I’m not sure that the people at the New Zealand Initiative really have much time for New Zealanders. I was inclined to suggest that perhaps that is why they are always keen to trade us in for more immigrants, but I don’t think their stance is in anyway unique to them or to New Zealanders. Instead, there is a class of geeks, often academics, particularly found in the US, who continually lament, and even deplore, what they regard as the “ignorance” of the general public. The public, you see, don’t know the facts the geeky teenagers (and a whole class of us older versions) know.
And yet somehow they get through life. Somehow, for all its faults, New Zealand is mostly peaceful, and moderately prosperous too. And at least by some benchmarks – those of the liberals at the NZI I imagine – these might even be thought of as the best of times in all human history.
This post is, of course, mostly going to be about the new report the Initiative released overnight, complete with some headline-grabbing opinion poll results about what people knew (or thought) about some questions on New Zealand politics and the political system.
But it was only a few months ago that the Initiative used a similar approach – headline-grabbing poll, illustrating the “ignorance” of the public – to back their report calling for more of a knowledge focus in our education system. It was a cause I was fairly sympathetic to – and probably only get more so as my children progress through NCEA – but I wrote a fairly sceptical (perhaps even scathing) post about what weight we might reasonably put on their survey results.
And is it particularly useful to know the antibiotics are about bacteria not viruses? I did know that, but it isn’t particularly useful to me. Instead, when I go to the doctor I typically take his advice, and when he prescribes something I try to follow the prescribed instructions. It probably matters rather more – in term of keeping antibiotics useful – that (a) doctors don’t over-prescribe and (b) patients follow instructions. Or so I’ve been told, and I’ll operate of those rules of thumbs (especially the latter) for now.
But this time the Initiative has turned to our political etc system, with a slightly odd mix of 13 questions, in a public opinion survey conducted in January. To establish my geek bona fides, I would have answered – with the odd caveat (and even the Initiative had one in its footnotes) – all the questions the approved way. I tried it on two of my teenage kids: the younger one got about three-quarters right and the older one – not yet eligible to vote – got them all right but posed caveats I hadn’t initially thought of, but each of which was quite fair (and he’d done no civics classes at school).
I’m going to step through the questions quickly.
I thought the results for the first question were pretty good. Recall that these surveys are presumably done over the phone, out of the blue, not giving people half an hour with pen and paper. It is easy to miss one item in a instant-recall quiz. Note that geeks will have noted the presence in Parliament of Jami-Lee Ross who does now lead/represent the Advance NZ party, although (a) in Parliament he was formally an independent, and (b) the survey was done in January and Advance NZ appears only to have been launched in April. Also, I presume I would have been marked incorrect had I listed the CCP among my answers, even though in some respects it was certainly true.
As for the second question, you’ll see that even the Initiative has a footnote to some other technically correct answers. But even though the Initiative whips the public for not understanding MMP, isn’t it plausible that at least some people had in mind “well, it asks about parties gaining seats, but actually constituency MPs are elected as individuals?” Quite possibly some respondents – perhaps new migrants, unlikely to vote – just weren’t familiar with “MMP” as a label. The answers might have been a little different if the question was “in the New Zealand electoral system…”?
To be honest, I was really surprised by the David Parker result. Then again, I’ve been a political junkie for 45+ years, was a public servant for 30+ years, am married to a senior public servant, and devote a fair chunk of my time to writing about New Zealand public policy issues. We ran a little poll last night on a wider family group, and not one of them knew who the Minister for the Environment was – a PSA delegate, an academic, the owner of a provincial law firm, a couple of housewives, and a semi-retired national administrator and director. And as I reflected on that I thought “why would they need to, or want to, know?” In what way, if any, does it affect their individual lives, or probably even their vote (Parker being a list MP and votes primarily being for parties). Nerds remember the difference between Environment and Conservation, but to many “Environment” will sound like something Eugenie Sage might have been minister of.
As for Hipkins, yes lots of people have kids in school, but why would most people pay any particular attention to who happens to be Minister at the time. If you have concerns about schooling for most people the presenting face is likely to be the child’s teacher, the Principal, and perhaps – at a pinch – the chair of the board of trustees (I could not name chairs of trustees of either school my kids attend, but I could find out easily enough).
