Don Brash. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Don Brash made a martyr? On the Massey University ban decision

The former National leader and Hobson’s Pledge advocate has become a fresh lightning rod in the debate around free speech and ‘deplatforming’. We asked a range of people to give us their view on the decision.

Massey University announced this morning that a planned address by Don Brash this week would not go ahead. In a press release, the university cited Brash’s leadership of the Hobson’s Pledge group, the university’s commitments to the Treaty of Waitangi, and security concerns, saying members of the Politics Club had “approached University management concerned about their ability to meet the agreement’s terms around security after becoming aware of social media posts suggesting the event could lead to violence”.

The university had “considered providing additional security for the event, but decided the risk of harm to students, staff and members of the public was too great, particularly at  time of heightened tension over the issues around free speech and hate speech. Dr Brash was also a supporter of right-wing Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were due to address a public meeting in Auckland.”

We asked a range of people whether the university had got it right.

Jan Thomas, Massey vice chancellor

Mr Brash’s leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils was clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Māori staff. Whether those views would have been repeated to students in the context of a discussion about the National Party may seem unlikely, but I have no way of knowing. In my opinion the views expressed by members of Hobson’s Pledge come dangerously close to hate speech. They are certainly not conducive with the University’ strategy of recognising the values of a Tiriti o Waitangi-led organisation.

It is clear there is heightened sensitivity and passion at this time, following the protests both against and in support of Ms Southern and Mr Molyneux’s right to be heard. Our ultimate responsibility is for the safety and wellbeing of students, staff and members of the public on our campuses and under those circumstances cancelling the booking is the right thing to do. The members of the Politics Club have acted responsibly in raising their concerns with the University and are free to meet Dr Brash at another venue if they wish.

Via press release

Professor Jan Thomas

David Seymour, leader of the Act Party

There’s a terrible habit among the Kiwi press and political tragics to imagine whatever is happening overseas must be happening here. That’s why you can find normally sensible people who believe we are being overrun by Muslim ghettos on the one hand and we have hyper inequality on the other.

It’s cringey; we should have our own political debates. For a long time it’s been wrong to think that what Jonathan Haidt sketched out in his 2015 Atlantic article ‘Coddling of the American Mind‘ – university campuses where debate gets shut down with threats of violence because students can’t handle a conflict of views on the very sites that are supposed to host such conflicts – is happening in New Zealand. Two years ago Otago students voted against a ban on “offensive” costumes.

But it seems that violence and censorship have made landfall in New Zealand with Massey University’s ban on Don Brash speaking. Let me spell out what has happened here so there is no doubt:

  • The Massey University Politics Society (unfortunate acronym, I know), invited Don Brash to speak on campus as one a of a number of speakers in a series. They called it past and present, with a mixture of former and current politicians
  • Another student wrote an open letter to the University’s Vice Chancellor, opposing Dr Brash speaking there. Among other things the letter said: “I look forward to hearing what your thoughts are on this matter and steps you will take to ensure the safety of those attending. Remember in light of their type of ‘Free Speech’ does not come Free of Consequences [sic].”
  • The vice chancellor met with the event organisers and then issued a statement saying the event was cancelled. She said: “The Unive[r]sity considered providing additional security for the event, but decided the risk of harm to students, staff and members of the public was too great, particularly at [a] time of heightened tension over the issues around free speech and hate speech [sic].”

Massey’s Charter (not online) says the university “promotes free and rational enquiry”. The idea that people can shut down a political meeting with violence at a New Zealand University seemed otherworldly even last week, but now here we are.

The question now is whether our media, politicians, and citizens will stand up for our underlying values as a place of rational enquiry, or quietly let it slip away under threat of violence from the lowest common denominator.

A good start would be for the University Council to tell the Vice Chancellor to uphold the University’s Charter. If they will not, the minister of education needs to tell them what the British minister for universities has told universities there: no more money until you uphold freedom of speech.

Laura O’Connell Rapira, activist and director of ActionStation

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Don Brash’s hateful politics. I believe Aotearoa New Zealand should widely teach and celebrate te reo Māori, honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and welcome inclusive multiculturalism.

But banning Brash from speaking at a university event? I don’t agree this was the right way to go. The move gives ammo to proponents of racist views to claim censorship, thereby making themselves the victim (which they definitely are not because, let’s be honest, racism gets tonnes of airtime).

It also suggests we don’t trust university students enough to be discerning, which is problematic in and of itself.

But, fear not! I have the solution. Here’s what progressive, fair-minded New Zealanders should do if you ever find yourself in the tricky situation of having to give Brash, or another anti-Māori person, a platform to speak at one of your events.

Rule 1: Give all the speakers guidance on the vibe you’re trying to create by encouraging them not to be racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic;

Rule 2: Let your audience know in advance that, despite rule 1, some of the kōrero could be a bit racist by virtue of the fact a racist person is on the panel. This will help your audience members come prepared with bandwidth to cope;

Rule 3: For every anti-Māori speaker, book two people who have pro-tangata whenua, pro-Treaty and pro-te reo views. By following this fool-proof ratio of 1: racist person to 2: radically reasonable people, you are assured to have a great event.

Benjamin Schmidt, president of the Massey University Students’ Association

MUSA are disappointed in the university’s decision to prevent Don Brash from speaking on campus.  We are proud supporters of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori wards, and our partner association Manawatahi. We do not for one minute support Don Brash’s racist views.

Student safety is paramount, and from social media comments there were serious concerns for student safety. However, the Massey Manawatū Politics Society did not have the option to discuss further security arrangements before this decision to cancel was made by the university.

