HIDESIGHT: Political principle lost in a circus run by monkeys

Democracy’s plus is that it’s the funniest of all forms of government

H L Mencken declared, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.”

Recently released from the monkey cage, I can readily see why non-politicos might agree. I mean how else to explain that our Parliament now requires New Zealand businesses to buy – often from overseas – the right to puff out the plant food carbon dioxide. Parliament thinks such payments stop the planet cooking. Stated bluntly, it’s absurd.

New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme has every appearance of a circus run by monkeys.

I should admit that I once agreed with Mencken. No more. I am older, wiser. I have been deep inside. I have seen policy-making up close and personal. I know in mind-numbing detail the decision loops and policy hoops. I have been over them, through them, under them, around them. I have had them knock me out of the park.

I now know running the circus from the monkey cage would be easier, more rational and more straightforward.

Our parliamentary democracy flounders chartless and directionless on the great ocean of public opinion. The waves and the buffeting are continuous. The only certitude is change and no one really knows why, how or in what direction.

Sure, plenty of political commentators and advisers make a living pretending to know what’s happening but they’re five-year olds staring at the monkeys trying to predict the circus.

Public opinion is powerful. To lead and drive policy, governments must maintain their election-day popularity. The public polls determine their policy mandate, not their previous election-day result.

That’s the way prime ministers see it. That’s the way journalists reporting politics see it. And so that’s the way it is.

Public opinion is not forged on understanding but rather a hazy partisan grasp of the day’s headlines. The media don’t report the news but rather beat it to pump life into it. The news’ purpose is to get people to see advertisements.

A good political scandal lavished with juice brings more viewers, listeners, and readers than a recitation of the Operating Deficit Before Gains and Losses.

Facts and truth don’t matter. Besides, journalists have art degrees. Facts and truth for them are just dumb people›s self-interested opinion.

To a journalist, something is only true if announced on high by an august body like the UN, the New Zealand Medical Association, or the Royal Society.

Political news doesn’t rub up against the real world. It rubs up against another form of politics. It’s then moulded by the commercial imperative that beats up political spin and tittle tattle into the major political story of the day.

That’s what makes politics exciting. Running the circus from the monkey cage is a helluva challenge. And the particular circus is the biggest circus in town. It provided me the levers, the buttons and the switches to sort out Auckland’s dysfunctional councils, something that had been talked about for decades. That’s a circus that can’t be beat.

There’s also nothing to compare to getting caught up in the high wires way above the crowd, with everyone looking up, mouths agape, wondering whether you will crash and burn.

Democracy’s plus is that it’s the funniest of all forms of government. The old Politburo didn’t provide a lot of laughs. And no one dies. I crashed to earth. I am still here. Brighter than ever. Political tumbles in the Soviet Union were fatal.

But wouldn’t it be nice if there was at least a wink or a nod to political principle. Focus group politics is insipid. John Key adopts Helen Clark’s policies. David Shearer adopts John Key’s political style.

Popular opinion is boring, bland and stupid. And our politics caters to it. Perfectly.

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13 Comments & Questions

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Yes, I've been saying much of this for some time. The problem with NZ politics is the electorate's ignorance, fostered and festered by innumerate and economically illiterate journalism.

All NZ students should have to study enough basic economics to give them the tools to understand the major issues of our society and how it works. That is at least as important as science.


What a good idea, something else for the school teachers to teach, so they don't get bored with nothing to do.


Do you care about the teachers or the students?


Yes, Maybe our polititions should be forced to learn basic economics too.


I suspect the deeper problem is teachers and professors being smarty pants and no longer believing in the search for truth or empirical testing. The one thing you can count on with first year students is that they are relativists -- as described by Allan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind.

When I started at university in the 70s we were all socialists but we believed in the search for truth -- so we could learn.

These days they can't learn, can't think critically, and can't argue rationally.


"These days they can't learn, can't think critically, and can't argue rationally."

Why do you say that, Rodney? There has been a large broadening of the intake to tertiary education so I would expect the "average" skill level to have dropped but not the comparable upper deciles and NZ still scores well internationally on science and maths which do require critical thinking.


Hi Rodney!

Given the increasing numbers of finance company directors who have been charged and convicted of misleading investors by signing registered prospectuses which contained untrue statements - how long do you think before there will be an inquiry by the Commerce Select Committee into prosecutions (or lack thereof) relating to the 'Huljich Two' - John Banks and Don Brash?

I know you support ACT's 'one law for all' policy, and have publicly agreed that it should equally apply to former fellow directors of Huljich Wealth Management (NZ) Ltd, John Banks and Don Brash, who signed Huljich Kiwisaver Scheme registered prospectuses dated 22 August 2008 and 18 September 2009, which contained untrue statements.

Good on you for being consistent on that point of political principle.

In my view, it is becoming increasingly untenable for the balance of power in NZ - 'perceived' to be the 'least corrupt country in the world' - to be held by an arguably yet-to-be charged /convicted 'white collar' criminal'?

What do you think?

Happy Easter!

Penny Bright
'Anti-corruption campaigner'



Experience. By 1990 I discovered first year students know longer were learning what made society tick but simply how one person thinks it ticks, whether that be Adam Smith, Carl Menger, or Al Gore. Hopeless.



I doubt its in the controlling parliamentary parties' interests, so never. The argument will be the authorities looked into it and decided not to charge. I am no expert on these things.

Happy Easter to you too



All students and professors should have to face the truth, ie. that any economic growth can ONLY occur if some citizens produce more than they (and the wasters) consume. If they had to absorb this truth, what then!!!?


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It wold appear that Facts and truth don’t matter. to politicians either and although you were very helpful when I saw you,with regards to the fictional law enforcement authority -AWINZ , as my local MP when you were in opposition, you did everything you could to avoid me when you were minister for local government .

I could not even get an appointment with you and you chose to totally ignore me.

AWINZ was operating as a parasite off the councils resources and infrastructure using the public funds to derive a private income for a council manager , yet knowing the facts you did nothing.

This was Gross corruption and you apparently condoned it with your silence and in activity.

Rodney do you not think that this is a very good reason for us to have an independent commission against corruption . would you support my petition ?

I think ethics are important and those who turn a blind eye, in my book are as guilty as those who perpetrate the offenses.

If ministers don't seek accountability who does? How do we get to question corruption when corruption is ignored by our ministers.

my petition is down loadable from <url>www.anticorruption.co.nz </url>


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