which also covers other mutually arising market-states in other parts of the world, and what enabled them to come together, grow and flourish for centuries, until their inevitable decline.
What’s different about this process today compared to previous centuries is the turbo-charging provided by fossil fuels. The carbon-based ancient energy sources which have powered unprecedented global economic growth now threaten human and other life forms with their associated pollution, waste, toxicity and global heating effects. Also pandemics, which are not separate from the economic growth/ecological decline process, but a part of it.
Vijay Kolinjivadi explained how this works on April 2 in This pandemic IS ecological breakdown: different tempo, same song, saying that “Comparisons between the toll of COVID-19 and climate change are not helpful because they view each as two separate “things”.” He summarises this as: “COVID-19 is both one and the same as any other ecological crisis (such as climate change) because its emergence is rooted in the same mode of production that has generated all other ecological crises and social inequalities of our times.”
Kolinjivadi provides two examples of BAU responses to the pandemic ‘recovery’ process, both of them very disturbing. The World Bank Group “has recently stated that structural adjustment reforms will need to be implemented to recover from COVID-19, including requirements for loans being tied to doing away with “excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection…to foster markets, choice, and faster growth prospects”, while in the USA environmental laws and regulations have been suspended. These are extreme responses, but in New Zealand we have already seen versions of them, with the ‘fast tracking’ of resource management consenting processes to enable a faster return to road-building and other ‘shovel-ready’ projects.
So if this is the reality, what chance is there of getting a cheque (or non-contact payment) for social and ecological ‘hands-ready’ projects? None, unless those who want change stop thinking big and start acting locally to create and/or grow the hundreds and hundreds of community level hands-ready projects which could and would go to scale if they had a reliable, steady source of income for paid staff to organise, manage, administer and in many cases actually do the work. If they didn’t have to spend half their time and resources on fundraising just to be able to keep going; if they weren’t reliant on largely volunteer labour to do most of the work.
I’m thinking of the community garden groups, predator control groups, waterway planting and clean-up groups, farmers’ markets, organic/regenerative farming organisations, community kitchens, emergency accommodation providers, etc., etc. The people involved in these groups are doing something practical at the local level which restores ecology and society in a sustainable way.
But they don’t do it in or for the Market, or in or for the State. They are the Commons; the People; they are Humans-in-Nature and Nature-in-Humans.
They are the 55 million+ people around the world who have watched and listened to Playing for Change performing Bob Marley’s One Love with musicians from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East because this message resonates with them. They are the many millions more who don’t know this song, or have access to the technology to hear it, but understand its message and are also doing something in, with and for their local communities. At present they and their work are largely invisible. The social and ecological value they produce is certainly not counted in the national accounts which measure GDP growth.
It is not the Market’s job to do this. Some States (e.g. Bhutan) have experimented with using alternative measures of national human and environmental wellbeing, but old habits (and Market pressures) die hard. The Commons as an economic and social concept and reality relevant to the crises faced by those living in the twenty-first century is still in the early stages of being thought through and practised. The three people who make up the Commons Strategies Group have done and are doing good work in this regard, and their work overlaps with others working on commoning, and also degrowth, sustainable living, regenerative/organic farming, participatory democracy and other non Market-State and growth-oriented ways of living, and living well.
I am not saying do not engage with the politics of the Market-State, if you (and your group) feel you can do it effectively. It is a necessary thing to do. But in the absence of action at the local level, it is not a sufficient one. The ‘fourth sector’ of the economy was what some alternative economists used to call it this largely non-market, relationship-based production and exchange of ‘goods’ and ‘services’. But it is more than that – it is life itself.
Baking Blondies [19.5.20]
I once had a child guest who came as the friend of the children of friends. I served them afternoon tea in the garden, with a home-made cake. My young guest sampled it, looked surprised and pleased, and said that it tasted much better than what you could buy from the shop. I asked her if she knew what the secret ingredient was, and she answered: “It was made with love.” Which was true.
When you bake for yourself, your family and your friends you use the best ingredients you can afford, and you do things carefully. That is the love which no professional baker, making huge batches of cakes and biscuits for strangers, can ever provide.
Today I baked a new recipe, Meera Sodha’s Blondies. I had never heard of Blondies before. They are basically Brownies without the cocoa. The recipe was a vegan one, with chia seeds soaked in water instead of an egg (I used flax seeds and they worked just as well) and coconut oil instead of butter. All my ingredients were organic, and the raspberry jam was homemade from raspberries I grew myself. They are very rich – and utterly delicious. I am hoping my vegan friends visit soon!
