Neutral – humph?

Well it didn’t really take long for the ‘truth’ or as Dr Williams puts it ‘facts’ to out.

Two University of Otago lecturers undertook a public survey of the people to gauge public support for the venture. They claimed neutrality, merely wanting to seek where public opinion on the issue. However this was questioned from the start and continued right up till publication of the survey, as the draft questions were heavily loaded against the stadium development. The initial question raised serious concern about the so called neutrality of the process. However the question which was published was less loaded, and the process went ahead.

The results of the survey were collated, ‘normalised’ and presented. The results was that a large majority of the people didn’t want a publicly funded stadium. Since then there has been some questioning of the methodology and neutrality, although I have less concerns about these than others. What has emerged is that Dr Williams has realised that he is suddenly embroiled in the political process.

However, in my view, any claims of neutrality have quickly been dismissed in Dr William’s opinion piece in the ODT today, link here.

Here’s some of my thoughts on the whole survey.

Firstly we didn’t need a survey at all. It’s not legally bounding, it’s not a citizens initiated referendum etc, it’s a public opinion survey. There wasn’t even actually a need for a survey. Public opinion, whether scientifically collected or not, is merely a snap shot of a time and place. Citizens initiated referenda is a dangerous way to conduct government. For me, it was the last local body elections which are the true indication of public opinion (and the next), and to tell the truth the only relevant ones. The last council election, the people knew much about public funding levels, we knew all along it was going to be massively subsidised from public money and thus rates, and on the whole a pro stadium council was returned by the people (not entirely, but on the whole). This to me, and hopefully to the councillors, was the mandate that they were given to forge ahead with all of the studies and private sector funding. They weren’t given the mandate to construct the stadium, just collect all relevant information needed to assess if it is possible, in the end it would hopefully be an informed political decision.

The people before the last election knew very well that a huge public purse would be required to build the stadium. I can’t speak for others, but I can honestly say, it was the number 1 issue on my plate when deciding who to vote for. Some claim there wasn’t much debate pre election, rubbish. The issue was played out in the ODT and on Channel 9 often and thoroughly. We knew pretty bloody close estimations of costs and public/private ratios. I remember the 2-3 pages devoted to each of the current councillors stance on many of the issues including the stadium, it took some reading, but that it what being an informed voter is called. If you voted on another issue, this is the democratic prerogative, you had the choice to vote for that nice man down the road if you wanted.

Since the election however, we have been subject to the most bitter and spurious campaign against the stadium. I know I have been on about this time and time again. But in my honest opinion, the people have been subject to the most awful and deceitful campaign, one I have never experienced before. Dr Williams is very critical at the supposed lack of facts, stating there aren’t known facts. One thing is for sure, so called facts presented against the stadium development would push Dr Williams’ understanding of the word fact (or any definition of the word sanity to tell the truth). As for economic projections, this is true, any construction project such as this venture which is 3 years away from opening can only work on projections, but it’s safe to assume that these are pretty close to facts. They are verifiable and rigourously come to.

It seems Dr Williams has some difficulty with Mayor Chin’s comments, which of course are political, the whole process is political. The very nature of elected officials spending public money is political. Dr Williams seems to be suggesting that the councillors who are making these political decisions aren’t in possession of the facts and figures as he understands them. Of course projections in the case of economic development by one definition isn’t a fact, in that it isn’t an indisputable truth. However, the other definition of a fact is evidence or information. This is what an economic cost benefit analysis is, a piece of economic information based on certain factors. Sure it’s not an undeniable fact, but in a very real sense of the word it is still a fact as known to you and me in every day speech. He may be confusing the word fact with that of a philosophically known truth?

Dr Williams seems also to be making the crass assumption that people choose to vote for or against the development purely on economic cost benefits for the city or individuals. This is a massive assumption, as I know of only one person who filled out the survey and they voted against it because it’s going to be a bloody rugby stadium, in her words “nothing else will be in there but bloody rugby”. In her mind the cost didn’t come into it, so Dr Williams assumptions are quite bold to say the least. How can he assume to know why they ticked the box they did. My mother voted for John Key at the last election because she didn’t like Helen Clark, not because she liked National policies. Likewise, I could make the crass assumption that some may have voted against the stadium because they are making a political point against the mayor and councillors.

Unfortunately Dr Williams has stepped into a political debate, and unfortunately seems to have taken criticism of the process both on a personal and professional level. If anyone had seen previous drafts of the survey (remember this is a professional I assume who has created survey’s in the past), I would agree with Malcolm Farry in that it wasn’t neutral. But then again, I ascertain that there wasn’t any need for the survey, it was a political act. I mean did supporters of the survey genuinely think that a yes or no vote either way was going to be the end of the process, that would have to smack of political naivety.

I do not like surveys, I have been deeply suspicious of them since the day’s of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was being bitterly debated up and down the country. During that process something like 80% of the country was against the decriminalisation of Homosexuality (kinda like banning air, but that’s another issue). Public opinion surveys are a snap shot of a time and place, and you can never know what the people are thinking when they tick the boxes. I remember at the time I was at University working in the holidays, and one of the guys in the factory said to me “great now any homo can come on to me in the toilets”. Likewise I’ve been told by people they are against the stadium because it’s being built in an area that will be flooded by global warming, or that South Dunedin will float away and the council will need to save those people, or even from the President of Stop the Stadium, the opportunity costs are great, Business is leaving Dunedin because broadband is not good enough. Undertaking a political poll (Dr Williams couldn’t think this is anything but political) is contentious, despite what you think people are going to vote on, you can never think to know as a matter of fact. Thus Dr Williams is not above professional criticism, and unfortunately because it’s in the realm of the political sphere it’s in the public domain, not in the quite rooms of peer reviewed academia. Dr Williams also counters political criticism with personal criticism “could someone ensure that they know the meaning of the word “fact”, which meaning do you mean Dr Williams?

I was somewhat astonished to read that “Here at the University of Otago we are a research-led institution. We value facts, principled opinion, logical argument and reasoned debate” is arrogant in the least. The professional bodies which have undertaken the development of this stadium, HOK Sport, Arrow International, Howarth HTL, Jasma, Davis Langdon, SKM and Beca, not to mention those undertaking the peer reviews etc, have all undertaken in their professional capacity “facts, principled opinion, logical argument and reasoned debate”. There has been no recognition of the work of these professionals, Dr Williams has himself reduced the argument to engagement of Malcolm Farry and the CST. The CST, of which Mr Farry is the chairman, is the body charged by the council to get the stadium to development stage. They have, as one would pray, employed some of the most appropriate and proven professionals in the area, and seemingly the “Net Present Value of the public investment in the stadium” which would apparently put this debate to bed is all that is missing. Once again over simplification of the process and political thoughts of all concerned.

I am sorry that Dr Williams seems to have taken concern and criticism so personally, however, stepping into the political realm he has become a very legitimate player in the game. I could assume this is why we quickly stopped hearing from Dr Hamilin of the same department, as many of his so called “facts” were so far from the truth as to be ludicrous, and rightly so was criticised. Perhaps Dr WIlliams could walk down the corridor and ask Dr Hamlin for his definition of the word fact, because as a fact Dr Hamlin’s claims that Twickenham was a single use stadium is pretty poor to say the least.

Facts, unlike philosophical truths are debatable, and undertaking a political poll is not without criticism and critique, and unfortunately for Dr Williams the somewhat more private world of academia has clashed with the public world of politics. As a result of this outburst, it’s pretty clear where the so called neutrality of the survey lies.

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