The pandemic plunges New Zealand into a state of intolerance

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, February 23, 2023

Controversy, thy name is… (Maureen Pugh-RNZ Photo by VNP/Phil Smith)

During the first Covid-19 lockdown, the government cleverly and skilfully used the tactic of inclusion to build support for its initiatives and marginalise its critics.

Hence the frequent references to all being in this together as part of the “team of five million.”

In their anxiety and fear of the looming pandemic, people quickly brought into this approach and the government reaped strong compliance and substantial political approval for its actions.

Consequently, it was easily able to isolate its critics, from anti-vaxxers to the anarchistic rabble that occupied Parliament grounds, as not being part of the “team,” and therefore not worthy of further consideration.

By and large, the public agreed.

The Grating Season

However, over the following couple of years, aspects of this approach started to grate more and more. First, was the controversy that erupted over the way the MIQ system was operated, with increasing numbers of families affected by its arbitrary and uneven procedures and the seeming indifference of officials to their concerns. Then came the vaccine mandates and the suggestion that the small minority of New Zealanders who misguidedly chose not to be vaccinated, as was their right, should be discriminated against regarding employment and access to government services.

This type of overreach was generally seen as a step too far.

It culminated in then Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins’ short-lived suggestion that Aucklanders seeking to leave the city for Christmas 2021 should have to apply for permits and be given allocated times to do so.

That idea led to New Zealanders starting to push back more actively on the government’s interventions and saw it begin steadily removing restrictions during the first half of 2022.

But while the physical restrictions were steadily removed, a more sinister, intangible aspect remained and now looks as though it might have become a permanent feature.

The “You are either with us or against us” sense that the “team of five million” mantra inculcated has permeated wider society. Despite being a country with one of the most diverse Parliaments in the world, we have become a far less tolerant society since the pandemic.

‘Dangerous’ views

Where previously, different views might have been shrugged off as just ill-informed or eccentric, there is now a growing feeling that such views are simply wrong, and therefore dangerous, and should not be promoted, or even held at all.

A good example occurred earlier this week. Maureen Pugh, a National Party List MP, needs like a hole in the head, foolishly said that she had seen no evidence of human activities contributing to climate change. Her timing was appalling, not only coming right on the back of the devastation and misery caused by Cyclone Gabrielle but also upstaging her Leader’s response to the Prime Minister’s statement at the start of Parliament for the year.

Unsurprisingly, she backed down within a few hours, relying on the old politician’s excuse of having not been reported accurately. There the matter should have ended with Pugh left to swallow her embarrassment and absorb the wrath of her colleagues who felt completely sideswiped by her unexpected remarks. People could have drawn their own conclusions about the worth of her views, and how seriously to take them.

But, in the new age of intolerance with which were now beset, the argument quickly ceased to be about Pugh’s ill-informed views, and far more about whether as an MP, she even had a right to express views that were clearly out of line with the mainstream of national opinion on an important issue like climate change. It was the old “You are either with us or against us” mentality of the pandemic response all over again.

Now, I have no truck with Pugh’s views. I think she is plain wrong, and I recall that she has also expressed anti-vax sentiments previously. But they are her views, and she has a right to express them, regardless of her status as an MP, or what the rest of us might think.

The Free Speech concept

That is what free speech in an open democracy is all about. Public debate, not community censorship, is the best antidote to views that appear quirky or extreme to the majority, and we should never shy away from that. The last thing we need is the mediocrity and uniformity of a “carbon copy” approach to the expression of public opinion.

As Voltaire so famously said, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” We need to rekindle that principle.

Making judgements about what should be believed and what should not, should never be based on the type of artificial absolute that applied during the extreme circumstances of the pandemic. Doing so poses a more dangerous threat to free speech than the expression of certain views themselves. We do not need to be told what views are acceptable in public discourse and which ones are not – that was exactly the problem the government ran up against in its early efforts to define what constituted hate speech.

Rather, we need to focus afresh on promoting informed debate based on thorough information. The best response to Pugh’s outburst came from her colleague Nicola Willis who said she would be giving Pugh all the relevant reputable data and expected her to be doing a lot of reading. It is the sort of response that would have been the norm before the new absolutism engendered by the pandemic took hold, but which is now becoming threatened. Previously, we would have trusted people to reach their own conclusions.

The irony is that over the years New Zealand has been more diligent than most in calling out threats to the freedom of expression and the rights of minorities in other countries. We have even gone to wars in the past on that clarion call.

We should uphold the principle once more at home.

Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown. He lives in Wellington and writes a regular Weekly Column.

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