Taking free speech too far

Last updated 09:39 19/02/2013

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Even Richard Prosser must have been surprised by the global fallout from last week's "Wogistan" episode, although the New Zealand First MP has been a time bomb waiting to explode for quite some time.

OPINION: Prosser used to belong to the Democrats for Social Credit - and during the 2008 election campaign, he called for the South Island to secede and form its own Parliament.

In previous magazine columns, he had urged the mandatory arming of taxi drivers, and for dairy owners to keep loaded shotguns behind their counters.

Given this track record you'd think that New Zealand First's leadership would have concluded there was a high chance of him writing something inflammatory, and put a system of editorial oversight in place. Evidently not.

In fact, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters - who drove Brendan Horan from the party caucus earlier this year - mildly rebuked Prosser for lacking "balance". (Just what the balance for "Wogistan" might be was left to the imagination.)

Yet by the end of the week, Prosser was in full apologetic retreat, amid rumours that he was unlikely to be high on the New Zealand First party list at the next election.

As many noted, the Prosser affair provided politicians with a golden opportunity to outdo each other in stating their abhorrence of racism and Islamophobia.

For his part, Labour leader David Shearer rather clumsily warned: "I find this offensive ... If those sorts of comments were made in the Middle East, it could incite violence - we don't want that here." Shearer seemed to be denouncing Prosser's claim that Moslems are inherently violent by warning that saying so might trigger their propensity for violence!

A more substantial issue about inappropriate language and free speech got lost during the Prosser ruckus.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully not only intervened to deter National MPs from meeting with the visiting West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda but - incredibly - the new Speaker, David Carter, forbade Green and Labour MPs from hosting Wenda at a function on Parliament grounds.

Both actions were clearly meant to impress Indonesia, with whom, McCully said, he was pursuing a policy of "constructive engagement".

McCully seems totally unaware of the origins of this now-discredited term. "Constructive engagement" was the Reagan-era stance towards apartheid South Africa - and was promoted in opposition to the successful United Nations policy of sanctions, disinvestment and isolation that eventually drove the rulers of South Africa to the negotiating table, and ushered in majority rule.

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McCully appears set on following the same Reaganite recipe of failure with respect to Indonesia, while shunning the approach that succeeded not only in South Africa, but in Timor as well.

Talk about history repeating itself.

In the 1980s, the Labour government of David Lange pursued an identical policy of appeasement towards Indonesia, over Timor's claims to independence. Eventually, Timor seceded regardless, and Indonesia has survived its loss.

Today though, we seem determined to repeat the same mistake with respect to West Papua's legitimate quest for independence - and again, we're doing so to win brownie points with Indonesia.

Calling this craven policy "constructive engagement" doesn't make it smell any sweeter.

Arguably, our policy stance on West Papua is as reprehensible - and more damaging in the long term - than any transient opinion piece by Richard Prosser.

- The Wellingtonian


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