Thursday, April 29, 2010

Politics at its most cynical

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 27.)

SAY the word “sneaky”. Now try drawing it out, like this: sneak-key.

There, you’ve got it.

Sneak-key is a freshly coined term for a prime minister who secretly dispatches the Minister of Maori Affairs to New York so that he can commit New Zealand to a declaration that the previous government refused to sign and that New Zealanders have never been given an opportunity to debate.

Then, when word gets out, the PM pretends it didn’t really matter much because the declaration was only symbolic anyway.

If that was the case – if signing the declaration was only a gesture – why did it have to be done so furtively? Why couldn’t Mr Key do what good leaders do in liberal democracies and clearly announce in advance what the government intended to do, so that the country was at least informed even if it hadn’t had a chance to make up its mind?

The answer is obvious. Mr Key knew people would rightly object to New Zealand signing a declaration without first having an informed discussion about the implications, but he gambled on getting away with it because of his personal popularity.

This is politics at its most cynical. It demonstrates contempt for the electorate.

So now New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and while Mr Key was airily dismissing it as a matter of no great significance, Maori expectations were being ramped up to unprecedented levels.

There’s a yawning credibility gap here. Either Mr Key is right, and the declaration is just a feel-good, “aspirational” statement of no practical consequence, or High Court judge Sir Eddie Durie, the Labour Party, public law expert Mai Chen and ACT leader Rodney Hide are right, and the declaration could have profound and far-reaching consequences.

If Mr Key had been open and up-front, I might have been inclined to accept his word. But he wasn’t, so I don’t.

That acrid smell in the air is the National Government’s political capital burning up.

* * *

THE CRESCENDO of anti-liquor propaganda has risen to deafening proportions as Parliament prepares to receive the Law Commission’s final report, due today, on suggested changes to the alcohol laws.

Over the past few weeks, New Zealanders have been bombarded with dire and sometimes near-hysterical claims about the damage being done by alcohol abuse.

If this issue is to be decided by the sheer volume of propaganda, then the wowser lobby – largely funded by our taxes – has it in the bag. They have run a sustained and cleverly orchestrated campaign designed to panic New Zealanders into thinking we’re a nation of helpless drunks. There can be no doubt that their objective was to put pressure on the commission to recommend law changes that will sharply diminish individual responsibility and punish moderate drinkers.

Polls indicate the wowsers have largely been successful in convincing New Zealanders that we all need time in the detox unit. The liquor industry, for all its supposed political influence, is trailing well behind in the war of public opinion.

Personally I won’t lose any sleep over whatever happens to the liquor industry barons. By greedily continuing to promote the Kiwi pisshead culture and pushing alco-pops to young women, they have played into the hands of the neo-puritan propagandists in the universities and the health bureaucracy.

What bothers me is that those who will pay the price, literally and figuratively, for harsher liquor laws will include the vast majority of people who drink responsibly and have benefited enormously from the gradual liberalisation of the past 30-odd years.

We’ve been here before, of course. Just as dog attacks were used to justify a crackdown on law-abiding dog owners, and just as good parents were potentially criminalised because of the actions of child abusers, so responsible drinkers risk being penalised for the misbehaviour of the relatively small number who drink to excess.

* * *

ONE OF the significant achievements of the Internet, for which it isn’t really given due credit, is that it gives courage to cowards.

Letters to newspaper editors require a name and address; have done for decades. Even on radio talkback shows, anonymity isn’t complete because there’s always the chance someone might recognise the caller’s voice. Besides, the host can dump anyone who gets too offensive. These checks tend to filter out people with extreme views who don’t have the guts to reveal themselves.

Online forums, on the other hand, confer total anonymity. People can be as toxic, defamatory, abusive and splenetic as they like, cowering all the while behind pseudonyms. The blogosphere is God’s gift to people whose cowardice previously served to keep their rage in check.

It’s a form of free speech, I suppose, but a very inferior one. If an opinion is worth expressing, it’s surely worth putting your name to.