The Prime Minister: kindness, policy, and specific abuse

In the Canvas magazine supplement to Saturday’s Herald there was a brief interview with the Prime Minister that encapsulated well for me why she might be well-suited to being, say, Governor-General or some other empathetic public role, but also why she is unsuited to be Prime Minister.   The interview was reproduced from a new edition of a book called 200 Women. 

Asked what really matters to her, the Prime Minister responds “empathy and kindness”, and going on to note “because that’s what drives social change”.   I don’t want to downplay the value of either admirable quality, in an individual.  But they are manifestly insufficient in someone who puts themselves forward as a leader – of a local community, let alone of a nation.

The Prime Minister attempts to illustrate her point

“if you break some of the social challenges we face down to individual people, New Zealanders have a huge amount of empathy at that level. I’ve always viewed the world this way –  rather than seeing political problems as these large-scale statistical issues and as differences between peoples”.

We don’t want political leaders who can’t identify with individual need, opportunity and so on.  And yet, when one is dealing with five million people –  and government policy choices affecting many or all of them  –  you need to be able to stand back and think about things differently, to analyse issues systematically, to recognise (for good and ill) the force or incentives, to think about the longer-term as well as the short term, and so on.   And even to recognise that values and interests can, and often will, be in conflict –  in many areas hers aren’t Family First’s or the oil and gas industry’s  (or mine for that matter).  Politics is partly about navigating those differences, seeking reconciliation where possible, but also about making hard choices and trade-offs.

She goes on, apparently pretending none of this is real.

There are so many issues we end up divided on, which, if you distilled them down to a simple concept, you will find we are in fact united on.   Take the issue of child poverty; sometimes you’ll hear arguments like, “Well, this is an issue of parental responsibility, is it our role to be involved?”.  There’s a perception that, at some point, someone has neglected their duty of care.  But, actually, at the heart of the discussion is a child who –  whatever perception you might have of them –  is blameless, who is just a subject of their circumstances,

So while I might argue back that you can’t talk about parental blame as long as we have a low-wage economy in which people are working yet not earning enough to survive –  at its heart we’re talking about the same child.  If you take a view of kindness towards that child, then this starts to change the way you might think about solving the problem. You strip away some of the blame and get back to the simple values that every child should have a good start in life and that every child should have what they need to thrive.

But this is just vapid stuff, which doesn’t help make any serious or hard policy choices at all.  It suggests a near-total absence of any sort of analytical framework for thinking about the economy or society, about the limits of the state (or the family), as well as some sort of bizarre ahistorical perspective on things –  at the time when real incomes are higher than they have ever been in New Zealand’s history (and global real incomes are higher than in all of human history) apparently no parent can be expected to take responsibility for anything because people don’t earn enough to “survive”.   What an insult to our ancestors.

She goes on.  Asked about what she would change if she could she responds

If I could distill it down, there are things among this enormous programme of work that I’d like to walk away from politics feeling we had changed.  These are finally having agreement that child poverty is something which shouldn’t exist in a country like ours and that we all benefit if we rid ourselves of it.  And climate change.

Not even actually eliminating child poverty –  whatever that means (in absolute terms we are long past that point, in relative terms almost by construction we can’t get there) –  just getting head-nodding agreement that “child poverty shouldn’t exist”.  Nor, in some ideal world, would many many other bad outcomes –  sickness, disease and so on.  And note that last phrase, which just hangs.  Nothing of substance follows it, nothing about the hard choices, conflicting values, economic costs and benefits.   This isn’t leadership, it is feelgood-ism.  It brings to mind the Disney lyrics

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of their secret longing

But it isn’t the way government, and policymaking, works…..or should work if the desirable change has any prospect of being achieved.  That involves hard and disciplined work, tough choices, looking beyond the superficial, and so on.   It involves leadership in more dimensions – probably more important dimensions – than just “kindness”,   including courage, responsibility, persuasion and so on.

So just to take the child poverty issue for a moment, whatever you might want to do about income redistribution right now, it might mean recognising that much bigger medium-term differences can be made –  and opportunities created –  by doing something serious about New Zealand’s lamentable productivity record (by contrast, reports of the Prime Minister’s first meeting with her Business Advisory Council suggests neither she nor they have any concept of what the issues might be, or even how to think about them).

And whatever might be done about immediate social housing issues (“for the kids”), much bigger and enduring differences –  for this generation and the next – can be made by fixing the land use restrictions that have given us some of the worst house price to income ratios in the world.  You might even think –  as I do –  that children are almost always better off growing up with two biological parents who are committed to each other for life, and think about whether well-intentioned (“kind”) policy choices in decades past might have contributed to some of the problems we see today.

