Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

The Government and Non-governmental agencies


Has anyone else noticed how bizarre the thought patterns of some NGOs have become? Right now a Greenie by the name of Peter Bethune and an organization to which he belongs called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, want the New Zealand government to intervene because Bethune of his own volition recently chose to board the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru 2 in order to make what he calls a "citizen's arrest". Bethune now seems to be in detention aboard the Japanese vessel. But he and his society seem to feel that no matter what they choose to do in pursuit of their private causes, the government should follow them - even if it involves an international confrontation between two countries.

Let me say first of all that I do not support Japanese whaling. The argument for it - that it is part of scientific research - has long been shown to be spurious. The increasingly threatened whales are caught primarily for the Japanese to eat. Protests against Japanese behaviour in this regard are, in my view, quite legitimate. New Zealand has been protesting for many years, and it continues to protest through the Whaling Commission in which it participates. But little New Zealand does not rule the world. The Greenies have therefore taken things a step further - again legitimately - by sailing into the whaling grounds and making life difficult for the Japanese who willfully thumb their noses at world opinion.

Where things recently turned ugly is that several extremists have decided to take huge personal and financial risks by confronting the whaling vessels in a dangerous manner. A strange-looking vessel belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Ady Gil, was recently involved in a collision with the Shonan Maru 2. The Ady Gill sank as a result. Its crew was lucky to escape. Like many New Zealanders, I watched and re-watched TV film of the collision. To me and to the reporters, it was not clear that the Ady Gil did not cause the collision in the first place. The Ady Gil certainly acted in a very dangerous and provocative manner. The society is drawing a long bow when it suggests that the Japanese were solely responsible for the sinking of the Ady Gil, and that the captain should therefore be arrested.

However, it is the post collision antics of the society that interest me. Having been provocative, it now wants the government to become involved on its behalf. In other words, the government should become directly involved in support of the personal antics of extremists. The government didn't ask the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to go to the area, nor did it fund their protest. Nor did it condone any extremist action. Indeed, ministers warned against extremism. If individuals ignore government warnings they usually take responsibility for any adverse outcomes. That's life.

But Peter Bethune and his friend Paul Watson seem to be so swept up in the righteousness of their cause that they think the government should always do their bidding. Watson declared: "It is almost pathetic how the Australian and New Zealand governments roll before the Japanese". Any sensible observer might retort that it is bizarre that Bethune and Watson should expect any government to follow them, no matter how foolhardy their behaviour.

What is also interesting is that Australia's Labor Government has been no more enthusiastic about getting involved than New Zealand's National Government. This hasn't deterred Chris Carter, Labour's hapless spokesperson on foreign affairs, from singing a different tune. This, I suspect, is because our Labour Party over the last decade has gone much further in surrendering New Zealand's sovereignty to non-governmental agencies than other countries. NGOs are well represented in the ranks of Phil Goff's party where a word from Greenpeace or Oxfam or whatever cause of the moment, finds ready ears.

Let it be clear to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and to the Labour Party, that elected governments should always, at all times, keep control of the nation's foreign policy. Our country's foreign relations are too vital to become the plaything of self-appointed crusaders, no matter how estimable their goal.