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Office of devil’s advocacy (2)

  • July 6th, 2009

Here’s the heresy foreshadowed last week.

I’m inclining toward the need for a new publicly funded agency to remedy failure in the marketplace of ideas.

I say inclining, because it would unavoidably legitimise something I detest – taxpayer funded partisan public propganda on political issues. The Families Commission is currently at it. Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro seemed to do little else.

My worry is that our debate depends on adversarial dynamics. We assume that various sides of issues will get an airing because parties need to debate anything supported by competitors to maintain their separate identities, and to stay in front of their supporters. That assumption is now dead wrong.

Democratic debate is  shrivelled by political professionalism. Most politicians are  either professionals, or their mouths are controlled by professionals. Many have never had other interests or jobs. They’re steeped in the rules of political management.

So they’re too professional to touch ‘toxic’ issues. Adversarial processes of democracy do not ensure that unpalatable hard choice issues are thoroughly debated.  Things we would rather not think about are left untouched, for fear of taint.

Insiders know that  most swing voters are marginal voters. Most marginal voters know hardly anything about public affairs. They’re not interested. Whether they vote is almost accidental. They do not listen to arguments because they know so little or they find them upsetting. They feel that people should be nicer to each other. They turn off from people who argue ‘endlessly’ on things scarcely understood.

And it is those voters who make the difference, not the people who care passionately.

As advertisers know well, products sell and develop brand loyalty on image or aura. Consistency is needed to strengthen a good aura. And being associated with bad news and unpleasant issues is bad for the aura. Truth and importance come nowhere ranked against the need to avoid association with unpleasantness or uncertainty.

So we get large areas of important public discourse where politicians of every stripe will simply not be found.

The Broadcasting Act tells radio and television to worship balance. So it is hard for them to cover issues if their official Punch n Judy characters have ducked behind the curtain. Though they can say that one side or the other has declined to participate, there is none of the conflict tension they need if they can’t find spokespeople even to frame an issue.

Politicians have created specialist agencies to do some of that. It is probably an element in the enthusiasm for the creation of a New Zealand arm of Australia’s highly regarded Productivity Commission. Things that contribute to low productivity are often sacred cows, and asking whether those cows should go to the works is rarely palatable.

Maybe a need for unpalatable comment was behind some support for the creation of the Families Commission and the Children’s Commissioner. If so the capture of those bodies by the dreary anointed is a warning.

An Office of Devil’s Advocacy could need a very robust constitution to preserve it from its mealy-mouthed enemies.

From time to time I’ll list issues that would profit from frank and unpopular advocacy.



But wouldn’t the employees of your Office of Devil’s Advocacy themselves become professionals by virtue of earning income from the expression of ideas?

Perhaps what is needed to establish a genuinely non-partisan think-tank is a pool of people voluntarily contributing. Their position is then not up for sale or influence by the taint of ‘filthy lucre’.


He’s not perfect, but Daniel Hannan is a conservative Euro MP who appears to be acting as a one-man “Office of Devil’s Advocacy” in Britain.

What do you have to lose, if you adopt a similar approach?

If there was a referendum on whether to close the Families Commission, I think it would be gone by lunchtime. So what is stopping National from doing some real governing. Peter Dunne? Hah! He doesn’t count any more.

Taxpayers would thank you.

  • Mike Mckee
  • August 31st, 2009
  • 12:00 pm

and what do you do when you lose respect and trust in/for parliament that appoints these commissions

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