“Why Politics Matters”
Speech: POLS 111 class,
Venue: Victoria University, Wellington
Monday 5 August 2013, 10am
“Why Politics Matters”
Good morning and thank you for the invitation to speak to your class.
First of all, congratulations to you on your chosen field of study.
For politics matters.
For better or worse, it has the capacity to change the world on a grand scale.
It can empower people, it can enslave people, it can enrich people, and it can impoverish people.
Politics has the capacity to rapidly or over time do enormous damage to people and yet rapidly or over time it has the capacity to do so much that is good.
The story of William Wilberforce is an outstanding example of what one individual can accomplish in politics.
Wilberforce campaigned for twenty-six years, in a cynical self-serving environment of ignorance and inhumanity to abolish the British slave trade.
It is because of that one man’s perseverance and commitment to his cause that slavery was finally abolished in Great Britain in 1807.
One-hundred-and-forty-eight years later, one woman’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama triggered a series of events that led to segregation in the United States being declared unconstitutional.
Never underestimate the importance of politics to your lives, and the lives of others.
Politics is all pervasive. You can find it in just about every facet or element of life.
There is a political dimension to everything… From the bus you caught this morning, to the clothes you are wearing, to the cost of your tuition.
All of these activities and things have in some way been influenced by political decision-making.
Every university like yours is seriously underfunded and that social deficit is the major reason why our universities are sadly sliding in the international scale of academic excellence.
It doesn’t matter what you major in – whether it is law, commerce, or arts – an understanding of political institutions and processes can be invaluable.
If you want to change the world, if you want to leave your mark on history, then bluntly you need to know what is happening and politics is essential.
To paraphrase a former British prime minister, politics is sometimes a place for low skulduggery, but it is more often a place for the pursuit of noble causes.
How has New Zealand First made a difference?
New Zealand First is in its twentieth year. For a party so young, we have accomplished some extraordinary feats.
In 1996, we went from two MPs, under First Past the Post, to having, under MMP, a caucus of seventeen. We were responsible for the formation of the first “coalition” government in New Zealand in 65 years or since 1931.
A lot of commentators overlook the contributions we made in that period, but they are by no means small.
One of our proudest achievements is the introduction of free doctors’ visits for young children.
We also gave pay parity to primary school teachers and made early childhood education a priority for the Government.
Something you might not know is that we are also the Party responsible for student representation on secondary school boards of trustees.
Most importantly though: we put the brakes on National and Labour’s then radical right-wing agenda.
We stopped, for example, National’s attempts to run hospitals for profit.
And when National decided to break the terms of our Coalition agreement by selling Wellington Airport to majority foreign interests, we walked out of Government.
There are also a number of other areas where we have made an impact – both in and out of government – including our campaign against foreign ownership.
It might be hard to believe now, but twenty years ago the Labour Party were all for privatisation, foreign takeovers, and uncontrolled immigration.
Nowadays they are stealing our policies!
After all imitation is said to be the most sincere form of flattery.
In short, New Zealand First has made an enormous difference to politics in this country.
But we have unfinished business.
One of the big issues that we have always wanted to address is student debt, for example.
To this end, we were the first to support a universal living allowance to help reduce students’ dependence on debt, and it still remains one of our major goals.
Something else we hope to advance in the future is our policy of ‘dollar for dollar’ loan repayments for graduates who live and work in critical areas in New Zealand.
Such a policy would have enormous benefits to the wider economy and give our best and brightest a reason to stay.
Now for some comments on ‘Spygate’
Without a doubt, the single biggest profile issue in New Zealand politics right now is the scandal surrounding John Key and the GCSB.
When the GCSB was set up in 1977, its role and mandate was to gather foreign intelligence only.
That was the case for 35 years.
So what happened?
In short, a flamboyant German millionaire by the name of Kim Dotcom turned up on our shores. He did so for a reason.
Dotcom was wanted by the Americans for alleged massive copy right infringement.
The Obama administration, at the behest of Hollywood, decided to go after him.
The only trouble was… Mr Dotcom bought $10 million worth of government bonds which smoothed his way to obtaining New Zealand residency, and with it, all the rights and protections of a New Zealander.
They, the ones in Hollywood and elsewhere who said Dotcom was costing them half a billion dollars lost profits, couldn’t get him without the help of our Government.
Remember Dotcom was living in New Zealand legally.
