Are NZ politicians joining the international tide of post-truth politics?
So the problem, claimed John Palino, is that if an Aucklander wants to develop their property, "even just to build a garage!", local Maori can delay it as long as they like, and then charge whatever they want in exchange for a "cultural consultation" thumbs-up.
There wasn't time amid the bustle of Wednesday morning's four-way live debate between Auckland mayoral candidates to run a detailed fact-check, but RNZ host Guyon Espiner's bullshit detector was a good proxy.
"So hang on," he said in a tone that perhaps resembled derision, "you're saying some of the iwi leaders are running around Auckland holding up people from building garages? Really?"
Palino, currently polling in third place with roughly an eighth of Phil Goff's numbers, doubled down. "Well, yes," he said. "You've got some individuals saying look, give me $50,000 and then I'll sign off on that."
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Even without the benefit of the video livestream you could hear Espiner's eyes rolling. But the clock was ticking, so Palino was spared more scoffing on the matter as Vic Crone waffled about car-sharing apps. Mark Thomas waved a Hop card and Goff spoke in a way that confirmed the suspicion that his strategy for holding on to his enormous poll lead is to say nothing of interest whatsoever between now and October 8.
After the hour struck nine and the Morning Report toutouwai had sung, the memory of Palino's wild claims persisted. They just didn't sound particularly true. You could say, in the absence of evidence one way or the other, that they had a certain untruthiness about them.
Then Stuff called the New Jersey-born restaurateur and second-time would-be Auckland mayor to ask if he was, well, making this stuff up, but before he'd returned the call, we'd already got to wondering: as commentators the world over assert that we are entering an age of "post-truth politics", is New Zealand ready to join the club?
We know already that Donald Trump is one of the lying-est presidential candidates the United States has ever seen. We know that Bush and Blair took their countries to war on a lie. We've heard that the Brexit campaigners told fibs. We've heard it said that voters worldwide are sick of having their cherished myths debunked by "experts" and "elitists".
But are we any different down here on the edge of the world? Is the New Zealand body politic keeping itself trim on a stern diet of facts and evidence, or are we, too, choosing the sugar-rush of anecdata, the greasy mouthfeel of a racist porky, the finger-licking goodness of unsupported rumour?
As long as there's been politics there have been lies. In Ancient Greece the Athenians talked about "demagogues" – rabble-rousers who appealed to emotion and prejudice rather than fact and reason.
In his deranged autobiography Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler spoke of the propaganda value of the "big lie": saying blatantly untrue things so loudly and often that the populace can't believe you'd have dared make it up.
In the past decade though commentators have been picking a new trend – not so much that lies are being told, but that the old counterbalances, research, empirical evidence – were losing their corrective power.
In 2002, American writer Ron Suskind emerged from a mind-bending encounter with an adviser to George W Bush who'd told him time was up for the "reality-based community" – people who believed "solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality". That's old hat, said the adviser. We're an empire now, and "when we act, we create our own reality".
A few years later US commentator Stephen Colbert made up a word, "truthiness", meaning the extent to which a claim feels true, without recourse to reality or logic. Then in 2010 US, blogger David Roberts coined the phrase "post-truth politics", to describe the way voters choose with their gut and their tribe, rather than with evidence. The phrase caught on, and "post-truth politics" became a paradigm to explain everything from climate change denialism and the deluded belief that Barack Obama isn't American, through to the success of the campaign to take Britain out of the EU and, latterly, just about anything Donald Trump says.
John Key did seem to be clambering aboard the post-truth bandwagon during a 2011 interview with the UK current affairs show Hard Talk, in which he endorsed a pretty loose view of scientific truth. When asked about environmental scientist Dr Mike Joy's claims that New Zealand had filthy rivers, and was much less than 100 per cent pure, Key said: "He's one academic, and like lawyers, I could provide you another one that'll give you a counter-view." There's that old line that everyone's entitled to their opinions, but not to their own facts. Here, Key seems to be saying that actually, you are.
But in fact, New Zealand has been fibbing for a long time. In 1896 the Otago Daily Times reported that temperance activist TE Taylor was calling premier Richard Seddon a liar.
In the modern era, no one seriously accepted Helen Clark's claim that she didn't notice, while sitting in the back of a Crown limousine travelling at 150kmh, that her driver was a bit heavy on the pedal. No one seriously believes that in 1981 a young political junkie called John Key held views on the Springbok Tour so forgettable that he forgot them. Winston Peters swore black and blue that Huka Lodge had been sold to Chinese investors, which was utter bunkum.
