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Dr Muriel Newman

The Conceit of the Anointed

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All too often something odd seems to happen to people elected to public office. Instead of being a conduit for the opinion of those they represent as promised in their election campaigns many morph into autocrats, convinced they know better than us how we should live our lives. Election promises and pledges are conveniently forgotten as the more ‘relevant’ issues of governance demand their judgment.

In his book “The Vision of the Anointed”, renowned US economist and author Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, described the dynamics of this phenomenon. He explained that the ruling elite believe that they are smarter than the rest of us – why else would we have elected them? They are convinced that they are the only ones with solutions to the problems we face – notwithstanding the fact that their so-called solutions are not voluntary, but are imposed by force using the coercive power of the state. In other words, irrespective of the reality, the ruling elite firmly believe that the government (but only when they are the government!) knows best.

We saw that conceit in Helen Clark’s Labour Government. For nine years the country was ruled by socialists who believed the public could not be trusted to make good decisions. Trust was instead placed in a bigger and omnipresent government to rule over every aspect of our lives. With unbridled access to the treasury and the powers of compulsion, the state sector eventually ballooned out of control, further strangling the economic freedom upon which prosperity is based.

When the 2008 general election delivered a change in the government, voters quite reasonably expected John Key to be different. In his speech from the throne at the opening of the new Parliament, the Prime Minister explained that he intended to honour the individual: “My Government will be guided by the principle of individual freedom and a belief in the capacity and right of individuals to shape and improve their own lives. My Government will not seek to involve itself in decisions that are best made by New Zealanders within their own homes and their own communities. The new Government’s vision is not to dictate the way in which New Zealanders should live their lives, but instead to ensure they have the opportunities they need to make the best choices for themselves.”1

In light of that promise, John Key’s response to the citizens initiated referendum on the anti-smacking law last year came as a shock. In spite of 87.6 percent of the population agreeing that a smack should not be a criminal offence in New Zealand, the Prime Minister dismissed their view, claiming to know better than the public how parents should raise children in this country.

The reality of course was that their polling had showed National that they might lose some support amongst women if they agreed to change the law on smacking. Obviously being popular with women voters was more important to the Prime Minister than the promise he made to the New Zealand public that they should be free to live their lives without state interference. Political convenience won over political principle.

Ignoring that unequivocal referendum result was a shock to many, more so because it was the National Party who introduced the Citizens-initiated Referendum Act in 1993 and at the time considered making such referenda binding! It reminded us that while a regime change at the general election might alter the name and the ‘hue’ of the coalition parties, New Zealand continues to be governed by a ruling elite rather than being a genuine democracy where individuals as a collective feel they have true representation.

This state of affairs is quite different from the situation in a country like Switzerland where the public are regarded as sovereign decision makers, with the government there to serve them. The difference of course, is that in Switzerland it is the public that have the final say on how their country is run. They do this through their referenda process. If voters disagree with a new law that has been passed by their Parliament, they can force a binding referendum on it if they can gather 50,000 signatures within the first 100 days. If a simple majority of people vote against the new law in the referendum, it is thrown out. In other words, in Switzerland (as well as in a number of other jurisdictions around the world that make extensive use of binding referenda) the wisdom of the public is highly regarded and trusted. There is no ruling elite – politicians are the servants of the people. This is surely the shape of true democracy!

Under a Swiss-style system, Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking law would have been challenged within the first 100 days and subjected to a binding referendum, and no doubt thrown out. It would not have mattered how many “know-it-all” politicians tried to argue that banning smacking was right and that the public were wrong on this issue. The politicians would have suffered a massive defeat with nanny state effectively being tossed out of the family home, leaving parents free to bring up their children without interference from radical activists like Sue Bradford.

There is a related matter that is also a cause of huge concern here in New Zealand, and that is the ostrich like denial that occurs when politicians get things wrong. Instead of changing their mind if new information becomes available (as epitomised in that famous quote by economist John Maynard Keynes, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”), they protect their image of divine-like judgment and consequently perpetuate the damaging effects of their own poor decision making.

Again, if New Zealand had a Swiss-style 100 day law, we would be protected from such political self-preservation. As it is, we must bear the cost and consequences of legislation that should never have been enacted in the first place.

A case in point is National’s lame duck Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). To get it passed through Parliament ahead of the failed climate change summit in Copenhagen last December, they had to offer what was in effect a massive taxpayer-funded bribe to the mates of the Maori Party. Now, National’s ETS, which was designed to align with Australia’s scheme so that neither country could seek to gain a competitive advantage by taking a softer line on carbon emissions – is ready to be enacted on July 1st even though Australia is unlikely to pass their scheme. Given there are only a few weeks until the scheme is due to begin, businesses and lobby groups alike are contacting the government to have the scheme suspended at least until the next international climate negotiations take place in Mexico in December. By then it is likely to be abundantly clear to even the most one-eyed politician that carbon markets are destined to collapse when the Kyoto protocol expires in two years time, and our ETS scheme will become a case study in political stupidity.

As this week’s guest commentator Roger Kerr from the Business Roundtable explains, “The main business organisations have recently written to the prime minister asking that the ETS should be reviewed or suspended pending developments in Australia and elsewhere”. Anyone who feels strongly that the ETS should not proceed should be encouraged to add their voice to this last ditch effort to get the government to see sense by writing to the Prime Minister and asking him to suspend the scheme. If you know other people who are concerned about the massive costs associated with the ETS that households and businesses alike will soon be facing (for no benefit to the climate at all) then please suggest that they join in this nationwide effort to get the government to see sense. The point is that if National can’t be persuaded to repeal the law straight away, then at the very least, they should be putting the scheme on hold until it is known what Australian is going to do.

In his article Global Warming No Longer Cool Even in New Zealand Roger Kerr explains how the whole climate change landscape has undergone a seismic shift: “The Copenhagen conference failed, no legal treaty after 2012 is in sight, there is no Australian scheme to align with, the United States seems unlikely to be implementing a cap-and-trade regime any time soon, and New Zealand will place its trade exposed industries at risk if it proceeds with its ETS ahead of other trading partners.

“Observing the Australian debate over the last couple of years has been like watching New Zealand’s experience on fast forward. It is one thing to ratify an international treaty with fanfare. It is another to figure out how to implement it and retain voter support for measures that will burden industry and hit household budgets.

“The controversy swirling around the IPCC hasn’t helped the political constituency for action. Questions are being asked about the impartiality of New Zealand’s own scientific assessments and why its scientists, along with other participants in the IPCC process, did not pick up practices unbecoming to scientists.

“Credulous governments have committed themselves to costly programmes on the basis of a tainted process and without adequate scrutiny of evidence and arguments. At least until recently, New Zealand media have seldom critically evaluated the scientific, economic and political dimensions of the global warming crusade.

“Perhaps the public mood is changing. Certainly the John Key-led National government is more sober and rational about the issue than its predecessors. Nevertheless, it would still be well advised to suspend the ETS and adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach, pending the next UN conference in Mexico in December this year and developments in Australia and the United States.”

At a time when the New Zealand economy is really struggling, when debt is ballooning, and productivity plummeting, the country simply cannot afford ideological experiments based on false data and pretentious claims that other nations actually care about our stance on global warming. On 1 July households will begin to feel the cost of the ETS policy. This issue more than almost any other shows clearly how the conceit of the anointed can have a potentially disastrous impact on a country and its people. It is now time for the Prime Minister to step up and announce the postponement of the emissions trading scheme before real damage is done.