Heather Roy's Diary
Heather Roy's Diary
Parliament this week was dominated by validating legislation to right the wrongs around MPs' spending of taxpayers' money last year. The Auditor General had criticised the spending at the run-up to the last election and Labour introduced legislation to the House, under urgency, to retrospectively make the spending lawful. ACT vigorously opposed this on principle (you can see why by reading my Third Reading speech at http://www.act.org.nz/news-article.aspx?id=27674).
Unfortunately, freedom of speech became one of the casualties of the debate, which was not subject to public scrutiny by select committee submissions because of â€˜Urgency'. The connection may not be instantly obvious but let me explain.
Before I do, perhaps someone can tell me what is wrong with being pro- family, caring for your children, running a successful business, being a law-abiding citizen, paying your taxes and spending your own money on a cause you believe in?
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen becomes quite unhinged when he thinks of a group that fits this description - the Exclusive Brethren. His speeches during the validating legislation did not focus on the legislation itself (he knew that was unpopular with the public) but on this religious group, who were unable to defend themselves in parliament and were denied - like all other Kiwis - the right to comment during the normal select committee process. The Brethren had nothing to do with the legislation, but he continued throughout to denounce them in the nastiest possible way, frequently referring to them as "fruit cakes".
What Michael Cullen didn't declare was his definition of "fruit cakes". I suspect he means us to believe that because the Brethren shun I.T. and television, the women dress conservatively and they have religious and cultural beliefs different to his own, we should think them weird. The Greens constantly want Kiwis to cut the amount of time children watch TV but Michael Cullen doesn't call the Green Party "fruit cakes" in public - or crucify them in parliament. Labour, it seems, is all in favour of minority groups - but only if they vote for and support them. Even the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm weren't quite that blatant.
The real issue - of course - isn't one of religion, beliefs that aren't considered mainstream, or even about dressing conservatively. The issue is freedom of speech - something Kiwis prize and hold dear. The Brethren are as entitled to express their opinion as much as anyone else and the denomination have nothing whatever to do with Labour's use of the parliamentary budget or with the subsequent legislation to validate it. So not only have Michael Cullen and other Labour MPs been rude, but their comments are irrelevant, and worst of all they are dangerously close to infringing free speech.
The Exclusive Brethren are a "soft target" as their members do not vote. However, they do have opinions, and it comes as no surprise that Labour's social agenda of legalising prostitution and recognising same sex relationships would offend Christians with traditional views.
I believe that when it comes to questions of sexuality, marital commitment and religious belief each person must make their own choices. It is neither wise nor practical for others to intervene, and the lumbering apparatus of government has no place in matters of personal morality. However, many disagree with that view.
At the last election the Brethren leafleted most New Zealand homes with anti-Labour pamphlets. My husband had the presence of mind to keep ours and is threatening to sell them on Trade Me. Most people assumed it was electioneering and dumped their copies, but the Labour Party cried "foul" and there was a huge fuss as Labour accused National of running a secret campaign. Labour is very worried about others committing sins whilst campaigning, but are very relaxed about it for themselves. The Brethren did the decent thing and stepped forward to "fess up that it was them wot done it". The astonishing thing was the amount of money that they were prepared to spend - over a million dollars. This is testimony no doubt to the virtues of industry, stable marriages and an abstemious lifestyle. Unfortunately, the Labour Party was apoplectic, and certain that dark forces were in league against them. Religious minorities are fine with Labour it would seem - as long as they support Labour.
Charities, too, have been in Labour's sights this week as they look set to loose their tax-free status if they lobby against the government. A requirement for tax-exempt charities to be registered with a government- appointed Charities Commission has been largely obscured by other news this week about tax and charity changes.
This new requirement to register has groups as diverse as the Sensible Sentencing Trust, Greenpeace and the Meningitis Trust publicly asking whether their advocacy role might cause problems. A commission with the power to grant favours can also take them away, and when the appointees are determined by government, there is no secret whose agenda they will be tempted to run.
A great many charities have political or religious purposes as part of what they do. Sensible Sentencing lobbies politicians on behalf of victims of crime, the Meningitis Trust wants certain pharmaceuticals funded, and TEAR Fund is a Christian charity which promotes faith as well as philanthropy. Each serves a legitimate purpose - why should politicians (or appointees of politicians) pick and choose which ones will be advantaged, or which will not?
As the famous wit, Voltaire, said; "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". The freedom of speech means more than the freedom to agree with the Government, and the more democratic a Government is, the more they will allow dissent.
This week, we have seen politicians force through legislation without public submissions to protect themselves, deride beliefs they do not agree with, and threaten those who advocate views that aren't their own.
And that's why our liberal democracy still needs this liberal party.