Democracy and the right to dissent

Neither Walter Nash, Peter Fraser or Michael Joseph Savage were communists. Nor in the context of the first Labour government particularly radical. Yet it turns out they were subject to covert surveillance by both the Police and the intelligence service at the time. At one level this is hardly surprising. In an earlier post I noted the institutionalised conservatism and deference to the status quo by the police here, and in Britain, for decades, and the over zealous readiness of these forces to actively target and subvert democratic political opposition and activism that challenges it.

They also become bureaucratic and defensive of roles and budgets to the point of open internecine warfare. Witness the completely dysfunctional relationship between the NSA, CIA and FBI. While the money and staff numbers are a lot smaller here, the Police in particular with its Special Investigation Group have done as much damage to the force’s credibility as the Red Squad did during the Springbok Tour. Howard Broad’s defensive intransigence during Operation 8 demonstrated all of the most undesirable characteristics of a talentless bureaucrat and showed that in a large organisation, cream does not often rise to the topbut rather those who don’t rock the boat.

His successor Peter Marshall showed he was a slow learner by repeating the same mistakes over the Dot Com “show” raid. Like Broad before him he presided over and defended an operation so out of proportion to the alleged offence, he made himself and his staff look like heavy handed oafs. The use in both cases of heavily armed police and helicopters on unarmed civilians, including children, might have impressed their political masters and the FBI but any leader with moral fibre would have said no and demanded a less aggressive operation or no operation at all. If necessary they should have tendered their resignation. As Martin Luther King said;

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

In both cases two officers presenting themselves at the door would have met with no resistance. The obvious intent was a show of force, a statement about how dissent or activism against the status quo would not be tolerated.

There are strong parallels with the FBI/ATF assault at Waco in the 1990’s where they set out to teach the “odd ball” miscreants a lesson and make an example. Fortunately here there was no loss of life because neither of the government/police targets were inclined to resist. In Waco the Branch Davidians did resist (legally as it turned out) and humiliated the FBI and ATF in their initial assault. Instead of taking stock and negotiating a peaceful outcome, the two organisations ramped up the confrontation, laid siege and ended up murdering 76 men, women and children. The only terrorism in all 3 cases was from the state.

The Police and intelligence service surveillance, and the political and institutional willingness to use displays of unnecessary force against dissidents and activists, combine with mainstream media acquiescence to being used as propaganda disseminators by the state to create a public hysteria conducive to repression. Activists are harassed and potential supporters intimidated and discouraged. As well known security analyst Paul Buchanan put it in the Operation 8 documentary:

You can stifle dissent by making it costly to defend yourself against charges that will ultimately be found to be contrived. But that very cost can ruin people, can ruin their lives, and that’s a deterrent to others.

Police filming and photographing of all public protests is a passive aggressive form of intimidation without good cause. Accusations can be made by politicians and police alike and repeated in the media without being questioned properly or at all. Because they are from “official” sources they are not subject to rigorous checks and the more sensational the better. The Dominion’s reporting and editorials around the Urewera raids were  selective and sensationalist and rightfully led to the solicitor-general charging them with contempt. Ironically whoever in the police  leaked the dossier that the articles and editorials were drawn from, shot the police in the foot, because it bought much closer inspection of its very dubious investigative merit and exposed the police to ridicule. The Dominion by selectively quoting from it did their own long term credibility no good at all, created unnecessary alarm but achieved a temporary boost in sales.

How do the genuine activists protect themselves from this intimidation? A true democracy demands dissent and the constant questioning of authority.

A first step would be complete transparency. There should be public access to all political and bureaucratic documents, papers and advice, if not contemporaneously, then with a minimal time lag. If you are the subject of surveillance and on a watch list you should have the right to know and defend yourself from potentially false accusations and the unknown problems they may present you, your family and friends. Some people don’t find out they are on a secret list until they want to travel and denied a visa, or subject to a search or confiscation of their phone and computer at the airport.

For instance longstanding free trade critic and Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey found herself on a Philippino terrorism watch list for criticising that government’s human rights record. She also suddenly struck visa problems going to Australia in 2011 and was detained briefly as not being an appropriate person under their Immigration Act. Who knows what information on her activities has been passed on by New Zealand intelligence services, if any. How would she know? As a peaceful political/economic/human rights activist shouldn’t she have the right to know – now – not in 80 years time like Peter Fraser? Owen Jones gives a good account of how secret CIA lists have been used for decades by their chosen despots worldwide.

As our representatives, don’t we have a right to know what our bureaucrats and politicians are discussing amongst themselves and with their overseas counterparts? All records, all advice, details of all meetings should be available online with a minimal time lag. 3-6 months should be sufficient. The only reason they are delayed for decades is that both Labour and National governments have been involved in some embarrassing and discreditable deals in the past. They would prefer release when the protagonists are either dead or retired.

The National Archives should be a informational treasure trove for journalists, academics and citizens alike. Sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant. If politicians and public servants, including our esteemed police and intelligence services don’t like it, perhaps they should reflect on the meaning of public service, democracy, openness and transparency. It speaks volumes that these guardians of the status quo prefer an ill or misinformed populace, a populace that can be manipulated with half truths or outright lies in a gullible or culpable media, retractions only coming slowly months, years or decades later. Too late to matter.

A “whistle blowing” culture should be encouraged and protected by law to short cut both corruption and the use of both the Police and security services to harass and intimidate. If senior or junior staff have a problem with the legality of their organisation’s actions, they should be free to come forward without personal repercussions. Indeed, if they expose serious transgressions, they should be rewarded.

But more than anything it requires an informed and engaged citizenry who do not abdicate responsibility to authority. If you spend more time researching your TV purchase than the issues at election time, you get the government you deserve. It is vital that children get ethics and civic education at every level of school. They should be taught to question everything. History and politics aren’t poor cousins to the sciences – they are essential to a representative democracy.

Don’t ever believe “If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear”. History does not agree. I suspect neither would Nash, Fraser or Savage.

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