Saturday, March 14, 2015
What Should Our Politicians Know?
The first televised debate between the four contestants for the co-leadership of the Greens occurred on The Nation this morning and I thought all came across as capable potential leaders. What tripped most of them up were specific economic questions on things like the current Official Cash Rate (OCR) or our economic growth over the last quarter. For a potential leader of any party to have some economic credibility it would have helped to have been able to answer these questions with a little more accuracy. The panel commenting on the debate were pretty scathing about the lack of economic knowledge and it made me think about what our political leaders should actually know and understand.
Economic facts and figures can be quickly learned (and probably should have been) but surely it is more important to have a deeper understanding of how economies operate and how they can best be managed? All of the candidates did show an understanding of wider economic issues and had clear points to make on how our economy could operate better. The Greens have already challenged the Government on the OECD finding that New Zealand's growth has been constrained by inequality. It is one thing to know our current level of growth, but another to appreciate its limits and barriers and how it relates to most New Zealanders.
"It's the economy, stupid" is a much cliched phrase, but still pretty much dominates our politics. However, what informs our economic understanding is shaped by our historical perspectives and how the economy relates to all aspects of our society and environment. Economics is important but not in isolation. It appalls me how ignorant many politicians (especially National ones) are in regard to what I would think should be part of the essential general knowledge of any lawmaker.
An understanding of the history of our country should be mandatory and the Te Tiriti o Waitangi must be upper most in that knowledge. For our Prime Minister to be so incredibly ignorant about our history to believe that the colonisation of New Zealand did not involve violence was hugely embarrassing. His total lack of understanding of the economic plight of Maori and how little they have benefited from the influx of capital largely explains why Maori still dominate poverty statistics.
When a government has a narrow historical lens they will continue to use the tools and economic drivers they are familiar with and will not be open to what has been used successfully before. If politicians don't understand the economic history of the world they will also be likely to repeat the same mistakes that Thomas Piketty has clearly researched and articulated.
Countries trapped in recessions in previous times found that austerity measures, and keeping wages low, did not lead to economic growth and prosperity. There are lessons in history that could be readily applied to our current situation and still be successful. Roosevelt and Savage's approach had many admirable elements that should be revisited and the OECD's recent findings around inequality support their initiatives.
Russel Norman once stated in an AGM speech, "no water, no milk; no environment, no economy". It takes 1000 litres of water to make 1 litre of milk and by focusing all our efforts into producing more milk with no environmental constraints, the sustainability of the industry is threatened. Poor management of our resources means that other industries will be compromised and future generations will be penalised. The blind focus of this Government on supporting the current cash cows and excluding the external effects of the industries involved will cause us to be lumbered with huge mitigation costs at a later date.
This Government's environmental ignorance is extreme. Judith Collins stated outragously: "Go and find someone who actually cares about this (wetlands), because I don't... It's not my issue. I don't like wetlands-they're swamps." Collins' husband was making millions from digging up swamp kauri and exporting it and she obviously had limited knowledge of the environmental and economic value of wetlands.
Simon Bridges has given up much of our territorial waters to oil exploration and a good amount of our conservation estate for potential mining. When questioned about our largest forest park that he had just signed over for exploration he admitted he had no knowledge of it.
When many National Ministers were questioned whether they believed that anthropogenic climate change was a reality very few responded in the affirmative. Such ignorance about the world's most pressing environmental issue was shocking. Our current economic management will be crucial in setting us up to survive as best we can as the climate and world economy changes. There is little in this Government's current leadership that reflects this reality.
There is also a worrying element to this National Government where ignorance has become a form of defense. Surely an in depth understanding of our levels of child poverty or our lack of quality housing would be essential in finding economic solutions.
I am not going to make excuses for our Green leadership candidates' lack of accuracy around economic data, but this does open up a potential debate around what our politicians should know and what is really important.