Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Brutal Realities

Just who is brutalising who? Justice Minister Simon Power appears willing to do violence to his own (surprisingly liberal) principles rather than forswear the support of the Sensible Sentencing Trust and its right-wing authoritarian advisers.

"RE-BRUTALISATION" – It’s a word you’ll be hearing again and again over the next few months.

The literal meaning of "re-brutalisation" is simple and straightforward. Someone is re-brutalised if they are repeatedly subjected to brutal treatment.

If an Islamic leader fell victim of one of the CIA’s "Special Renditions", for example, and was spirited away to Morocco, "waterboarded" and then released, only to be abducted, waterboarded and released all over again; then I think it would be fair to say that he’d experienced "re-brutalisation".

Because "brutal" is a very strong word – meaning "savagely or coarsely cruel"; "harsh"; and "merciless".

To discover that New Zealand children were being repeatedly subjected to savage, coarse, cruel, harsh and merciless treatment at the hands of our judicial officers would, therefore, be utterly shocking, unbelievable, and – if true – cause for the utmost concern.

But this is precisely what the Minister of Justice, Simon Power, is accusing judicial officers of doing to New Zealand children. According to Mr Power, the nation’s judges are sitting back and allowing taxpayer-funded defence lawyers to savagely, coarsely, cruelly, harshly and mercilessly "re-brutalise" child victims.

I must say that I was deeply shocked to learn that this sort of behaviour was being allowed in our courts. Media reports over the past twenty or so years had conveyed an entirely different picture of how New Zealand’s courts were obtaining and testing the testimony of children – especially those involved in cases of alleged child abuse.

I’d read about testimony being given by video-link so that children would not be required to physically confront their alleged abusers. I’d heard about social workers and psychologists being present to ensure that the child witnesses were not placed under undue pressure during cross-examination. Indeed, the clear impression I’d received from all of these media reports was that in this country our judicial system did everything within its power to make sure that child witnesses were treated kindly, delicately, compassionately, gently and sympathetically.

Apparently, I was wrong. Apparently, the same news media that has consistently misinformed me concerning the measures taken to ensure that child witnesses are not harmed by our legal processes, has also systematically suppressed the fact that, year after year, child witnesses were being savagely cross-examined by merciless defence lawyers, while judges and prosecutors looked on impassively – lifting not one finger to prevent these unfortunate youngsters’ "re-brutalisation".

All nonsense, of course. No such "re-brutalisation" has occurred, or is occurring, in New Zealand’s courtrooms. New Zealand does, indeed, enjoy a very good reputation for the way it handles the testimony of children.

So, why is the Minister of Justice using such extravagant and prejudicial language to convince us that our courtrooms have been transformed into veritable torture-chambers?

The answer to that question is, I’m afraid, as sinister as it is alarming.

Politically-speaking, the Minister has determined that there is more to be gained by aligning himself with the so-called "Victim’s Rights" movement, than there is by defending the core principles of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

The movement behind this politicisation of victimhood has a very specific and very sinister purpose: to roll-back the rights of the citizen, and reinforce what they see as the dangerously weakened powers of the State. Arising in the mid-1970s as a reaction to what many persons in authority around the world regarded as "an excess of democracy", this movement’s ultimate purpose is to stuff the genie of "permissiveness" back inside its bottle.

Were it to announce these purposes openly and honestly, however, such a profoundly authoritarian project would almost certainly be rejected by the electorate. But, when it masks its ultimate objectives behind the carefully manufactured perception that our courts have become places where criminals, awash with rights and flush with taxpayers’ cash, are outrageously protected by weak judges and venal defence lawyers; and where the victims of crime, their rights denied and their voices stifled, are callously "re-brutalised" over and over again; then the clamour for reducing the rights of accused citizens and brutally punishing convicted criminals becomes politically irresistible.

In the 2008 election campaign, the political scientist Jack Vowles noted that: "Hard-line law and order policies seem to have provided the strongest substantive National Party appeal, despite Labour’s considerable concessions to that point of view since 1999."

As a person, Mr Power is an intelligent, compassionate and surprisingly liberal man. As a politician, however, he can’t afford to become the National Minister who turned his back on the suite of policies which persuaded more former Labour voters to switch sides than any other. That is not the sort of legacy someone hoping to succeed John Key as National’s leader wants to have hanging around his neck. Which is why he’s prepared to ally himself with some very cruel, very coarse and very savage ideological beasts.

If anyone’s been "brutalised", it’s the Minister.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31st August 2010.


Carol said...

An interesting post, Chris. I do find Power a curious figure, and a little frustrating. Unlike other senior Nats (eg Key, English, Brownlee), it seems to me that Power mostly doesn't use figures and research selectively with tons of misleading spin. He comes across as someone who is quite sincere and relatively straightforward. He seems to come to conclusions based on a critical assessment of the evidence. But, I guess he still has to work within the framework set by his party.

Anonymous said...

Will Power ever do climate law and environment law stuff - seems nats just do what ACT want re anything to do with law, and have a narrow focus.

Anonymous said...

Some think Power is the next National Party leader.

Its never going to be Brownlee or Nick Smith... so who else would it be?

Victor said...

My guess is a tussle between Power and Collins.

Bearhunter said...

"Some think Power is the next National Party leader."

I kinda hope so. He owes me a pint.

Anonymous said...

Collins is a mix of Shipley and Muldoon? Don't think ppl are up for a repeat...