Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Woodville Wire: a cautionary tale

Ever heard of the Woodville Wire? No, I hadn’t either, until a couple of days ago. It’s a newsletter that publishes community news and comment on local issues in a southern Hawke’s Bay town where nothing much happens (at least, not usually).

I'm guessing the Wire’s readership would be counted in the hundreds, at most, yet this very modest news sheet has unexpectedly been pitched headlong into the culture wars. What follows is a cautionary tale about the febrile state of Maori-Pakeha relations and the precariousness of free speech - freedom of the press too, come to that - in a climate of state-sanctioned authoritarian orthodoxy.

In October last year, a local woman named Annette Nepe sent the Woodville Wire an article about a petition she had launched urging the InterCity bus service to reinstate its local bus stop. Ms Nepe prefaced her article with the greeting “Kia ora nau mai, ngā mihi nui koutou katoa”, which she explained meant “Welcome everyone, big friendly greeting to all”.

Nothing controversial here, surely. The subject of the article was one that might be described as parish-pump – i.e. of purely local concern. The tone of Ms Nepe’s email, as far as we can ascertain, was cheerful and (to use a fashionable word) inclusive. But Ms Nepe wanted the Maori greeting included with her article, “to reflect her culture”, and things turned sour when the editor of the Wire, Jane Hill, refused.

She told Ms Nepe in an email that it would have been respectful to ask, rather than demand, that the article be published. (Was it a “demand”? We don’t know, because the full email exchange hasn’t been disclosed.)

Ms Hill went on to say: “Secondly, this is not a Maori newsletter; it is a community newsletter and everyone in this community speaks English.

“I, as well as many New Zealanders am not in favour of giving one cultural group special privilege regarding their language simply because they (falsely) claim first nation status.

“Thirdly, why should we elevate the Maori language for you, when you clearly show no respect for the English language. It is extremely poor.

“I will write an article about the public transport system and encourage people to sign the petition as have I.”

Phew. Talk about lighting the blue touch paper. Ms Nepe subsequently brought legal proceedings against Ms Hill in the Human Rights Tribunal, alleging racial harassment. The case went to mediation and resulted in what might be described as a complete capitulation by Ms Hill.

According to a press release issued by the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, which is part of the Human Rights Commission, Ms Hill made the following statement:

“I, Ms Hill, acknowledge the hurt that was done to Ms Nepe by the correspondence I sent.

 “I acknowledge that my choice of words was perceived as aggressive and unnecessary. It was not my intention to attack or minimise Ms Nepe’s culture.

“Now that I can see the effects of the experience on Ms Nepe, I am willing and committed to changing the way I engage with Maori in my community.”

According to the press statement, Ms Nepe thanked Ms Hill for her apology. “This is good for both of us; I’m happy that we talked. This is a good outcome and a step towards repairing and growing relationships in the Woodville community. We both agree racism has no place in Aotearoa New Zealand and we’re on the road to eliminating it.”

All settled, then. Ms Hill suitably contrite, Ms Nepe gracious in her response – although of course it’s easy to be big-hearted in victory. I imagine the Office of Human Rights Proceedings was pleased with itself too for its part in exposing and publicly shaming a supposed racist, albeit a now remorseful one.

Predictably, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, New Zealand’s No. 2 official finger-wagger (Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt is numero uno), weighed in with a gratuitous and patronising statement – a pat on the head, figuratively speaking – welcoming “the willingness to move forward in an informed manner”.

So ... all done and dusted.  Except that the episode is likely to leave many people feeling distinctly uncomfortable about creeping authoritarianism and the imposition of a penalty, in the form of a public shaming, for speaking freely. It should also be viewed as a direct attack on press freedom, given that it undermines the right of an editor to determine what she should publish.

We don’t know what transpired behind closed doors in mediation. It’s quite possible Ms Hill had a genuine road-to-Damascus experience, as the official statement suggests. But it’s also possible that confronted with the weight of the state’s punitive apparatus and the prospect of continuing stress and controversy if she stood her ground, she felt the easiest way out was to back down. I'm guessing the signal was conveyed to her that it was the appropriate thing to do.

