NEW ZEALANDERS should be thanking their lucky stars for Andrew Geddis, Professor of Public Law at the University of Otago. Without his I Think National Just Broke Our Constitution posting, the Government’s latest attack on democracy would likely have passed without much more than a mild media murmur. Professor Geddis’ post went up on the Pundit blog on Sunday, 19 May. By 22 May it had received nearly 14,000 page-views. In New Zealand that amounts to “going viral”.
Belatedly (but better belatedly than never) other media voices are being raised in protest at the extraordinary provisions of the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act. As the National-led Government’s decision to wall off the Crown’s treatment of family carers from any kind of legal challenge gains greater exposure, public consternation and concern is mounting.
The public is right to be concerned. A governing party prepared to cast aside long-established constitutional conventions is a danger to us all.
And, there are questions.
Why did the National Government’s support parties, Act and United Future, fail to function as the people’s constitutional guardians? Why was the Opposition parties’ performance so limp? Is there really no legally qualified Labour or Green MP clever enough to arouse the media’s interest in the manner of Professor Geddis? Is this lack of an effective Shadow Attorney-General further proof of just how foolish the Shearer faction was to drive out the talented Charles Chauvel? And isn’t it sad that there was no one in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office capable of seeing the big political pay-off for Labour in leading the charge against National’s latest assault on Kiwis’ rights?
Not that the news media’s performance was any better than the politicians. Did no one in the Press Gallery feel even a twinge of righteous indignation at the spectacle of Opposition MPs holding up page after blacked-out page of the Crown’s legal advice? They were, after all, reporting from the New Zealand legislature: the place where the country’s laws are made; but where, apparently, the law-makers are denied access to the very legal opinions against which the quality of this legislation could be measured.
Did no journalist, determined to put this travesty on the front page/at the top of the news bulletin, demand to be put through to his or her paper’s/network’s news editor? Were no instructions issued to immediately contact the likes of Professor Geddis for a stand-up interview in his front garden? Did no banner headlines screaming “Democracy Under Attack!” confront National Party MPs as they munched on their Weet-Bix the following Monday morning? Of course not.
Which raises yet more questions.
Is the New Zealand news media even interested in defending the democratic rights of its readers, listeners and viewers? Or, are New Zealand’s editors and senior journalists still of the view that if a National Government does it, then it must be alright?
Because, historically-speaking, that does seem to be the way of things. When the First National Government declared war on the New Zealand Waterfront Workers Union in February 1951 and invoked the draconian powers of the Public Safety Conservation Act, New Zealanders found themselves in the grip of “emergency regulations” which violated practically all of their civil and political rights. The right to free speech; the right to peaceful assembly; the right to freedom of association; the right to freely dispose of one’s own property: all were set aside by the National Government of Sid Holland.
How did New Zealand’s “free press” respond? The answer, sadly, was with almost universal applause for the National Government’s actions. Not one newspaper – out of the scores of locally-owned daily papers then published in New Zealand – was prepared to resist the Crown’s use of such a huge and dangerous sledgehammer to crack so small a union nut. Not one editor was willing to risk jail rather than submit to having his paper’s content censored. Not one proprietor was willing to tell his editor to: “Publish and be damned!”
The veteran journalist, Gordon Dryden, recalls the repression of media freedom during the 1951 Lockout in his autobiography Out of the Red:
“In my view the emergency regulations introduced on 26 February slashed at everything I believe about journalism. It became against the law to report both sides of the biggest industrial dispute in New Zealand history. It became against the law to make donations to help feed the families of workers who were on strike. It became unlawful for opponents of the Government to hold meetings.
Walter Nash, then Leader of the Opposition, even though he was ‘neither for nor against” the unions involved, was banned from speaking to a public meeting in the Auckland Town Hall, and the same thing happened to other Labour MPs as well as to unions …
“… I was appalled at the sight of a police sergeant entering the building and demanding, under the emergency regulations, to check the next day’s editorial, and issuing instructions that no advertisements were to be published concerning meetings that were banned. The unions concerned and the Labour Party were also refused permission for time on radio to refute what they considered to be one-sided Government propaganda.”
To those who object that all these things happened sixty-two years ago, it is worth considering the legacy of ’51. The near universal failure of the New Zealand news media to defend not only the democratic rights of its readers and listeners, but also its own freedom to publish and broadcast fairly and in a balanced way, couldn’t help but shape the nation’s media culture for decades to come.
It explains our media’s deep-seated reluctance to challenge and/or expose the misdeeds and shortcomings of the Right while never missing a chance to put the boot into the Left. Also explained is the way in which the policies of National and the Right are so easily confused, in the minds of far too many editors and journalists, with the claims and objects of legitimate state authority. And, conversely, how easily those same editors and journalists associate the policies of Labour and the Left with spurious, unreasonable – even unlawful – challenges to the proper functioning of the state.
The legacy of that game-changing and deeply repressive historical event has poisoned not only New Zealand’s media culture, but also its political culture.
The Right’s (which generally means the National Party’s) identification with legitimate authority encourages its followers to believe that: “If we’re doing it, then it’s obviously in the public interest and people have no cause to worry.” A view that allows them to do just about anything with a clear conscience.
The Left, however, has inherited a very different set of responses from the events of 1951. Perhaps the most pernicious is the response that causes parties like Labour and the Greens to recoil from any political idea or project that threatens to brand them as unreasonable or untrustworthy stewards of the national interest. For decades, this attitude has encouraged leftists to accept New Zealand’s constitution as being pretty much whatever the Right says it is. That it might be the role of the Left to keep the constitutional rights of New Zealanders in focus, and to frustrate the Right’s proclivity for blurring or even eliminating them, is dismissed as foolhardy political romanticism.
Andrew Geddis has shown how professors can fight. If the mainstream media and our left-wing politicians were now persuaded to demonstrate the same effectiveness in defending New Zealanders’ rights, then our lucky stars could confidently submit a claim for overtime.