Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: 30 questions about Parliament’s detainee debate

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The apex of the highly polarised debate occurred when the Prime Minister lashed out at Opposition MPs accusing them of supporting rapists, which prompted a walkout of MPs.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

New Zealand’s Parliament has descended into “political civil war” over the Australian Christmas Island detainee debate. In an attempt to unravel the complex, fast-changing and heated debate, here are 30 questions, with some possible answers. 

New Zealand politics has moved into extraordinary territory this week in the continuing controversy over New Zealand citizens detained by Australia in offshore security facilities. The apex of the highly polarised debate occurred when the Prime Minister lashed out at Opposition MPs accusing them of supporting rapists, which prompted a walkout of MPs. 

What started out as a debate about human rights versus law and order concerns, quickly morphed this week into a focus on gender politics and violence, and politicians’ behaviour. To understand how the controversy got to this point, and where it’s going, today’s column points to some of the more interesting and important questions these debates have raised.

1) Have New Zealand politicians lost sight of the “real issue” this week? Peter Dunne has spoken out to condemn all sides in what he calls New Zealand’s political civil war. In this hard-hitting blog post, the government minister complains that National, Labour and Green MPs have lost the plot. He says that the actual detainee issue “seems to have become secondary to the noise it has generated”. He calls for local politicians to unite against a common enemy – Australian human rights abuses.

2) Are Opposition and Government politicians more concerned with point scoring in the debate than the actual detainees? This seems to be the conclusion reached to a series of must-read questions put by libertarian Peter Cresswell in his blog post, Christmas Island, rape, and other random questions

3) Was John Key right about “rapists and murderers” being amongst the New Zealanders on Christmas Island? No. Eventually Justice Minister Amy Adams released a detailed breakdown of the crimes concerned, indicating the PM was wrong – see the Herald’s No Kiwi rapists or murderers on Christmas Island. As Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) tweeted, “For those still interested: of NZers on #ChristmasIsland, 0% are murderers, 0% rapists, 2.5% pedos & 100% hve already served their sentences.”

4) What was John Key’s motivation for attacking his opponents as supporting racists and murderers? Duncan Garner thinks he’s being cynical: “John Key has clearly decided there are no votes in this and no votes to lose. He’s worked out middle New Zealand probably doesn’t give a damn. He’s probably polled on it.  It’s ruthless and calculating politics” – see: You don’t ditch all human rights just because they’re crooks. Garner also complains that “Key has gambled people don’t care. He may be right.  And in the process he’s shown how brutal and ruthless he can be, almost as ruthless as the Aussies themselves.”

5) Was Key using the “Dead cat strategy” in Parliament when he accused his opponents of supporting rapists? Many on the left believe that Key’s outburst in Parliament about rapists was deliberate and calculated. This theory is outlined by Rob Salmond in the blog post, Cold, calculated and cynical. He points out that it’s a long-standing political tactic advocated by rightwing political strategists Crosby/Textor – that politicians can create a distraction from negative media coverage by throwing strange allegations into the debate in order to muddy the waters. See also Gordon Campbell’s On the John Key smear attack

RNZ’s Jane Patterson also calls it “Classic wedge politics, carried out in dramatic fashion” – see: Australian detainees issue unveils master class in cut-throat politics

But maybe Key’s motivation was less calculated and cunning, and more simply a reaction to pressure. Danyl Mclauchlan puts forward this argument in his blog post, Notes on the politics around Australia’s deportation policy. He says, “The motivation was probably Kelvin Davis going on Morning Report yesterday and calling Key ‘weak’ for his failure to stand up for New Zealanders. Rather than have the line repeated on the TV news Key decided to project strength in the House by abusing the opposition. Now instead of calling Key ‘weak’ the opposition are complaining about him being mean to them. Goal achieved.”

6) Why did Labour and Green MPs walk out of Parliament? The best news report on what happened is Isaac Davison’s Silenced and ejected from Parliament: The female MPs who revealed they had been victims of sexual violence. Some of the MPs explain their actions in TV3’s 4-minute Story item by Dan Parker: MPs who walked out tell their story. See also Metiria Turei’s Guardian article, I told New Zealand’s parliament about my sexual assault – it was difficult, but necessary

7) Is John Key using rapist allegations as a political tool? Yes, according to the Greens – see RNZ’s John Key ‘using rape as a political tool’ – Metiria Turei. Turei also claims that Key is using this tactic “to distract from serious issues”, but perhaps contradictorily was also reported as believing “the parliamentary furore did not distract from the detainee problem, as both issues were highly relevant.”

