What is the part that you have to play in public discussion about the issues that are shaping New Zealand?

I’ve discovered that I have lived experiences which ordinary people can really relate to but aren’t shared by a lot of the people who usually make it to this kind of position of power and influence. So, I’m discovering how important my voice is for a person with the privilege of a public platform, with access to media and places of debate.

For example, recently I have been in the media because apparently it’s quite interesting that the co-leader of a political party has experienced sexual abuse and systemic police racism.

In sharing these experiences, I think it’s led people to admit, “Well, she has a valid voice in these debates, because she knows these issues intimately.” Sadly, in Parliament—as MPs—mostly we are not representative of the diverse experiences of New Zealanders. So, the voice that I add is one that is less “held hostage” by the privileged positions that many politicians have come from, and are still in.

Do you get to generate debate on issues you care about or is your role largely responsive to what’s already being discussed?

The reality of the job is that a lot of it is responsive by its very nature—a hell of a lot, but I feel I have a responsibility to also frame debate on certain issues and get ahead of just responding and offering knee jerk reactions. I’ve been able to generate debate by the virtue of having a Twitter account sometimes, and amazingly a lot of the media I have generated has simply come from me sharing lived experiences on social media. So, it’s both.

I’ve found that you have to pick your priority one, two or three issues, and you have to keep sustained discussion on them, and that is difficult, because, especially in the media things can easily be talked out overnight.

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Where do you see positive forms of public discussion happening in New Zealand society?

On the marae. Because from the start when you come onto the marae, your whakapapa is acknowledged—before anything else is said we acknowledge your people and where you’ve come from—and that knowing of each other is the foundation upon which any debate is held.

Schools, kohanga, and pre-schools are also playing an incredible role in nurturing our next generation of citizens with the information that we want our citizens to be grounded with. I see teachers grabbing the story of Parihaka and the land wars out of their own initiative, because they realise not only how much the children love it, but how important it is for a cohesive and unified society to share a basic understanding of our history. Also, our community places of gathering; I’ve also seen sports teams and rugby teams get together to take a stand on domestic violence, and alcohol, and tobacco. Our social spaces are incredible places where people gather for a common cause, and I think we could make better use of those places.

What experiences have been important in shaping your ideas and the way you engage in politics?

I think what sums it all up is that I was raised with a strong sense of injustice. I was born to two young teenage Māori parents who were a proactive part of the tino rangatiratanga movement for social justice. I saw how they experienced on-going systemic and blatant racism, whether it was from cops or landlords or hospitals. We experienced injustice when seeking healthcare, seeking education or seeking justice, that was ordinary for me and helped me to form my own analysis that not all is equal. My dad in particular; if something was up, he could not stay silent, and I noticed the same thing myself—you are bound to speak up when something’s wrong.

How can we do public debate better?

All too often public debate focuses on the things we don’t agree on, and a really good debate allows us to find the common ground and use it as a starting point. You cannot have a successful debate on issues when the participants don’t feel that there is a shared recognition of equal dignity and humanity, something that comes from a proper understanding of whose positions and voices have been privileged and oppressed in the past.

Often some good facilitation on tricky issues makes all the difference, someone who can keep the discussion focused and on track, and can make sure all the participants feel like they are having a fair and valid contribution, whether it’s on television, radio, on a marae, community halls, or around the table with your mates.

What does free speech mean to you?

I’ve worked at the Human Rights Commission. I know that our legal threshold for free speech is high. You’d basically have to stand up with a microphone and say something like, “We should all kill Muslims,” before you will be legally shut down for hate speech. So, people should use their speech to respond to speech they consider to be hateful, and we have to, because legally there are really no other avenues, so we use other means to express our thoughts on what they are saying.

I think that unfortunately “free speech” has become a vehicle for bigotry and racism. If you really truly do believe in free speech then we have to unravel whose speech is privileged, and then we need to make amends. For example, a person with power and resource can organise a nationwide leaflet drop to the whole country about immigration, and people who are incredibly marginalised have a very minimal chance of getting a fair response in public debate as they don’t have similar access to that sort of resource and platform. That’s not free speech, that’s a privileging of one part of the debate.

Media can play a role in informing debate, and they sometimes do. I’ve seen some incredibly good investigative pieces and articles that really seek a balance and a wide range of voices on an issue—not just the extremists at either end. I think that would be incredible to see more of that.

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What is the part that you have to play in public discussion about the issues that are shaping New Zealand?

In some ways, my role as an elected MP is to distil all the various thoughts of my constituents, into something that’s relatively concise, and presentable into the Parliamentary debate and discussions. So, ultimately for the 120 MPs in Parliament, it’s our job to represent people, their views, and their passions.

How do you represent people when they disagree with you?