If so, she wouldn’t have been the first. In 2020 I wrote about the case of a Taranaki nurse who was deregistered by the powerful Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making derogatory comments about some of her Maori colleagues. She too found herself up caught up in an intimidating quasi-judicial process and subsequently issued what might be categorised as a grovelling apology. I wrote then that a newspaper account of the tribunal proceedings left the discomforting impression of a show trial.

In both instances, the instigators did themselves no favours by their initial actions. The nurse’s statements on Facebook were, by her own admission, impulsive and offensive, although the consequences were wildly overstated by a complainant who appeared eager to make the most of the situation.

Similarly, Ms Hill was needlessly provocative and antagonistic in her email to Ms Nepe, apparently seizing the opportunity to vent opinions that she could have chosen to keep to herself. But it’s possible to acknowledge these faults while still feeling uneasy about the way events unfolded.  In both the Taranaki and Woodville cases there appears to have been a disproportionately heavy-handed response from a system that seemed keen to make a public example of the transgressors.

Does anyone, I wonder, consider that the personal consequences might greatly outweigh the perceived offence? In the Taranaki case, the nurse subsequently struggled to find work. She was effectively blacklisted. Now I note that in both the Stuff and New Zealand Herald stories about the Woodville Wire episode, Ms Hill is described as the “former” editor.

What does this mean? Did she quit in disillusionment? Did she feel so bruised by the unpleasantness of the complaint procedure that she decided it wasn’t worth going on? Or was she fired for bringing the Wire into disrepute? I know nothing about the management and ownership structure of the Wire, so can’t say. She may, of course, have been planning to leave anyway.

But what I would say is this: Someone, perhaps Ms Hill herself, took a punt in establishing the Woodville Wire, presumably because they saw it as providing a useful service to the community. They would have committed their own capital to the venture, to say nothing of their labour and skill, with no guarantee of a financial return. Now a person with no stake in the enterprise has been able, with the help of a busybody government agency, to exert power over it and subject the editor to a demeaning quasi-judicial process, possibly even to the extent (this is pure conjecture on my part) of triggering her departure. Hands up all those who think that’s fair.

Furthermore, the Woodville Wire is presumably a private undertaking. Ms Hill broke no law. She is therefore not answerable to government functionaries. Yet she was subjected to a humiliating and very public ticking-off (public because the Office of Human Rights Proceedings made it so) which, by implication, painted her as a racist. Where is the justice in that?

Would Ms Nepe have pursued her complaint had Ms Hill responded more diplomatically? We don’t know. But as things stand, it seems the worst Ms Hill can be accused of is impoliteness and candour. Last time I checked, being rude and forthright didn’t breach any law.

Certainly, Ms Hill’s behaviour falls far short of “racial harassment”, which is how the Office of Human Rights Proceedings described the case. Lest there be any doubt about the gravity of Ms Hill’s supposed offence, the Office’s press statement was headlined “Racial harassment case settles”.

Harassment? Really?? My New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “harass” as meaning “to trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly” (the italics are mine). All Ms Hill did, evidently, was send a single email to which Ms Nepe took offence. How does that amount to harassment? A good lawyer would surely have moved for the complaint to be dismissed outright as a nullity.

Here’s the thing. Ms Hill was entitled to decide what to publish, and by logical extension what not to publish. As editor, she was legally responsible for the content of the Woodville Wire. That imposes obligations but it also carries rights, including the right of refusal to publish a statement in te reo. People may legitimately disagree with her decision in this instance, but it’s hers to make.

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering whether the Media Council would have been a more appropriate forum for resolving the issue.  I’m speculating again here, but perhaps the state human rights apparatus was preferred because there was a better chance of a favourable outcome for the complainant. The Media Council has been known, after all, to uphold the autonomy of editors.

And here’s another thing. Will activist lawyers and Maori language advocates regard the Woodville Wire case as a precedent, opening the way to future insistence on the publication of statements in Maori? You can bet they will. And will timid or woke editors now consider themselves obliged to publish submitted content in te reo even though only a tiny minority of their readers can understand it? Very likely.

I have asked myself whether I, as a former (very former) newspaper editor, would have published Ms Nepe’s Maori greeting. I probably would have, because it was charming (am I permitted to say that?), quirky and harmless. But that’s not the point; Ms Hill was entitled to decide as she did without then being pressured, through the intervention of an ideologically driven government agency, to recant.

