Is Democracy under threat or not? Last week the NZ Herald told us we were doomed, yes doomed, if the Electoral Finance Bill were passed. The Herald felt compelled to warn us what would happen if the bill passes, with a front-page editorial and pages of polemic, each headed "threat to free speech."
This week they seem to have lost interest. Tuesday's front page and back page were filled with photographs of a bloody big shark trying to eat a rubber seal (not the sort of rubber seal you use in offices to mark mail as Received, but a rubber representation of the sea mammal, just in case you were visualising a Great White Shark attacking office supplies). It wasn't even a local shark; it was all happening in South African waters. Since then, they have kept banging on about the Bill but without the crusading zeal of last week's editions.
So, why does the Herald now care more about marine life than Democracy? Perhaps it was because of the rather lacklustre response to the demonstration in Auckland on Saturday, which the Herald was promoting. Perhaps the Herald had envisaged a more stirring response to its call to save Democracy. The Herald had advised that the organisers were requesting that protesters from immigrant communities should carry the flags of their home countries. As it turned out, there were none, although a Dutchman did wear an orange shirt decorated with various incoherent slogans, somewhat in the manner of the Letterist International or The Clash. He carried on his shoulder not a flag but a full-size effigy of Winston Peters, which itself was adorned with a helpful sign identifying the subject and describing him as a traitor.
The Herald had also advised that the organisers wished lawyers to come wearing their gowns. This was a rather naive request: most lawyers do not possess gowns, since we are not living in an Ealing Comedy set in 1950s England. As it turned out, one man turned out wearing a gown over his jeans. He looked somewhat uncomfortable.
Of jeans there was no shortage. Reader, I can tell you that never before have I seen so much grey hair and blue denim in combination. Obviously this is what they are wearing in the suburbs. Not, of course, 501s or stovepipes but those generously cut jeans which make allowance for advancing waists and descending behinds. Later, I checked at the official outfitters of middle management, the charmingly miss-spelt Rodd and Gunn, and found that their designs have names like "spike," "rover," "tex" and "digger." Not that any digging has ever been done in these trousers, some of which looked as if they had been pressed for the occasion. They were worn with polo shirts or long-sleeved, striped shirts of the kind suitable for working hard and playing hard. It was all very smart-casual.
It was a little bit fundy, as well. The organiser was someone called Boscawen, who had never done this sort of thing before, but he was helped by others who had: the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Family First. Although some Democrats for Social Credit and some Libertarianz had come along, the majority of protesters seemed to be God-fearing rightish folk. Those who want the repeal of the repeal of Section 59 had brought along a trestle table and a couple of petitions for badly-drafted referenda to reclaim their right to beat their children. Despite temptation, I refrained from asking the rather delectable girl behind the table whether she had been spanked recently. Instead, I signed another petition, promoted by some other people, for a railway to the airport; the political equivalent of a cold shower.
When the march got going, it became obvious that these were not people accustomed to protesting. They started off at rather too brisk a pace, leaving some of their elder comrades behind. Some began singing a hymn, which was quickly stifled by the organisers. Instead a chant was offered by an organiser with a megaphone. Here too, the crowd showed their inexperience; obviously they had been busy during Vietnam and, equally obviously, they do not go to churches where the liturgy includes responses.
They were keen, however. Some had brought along home-made banners, on one of which the word "communist" was misspelt. Several representations of the Prime Minister in various Nazi uniforms were noticed by your correspondent. Other protesters used the banners provided by the organisers, which claimed that the legislation is fascist (if you have not been receiving your mail recently, it is probably because your postino has been sent to a concentration camp) and that our boys fought the Second World War to stop this sort of thing.
The speeches were scarcely better. References were made to Pakistan, Fiji and other countries with electoral reform issues, as well as to The War. Mr Boscawen had promised to speak for five to six minutes when the marching was done. He spoke for at least twenty-five, referring to everything which had happened in the previous week, regardless of its relevance to his cause. Mr Garth McVicar of Sensible Sentencing claimed that New Zealand was one of the most violent countries in the West. Mr Bob McCroskie of Family First said something, I'm not sure what; it was probably about sex. Finally, that man from the talkback radio was asked to make an impromptu speech; such was Leighton Smith's mana that the crowd parted to let him through. And there was an old soldier with lots of medals, which just goes to show.
Then everyone went home. The organisers asked that the banners be returned, since they had another demo on Wednesday. As everyone packed up, they played Blind Faith's "Presence of the Lord" on the PA, which rather let cat out of bag; it is on the new Clapton compilation, which doubtless is a big hit in Glenfield.
Still, nothing much there to give the Herald cold feet; it's not as if Bishop Brian had come to the party. Perhaps the Herald realised how ridiculous it had become, squealing about the threat to freedom and democracy made by rules based on those of Canada. Perhaps even the Herald is a bit uncomfortable about its growing reputation as a mouthpiece for the National Party. Or perhaps bloody big sharks sell more papers.