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Unwritten social rules evade Bridges

March 1, 2021

The many laws, rules and regulations which govern our lives can be seen as a measure of our uncertainty. In effect, if we are certain about what we should or should not do, we do not need laws to direct us. It is only when we are unsure that we need laws to direct us. It is only the dishonest or the stupid who defy certainty or the law. 

In an increasingly complex, uncertain and risky world we have a seemingly endless flow of new dictums to observe in our daily lives. We can only expect that to increase as world governments finally begin to address the massive problems created by social media platforms and some of the sinister individuals who mis-use them.    

There are however a number of time-tested unwritten rules of expected behaviour which fall into the very broad category of traditional conventions. Most of us have learned them through what might be called social osmosis or unconscious observation, and we know when those rules have been breached. Those people in public office in particular are expected to know and abide by those conventions and we are quick to call them out when we think they have failed to do so. 

While our members of Parliament can be critical of each other, sometimes on an unnecessarily personal level, they know that members’ families are off limits, unlike in American politics where few such rules seem to apply. The same protective convention also applies to public servants. The rationale is that it is improper, and probably cowardly, to be publicly critical of those who are not in a position to respond or defend themselves.

We saw a rare and unfortunate example of that in the recent public attack by National Party justice spokesman Simon Bridges on Police Commissioner Andy Coster. Bridges called the commissioner a “wokester” on Twitter last week but was later unable or unwilling to explain exactly what the term meant. 

In a subsequent interview with journalists Bridges said the commissioner had put being nice ahead of enforcing the law. Bridges knows, or should know, that public servants no matter how senior, are equally bound by convention not to respond to public criticism from politicians, no matter how ill-advised or inaccurate. That is particularly important with the police force, which again by convention, has always been seen and treated as completely independent of the government. That said, no government department is, or should be, above criticism or question, particularly by opposition members of Parliament.

There is no doubt that policing has changed in recent times but does that mean police are taking an easier attitude to crime or just working smarter? There was a time when we had police “walking the beat” on our streets and every little village and town and a “resident cop”. We knew them by name and they knew us, which I discovered in my-far off and less than saintly teen years. They were closer to the community fifty years ago than they are now in many instances and there are significant benefits in changing that.

Not everyone is happy with those changes and they have legitimate questions to ask but there is a proper place and manner in which to ask them. The proper way for Bridges, or any other MP, to ask those questions is directly to the minister concerned, as their parliamentary equals, and there are several opportunities for that to happen. These questions can be asked during Question Time in the House, in writing to the appropriate minister or at a select committee hearing. Even in these forums a degree of decorum and respect is expected, something that was lost on Bridges who was more antagonistic in his questioning of Coster than he needed to be.   

As a former public prosecutor, Bridges will have a much better knowledge of the law, both written and unwritten, than most other people. That makes his outspoken criticism particularly poor form and he will also understand that, which seems to suggest he has a motive beyond simple criticism. Is he planning a tilt at leadership again?

When asked during a TV interview for a response to the criticism Coster acted as a professional should and declined to comment.   

The last thing National needed was another round of ill-considered public comment within party ranks. That behaviour proved costly in last general election. Leader Judith Collins still has made commendable progress rebuilding public credibility and she needs to deal firmly with Bridges before that work is undone.

Collins, and her deputy Dr Shane Reti, have politely distanced themselves from the criticism without throwing Bridges under the bus. We need an effective opposition as much as we need an effective government and Bridges has shown he is ill-suited to either role.

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