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Compulsory membership tests Benson-Pope principles

Friday, 7 January 2005

Compulsory membership tests Benson-Pope principles

Today Student Choice praised David Benson Pope's stance on binding referenda, and called for him to apply his standards consistently to include student freedoms, granting them the same basic freedoms as other citizens.

In a press release related to the Civil Unions Bill, David Benson Pope claimed that a binding referendum on the issue would be inappropriate. The release noted, with a 1986 Royal Comission, that public referenda "can pose very real threats to minority rights and interests". Benson Pope added to this concern, saying that "the idea that the majority of society could decide the human rights of other people though a referendum is clearly not appropriate."

Student Choice Spokesperson Glenn Peoples said today that even if Benson Pope were wrong about the Civil Unions Bill, his principled strance on binding referenda is "right on the money." He said, "Regardless of the merits of the particular laws in question (the Civil Unions Bill in this case), the government must uphold certain principles and rights quite apart from what the majority might like. In particular, basic freedoms and human rights should never be subjected to a referendum. We wouldn't countenance, for example, a binding referendum on whether or not a particular racial group in New Zealand should be enslaved - or at any rate, we shouldn't, because nobody - not even the majority - should be able to dictate whether or not somebody's basic human rights should be upheld pr denied. They must always be upheld."

But according to Peoples, Benson Pope and the government do not apply this standard consistently to all New Zealanders. "One of the basic freedoms that we believe that government must uphold is freedom of association. In the workplace this is a freedom that is respected and protected. People don't have to join a political party, a union, or a religious group in order to get a job, and they cannot be dismissed for failing to belong to the right political or religious organisation. Discrimination is prevented and freedom is upheld."

"Why then," asked Peoples, "is this basic freedom denied tertiary students in this country? At most tertiary institutions in New Zealand, membership of a students association or union is compulsory. Of particular interest in light of Mr Benson Pope's comments is that the only way for students to win the right of freedom of association is for the majority to vote for it in a referendum. To make it even worse, those who want their rights upheld are the ones who must organise the referendum. This is a real and tragic irony. When it comes to causes that the government agrees with - like Civil Unions - all of a sudden Benson Pope cares about protecting the basic human rights of a minority from the whims of others as expressed through a binding referendum. But when it comes to a the basic human right of thousands of tertiary students - freedom of association, he is willing to turn a blind eye and employ a double standard."

Mr Benson Pope is now the associate mnister of education, a fact which, says Peoples, "should mean that the issue of compulsory membership should be of special interest to him. If he is so concerned by the risk of subjecting human rights to a referendum, then his current position really tests his integrity. Will he be consistent and treat students like he says we should be treating other people?"

Peoples added that in order to show New Zealanders that his concern is genuinely about human rights and not only "politically correct left wing causes," Mr Benson Pope must "speak with equal force about the rights of thousands of New Zealanders that are denied them and made subject to referendum on an ongoing basis."


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