So the Americans wrote to the Attorney-General. Mr Finlayson, the Government’s most senior law officer, and the Americans got the green light.
Along the way, the GCSB was drafted by the Police and the Americans to provide real time surveillance of Dotcom and his associates… well outside the legal scope of the GCSB’s original mandate.
Yet we are told that no ministerial warrant was sought.
We are told all of this goes on without the Prime Minister knowing.
Never mind that Mr Key is the minister responsible for the GCSB.
Never mind that it was all happening just a few kilometres up the road from his own electorate office!
The predicament Mr Key now finds himself in is that no one actually believes him.
Many would like to trust Mr Key on this but they’re having difficulty in understanding how a lengthy list of who’s who in our Government’s agencies knew what was happening yet Mr Key didn’t.
Those experienced in government are simply bewildered when they’re asked to believe that the only person that didn’t know was the one person with the greatest ministerial responsibility.
And that is the real reason for the Government’s overhaul of the spy laws. It isn’t about clarifying the role of the GCSB. It isn’t about terrorism.
John Key’s aim here is not the security and defence of the realm… It is self-preservation.
This is a classic cover up. It has all the hallmarks:
John Key and his advisors are following, almost word for word, the Watergate script.
Just as Richard Nixon did, John Key is trying to hide behind a wall of “plausible deniability”.
Our message to him is simply this: Mr Key, you can run but you can’t hide. Sooner rather than later the truth is going to catch up with you.
The essential element behind this huge controversy is in danger of being over looked.
That essential element concerns you as a citizen as much as it should concern the Prime Minister.
It is this: there are obligations and responsibilities and democratic controls that are part of legitimate political authority.
That is why you are urged to fully participate in the processes of our democracy not just when someone is wronged or things are wrong but also when tough decisions have to be made on the proper boundaries of free expression.
Liberty is not licence any more than you would accept, as a famous American jurist put it, that someone in a packed theatre has the right to shout ‘fire’ when there isn’t one.
We live in a sometimes ugly world and we do need the umbrella of a lawful effective national security system.
I’m sure you would agree if the issue involved the importation of dangerous drugs or people trafficking.
And an act of terrorism within New Zealand, or facilitated from New Zealand, would surely horrify us all.
That means that sometimes for a security system to be effective its actions must be covert and beyond direct public scrutiny.
That said, those actions must always be lawful.
Which brings us to the quandary the Prime Minister has put us in.
You see “covert” and “beyond public scrutiny” now evokes thoughts of unlawful spying on lawful citizens.
Some in New Zealand think this is not important. That we should trust governments and to just get on with it.
That is a seriously dangerous view which begs the question to those who think this way.
What winds will blow when observance of the law doesn’t matter and could you stand against that wind?
In John Donne’s famous words ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee’ or as Sir Thomas Moore put it ‘I give the devil the benefit of law for my own safety sake’.
Following ‘Spygate’ we had ‘Dunnegate’, and in the pursuit of who was leaking information on the GCSB a journalist’s liberties were then infringed.
New Zealand politics has in recent times fallen to a disquieting low.
A Prime Minister has a cup of tea to signal to his voters in Epsom that they should vote for another party’s candidate, one with a breath taking attack of amnesia.
John Banks went on a helicopter to Dotcom’s mansion which has giraffe and hippo life size models, receives 42 sizable donations, two of which were from Dotcom and he doesn’t remember the helicopter [though John Banks has a helicopter licence] the mansion, the animals or any of the 42 donations.
Mr Key also signalled to the voters of Ohariu that they should vote for yet another party candidate, this time Peter Dunne.
All of this demonstrates just how much the ethics of our political culture have been compromised.
Some of you will be nature lovers and hopefully have seen the work of a great man of our times, Sir David Attenborough. His countless documentaries have brought an understanding of nature in to the homes of millions of grateful people.
There is one of his scenes that reminds me of politics today.
It is of the African Veldt where a group of animals are grazing when out of the long grass explodes a pride of lions. All Attenborough’s viewers can see is panic, dust and small pebbles. Until a lion pounces upon a target. Instantly the hoof brakes go on and the animals are back quietly grazing.
There is sadly an animalistic, self-preservation mentality in our politics.
However, don’t let that put you off taking a serious interest in politics yourself.
Remember Wilberforce, and that bus one day in Alabama, and hopefully the great men and women who have done so much to make the life of our countries generations the envy of history.
And remember also that politics ‘is more often a place for the pursuit of noble causes’.