It was a bracing kind of meeting, and I should've ordered something harder than orange juice. I wanted – needed – to hear it, to get that bucket of cold water thrown at my face. And bless him, he was happy to give it to me.
This was a few months back, at the beginning of “Phase I” of my conspiracy for numeracy. I was meeting with a senior parliamentary press secretary at Dog and Bone to pitch my idea: a wiki-styled website which fact-checked politicians and promoted transparency by hosting source data. It was at once an open offer (“if you know the other side is making shit up, we can be a platform for that information”) and a thinly-veiled, but generally wholesome, threat.
He wasn't exactly trying to disuade me, but as an ex-gallery journalist (aren't they all?), he was very skeptical of my aims and my assumptions. He argued that politicians know that everything they say will be under scrutiny, and are therefore scrupulous about their facts; that political parties are transparent as a matter of course; that journalists never take a press release from a political party at face value, without checking the facts for themselves.
I am pleased to report that I hit this trifacta with Mr Gerry Brownlee.
Brownlee said in a press release:
National Party Energy spokesman Gerry Brownlee says he understands that Labour's emergency stand-by power generator at Whirinaki is running flat out burning up to one million litres of diesel every 24 hours."
That's not true. 93.5% not true, actually, if we take "running flat out" as meaning "operating at 100%". According to Contact Energy, operators of the Whirinaki power plant, it was running at 6.5% of its maximum output in February. In January, it ran at 2.3%. When questioned about his claim, Brownlee said:
I think you'll find, when you see the figures, that it's running at something like 16 hours a day at full speed."
So "16 hours a day" means "16 hours every day"? Not the way Brownlee is using it. The figures show that it ran for 16 hours on a day - on one single day, that is - and only at full speed for 11 hours. When presented with the figures, Brownlee backed down further. Kinda.
With all due respect – we can terminate this interview if you want – but you've got to sharpen up a bit here. These people are trying to put a bit of gloss on a very big turd. The deal here is that yes, across a month, it might have only run for 3% of that month. But there were days, there were hours, and there were other batches of time during that month where it had to run otherwise the lights would go out. It's an emergency plant. It doesn't run unless we're deeply in the shit. I can't put it more clearly to you than that.”
According to Kieran Devine, General Manager of System Operations at Transpower, Whirinaki kicked in because the hyrdo generators were trying to conserve water for winter. That's to say, if the demand for power went up further than it did, or if Whirinaki didn't run, the hydros would have kicked in again. The lights would not have gone out.
But the system was also tighter than usual at that time, said Devine, because power plants were taken down for maintenance to ensure that they were ready for winter, and the Huntly power station couldn't operate at full capacity because the river (which it uses for cooling) was too hot. During winter, when power usage is highest, these problems will disappear.
Then he says that:
Genesis boss Murray Jackson told the [Select] Committee that at winter peak the North Island would be 1000 M/Ws short of supply."
No, no he didn't. According to the Genesis Energy spokesperson, the 1000MW figure refered to the capacity that went when the Pole 1 interisland cable was taken down for maintenance and the New Plymouth power plant was closed. These were things that everyone in the industry and everyone on the Select Committee already knew about, and didn't mean that the North Island was 1000MW short of supply.
Brownlee's mistake could be excused if the National Winter Group – a group of industry experts that includes members from Genesis Energy – didn't release a report earlier in the month outlining the situation. They looked at a worst case scenario, in which we experienced a one-in-twenty-year high demand, a one-in-ten-year low in generation, with Pole 1 remaining completely useless. If this happened, they expect that we would still have 348MW of reserve capacity left, but we would be vulnerable to major faults. Since Transpower brought Pole 1 back at half capacity last month, we could survive the worse case scenario plus a major failure without industrial users having to cut back.
But even under a worse-than-worst-case-scenario, with the biggest power generator failing and Pole 2 going down as well, it still wouldn't get close to 1000MW. Not only did Brownlee misunderstand Jackson and demand government action without checking the facts, but he claimed something that flew in the face of common sense.
As for the Whirinaki claim, that's even more preposterous. If, as he says, Whirinaki was the emergency, last resort power plant, and it was running flat-out, that would mean that we're constantly at maximum capacity, and that one more lightbulb would send the system crashing and burning.
That's clearly a completely unreasonable claim, given that the lights are still on. Someone who didn't get that should not be trusted to become the Minister of Energy.
This was, by no stretch of the imagination, a big story. Brownlee didn't get a heck of a lot of traction with the original story. It did, however, get onto NZPA, the NewsTalkZB wires, and (I think) Radio New Zealand. Each of those stories were pulled straight off the press release, and none of them had comment from Contact Energy (or anyone else, for that matter).
This is the degree to which politicians can get away with making shit up – as long as the story is not major, they can make a claim and get it through to readers unscrutinised and uncontested.
On Saturday, I hung out with the new student media crowd at the Aotearoa Student Press Association conference, where Nicky Hager spoke about, among other things, the political PR machine. He spoke about the difference between tactical PR (getting individual stories out or responding to events) vs strategic PR (framing specific issues or whole elections; e.g. making an election about tax).
I've been thinking about the kind of “aggregate PR” campaigns that we've been seeing, most clearly, in the “slippery Key” campaign.
It's obvious that the whole point of the campaign is to use the words “slippery” and “Key” together as many times as possible. The individual instances where it's used are usually inane, occasionally ridiculous. But it doesn't matter. This kind of tag-cloud politics relies on repetition and repetition alone. Therefore, each individual claim has far less value, the quality of the claim has less relevance, and there's little point in rebutting the claims, since it's only the culmulative effect that matters.
It's fucking stupid. But hey, it's what the spin-doctors ordered.
It begs the question: Is debating actual facts completely pointless when, according to our learned spin-doctors, it's all about the frequency of keywords?