• Does the Government Represent Us?

    Memories are short. As Brian Rudman reminds us, one of the new government’s first acts in 2009 was to cancel the attempt to keep junk food out of school tuck shops. Flying in the face of all expert advice, the new Education Minister set herself up as an expert on child nutrition and moved quickly to meet the interests of the pedlars of fast food and sugary drinks. Child obesity was apparently a minor consideration.

    Fast forward six years. The World Health Organisation and the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, are in no doubt that child obesity is a major threat to the nation’s health. The government has little option but to concur.

    But some things never change. The one startling omission from the package of measures put forward to combat this newly recognised threat is any action to restrain the activities of major companies in selling and advertising to young people the very products that are unerringly identified as responsible for the obesity epidemic.

    It may be that, as the Herald explains, there are difficulties in taxing particular products on social or health grounds. Similar arguments were advanced in respect of tobacco and alcohol. Even today, the major tobacco companies argue that selling a product that causes pain, misery and death to hundreds of millions of people should be of no concern to government, and threaten legal action every time their right to do so is challenged.

    The significant feature of the government’s response on the obesity issue is, in other words, the easy acceptance that it is not their responsibility to protect us, including the most vulnerable – our children, and that any attempt to do so would violate the sacred right of big business to make profits wherever they can, whatever the cost to our citizens.

    So naturally does this conclusion come to our Ministers that they scarcely bother even to address the issue. The profit motive is sacrosanct; there is nothing more to be said.

    The outcome, as I see and understand from my work in primary health, is that growing obesity will go on wreaking its avoidable and terrible damage. But the significance of the issue extends beyond the health of our young people.

    The government is in the process of signing up to an agreement that parades as a “free trade” deal. They profess to be unconcerned about provisions in the TPPA that allow major corporations to sue our government for any action taken that might adversely affect their profits.

    “We have nothing to fear,” our government tells us. “We have no intention of taking any action that would run counter to the interests of our overseas investors”. In the light of what we are seeing in respect of the fast food and sugary drinks issue, we can see what they mean.

    In the global economy, and like so many other governments around the world, our own government sees it as axiomatic that their role is to represent the issues of big business. Little wonder that they are relaxed about the prospect of being sued when they see no prospect of their policies causing any problem to business interests.

    It was John Lennon who asserted that, in a democracy, “we are the government”. If only that were the case! But the truth is that the government – in many important respects – operates quite independently of us, the people. The TPPA is a case in point. The government has blithely conceded to powerful overseas business interests a major part of our power of self-government, not only without consulting us, but without even allowing us to know what it is they have committed to. And their excuse is that the TPPA simply codifies in this respect what they have done and will go on doing anyway.

    Democracy, we should never forget, is a mode of government, not just a process. It is about more than votes and elections, but is about ensuring that the interests of everyone are properly taken into account, on every issue, and that a fair balance is struck. A government that serves interests other than our own is not democratic.

    We are often told that people in other countries and with different histories and cultures do not share our commitment to democracy, but are content as long as they have full bellies and stability. But are we so different? Are we not happy to trade away our right to decide for ourselves in return for the material things to which we now attach such importance?

    And since we care so little, can we blame a government that is confident that it can keep us happy by just jollying us along – not so much bread and circuses, but a Prime Minister happy to entertain us with supposedly “jokey” interviews on Radio Hauraki and revelations about his less salubrious habits? Is this what democracy has become?

    Bryan Gould

    21 October 2015






1 Comment

  1. Warren Pyke says: December 24, 2015 at 10:10 pmReply

    The TPPA dispute resolution provisions reflect a growing trend to hand over commercial disputes to private sector arbitration. Boiler plate clauses in so-called contracts between a party who needs a product or service and those few large corporations who can supply are going the same way,making more legal decisons invisible and not susceptible to independent judicial scrutiny. Commercial arbitrators and mediators know which side butters their bread.In the TPPA setting it is not governments.