In the long march of British history Britains have enjoyed, at least since Magna Carta, certain inalienable liberties and freedoms. These have been exported around the world to wherever English came to be spoken, and so it remains today. In the era these rights came to be established such notions were unique. Peoples were ruled by kings claiming a divine right. For example, The Monarch’s ukase in France, until the Revolution of 1789 and similarly in Russia until the overthrow of Communism was enough to deprive a subject of property and life. King Charles the First attempted to revive what he considered his divine right to rule as late as the sixteen forties, but Parliament would have none of it. It cost him his head and ushered in a period of Commonwealth. Since that time these rights have never been challenged in an English-speaking country.
These freedoms set out in, but not invented by the New Zealand Bill of Rights include: “freedom of association,” “freedom of movement” and the “liberty of the person” (that is the right not to be arbitrarily detained), and the right to live in a Parliamentary democracy. For the first time in our history all of these rights have been suspended presumable because it is thought that to do so is in the greater public interest.
In a sinister twist loss of these rights is backed by an apparently highly popular government encouraged scheme of dobbing in one’s neighbour for possible infractions. At the time of the fall of the Berlin wall it was estimated that the membership of the Stasi was about 80,000 but that many times this number were unpaid informants assisting the Stasi to protect the state from infection with the very ideas and principles the government has suspended.
It is impossible to know just what is the overriding public interest which supports this unprecedented government action. It might be the preservation of life (nine elderly people have died, but then as Stalin once observed “the death of one person is a tragedy the death of a thousand is a statistic”), it might be to allow the health system to continue to function smoothly. It might be to save people from themselves, and from the negligence of others. None of this was thought to be necessary during the other Chinese virus scares: SAARS or Avian Flu or swine fever so why now? Perhaps the Government has abrogated its duty to govern to the panicked computer modelling of some “experts,” forecasting terrifying death rates; much of which is already demonstrated to be hopelessly inaccurate. Perhaps it has been influenced by what is happening in other countries, few of which are comparable to New Zealand. Sweden, which is truly comparable, has not suspended its civil liberties. There people are free to come and go and its Parliament remains in session.
Thus, a precedent has been set which sets aside a thousand years of our liberties and nobody much seems to care. The Leader of the opposition says he would rather Parliament had stayed in session but meekly agreed to it being prorogued. There may be others, but the only voice I can find speaking out against this constitutional outrage is David Seymour the leader of the smallest party in Parliament demonstrating yet again his grasp of principle over expediency.
There is nothing a lawyer or legislator likes more than a precedent. Once established it never goes away. The whole development of the common law and the liberties it supports rests on precedent. As Lord Alfred Tennison observed of the English-speaking peoples in his poem “You ask me why I am ill at ease”
A land of settled government
A land of just and old renown
Where freedom slowly broadens down
From precedent to precedent
The law is what Courts say it is on up the hierarchy until it reaches Parliament which is the highest Court in the land. Court lawyers spend much of their careers searching for precedents which support their clients’ cases and trying to explain away those that don’t. So, we now have it established that a fear of widespread infection in the community of a virulent disease is sufficient to lock people up in their homes and suspend Parliament because in the words of section 5 of The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, they are reasonable limits “as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Really! This not the first such plague to affect New Zealand and it will not be the last. Yet this is the first time our civil liberties and our democracy have been suspended in order to minimise (it will not be more) its effect on public health.
But for some this is no more than a lawyer’s quibble. Of course, they would say the overriding priority is to save lives, or in New Zealand’s case so far nine lives, and anyway these suspended rights can be restored when the “crisis” is over, and no harm done. All true but the elephant in the room is that this will not be the last crisis faced by the New Zealand public. They crop up with depressing frequency: SARS, avian flu, swine fever, HIV, Ebola – and there are bound to be germs out there that nobody has yet thought of.
But perhaps the most immediate example of a crisis temporarily eclipsed but waiting in the wings is “global warming.” According to its acolytes anthropomorphic CO2 emissions if left unchecked will end all life on the planet. Now as a crisis that beats any other by a considerable margin and there is no vaccine except to demolish the market economy, prevent most carbon based travel (except by the Greens who have important meetings to attend in service of saving the planet) and usher in a simpler more “sustainable” life style. The problem for the “warmers” is that neither their computer models nor real-life data support the conclusion that mankind is destroying the planet. To the contrary the internet is awash with hard science which conduces to the contrary view that if anything the planet has entered into one of its periodic cooling periods perhaps slightly tempered by modest increases in the CO2 levels however caused.
