Simon Bridges is hobbled in hate-speech debate

by Graham Adams / 24 May, 2019
Opinion
simon bridges free speech debate

National Party leader Simon Bridges seems to have missed his opportunity in the free speech debate. Photo/Getty.

The National Party is leaving the heavy lifting of defending free expression to Act MP David Seymour.

When the door to a capital gains tax was opened wide by Sir Michael Cullen’s Tax Working Group in February, Simon Bridges found he could easily charge through and create mayhem.

As the leader of a party that champions entrepreneurship and tax cuts, it was a no-brainer for Bridges to strongly oppose it. And although he was widely derided for saying in February that such a tax constituted an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”, a few months later Ardern appeared to have adopted his point of view by ruling out implementing one for as long as she is Prime Minister.

This shift was a major disappointment to the Greens and an extraordinary retreat for the Prime Minister — opening her to damaging criticism that she is a politician more interested in holding onto power than her principles given it was a policy dear to her heart.

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Having achieved what he touted as a victory for his “strong leadership”, it may seem surprising that Bridges is leaving the defence of free speech almost entirely to National’s single parliamentary ally, Act MP David Seymour.

With Andrew Little and Golriz Ghahraman arguing for tighter laws, free speech should be a topic that provides just as much opportunity as a capital gains tax for National to stake out its territory in opposition to Labour and the Greens.

National holds “individual freedom and choice” as a core value (number 4 on its list) and it should be easy for Bridges to mount a successful campaign against further restrictions on free speech by similarly damning them as an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”. 

He could also take advantage of the free-speech debate to make a stand against what many see as precious political correctness stifling discussion and expression of honest opinion.

So far Bridges has refrained from wading energetically into the discussion, preferring to wait until he knows more about what Little might recommend. He has backed the review as the right thing to do while making little more than predictable noises about freedom of speech as a bedrock principle of New Zealand society.

However, we were offered a clue this week why National is not likely to be nearly as zealous in exploiting this issue as it was with a capital gains tax.

On Monday, Magic Talk’s Sean Plunket hosted National MP Judith Collins and David Seymour to debate the latter’s comment that Green MP Golriz Ghahraman is a “real menace to freedom” in New Zealand on account of her push to expand our “hate-speech” laws. 

Collins recommended Seymour back off — advising him that Ghahraman was “just a kid”, with the implication he was bullying her.

Many people don’t seem to be aware that Ghahraman is 38 — roughly the same age as the Prime Minister. Unfortunately for Collins, Seymour, aged 35, is three years younger than the rookie Green MP, which makes her “Aunty Judith routine”, as he described it, more than a little odd.

Seymour mocked Collins for making a “searing, ageist attack” on Ghahraman as part of what was largely a good-natured exchange between two sharp-witted opponents —  which perhaps lulled Collins into a false sense of security.

Having asserted she was “a great supporter of freedom of speech”, Collins tried to paint the Labour Party as having a long-standing agenda to impose restrictions on it by referring to a member’s bill lodged by former Labour MP Dianne Yates, who was in Parliament between 1993 and 2008. 

Seymour, however, wasn’t going to let Collins get away with her claim that Yates’ bill was “the last time the whole concept of so-called hate speech came up in Parliament”. 

He reminded her that, in 2015, National passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act, which Collins herself, like the rest of the National caucus, voted to support. (The only MPs who voted against it were Seymour and four Green MPs, although Labour, including Jacinda Ardern, expressed “massive reservations” — not least about its impact on free speech.)

Seymour told Magic Talk the act was “another step in eroding our freedom of speech… If you say something to somebody online that is offensive, you can be hauled before the so-called ‘approved agency’ and if you don’t go along with their ruling, you can be hauled before the courts.”

Seymour’s timely reminder of National’s recent illiberal legislation crushed the Crusher’s attempt to whitewash her history on free speech but she put on a brave face nevertheless. She said it was legislation she was proud of having engineered as Justice minister and then passing on to her successor, Amy Adams, who shepherded the bill through the House.

Collins defended the HDC Act as a “nice, gentle” piece of legislation that included helping stop young people committing suicide after being abused online.

Seymour, however, wasn’t letting Collins get away with soft-soaping what he sees as a clear encroachment by the government on people’s freedom to express themselves: “All the people who want to suppress freedom of expression say, ‘This is a gentle way to do it. It’s okay, comrade. This is the nice way.’”

In short, he called Collins’ bluff and immediately blew any claims the National Party might have to be champions of free speech clear out of the water.

Politicians like Collins might be happy to argue strongly for the necessity and merits of a law such as the HDC Act but they obviously can’t plausibly cast themselves as champions of free speech at the same time.

Critics at the time of the bill’s introduction in 2015 focused on its wide range and argued it could have been much more narrowly targeted to deal only with very specific issues, such as revenge porn.

The act covers a smorgasbord of ill-defined offences such as spreading false allegations and breaching a confidence.

And the groups it includes are much wider than Section 61 of the Human Rights Act, which makes it unlawful to publish or broadcast material or use words in public which are 'threatening, abusive or insulting' and 'likely to excite hostility' against a group of people or bring them into contempt on the ground of their colour, race or ethnic or national origins.

The HDC Act goes further, adding the denigration of a person’s religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability to colour, race, ethnic or national origins.

Critics worried in 2015 about the unintended consequences of the bill — including whether satirists, politicians and the media would be caught in its net — but no one could have guessed that within a few years the chickens would come home to roost within the National Party itself.

Invercargill’s Sarah Dowie — one of the MPs Bridges had backed heavily as a rising star — is being investigated by the police for a text message allegedly sent from her phone last year to then fellow National MP Jami-Lee Ross which stated, “You deserve to die.”

It is widely believed that the investigation is being carried out under the HDC Act (although the police won’t say what legislation they are focusing on).

The investigation is said to centre on whether the text (which came after Dowie and Ross’s extra-marital relationship had finished) constituted an incitement to self-harm, which is an offence punishable under the HDC Act by up to three years in prison, regardless of whether the victim attempts to — or succeeds in — taking their life.

To further raise the stakes for the National Party, under the Electoral Act, any MP convicted of a crime that carries a penalty of two or more years in jail is forced to resign from Parliament, even if they receive a lesser sentence.

Although the news of the police investigation into Sarah Dowie broke in January this year, the public still knows very little about how that investigation is progressing. The police are remaining tight-lipped, as are Dowie and the National Party.

When NOTED asked police this week if charges had been laid, their emailed reply stated only: “The matter is still under investigation.”

Sooner or later, however, the outcome of the police investigation will be made public. Whether Dowie is charged or not, voters will have a real-life, high-profile example to focus on to debate the scope and value of legislation like the HDC Act and whether existing laws are fit for purpose, too draconian, or need expanding.

If Andrew Little decides that existing laws should indeed be expanded and recommends that the groups covered by the HDC Act should also be protected in other legislation — as Golriz Ghahraman has suggested — how will Simon Bridges and National be able to argue against extending their own act in the interests of consistency?

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