Democracy is for Everyone

By Dame Anne Salmond   imagesCA4YBZRP

This is the speech that Dame Anne Salmond gave at a meeting two days before the GCSB marches:
Aku rangatira, tena koutou katoa.
Its great that we’re meeting here in the Mt. Albert War Memorial Hall. This is one of
those places built in memory of those who went off to fight for democratic freedom.
When I think of the price that they paid, I remember my Dad and his two brothers, who
in 1939 went off to enlist in the Navy and the Air Force.
Dad couldn’t fight. When he went to join the Air Force, his medical showed scars on
the lungs, so he was sent to the Sanitorium in Christchurch. My uncle Bert, who joined
the Navy, became the commander of a Fairmile craft in the Pacific, while Uncle
George, my godfather, joined the Air Force, flew Mosquitos, became a flight lieutenant
and was awarded the DFC.
They were upright, honourable men with a strong sense of duty and service. They and
their friends took it for granted that they should risk their lives for future generations.
In trying to understand what drove them, I’ve looked at reports in local newspapers at
the outbreak of World War II. The Evening Post drew a sharp contrast between
repression under fascism in Europe and the freedom of the press in New Zealand. It
wrote, “Democracy trusts the people, dictatorship does not.”
The next day, the Post quoted a speech by the Australian Prime Minister: “The essence
of democracy is to dignify the individual human being, and give him, whether rich or
poor, the right to his place in the community and the right to a happy, prosperous, and
contented life”.
Afterwards, when the New Zealand Legislative Council signed up for ‘the fight between
democracy and dictatorship,’ they declared: “We must be prepared to prove on the
battlefield loyalty to the principles for which we stand.”
These were the values – human dignity, freedom of thought and a happy, comfortable
life for ordinary people – that my father’s generation was prepared to die for. They did
not do this in vain. Along the highways and byways of New Zealand, you’ll meet
people like them – upright, honorable, gifted and generous.
Nor is it surprising that these days, young New Zealanders attend Anzac Day services
in numbers. There are so many fantastic young people in this country, whose values I
respect and admire. Like me, they want a country that they can believe in.
The puzzle, then, is what has happened in the corridors of power in New Zealand?
Somehow, the values there seem very different. Over the past thirty years, some strange
and curious doctrines – amoral, power-hungry but superficially persuasive – have been
wafting out of the Beehive.
They include the myth of a free market. At the time when democracy was invented,
Adam Smith and other Enlightenment thinkers argued for a market free from the rule of
the merchants – or corporates, in contemporary talk. In the name of the free market,
however, since the 1980s we have been served up the opposite – mercantilist wolf
dressed up as free market lamb.
There is also the myth of the isolated, cost-benefit calculating individual – another
illusion, because as behavioral economics has shown, almost no-one lives like that,
and if they did, they would be regarded as sociopaths.
There has also been an all-out assault on the idea of community, and the commons,
and the public good. This, I think, is the true “tragedy of the commons” – a concerted
attempt to demolish the notion that social relationships matter, and to undermine
values such as truth, justice, generosity and honor that guide us in our collective affairs.
This assault is not just cynical and amoral, but non-adaptive, because Homo Sapiens is
above all, a social animal. Through language, we work together on complex tasks, and
pass these skills on to others. As human beings, we rely on each other for our safety
and prosperity.
Participatory democracy builds on these strengths. When people from all backgrounds
take part in decision-making, individuals spark off each other, creating new ideas and
enterprises, and social relationships flourish, along with the economy.
Autocratic, extractive, highly unequal regimes, on the other hand, do not pass the test
of longevity. Such nations falter, both economically and socially, and eventually fail.
This is why the idea of society, and values such as truth, honor, justice and generosity
really matter. Our forebears understood this. If we want a free, prosperous and exciting
society to live in, we have to be prepared to fight for it if it is assailed.
Surprisingly, it seems, that time is now. Over the past months, a series of laws have
been passed that threaten the rights of New Zealanders. This is a matter of such gravity
that last month, the Law Society felt impelled to report to the United Nations that in
New Zealand “a number of recent legislative measures are fundamentally in conflict
with the rule of law”.
