Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Censoring the environment: Stupid and undemocratic

One of National's core environmental policies in the 2008 and 2011 election campaigns was for regular, independent environmental monitoring, through a beefed-up version of MfE's 5-yearly State of the Environment report. As part of the policy process around this, they asked the Ministry of Economic Development's Green Growth Advisory Group. The result was a ringing endorsement:

"The Government should invest in economic and environmental state and trend monitoring to give a credible evidence base to support New Zealand's brand position," a preliminary recommendation in the report stated.

It added this would help to "build credibility of our image" through transparent and independent reporting, including "being open about the environmental challenges".

The advisory group was also told how New Zealand's reputation might be at risk, with the ability to authenticate claims supporting our national brand "increasing in importance".

So what did National do in response to this advice? Shitcanned the proposal and gave up entirely on regular, comprehensive reporting.

The reason for this is pretty obvious: just as with the now also censored Social Report, regular environmental reporting would show the true costs of National's policies. More cows and irrigation means dirtier rivers. Digging up national parks means reduced biodiversity. A refusal to act on air pollution means more corpses. And all of this means risks to our "100% pure" image and therefore our tourism and exports. But rather than face up to this, and try and convince us that the cost is worth it, National instead decided to censor the information to try and keep the truth from the public.

MED's advice makes it quite clear why that was a stupid decision. You don't fight doubts about our environmental performance with censorship - you fight them with information. The only reason for secrecy is if you think such information will confirm those doubts. But it was also a deeply undemocratic decision. In a democracy, its not just the government's legitimacy which derives from our consent, but also that of the policies they enact. In order to be meaningful, consent must be informed, and that means the public need information about the policy options available. But rather than give us that information, National has conspired to keep us in the dark, to deprive us of the facts we need to effectively judge their policies. And that is simply unacceptable.