Finally, some dividing issues (whaling)

by Jake Quinn

A whale, not in its natural habitat

Can you smell that? It’s the whiff of something changing in New Zealand’s domestic politics.

Over the last several weeks a couple of hot issues have entered the spotlight, which have the potential to actually divide New Zealanders.  Mining in the National Parks and the possibility of legalising some whaling, being the most obvious.

These are issues where most people not just can – but want – to take a position on.  Unlike tax-cuts and beneficiary bashing, which most people can’t seem to get enough of, these are the type of issues which can define people politically.

Unfortunately they are also exceedingly complex issues and the ‘for’ and ‘against’ dichotomy does them (and constructive debate about them) a disservice.

For decades there has been an effective stalemate in the international whaling commission (IWC) whereby the opposing sides arrive and proceed swiftly to put their ear plugs in and then scream at each other with megaphones.  And nothing ever changes.

New Zealand et al go home and register their disgust with their publics while Japan and Iceland continue on their merry way slaughtering thousands of whales each year in the name of science (and sushi, presumably).

Now, however, Sir Geoffrey Palmer (New Zealand’s whaling ambassador, head of the law commission and previous Labour PM) has suggested an alternative approach so that the next 30 years might not repeat that of the last.  ‘Let’s discuss dropping the ban in return for a net reduction in whales caught and killed’, he sternly reasons.

The problem is that our political system, and the media system that dictates so much of its debate, can’t handle (or permit) a question like that.

No one would blame, therefore, the Greens and Labour for jumping up and down in disgust and accusing the National government of wanting to ‘legalise whaling’.  It is simply an opportunity too good, too divisive, and perhaps even too easy to win, to turn down.

So because our politics gets reduced to headlines and sound-bites, and many in the press gallery have a tendency to report politics like it’s a sporting event (with the priority being calling winners and losers) this is the only viable position for any opposition party wanting to be heard.

Will this kind of debate get us anywhere with the ‘whaling problem’, I doubt it.  But guess what the alternative would be?

If opposition parties came out and said ‘OK let’s have a reasoned, discursive and dispassionate debate about whaling;’ the media would simply ‘call it as a win’ for National and move on to the next ‘event’ in the political sporting calendar, all while complaining that the opposition had ‘dropped the ball on this one’.

Go figure.