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Unquiet Time: Aotearoa/New Zealand in a fast-changing world

06 October 2017 - By Colin James

Reviewed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Colin James is a very experienced and long serving political journalist of high quality, and a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Being a journalist is an important role, despite the endangered nature of the species due to the challenges of the digital age.

Traditionally, political journalism has been a protection for the public against the misdeeds of its politicians. Whether that important constitutional check on power will endure is hard to say.

There has been a long and sustained decline in the media’s treatment of Parliament, policy and politics.

The newspapers used to carry detailed accounts of parliamentary debates and political issues, and broadcast media used to focus on lengthy current affairs interviews.

The media business models are collapsing from the challenges of the multi-media, digital age. The evolution is not yet complete. And there is much in this book about the transforming influence of digital technology more generally.

As competition has increased, news media have become more entertainment- and celebrity-focused, and media staffing and resources have become more stretched.

It’s true that a vast amount of information is available online. But people do not know what to make of it and cannot devote the time and effort to find out what it all means.

Colin James has survived all of this and has steadfastly continued since 1969 to analyse in a thoughtful and analytical way how politics and policy in this country is developing.

He is also a serious intellectual in his role as a Senior Associate of the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

Unlike many journalists, James has the habits of a scholar. He identifies and acknowledges his sources by end notes, a very helpful feature of this book.

The methodology employed consists of analysing material from a range of high quality journalistic and scholarly publications. The sources themselves are astonishingly diverse and numerous, a sign of great industry.

In this, his seventh book, he sets himself the hard task of making sense of the accelerating pace of change and uncertainty around the globe and charting New Zealand’s place in it.

While not dystopian the message is clear: New Zealand exists in a disordered world.

Such macro-analysis as this requires making sense of developments that are inherently uncertain both in their causes and future consequences.

Perhaps the most important take-away message from the book is that we need to face the challenges that confront New Zealand rather than shy away from them.

The most obvious of these is climate change to which there are 16 separate references in the index.

Environmental policy in New Zealand suffers from a bias toward the present over the future. The three-year parliamentary term reinforces the bias.

The policy conclusion to be drawn is that the biggest enemy of the future is the present. The problems of the present and their resolution crowd out the prospect for the future.

This book is strong on “looming environmental limits, particularly water.”

Then there is the state of democracy in the western world. James says, and who can disagree: “[t]his erosion of liberal democracy was part of a wider picture. Democratisation has stalled and arguably reversed.”

The populist ferment in Europe and the United States is driving big change. Where does this leave New Zealand?

The index contains five references to constitutional changes, rather more modest than I would have wished, but the whole book has important constitutional ramifications. The future may be rough.

The book has two parts. The first covers 116 pages with analysis of the trends out there in the wider world.

This involves globalisation, changes in technology, environmental issues, trust and inequality, and more shocks are to come.

Future turmoil will be hard to avoid is my reading of his conclusion here.

Colin James reads a lot and thinks analytically about what he reads.

These are increasingly rare qualities among New Zealanders, I fear.

The second part of the book consists of assessing what the developing international trends mean for New Zealand.

He examines the emergence of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and international trade policy.

The development of policy concerning Māori and biculturalism is analysed. How environmental policy will develop is examined.

Then comes how the economy will change and here he says “the 1980s paradigm is fraying”.

Since the economy is not everything, there is a chapter on Justice as Fairness, along Rawlesian lines, with the issues of growing inequality and distribution of income and then the social investment approach being examined.

The final chapter is about political power shift and the eroding sense of government legitimacy that seems to afflict people, especially the young.

He concludes for New Zealand, “Political party upheaval, ‘distributed democracy’ and possible resurgence of localness leave more questions than answers about how power will be allocated and applied in the coming decade.”

Here we are looking through the glass darkly.

Predicting the future is impossible. What this tells us, however, is the challenges of the future will probably exceed those of the past.

Colin James has written a fascinating book that deserves to be read and thought about.

I am left with the take-away message that New Zealand is bobbing about like a cork on a rough global sea and the future will be difficult.

In my judgment this book is a significant achievement for which we can all be grateful.

Last updated on the 6th October 2017