Chris Trotter: Threatening “Consequences”

Chris Trotter: Threatening “Consequences”

“CONSEQUENCES” – it’s a word that acquires an ominous quality in the mouths of political radicals. As in: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from its consequences.” Or, as Te Pāti Māori’s Debbie Ngarewa Packer expressed it, when asked what would happen if the Act Party secured its referendum on Te Tiriti from its new coalition partners: “We have always said there will be consequences.”

In both contexts the word is freighted with menace. It is impossible to miss the threat which the word is now required to bear. What the political radical is saying to the person about to avail herself of what is perhaps the most fundamental of all human rights is chilling.

“Of course you can speak out on this issue, but you are surely not so naïve as to believe that your little speech will be the end of it. Giving voice to such opinions cannot help but leave a very black mark on your record. It’s the sort of thing that goes down in an employee’s personal file. Your chances of promotion may be limited very seriously by giving voice to such views. Still, it’s entirely up to you. Just remember, though, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from its consequences.”

If you were a public servant harbouring serious doubts about the wisdom of enshrining “decolonisation” and “indigenisation” at the top of your ministry’s priorities, and you had let it be known that it was your intention to speak out against the idea at the next staff training day, and your supervisor delivered that not-so-subtle warning to you the night before, would you go ahead with your plan? Or would the consequences of going ahead with your “little speech” cause you to scrap the whole idea?

Are we really free to express ourselves if, by doing so, we place our livelihood, our entire future career, at risk? If that’s what’s at stake, then doesn’t the exercise of our freedom of expression take on a fraught, almost existential, character? Like the German citizen of the Third Reich who, in obedience to his Christian faith, conceals a Jewish family in his attic. Simply by showing compassion for his fellow human-beings, that man was risking arrest, imprisonment and death. When those are the outcomes of displaying human compassion; of obeying the Christian injunction to “love thy neighbour”; is it not reasonable to suppose that the exercise of love and compassion will diminish?

Attaching dire consequences to any aspect of human behaviour must be seen as a means of reducing or eliminating that behaviour. If speaking out against “decolonisation” and “indigenisation” in a government ministry could cost the speaker their career, then the chances of it happening will be reduced dramatically. A climate of fear and compliance will be created in which the only safe speech is that which conforms to the policies and plans of the people in charge. The language of consequences all-too-easily shades into the language of totalitarianism.

It is difficult to attribute anything other than an intention to intimidate the incoming government to Debbie Ngarewa Packer’s statement to RNZ. Or to Willie Jackson’s comments to Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs programme. The former Māori Development Minister predicted civil unrest on a scale “five times, ten times” worse than the 1981 Springbok Tour protests if the Act Party’s referendum goes ahead. Both politicians are laying out theconsequences of a coalition partner making it possible for citizens to cast a vote on the role and scope of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. It is suggested that massive civil disturbances – quite possibly violent in nature – will be the result if this classically democratic mechanism is employed to resolve significant differences in the interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Compare the response of these two Māori nationalists with those of the people who opposed the introduction of proportional representation, assisted dying, and decriminalisation of cannabis. Did the “anti” side of these debates, or the “pro” side, for that matter, threaten massive civil disturbances if their will was thwarted by the democratic process? No, they did not, because the referendum is generally acknowledged by all those who adhere to the democratic values of New Zealand society to be the best method of resolving controversial issues rationally and peacefully.

What other conclusion can be drawn from the statements of Debbie Ngarewa Packer and Willie Jackson, except that they reject the principle of majority rule that underpins the entire democratic system of government. And, if that is true, then New Zealanders will find it difficult to resist the conclusion that these two politicians’ preference, and the preference of the Māori nationalist movement generally, is for a system of government that accords the right of veto to a minority of the population.

Because what else is being demanded here but the right to prevent certain political policies from being implemented? Not by virtue of winning an election fought, at least in part, on the political policies in dispute. Not by winning a referendum called to determine, finally, which course of action should be followed. But by warning of the consequences of allowing the offending policy to be implemented over the minority’s objections. Or, in the language of the mafioso enforcer: “Nice little country you’ve got here, it would be a real shame if something happened to turn it into a hell-hole of civil strife.”

How, then, should the incoming government respond to this threat ofconsequences? The largest party of the coalition currently in formation, National, has rejected Act’s policy of a Treaty referendum as “divisive and unhelpful”. But this is nonsense. A great many of the policies espoused by National, Act and NZ First are “divisive and unhelpful” – not least their pledge to abolish Fair Pay Agreements. But, the fact that a great many people are opposed to National-Act-NZ First policies will not prevent them from being implemented. It’s one of the principal reasons for holding democratic elections, to provide governments with the mandate needed to proceed with their policies over the objections of the opposition. The question, therefore, is not whether Act’s policy is “divisive and unhelpful”, but whether it is justified.

And, if it is justified, then the incoming government must decide how to respond to the threatened consequences of allowing Act’s referendum to be put before the people. The answer to this question is as clear as it is daunting: no government can allow its conduct of national affairs to be determined by threats of massive civil disturbance and/or political violence.

Successfully applied once, the minority’s consequences – its veto – will be applied again, and again, and again, until the political will of the majority has been set at nought. Either that, or, unwilling to be ruled by the minority, the majority will develop a sequence of consequences intended to secure results considerably more to their liking.


Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s leading leftwing political commentator, with 30 years of experience writing professionally about New Zealand politics. He now writes regularly for the Democracy Project, producing his column “From the Left”.

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