Foreign Correspondent: Creeping Statism


Auckland. I wish I could begin this article by saying that New Zealand is in the middle of a libertarian revolution but unfortunately the opposite is true. In the past 12 months the New Zealand National Party, once a predominantly free-market party, has shown itself to be totally committed to statist policies. Their latest move in this direction came on September 9th when they introduced a bill to legalise telephone tapping and mail opening by the Security Intelligence Service (S.I.S.). The Bill will allow the minister in charge of the S.I.S. to issue an interception warrant authorising the interception or seizure of any communication if a written application has been made by the director of the S.I.S. The director of the S.I.S. will have to give evidence on oath to satisfy the minister that:

1. The interception is necessary for the maintenance of national security.

2. The value of the information in question justified the interception.

3. The information is not likely to be obtained in any other way.

It is obvious that these conditions are simply an attempt to fool the public into believing that the bill contains some safeguards against indiscriminate use when in fact its powers can be exercised at the sole discretion of the minister.

As if to underline the nature and intention of the bill, the government announced that the usual procedure of sending it to a select committee where the public could make submissions would not be followed. The reason given by the Prime Minister, Mr. Muldoon, who, incidentally, is the minister in charge of the S.I.S., is that the committee was likely to be presented with "another mass of totally unsubstantiated allegations" about the S.I.S. The particular importance of the opportunity for members of the public to make submission on bills brought down in the House becomes abundantly clear when one considers the fact that New Zealand has no written constitution, no Upper House and no state governments: just a unicameral parliament with no constitutional checks apart from triennial elections. There is no guarantee that any proposed legislation will be adequately discussed before it is put to the vote. It is a matter of record that the government has passed bills only hours after introducing them for the first time.

Apart from their objection to the government's failure to refer the bill to a select committee, the Labour Party has mounted only a token opposition to it, quibbling over technicalities. Unfortunately, one has to agree with Mr. Muldoon's claim that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Rowling, is faced with the difficult task of opposing a piece of legislation with which he fundamentally agrees.

But the performance of Mr. Muldoon and his colleagues has been just as bad in other areas. New Zealand, like a lot of other western countries, has been suffering from high inflation, high unemployment and a stagnant economy. There has been no economic growth for several years; inflation is running at 15 percent and unemployment is the highest since the war. During the 1975 election campaign, Mr. Muldoon quite candidly acknowledged that government spending was far too high and promised "severe restraints." These restraints, it has turned out, involve imposing a limit on the growth rate of government spending. Some restraints!

New Zealand was one of the first modern welfare states and most New Zealanders firmly believe that they have a right to such things as "free" medical care, old-age pensions, and government-financed sickness benefits. All the television stations, most of the radio stations, and (of course) the education system are in the hands of the State, so it is hard to see this concept being dispelled in the near future.

Although there are not many libertarians in New Zealand, their numbers have increased dramatically over the past five or six years. This is almost entirely due to the influence of Ayn Rand. It may interest American and other overseas readers of REASON to know that the term "libertarian" is hardly ever used here. Most advocates of laissez-faire describe themselves as just that, or as "free marketeers." This again is largely due to the influence of Ayn Rand.

The only laissez-faire political party in the country, the Alpha Party, is severely handicapped by a lack of funds, but as the statist ambitions of Robert Muldoon and his followers become more apparent, the party expects to gain increased support. Unfortunately, a lot of people who show an initial interest are not prepared to accept the consistent total laissez-faire position that Alpha advocates.

For years now most New Zealanders have been content to blunder blindly on, believing that such things as fascism and communism "could never happen here" while demanding greater welfare benefits and increased government involvement in the economy, thus paving the way for these two evils. Now that the point has been reached where the economy is crumbling and government controls are becoming more obviously brutal, it will be interesting to see how people react.

At the moment, it is anybody's guess.