Propaganda and the Rhetoric of the Ruataniwha Dam

“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.

Malcolm X the media

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.

The enemy is bullshit

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.Argument from Authority

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.


Ruataniwha Dam thinking locks us into the lower left quadrant, and the dominant buyer takes the cost savings in a lower price … and so we cut costs again … and again …

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.

Chris Perley

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

Planetary boundaries

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6 Responses to Propaganda and the Rhetoric of the Ruataniwha Dam

  1. Makere says:

    Tragically oh so accurate.

  2. Brian Turner says:

    Yes, Chris superb piece.

    I’m in London trying to sort my son out, and I’ve discovered something not nice going on with me physically… c’est la …. May have to get home sooner than expected.

    I can’t see how what you say can be refuted. Alas, everywhere on the planet, most people don’t ‘get’ what’s going on, not that very many even think about it.


    Here’s a few ‘jottings’ from my notebook. B Borrowers

    Most are grossly


    to banks

    owned by those


    of our debt

    to nature.

    Lookout Point

    Nostalgia illumines the past

    but not the present

    except when we’re blind.

    Don’t have faith in those

    who set out to charm.


    They said he was rich, meaning

    he had lots of money, and a deadpan

    ostentation that went with it. The living

    dead dominate dystopia’s realm

    where consciousness and conscience

    war. Few are aware of the galaxies

    unless we take time to gaze at the stars.


    Likes, friends, the more chum

    we spread the more our pond

    fills up with eager, hungry fish.


    There’s a dog up under Blackstone Hill

    that you can hear

    a mile away, easy. It sounds lonely.

    Every valley, every town, every city

    has their lonelies, individuals

    aplenty, wondering where plenty

    comes from, doing their best to cope.

    Bank Holiday, London

    Dribbly rain, glum skies, slack flags.

    In Trafalgar Square pigeons cower,

    buses rumble and plash and throb

    where peoples of the world scurry, wince.

    They’ll not be seeing anyone princely today,

    but much is pricey all the same.


  3. An excellent and perceptive analysis but will anybody understand “drought relief was never a feature of this scheme” and relate it to it failure in the future as they are taxed to pay it off. Same with all the other points listed. It seems that objection now has to be so thorough and so formidable a threat to the proposers of a scheme that it is impossible for the non-salaried to devote time to opposing the salaried with their resources made available without question as in the costs on HBRC. Individuals would have been bankrupted if they followed the process that HBRC has followed since the inception of this scheme. Funds have been allocated post event to expanding the effort to gain confidence that were never foreseen in the initial establishment proposal.

  4. Pingback: An Ethos of Care Matters in Public Life | Chris Perley's Blog

  5. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    I published this over a year ago, and it still gets a lot of traffic. The Ruataniwha Dam is now under review, and the new Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is doing quite frankly an excellent job of peeling back the layers upon layers of dubious rationale. But one thing the review will not focus on is the initial rationale for the dam, which went something like this “Central Hawke’s Bay is declining, therefore we need the dam.” It seemed that understanding the reasons why was never in the interests of the proponents – and so they accelerate the trend to our very own provincial Trump voting middle America, because we don’t heed the lessons of an industrial commodity approach to human life and land.

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