• Where’s the Christmas Spirit?

    When the condemnation by an independent review of “state-sponsored” doping of Russian athletes is reported on Russian television, followed by an assurance from Vladimir Putin’s Minister of Sport that the accusations are groundless and should be ignored, we feel justified in rolling our eyes. “What else do you expect?” we say. Russia may claim to be democracy but we know that Putin has such a hold on Russian opinion that he can get away with murder – and probably does.

    When the Fijian police chief resigns, claiming that he can no longer tolerate interference from the military, but is then immediately replaced by an army colonel, we shrug our shoulders. We know, don’t we, that the army is calling the shots, whatever the claims that democracy has been restored, and that Fijian majority opinion will simply accept what they are told.

    We, of course, live in a proper democracy. We wouldn’t swallow such nonsense. But when our Prime Minister launches an intemperate and unprincipled attack on those who stand up for human rights as “backers of rapists and murderers”, in an attempt to divert attention from his failure to act on abuses committed against New Zealand citizens by the Australian government, what do we do? Nothing. We, or at least many of us, say “well, he’s got a point, hasn’t he?” And “good old John, he tells it like it is.”

    What each of these instances – and there are many more – illustrates is that democracy is about more than form. There are many regimes that parade the trappings of democracy but whose practice actually falls well short of the democratic ideal. The lesson from such instances is that democracy essentially depends on constant scepticism and scrutiny, on not believing everything we are told simply because the person telling us is an authority figure or someone we like or generally support.

    It was Thomas Jefferson who is usually credited with the aphorism that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. If that vigilance flags, if we once accept whatever we are told, if we no longer challenge or question, our democracy becomes a mere cipher, and our government can confidently do whatever it likes.

    How real is that threat in New Zealand? No one would argue that our government is undemocratic, in the sense that it consistently ignores or flouts public opinion – indeed, quite the contrary, since there is a strong populist flavour in much of what it does.

    The risk we run is rather different but perhaps just as real. Our Prime Minister is adept at reading the runes and staying closely in touch with public opinion – it is one of his great political strengths. But he has become so accustomed to exploiting that ability, so confident that he will be believed however implausible may be what he says – indeed, he has so often stayed upright while skating on very thin ice – that he can now be forgiven for believing that he can get away with anything.

    On most occasions, he has been able to stay just the right side of credibility and judges correctly how far he can go. But on the Christmas Island issue, his antennae seem to have let him down.

    Even so, he will judge that the furore created by his display of manufactured outrage in parliament has meant that, while the media and others debate the rights and wrongs of what he has said on an issue that has no substance, he does not have to answer the difficult questions. Have these New Zealanders detained on Christmas Island – those with criminal convictions – not served their time? Are they not now being doubly punished? When they are told that they can go “home”, have they not made Australia their home? Are they not being discriminated against because they are not Australian? Are they not being locked up in a prison camp, and denied recourse to protection from the law, and is this not an abuse of human rights? Why does the Prime Minister not raise these questions with his Australian counterpart?

    In a proper democracy, we would demand that these questions should be answered, not just because we need to know the particular answers in this case, but because our leaders should be obliged as a matter of principle to be accountable, by providing truthful and accurate information, for what they do in our name.

    Trusting our leaders to do the right thing, even if the evidence suggests otherwise, is not good enough. In a democracy, we need to keep our eyes – and our minds – open, not closed.

    Bryan Gould

    12 November 2015