In a sense that “well-intentioned” comment applies in all these areas, and many more.  Many policy choices made by successive governments were made by people who thought they were being “kind” (eg working in the best interests of others) –  no doubt there were a few that were just self-interested by design from the start, but they will be few –  but as a decisionmaking criterion it just doesn’t get you very far.   Bad (policy) choices can be just as readily made by “kind” people.  The Prime Minister may well be a “kind” person –  I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about her personally, which is admirable –  but it won’t help much to be the sort of effective leader New Zealand needs.

But if “kindness” is the criterion the Prime Minister wants to inject into all decisionmaking  – I’m still puzzling over how it is going to help her deal, say, with Chinese expansionism and interference in New Zealand (though perhaps it could help spark the odd genuine and open expression of concern about human rights abuses) –  there was an odd juxtaposition in Saturday’s Herald that left me wondering about just how seriously I should take even her talk of the priority of “kindness”.

The interview I’ve quoted from above was no doubt given some time ago, and presumably the Prime Minister didn’t control when it appeared in the Herald. But in that issue of the Herald was a truly awful, in-depth, story about a young man whose life may well have been destroyed by the organs of the state, for which if anyone is responsible (and accountable) it is the Prime Minister of the day.   It was this detailed account by Jared Savage, introduced this way.

EXCLUSIVE: A teenage boy wrongly accused of rape went to prison protesting his innocence. A year later, the so-called victim recanted the allegations. But the confession didn’t come to light for another 10 years. Jared Savage investigates.

But that intro barely even begins to capture the full horror of what seems to have gone on.

His constant claims of innocence counted against his rehabilitation and undermined his chances of parole. So he served every day of his 4 ½ year sentence.

But his prison time was far from over. He spent most of the next seven years bouncing in and out of prison for tripping up on the strict release conditions accompanying his status as a sex offender.

Simply saying hello to a child was enough for him to be locked up again.

“Release conditions” for something he didn’t do in the first place.    And which it was known years ago that he didn’t do.  And yet it was little more than good fortune that his conviction was finally overturned by the Court of Appeal.

I found it an incredibly harrowing read.  No doubt the young man concerned is no angel –  few of those to whom miscarriages of justice occur are –  and, as a victim of earlier abuse himself, his ability to function fully effectively in society might have been pretty compromised anyway.  But that isn’t the point.  When the state acts to take away someone’s liberty, when it imposes restrictions even beyond the end of a sentence, when it tars someone with the label “sex offender”, it needs to make utterly sure that it gets things right.  And since that level of confidence is impossible this side of eternity, when mistakes are made –  sometimes, as in this case, utterly egregious mistakes –  the agents of the state (the government) needs to be at the forefront of a generous pro-active approach to making atonement.  Nothing can restore than 10 years that young man has lost, perhaps there is slim chance now that his life can successfully be put on a high-functioning path, but that only reinforces how fundamental it should be for those in charge – our Prime Minister for example –  to take the lead in the apology, atonement, compensation and reconciliation processes.  Government agencies failed this man, but they failed us too.  These aren’t our values as New Zealanders –  locking up a young man for 10 year for a crime he didn’t commit, holding against him his refusal to give up and confess to a crime he simply didn’t commit, and so on.

At the end of the article we read

Phil Hamlin [the lawyer who took up the case] is now looking into whether Patrick is eligible for compensation for wrongful conviction, and, ironically, a separate claim against the state for abuse in CYF care.

Because of his youth and the relatively minor nature of the indecent assault Patrick admitted to, Hamlin said his client would not have gone to prison.

So most of his youth was spent in prison because of Mark’s now discredited rape allegations.

“I think it’s extraordinary it’s taken so long to be sorted out,” said Hamlin.

“The consequences have been huge. It’s wrecked his life.”

As for Patrick, he doesn’t really care about any compensation money.

“All I just want is for people to believe me. Then I can move on.”

Which is fine in its way, but where is the pro-activity of the state, the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice?  Someone who has been put through a dreadful ordeal of the sort this young man experienced shouldn’t have to go on bended knee now to the Crown.  If anything, senior government ministers should be going on bended knee to him (and his representatives), asking what they can do to make atonement for the specific and longrunning abuses of this young man by the New Zealand government and its agents.

And yet what have we heard from the Prime Minister or the Minister of Justice?  Nothing.

(For that matter, what have we heard from the opposition party leaders –  National’s leader and deputy having previously been Associate Minister of Justice and Minister of Courts, and Minister of Social Development and Minister of Police.  Nothing.)

