Saturday, March 4, 2017

When the police become mother hens

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 3.)

I shudder when I see someone advocating a hate speech law. So should we all.

Police commissioner Mike Bush didn’t go so far as actually advocating a law prohibiting “hate speech”, however that may be defined, but obviously it was on his mind. In fact he’s talked to the Human Rights Commission about it.

I imagine it would have been a meeting of minds. After all, it’s the nature of bureaucracies to want their powers expanded.

Combine this with the pervasive school of thought in modern government which holds that a feckless society needs paternalistic minders to keep it from getting into trouble, and almost any busybody law becomes possible.

If we were to have speech police, could George Orwell’s Thought Police be far behind?

A hate speech law would mark a radical and dangerous extension of existing police powers: from protecting people and property against clearly identifiable threats, such as assault and theft, to making value judgments about whether a citizen has crossed the blurry line between fair comment and something much darker.  

Such a law would be welcomed by activist minority groups which want the state to protect them from any comment they see as hurtful or oppressive. But freedom of speech is far too precious in a democracy to be undermined by subjective judgments from police officers about what constitutes incitement to “hate” as opposed to a robust expression of legitimate opinion.

Happily, on this occasion both Justice Minister Amy Adams and Police Minister Paula Bennett squashed Bush’s idea.  They rightly pointed out that existing laws are perfectly capable of dealing with public statements likely to incite hostility against, for instance, ethnic or religious minorities. Check out Section 61 of the Human Rights Act, for starters.

Anyway, what was Bush doing raising the matter in the first place? Since when was it the role of the Police Commissioner to suggest new laws that would restrict fundamental liberties such as the right of free speech?

The job of the police is to enforce laws passed by Parliament, not to publicly float their own ideas about what might be necessary for society’s wellbeing. We don’t need activist public servants stepping beyond their remit.

Most New Zealanders would probably prefer Bush to devote his energy to reducing the scandalous burglary rate, or ensuring that the police respond promptly to calls from victims of crime rather than fobbing people off - as happens all too often - by saying they’re busy with other things.

But the commissioner’s action is entirely consistent with the role police have increasingly taken upon themselves, which is that of moral custodians. Already we have seen, in recent years, a marked change in the way the police view their duties.

Traditionally their function was to protect people against lawbreakers and to apprehend criminals. But the modern New Age police take a much broader view of their role. They have morphed into mother hens, constantly clucking about all the things we’re doing wrong. They think we need to be protected against ourselves.

This is most conspicuous in matters relating to alcohol consumption. The police have a legitimate interest in minimising the road toll, but their moralistic crusades against drinking resemble nothing so much as the shrill campaigns of late-19th century prohibitionists who were convinced that liquor would be the ruin of us all.

They need to be reminded that alcohol consumption is not only legal, but for centuries has been the lubricant of social intercourse and celebration.

Of course a small minority of people drink to excess and behave badly, which brings me to the woman who was videoed shouting abuse at a group of Muslims in Huntly recently.

Bush seized this as justification for a discussion about the need for hate crime legislation. But Newstalk ZB talkback host Tim Beveridge got to the heart of the matter when he said the real problem in the Huntly incident wasn’t racism or xenophobia; it was drunkenness.

The question, then, is whether an isolated outburst from a pathetic drunk justifies a senior public servant talking about the need for hate speech laws. Most people would probably think we need a far higher threshold than that.

As for Bush, he has some ground to make up. He got off to an unpromising start in his job, being the cop who delivered a glowing eulogy at the funeral of the detective who framed Arthur Allan Thomas, and his public image hasn’t improved with recent publicity suggesting he was evasive about declaring an old drink-driving conviction.

Perhaps he should pull his head in and concentrate on his core functions.

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