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Dr Muriel Newman

The Blame Game

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17 June 2007

The Blame Game

A year ago I reviewed a Labour Party communication strategy paper: “This paper is about Labour taking greater charge of the language of debate and discussion in New Zealand. It is called re-framing and it means gaining (or regaining) the use of concepts and phrases that spark public and media interest” (to read the review click here)

The paper provided an insight into Labour’s strategy to win the 2008 election: “The big risks and challenges for Labour are the length of time it’s been on power; whether it can instil new blood and demonstrate new ideas; its ability to clearly articulate vision and ideas without being labelled arrogant and PC; the status of the economy and how that is linked to Labour’s governing.

“A way to approach these risks is to reframe public discourse about the things that matter to New Zealanders and to ensure Labour is identified with those core values. Although a lot of work has already been done on this, it clearly hasn’t been effective enough because the majority of New Zealanders don’t really ‘get it’. And until they do – until the mere mention of an issue or a phrase by a Labour politician can evoke instant understanding and support amongst a substantial portion of the population – not only is the next election in doubt, but the hearts and minds of many New Zealanders could be beyond Labour’s grasp, possibly for many years”.

The paper suggested that Labour needed some big, bold, new ideas: “a fresh approach showing leadership to the rest of the world – that this little country at the end of the world can be a role model”.

That was clearly the catalyst for Labour’s leap onto the environmental bandwagon. By out-greening the Greens and embracing the global warming agenda, they pitched for New Zealand to become a world leader in ‘sustainability’.

But capturing the language is only one of Labour’s techniques. Another is the use of the ‘blame’ game to justify excessive over-regulation.

Labour frequently blames ‘rip-off merchants’ for a raft of problems which it then seeks to correct through regulation. This was the strategy used to justify the wholesale regulation charities: Labour’s claims that fly-by-night charity crooks were ripping off the public and that the only way to control them was to impose the heavy hand of regulation on the 30,000 strong charitable sector were grossly over-exaggerated.

This was also the approach used to impose massive new regulations on the building industry. Labour ensured that industry ‘cowboys’ copped the blame for leaky homes, instead of the responsibility falling where it was due, on the government’s own regulatory agency the Building Industry Association, which had failed to set proper standards for the new building materials that it had approved.

This same strategy has just been used to impose new regulations on the real estate industry, with the Minister recklessly claiming that “land sharks” and “rouge agents” are commonplace.

It is an approach that can dramatically backfire on the government if it is properly challenged. I recall when the Minister of Housing highlighted a “bad” landlord case in order to justify the tightening of the Residential Tenancies Act a few years ago. While it appeared that the landlord had rented out a sub-standard damp house that was covered in mould to the hapless tenant, further investigation revealed that the cause of the mould was the tenant’s hydroponic cannabis operation!

The government also appears to be involved in a variation of this blame game strategy at the present time against private pre-school education providers. The low payment rate that they have offered for their 20 hours of “free” childcare, has forced many providers to charge parents extra. It would not be a surprise to find that Labour is planning to regulate the industry to force compliance with government policy, since they are unable to do it voluntarily, effectively re-nationalising the sector.

A second blame game strategy used by Labour is to blow an accident out of all proportions and use it to justify wholesale regulation.

A tragic dog attack on a young girl a few years ago was used to justify the microchipping of dogs even though everyone knew that microchipping would do nothing to stop dog attacks! Just this week, a private company contractor was blamed for the death of a prisoner in a prison van even though an inquiry had found the Department of Corrections itself was responsible. Not only did the Department fail to pass on essential information about the prisoner, but it also by ignored warnings from the contractor that the vans were unsafe. As a result of this blame game, prison transportation will be re-nationalised.

Similarly, the unfortunate death of Folole Muliaga is being used as an excuse for regulating over 1.5 million domestic electricity consumers. As a result all will be subjected to scrutiny by government departments seeking to identify health and socio-economic indicators which could categorise them as “vulnerable”.

According to the National Business Review: “a vast new bureaucracy is needed to chart the progress of the new guidelines. Among other things, these will need to include a running progress on the health status of all occupants of every dwelling that has power (or is temporarily disconnected). This will involve getting communication, as the bureaucracy sees it, between the plethora of district health boards and the power providers, some of whom are in the private sector. Given the lack of such communication among virtually every government department on who is or isn’t paying fines, leaving or arriving in the country, and their immigration status, this new Big Brother phenomenon will be a world first” (For more information see NBR’s Insight, “Death by Disconnection” view )

The costs involved in this exercise, not only from this massive intervention, but also from a predicted escalation in the number of consumers who will seek to avoid having to pay for power, will undoubtedly be passed onto consumers. That is in spite of the fact that under their State Owned Enterprises Act, companies like Mighty River Power, the parent company to power retailer Mercury Energy, are at liberty to take a compassionate approach to customers – just so long as the government reimburses them for lost revenue: 7. Non-commercial activities—Where the Crown wishes a State enterprise to provide goods or services to any persons, the Crown and the State enterprise shall enter into an agreement under which the State enterprise will provide the goods or services in return for the payment by the Crown of the whole or part of the price thereof. (Click to view)

Another blame game strategy used by Labour to justify over-regulation is the use of unbalanced research. Just last week they announced plans to regulate school canteens, banning the sale of ‘unhealthy’ food and turning teachers into food police. The problem is that the claims of a growing obesity epidemic, that are being used to justify this sort of excessive state intervention in schools, just don’t stack up. The evidence shows that not only is the problem localised rather than widespread amongst all children, but that the overall growth in the rate of obesity in the population as a whole is slowing. (See “Tracking the Obesity Epidemic”, click to view)

According to the “2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey”, Maori and particularly Pacific Island children, are the ones most at risk of being overweight, of not bringing lunch to school, and of not having eaten breakfast. (Click to view)

Surely rather than imposing heavy handed regulation on all schools, a more sensible approach would be to target the small number of families that need help in a proactive way since changing the food available in the school tuck shop will have a negligible effect on their overall health status. Further, with one of the key factors contributing to childhood obesity being a lack of exercise, surely the government should be prioritising policing efforts since they know that one of the main reasons parents are afraid to let their children walk to school or play outside is the fear of crime.

All in all, through their desire to impose heavy regulations, Labour has shown that as true socialists they believe that individuals cannot be responsible for their own lives, that they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, and that the state knows best. They use the blame game to try to convince the public that more and more regulation is good for them. It is this over-bearing approach to governance that gave rise to the expression “Nanny State”, a term that is now commonly used to describe this Labour Government.

“I can’t be sure, but it may well have been me who first introduced the term “Nanny State” into the New Zealand vernacular, on my Politically Incorrect Show on Radio Pacific”, says Lindsay Perigo, this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator.

In his typically unrestrained fashion he goes on to say: “Certainly I used it regularly there, and observed it creep into common usage thereafter, as did the related term, “Helengrad”. In any event, the expression is well and truly out there now, and that’s as good a thing as its referent is bad. Nanny State is vicious, anti-human… and, as we speak, relentlessly advancing” (click ).

The poll this week asks: Do you believe the regulation of school canteens is justified? Take part in poll

Reader’s comments will be posted on the NZCPR Forum page click to view .

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