19 December 2013
2013 is close to being just a memory. As usual, the end of year reviews are being written, and the lessons, if any, for the future noted.
For me, the most significant feature of the year has received scant attention, which makes it also the most disturbing. This was the year when what has been a hitherto subtle, but otherwise unspoken change to the way our justice system operates became explicit, and even worse, officially sanctioned. I am referring to the death of the principle of innocent till proven guilty, which has been the cornerstone of our justice system, for centuries. It was the citizen’s ultimate protection against harassment and coercion by a domineering state. Yet today the principle lies in tatters in New Zealand, thanks to the conduct of both the Henry and Rebstock Inquiries.
In both cases, innocent till proven guilty quickly gave way to cannot be eliminated, which, in turn, in the absence of a firm conclusion, cast a general slur upon reputations and credibility which could not be defended. Some suggestion has been made that this process has been standard Police procedure for years, but, even if that is so, the difference is that in the Police instance any evidence they may gather has to be considered by an independent Court before any judgement can be entered.
Yet in the Henry and Rebstock cases, the follow-up was merely the quick, unquestioning endorsement by the government of such unsubstantiated conclusions as they reached. (It has to be conceded that the conduct and process – and therefore the credibility – of the Henry Inquiry have been utterly and rightly destroyed by the subsequent Privileges Committee investigation.) Nevertheless, the personal costs of both these inquiries have been high – a precipitate Ministerial resignation; the resignation of a senior public servant and the rejected resignation of another; with two other distinguished public servants forced to identify themselves – but no specific allegations against any of them. Rumour and innuendo have prevailed over evidence. And all the while, the government has backed without flinching the integrity of these shabby Inquiries’ processes. This has eerie shades of other countries in other times, not New Zealand as it should be in 2013.
Nothing to hide, nothing to worry about seems to be the new norm. It is as unacceptable a notion, as it is slick spin. In a world where increased surveillance at all levels – from the security camera at the local store, through to the international environment – is a sad, but growing reality, innocent till proven guilty has to be upheld as never before as the citizen’s ultimate protection against tyranny. Failure by our government to do so strongly portrays a chilling view of freedom and democracy which will just lead us all further towards the abyss.
On that note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave for the summer break. Best wishes for a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. May 2014 be better for all of us.