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A case of liberal democratic double standard

Last Saturday marked the 151st anniversary of an outbreak of anti-Russian paranoia in New Zealand.

To be fair, the 19th century’s Anglo-Russian conflicts had given New Zealanders some cause to view Russia as a potential aggressor, so when the Daily Southern Cross published a story on February 17, 1873, claiming a Russian warship had entered Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour undetected and landed troops, readers were primed to believe the report, which stated the Russian marines had succeeded in seizing a quantity of gold and taken Mayor Philip Philips hostage.

Now, if this is news to you, don’t blame our schools’ history syllabus – the article was actually a hoax on the part of editor David Luckie, who for some bizarre reason thought that running a fictitious story would somehow convince his audience to share his concern about a looming Russian threat.

As it goes, though, it doesn’t appear to have stymied the career of Luckie, who went on to be co-editor of the NZ Herald and – briefly – the editor of the Evening Post. And if anything, the hoax merely increased anxiety about the threat posed by an expanding Russian Empire – indeed, 12 years later, New Zealand suffered another such spasm as a result of Anglo-Russian rivalry in Afghanistan, prompting the construction of 17 coastal forts to defend the country against forays by theoretical Tsarist forces.

New Zealand was understandably wary of Russia during much of the last century, and we’re obviously been having a bit of a moment regarding Russian ‘disinformation’ over the past few years, in part due to the invasion of Ukraine. And it’s only right and proper that members of our government have decried the recent death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in a jail in the Arctic Circle.

“We are gravely concerned about an opposition leader imprisoned for standing up for values we believe very strongly in a liberal democracy. When you’re advocating for freedom, for democracy, for freedom of expression … values that we as all Kiwis … believe in, it’s incredibly concerning,” said Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, who also expressed his personal view that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was directly responsible for the death.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters has also weighed in, noting that “New Zealand remains concerned over Russia’s repression of political opponents”.

Yup, there’s no question it’s appropriate that ministers are making strong statements about the importance of standing up for liberal democratic values, even if it’ll have as much effect on Russia’s conduct as – to use a technical diplomatic term – a fart in a hurricane.

But isn’t it more than a little peculiar – hypocritical, even – how silent our politicians have been about the United State’s continued pursuit of Australian editor, publisher, and activist Julian Assange, who is arguably guilty of nothing more than taking liberal democratic values seriously?

Assange is currently fighting in the UK courts to avoid extradition to the US for exposing [among other things] that country’s massacre of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, use of torture, illegal “renditions”, and mass surveillance – you know, stuff that self-proclaimed liberal democracies are meant to take a dim view of.

In this case, a public objection by our government to the politicised vendetta against Assange might actually carry some weight. The Australian government has finally gotten the gumption to stick up for its citizen, last week passing a motion that calls for the US and UK to release him. It’s well past time for our government to do the same.

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