Democracy In Action: Anti-TPPA protester, Josie Butler, is prevented from presenting her "Dick of the Year" award to New Zealand's Chief TPPA Negotiator, MFAT's David Walker. It seems highly likely that the security personnel, seen here moving in on Ms Butler, were employees of the high-end security firm October Protection. According to the firm's website: "Many of our staff come from military, police, corrections and close protection backgrounds". What sort of “trade deal” have we signed-up to, when its explanatory roadshow requires the protection of former soldiers and policemen?
THE HEAVILY GUARDED Trans-Pacific Partnership’s (TPP) travelling roadshow came to Christchurch last week. The word “heavily” is used advisedly. According to the reportage of Josie Butler (who staged a peaceful protest at the event and was escorted from the auditorium) the roadshow was not only protected by upwards of 30 police officers, but also by 40 members of the New Zealand Defence Force. Ms Butler’s reportage further alleges that the roadshow had at least one other protector – its government appointed chairman, broadcaster Sean Plunket.
If Ms Butler’s description of the proceedings is accurate, then it is fair to say that Mr Plunket has opted for an alarmingly heavy-handed approach to chairing these gatherings. Participants are restricted to asking questions of the presenters and will be interrupted aggressively if they so much as attempt to contextualise their queries. Hecklers are summarily ejected.
What was presented to New Zealanders as an opportunity to participate in a free and frank discussion of the costs and benefits of the TPP, is being experienced by those attendees not already convinced of the agreement’s benefits as little more than a crude propaganda exercise. Even worse, these meetings are alleged to have been conducted in a fashion that treats dissent as a hostile and potentially criminal act.
Given the strong public feeling which the TPP has aroused, the manner in which the roadshow is conducted is very important. Negotiated in secret, and signed by the National Party-led Government without prior endorsement by the House of Representatives, the TPP has been presented to the people of New Zealand as a fait accompli. The most appropriate stance of the person chosen to chair the TPP roadshow is, therefore, one of democratic scepticism.
The case in favour of the TPP needs to be made in full acknowledgement of its inherently adversarial nature. After all, the roadshow is the first official occasion for the public’s direct participation in the TPP debate. Critics of the deal should, therefore, be encouraged by the Chair to make their case, and the government’s spokespeople required to answer their criticisms as well as their questions. If it is true that Mr Plunket’s formidable interrogative skills are not being used to probe and challenge the statements of the government’s representatives, but are, instead, being deployed against the TPP’s critics, then the democratic legitimacy of the roadshow is forfeit.
Certainly, Ms Butler’s description of the Christchurch roadshow makes a strong prima facie case for concern. In her report of the event she states that: “I went to the first security check point which was at the front driveway to the [Rydges] hotel. The guards asked for my ID, and whilst I was getting it out I noticed one of the guys had an army badge pinned to his lapel, I asked him if he was military and he confirmed that all security present today were army personnel.”
Constitutionally-speaking, this claim is particularly alarming. The only circumstances in which it is justifiable for the Civil Power to call upon the assistance of the Military Power are those in which there is a demonstrable threat to life and property. Historically, the involvement of the Military has been confined to helping out during natural disasters and, extremely rarely, to the quelling of widespread public disorder – like that following the 1932 Queen Street Riot. Nothing even remotely resembling such circumstances were present last Friday in Christchurch.
Urgent efforts must be made to confirm the accuracy of Ms Butler’s claim. And if it is confirmed that the NZDF was involved in providing security for the roadshow, then questions need to be asked. First, of the Defence Minister, and second, of the Police Minister. Did Gerry Brownlee know that the Military Power had been called upon to assist the Civil Power in Christchurch? If so, at whose instigation? Does Judith Collins know why the local Police were deemed unequal to the task of preventing disorder at Rydges Hotel?
Frankly, it would be a whole lot better for New Zealand if Ms Butler’s record of the Christchurch TPP roadshow turns out to be inaccurate. That Mr Plunket was, in fact, the soul of politeness and a stalwart facilitator of free speech and open debate. And that whoever Ms Butler spoke to about his military lapel badge turns out to have been pulling her leg about the composition of the security detail. Because, if her version of events is proved correct, then New Zealand is in a world of trouble.
What sort of “trade deal” have we signed-up to, if its explanatory roadshow requires the protection of the armed forces? How good can it be, if those who attempt to criticise its content are cut off in mid-sentence?
Could it be that those who condemned the TPP as a threat to democracy were right all along?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 March 2016.
On Tuesday, 15 March the author received a call from Nick Bryant, Gerry Brownlee's media officer. He informed him that, having checked with both the NZDF and MFAT, the Minister was able to assure him that no serving military personnel were involved with providing security at the Christchurch TPPA roadshow event.
When contacted, Josie Butler strongly reiterated her claim that the security personnel hailed from the military.
An appeal for assistance was issued over social media which quickly produced a link to a private security firm called October Protection.
According to its website:
October Protection is a Christchurch based security and protection company with branches in Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown, Dunedin and associates throughout New Zealand. We provide industry-leading hospitality security, along with VIP transport, helicopter services, secure event, travel and accommodation packages New Zealand wide ….. Many of our staff come from military, police, corrections and close protection backgrounds and their experience is diverse and extensive, providing October Protection with a vast array of specialist skills.
It would seem that both Josie Butler and the Minister were telling the truth.
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