Students and student clubs should have the opportunity to engage in discussion and debate, respecting freedom of expression and the Human Rights Act.  It is also important to remember that Don Brash was invited by the MMPS as the former leader of the National Party as a part of their “Past, Present, and Future Events” about NZ Politics. MUSA had discussed MMPS’s planned events to ensure they aligned with the club’s constitution and provided a safe environment for students. Before making this statement, we also discussed the cancellation of the event with the university, the Politics Society, and Manawatahi.

Keith Ng, data journalist and commentator

Universities owe Brash nothing, but they owe an obligation to their students to facilitate speakers like Brash. But that obligation isn’t absolute. It has to be balanced with its other obligations, like safety and dignity of its other students.

It’s going to get increasingly harder for universities to balance this, with the alt-right trying to exploit our universities’ openness to push the envelope further and further, just like they’re trying to do with bad faith arguments about “free speech”.

Shane te Pou, commentator and former Labour Party official

I think that universities ought to be to places where rigorous and robust debate take place. It’s not my place to defend Dr Brash’s platform, however if he’s interested in talking to people and people are interested in turning up so be it. I have had feedback about these meetings and hear that on several occasions when an alternative perspective has been offered the debate is quickly shut down.

I feel that as a personality Dr Brash is of a bygone era – his views are entrenched in the assimilation era we grew up with in the 50s and 70s. Our kids get biculturalism: they sing (don’t hum) our anthem in both languages with ease. When we take on the world at rugby, united they chant Ka Mate Ka Mate.

I understand that Dr  Brash feels threatened; he has held many a position simply as a result of his  privilege. His failure to understand the changing times is detrimental mostly to himself, and in my view is rather sad. There are polar opposites in the argument [on race] but I get the feeling that middle New Zealand is accepting and simply want to get on with life.

I am from the Bay of Plenty. Whakatane has been transformed as a result of the economic stimulus that treaty settlements have provided. We will see many other cultural and economic benefits become mainstream. Meanwhile Dr Brash and his very small group of not so merry men ought to at least tie themselves to the waka. Whether he likes it or not, it is the waka that is the vehicle to our future.

Tze Ming Mok, fiction writer and sociopolitical commentator

If Brash had been banned from Waitangi in 2004, we would never have known the pleasures of him being hit in the face with a lump of mud.

Morgan Godfery, commentator and Maui Street blogger

I feel sorry for Don Brash, in a self-satisfied kind of way.

He travels the country delivering his Orewa speech over and over again, and each time he delivers it fewer and fewer people agree with him. Brash wants done with the Māori seats, but they’re still here. He wants te reo Māori taken off the airways, but every time someone agrees it makes Guyon Espiner that much stronger. In 2011 Brash led the Act Party to what was then a historic defeat … 1% of the party vote.

The good doctor is a shadow, and if he wants to speak let him speak. And if people want to protest let them protest.

Just remember to bring the mud.

Māmari Stephens, lecturer in law at Victoria University of Wellington

Well, that was fun. One decision by the Massey VC to de-invite/de-platform/de-tongue Don Brash has from speaking at a politics club event at Massey University been all it has taken to pretty much (as far as I can tell) unite the left, right and centre of NZ Twitter.

I’m not a fan. He wrote me a very courteous email once, after the Ōrewa speech, telling me that Māori as a race were no longer “extant”,  in one fell swoop invisibilising me and my family. So no, I don’t like his views. I think there is plenty of evidence that could be marshalled to say he’s bigoted and racist.

But he is not some sort of bloody hate speech monster, and this decision now opens the gate to the Free Speech Coalition to rend their garments, pour ashes on their heads and bemoan this new dawn of universities as hotbeds of loony political fascism. Great own goal. Awesome. Thanks Massey. And if HE can’t speak, what happens next time Hone Harawira wants to give a speech on campus? What happens when Ngāi te Rangi wants to protest Pare Hauraki’s settlement signing? Oh wait. Too bloody far, Aotearoa.

Danyl Mclauchlan, novelist, essayist and commentator

Brash is an odd character. A former Reserve Bank governor, former leader of the National Party; almost the prime minister – seen this way, as a consummate establishment insider, it’s unthinkable that he should be banned from speaking at a university. But Brash’s main political activism for the past few years has been in the space of race relations in which he peddles various discredited, crackpot theories about the history of New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi and now here we are, with Brash banned from speaking at Massey.

Universities have conflicting responsibilities to their students: they’re supposed to provide a safe space, especially for vulnerable and minority students, but they’re also supposed to be institutions that promote debate and challenge entrenched ideas. It’s easy to see what side of that balance deliberately provocative white supremacists like Southern and Molyneax fall, but is Don Brash’s absurd confused-racist-old-uncle routine – now well into its second decade – such a powerful and virulent threat that Massey has no choice but to silence it?

Because what they’ve done – what every deplatforming achieves – is the opposite of silencing Brash. Instead they’ve given him a national media platform with millions of listeners to apothesise himself as a victim of censorship and martyr of free speech, while politicising and discrediting their own university as a venue for serious debate.

Liam Hehir, Manawatu-based commentator

The university administration could state more plainly whether it is granting a heckler’s veto or pronouncing an anathema on Hobson’s Pledge altogether. Was the decision pragmatic or is it bell, book and candle for reactionary views? The current official statement has shades of both. Clarity would inform help the debate and give more context to the university’s decision.

The lack of information notwithstanding, I am sure there will be a lot of digital high-fiving about this on Twitter. It is, after all, the next step on a hill we have been climbing for a while. We are a way away from the top yet, I’d wager.

It seems we have a lot of people who, while theoretically in favour of freedom of expression, just happen to come down against it on specific grounds whenever contemplating somebody they dislike. Whatever Massey’s reasoning turns out to be, they will be cheering the result.

At the same time, there will be plenty of declarations of the “death” of free speech. This is a gross overstatement. But, for better or worse, it does seem as if the tide is going out on liberalism in New Zealand.


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