Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell: Key’s backbone problem with China

October 12th, 2010

john keyOn the evidence of the past week, New Zealand has a Prime Minister who seems chronically unable to stand up for himself – or this country – on points of principle. First we had John Key’s non-reaction (during his Breakfast TV interview) to Paul Henry’s racist comments about the Governor-General, even though a forthright response to Henry at the time would have stopped the scandal in its tracks. At yesterday’s press conference, we saw a similarly pathetic non-response from Key to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo.

Rather than stand up for principle – Liu has been jailed for 11 years for co-signing a document calling for greater respect for human rights and democratic reform – Key has chosen to run and hide, lest he offend the tyrants in Beijing. Yesterday, the award to Liu had already been applauded by the UK, US and French governments, and by the European Union. President Barack Obama had said:

I welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo. Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I. That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs. By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

In Australia, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said this in a interview with the ABC:

Rudd : The Australian Government congratulates Liu Xiaobo on having been awarded the Nobel peace prize. This is a prestigious award. Based on our knowledge of Liu Xiaobo’s work, he’s worked with Charter 08. He of course is a worthy recipient.

Interviewer Alexandra Kirk : : You’re aware of the plight of his wife. His lawyers are saying that since she visited him in jail that she’s under a de-facto form of house arrest and her phone’s been taken away.

Rudd: We haven’t been able to finally confirm the details concerning Liu Xia, that’s Liu Xiaobo’s wife. Our understanding is that her freedom of movement has been curtailed and her freedom of contact with others by telephone has been restricted. On the precise details, however, we do not have all information to hand.

Kirk : Will you take up their cause?

Rudd : Australia maintains a continued human rights dialogue with the Chinese. We have made representations in relation to Liu Xiaobo in the past. We will continue to make those representations on behalf of him and any freedom, unnecessary restrictions of freedom of movement in relation to his wife as well.

And New Zealand’s reaction? What forthright message did John Key send when questioned about our government’s response to the Nobel awards at yesterday’s press conference? “I’m not aware of why he’s in jail and it’s not for me to comment about what’s appropriate in terms of a country’s putting people in those facilities.” Key also said he would take advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but could not guarantee any kind of public statement on the matter.

Got that? So when dictatorships put people in jail for supporting human rights and democratic reform, John Key believes that “Its not for me to comment about what’s appropriate in terms of a country’s putting people in jail in those facilities.” Offhand, it is hard to think of a more shameful statement – ever – by the person who represents New Zealand on the world stage.

He also needs a briefing from MFAT before commenting? Well, our traditional allies – the UK, France, Australia – have been making representations on Liu’s behalf for months. In July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Poland that supported Liu, and explained why his cause needed to be defended. Perhaps Key and the officials at MFAT should read it :

We continue to engage on civil society issues with China, where writer Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year prison sentence because he co-authored a document calling for respect for human rights and democratic reform. Too many governments are seeing civic activists as opponents, rather than partners. And as democracies, we must recognize that this trend is taking place against a broader backdrop.

In the 20th century, crackdowns against civil society frequently occurred under the guise of ideology. Since the demise of Communism, most crackdowns seem to be motivated instead by sheer power politics. But behind these actions, there is an idea, an alternative conception of how societies should be organized. And it is an idea that democracies must challenge. It is a belief that people are subservient to their government, rather than government being subservient to their people…It requires private organizations to seek the state’s approval, and to serve the states and the states’ leaderships’ larger agenda.

….. That refusal to allow people the chance to organize in support of a cause larger than themselves, but separate from the state, represents an assault on one of our fundamental democratic values.

The idea of pluralism is integral to our understanding of what it means to be a democracy. Democracies recognize that no one entity — no state, no political party, no leader — will ever have all the answers to the challenges we face. And, depending on their circumstances and traditions, people need the latitude to work toward and select their own solutions. Our democracies do not and should not look the same. Governments by the people, for the people, and of the people will look like the people they represent. But we all recognize the reality and importance of these differences. Pluralism flows from these differences. And because crackdowns on NGOs are a direct threat to pluralism, they also endanger democracy.

Yet instead of defending Liu and the principles of pluralism and democracy that he represents, Key is choosing to smile that vacuous smile, and is falling into appeasement mode. Lest it be said that Norway had nothing to lose by making the Nobel award, it should be borne in mind that Norway and China are right in the middle of negotiating a free trade agreement, and the relevant meetings began back in 2007. Plainly, some countries still think there are principles more important than trade. It is a pity New Zealand is no longer one of them.


Taxpayer-funded discrimination at Te Papa

According to a NZ Herald report, the Te Papa national museum has been party to a restriction of access to some of Te Papa’s collections, on condition that pregnant and menstruating women refrain from attendance:

An invitation for regional museums to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of Te Papa’s collections included the condition that “wahine who are either hapu [pregnant] or mate wahine [menstruating]” were unable to attend. Jane Keig, Te Papa spokeswoman, said the policy was in place because of Maori beliefs surrounding the Taonga Maori collection included in the tour. She said the rule was one of the terms Te Papa agreed to when they took the collection.

