Straight Shooters: Radical Conservatives like Judith Collins encourage the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.
ACCORDING TO former Labour cabinet minister, Steve Maharey: “Social democracy is in trouble”. Who cares? If challenged to define social democracy, most Kiwis would shake their heads and shrug. It’s not a term that pops up very often in New Zealand political conversations. Whether or not it’s in trouble is unlikely to keep anyone awake at night except left-wing politicos.
On the other hand, if Mr Maharey were to say “Labour is in trouble”, then New Zealanders would have no difficulty at all in understanding what he was saying. With Labour riding high at 48 percent in the polls, they might question his grasp on political reality, but at least they’d know what he meant.
A more interesting question, especially in the context of National’s unfolding leadership contest, might be: “Is New Zealand conservatism in trouble?” If, for example, the National Party caucus were to make Judith Collins Leader of the Opposition, what would stand out as the most important item on her political agenda?
If her past record is any indication, the Law and Order issue would be right at the top of her To-Do list. It was, after all, in recognition of her get-tough approach to boy-racers that she was given the political nickname “Crusher”. She has worn it with pride ever since.
The Law and Order issue works exceptionally well for right-wing politicians because it allows them to play directly to the average voter’s powerful emotional response to the horrors of serious criminal offending. People see the damage inflicted on the victims and their families, and their first response is to demand that the person, or persons, responsible be subjected to the harshest possible punishment.
They do not want to hear the explanations put forward by bleeding-heart liberals or left-wing academics. As far as they’re concerned the people who kill, rape and injure innocent human-beings are evil monsters. Lock them up and throw away the key.
End. Of. Story.
In the febrile atmosphere whipped-up by right-wing political firebrands and media sensationalists, the demands of due-process and constitutional legal safeguards are received with scorn. If the Police have arrested you and brought you to trial, then you must be guilty.
Sir William Blackstone’s famous legal dictum: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, cuts little ice with a public whose blood is up. To the mob, the idea that the Law might occasionally allow the guilty to escape punishment is an insufferable provocation.
All of which encourages the electorate to seek out and support those politicians who promise to strengthen the powers and purview of the State. That this will inevitably entail curbing the independence of the Judiciary; authorising the increased surveillance of citizens; and locking-up an ever-increasing number of their fellow citizens; bothers them not at all.
On the contrary, the State is perceived as their champion: a counter-force to all those “activist judges”, annoying civil libertarians and immoral defence lawyers who demand proof of guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, and who bleat on about the “rights of the accused”. What about the rights of the victims – eh? Don’t they deserve justice!
The perverse consequence of this kind of conservatism is that, far from preserving the traditions and institutions bequeathed to us by past generations, it actively seeks their destruction.
In place of the liberties of the citizen: extracted at great cost from the arbitrary power of the state, these “radical conservatives” advance the notion that the collective welfare of the people can only be secured by suppressing anyone who sets their individual “rights” against the obligation of the state to execute the people’s will.
The political consequences of this decidedly troubling variety of conservatism are observable in the so-called “illiberal democracies” of the Russian Federation, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, elections still take place and opposition parties continue to exist alongside a diversity of media outlets. The crucial factor which distinguishes illiberal democracy from the real thing, is that in illiberal democracies the definition of “the people” is radically narrowed to exclude all those who refuse to support the governing party.
In winning power, illiberal democrats avail themselves of all the opportunities genuine democracy provides. Once elected, however, they move swiftly to delegitimise and marginalise their political opponents.
For those unlucky enough to live under it, illiberal democracy tends to be a crushing experience.
A version of this essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 February 2018.