The details of an assault on Green Party co-leader James Shaw are still murky, but suggestions that anti-UN sentiment may have been invoked during the attack is a worrying sign, Sam Sachdeva writes.
News of an unprovoked attack on Green Party co-leader James Shaw shocked many New Zealanders – not just for the disturbing event itself, but the broader threat it represents to our democracy.
As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed out in the wake of the attack, New Zealand has long prided itself on the public’s easy access to politicians. After all, in how many countries would a government minister just stroll down the road into work?
There have been assaults on MPs before – such as Steven Joyce and Don Brash, both at Waitangi – but Shaw’s incident feels a notch more grave in the potential for serious harm.
Equally alarming is the sentiment which allegedly drove the attack. Attorney-General David Parker told media the man was believed to have been yelling about the United Nations – information Parker’s spokesman later confirmed came directly from Shaw.
As Shaw’s co-leader Marama Davidson rightly pointed out, it is far too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about what exactly led to Shaw’s injuries.
With his alleged attacker due to appear in court on Friday, the judicial process is the right arena to deal with questions of innocence and guilt, potential motivations, and mitigating or aggravating factors.
But putting the legal process aside, there are reasons to ask questions about some of the negative sentiment starting to seep into New Zealand’s political discourse.
Migration pact a flashpoint
Extremist views about the threat of so-called globalism is not new to the country: government records note a growth in white-supremacist groups in the 1970s and 1980s who feared a “One World government”.
But the election of Donald Trump, who “reject[ed] the ideology of globalism” in a speech to the UN General Assembly last year, appears to have provided some added impetus to those conspiracy theorists, while social media has allowed their theories to spread more easily.
A quick search on social networks brings up dark mutterings about Ardern’s “grand plan for Socialist One World Government”, and dismissals of her as a “UN lackey”.
But the focal point for many in New Zealand appeared to be the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, a contentious agreement which New Zealand signed up to late last year.
With the compact under attack for its allegedly corrosive impact on countries’ sovereignty, a number of nations withdrew from the signing ceremony.
While the Government here insisted that the agreement would not override any domestic laws, National staked out its steadfast opposition with leader Simon Bridges saying Kiwis “don’t need the UN to tell us what to do”.
Explaining his position, Bridges said his party had received objections about the deal from thousands of people.
But in Europe at least, there have been questions about the authenticity of those objections.
‘Coordinated online campaign’
In January, Politico reported on a “coordinated online campaign by far-right activists” to erode support for the migration pact, citing social media analysis by academic researchers.
The article mentioned coordination via chat groups and “hyper-partisan” websites, led by right-wing influencers who spread “large-scale distorted interpretations and misinformation” about the deal.
The effect of any such influence efforts on New Zealand’s internal debate is far from clear, but the topic is one in which Shaw has taken a personal interest.
At last month’s intelligence and security committee meeting, he quizzed NZ Security Intelligence Service director Rebecca Kitteridge in how the agency handled foreign actors’ meddling in “international networks of online activists”, citing the migration compact as an example.
“The campaign had a real impact, a number of countries either reversed their positions or they didn’t sign the pact … some of those false claims did kind of creep their way into the New Zealand political discourse, and there were kind of neo-Nazi rallies on Parliament’s lawn and various other places.”
“Free public discourse and debate about political issues is one of the greatest things we have in this country … but if there is disinformation being spread amongst the populace whose interests are in sowing some kind of chaotic public discourse, then that is absolutely an area of legitimate public interest to us.”
Kitteridge’s response provided some insight into the difficulties of traversing what she deemed “a really complicated area”.
“Free public discourse and debate about political issues is one of the greatest things we have in this country, and that’s something that we absolutely support, but if there is disinformation being spread amongst the populace whose interests are in sowing some kind of chaotic public discourse, then that is absolutely an area of legitimate public interest to us.”
National has pushed back against suggestions it was siding with the nationalists on the migration pact, with the party’s foreign affairs and trade spokesman Todd McClay saying the deal would set an “unworkable global standard”.
In a speech on Thursday for the swearing-in of new Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann, Parker spoke about the “challenging issues of our times” in a legal sense – including defining the limit between freedom of speech and “harmful fake news or hateful propaganda”.
New Zealand is not alone in struggling to get to grips with the issue.
A British parliamentary committee recently released a report on its inquiry into fake news and disinformation, calling for greater transparency around the source of information online, who was funding its release and why.
“We must make sure that people stay in charge of the machines,” the report said – and maintaining that control may be no easy task.