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Dr Jonathan Coleman. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Dr Jonathan Coleman. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

PoliticsMay 11, 2017

Jonathan Coleman’s attack on ‘anti-government’ ActionStation is a smokescreen. And it’s nonsense

Dr Jonathan Coleman. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Dr Jonathan Coleman. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The minister of health has dismissed a report on mental health claiming the authors are ‘left-wing anti-government protesters’. ActionStation’s Marianne Elliott responds.

You know the saying: ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’?

Well, the message is that New Zealanders are deeply concerned about the state of our mental health system, and heartbroken about the family and friends we lose to suicide every year. We’re just the messengers.

The “we” in that sentence is the ActionStation community of everyday New Zealanders, hundreds of whom shared their stories with the People’s Mental Health Review, and 12,800 more who added their names to an open letter asking the government to consider the findings of that review.

So when the minister of health, Dr Jonathan Coleman, dismissed the recommendations of the People’s Mental Health Report on Tuesday because “the people behind the report” were “left-wing anti-government protesters”, that is who he was dismissing.

Attacking the messenger is a classic diversionary tactic when you don’t want to face up to the message itself. But in this case the issue is too important for mud slinging. People are dying. If deaths by suicides continue at the rate they were reported last year, four people will have died by suicide since Coleman responded to our open letter with an attack on the people behind it on Tuesday.

Normally we’d ignore this kind of thing. It’s an attempt to divert attention from what’s really at stake, and wouldn’t usually merit a response. But since the minister started naming ActionStation staff members in parliament today, we thought it might be time to set the record straight.

Not ‘anti-Government’ but ‘pro-democracy’

Coleman accused ActionStation of being a group of “anti-government protesters”, and implied that the fact we campaign on a wide range of issues is the problem. Because the only appropriate way to engage in human rights and environmental advocacy is by choosing one issue and sticking with it?

We’re guided by the priorities of our community members, and people don’t exist in silos. Many of the people who want better mental health services in New Zealand are the same people who want to make sure that their KiwiSaver funds are not invested in cluster munitions or land mines. Go figure.

Nope, we’re not anti-government, even when our members think the government could be doing better, or more. But we are pro-democracy, and we think in healthy democracies there is space for debate, critique and, yes, protest. Although protest isn’t a tactic our community employs often. Generally we prefer to start, at least, by using the pathways built into our democratic processes, like making submissions to select committees and presenting petitions to MPs.

Can’t take the heat? Maybe the kitchen’s not the place for you

Just as the members of our community vote across the political spectrum – because no party has a monopoly on supporters who care about human rights, democracy and the environment – we’ve worked with MPs across all parties represented in parliament to progress the issues that matter to our members.

Here we are delivering a petition to Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox on behalf of 15,000 members of the ActionStation community calling for an increase in core benefit levels in 2015. A change the government made, and for which we publicly thanked them.

Marama Fox (left) and Marianne Elliott

And here we are delivering a thank you card to Coleman’s colleague, Minister Anne Tolley, thanking her for her work in the social development portfolio to increase the age of state foster care and increase funding for sexual violence support and prevention.

Marianne Elliott (left) and Anne Tolley

We’ve only been around for three years, so it’s not surprising that the current government has felt much of the heat from our campaigns. That’s the privilege of the government of the day.

But rest assured that no matter which political parties are represented in government, the ActionStation community will be here to play our part in ensuring New Zealand’s democracy is as healthy and vibrant as it can be.

A personal note

I’m Marianne. I’m a human rights lawyer, a business owner, a person with experience of PTSD (I spent time working in Afghanistan), a social researcher and a co-director of ActionStation.

I wrote the People’s Mental Health Report, and I can reassure everyone that I didn’t take the Minister’s “anti-government” comment personally. No more than I did 13 years ago when I produced a “damning” report on the state of mental health services in New Zealand, under the last Labour government. As I recall, back then we were known as “wreckers and haters”.

But the truth then was the same as it is now: I’m neither anti-government generally, nor anti-this government specifically. What I am is pro-democracy, and pro-human rights. Specifically, in this case, I’m for the right of every person to get the help they need to be mentally well.

Marianne Elliott

There have been suggestions – including by the minister in the House – that the staff of ActionStation are all affiliated with left-wing political parties. This is untrue.

It is true that our team member Rick Zwaan, who was singled out by the minister despite playing no part in drafting this report, previously worked on a Green Party campaign and was a researcher for Kennedy Graham. We were aware of Rick’s employment history when we offered him the job, and made it clear that he’d have to give up any party membership to join our team.

But Rick had such kick-ass digital and video skills that I doubt any organisation in the country would have been able to resist hiring him purely on the basis of his political work history. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the National Party had hired him, given the chance. And given the modest budgets we work with, we think we were lucky to get him.

None of the other four members of ActionStation’s staff have ever worked for a political party.

To be absolutely clear, I have never worked for or been a member of any political party. I have worked for Rudd Watts & Stone (now Minter Ellison), for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, for the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for Oxfam and even – back in my youth – for Fonterra.

There is a one sense in which none of this should matter – the content of the People’s Mental Health Report speaks for itself, and the 500 people who shared their stories deserve to have the minister for health deal with that content, not divert attention to me, as the author.

But there is another sense in which Coleman is right to ask, “Who wrote this?”

Because there is no such thing as objectivity. Of course my own experiences with PTSD, and in the mental health system, will have in some way shaped my reading of the stories submitted to the review. Even my previous work on issues in our mental health system, while at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission more than a decade ago, will inevitably have influenced my approach to this review.

That’s why we contracted an independent researcher to audit my data analysis. A doctoral student at the Victoria University took the raw data and carried out his own independent analysis, first using a qualitative data analysis software package and then, because we expected criticism of our methodology, we asked him to repeat the audit again, manually.

What he found was the same as I had found – we identified the same major themes, the same proportion of stories mentioning each theme (although he included more stories in his definition of “suicide”; I had perhaps been too cautious in my application of that code) and the same overall findings. I don’t know if this researcher has ever worked for a political party, that wasn’t one of the questions we asked in the recruitment process. Our focus was on experience in social research methods, which he had.

As an ordinary citizen I don’t get to pose questions in the House. But I do have one question, and one request, for Jonathan Coleman.

The question: Do you sometimes go home at the end of a long hard day and have a wee cry about the lives reflected in this report, Minister? Or is that just us anti-government protesters? I don’t generally like to think of anyone having a weep, but it would be easier to relate to you if you confessed to shedding a tear in the face of human suffering, before getting on with the business of taking political pot shots.

And the request: Will you do your best to look past your distaste for the ActionStation community’s love for engaging actively in our democracy, and respond honestly to the stories in this report. Will you tell us what you’re going to do to make sure everyone in New Zealand who needs – and asks for – help from our mental health services can get the help they need?

Marianne Elliott is the author of the People’s Mental Health Report. She’s a co-director of ActionStation and a former human rights lawyer and was responsible for the 2004 Human Rights Commission report ‘Human Rights in New Zealand Today – Nga Tikanga O Te Motu’. She has never worked for the Green Party, although she did work with current Green Party MP Marama Davidson at the Human Rights Commission, so there is that.

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