Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Government by intimidation

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Our leaders would prefer critics to keep quiet and get with the programme.

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

We're in a cold war, first foretold when beneficiary Natasha Fuller's details were made public after she criticised the cutting of access to a training incentive allowance.

This week the war continues, writ larger. Steely-eyed Nick Smith, a minister supposedly in charge of the conservation of our natural resources, implodes when he senses Fish & Game is lobbying over-vigorously for cleaner rivers, allegedly accusing them of getting "into the space of being anti New Zealand's most important industry ... the dairy industry".

In typical style, Smith went a step too far, snaring himself in legal threats against Fish & Game.

Whatever the precise truth about what he said, his utterances lay bare what seems to be a long-term strategy - to get all sorts of organisations to pull their necks in and get with the programme. And when threats don't work, plugging the flow of funding certainly does.

That's what happened to the Problem Gambling Foundation in March, when it was found to have engaged in too much "advocacy" work against SkyCity's expansion plans - work the foundation would classify as the prevention of gambling harm by reducing the opportunity to gamble - and found itself short of three-quarters of its yearly budget.

It can be seen in the fear people have about speaking out over mistakes in the funding of the rebuilding of Christchurch: a particularly cantankerous, controlling minister with the power to giveth or taketh away funds for vital infrastructure has the desired effect. Or the eerie silence that befalls some do-gooding charities when issues arise that directly affect families for the worse.

Then there are the deaths by a thousand budget cuts that happen to some non-governmental organisations for mysterious reasons, like the loss of the Christchurch rape crisis centre for want of $30,000. Or the cuts made at DHB level to a range of mental health and addiction services, and the seeming inability to fund others for more than a year at a time (while killing them with hugely bureaucratic reporting requirements).

When I heard Judith Collins accuse Women's Refuge recently of having a deal with local gangs to take their women, I wondered how long it would be before that immensely important organisation would also be facing the snip.

At least Women's Refuge is not posing a threat to industry, I suppose - the main bugbear of ministers who appear to distrust organisations that attempt to mitigate a little of the influence of the hugely powerful tobacco, dairy, liquor and fast food industries.

I am a taxpayer too, and for the record, I really don't mind when agencies with expertise and knowledge of the coalface let the Government know when certain policies and ideas will cause harm - or good, for that matter. An honest appraisal, in other words.

What I do mind more are corporate lobbyists with previous links to the National Government who enjoy swipe-card access to ministers and can bend their ears any time of the day or night - the likes of former ministerial advisers who now work for Air NZ, Anadarko and Fonterra. Would they ever be at risk of disturbing Nick Smith's serenity, like those troublesome types at Fish & Game? Yeah, nah.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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