It’s taken a while, but the speech wars have reached New Zealand – and an Australian is in the thick of the strife. Problem is, she’s on the wrong side.
Jan Thomas, the vice-chancellor of Massey University, recently banned Don Brash, a former leader of the centre-right National party, from speaking at a campus event organised by a student politics society. It was the first occurrence at a New Zealand university of the ugly phenomenon known as no-platforming. Now Thomas, who came to New Zealand from the University of Southern Queensland, has been exposed not just as an enemy of free speech, but as a dissembler who was less than honest about her motives.
Brash had been invited to speak, along with other former politicians, about his time in politics. It promised to be an innocuous, low-key event. But incongruously, the gentlemanly septuagenarian is the man the New Zealand left most loves to hate. This can be traced back to the day in 2004 when, as leader of the Opposition, he delivered a speech to the Orewa Rotary Club in which he warned of a drift toward racial separatism and attacked the notion of special treatment for the Maori population.
Brash’s advocacy of “one rule for all” resonated with many New Zealanders. Subsequent polls showed a huge surge in support for National. In the 2005 election, the party came close to defeating Helen Clark’s Labour government – an extraordinary turnaround after National’s worst-ever defeat only three years earlier. But the “infamous” Orewa speech (to use the loaded adjective routinely applied to it by the left-leaning media) made Brash a marked man, and worse was to come when he formed a lobby group with the aim of ending race-based privilege. The establishment of Hobson’s Pledge (the group took its name from colonial administrator William Hobson’s declaration at the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi that “now we are all one people”) made Brash the most vilified man in New Zealand.
Fast forward now to 2018 and Jan Thomas. A professor of veterinary science, Thomas was appointed vice-chancellor (in other words, CEO) of Massey in January 2017. But although a newcomer to New Zealand, she was quick to assess the political landscape and fall into line with the left-wing monoculture that permeates New Zealand universities.
The justification given for Thomas’s decision to ban Brash was that his appearance might trigger a violent protest, thereby putting students and staff at risk. That provoked an uproar, since the supposed threat turned out to come from a lone disaffected student who objected to what he called (quite erroneously) Brash’s “separatist and supremacist rhetoric”, and who later said he never intended to do more than wave a sign.
Thomas’s attempt to characterise the mild-mannered Brash as a dangerous demagogue provoked a fierce backlash, and not just from his supporters. Some of the most stinging condemnation of Thomas came from old-school leftists whose belief in Brash’s right to speak and be heard outweighed their visceral distaste for his neo-liberal leanings.
But if Thomas’s edict caused severe reputational harm to Massey, a second-string university based in the provincial city of Palmerston North, it was nothing compared with the damage when the real reason for the ban emerged.
Emails obtained under the Official Information Act showed that long before the supposed security threat arose, Thomas was inquiring about possible “mechanisms” for dealing with Brash – in other words, excuses to ban him – and telling her staff she didn’t want a “Te Tiriti-led university” to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours”. She persisted even after a subordinate pointed out that the university was likely to be attacked for stifling free speech.
Readers should note Thomas’s impeccable command of politically correct New Zealand terminology. “Te Tiriti” is the Maori term for the Treaty of Waitangi, under which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Britain and in turn were given the rights of British subjects.
The treaty is a short and spare document, but decades of judicial activism and ideologically driven re-interpretation have stretched and twisted its meaning to the point where its supposed “principles”, although never legally defined, intrude into areas of New Zealand life that the treaty signatories could never have envisaged – including, apparently, the vetoing of politically unfashionable speakers by university administrators.
In another email, Thomas opined that Brash was “very racist” regarding the six designated Maori seats in Parliament, which he has rightly described as an anachronism under a proportional voting system that resulted in 29 MPs of Maori descent being elected in the most recent election. Thomas characterised Brash’s views as “close to hate speech”, but there is no “hate speech” in New Zealand law – and even if there was, it’s hard to imagine the New Zealand courts, which are very cautious about curbing freedom of expression, being persuaded that Brash was out to harm anyone. By any criteria other than those applied by the neo-Marxist left and the media commentariat, his opinions on race politics are broadly in line with those of middle New Zealand.
At the time of writing, Thomas had gone to ground and left her PR staff to clean up the mess, but she was under huge pressure. Two censure motions will be tabled at the next meeting of the university’s academic board, National party leader Simon Bridges called on Thomas to resign, labelling her as dishonest, and the leader of the Massey students’ association, a Maori, said students had no confidence in her. Brash himself said, with typical restraint, that Thomas’s position was “almost untenable”.
If there’s a heartening aspect of the furore, it’s that condemnation of Thomas came from nearly all sides. As with the controversy over the recent visit to New Zealand by Canadian "alt-right" speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, the Massey veto on Brash galvanised a free-speech movement that was broader-based than anyone expected.
Meanwhile Thomas, by presuming to decide what views New Zealanders should be allowed to hear, has succeeded in making herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell ordered his brother to bowl underarm in 1981.