The whole affair leaves a bad taste. There is a balance to be struck between use of the English and Maori languages, and New Zealanders are steadily working towards that goal. Note the increased frequency with which Maori words and phrases (kapai, whanau, waiata, kuia) have naturally been absorbed into everyday speech. But a sullen resistance sets in when people perceive that te reo is being imposed on them, as is happening now, by an elite political/academic/media caste rather than being allowed to evolve organically.

The Woodville Wire case, however, is about much more than the use of te reo. More disturbingly, it stands as a lesson that anyone bold or rash enough to challenge prevailing orthodoxies risks being publicly pilloried, with the state’s active complicity. This is true regardless of whether Ms Hill had a genuine and sincere change of heart.

Observing the fate of someone who did no more than exercise her editorial prerogative in what she no doubt thought was a private email, people will reasonably conclude that the only safe course in New Zealand is to keep potentially contentious opinions to themselves or express them only to trusted friends. That can only have a chilling effect on public debate, which of course is exactly the intended outcome. If you sometimes sense the pincers of state control gradually tightening around you, it’s probably because they are.


Friday, December 23, 2022

Compliments of the season

🎄To all those who have followed this blog in 2022, even when they didn't necessarily agree with it, and to those who took the trouble to contribute erudite and insightful comments, my sincere thanks and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.  See you in 2023. 🎄

Friday, December 16, 2022

The striking thing about the Dom Post's new editor

Stuff has announced the appointment of a new editor for the Dominion Post. Caitlin Cherry will replace Anna Fifield, who is returning to the Washington Post as its Asia-Pacific editor.

Cherry, who will start in February, has spent most of her career with RNZ in behind-the-scenes roles on news and current affairs programmes, including Morning Report and Nine to Noon. She currently has the title of Head of Content at Consumer NZ.

What’s most striking about her appointment is that judging by her LinkedIn profile, she has never worked for a daily newspaper – in fact appears to have no print experience of any sort. Yet she’s taking over the leadership of what used to be one of the country’s most influential mastheads.

This could be a move so bold and visionary that its brilliance isn’t immediately obvious. On the other hand it could be just plain dumb.

It could be interpreted as confirmation that Stuff isn’t really interested in print and possibly regards it as a dinosaur medium in the digital era. The company has often given the impression, intentionally or otherwise, that it regards its newspapers as an encumbrance.

Alternatively the appointment could be taken as yet another indication that Stuff doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing. When a puzzled former colleague of mine asked whether anyone knew what the company’s overall strategy was, the only answer I could think of was “slow-motion suicide”. But I hope my bleak assessment is wrong - because for all Stuff's missteps, hundreds of journalists still depend on it for a living. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

My invitation to the coward who calls himself Guerrilla Surgeon

An anonymous commenter on Chris Trotter’s Bowalley Road blog has described me as “extremely right wing”. Laughably inaccurate though that is, I’m not about to lose any sleep over it. 

Of far more concern was this, from the same anonymous commenter: “As someone who has had something to do with Karl DuFresne [sic], I would say that his opinion … is not worth listening to. I have no great regard for his ethics”. (The italics are mine.)

I submitted the following comment to Bowalley Road. To his credit, Trotter promptly published it. I don’t think he had much option, having waved the original slur through.

“It doesn’t bother me that the commenter who calls himself (I bet it’s a male) Guerrilla Surgeon describes me as extremely right-wing. Anyone who knows me would regard that as laughable. But to put it as politely as I can, I’m surprised that an anonymous commenter has been allowed to make vague and unspecified insinuations about my ethics. If he has evidence of any situation in which he thinks I’ve behaved unethically, I invite him to provide it, either on this blog or on my own. But he should identify himself rather than cower behind a pseudonym.  In the meantime I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to wonder about Guerrilla Surgeon’s own ethics in seeking to undermine someone’s reputation with an unsubstantiated throwaway line.”

I repeat that invitation here. I promise the coward who calls himself Guerrilla Surgeon that if he details whatever concerns he has about my ethics, and does so under his own name, I’ll publish it – along with my response. Then I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to decide which one of us can claim to be Mr Clean.

