A WHITE SUPREMACIST, jailed for distributing the banned video record of the Christchurch Mosque shootings, is standing for public office. The office in question: Trustee of Te Aratai College; is hardly the most exalted in the land, but the apprehension of parents with children at the school is easily imagined.
Had Te Aratai received only enough nominations to fill the number of vacancies on the Board of Trustees, the school would undoubtedly have faced some challenges. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. An election will be held, in the course of which the parents of Te Aratai’s students will, presumably, vote for candidates holding less objectionable views than the avowed White Supremacist.
That’s the way democracy works: those subscribing to deeply unpopular beliefs find it extremely difficult to attract a winning number of votes.
A storm in a tea-cup, then? It would be nice to think so, but this story raises some very thorny issues – not all of them easy to resolve.
Let’s return to our hypothetical situation in which the number of nominations exactly equals the number of vacancies. In this case our White Supremacist would have been declared elected, and the parents of Te Aratai College would be stuck with their controversial new Trustee for the next three years. Not a situation to be relished by anyone – except, perhaps, other White Supremacists.
Christchurch City councillor for Heathcote, Sarah Templeton, who has children at Te Aratai, didn’t even want to accept the White Supremacist’s nomination.
“The school has worked really hard to check whether he’s eligible and it is a grey area, and that needs to change” Templeton told RNZ. “Any member of staff or even parent helpers ... all need to have police vetting, and that’s not the same for board of trustees’ members, even though in high schools’ cases, boards of trustees have student reps on them.”
Except, with all due respect to Councillor Templeton, there’s nothing even remotely grey about this area of our democracy. White Supremacy, no matter how distasteful, is not a crime. Those who subscribe to such beliefs remain citizens and, as such, have every right to submit themselves to the judgement of their neighbours.
To have a candidate ruled ineligible for public office on account of his/her beliefs would inflict far greater harm upon our democratic system than the beliefs themselves. Because where would those doing the “vetting” draw the line? How long would it be before the list included not just Nazis and White Supremacists, but all manner of unpopular belief systems deemed “deplorable” by the Powers-That-Be?
All very fine and principled, but we are still left with our hypothetical Board of Trustees and its White Supremacist member. What are they supposed to do? Just let him do his worst?
Of course not! All they need to do is bone-up on a little book called Robert’s Rules of Order. Old-fashioned and high-minded though it may be (it was written by Henry Robert, a US Army officer, in 1876) the book contains within its pages all the many and varied ways to “assist an assembly to accomplish the work for which it was designed”.
Those versed in Robert’s Rules will have little difficulty in protecting their institution from those who would disturb, disrupt, distract, or in some other way prevent its governing body from operating responsibly.
With our White Supremacist waxing eloquent in support of his loathsome beliefs, a fellow Trustee could simply move “That the speaker be no longer heard.” If the motion was carried and the White Supremacist persisted, the Chair could order the Trustee to leave the meeting. If he refused, the Chair could simply adjourn the meeting – pending the Trustee’s forcible removal.
Democracy is not without its own tried and tested means of self-defence.
And if more White Supremacists start getting elected? What then?
Well, then it is time to take stock of where your country is heading – and why.
A great many things have to go wrong in a society before such naked extremism assembles sufficient support to win public office. People have to feel that they’re not being listened to: that their wishes are being over-ridden. Treat citizens this way and they’re likely to shove your “elite” (per)version of democracy somewhere uncomfortable.
In the words of the “American Rasputin”, Steve Bannon:
“We’re gonna give you a democracy suppository!”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 August 2022.