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A Free and Secular State, or Priest-Ridden Tyranny

A Free and Secular State, or a Priest-Ridden Tyranny

Thursday, August 30 2001

Stephen Franks

Speeches -- Justice, Law & Order

Address to ACT Ohariu-Belmont Electorate Meeting 7:30pm, 30 August 2001, Khandallah, Wellington

The Knowledge Wave Conference has filled people with enthusiasm for economic growth and the knowledge economy. Sad to say the government has put the kibosh on any ideas that it would consider fiscal policies that encouraged growth and innovation. Nonetheless, the government still plays lip service to the ideas of the knowledge economy and innovation. But in all it does, the government is actually fostering not knowledge but superstition.

So we have a committee examining whether 'healing touch' and aromatherapy should be available at public expense. And we have the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, whose recommendations could speed the entrenchment of superstition and ignorance, or at least pretended belief in superstition. Needless to say, when the government talks about the Knowledge Economy it is talking about the innovations of yesterday, computers, the internet and so on. Biotechnology and genetic engineering are among the growth areas of tomorrow. They are certainly the way the Knowledge Economy will impact on our largest export sectors and most important areas of comparative advantage. So, is it full steam ahead? Well, no.

The Royal Commission recommends that we should proceed with genetic modification with caution. One commentator has compared this to having a man walk in front of a motor car with a red flag, which is what used to be required, and which would certainly reduce the road toll. But maybe some caution is a good thing. We don't want to release some organism that destroys all our trees or kills all our sheep. We have had enough trouble with introduced wasps, possums and other pests. So maybe some careful consideration is required before introducing at least modifications which are capable of being transmitted to neighbouring areas or different species.

But it turns out that is not all the Royal Commission is worried about. They are also worried about 'cultural offence' and even 'spiritual issues'. They recommend, for example, that 'spiritual issues' should be a ground on which the Minister should call in for his own decision applications under the Hazardous Substance and New Organisms Act. The Royal Commission was worried that if the Bioethics Council it recommends be set up is not given power to issue binding guidelines, matters of cultural significance could be ignored at will (para 14.18).

So what are these 'spiritual issues'? The Royal Commission enlightens us. "Mauri" we are told at para 3.90 "is the life energy or soul and is shared by all living things. Even inanimate objects like cliffs, stones and especially water have their own mauri". A Bishop, a retired Chief Justice and two Doctors signed this! Many submitters, the Royal Commission said "took the view that mixing this mauri by creating transgenic animals was wrong". The Commission then recites various people just saying that it is wrong, as if this strengthens the argument, but also quotes a more advanced view that "the water piped through a family home has a mauri that mixes with the mauri of the drainpipes and eventually the mauri of the water glass."

Any pakeha who publicly espoused these views would be regarded as mad, and certainly unsuitable to be involved in any public decision-making. Why is it different if the speaker is Maori? We are not, after all, talking about people from some tribe recently discovered in the Amazon jungle. We are talking about people who have been through a modern school system and maybe even to university. The lesson they have obviously learned is that they can gain power and money by spouting this nonsense.

They will then say that it is not that they believe this stuff but that it is the traditional belief of Maori. Well, fine. But let's hear from people willing to say "I believe in the concept of mauri". If there are any, the appropriate response is to explain to them why it is not useful to make decisions on the basis of untestable and unevidenced assertions that some undetectable life-force exists. If it turns out that no individual actually believes all this, then we don't have a problem at all. But a problem we are going to have. Because if there are Maori appointed to this Bioethics Council or to the Institutional Biological Safety Committees who believe that all mixing of mauri is wrong, then they will oppose all such applications, although the Royal Commission was not prepared to recommend against transgenic animal experiments.

So what happens then, when your Knowledge Economy business wants to engage in this sort of research? How can the Bioethics Council, or the Environmental Risk Management Authority weigh a spiritual objection against an economic advance? Surely spiritual objections either trump economic and scientific progress, or they count for nothing? There is no middle ground. We either allow abortion over the objections of the Roman Catholic Church, or we forbid it.

And it was the Roman Catholic Church which held up scientific advance for hundreds of years by allowing 'spiritual issues' to trump scientific advance and economic well-being. But at least the Roman Catholic Church had recognisable procedures for deciding whether books or advances were to be permitted. With Maori there are no such recognised and predictable structures.

We are to have a sort of Maori Inquisition to determine whether proposals, and even, under a different piece of legislation, Trade Marks, are compatible with Maori beliefs. But unlike the Spanish Inquisition which was governed by predictable rules and procedures, this Maori Inquisition will operate according to the whim of the self-appointed people who make their way on to these committees and whose word we never dare to question.

The Commissioner for Trademarks must veto a trademark, even cancel an existing one, without compensation, if there is reasonable evidence that it is offensive to Maori. Now that does not mean evidence that it is reasonable for Maori to take offence, or even that reasonable Maori take offence. It is enough that there is reasonable evidence of offence, however unreasonable the offence.So the Royal Commission's deference to those views is not an aberration. Indeed their approach is moderate and soothing if the direction was not such a radical abandonment of our Enlightenment heritage. They tell us how the problems will have to be resolved. They give us a lecture on Maori methods of making decisions. These methods are not, of course, distinctively Maori. They were common to all pre-industrial cultures which could not do anything else after dark but sit round and talk.