Extraordinary though it may seem, this statement is no more than the truth. In its
report, the Law Society lists acts that have allowed the Executive to use regulation to
override Parliament, that deny citizens the right to legal representation, and which
cancel their right to appeal to the courts to uphold their rights under the law.
The Law Society also draws attention to the use of Supplementary Order Papers and
urgency to avoid proper Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. They express their
concern that a number of bills formally declared by the Attorney General to be in
breach of the Bill of Rights have recently been enacted.
This report does not mention other key defects in the law-making process in New
Zealand at present. These include the willingness of a minority government to pass
laws that impinge on the rights of New Zealanders at the request of foreign
corporations – Warner Brothers, for instance, or Sky City and various oil companies.
None of these deals, which amount to ‘legislation for sale,’ can claim a democratic
When a body as authoritative and dispassionate as the Law Society feels forced to
report to the United Nations that the government in New Zealand is acting in conflict
with the rule of law, all New Zealanders should be very worried.
All of these defects have come to a head in the GCSB bill. This agency, set up to deal
with external intelligence threats, is surrounded by scandal. The process that led to the
appointment of its current Director was improper. It has been accused of carrying out
illegal surveillance on New Zealand citizens.
Instead of putting matters right, this bill allows the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders,
almost without limit – a kind of electronic McCarthyism. The only effective controls are
in the hands of politicians.
Because it is in breach of the Bill of Rights, it has been reported to the United Nations.
Despite this, this bill is being dealt with under urgency. When the Human Rights
Commission raised concerns about its provisions, the Prime Minister threatened their
The GCSB bill should be shelved until a robust and independent inquiry into New
Zealand’s intelligence agencies has been held. There must be a searching debate
about the powers that they might legitimately be granted.
In submissions, editorials and opinion pieces across the country, this bill has been
almost universally condemned. If we had a healthy democracy in New Zealand, it
would have been shelved by now. It will be an absolute indictment of this Parliament if
it is passed.
As New Zealanders, we need to remind every politician, from each political party –
National, Labour, the Maori Party, NZ First, Mana, ACT and United Future – that
democracy is not a partisan political matter.
As MPs, they are accountable above all to their constituents – not to their whips and
leaders. It is their job to stand up for the rights of New Zealanders if these are
threatened. At times like this, they need to show some backbone, and prove that they
are worthy of the trust we place in them.
As for the Prime Minister and the Executive, we need to remind them that we sent them
to Parliament to represent us, not to rule us. As John Key declared in a rousing speech
against the Electoral Finance Bill in 2007, “This is a dangerous bill. It is dangerous for
all of us as individuals, it is dangerous for our democracy, and it is dangerous for New
“We should rightly be proud of our democracy. It is a very real New Zealand
achievement and we should celebrate it. A lot of other countries never made it. Plenty
have tried democracy and let it slip through their fingers.”
“A quiet, obedient, and docile population; a culture of passivity and apathy; a meek
acceptance of what politicians say and do – these things are not consistent with
“ A healthy democracy requires the active participation of citizens in public life and in
public debates. Without this participation, democracy begins to wither and becomes
the preserve of a small, select political elite.”
All I can say is, Amen.
If unlike our forebears, we do not stand up for our democratic rights, and defend the
freedoms of our children and grandchildren, we should be ashamed. It is possible to
fight for freedom without bitterness and hatred, as Nelson Mandela has shown.
And in our own history, when cannons were aimed at the town of Parihaka, Te Whiti
and Tohu sent out children, skipping and singing, and women dancing with poi. In the
end, it is perhaps moral victories won in this way that are the most enduring.
In closing, I salute you, my fellow New Zealanders, and wish us all a bright future:
Kia hora ai te marino
Kia papapounamutia te moana
Kia tere ai te karohirohi
May calm be widespread
The sea like greenstone
And may the shimmer of summer dance across your pathway