Chris Trotter


ONE OF THE MOST PERPLEXING ASPECTS of the National-Act-NZ First coalition government is its perverse unreasonableness. Perverse, because in almost every instance the unreasonable nature of the Coalition’s policies generate reactions that can only be politically counterproductive to its chances of re-election.

Politicians can be radical, or reactionary, it matters little, just so long as they can a make a reasonable case for their intended course of action. A reasonable policy not only stands a good chance of being implemented, it is also likely to be well received by the electorate. If, over the course of its three year term, a government’s actions strike most voters as consistently unreasonable, then its chances of being re-elected will be lessened considerably.

What makes a policy reasonable in the eyes of the ordinary voter? Principally, it is the quality of the evidence presented in its favour. If a policy is endorsed by persons with a reasonable claim to being experts, or at the very least, by people with a long history of being right about the subject under discussion, then its chances of being accepted are high. The more questionable the credentials of those making the government’s case, however, the less faith the public is likely to place in its policies.

Public faith in government policy will dissipate even more rapidly if the only people or organisations to speak up in its favour are those with a clear vested interest in seeing it implemented. The moment the “evidence” of any given policy’s supporters provokes the ordinary voter to respond “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”, then the policy is in serious trouble.

But being in trouble is not the same as being rejected. A government absolutely determined to forge ahead has the power to implement policies that are unsupported by scientific evidence, expert opinion, common sense, or even a majority of the electorate. By doing so, however, the parties responsible not only expose themselves as being unreasonable, but they may also come across as potentially dangerous.

They remind voters of the intoxicated individual who, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, insists that s/he is sober enough to drive home. It’s not just the drunk people worry about, but the possibility that, if s/he gets behind the wheel, then a perfectly innocent person, or persons, may be seriously injured or killed. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to take the keys away from a government as it is to take the keys away from a drunk. Voters may be forced to wait three years, or more, before they can get a government intoxicated by its own unchallengeable authority off the road.

On the subject of roads: car-lovers and the Coalition would appear to be locked in what more and more New Zealanders perceive to be a particularly worrying example of political folie à deux. The Transport Minister, Simeon Brown, unmoved by scientific evidence, expert opinion, common sense, and what is fast approaching a majority of the electorate, is prioritising the construction of more and more “highways of national significance”. His decisions, by favouring road users (and the road haulage lobby) at the expense of New Zealand’s rail network, can only further impede New Zealand’s efforts to meet its Climate Change commitments.

One can only speculate about what it is that persuades the three coalition parties that they will pay no electoral price for unreasonably pushing ahead with policies that are so clearly against the national interest. They seem quite oblivious to the risk that by doing so they will convince an increasing number of voters that they are extremists.

Only extremists are so convinced of the rightness of their cause that no argument, no matter how rational and well-supported by evidence, is permitted to prevail against it.

Only extremists would consider passing a law that allows one of three Ministers of the Crown to over-rule the previous judgements of the courts, the recommendations of expert witnesses, the advice of his/her own carefully chosen advisory panel, and the clearly expressed wishes of affected locals, if they run counter to the Ministers’ preferred solutions.

The last time a right-wing government passed such a law, the author and some comrades, under cover of darkness, chained together and padlocked the doors of the Dunedin Law Courts, on the grounds that Rob Muldoon’s “Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowerment Act” (1982) had just made them irrelevant to the conduct of public affairs.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...

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