Discussion of kava imports reflects lack of understanding
When you’re in politics, words are a high-stakes game. Voters and journalists hold you to them and there is a risk in using words that are hard to live up to. This is particularly true for politicians whose reputation is founded on sincerity and au The Australian government is considering an increase in the amount of kava travellers can bring into the country. The consultation process includes a proposed pilot program to ease restrictions on kava importation for personal use from two to four kilograms per person.
Many Australian residents, especially those with Pacific Island heritage, will welcome this, but the proposal is based on fundamentally flawed evidence.
Australia’s restrictions on kava are based on concerns about its misuse in remote communities. But the government’s policy is imperialistic and ignores evidence about kava use, side effects and cultural significance.
Kava: the sociable drink
Kava (Piper methysticum) is widely cultivated by Pacific Island communities for its root, which is ground up and mixed with water to make a beverage for ceremonies and other cultural settings.
Kava contains kavalactones, psychoactive ingredients that create a relaxed yet clear-headed state in the drinker. Unlike alcohol, it does not cause marked euphoria or lead to emotional changes, such as disinhibition. It is also not addictive.
Many Pacific Island communities now produce a powdered form of the root, which is exported for medical and social purposes all over the world.
Australian regulations on kava date from 1997, when a 2kg limit was introduced on the amount of kava passengers could bring into Australian without a permit. In 2007, a complete ban on kava was introduced in the Northern Territory. The 2kg limit remains in other parts of Australia.
The government’s move to regulate kava followed “concerns” about kava abuse within Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Kava was originally introduced into these communities in the 1980s as part of a suite of measures aimed at reducing the harm caused by alcohol.
Opinion pieces published following kava’s introduction referred to all-night binges and illicit mixing of alcohol and kava. The government seized on this as grounds for introducing the Northern Territory ban, despite a lack of coherent evidence to support the reports, and praise for kava’s role in reducing alcohol-related violence.
This imperialistic policy has continued, with widespread negative consequences. Reports show that the inability to access kava has led to substance switching, with far more serious drugs being used instead.
This has affected the Aboriginal communities the restrictions were designed to protect as well as Pacific Island communities throughout Australia. For them, kava is more than a pleasant drink.
Flawed consultation process
It is concerning that the flawed understanding that underpinned the introduction of Australia’s kava regulations persists in the current pilot program. This is evident in the information put forward for consultation and in the proposed changes.
The consultation is being couched as recognition of “the cultural and economic importance of kava to Pacific Islanders”, but health and social impacts of kava continue to be misrepresented. Examples include frequent references to kava having toxic health effects. Such claims of toxicity have been refuted recently and demonstrate an entrenched lack of understanding of alternative cultural perspectives.
It is possible for kava beverage to be consumed with an acceptably low level of health risk.
Similarly, the characterisation of the “dry and scaly skin” that can follow kava consumption as a “toxic effect” is misplaced. Kava dermopathy is a common and well understood side effect of prolonged kava use. It is known to be harmless and reversible. Some Pacific people see it as a positive demonstration of the individual’s engagement with their culture.
The unnecessary linking of kava dermopathy with toxicity shows that the attitudes and policy that underpin the consultation continue to be culturally skewed, based on outdated understanding of kava’s cultural significance.
Kava as culture, identity
This lack of understanding is most evident in the section dealing with “social impacts of kava use”. The first matter discussed refers to illicit markets for kava and their adverse community impacts. This maintains the negative connotations of kava.
Although kava’s ability to promote “fellowship and companionship” is mentioned, it is followed by a reference to “relationship distress” through kava use. A large body of research demonstrates that kava is not addictive and that its psychoactive properties are neither hallucinogenic nor stupefying.
If people choose to spend their time drinking kava, it is exactly that: a choice. Some people choose to spend time on other recreational activities, including gaming, watching television and playing on their phones, and these choices may cause “relationship distress” as well, but it doesn’t make these activities ripe for regulation.
What the consultation fails to understand is that the significance of kava drinking in Pacific Island communities, wherever they are located, goes far beyond its social aspects. Kava represents an ingestible manifestation of culture and identity, considered by many to be transferring spiritual power. Particularly for diasporic communities, kava circles provide a cultural classroom where respect, language and traditions are taught and reinforced.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saddled herself with the word “transformational”. She used it heavily in the heady days of the 2017 election campaign, although less so in the compromised reality of a coalition government. Still, it is the aspiration she is held to. The 2019 well-being budget is held to it by association.
But how do we know transformation when we see it?
Beyond the status quo
Obviously, transformation must go beyond the status quo. But to be transformative, it must also go beyond mere reform.
A reform agenda recognises that trouble is brewing, that social, economic and environmental trends are on the wrong track. It accepts that major changes to policy and lifestyle may be required. As sustainable development research shows, it does “not locate the root of the problem in the nature of present society, but in imbalances and a lack of knowledge and information”.
It tends to reach for existing policy levers, and to hang its hopes on technical solutions. It reacts to the toughest choices by devising new frameworks for analysing them.
The well-being budget easily goes this far. Finance minister Grant Robertson is entitled to say, as he did in his budget speech, that this is a government “not satisfied with the status quo”.
Most important, New Zealand’s well-being approach de-centres GDP as the principal measure of national success, using instead the multi-dimensional living standards framework. In doing so, Ardern’s government has acted upon doubts that are as old as GDP itself, and gained traction in the years after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
As economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi argued in their influential analysis of what went wrong:
What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted.
By arguing for more nuanced national accounting that captures quality of life, they made a case for reform that Ardern’s government is putting into practice.
A transformative agenda goes further. It sees problems as rooted in the present structure of society. It isn’t only about managing the flaws and oversights of the dominant system, but overturning the system itself. This involves an order of ambition that the well-being budget lacks.
Consider, for instance, its centrepiece investment: NZ$455 million (over four years) for a new frontline service for mental health. This is vital support for those in need, complemented by wider reforms recommended by He Ara Oranga, the report of the inquiry into mental health and addiction.
But its primary focus is to address existing suffering. It doesn’t aim for the socioeconomic or historical causes of many people’s misery and strain. Other aspects of government policy may do, such as the Provincial Growth Fund, by creating meaningful jobs in places where opportunities are low and shame or whakamā are high.
But whether you think this is adequate depends on how you answer the big questions about the structure of the economy, distribution of power and decolonisation. This is undoubtedly the territory of transformational politics, but the well-being budget only touches the edges.
There is another word for change that the prime minister sides with: not “transformation” but just transition. This is the idea that socioeconomic change should be guided by principles of justice, such as equity and inclusivity, to minimise the disruption that change can bring. The aim of a just transition is to achieve revolution without revolt.
The concept is prominent in climate change policy – and the well-being budget delivers projects to support these objectives, including a clean energy development centre in Taranaki, sustainable land-use funding to enable the shift to low-emissions landscapes, and an extended budget line for just transition planning.
But Ardern obviously sees the idea of a just transition as more broadly relevant, contrasting it with the “rapid, uncaring change” of structural reforms in 1980s New Zealand. To my mind, this better captures the temper of this government – not transformational, but potentially transitional.
As the well-being approach is bedded in – not only with policy wonks but also business and community leaders, and the voting public – it will loosen GDP’s grip on the minds of decision makers. GDP will be repositioned as only one among many indicators that ought to inform political judgement. Then political leaders can be confidently ambitious, not only with their words, but also their actions.