(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 26.)
THERE hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming outpouring of sympathy in the media for Conservative Party leader Colin Craig over his threat of a defamation action against Russel Norman of the Greens. The general reaction from political commentators has been that Mr Craig should toughen up.No surprises there. As US president Harry S Truman famously said in one his trademark folksy aphorisms, anyone who can’t stand the heat should get out of the kitchen.
Politics in a liberal democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and opinions. That’s how we decide who to vote for.Accordingly, politicians enjoy a degree of licence in what they say about each other, although most are careful to make their most damaging accusations in the sanctity of Parliament, where the law of privilege protects MPs from being sued.
This rule recognises that there are situations in which the right of a parliamentarian to speak frankly, and even to make damning allegations against people who may be unable to defend themselves, is more important to democracy than the reputations of the people impugned.Labour MP Shane Jones took full advantage of this protection in his crusade against the Countdown supermarket chain, although you have to wonder whether, by carrying on even after the Commerce Commission announced an investigation, he was simply grandstanding.
But back to Mr Craig. We accept that political rhetoric often involves an element of hyperbole. The question in this instance is whether Dr Norman overstepped the mark.Addressing a crowd at Auckland’s Big Gay Out rally, the Green Party co-leader asserted that Mr Craig believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen and a gay’s place was in the closet.
I suspect that not even Dr Norman believed this to be literally true, but he was playing to a supportive gallery and knew it would go down well. Ridiculing a moral conservative at a festival celebrating gays was like shooting fish in a barrel.Whether it was a fair summation of Mr Craig’s personal views, even allowing for the customary hyperbole and metaphor, is another matter.
I thought it was the political equivalent of an underarm bowl, which Dr Norman, being Australian, should know all about. But whether it crossed the legal threshold for defamation is another matter. Most lawyers seemed to think it didn’t.If Dr Norman were able to demonstrate in court that what he said was true, he would have a complete defence against a defamation action.
Even if he couldn’t, the law gives defamers a bit of leeway if the person claiming to have been defamed is a politician. This is due to a landmark case known as Lange v. Atkinson, which arose in the 1990s from an article written by Auckland University political scientist Joe Atkinson in the magazine North & South.Atkinson criticised former prime minister David Lange’s performance as PM and suggested he had a selective memory of his time in power. It was relatively mild stuff but Mr Lange by that time had become uncharacteristically grouchy, even bitter. He sued and lost.
The courts held, essentially, that in a democracy the public was entitled to hear discussion and comment about the performance of those in power. The case was generally viewed as making it harder for politicians to sue for defamation.That may help explain why Dr Norman dug his toes in and refused to accede to Mr Craig’s demand for an apology. He would almost certainly have been acting on advice from his lawyer, media law specialist Steven Price.
Mr Craig has had a run of successes lately with threats of defamation action against the media, which may have emboldened him. But he seems to have backed away from his threat against Dr Norman and it may fizzle out.His readiness to resort to lawyers hasn’t endeared him to journalists, and probably not to all his fellow politicians either. Constant threats of legal action can stifle the robust political debate that informed liberal democracies such as New Zealand depend on.
Yet I can understand why Mr Craig reacted the way he did. He may feel that the playing field is tilted against him, given the media’s generally negative view of moral conservative parties.Some commentators, particularly on the left, treat him as an object of ridicule. That might explain his touchiness.
He may think he’s not getting a fair shake of the stick, and therefore feel less inclined to turn the other cheek (despite what the Bible says) when he believes an opponent has wilfully misrepresented his position.There’s no doubt that parties like the Conservatives struggle harder than most to win acceptance. New Zealand is one of the world’s most secular societies and many of us seem genetically programmed to be suspicious of anything smacking of religious fundamentalism.
Journalists tend to be especially unsympathetic toward religiously driven politicians and hold their noses, figuratively speaking, when writing about them.Australian prime minister Tony Abbott knows this well. It was disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising, to see at least one high-profile New Zealand political journalist recently refer to Mr Abbott as the Mad Monk – a crude nickname widely used in the Australian press.
Mr Abbott suffers from the political liability of being a practising Catholic. Worse than that, he once entered a seminary with a view to becoming a priest. This makes him fair game for the Australian media, who can’t quite decide between referring to him as the Mad Monk or ridiculing him for once being photographed in a pair of “budgie smuggler” swimming togs.Almost anyone who publicly professes any sort of belief in God invites derision from supposedly liberal commentators. In this context I use that term “liberal” advisedly, because such intolerance is the exact reverse of true liberalism.
What the sneerers don't mention is that Mr Abbott is a former Rhodes Scholar with several degrees, including a Master's in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University. It also seems to escape them that the Australian voters thought highly enough of this supposed religious nutter to deliver him a decisive election victory.
Mr Abbott would be less than human if the constant repetition of this gratuitous insult didn't offend him, but he doesn't react. Perhaps there's a lesson there for Mr Craig.