Comment

Crossing the bridge to a post-truth world

Simon Bridges seems to have decided this is a "post-truth world" in which it is justified for politicians to unapologetically assert half-truths and misinformation, while the Government prefers unctuous over-emoting to evidence-based policy, says Peter Dunne.

The nature of politics and political discourse has changed dramatically over the last twenty years or so.

There are many reasons for this. In part, it is due to the demise of political ideologies as they once were. The death of welfarism in the established western democracies from the 1980s and the emergence of new democracies in Eastern Europe following the fall of Communism, initiated a new sense of pragmatism to replace the shibboleths of the past. Evidence-based policies quickly became the catch call of the day, with policies and practices that no longer met the evidence test quickly abandoned. At the same time, the arrival of the internet and the rapid development of what we now call social media meant that the time span for and depth of public discourse has shrunk rapidly.

What seems to be far more important is that those making the claim “believe” what they are saying broadly accords with the facts. Or as Simon Bridges said unusually succinctly recently, “One person’s misinformation is another person’s fact.”

Everything now is boiled down to its essence almost immediately in an environment where every opinion, no matter how wise or crass, has assumed a new equality, and where the exercise of judgement has become far less a critical faculty, and much more a case of emotional reaction.

The explosion of so-called “fake news” where the aggressive assertion of something as true when it has little supporting evidence in its favour, other than it suits the argument of those promoting it, is the ultimate evidence that political discourse today it not what it was even a few years ago.

It matters little now whether claims in support of a particular position are underpinned by evidence or basic truth. What seems to be far more important, is that those making the claim “believe” what they are saying broadly accords with the facts. Or as Simon Bridges said unusually succinctly recently, “One person’s misinformation is another person’s fact.”

What is most disturbing about the Bridges’ comment (made about his fellow MP Chris Penk’s outlandish claims about late-stage abortions) is its unapologetic nature.

Bridges appeared not to be so much criticising his colleague’s unfounded comments, as justifying them. The difference between misinformation and the facts, he seemed to be saying, was in the eye of the beholder and not really all that important.

Whether or not he intended to, he was effectively acknowledging that facts have now become a tradeable commodity, to be adjusted as the argument requires, rather than an absolute cornerstone on which discourse is founded. Worse still, he was strongly implying this was the new reality we had all better get used to.

Certainly, there has been strong evidence of this new reality at work in the recent conscience debates in Parliament on end-of-life choice and abortion.

Conscience debates always used to be regarded as the apogee of Parliamentary debates where MPs shed their restrictive party cloaks and spoke about the issue at hand as they genuinely saw it.

MPs were once assiduous in seeking the feedback of their constituencies when such matters came before the House so that their views could be reflected both in their comments and subsequent voting. Nor was it uncommon for MPs to seek out professional advice for and against the matter under consideration, and to use their speeches in the House to analyse and debate the relative merits of that, and how it impacted upon the decision they would eventually reach. Conscience debates previously impressed because of the depth of knowledge expressed, and the level of critical analysis applied to it.

Sadly, the end-of-life and abortion debates so far have not lived up to that standard. The previous dispassionate discussion of the relevant facts, the weighing up of the various arguments, and the reflection of constituency sentiment, all leading to a  balanced outcome, one way or the other, that was largely in line with the evidence, seems to have given way to the often emotional expression of individual personal experiences. And those personal experiences have become translated to be assumed as the experiences of the community as a whole that Parliament should act upon.  

... we are seeing the replacement of evidence-based approaches to policy by new approaches based on the mere look and feel of policy. Whereas pragmatism was once criticised as too much “if it works, it must be right” today’s norm seems to be “if it feels right, then it is right”.

But it is not only in these debates that such approaches now apply.

While it is fashionable to ridicule the current United States Administration and certain acolyte television channels as the arch proponents of fake news, and the consequent further trivialisation of the political process, the Bridges’ comment that facts and misinformation are interchangeable reinforces the fact that such behaviour is now not unknown in the New Zealand political environment.

In so many ways, we are seeing the replacement of evidence-based approaches to policy by new approaches based on the mere look and feel of policy. Whereas pragmatism was once criticised as too much “if it works, it must be right” today’s norm seems to be “if it feels right, then it is right”.

For example, early in its tenure the current Government replaced its predecessor’s ten Better Public Service targets, meaning it had no way of measuring whether key public services were meeting their goals, and if not, what changes might be required. Ministers were assumed to know instinctively what was working and what was not, and how to correct things.

Similarly, the response to the current row about the funding of life-prolonging cancer drugs owes less to what is the best and most sustainable way forward of dealing with funding the ever-increasing pipeline of inherently expensive innovative new medicines becoming available, than it does to dealing with the extremely understandable concerns of an affected group of patients right now.

There are many other similar examples across the justice, welfare, health and education sectors.

Politicians showing some empathy with people’s tribulations is a worthy sentiment, but continuous "over-emoting" is a worry, says Peter Dunne. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Emoting in public, “understanding people’s concerns”, and offering vague reassurance unaccompanied by specific workable policy is the logical consequence of all this. And for many, it is a more than satisfactory response. Politicians showing some empathy with people’s tribulations is a worthy sentiment. It buys support in the short-term, as “understanding” the public’s concerns, and can be a welcome antidote to what may be regarded as the indifference of the past.

But it is unlikely to last. Politicians ultimately have to make decisions, and decisions will always be unpopular in at least some quarters.

Our MPs are elected to implement policies that will materially benefit as many of their people as they can. They are not elected to implement their opinions, or worse still their prejudices. Too many are failing to see that distinction.

All of which leads back to the critical importance of evidence as the backbone of policy. Yet Simon Bridges’ apparently acceptable juxtaposition of misinformation and fact and the Prime Minister’s unctuous over-emoting on just about everything are a worrying recognition that the death of evidence-based policy is nigh, and that future political discourse will be about how things look, rather than what they really are.

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