People might think I’m over-reacting, but a potentially damaging slur cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. In journalism, reputation is everything.

Postscript (posted at 7.45pm Thursday): For the record, Chris Trotter has posted a gracious apology for allowing Guerrilla Surgeon's comment to go through, for which I thank him. 

Footnote: Thanks to Gary Peters, a reader of this blog, for drawing my attention to the comment on Bowalley Road and sticking up for me there.


Monday, December 12, 2022

The drunk uncle and other Christmas phantasms

I keep hearing what a social minefield Christmas is. Stuff’s Weekend magazine on Saturday devoted a page to illustrator Toby Morris’s advice, delivered in the form of cartoons, about how to avoid family rows. Morning Report this morning included an item with a similar theme.

Particularly noticeable is the tired stereotype of the irascible old man provoking arguments or making cringeworthy jokes at Christmas gatherings. An older male was depicted as the problematical character in two of Morris’s cartoons, while the Morning Report item contained tips on how to talk to “that uncle” about climate change. (Cyclists are apparently another subject to be approached with caution, or so we’re told.)

Older white males are the one demographic group that’s considered fair game for snide, condescending digs. The drunk uncle has become a recurring cliché.

But how accurate are these stereotypes? I’m an older white male and an uncle to 21 nieces and nephews. We’ve celebrated many Christmases and other family events together, invariably lubricated with generous quantities of alcohol, and never discussed contentious political issues in any shape or form. The only reason voices have been raised was so that people could make themselves heard over the hubbub.

Similarly, my wife and I recently spent four days enjoying a reunion with our four adult children and six grandchildren, some of whom hadn’t seen each other for more than 10 years because they’re spread across three countries. The subject of politics never came up. There were far more important and interesting things to talk about.

In fact I wouldn’t have a clue what my children’s politics are. I have no interest in knowing and still less desire to impose my own opinions on them.

The same applies to my friends, who span the full ideological spectrum. We almost never talk about politics. Why risk spoiling the conversation by introducing potentially divisive subjects?

There are other people, like the group of mates I had a couple of beers with last Friday and whose company I’ve enjoyed for years, whose political views are largely unknown to me. All that matters is that I like them as people. Mostly we indulge in idle social gossip or talk about music. God forbid that we should choose our friends on the basis of their political opinions.

So it will be a politics-free Christmas for me, just like every other one. I imagine the same is true for many, if not most, New Zealanders. I sometimes wonder whether the drunk uncle is an urban myth; a phantasm created by people whose need to construct imaginary social ogres exposes their own underlying intolerance. 

Alternatively, perhaps the anxious millennials who fret about the terrifying prospect of encountering contrary opinions around the Christmas dinner table just need to chill a bit.


Friday, December 9, 2022

Why no royal commission on the Whakaari disaster?

It’s three years today since Whakaari/White Island erupted, killing 22 people. Netflix has made a documentary on the disaster that will screen next week.

In the meantime, a former IT manager with the New Zealand Fire Service has posed an important question: why no public inquiry?

In a column published in the New Zealand Herald, Alan Thompson pointed out that similar catastrophes in the past (Mt Erebus, Pike River, the Ballantyne’s fire and the Christchurch mosque atrocities are obvious examples) were the subject of royal commissions that examined their causes, established fault where appropriate and came up with recommendations on how similar events might be avoided in future.

The official explanation for the government’s inaction over the Whakaari disaster was that Worksafe and the Chief Coroner were both conducting inquiries, the latter of which apparently won’t proceed until the former has been completed.

But as Thompson points out, both inquiries are limited in their scope. The big questions – what went wrong, why it went wrong and how a recurrence might be avoided – won’t necessarily be answered.

Thompson doesn’t attempt to explain the government’s reluctance to lift the lid on Whakaari, but we can form our own conclusions. The obvious one is that the tragedy was a major international embarrassment and the government doesn’t want to risk making things worse by drawing attention to whatever factors caused it.

On the basis of what we know already, complacency – the “she’ll be right” mentality – would be one of those factors.

