No Right Turn vs Chris Trotter

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t confess to a small amount of pleasure in seeing at and bash the crap out of each other. It’s like having a local Iran-Iraq war to enjoy 🙂

But that is unfair to both of them, as they are both two of the commentators from the left I appreciate the most, for their willingness not just to regugrgitate party press releases, but criticise others on the left when they see fit. Also there are some important issues being discussed amongst the name throwing:

Chris initially blogged on how the Greens’ consultation exercise was “avoidance behaviour on a truly disreputable scale” and “Really, the whole Green Party deserves a damn good smacking!”.

For what it is worth I agree with Chris on this point.

I/S responded in this post, saying:

Meanwhile, Chris Trotter goes absolutely feral at this exercise in democratic consultation, calling it “avoidance behaviour on a truly disreputable scale” and declaring that the Greens need a damn good smacking. But then, we all knew that he has a basic problem with democracy (one he even confirms today)…

The two links at the end are to the imfamous Trotter column on how Labour’s overspending was “couraegous corruption” and to a blog post this week saying maybe we should support Bainimarama’s proposed reforms in Fiji, rather than leave them to a new democratic Government.

And on this issue I am strongly with I/S on the courageous corruption issue, and also generally with him on the Fiji issue. Ironically several rightie bloggers are in agreement with Chris on Fiji.

Anyway Chris responds to I/S in this post called “The Multiple Personalities of Idiot Savant”:

The most disappointing aspect of “No Right Turn”, however, is Idiot Savant’s propensity to condemn individual’s with whom he disagrees for espousing ideas they do not subscribe to, and indulging in sins they have never committed.

I have been on the receiving end of these sorts of false charges more than once over the past few months. According to “No Right Turn”, Chris Trotter is an out-and-out opponent of democracy.

Now, that’s a pretty serious charge to level at someone who proudly describes himself as a social democrat, and who has, throughout his career, been an active champion of a host of democratic causes.

Chris is a social democrat, and he is right NRT does go overboard with his thesaurus when he disagrees with you. I’ve received a few of these myself.

But, and I say this with respect, Chris does sometimes appear to put too much emphasis on the “socialist” part of social democrat and not enough on the “democrat” side. We all can be guilty of pushing the ends justify the means inappropriately, but Chris does sometimes seem to treat the democracy side as maybe a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The pledge card and Fiji issues are legitimate examples of where he has gone beyond what I would regard as prudent advocacy. But anyway back to Chris’ defence:

The Sunday Star-Times column, once again, has been deliberately misrepresented by Idiot Savant. The substance of that column – the inadequacy of our electoral finance laws to prevent those with access to large amounts of cash from effectively “buying” an election – is completely ignored. Instead, Idiot Savant concentrates his attack on my willingness to forgive Helen Clark for using parliamentary services funds in a final, desperate, (and ultimately successful) bid to head off a cash-rich National Party poised to inflict enormous damage on New Zealand society.

Idiot Savant’s insouciant defence of National’s “right” to plunge New Zealand into racial strife, if that is what 50-percent-plus-one of “the people” want is interesting. It suggests that democracy and majoritarianism are one in the same thing. That if you can secure a temporary majority in the House of Representatives, then there is no moral obstacle to you sweeping away the rights of whole categories of citizens whose parliamentary defenders find themselves temporarily in the minority – even to the extent of causing those citizens real and lasting harm, and passing laws that make it next to impossible for them to ever again reclaim their rights (I’m thinking here of the whole Rogernomics/Ruthanasia episode).

It seems to me that an ethical distinction should be drawn between actions that tend towards the safeguarding of people’s rights, and actions which tend towards their demise. And that those who indulge in the former are much less deserving of condemnation than the latter. Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeus corpus during the American Civil War. Does that make Lincoln an enemy of democracy? If Idiot Savant is to be consistent, then he would have to argue that it does.

And this is what concerns me. That anti-democratic actions which “safeguard people’s rights’ are held up as acceptable. And who decideds what actions safeguard people’s rights? Not the majority of the people, but presumably Chris and his fellow travellers? I think it is incredibly risky when you become so convinced that the rightness of your views, over-rides democracy.

The Lincoln example is a red herring. There is of course debate about Lincoln’s actions, but even putting aside the near universal acceptance of greater state powers in times of war, as far as I am aware he never defied the Supreme Court or was impeached for his actions – as provided for under the law. But trying to rationalise Labour’s over-spending (in the face of three pre-election warnings by the Chief Electoral Office) on the basis of Lincoln’s civil war actions is ridicolous.

