In many ways, it isn’t surprising that Massey University’s Vice-Chancellor has barred Don Brash from speaking on campus at an event organised by Massey students. So-called “no-platforming”, in response to pressure of mobs – often threatening disorder if a speaking engagement were to proceed – has become rather too common in the United States and in the UK. It was only a matter of time until this practice arrived here, and perhaps almost a matter of chance which speaker/group would be the first victim. As it happened the lot falls to a 77 year old former corporate chief executive, former Governor of the Reserve Bank, former MP and leader of the National Party invited, by a student politics group, to talk about his time as leader of the National Party (the party that has led governments in the country for 47 of the last 70 years).
And what offence has this lifelong New Zealander given to Massey’s Vice-Chancellor, an Australian who has lived in New Zealand for all of 18 months? She tells us that her concern is
Mr Brash’s leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils
This is the group whose website outlines a vision
Our vision for New Zealand is a society in which all citizens have the same rights, irrespective of when we or our ancestors arrived.
It might not be your vision, I’m somewhat ambivalent about it myself, but it clearly isn’t Professor Thomas’s view of the country. Which probably shouldn’t really matter greatly because (a) she isn’t a citizen herself, and (b) because the nature of politics in a democratic country is about conflicting views, not just about means but also about ends.
But Professor Thomas appears to regard such views – and opposition to Maori wards on local councils (which have been defeated in most/all places where a referendum has been held on them) – as simply illegitimate, and having no place in New Zealand, let alone on the campus of Massey University, an organisation founded and substantially funded by the New Zealand government and taxpayers. She was terrified that Dr Brash might make some negative comment about Maori wards on campus
Whether those views would have been repeated to students in the context of a discussion about the National Party may seem unlikely, but I have no way of knowing.
And presumably no one at the university she manages could cope with knowing that somewhere on campus, an elderly former politician was expressing a view they might disagree with – a view which, on this particular occasion, appears to be held by a fairly large chunk of the population.
In a startling display of casual inaccuracy (one hopes not deliberate) Professor Thomas is also upset that Dr Brash was part of the Free Speech Coalition, that supported the right to be heard (in public premises), of two controversial recent Canadian visitors. She claims
Dr Brash was also a supporter of right-wing Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were due to address a public meeting in Auckland.
Had she done any research at all, she would know that Dr Brash had indicated publicly that he had little or no knowledge of the views Southern and Molyneux had espoused but – like left-wing activist Chris Trotter for example – did not approve of public facilities being denied to people who wanted to use them to hear from visiting speakers, however much their views might be controversial or provocative. (Disclosure: I am part of the Free Speech Coalition myself, and as I noted in my earlier post on this issue, had never heard of either Southern or Molyneux until the Auckland Council banned use of its facilities, the mayor boasting – inaccurately – that he had done so.)
For a private university to have banned such a meeting, and a speaker such as Dr Brash, would have been unwise and generally inconsistent with the sort of ethos universities generally sought to represent (contest of ideas etc). But, being private institutions, they’d be quite free to make that choice.
But Massey is different: it is a public institution (establishment, funding, appointments to the council). And if the (foreign) Vice-Chancellor of a public university thinks Dr Brash – who has given decades of public service to this country – shouldn’t be allowed to speak on campus, when invited by students (what, one wonders, would she do if one of the professors invited him to speak to a class?), you have to wonder who – and which views – are next in the line for a ban. Dr Brash is prominent enough – even if not always liked – that there will be an outcry against his ban, while this sort of insidious censorship can be applied more broadly to less prominent people.
Professor Thomas really should be called into line, by her own Council (her employers), by the Minister of Education (funding agency), the Prime Minister (if she is at all serious about her claims to support free speech – to her credit, I see she has come out a little critical of Professor Thomas). But where, one might wonder, is the Leader of Opposition on this? It is a pretty sorry picture if the leader of the National Party won’t forthrightly defend the right of students at Massey to hear from one of his predecessors about his own time as National Party leader. Does he believe in free and open debate, notably at our universities, or doesn’t he?
As it happens, Professor Thomas had conveniently laid out her perspective on free speech a few weeks ago when the Southern/Molyneux debate was raging (and no one was talking about university facilities). In a lengthy Herald op-ed she sought to build her argument around the concept of “hate speech” – a concept that, fortunately, still has no place in New Zealand law. Even Professor Thomas can sound reasonable at times
Beyond the reach of the law, however, the battle against hate speech is fought most effectively through education and courageous leadership, rather than through suppression or legal censure.
And this is where universities can take positive action by providing a venue for reasoned discussion and cogent argument.
Which you might have thought could include a lecture to a student politics society by the former Leader of the Opposition, former Governor of the Reserve Bank? But apparently not.
Perhaps she justifies her stance this way
Given the current dominance of wall-to-wall social media and the echo chambers of fake news, universities are in many ways obliged to make positive societal interventions.
But one can’t help suspecting that in this case she means “we need to put a stop to the expression of any views we disagree with”. That certainly seems to be the practical import in the current case, and rather at odds with her very next sentence.
Universities support our staff and students to push boundaries, test the evidence that is put to them and challenge societal norms, including examining controversial and unpopular ideas.
Ah, perhaps it is only societal norms that (recent arrival) Professor Thomas disapproves of that should be challenged? Certainly, from her op-ed and her statement today, she seems to think no space at all should be given to any debate around how, or how best, to think about the Treaty of Waitangi and its place in modern New Zealand. Which would be outrageous coming from any university CEO, but perhaps all the more so from one fresh off the plane.
In her statement on the Brash case, Professor Thomas made passing reference to security concerns – even though it is equally apparent from her statement that she was just looking for an excuse to ban the meeting (having put her prejudice against Don Brash on display in that earlier op-ed. Her approach isn’t that of the courageous leader defending freedom and debate, but rather of aligning herself with the mob to veto the ability of student groups to invite speakers (ones uttering controversial views) to campus. That sort of mobocracy, if allowed sway, would be the very antithesis of democracy as we’ve come to practice it in countries like ours (even Professor Thomas’s Australia) in the last couple of centuries. Thugs and bullies rule, at the expense of those who respect the ability of decent people to disagree. Thugs and bullies can come from either side of the political spectrum. These days, in New Zealand (and other Anglo countries) they are almost all from the far-left.
(Much as I support what should be the freedom of the Massey student group to invite whoever they wish to have to speak to them (supported if necessary by the Police to keep law and order, and allow law-abiding citizens to go about their business), I increasingly wonder at the prospects for such a world. Process liberalism – you do your thing, I do mine, and we leave each other alone – is very slender reed around which to organise any society, and I rather doubt it can hold: perhaps it will prove to have been just a very brief historical interlude as society moved from one set of largely shared beliefs to another. Human societies seem to need more than just process rules to hold them together, and that process tends to involve the marginalisation or exclusion or forced suppression of minority views. Since most of my own more important views these days are distinctly minority ones in modern New Zealand, I hope it isn’t true, but I suspect it is. If so, of course, in New Zealand issues around the Treaty and Maori/non-Maori perspectives could prove a very nasty and dangerous fault line.)
NB As I imagine all regular readers will know, Dr Brash was my boss in years past, and these days I count him as a friend.
UPDATE: So the most Chris Hipkins can say is that it isn’t the decision he would have made and the most the Prime Minister can do is call it an “over-reaction”. In context, they are little more than weasel words, washing their own hands of owning responsibility, without full-throatedly condemning Professor Thomas and calling on her to reverse her decision. Simon Bridges has described the ban as a disgrace.