This year alone Key was wrong when he said government officials had been out with the Salvation Army ministering to South Auckland's car-dwelling unfortunates; it was untrue when Andrew Little said John Shewan never asked him for an apology; and when Bill English said it would have cost $280 million a year to fund the parental leave bill he vetoed.
Yet for all these mistruths, half-truths, brain-fades and flubs, it's hard to find many local fibbers who can match the sheer volume and bald-facedness of, for example, Trump, or the Brexit fabricators who said £350m of EU money would be redirected into the NHS if Brexit went ahead.
Trump says: he saw crowds of thousands in New Jersey cheering as the Twin Towers fell (he didn't); he was against the war in Iraq (he wasn't); Ted Cruz's father hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald before the Kennedy assassination (a wild claim with no evidence to support it) and so on.
Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton says the fashion for bemoaning "post-truth politics" may have some merit, but a lot of the complaint is overstated, and it's coming especially from people on the left who don't like the results of certain elections.
Back in the 1990s, when Hooton was a speechwriter for National minister Lockwood Smith, "we were desperately concerned to make sure that what our ministers were saying did not contradict their previous statements". And if they blundered, they dreaded being called out by the media.
"We cared quite a lot about what John Armstrong's column would say, or the political column in The Dominion. We thought if they said Minister Jones was caught lying, that would be the end of the road."
In the internet era, says Hooton, where you can see far more accurately what stories are getting read, it seems that in fact, "just about no one reads stories like that", and are instead clicking on stories about All Blacks or breasts. The old belief that being caught in a lie was a political disaster may have been a delusion. Possibly the public never cared much.
All the same, says Hooton, fullblown lies in New Zealand politics are still a pretty rare thing. Spin, broken promises, u-turns, avoiding the question, but not lies as such.
Left-leaning commentator Chris Trotter agrees that blatant Trump-level lying is rare, but says broader social change has reduced the taboo associated with lying. For this he blames the decline of religion and the rise of post-modernism, where everything's relative and there's no objective truth out there. Plus the profession of public relations has proven that "you can make things up and influence the world, and earn the money the clients are paying you".
GENTLEMAN IN A CAFE
On Thursday, Palino returned Stuff's call.
Could he give Stuff details of someone's garage delayed by iwi and a request for $50,000?
He didn't have a name as such, but this was a real case, said Palino. "These are people I"ve met at my restaurant." (He runs the Friend of the Farmer Cafe attached to Kings Plant Barn in Takanini.)
"What the gentleman told me was, 'I needed to build a garage on my property, but I needed iwi consultation because it was zoned as being of special significance'."
The man told Palino the iwi wanted $50,000, and that they kept delaying the conversation, so he decided it wasn't worth the time and money.
Fifty grand? Really?
"This wasn't a small little garage – it was a big shed. It was a big property. He had like a farm."
OK. So now it's a large farm outbuilding. They way you talked in the debate, most listeners would assume you meant a one-car garage on a front lawn. And the $50,000 still sounds absurd.
"He didn't tell me the exact size of it …" said Palino. "I'm just saying that it's on farmland, so it must have been big."
If Palino saw the guy at his restaurant again, could he arrange for Stuff to talk to him perhaps, so we could just clear this up?
"Yep," said Palino.
Rob Hunter from Auckland Council's resource consents team says it's not impossible that something as small as a garage could lead to cultural consultation with iwi.
But Hunter explained that iwi consultation is just one of many reasons someone might raise an objection to a development. An iwi can be concerned about cultural impact; a neighbour can be concerned about lost views or increased shade; an NGO can worry about environmental impact.
And iwi don't have veto rights – all submissions feed into the same process leading to a council decision to approve or not. The only thing that's special about Maori is that iwi can raise an objection on specifically "cultural" grounds.
The council provides a service putting developers in touch with the appropriate iwi figures, but don't get involved after that. If money changes hands in exchange for a promise not to make a submission against a development, that's not the council's business. Financial deals could equally apply during negotiations with a neighbour, or an NGO.
So is a consideration of $50k to iwi conceivable? And for a garage?
The council doesn't collect data on final financial settlements, but sometimes is informed of the initial estimate for consultation. In the cases it knows about, the estimates have ranged from $450 to $4000.
In fairness to Palino, the system for financial settlements with iwi is, indeed, quite opaque and unstructured. Perhaps the gentleman at his restaurant was indeed asked for $50,000 if he wanted to build a garage, but unless the gentleman reappears to clear things up, it seems reasonable to give this anecdote the status of, for now, a tall tale.
It seems Palino might need to try harder if he wants to be the Donald Trump of the Auckland mayoral race.
- Sunday Star Times