NZ's biggest mistakes: because we don't understand 'cause and effect'

A child learns young that if you cry loudly enough, you're more likely to get attention. Do A, and you'll probably get B. So why can't New Zealanders and our governments so incapable of figuring out the same truth?

Ploughing through the news of last week has led me to one inevitable conclusion, that New Zealanders just haven't been able to get their head around 'cause and effect'. Y'know, the idea that if you do A, then you're likely to get B.

A lot of countries, governments or other collective groups go to great lengths to debate and anticipate the implications of their decisions, but over the past week news story after news story suggests that it's not a great strength here.

It hit me first reading the news of the Pakuranga parents who had organised an after-ball event for their under-age children. We'd just been through a week when many New Zealanders were rocked by the death of Auckland schoolboy James Webster, who died after drinking a bottle of vodka. His parents' grief was harrowing and had a huge impact on many who saw it; it was the drink-driving ads, but in real life.

Some genuine pondering about this nation's pathetic binge-drinking culture was begun, backed by the Law Commission's profound report, with its emphasis that a third of all crime is alcohol-induced and that a nation of four million people spends $85 million on alcohol in an average week.

Yet just days later, other Auckland parents were charging their own children $55 a head to attend an "all you can drink" party; a party that was not only going to be a primer class in getting not just drunk but trolleyed; a party that was illegal.

Exactly how stupid and negligent are they? How is that in any way acceptable parenting? There is way too much middle-class parental hypocrisy around drinking. So here's the first lesson in cause and effect. If you organise for your kids to drink, literally, a van load of spirits and beer (A), you're creating the binge-drinking culture (B).

An interesting note from an A&E doctor is that when the hospital calls the parents of many of the youngest drunks that wind up in his emergency room, they're too drunk to come pick up their own children. Lesson two: You model drunk behaviour in front of your young children (A), they mimic you at a young age (B).

After the alcohol, however, it just went on and on. The government came out with its solution to leaky homes; it would pay 25% of the costs, the councils another 25% and the home-owner, who in most cases did nothing wrong, was stuck with the bill for the remaining 50%. The builders, many of whom have disappeared in a puff of limited liability companies, get away scot-free. (I don't know how they sleep at night, I really don't).

In this case, the government and councils know all about cause and effect, they're just trying to pretend that it doesn't exist. If in a fit of deregulation a government passes the 1991 Building Act and creates an environment where builders can use cheap, non-watertight materials (A), then cheap, non-watertight homes will be built that later being to rot and leave their trusting owners penniless (B). And if councils out-source their inspections to inexperienced "inspectors" who sign of on any old rubbish (A), then (B), as above. And if a government cuts apprenticeship schemes so that untrained young people are appearing on building sites not knowing the importance of treated timber, eaves and the like, then, well, you get the picture (B).

All of the above happened under a National government, the party that supposedly stands for responsibility and hates bludgers. Yet when they err, when numerous businesses fail in their duty of care to customers, they have a hundred excuses why it's impossible for them to take responsibility, and they all bludge off the poor old home-owner who trusted them in the first place.

The next one involves educated guessing on my part, but I'm guessing that my children will look back on the handling of New Zealand's rail system and ask, 'didn't they see what was coming down the track?'

The government announced a three-year $750m spending package for KiwiRail. As far as it goes, it was a good start. The cause and effect here is that more trucks and commuters on the roads (A), means more gridlock, more fatalities and crashes, more cost (B). This glimpses that reality, but John Key's short-sighted statement – that the funding is intended to make " KiwiRail group become within 10 years a sustainable freight-based business that is able to fund its ongoing operating and capital expenditure from customer-generated revenue – raises three questions...

Why are we waiting ten years for Kiwirail to become a national asset? Why limit its focus to freight? And why must it be self-funding, when the government subsidises road travel to the tune of many millions of dollars each and every year?

If you want to cut greenhouse gases, make our roads safer, ease congestion, and build the business muscle of your state-owned assets (B), why wouldn't you invest more in your own public transport and freight company (A)?

Yes, it's been a week where our fine country has once again shown its short-sightedness. Perhaps it's our 'she'll be right' culture. Perhaps we just haven't been around the block enough times to learn. Perhaps our three year election cycle and the upheaval caused by Douglas and Richardson has promoted a wary short-termism.

My hope, however, is that weeks like these stick in our minds, so that we make better decisions next time. Fingers crossed.