My theories on the Greens’ “conspiracies”, which will undermine their brand as much as National’s

The Greens have broken out into a little rash of conspiracy theory. Frog was in yogic contortions last week on her blog, trying to scratch all the itches.

The biggest conspiracy problem facing the Greens right now is fantasising about them, at the expense of political management.

First, Radio New Zealand (RNZ). Sue Kedgley says Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman’s chivvying of the board is part of a longer-term scheme to “starve” the state broadcaster: to undermine the quality of its programming by forcing it to survive on an unsustainable level of funding, and perhaps, to commercialise it.

Second, Environment Canterbury (ECan). Russel Norman has been chipping away since late last year, about Wyatt Creech’s role in the review that recommended ECan’s sacking, issuing press releases, asking questions in the House, and commenting on his Facebook page (“the plot thickens,” he wrote, on learning Creech had resigned his directorship of Open Country Cheese Dairy Ltd). Then Frog jumped in:

Here is a blunt message to Environment Canterbury Councillors Mark Oldfield, Pat Harrow, Angus McKay, and Bronwen Murray: Resign! In December last year you were found by the Auditor-General to have a conflict of interest regarding decisions over water resource management, since you yourselves, as holders of consents regarding water, have significant pecuniary interests in the issue. But you persisted in participating and voting on ECan decisions involving water … Don’t you get it, Councillors? If you have a conflict of interest, you should not even be present at the meeting, let alone voting at it, when water management is being debated!

The post then turned to Creech, whose company Open Country Cheese was fined $55,000 a few years ago, after pleading guilty to 11 charges of illegal effluent management (discharge and storage). This, posited Frog, put Creech in such a conflicted position that he was incapable of heading the ECan inquiry about water, because: “His colours had already been nailed to the mast.”

I’m not saying these are not points worth making or questions worth asking, about the government’s handling of both RNZ and the ECan inquiry. What I am saying is, if you’re going to level allegations, first set your own house in order. And also bear in mind that to the average person not paying close attention from outside – even to the person paying above-averagely close attention – serial conspiracy allegations look a little alarmist and silly. And when they don't get traction, over a period of some months, it might be time to stop pushing.

Sue Kedgley has been, and continues to be, broadcasting spokesperson for the Greens, fronting the RNZ issue: sitting and, presumably, participating on select committee, co-hosting this forum with Grant Robertson, doing the media. Chris Laidlaw, who hosts sleepy Sunday mornings on RNZ, is Kedgley’s brother in law.

If I was, personally, going to light a fire under RNZ, I would surely do it on a Sunday morning. Laidlaw’s meandering questions stoke my impatience to incendiary levels. But in fact, there is no issue of “saving” RNZ, because all it is being asked to do – today, right now – is live within its means and adjust its expectations, like any other government agency, and every other state employee.

I myself don’t believe that the Laidlaw-Kedgley connection impedes her ability to do an honest job on this issue. But by Frog’s severe standards – “you should not even be present at the meeting, let alone voting at it, when water management is being debated!” – I’m not sure how the Greens can countenance Kedgley’s role and presence at meetings and so on, if they honestly hold such views.

Of course, Frog was referring to councillors found by the Auditor-General to have a direct pecuniary interest, unlike Kedgley’s somewhat tangential family connection with RNZ. But surely, Kedgley’s interest is no less tangential than Creech’s alleged ECan conflict. Creech’s dairy interests are Waikato-based, and he has done one or two other things in his life that qualify him to manage such an inquiry.

The first time I read the ECan post, I actually went: huh? I mean, given its opening premise, of dairy interests acting improperly on the council, defying good practice and high-level advice, naturally, one would conclude that the recommendation to sack the council was also a dairy conspiracy.

Perhaps it says more about me than Frog, that it took a while for me to work out the line of argument. If it wasn’t for the dairy interests acting improperly – if they would just ignore their democratic mandate (on which the Greens are also strong), and remove themselves from the picture entirely (“resign!”) – then ECan could operate properly in defence of the Canterbury environment, if only it hadn’t been stymied by bad Mr Creech, who should take a hike too.

But there’s a simpler explanation for Creech’s appointment by the government. Creech was available, competent, and has their confidence. That’s a small pool of people, right there, without any need for a stitch-up. Dairy is a powerful lobby, that they won’t want to aggravate. If even a reviewer who understands dairy farmers’ issues thinks there’s a problem in Canterbury, maybe there’s really a problem; and not just any old dairy farmer either, but a former deputy Prime Minister, and no intellectual slouch. It’s worth bearing in mind here that the ECan recommendations were unanimous, and the Resource Management Act aspects of the work were led by two of the other reviewers, not Creech.

