Robust free speech must be strenuously protected, but a written rant by a New Zealand First MP goes beyond defensible lazy thinking to racist insult, and must be condemned

There's nothing quite like a political foot-in-mouth story; indeed, journalists go out of their way to provoke those in power to mis-speak as a way of testing their suitability for high office. So it's quite an achievement when a politician, writing in the calm of his own home or office, inserts his foot so firmly and offensively into his own trap. Take a bow, Richard Prosser.

Writing in that bastion of reason, Investigate, the New Zealand First MP has shared his views on the rights of young Muslims to international travel. In brief - though I have read only media reports thus far - he seems to think they have none. On the logic that most terrorists are Muslims, he suggests young Muslims, indeed anyone from a "a Muslim country" should be quarantined, writing:

If you are a young male, aged between say about 19 and about 35, and you’re a Muslim, or you look like a Muslim, or you come from a Muslim country, then you are not welcome to travel on any of the West’s airline."

The logic is simplistic to the point of daftness. If Prosser's concern is public safety, aren't handguns more a threat? The gun debate in the US after Sandy Hook, for example, has shown that in the five years to 2010, almost 50,000 people were shot to death by firearms in the States alone.

What does a Muslim look like? Mullar Omah or Richard Reid or Ice Cube or Imran Khan or Muhammad Ali or Fareed Zakaria? OK, they may not be under 25, but the stupidity of linking ethnicity to faith remains.

Worst of all, it seems that to Prosser simply being born in a Muslim country should deny you freedom of movement. What is a Muslim country? One with sharia law or just one with a 51% Muslim population? Indonesia is often described as the world's largest Muslim country with 90% of its 240 million people followers of Islam. But what about the other 24 million? Should all of those who are men and aged 19-35 be trapped? Sounds like a great way to breed resentment and anger, cut connections with the rest of the world and role model bigotry.

He writes about "our aeroplanes" as if the "West" is a single entity. He wants Muslims banned from plans until it has purged itself of "extremists". What measure does he suggest for that? Has any religion - can any religion - achieve such purity or orthodoxy of thought? No. Will we put such restrictions on other faiths, ethnicities or nationalities?

Having said all that, such views are not unknown. Other politicians in other countries have made lame generalisations about Muslims and acts of terror. Sloppy language is not uncommon in this sensitive area. Pope Benedict's resignation brings to mind his widely condemned decision to quote a 14th century Christan emperor who said Islam brought the world only "evil" and "inhuman" things.

But Prosser isn't just sloppy. He goes further:

I will not stand by while their [his daughters'] rights and freedoms of other New Zealanders and Westerners, are denigrated by a sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan …

Seriously? Wogs? That's not a matter of Prosser's debateable world view, it's childish name-calling. It's an insult thrown at countries that include friends and major trading partners, and will be reported all round the world. It's an inch from the N word. And it's unacceptable from someone in public office.

I believe in the right of vigorous free speech and the right to offend in the quest for truth. I think people are often looking to be offended and too quickly call foul on good, robust debate. But this, again, is just racist name-calling.

And in the week where the Speaker wouldn't allow a West Papuan campaigner for self-determination speak about the woes in his homeland, it would be insanely ironic to let this slur go unchallenged.

Prosser's words are crass insults and have no more right to the free speech defence than Pope Benedict would have had back in 2006. They requires immediate condemnation from his leader (who as a former Foreign Minister knows a thing or two about diplomacy), an apology from the MP himself and some censure.

To whom much is given, much will be expected. And with public office comes serious responsibilities, such as not behaving like a miffed nine year-old.

 

Comments (18)

by Deborah Coddington on February 12, 2013
Deborah Coddington

I guess Prosser wouldn't allow Sonny Bill Williams to fly on a Western airline then.

by Tim Watkin on February 12, 2013
Tim Watkin

Sonny Bill's a much better example than my list of older men, thanks! Point made.

by Andrew Geddis on February 12, 2013
Andrew Geddis

The current issue of North and South has an article on the growing number of Maori converts to the Muslim faith - it puts the figure at more than 1500. Fun and games when Air NZ tells one of the tangata whenua that they ain't allowed on board the national airline, majority owned by the State!

David Farrar also has a post on this up at Kiwiblog. In it, he notes:

Labour and the Greens are desperate to form a Government with NZ First as they know it is near impossible without them. Will any Labour or Green MP come out and state what they think of their potential coalition partner writing about Wogistan?

Sure, he's "fomenting happy mischief" with this remark, but it hits an uncomfortable truth. How septic does NZ First's behaviour have to get before no principled center-left party can share a Government with them?

by Tim Watkin on February 12, 2013
Tim Watkin

David's right to ask the question, but the daft musings of a junior MP won't - and shouldn't - be enough to derail potential coalitions. But Labour and the Greens must be clear in their criticism - or mocking laughter. And New Zealand First should make it easy for them. This statement from Peters doesn't cut it:

 

STATEMENT REGARDING RICHARD PROSSER MP

 

I have spoken with Mr Prosser regarding the Investigate magazine article.

