OnPoint by Keith Ng


Summer of Shadbolt

I've come around to thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, Tim Shadbolt is the smart one here. He looks, by all accounts, like he's on a collision course with the EFA. But while his troope of martyrs steam ahead, Shadbolt's life-raft is rapidly inflating itself. He's got no problem with martyring himself, but as mayor, he has a responsibility to his people – and he can't possibly go against the will of the people, can he?

He's absolutely right in his calculations, though – it will be a shitstorm, and it's lose-lose for the Government. But it doesn't mean that it's right.

Civil disobedience works by people doing something that's right, but illegal. By forcing the authorities to arrest them, they're confronting them with this contradiction. But not all illegal acts are acts of civil disobedience. Some of them are just illegal.

An act of civil disobedience has to address an aspect of the law that they believe to be unjust, and both Shadbolt and Moore fail in this regard.

For Shadbolt, his original complaint was that the law would stop legitimate third parties like the Invercagill City Council from campaigning on the cuts to the Southern Institute of Technology. But after realising that his campaign was at best borderline, at worst, outright legal, he changed his campaign to explicitly advocate for a change in government to ensure that it will be covered by the law.

He started out saying that the EFA would catch non-electioneering campaigns like his, then went out of his way to ensure that his campaign was electioneering, so that it would get in the net.

Let's get this straight – this is not a case of the EFA expanding beyond its intended scope, or of absurd vigiliance, as the Herald argues. Neither Shadbolt nor Moore are citizens expressing an opinion who just happened to be caught by the EFA. Both are explicitly campaigning against a political party, and implicitly campaigning for another. Both have the right to campaign as such, but are bound by certain restrictions. Both are deliberately and publicly flouting the restrictions, with the specific goal of challenging the law.

Of course, I might be being a little more earnest than Shadbolt is. Moral justification is a moot point if Shadbolt is just doing it as a publicity stunt for a completely unrelated campaign:

To be honest I think if I'd just gone there and stuck to the issue ... I don't think we would have got half the exposure that we got from getting involved in that particular act.”

But can it be justified? Andrew Moore's refusal to register or to put his name and address to his website, can't. The argument in the Herald editorial, is pretty simple: “Why does he have to?”

The answer is also pretty simple. There can't be transparency without some sort of bureaucracy. And transparency is good.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here saying that we don't want secret campaigning. Secret campaigning is never – and I mean never – good. Whether they have secret commercial, religious or political agendas, if a group is trying to influence voters, but trying to keep their identity secret, it's obviously not in the voters' best interest.

And the only way to stop secret campaigns is through transparency, and the only way to enforce transparency is through bureaucracy.

That's why.

And the price for transparency? Name and address. Keith Ng. 4/100 Dixon Street, Wellington.

Or, for registering for a third party, this. You need two names (yours and your financial agent – which could also be you), contact details, signatures and a JP or solicitor. It's not a big deal. Even David Farrar has done it.

The objection to registration is even more absurd, when you consider that we have to register to vote, too. Is this, too, an “attempt to monitor political expression”? Actually, it is. It's to monitor political expression – voting – to stop votes from being cast twice, or by people pretending to be someone else, or in an electorate other than the one they live in, etc. We force people to register to vote to ensure that voting is fair; we force people to register or declare themselves on campaign material to ensure that campaigning is fair.

It's easy to just invoke the rhetoric of “freedom” and “democracy”, repeat, and claim that you have the moral high ground. But the point is that our entire democratic system cannot function without bureaucracy and compulsion by law. These things are, by definition, restrictions on our freedoms. Laws are, by definition, restrictions on our freedoms. But not all restrictions on freedoms are sinister, and they have to be weighed up and judged with open eyes.

Is putting names on campaign material and registration too high a price to pay for transparency?

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