We all know the old story*. Put a frog in cold water, slowly heat, bring to the boil. The frog never notices and never leaps out, so it gets cooked. It’s a metaphor for our inability to notice significant changes that occur gradually. Well, there are some pretty significant changes to our legal and democratic rights that are going on under this National government. Each on its own might look like a small thing, but collectively they add up to a major erosion of our freedom. Consider…
Gordon Campbell at Scoop gets us started with an excellent summary (from Wednesday):
For a party that made the Nanny State such a big part of its 2008 election campaign, today’s cutbacks to legal aid are merely National’s latest extension of state power.
So far, the Key government has reduced the right to a jury trial, extended the powers of search and surveillance by state agencies, restricted the rights against self incrimination, sought the ability to conduct trials in the absence of the accused, and ended the independence of the agency dispensing legal aid – and that’s even before we got to today’s changes.
Now, Justice Minister Simon Power has confirmed the earlier fears expressed about the vulnerability of the legal aid process to political meddling by
(a) tightening the eligibility to legal aid funding
(b) virtually removing the ability of the accused in legal aid cases to choose their own lawyer and
(c) further fostering the growth of a state monolith called the Public Defence Service that will, over time, eventually conduct the defence of some 50% of cases passing through our justice system.
The common denominator to these changes is that they are all occurring on one side of the scales of justice – they increase the powers of the state, and/or reduce the rights of the accused.
In response, Justiuce Minisater [sic] Simon Power expressed shock that she would even raise the matter for debate. The skewing of the justice system that has occurred under his tenure as Minister is enough to make one yearn for the good old days, when the expression of state power was more about light bulbs and shower fittings.
To this list we can now add deploying the navy to deal with peaceful protesters, and new copyright legislation with the built in assumption of guilt upon accusation. And let’s not forget the large scale assaults on our collective democratic rights: the continual abuse of urgency and other parliamentary mechanisms, the abominable Supercity process, the sacking of the democratically elected ECAN board and the cancellation of a local body election, and the creation of effectively dictatorial powers in the form of the CERRA.
Feeling the heat yet?
While Simon Power must take much of the blame, it is John Key who is setting the tone. He is far too inclined to use government power inappropriately. Here’s Andrew Geddis at Pundit taking Key to task for calling for the navy to deal with the Greenpeace protest:
First up, the politicians should stf up. Or rather, they may by all means purse their lips and tut-tut at the economic recklessness of environmental activists and their foolish notions. But making comments such as “if the protest was happening on dry land, police would be able to do something about it” (John Key) crosses the line. Just in case there’s any doubt about how things stand, let me set it out in bold: The Government cannot tell, and should not be seen to be telling, the police which potential offences they should investigate and which they should leave alone.
Now, I know the “John Key brand” is central to National’s ongoing popularity, and I know Prime Ministers are expected to have an opinion on everything and be seen to be on top of all problems, but someone needs to take John Key aside and give him a good talking to about the concept of operational independence and the associated constitutional restraints on what he ought to speak about. Because this isn’t the first time he’s made this sort of slip, and even his fans think it isn’t wise for him to do so.
So it goes then. Gradually, but continuously, the Nats are chipping away at out rights, both individually and collectively, on a scale that New Zealand has never seen before. They are led and enabled by a PM with no understanding of the appropriate boundaries, and all too ready to deploy the full power of the state. And the braying voices that were so recently ready to cry out “nanny state!” and “democracy under attack!!!” — where are they now? Strangely muted. Effectively complicit. Coming slowly to the boil with the rest of us.
*With apologies to my little green blogging buddy.