Week in Politics: PM could gain acclaim for international accord with social media organisations

9:21 pm on 26 April 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The prime minister announces an international mission to rein in social media platforms as questions are asked about whether Labour ever intended implementing a capital gains tax.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressing the media after announcing that NZ and France will lead global efforts to try to end the use of social media to organise and promote terrorism.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressing the media after announcing that NZ and France will lead global efforts to try to end the use of social media to organise and promote terrorism. Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern could gain international acclaim for her campaign to stop social media platforms from promoting terrorism - if it succeeds.

Ms Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will host a summit in Paris on 15 May attended by world leaders, but it's not yet clear who will be there.

The intention is to persuade those leaders and the big technology companies like Facebook and Google to sign a pledge, to be known as the Christchurch Call, which will commit them to preventing incidents such as the livestreaming of the mosque massacres.

Ms Ardern has spoken to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg but it seems he won't be there. The company has said a senior executive will attend.

Google, Microsoft and Twitter have made similar statements.

They all claim to want to collaborate with political leaders to make social networks a safer place, but they've yet to prove their sincerity].

The companies don't want to be regulated, and they don't want penalties such as Australia imposed soon after the 15 March terrorist attack in Christchurch. So it suits their purpose to go along with what would be voluntary restraint.

Emmanuel Macron and Jacinda Ardern have announced a joint effort to work toward curbing terrorism on social media. File photo.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have announced a joint effort to work toward curbing terrorism on social media (File photo). Photo: AFP

National Party leader Simon Bridges is one of those who hold doubts about it succeeding.

"We've been here before with social media organisations where nice things are said and not a lot happens," he said.

"Lack of detail and the non-binding nature of it can make people very cynical."

When the pledge is worked out, the devil will be in the detail. A broad, ill-defined commitment would suit the companies and that's what they'll probably aim for.

And it could be difficult to assess how successful or otherwise the summit turns out to be. It's being held alongside two other international meetings called Technology for Humanity and Technology for Good. Three events on a similar theme at the same time, which means precise reporting will be needed to sort out what is happening.

Ms Ardern's announcement briefly removed media attention from something she doesn't seem to be keen to talk about - the way she dumped a capital gains tax at her press conference last week.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson fronted on Morning Report and stayed with the script. "What the prime minister said was, having campaigned in 2011, 2014 and 29017 on this and put it to a group of experts, it was time to accept that there wasn't a mandate to pursue it," he said.

The prime minister, however, also said she couldn't achieve a coalition consensus for it. That indicated she had wanted some form of capital gains tax but New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had rejected it.

Since then commentators, with 20/20 hindsight, have found evidence to support a case that Labour decided against introducing a capital gains tax well before the Tax Working Group's report was received.

One of the most telling indications of that was the government's failure to support it throughout the public debate which followed the report's publication. Victoria University's Bryce Edwards, writing for RNZ, raised the question: "Have the government's supporters just been conned?"

It's unlikely that Ms Ardern campaigned for a CGT while knowing or believing it would never be implemented, and precisely when she changed her mind about it will probably never be known.

It could have been part of the very steep learning curve after she suddenly became the leader of the Labour Party shortly before the election and then prime minister.

The realisation would have been that she wasn't prepared to go into the 2020 election backing a capital gains tax, it was just too risky. Remember that the promise was to legislate for it before the next election and implement it after the election, which would have become a referendum on it.

It's been a huge reversal and a failure for the "transformational" government Ms Ardern also promised. A progressive tax system to deal with inequality was at the core of it, and now there won't be one.

When Parliament resumes next week it will be interesting to see how National handles this situation. It could use question time to probe Ms Ardern over precisely why she dumped a capital gains tax, and it could ask Mr Peters exactly what he had to do with it.

It won't want her to get away with it unscathed, but at the same time it won't want to detract from its own claim that it was responsible for turning public opinion against a capital gains tax.

And Mr Peters has the best of both worlds - it suits him very well for people to believe he stopped Labour implementing it without being blamed for being a difficult coalition partner.

So far, no Labour Party minister has pointed a finger at him. That could be because they know a capital gains tax would have been dumped anyway.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs