Richard Prebble: The danger of Prime Ministerial travel
Prime Ministerial international travel is necessary, addictive and dangerous.
It is necessary for New Zealand Prime Ministers to travel. The US President is never going to meet our foreign minister. An interview on the Tonight Show is worth more than tourism’s total budget.
Prime Ministerial travel is addictive because it’s a heady experience. The PM is suddenly free from 24/7 scrutiny. The Opposition rarely criticizes a Prime Ministerial trip. Journalists who accompany the trip are totally reliant on the PM for their stories. The foreign press knows zip about New Zealand. When Auckland is experiencing nightly drive by shootings the Prime Minister can leave the impression that her government has solved the problem of gun violence.
It is dangerous because the trips isolate Prime Ministers from domestic reality. Mt Albert constituents do not care their MP has received an honorary doctorate. Their concern last week was that the police have cautioned that their electorate is not safe to walk in at night.
It is hard to remember how ordinary households are struggling to fill their grocery bags or their car’s fuel tank when you are visiting the White House.
Overseas Prime Ministerial travel does not even let Jacinda experience how difficult it is for ordinary people.
If Jacinda had to fill out her own Covid immigration forms, she would discover how hard the forms are to fill out. The information sought has almost no value. You cannot say you have had a Pfizer vaccination. You need to state the type. Who knew there are so many?
The forms have to be filled out on-line. It is very challenging when you are on a Pacific Island with intermittent Internet access. No matter Pacific travelers are in much greater danger of catching covid in Auckland.
Jacinda boasted to the American students that she does her own social media. If she was not busy with social media she could have ensured the covid forms are user friendly. It would have been of more assistance to tourism than any number of appearances on the Tonight Show.
Vanity speeches to international audiences by New Zealand Prime Ministers rarely turn out well. David Lange’s speech to Yale University where, to the astonishment of the cabinet, he declared the ANZUS alliance a dead letter, poisoned relations with America for twenty years.
Jacinda Ardern’s Harvard University commencement address is a good speech, delivered well. It is the content that is concerning.
Jacinda’s claimed this is the “era of disinformation”. “Fragile” democracy is under threat from social media platforms algorithms that “before we even know” take us to sites where “facts are turned into fiction, and fiction turned into fact”.
“The foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government”. We must, she says “act to firm up their foundations”.
She then uses the finding that the Christchurch terrorist was radicalized on-line to claim we are “at a precipice”
Her solution is “a shared approach to responsible algorithms”.
Let us be clear where Jacinda is at. Her “shared approach” is having government control social media algorithms to control what we can see.
It is Jacinda who is talking fiction and claiming it is fact.
Citing Pakistan does not prove democracy is fragile. It is because democracy is such a powerful idea that authoritarian regimes want to censure what we can see. Regimes that seek to crush democracy always start by curtailing free speech.
The Internet did not invent terrorism. Long before the Internet fanatics were being radicalized and running amok.
Countries can have “trust in institutions, experts and government” and be a dictatorship but no country can be a democracy without free speech.
This is the information age. There may be more misinformation but I doubt it. What is true is never in human history has the public had access to so much scientific and factual information. Never before have we been able to fact check our rulers.
It is the fact checking by “keyboard warriors’ who Jacinda dismisses as misfits dressed in super hero outfits that Jacinda finds challenging.
The ability to access information the authorities know to be false is essential. As Mark Twain famously observed “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
Fact checking reveals that much of what our government knows to be true just ain’t so.
There is nothing unusual about this.
Through most of human history most of what governments thought to be true has been false. Authorities knew the sun turned around the earth. Earlier the authorities knew the sun was the god Ra. This list of gods authorities knew to exist and required millions to worship is long.
We only have freedom when we are able to view and decide for ourselves.
President Putin could not invade the Ukraine if he did not first censor what Russians can see, hear and say. The world’s authoritarian regimes must love Jacinda’s Christchurch call.
Democracy and freedom would have been safer if Jacinda had stayed at home
Richard Prebble CBE is a former member of the New Zealand Parliament. Initially a member of the Labour Party, he joined the newly formed ACT New Zealand party under Roger Douglas in 1996, becoming its leader from 1996 to 2004.