Business-As-Usual starts digging a deeper shovel-ready hole [20.5.20]
If you thought I was exaggerating on Monday 18 when I said: “As I write, you may be sure that the BAU lobbyists are hard at work on making the case for their particular ‘shovel-ready’, ‘economic recovery’, ‘re-opening the economy’, ‘getting back to growth’ proposals.” then please consider the following…
After I read Charles Finny’s How to export your way out of a financial crisis: A 10-point plan for New Zealand in The Spinoff yesterday I went through all issues back to May 13, just in case I had overlooked or missed an article on ‘How to reset the economy to end poverty and inequality’ or ‘prevent climate change’ or something like that. No, I hadn’t.
Charles Finny is a genuine lobbyist – a partner at Saunders Unsworth government relations. He is a former CEO of the Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce and was First Secretary at the NZ High Commission in Singapore, Deputy Head of Mission in Beijing and Head of Mission in Taipei. He was responsible for launching the China-New Zealand FTA as New Zealand’s lead negotiator on this project, prior to moving to the Chamber of Commerce. He is also a member of the Commission for a Post-Covid-19 Future, which is a ‘new preparedness initiative’ of SSANSE (the Small States and the New Security Environment Project) and its ‘pop-up think tank’. The Commission plans to “provide contestable policy advice to the New Zealand government on options for our foreign, trade and economic policy, which aim to help New Zealand recover from the economic and political damage of the pandemic. Covid-19 is both a political and economic crisis, as well as a health issue. New Zealand, along with other small states, must make major changes to our economic planning, trade, and foreign policy in order to proactively adjust to a post-Covid-19 global order.”
Finny is ready, able and willing to provide such advice, and on May 10 the Commission published his 3 page paper HEDGING AGAINST TRADE DEPENDENCY POST-COVID 19 on which the Spinoff article is based. Finny is concerned that New Zealand is too dependent on agricultural exports, especially dairy, and his 10 point plan consists of (1) more manufactured exports, (2) more unprocessed primary exports (as in “2. We need to re-start the $4bn log trade and drop suggestions that we ban or impose a tax or levy on this trade. Can we really afford – in current economic circumstances – to cut so many exports? I am all for more domestic processing, but a ban on log sales is not the best way to boost this sector at this point in time. I also think we should be getting our $350m coal export business up as quickly and our $800m gold mining business also.”) and (3)-(10) more trade deals, trade marketing, and boosting trade opportunities in novel forms of ‘trade’ (such as tertiary ‘education’).
But could our existing trade deals actually limit and slow-down a post-Covid 19 recovery? Professor Jane Kelsey made this case on The Spinoff on the same day, in Trade deals are a handbrake on New Zealand’s post-Covid recovery. She outlines the government procurement rules in the trade agreements which New Zealand is currently signed up to which explicitly prohibit preference being given to local businesses providing goods and services to any government entity or project. Specifically, “The WTO rules apply to contracts for goods or services above a value threshold of between about $300,000 to $900,000 depending on the entities, and construction over $11 million, for 31 listed entities. These entities include 11 health boards, Housing NZ, the Tourism Board, Education NZ and KiwiRail. They also cover seven city or regional councils (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Waikato, BOP, Wellington Regional Council, Canterbury Regional Council) for goods, services and construction contracts related to transport projects that are funded wholly or partly by NZTA. All of these entities are expected to play a role in the recovery plan. In addition, the rules in the WTO and all New Zealand’s FTAs prohibit requirements that the main contractor uses local sub-contractors or local content…”
We can only hope (and pray?) that the Minister of Finance pays as much attention to these rules as he just did to the Budget Responsibility Rules which the Greens signed Labour up to prior to the 2017 election, promising not to run the state’s budget into the red. Which he dutifully did not do in 2018 and 2019, despite the desperate need for government investment in social and environmental restoration, even though the Green Party has no power to hold the government to account for its financial behaviour. But the WTO and the countries New Zealand has signed trade agreements with do have the power of international tribunals and lawyers to enforce their rules, and a range of sanctions which can be applied, should they choose to take this route. We can only hope that the stupidity of the rules is made generally apparent by the pandemic crisis, and everyone (quietly) agrees to (quietly) ignore them. Kelsey provides examples of the ways in which this may done in a semi-legal fashion with regard to small enterprises and projects. But ultimately, as she says, the only durable and sensible solution to this market-manufactured mess is that “…government procurement cannot be reduced to a quest for market access. It has always served multiple objectives and needs to be freed from the constraints of free trade agreements to do so again.”
