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Tolerance

December 13, 2021

Are we losing our tolerance for the dissenting opinion? By world standards we New Zealanders are a very tolerant lot. We might grumble and even get a little outraged at what other people write, say or do if we disagree with them. However, provided they are within the law and don’t advocate illegality, we are usually prepared to let people express a different opinion.
The cancellation of a venue booking last year in Hamilton by a so-called conspiracy theorist group, on a national speaking tour called Beyond Politics, was an example where we drew the line on legality.
The stated aim of the group: “bringing down the Government.” The organiser of the speaking tour subsequently said he did not “unlawfully want to overtake anybody or take anybody down… – lawfully, yes.”
In fairness he may well have unintentionally used the wrong words, but to encourage people to take that action is very close to the crime of sedition, as there is no peaceful way in New Zealand to “bring the Government down.” The decision to cancel the booking at the Western Community Centre was clearly the right one.
On most other matters however our understanding, and acceptance of, the right of free speech and expression in that regard is much more liberal than many other democratic countries where there can be serious consequences for daring to challenge mainstream beliefs.
By comparison, in New Zealand in the past year and a half we have read and heard some truly ridiculous non-sense about Covid-19. Climate change has also attracted some astonishingly ill-informed claims from it all being a hoax to a natural cycle over which we have no control.
Then we have heard predictions from self-appointed prophets that Covid-19, climate change, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural catastrophes are a divine retribution for same sex marriage, homosexuality, fornication and all manner of assumed evils. No one has seriously suggested there should be constraints applied to those opinions or that the news media should not publish them. Most of us laugh about them, ignore them or shrug them off as opinions people are allowed to express but we don’t agree with.
Recently however there seems to have been a less than subtle shift in official and news media traditional tolerance of extreme or alternative views.
A series of books by Wellington-based company Tross Publishing have been described as anti-Māori, hateful and untrue. The company has been publishing books that have questioned Treaty of Waitangi settlements and the Waitangi Tribunal for years. More recently there have been books which have suggested the move to a formal partnership with Maori in local government is a corruption of democracy. There are other books published by Tross, and previewed on their website, which have warned that the recent He Puapua report to Government will bring a complete transformation to a government divided between a tribal elite and a subservient majority. That is an opinion shared by hundreds of elected district and regional councillors from all over New Zealand but no one wants to discuss them for fear of being labelled racist.
Reaction to some of these publications has been at odds with our long-standing tolerance of legitimate, if opposing, views with at least one Maori academic suggesting “purchasers (book shops) needed to re-think what they stocked on their shelves.” Others expressed similar views.
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon however said “…there was no need for Pakeha to feel threatened by the report or (by) Maori”. He also said “I’m all for free speech, I think freedom of expression is an important part of a healthy society.” No one could seriously fault that response.
To most people however these are not matters of any great importance but, as a semi-retired reasonably bilingual journalist and opinion columnist, I had alarm bells going off in the back of my mind. Added to that was a recent decision by a provincial editor to take out a key paragraph from my column on the Government’s Three Waters proposals because it had “anti-Maori connotations.” After many years as an opinion columnist, I was a bit puzzled.
The edited paragraph was a comment about the genuine concern of many in local government about the proposed fifty percent involvement of Maori in the future management of drinking water, storm water and waste water management systems. It was a simple statement of fact rather than opinion, but it was edited. out.
I have since discovered that the Governments’ contestable fund for public interest journalism requires applicants to “actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner.”
The Treaty Partnership in the sovereign governance of New Zealand is a very recent concept and it needs to be discussed openly and honestly. In a free society there must be a place for the dissenting voice and the challenging opinion.
If our news media has been in any way constrained in reporting that community discussion and if we deny the right of people to be heard and, more importantly the right of other people to hear them, because some of us don’t agree with their opinions, we put at risk a fundamental right thousands of people have fought and died to protect; the right to hold and give voice to a contentious opinion in public.