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What Prosser can do to redeem himself

Richard Prosser must convince the public that he’s changed his mind, not just that he “made a mistake”.

It’s comforting that Richard Prosser’s bigoted comments on Muslims in aeroplanes were met with ample vilification from virtually everyone. Predictably, many have also called for him to be sacked. It’s a tempting ritual, but I’m not sure that the demand should be absolute.

More generally, I disagree with the mentality that politicians should always resign over one cock-up, even if it’s a colossal one. It’s an easy way for opponents to draw blood, but what should really matter is their capacity, looking forward, for the job. So if he can—properly—rectify his errors, then he deserves another chance at showing he can still contribute as an MP.

The problem is that his apology’s been underwhelming. Stuff initially quoted Mr Prosser as saying, “I concede that some of the language that I used wasn’t appropriate”, though that’s now been removed from the article, perhaps because he didn’t actually say that.* His original statement says, “This issue requires positive solutions… I accept that I impugned many peaceful law-abiding Muslims”. The NZ Herald report on his apology carries a lot on the language he used, and also for causing “offence to those people unjustifiably and unnecessarily”.

In a nutshell, the bulk of his apology was for what he said, not what he thought.

It’s encouraging that Mr Prosser’s seen at least some of his errors. According to the Herald, Mr Prosser “said he’s failed to distinguish between the vast majority of Muslims… and the ‘tiny minority’ who were involved in terrorism” and conceded “I didn’t have balance in that article”.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling he’s backed down out of political pressure, rather than because he really has. For one thing, on the first day he retreated from the media and let Winston Peters, his party leader, front up for him. More importantly, his later comments have been more a softening of tone than an outright reversal.

It is not the way Mr Prosser expressed his ideas that constitutes his sin, but the ideas themselves. Reading between the lines, some subtleties are telling. He tries to draw a distinction between his role as a “shock jock” columnist and his role as an MP. But the opinion he expressed—that any young male who “looks Muslim” shouldn’t be allowed on a plane—is stupid no matter who you are. It’s concerning that he seems to think it would be a more acceptable opinion if held by a columnist. Also, while he talks a lot now about “positive change”, he’s scant on what “positive” means.

What he should do
So here’s what Mr Prosser can do to redeem himself: He can write another column for Investigate, explaining exactly why he was wrong, and what would be sensible civil aviation policy. His self-criticism must not focus on “language” and “terms like ‘Wogistan’” or just label his remarks “offensive”. They are ignorant and logically flawed. His column must show a 180-degree turnaround, not just an apology.

It should go in Investigate, the same magazine as his original column†, so that it hits the same audience. He needs to tell the same readers that virtually all Muslims despise terrorists, just like the rest of us, and that it would be unfair (and ineffective, imagine the false positives!) to subject them to “target profiling”. It would be a departure from his “shock jock” style—but just this once, that would be the whole point.

If Mr Prosser does publicly change his mind, that will probably do more for the campaign against bigotry than his resignation. There are, sadly, still a stubborn minority who think what Mr Prosser said. A genuine U-turn from Mr Prosser would carry much more weight in swinging them around. To that end, Anwar Ghani, president of the Federation of Islamist Associations of New Zealand deserves a lot of credit for inviting Mr Prosser to enter into dialogue and “get to know [the Muslim community] better. He needs to be better informed.” Michael Vukcevic, chairman of the NZ Middle East Business Council, gestured likewise.

I really hope they follow through. As disgusting as Mr Prosser’s comments were, the silver lining is an opportunity to extinguish whatever bigotry is still left. If Mr Prosser can lead this effort, he could go some way to saving his reputation.

* I initially seized on this quote as evidence of a non-apology. Given that there is no trace of it on the internet any more, my best guess is that it’s a pre-written article that Fairfax shouldn’t have published.

† As I was writing this post, Investigate editor Ian Wishart published an apology on its website, pointing out the distinction between ordinary Muslims and extremists, but still emphasising what Mr Prosser said, not what he thought.

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