This year has been remarkable if for no other reason than the pandemic has resurfaced some ugly divisions that continue to bubble away behind the easy-going facade of New Zealand society. We are doubtless challenged now more than ever on numerous complex topics, including environment, poverty, crime, health, immigration and race. So the need for change is absolutely genuine. But the manner in which change is now being enacted is both contemptuous and potentially self-defeating.
2021 firmly reminded us of the fragility of the social contract. In an otherwise generally compliant nation, a vocal minority held out against vaccinations and wise public health measures on the basis that their “freedoms” were being threatened. There was of course little discussion by these lost souls about the freedoms of thousands of elderly or unwell who would have very likely lost their lives, had we caved in to the views of the misinformed. I had several respectful but somewhat disturbing conversations with individuals this year invoking thinking from my recent article on why science is more trustworthy than their deranged social media feeds.
At the other end of the political spectrum, hand-wringing social purists doggedly continued to promote the longstanding policy of shutting down any debate that appeared to challenge their well meaning, but at times misguided ideologies. Consequently institutions that had been previously hotbeds of intellectual debate and where ideas were once challenged and tested in open fora, have latterly become hotbeds of conformity and intolerance instead. Nowhere was this more apparent than the embarrassing public skewering of celebrated evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, for daring to question why a group of science academics were being villified in a Galilean inquisition by the very body responsible for promoting science discourse in New Zealand.
Of course the danger in shutting down the intellectual debate of good ideas is that bad ideas from across the political spectrum similarly do not receive proper analysis or exposure to the sunlight. This appears to be part of the strategy currently being invoked by the government as it pursues a programme of social reform aimed at centralising control of some of the most important assets and resources in the country. With convenient distractions provided by the public health crisis, our servants in the Capital have quietly set about executing a quite radical socio-political agenda that the majority of voters actually did not yet sign up for.
History has shown however that rapid, ideologically driven reforms are quite often not very successful and ironically may even disenfranchise the intended beneficiaries long term. Unfortunately, many of the idealistic and bright-eyed policy wonks busily designing the new order from Wellington were not even born when we last fundamentally overhauled our economic order and thus have little lived experience to draw upon. Worryingly, much of the reform model is based on a flawed legal premise around the nature of our important responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi. The interpretation of this precedent perversely constrains governments to take a narrow, binary and transactional approach in an obviously highly diverse and increasingly complex world.
The other difficulty here is that this reform programme received little exposure at the last election and therefore suffers from what some have termed “democratic deficit”. Worse still, in the absence of a properly informed and curated public debate, the attitude of some of the critics has turned from fearful to venomous with some unpleasant personal attacks containing racial overtones. That is unfortunate and sad. But it also illustrates that sidelining large sections of society is not the way to pursue important social reforms. Instead of stifling open public debate around big ideas, we must encourage it.
Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a recently exited co-founder of a New Zealand based technology venture, a co-founder and director of Creative Forest, principal at GeniusNet Research and an advisor at ThincLab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.