On Fiji, Trotter is on somewhat stronger (but still shaky grounds IMO) responding:

Once again Idiot Savant seems to be operating in a totally mechanistic ethical universe. Bainimarama staged a coup d’etat – ergo he is a bad man. And, anyone who defends his actions is ipso facto also a bad man. But this completely overlooks the reasons for Bainimarama’s coup. It suggests that a corrupt government, plus a constitution that makes it virtually impossible to deal effectively with government corruption, plus a record of reactionary military intervention against any democratically elected government foolhardy enough to try – should all be ignored. Likewise the appalling track-record of Australia and New Zealand in relation to the coups which preceded Bainimarama’s. Indeed, Idiot Savant’s ethical universe is so mechanistic that even raising these issues, and suggesting that a different approach by the NZ government might actually result in democracy being restored to Fiji earlier than under the current policy, is enough to earn you the label of an anti-democrat.

Chris concludes:

I simply cannot believe that the same person/people who post the eminently sensible and thought-provoking commentaries on select committee hearings, government reports, economic trends and vexing legal issues, are also responsible for these unpleasant and ill-considered attacks. If he/she/they are, then Idiot Savant would appear to be suffering from a very serious case of multiple personality disorder.

He/she/they should see someone about it – soon.

Now to be fair to Chris, I sometimes also wonder how we get the calm legal analysis and the implicit approval for people to desecrate Margaret Thatcher’s corpse once she dies, from the same person. However I don’t think name calling is particularly helpful. I more generously just note Idiot/Savant is umm very emotional passionate on certain issues such as climate change, and Margaret Thatcher  etc.

In the final chapter (to date) I/S responds:

So, according to Chris Trotter, I’m mentally ill for calling him on his undemocratic tendencies. I guess that barb struck home, then.


More troubling is Trotter’s attitude to electoral democracy and the rule of law. Despite characterising himself as a social democrat, he makes excuses both for overthrowing governments by force and for evading electoral spending limits. Neither attitude is consistent with democracy.

On the former, the overthrow of the Chilean government on September 11 1973 wasn’t wrong because (to put it crudely) Allende was on the left and Pinochet was on the right; it was wrong because usurped and denied the will of the Chilean people, as expressed through free, fair, and democratic elections. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Fiji. Fiji’s electoral system is far from perfect, and should be improved – but it is good enough to convey popular legitimacy. The Fijian government was not engaged in wide-scale human rights abuses or genocide; it was simply pursuing policies the military leadership did not like. I didn’t like them either, but there was still absolutely no justification for a coup.

Only in the most extreme circumstances should the military get involved in politics. To be fair to Chris I don’t think he has argued otherwise – he has been pointing out some inconsistencies between how NZ has responded to the four coups. The real tragedy IMO is that we were unable to prevent the first coup in 1987.

I/S continues:

On the latter, the purpose of electoral spending limits isn’t to prevent the right from buying elections, but to prevent anyone from doing it, on the basis that money interferes with a free vote. The fact that in 2005 National was quite legally evading those restrictions by spending up large before the three-month limit kicked in highlighted the fact that the law was in desperate need of reform, but it did not justify breaking it. As any kindergarten teacher will tell you, two wrongs don’t make a right, and “they’re doing it too” is no excuse. Neither do I accept his argument that violating electoral law was necessary in order to “head off a cash-rich National Party poised to inflict enormous damage on New Zealand society”. This is dangerous logic, which has been used to justify a hell of a lot more than electoral overspending, and its more than a little reminiscent of Kissinger’s infamous “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people”.

Yep. And finally:

The link between the two positions (in fact, all three) is arrogance. Trotter thinks he knows better than the Fijian people what sort of government they want, and he thinks he knows better than the New Zealand people what sorts of policies we want, and he’s quite willing to countenance extreme measures to impose his vision on us. That’s not democratic – in fact its the exact opposite. Democracy is predicated on the moral equality of all people – everyone has interests, and no-one’s interests count for more than anybody else’s, so we get “one person, one vote”. Once you give that away, and start saying “your interests are illegitimate so we can overturn them if we don’t like them”, you’re giving away the farm. And of course you don’t have a leg to stand on if it happens to you (and here I note that Trotter would be screaming to high heaven if the BRT hired Blackwater to overthrow the government and give itself a tax cut. But that just shows his hypocrisy).

In a democracy, the proper judge of the consequences of electing a particular party is not Chris Trotter, but the electorate as a whole. Sometimes we get it wrong and we make a mistake, just like we did in 1990. But that’s our right, and the joy of democracy is that it is self-correcting: if we make a mistake and elect a government which does things we really don’t want, we chuck them out and get someone better – just like we did in 1999. It’s an imperfect system, but its far, far better than the alternative of coups and self-appointed philosopher-kings deciding what’s good for us and what we “really” want without bothering to actually ask.

I don’t actually think at the end of the day Chris probably disagrees with much of what I/S says. In fact I would hope few NZers disagree with his conclusion. Chris I think has a tendency to think aloud (Hell if people could read my thoughts, I’d be in all sort of trouble 🙂 and sets out to be provocative.  He goes too far in pushing the boundaries, in my opinion, especially with the courageous corruption column, and shouldn’t be too surprised when people respond with passion and even anger to some of what he says.

Anyway a good victory for the blogosphere that we can have such a full and frank exchange.

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