What distinguishes Whakaari from the other disasters mentioned above is the potential harm to the image of the New Zealand tourist industry. Of the 47 people caught in the eruption, 41 were from overseas. Many of the survivors were left with appalling injuries that left them permanently scarred. That means there would be international interest in the findings of a royal commission.

Pre-Covid, international tourism vied with dairying as our biggest income earner. Adventure tourism is a big part of the country’s appeal and the last thing the industry needs, just when it’s starting to recover from the pandemic, is an official report that presents the country as an unsafe destination.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how a commission could reach any conclusion other than that the risk to tourists visiting Whakaari was gravely understated by everyone involved and that emergency planning - assuming an eruption could be planned for at all - was hopelessly inadequate.

To make matters worse, the official response to the eruption was hesitant and indecisive. It was only due to the prompt action and extraordinary heroism of volunteer rescuers, including helicopter pilots, that more lives weren’t lost.

We are now left with the unedifying spectacle of Worksafe, the government agency charged with ensuring health and safety in the workplace, appearing to absolve itself of any blame for the deaths and injuries and making itself unpopular by prosecuting some of the people who put their lives on the line to save others. A royal commission might not let Worksafe off the hook so easily.




Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Why social cohesion should be the key issue in 2023

I’ve thought for some time that social cohesion will be a key election issue – perhaps the key election issue – next year. If it isn’t, it should be.

This belief may simply reflect my own anxieties, but it gained some weight this week when Victoria University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards reported a survey that showed mounting concern among New Zealanders about social division.

Even during the 1981 Springbok tour, generally regarded as a high-water mark of polarisation in New Zealand, the country wasn’t split in the way it is now.

On that occasion there was a clean, sharp fault line over a single issue. After the Springboks went home, things slowly settled down. It even became permissible to enjoy watching rugby again. And of course the battle over apartheid eventually became a distant memory after the transfer of power from whites to blacks in South Africa.

But in 2022, there are multiple social cracks spreading in all directions, and no promise that the fractures will heal.

Where Bryce Edwards and the respondents to the survey he reports may be wrong, I suspect, is in identifying inequalities of wealth and housing as the key factors “tearing the country apart”, in Edwards’ words. I think there’s much more to it than that.

Certainly those glaring economic disparities exist and are growing more obvious. They are in large part a long-term consequence of the country’s economic restructuring during the 1980s.

I was one of the many who broadly supported those changes, some of which were essential and long overdue, but there’s no denying they fundamentally re-arranged New Zealand’s social furniture in ways that I don’t think were foreseen. What we thought of then as an unavoidable but temporary social dislocation ended up becoming structurally embedded.

New Zealand pre-Rogernomics could fairly claim to be an egalitarian society. No one could pretend that’s still true. Extremes of wealth and poverty become more marked with every year.

Almost as disturbingly, a status-conscious, consumerist culture celebrates conspicuous, ostentatious displays of wealth – in everything from clothes to food, cars and houses – in a way that was unthinkable 50 years ago. I find it hard to reconcile this new New Zealand with the country I grew up in.

But economic inequality is only one contributor to the worrying decline in social cohesion that Edwards wrote about this week. At least equally insidious, although far harder to measure, is the pernicious effect of identity politics.

This encourages us to think of ourselves not as a community with shared interests, values and aspirations but as a collection of minority groups with disparate and often conflicting goals.

Identity politics promotes a neo-Marxist view of society as inherently divided between the privileged – for which read white and male – and a plethora of aggrieved groups struggling against oppression and disadvantage. These include women (even though they make up half of Parliament and occupy the country’s three most powerful positions), Maori, immigrant communities, religious minorities, people with disabilities or illnesses (including some that are avoidable, such as obesity) and those asserting non-mainstream sexual identities.  

We are told these perceived disadvantages are the result of structural imbalances of power that can be remedied only by a radical reconstruction of society. It’s effectively a zero-sum game in which power must be transferred from those who are perceived as having it to those who feel excluded. This creates conditions in which society runs the risk of going to war with itself.

Even traditional liberal democratic values that most of us thought were unassailable are under attack. These include freedom of speech, which the proponents of identity politics condemn as a tool of oppression and an instrument of hate against vulnerable minorities, and the principle that no group of citizens should enjoy greater rights than any other.