“If a woman is pregnant or menstruating, they are tapu. Some of these taonga have been used in battle and to kill people. Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

The policy is not in place for the general exhibition. If an object is tapu it is “forbidden” and in Maori culture it is believed that if that tapu is not observed, something bad will happen.

In the Dom-Post however, Keig says that Te Papa is not imposing a ban on access, but merely asking menstruating or pregnant women not to attend the exhibits ‘for their own safety’. Just what a state-funded organization – and one whose branding is based on it being called Our Place – thinks it is doing by promoting such beliefs is mind-boggling, given that the beliefs in question are based on nothing other than a misogyny sanctified by tradition.

Meaning: it is not the safety of women, but fear of their procreative power that is the point here. Lets be clear about this. Menstrual blood will not attract death rays from an axe. People who believe that it will are free to do so, though it is hard to see how such beliefs would not be harmful to Maori girls and women. Maori are also welcome to try and impose such conditions on the display of their property – but access to public space cannot be influenced by such conditions. The key point has been succinctly stated within the Dom-Post article by Deborah Russel, from the Hand Mirror blog :

“I don’t understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people.”

The state should not impose other people’s cultural practices on people in general, Ms Russel said.

Well said.


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    1. 9 Responses to “Gordon Campbell: Key’s backbone problem with China”

    2. By simon on Oct 12, 2010 | Reply

      Well done, Gordon.

      In their own words:

      “I’m not aware of why he’s in jail and it’s not for me to comment about what’s appropriate in terms of a country’s putting people in those facilities.” (John Key, yesterday).

      “The comments [by Paul Henry] were the actions of one person, made in a country in which freedom of speech is an important foundation principle”. (Murray McCully, AFP and other news media, last week).

      So does the Prime Minister believe in this “foundation principle”? Why won’t he use his freedom of speech, to stand up for freedom of speech?

    3. By lyndon on Oct 12, 2010 | Reply

      Looks like Mr Key did get that briefing after all:

    4. By richarquis on Oct 12, 2010 | Reply

      In school they told us “Nature abhors a vacuum.” New Zealand, however, gives the top job to one. I still doggedly hold on to my belief that one day, NZ will finally realise that the emperor has no clothes.

    5. By Draco T Bastard on Oct 12, 2010 | Reply

      “Yet instead of defending Liu and the principles of pluralism and democracy that he represents, Key is choosing to smile that vacuous smile, and is falling into appeasement mode. ”

      But jonkey doesn’t represent democracy – he represent the capitalist owners who are, by definition, dictators. In other words, he’s on the side of the Chinese ruling clique.

    6. By peter g on Oct 13, 2010 | Reply

      Have I awoken in some weird alternative universe where we have a spineless no nothing PM, surely this must all be a nightmare ??

    7. By Richard on Oct 15, 2010 | Reply

      New Zealanders have to register to vote , vote,get informed about the democratic power we all have,the right to write to MPs write to Broadcastrs,complain thru BSA Ombudsman,organise a strike,demanding suggesting criticing,solving giving them the MPs material from which to address in Parliament,We 18 years and older must politicise ourselves-educate ourselves to the facts,never mind the side issues use our vote obey the rule of law -so as to change it from within through due process..Even stand for Parliament ourselves,A Health Board-a council why not/Dissasitisfied with politicians? What can we do better than them-OK -as Gandhi says BE the Change.(Also get a busking permit and address the public in the form of a political speech-entertainment-it is good therapy minus expletives,racist bigotry-etc we dont want to get arrested for a speech…..mmmmm

    8. By Richard on Oct 15, 2010 | Reply

      I say to all those poo pooing the Maori belief system to back off and think about it.Do they really believe all of New Zealand was settled peacefully,that all land was harmoniously appropriated?Did we try and exterminate Maori Culture in pakeha dominated society ?Then have the balls to criticise or shall we say the vukva to criticise simething they dont inderstand.I say mmenstruating women wpregnant women adhere to the tapu-come back oiin 3 days when your blood isnt flowing -and come back after your baby is born.Pakeha need to think like Maori -you all expect Maori to think and be like us -dont we? Keep diversity obey Maori tradirtion in Te Papa.Oh and learn the haka Gordon learn Te Reo-be more spiritually Maori New Zealand.

    9. By Diane Pearce Loves Barack Obama on Mar 25, 2011 | Reply

      All I know is that I am working at a big biotherapeutic corporation in Clayton NC and I endroce Barack Obama with all my heart. I encourage all my friends and colleagues to say yes for Obama in 2012!! I LOVE YOU OBAMA

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