14 July 2013

Will the real Muldoon please stand up!?

Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon (1921–92; PM 1975–84) has become the whipping-boy of New Zealand politics. Recently, Russell Norman of the Green Party caused a stir by comparing John Key to Muldoon, leading to counter-accusations that, far from Key resembling Muldoon, it's Norman who is the real 'Muldoonist.' Russell Norman is now feeling vindicated by Audrey Young (of the NZ Herald) who has written that John Key's recent, rather threatening, comments against the Human Rights Commission are reminiscent of Muldoon, and so perhaps Norman was right after all.
Let's not forget that Helen Clark's parliamentary opponents were fond of accusing her of being like Muldoon too, due to her reputation for keeping a close watch over pretty much everything. That's ironic, given that Muldoon led the National Party during nearly nine glorious (or inglorious) years in office. But then, the same cynics of the Clark years used to call the Beehive 'Helengrad', invoking the ghost of Josef Stalin, a really brutal dictator who makes Robert Muldoon look like a mewling kitten.
So, who was the real Muldoon, why was he such a baddy, and who deserves most to be compared with him today?
(For those who don't recall those times, I refer you to the online biography by Barry Gustafson.)
Muldoon was loved by many for his 'strong' leadership, and loathed by many for his 'abrasive' and 'divisive' style. He is remembered for strong regulatory controls over the economy, for fomenting discord over the Springbok Tour, for using newly-formed 'riot-squads' as pawns in his political strategy to win the 1981 election, for abusing executive powers, and for circumventing constitutional conventions and safeguards. On the latter point, his behaviour was so wicked that the subsequent fourth Labour Government felt compelled to pass the Constitution Act 1986, just to spell out some of basic principles of law.
Russell Norman's point about John Key being like Muldoon was aimed at such excesses of executive powers and at constitutional impropriety. The preferential deal with Sky City over the convention centre is an obvious example. A less well-known one is the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013, passed in a single day following the Budget, thus denying the public the right to make submissions on it. This Amendment deals with the successful human-rights case of family-caregivers for severely disabled persons who claimed that the Ministry of Health's policy denying them payment as carers was discriminatory. While allowing those claimants to seek remedies, the Act bars any future complaints or court proceedings based on discrimination arising from the amendment and any family-care policies made under it. In short, this ignores the separation of powers and bars the citizen from testing in court whether his/her right to freedom from discrimination (under the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990) may have been breached in similar circumstances in future.
Another example of 'Muldoonism' might be the government's efforts to legalise the use of the GCSB, a foreign-intelligence agency, in domestic policing. This is a dangerous step, as it could bring a secret-service agency into an arena in which we normally expect under-cover surveillance to be judicially warranted, and all evidence against an accused to be presented in open court, once charges have been laid. We should not trust Prime Ministers and secret-service agents to do the job of policing in an open and democratic society. We don't want to become a 'police state.'
And so, who is the real Muldoon? Or, are people using his name in vain, as a fake bogey-man, representing any use or abuse of executive powers that they happen not to like at the time?
You be the judge. I'll just conclude that this all reinforces my point about why we need to have a written constitution, as a safeguard against abuses of powers. See my post Should NZ have a written constitution?


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