Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Political censorship

Over in Fiji, the Fiji Times has shut down its print edition rather than be subject to political censorship. Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, our politicians are engaging in a little political censorship of their own. Last month, former Progressive MP Matt Robson was referred to the privileges committee over a column he wrote in which he noted United Future leader Peter Dunne's undying support of the liquor and tobacco industries and the apparent inconsistency with his claimed support for families. This was alleged to be a contempt of Parliament, in that it

reflect[ed] on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in a member's capacity as a member of the House

Robson appeared before the Privileges Committee yesterday, during which he apologised for any offence taken at his words. This is simply outrageous. In a democracy, representatives are accountable to the people - not the other way round. No member of the public should be forced to apologise to an MP for something said about how they perform their duties, unless it is found by a court of law to be defamatory. But the spirit of feudalism dies hard, and so we have the unseemly spectacle of our elected rulers demanding that they be shown the deference and immunity from criticism previously shown to unelected monarchs, and implicitly threatening punishment if "defied".

This is, to put it bluntly, a crock of shit. Reflecting on the conduct of the House or of MPs is the very purpose of political commentary, and the lifeblood of democracy. It serves a vital purpose in ensuring that our representatives can be held accountable for their actions by the voters. And if Parliamentary Privilege interferes with our ability to do that, then it is long past time we ended it.


How is someone apologising for causing offence outrageous?

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 12/06/2006 03:05:00 PM

Graeme: Consider the context - formal proceedings and an implied threat of punishment. This isn't about "politeness", and its certainly not about truth or falsity - it is about the suppression of public criticism of politicians and forcing someone to show deference. Neither has any place in a democracy.

As I said in my previous post on the issue, if Dunne feels his reputation has been impugned, he can go to court and sue for defamation. Instead he is using his own kangaroo court to silence his critic. This is an obscenity.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 12/06/2006 03:19:00 PM

So you don't think Robson is sorry? You think he lied to the Privileges Committee to get a lighter sentence?

It's not about Dunne's reputation, it's about his ability to function as an MP.

Do you see any substantial difference between this and the similar findings of contempt (of Court) in the Nick Smith contempt case?

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 12/06/2006 03:40:00 PM

Graeme: I think that he clearly felt he had to make an appropriate show of contrition to avoid punishment. Which given that he was exercising his democratic right as a citizen to criticise an MP, and fulfiling an important public purpose in doing so, is an absolute outrage.

And yes, I see an obvious difference between this and Nick Smith's case: Smith interfered with the administration of justice by violating the secrecy of the family court and trying to pressure someone into dropping a case (if it had been a criminal case, the charge would have been attempting to pervert the course of justice). Robson, OTOH, was criticising an MP - a person who of all people you should be allowed to criticise, scrutinise, and comment on. There is a clear difference between the two activities,and if MPs believe that there is not, then they have clearly allowed their position to go to their head, and are in need of a sharp reminder of who is accountable to whom in a democracy.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 12/06/2006 04:32:00 PM

Who is Peter Dunne anyway?

Posted by Anonymous : 12/06/2006 04:34:00 PM

you may wish to update youir post after readingthis regarding the Fiji Times....

Posted by Swimming : 12/06/2006 04:41:00 PM

I/S you will note I was referring to the similar finding of contempt i the Nick Smith case (i.e. not the disimilar ones like his pressuring of a witness). I posted this comment in an earlier thread:

Robson is being called to account by the privileges committee for an alleged contempt of Parliament in that something he said that:

"[reflected] on the character or conduct of the House of of a member in a member's capacity as a member of the House"

He is being tried before Parliament for something he did outside Parliament (but that is considered an affront to Parliament) using rules that Parliament itself made (without public scrutiny or input), but that are not "laws" in the strictest sense of the word.

Nick Smith was called to account before the courts for a contempt of court, in that (among other things) he said things that the court found were:

"intemperate, derogatory and unfair remarks ... [that] assault the authority and integrity of the Family Court and the fairness and legitimacy of its decision."

He was tried before Court for things he did outside Court (but that were considered an affront to the Court) using rules that the Courts themselves made (without public scrutiny or input), but that are not "laws" in the strictest sense of the word.

Robson, who technically faces up to life in prison, isn't entitled to a jury trial etc. Smith, who technically faced up to life in prison, wasn't entitled to a jury trial.

The "closed shops" that are contempt of Parliament and contempt of Court are highly analagous.

If criticising MPs, or Parliament in an unfair way is acceptable free speech in a liberal democracy then criticising judges, or courts in an unfair way should also be acceptable.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 12/06/2006 05:11:00 PM