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Dr Muriel Newman

The Corruption of Power

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1 July 2007

The Corruption of Power

It was Dr Thomas Sowell, author and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute who said about government, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong”.

All of us, of course, like to hope that our “government” is working in our best interests – after all we pay for the government with our taxes. While we accept that the ruling political party has some influence on what goes on inside the machinery of the government, common sense tells us that the vast public service bureaucracy has a mind of its own.

That of course was the theme of Roger Hall’s highly acclaimed “Gliding On” TV series and the much-loved British programme “Yes Minister”. In real life, however, we know that governments are not necessarily benevolent, but are sometimes responsible for grotesque consequences.

The persecution by OSH (the Department of Occupational Safety and Health) of Margaret and Keith Berryman for the death of a beekeeper as the result of the collapse of a bridge built by the Army on Crown land is a case in point. The fact that he was not an employee and that the bridge did not belong to the Berrymans did not seem to matter. OSH was determined to prosecute and with their unlimited taxpayer-funded resources, the Berrymans hardly stood a chance.

Their case highlighted the power of the bureaucracy and the consequences for those who get offside.

This was the theme of the book by MP Rodney Hide “The Power to Destroy” in which he detailed cases of persecution by the Inland Revenue Department. Included is the tragic case of Ian Mutton, a small businessman who broke his ankle in a work-related accident – which ACC originally refused to cover – getting behind in the payment of tax. Instead of working with Ian and his wife Bronwyn, the IRD applied harsh penalty rates and the couple faced ruin. Unable to cope, Ian took his life and tragically, seven months later, his 13 year old son Trevor also did so.

Christchurch businessman Dave Henderson, in his book “Be Very Afraid: One Man’s Stand Against the IRD” outlines his nightmare battle with the IRD, which fabricated a $1million debt against him. Dave’s four-year-long campaign eventually resulted in the false assessment being reversed in favour of a $65,000 refund. The book is now being turned into a film which Dave hopes will encourage more people to stand up against state stupidity and aggression.

Inhuman government regimes have been the cause of many deaths. The IRD is not the only government department that drives people to suicide. Parents, crushed through the loss of their children as a result of the grossly unfair family law system, have taken their lives on a regular basis, and sometimes the lives of their children as well. Every week patients die on hospital waiting lists as they hope against hope for the medical treatment they believe the government promised it would provide.

This week’s NZCPR guest is Trevor Grice, the founder of Life Education. Established in 1988, Life Education takes a preventative approach to children’s health, warning about the dangers of drug use. This is in sharp contrast to the official government’s “harm minimisation” approach (to read Pauline Gardiner’s NZCPR article “Harm Minimisation”, describing the dangers of this approach, click here).

In his article, Trevor questions the wisdom of faceless government bureaucrats who produce official pamphlets for children telling them how to use illegal drugs and he calls for more accountability:

“The pamphlet produced by a DHB (Health Ministry) 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)”. To read Trevor’s article, click

These days New Zealand’s drug epidemic is never far from the headlines. It is at the core of our gang problem and it is a major contributor to this country’s estimated $9 billion crime problem. As a result, it has been suggested that we should consider putting the same effort into preventing drug use that we have put into preventing smoking.

Countries take very different approaches to drug use from Singapore which has imposed the death penalty for drug trafficking, to Holland which is extremely tolerant of soft drug use. In the State of Montana, a high density television advertising campaign uses shock tactics to discourage young people from using the drug methamphetamine. If you visit the NZCPR Debating Chamber Forum you can view some of the ads in the series – but be warned, they are pretty disturbing! Click to view.

For the last two weeks, Frank and I have been travelling in Europe. We spend a few days in Poland and visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz. There we were reminded of how evil government can become.

Auschwitz was chosen for the death camps because it was a deserted military barracks that was located on a railway junction some distance from the nearest town. Jews from all over Europe, political prisoners, Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, criminals, homosexuals, prisoners of war, and those regarded as “antisocial” were among the groups sent there. Some were used for slave labour, others for medical experimentation, but most – millions – were exterminated.

We stood inside the gas chambers, saw the furnaces where the bodies were burnt, the death wall where prisoners were shot and the gallows where they were hung. There were bales of human hair that had been destined for the German textile trade on display, mountains of shoes, clothes, glasses, suitcases and piles of empty Cyclon B canisters – the poison used in the gas chambers. On the walls were endless, endless haunting photos of the innocent people who died.

All of this happened only 60 years ago. Since that time, nothing much has changed. Dictators are still committing atrocities using the vast powers of their state machinery, and people who should speak out against such wrongdoing still remain silent. As George Washington once said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”.

In reflecting on the vast power held by government – and its ability to do great evil as well as good – probably the most important safeguard that citizens have is the freedom of expression. A courageous free press and a well informed public who are not afraid to speak out, are vital parts of the system of checks and balances that help to ensure that a government serves the people and does not overstep the mark.

Inviting guest commentators to speak out – as forcefully as they like – and encouraging readers of the NZCPR weekly newsletter to express their views are key objectives of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. Helping to keep readers informed – about Parliament (What’s on in Parliament), government departments (Consultation), in leading Think Tanks (Coffee Break), and in world-wide media (Media) – are important services provided by the NZCPR. While all of these services are free, thankfully some readers are happy to subscribe to help keep the NZCPR going. My heartfelt thanks goes out to those supporters. If you would also like to help, please click here

The poll this week asks: Do you believe more needs to be done to discourage drug use in New Zealand?Take part in poll

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