Does no one say anything because the victim of this injustice is not some safe, blameless individual (as conventional politics would describe it)?  I don’t know, but the silence –  several days on now (and I’m not sure when that Court of Appeal ruling came down) –  is shameful.

This is one of those very specific episodes where “kindness” –  above and beyond the minimalist provisions of the law –  might begin to make a real difference in one person’s life, and in demonstrating to citizens (and public servants and government agencies) the sorts of egregious abuses we simply won’t stand for, no matter who they committed on.  Story always beats no-story.  Here she can really make a difference, and be seen to walk the talk.

I was interested to see Herald journalist Matt Nippert tweet about this story

I really hope he is right.

27 thoughts on “The Prime Minister: kindness, policy, and specific abuse

  1. Men now live in dangerous times where the burden of proof lies with the male accused where there are charges for sexual harassment or rape cases by a woman/girl accuser. Guilty until proven innocent seems to be the the norm in sexual harassment and rape allegations. It is no wonder that more and more men take to internet website porn and prostitutes as a substitute.

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  2. The fact today as you astutely highlight is that politicians, media and entertainment mostly emphasise emotional dialogue rather than constructive, factual and critical thinking in addressing issues.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Adern has shown how superficial her thinking is on a number of occasions but the oil and gas exploration ban plumbed the depths. A demonstration by protestors waving Labour Party-style posters calling on her to take her place in the pantheon of Labour”greats” was the catalyst apparently. So now we will be importing coal instead of burning gas to keep the lights on. She is unfit for the role of Prime Minister.

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    • The Oil & Gas Exploration decision was the cost of ascending the throne and achieving power – obtaining the support of the Greens – nothing to do with protesters

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      • I broke out the champagne that the Huntly Coal Power station will now have an extended life and job growth opportunities. With 3 properties in Huntly with around a total of 10,000 sqm of residential land, bought around 15 years ago for $400k, my fingers are crossed that my punt pays off. I did forgo the option of a couple of 100sqm apartments in Beijing that have escalated 8 times in the same period.

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  4. “” You might even think – as I do – that children are almost always better off growing up with two biological parents who are committed to each other “”.

    You are right; I almost wish you were not right since my first wife and I separated when our childen were young. But you are right – all the experts who study what causes adults to fail in life: alcoholism, depression, suicide, prison, mental health issues, drug addiction, etc come to the same conclusion that breakup of parents is the single most significant factor. Whenever that point is made you get lists of the wonderful successful people who were brought up by a single parent and of course all the human disasters who had a pair of loving parents. However the statistics prove it clearly – parental breakup is the biggest negative in a childs life; far more significant than poverty (or at least non-starvation poverty). It is also pointed out that having two parents who hate one another is not an ideal environment for a child.

    If Ms Ardern, as a new mother, is giving child rearing priority then she should be looking for all the ways we can to nudge couples into staying together. Off the top of my head: a one off substantial financial bonus for a public marriage (say $10,000); universal child benefit; a married couple cohabiting both getting the child benefit and being able to redistribute their income from one to another for tax purposes. State housing priority for married couples; adjust accommodation allowances so there is never a financial reason for living apart.

    The main arguments against doing something are (a) the costs will increase taxes (b) the people like Metiria Turei suggesting that any pro-marriage policy is an insult to good mothers bringing up kids on their own. Hopefully Ms Ardern will prove that she is both kind and realistic and politically tough by judging all her expenditure on children by whether it is nudging parents apart or together.

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    • I wonder how many families live apart, and how many new relationships are forgone due to the single parent benefit paying more. I strongly suspect uniting families would cost the country far less in the long run.

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    • All good, logical & sensible (&kind) suggestions…& so far too politically incorrect to get anywhere. Look at the other 1st world countries trying everything bordering on extortion to get their young to breed to a sustainable level. (Turei et al agitate for a menu of unchecked welfare options for single parents..well, she would wouldn’t she…she received the gold standard in welfarism in her time.)

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    • The exception fallacy is the most commonly [ab]used fallacy of all. The correlation between the gradual decline of the nuclear family, increasing rights, and educational and societal decline is quite striking. And all in the name of “kindness” and “rights”.

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    • The may be a correlation between poverty and single parent families but the only cause of poverty is female education. Educated people make better life choices and making sure that females are educated so that they make the right choice of partner, right fertility choices (when to have a baby) and also the ability to understand how to raise a child so that our future boy and girl babies get the best start to life is the only way to start to eradicate poverty. Our current PM talks about Poverty as if given money to people who have already shown that they do not have the skills to raise a child is going to make an ounce of difference, where is the kindness if you leave these children in this sort of poverty trap?