8) Does Parliament and Government have a problem with “rape culture”? Yes, according to academic and Labour candidate Deborah Russell, who has blogged about “Rape culture in action in our Parliament, promulgated by the Speaker” – see: An object lesson in silencing women. She condemns David Carter’s actions: “All of it is chilling. A powerful man, presiding over the highest court in the country, silencing women who have been victims of assault, and ruling them out of order.” She argues that “rape culture” is endorsed by “the most powerful and senior representatives of the ruling National party”.

9) Are the Opposition MPs who have spoken up about their experiences of sexual assault making the issue “all about themselves”? That’s the argument made by one long-time National Party activist – see Sam Sachdeva’s MPs who shared sexual assault stories ‘paraded their victimhood’ – Michelle Boag. Listen to the 4-minute RadioLive discussion

10) Aren’t we being unfair to John Key about his “rape supporters” allegation? A case can be made that Key wasn’t actually painting the whole debate as being about those who support rapists versus those who support New Zealanders – see media training expert Pete Burdon’s blog post, Key comment taken out of context. He makes the argument that Key was only talking about the details around transporting the detainees back to New Zealand: “He added that it would take longer for some like rapists and murderers because he wanted to make sure that other New Zealanders on the same commercial flights as them were safe. That would take more time and could involve other options like chartering planes.  When this explanation was dismissed by opposition MPs, he said something like, “You can support the rapists and murderers, but I’m more concerned with the safety of other New Zealanders when they are coming home.”  In that context, it’s more understandable why he made the comment. He wasn’t talking about rapists and murderers generally, but only those who could potentially be a threat to other travellers.”

11) Shouldn’t Labour and Green MPs be proud to support the human rights of all detainees, regardless of their convictions? This is the argument put on The Standard blogsite, which castigates the MPs who walked out for not taking all human rights seriously: “It would have been nice if Labour and the Greens had broadened the debate to include the refugees on Christmas Island as well as Australia’s other prison Islands, but no.  The members from the left of the house who were so keen to distance themselves from any suggestion of being rape apologists or whatever, that they walked out of the debating chamber – might as well keep on walking. They are of no use” – see: Human Rights, Psychos and Opposition.

12) Has the Government been doing enough to fight for the rights of the detainees? The Dominion Post says no: “John Key has done a U-turn on Kiwi detainees in Australia. A few weeks ago he was threatening to talk tough with new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That didn’t happen. And now Key sounds as though he is a PR man for the Australian Government” – see: PM should oppose bad Australian law on detainees, not defend it. See also Brian Rudman’s column, Shameful lack of political fallout over Aussie gulags

13) Has John Key been consistent in his arguments about the detainee issue? Toby Manhire thinks not, and responds with Ten things John Key has (and hasn’t) said

14) Will John Key and National suffer in the polls due to the “rape supporters” allegation? According to blogger Oliver Chan, National has been caught off-guard by the growing power of feminism, and ultimately “Key and National have no choice but to adapt conservatism to incorporate modern feminism” – see his blog post, Off-Key.

The NBR’s Rob Hosking seems to agree, and says that the actions of the Opposition women could change female voters’ minds about Key and National: “It was emotional, it was raw, and it was true.  It was still a calculated political stunt.  It may even work. Never underestimate the raw rage many women, of all shades of the political spectrum, carry inside on this issue.  The footage of women MPs trying to talk about sexual assault and being shut up by a male Speaker is going to be run, and re-run, over coming months.  It is going to hurt National. A huge part of Mr Key’s success has been his appeal to women voters” – see the paywalled article, Low Gears: Key’s Jeremy Clarkson-style stunt may backfire.

15) Has the Prime Minister lost his moral compass? The first to make this allegation over this scandal is Green blogger David Kennedy – see: How low can Key go? He argues that “John Key and human rights are not a natural pairing”, and he outlines other examples where the PM has been found wanting on ethical issues. He concludes: “John Key is a Prime Minister with no obvious moral compass and has no interest in making a stand on moral issues.”

16) Was Kelvin Davis right to confront the Prime Minister on his way to the debating chamber? Not according to many senior press gallery journalists. Audrey Young says that Davis showed a “lack of decorum”, and furthermore, “MPs should have the freedom to walk the corridors of power without being verbally assaulted by anyone, the public, the media, or political opponents.  Certainly anything that impedes an MP’s route the House is a prima facie breach” – see: John Key’s reaction completely disproportionate.

