Meng Foon, the recently appointed race relations commissioner, thinks newly elected Tauranga city councillor Andrew Hollis should resign because he said on Facebook that the Treaty of Waitangi was “a joke” and “past its use-by date”. The new mayor of Tauranga, Tenby Powell, agrees.
Never mind that more than 7500 people voted for Hollis, making him the second most popular candidate for the four “at large” council seats. Never mind that many of the people who voted for him quite possibly share his view – rightly or wrongly – about the Treaty.
This is the way it is in New Zealand in 2019. The option of first resort, if you disagree with something someone in public office has said, is to demand that they resign, and to hell with the democratic process that got them elected or the voters who supported them. Dissent is dealt with not by debating the issue, but by trying to silence the dissenter.
This is not the way things are supposed to be done in a supposedly liberal democracy, but it’s increasingly the norm in 21st century New Zealand.
Hollis obviously stands in the way of Powell’s wish for a “united” council. Well, tough; that’s democracy. It’s often messy and peopled by contrary characters, just as it should be if it’s to reflect the real world.
Tauranga’s new mayor rose to the rank of colonel in the New Zealand army, and there’s a hint of military thinking in his apparent desire for order around the council table. But councillors are elected to speak their minds, not to meekly fall into line with what the mayor wants. New Zealand is a democracy, and democracy is supposed to provide a forum for all views. It is not selective.
Besides, forcing Hollis to stand down – or disqualify himself from any discussion relating to Maori issues, which is Powell’s alternative demand – doesn’t magically get rid of his opinions. On the contrary, heavy-handed attempts to stifle dissent serve to foster anger and resentment, and are likely to reinforce the widely held opinion that New Zealand has been captured by authoritarian orthodoxy and groupthink.
The really disappointing response to Hollis’s heresy, however, is not Powell’s, but Meng Foon’s. Powell is just a provincial mayor seeking to assert himself at the start of his first term, but Foon occupies a position of power and influence in central government and, unlike Powell, doesn’t depend on votes to stay there.
Like many people, I welcomed Foon’s appointment as race relations commissioner. He had seemed an admirable mayor of Gisborne and promised to bring a grounded, common-sense approach to a job where ideology, rooted in identify politics, had previously held sway. We are now forced to conclude, regrettably, that it’s still business as usual at the Human Rights Commission.
The furore over Andrew Hollis is only a symptom of a much bigger problem, which is that freedom of speech is under concerted attack.
Whenever a public figure or institution loudly proclaims his, her or its commitment to free speech, you sense there’s a “but” coming. It seems we’re allowed to enjoy free speech, except on certain issues deemed to be offensive to fragile sensibilities.
Take Massey University, for example. Announcing last week that it had chickened out of hosting the Feminism 2020 conference, Massey made ritual noises about being committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech as “values that lie at the very heart of the tradition of a university and academic inquiry”. But its supposed commitment wasn’t strong enough to save the feminist event after it was targeted by a noisy group of precious transgender activists threatening disruption.
Massey’s excuse for capitulating to the protesters was that cancellation was the only way to avoid breaching its health, safety and wellbeing obligations. It was another victory for the enemies of free speech – and an early demonstration of the danger inherent in the recent High Court ruling which held that an Auckland Council-owned company was within its rights in cancelling a speaking engagement at the Bruce Mason Centre following an unsubstantiated threat of protest action (but with strong evidence of political influence on the part of Auckland's mayor).
There’s a strange and chilling irony here. Feminists were once at the cutting edge of radical politics, but now, because of their insistence that a person with a penis cannot be a woman, find themselves supplanted by a more radical ideology that wants to silence them.
Interestingly, this isn’t a classic left-vs-right debate. Some of the most vigorous defences of free speech have come from hard-core leftists such as Chris Trotter and Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury. It’s the so-called snowflake generation that loudly champions diversity but which contradictorily has no tolerance of diverse opinions. Sadly, they are encouraged by academics and some politicians – and now by Meng Foon and Tenby Powell.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.