Blog No. 82.
Having spent the last several blogs worrying over events in the Middle East, I thought I’d devote the next couple of blogs to the subject of climate change. That is the subject, which keeps me awake at night and sometimes leads me to such fantastical ideas as those proposed in each of these two next blogs.
Working on the principle that if one talks the talk, one should also walk the walk, I have become involved in a local group of activists gallantly/vainly attempting to open the minds of our political leaders to the reality of climate change and to their responsibility to start acting on the readily available information relating to it. Our group’s website www.climatekaranga.org.nz contains links to much up-to-date information on the subject.
I find ‘letters to the editor’ a frustrating medium. Our local paper, the Marlborough Express, has a 250-word maximum limit. It is a strict discipline to abide by if one wishes to express political thought beyond slogans. This was a letter published earlier this year.
Late last month, you published two interesting Op-Eds – one by Gwynne Dyer on climate change and one by Liam Hehir on the National Party’s success.
Dyer, author of ‘Climate Wars,’ is exceptionally well informed on both climate change and international politics. Everyone should take notice if Dyer says that New Zealanders have cause to be extremely anxious about climate change and, by implication, about a government which appears not to be.
Hehir, one of New Zealand’s leading political commentators, demonstrates that no matter what missteps the National government might take, its understanding of and ability to communicate with its public remains unimpaired. Though opposition parties might constantly complain that the government is ‘out of touch’ with the electorate, the polls show National, with 51.3% support, at 20% ahead of Labour. As Hehir asks, just who is ‘out of touch?’
National, by pursuing no controversial policies, no matter how urgently required, ensures it ‘stays in touch’ by leading from behind. It follows the flock wherever they see the lushest grazing, even should it lead them to the edge of the cliff.
It is not the government, but the New Zealand public that is ‘out of touch’ with unpleasant reality. Complacent New Zealanders, with their refusal to take a forward look at what will happen should they ignore such as Dyer’s warnings, have only themselves to blame. It is a very short-term gratification that their ‘in touch’ government is so eagerly pursuing to its own benefit and their long-term detriment.
Yours faithfully, etc.
I have long been convinced of humanity’s (and all other Earthly life forms’) fast approaching climate change disaster. Equally obvious has been the total absence of anything approximating to an appropriate political reaction. I am constantly reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that ““Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” There seem to be three separate strands to the current dysfunction of the New Zealand brand of democracy.
1. Lead from behind. Firstly we have the dysfunction mentioned in my letter. Modern polling techniques allow a party in power to continuously monitor the reaction of their electorate and to adjust their policy initiatives accordingly. Watch the flock from behind. Keep in touch with their wishes. See that they are grazing happily. Let nothing distract them from their pasture and their weight-gain. Let them follow their noses to the best pasture – no need to second guess them: as sheep, they know their ruminant business. Delay passing on unwelcome news. Suppress journalists who sound the alarm. Though change is inevitable, it is by its nature unsettling. Though adjustment to it would be better begun early than late, sound political sense demands that initiatives to prepare the electorate for unwelcome change, be delayed until the last minute. Concentrate instead on winning the next election.
2. Pulling the wool. The good shepherd doesn’t consult his flock on the big decisions. If it is to be shorn, dipped, trucked to new pasture, or the freezing works, the arrangements should not be made in full exposure to public view. In any case, if they are feeding contentedly, why should they be at all interested in complicated debate? That is what the shepherd is for. The sheep will only start bleating when the pasture runs out. Government’s job is to endlessly postpone the time when its impending disappearance becomes apparent.
Keeping the pasture growing in the modern world, involves complicated trade deals; transfer of ownership to foreign interests; new defence commitments; etc. These are all matters best left to the appropriate decision makers. They know best! The less information the electorate has on these subjects, the less it is likely to inconveniently attempt to interfere in the decision-making process. The political leadership can be relied upon to act in what it considers to be its own best interests. Theoretically, in a democratic system, that means in their electorate’s best interests. Unfortunately, in a party political system, what a party’s leaders regard as ‘their electorate’ does not necessarily coincide with the electorate as a whole.
