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Transparency blues across society

Happy New year to you all. It was great to see Whitianga businesses bustling and thousands of tourists enjoying the very favourable holiday weather. It is however a bit of a relief now that things have quietened down a little.
 |  Ross Liggins  | 
New Zealand Summer

I can almost get a park in town and I don’t get so many fizz boats and gin palaces roaring past within 30 metres of my little sailboat, creating large uncomfortable, illegal wakes.

Anyway, I was anchored at Peach Grove on Great Mercury over new year gazing at the hills covered in flowering Pohutukawa and watching in awe as large bronzies cruised under the boat. What a paradise we live in. In the afternoon it started raining, so I curled up in the cabin for a little light reading on Google and came across a group who call themselves the Atlas Network. Well, this looks interesting I thought, so I read on.

It seems the Atlas Network is the right wing, think tank of all think tanks. It is based in the US and reportedly has funding ties to big oil, gas and coal corporations, big tobacco companies, is instrumental in opposing indigenous rights legislation in several countries and according to US watchdog groups, has reportedly had a significant influence on the US Republican Party and on conservative politics in the UK and Latin America. It also has a permanent policy of working to oppose and overturn climate change legislation. 

Wow! I thought, that’s quite a mouthful.  I read on and low and behold up popped the NZ connection. Apparently, the network has over 500 partners worldwide, two of which are here in NZ. They are The New Zealand Initiative and wouldn’t you know it, The Taxpayers Union (TPU), the latter being responsible for those red “Stop centralised planning” billboards you see on the roadsides. Their vision is for “a free, prosperous and peaceful world where the principles of individual liberty, property rights, limited government (ie, big business can operate with fewer or non-environmental and cultural restrictions}, and free markets are secured by rule of law.”

To me this vision should have stopped after the first six words. From then on it smacks of extreme right-wing economic and social policies that are creating chaos on the planet, economically, environmentally and socially; resulting in the huge widening of the income gap we have seen in recent years. Surely nature’s beauty is precious and infinitely more desirable than the rampant materialism that is fast contributing to its destruction.

According to independent news and current affairs site Newsroom, in the months leading up to our recent election, TPU “paid for polling, made nearly 100 press releases, hosted political debates, published policy reports, started petitions and drafted alternative legislation,” and when asked post-election whether this had influenced the election, the executive director Jordan Williams responded “I certainly hope so.” None of these things were illegal of course, and TPU deny supporting one particular party, but it left me wondering about who influences our elections. TPU isn’t obliged to tell us who their donors are, but according to law academic, Timothy Kuhner from Auckland University, “More transparency is needed. The lack of transparency (re funding) from third party promoters is problematic.” As stated in the Newsroom article “Chiding in public sight”, “In theory, political parties are supposed to channel public opinion and people’s interests and political will and not be influenced by “third party promoters” (like TPU) whose political will is tailored to the economic interests of their supporters.”  

And then it clicked. Many of the coalition’s 49 points of their 100-day plan were straight out of the Atlas Network recipe book – the resumption of oil, gas and coal exploration, the appalling  repeal of anti-smoking legislation, proposed rollback of restrictions on commercial water use, review of Ti Tiriti o Waitangi principles. 

It’s been reported the TPU has strong connections with the Act Party, and probably National given that one of its founders was the father of National’s Minister of Kianga Ora (sorry, Housing). It’s strange isn’t it how the words Kianga Ora, which means wellbeing through houses and communities, and Waka Kotahi naturally slide off the tongue. No wonder Chris Bishop wants to keep them, naughty man. Anyway, given that TPU’s umbrella organisation, provides education and training seminars for its members, it doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to think that if the Atlas Network can influence governments in Europe, Latin America and other countries, it could also influence areas of government here, like for example our foreign policy. Imagine Uncle Sam deciding to embark on another of its ill-advised senseless wars and wanting little old NZ to change its anti-nuclear policy and allow nuclear powered and armed ships into our ports, possibly with the help of Atlas Network’s propaganda partners. The network was, according to some Australian political commentators, instrumental in persuading the Aussie public that a “yes” vote in their indigenous rights Voice referendum would divide Australia on the basis of race, very similar to David Seymour’s election billboard jargon. So, no doubt we can expect the language of fear to surface once David starts doing his divisive thing with his Treaty review– “the Maori will take everything. You are going to lose what’s yours” type of thing. Perhaps David would demonstrate more honesty with a slogan “Division by wealth, and race.” I for one won’t be listening to his fear mongering rhetoric if, or more likely, it starts. I think we are better than that. I support policies that bring us together as a country not ones bent on undoing years of progress (albeit slow) in race relations, and certainly not ones that try to divide us by inciting fear of losing something.

So, there you have it. I have to ask though, what was it we wittingly or unwittingly signed up for in the last election? Do we actually want this libertarian, trickle up mindset to gain control of Aotearoa? Do we want secretive groups to influence those in power? Or would we prefer political transparency, free of influence by self-interested lobby groups?

PS. When I look at who is at the helm of the US Republican ship, I would be very concerned if any think tanks advising them came within a million miles of influencing our political system, especially if their unhinged leader somehow became captain again.

References: Newsroom, NZ Herald, The Guardian, Atlas Network, TPU.