LOCKING DISSIDENTS AWAY in mental institutions was arguably a more humane sanction than sending them off to the gulag. Even so, many of the stories that have emerged from the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 80s are just as chilling as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s description of the camps. “Patients” subjected to chemical lobotomisation wandered the corridors of state asylums like ghosts. By no means all of the citizens detained were released, and those who made it out were much changed. For a start, they were no longer dissidents.
Learning that a New Zealand Member of Parliament had been detained under the Mental Health Act, it was hard not to think of those Soviet era victims. After all, the MP for Botany, Jamie-Lee Ross must be counted among the most destructive malcontents ever to occupy a seat in the NZ House of Representatives. His determination to punish the National Party and its leadership for (as he saw it) abandoning him, was threatening to dissolve all the protections so painstakingly erected by MPs to keep themselves safe from each other’s spite. Prior to Ross’s detention, the party was looking at weeks, perhaps months, of drip-fed excoriation. Who knew how much undiluted political acid Jamie-Lee had in his possession?
Who has that acid now? Who is in possession of Ross’ property? His family? The unnamed mental health facility detaining him? The Police? The National Party? What, if any, obligation are those holding Ross’s phone, his laptop, his hard-copy files, under to keep them safe from prying eyes? What, if anything, has been happening at Ross’s home and/or his parliamentary and electorate offices in the time that has elapsed since he was taken into state custody? Has anyone come calling? If so, who was it – and what were they after?
The public has a right to know the answers to these questions. That would not be the case if Ross was just another citizen, but he is much more than that. Ross is someone who has promised to expose what he alleges to be the corruption and moral failings of at least some of this country’s leading parliamentarians. When a person promising revelations of this kind is suddenly uplifted and immured in a secure mental health facility, the public has a right to know on whose authority it was done; how it was accomplished – and to what purpose?
In particular, the public has a right to know what part, if any, the most obvious beneficiary of Ross’s extraction from the political environment, the NZ National Party, played in his detention.
There has been some comment to the effect that National has a duty of care to Ross. Such a claim presupposes that, in its dealings with Ross, National stands in a relationship akin to that of an employer. Such a presupposition is hard to reconcile with the fact that all political parties are voluntary organisations, whose members are free to remain with them, or leave, as they see fit. Having announced his resignation from the National Party on Tuesday, 16 October, Ross had clearly exercised his right to exit the organisation. Whatever relationship existed between Ross and National ended then. So, why, five days later, was the National Party giving out the very strong impression that it had, in some way, been involved in his detention under the Mental Health Act?
Moreover, if some nebulous duty of care towards Ross remained on National’s part, then why was the party so aggressive in its response to his actions. If its MPs were convinced that their former colleague was mentally unwell (something which the National Opposition’s spokespeople had strongly insinuated in a number of public statements) then why did they feel it necessary to so dramatically increase the stress he was under?
On his Whaleoil blog, Cameron Slater states that it fell to him and at least one other person to inform Ross’s wife of her husband’s fate. This information is deeply disturbing: suggesting, as it does, that at least one of Ross’ next-of-kin was not told of his situation, or even his whereabouts, by the authorities responsible for his detention. If confirmed, it raises serious questions about the legality of the entire process.
This is why the public deserves a full explanation of the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? of Jamie-Lee Ross’s detention. There may be a completely acceptable reason for the MP for Botany being taken into custody; and those responsible may have been acting in strict accordance with the provisions of the Mental Health Act; but given the extraordinary circumstances in which Ross and his antagonists were enmeshed, and the very high stakes for which they were playing, the people of New Zealand need to hear it – all of it.
The old Soviet joke had it that the Russians must enjoy the best mental health in the world, because only an insane citizen would complain about living under Communist rule – and so few did. It’s the sort of black humour that dictatorships have long been famous for. Let’s hope that New Zealanders never learn to laugh, however sardonically, at their own loss of freedom.