Similarly, Tracy Watkins says: “It’s one thing to have your opponents yelling insults across the House, and quite another to be waylaid by a fellow MP in the corridor and verbally abused.  Politicians regularly rub shoulders at shared spaces like the Beehive Caff and parliamentary gym, and usually manage to leave their political disagreements at the door of Parliament’s debating chamber.  Davis’ actions risk unsettling that fine balance” – see: Key ramps up the politics on Kiwi detainees

None of this means that Davis deserved to be pushed by the Prime Minister’s Diplomatic Protection Service – see Jane Patterson’s A new level of brutality for debate? And for more on this incident, and condemnation of both Davis’ and Key’s behaviour, see Vernon Small’s Perspective out the window at Parliament over Christmas Island detainees.

17) Has the Government really been “protecting Kiwis” from deportees? Patrick Gower says not, and outlines how little the Government has done since the deportees started arriving in New Zealand since December last year – see the second half of this TV3 report: Five Kiwis caught up in Christmas Island riots

18) Is Australia’s use of the Christmas Island detention centre really like the US use of Guantanamo Bay? Veteran activist Mike Treen explains why it is, and why he joined protesters outside the Australian Consulate in Auckland this week – see: Australia, refugees and the rights of NZ-born workers

19) Doesn’t New Zealand also deport criminals? Yes, we do. And the way in which New Zealand sends criminals to Pacific Islands might also be criticised – see RNZ’s Convicts dumped in Tonga by NZ

20) What are the differences between New Zealand and Australian rules for deporting criminals? For the best account of this, see Andrew Geddis’ Australia: purging the convict stain?

21) Is Parliament’s Speaker biased? David Carter has been strongly criticised for the way he dealt with the Prime Minister’s allegations, and then with various attempts by MPs to talk about their experiences of sexual assault. The arguments against Carter are put by Greg Presland in The Standard blog post, New Zealand needs a new Speaker. And according to Danyl Mclauchlan Carter is both biased and incompetent – see: Disorder in the House.

22) Should Parliament’s Speaker be sacked? According to blogger No Right Turn, David Carter’s “partisan hackery, incompetence, and desire to protect his caucus mates and turn a blind eye to their offences has gone too far.  Lets be very clear: Carter is not the ‘Speaker of the House’ – he is National’s Speaker, the ‘Speaker for the National Party’. And that’s just not sustainable. He should resign, or the House should sack him” – see: Sack the Speaker. If you agree, you can go to the online petition, Speaker David Carter, Resign Immediately

Chris Trotter outlines why the independence of the Speaker is so important, and the role they must play in protecting debate and the Opposition – see: A Disgraceful Performance: Why John Key and the Speaker need a refresher course in Democracy

23) Should Parliament’s Question Time be abolished? It’s not clear who might be advocating this, but Mike Hosking nonetheless provides an answer in his one-minute video, Question Time shambolic but necessary

24) Is parliamentary politics set for increased hostility? It seems so, according to Tracy Watkins, who says “From here it can only get uglier”. She points out that  “Labour and the Greens are in open revolt and Parliament has descended into chaos”, and “Speaker David Carter has all but lost control of the House and MPs are taking that as free rein to throw ugly rhetoric around” – see: More lows than highs in ‘rapists’ stoush

25) What will be the on-going effects of John Key’s use of law and order rhetoric in Parliament? It might make New Zealanders even less tolerant of ex-criminals according to John Tamihere. RNZ reports his views that Key’s comments will reinforce “the country’s punitive culture towards criminals and made it harder for them to reintegrate into society” – see: PM’s comments encourage punitive culture, says MP.

26) Should New Zealand have challenged Australia’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Commission assessment meeting this week? There are plenty of voices complaining that New Zealand has missed a strategic and moral opportunity by not standing up against our neighbour’s human rights abuses – see, for example, Toby Manhire’s Australia’s detention policy condemned at UN from all sides. But what did NZ say?, the Press editorial, Christmas Island riot shows folly of Australia’s out-of-sight strategy, and – best of all – James Robins’ Australia’s shame, and New Zealand’s silence

27) Should New Zealanders boycott Australia? Peter Dunne suggests they will – see the Australian Daily Telegraph newspaper’s Kiwis could boycott Oz: NZ minister

28) Where and what is Christmas Island, anyway? For some background about the island and the detention centre, including how the island got its name, and what happened to the casino there, see Stuff’s Christmas Island: From tropical paradise to detention nightmare, and back again

29) What caused the latest “riots” on Christmas Island? The sad plight and death of Kurdish asylum seeker Fazel Chegeni is detailed in the Guardian’s article by Ben Doherty, Closed doors and troubled minds: the anguish of Christmas Island’s detention centre

30) Finally, is there any humour to be found in this political saga? Yes – see Hayden Donnell’s Is John Key Gutless? Yes He Probably is TBH.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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