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We are not a nation of dissenters, but a nation of conformists

History has repeatedly exposed the dangers of blind conformity, to which former attorney-general and Archibald Baxter Memorial trustee Chris Finlayson asks: where are the dissenters of today?

There are many things I admire about Archibald Baxter but what I admire most of all was that he had the courage to dissent. Dissent is what I want to talk about today, and it seems an especially appropriate subject to discuss following the death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who established her reputation on that court as a principled dissenter from what she saw as the unacceptable status quo. In the 27 years she was on the court, she was often ahead of her time: public and political opinion eventually caught up with her dissenting views. In the interim, she was often the subject of vicious political attacks.

Likewise, we can only imagine the pressure on Baxter when he was called up for duty. New Zealand has always been a closed society in many ways even though we pride ourselves on our liberalism, internationalism and outward-looking focus. In 1914 we were lackeys of the United Kingdom which, along with the European powers, rushed headlong into a crazy world war that basically scarred the rest of the century. And yet it was nothing more than a fight between first cousins with the Habsburgs thrown in for good measure. As a result of this exercise in gross stupidity, the Russian Empire fell, communism triumphed and Russia was prevented from achieving its potential throughout the 20th century. The German Empire fell and the resulting chaos ushered in Nazism in 1933 and I don’t need to elaborate on that. The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell and was dismembered at the Treaty of Versailles. Austria followed Germany into Nazism in 1938, and the history of Mittel-Europa and Eastern Europe in the 20th century was a tragedy. So many mistakes were made during the First World War and those mistakes live with us today. 

As for the United Kingdom, it treated Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders as mere colonials. As the minister primarily responsible for World War I commemorations at the time of the centenary, I visited Belgium and northern France. What a sad experience it was to drive through the countryside and see war cemeteries every couple of kilometres. The saddest experience of all was visiting the cemetery at Passchendaele and seeing row upon row of war graves. Another sad experience was visiting Arras in Northern France and going down into the caves where there were signs put up by young New Zealanders and Cook Islanders pointing out how far away towns like New Plymouth were. These fine young people fought in vain and too many of them had their lives snuffed out in the trenches of the Somme, Messines, Ypres and other battlefields.

Every year on ANZAC day we remember the folly of Gallipoli and repeat the inane phrase: “They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them”. Well of course not; they all died in their early 20’s as a result of the folly of Churchill, Lloyd George, Kitchener and other guilty men. Yet the prevailing attitude in New Zealand was that we had to support the Empire to defeat the Boche. Our loyalty to the mother country demanded that we send thousands of young men and women overseas to fight in this meaningless war, the so-called “war to end all wars”. The atmosphere throughout the country was one of oppressive jingoism. Imagine the courage that it took the likes of Baxter to refuse to participate in this madness. For the average person, he was a traitor and a dissenter and was punished in the most grotesque manner. You all know his punishment and I do not need to repeat it here. In a small closed country like New Zealand, Baxter’s dissent is frankly almost unbelievable.

Archibald Baxter (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library/Caxton Press)

More than 100 years on, most of the people in this room look back at Baxter and the other objectors with admiration and they affirm his dissent. But in the New Zealand of the 2020s, I wonder how many people would be prepared to take Baxter’s stand, go out on a limb and dissent from majority opinion. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think there are all that many who would. The events of this year would indicate to me that most New Zealanders still subscribe to herd mentality, albeit in very different circumstances. 

We are in the midst of the most awful pandemic and the government has had to make some difficult decisions about how to confront it. I am not going to comment on the approach taken by the New Zealand government. Only time will tell whether or not the largely authoritarian response taken here and in several states of Australia was the right policy response to save the most lives and preserve the economy. I’ll say no more than that for now.

But whether it was due to blind panic, an inclination to submit to the – as it turns out illegal – instructions of a charismatic leader, or some other aspect of our national psyche, a disturbing conformist trend emerged among the New Zealand public as a whole this year.