I guess the survey was run in January, but looking at this question yesterday I paused for a moment before answering.
But for most people I imagine a more honest answer would have been “who cares?” (there were zealots on either side, and many of the zealots on the left actually suggest the bill doesn’t amount to much of substance – but geeks like process systems and bills).
Then we get some odd questions, to which (surely) there are not right or wrong answers – even if one’s own views happen to align with the Initiative (and the majority).
After all, on the second of those questions, as the report notes Pharmac does make independent decisions. The NZI is keen on Pharmac (as am I) and also notes – carefully avoiding expressing any opinion on it – the Reserve Bank. But it is quite a complex question, and since we all know that even if independent decisionmakers are given criteria against which to decide, individual preferences enter into their decisionmaking, I can imagine those who generally favour a bit more of a role for “experts” (reasonably) giving a non-approved answer to this question.
As for the final sentence in that block, there is a small minority of CCP-linked very-politically-aware people in New Zealand who probably think Xi Jinping is just the thing, and really a pretty good model. I don’t agree, but it is a value not a fact.
Then back to something closer to factual.
To the first, of course I can trot out the “correct” answer to the first question, but it is a US-framed question (and there is even some dispute among geeky people in the US as to whether it is the best framing). But what of New Zealand? Is the New Zealand Parliament really a “branch of government”? Personally, I think “the government” is accountable to Parliament. And what if someone had said “the Queen (or Governor-General), the Cabinet, and the public service”? NZI would have scored them incorrectly, but as “government” is used here it is arguably more accurate. And are courts part of “government”? Well, our courts have a different role than, say, the US Supreme Court – which really is the final arbiter of law in the US – and the courts guard very jealously their independence from the government. More generally, the very question is a geeky political science type question that – framed that way – hardly anyone needs to know.
(Oh, overlooked the courts question. Most people got the “right” answer, and yet some people will be aware that courts will often look to the intentions of Parliament in passing a law, and others will be aware that courts – on matters of judicial review etc – tend to be highly deferential to the preferences and judgements of the executive.)
And finally, foreign relations
I was pretty impressed – well, surprised – that 38 per cent of people answered the Five Eyes question correctly. Pretty much no one had even heard of the Five Eyes (a colloquial term, even though here it is capitalised, and isn’t “agreement” or arrangement” more accurate than “alliance” anyway – and they describe it more accurately in their own text?) for decades, and if it has had a bit more coverage in recent years it impinges directly not at all on the life of almost anyone in New Zealand.
But the Initiative had fun – lets laugh at the plebs – with the question about the UK, jeering that perhaps the UK government may want to know about, as it were, the invincible ignorance of the colonial peasants, And yet, and yet….
When I posed this question to my son, who is planning to study international relations next year, he said “but don’t we have some sort of partnership agreement with NATO, and the UK is part of NATO?” Personally, I didn’t think that really counted – even if the NATO Secretary-General not long ago described New Zealand as one of NATO’s closest partners, and we have worked under NATO auspices in Afghanistan where the UK had a significant presence. But he dug a bit further, and pointed out to me something called AUSCANNZUKUS which led us on to ABCANZ, to AFIC, and to the CCEB (all described here – I think the army version of this we only joined formally in 2006).
Perhaps more tellingly, there was the Five Power Defence Arrangements between New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Singapore and Malaysia,
whereby the five powers are to consult each other “immediately” in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of these five countries for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken jointly or separately in response.
People can stand on precise points about what “alliance” means – does it mean a binding commitment or not? – but frankly anyone who answered “yes” to that question – whatever they had in mind – can’t really be judged to have been incorrect.
The other weird aspect about the NZI treatment of this question is that it assumed that any such “alliance” was about UK aid to New Zealand, and that stupid New Zealanders think the UK will defend us. That seemed odd to me. Every New Zealand military involvement post- World War Two – whether under formal alliances, under UN auspices, or whatever – has been about us helping out others, typically much larger and more powerful countries, partly because it is “the right thing to do”, partly to buttress multi-dimensional relations with these countries. Those countries have often included the UK. I have fond memories of our assistance to the UK during the Falklands War – not under any formal military alliance, but because it was a good thing to do, to help out our friends in a time of need (and, at the margin, may have helped keep the UK onside in EU access dealings). So that even if you (correctly) think there is no more-formal mutual and reciprocal security guarantees between the UK and New Zealand – neither were there in 1939 – many people probably have in mind a relationship richer and deeper.
