Book Review: Complacent Nation, by Gavin Ellis

Available now in bookshops and e-bookshops nationwide.

cv_complacent_nationGavin Ellis is the former editor of the NZ Herald, and a regular commentator on RNZ’s Nine to Noon, who is able to blend practical print media experience with some theoretical rigour. This is an excellent example of an extended essay, in a new digestible form, which BWB seems to have perfected. The book can certainly be read in one sitting, and provides much food for thought, but is it really a sampler for a more developed argument? Perhaps it draws together some recent examples of media practice, and government PR strategies, that aren’t necessarily the disturbing new trend that Dr Ellis is worried about.

The title suggests that the main problem is the ‘complacent nation’ of citizens, or civil society, but most of the text is about the role of government. Ellis states that there is a dangerous paradox, in that the more the government curtails freedom of speech, and thwarts the fourth estate, the less we citizens seem concerned by it. He has some historical examples from New Zealand, and some very contemporary media stand-offs, as well as some international comparisons, particularly from Canada. But the paradox seems to be that, although the number of journalists has greatly declined and the role of the press changed, the government seem ever more threatened by the possibility of sensitive information getting out, at least, the elected government does.

There are a couple of things that really interested me in the book concerning official information. The first is the role of the Office of the Ombudsman. This is a key role, but for those of us who have complained to the office about an information non-release and got nowhere, we have a slightly different perspective. Dr Ellis is worried about the media not being able to get information released, but they seem to do far better than the individual citizen.

It was, though, important to point to the criticism of the media by the former Ombudsman, Beverly Wakem, who claimed they acted like ‘rottweilers on heat’ in using O.I.A. requests. In fact, Ellis is arguing that the government agencies are trying to protect the Executive from any political embarrassment, and in withholding information are not acting in the public interest. There are also examples of imposing costs, or excuses like ‘commercial sensitivity’.

The second aspect of this involves the relationship between government agencies and their ministers. Ellis talks about the current relationship involving the ‘no surprises’ policy, in which all potential political problems for the minister have to be signalled in advance, and therefore controlled by the Executive.

One thing I thought about while reading this was that, whenever a practical problem comes up with public services, ministers are often quick to say that it’s an ‘operational issue’ and not their problem (the department’s PR people can deal with that). That seems contradictory: the ministerial office needs to know everything, but isn’t really responsible for any of the detail of policy implementation. Is it just the typical ‘passing of the buck’, and bureaucratic politics in the Wellington beltway, or is this of more constitutional significance? Hopefully the debate will now ensue.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Complacent Nation
by Gavin Ellis
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780947492946

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