Gauging Norman’s reaction to the government inquiry when it was announced, I wondered then whether Green party members or local councillors were somehow involved. His explanation of the government’s motives seemed peculiarly emphatic, and somewhat contrary to evidence, that ECan had been acting as a robust environmental guardian. Turns out (hat tip: Kiwiblog), things got a little out of hand down there with Green list member and regional councillor Rik Tindall. (And incidentally, Tindall can be found here, mounting a conspiracy theory of his own.)

I dont know the rights and wrongs of all this, and frankly, I cant be bothered in a way, with what looks more and more like a wee political skirmish. Mr Farrar doesn’t bring out the mighty Kiwiblog gun, I’m sure, unless there’s something lurking in the National Party undergrowth. But on the other hand, he does dearly love to bait Greens, and I would have expected chapter and verse from the Greens before now if Mr Tindall had been really badly wronged. Political tit for tat, I’d say, by Farrar, in reaction to the Greens’ pushing on this issue.

Maybe it’s naïve to expect the Greens, as the third largest party in Parliament, to refrain from all politicking; maybe chipping away at National’s support is part of the game. And yet, they do pride themselves on their reputation for substance above politics. If this is an example of how they do politics, I think they had better stick to the substance. The truth is, I think, that Norman et al are reacting loyally, not politically.

That’s nice. Loyalty is a rare quality in Parliament, I daresay, and a fine personal quality. But it has backfired badly, with the Kiwiblog episode, and may continue to in other ways as well, if they persist with this approach. The material presented by Farrar does two things: it shows ECan dysfunction, thus proving the government’s point, and shines a light into a murky Green corner.

I write this from anxiety for where the Greens are headed. This is how it looks from the outside, and this is my fear: if they keep spending their conspiracy currency, they will end up indirectly undermining their own credibility, far more than the National party’s.

Comments (14)

by Chris Trotter on March 17, 2010
Chris Trotter

If Claire Browning had been blogging in 1973;

If the Washington Post is even slightly worried about preserving its credibility, it will rein-in its two resident conspiracy theorists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - and quickly.

These two low-level journalists' relentless pursuit of the Nixon White House is beginning to look just a little bit monomaniacal.

Perhaps someone should remind our two "crusaders" that President Nixon was re-elected less than a year ago in one of the most decisive presidential elections in American history.

They might also pause to wonder why none of the White House press corps has picked up on their so-called "expose".

If the Nixon Administration is really as odiferous with corruption as our two intrepid news hounds claim, then surely someone, out of the scores of top-flight political journalists accredited to the White House, would also have picked up the scent?

And as for the transparently fictional "Deep Throat". Well, all I can say is that if the Post's publisher, Katherine Graham, and its Editor, Ben Bradley, truly believe that Woodward's and Bernstein's "source" is a real person, then they must be attending the same parties as their junior reporters - and imbibing the same substances.

Come on you guys; its time to put an end to this embarrassing "Watergate Conspiracy" nonsense.

by Claire Browning on March 17, 2010
Claire Browning

Honoured by your attention, Chris. Again. I suppose even the lowliest midge is bound to get a slap eventually.

Of course, if, in a matter of months, the Greens stopped pushing every issue on which they weren't getting traction - as I suggested, above - they'd find themselves with little to say. So in that sense, it was possibly a pretty stupid thing to say. And of course, as I've blogged before, they have a remarkable record of being validated long term. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm generally one of their bigger fans.

However, you seem to have missed the point of the post ... 

Surely, there has to be an element of judgement on what battles to fight, and when, and how. They've had nothing fresh to say about Creech since November - and without something fresh to bring to it, I just don't buy the argument, which is getting, frankly, boring. Have a hunt around on Stuff, if you care. It's been well reported by The Press, going back months, maybe years, that the ECan councillors of various political persuasions are spending at least as much time scrapping with each other as running Canterbury. I just can't see how this helps the environment. For every good that entails (eg, by development not progressing), there's evidence of bad (eg, not enforcing consents).

