One PM to rule them all
By Richard Harman (author)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern now has more political power than ever.
Her determination, her empathy and her intuitive understanding of the country’s mood has won her international acclaim with even Turkey’s President yesterday changing his tune and praising her in an American newspaper.
That is being echoed back here with obvious enthusiasm for her as she moves around the country in the wake of the tragedy last Friday in Christchurch.
This makes for a frustrating time for the Opposition who can do little more than tag along.
But it doesn't mean they will give her a blank check to make changes in the wake of last Friday’s tragedy.
In fact, she may be able to get a bipartisan political approach on only two areas where she may seek to move as a consequence of the massacre.
More gun controls look as though it will be relatively easy.
National Leader Simon Bridges reaffirmed to POLITIK yesterday that he believes no-one can understand why anyone needs military-style semi-automatic weapons for recreational use.
He says National will play a constructive role overhauling firearms legislation.
But he will have to be tough with his own people.
By last night The Right Minds right-wing group which led the opposition to the UN Compact on Migration which was joined by National was posting an ad on its Facebook page to oppose any changes to gun laws.
That matches almost exactly with the language used by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday.
“There is legitimate gun use in New Zealand,” she said.
"We absolutely acknowledge that, but I would say almost all New Zealanders except perhaps those who use them will acknowledge that there is not and should not be a place for military-style semi-automatics in New Zealand.”
There will be questions about whether .22 rimfire semi-automatic rifles, used by many farmers on rabbits and possums, are military style and if not, whether they can be excluded from the ban.
Ardern’s repeated use of “military style” may be a hint that they will be exempted.
That would ease any opposition from National’s rural supporters and thus make it much easier for Bridges to back the ban.
Bridges is also willing to back Ardern on any moves she might want to make on social media.
Ardern said any changes to social media would require a global response.
She said already the United Kingdom had shown leadership on it.
“I had a discussion with Theresa May about his very issue,” she said, talking about May’s phone call to her since Friday.
But asked whether she thought Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, should come to New Zealand she said: “One thing I can tell you that I am not interested in is a PR exercise.”
Bridges says reforms of our tech companies and social media are “incredibly improtant”.
But that’s about where the consensus stops.
Bridges is cautious about moves to introduce hate crime legislation or to tighten up on hate speech.
"Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle, and we don't want to change our values readily," he told POLITIK.
But the case for change was passionately made to Parliament yesterday by Green MP, Golriz Ghahraman.
“We can't pretend that this was an aberration from overseas; that would be irresponsible,” she said.
“The truth is that this happened here, and it began with hate speech allowed to grow online.
“History has taught us that hate speech is a slippery slope to atrocity, and New Zealand must address that now.”
Section 131 of the Human Rights Act does make it an offence punishable by a three months prison term or fine of $7000” anybody who sets out to “excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule" any group of people on the basis of their race. It does not apply to discrimination on the basis of religion.
Only one successful prosecution has been brought since it was passed into law 26 years ago.
There is also the question of other hate crimes; National rejected a Police proposal to legislate for them in 2017, but security sector sources spoken to by POLITIK say that unless the crimes are recorded by police the security services have no basis on which to track patterns and locations of hate speech. and crime
Ardern seemed open to changes yesterday.
She was quick to point to an arrest in Christchurch yesterday of a 44-year-old man on charges of distributing objectionable material in relation to Friday's attack.
“Where we see extremist rhetoric and behaviour, our authorities will respond to that,” she said.
Ghahraman also pointed the finger directly at some of her political colleagues during her speech.
Though her targets will be furious; what she said has been said quietly and privately by MPs from across the House all week.
“There sit among us those who for years have fanned the flames of division, who have blamed migrants for the housing crisis,” she said. Her targets there were presumably Winston Peters for his long history of anti-migration rhetoric and Phil Twyford for his infamous attack on people with “Chinese sounding names” buying houses in Auckland.
She went on: “There sit among us those who have fanned the hysteria around the United Nations Global Compact for Migration.”
That was a direct reference to Bridges and National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Todd McClay.
Asked last night if National was willing to withdraw its opposition to the Compact Bridges said the party's position was founded on being about New Zealand having the right to decide for itself on immigration.
However, there are few authorities internationally who share National’s argument that the Compact could force changes in New Zealand immigration policy.
“None of us are directly responsible for what happened on Friday, we are all horrified, but we are also on notice now: we have to change the way we do politics,” Ghahraman concluded.
There she might find support from Bridges who told POLITIK that there was “a wider issue around how we do politics and race relations
“Now is a time for unifying not tribalism,” he said.
There was perhaps no more eloquent example of that yesterday than a speech from Gerry Brownlee who experienced so much trauma in Christchurch as Minister in Charge of Earthquake Recovery.
He was home in his Ilam electorate, immediately adjacent to the first mosque, when the gunman struck.
“I think we have become more aware of our own actions, our own omissions, and our own oversights, and aware too that they are more pronounced at the more unattractive edge of what is us,” he said.
“We should not engage in self-doubt though, but recognise that small change in each of us can make a big difference.”
Brownlee is a Catholic; he taught at a Catholic school, and he has acquired a reputation as one of Parliament's most bruising political brawlers, but yesterday the House saw another side of him.
He concluded his speech by saying: “I don't worship as a Muslim—I'm not a Muslim—but if it's at all possible I will join others on Friday alongside the adherents of the Islamic faith to express the right which the martyrs of Friday the 15th gave their life for.”
It is the emotional force of events like last Friday which change politicians and politics.
The former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, experienced this after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which 36 people were shot. That didn't have a political motive like Christchurch; it was the work of a mentally ill man.
Even so, as a consequence, Howard was able to capitalise on the anger over the shooting and get a ban on semi-automatic weapons through Australia’s Parliament.
In his memoirs, he wrote: “Not only had I involved myself at an emotional level with the tragedy, but I used the immense authority of my newly won office to achieve a huge shift in the laws relating to guns.
“Within just two months of becoming PM, I would forever be identified with driving an effective national response to a terrible tragedy which was now part of our history. I had passed a very important character test.”
That "immense authority" and the "character test" are what is defining Ardern's response now.
And international acclaim for her is continuing to build.
Even Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan had changed his position yesterday and wrote in the Washington Post that, “all Western leaders must learn from the courage, leadership and sincerity of New Zealand's Prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to embrace Muslims living in their respective countries.”
National know they can't challenge Ardern’s new moral authority.
A senior Labour figure told POLITIK that it was the same for them during the Christchurch earthquake.
“We couldn’t touch Key,” he said.
“But it didn’t stop us saying terrible things about them in our backrooms”.
And that is where the partisan political debate might have to stay for the next few weeks or possibly even months.