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Keith Rankin: The Campaign We Didn't Need

The Campaign We Didn't Need

Keith Rankin, 11 July 2002

I find it deeply frustrating that this election campaign is being dominated by the mainstream media relentlessly pushing two non-issues: cover-ups relating to inappropriately autographed artwork and the limited release of genetically modified organisms. We can now add a third issue to the list; an alleged cover-up of a release of a consignment of corn seed that cannot be 100% guaranteed to be free from genetic modification.

The politicians - especially Labour politicians - are just about pulling their hair out. Can we please please have some questions about something else like the economy, social policy, health, defence, foreign policy, non-Frankenstinian aspects of the environment? Labour while weak on many of these issues, would rather face them than have to put up with relentless grilling on matters that it believes (and I sympathise) are quite peripheral to what this election should be about.

But we now seem to have a media that is not intellectually equipped to ask questions about any issues other than populist issues. Not that 'paintergate' or GM are really populist issues; they are populist issues manufactured by a media that prefers populist issues, personality issues, and cover-ups to intelligent analysis.

It's no better in Australia. There the election was won by feeding the media tittle-tattle about whether Afghan refugees had used their children's lives to perpetrate blackmail. And, back in New Zealand, many of us remember 1987 when the fashionable nuclear issue provided wonderful cover for the economic murder being perpetrated by Roger Douglas.

It's not clear to me why genetic-modification is any more or less important than any number of other single-issues: nuclear power, nuclear war, home invasion, Asian invasion, euthanasia, terrorism, drugs, spam, abortion, cryogenics, cloning (the perils of genetically unmodified organisms) and mind control (noted by the Economist as potentially far more of a danger than GM). They are all important; they all represent perils real or imagined that we may have to negotiate individually or collectively as we go through life.

Often they involve us having to make choices as to which option is the lesser evil, which path is the least dangerous: eg abortion versus disgrace, emergency caesarean without a paediatrician on hand versus a 3-hour helicopter nightmare, accepting 'queue jumping' refugees versus leaving boat people to drown, possible traces of genetically modified corn versus economic crisis in Gisborne. With hindsight, we have all at times made the wrong decisions. Some wrong decisions - eg the Kaitaia one - are obvious to all except the bone-headed decision-makers. More often, though, we make the right decision, but still face having to justify it. You can never justify to zealots the evil that the zealots are currently targeting, even if it is a lesser evil than the alternative.

Other choices involve a mixture of upside and downside risk, of balancing possible benefits against possible harm: eg choosing a winger who makes tries but cannot tackle; using genetic modification to speed up processes of artificial selection that began with the birth of agriculture; qualitative economic growth; releasing racially interbred kiwis into the wild; autographing minor artworks to assist charity fundraising; early parole for convicted offenders. None of these issues can be assessed rationally if all the assessors are absolutists (or journalists with 20-20 hindsight).

Possibly there is a down-side of MMP. Small parties, now taken more seriously, go for issues that they hope will capture the public's imagination. Often they only capture the simplistic imagination of the mainstream media. Journalists all too readily convince themselves that these issues are really important to voters when they are not. I suspect that more Green Party activists are more concerned about child poverty than about low-risk genetic modification, but you wouldn't get that impression from the media coverage. It is not possible to simply impose an indefinite moratorium on family poverty.

What worries me about the issues that are chosen is the exploitation of fear and the pessimism that underpins them. Act of course exploits the fear of crime. The Greens exploit the fear of monsters on the loose, or of environmental catastrophe.

If you present a Green with irrefutable evidence that global warming is not happening, would that Green be happy or sad? If the Greens love the planet as it is, the knowledge that whatever we are doing to it is doing no harm should be good news. But I think that most Greens would regard it as bad news. They would see such news as a licence to pollute at will. Pollution is a moral rather than a scientific matter to Greens. It's just a pity they feel obliged to present it is such a strident and absolutist way.

My view is that we should treat our planet with great care because it is our home and not because of any scientific claim that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. The need for science to underpin a moral position too easily leads to bad science. Good behaviour is an ethical rather than a scientific matter. The problem is that moral questions do not have single clear-cut answers. Fear of catastrophe makes better headlines.

It is the same with genetic engineering. Most Greens, I am sure, would be very upset if presented with scientific proof that genetic modification is harmless. They have invested too much in the belief that it is harmful. Hence they largely rejected the findings of the Commission of Inquiry which was convened as a result of Green political pressure.

There are immense moral issues that do not depend on scientific evidence. Some relate to the economic application of biological knowledge. (Indeed economics began as a branch of moral philosophy.) I am very interested in property rights: who owns biological knowledge? how should profits deriving from biological knowledge be divided? I am very concerned at the reticence of the public to assert its substantial collective equity in our global capitalist economy. Yet trying to get people to openly debate issues relating to public property rights is extremely difficult. These issues are the antithesis of the black and white issues that the sound-bite media require.

Maybe DNA is sacred. Such a moral stance would be enough to say that genetic modification is wrong. But at least, from that standpoint, we could conclude that some kinds of GM are more wrong than others, and that more GM of any kind is more wrong than less GM. That, in the end is a pragmatic position, much as a pragmatic pope would say that less abortion is better than more abortion.

The GM hawks however believe that GM is wrong because of what it might do rather than because of what it is. For them, calamity could result from any level of GM release. They liken GM release to pregnancy; you cannot be just a little bit pregnant.

I wish we could debate these issues thoughtfully, and in a relativist rather than an absolutist way. We may have to choose to do some things that are relatively bad, but hopefully not many such things. With most issues - and pollution and GM are good examples - the real questions are how to manage the problem responsibly rather than to indulge in political brinkmanship. Green intransigence could see us with a Labour / NZ First coalition government in August.

Further, most (but not all!) so-called cover-ups are themselves a lesser evil. Everyone, at some stage in their lives, chooses not to reveal something that could be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Governments and Prime Ministers are no different. To deceive without telling lies is a central component of intelligence, especially political intelligence. Just imagine a world in which nothing is ever covered up.

Good policy, like good living, is a matter of getting the balance right. We have two weeks to get the balance right in this election campaign.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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