So that was all rather picky, warranted really only by the fairly dismissive tone the Initiative took to the public’s answers to their quite specific questions. In the end I’m not really going to disagree with them that the level of general public knowledge of details of our political etc system is pretty low. And one can be endlessly picky: in an exchange on Twitter this morning with Matthew Hooton he posed the question of who scored the first try in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Apparently the first individual (“who”) to score a try was Michael Jones, and yet the first try was actually a penalty try.
But, as regards our political system, I’m still in the “in what way does any of this really matter?” camp. The people who really care about the Zero Carbon Bill will know the answer and – political geeks aside – most other people won’t, at least with any great accuracy. I think of my family members who didn’t know that David Parker was Minister for the Environment. I have absolute confidence in all of them as citizens and voters, and people who contribute to making families and societies what they are.
And was the level of “ignorance” of these details not ever thus? In the end, we mostly elect governments, and then – in time – we toss them out again. If I look back over 100 years of New Zealand history, it is hard to see too many times when the public acting collectively got it wrong (even though many of those times personally I might have voted with the minority). It is impossible to know counterfactuals, but the collective (as if) decision that it was time for Muldoon or Clark to go wasn’t ever likely to be dependent on a detailed sense of statutory interpretation or which parties voted for what specific piece of legislation (how many acts of Parliament could most people even name).
In their report the NZI make much of the importance of knowing who is to blame for what. It is a point that has some force in the United States – federal system, enumerated powers, written constitutions etc – but much less so in New Zealand. Here, to all intents and purposes, all powers rests with the executive or Parliament and – given the financial veto – no legislation can be passed without the consent of the executive. Even local bodies exercise only powers delegated to them from the centre. Events are either bad luck – exogenous – in which case we react partly to how governments handle them, or they are the direct responsibility of some or other branch of the executive. So mostly we vote “keep them in” or “toss them out” on some mix of judgements of competence, judgements of character/conduct (NZI doesn’t seem to approve of them), values, ideological branding, and so on. Most people don’t need much very specific factual knowledge – of the political geek variety – to make those choices.
And, on the other hand, as someone who answered all the questions “correctly”, who knows a fair amount about policies (and attribution of responsibility), I’m sitting here still currently planning to not cast a party vote at all. A fair chunk of factual knowledge doesn’t, in the end, help much – at least among those for whom a core value seems to be “but you have to vote; it is the only right thing to do”.
Of the specific NZI proposals, I’m all in favour of the regulatory structure being changed in ways that allow the return of ipredict, killed off by the Ministry of Justice and Simon Bridges. It was great….for political geeks and junkies. I’m sceptical – as they mostly seem to be – of civics classes in schools (in addition to their reasons, one would expect them to become a platform – another one – for teachers to engage in mild politicial indoctrination of their students). And I’m not convinced at all by the argument for putting financial incentives in place for factual political knowledge – rewarding kids for passing tests is generally regarded as a bad idea and I’m not convinced political system tests would really be much different. Same goes for offering big prizes to the knowledgeable listener when a radio station calls out of the blue with a political knowledge question: it would be great for introverted teenage political geeks, but would make almost no difference among the populations where (I presume) NZI thinks it would matter.
For all this, I’m not some starry-eyed optimist about New Zealand, democracy or whatever – in fact, I’m much more negative on New Zealand outcomes than the Initiative’s authors seem to be. But I think the issues and challenges run much deeper, and reflect more poorly on the “elites” and “establishment” of society than on the wider public.
I’m often reminded of these words of (later) US President John Adams written in 1798
Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Many readers won’t necessarily agree (including with the wider claim that successful stable democracies probably need an enduring shared worldview, morality, religion – not just weak agreement on procedural matters – but as I ended my post on the previous NZI report
The (narrow) facts just don’t get you far. I’d rather people “knew” that Communism has been, and is, a great evil than that, say, they knew the geography of Hong Kong or the biochemistry of plastic.
Or, right now, a sense that CCP interests are so much deferred to in New Zealand politics – even if some will dispute this – matters much more, including to the enduring strength of our system, than answers to most of the NZI’s latest specific questions.