How far back should we go for the answers? To 1932? Or 1952? Too far? What about 1982? Closer? Very well, let us begin our investigation in 2019. Let’s begin in the hours, days and weeks following the Christchurch terror attack because it was there, amidst all the shock and horror, that the idea began to grow that it was time for the Left to step up, that the moment had come for progressives to show they could take a hard line with as much determination as conservatives.
March 2019 was when Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-NZ First government made the momentous decision to harness the power of the New Zealand state to the righteous wrath of its leaders and to show the world how progressives can fight. The first targets, obvious and with the overwhelming backing of the population, were the thousands of military-style semi-automatic rifles in the hands of New Zealanders who really could not supply their fellow citizens with a good reason for possessing them. Brenton Tarrant had shown New Zealand what MSSAs were made to do. They have no other purpose. Ban them.
And how the world applauded New Zealand’s young Prime Minister. Americans, in particular, cheered Jacinda Ardern to the echo: to live in a country where such things were possible; to have a leader willing to act and a legislature able to take the obvious, necessary steps to protect its people. How fortunate was New Zealand!
Protection: it’s a slippery concept, as wont to lead us into darkness as guide us to the light. Politicians who want to protect us can be a blessing but they can also be a curse, such as when it is proposed to extend the state’s protection beyond banning the all-too-real firearms that deal out death to include the spoken and written words of those whose ideas motivate the men in possession of these military-style weapons.
It is an age-old question: who is the more powerful? The man with the gun? Or the man who manufactures his bullets? There is no shortage on the Left of those who would characterise ideas as a form of ammunition. There are plenty who will aver that words can cause as much harm as bullets. If you would ban MSSAs, Prime Minister Ardern, then you must also ban “hate speech”. When the call for this form of protection comes from the community against whom the Christchurch terror attacks were directed, it is difficult to refuse.
Protection: it is hard enough keeping human beings from one another’s throats. So, what do you do when Mother Nature herself gate-crashes the party with a killer virus? Jacinda Ardern found herself, once again, without a rule-book to guide her. Pressed on every side by every conceivable interest, she reached out for the only hand without skin in the game – the hand of science. But, if science were to be of any practical assistance, then it also needed protection: the protection of the law.
There was a time when laws bestowing draconian powers upon the state waited on the statute books for such a year as 2020. The Public Safety Conservation Act of 1932. The Economic Stabilisation Act of 1952. Acts of Parliament passed in recognition of the fact that life isn’t always a bowl of cherries and that there are moments in history when action is an urgent necessity and debate an expensive luxury. But Jacinda Ardern faced her covid-19 moment without them.
Both Acts had been triumphantly repealed by the fourth Labour government which saw them only through the eyes of their historical victims – working people and their unions. Wasn’t it National’s Sid Holland who smashed the watersiders’ union with the Public Safety Conservation Act in 1951? Wasn’t it Rob Muldoon who used the Economic Stabilisation Act to tie the New Zealand economy up in regulatory knots between 1982 and 1984?
In the absence of these fearsome legal levers, the Prime Minister and her government were forced to improvise – not always coherently and not always successfully but needs must when the devil, and a potentially deadly virus, drives. Wasn’t it Cicero who declared Salus populi suprema lex! (The safety of the people shall be the highest law!) Two thousand years on, the people of New Zealand rewarded Jacinda’s conservation of public safety with 50% of the popular vote. Vox populi, vox Dei.
Protection: when does it cease to be a good thing? The sixth Labour government is in the process of answering that question for us. As best as we can make out, less than a year from the next general election, a government’s protection ceases to be a good thing when it is offered to some, but withheld from others.
The sixth Labour government’s vaccine mandates drove a wedge into the Prime Minister’s “team of five million”, breaking and splintering the extraordinary level of social cohesion engendered by the global pandemic. It was the rancour arising from the vaccine mandates that led to the occupation of Parliament grounds – a protest culminating in the worst episode of political violence since the 1981 Springbok tour.
Protection for some, but not for others. Protection of some, at the expense of others. Neither the Prime Minister nor her party seemed able to grasp that her own, and Labour’s, political success was born out of events which drew the country together – as in the huge “they are us” rallies that followed the Christchurch attacks or in the generous camaraderie of the initial covid lockdowns.
Dividing the nation into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated proved inimical to unity. The legal mechanisms designed to share the governance of Aotearoa-New Zealand between Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti (Māori and non-Māori) contain the seeds of enduring strife. Labour, and that part of the Left which identifies with its ambitions, shows every sign of having drunk too deeply from the cup of political protection. The problem with the Left’s current obsession with protecting particular groups from the ravages of inequity is that in rescuing one group from victimisation, it risks making victims of another.
Nowhere has this zero-sum gamesmanship been more in evidence than in the passage of the Three Waters legislation through Parliament. That Labour and the Greens were willing to traduce New Zealand’s unwritten constitution in the name of protecting the nation’s waters from privatisation offers alarming proof of just how blinkered they have become. Progressives are indeed showing the world how they fight: without regard for the serious collateral damage inflicted by their heedless and unchallengeable rectitude.
Offering Māori and Pakeha the protection of equality – as in the Treaty of Waitangi – laid down a solid foundation for national unity. Promising equity, especially in a political atmosphere thick with recrimination and blame, is a recipe for division and conflict.
Protection: it has been the making of Jacinda Ardern’s government but may yet prove to be the breaking of it. In the face of tragedy and danger, the New Zealand Left was determined to act boldly in the defence of human safety. By doing so, the progressives in and around this Labour government earned the plaudits of the world, not only for protecting their citizens’ lives but also for throwing their arms around their most cherished values.
Banning MSSAs was a good thing, as were the laws protecting public safety during covid. Threatening New Zealanders’ freedom of expression, however, and offering special legal protections on the basis of vaccination status and ethnicity smacks alarmingly of authoritarianism and racism.
If these radical legal initiatives are intended to show how progressives can fight, then the protection Labour and the Left are most in need of is from themselves. ■
Chris Trotter is a political commentator of more than 30 years’ experience and is the author of the Bowalley Road blog ■