Saturday, May 03, 2008

Eroding freedoms?

Two things have recently got me thinking about the issue of social freedoms in relation to the current government. Yesterday No Right Turn drew attention to a piece of anti-graffiti legislation that, if passed, will allow people to be convicted for carrying materials that could be used to mark a surface (see here for the Law and Order Committee report).

A few weeks ago, AndrewE asked Helen Clark via the standard's "ask the leaders" series "I’ve always voted Labour (was even a member of the Party) but this year I’m planning on voting National as I’m very concerned by the erosions in our freedoms that have happened under your watch. Why am I wrong?" and got an answer that wasn't one: "I know of no erosions of freedoms which have occurred on our watch. Any such assertion is sheer spin from the National Party and its friends. If the writer is perchance referring to the legislation on disciplining children, he might reflect on the fact it passed through Parliament on a vote of 113:8 with the National Party voting in support of it!"

The current government has passed a substantial quantity of socially progressive legislation (I listed some of it here) but it's also passed laws that restrict social freedoms, most obviously in relation to opening political activity against the state. These include three pieces of anti-terrorism legislation. A recent example is The Suppression of Terrorism Bill 2007 (see here for a Global Peace And Justice press release) which increases grounds for arrest while protesting politically and takes its lead from US-lead policy.

While I don't believe that the EFB, for example, is going to substantially affect freedom of speech, and I'm comfortable with s59's outlawing of violence to children within the family, it's apparent that even though this government has been one of the most socially progressive we've possibly ever had, it's also certainly the most proscriptive that we've had in recent times. I'm saddened that Andrew's question wasn't used as an opportunity to address the issue of social freedoms. I suppose that would have been asking too much since no astute politician will volunteer to raise specific contentious issues if they can get away with not doing so.

Setting aside the issue of anti-terrorism, the idea that anti-graffiti legislation will soon mean carrying a spray can or a felt-tip is a criminal offence is ridiculous to me and it gives the police, (a group whose "discretion" I harbour perfectly reasonable doubts over since a gratuitous batoning incident I witnessed at close hand in 1993, augmented by Louise Nicholas's story and associated cases) far too much choice about how to enact the law. It could easily be argued that s59 gives the people in blue too much discretion also, but in reality it's much harder to police stuff that goes on inside the home unless someone actually calls them in. Anti-graffiti laws, by contrast, will probably create more necessity for police to stop and question people and assume that that they're criminals. We get deeper into territory where looking "dodgy" and being in the wrong place at the wrong time are almost crimes in themselves.

This is not to say that I'd advocate a swing to the right. National are not looking attractive as policy-makers at the moment. But, at least for me, it's time to start considering in more detail the policies of the Greens and the Maori Party. I may also cast a jaundiced eye over New Zealand First and United Future, but only because it's good to be fully informed.

11 comments:

AndrewE said...

Heh...I hadn't even thought of the anti smacking legislation when I wrote that question.

I very much doubt Clark is stupid so I am forced to conclude that she was being deliberately dishonest. Any law imposes restrictions.

A good answer would have been something along the lines of how sometimes restrictions are for the greater good and are an inevitable consequence of living in a society.

Did you see that they are thinking of passing a law restricting undesirables from entering certain areas?

Deborah said...

Great post. That graffiti law worries me too, especially as it will be used to pick on kids.

I wonder just how many of us are in exactly the same position, unable to vote Labour again (I did it through clenched teeth last time), but very much unwilling to vote for National. Voting is going to be a real dilemma for me this time around.

Lyn said...

Andrew - I have to ask because I've always been curious - what legislation were you actually thinking of when you asked your question? You gave HC the opportunity to be sneaky by not pinning her down...

I did notice the other law you mention, or at least I think I did, but what I read was a by-law being introduced by Rotorua Council - not formal legislation. I didn't want to lay that at the feet of the current government since it's not their initiative. However, there is certainly a climate for this kind of thing at the moment which I'd say has probably been encouraged by proscriptive central law-making. There are a lot of things this government has done which I'm really happy about. I just don't want to go into the election without thinking about the big picture.

Deborah - I feel a bit more positive about Labour generally than you, possibly because of a certain loyalty to the Labour movement. It's also partly that the alternatives may well be no better. But that doesn't mean I'm not into looking around and having a think. I have to say that Judith Tizard is my electoral MP and, as the Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, also my "industry" MP and I've yet to hear her give an informed comment on this portfolio. I don't feel well-represented by her and this is another reason to think about alternative voting strategies.

Great to see that you're still voting even though you're living overseas.

lprent said...

There is always a problem in government. Giving freedom to one group often means depriving another group of other freedoms.

For instance in the apartment block I live in there are great expanses of wall area just waiting to be tagged. I get incredibly annoyed whenever someone exercises their freedom to do exactly that. It means that someone on the committee has to organize to get the area repainted. Around some areas there is a certain degree of splotchiness from repeated applications of paint.

