Friday, September 22, 2006

Speech rationing and mud-slinging

"Many people despair about the state of politics," says Te Radar in this morning's Herald, "who view the muckraking and sleaze as detrimental to the nation. I am not one of those persons."

Right on.

"Stop the muckraking," says Peter Dung. "Can't you both just kiss and make up?" fawns Sainsbury. "How tewwible it all is," wring the hands of a thousand wet blankets.

What's wrong with the hand-wringing of Sainsbury and Dung and the half of the media who take these two seriously? What's wrong is that they aren't able to draw a distinction between muck being raked, and an election that's been bought. They can't distinguish between name-calling and corruption, between unfounded accusations of sleaze and someone whose been caught red-handed with their hands in the till, between tittle-tattle and a serious constitutional issue -- and make no mistake it is a serious constitutional issue which has set all this off.

What the hand-wringers are guilty of here is our old adversary moral relativism. What this particular instance of moral relativism obscures is that calling everyone guilty of name-calling diverts attention from the fact that one party really and truly is truly guilty of something very, very serious, and they've been caught, and they're wriggling. Wriggling an awful lot.

A Government has been caught buying an election with taxpayers' money, having done so against the explicit advice of the Chief Electoral Officer and the Electoral Commission CEO, and having told both in writing that they wouldn't do what they did.

In order to obscure that exposure the Government has tried to sling mud (only to get spattered with it themselves), and in order to 'legalise' that the Government has then tried to sell retrospective legislation in order to sanitise what the Electoral Act itself calls "a corrupt practice."

This is the sort of thing that in Thailand tends to see the military take a keen interest.

And what else has all the moral relativism about all this obscured? It's almost removed attention from Labour's proposals for "campaign finance reform" -- in other words their proposal to get taxpayers to pay for Labour's election campaigns because no-one else wants to -- and to forbid third-party criticisms of government during an election campaign.

Taken together, these are what Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author George H. Will describes in the American context as "speech rationing," of which he said recently "there is no greater threat to liberty."
It is commonly called "campaign finance reform," but it's nothing of the sort. It is simply the assertion by the government of a new, audacious 'right': the right to determine the timing, content, and amount of political advocacy about the government. It is the most astonishing slow-motion repeal of the First Amendment anyone could imagine.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution, if anyone reading this still recalls, is the one that protects free speech. It is something about which liberals both here and abroad used to be entirely in favour.

It's much more important than a little bit of mud.

LINKS: Get stuck in Don - it'll be great on TV - Te Radar, NZ Herald
Upholding the idea of liberty - speech by George H. Will to 2006 Milton Friedman dinner, Cato Institute [8-page PDF]

RELATED: Politics-NZ, Politics-Labour, Darnton V Clark

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