• Whose Interests Count?

    The imprisonment of hundreds of New Zealanders in notoriously unpleasant and dangerous detention centres by the Australian authorities, and their eventual deportation back to New Zealand, is hardly what we should expect of our Anzac brothers in arms.  Yes, these are convicted criminals who have served jail sentences; but they have done their time and would, if they were Australians, be free to re-enter society and earn a living like any other citizen.

    A clear case of discrimination in other words.  People who, in many cases, have lived and worked most of their lives in Australia have been ill-treated (and the recent instances in the Northern Territory show just how “ill” that treatment in Australian detention centres can be) and thrown out of the country with their families, not because they have criminal records but simply because they are not Australians but New Zealanders.

    Legal specialists and a handful of commentators in both countries have raised objections but, so far, the issue has attracted little attention from the wider public, perhaps because sympathy is in short supply for convicted criminals.  But a New Zealand government that is truly concerned to ensure the proper and non-discriminatory treatment of all its citizens would surely have raised serious objections with their Australian counterparts to this obvious breach of human rights.

    Yet our Prime Minister seems to have let the issue pass him by.  He claims to have raised the issue with Malcolm Turnbull but, if so, it has had no discernible effect.  His ineffectualness has reinforced a pattern that has become all too familiar.

    In complete contrast to the usual Kiwi attitude of being ready to right a wrong no matter how powerful the wrongdoer, our government is very careful about the issues and opponents it is prepared to take on.  It’s impossible to imagine John Key ever initiating a nuclear-free policy against American opposition.  He would rather duck a confrontation, if public opinion allows it to do so, than take the action needed to set things right.

    It is keeping in with public opinion, rather than its responsibilities to serve the national interest, that dictates how the government behaves.  They have made an art form, through focus groups and qualitative polling, of tracking how that opinion develops on issues that might cause concern.  Only when the level of that concern rises to threaten the government with public disapproval does it see the need to respond.

    In those circumstances, the government has developed a range of responses, carefully calibrated according to how much notice it needs to take and what level of reaction will see the problem resolved.  We see constant instances of this syndrome.

    The problem of New Zealand detainees in Australia has apparently not so far breached the threshold that requires a government response.  As the level of concern rises, however, the government will first deny that there is any basis for disquiet.  The concern about foreign trusts and tax evasion, for example, was met initially by a simple assertion from John Key that our rules were exemplary and that concern was misplaced.  He was confident that his assertion alone would be enough to resolve the issue.  It was only as the facts emerged, and the polling presumably showed a rising level of disapproval, that concessions started to be made.

    Similarly, the response to the reported threat of Chinese retaliation if a complaint were to be made about the dumping of Chinese steel in our market was initially to deny categorically that any such threat had been made.  It was only little by little that the truth emerged and, typically enough, a junior minister was left to carry the can.

    Examples of this syndrome can be multiplied many times over.  We see another unfolding before our eyes with reports that the European Union is to investigate New Zealand’s alleged readiness to accommodate tax evasion.  Time and again, the government’s preferred strategy is first to deny all knowledge of a reported threat, and then to take a carefully gradated series of steps until it believes it has done enough to allay public concern.

    Underlying this pattern is the government’s constant concern not to alienate its own supporters or its powerful partners while at the same time appearing to be responsive to public opinion.  So, in matters of safety at work for example, the interests of farmers or the forestry industry are protected, even if the price to be paid is the lives of workers.  If the issue is equal pay for equal work, or decent remuneration for home carers, or paid parental leave, the trick is to appear to be sympathetic but not to prejudice employers’ interests.  It is not a coincidence that it is the interests of the powerful, and usually the economically powerful, that are given priority; it is much easier to do the little that is necessary to placate the powerless.

    A government worthy of the name would not allow its agenda to be decided according to the relative muscle and importance of the interests involved.  Nor would it act to meet the wider national interest only when political considerations indicated that it would be advantageous.  We are all entitled to an equal share of the government’s care and consideration.

    Bryan Gould

    2 August


  1. Frank Gaze says: August 2, 2016 at 6:26 pmReply

    And such disregard of the interests of powerless people is the height of immorality. Where are the ethics of these politicians?

  2. Patricia says: August 3, 2016 at 1:46 amReply

    While I agree with you about our ineffectual Prime Minister – it must take a lot of work to be that ineffectual – I am not sure about the subject matter. I have often thought that foreigners who commit crimes here should be deported. But of course what about their families. Perhaps a warning if they commit a crime again they are out. Sometimes, it seems to me, that many foreigners commit what I regard as a crime which, because of the free market racket, may not be a crime in their own country. I am including in my definition of crimes, people who will only pay, under the table,an hourly rate that is below the minimum wage. I have heard of $8.00ph! I know that there are New Zealanders who probably do the same but to me such economic crimes are even worse than violence and go to the the very heart of what Is the core of New Zealand. They are a fraud though.