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      • My argument is that being a child in a single parent family is a bigger handicap than actual financial poverty.

        The problems relate to parents splitting not the fact that all parental influence is with one person. From what I have read and some anecdotes it seems to be the perception of being rejected that does the harm not the absence of a parent. If the father is dead or away overseas the other parent can tell a child ‘your father/mother wouldn’t approve of you doing that’ and it works.

        Clearly children should not be in financial poverty but the govt should realise that poverty of affection is more important and that although they can’t do anything about that directly they can contemplate policies that hold nuclear families together. At present there are situations where it is makes financial sense for parents to split.

        Ms Ardern must not stop being concerned about child financial poverty but it only takes a moments thought to realise that the poorest families are wealthier in possessions (TV, phones, warm clothes, inside toilets, etc) than poor familes were a couple of generations ago but mental health is worse, drug addiction is worse and probably child abuse is worse. Time for some tough thinking to complement her basic kindness.

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  5. Mr Reddell, you are to be congratulated in making it through Canvas magazine; one of those two articles was too like cotton wool to be worth more than a skim and the other too painful to read. I applaud your attitude to the latter article: “” senior government ministers should be going on bended knee to him “”; it reminds me the embarassment of our politicians squabbling over Teina Pora compensation – as if any redress would be satisfactory.

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  6. It seems to me you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg with regard to the prime minister. What an incredible political balancing act she performs.

    I believe absolute poverty is far from eliminated in New Zealand when I measure it against my personal ethical belief that if it is possible to ensure that everyone in New Zealand has healthy food and accommodation and good affordable medical care, we should do so as a bottom line.

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    • Poverty [the state of being extremely poor] exists in NZ. So I’m sure I agree with you. I would vote for higher taxes that would cut my standard of living if it reduced poverty in NZ.

      The term ‘absolute poverty’ as defined by the United Nations in 1995 “” a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information “”. On that definition it does not apply to NZ and in the main it does not even apply to Papua New Guinea despite most of the population having no income or wealth. Pardon my quibbling about the meaning of ‘severe deprivation’; it certainly exists in Yemen today.

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  7. The problem with JA’s blind “kindness” approach is it ignores one of those age-old maxims formed through eons of experience. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. What that looks like in policy terms is requiring effort or positive compliance or sacrifice to reap reward. Especially cash rewards.

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    • Incredibly naive woman, it’s like having a 16 year old schoolgirl running the show.
      Just like the social justice movement – they only see one side of the equation. Dick around for your time at school then sit on your couch for thirty years and having everyone else support you is regarded as justice?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. “if you break some of the social challenges we face down to individual people, New Zealanders have a huge amount of empathy at that level. I’ve always viewed the world this way – rather than seeing political problems as these large-scale statistical issues and as differences between peoples”.
    ……….
    Bunny rabbits are cute.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Listen to Brendan O’Neill – Editor or Spiked
    I believe the ordinary working people 08:55 have a greater collective wisdom than 08:57 bureaucrats and technocrats

    11:57
    about political movement because freedom 11:58 of speech is not simply the right to say 12:00 whatever you want to say it’s also as 12:02 you say it’s about the question of trust 12:04 in ordinary people and this is a point 12:07 that is that has been made by free 12:08 speech warriors throughout history that 12:10 this is a dual freedom 12:12 there’s the freedom to express yourself 12:13 which is incredibly important but 12:15 there’s also the freedom to hear all 12:17 opinions 12:18 and to make a moral judgement as to the 12:21 value of those opinions and I think a 12:24 lot of the left-wing promoters of 12:26 censorship and a lot of the kind of 12:27 witch hunters and a lot of the people 12:29 who want to just simply shut down

    However some experts disagree

    But, as a recent NZ Herald editorial noted, Southern and Molyneux’s views are easily accessed online and not all “have a right to room on other platforms that try to serve the public interest”.

    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/hawkes-bay-today/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503459&objectid=12101943

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    • That essay by Spoonley is just typical of the IYI elite we have, I’m afraid. He has severely distorted and misrepresented the comments and beliefs of those he seeks to discredit. These people are so convinced of their moral superiority, that they are on the side of all that is good, that there is no need for the truth. Honesty is only for the little people!
      Of course the Herald sees no reason to seek or print a counter argument; they’re just as bad.
      For your entertainment here’s a musical rendition of Fredrick Nietzsch’s, “On the Tarantulas” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A chilling commentary on the rise of the social justice “religion” and the dangerous ideology of equity, written in the 1880’s by the man that foresaw the rise of murderous Marxist totalitarian ideology.

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