We seem to be on a run of elected leaders getting caught out.
Whether it’s a secret text message, the unsold shares or an unpaid restaurant bill, the stories eventually come out, usually when the spin doctors can no longer cover up the misbehaving politician’s antics.
Political spin-doctoring continues to spiral out of control in this country. “Spin”, in this sense, is a term to describe the art of controlling the communication of a message in a manner that presents a biased interpretation of events, which in turn is intended to manipulate public opinion.
We were promised the most transparent Government ever. We received the opposite. With an election due in just three months, it’s time to ask the question: why are our politicians constantly misleading us?
Our Government employs thousands of people in communications roles. Many of them are charged with manipulating and drip-feeding information so the bad news coming from the Government doesn’t seem quite so bad. Often, the spin of mistruths continues until our senses are dulled to a particular topic and we’ve all moved on before the real truth comes out. And that’s the intention.
“We were promised the most transparent Government ever. We received the opposite.”
The trouble with such misleading behaviour is this. We need to remember that these people, our politicians, are public servants. Our public servants. People we elect and who we pay. People we entrust to do what needs to be done in the best interests of the country. So why should they go to such great lengths to mislead us as they go about their work?
The least they could do is tell us the truth. Can we handle the truth?
Some of the misleading lines are now famous. Remember “we’re at the front of the queue for vaccines”? We weren’t. Or that “he was advised on six occasions to sell his shares”? Turns out it there were 16 messages about the shares. Notwithstanding the mystery text message, the current one goes, “there have never been any formal allegations put to me”.
And regardless of our obvious issues with education, the health sector, policing and budgeting, and despite various invitations to do so, our politicians refuse to call anything a crisis. We learned this week that the health sector is 8000 staff short. And people are waiting weeks to see a doctor and years for an operation. That sounds like a crisis to me.
And just last week, we had the acting PM on radio refusing to answer some questions because she didn’t want to “steal the thunder” from the relevant minister. I wonder what’s more important: the minister’s thunder, or the public’s right to know?
The former PM had the audacity to refer to her Government as the “single source of the truth” during the pandemic. It wasn’t. Her Government was also assembling a document named He Puapua, the existence of which was kept from their then coalition partner, and also from the voting public. Its existence and content only became apparent after the election was safely in the bag.
My bet is that the same thing is happening again. Once high-profile ministers have been sent to the back room, where I expect they’re working on the next raid on our values and our wallets. Their work will only become visible if another election victory is delivered.
I’ve been thinking about transparency since my last column about government spending. I received over 200 emails, many from people working in the public service, each with their own stories of wasteful spending within ministries. They also told of cover-ups and gross negligence. These people are educators, police and health workers.
But the best story was from a carpet wholesaler who sold his entire stock to a government department eager to spend their year’s budget for fear of having future budgets reduced if they didn’t. They didn’t need the carpet. They didn’t even care what colour it was. They just needed to spend the taxpayer money before the due date.
If reading that makes you grumpy, you’re not alone.
“…most of us have no idea of what goes on deep in the bowels of government, and if we did, we’d be shocked.”
But it made me think. And the more I thought, the more I realised that most of us have no idea of what goes on deep in the bowels of government, and if we did, we’d be shocked. We’d be shocked not just by the waste, but by the policy being implemented, and being considered.
Government is now so large that it spends much of its time and money doing business with itself. The consultant’s report to justify the original ministry report that endorsed the earlier summary of what was originally written. How else do you end up with $52 million spent on a bridge that didn’t get built? Or worse, $1.9 billion on mental health without improving mental health outcomes?
Navigating through such a maze of bureaucracy and misinformation can be frustrating. As a result, those of us who are interested sometimes have to resort to our rights to get information. In the old days you could call on your MP. These days that would be futile. We can write to various ministers or MPs. Based on my experience, a reply is most unlikely. Thereafter we can resort to the Ombudsman. Or perhaps the Official Information Act.
But why should we have to? In fact, why should we need an Official Information Act? Why should we have to apply to get access to information about what our own Government is doing?
And how much does it cost? Come to think of it, how much does it cost the taxpayer in time and money to have these guys ducking and diving and misleading us? How often do we hear the words “we’re working on it and we will announce it when we’re ready”? How about they tell us what they’re working on now and we’ll tell them whether we want it?
We go into this election a very different country to three years ago. The list of serious issues is long and the competence of government is constantly questioned. But above and beyond delivery and outcomes, there is something else. A divided people. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction.
The misleading messages and the deception have closed us down. We’re not as open and friendly as we once were. We have racial overtones in decision-making that make people nervous. Our politicians are using spin to such a point that they seem comfortable redefining democracy, or worse, telling lies.
Everything should be online, available for everyone to see. So government websites need an overhaul too. We need to make information easier to find. Simple headings. Policy and plans. Current initiatives and progress to date. Accurately informing an untrusting public is the starting point to getting our collective mojo back.
So with the election nearing, I’d like to see a political party make a fresh commitment to be truly open and transparent. And a real commitment, not like the freshly spun words we heard last time.
Imagine if a political party put out their policy in a manner that was clear and easily understood by everyone with the opportunity to vote. And imagine if that party was elected to government on the basis of that policy. Perhaps they could then go about running the government and the country on the basis of seeking to execute that policy and fulfil the promises made during the election campaign. That would be a change.
And imagine if those elected leaders, when asked a question, then answered those questions truthfully. That would be a change.
There shouldn’t be a need to imagine. Because that’s the way it is supposed to work. If politicians were true to that, we wouldn’t need the spin we have to put up with. And we wouldn’t need to put in Official Information Act requests either.
The encouraging aspect is that we are seeing some politicians who can potentially deliver such an approach to governing. If those people are elected, New Zealand is small enough to turn around quickly, and we could have the free and transparent society many of us envisage and want.
Just as our politicians have a responsibility to clearly state their policies and plans, and to be honest with us about progress once those plans are enabled, then we voters have an obligation too. As voters, we must make every effort to familiarise ourselves with that policy, and thereafter to vote for the people or party that best represents our view of the country’s needs and priorities.
Then, and only then, can we properly hold government to account.
This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 8th July, 2023.