Hard News by Russell Brown

Drama and democracy

We should have more conscience votes. The perception that our elected representatives were actually testing their own beliefs last night - and that the outcome was not the usual foregone conclusion - was bracing.

So, yes, Tim Barnett's Prostitution Reform Bill will become law, after considerable drama: an extraordinary speech from Georgina Beyer, with which she brought not only herself to tears, and crucial changes of mind from Act's Heather Roy, who voted for the bill, and Labour's Ashraf Choudhary, who abstained, leaving the vote at 60 for and 59 against.

We now get to see whether this moral rethink will play out more like the Homosexual Law Reform Bill - which was quite strongly opposed at the time, but is almost universally accepted as humane and sensible - or the loosening of gambling laws, which has created a new class of social victim. I expect, and hope, it will be the former.

The drama over Barnett's bill has helped shield the government from embarrassment over what looks certain to be a backdown on its all-too-hasty promise to change the law to keep the foreshore and seabed in public hands - and out of reach of Maori claimants.

Dizzy with pragmatism, Labour jumped at the chance to outflank National by promising to change the law. Hey, it worked a treat with the oil and gas reserves didn't it? But there's a very significant difference between a decision from the Court of Appeal and a recommendation from the Waitangi Tribunal. Governments that change the law overnight to get around court decisions they don't like aren't serving democracy well. We all tut-tutted over Tonga didn't we?

I'm as concerned about access to our shorelines as the next New Zealander, but there is a right way of doing this and it's not the way the government has thus far tried to do it.

Meanwhile, NZPundit is getting behind a letter-writing campaign urging our government to support efforts to achieve democratic reforms in Iran. This is a good thing, although the claim that Iran has "a government directed by the same type of Islamic fanaticism that directed the Taliban in Afghanistan" is fatuous. Iran is an emerging democracy, and the scene of a wrist-wrestle between the old mullahs and younger reformers.

It seems to be at a delicate stage, and, frankly, repeated invasion threats do not seem at all helpful. Anybody who thinks that an "external intervention" in Iran would be anything other than a complete and utter bloody disaster - 20 times worse than the current mess in Iraq - is smoking crack. Unfortunately, that appears to be the conclusion of a Washington Post poll which found that "most Americans would support the United States taking military action to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

Yes, Iran's nuclear ambitions need to be addressed. But threatening to invade would seem quite obviously to be counterproductive. This is, remember, a country that has actually suffered attacks with "weapons of mass destruction". Then it was declared part of an apparently arbitrary "Axis of Evil" by the most powerful military nation in the world, which then proceeded to invade its neighbour and fellow Axis member. Quite how paranoid do we want to make these people?

Another unhelpful intervention: the lunatics who have been setting fire to themselves all over Europe lately are members of Mujahideen-e Khalq, a fringe "Islamist Marxist" group that, according to reports like this one and this one (particularly interesting) is being supported by the US government. Really people, don't you think it's time to back the fuck off?

Mujahideen-e Khalq appears to have negligible public support amongst the Iranian public, who are not stupid. I've asked a colleague of mine who has actually been to Iran recently - she snuck in - to write something for Public Address, and hopefully we'll publish that next week.

On a similar tip, I've been talking to the people at Amnesty International and we've agreed that Public Address will be getting in behind Amnesty's New Zealand appeal week, August 5-11. Details to be confirmed, but watch this space …