Tena koutou katoa, Ko Jan Rivers toku ingoa.
Ko te whakamohiotanga mo te iwi whanui te kaupapa o tenei hui.
No reira tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.
A warm Welcome everyone who has given their Friday and some of you the weekend to this important topic. I’m Jan Rivers from public good.
What are the reasons for this conference?
Its purpose is to look at our ability, as citizens, to find and use and to access good quality reliable information through the media and from the government. It’s to identify the barriers and to see how we as citizens can work towards improving the situation. With government information there are also issues of the public voice reaching government effectively and of our personal information being used ethically and with care.
In these respects the conference is about the public good.
My role is to update you on how this conference came about and to mention a few things about my hopes for it.
Last year about 100 people met at St Andrews on the Terrace. The topic then, just before the 2014 election, was Democracy, ethics and the public good. Amongst the speakers were Jane Kelsey, who described to us the half dozen ways in which the Trans Pacific Partnership undercuts our democracy. Bronwyn Hayward from Canterbury University spoke to us about the importance of citizenship education for young people. Asst Prof Michael Macaulay from Victoria University spoke about the promise of NZ joining the proposed open government partnership and Sandra Grey and Charles Sedgwick presented on recent research showing drops in the level of trust in government by the non-government organisations that provide public social services. Max Rashbrooke presented on the problems of high levels of wealth inequality in elections. There were many other great speakers and presentations.
In summarising of discussions for the report which followed the conference we identified three major issues which attendees thought were really important to follow up on.
2014 conference recommendations
The first was the importance of citizenship education both for young people and more broadly. Second was the necessity for people and organisations to speak out on any and every occasion when our democracy is being undermined. The third was about the provision of information from government and from our media to enable us to be effective citizens.
While the topic of this conference speaks to the first and second objectives it is the third about the flow of accurate, ethical and meaningful information that this weekend focuses on .
As journalist Gordon Campbell said in an article just before the transpacific partnership deal was signed “we are not North Korea, but a five year blackout amounts to a near- totalitarian abuse of information on matters of crucial public interest.” Broadly this conference is for people who already know there is an information problem and who want to help understand its dimensions and what can be done.
Austerity NZ: an unspoken story
Let’s take an example of where we simply don’t have a national conversation about an important issue. The truth is that we have a government of austerity as severe as those in the UK and Greece but whose downward trajectory from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis already started from a significantly lower base of public spending to GDP than in those countries. If the government is successful in its objectives we will soon have a proportion of public spending to national income that is below any other in the OECD and approaching that of many of the world’s poorest and most stressed countries. And yet there is no public conversation about this extreme level of austerity.
We seem to be beguiled by the talk of “a targeted investment approach focussed on the most needy” and by a media that lacks the resources to report on these issues that take time to understand.
The situation of the news media, in NZ as well is overseas has been described as a ‘market failure’ by people as august as the NZ Law Commission and more recently by Gavin Ellis, a former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald. It is my contention that rather than cutting back in these public services of care and social support as is happening at the moment a beneficent and responsible government would also be looking at opportunities to boost, rather than to cut in this area but also in the media where changes in technology and advertising have undercut the funding model for quality journalism and the result is a weakening of our democracy.
Hopes for the conference
So the purpose of this weekend then is to do a number of things: It’s to understand some of the dimensions of the problem and we have some excellent speakers who can do this; it’s a start to look at some solutions for funding public interest journalism and again some good speakers here. Finally we will hear quite a bit from organisations that are already on the ground and making a difference in campaigning for better information. Speakers from the Whatif? campaign Scoop media, Living Economies FYI.ORG.NZ, Action Station, Transparency International, the News Renewed and the democracy and transparency working party of environmental peak organisation ECO, the Coalition for Better Broadcasting. We will also hear about the NZ Herald’s support of some important information initiatives. All are examples of organisations working towards improvements for us as citizens.
Post Conference projects
I’m hoping that from this conference we create some specific projects and tools that are going to help NZ citizens and if I can give you a flavour of what this might involve here are two of my favourite ideas. The first involves my observation that neither the National Party nor the Labour Party made their manifesto available in such a way that it could be searched by interested citizens. This is not a trivial issue. The National Party’s housing policy is contained in 3 or 4 separate documents for example but a search for text that you know is in those documents returns no information. The same applies to the Labour Party manifesto. A search for manifesto content doesn’t find anything. If major political parties aren’t willing make it easy for us to find out how they would govern us then we should make this clear and also ensure that the information is readily searchable. The manifesto won’t reveal that “Reformed social housing sector to ensure it is fit for purpose including passing legislation to facilitate ashift from state housing to a range of new social housing providers” really means that tranches of our public housing will be sold to or managed by Australian social housing provider companies but that is a separate matter.
Secondly, I would like to ask New Zealand NGOS and New Zealand citizens what they would have liked to have had in an Open Government Partnership Action Plan rather than the bland and disappointing initiatives which it contains at the moment. The ECO democracy and transparency working group has agreed to work on this project. We want to run a survey of to discover what the priorities are and we need funding and a means of identifying the questions that we would like to ask in order that we can campaign for these meaningful objectives to be introduced into the next Action Plan. Both are projects close to my heart and I hope that these get wings this weekend and that there are more initiatives that come from this conference.
Finally last year’s conference created some great new synergies between individuals and organisations and I hope this years does the same and I welcome you to the conference and to the opportunity to discover the dimensions of the information, ethics and the public good problem. I hope you enjoy the exploration.