The political reality is that the warmers have captured the mindset of the decision makers (President Trump excepted) and that the developed world is treating the warmers’ fantasies as a basis for policy making involving unthinkable sums of money and dislocation to the economies of the developed world.
The only glimmer of hope to counter this drift with Alice into Wonderland is the right for the voice of sanity to be heard in all forums. Unfortunately, we know that this is no longer a given. There are reports from California, albeit unsuccessful, of attempts to make it a criminal offense to speak freely against the warmists’ noise. The labelling of those who speak of the hard science as “denialists” thus demeaning the horror of the Holocaust in a cheap shot at closing down debate. We know that in the run up to the recent Australian election one of Bill Shorten’ s political advisors put considerable pressure on him when he won the election (remember it was regarded by the media as a foregone conclusion) to close down the Murdock media for its persistent opposition to the warmers’ agenda. We know that Fairfax media will publish nothing contrary to warmists’ propaganda, and sadly we know that the Otago Daily times has refused to publish such articles not because they may be wrong or mischievous but the editor cannot stand the clamour from the Greens directed at his paper should he support freedom of speech and information. We know about the extinction movement in the United Kingdom supported by celebrities flying in from Hollywood on the private jets and assisting the cause of science by gluing themselves to busy roads around London. We listen to the Swedish teenager thundering her apocalyptic messages to supine world “leaders”, raising fears and probably latent mental health problems in the vulnerable and easily impressionable young. It would be tedious to multiply examples but much the same can be said of the “Me Too” movement, the LGBT (I have lost count of the letters) community, and the “deplatforming” (what ugly words these people invent not even to be found on spell check) that is now rife in our Universities, schools and scientific institutions. Bereft of any scientific or rational basis for their thinly disguised attacks on the market economy, midwife to the prosperous way of life we and the doomsayers all enjoy, the warmists have now been handed a unique precedent for shutting down free speech and the right of freedom of association. I have no doubt it will not be long before they realise what a potent new weapon has entered their armoury and without question it will be deployed.
Until March 2020 it was unthinkable that any democratically elected government would suspend the right to individual liberty and prorogue Parliament, but it has happened. What now? The sand seems to be shifting under our feet and it may be that if a vociferous minority wishes to employ this recent precedent curtailing the ancient rights of the citizens what rights will be next? Immediately freedom of speech, thought and association may well be under threat when the present “crisis” is forgotten, and where will stand the Courts in such event? Will we have the judges sufficiently steeped in the law and guided by solely by principle to resist the emerging zeitgeist.
I mentioned Magna Carta earlier – it was signed in a water meadow adjoining the river Thames in Surrey on the 15th June 1215.The Regent King John, brother of Richard The Lionheart, who was being held for ransom in Austria, had ordered the arrest of certain of his barons and forfeiture of their property for not obeying his diktats. The Barons would have none of this and rose in rebellion. A truce was agreed, and the parties met at Runnymede. John, a despot was forced to yield to the Barons the liberties on which our current freedoms rest. Being the unprincipled creature, he was he immediately repudiated the charter and appealed to Pope Innocent 111 (the ultimate divine right ruler of the day), for help. The Pope obliged by annulling the charter and excommunicated the Barons. This they and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sided with the Barons, ignored, thus ushering in the independence of the Church of England from the Church of Rome.
The liberties and rights created by Magna Carta were later confirmed by King Henry 111 in the Great Charter of 1225 and remain the basis of our liberties to this day. They are to be found in the American Constitution of 1776 and have been exported to every country in the English-speaking world. I fervently hope that when put to the test those generations who have not yet known want or fear but only affluence and security will find the courage to defend these rights and freedoms for which in my lifetime alone millions died and millions more in the preceding generation. I hope our politicians, bureaucrats and Judges when discharging their duties and honouring their oaths of office will reflect on the words of Rudyard Kipling, chronicler of the Empire, in the last verse of his poem “The Reeds of Runnymede.” They had better – the common people will not suffer lightly the loss of ancient liberties on the scale wrought by this barely legitimate government.
And still when mob or Monarch lays
To rude a hand on English ways
The whisper wakes the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede
And Thames, that knows the mood of Kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warnings down from Runnymede.