The foundation and a pillar of good government

Can you fit “Collins” and “justice” comfortably in the same sentence? Will John Key want to if he gets to form the cabinet after September 20?

The Minister of Justice’s behaviour has been unbecoming of her portfolio and of a minister. Key is standing by her — for now. There is an election campaign on.

Key’s problem is public relations. He is usually adept at that on the stump. But in dealing with the Nicky Hager accusations he didn’t follow a public core relations rule: “front up” and “fess up” (after a “f..k-up”).

Instead, he said Hager had made it up. Then it was a “leftwing conspiracy”. (Actually, some of the more trenchant comments to me about the carryings-on between him, his office, his minister and attack-blogger Cameron Slater have been by conservatives.)

Then, as evidence trickled out, Key retreated, point by point, leaving whiffs of mistrust.

Take his multiple versions of his connection with the Security Intelligence Service’s super-rapid divulgence of information to Slater (who mysteriously knew what to ask for), including that “me” is his office, not him. Did the shadowy figures in his office actually tell him? If not, why not? Was it loose management. Or a culture he has created?

That takes us to Key’s (and others’) line that the Hager/Slater stuff is byplay and the election campaign should focus on “issues that matter”.

Well, one issue that matters is good governance. A well-functioning democracy depends vitally on a high level of trust, which in turn requires ministers to be upfront and do things by the book, not by the backdoor or underhand. Key himself said on July 30 that “most importantly, the public decides (in an election) who they trust and who they don’t.”

And a well-functioning democracy is the core issue of each election.

That is why, despite the jobs they create, the Key’s deals with Warner Brothers and Sky City for a film and a convention centre caused a ruckus. It looked to some as if they were buying law changes.

In a well-functioning democracy ends do not justify means. The means are what defines a democracy.

And good democratic practice is the foundation of good government. And good government is what voters want out of an election, though they differ on what policies, programmes or general line of action make a good government.

Good government has both short-term and long-term perspectives. Durable, long-term policies are the pillars of government. Longer-lived governments maintain those pillars (Bill English is this lot’s main maintenance man). But election campaigners often divert into the short term.

So the campaign will pay little attention to investment in science.

Ministers in recent governments of all stripes have kept scientists on short rations. The Key government has spent more energy restructuring institutions than money for good science.

It prioritised scarce funds through a sort of opinion poll to produce 12 “science challenges”. The Association of Scientists has condemned a lack of transparency in the “challenges” and said scientists had “disengaged”.

Though this year’s budget set “a goal of increasing public expenditure on science to 0.8 per cent of GDP”, that was “as fiscal conditions allow” and would still be far short of government investment by smart, very rich small nations like Denmark and Finland.

Labour proposes to bring back 12.5 per cent tax credits for business research, back universities and Crown research institutes and various science funds and prioritise science spending to link it to the all-rich-country OECD average, not the small rich country average, and also only “as fiscal conditions permit”. It approves the Greens’ push for science geared to a “smart, green economy”.

The Key government’s reticence has been despite appointing the hyperactive Sir Peter Gluckman as chief science adviser.

Gluckman has generated some important reports, including on using scientific evidence in policy. He got chief scientists of six “small, advanced countries” together, linked that to economic opportunities and has got them committed to a work programme.

Gluckman this week widens his net. As part of world science week meetings in Auckland, his counterparts from a wide range of countries, including Brazil, India, Germany and Britain, plus Nature’s editor-in-chief, will discuss science and policy and “science and diplomacy” — a world first.

Gluckman has won Foreign Affairs Secretary John Allen’s backing but few in the public service or cabinet are more than lukewarm, if that.

Why? A road or a school is a much more electorally saleable investment. Labour’s free GP visits for even well-off over-65s beats the eventual benefit to young people from science.

Yet investing for the long term, as in scientific research, is a critical pillar of good government.

Key was lionised at National’s deafening, populous campaign launch on Sunday. He promised some more leeway for first-home buyers. But is he maintaining the foundation and pillars of good government?