NZ Government: Theatre of the absurd

by Jane Clifton / 16 February, 2013
As MP Richard Prosser has shown, the seeds of bigotry and racism are always with us.
Raising ghost ship cartoon by Chris Slane
Cartoon by Chris Slane


It’s salutary to see which New Zealand stories make overseas headlines: the millionaire who’s campaigning for us to kill all our cats; the woman who died from drinking too much Coca-Cola; the law-maker who wants us to ban Muslims from aeroplanes.

Those wacky Kiwis, eh? Cringe.

Actually, it could be worse. Sport-doting Australians are now globally headlined as drug cheats, right in the slipstream of Lance Armstrong fury. Economically beggared, Ireland is now also a sly purveyor of potentially lethal horsemeat and has only just formally apologised to the thousands of young women it used knowingly to imprison in convents as slave labour.

On the bright side, Gareth Morgan has yet to install himself as New Zealand’s upper chamber. And people’s autonomous ability to make healthy food choices is a subject way too ideological for a mere politics column.

Racism, however, is impossible to shrug off, which is why New Zealand First MP Richard Prosser’s comments, that Muslims should be deprived of their freedom because a tiny percentage of their number support terrorism against the West, have caused such an uproar.

No one should have been surprised he wrote this. His views, expressed in columns, interviews and even – shucks – an autobiography, were well known before he was elected in 2010. He also thinks taxi drivers and dairy owners should carry handguns, and as a high proportion of them are Muslim in this country, at least you could argue he is an equal-opportunity advocate when it comes to killings on the ground, if not in the air.

The trouble is, his outburst has caused such a roil of double standards, and placed so many other politicians in positions of implicit hypocrisy, it becomes hard to keep the original offence in perspective.

The obvious first port of call is the freedom of speech versus hate speech conundrum. Boy, when we elect a House of Representatives, we sure do a thorough job. There’s someone there to reflect pretty much every shade of opinion, short (just) of Flat Earthism. As Hone Harawira said of Prosser’s mortifying “Wogistan” blurt: better out than in. We need to know that there are people like Prosser, happy to condemn all Muslims to relegation – and not just because of the religion’s extremists, but because it’s “a stone-age religion”. National Front-style movements have never caught on big-time in New Zealand, but the seeds are always there.

And it’s not just the conservative or right-wing side of politics that’s guilty of bigotry; witness the unabashed mockery of John Banks’s pro-creationist admission last year. Since the Exclusive Brethren’s sins against the political left in 2002, it has become acceptable in some party circles to deride Christians.

Also confounding are admonitions that Prosser should have tempered his views, or at least their expression, upon becoming an MP. Aside from the curious question of how one might become just a bit less bigoted, it’s not a terrific idea to encourage MPs to be deceitful.

VOLLEY OF DEMANDS


Prosser’s leader further complicated the ethics of the situation by condemning his comments, not for being racist, but on the – Winston Peters hoped, face-saving – grounds that they “lacked balance”. Yet how could Prosser have balanced the comment that all Muslim and Muslim-looking men should be banned from Western airlines? By pointing out that at least this was non-discriminatory, as any Tom, Dick or Ali would be banned, even if not Muslim, for looking suspiciously swarthy? Or, “don’t panic, a lick of skin bleach and a crucifix and your boarding pass will be issued, no sweat?”

Or might Prosser have added that, by extension, all middle-aged white men should be barred from running finance companies or having access to client trust funds, because demographic profiling identified them as most likely to embezzle? There’s no way to dice the arguments finer without reduction to absurdity.

Then came the volley of demands that Winston sack Prosser. Aside from the awkwardness that, with the exile of Brendan Horan, this would leave the NZ First caucus 25% lighter, the sacking would be a great injustice, as Prosser’s views were known before he wrote this article. No one told him he couldn’t keep expressing them.

“We knew he was a bigot, but we thought he would shut up about it once he was an MP” would not cut it.

But perhaps the debate warped most stickily for the other parties in Parliament. While being all self-righteous about Prosser, they also realised that come the next election, NZ First’s bigot could well become their bigot. Labour, the Greens and this time National have not ruled out going into coalition with NZ First, because the way the poll numbers are filleting up these days, the next Government probably could not be formed without it. It’s not like picking a touch football team. You can’t say, “We’ll have you, Winston, and Barbara and Tracy and Denis, and what’s-their-names, but we’re not giving a jersey to that guy.”

CONFLICT OF INTEREST


Amid all the throat-clearing, the Opposition pounced gratefully on the news that Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson had a conflict of interest, in being a director of a heating and ventilation firm. This, apparently, was okay, because Williamson had always simply recused himself when matters of heating and air conditioning cropped up in his portfolio.

This must have been tricky. Wherever you have heating or air conditioning, inevitably questions of ventilation and insulation arise. That means windows, ceilings, floors and, er … walls. Entire buildings, in fact. That would presumably leave the poor minister with his fingers in his ears, loudly going “la la la!” until his officials came to something non-compromising, such as screen doors or ornamental cornicing.

It makes one wonder, too, about other ministers’ exposure to conflict of interest. Former Primary Industries Minister David Carter once had a business interest in artificial insemination, and still has ownership of actual farmland. Did he have to shush officials any time questions of policy touched on breeding, agistment or anything to do with livestock having how’s-your-father? And as for governmental input into wool or dairy infrastructure … “Irrigation – no, never so much as mention nozzles to me or I’ll get in trouble.”

Obviously not. The sniff of ministerial conflict of interest brings out the hyenas quicker than most things in politics, but as with Prime Minister John Key’s not-so-blind trust interest in a winery, the common-sense test needs to stand alongside the Cabinet Manual. Do his political foes really think Williamson has bounced up and down on his Beehive leather plotting world domination of heating and air conditioning? Or that Key lies awake at night thinking up ways to get his (by most accounts, pretty average) pinot compulsorily served in all state institutions?

However, at the risk of further reductio ad absurdum, this writer does empathise with the starting point of Prosser’s rant: the confiscation of his pocket knife by airport security. As someone who has had a fish server similarly purloined (what it was doing in my handbag is too long a story, but suffice to say, no one has ever been served to death on a plane), and who narrowly escaped having her knitting needles seized in Frankfurt (once they inspected the actual knitting, they could see I was no threat), I do despair of the inanity of much of our counter-terrorism mentality. Maybe they’re more sensible about these things in Wogistan, knowing that the biggest threat to people’s security is something you can’t just confiscate: pig ignorance.

Read more: The world according to Richard Prosser
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