In 2007, John Key, then Leader of the Opposition, gave a powerful speech to the New Zealand Press Club against the Electoral Finance Bill. He declared: “Here in New Zealand we often take our democratic freedoms for granted. We think they will always be there. We have a Bill of Rights which is supposed to protect our right to freedom of expression. What on earth could go wrong?”
I have a different view. I believe what Thomas Jefferson said – that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. There are times when we have to stand up for our rights, and the rights of our neighbours and friends, and indeed the rights of people we totally disagree with, or else these rights will begin to erode away.
I agree with these sentiments, absolutely. New Zealanders must stand up for their democratic rights when they are threatened, or they’ll lose them.
Who could have imagined that in 2013, this same political leader would be presiding over an assault upon the democratic rights of New Zealanders? This is a matter of such gravity that last month, the Law Society felt impelled 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 to the United Nations, the Law Society lists a series of recent 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. They express their concern that a number of bills formally 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 Brothers, 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 United Nations that the Government in New Zealand 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 with that spies on New Zealand citizens and residents. As the Law Society states in its submission, “The bill is intrusive. It is inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom from unreasonable search or seizure under New Zealand law.”
The GCSB bill would give the agency sweeping powers, with the only effective controls 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.
Today, the former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson called for an “apolitical, but robust debate about this kind of legislation”.
Like the Law Society, he is speaking truth to power. When governments go feral, citizens of all political persuasions and from all backgrounds must stand up and demand that their representatives in Parliament – from whatever political party – do their job, and uphold democratic freedoms in New Zealand.
If citizens and their representatives are supine while democratic rights are trampled, we are culpable, along with our leaders. Again, John Key’s rousing speech to the Press Club in 2007 puts the case to perfection: “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.
• Anthropologist and author Dame Anne Salmond is the current New Zealander of the Year.