[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

On the evening that preceded Gabrielle, my father, a life-long weather obsessive, sent me a text: “Taupo road closed. Esk Valley will flood tonight.”

Of course it flooded more spectacularly than anyone expected, but it was always going to flood. The bloke who ran the camping ground knew it too and in kicking out his customers he probably saved many lives. This wisdom, I’m assuming, was based on sound local knowledge and not a PhD in meteorology. 

Cyclone Gabrielle was merely a tropical storm when it reached Hawke’s Bay. Our rain gauge at work only recorded 150mm for the relevant 24 hours, a significant but not unusual event. The problem was the wind direction. The rain was driving in directly from the east, landing in the ranges and running straight back down the rivers. Rainfall by location (what the press cites) and rainfall by catchment are quite different things.

Many weeks later and despite having two detailed reports prepared by Gus Charteris and Boston Consulting Group, government has not made any significant decisions, barring initial clean up grants. This is immensely frustrating as the social and economic impacts are incalculable. 

In my industry, the apple crop will be down about 25%. That means that at least $200 million of foreign exchange earnings won’t be flowing around our community. The impacts on cropping, pastoral farming and wine will nudge those losses to around a billion dollars. You will feel this everywhere you go and for years to come.

You will have noticed very little of the clean-up is occurring on the plains. That’s because the apple growers have no money. A 25% loss in income isn’t something we can absorb after the trauma of Covid disruptions, labour shortages, a huge spike in freight costs and the Ukraine war causing a collapse in the EU market. 2022 was the worst year in the apple business in living memory. 

Already we have borrowed our seasonal finance to produce a crop that has partly disappeared. The banks know that any more money they lend us won’t be repaid this year. A second year of thumping losses is baked in the cake.

There is a lot of talk about recovery, but there is no money to plant trees again. If they are destroyed in this type of event, so is half your asset value. It will take $200k per hectare to repair the damage and replant. And if you now own a destroyed orchard, layered in silt, what’s it really worth? The banks are quite rightly worried about their security. Even if the government provides funds to replant, I suspect the banks will not support it. Asset values will be seen as quite dubious, while earnings will be hobbled for the balance of this decade. Without some magic solution the industry will shrink by a third.

Defaulting to the ruler

Faced with these dire prospects, you’d expect a lot of public discussion about what might be done about it. Most likely the various industry bodies would be communicating regularly with the media, you’d be incredibly well informed and the government would be under great pressure to deliver a credible recovery plan. 

Inexplicably this hasn’t happened. 

The industry body I know best, NZ Apples and Pears, only seem to have put out one press release in the last two months – an update on the crop estimate. Admittedly they have no chief executive at present and have opted not to appoint an interim CE. The national pan-industry body Horticulture NZ is seen as the best equipped to represent us all, but a quick google will reveal they have been very quiet in the public domain too. 

This absence when ‘advocacy’ and ‘representation’ on behalf of their members are the first things they mention as their role. To proactively engage with the media and raise awareness of your industry in the eyes of the public is an essential political function. 

Sometimes I’m asked for comment by the media and I suggest they ring one of the industry organisations. To my horror they’ve often replied, ‘We’ve tried that. They say they’re working with government and don’t wish to comment.’ Really? Is there nothing you can say in advocacy for your industry? You’ll seldom see a proper politician turn down a media opportunity.

In the rural domain, I put this ‘democratic avoidance’ partly down to the rise of the corporates. Small business owners are more likely to cultivate an independent spirit. I remember fondly the old days with rough-hewn farmers on the news, calling it with the agricultural directness of a combine harvester. There was nothing false about them and it was compelling.

Frustrations with advocacy can be seen across rural industries. Beef+Lamb Chairman Andrew Morrison recently lost his seat on the board to a Groundswell-endorsed candidate. This is a rare event amongst rural types, who are relatively conservative by nature and inclined to finding inspiration in the National Party. 

So how is it we seem to have lost our political soul? Not surprisingly, I have a theory. 

Only two models for government seem to be prevalent. In one a king or tyrant runs the show and progress is made through the careful grovelling of their underlings. Vladimir Putin or the Sultan of Brunei are two contemporary examples. The other model is democratic and attempts to invert this hierarchy, making the powerful leaders the servants of the people. 

