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The hating has to stop

By Councillor Cathy Casey

Published: 29 July 2020

“Cathy Casey you need to go home, you are part of the problem. Snout troughing parasitic leech.  Go fix your town in Scotland.”

After a particularly bruising election campaign last year, I wrote about the abuse of elected members and staff of Auckland Council, asking everyone to be kinder to each other and - as my mother used to say – treat people as you would wish to be treated yourself. I wanted kind to be the new cool.

Almost a year on and following the COVID-19 lockdown, I would love to report that things are better. Sadly, that is not the case. If anything, the abuse being delivered daily to Mayor Phil Goff, councillors and staff of Auckland Council is getting worse, not better. Just a week ago, a complaint was laid with NZ Police regarding an online death threat made to councillors.

At the end of this term I will have had 27 years’ experience as a councillor. Never in that time have I witnessed such unkindness towards elected members as I have seen in the past year. So, what has changed?

The job is much the same. Every councillor has a myriad of local issues that people are passionate about and about which there can be divided views.  Part of the job of an elected member to listen to everyone, whether one is in agreement with an individual’s point of view or not.  I have never minded that.  When passions are aroused individuals can get upset and angry. I have never minded that either. 

What I do mind is when individuals associated with groups fronting local issues hurl personal abuse at individual elected members or staff either face to face, via social media or by email. That’s what’s changed.  Social media has had a large part to play in creating a nation of keyboard warriors that spout hate and divide our society.

Let me try and give you a taste of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of continual personal abuse.  I will give you two recent examples of issues which have prompted such abuse - deciding on our Emergency Budget and my membership of the Tūpuna Maunga Authority.

The Emergency Budget

Councillors put in over 50 hours of formal workshops and meetings to complete the recent Emergency Budget that will help Auckland recover from COVID-19. The 3.5 per cent rates increase was supported by 18 votes to three. Over many weeks we worked through the balance between the provision of services and infrastructure and the need to reduce costs in a drastically worsened financial position. The decision was not one dimensional and councillors had a multitude of factors to weigh up. We heard a wide range of views and I am proud of the way the Mayor and councillors worked together to achieve consensus.

Opposition to that rates rise has come from members of the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance and the Taxpayers’ Union who mounted an online campaign against the 3.5 per cent. As an activist I have never had a problem with political campaigns.  We all received a deluge of emails in the 24 hours before the vote on the budget. I have no problem with email campaigns either.

What I do have a problem with is the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance Facebook page which is inciting hate after the fact and allowing hate speech to remain in comments there. One such comment threatening death to councillors has already been referred to NZ Police.

Here are just a few abusive posts about me that are still there this morning:

“Cathy Casey you need to go home, you are part of the problem. Snout troughing parasitic leech.  Go fix your town in Scotland.”

“Cathy Bloody Casey makes me sick.  Another one that needs to go.”

“Almost makes me ashamed to be Scottish.”

Tūpuna Maunga Authority membership

I am on my second term as an Auckland Council appointee to the Tūpuna Maunga Authority (TMA). I have had more abuse in this role than in any other in all my years in local government. 

Almost every positive move that the TMA has taken to restore or protect the 14 maunga has met with opposition and blatant racism from certain groups.  I have sat in a packed hall in Devonport where locals opposed to the pedestrianisation of Takarunga / Mt Victoria yelled at TMA staff during a karakia to “speak in English”. I was ashamed.

Since the start of the Ōwairaka trees dispute last November, the abuse from those opposed to the exotic tree removal has been relentless. The “peaceful” actions the leader of the protestors say they engage in are not what I have experienced as an elected member. Far from it.

Let me give you an example of how the abuse occurs. As ward councillor, I disseminate council information regularly to 14 community Facebook pages. Regardless of what the post is about, tree protestors regularly hijack my posts with abusive comments. I always report the comments to the site administrators, and they are removed. However, the person isn’t removed and so they are free to abuse me over and over again.

Here are two examples:

This comment was made on a community Facebook post about waste charges:

“Put a red lid on yourself and stand outside. That'll be one less TMA sycophant.”

This comment was made on a community Facebook post about my little dog:

“It is a vacuous and empty meat sack that slithers through life avoiding the issue.”

Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, I posted important Auckland Council information almost daily on the 14 community Facebook pages.  I received many abusive comments in response from tree protestors. I began noting the comments and the names of the abusers. I now have a list of about 20 - all part of the group who say they are “peacefully” protesting the tree removal.

I am raising the question of online abuse again because I am really concerned as to where the escalation is heading.  When someone writes of Auckland councillors: “these leeches need to be terminated”, do they really want to kill us because we agreed on an Emergency Budget to help Auckland’s recovery? 

I think we all need to reflect on what we write and say. How would you feel if it was said to you, or your partner, or your parent, or your child?  How would an abuser’s boss react if they knew their employee sends hate messages to elected members?

Social media bullying is harmful - especially to our younger generation - and can lead to depression and increased suicide risk. How do we respond as a society to this harmful escalation? How do we create a more compassionate community? Robust discussion is necessary but must be done with compassion and understanding of the viewpoints of others. Democracy requires tolerance.

As I said a year ago, the staff and elected members of Auckland Council are there to serve you. We deserve respect as you are respected. We deserve kindness, as you are treated kindly.

The hating has to stop.

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