Euthanasia, censorship and NZ

Paul Evans reports on strict laws in New Zealand censoring what citizens there can read and argues t

When Dr Philip Nitschke arrived at Auckland airport at the end of January, he was promptly detained by customs officials. Copies of his book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, were seized. A prominent pro-euthanasia campaigner, he was suspected of carrying a publication proscribed under New Zealand's censorship laws.

New Zealand's government keeps books it regards as dangerous off the shelves, and in recent years has prevented the entry into the country of controversial speakers, including the holocaust denier David Irving. But the impact of this censorial tendency in public life is increasingly a source of rancour.

In 1994 the New Zealand government established the affable sounding Office of Film and Literature Classification, tasked with inspecting material for public suitability. Its remit includes paintings, t-shirts and jigsaws puzzles - and it carries the power to restrict or ban publications deemed not 'in the public good'.

The national Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, last year classified the content of Nitschke's book, which includes details of how to prepare a barbiturate, as “objectionable”. Currently, some 1341 books are classed in this way, and the penalty for distributing prohibited literature is up to a decade imprisonment.

Hoping to persuade Hastings to reconsider the book's status, Nitschke brought an amended version, with pre-agreed offending passages blacked out. “It looked almost comic,” he observes, “though it does make the point of what censorship does to the written word.” Despite making the requested changes, he was detained for over two hours, and had his rights read – though he was not ultimately arrested.

While the book may be banned, it can be read in full by anyone with access to the internet, rendering the ban effectively redundant in a country where over three-quarters of the population is online.

New Zealanders might acquiesce to protection from dangerous ideas, but few seem to regard the inability of lawmakers to take a joke as grounds to restrict expression. Scoffs echoed across the country last summer when a committee voted to forbid the use of parliamentary footage in contexts which denigrate or ridicule MPs. Only the Green party objected to what became known as the satire ban, though polling suggested that 71% of citizens disapproved of the measure.

The future of free expression seems mixed. The turn of the year saw two significant items of legislation come into effect. Enthusiasts for free speech greeted with small cheers the overturning of sedition laws, controversially invoked in recent years, most recently to charge a garage owner for promoting a competition in which the prize was a petrol-soaked sofa.

But the freshly implemented Electoral Finance Act has been interpreted in some quarters as a further erosion of free speech. While it introduces a widely demanded degree of transparency to campaign finance, its sprawling regulatory mandate is provoking the ire of campaign groups and civil libertarians alike.

Thousands marched in Auckland to oppose the act, which limits the ability of groups to campaign during an election year. Organisations not known for their militancy, including the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, expressed deep concern at the restrictions now placed on their right to produce voter guides and pamphlets.

'Kill the Bill' campaign spokesman David Farrar is angered by the broad interpretation of 'electoral advertisement' under the act. “It includes emails, websites (though blogs are exempt), online videos, protest placards, cartoons, posts to internet newsgroups and even theatre performance,” he complains.

Farrar regards the act as indicative of a wider trend towards the regulation of opinionated expression, arguing: “this is part of an ongoing assault on free speech in New Zealand. For example, when newspapers published the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, they were attacked by the prime minister and summoned to a meeting with the Human Rights Commission.”

The momentum of criticism has not slowed. The right-leaning New Zealand Herald recently hit back angrily at claims by both prime minister Helen Clark and her husband that its editorials against the Electoral Finance Act amounted to mischief-making. Clark also rejected its comparisons with neighbouring Fiji, where the government recently deported a leading newspaper publisher, saying: "no one's talking about deporting the editor of the New Zealand Herald for goodness sake."

But Philip Nitschke concurs with Farrar that New Zealand is suffering from a creeping reliance on censorship. “I'm constantly interested in American reactions to our moves in this direction,” he says, “they are amazed.”

Any tendency among New Zealand politicians to compromise public discourse does not appear limited to either the right or left. The conservative National Party opposed limitations on pressure group campaigning, but backed the Labour government's satire ban. Even the Greens, who stood solidly against the satire ban, provided the votes which helped ensure the passage of the Electoral Finance Act.

With everything from campaign slogans to advice on euthanasia available online, both the value and efficacy of such restrictions seem likely to face continued public scrutiny.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times