Stifling the oxygen of democracy

It came as no real surprise when it was revealed two weeks ago that spies had been hired to infiltrate the Save Happy Valley protest group by a company working for state-owned corporate Solid Energy.

Private investigators Thompson and Clark had approached a 25-year-old Canterbury University student to infiltrate the group and provide regular reports on their plans and activities.

He was paid $400 a month to attend weekly meetings and extra when he went on protests with the group.

Another 21-year-old student had been engaged to infiltrate Wellington Animal Rights Network, which protests about vivisection and cruelty to animals, and peace group Peace Action Wellington.

For Solid Energy and the Government, it seemed to be one of those situations which is only a problem if you get caught out. And they were. The Canterbury student confessed after being confronted with the evidence of his spying and the company was caught red-handed, so to speak.

It was also revealed that Thompson and Clark had accessed the internal email communications within the protest group and from there the email correspondence of groups and individuals.

There was a brief bout of publicity and a vigorous defence of their actions from the company. On the one hand, Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder said, “We will not discuss any details of our security arrangements, as this would prejudice and disadvantage our ability to carry out our commercial activities”, but then went on to vigorously defend the spying.

“We stand behind Thompson and Clark Investigations Ltd and their work for us.”

Elder then derided the protest group, claiming “their pathetically contrived outrage is totally without any legal, moral or ethical justification”. What a pile of pompous rot.

State-owned Enterprises Minister Trevor Mallard said he was not impressed and would be speaking to Solid Energy chairman John Palmer.

As a result, it seems likely Thompson and Clark will lose their spy contract and no further direct infiltration will be pursued by the company in the meantime. But where does this leave the rest of us? Should we be concerned?

Yes. The democratic rights we do have, limited though they are, are always at threat from governments and corporations.

These rights have been heavily constrained by the reliance of our major political parties, Labour and National, on donations from large companies to run their election campaigns. Cake stalls just don’t do it any more.

Inevitably the policies wanted by these corporate donors surface in party manifestos, which effectively stifles debate on alternatives.

It is, therefore, more important than ever for alternative ideas from protest groups to be heard and debated. So often they are the unbiased commentators in a democracy, unlike corporates and governments which have profits to make and axes to grind.

Protest groups raise important and uncomfortable issues that those in power would prefer to ignore.

And why do they do it? In general, protests aim to put forward alternative ideas, challenge conventional thinking and promote positive change.

“If people are not breaking the law, then they have nothing to fear from spying” is one predictable response. But this is a thoughtless comment.

It matters little that the Happy Valley group carried out civil-disobedience protests which broke the law.

By doing so, they expect to face arrest rather than have their democratic rights undermined.

In more ways than one, Solid Energy is engaged in a filthy business. It mines and exports coal. In the climate-changing world of the 21st century, this will be seen as the last shake of the dinosaur’s tail. Coal produces more toxic pollution than almost all energy sources and adds more carbon to the already-overloaded carbon cycle in the biosphere. It is a big contributor to global warming.

The Save Happy Valley protest group is doing an important service to New Zealand in challenging government policies and Solid Energy’s practices, which include the direct environmental destruction that takes place along the way.

On the other hand, the spying and infiltration carried out by Solid Energy undermines the freedom to dissent, and it is this freedom that is an integral part of a functioning democracy. Dissent provides oxygen for democracy.

If evidence emerged of a Chinese government corporation infiltrating the movement for democracy in China to report on its activities and undermine its campaigns, New Zealanders would be quick to condemn it. For the same reason, we should condemn Solid Energy’s undermining of dissent and demand the resignation of its chief executive.

It is Solid Energy and Elder who are ethically challenged and morally bereft, while the Government’s whimpering reaction shows that democracy is always more fragile than we think.