National leader Christopher Luxon's decision to muzzle MP Simon O'Connor was a poor one, even if the latter's views are unpopular. By Jane Clifton
There was a time, in the Ancient Greek city state of Sparta, when votes were measured using acclamation voting: whichever side shouted the loudest, won.
This practice, though undoubtedly invigorating, eventually yielded to the rather more logical system of counting. However, this ancient system now appears to have been resurrected, in the form of social media.
As National MP Simon O'Connor found out, there is now such a thing as a conscience which dare not speak for terror of being pilloried by an electronic cacophony.
In a week that provoked horrifying echoes of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the US Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v Wade threatens more than the rights of women. It's hard to read the court's action as anything other than a massive betrayal of all citizens, given previous undertakings.
That it comes at a time when the anti-feminist incel movement – the "involuntarily celibate" – is increasingly using terrorist radicalisation techniques to recruit men in the cause of subjugating women signals it's horribly possible fiction's most dystopian visions are being transcended by real life.
The anti-abortion ranks have suffered new uglification, thanks to the grotesque gloating of former president Donald Trump and his supporters about the court decision. Did they but realise it, their behaviour has herded many people in the opposite direction.
It was striking how few MPs in New Zealand, who have previously voted against abortion liberalisation, were prepared to endorse the US's new suppression of abortion: just one, O'Connor.
The others, some publicly, others tacitly, have conceded there's scant public mood for change or even a new debate in this country.
It's highly unlikely any of the broad themes – misogyny, judicial activism or a drift back to theocratic rule – were troubling O'Connor when he tweeted his support for the new anti-abortion regime. His views are no secret, so it was just social media business as usual for him.
He is, at least, guilty of a tin ear. A tactful silence is often the best course in times of extreme emotion.
However, O'Connor's expression of opinion would once have been thought to be his right in a democracy. Fellow MP Harete Hipango once posted on social media that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern supported late-term abortion, which was not true and an unusually egregious accusation. Hipango didn't get a fraction of the grief that came O'Connor's way simply for expressing his already-known opinion.
Worse, his leader, Christopher Luxon, asked him to delete the tweet after saying National MPs would not be relitigating the present abortion settings under his leadership. O'Connor obliged and was apologetic that he'd caused so much upset.
In one sense, both men did the decent thing in seeking to de-escalate sorrow and fear. It was no small concession for Luxon, who is against abortion, to so publicly and unambiguously remove the issue from his political agenda. But here we go with the hate-speech paradox again: taking one's views offline doesn't mean those views go away. And the sense that a noisy, intemperate mob is seeking to suppress one's views is not apt to lead to intelligent debate, let alone compromise or orderly surrender on one side or another.
A lingering question is, should MPs always surrender to social media drubbing? It's no more an accurate societal indicator than were the Spartans' bellowing contests. And, in this case, no one was either fooled – that O'Connor or Luxon had modified their personal views – or mollified in their offence.
Another issue is that Luxon doesn't and surely shouldn't have the power to constrain his MPs' views, or their power to promote new legislation on conscience issues, as he implied he would do.
The parameters of MPs' conscience votes have been developed by convention over many decades. We see the House at its most sincere during debates on issues that involve morality and judgment, because they're left to MPs' individual compasses – and most importantly, left to them to traverse personally rather than from the usual rote notes supplied by party spin doctors.
Some have polled their electorates for guidance, but most follow 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke's advice that constituents are owed their representatives' judgment, and should not "sacrifice" it to others' opinions.
All of which is endlessly debatable but cherished as a precious right of choice in our Parliament and many other governing assemblies.
O'Connor's view might be offensive and upsetting to many people – possibly most – but it's still his sincere view, and it feels uncomfortably as though New Zealand breached an important line in effectively telling him he should not have expressed it.
Grim new era
Still, it's of backhanded reassurance to the cause of reasoned debate that the appalling details emerging daily from the US Congress inquiry into 2021's storming of the Capitol will continue to deter quite a few people from rejoicing in the new anti-abortion setting, and may encourage more people than otherwise to question their views. Who wants to be in an opinion club led by people who not only positively glory in removing women's rights, but appear to despise democracy and would incite mob rule and make homicidal threats when a ballot didn't go their way? How ethical are these people who would self-righteously force more children on people who can't afford them or cope with them, without offering a single measure to help ensure those children are well supported?
Even this grim new era deserves an upside, at least according to American Medium blog writer Adeline Dimond, who has ingeniously devised from the court's ruling a constitutional basis for banning men from driving. She says US highway statistics show men engage in riskier driving and have the most fatal accidents, so the ban would protect numerous innocent lives, just as Dobbs v Jackson – the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v Wade – purports to do.
As with abortion, driving is not stipulated as a right in the US Constitution so, as the court has now said, it can be denied people if they are endangering innocent lives with it. It should not matter that this would prevent many men from freedom of choice or full participation in the workplace: just read what the court said.
Men are also statistically less likely to wear seatbelts, Dimond notes: "Kinda slutty, if you ask me."