Second, and I think the more persuasive argument: if they're going to host conspiracy theories, they'd better make damn sure the house is clean. Maybe there's a difference I'm missing between Creech's alleged sympathy for his dairy farming / National party mates, and Norman's for his Green list candidate - if so, grateful to anyone who'll explain. But I don't think it's a great look. I would have thought they'd learned that kind of lesson already, on the Parliamentary expenses.

by Andrew Geddis on March 17, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Claire,

First The Standard, now Frogblog ... when is a real site like Bowalley Road going to feel the sting of your gaze?

by Claire Browning on March 17, 2010
Claire Browning

Bowalley Road’s author may write curmudgeonly comments on my posts, Andrew – sparked no doubt in part by his own active sympathies for RNZ, which he could have just declared, and then we could have debated the merits. Or let me put it another way: he could have educated me on the merits in his usual robust blog-thread fashion, which might have been fun for everybody watching, if less so for me.

But I dare to hope he is sparing me the ignominy because he quite likes me, really. Or at least, we might find we agreed with one another in surprising measure.

His first complaint was when I wrote about some good things about this government – even if the pleasures, for some of us, are very mixed. He accused me of being Pollyanna, and yet, his own stab at the same issue is here – and I find I am reading about myself. So he does get it, really, even if admitting this makes him feel all pricklish and disgruntled. I presume he therefore also understands that being open-minded about the evidence, necessarily will require the government or anyone else sooner or later to produce the promised evidence – which is an advancement, I would have thought, on accountability, or democracy, or something, even if it feels a rocky ride at times.

That post also identifies a need for the left to defend its ideals by reference to sound arguments and hard evidence, which at the end of the day is all I am asking the Greens to keep doing, please …

So I have value to him as an interesting sort of political specimen, if nothing else.

by toad on March 17, 2010
toad

Claire, there is a rather substantial difference between Sue Kedgley being Green Broadcasting spokesperson and also being the sister of someone whose husband works for Radio New Zealand (a tenuous connection at best) and the Government appointing someone whose company has convictions for illegal effluent discharges to head a review that substantially involved water resource management issues.

Sue Kedgley has held the Broadcasting portfolio for years.  Do you really expect she should relinquish it because a Broadcasting issue arises in which a relation by marriage of hers may potentially be affected.

By contrast, Creech's company's record was (or should have been)  well known to Government when they apponted him to the Ecan review.  Surely the Government could have appointed someone else with similar expertise whose copybook was not blotted in the way Creech's is.  All would then have appeared to be legit.  But with Creech specifically appointed to head the review there will always be allegations of favouratism to big dairy - whether they are legitimate or not we'll probably never know.

by Claire Browning on March 18, 2010
Claire Browning

Toad.

No, I wasn’t saying she should relinquish the broadcasting portfolio, simply that I’m surprised to see her fronting the RNZ aspect of it with such vigour, rather than getting someone to sub. I also said I don’t in fact doubt her ability to make an honest job of this, even if she continues to front, because I’m prepared to give smart professional grown up people a decent amount of credit for being able to distance themselves where necessary and bring to bear a bit of objectivity. If that’s wrong, I have a few wee problems of my own …

Regarding Creech, I understood your argument the first time; the problem is that I don’t find it convincing, so repeating it ad infinitum doesn’t help you, I’m afraid.

Here’s the issue, very simply: the ruler you’re passing over the National Party is not being applied to yourselves. If you want to take the very pure world view, which is commendable I’m sure, at least do it consistently.

I agree with you: it’s not ideal for someone with a blotted copybook to have headed up this issue of national significance (nationally significant for all the reasons set out in the ECan report). But it’s a big leap from there to “big dairy favouritism”. I have been keeping an eye on this for months, trying to give your argument an honest hearing and let it have a decent run. But on the whole, I find it pretty insubstantial, and Creech’s breaches as insignificant in the whole scheme of things as you regard Kedgley’s “being the sister of someone whose husband [let’s just say brother in law shall we?] works for Radio New Zealand. And in the end, as per post, I think it has backfired.

You can take this two ways, you know. Aggrieved and misunderstood - or a piece of useful feedback, albeit slightly acidly expressed. If despite best efforts over a sustained period I still don’t get it, chances are a bunch of other people don’t, either.

by Paul McMahon on March 18, 2010
Paul McMahon

Clare, I think you need to look much more closely at the ECan issue than simply reading the Press articles that are actually online and reading the Creech Report before you dismiss what the Greens are saying so readily. I can understand why from reading those two sources you might come to the conclusions you have, but dig a little deeper and you might be surprised.

