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Threats to Democracy

The strength and durability of democracy is totally reliant on the right of groups and individuals to hold a dissenting or minority opinion and the freedom to debate that opinion in public.
While none of our rights or freedoms are absolute there should only be restrictions against defamation or advocating violence. Beyond those logical qualifications, muzzle that free debate, and the foundations of a free and open society start to crumble. We have seen that in some nations where negative comments about the head of state are a crime. Those nations are now longer seen free and open as we are.
There is also the danger that a suppressed or muzzled opinion will go “underground” to be used, and misused, by those with an ulterior and often sinister motivation.
It might have escaped the notice of many people but we now have indications that the free and open debate on a few important issues in New Zealand are being subtly muzzled.
The first is the vexed question of climate change. To those with even a passing interest in the subject there is no doubt that human activity has brought a dramatic and dangerous change to the world’s climate. Nations worldwide are agreed that action is needed to avoid a global catastrophe. There are however significant numbers of people who disagree that anything is wrong and that anything needs to be done. They are a dwindling minority but they hold a legitimate, if illogical, opinion which our newspapers have resolved not to publish. Newspapers are free to make that decision and but there is something not quite right when editors decide to muzzle a dissenting opinion.
The second issue is the Government’s response to Covid-19 and the national roll out of a vaccination programme to save lives. Those who objected to the requirement for people in some occupations to be vaccinated soon became known as “antivaxers” and were ostracised and ridiculed whenever they tried to debate the matter. The initially peaceful occupation of Parliament grounds in Wellington was a result of frustration at not being taken seriously or listened to. That occupation was quickly taken over by all manner of social misfits and the original message was lost in an orgy of lawless stupidity.
The third issue is perhaps the most problematic as it involves the Government’s philosophy of co-governance and partnership with Maori. Opposition to what many people see as undemocratic separatism is quickly labelled as racist to shut it down. Compounding the issue is a decision by many news papers and other news media platforms to not publish anything which can be seen as “anti-Maori”. That has come about
Through the Government’s $55million contestable fund for public interest journalism which requires, among other things, recognition of Maori as treaty partners. That has developed into an overly cautious approach to anything that can be seen as vaguely negative about Maori.
Opposition to co-governance or privilege for Maori, or any other ethnic group, is not in itself racist and it is too easy and cowardly to play the race card in these debates.
It must be accepted also that racism is not the exclusive preserve of Pakeha or European New Zealanders. Maori can be, and have been, as intolerant of other ethnic groups as anyone else. There are already serious divisions within the Maori academic community on the issue of Maori discrimination against “white immigration” and many other matters.
New Zealand, like most nations, has always had racism, religious bigotry, white supremacy, anti-immigration and many other philosophies from the far right, the far left and almost every position in between. Most form an insidious background to everyday life to the point where it has become the norm in many clubs, pubs and workplaces to denigrate minority groups, particularly immigrants of all colours and creeds, usually in their absence.
Attempts by well-intentioned but ill-informed people to address the issue of racism against Maori, such as seats on local authorities reserved for Maori without an election, have resulted in further divisions and mistrust. Even more bizarre is the recent adoption by a growing number of central and local government bodies that there must be a Maori cultural component included in almost every event or official gathering. A few badly pronounced phrases, learned by rote with minimal understanding and the repetition of Christian missionary prayers of the 1850s poorly translated into Maori pass as Maori culture. This sycophantic attempt at appeasement can be both demeaning to Maori and offensive to Pakeha and, although few will admit it, simply create more racism.
Addressing the very real issue of racism in New Zealand, preserving democracy is not served by the current sycophantic attitude to all things Maori.
We can legislate against racism in its various forms, we can require local government to include Maori in consultation over and above the requirement to include the wider community but we can’t force people, Maori or Pakeha, to change the way they think. That will take time and a genuine willingness by all people to treat each other with the utmost courtesy, honesty, equality and respect. We clearly have some way to.


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