The NZ Initiative is an organisation born from the merger of two neo-liberal business agencies. Its political position is full-on Adam Smith (hidden hand of the market etc) and the Act Party, although it works quite hard to appear neutral, a position generally accepted by the media. Its members are 70, mainly large, NZ companies, making up about a quarter of the revenue of Aotearoa.
The organisation has quite a lot to say about social policy, housing and education. Not surprisingly, education should be more like a business with far more control over teachers. Housing needs deregulation, not regulation. The poor need social investment, not handouts. And so on. Nothing to see here, except right wing social policy.
Like the Act Party, the NZ Initiative is liberal on social issues. While the organisation is stacked with white males at senior levels (one senior women) and there is not a Māori in sight on the staff or board, this just reflects the world they reside in, not deliberate omission. I am sure there is plenty of what we nowadays refer to as unconscious bias in that world, but there is no ideology of discrimination.
Except…. The NZ Initiative employed Nathan Smith, formerly of NBR, as its Chief Editor. And Nathan Smith, it was revealed last week, has some very non-liberal views on social issues.
Smith never hid his views. They were accessible at his blog, Likebulb (good luck in finding it, I think it has been taken down).
Mark Daadlar reported that Smith had interests in anti-Semitism (the Jews are to blame!), Islamaphobia (Muslims are to blame!) and debunking Covid. He also was, creepily, an Incel person. The Wikipedia definition is:
Incels, a portmanteau of “involuntary celibates“, are members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one. Discussions in incel forums are often characterised by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity and self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people.
Indeed, on several occasions he railed against ‘the rules’ that prevented him engaging in sexual exploitation such as rape and trafficking. Underlying this is also a deep-seated hatred of women for being sexual but not been freely available to him. He was a damaged person, it seems.
Smith spent seven years at the NBR (which should be asking itself some questions) and has been with the NZ Initiative since February 2020. Newsroom states that Oliver Hartwich, the CE, said that the organisation had no knowledge of Smith’s views. I think this raises three questions: why did it take so long for people to notice; does the Bill of Rights s.13 apply and what if he had not resigned?
Can I come right out and say that I bet the women who worked with him knew something was wrong with him. I strongly doubt the Incel thing could be hidden from women. Further, misogynist behaviour is so institutionalised into NZ workplaces that it is almost expected, which offered Smith some protection. As is racism in all its forms. It is the extremism that only a small number would have picked up on.
The Bill of Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference”. This includes in the workplace and everywhere. At the moment there are no hate speech laws, so while his views might be awful, creepy, scary, strange and sinister to you and me, they were not illegal (some of the Incel views bordered on pro-rape advocacy, perhaps).
But any decent employment lawyer would note that (a) he made no secret of his views (he wrote a blog, FFS), (b) he had the right to hold those views under the law, and (c) he carried out his work as required and his views did not interfere with this (the NZ Initiative is carrying out an audit of everything Smith touched to see whether in fact they were tainted by his ideology).
So Hartwich’s instant public repudiation, followed by Smith’s resignation (which he will no doubt argue was a constructive dismissal) will no doubt end up in the Employment Court, possibly as a test case of ideological requirements of workers. This may also collide with the subsequent adoption of any hate speech laws. Or Smith may just scarper overseas and cut his losses.
In principle I agree with Bomber that using laws to regulate thought and speech is slippery, dangerous and probably impossible. I do sympathise with the NZ Initiative – purporting to be a neutral think tank and harbouring a snake in one’s errr … bosom – but on the other hand, they should have done their due diligence on Mr Smith and his beliefs.
There remains the one great shock that someone with Smith’s views, hidden in plain sight, was able to hold a senior media position within the New Zealand establishment. How many more of them are out there?
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.