I know it sounds unlikely, but I really do have a friend who is an Oxford University philosopher. (We met when we were both poor and humble Ph.D. students. He has gone on to a stellar career, while I…) My friend Neil knows Toby Ord (as discussed under Ord-ure last week), and is also (like Ord) an Australian. There the similarities end.
I wrote to Neil asking where Ord gets his ideas on ‘effective altruism’ from and he referred me to the work of another Oxford philospher, Amia Srinivasan. She is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. Before that she was an associate professor of philosophy at St John’s College, Oxford, and a lecturer in philosophy at University College London. I found a review by Srinivasan of Doing Good Better, the 2015 book on effective altruism (as he and Ord practise it) by Ord’s philosopher colleague William MacAskill. This helped me make sense of what all this is about, and I wrote to Neil about it thus:
“I found that I had actually saved an article in which Toby Ord is interviewed (What if Covid-19 isn’t our biggest threat? https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/apr/26/what-if-covid-19-isnt-our-biggest-threat) in which he sounds a lot more sensible than he did in the RNZ interview. Probably because he doesn’t mention effective altruism. But he does do different versions of the ‘progress’ myth, which is just religion in atheist drag. I find this no more respectable in an academic philosopher than dispensing practical advice on how to live one’s life. But from what you say it is the best one can expect from the dubiously-named Institute for the Future of Humanity.
I think it must have been you who put me on to this Foucault quote last century –
“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Which still seems very relevant. Especially for people who give money to others whom they believe will ‘do good’ with it.
I looked up Amai Srinivasan and found her review of William MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better. That told me that “As graduate students MacAskill and his friend Toby Ord committed themselves to donate most of their future earnings to charity (in MacAskill’s case anything above £20,000, in Ord’s £18,000), and set themselves the task of figuring out how to make best use of the money they had pledged. The result was Giving What We Can, a charity that encourages people to hand over at least 10 per cent of their future incomes for philanthropic purposes.”
After explaining in detail the truly insane (IMHO) forms of calculation engaged in by Giving What We Can to determine whether this or that form of charitable giving is a better ‘investment’, and how it all works in practice, Srinivasan starts on her critique, which includes “MacAskill does not address the deep sources of global misery – international trade and finance, debt, nationalism, imperialism, racial and gender-based subordination, war, environmental degradation, corruption, exploitation of labour – or the forces that ensure its reproduction. Effective altruism doesn’t try to understand how power works, except to better align itself with it. In this sense it leaves everything just as it is. This is no doubt comforting to those who enjoy the status quo – and may in part account for the movement’s success”.
She concludes with “There is a small paradox in the growth of effective altruism as a movement when it is so profoundly individualistic. Its utilitarian calculations presuppose that everyone else will continue to conduct business as usual; the world is a given, in which one can make careful, piecemeal interventions. The tacit assumption is that the individual, not the community, class or state, is the proper object of moral theorising. There are benefits to thinking this way. If everything comes down to the marginal individual, then our ethical ambitions can be safely circumscribed; the philosopher is freed from the burden of trying to understand the mess we’re in, or of proposing an alternative vision of how things could be. The philosopher is left to theorise only the autonomous man, the world a mere background for his righteous choices. You wouldn’t be blamed for hoping that philosophy has more to give.”