For instance, have a look at what Jo Kane is on record (on Stuff!) as saying about how she feels about the Mayoral forum's role and see how clearly the cleavages in ECan mirror the acrimonious debate around water and irrigation. Notice how novice councillors form Save Our Water fell in with the Right only to find themselves between a rock and a hard-place.

by Max Smith on March 18, 2010
Max Smith

Claire,

Environmental matters in the South Island are not as clear as they look from Wellington. It is an environment under extraordinary strain, with the competing values of preservation and progress impossible to reconcile.

Similarly your views on Ecan and the Ohau factory farming proposals are difficult to reconcile. I seem to recall you opposing Waitaki District Council's non-notification of the land-use consents, and here you are, a month or so on supporting the dismissal of an elected local government. A dismissal that seems designed to speed up the granting of water consents. Ecan is dysfunctional, but they are certainly not alone on that.

Removing a popularly elected government is something that should have a very high threshold, and despite your passionate defence of Wyatt Creech's independence, it is not clear at all that has been reached in this case.You are drawing a long bow to compare Laidlaw-Kedgely to Creech-Dairy. It has more than a straw-man feel about it.

Given the demands of the dairy industry on the South Island rivers (you may want to look up David Bruce's piece in the ODT this week on nutrient leaching and the spread of didymo) it was inappropriate for the government to appoint a dairy man, one who shares co-invesments in dairy with the PM, to decide Ecan's fate.I find it extraordinary that you would try to argue otherwise.

On that point, there is no need for anything new. The facts are as they stand. Their repetition does not negate their significance.

by Claire Browning on March 19, 2010
Claire Browning

 

Paul,

“… simply … dismiss what the Greens are saying so readily”? No.

Sorry, but you have no idea the commitment of my own personal time and resources I make to this. Anyone who puts him or herself on the record at some length and detail every week is bound to get it wrong sometimes; probably many do not care, but I do, deeply. You cannot imagine how much time I spend fretting over the risk that I am ignorant, mistaken, unfair, and so on, and trying to ensure that it does not happen.

I mean, a blogger who was that stupid might find herself stitching together an argument about better political management by the government, for heaven’s sake -- by way of random example -- a few weeks before the wheels all fall off again, in really quite spectacular fashion …

Therefore -- happy to look into it further, as indeed I thought I had, but I am open to the argument that I have not done it well enough.

A question for you, though. Is anyone else in the country -- any voter, or many journalists -- going to bother to do this? I know that the Greens will agree with me that this is not the case, and that was part of the point of the blog. If there’s an argument, for God’s sake make it.

However, they surely cannot now without being accused of divided loyalty. I deduce Russel is now electing to shut up rather than put up -- and fair enough, happy to pick up that slack, since it was I who dug the hole.

For anyone, on either side of the issue, who would like to help this non-Canterbury resident non-journalist out, you can find an email contact form on my profile page, or add notes to this thread, like Paul. Happy to take any further advice about avenues one might explore, to get a proper picture.

--------------------------------------

Max,

Lot of aspects to that comment. I am not going to respond to them all. I don’t dispute them all, though I doubt that all are relevant to the point of the post. And I don’t have any trouble reconciling my views on the Ohau consents with where I had got to, to date, on ECan’s fate. In the one context, democratic engagement was not even attempted, and the law misapplied; in the other, ECan has had a long chance, and if the reviewers are believed, may itself have been misapplying the RMA law.

But it seems that the gulf between Wellington / Wairarapa and the South Island has a bit of a cloudy effect on blog comprehension, too, because I was not “passionately defending” Wyatt Creech. If you want to find me in “passionate defence” of something, try here. My point was that to the outside observer, it looked as if passion had overtaken reason a little, on the Green side of the issue.

So I have some more homework to do perhaps; but for your part, you may need to check the definition of a “straw man” argument. I assume that in fact you mean either (1) you suspect the views are not genuinely held, or (2) you think they have been motivated by a hidden agenda or grievance.

Regarding (1), I can only assure you that they were and are. See further above; I don’t expose myself, or others, to being taken down in public lightly. And (2), again no, and let me make this point. You’ve all (except Stuart) been pretty happy and / or acquiescent for a long time on this blog. Yet the moment we find ourselves at a point of disagreement, suddenly, apparently, the quality of the argument and investigation has all turned to shit, and I am some sort of pretender. You might like to read the post again, and have a little think about that.

 

 

by Max Smith on March 19, 2010
Max Smith

Claire,

Firstly, you should be pleased your posts are generating a response. In NZ we are all too often afraid of debate, to our own detriment. So there is no intent to 'take you down in public'. As you point out, I have watched from a distance, and now chosen to jump in, but that in no way reflects "that the quality of the argument and investigation has all turned to shit". For 'Pundit' to succeed you need to say some things that elicit a response / reaction, otherwise you are not stimulating debate.