It’s curious to note that there is something in the DNA of humans that wants to default to the powerful ruler. 

Longstanding editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lewis Lapham, outlines this in his 1993 book, The Wish For Kings. He suggests that preference for this model may be based on the attributes it delivers – it is stately, decisive and powerful. Democracy on the other hand is a world of perpetual chaos. It’s also seen as slightly unsavoury and amongst many decent citizens, including our industry bodies, something to only engage in as a last resort. 

In his book Lapham suggests that many in our society “fear and despise both the theory and practice of democracy”. He recounts a woman he met at a dinner party who thought that democracy should be easy, quiet, peaceful and safe. Like many she wished for government that was noble and orderly. Instead, the system we’ve signed up to looks like the ceaseless argument of school children. The wish for kings is the wish to avoid the vulgarity and inefficiency that is essential to democracy. In order to find the best balance for our society, no argument is ever entirely won. 

The kingdom is the world of King Charles’ coronation; a grand display that anoints mortals with a near God-like status. Similarly we wish our democratic leaders were of impeccable moral standing and a superior breed in every respect. It’s for this reason I think we briefly fell for Jacinda’s displays of performative kindness and the subsequent fawning assessments of the foreign media. Another view is that she was a little thin-skinned and guaranteed kindness only as long as you agreed with her.

Democracy has firmly succeeded the old world of kings. It demands that leaders and citizens alike eschew their natural desire to be sycophantic courtiers and take on the responsibility of being political protagonists. Such engagement doesn’t have to be especially distasteful and can be worthy of our admiration. 

Like many I am fearful that our society is losing confidence in the notion of democratic self-government at every level. The key reason for this is that we seem to have forgotten what it demands of us – the courage to speak out boldly and to hold our elected leaders to account. 

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3 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading your theories Paul, especially the king bit, and can only add that, perhaps MMP has required constant consultation with voters and stakeholders at every layer of government. This may have defused the ardour to ‘activate’, as submitting for an idea allows us to feel we are being heard and that our views form part of the data collection process that (hopefully) is the basis for informed decisions by the powers-that-be. (Although that should not deter those who care strongly from organising themselves into speaking up.)

    It also disempowers politicians somewhat, but that is why in 1996 New Zealanders voted for MMP after Muldoon, then Douglas, Prebble, Richardson et al.

    The effect of MMP has been that politicians are extremely cautious not to offend the voters, while the ‘kingship’ idea is for those who wish for simple answers – there aren’t any, and we should beware of what we wish for, just look at UK and Boris Johnson’s Brexit.

    As Winston Churchill has said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”

  2. Great piece of writing, Paul, and you pose some good questions that deserve a good answer. In my own humble opinion, particularly regarding the clean-up and restoration of damage from Gabrielle, I suspect most people are too busy trying to get their heads back above the water (no pun intended) to worry about advocating for anything. They’re more concerned with salvaging whatever they can from their wrecked lives, homes and businesses than about penning an oped about cyclone recovery, or anything else for that matter. And, I’d venture to say, the question in many cases would be (and probably should be) about managed retreat, rather than recovery and/or rebuilding. These are not normal times anymore, and probably never will be again. Also, for many who were not reticent in sticking their heads above the parapet in terms of advocacy (myself included), they’re tired and scarred from many years of advocating for whatever ideal they were passionate about at the time, and need a break, or someone else needs to take up the baton and run with it. At other times a different forum is chosen to advocate through, and Facebook has become the keyboard warrior’s forum of choice, for the greater part. Hawke’s Bay Today and BayBuzz are still great entities to advocate through, and I commend them both for enabling this to happen. I think, given time, advocacy as we knew it will return to what we’re used to, especially as this is an election year. However, maybe the media should again allow nom de plumes to be used, to enable those who might otherwise have advocated for a cause to do so, even if they do work for an organisation which might have vested interests is such a cause.

  3. Thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. If you want an example of a democracy turned upside down look no further than Trump’s America, where, to a large portion of the population, an authoritarian, immoral and incompetent demagogue can do no wrong.

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