Wednesday 19 January 2011

Dangerous Falsehoods

Who Governs? Every three years New Zealanders elect a new House of Representatives which, in turn, decides which party, or combination of parties, gets to form a government. All governments serve at Parliament's pleasure - and Parliament is regularly re-constituted by the people. That's how our representative democracy works - and don't let any politician, journalist or lawyer tell you otherwise!

I DON’T KNOW about you, but I tend to get quite annoyed when people accuse me of saying things I didn’t say. What makes me even more annoyed is when these accusations come from people who really should know better.

Since he goes under the sobriquet of "Legal Beagle", one has to assume that Graeme Edgeler is a qualified lawyer. As such, he should know how dangerous it can be – when commenting on controversial subjects – to put words in other people’s mouths. And yet, that is precisely what he has done in a posting on the Public Address website – and the mouth he put the word "treasonous" into is mine.

The context in which this misquotation occurs: a discussion about who has the right to govern; is of no small significance.

On Sunday, 26 October 2008, TVNZ ran a story (you can read it here) in which the network’s Political Editor, Guyon Espiner, reported the findings of a poll he’d commissioned from Colmar Brunton. The question asked was: "Should the party that wins the most votes get to lead the government?"

Having secured the entirely predictable response (77 percent said "Yes.") Mr Espiner took the opportunity of indulging in a little editorial speculation: "The latest ONE News Colmar Brunton poll suggests there will be a backlash if Labour comes a distant second to National but still forms a multi-party coalition."

It is important to bear in mind that this "news" item was broadcast less than a fortnight before the 2008 General Election – when it was still by no means certain that Winston Peters would fail to secure the 5 percent of the Party Vote required to win seats in Parliament. What was clear, however, was that if NZ First was returned there was a good chance Helen Clark and Labour would be able to secure enough support in the House of Representatives to go on governing.

By commissioning this poll, and then raising the possibility of a "backlash", Mr Espiner had effectively added his own – and TVNZ’s – support to the National Party Opposition’s campaign to delegitimize in advance any coalition government that did not include the party which commanded a simple plurality of the Party Votes cast. Outraged by this extraordinary display of overt partisanship, I penned "An Open Letter to TVNZ" which was published in The Dominion Post on Friday, 31 October.

Mr Edgeler states in his blog posting "Coalition of Losers" that: "At the time, Chris Trotter had called TVNZ 'treasonous' for running that poll." Well, Mr Edgeler, I have a copy of the open letter sitting in front of me on my desk, and nowhere does the word "treasonous" appear.

What I did say was: "For TVNZ to place the enormous power of the television medium behind this naked attempt to rule the governing party out of contention as a competitor for executive office is not only an egregious abrogation of its Charter, but also an open and extremely dangerous attack on democracy itself ….. I will not be part of any right-wing, media-driven attempt to have every Labour, Green, Maori Party, NZ First, and Progressive vote discounted."

I stand by every word.

The most depressing aspect of Mr Edgeler’s post, however, is not his failure to accurately report what I wrote, but his apparent endorsement of the position which the National Party (aided and abetted by Mr Espiner) adopted on the vital constitutional question: Who has the right to govern?

"There will be those", writes Mr Edgeler, "who will find any objection to a coalition of runners-up to be constitutionally offensive: We don’t elect a government, we elect a parliament, and whoever can command a majority of the House is properly the Prime Minister – whether from the largest party, or merely the largest group of parties. However, this ignores one of the salient points of the concern: the objection itself can be grounded in democracy."

No, Mr Edgeler, it can’t. If representative democracy means anything at all, it means government according to law: law enacted by a legislature which has been elected by the people.

Any attempt to lay aside that law: by claiming, for example, that the voters don’t really understand that what they’re doing in the polling booth every three years is electing a parliament (not a government); is a quite extraordinary stance for a lawyer to take. Ignorance of the law – as any responsible lawyer will tell his or her clients – is no defence.

It’s why I was so angered by Mr Espiner’s item back in 2008. By failing to use the resources of the public broadcaster to educate the electorate, and refusing to criticise the Opposition’s attempt to delegitimize in advance any coalition which did not include the party which had won more votes than any other single party, he allowed the National Party’s constitutional misrepresentations to pass unchallenged.

It makes me wonder what editorial stance Mr Espiner and TVNZ would have taken had National’s worst fears been realised. Would New Zealanders have been treated to the spectacle of the publicly-owned television network openly suggesting that a Labour-led coalition government lacked legitimacy?

If National and Act supporters – buoyed by TVNZ’s (and no doubt many other right-wing media outlets’) support – had taken to the streets, how would Mr Espiner and his colleagues have responded? Would Simon Dallow (as Wendy Petrie nodded in wide-eyed approval) have jutted out his noble chin on ONE News and spoken movingly of "people power" challenging "this coalition of losers"? Would the majority (i.e. 50 percent + 1) of New Zealanders who had voted for parties other than National and Act (parties now commanding a majority of the seats in Parliament) have had their political judgement over-ruled? Would the Constitution of New Zealand have been set aside?