Paradoxically, I have found in my time, that being upfront and open about my decisions—especially on the really controversial issues—will gain a person’s respect. They may vehemently disagree with me—we’ll debate and argue, and that’s good—but they are grateful, for want of a better word, that I’ve honoured their position by listening and being really clear about my own reasoning.

The other thing is, I get elected to be that representative, and I’m not simply automaton of 60,000 collated voices. I’m not a polling robot. I, Simon, have my own thoughts and philosophies and rationales, and I’m allowed to exercise those, and importantly, then I have to justify my decisions back to the electorate. Fundamentally, I’ve often said to my constituents that if I don’t follow my conscience—which is well informed by their views—then I can’t comfortably stand on two feet and answer for what I’ve done.

Do you get to generate debate on issues you care about or is your role largely responsive to what’s already being discussed?

I think a lot of MPs come in to Parliament wanting to be generative, and there is an element of that—we can set the debate from time to time. But more often than not, I think we are quite responsive, spending around 80 percent of our time responding to people’s issues—especially for electorate MPs.

That’s one of the reasons why MPs freak out a bit when we get these unusually big moral issues popping up. On those kinds of issues we get tens of thousands of people writing in demanding to be seen. It’s all important dialogue, but it’s so disproportionate when you consider everything else that we’ve got to be thinking about and working on at the same time.

Where do you think public debate is done well in New Zealand?

I think we’re very poorly served in this country when it comes to diverse constructive discussions, and I think it’s a growing concern. It might be done relatively well around family dinner tables, but I think as we move further out into civil society, there are warning signs. In the parliamentary context, we have an MMP environment, which is very highly structured along party lines, so, the role and voice of the individual representative and their ideas and conscience is somewhat reduced.

From what I can see, our universities have become fairly singular in their approach, losing their appetite for tolerant, open discussion, and alternative opinions are closed down. I think a lot of the churches are very distracted by what they see as the social issues of the day rather than discussing consistent ideas, and articulating the philosophies behind them. Meanwhile, the NGOs are too busy chasing the money rather than standing up for their core beliefs, and sadly, we don’t really have enough think-tanks in New Zealand to generate the sort of discussion we might see in Australia, or the United Kingdom. Oh, and I should add that the media are hopeless at actual discussion. I won’t say that it’s too far to the left, or to the right, but it’s not well balanced with a good range of quality opinion.

What experiences have been important in shaping your ideas and the way you engage in politics?

The experience that’s probably had the most profound effect on me was my time as a chaplain at the old Mt Eden prison,  because it made me understand people in a different way than I had. Before that, I could pick up a paper and read about horrendous crimes and condemn the people who had committed them, dismiss them as nasty people who can be written off. All of sudden, as a chaplain I was spending time with these men, hearing their stories, understanding their background and their suffering. It doesn’t take away from what they had done to victims, but I found that very confronting.

One of the things that we can very easily do in life is distance ourselves from people; we talk about them as the “other.” There’s a great Jewish philosopher called Martin Buber, who talks about the way we see other people as either “I and thou,” or “I and other.” I realised that in getting the chance to see their humanness as a reflection of my humanness I had begun to see these men as “thou,” instead of “the other.” That realisation has made me conscious that the decisions I make as a politician will always affect real human beings, with real backstories, real struggles. That I’m considering laws that will apply to people, like me—not just concepts, not just statistics.

“I think we’re very poorly served in this country when it comes to diverse constructive discussions, and I think it’s a growing concern. It might be done relatively well around family dinner tables, but I think as we move further out into civil society, there are warning signs.”

How do you maintain relationship with someone when you passionately disagree about important things?

With great difficulty I suppose! I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many people who disagree with me, a lot of the time, and it’s wonderful. When you’re in relationship with someone I think it’s important to keep that relationship first and foremost, and that’s regardless of what they think, or how they disagree with you. But there is a pragmatic side to that. There are certain topics with my mum that I might only bring up once a year, if I just sort of want to stir the pot, or vice versa, but we don’t spend all our time focused on our points of disagreement. In so many relationships, the point of disagreement becomes the singular focus; the constant grind. Differences do have to be acknowledged—you engage with them from time to time, because it helps challenge them and helps challenge you. You never know, either party might evolve, but you don’t constantly focus on it, because actually there’s a whole lot more in play.

I personally love to be challenged, it’s what helps you grow. I think too often, especially on social media, we’re largely just surrounded by people who agree with us. No wonder no-one grows or develops in their thinking, but in my real life, I’m surrounded by lots of family and friends—right through to my wife—who disagree with me on a number of issues.

Every time you’re challenged, argued with, or critiqued it’s a moment for change, or to look at the potential for change.

What does free speech mean to you?

