Politicians need a lesson in law-making

Friday 22 July 2011, 4:11PM
By Allan Freeth

I challenge business to speak out when a Government has made up its mind, with little or no consultation about a policy that drives to the heart of an industry, and then refuses to talk about it. The ultra-fast broadband legislation is an example.

‘Freedom is when the people can speak; democracy is when the government listens’. Many Kiwis are becoming disillusioned with the increasing tendency by Governments of all political hues to cut-short consultation periods, and push laws through under urgency.

The Human Rights Commission points to a rising tide of concern about the lack of public participation in the submission process. It also notes a diminishing collective deliberation about fundamental reforms, and a generally-perceived declining respect for those making submissions.

These views are backed by the research and commentary of academics, members of the judiciary and the legal profession, business representatives, members of civil society organisations, media commentators, and concerned individuals.

Nearly everybody, except Government.

Business occupies a unique part of any nation and its economy. It is the only human activity that creates wealth.

Yes, Government plays a huge role in ensuring businesses play nicely, and are responsible citizens. Businesses do not have a vote but they are not second class citizens. They have a right to be heard. As Colin Firth’s King George VI said, ‘I have a voice and deserve to be heard’.

When governments legislate in an area which impacts on business, business has a democratic duty, and a right, to contribute to the debate to ensure the final outcome is an improvement on the existing environment.

John Adams, second President of the United States and co-author of the Constitution noted ‘liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.’

Sadly, lack of transparency and institutional arrogance have been the hallmarks of the process around UFB.

By allowing this to continue, what type of democracy and law-making process are New Zealanders encouraging?

The majority of the telecommunications industry and consumer groups can be proud of having the courage to call ‘time’ on a Government intent on ramming through legislation in a manner inconsistent with the spirit and intent of our democratic system. In a mature and robust society, contrary and diverse views should be welcomed as a basis to test the validity and viability of ideas, proposals or public policy.

I challenge business leaders of all industries to think about the law-making process and TelstraClear’s experience and to ensure we collectively retain our voice and are heard.

Democracy is designed for all views to be heard. As the quote, famously attributed to Voltaire, states, ‘I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.’

Business and private citizens have a duty to their democracy to defend to the death that right to be heard. TelstraClear did it in the UFB debate. At the last minute the Minister backed down and the Commerce Commission was reinstated as the consumer and industry watchdog. It should never have come to that.

It was a bittersweet victory –if due process had been followed, and principles of democracy and good business-government dialogue met, we could all have saved ourselves time, money, and hassle.

I was stunned when Mr Joyce on National Radio said that TelstraClear could have saved itself a lot of time and money if it had written him a letter.

If the Minister’s staff have lost them, then I am happy to provide copies of a letter in which I asked for meetings, another letter in which I suggested a different mechanism to the regulatory holiday and asked to meet, and I can also provide a transcript of the public speech asking for a round-table meeting to find some common understanding.

Misrepresentation may be the weapon of choice for a politician in trouble, but one has to be careful when there is a written record.

A battle won, but a war undecided.

Allan Freeth
Chief Executive, TelstraClear