Bryan Gould

Bryan Gould, CNZM, writes an occasional column on current events

Bryan Gould: Sea protest law tramples on civil rights

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Never mind the ordinary people, our Government will do whatever it takes to please big business.

The Government is pushing through legislation to stop protests at sea. Photo / Greenpeace/Malcolm Pullman
The Government is pushing through legislation to stop protests at sea. Photo / Greenpeace/Malcolm Pullman

It is surely now clear that this Government sees our economic future as being dominated by big international players.

Little account is taken of the "little people" - the unemployed, the low-paid, the wage-earners, and their families - or of their contribution, both actual and potential, to a successful economy. Otherwise, the Government would not be so relaxed about the numbers unemployed, or struggling to make ends meet in low-paid jobs with little or no job security.

Nor do small and medium enterprises figure largely in the Government's view of what makes a successful economy. Otherwise, they would not dismiss the plight of small manufacturers and exporters, burdened by an overvalued currency and the low level of demand.

No, the Government pins its hopes of getting the economy moving again on persuading big international investors to favour us with their attention - and John Key seems ready to bend over backwards to close any deal that is offered, whatever its terms.

We have already seen how far the Government is prepared to go. Warner Bros didn't even have to break into a sweat to get a $67 million tax concession and a change in employment law that reduced the rights of New Zealand workers.

SkyCity was able, in a "negotiation" that excluded other options, to extract an increased number of pokie machines in return for building a convention centre which will deliver to them substantial economic benefits anyway.

But, as Ronald Reagan used to say, we "ain't seen nothing yet". The Government is really pinning its hopes for foreign investment on drilling and mining - and it is leaving no stone unturned in its determination to make life easy for the big oil and mining companies, whatever price in domestic terms has to be paid.

The evidence for this is too compelling to be ignored. In the past few months, the Government has cut the Department of Conservation's capability with the loss of a further 120 jobs. Changes to the Resource Management Act will allow ministers to go over the heads of local authorities and permit mining or drilling activities that are "of national importance".

Large mining firms are permitted to prospect in areas that are environmentally unsafe, as in Northland, and in conservation areas such as Coromandel, and we are asked to believe that this prospecting is being done for fun, with no thought of a commercial return from any discovery of mineral resource that might be made. And the Government has learned from the Warner Bros issue; changes to please big business will now be made in advance and not left until the last minute.

The Prime Minister loses no opportunity to proclaim that our economic future depends on digging up whatever can be found, irrespective of the impact on the environment and on the "clean, green" image we project to tourists. So we can imagine how irritated he was when the Brazilian petroleum giant Petrobras last year pulled out of its exploration off the North Island's east coast.

He was even more angry that a protest at sea organised by local iwi and environmentalists had seemed to be a factor in that decision to withdraw, even though the company itself said they had withdrawn because they weren't satisfied that the prospects were good enough.

Kiwis have a history of supporting protest at sea - against French nuclear tests and Japanese whaling - but John Key is determined that future drilling at sea will not be the subject of protest. That is why in Parliament this week, the Government is changing the law to make peaceful protest at sea a criminal offence, and to threaten protesters with fines of up to $50,000 and sentences of up to 12 months in jail.

The proposed amendments to the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill break new (and probably unlawful) ground in a number of respects. A protest will be treated as criminal, even though no violence to person or property is perpetrated, and safety is in no way threatened; it will be enough if, in our 500km exclusive economic zone, the protest "interferes" with a vessel by approaching within 500m of it.

The law has in the past protected installations at sea, such as oil rigs, but this is the first time that a vessel (which may be moving around) has enjoyed similar protection; it is clear that this provision constitutes an infringement of the freedom of navigation, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

And the restriction on the right to protest should raise concern from all of those who value our civil and political rights. We know, from the measures taken to stop a legitimate protest against China's policy in Tibet when the Chinese Vice-President, now President Xi, visited us in 2010, how readily this Government is willing to abandon our own standards to please powerful foreign interests; these latest measures are in breach of both our own Bill of Rights, which guarantees the right of peaceful protest, and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Government is again prepared, it seems, to compromise our own standards so that powerful overseas business interests can have carte blanche.

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour Party MP and former Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University.

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