Free speech is ultimately about the free interchange of ideas, and the ability for people to speak, to share what they think, and—this is the important part—give a “why.” If you have a view, and you can’t explain it, that is where limits start to kick in. You need to be able to give an answer for why you hold the belief that you do.

So often when you come across extreme speakers on the left or the right, they’re just spouting stuff, and because of the extreme stupidity of their respective positions they’re self-limiting because they can’t justify themselves and by and large people will stop listening. However, sometimes people can reach that further extreme, when they are deliberately and consistently inciting people to violence, or really stereotyping groups to violent ends, and that’s actually where governments do need to step in.

Stacey Kirk


Senior Political Reporter for Fairfax, Chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery

What is the role of Parliamentary Press Gallery journalists in public discussion about the issues that are shaping New Zealand?

Our role in facilitating public debate is probably more important now than it has ever been. There’s so much misinformation out there, and it is having an effect on the kinds of governments that have been elected across the world. Our role is to report things accurately, and we’re all under fire a bit—the media as well as politicians—in terms of public trust in what we’re doing.

So, we have to get it right first time, and we have to call out politicians at the first hurdle where we can. In the press gallery, we have to provide an accurate record of what’s going on in Parliament, but of course reporting has to involve analysis of some of the manoeuvring and the machinations around this place—people’s agendas that might not be so obvious. Political reporting has to be incredibly nuanced, because there’s so much nuance and agenda behind everything that politicians do. That’s where the analysis of political reporting, and opinion, is every bit as important as the news.

How do you balance reporting on the “gamesmanship” of politics vs reporting on the policies of different political parties and what effect they could have on New Zealand?

I think they’re both just as important as each other. The reporting on the political jockeying and the gamesmanship can go too far, but it’s important, because it’s the personalities, the politicking, and the behind-the-scenes gamesmanship that gets certain bills and legislation to the point where they can have an effect on the lives of New Zealanders.

Where do you draw the line between neutral reporting of what’s going on and giving your opinion as an observer of what goes on in Parliament?

I know a lot of journalists like to say, “Yes, I’m straight down the middle, I’m impartial.” But, no human being is completely impartial, and particularly in a place like this, where you live and breathe the politics every day, you get to become really knowledgeable on certain issues, so it’s almost impossible not to form a view. I think it’s incredibly important to know where your biases lie, because that’s the only way you can mitigate them in your reporting.

I think there’s definitely a place for opinion in politics, because it is important to, in some respects, guide debate, and let people disagree with you. Hopefully it’s part of providing a responsible jumping off point for broader discussion—there should always be balance to the conversation.

I think if you were writing on an issue, you just talk to all of the people involved, and you represent their views in what you write—and that doesn’t necessarily mean giving each argument the exact same amount of space. I’ve been called a left-wing stooge and a right-wing shill, sometimes for the same piece, so you never really know exactly where anyone’s going to take issue with what you write. All I can do is make sure that I allow for the fact that I could be wrong on this issue, and other people aren’t necessarily wrong if they have a different opinion.

How do you think the news media could be a more effective facilitator of quality public debate?

Well, I think if we knew the answer to that, the media might be in a better position than it is now, but I do reject wholeheartedly the notion that the quality content isn’t there. It might not be in newspapers, it might not be in the 6pm news, because those are very limited spaces; you simply can’t go very in-depth on anything in those spaces. But on the webpages of Stuff, the NZ Herald, and on all of the web agencies really, we’re spoilt. If you care to look there’s never been a better time to write an in-depth story and present it in a way that captures and engages people, and I know Stuff and the NZ Herald are both investing heavily in that.

As a journalist trying to create transparency around political debate, how do you view the role of the political PR machine?

I heard recently that for every journalist in New Zealand there are something like 35 communications professionals, and their sole job is to frame the story we’re trying to tell. So, yeah, it’s not just the media vs politicians, this job can feel like it’s the media vs the politicians and their armies. So, there’s always going to be someone who’s not happy with something you’ve written, and on a personal level that can get quite trying and wear you down. That’s where I think it can get dangerous in the long term for public debate, because as much as you don’t like to admit it, as a journalist sometimes you think, “Oh, he’s just going to be so annoyed about this…do I even want the hassle on this particular fight?” But you can’t fall into the trap of thinking that, because that’s exactly what the PR teams are paid to try and make you think.


Jeremy Vargo

As part of his role as Communications Manager for Maxim Institute, Jeremy has had the privilege of editing Flint & Steel magazine for the last 4 years. He has previously worked some classically soul crushing roles in the retail, commodities trading, and manufacturing industries, but managed to emerge relatively unscathed. Outside of work, he has a number of interests, but the recent birth of baby Ivy has put all that on hold for a while, which is actually rather wonderful.