 

He wrongfully impugned millions of law-abiding, peaceful Muslims.

 

Mr Prosser agrees that the article did not have balance, and does not represent the views of New Zealand First.

by Tim Watkin on February 12, 2013
Tim Watkin

Ethnic Affairs Minister Judith Collins has been willing to speak:

“Muslims in New Zealand are also a diverse community – it is simply appalling to profile people based on their religion, skin colour, country of origin, or a perceived stereo-typed ‘look’ as Mr Prosser has done.

“Mr Prosser’s anti-Muslim rant has let New Zealand down and as a Member of Parliament he should know better.

“New Zealand First Leader, Winston Peters, needs to do much more than to hide his MP – he needs to explain why Mr Prosser’s behaviour is acceptable to New Zealand First.

“We have a strong tradition of human rights in New Zealand. Our Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race and religious belief, and our Bill of Rights Act affirms the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold views without interference.

And happily Labour has not been afraid to come out, as David wanted. Phil Goff says of Prosser's words:

"They require an absolute withdrawal and apology by him without delay.

“To suggest that young men who are Muslim should be banned from air travel is bizarre and reflects appallingly on the prejudice of the MP concerned... 

“Mr Prosser’s statement is unacceptable from an MP and he and New Zealand First should consider whether he has any future in politics.”

by stuart munro on February 13, 2013
stuart munro

Prosser should be sacked on the spot.

References to Wogistan look like actionable hate speech:

...unlawful to publish or distribute "threatening, abusive, or insulting...matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons...on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national or ethnic origins of that group of persons."

Just when we thought parliamentary behaviour had reached its nadir, Prosser reveals vast unguessed of depths of stupidity. MPs sure are a valuable contribution to NZ. Not.

by Andrew Geddis on February 13, 2013
Andrew Geddis

References to Wogistan look like actionable hate speech:

I was wondering that myself. However, the Human RIghts Commission takes a pretty laissez faire approach to this particular aspect of the Human Rights Act:

While the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, one of the important considerations in establishing what makes a comment ‘unlawful’ is s.14 of theNew Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 which sets out the right of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means people can make highly controversial or unpopular remarks.

Because of this, the Commission does not apply section 61 of the Human Rights Act to statements that, while they may be offensive, are unlikely to cause or exacerbate serious ethnic tension or unrest.  Only where there is the potential for significant detriment to society can the right to freedom of expression be limited.

Perhaps ironically, the fact there is a relatively small Muslim population in NZ which is moderate in its views makes it less likely that the Commission would get involved in this case!

Someone could, of course, complain to the Press Council (assuming that Investigate is signed up to this body) on the grounds that Prosser's article lacked balance and breached the Council's principles relating to "Discrimination and Diversity":

Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

I have not doubt the Council would find against the article - but given that Prosser himself is now admitting the article was "unbalanced", I don't know that this would achieve anything. 

by Fentex on February 13, 2013
Fentex

Prosser's words are crass insults and have no more right to the free speech defence than Pope Benedict would have had back in 2006. 

I think you are mistaken. I think Prosser should and evidently does have freedom to express these thoughts; he expressed himself, no one censored him.

What he now has are consequences to deal with.

I think it is a mistake to reference issues of free speech regarding Prosser. Free speech is a good thing, he spoke freely, we now know that he's an ill mannered racist twat.

That people should now quite properly condemn him for his speech is a different matter from whether any of us ought have the freedom to reveal ourselves through our speech.

by stuart munro on February 13, 2013
stuart munro

I would not care to assert that Prosser's comments

are unlikely to cause or exacerbate serious ethnic tension or unrest.

by Tim Watkin on February 13, 2013
Tim Watkin

Andrew, the only benefit of a Press Council finding against the column would be Investigate having to print that finding. Of course some would simply see that as a badge of honour for daring to speak out etc...

Fentex, you make good points. What I was trying to say was that a defence of free speech shouldn't be an excuse for not apologising and having to face consequences. Public figures have been known to argue that what they said was perfectly OK regardless of the content, because it was simply them exercising their freedom. I didn't mean to suggest he doesn't or shouldn't have the freedom to speak.

As you say, thanks to his use of free speech many, many more New Zealanders have now heard of him and most (though sadly not all) will consider him a fool. 

by Tim Watkin on February 13, 2013
Tim Watkin

Stuart, I think "serious" is a key word. While it will annoy and offend, I'd be surprised if it led to "unrest" (we may have different definitions) let alone unrest of a serious nature.

by stuart munro on February 13, 2013
stuart munro

I'd be surprised if it led to local unrest, NZ muslims are generally speaking considerably more enlightened than the Hon (sic) Mr Prosser. - but it might make a difference to some group travelling abroad, like the cricket team, to make them a target priority instead of a secondary objective.

