“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” George Orwell
I was taught propaganda at school. Our English master, Mr Brown, liked words. He had an inspirational way of making us pause in admiration at the bon mot. He once stopped boys in the quad by calling some poor litterer a Philistine mixed up with other adjectives, verbs and the occasional noun.
When I read things coming out of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council advocating the wonders of the Ruataniwha Dam– the latest by Andrew Newman (18th August) – I think of Mr Brown. We were taught how you can if you wish construct a rhetorical argument to deliver a twisted message. We all do it to some extent because we are emotional beings, but knowing the techniques allowed us to better critique any bias.
The most basic propaganda is to use words that are loaded in either a positive or a pejorative way; adverbs and adjectives particularly. Words and phrases like ‘major boost’, ‘deepen its economic resilience’, ‘improve water quality’, ‘strengthen the social fabric’, ‘a better Tukituki’, and ‘for the benefit of the region and the nation.’
Patriotic that last. I wanted to put my hand on my breast and swear allegiance. Who could possibly be against?
The satirist John Stewart from The Daily Show warned in his last broadcast a few weeks ago to watch out for such bovine excrement; he used the appallingly named US ‘Patriot Act’ as an example.
A more sophisticated propaganda technique is called the Sin of Omission. This is more powerful that the Sin of Commission – a bare-faced lie – because with an Omission there is often a partially-redeeming document or half-truth to fall back on. You just conveniently forget the bit that makes you look bad.
For instance, it is true that in 70 years the dam if constructed will be “transferred into the hands of the Regional Council,” after “all the investors walk away.” Well, half true. Yes, the ‘asset’ will be transferred, but by that stage the dam may well be filled with shingle, and we the public – our children’s children – will be charged with decommissioning the dam, at much greater cost than construction by some estimates.
It’s called ‘privatising the gain and socialising the cost’ and it is the oldest game in the book. But we’ll call it a gift to the people instead, a return of an ‘asset’.
Another statement with a tiny shred of truth is “resilience in a world where the climate is drying and warming.” The threat of more frequent and more severe droughts of course. But then there is the full story. Drought relief was never a feature of this scheme, but it is continually trotted out to create some warm fuzzy feeling. Facts: there are 25 to 28 thousand hectares proposed in the scheme with about 160 farms. The plains areas to be irrigated already has some access to ground water. Hawke’s Bay has 1.42 million hectares, mostly hill country, and it is the southern hill country that is most exposed to drought, not the plains. We have continually pointed out that their drought argument is a nonsense, yet they continue to use it because it resonates.
Then there is the Argument from Authority; a report perhaps with number estimates based on a number of assumptions that are neither discussed nor open to critique. Speculative figures of let’s say $200 million in GDP, 2000 jobs in servicing and processing, a rate of return of X. Anyone who has had anything to do with models knows their severe limitations, particularly when there is apparently no understanding of primary sector trends, and whether the scheme will involve a structural shift away from such trends, or simply accelerate them.
I am talking here about the trends of reducing commodity prices, more farm amalgamations to achieve cost reductions, more absentee owners, processing centralised to a few large plants outside the region, less people employed per farm, the increase in migrant labourers who repatriate much of their earnings, and all the loss of local supporting population, spend and servicing that multiplies from the primary sector base.
None of these structural problems are addressed in any of the HBRIC reports. Large corporate-designed dams will not shift those trends, they will only make them worse. But the ‘expert’ reports generate numbers, so let us publish them to applause and fanfare.
What we won’t hear is any discussion about the effect of high capitalisation and risk related to farm investment encouraging family farms to realise their free capital gains by selling. The buyers will follow the trend of being large absentee owners who will not spend either their profits or much of their operational expenditure locally. Something like three times the regional money spend and employment is generated by local firms compared with syndicated firms coming in from outside.
All we need do is look to the US agribusiness trends in the mid-west to see it. It is well documented in both fiction and non-fiction, and involves a local social, environmental and economic decline, with the gains made elsewhere. It is effectively a new type of colonisation, where the locals end up as the colonised, by the new Philistines. And with it, more commoditisation and homogenisation of our land, our people and our economy.
It actually creates far less resilience, the opposite of Andrew Newman’s claims.
Perhaps the most incredible and bare-faced conjecture is that there will be a ‘better’ river and a stronger ‘social fabric’. This represents either naïve blind hope that technology will protect us from pollution, or wilful disinformation by those whose short-term interests and egos are far more important than creating a better Hawke’s Bay in the long-term.
Thoughtscapes: Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, and is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.
Published in Hawke’s Bay Today 29th August 2015