Yesterday the New Zealand media covered an extremely concerning development regarding the upcoming referendums on euthanasia and cannabis.
Radio New Zealand reported that Andrew Little has “plans in place to combat misinformation and manipulation in any campaigns leading up to… two divisive referendums at next year’s election.”
Which all sounds very innocuous, until you read on and discover that this will actually involve him establishing a “special team within the Ministry of Justice” that will actively direct voters to information (which includes websites they will be running), as well as policing what other people and groups are saying about euthanasia and cannabis in the public square.
Regardless of how you feel about these two issues, or how you plan to vote in the referendums, we should all be extremely concerned about what Andrew Little and the Labour Government are planning to do here.
This has nothing to do with party politics, no government should ever be doing this.
This has all the hallmarks of a ‘ministry of truth’, the infamous state propaganda mechanism from Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
There are already existing structures in place in this country to adequately deal with false advertising, and during an election cycle a more intense offical scrutiny of all political messaging already comes into effect.
What Andrew Little is talking about here isn’t simply beefing up existing mechanisms, or adding another independent complaints authority that focuses solely on the referendums.
This will be a government department that is actively promoting and policing information that the public will be allowsd to access before casting their votes on two very serious issues.
This lacks proper democratic transparency and accountability, and has all the necessary ingredients to become a state run propaganda department.
Who will be on this team of censors?
Who will appoint them?
Who will they be accountable to?
What qualifications will they have to make them suitable people to determine what is false or misleading information about either of these two issues?
What oversight will the NZ people have regarding the daily activities of this team and its promotion and censorship of information?
Will any scrutiny will be placed on government MPs or the Prime Minister if they are the ones promoting misinformation about these two issues?
Who will determine what is false and misleading information, and upon what standard will that be determined?
How much will Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern’s staunch support for legalising assisted suicide influence the activities of this team that they will directly control?
What technologies or other mechanisms will this censorship team be employing to track what they deem to be unacceptable information?
Will this team be working actively with social media corporations?
Will this team be actively surveilling specific individuals and organisations? If so, based on what, and will the list of names they are actively surveilling be made public?
As already stated, all people of goodwill who care about free and open democracy should be extremely concerned about this new ministry of truth that Andrew Little will be running.
Robust and unfettered public debate is essential to a healthy democracy, and even more so during times when the public are expected to vote on proposed legislative changes that are extremely serious in their outcomes.
To quote the Chair of the NZ Advertising Standards Authority, from one of their recent rulings: “…in a free and democratic society, differences of political opinion should be openly debated without undue hindrance or interference from authorities…”
Does a government controlled ministry of truth with no direct public oversight or accountability sound consistent with this principle to you?
That’s because it isn’t.
As MP Nick Smith said yesterday: “It’s really inappropriate for the justice ministry to have this role .”
Even if there is no deliberate interference undertaken to advantage a preferred referendum result, simple mistakes made by this publicly unaccountable team could still result in the corruption of a democratic process.
To create a mechanism that could result in such an outcome is, at best, irresponsible, and at worst, an immoral act on the part of the Government.
As if this wasn’t concerning enough, earlier today Andrew Little publicly attacked the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority for not ruling in his favour regarding complaints about his political opponents.
That development is starting to make this look more and more like a minister who is trying to use the considerable government resources and power at his disposal to silence the voices of his political opposition.