Trying to silence the prime minister is an anti-democratic act

Anti-TPPA protesters are expected to flood into Auckland's central city ahead of the signing of the agreement today.
PHIL WALTER/GETTY

Anti-TPPA protesters are expected to flood into Auckland's central city ahead of the signing of the agreement today.

OPINION: Today is the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in Auckland, and there will be protests. Nobody knows how they will go but the leaders of the two main events are calling for a peaceful demonstration. And they are right.

There are many people rightly suspicious of the TPPA. Their opposition does not grow more powerful or persuasive if it becomes violent. In fact, it becomes less so, because the critics have then lost the moral high ground.

The signing is a mere ritual, although the critics find a symbolic importance in its being held in a casino which has a sweet-heart deal with the Government. And the site is symbolic, because the TPPA is at least as much about looking after the interests of large foreign corporations as it is about lowering tariff barriers.

Prime Minister John Key expects things could get rough at Waitangi this year.
FAIRFAX/NZ

Prime Minister John Key expects things could get rough at Waitangi this year.

But the signing is mere ceremony.  It is the ratification of the treaty that binds its signatories, and that ratification is distant and uncertain. It is quite possible that opposition in the US Congress will in fact scupper the TPPA completely. 

It is also the reason that the whole argument about the TPPA should not be seen as an urgent matter. There is no rush and there is a great deal more argument to be had. 

The meeting at Waitangi is being billed as another political flashpoint. But once again opponents of the TPPA need to be clear about their real interests in this. Threats to manhandle the prime minister or neglect his safety are intolerable in a democracy. So is the idea that he must keep silent.

John Key is elected by a democratic process and anybody who threatens his security is spitting in the face of democracy itself. We don't need to like the individual who holds this office. We certainly don't need to agree with him or her. But to prevent that person from speaking or attending the Waitangi ceremonies in the north is unconscionable.

Similarly with the Government's "provocative" timing of the TPPA signing so close to the country's national day: the right response is to protest, not to censor. 

Banishing or howling down the prime minister, moreover, would clearly play into the hands of the red-necks and tarnish the case against the TPPA. 

It's worth trying to think clearly about the so-called "annual commotion" at Waitangi Day. There have been brutal scenes there, but for many years now the rage has been ritualised and not personally threatening. Key, to his credit, has made a practice of attending. "I will keep coming back," he said in 2013. If his security or right to speak is threatened, his hosts could hardly complain if he stayed away in future.

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Some Maori argue that Treaty rights, supposedly guaranteed under the TPPA, will in fact be weakened by the practice of the pact. There will be a "chilling" effect, just as the mere threat of judicial action by investor states has chilled New Zealand's anti-smoking campaign.

This is an argument worth making. So let the critics make it loud and clear during a fiery argument on the national marae, where fierce speech is never outlawed. And let Key show that he has heard it.

 - The Dominion Post

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