Hard News by Russell Brown


The March for Democracy

As David Farrar notes, when you end up spending $100 a head to get people along to your March for Democracy – pulling 4000 marchers when you've publicly envisaged 50,000 -- it "can only be called a very disappointing turnout for the organisers".

As a number of reports noted, the grievances people brought with them to the march were manifold and sometimes contradictory. I'm damned if I know what those folks at the front with the United Tribes of Aotearoa flag were marching about, but it added to the general atmosphere of unfocused grievance.

The harnessing of grievance for its own sake is not exclusive to the political Right (if, indeed, that's how this march can be characterised): it was the keynote to the (much bigger and getter organised) anti-capitalist marches in the late 90s – which saw third-world activists and North American unionists march shoulder-to-shoulder with their profoundly incompatible demands on trade policy.

A broad-church approach to grievance and the vilification of elected leaders are also, of course, hallmarks of the "tea party" movement in the US. That group has repeatedly crossed the boundaries of human decency with comparisons of an elected US president with Hitler, and even demeaned the images of Dachau.

I wonder if we saw hints of that on Saturday: petitioning an elected Prime Minister with signs reading "JFK, John Fuhrer Key" is offensive – doubly so when the Prime Minister is of Jewish heritage. It's easy enough to raise public ire through hyperbolic equation of our representatives with the most revolting dictators; rather hard to control it once you've started.

And in this, some of last year's campaigners against the Electoral Finance Act might want to pause for thought. Perhaps those Mugabe and Kim Jong-Il billboards weren't such a great idea, huh?

The marchers very largely aren't bad people. But in the extended 3 News video (also worth viewing for the part with Ben Lummis, Yulia and the national anthem near the end – the crowd doesn't know the words to the Maori part, and Yulia doesn't even appear to know it in English) nice ladies are repeatedly asked what they want, and repeatedly say "Democracy!"

Well, no they don't. By any sane measure, they have democracy, and by world standards a pretty good flavour of it. What they want is a change to the law that brought about CIRs in the first place, to make CIRs binding, or at least to force Parliament to more explicitly address their results, perhaps by requiring them to be subject to a select committee investigation. But no one said that.

It comes from the top. This exchange between One News reporter Jack Tame and march organiser and funder Colin Craig captured the tone quite well:

"What is your main agenda here? What do you want to see changed?"

"What I want to see changed is I want to see the government of New Zealand listen to large votes from the people of this country."

"Does that mean you want to see citizens initiated referendums become binding?"

"I don't have that agenda."

Craig's explanation is actually rather like one of the referendum questions he espouses: he jolly well wants to see something done, but seems curiously disinclined to actually propose an action that would meet his needs.

Deep down, Craig may know that the problem with specific legislative goals is that they become subject to scrutiny. Governments can entertain calls for a cut to only 99 MPs or a pro-smacking law change, but the majority of considered, expert advice they receive will counsel against either.

Government must also deal with clear propositions that can be codified as either or policy – a test that 1999's "Norm Withers" referendum plainly failed. We elect people to, within the bounds of their advertised ideological positions, consider the evidence and do the right thing.

Evidence, of course, can only do so much. Another man in the 3 News video is carrying a cross decorated with a picture of the late Michael Choy. He wants tougher penalties for violent crime. It's unclear whether he realises that, with the exception of the single youngest and least culpable, a child at the time, all those responsible for Choy's 2001 murder are still in prison, two of them on life sentences. When Bailey Kurariki's seven-year sentence was handed down, it was hailed as appropriately harsh even by Choy's mother. But that man in the march has been sold Michael Choy like a t-shirt by Garth McVicar – who, naturally, was prominent at the march himself.

When Bob McCoskrie took a swipe at the Children's Commissioner in front of the crowd at Aotea Square, he wasn't attacking Cindy Kiro – she's gone – but her interim successor John Angus. Craig himself was even more blunt last week:

But Mr Craig said parents knew better than Dr Angus what was best for their children.

"What worries me is that this tax-paid bureaucrat is trying to dictate once again to good parents what is best for their children.

"He needs to wake up and realise that 87.4 percent of New Zealander voters have enough common sense to know he is wrong, and have already decided this matter in the recent referendum."

Angus is a straight white male from Dunedin, a father of children. His professional life has largely been devoted to the welfare of children, and he is a "safe pair of hands" according to the minister who appointed him. There could hardly have been a less provocative candidate for the job. But he can expect much more flak from McCoskrie and his chums. I suspect that's why Paula Bennett failed to find a Commissioner willing to take on a five-year term and had to appoint Angus for 18 months. Who wants the job of representing children in that climate?

And that's where, I think, some risk to civil society lies. It's right and good to protest, but when public servants know they will cop it simply for taking seriously their responsibilities, and the Prime Minister is compared to Hitler, the wrong signals are being sent.

So what happens next for the movement represented in the march? The teabaggers are already imploding in the US, unable to organise or compromise beyond their shared anger. The anti-GE movement (which in 2003 managed marches thrice bigger than Saturday's) was undermined by the active presence of the likes of Jonathan Eisen, whose paranoid style is essentially incompatible with civil progress. The grand promise of the global anti-capitalist craze wound up in some of the weird, scary stuff you can find on Indymedia these days.

It's possible that Colin Craig will remain a player. But it's more likely that, with the failure of the march and the draining of Craig's budget, the pro-punishment movement will move on without him --- and McVicar, McCroskie and John Boscawen will find some new way of sustaining themselves and their ideas.

PS: The March for Democracy had so much money they even wanted to advertise with us. It would have been worth about $800, but I don't think there would have been much sense in it.

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