Polity by Rob Salmond


Let the big lies flow

I’m not going to wade into the debate over whose fault the flag failure was. My views are what you’d expect them to be.

Instead, I’ve been interested in the reaction from National-aligned commentators, from National-aligned commentator John Key on down. Their clear strategy is to breathlessly repeat one conjoured-up, focus group tested excuse after another, in the hope of muddying the waters. But they’ve over-egged the pudding, and the excuses come off as shrill and transparent. Two quick examples: 

  1. A yes / no option. When we decided on our electoral system in 1992 and in 2011, the referendum had a question “Do you want change, or not?” It’s a reasonable question to ask when you’re, you know, considering change. Lots of people asked for that option to be repeated for the flag, not least because both almost all polls showed a majority happy to stay with the status quo, and we could have all saved some money. National thinks that asking for that option somehow doomed the process. Exactly how is left mysteriously unsaid…
  2. It’s all Labour’s fault. National’s people say John Key’s inability to unite even his own party, let alone other parties, behind his pet project was all the fault of the evil manipulative Labour party, which elsewhere they prefer to call vapid and ineffective. I’d say if a senior politician wades prominently into a debate and takes a side, they shouldn’t be surprised when it becomes part of the political discourse.

As well as spinning like a top on this particular issue, the National commentariat wants desperately to change the subject. Anything else will do. That’s why they’ve jumped with so much gusto over Labour’s non-announcement about a non-policy.

To be sure, the Universal Basic Income is a big idea, and worthy of discussion and critical comment. But again the National apparatus has over-egged their response.

Both David Farrar and John Key said definitively the UBI would “cost $38 billion.” Nobody asked them where that figure came from, and the New Zealand Herald, NBR, and NewstalkZB repeated that figure uncritically in their coverage. ZB gets a very special award for their lack of critical thinking, ending their report with:

But Prime Minister John Key said he's looked into the numbers and it's "unaffordable and it's barking mad".  

"Basically it would cost $38 billion dollars, it might cost 76 billion." 

(To be be fair to John Key, I’m very impressed he managed to say “$76 billion” without a Dr Evil finger-curl there.)

I’m not suggesting Labour’s cost estimates should get fawningly repeated, too. They shouldn’t. But I am suggesting that treating politicans’ figures with a grain of salt is a healthy habit for journalists, no matter who’s spouting the numbers. 

Not everyone fell into Key’s trap, however. Here’s today’s Dominion Post editorial 

Prime Minister John Key, for his part, is certainly wrong to call the idea "barking mad" and to give it a $38 billion price tag. That is just absurd gamesmanship – the cost of the policy depends entirely on its details, which can vary greatly. Various Right-wing heroes, including the economist Milton Friedman, have endorsed a version of it.

Ahem, “indeed.”

David Farrar has also been repeating a second, equally absurd claim about UBI. He says it would require incomes above $48,000 to be taxed at 82%. That’s utter nonsense. He even admitted it to me, and to Russell, on Twitter last Thursday.

But on Sunday he was still repeating, repeating, repeating that lie, saying “Labour’s UBI would need an 82% tax rate on those earning over $48,000.”

He knows it’s a lie, but he’s repeating it anyway.

And that’s what gives away National’s strategy. Both on the flag and on the UBI, their coordinated response is to lie over and over again, and trust enough people will reprint the lies until they become truthy.

So, how does an opposition respond? Well it can’t stop National telling the lies, because Voltaire. And only the most boring and small-thinking oppositions say so little that there’s no opportunity for malignant mischief from their opponents.

I think the opposition’s best option is to name the behaviour, over and over again. It works in parenting, and it works with this.

They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. So when National infects our public conversation with lies and excuses, I’ll be here on Public Address providing a little ray of sun.  

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