This first became apparent through the behaviour of the thousands of New Zealanders who reported neighbours to the authorities for perceived breaches of regulations. In late March and early April, the police website crashed several times due to the volume of people filing reports about people whose conduct they did not believe met the various coronavirus rules floating around at the time. Some of these reports were fair enough – large gatherings and the like. But many were for very minor breaches or were completely incorrect. A similar pattern occurred in our fellow liberal democracies Australia and the United Kingdom. The sheer volume of calls went beyond what I would have thought was warranted.

As Lionel Shriver wrote regarding the British situation in The Spectator:

The supine capitulation to a de facto police state in a country long regarded as a cradle of liberty has been one of the most depressing spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. In a matter of days, busybodies are ratting on neighbours for going for a run twice; these people would have been pigs in shit in communist East Germany. 

But this tattle-tale trend was really just part of a much more disturbing whole: in 2020, no one is really permitted to dissent from the majoritarian view on the government’s response to the pandemic. Anyone who voices a contrary opinion is subject to withering attacks in various forms of social media and from a concerning new class of public figures: the politically-aligned scientist or medical expert.

As for the media, with a few exceptions, everyone has basically fallen into line and uncritically repeats the government’s message. One brave soul did dissent. His name was Andrew Borrowdale. He thought that the lockdown was illegal and brought a case in the High Court. He was successful in obtaining a declaration about the first nine days even though the Court said it understood why the lockdown was considered important by the government. He is now appealing the High Court ruling on the basis that, despite his success, the judgment was too deferential to the executive. I hope he succeeds again in the Court of Appeal. I note some very good recent commentary from academics like Andrew Geddis of the Otago Law Faculty and Janet McLean from the University of Auckland. We haven’t heard the end of this matter yet.

Police stop vehicles heading north on state highway one at Warkworth in the lead-up to Easter (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

On the other hand, throughout the High Court case, I was amazed at the number of commentators who thought that Borrowdale was nothing more than a legal pedant who was making unmeritorious points. Where were the commentators who should have been speaking on these subjects? They were nowhere to be found. If a National government had decreed a lockdown which was subsequently found to be unlawful then there would have been all hell to pay. I was attorney-general for nine years and, knowing John Key, I would have been called into his office after that judgment was delivered and told that as attorney-general, I was there to ensure that sort of thing didn’t happen, and I would have been fired. 

The current attorney-general [David Parker] did a live-streamed one-hour monologue on Facebook when questions about the legality of the first nine days were raised and said he was satisfied as to the legality of the lockdown. He was wrong. People didn’t seem to mind that the police commissioner was telling his fellow New Zealanders that they would be invited down to the police station for a little chat if they didn’t conform. I heard of a number of instances where police stopped young people and demanded to know what was in their bags. That was occurring in the first nine days of lockdown. That kind of behaviour was oppressive and has no precedent outside wartime in this country, and even in wartime, it was actually authorised by law. Here, it wasn’t. It should not have been tolerated. But who dissented? Very few. People largely just fell into line. 

This year has illustrated for me that we are not a nation of dissenters, we are a nation of conformists. Margaret Thatcher once said that “when people have freedom to choose, they choose freedom”. Well, apparently not in New Zealand. Like so many other years in our history, 2020 is yet another year of compliance and conformity, and deference by individual New Zealanders to the power of the state. Even motorway road-signs ordering us to be kind don’t seem to arouse any concerns among the trusting, dependent New Zealand public. I have come to realise that those of us in whom those signs aroused Orwellian visions of the future are a very small minority indeed.

A few years ago I was honoured to be the minister who gave the apology to Parihaka for the awful events that occurred in Taranaki in 1881. It was one of the most amazing days of my life to be able to stand up and address wrongs that had been committed in the name of the Crown so many years ago. Everyone was greatly moved by the occasion. But go back to colonial New Zealand in the early 1880s. How many people tolerated the dissent of Parihaka? People were detained without trial, exiled to Otago or the Chathams and vilified for their stance. 

