Monday, February 23, 2015

"The national interest" and democracy

Saturday saw a truly despicable column from the Dominion Post's Tracey Watkins, where she lectured the Greens on how they (and implicitly all other parties as well) must put the "national interest" first and stop criticising our spy agencies, and that the "price of admission" to Parliament is to fall into lockstep behind the National-Labour security duopoly rather than engaging in "party politicking". Its the same arrogant shit we saw from John Key the other day, and it was appalling from him - but worse from a journalist whose job is to provide a check on the powerful.

So what's wrong with Watkins' view (which could have come straight from Aitken Street)? Two things: Firstly, the idea that there is a single "national interest". Secondly, the idea that that - or anything else, for that matter - should be "beyond politics".

The first is pretty obvious. We're not in the age on absolute monarchy anymore, where the "national interest" was synonymous with that of the monarch (and who they wanted to marry or divorce, and which piece of someone else's pie they wanted to grab). We live in a democracy. And that means that there is not a "national interest", but four and a half million of them. Not all of which agree (I take it as axiomatic that people are the best judges of their own interests. Paternalism is simply arrogant; "if only you knew what we knew" doubly so). Trying to pretend that that disagreement doesn't exist, and that there is only one "national interest" (which, by an amazing coincidence, just happens to be the same as that of the security / foreign affairs establishment) is both profoundly dishonest, and profoundly undemocratic.

Which brings us to the second problem: the idea that the National-Labour security duopoly's policies on privacy and human rights are somehow beyond politics. This is simply false by definition: politics is what happens when people disagree (technically, over ends rather than means, but I'm keeping it simple here), and people very obviously disagree over this. So, again, its dishonest. But the crime against democracy is worse. As Watkins implicitly recognises (with her admission that "the Greens' views on national security are out of sync with much of the voting public" - "much", but not "all"), the Greens represent a constituency - I'm one of them - whose views on freedom, privacy and security are very different from those of Rebecca Kitteridge and John Key. Watkins is basically saying not only that our views don't matter, but that they should not even be raised. And that is simply wrong.

In a democratic state, the will of the majority should of course prevail. But you can't pretend that dissenting views don't exist, or erase them from the conversation. Our democratic institutions, such as Parliament and the Intelligence and Security Committee, should be representative of the public. And that means representing not just the majority, but those who disagree with them as well. And in the case of the ISC, that would be hugely beneficial, given the demonstrated lax oversight by the security duopoly.

Though speaking of majorities, it's worth noting this: we've never actually been asked if we want spies, or what their powers should be. The decision has always been made for us, without real consultation (no, a select committee process where the committee doesn't even read the public submissions isn't "consultation"), by the security establishment. If they're so sure they're necessary, what are they afraid of? Let's have a referendum on the continued existence of the SIS and GCSB, and see what the public really think of them.