After several rounds of doing it myself, I'm fully in favour of simply making paint spraycans illegal to sell or possess in NZ, and cutting off supply at the manufacturer/importer level. I'm prepared to lose the freedom to have access to that technology because in the end the dickhead taggers are depriving me of my freedom to use my time as I see fit.

But the government has done a balancing act between the people who have a legal use for the technology and the victims of the taggers, and is trying an intermediate step.

Most of the 'erosion' of freedoms tends to be in that kind of grey area. Not a area I'd personally like to balance.

l_d said...

I guess it's a case of whether the cure is going to be worse than the illness.

Personally I think its underestimating how adaptable kids are if they want to do something.

I'm thinking of the scratch tags in surfaces that can be wiped clean of paint. If people want to spend a night vandalising then vandalising they will do.

A silly analogy is how the children of strict parents do the same shit (if not worse) that their peers, they just get creative about how they go about it.

The only thing that can save us is a culture change, and that would need to come from within.

They'll adapt to the new system .. like a virus actually. The illness metaphor stands up. : )

Worth a mention too is the law that blocked the foreshore and seabed from being potentially considered in a treaty claim.

Lyn said...

lprent - I guess my immediate reaction to your statement "Giving freedom to one group often means depriving another group of other freedoms" is to reflect that as a home owner you're basically advocating for your own rights and those of the rest of the home-owning middle-classes, and against the rights of people who are likely to be tagging, who are likely to be neither of those things. There are two ways to go on this - 1) the middle-classes are more politically enfranchised because they're educated enough to know how to protect their own interests, and so I'm immediately on the side of the underdog and 2) tagging is generally butt-ugly and really sucks, and so does having to clean it up, so I can sympathise with your position. But then, I am middle-class, even if not a homeowner.

I don't think we need to go as far as banning spray-cans. I'd try using a PA to play Barry Manilow and Abba after dark. Studies have shown (and I read this in a Herald article last year believe it or not) this is a more effective way of making certain spaces unacceptable to the kinds of youth culture who like to tag than just about anything else. Tagging is a class/cultural issue as much as anything - and so the most effective solutions may be social rather than legislative. I'm not sure what you're tried so far, but I'm tempted to say (at risk of being branded a smart-ass) this could be a reasonable intermediate step before a blanket ban on spray cans...I like spray cans.

Lyn said...

l_d -As per my previous comment, I'm all for cultural solutions to cultural problems. You can legislate the crap out of behaviour but it's only going to come out somewhere else. At what point do we draw the line?

Where did you get that info about the Seabed and Foreshore?

lprent said...

"I'd try using a PA to play Barry Manilow and Abba after dark."

It'd be effective on me, urggh. Actually I do like the occassional Abba, so long as it pops up no more than once every 5000 tracks.

Now there are good graffiti type art areas. Like the one that looks like it is from the 80's in the carpark behind VideoEzy on ponsonby road. But these bloody ugly blackscrawls are just visual junk.

Lyn said...

I hear you on both those things. There used to be a great wall in an alley off Pitt St near K-Rd I particularly liked. But I hate tags. Esp over other people's work or houses - too much like territorial pissing. And Abba I've never particularly liked - just too overplayed. If you ever try Manilow I'd love to know if it works....

l_d said...

>Where did you get that info about the Seabed and Foreshore?

well i was just referring to the seabed and foreshore law which stands out to me as the worst one passed by the government, i'm sad to say.

vaguely related links.

stilltruckin said...

Lyn- I'm totally with you here, and I think Helen's answer is symptomatic of the small loss in support Labour has had recently- namely, that Labour is a party that lives off social freedoms, and it has turned its back on some of them.

It passed the anti-terrorism legislation which gives the government sweeping new powers... that it hasn't needed to use.

It passed the "anti-tagging" legislation that treats spray cans like guns. Realistically, this doesn't address the cause of the problem- mistrust of authority, gang formation, isolation and disenfranchisement of minority groups, and the perception that youth have no political voice. These are cultural problems and need to be culturally addressed- funding for public spaces which specifically invite graffiti art, open youth forums with real contact with our nation's leaders, etc... would be wonderful starting points.

I don't think Labour is passing these sorts of laws with a hidden agenda, but I do think they've lost their way a little in this last term and if National actually releasing some coherent, centrist policy before the election it could potentially be good for Labour to have a term in opposition to get back in touch with their left-leaning principles.

National essentially seem to be utilising this discontent to coast along consolidating the centre-right vote away from UF and NZF and skimming a few percent from Labour while the media are ignoring their blatant disregard for statistical accuracy, policy planning, and their own ideologies. Like you, I'm VERY worried that a party can poll so well and have such positive commentary in the political media without releasing any coherent policy. I just hope, and hope, that the journalists will come to their senses and start challenging National into showing us something coherent. That would be a good result for everyone, regardless of their political leanings.

I think you're right that those of us who are concerned primarily with social freedoms (or if you prefer, those of us who lean to the left on moral issues) will be looking mostly to the Greens and the Maori Party to be the conscience in Parliament, as Labour has shown that it's prepared to cross the line from pragmatism to populism now and then if they think it will help them out, which isn't a good precedent.