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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Speaker's overkill denies right of free speech

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Speaker David Carter's ruling was made on the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Speaker David Carter's ruling was made on the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Is New Zealand's relationship with Indonesia so lacking in robustness that it could not tolerate a West Papuan independence activist speaking at a lunch-hour meeting in the Beehive foyer?

That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the decision by new Speaker David Carter to refuse permission to three Opposition MPs - Labour's Maryan Street, the Greens' Catherine Delahunty and Mana's Hone Harawira - to host such a function for Benny Wenda, a United Kingdom-exiled West Papuan leader.

Carter's ruling was made on the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Under Parliament's rules for MPs hosting such functions, the Speaker is obliged to consult the ministry if there are concerns about "potential diplomatic ramifications".

Given the ministry's pathological caution, it is not difficult to guess the nature of its advice. Given that advice, Carter may have felt he had no choice but to block the Opposition MPs' request. If so, the guidelines are horribly outdated.

Parliament should not be hostage to the self-interest of a Government department. There might have been ramifications for New Zealand had such an event been hosted by the governing party. But - as Street says - National could have ordered its MPs not to go if it was worried their presence at the function would go down badly with the Indonesian embassy in Wellington.

The Indonesians might not like attention being drawn to their occupation of the former Dutch colony which New Zealand recognises and which followed a dubious plebiscite in the 1960s. But a one-off parliamentary function was hardly going to threaten New Zealand's near $1 billion-a-year export trade with the southeast Asian giant.

And even if it did, then rights to free speech - especially in the environs of Parliament - must be deemed to be more important than the almighty trade dollar.

It is not as if the Beehive foyer is a stranger to controversy. With one exception, Labour MPs, who were in Government at that time, stayed away from the 2004 launch of a book detailing Ahmed Zaoui's struggle for political asylum.

Everyone had heard of Zaoui by then.

A comparative handful would have heard of Wenda before the Speaker's ban. Administrative overkill means a lot more will be aware of him now.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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