This got me thinking about where all these weird ideas came from originally, and why ‘utilitarian man’ is so like the ‘economic man’ of the neoclassical economists. So I have done some quick and dirty research into the first utilitarians – who were good Anglican academics – and then Bentham – and pondered the connections with William Stanley Jevons and Alfred Marshall, and revisited what Alf Hornborg said in his lecture on ‘Machines as Machinations – Rethinking the Ontology of Technology’, which struck me so much, which was -“What really happened around 1870 in England – and this is not a coincidence – in the heart of the colonial empire of England you get a complete transformation of economic thought – neoclassical economic theory … with Alfred Marshall, Stanley Jevons and these other people in the 1870s you get a complete shift to an exclusive concern with market equilibrium … Output and demand, market prices. It’s all money. So I would argue that at that point the discipline of economics decided not to look at what was traded any more, only at the rate at which they were traded and how those rates were determined by the market. I think this is extremely important in many ways … because we’re still living with that. To put it very bluntly I would argue that what these neoclassical economists did in the 1870s, at the height of British colonialism, was to create an ideology by which the asymmetric material flows of the British colonial empire could continue invisibly after the end of colonialism. After the official end of colonialism you could still have neocolonial asymmetric flows. So in a sense we’re still living in a European colonial world…”
Which brings us back to effective altruism and its origins and why it is a such a self-deluding crock, because it is based on an ideological sleight of hand designed to disguise reality. The same ideological sleight of hand that is found in the ‘science’ of economics, with both derived from the completely specious concept of ‘utility’. Srinivasan questions why this should be considered the basis for ethical reasoning, and puts in a word for personal preferences and feelings as being as relevant if not more relevant. She doesn’t develop this line of thought (perhaps she has done so elsewhere) but it very important given what we now know about how people actually make ethical choices. Which is NOT by running them through a calculator. This does not work even for market choices (see Steve Keen, Debunking Economics), let alone moral ones.”
I then asked Neil if he thought I was on the right track, and await his response.
Ecology, Democracy, Solidarity – new politics or just new people? [21.5.20]
Yesterday I heard on a radio news bulletin that a new political party had just been formed by MPs in the French parliament who broke away from dominant party, La Republique en Marche, and formed a new group called Ecology, Democracy, Solidarity (Ecologie Démocratie Solidarité). I thought back fifty-two years to 1968, when the wave of ‘new politics’ first catalysed in Paris in May of that year, and then began appearing around the world. Many books have been written about it and from within it, and I studied them as part of my Ph.D. research. I still own some of them, because although what was said and done then has long been out of fashion, this does not necessarily mean that it has dated. In fact, some of it has become more relevant as the cries of the ‘68ers’ have gone unheard and ecological and social conditions have got worse, not better.
Green parties first started forming in the 1970s (in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Germany) and in other places in the 1980s. The French one, Les Verts, was founded in 1984 and dissolved in 2010. Some of the personnel joined other parties or blocs, and continued their advocacy for environmental or social causes. Nowhere has a Green party ever had the power of numbers to enact the sorts of policies and programmes being proposed by EDS, and nor have any other parties with similar policies. In the current French parliament that includes the eco-socialist party La France Insoumise, which like the new EDS party has just 17 deputies in the 577 member National Assembly.
So the new party is probably not a gamechanger, but I thought I would take a look at its policies to see if there was anything there which was new and exciting. This is involving a fair bit of work with a French dictionary, plus searching on line for words or concepts not in the dictionary, and trying to understand the context of some of the proposals, so I can’t report on it today. Maybe tomorrow or Saturday.
The revolution will not be nationalised? [22.5.20]
After working my way through the 15 political priorities of the new Ecology Democracy Solidarity party, the only proposal which I have not encountered before in some form or other is the one to write the preservation of biodiversity and the climate into the Constitution. Of course this only works with countries which (unlike New Zealand) have written constitutions. Also constitutions which are amenable to updating on a regular basis, which has happened to the French one four times since the First Republic was formed in 1792.
When looking at the programme of the already- existing ‘social ecology’ party, La France Insoumise, I found that in addition to calling for “The formation of a constituent assembly tasked with writing the constitution of a Sixth Republic to succeed the present Fifth Republic” (the Fifth Republic replaced the Fourth Republic in 1958), LFI wants that constitution to include a “green rule” stating that nature can not be deprived of more than can be replenished, nor made to produce more than it can bear. A lot of LFI’s programme is ‘green’, and this is not surprising when one finds that a lot of former members and supporters of Les Verts have made it their parliamentary grouping of choice.
From this research I think I have pretty much convinced myself that EDS does not represent a novel departure in French or any other politics, and that a new force is still waiting to come together and make its constituent parts known to each other and to the world. That new force will support the goals of parties which favour environmental protection, social justice and participatory democracy (the original Green platform) but (like the Greens and the Labour/Social Democrat parties before it) it will arise from strong grassroots organisations which are already delivering on the re-localisation of ecological and social care and restoration, and building strong and sustainable local economies.
