Science or old politics: a test for John Key

On Wednesday two reports will go public. They will challenge John Key to go with science or stick to old politics.

The reports are on fixing wayward youth and on early childhood education and will both highlight the critical importance of a good very early start in life. Both are the output of good brains, one tested to international standards. But does that fit with good politicking?

When I first reported politics, 42 years ago this month, the government was in essence a super-conciliator-and-arbitrator among competing interest groups pushing their cases, some doing better with a National government and others with a Labour government.

In 1984 a radical reforming government gave interest groups a hearing only if they made a national-interest case, not a self-interest one. This is still broadly the rule but has been eroded.

Key’s government has tackled some big issues in innovative ways.

One is working groups or taskforces of academics, professionals, business and officials: tax, capital markets, welfare, green growth and high-tech manufacturing and services.

Another is Nordic-style “collaborative governance”: the Land and Water Forum of 58 interest groups was mandated to reach consensus on water. It broadly did though it left unresolved some large issues and many details. Nick Smith and David Carter want it to tackle some of those.

One is a national environmental standard to fill in detail — for example, limits and targets — to give bite to the national policy statement which interest-group and cabinet politics greatly softened from what the forum had agreed.

That risked wrecking the forum and with it the promise the collaborative process holds for an end to policy seesaws upon changes of government, as, for example, in workplace relations. Chair Alastair Bisley’s formidable diplomatic skills have held the forum together for now. But will the cabinet back it through two years as policy is refined and legislated for or will it revert to old politics? There is much at stake for our democratic modernisation.

The third innovation is to look to science. Key’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, is trying to get scientific evidence taken seriously in policymaking.

On Wednesday a taskforce he assembled of academics and professionals specialising in childhood and youth development will report. It draws on the world-renowned Dunedin longitudinal study of people born 38 years ago. Academic rigour has been applied and a synthesis report, agreed by all, has been internationally peer-reviewed.

The 300-odd-page report will confront dogma underlying past and existing policies and the vagaries of adversarial politics. It will demand that policy be based on clear findings that very early childhood experience, including whether there is secure mother-infant attachment, have a big influence on the child’s self-control and so behaviour in later life.

It will say that many adolescent problems, including health, are associated with early neurological and biological factors, low cognitive ability, school failure, childhood antisocial behaviour, family violence, parental drug and alcohol use, physical abuse, neglect and poor parenting.

It will say the brain is still developing until the mid-20s and so is affected by excessive alcohol use and other damaging activities in a society that bombards adolescents with messages of freedom, sexuality and risk-taking.

It will argue that interventions to turn this around will be slow-acting but such investments will have long-term returns that far outweigh the costs. In this it parallels an important, but so far neglected, section in the welfare working group report arguing for a quasi-actuarial approach to assessing value for money.

The companion report on early childhood education, headed by Michael Mintrom of Auckland University, will similarly state that the returns on early investment are high and long-lasting.

These reports offer challenge and opportunity — as did a closed-door conference last Wednesday where evidence was presented of the crime-promoting effect of the present unthinking lock-em-all-up penal policy.

The challenge is to junk present received wisdoms in favour of evidence and then wear the potentially difficult politics. The opportunity is to form new consensuses on these hard topics and make a more prosperous society.

In fact, underneath a consensus of sorts may be evolving on early childhood and youth interventions. Paula Bennett has commissioned a “green paper”, then a “white paper”, which will not be able to ignore Wednesday’s evidence. Labour has its child-centred policy built on the same evidence. In crime there are glimmerings of a shift after 30 years of increasingly unaffordable “law and order”.

It’s not nearly such fun to watch as kick-and-punch personality politics. But it might do good for the public — if the politicians can hack it.

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