 I doubt that triggering actual unrest is required for hate speech - causing massive deliberate and perhaps disproportionate or gratuitous offence is probably sufficient. Prosser's column was an order of magnitude stronger than the ginger advertisements that were knocked back, for example. I doubt many tears would be shed if he were obliged to fall on his sword. And it would improve the quality of parliamentary behaviour - briefly.

by Peter Salmon on February 13, 2013
Peter Salmon

Prosser revealed himself as a crass racist, more to the point Winston Peters failure to strongly condemn Prosser perhaps says more about Peters and NZ First and suggests that they are unfit to be part of any Government.

 

It would be desirable for both Shearer and Key to request an unequivocal repudiation of Prosser's remarks from NZ First and Peters.

by Phil Meup on February 15, 2013
Phil Meup

How's in urban liberal land folks.  While you may gasp in horror at the 'crass' nature of Mr Prossers comments, the fact is that these sentiments are shared by a significant proportion of the proletariat.  Possibly not the demographic in which you circulate but head down the public bar on a Friday night or after the Saturday rollup at the bowls club and, while possibly not expressed with the same tenor, a large number of the patrons will quietly nod in agreement with the comments made.

As for those expressing feaux outrage at what was said....Stephen Fry sums it up succinctly:

"It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine. 'I find that offensive.' It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I am offended by that.' Well, so fucking what."



  

by stuart munro on February 15, 2013
stuart munro

The difference of location and medium matters Phil. If Prosser had merely mouthed off in the pub it wouldn't have mattered. He uttered it in print, which is subject to certain laws. And he is an MP, which gives his product a standing out of proportion to the level of thought he put into it.  It was reported around the world, and brought NZ into disrepute as surely as Gerry Brownlee's ill-conceived attacks on Sweden, which would have ended his political career in any parliament that wasn't an international disgrace.

Had Prosser come up with any insightful ideas to reduce terrorism, his views might have been tolerated on pragmatic grounds. But the broad brush racial profiling he thought up is neither fair nor practical. It was a gratuitously offensive declaration of personal inadequacy, and frankly, stupid has no right to be in parliament.

by Brendon Mills on February 16, 2013
Brendon Mills

Ironically Prosser, being a conservative Christian, would find himself at home in an Islamic theocracy. Sharia law mandating that thieves get their hands (or what ever) amputated (they do it via surgery in Saudi Arabia I believe), no abortion, divorce or homosexuality, no alcohol, the stoning of adulterers, mandatory Koran in schools,women made to dress modestly and cover themselves up. Seems to me that he probably has more in common with the Muslim men he denigrates than with us more liberally-minded folk.

by barry on February 17, 2013
barry

Stuart Munro - what a load of old toss.

We see in the UK under their stupid hate speech law, that  7 year old was accused of infringingtheir stupid hate speech law by asking the innocent question of a kid of african back ground why "his skin was black". His mother was dragged down to the school to be told of the serious error of the 7 year olds action.

It was a bloody simple and obvious question that arose from natural curiosity. Do you think that 7 year old will grow up thinking positively of people with black skin? not a hope in hell.

Society needs hate speech laws like we need another hole in the head. The communists and the Nazis both found out that you cant suppress what people think. You can try but human nature will overcome. Yes - you can fool some of the people some of the time - but not all of them all the time.

What prosser said was a but crass, but the fact is the world is spending billions on airport security due to the wierd beliefs of a section of the muslims community - and they are not a small group.  They might be a small section of that community, but there are thousands of them who believe that taking out some infedels on the way to heaven where a group of virgins awaits them is a very good thing to do.

There is nothing more powerful than to public scorn of their actions and to make it clear that they are not appreciated.  Afterall if we all sit around too scared to upset them, then we are living a life style that is doomed.

by stuart munro on February 17, 2013
stuart munro

@ barry - Prosser is not a seven year old; though it seems he's not much smarter.

Hate speech laws are appropriate because hate speech is incitement. That doesn't mean such laws can't be misused, but in this instance he's as guilty as sin. Prosser was trying to be offensive, wogistan was a deliberately offensive choice.

Airport security suits a certain authoritarian demographic. It's not especially efficient at preventing terrorism, but the trained pilot terrorists like those of 9/11 were unique. NZ isn't really a target for these folk, though Israeli use of NZ passports for assassinations is trying hard to put us on that map. The only challenge to NZ airport security was a Somali lady with a knife, and they didn't stop her, so basically all the procedure is BS.

The cure for terrorism is constructive engagement, not rants based on watching Zero Dark Thirty. On the contrary, rants like Prosser's can alienate the moderate Muslim community, who are the key to a healthy long term relationship, just as the moderates in Northern Ireland were the key to a negotiated solution there.

Islamic militancy is basically irelevant to NZ domestic politics, which is presumably why Prosser thought it was such a good subject - he wouldn't have to produce sensible policy in the area or find or promise funding. His defence, that he had a brain explosion isn't particularly heartening. If we accept it as being true, we have to rate him "suffers from critical lapses of judgement" - a disqualifier for public office.

 

 

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