Feeling the freedom to speak out
ROBERT CHARLES/FAIRFAX MEDIA
OPINION: Some of my closest friends are public servants. Or they work for organisations that receive a significant proportion of their funding from the Government. In the last two years of advocating for a doubling of New Zealand's refugee quota I've seen one common and disturbing thing. Friends who care deeply about refugee communities have been highly uncomfortable showing any public support for the campaign.
This discomfort is explained with one constant theme: The need for political neutrality in our public sector. In Wellington, in particular, a culture has emerged that sees a huge section of our population not taking part in public political life.
How are we supposed to have a strong democracy if those who work for government feel threatened by the simplest action of support?
In the last week a once-in-a-generation phenomena occurred. New Zealanders looked beyond our shores and opened up their hearts to the suffering people in the world. Dame Susan Devoy, among others, put her neck out on the refugee quota issue, saying that we need to double our quota. She has shown the same strength that made her a world champion at squash by standing up against the intolerable indifference of her boss. It was a gutsy move for the Race Relations Commissioner – many other organisations have had their funding drastically cut when speaking against the Government.
* Refugee tensions on rise
* Why Kiwis should care
* Peters: Send males to fight for freedom
* Britain to take in 20,000 refugees
* What Syrian refugees carry
* Images of drowned Syrian boy show plight of refugees
Consider the Problem Gambling Foundation and the Council for International Development for example.
Alongside Dame Susan was an enormous groundswell of support from the mayors of nine major cities, churches, NGOs and regular New Zealanders. Our church leaders said they were unconcerned that the Syrian refugees were likely to be Muslim. Even the Young Nats spoke truth to the executive power. It all took guts.
In the university, academics are protected from speaking out through legislation that requires the institution to act as a critic and conscience of society.
I'm not saying we need a similar responsibility for government departments. But I am hoping that these departments wouldn't function in the opposite manner. We can be critics without being ACT or Green stalwarts. We can be a part of public politics without being political partisans.
Pledging support to the victims of the worst humanitarian crisis of the century must not be seen as politically loaded. State servants must have the right to show their solidarity with basic human rights.
I'd like to see more public sector employees and those who work with government make the same stand as Dame Susan Devoy.
I know that feeling of self-censorship, the feeling that our bosses might disapprove of our political beliefs and actions.
I want to claim the same dignity that she claimed.
I'd like everyone who has felt a quiet, creeping self-censorship in the last years consider what we give up when we don't share that Facebook post.
Murdoch Stephens is the spokesman and lead researcher for Doing Our Bit, a campaign he began in 2013 to double New Zealand's refugee resettlement quota.