(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., April 4.)
Changes to the gun control laws are a mere trifle compared with what else might come down the legislative pipeline following the Christchurch mosque massacres.
There are an estimated 250,000 New Zealanders with a firearms licence. Of those, we can assume only a small proportion of gun enthusiasts will be directly affected by proposed changes covering military-style semi-automatic weapons.
Changes to what we can say, write, read and hear, on the other hand, could threaten the essential nature and quality of our democracy. Ultimately they would affect everyone. That’s why we should all be extremely uneasy about the pending review of laws governing so-called “hate speech”.
A review was due this year anyway, but Justice Minister Andrew Little says it will be fast-tracked following the Christchurch atrocities.
I don’t believe that Little is necessarily an enemy of free speech, but no one should be in any doubt that the climate is perversely ripe for a crackdown on freedom of expression.
Authoritarian ideologues on the far Left know that if there’s ever going to be a moment when New Zealanders can be persuaded to accept restrictions on what we can say, it’s now, when the country is looking for ways to atone for the appalling atrocities – although they were not perpetrated by us – on March 15.
Before that happens, we should insist on answers to some crucial questions. Here are a few:
■ In what way are existing “hate speech” laws inadequate? Respected legal academics point out that we already have laws that prohibit statements inciting racial disharmony or hostility against minorities. There is nothing to indicate these laws have failed. In fact they are rarely used, which suggests the problem is not as pressing as hate-speech lobbyists claim.
The Human Rights Commission is concerned that current laws cover race, colour and ethnicity but not religion, which means they don’t protect Muslims or other religious minorities. But that should be easily fixed without imposing wider restrictions on speech.
■ How would tougher speech laws have prevented the killings? That isn’t clear. They might limit the rights of ordinary New Zealanders while having no effect on fanatics like the Christchurch shooter (who, we shouldn’t forget, was Australian). And they would risk driving potentially dangerous opinions underground, where they are harder to counter.
This latter point was made to me last year by Professor Paul Spoonley when I interviewed him for an article on “hate speech” in The Listener. Spoonley, an authority on extremism, questioned the need for tougher laws and described himself as an ardent proponent of free speech. He now seems to have had a change of heart – as he’s entitled to do, although it seems a sharp about-turn.
■ How is hate speech to be defined, especially when one person’s hate speech is another’s legitimate expression of opinion? And crucially, who will do the defining?
One person who can be expected to wield influence over the review is the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt.
Never heard of him? No, many New Zealanders haven’t. He was appointed last October as part of a cleanout that followed a sexual harassment scandal at the Human Rights Commission.
Hunt was recruited from Britain. He is an academic, a human rights careerist and an activist whose adulatory entry in Wikipedia makes much of his work with the United Nations. He is also aligned with the Corbynite socialist Left of the British Labour Party.
Is he someone we should entrust with the job of influencing what New Zealanders can be permitted to read, hear and say? I don’t think so. Not for a moment.
■ Could a review result in police being given power to launch what would effectively be political prosecutions against people for saying the wrong things, as happens in Britain? That would be a radical extension of police powers and one that New Zealanders must oppose.
■ Most important, how is the notion of hate speech to be reconciled with freedom of expression – a fundamental tenet of democracy, and a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act?
New Zealand is internationally admired as a liberal, open democracy. We pride ourselves on respecting freedom of religion, and never more so than in the weeks since the Christchurch shootings.
Freedom of speech is part of the same bundle of rights, but paradoxically we are now being told that one freedom must be restricted to protect another. It doesn’t add up.
The enemies of free speech want to contain political debate within narrow parameters dictated by them, and are prepared to exploit a tragedy to achieve that goal. They must not be allowed to get away with it.