It will be the activists and especially the leaders in these organisations and initiatives who will go on to form a new political party (as unionists formed Labour parties and community level environmental, social and peace activists formed Green parties).
These new political actors will then face the prospect of failing to make the required differences at national level unless they learn from history and do the things which previous movements have not done when they became politicised. The two most important things they will need to do differently are (1) make successful community level activism(geographical or community of interest) a non-negotiable prerequisite for selection fas a parliamentary representative, and (2) keep working at community level to build understanding and support of the new party’s policies and practices.
The third important thing a new party will do (unlike the current crop of green/left parties in national assemblies) is to have plans as well as goals (or wish lists like the American House of Representatives Green New Deal resolution of February 2019). Practical plans based on proof-of-concept experiments and existing initiatives at the local and regional level, of the sort outlined by Mark Burton of Steady State Manchester on May 21 in Could the Covid-19 Pandemic be a Portal to a Viable Society and Economy? and also, with regard to renewable energy specifically, by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute in Nobody takes the renewable energy transition seriously. Heinberg prefaces his article with a quote from the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Which seems like a good place to end this exploration of French politics and whether there really is a new star rising there.
Who gets to speak – locally? [23.5.20]
We just had change of leadership in New Zealand’s National Party. Everyone had a view on it, and it dominated the news for several days. There was a bit of a storm in a media teacup over whether right-wing political commentator Matthew Hooton should have been allowed to express his view, given that he is a friend of the new leader, with a listener to RNZ saying that this disqualified him. But given the smallness of New Zealand society, and the (shrinking) state of the national media, it would probably be hard to find someone in the political commentary business who was not friends with at least one MP, if not more.
The criticism also misses the key point, which is that (as far as I can ascertain) only one of the current crop of political commentators used by the national media has any qualifications for the job by virtue of an education in politics to Masters level, or a research degree (Ph.D.) on a political subject, and/or teaching experience in politics at tertiary level. That one person is Dr Bryce Edwards, who did a Ph.D. on NZ political parties, and then taught New Zealand politics at Otago University, before going into the commentary business. The only political journalists at editor or similarly senior level who I can reliably state have even a Bachelor of Arts degree which includes Political Science are Sam Sachdeva, the Political Editor at Newsroom, and Henry Cooke, senior political reporter at Stuff.
My research methodology was looking up Linkedin pages, which usually have educational as well as work information. But some of the political journalists don’t have a Linkedin page, and some who do have pages don’t include their education. Could this be because they have no tertiary qualifications at all? I am particularly interersted in Tova O’Brien of Newshub and Claire Trevett of the NZ Herald, who have been very vocal on the National Party leadership issue, but have no professional education information on line. Results for the professional commentators were similarly patchy. It is easy to find that Stephen Mills, who appears regularly on RNZ, runs a polling company and is matey with the Labour party. Whether he has had any tertiary education and if so, in what, I could not find out on line. Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas both work for the same political consultancy, which is owned by Hooton, and both have done and for all I know still do work for the National Party. Thomas has no educational qualifications listed on his Linkedin page; Hooton has a recently-completed Masters degree in Philosophy from Kings College, London.
This lack of political education and across the board experience probably explains why Hooton can write such utter nonsense about the Greens as he did recently in the NZ Herald. My favourite line in it is “Shaw learned his environmentalism at PwC and HSBC.” This is equivalent to saying “Norman [previous Green Party co-leader] learned his financialism at Greenpeace.” The rest of the article is a rant about how the Green Party is in danger of being taken over by ultra-leftists who are inheritors of a supposed Values Party tradition of same. If only… He doesn’t seem to know that Jeanette Fitzsimons, to whom he paid a very touching tribute when she died recently, was an early member of the Values Party, a candidate for it twice, and its Energy spokesperson. Further, given that three of the people he puts in the ‘ultra-leftist’ camp are of Maori descent, the whole thing comes across as thinly-disguised racism. I am sure this was not his intention, but if he knew what leftism and ultra-leftism actually are, through studying them in a reputable academy and/or associating with people who do real leftist politics, he might not talk such tosh.
While political science is not an especially rigorous discipline, comparable to the natural sciences (no ‘science’ which deals with humans could ever be such) it is a body of knowledge and a set of methodologies for discovering and creating new knowledge about politics which has been around as an academic discipline for over a century in the USA, and over half a century in New Zealand. Political scientists from the universities used to be asked to comment on political matters regularly by the media. I am not sure when that stopped, but I really can not remember the last time I heard or read an actual political scientist commenting on New Zealand party politics or current political issues.