Anyway, I still stand by the 'straw man' point. Time is short so I have resorted to Wikipedia, but the logical chain is consistent with what I noted.

"The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern:

  1. Person A has position X.
  2. Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially-similar position Y."

I would say that the Kedgely angle is superficially similar, but does not help with understanding the appropriateness of Creech's appointment, and thus the 'trustworthiness' of his conclusion. I did not mean either (1) or (2) that you suggest.

Creech may have been available, competent, and had their confidence, but his conflicts were significant. A prior-bias made it more likely that he would elect to dismiss Ecan, which as I said, is a decision that should have a high threshold.

 

by Claire Browning on March 19, 2010
Claire Browning

Max - yes, I know. And believe me, I do like it better this way than t'other - it makes life a great deal more interesting for everybody, on both sides of the Pundit screen, readers and writers alike. So thanks for those further views (and for clarifying!).

Keep going, y'all. I'm sure my ego can take it. After all, I have been dishing it out a bit myself, lately.

Claire

by Claire Browning on March 19, 2010
Claire Browning

Paul,

A postscript. I followed that link of yours. I don't mean to suggest that this constitutes "digging more deeply", but it reminded me all over again what I struggle with about this issue. Here we have Jo Kane, going head to head with the mayoral forum. Other times, it's Rik Tindall sending obnoxious emails, the recipients of the emails alleging "they would not want to recieve them whilst home alone", people ganging up on and ousting the chair ... It just goes on and on, high emotion, allegation and cross-allegation, a great big soap opera essentially, at rate payers' expense -- impossible for anyone watching to disentangle the rights and wrongs. It makes my head spin.

This is my question: surely, there comes a point when whatever the merits of particular personalities / policy positions, emotions are running so raw and everything is so broken that there simply is no way to unpick it other than starting fresh, and getting a bit of breathing space.

by Paul McMahon on March 19, 2010
Paul McMahon

Claire,

Thanks for your thoughtful responses and as someone who falls in and out of love with expressing my opinion online on a regular basis I think I can understand where you are coming from. I think you write well, btw.


Most of the criticsms in the Creech Report focused on historical issues which have largely been resolved and even on consents processing ECan is in the top 20% of regional authorities in NZ. A recently published survey showed that the rate of economic development in Canterbury was among the highest of any region in New Zealand.

When ECan was first setup they failed to deal with water issues then and now it is coming back to haunt them. You are right that there is a lot of emotion in the debate and the politics has been particularly unpleasant - but that's the stuff the media tend to over-report.

ECan is castigated in the Report for the failure to have a "water plan" in place, but the media have failed to mention that the Minutes of ECan meetings show
clearly that in earlier times some ECan Councillors wanted to produce such a plan but it was voted down by non other than the farmer members of the then council.

In short, the Creech Report, the Mayoral Forum, Rodney Hide and Nick Smith have created a strawman of ECan.

Another thing the media don't say much about, for instance, is that Bob Parker and the Mayoral Forum have been trying to put as much pressure on ECan to as they can in an effort to undermine the regional council. (Incidentally, Bob Parker promised during the last elections that he would disclose his donors after the elections and hasn't...)

It is utterly scandalous that those councillors didn't excuse themselves from voting on irrigation issues (though being present at the discussions themselves did not constitute a conflict of interest, imho) and, while they might not be legally obliged to resign, they clearly are ethically obliged to do so (at least, imho) and have not. Their democratic mandate is undermined by their unethical and unjust actions.

ECan has been remarkably functional under the chairmanship of Kerry Burke (despite it being highly partisan and despite the rural gerrymander) and improved markedly under his leadership. The big failure is on water and that is at the root of the acrimony and emotion that is so headbangingly frustrating.

City (70% of ratepayers) and town are divided very strongly on this issue, as we saw with the election of the two Save Our Water candidates last election. The latest representation review of ECan reduced the rural gerrymander enough that it may mean (or have meant) that 2021 and its allies (the largely urban, pro-environment group) could have a majority and the chair after the 2010 elections.

For the irrigators it's now or never to get rid of ECan, or risk an ongoing 2021-led council who is "science-led" rather than "science-informed" and "too focused on the environment", in the words of the Creech report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Claire Browning on March 20, 2010
Claire Browning

Paul, thank you.

Now we're getting somewhere ...

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