Island Life by David Slack

An Elephant Is Soft and Mushy

A friend emailed me a nice recollection about a movie a while ago. If you were going to the movies in 1949, you might have seen it when it came out - Magic Town.

It's about "Grandview," a small town that's an exact statistical microcosm of the United States. The citizens' opinions match perfectly with Gallup polls of the entire nation…

…a pollster (Jimmy Stewart), secretly uses surveys from this "mathematical miracle" as a shortcut to predicting public opinion. Instead of collecting a national sample, he can more quickly and cheaply collect surveys from this single small town. A newspaper editor finds out what is going on and publishes her discovery. The national media descend upon the town, which becomes, overnight, "the public opinion capital of the U.S." The citizens of Grandview become self-conscious because they are now "the perfect barometer of national opinion." They begin to feel a heavy responsibility, knowing that what they say will be listened to throughout the world. They arrange to collect their own survey, "The Official Grandview Poll," but with the proviso that "reference libraries" be provided at every polling booth. Because the issues are important, they believe people should be informed.

With this new sense of responsibility, and their heightened interest in the issues, the townspeople's views soon diverge from those of the rest of the country. The climax comes when the town announces the result that 79 percent of them would be willing to "vote for a woman for president". This is taken as such a preposterous departure from conventional opinion that they become a source of national ridicule.

Yet which opinions are more worth listening to? The conventional opinion of the time, offered in response to questions from the Gallup poll, that people should not support a woman for president, or the very different view the citizens of Grandview finally came to, when they thought their opinions would actually matter, and after they had had a chance to re-examine their prejudices and preconceptions? Those considered judgments were, indeed, unrepresentative of the views of the rest of the country. But then again, the rest of the country had not really thought much about the question.

At the risk of labouring the point, an informed opinion is, in my view, desirable. That was what I was getting at in my last post. According to my inbox, a lot of people liked the idea. Others didn't much care for it.

"You just don't get it, do you" thunders angry young lawyer of Auckland, who informs me that the vast majority of the audience are upset at the "constitutionalisation of affirmative action". Rather a bold interpretation, I'd have thought. That many? And all about that particular aspect of a complex tangle of ideas and arguments?

Well, maybe. I can't claim with certainty that he's wrong. But nor do I think he can say with assurance that he knows that for a fact. It's a bold person who claims to know the thinking of such a substantial proportion of the voting public. I prefer to start with known facts, and let the discussion build from there.

As I wrote last week, the people I've been listening to have been enthusing about what they've heard of Don Brash's speech for many different reasons. Yes, two words do come up repeatedly: "had enough". But as they proceed to explain what it is they've had enough of, I start hearing about things that don't necessarily echo any particular proposition that appeared in the speech.

Yes, some people are well-briefed and have reached a considered opinion that chimes with the arguments Dr Brash has been making. But tell me that everyone's up to speed with this, and I'll play you ten minutes of talkback radio.

I promise you this: when you sit down to write a political speech, you have in mind the sound grabs that will be running on the TV news that night. But don't take my word for it; click here now, read the speech with that in mind, and tell me you don't see them. There's a considered speech in there, but there's also a loot-bag full of lines for the media to take home from the party. Try these, for example:

We are one country with many peoples, not simply a society of Pakeha and Maori where the minority has a birthright to the upper hand, as the Labour Government seems to believe.

For 20 years now, mischievous minds have been interpreting the document in ways that they envisage will suit their financial purposes.

You can't write a political speech without being aware that lines like that will be picked up by the media, played, and potentially taken out of context. The material he uses to substantiate those lines is quite strong, and quite specific. But take the sound grabs in isolation, and what do you get? Official declaration of open season on this bloody treaty carry-on.

Russell tells me one of our readers liked the quiz, printed it off and took it down to the pub to put to his mates. I understand their response was a good deal more pithy than "we object to the constitutionalisation of affirmative action."

None of this should be surprising. TV news doesn't handle the serial story very well. If it bleeds, as they say, it leads. Long-running stories just tend to piss people off. So it is with Treaty stories. That story's been running for years, and they still haven't got the bad guy. You see people complaining, but you don't see them in front of the Tribunal working through evidence, and you don't see them negotiating with the government on the way to a settlement. You see them taking a case to court to argue about application of the Treaty, but you don't see the evidence being presented and the submissions unfolding. What you get are sound grabs and faces. Angry white faces arguing with angry brown faces. Then you see the government handing over a big cheque. Then you see more angry faces. Then you see another cheque, then more angry faces, and so on. You forever get the trailers, you never get the movie. Unless you read a bit further, listen a bit more widely, you're left none the wiser. An elephant, it seems, is soft and mushy.

One reader argued it was sufficient for the much-vaunted silent majority to "intuit" that the whole arrangement was wrong, even if they couldn't explain why. I think I'd prefer to live in Grandview. Until someone can give me hard data that suggests otherwise, I'll stand by my proposition that there are people cheering for Dr Brash's soundbites whose point of view is informed by scant solid material.

I don't accept the argument some people have made to me that everyone is "happy with the treaty settlement process" and that their concern is in fact with such issues as the broadening ambit of the Treaty, or preferential treatment based on race. I don't think we've come anywhere near that far yet. I do accept, though, that those issues need to be debated. I've had some thoughtful emails about them. One offered this:

For many Maori the contemporary role of the Treaty is a shield against majoritarian abuse (the original conception of the Tribunal - the Motunui pollution case, for example) and, flowing from that work, a form of leverage in political, bureaucratic and social debate and an organizing device for the formulation of policy in all three areas.

That leverage was almost entirely absent pre the 1970s but was increasingly and sometimes spectacularly successful (the fisheries settlements) after that time. In light of such success it is hardly surprising that it has become the weapon of first rather than last resort. Power gained after so many years without it can be intoxicating. If it works..... keep on doing it.

And the Treaty has had a great deal of utility not just for Maori, but for politicians (both National and Labour, bureaucrats and the Courts as a way or organizing and thinking about how to respond to all sorts of issues.

A generally accepted and understood rationale for that wider use has, however, lagged way behind.

The roadrunner has gone off the cliff and there is no credible supporting ideology or explanation beneath him. Whether one can be constructed before the roadrunner meets his usual fate......?

And another offered this:

I work in medical research funding…All funders (Govt, universities, charities) pay the same ($25,000 p.a.) for PhD scholarships. The HRC now offers a $5,000 tangata whenua grant to Maori PhD scholars, in addition, so that they can return to their homes during vacation. It's not means-tested. Non-Maori do not get it. That's a 20% margin over other NZers. In the greater scheme of things it's nothing; to one of our impoverished students it's a fortune.

That merits debate.

I think Colin James has analysed the context of this "preferential treatment" debate nicely. He argues that:

To a classical liberal all citizens are equal -- but only in the formal sense of individual equality before the law. Group rights are anathema and so are laws or government actions directed at groups….

…Social democrats think citizenship entails the ability to participate fully in the economy and society. For this, disadvantaged groups need active government help through workplace laws and education, health, housing and welfare.

Social democrats also think there are group rights and think in terms of helping groups…

I know which side I take. As a letter writer to this morning's Herald reminds us, there are all kinds of groups with their hands out that need to be tidied up. Once those Maoris have been taken care of, we can move on to those whiners in their wheelchairs. And let's not forget those grannies who've stopped working and expect a pension each week.

There's plenty to debate here. Let's engage in the debate with facts.