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Trevor Grice

Yes Minister!

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Over the past 30 years New Zealand society has undergone some seismic shifts in philosophical, ethical, political and technological thinking. It is not so much that society has been subjected to a single, life-shaking quake but more a case of many seemingly small and innocuous changes adding up to a landscape shift that appears increasingly unacceptable to many people. And like so many situations we are confronted with today it is difficult to see how such changes can be challenged or modified when responsibility rests somewhere ‘in the system’.

Our political institution provides a prime example. Many of us are familiar with the faces of most of the 120 members of Parliament. We take some comfort from the modest degree of media scrutiny they are subjected to, biased or not, as we assume this ensure a certain level of openness. What most of us however are not so familiar with is the huge, faceless, bureaucratic swarm that keeps the beehive humming. This vast number (450) of highly paid policy analysts who actually decide what is best for us and advise Ministers accordingly. The even more highly paid PR consultants on whom the government now spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to keep itself looking good, sounding well informed, abreast of the times, up with the play…

The question is of course whose play? Just who is calling the tune? Two relatively recent publications from two different government departments have provided me with good cause for thought. In the first case the MOE (Education ministry) some years back contracted to produce a booklet for school students with the interesting title Cannabis in Context. The text of this officially sanctioned production contained the interesting mythology that whilst some young people can develop problems when using cannabis they are usually people with underlying mental emotional or family problems anyway: many people use cannabis with no ill effect at all. Aside from the factual slip – anyone using cannabis is of course affecting the chemistry of their brain – the clear inference is that using cannabis is somehow fine for most people. This is the MOE’s idea of drug education? In a country where use of cannabis is illegal? In this case the Police, concerned parents and a number of other agencies created enough fuss to force the MOE to withdraw the book from distribution. I understand that at least one of the authors is still a senior government executive. Presumably still with the same views about cannabis, the law and children’s education.

The second publication is a pamphlet produced by a DHB (Health Ministry) which describes how to safely use NOS (nitrous oxide) if you want to get high. Evidently the main problem for young NOS abusers is that they are prone to fall over and injure themselves – so the pamphlet advises only inhaling it if you are lying down in a well ventilated area! What kind of message to our younger generation is that? Whatever happened to the idea that self-destructive children can be rehabilitated? What kind of society produces advice for teenagers on how to self-destruct safely? And why produce information like that when according to this country’s law it is illegal to use NOS outside of a medically supervised situation (i.e. in a hospital).

My point here is that neither of these booklets should have made it past first draft. Probably neither of them has ever been read by an MP. Both booklets reflect the opinions and ideology of an author or authors who are however paid government employees or have government contracts to produce this material for a government department. We accept that we give parliament the power to initiate change in our society. And we fondly imagine that we exercise some form of control over parliamentarians with our vote. We do not however have any control over the policy heads and bureaucrats who daily initiate, form, change and otherwise control government policies that profoundly impact on every area of our children’s lives. It is these people and not the familiar political faces we give our vote to that exercise much of the real and lasting power in our system and unlike politicians they are there for a working lifetime. I would like to see more checks and balances. There is nothing more undermining for a government wanting to implement change than a career policy advisor with a personal agenda that will only die about 12 hours after she does!