Has this happened to other bodies of knowledge? Certainly not to the biological and medical sciences, if the waves of commentary from actual scientists on every aspect of the coronavirus and pandemic is any indication. Similarly, whenever New Zealand has a big earthquake event, earth scientists of every kind are asked to share their knowledge via the media. On the social side, academically qualified criminologists and psychologists are probably heard from most often, but the other disciplines also get a look in from time to time. Economics and finance are probably the areas where (after politics) there is the largest amount of commentary from the biased and/or unqualified. This may be for similar reasons.
On the other hand – maybe it is the academic political scientists who are the problem, not the media. So I did some research into who is actually staffing the Pol.Sci. departments of New Zealand universities these days, and the results were as depressing as the media results. It is possible that there is a terrific expert in New Zealand politics and parties at Auckland University, but the Department’s page on the university’s website gives no information about staff at at all. One has to go to a separate directory, which is basically just an address book, click on the contacts box for each staff member, and then notice the arrow at the bottom to click for a full profile of the staff member.
Victoria University has its political scientists mixed in with historians, philosophers and international relations experts. Out of 24 full time staff in the Political Science and International Relations division, there is no one who specialises in New Zealand parliamentary and/or political movement politics. It is the same at Canterbury and Otago. So I now have some sympathy for a newspaper editor or radio or TV producer trying to find anyone qualified to comment, and I can see what a unique position Bryce Edwards occupies.
I can also see just how impossible it will be to address the gaping hole in public knowledge of local politics from an educated perspective if there are no academics available to do it, and the media are either not aware of the people who do have such an education (me, for example) and/or are not inclined to seek them out when they have such ‘trusty’ sources close at hand.
Who gets to speak – locally? Continued. [24.5.20]
After writing the above I received my evening bulletin of news headlines from The Guardian, and on the side bar (where they put New Zealand content unless it is of world news significance) was an article by Jennifer Curtin (Can New Zealand’s National party reinvent itself under Todd Muller? ), who is a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Auckland. After going through the laborious process of finding her profile on line (in 5 point type) and ascertaining that New Zealand (and Australian) electoral politics are indeed one of her academic specialities (and that in her spare time she is working on a book on women’s engagement with rugby union in New Zealand, 1840-present), I am still left wondering why she gets more coverage in foreign media which are not read or seen by many Kiwis, rather than in New Zealand media. I believe I have heard her talking on gender issues in politics (another of her specialities) but not on parties and elections.
It seems to be up to academics from different fields to do really useful political analysis and commentary. These include Dr Anna Matheson, a senior lecturer in Health Policy at Victoria University. In her May 19 article for Newsroom – Covid-19: we need to get serious about privilege – she points out that “inequality is easy to reinforce and difficult to reverse, so policies addressing the pandemic and economic crisis must tackle the accumulation of wealth and privilege.” I have yet to see or hear any of the politics commentators currently appearing in the New Zealand media make this point.
This morning came the information, via RNZ’s Mediawatch programme, which did a deep dive into Matthew Hooton’s conflicts of interest in the National Party leadership matter, that Hooton was indeed approached by Todd Muller (albeit ‘as a friend’ and unpaid) to provide ‘support’ at the same time as he was appearing in the media as an independent commentator. He was engaged (unpaid) by the new National Party leader – Todd Muller – to provide professional services on Friday May 22, and at this point he advised RNZ and the NZ Herald that he could not do his usual media gigs the following week, as his conflict of interest while still working for Muller was clear.
Indeed it is. But removing one partisan commentator from the media does nothing to address the overall problem of the lack of education in politics by all the journalists and commentators quoted by the Mediawatch item who expressed firm opinions on the National leadership issue. (In addition to Hooton these were Wendy Petrie, Janet Wilson, Claire Trevett, Tova O’Brien, Jane Patterson and Amelia Wade). Nor the lacuna in political scientists or other academics who are knowledgable about New Zealand politics, who could provide more informed and considered opinions.
Is this lack of educated and unbiased intelligence in the Fourth Estate primarily a symptom of the neoliberal hollowing out of both the media and the universities which began in the 1990s? Or could it now also be a contributing cause of further hollowing out? Plenty to think about there…