These trends have been evident for years but have greatly accelerated under the Labour Party government, the more so since Labour was given power to govern alone in 2020. The government itself is a symbol of the ascendancy of identity politics, with a powerful Maori caucus that functions as a virtual government within a government.  

Identity politics originated in the Marxist social science faculties of universities but has penetrated all corners of the community. No sector is immune to its reach.

Its spread has been greatly assisted – albeit accidentally – by events such as the Christchurch mosque atrocities, which activists unashamedly exploited as an opportunity to promote the canard that New Zealand is a haven for hateful white supremacists, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The latter event, although initially conducive to a message of national unity, exposed a yawning divide between those in authority and those whom the political establishment viewed, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous term, as deplorables.

A striking feature of many of the loudest voices promoting identity politics and rebuking New Zealanders for their supposed failings is that their accents identify them as arrivals from other countries. For saying this I will be labelled as a xenophobe, but I welcome the fact that New Zealand is now home to multiple ethnicities. Multiculturalism has greatly enriched and enlivened our society.

What I resent is the disproportionate influence wielded in New Zealand affairs by vociferous, highly assertive relative newcomers – in academia, the bureaucracy and politics – who see New Zealand as a perfect ideological blank space on which they can leave their imprint. I suspect they can’t believe their luck in stumbling on a country with a population that’s either too passive, too naive or simply too distracted by other things – jobs, mortgages, sport, bringing up kids – to realise their country is being messed with. We have always been suckers for articulate, confident voices from overseas; it’s part of our national inferiority complex.

The news media’s role in all this upheaval should not be underestimated. Social division has been promoted and magnified, deliberately or otherwise, by media outlets that relentlessly focus on issues that highlight perceived differences and supposed inequities.

The mainstream news media formerly served as an important agent of social cohesion by providing a public space in which issues could be civilly explored and debated. They have largely abandoned that role in favour of one where they constantly promote ideological agendas and hector readers, viewers and listeners with their own radical, unmandated vision of what New Zealand should be like.

In the process they have alienated much of their core audience, betrayed their trust and driven them to online channels that serve only to accentuate, and in some cases exploit, the deepening stress fractures in New Zealand society.

The result is that what was previously a unified and, by world standards, generally contented country is now a sour, rancorous babel of competing voices. Distrust, fear, resentment and sullen anger have displaced the broad consensus that sustained New Zealand for decades regardless of which political party was in power. Where all this could lead is impossible to say and frightening to contemplate.



Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Why Mani Dunlop is wrong for Morning Report

It’s now more than four months since it was announced that Susie Ferguson was leaving RNZ’s Morning Report after co-hosting the programme since 2014.

RNZ has been playing musical chairs in the meantime, with Kim Hill, Mani Dunlop and Guyon Espiner all sharing the presenting role with Corin Dann.

No replacement for Ferguson has been announced, but unless RNZ has someone else waiting in the wings, an obvious candidate – I would guess the most likely one – is Dunlop, who is back in the studio with Dann this week. Dunlop became RNZ’s Maori News director in 2019 and is best known as the host of Midday Report

Morning Report is RNZ’s flagship programme and the appointment is therefore crucial. For years the programme has been locked in a ratings duel with Mike Hosking’s breakfast show on Newstalk ZB, with a ratings survey earlier this year showing Hosking opening up a comfortable lead over his state-owned competitor. 

Whoever is eventually named to succeed Ferguson will be sitting in a chair previously occupied by some formidable names: Geoff Robinson, Lindsay Perigo, Hill, Maggie Barry, Sean Plunket and the aforementioned Hosking, to name a few.

It follows that RNZ will want to be sure it makes the right choice, which may explain the extraordinary time being taken to make an announcement. But there are potential political fish-hooks to be considered too.

Dunlop ticks a lot of boxes. She’s smart, capable and articulate, with a pleasant on-air manner and the important attribute (one not possessed by all former Morning Report presenters) of a good radio voice.

In an interview last year, she came across as open, frank and personable. She’s also relatively young, which should count in her favour if RNZ wants to break its dependence on a predominantly older (and ageing) audience.

And of course she’s Maori.  I think I’m right in saying Morning Report has never had a Maori presenter before, which is surprising given RNZ’s commitment to woke virtues.

