The ongoing battle to preserve our democracy

DAME ANNE SALMOND
Last updated 05:00 25/07/2013

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The idea of society, and values such as truth, honour, justice and generosity, really matter, says Dame Anne Salmond

Every Anzac Day, people gather at cenotaphs around New Zealand. The mood is sombre and reverent. Wreaths are laid, and the Last Post is played.

Often, young Kiwis attend these ceremonies, wearing the medals of their grandparents and great-grandparents, honouring those who died for their freedom.

In trying to understand what drove our forebears to make such sacrifices, I've looked at reports in local newspapers at the outbreak of World War II.

The Evening Post drew a sharp contrast between repression in Nazi Germany and the freedom of the press in New Zealand. It wrote: "Democracy trusts the people, dictatorship does not."

The next day, the Post quoted a speech by the Australian prime minister: "The essence of democracy is to dignify the individual human being, and give him, whether rich or poor, the right to his place in the community and the right to a happy, prosperous, and contented life."

Afterwards, when the New Zealand Legislative Council signed up for "the fight between democracy and dictatorship", they declared: "We must be prepared to prove on the battlefield loyalty to the principles for which we stand."

These principles - human dignity, freedom of thought, and a happy, comfortable life for ordinary people - are what my father's generation was prepared to die for. They did not risk their lives in vain. Along the highways and byways of New Zealand, you'll meet people like them - upright, honorable, gifted and generous.

Nor is it surprising that young New Zealanders attend Anzac Day services in numbers. There are so many fantastic young people in this country, whose values I respect and admire. Like me, they want a country that they can believe in.

The puzzle, then, is what has happened in the corridors of power in New Zealand? Somehow, the values there seem very different. Over the past 30 years, some strange and curious doctrines - amoral and power-hungry, but superficially persuasive - have been wafting out of the Beehive.

They include the myth of a free market. At the time when democracy was invented, Adam Smith and other Enlightenment thinkers argued for a market free from the rule of the merchants - or the corporates, in contemporary talk. In the name of the free market, however, since the 1980s we have inherited the opposite - mercantilist wolf dressed up as free market lamb.

There is also the myth of the isolated, cost-benefit-calculating individual - another illusion. As behavioral economics has shown, almost no-one lives like that - and if they did, they would be regarded as sociopaths.

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There has also been an all-out assault on the idea of community, the commons and the public good. This, I think, is the true "tragedy of the commons" - a concerted attempt to destroy the idea of society; to demolish the notion that social relationships matter; and to undermine values such as truth, justice, generosity and honour, which guide us in our collective affairs.

This assault is not just cynical and amoral but non-adaptive, because homo sapiens is above all, a social animal. Through language, we work together on complex tasks, and pass these skills on to others. As human beings, we rely on each other for our safety and prosperity.

Participatory democracy builds on these strengths. When people from all backgrounds take part in decision-making, individuals spark off each other, creating new ideas and enterprises, and social relationships flourish, along with the economy.

Autocratic, extractive, highly unequal regimes, on the other hand, do not pass the test of longevity. Such nations falter, both economically and socially, and eventually fail.

This is why the idea of society, and values such as truth, honour, justice and generosity, really matter. Our forebears understood this. If we want a free, prosperous and exciting society to live in, we have to be prepared to fight for it if it is assailed.

Surprisingly, it seems, that time is now. Over the past months, a series of laws have been passed that attack the rights of New Zealanders. This is a matter of such gravity that last month, the Law Society felt compelled to report to the United Nations that in New Zealand, "a number of recent legislative measures are fundamentally in conflict with the rule of law".

Extraordinary though it may seem, this statement is no more than the truth. In its report, the Law Society cites acts that have allowed the Executive to use regulation to override Parliament; that deny citizens the right to legal representation, and cancel their right to appeal to the courts to uphold their rights under the law.

The Law Society also draws attention to the use of Supplementary Order Papers and urgency to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny of legislation.

It expresses concern that a number of bills formerly declared by the attorney-general to be in breach of the Bill of Rights have recently been enacted.

This report does not mention other key defects in the law-making process in New Zealand at present. These include the willingness of a minority government to pass laws that impinge on the rights and wellbeing of New Zealanders at the request of foreign corporations - Warner Bros, for instance, or SkyCity and various oil companies. None of these deals, which amount to "legislation for sale", can claim a democratic mandate.

When a body as authoritative and dispassionate as the Law Society feels forced to report to the UN that the New Zealand Government is acting in conflict with the rule of law, all New Zealanders should be very worried.

The GCSB bill currently before Parliament, however, trumps all other recent breaches of democratic freedoms in New Zealand.

The GCSB, an intelligence agency that was established to protect New Zealand citizens from external threats, is surrounded by scandal, including an improper process leading to the appointment of its director, an inglorious saga surrounding the arrest of Kim Dotcom and associates, and accusations that the agency has been illegally spying on New Zealanders.

Under the proposed legislation, however, this dubious body would be transformed from a foreign intelligence agency into one that spies on New Zealand citizens and residents - a kind of electronic McCarthyism.

The GCSB bill would give the agency sweeping powers, with the only effective controls being in the hands of politicians. The fact that the bill is being dealt with under urgency raises further suspicions about its purposes and intentions. Given the recent record of legislative attacks on human rights in this country, very few New Zealanders could be confident that such powers, if granted, would not be abused for partisan political purposes.

The GCSB bill should be shelved until a robust and independent inquiry into New Zealand's intelligence agencies has been held. There must be a searching debate about the powers they might legitimately be granted.

In submissions, editorials and opinion pieces across the country, this bill has met almost universal opposition. If we had a healthy democracy in New Zealand, it would have been dropped by now. It will be an absolute indictment of this Parliament if it is passed.

As New Zealanders, we need to remind every politician, from each political party - National, Labour, UnitedFuture, the Maori Party, NZ First, ACT and Mana - that democracy is not a party political matter.

As MPs, they are accountable above all to their constituents - not to their whips and leaders. It is their job to stand up for the rights of New Zealanders if they are threatened. At times like this, they need to show some backbone and prove that they are worthy of the trust we place in them.

As for the prime minister and the Executive, they were sent to Parliament to represent us, not to rule us. As John Key declared in a rousing speech against the Electoral Finance Bill in 2007: "This is not just a poorly written bill. This is a dangerous bill. It is dangerous for all of us as individuals, it is dangerous for our democracy, and it is dangerous for New Zealand. We should rightly be proud of our democracy. It is a very real New Zealand achievement, and we should celebrate it. A lot of other countries never made it. Plenty have tried democracy and let it slip through their fingers.

"A quiet, obedient, and docile population; a culture of passivity and apathy; a meek acceptance of what politicians say and do - these things are not consistent with democracy.

"A healthy democracy requires the active participation of citizens in public life and in public debates. Without this participation, democracy begins to wither and becomes the preserve of a small, select political elite."

All I can say is, amen.

  • Dame Anne Salmond CBE FBA FANAS FRSNZ is Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland, a historian, writer, and current New Zealander of the Year. She wrote this piece for the Nelson Mail.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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