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Chris Trotter: Mistrusting Democracy

Jan Tinetti, Associate Minister of Education, is firmly of the view that those who subscribe to “an ideology of hate” have no place on a school board of trustees. So convinced is the Minister, that she is actively seeking administrative and/or legislative changes to prevent such persons from being nominated. Though doubtless undertaken with the best of intentions, Tinetti’s initiative is deeply troubling. In a democracy, the idea that the state is qualified to decide which ideologies are acceptable for candidates for public office to hold, and which are not, should be laughed off the political stage.


Prompting the Associate-Minister’s authoritarian musings, is the revelation that the convicted white supremacist, Philip Arp, the man sentenced to 21 months imprisonment for distributing terrorist Brenton Tarrant’s recording of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, had been nominated for a seat on the Board of Trustees of Te Aratai College. Christchurch city councillor, Sarah Templeton, who has children at the school, angrily voiced her frustration that such individuals cannot be legally prevented from becoming trustees. Clearly, her objections have not fallen on deaf ears.


The problem with characters like Arp is that their behaviour is so prone to causing public outrage that citizens find it all-too-easy for to switch-off their critical political faculties and remain silent when politicians call for Nazis to be declared ineligible for public office. After all, who wants to be seen sticking up for antisemitic fascists?


The answer, of course, is: we should all want to be seen resisting any attempt by the state to weed-out “undesirable” ideas, and the dubious individuals who hold them, before they get anywhere near a nomination form. As democrats, our firm position must always be that the only body qualified to decide who should, and should not, be elected to public office is the electorate itself. That is to say, You and I – the voters.


Do Tinetti and Templeton seriously believe that the parents of Te Aratai College’s ethnically and religiously diverse student body are in the slightest danger of electing Arp to the school’s Board of Trustees? If they do, then they are guilty of offering them the most outrageous insult. If they don’t, then what they are proposing will rob those same parent electors of the opportunity to condemn in the most emphatic fashion Arp’s vile beliefs and actions.


That Tinetti, a Cabinet Minister, seems unwilling to affirm that, in a working democracy, it is the citizen who possesses the power of decisive political agency, is worrying. It is not, however, an deficiency peculiar to herself. For some time now, both the Labour and Green parties have struggled to acknowledge in the electorate a collective wisdom more than equal to the task of distinguishing good from evil, right from wrong, democrats from fascists. Indeed, both parties show signs of believing the opposite to be true: that the electorate is neither wise enough, nor resilient enough, to recognise Nazi bullshit when they hear it.


Nowhere was this fundamental lack of faith in the fundamental decency and wisdom of the ordinary citizen more distressingly on display than in the days immediately following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings of March 2019. Completely ignoring the evidence of their own eyes, the Greens’ Marama Davidson and Golriz Ghahraman not-so-subtly insinuated that the entire “white” population of New Zealand was in some way complicit in Tarrant’s “lone wolf” terrorist outrage. That tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders – of all colours and creeds – were filling parks and stadiums to express their solidarity with New Zealand’s Muslim community failed to impress them.


Labour’s response was less insulting but, in a way, more troubling. In spite of delivering her internationally-acclaimed repudiation of Tarrant’s crime: “They are Us”; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern clearly believed that neither “They” nor “Us” were strong enough to endure the harm, or resist the temptation, of “hate speech”. Seconded by the hilariously misnamed Human Rights Commission, the Labour-led Government set out to radically reduce in size democracy’s foundation-stone – the citizen’s right to free expression.


Sadly, Ardern was pushing on an open left-wing door. Once the most determined defenders of free speech, the New Zealand Left has, for more than a decade, been evincing less-and-less enthusiasm for the critical democratic insight that freedom of expression must never become a privilege, to be rationed amongst “our side’s” best friends, but remain a right, freely available even to our worst enemies.


The Covid-19 Pandemic made matters worse. When the fight is with a potentially fatal virus, individuals and groups communicating false information can endanger the health of millions. In these circumstances, the temptation is strong to rank the health of the democratic system well below that of the population as a whole. Or, even worse, to start seeing the key elements of democracy: freedom of expression; freedom of assembly; freedom of association; as the vectors of a dangerous political disease.


This is now the grave danger confronting New Zealand: a Labour Government which has convinced itself that people communicating lies can undermine the health and well-being of the entire population – rather than a tragic fraction of it. Traumatised by the occupation of Parliament Grounds (by people already traumatised by the Government’s imposition of vaccination mandates they had promised not to use) politicians and journalists, alike, have convinced themselves that the purveyors of “misinformation” and “disinformation” now constitute a direct threat to the security of the state.


Which takes us right back to Jan Tinetti and the “threat” of Nazis on school boards of trustees. The political class’s historical mistrust of democracy, long resisted by the Left, has now been embraced by what is left of it. No longer a “bottom up” party, Labour has grown increasingly fearful that its “progressive” policies are unacceptable to a majority of the electorate. Ardern’s government, and its supporters, are terrified that the Far Right will opportunistically seize upon this public unease and whip it into some sort of fascist majority. Hence their determination to shut them up, shut them down and shut them out.


Except, as the recent history of the United States makes clear, this determination to keep the “deplorables” as far away from power as possible, is actually the fastest and most effective way to bring on the destabilising lurch to the Right that the progressive Left most fears. Poorly educated though they may be, ordinary citizens are not stupid. They can tell when they’re not sufficiently trusted or respected to be given a decisive role in the government of their own country.


With distressing speed, New Zealand is dividing itself into two hostile, camps. The smaller counts within it the better part of the better educated, is positioned on the commanding heights of the state, and considers itself the brain and conscience of the nation. The larger camp, nothing like so clever, seethes with frustration and resentment, anxiety and rage. It fears that its world: the world it grew up in; the world it knows and trusts; is shifting on its foundations.


What remains to be seen is which outcome represents the greater catastrophe for New Zealand: that the policies of those occupying the heights should proceed unchecked; or that the depths should find a leader equal to the task of bringing them down?


This article appears at Chris Trotter's blog, Bowalley Road

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