THE BIG QUESTION now facing the National Party is whether to defend free speech or give that job to Act. If it is foolish enough to take the latter option, then its chances of rebuilding its electoral strength anytime soon must be considered slim. The banner of freedom is a potent electoral prop, once relinquished it is extremely difficult to reclaim.
How gratified Act must have been to read the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019’s recommendations relating to hate speech. David Seymour’s greatest worry must surely have been that the Royal Commissioners would resist the clamour for a clamp-down on New Zealanders’ freedom of expression.
A modest suggestion to extend the already existing legislation outlawing incitement of racial disharmony by including religious affiliation would, for example, have been considered unobjectionable by most New Zealanders. But, to what I am sure is Seymour’s immense relief, the Commissioners have gone much, much further than that.
To read the relevant part of the Report is to be presented with a plan for comprehensive social engineering that is as ambitious as it is frightening. The Commissioners are clearly determined to downgrade the right of citizens to express their opinions freely. Their justification for attacking this most sacred of democratic principles? Society’s supposed duty of care to those who might be offended by people giving vent to harsh or cruel opinions. Protecting people’s feelings from the insensitivity of their neighbours is seen as vital to building and maintaining “social cohesion” – the Commissioners’ over-riding desideratum.
If National Party MPs’ hackles are not rising at this point, then the condition of political liberalism in this country is a great deal worse than I dared imagine. Any subscriber to the principles of liberal democracy should stand aghast at the implications of the Commissioners’ arguments.
Society, it would seem, cannot be relied upon to do the right thing. Left to themselves, people will insist on behaving badly. To borrow a term from Hilary Clinton, far too many Kiwis hold opinions and harbour prejudices that are utterly “deplorable”. To make these bad Kiwis think twice before voicing opinions hurtful to their neighbours, the Commissioners are recommending that the Government raise the maximum penalty for inciting racial disharmony (“hate speech”) from three months to three years! That’s three years in prison for voicing or publishing the wrong opinions. In New Zealand.
At this point, you can see why David Seymour might be gleefully anticipating lifting up the banner of freedom and sallying forth to do battle with the Commissioners and their willing enablers in the Labour Government. (Oh yes, that’s right, the Prime Minister herself has promised that her government will give legislative effect to all the Royal Commissions’ recommendations.)
Equally easily imagined is Act’s nervousness that National might decide to abandon the bi-partisanship forged in the horrific circumstances of the 15 March 2019 attack. It was that bi-partisanship – especially on the need for gun control – that set Act on its path to 7 percent of the Party Vote and ten MPs. How keen they must be to see National lend its support to the Commissioners’ crusade to forge a richly diverse – but socially cohesive – New Zealand. Even if that involves police officers arresting comedians for failing to recognise the difference between edgy humour and hate speech!
By now, I would hope that it’s becoming crystal clear to the reader that there is no way in Hell that the National Party is going to let this issue become the exclusive political property of the Act Party. Judith Collins is going to make damned sure that she, too, has her hands on the banner of freedom. Defending free speech is poised to become the unifying mission of the entire New Zealand Right.
And it is in this respect that the Royal Commission has served New Zealanders – especially Muslim New Zealanders – very badly. What should have been a reaffirmation of unity and solidarity has instead been repurposed into an incitement to division and rancour. Pretty soon the only aspect of the Report that anyone recalls will be its attack upon New Zealanders’ freedom of speech – and, inescapably, upon the vitality of their democracy.
The Prime Minister’s inspired formulation, “They are Us” will be replaced by three much more dangerous words: “Us versus Them”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 December 2020.