Geoffrey Palmer is my teacher

Geoffrey Palmer is often characterised as a grumpy eccentric grandpa in the media and in blogs.  In the dying days of the fourth Labour government I remember him as a stop-gap Prime Minister playing trumpet on the top floor of the Beehive in one of those pieces where a politician tries to demonstrate that he has personality and is likable.  I’m not sure that it proved this, but as I vividly remember it 27 years later I think we can say it was memorable.

My understanding of Geoffrey Palmer now is that he is a highly intelligent, compassionate man who is most interested in good law written with a socially and environmentally sustainable basis.  One thing that really dismays this man is law written off the cuff and based on little more than anecdote and conjecture in order to meet some current whim.  This is a good thing to be dismayed about.

I think I found my respect for Geoffrey Palmer when I was revising for Cathy’s Laws 101 exam (she revised too, but I helped to make the revision notes… it’s a long story).  I found out many interesting things doing this.  It firstly made me aware of how much power the government can have in New Zealand with no second house, and no constitution, if they hold the majority.  This was demonstrated in the course by historical examples of both Labour and National governments changing legislation during live court cases in order to alter the result.  This in turn made me realise how important it is – therefore – that we follow a  robust law-making process and hardly ever (instead of all the time) resort to urgency and supplementary orders and skipping the public consultation stage.  This course also made me aware of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights is an attempt by Geoffrey Palmer to set in stone certain things that all New Zealanders can expect to have.  Unfortunately it is neither entrenched nor the supreme law in New Zealand.  This means that the government of the day can change the Act however it likes, and while any new legislation has to be checked against the Bill of Rights any breaches can simply be ignored.  It has, of course, been ignored many times.  In recent times Section 21 of the Act has not been fully considered in making search and surveillance laws:

Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure, whether of the person, property, or correspondence or otherwise.

This week I took the time to listen to Geoffrey Palmer talk about the proposed reforms to the Resource Management Act and, although he had many interesting things to say about these reforms, I was struck most by this theme in his presentation:

No comprehensive empirical research… has been undertaken to find out what the effects of the [RMA] Act have been in fact, so that the remedies introduced can deal with proved and demonstrated problems. As so often is the case in the life of our public policy  here in New Zealand we proceed on the basis of assertion, pressure group activity and anecdote, and then we throw all our toys out of the cot in order to provide a new regime that it is asserted will perform better.

Geoffrey Palmer, RMLA Conference (2013)

It struck me because I often write about things that are topics of public debate but I am mostly doing so as a matter of assertion based on anecdote and therefore – I suppose – attempting to be a (vanishingly small) pressure group in that debate.  I think what I actually need to do is get a picture of Geoffrey Palmer and pin it next to the computer I blog from.  I think I need Geoffrey Palmer to keep an eye on me so that instead of blogging assertion based on anecdote I have done a little more to be better informed.  This involves stepping out of the news cycle in order to find out more about major and recurring topics.  Which is what I am going to do now.  I am going to give myself two months on each topic and during that two months I am going to read and watch and listen on that topic alone.

While I’m doing it I’m going to keep my photo of Geoffrey Palmer and my copy of the Bill of Rights handy.

Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: H-725-022 Cartoon by Tom Scott
Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: H-725-022 Cartoon by Tom Scott

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Topic One

John Key is talking up sending New Zealand soldiers to help combat terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

“If you weren’t prepared to do anything solely on the basis of that [increased risk], then you actually start losing your independent foreign policy because by definition you’re saying that the actions of terrorists will stop you standing up to those terrorists.”

John Key, 9 October 2014

I’m concerned by the idea that our “independent” foreign policy somehow requires New Zealand to think seriously about sending New Zealand soldiers to Syria and Iraq.

I instinctively feel that there would only be some kind of argument in doing this if you believed in both violence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Which would be an odd combination of beliefs because according to Article Three of the UDHR “everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe”.  Unsurprisingly we find a very similar idea in the Bill of Rights: (s8) “No one shall be deprived of life except on such grounds as are established by law and are consistent with the principles of fundamental justice.”  You might say that the Bill of Rights is just about New Zealanders but then, I think, you would be (I apologise) an arsehole.  Also an arsehole not facing facts (which is an arresting mental image) because let’s keep in mind that any kind of military intervention involves civilian deaths.

On the other hand you have the Hitler card.  Playing the Hitler card involves saying something like: “but there are times when you simply have to stand up to tyranny.  Are you saying we shouldn’t have fought Hitler?”  And even though the Hitler card is annoyingly simplistic they do have a point, and it is the point that plenty of people are going to make in New Zealand over the next little bit.  The UDHR does have that problem built into it.  If someone is engaged in taking away all of these rights then what should you do to stop them?  Which seems a good time to quote True Detective,

World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.

Which is Detective Cohle explaining what some in America see as America’s role in the world, and why it has to get its “hands dirty” sometimes.

So, like a good Social Studies student with Geoffrey Palmer as my teacher, I am going to define my topic with some questions.

  • What have been the effects of sending the New Zealand military to Afghanistan?
  • If the effects were positive, should we send the New Zealand military to fight IS?

Each one of those questions has many other sub questions of course, but I’m going to leave them that big.

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