However, the Royal Commission gives us such gems as "Silence is important. What is not said and who does not speak are equally noted." (para 3.62). I look forward to the learned former Chief Justice explaining how a Court deals with that proposition on an application for judicial review. Best of all, the Royal Commission tells us "breaches of protocol can be hara, whether deliberate or inadvertent, and cause misfortune or death (aitua) or injury or sickness (mate Maori)". (para 3.63). This must be the first Royal Commission in recent years to endorse witchcraft, and witchcraft aimed at maintaining a stultifying power structure at that.

The main thing, we are told, is that Maori decision-making processes take time. Now all becomes clear. Because to business, time is money. To New Zealand, time is lost opportunity, lost jobs and growth. But to the business applying for the permission, time is straight money. So money will doubtless buy time. The offer of cash will magically wash away spiritual concerns just as it somehow assuages fear of harm to the environment. So what the Royal Commission is recommending is just another instrument of extortion, another means by which self-appointed Maori leaders can gain mana and money simply by withholding or threatening to withhold their permission for things to be done.

If the Royal Commission cannot see the opportunities for rorting that they are endorsing, then they are naive in the extreme. Only a few years ago we had the Kangaroo Island story where a load of Aboriginal women managed to convince the sickly white liberals in government that Kangaroo Island near Adelaide had some special mystical significance for Aboriginal women. This "secret women's business" halted a planned bridge, and caused great excitement and changed commercial and conservation plans, until some of the women concerned came forward and said that the whole thing was a pack of lies.

How is a company applying for a permit supposed to challenge a claim that some procedure is contrary to some Maori belief? By paying another Maori cultural adviser to testify that it is not, or to explain how the problem can be got round? Well, if you cannot see the opportunities for collusion and corruption there, I can. At best it means that two people have now been financially rewarded for concerning themselves with witchcraft and superstition, rather than just one. And who pays? The people trying to advance knowledge and create growth and jobs, of course.

The Royal Commission report is full of this sort of thoughtless nonsense. It has a chapter explaining that patents do not apply to substances or to items which occur naturally, only to a process. They explain that the purpose of restricting the use of knowledge through patents is to ensure that incentives are there for individuals to invest in getting beneficial naturally occurring substances to market. Then they say that New Zealand should be proactive in getting international treaties to recognise cultural and intellectual property rights for indigenous peoples.

But the knowledge that 'indigenous peoples' whatever that means, lay claim to is precisely knowledge of naturally occurring substances. And the effect of awarding a property right to 'peoples' rather than to individuals will not be to reward innovation, but to impose costs on it, to enable a group of people to gain income simply by exercising a legal privilege to obstruct those trying to create wealth.

The point that claimants for indigenous people's 'intellectual property rights' don't seem to understand is the same point that the Royal Commission obviously forgot that it explained earlier on. Patents do not reward you for knowing things, nor even for observing things about the natural world. They reward you for working out ways to make that knowledge useful to large numbers of people by devising products which can easily be stored, transported and distributed to a mass market.

Suppose, for example, I discover and isolate the active ingredient in dock leaves and make it into a cream and sell it as a stinging nettle remedy, probably to Japanese tourists visiting England. Should I now pay someone for the use of this traditional knowledge? If so, who? The Morris Dancers Association? If I appear to be ridiculing this idea, it is because it is ridiculous.

Sadly, there is no limit to the thoughtless politically correct nonsense that the Royal Commission is prepared to reverentially record. They tell us, for example, about the "holistic or ecological approach Maori have to the environment" (para 3.15) and how "Maori believe that they bear the spiritual costs associated with environmental degradation, irrespective of who initiates the transgression" (para 3.16) when we all know that Maori agricultural method was to slash, burn and move on and that the only reason they did not cause major environmental damage was that there may only have been 100,000 of them in the whole of New Zealand. What Maori-style notions of property rights and attitudes to the environment achieved in more restricted space was vividly illustrated on Easter Island.

The Royal Commission uncritically trots out the assertion by some Anglican witness that "Unfortunately at times Christian theology has played a key role in ecological and cultural malformation by giving impetus to modern rational scientific conquests of nature". They don't bother to give an example of when Christian theology has ever given an impetus to any scientific or technological advance. In fact, as I said before, the contribution of the Roman Catholic Church was to impede advance by centuries and the only time the Anglican Church has ever concerned itself with science was when it tried to prevent the teaching of evolution in the nineteenth century.

The Royal Commission sets out what it calls various world views without subjecting them to any critical analysis. It lists Judaeo-Christian views, the Maori world view and the ecological world view (apparently there is only one of each of those two). There is one view they do not consider.

That is that each of us should be allowed to live our own lives as we wish, unless we intend to break some pre-existing rule designed to prevent us from foisting ourselves on other people, and certainly without interference just because someone else has a religious objection to what we are doing. This is the world view that informed the legalisation of abortion and the decriminalising of homosexual activity. What has happened to it now?

For more information visit ACT online at or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at

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