Hard News by Russell Brown

Groupthink Comedy

The National Party might have harnessed its talent, old and new and set out on a course of informed opposition to the new government, and the presentation of robust policy alternatives. Instead, it chose to make an appointment that makes it look like a comedy act.

Yes, among the spokesmanships announced by Don Brash yesterday is Wayne Mapp on "Political Correctness Eradication". With its pompous, proper-name capitals, it sounds like something that might issue forth from some totalitarian regime.

But what does it actually mean? Well, although the spin says that Mapp was asked to undertake this weighty task by Don Brash himself, it appears that Dr Brash doesn't really have the details on that one. His interview with Mary Wilson on Checkpoint yesterday included the following exchange:

Mary Wilson: Wayne Mapp on "political correctness eradication" - which I must say sounds alarmingly rather Stalinist.

Don Brash: Hahahaha. Well, Wayne made a very good speech about three or four months back, the middle of the year, in dealing with how to eradicate political correctness. And he talked about the way political correctness had infiltrated some of the institutions of state, and some of the laws. And I made a note at that point in time that if we were in government, I would ask Wayne to spend some serious time dealing with that issue. I decided, even though we were not in government, that he could play a very useful role highlighting some of those issues, and introducing perhaps private member's bills to deal with those issues even in opposition.

MW: Such as … give us an example of what you think is political correctness that could be eradicated.

DB: Ah, well, Wayne's speech talked about for example the way the Human Rights Commission has been used in ways which most New Zealanders regard as over the top or politically correct.

MW: Such as?

DB: Eh, I don't have those things at my fingertips. But I read the speech, ah, some months ago, I thought that was really worthwhile doing.

MW: But you can't actually give us an example of what he would do?

DB: Ah … one of the things he would certainly do is look at the way the Human Rights Commission operates, and the law under which it operates, and endeavour to find out whether we can't produce some more sensible outcomes than some of the ones which we produce currently.

MW: Which you can't give me any examples of.

DB: Look, this is a speech I read four months ago. I've been evaluating portfolios for the last several days. I haven't been reading that speech for the last four months.

Brilliant. When it could and should have begun a programme to present itself as ready to govern, National makes a comedy appointment that the leader can't even address in a straightforward interview.

So what is Mapp on about, then? Hard to say. In the Herald story he does little more than list agencies he thinks are PC: the Waitangi Tribunal, Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

The only example Mapp cites is that of the notorious Living Word videos, Gay Rights/Special Rights and Inside the Homosexual Agenda. These videos, brought here five years ago by a fringe American Christian group, made claims about gays that, had they been directed at an individual, would have comfortably amounted to defamation: in particular, they sought to equate homosexuality with paedophilia. (Jay Bennie and Callum Benachie wrote a more detailed analysis of their content.)

They were classified R16 by the censor, then eventually banned on his reading of the Films, Video & Publications Act. The High Court upheld the ban, but it was reversed, in an influential decision, by the Court of Appeal, which held that free speech was the greater good, thus providing a permanent steer for the censor's office. (The Human Rights Commission offers a useful analysis of the issues here.) So what exactly is the problem here?

The Herald story concludes with Mapp's own definition:

Political correctness: a set of attitudes and beliefs that are divorced from mainstream values.

So, er, PC is a failure to subscribe to groupthink? Does anyone detect a certain irony here? Mapp was no better in an interview on Morning Report today, in which he performed so poorly that Sean Plunket resorted to feeding him questions, and, eventually, answers.

The best Mapp seemed to be able to offer was that he opposed "the capture of our public institutions by minorities, and they're basically using that state power and state funding to push their agenda. That's not what free speech is about." He didn't say which minorities: people with freckles? Aucklanders?

Mapp wants to pass legislation to specifically ban any advocacy role for the Human Right Commission or the Waitangi Tribunal. So in the name of free speech he wants to stop independent agencies participating in debate. It's about "respecting the views of the majority." Apparently.

I can't be bothered being offended by National - even after having lost the election - still purporting to speak on behalf of "the majority", because it's just such gibberish. But I'll wager there are members of the National caucus who are furious at having yesterday's spokesmanships hijacked by an incompetent comedy routine.

After all, there were things to talk about, including the revival of Bill English's fortunes and the unprecedented weight thrown behind Arts, Culture & Heritage (Tim Groser as spokesman and two associates). And of course, Lockwood Smith's loss of Foreign Affairs to the statesmanlike Murray McCully. On which matter, Dr Brash said things to Mary Wilson he perhaps ought not to have said:

MW: Lockwood Smith - he has not got foreign affairs. You might have expected that that would be the case. What's wrong with him?

DB: Nothing wrong with Lockwood Smith - he's a very competent member of the caucus, and in fact you're right, he wanted to retain Foreign Affairs. I was very keen indeed to have him heavily involved in Revenue. He did a lot of very useful work in the last Parliament on making the tax system more family-friendly. He wasn't able to complete that work before we announced our own tax package …

MW: Has this got anything to do with the fact that he told US senators there could be a role for an American think-tank to help change public opinion on nuclear ship visits?

DB: That was one factor, but only one. We frankly think that he's got a tremendous contribution to make in revenue and indeed in immigration as well.

MW: And he was something of an embarrassment in Foreign Affairs?

DB: That was one factor - but not the only one by a long chalk.