Hard News by Russell Brown


Be the party of good science

That Phil Goff had to use his first speech as leader at a Labour Party conference to draw a line under the former leadership, and define his own philosophy was a given. It's just a shame he felt the need to throw some sensible ideas under the bus to do so.

Specifically, he said in his speech:

We did a lot that was right and we are all proud of that. We weren’t voted out for what we did right.

We were voted out because they thought we were getting distracted by sideshows.

The Winston Peters funding saga. The Electoral Finance Act. Errant MPs. Smacking. Lightbulbs. Shower heads.

Setting energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs isn't the nanny state, or a "sideshow": it's a practical step with a manifest economic benefit. The sideshow wasn't the policy; it was the consequent wave of pseudo-scientific alarmism and confused appeals to liberty that greeted it. The people crusading for their light-bulb liberty were, in effect, declaring their wish for the government to spend more tax dollars on one or two new electric power stations.

Gerry Brownlee rejoiced last December in withdrawing the energy efficiency standards, but he and the government in which he serves are not now in a position to pursue much more populist table-thumping. Government ministers get the best advice available, and we require them to make sensible decisions on the basis of that advice.

The tension between acting on the best advice and staying the right side of populist squawking was amply demonstrated in the case of a hangover from the last government: the decision to require bread to be fortified with folate, aka Vitamin B9. This isn't some crazy space-alien concept: the US and Canada have both had this requirement for more than a decade, and have seen dramatic falls in infant neural tube defects such as spina bifida, and neuroblastoma.

As was the case for the light blub standards, the bottom-line impact for government finances was overwhelmingly positive. The Australian government's folate requirement came into force last week.

But, in the face of a very slick PR campaign run by a former National party MP on behalf of vested interests – and yet more pseudoscientific hysteria – John Key's government baulked. It couldn't quite face scrapping the idea, but kicked for touch with a "review" of a move for which it already had the evidence.

(By the way: I have a little trouble with the Green Party signing up to the unproven claim that dioxin exposure is responsible for a wave of neural tube defects in New Zealand -- but campaigning against the addition to bread of a naturally-occurring vitamin that would prevent dozens of cases of spina bifida every year. But that's Sue Kedgley for you.)

Goff also found it necessary to lament his own party's support for the child discipline bill, even though the present government voted for it in Opposition and has firmly rejected any bid to amend it. I'm not sure that was really necessary.

But the perils of being seen to socially engineer popped up again, when a three-line remit for discussion, put forward by Lianne Dalziel, proposing a subsidy on condoms at retail, like the one that applies when a doctor prescribes them, became news. This isn't policy or anything like but, but, again, it could well turn out to have a net positive impact on government finances. It is worth discussion. But no: Just put it away, pleaded one of The Standard's contributors:

I’m not saying it’s not a good idea but the place for such decisions is surely with Pharmac. All associating Labour with such a policy does is give ammunition to the Farrar/Hooton/McCroskie-branch of the right.

The Kiwiblog Right have followed in the very successful model of the American Right. They do not want to argue economic issues because the populace rejects rightwing economics. Instead, they want to fight the ‘culture wars’ by dogwhistling social conservatives. Given an opening, they will obviously try to make these kind of policies defining aspects of Labour in minds: ’Do you want a government that’s true to traditional Kiwi values or a government that gives out free condoms to your teenager?’

Personally, I find the idea that no idea should be discussed if there is a possibility it might whip up well-organised moral hysteria pretty depressing.

Goff's speech was decent enough, but I don't think he has really established a compelling new philosophy, or that wall-to-wall economic populism will fit the party for government. And neither will shying away from new ideas. They need a bit more than is currently being proposed. Being the party of good science would be a start.

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