Editorial: Right of MPs to protest mustn't be lost

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Green Party co-leader Russel Norman is restrained during the scuffle with Chinese security over his Tibetan flag. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman is restrained during the scuffle with Chinese security over his Tibetan flag. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Some disturbing words are coming from the Government after Russel Norman's scuffle with security men guarding the Chinese Vice-President, Xi Jinping.

The Prime Minister has talked of the need to review the "procedures and protocols" that govern the visits of foreign dignitaries to Parliament.

Yesterday, it was the turn of his deputy, Bill English, who said the Government wished to ensure visiting leaders were not put in a position where they could be physically harassed or where their dignity was at risk.

This all points to the likelihood of new rules that would restrict how MPs can protest within Parliament.

Such a step must not be taken. The right to free speech dictates that MPs must continue to enjoy, in large measure, the freedom of Parliament and its grounds.

All of them have particular bugbears and their right to protest peacefully must be upheld, whether the subject is the emissions trading scheme, Palestinian rights or, as in the case of Dr Norman, a free Tibet.

The Green Party co-leader gains traction with his issue simply because China's sensitivity leads it to overreact. In so doing, the Chinese draw attention to the situation in Tibet and their record on human rights in the most counter-productive of ways.

That is not to say there was anything particularly commendable in the manner of Dr Norman's protest. His advance towards Mr Xi placed him in a situation that became undignified and then faintly ludicrous as he shouted for the return of his Tibetan flag.

He would have done far better to follow the lead of former Green Party co-leader Rod Donald who, in 2005, stood with the same flag at the foot of Parliament's steps, resisting the temptation to confront the Chinese delegation and create an incident.

Dr Norman had, however, every right to seek an assurance from Parliament's Speaker that, in future, New Zealand security services would control Parliament's grounds during official visits.

Their mistake on this occasion was to be too passive. The potential for Dr Norman to put himself too close to Mr Xi in his eagerness to protest should have been anticipated.

So, too, should the reaction of the Chinese bodyguards once they saw an unknown protester getting near the Vice-President. More effective policing by New Zealand security personnel, rather than rule changes, is, indeed, the way to ensure such incidents do not recur.

There was nothing remiss in the Prime Minister apologising to the Chinese delegation. He might expect the same if security shortcomings overseas placed him in a situation that he believed was intimidating.

But John Key shows signs of losing sight of the fact that the right to peaceful protest should be inalienable. In that, he is not alone. New Zealand has erred before, not least in kowtowing to Chinese President Jiang Zemin during a visit in 1999, when legitimate protesters were moved out of sight.

Mr English seemed to be treading in the same direction yesterday when he suggested Dr Norman had misused his privileges to get closer to the Vice-President than a member of the public could.

Such a view must not presage a situation where protesting parliamentarians can be placed out of sight merely to save the face of a visiting dignitary. A correct balance between security and the right to protest is being struck at the moment.

Politicians who create spectacles like that of Dr Norman discredit only themselves in the eyes of many people. Conversely, they earn plaudits for protests that are measured and responsible.

Above all, they must never lose the right to make their point in full view of visiting leaders. Anything less and the Government will be guilty of bowing to realpolitik at the expense of a fundamental human right.

- NZ Herald

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