Rachel Stewart: You can't hide from the facts

John Key disagreed with Mike Joy's view on clean and green NZ. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key disagreed with Mike Joy's view on clean and green NZ. Photo / Mark Mitchell

After last week's column, in which I gave the Ministry for Primary Industries a bit of a serve, I managed to get the "big boys" to come out and play.

MPI boss Martyn Dunne used his large PR team to write a rebuttal of sorts. In my view, it was overflowing with faux indignation and outrage, but short on any meaningful engagement with what I'd actually said. Which is fine; they're entitled to spin things how they want. Though it does get a tad annoying when that's all it is. During six years of writing columns, I've had numerous bosses from various government ministries and lobby groups do the same as Dunne. To a man (because they always are), they've followed the same formula. To me it's just fake righteous anger, obfuscation, and a hammed-up display of moral one-upmanship.

They always bring the staff into it. How "dedicated" and "hard-working" they are - as if they are far beyond any criticism whatsoever, and how callous of me to ever suggest they're nothing short of noble.

Which is totally meaningless.

Why? Because I'm positive that when I have a crack at obviously failing organisations such as MPI, I speak for the many staff who also feel like I do. Imagine being firmly caught in the net of a job you need, while despising the direction the organisation is going in. Have a talk to any Wellington bureaucrat when you've a spare moment. Preferably after they've had a few drinks.

Spin has been with us for a while now. It's what got tobacco companies rich, and it keeps the alcohol, sugar, and fast-food industries spreading the financially rewarding gospel of addiction. I get it.

What I struggle with is this new era of post-truth politics. Or the absence of facts. For example, I can write a column (and often do) where I cite credible sources, produce reliable data, and give proven facts. All this, and I'm a mere opinion writer! Yet, the likes of MPI's Martyn Dunne - or any aggrieved party - comes along and states a whole lot of nothing.

Post-truth politics is all about creating a feeling or emotion, rather than acknowledging policy or facts. It's a blatant play to both the faithful, who you don't have to win over, and the thick who you just might.

Just like the Brexit campaigners, Trump presents a master class in it. It doesn't matter how many times an assertion he makes is utterly disproved, he stays on message by repeating talking points over and over, and then over again.

Spin has been with us for a while now. It's what got tobacco companies rich, and it keeps the alcohol, sugar, and fast-food industries spreading the financially rewarding gospel of addiction.

Which is not to say that the Clinton campaign doesn't partake in it. It does. But it's a particularly strong tactic of the more right-leaning groups, research has shown. Or am I making that up? Does it matter?

You bet it matters. Liberal democracies rely on facts. I've got a strong hunch that, just prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, any adherence to inconvenient facts went out the window. Yes, glass windows had been invented by then. Do you believe me?

I remember the moment the penny dropped in New Zealand's own version of post-truth politics. It was John Key being interviewed by the BBC's Stephen Sackur, when he asked him about a comment by freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy who'd said, "We are delusional about how clean and green we are."

Key's response is now the stuff of legend.

John Key: Well that might be Mike Joy's view, but I don't share that view.

Sackur: But he is very well qualified, isn't he? He's looked, for example, at the number of species threatened with extinction in New Zealand, he's looked at the fact that half your lakes, 90 per cent of your lowland rivers, are now classed as polluted.

Key: Look, I'd hate to get into a flaming row with one of our academics, but he's offering his view. I think any person that goes down to New Zealand ...

Sackur: Yeah but he's a scientist, it's based on research, it's not an opinion he's plucked from the air.

Key: He's one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview.

Yep, in the face of all the scientific data, Key chose to grab the brass ring of bullshittery.

The new chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, Jacqueline Rowarth, a strong dairy advocate, recently grabbed the same ring when she said the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world. She cited outdated and irrelevant data, making a mockery of herself and her new role in one fatal flourish, in my opinion.

Media - mostly rural - quickly repeated her claim, as if it was the word of God.

Nope, but it was the word of money - the root of all post-truth politics. (Wasn't it Shakespeare who said that?)

- NZ Herald

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