3. Divide and rule. It would appear that in John Key, New Zealand’s current National Party government has chosen a leader with the ability to charm and the ‘common touch’ of that class of celebrity multi-millionaire, who everyone recognises as the typical man-in-their-street. Furthermore, National, seemingly, has worked out a perfect formula for retaining permanent political power in a modern democratic system of government. The party leadership has selected as their constituency a section of the electorate, sufficient to ensure their re-election to office. Having identified their target market, they, work hard to ensure that it identifies with them by their being seen as constantly striving to develop policies representative of its best interests.
Every society consists of a continuum of fortunes, ranging from those doomed to live in the bilge and those chosen to strut the quarterdeck. There is a mid-point to that continuum. A party, which promises to look after the upper fifty percent and wins their trust, can guarantee that the other fifty percent, all the way down to the bilge rats, will share their votes ineffectually among sundry minor parties, or become too apathetic to vote. Provided a government can convince around fifty percent of the electorate that it is looking after their interests, it need not concern itself with the other half.
Needless to say, this cynical exercise of political pragmatism is a perfect recipe for steadily increasing social inequality. The promise that National offers its chosen electorate is that it will make them richer. In a twenty-first century consumer society, such a proposition is generally favourably received. This is especially so, as at this advanced stage of industrial and post-industrial capitalist development, making societies richer is becoming increasingly difficult. The global population is increasing rapidly, while the resources, on which the global economy is built, are depleting and, were all the downstream consequences of their usage taken into account, becoming ever more expensive to access. Under these circumstances, any increase in the benefits of one section of a society can most readily be provided at the expense of the other.
Neo-liberalism being what it is, the inequality keeps developing not just at the chosen 50% divide, but also within it. Ultimately, a point is reached where a significant number of the haves become have-nots and the government’s targeted majority begins to drift. For increasing numbers of the have-nots, life becomes so intolerable that they make life intolerable for the haves. Society becomes unstable, despite whatever might be the current delusion, political power proves not to be permanent. The cycle starts all over again under a new government, this time pandering to a different section of a divided society.
As Churchill opined – this democracy is certainly a bad form of government. The question is could it in any way be improved on, before it mutates into something worse?
As I said in my letter to the Express, the fault lies not with the government, but with the electorate. The electoral majority gets the politicians and government it deserves. Is it only the actual experience of disaster that motivates change? The problem is that usually, disasters are such, that by the time they have occurred, the situation is extremely expensive to rectify. Of all possible disasters, rapid climate change is by far the most pernicious. With climate change, under current political leadership, the irreversible damage is already being done and the disaster locked in to its inevitable course, long before it makes an intolerable intrusion into comfortable lives. Without pro-active government intervention, by the time the electorate awakens to the reality of its peril, it will be too late.
(Picture from Cambridge Society for Social and Economic Development -CAMSED)
In a neo-liberal, capitalist society the accepted norm is to make money: to prioritise and maximise profitable activity above all else. There are few incentives for government or corporates intent on profit, to raise the alarm on seemingly distant threats, or to instigate policies that might disrupt routine economic activity. For New Zealand, and indeed for global society to survive the onslaught of rapid climate change, a way, or ways, will have to be found around this problem of democratic apathy: of electorates with their heads in the sand and governments refusing to perform their duty as bearers of bad news.
There are some unconventional political initiatives being proposed to combat modern day dysfunctions of the political system – the ‘Living Wage’ proposal being a case in point. I have another, at first sight seemingly ridiculous proposal to add to the list.
We should give the vote to children. As soon as a child is born, one of the parents should be given the child’s proxy to vote on his or her behalf. The publicly proclaimed social responsibility of the proxy would be that the child’s vote be given, not to the party offering the family immediate benefits, but to the party, which the parent judged offers most prospects for the child’s future welfare in adulthood. Political parties would then be forced to include in their manifestos, meaningful commitments to the welfare of society well beyond the next three year term.
It is our children’s futures that we are ruining by our inaction; we need to give them a better chance to have their voices heard. New Zealand was the first nation to give women the vote. It was an idea which spread around the world to the great enhancement of democracy. Now, let New Zealand be the first to give the vote to children.
I am now just over halfway through the second year of weekly postings on this blog. In the past year it has received approx. 35,000 visitors. The subjects dealt with are mainly climate change and global political interactions – with particular emphasis on East-West conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. If something is worth saying it is worth hearing! If any of the readers consider a blog to be of particular merit or interest, I’d be grateful if they could help expand its readership by sharing that particular blog with their social media contacts. Thanks.