How Free? New Zealanders like to think they live in "a free country". But, between the theory of democratic citizenship and its practice in the everyday lives of ordinary Kiwis, the gulf grows wider and wider.
“IT’S A FREE COUNTRY.” Ask someone if it’s okay to sit down, make a coffee, or take a squiz at the paper, and chances are you’ll receive this stock response. But just because a phrase is oft repeated doesn’t make it untrue. Ours is a free, open and democratic society, where everything that isn’t expressly forbidden is permitted.
Just a few days ago I was chatting with a group of young New Zealanders and the conversation turned to blogs and blogging. My companions were all intelligent, well-educated and gainfully employed Kiwis, and yet I was staggered to learn that none of them were willing to either post or comment on a blog using their own name.
Why were they so unwilling to put their names to their thoughts? What did they think would happen to them if they did? This is New Zealand, I reminded them with a puzzled frown. We’re not living in Putin’s Russia or North Korea. This is still “a free country”.
They gave me that weary, gently condescending look which Gen-Xers reserve for members of the Baby Boom generation who just don’t have a clue what life is like for people who didn’t grow up in the 1960s and 70s.
“If I apply for a job”, said one, “I don’t want my prospective employer to Google my name and be confronted with a whole series of fiery left-wing rants on controversial subjects.”
“It can hurt you professionally”, said another, “if your boss reads something you’ve written on a blog that he or she finds objectionable. It can harm your career prospects.”
“Or get you fired.”
This was too much. Had none of them heard of the Bill of Rights Act? The Human Rights Act? The Employment Relations Act? All New Zealanders are guaranteed the freedom of expression. It is illegal to be discriminated against on the basis of one’s beliefs. No one can be sacked for having an opinion – no matter how controversial.
“Maybe not in your day,” responded my young companions, “back when unions were strong and a civil service job was for life. But things are different now. Everyone’s vulnerable.”
And of course they were right. As we argued back and forth I suddenly recalled the extraordinary content of a recorded conversation broadcast on Radio New Zealand’s “Morning Report” on Monday 10 December – just a few days earlier.
Todd Rippon, a “Lord of the Rings” Tour Guide employed by Wellington-based Rover Tours Ltd, was fighting to keep his job following the communication of negative “feedback” to his employer, Scott Courtney, by the staff of Absolutely Positively Wellington Tourism. Mr Rippon’s offence? To have spoken in less than glowing terms about Sir Peter Jackson – a charge which Mr Rippon emphatically denies.
Listening to the recording, however, it soon became clear that the offence Mr Rippon’s boss objected to most strenuously was his employee’s active participation in the Actors Equity union.
“You’re involved with an organisation that is completely at odds with what I do”, Mr Courtney told his employee, even though Mr Rippon’s work as a tour guide was quite separate from his career as a professional actor and his role as the Vice-President of his union.
Also clear was that Tourism New Zealand – a body with which Mr Courtney’s firm works very closely – harboured similar misgivings concerning Mr Rippon’s associations.
When Mr Rippon asked his boss: “And what about the pressure from Tourism New Zealand? Do you think that it’s harming you that I’m working for you?” Mr Courtney replied: “Yes, I do.”
“Because Tourism New Zealand disapproves?”
“It will be something that is always at the back of their mind.”
This admission by Mr Courtney is deeply troubling. Tourism New Zealand has no legitimate interest whatsoever in the groups with whom Mr Rippon chooses to exercise his statutory right to freedom of association.
It got worse.
The industrial dispute between Actors Equity and Sir Peter Jackson over the filming of The Hobbit had appalled Mr Rippon’s boss:
“I am disgusted with what the Actors Equity union did and what their position is. It affects me, it affects my business. I don’t believe what they did was right. And it’s not something I want my company, or anyone involved with my company, to be involved with.”
When Mr Rippon objects: “You can’t set me aside because I belong to that.” Mr Courtney replies: “But I can! You see, this is the point.”
“You can’t do that!” protests Mr Rippon. “ It’s a basic human right to be a member of a union!”
“No, no, no!” Mr Courtney snaps back. “It’s not!”
It is difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the gulf which now exists between the theory and practice of democratic citizenship in contemporary New Zealand.
A free country? If only!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 December 2012.