Still, one or two did. Many years ago I was in the lobby of the House of Representatives looking for the Hansard of the debate where Habeas Corpus was suspended. An elderly Parliamentary messenger asked what I was doing clambering up ladders and I told him. He was very knowledgeable about Parihaka because his great grandfather had been a soldier there. He told me that experience turned his grandfather into a pacifist. But there were not many like him. It took great courage to dissent from the prevailing view that the Māori of Taranaki needed to be dealt to. 

Armed constabulary prepare to advance on Parihaka in late 1881. (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library)

A couple of decades after Parihaka, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland, Bishop Liston, spoke in the Auckland town hall about the treatment of the Irish at the hands of the British. He was tried for sedition. Most people blame Massey for the prosecution but that is not the truth. Liston was prosecuted because of pressure from the New Zealand Herald. Again the prevailing view was that the United Kingdom needed to deal to the Irish rabble and dissent from that view was not tolerated. Luckily, sedition is no longer a crime in New Zealand.

Some people doubtless say that, though this may have been the case in the old days, we are far more liberal and questioning than we were but that all depends on an individual’s point of view on a particular topic. Yes, there was dissent over such matters as rugby contacts with South Africa and nuclear ships, but I fear they are the exception rather than the rule. Take climate change for example. Can anyone seriously suggest that dissent on this particular topic is tolerated? The editor of the Dominion Post has apparently decreed that articles questioning the validity of the ever-changing scientific consensus on the causes of climate change will not be accepted. That is an odd proposition. Surely it is better to engage in the debate with the same ferocity as your opponents rather than try and shut them down. 

Another example would be the debate a few years ago about marriage equality. It was very difficult to voice any arguments against that legislation. I opposed it on the principled ground that the state should not be involved in marriage at all. Marriage should be privatised as it was for hundreds of years in England and Wales until the 19th century. I thought that the time was ripe for a principled debate about the laws governing relationships to determine what was the appropriate role of the state in a secular time. Such an approach was derided as legalistic. 

The history of this country shows that we can be oppressively conformist and, if you step out of line, you are crushed. That is why Archibald Baxter is a real hero. He stood against the prevailing views of the day and never surrendered. Neither did the people of Parihaka. But they paid a terrible price. 

The events of 2020 remind us that the challenge for all of us is to live lives worthy of Archibald Baxter: never uncritically accept anything as the given truth, regardless of the issue of the day or its political popularity. That doesn’t mean to say that dissent should be never-ending. It is a well-known maxim of the law that it is in the public interest that there be an end to litigation. I can certainly understand that sentiment in a variety of circumstances. There does come a time when argument on a topic should stop – where the argument is over. No one in their right mind could ever sensibly argue the case for the recriminalisation of homosexual activity. One would hope that it was generally accepted throughout society, regardless of whether people are liberal or conservative, that the treatment of homosexuals throughout history has been grotesque and unfair and all people, regardless of sexual orientation, should be treated with dignity. Certainly, that is what one would expect in a western democratic society such as ours and I hope it would soon become the prevailing view in all parts of the world. 

But in the end, the vast majority of public policy issues should lend themselves to debate and dissent. We’ve seen plenty of these issues in recent years. Brexit was one. A good friend of mine, Dominic Grieve, fell out with his own party and ended up being deselected as a Conservative MP in the UK. In the end, he did not allow his own self-interest to force him fall into line and uncritically accept as gospel a particular policy prescription. People must dissent from the common herd. 

As Baxter shows, it takes courage to dissent, particularly in a conformist country like New Zealand. But the message of Baxter and other conscientious objectors is that dissent is not only a good thing but is essential in any society. 

Archibald Baxter and other conscientious objectors saw that the Great War was evil and folly and that they would not participate in it. They were punished, treated badly and vilified for years after. But history has shown they were right. They saw wrong and did not tolerate it. Their memory must be honoured. Their example must be followed. They were heroes at a time of madness. They are heroes now.

This is an abridged version of The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust Annual Peace Lecture 2020, delivered by Chris Finalyson on September 23 at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.



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