Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Litigious flurries have no place in robust debate

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Russel Norman. Photo / NZ Herald
Russel Norman. Photo / NZ Herald

If there was ever a man determined to keep New Zealand Post in business, it is Colin Craig.

So far he has had his lawyers send letters whistling off to a satirical blogger, two media outlets, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and now MP Russel Norman for comments made in the process of poking fun at him.

Tomorrow is D-Day for Norman and Craig after Craig claimed Norman defamed him by telling the audience at Big Gay Out that Craig believed a woman's place was in the kitchen and a gay man's place was in the closet.

It was quite a clever quip and Norman tossed it out to illustrate the type of coalition partner Prime Minister John Key could end up lying with. That was largely in retaliation for Key's description of a possible Green-Labour coalition as the "devil-beast".

Norman has argued he was simply using two relatively well-known phrases as shorthand to depict Craig's broader attitudes. Rather than meaning it literally, it was a way to show the vibe of it all.

It boiled down to his view about Craig's views after Craig said New Zealand women were the world champions in promiscuity and gay relationships were not "normal".

Unfortunately, Craig didn't believe Norman's words were his view at all. He took it very literally, or at least assumed the rest of the New Zealand would take it literally. He argued he did not believe a woman's place was in the kitchen. Even if a woman did choose to stay at home she should be able roam throughout the house rather than be confined to the kitchen. To prove it, he said he cooked himself about six times a week, including lunches, while his wife was also his business partner.

He has given Norman until 5pm tomorrow to retract in a manner ensuring widespread media attention to his apology. Instead, Norman has ensured widespread media attention of his refusal to apologise.

Craig has denied he is overly sensitive and claims to have as good a sense of humour as the next chap. He has depicted his phalanx of lawyers as the noble army in his crusade to raise the standard of political debate in New Zealand.

Norman argued that in trying to do that, he was actually stifling political debate. If politicians had to run every word past the lawyers for even relatively mild political sledging, it would have a chilling effect on what should be healthy and robust political debate, he said. The reason defamation laws are more relaxed when it comes to the political context is because of the strong public interest in allowing robust analysis and debate.

This is not to say politicians and political commentators should have carte blanche. But there is a difference between an MP making serious allegations about a person's conduct or actions and simple political hyperbole or exaggeration of an opponents' political views.

Excessive litigiousness has thankfully not been a significant feature in New Zealand politics. Craig is apparently determined to change that.

There is a theory Craig does it partly to draw attention to the very views he claims he does not hold to help boost his party vote among more morally conservative voters. It has certainly helped with his recognition factor.

The person it has not helped is Prime Minister John Key, who has to put on a show of arguing that the Conservative Party is a credible possible coalition partner. Sometimes Craig does seem a sensible chap. Whatever one thinks of his views on moral issues, he clearly knows something of economics and success. But his repeated forays into the land of the ludicrous have reached the point where even Key has given up defending him.

At his weekly press conference this week, Key donned his resigned expression and said rushing to the lawyers at every slight was a "waste of time". He refrained from pointing out that if he took the same approach as Craig, he could have sued Craig for circulating a brochure in his electorate which quoted a constituent saying Key was "too gay" for Helensville. He did drily add that if Craig did make it into Parliament he would need a lot more lawyers, such was the nature of the place. All those demands to withdraw and apologise would at least give the Speaker a good workout.

Key also subtly relegated the Conservative Party further down the cab rank of favoured coalition partners. When asked who he thought voters would want National to go with, Key was quick to answer Act. The Conservative Party are likely still a bit ahead of NZ First. It is clear Key would rather benefit from the wasted vote if NZ First failed to make it back into Parliament than from any governing arrangement with Winston Peters.

If Craig persists in this fashion throughout election year, Key could at least argue that a potential coalition partner has a track record in creating employment, albeit only for lawyers.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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