14 February 2017
Tuesday Poem: How We Walked Back The Bad News
The report was detailed, unambiguous
And powerful. That was their first mistake.
The second was its clear alignment with the views
Of certain interests, who had been banging on
About this issue for far too long. We were tired
Of listening to their whining. It’s not the sort of thing
A go-ahead country wants or needs. It’s
Negativity, and our polling has shown New Zealanders
Have had enough of that. The All Blacks
Are winning, while across the nation
Dairy herds continue to grow. Rebounding sales of trucks
And utes are all the proof needed to show
That we are on the right path.
Paul Henry and Mike Hosking were our first line
Of defence, manufacturing contempt,
Their intellectual attainments formidable, their scorn
Something only the most practised of politicians
Could be expected to withstand. The report’s authors
Were like lambs to the slaughter, their clothes, their manner
Betraying deep discomfort. And it was soon established
That the authors were academics, a potent critique
In itself. Henry attacked the way the authors dressed. Hosking
Went after the source of their funding. The report’s message
Was lost in the shemozzle. In the morning papers, the
Prime Minister’s photo opportunity with Beauden Barrett
Took pride of place, while on the business pages the report
Came under sustained attack. NBR even suggested
That a sulphurous whiff of economic treason
Might hang over the whole affair.
The report had been discredited without its findings
Ever being discussed. At their respective institutions,
The authors were called in by deputy vice-chancellors
For a quiet word. The importance of academic
Reputation was repeatedly stressed. Funding,
It was implied, could rapidly be redirected
To research efforts more in tune with the nation’s
Wants and needs. Science communication
Was plainly something that should be best be left
To communicators rather than scientists.
A storm in a teacup, a seven days’ wonder
That failed to last even one news cycle. No surprise
That around the Cabinet table there was a general air
Of self-congratulation. The public of New Zealand
As polls and focus groups repeatedly reveal
Do not want to hear bad news, and as the guardians
Of the public mood, let there be no doubt that we,
No matter how great the temptation, no matter
How pressing the need, will not waver in our resolve
To provide ever-more-elaborate circuses
Well after we’ve scoffed the last of the bread.
Tim says: Most of the poems in my latest collection, New Sea Land, were written in 2015 and early 2016. While working on those poems, though, I did take the occasional detour: I wrote some poems about music, a number of which will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of takahē, and I wrote some political and satirical poems that were a bit outside scope for New Sea Land.
"How We Walked Back The Bad News" is one of those poems. It's dedicated to all the scientists who bravely stand up for the truth of what the data tell them against the spin, mismanagement and ridicule of bureaucrats, University senior management, and politicians.