And would Mr Edgeler have hailed such an outcome as "democracy" – or "treason"?


Madison said...

Damn good post and a serious look at just how much sway and influence the media can push. Also a very good examination of how being blamed of something can be a hard thing to erase even when the accusations are false. And especially valuable explanation for many that a coalition is still a government comprised of parties that still add up to a majority.

Unknown said...

Agreed entirely Chris.

You can take the argument to a perhaps idiotic extreme but this shows how idiotic Edgeler's view is. If Labour won 40% of the vote and the Greens 15% and National 41% would that be reason to think that the country wants a right wing government that is ready to destroy any remaining workers rights and totally trash the environment?

Anonymous said...

a Labour-led coalition government lacked legitimacy?

Of course it would. They were bastards.


Chris Trotter said...

To: Mick.

By that measure, Mick, no government could ever consider itself legitimate.

Graeme Edgeler said...

Mr Edgeler states in his blog posting "Coalition of Losers" that: "At the time, Chris Trotter had called TVNZ 'treasonous' for running that poll." Well, Mr Edgeler, I have a copy of the open letter sitting in front of me on my desk, and nowhere does the word "treasonous" appear.

Hi Chris,

I'm sorry if I've misquoted you. That certainly wasn't my intention. As a lawyer - well, not just as a lawyer, but as a human being - I do try not to mislead people.

I knew there were a number of comments from across the media and various commentators about the TVNZ poll, and wanted to include a few to set the scene: it wasn't particularly important (or important at all) to the thrust of my piece. Basically, I recalled that there had been comment at the time so I did a google search to confirm, and found Herald editorials, comments on the Standard, and a piece of yours I thought I remembered from your blog which you shared at the time with Matthew Hooton.

The piece of yours that I was referring to is unfortunately no longer visible on the Internet (it would have been here: ). However, the Google search gave me a small amount of context - enough to suggest to me that your comments were as I remembered them and were about Guyon Espiner's Poll. You will note that the post is dated 28/10/2008 - a day-and-a-bit after the poll results were released on the evening of 26/10/2008. It seemed to fit. Obviously, if you were referring to something else as "a treasonous convention" you have my most sincere apologies. In fact, you have my sincere apologies anyway; even if my memory was true, there was no particularly good reason to use your comments in a manner, that, in hindsight, was quite likely to cause offence. That is something I try quite hard to avoid - in real life, and on the Internet.

Graeme Edgeler

p.s. I have some comments on the substance too, but think I leave those for a second comment.

Graeme Edgeler said...

My argument - while long, may not have been as clear as I'd have hoped.

I have no concern with there being a coalition of runners-up. I consider it could be a perfectly legitimate response to any number of given electoral outcomes.

I do however recognise that some people - perhaps many people, if the TVNZ poll is to be accepted as showing public opinion - do have a concern. My post was not principally about the legitimacy of coalitions of runners-up, but about exploring the concerns some people seem to have with them, and addressing the circumstances in which they may be more likely to arise. These concerns, at least among some, appear to be firmly held, and I recognise, and share, the concern about what might happen (perhaps "people power" protests, but more likely, a loss by some in respect for the political system, more cynicism about politicians motives and a decrease in civil society, and loss of support for MMP).

These matters were of concern to me, and remain concerning to me. I think that there are some circumstances in which the concerns are more likely to arise, and by recognising this, we may be able to allay, rather than deride the concerns of people who feel a coalition of runners-up lacks legitimacy.

At some point, if we keep MMP, there will be coalition of runners-up, it will be better for the health of our democracy if the circumstances in which it arises don't give rise to claims of illegitimacy. One factor I consider might be important in ensuring there is some honesty from the political parties pre-election about the likely and possible shape of post-election coalitions. If a Labour leader is talking well before people vote about how a Labour government with support from the Greens wants to unseat National, then I think the public concern we both want to avoid can be avoided, in a way which is more likely to succeed than leaving it for a cobbling-together (with no public input) after the election.

You can take the argument to a perhaps idiotic extreme but this shows how idiotic Edgeler's view is. If Labour won 40% of the vote and the Greens 15% and National 41% would that be reason to think that the country wants a right wing government that is ready to destroy any remaining workers rights and totally trash the environment?

Of course not, Micky. If you'd read my post in full, you might have noticed that I used numbers like that as an example of where public sentiment would not be against a coalition of runners-up. If first and second are close, public concern will be less if second can form a government and first can't. If the coalition grouping is clear (Labour + Greens, or National + Act) people will also be more accepting.

Chris Trotter said...

Thank you, Graeme, for that generous apology - which I accept wholeheartedly.

And you have my apologies if, in the course of that frenetic pre-election period, when I was locked in ideological combat with the redoubtable Mr Hooton, the word "treasonous" was indeed bandied about.

I don't recall it, and I can't find it, but that doesn't mean I never said it!

Anonymous said...

"I can see a treasonous convention from my desk."

Is that the quotation?