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Keith Rankin: PC


by Keith Rankin, 11 April 2008

Something very disquieting is happening in Aotearoa. It appears to be a virulent new strain of political correctness. We could call this "acquired PC syndrome", or something similar.

It is probably happening elsewhere as well, given that even the European Parliament is talking about boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, without regard to the damage fashionable politics today can do to an institution that is so much bigger than any ephemeral issue of politics. Hardly anyone will be talking about Tibet in 2009, just as hardly anyone in New Zealand talked about genetically modified corn in 2003. The Olympic Games should not be tainted by opportunistic politics.

It seems obvious to me that the Olympic Games has been a wonderful opportunity for China to become more open, and to allow its traditional collectivist culture to become further infused with a wider range of liberal cosmopolitan influences. Do we want to jeopardise that process? Do we want to live in a future world with an emerging superpower that treats the outside world with suspicion and defensiveness rather than openness? Do we want the Chinese government to listen to us when we promote global initiatives; for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

We have no shortage of domestic matters of excess political correctness (or is it "journalistic correctness") this month.

This morning Parekura Horomia made the headlines after stating in Parliament at Question Time (April 10) that there might be reasons other than absolute poverty as to why some children go to school without eating breakfast. He made the headlines while stating the obvious, because his statement was perceived to be undiplomatic. Maybe he was in denial about child poverty? Well he wasn't, and he said so.

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The new strain of PC seems to be a kind of witch-hunt that seeks to root out and expose people who deny things. Yet it has other variations. One is to not-deny something. For example, we must not use the "r"-word (recession) lest our loose lips actually cause us to have a recession that we otherwise might not have had. Denial is all the rage on this matter.

Overall, there is a remarkable discomfort whenever someone either disagrees with or is perceived to disagree with some "correct" (as opposed to true) truth. Further, we seem to like our truths to be very simple, be they about child poverty, global warming, or "tails wagging dogs" in politics.

Earlier in the week, National MPs Lockwood Smith and Maurice Williamson were hounded by the sound-bite media pack about their personal views about global warming. Chris Trotter even joined in the April 9 Independent Financial Review, implying that these MPs had views that completely contradicted scientific fact.

There are three key points here: what are the facts? is science simply a matter of fact versus non-fact? and whether it matters if some MPs have personal views that differ with their party's views.

The facts on global warming appear to be (i) that the earth's surface temperature as increased by about one degree centigrade in just over 100 years (with an apparent acceleration from about 1980), and (ii) human activities have contributed in some part to that increase.

How important are these facts? A third fact is that from around the year 1200 to the year 1700 there was substantial global cooling. So the global warming might in the main be a simple natural recovery to pre-1200 levels of warmth. We know that the cooling during the last millennium had profound economic consequences. We do not yet know if the world's climate is today higher than it was 1000 years ago, when the Vikings ruled the northern waves.

We also know that in three periods in prehistory (14000 years ago, 11000 years ago, and 8000 years ago) there were episodes of dramatic rises in sea levels (120 metres in total) as we came out of the ice age. 11000 years ago, sea levels appear to have risen 50 metres in 50 years. Neither the planet nor humankind died.

We can explain pauses in global warming in the 1970s and early 1990s to volcanic activity (eg in Iceland in the early 1970s, and Philippines in 1991). The 1970s' pause makes the temperature rise in the 1980s appear more dramatic than it really was.

We also know that the probability that a deindustrialisation in the next 50 years will occur - let alone successfully decarbonise our atmosphere - is virtually zero. Whatever decarbonising solutions we pursue, they can only be part of our response to global warming. Most likely we are going to have to adapt to climate change, as humans have done in the past.

We need to acquire a more empathic personal morality. For example, SUVs are vehicles that are useful for particular purposes. But most people who own and drive SUVs do not need such large and fuel-expensive vehicles. If we are better educated on what might be called "moral civics", we would better appreciate that we would all be better off if nobody drove a vehicle larger than what they needed.

We don't need global warming as a reason why we should live our lives with moderation and sympathy for others. We can learn to behave better towards others and to the environment without having expensive and futile government environmental policies that can only be justified by denying scientific disagreement.

Another example of our acquired PC syndrome is the media's exaggerated response to Winston Peter's modest disagreements with the terms of the NZ-China Free Trade Agreement signed this week. As a result of this we've had a significant rise in negative comments towards MMP. When investigated closely, these comments are made by people who appear to be uncomfortable with democracy itself.

If Winston Peter's NZ First Party secures 5% of the vote, then, by any democratic reckoning his party should be present in Parliament. And, if it takes support from his party for some other party to form a government, then that's hardly a bad thing. That's democracy; it's not "holding the country to ransom".

If a single party gains more than 50% of the vote it has a right to be called "dog", and to rule accordingly. But even then, such a government has to govern for the benefit of all, and not just it's own activists. Disagreement is at the heart of democracy.

Winston Peters is a minister outside of Cabinet. He is free to disagree with the Labour-led government on any matter other than that which falls within his Ministerial brief. That's a very healthy arrangement. Peters is not Minister of Trade. Phil Goff is.

Why do so many commentators snipe at MMP? Do they really want us to go back to a winner-takes-all electoral system in which Finance Ministers (with names such as Muldoon, Douglas and Richardson) serving minority parties are able to disregard dissent and dictate policy? If we really do believe in democracy, then we believe that people who disagree with us have as much right as we do to be represented.

While on the topic of Winston Peters, shallow media commentators still like to go on about the "baubles" of office. They assume that Winston Peters was a hypocrite (or liar) when he took on the role of Foreign Minister. Yet when I heard Winston speak in 2005, I heard him say that he (and his party) would not seek the baubles of office. He did not lie. To "not seek" is quite different from to "not accept".

Please, please, can our journalists - especially in the electronic media - resist the temptation to jump to sinister interpretations when politicians or scientists or economists (or whoever) disagree. Most observed facts (eg children without breakfast; global warming over the last century) have multiple causes, and the known facts can be subject to different interpretations. It simply doesn't matter if Lockwood Smith interprets the facts on global warming differently from John Key. What matters is that both are committed to supporting National Party policy on this matter. Further, hopefully all parties' policies will evolve as further facts on and interpretations of global warming add to the mix of this ongoing debate.

Democracy is about representation. The differences in the population should be reflected in the make-up of Parliament. Democracy is about openness, disagreement, and working through the many complex issues that affect our lives. We should not travel further down this road of making citizens and their parliamentary representatives increasingly afraid to disagree with the current media-filtered received wisdom.


Keith Rankin teaches economics at Unitec in Auckland.

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