The Harmony of Disagreement

Politics is, almost by definition, the calling for those who like to engage in the profession of disagreement. Of discord, disharmony and disunity. The beauty of a good old clash of ideas is something that strengthens our democracy and renders it responsive to the changing needs of New Zealanders. Indeed, our electoral system is actually designed to bring about Parliaments where almost nothing is agreed on first time around.

All of this has consequences for our political leaders. When legislating in a pluralistic environment, prime ministers and governments have a pretty uncontroversial duty to take into account the reasonable spectrum of opinions and valid ideas that exist in the debate on any particular issue. We aren’t in a First Past the Post environment any longer, and we also aren’t a country that pretends that the largest party in Parliament holds some magical wisdom of office that entitles it to know better than organised and active groups of informed citizens.

This, then, must be posing something of a dilemma for John Key and his Kiwis-like-snapper-but-not-their-privacy-protections-in-legislation attitude of late. I think it smacks of both ignorance and arrogance that Key is so dismissive of the concerns of New Zealanders around this legislation. The Human Rights Commission and Law Society are (sorry, John) neither misinformed nor ‘people with an agenda’. They see a large part of their jobs as being to keep the government of the day on the straight and narrow: to correct the flaws that exist in a parliamentary method of legislating.

A smart prime minister would take heed of the advice and criticism on offer and use it to improve his position, instead of saying “Actually, you’re wrong and you ought not to mess with us and what we want to do with the reins of power”. If he’s so correct in his assessment of the merits and flaws of the GCSB Bill then he should at least take the hint that his government is doing a shitty job at communicating important law changes to the public. More useful I think would be for him to take a wake up call and stop paying such blind attention to the woefully narrow range of legal opinions currently on offer to him.

Our democracy thrives on reasoned disagreement. For Key to imply that because “New Zealanders only care about the snapper quota” that those thousands who are concerned about current and future civil liberties are not real Kiwis is both insulting and damaging to the quality of New Zealand’s governing arrangements. It’s time to reassert the importance of the harmony of disagreement in New Zealand politics.


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