Notwithstanding those qualities, Dunlop would come with a couple of flashing warning lights attached, at least from a traditionalist perspective.  First, she represents a generation of journalists that has been encouraged to disregard the principle of objectivity. This frees journalists to regard the promotion of favoured causes as legitimate.

A related risk is that as a Maori journalist, she may see it as her function to advocate for Maori. Identity politics has permeated journalism to the point where the line separating it from activism has been dangerously blurred.  

But in Dunlop’s case, there’s a far more glaring issue that RNZ can’t ignore. She’s the fiancée of a senior cabinet minister, Kiri Allan.

In a blog post in October, I cited the relationship between Allan and Dunlop as an example of “cosyism” – a term used by commentator Max Rashbrooke to describe overly close relationships between people in power.

Some people would go further and cite the fact that a senior RNZ journalist dealing with sensitive political issues is in an intimate relationship with a cabinet minister as further evidence of a cabal dominating national affairs. In a blog post last year I defined “cabal” in this context as “a group wielding power and influence disproportionate to its numbers, characterised by a common ideology and constantly reinforcing itself through mutual support”.

Needless to say, the situation becomes far more serious when there’s a strong prospect that Dunlop will become co-presenter of Morning Report, a job in which she would be required to interview political opponents of the woman she plans to marry.

Even if Dunlop bent over backwards to be fair and neutral, as her defenders insist she would, the programme’s credibility would unavoidably be compromised by the public knowledge that she’s the partner of a senior government politician. Perception is everything, and the problem would become even more acute in the white-hot intensity of an election year. It would be hard, if not impossible, to avoid doubt in some listeners' minds as to whether Dunlop was approaching issues from a strictly non-partisan standpoint. 

The political optics are not improved by the fact that Labour is clumsily ramming through legislation to merge RNZ with TVNZ, the purpose of which can only be – in the absence of any other compelling argument – to make the state an even more dominant force in the media. Government influence over the flow of information has never been a touchier issue.

Someone perceptively noted a few weeks ago that in an interview with Christopher Luxon on Morning Report about the Hamilton West by-election, Dunlop asked whether the National leader might be prone to unconscious bias in the selection of his party’s candidate. The point was made that Dunlop might be guilty of exactly the same fault in the way she conducted the interview. There’s RNZ’s problem, right there.

In a recent email exchange with RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson, I asked whether Dunlop was likely to replace Ferguson and if so, whether he was concerned about public perceptions regarding her neutrality. He kicked for touch in his reply, saying only that the recruitment of a new presenter was still underway and he would answer my questions once an announcement was made.

I believe Dunlop’s appointment, assuming it’s being considered, is a risk RNZ can’t afford to take – not if it places any weight on public perception and potential damage to the state broadcaster’s credibility. It would be a statement of contempt for traditional norms of journalistic neutrality – or to put it more bluntly, an “up you” gesture to New Zealanders who expect RNZ to demonstrate strict political independence.

RNZ is already seen as leaning sharply to the left. Many people to the right of the political centre have given up on it for that reason. Remarkably, we have come to regard this as a natural and acceptable state of affairs, but it’s not. A broadcasting organisation that all New Zealanders are obliged to support with their taxes has a corresponding moral and ethical obligation to serve people of every political shade.

Dunlop’s appointment to Morning Report would magnify the perception that RNZ reflects and serves the interests of a privileged and tight-knit political elite. Regardless of her credentials, Thompson should find someone else.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Former judge David Harvey on free speech

I urge followers of this blog to read a recent post by retired District Court judge David Harvey, which has only just come to my attention (it was published last month). It's a cool, rational and very thorough analysis of the multi-pronged attack on free speech by a government that appears to regard legitimate dissent as a dangerous assault on the authority of the state.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

ACT should make abolition of the Human Rights Commission a bottom line

The Human Rights Commission says it’s “very disappointing” that the government isn’t going ahead with law changes that would curb New Zealanders’ right to free speech.

Let me repeat that, just in case you didn’t get the irony. An agency ostensibly set up to protect our rights is upset that the government isn’t introducing new laws that would restrict them. What better evidence could there be of the commission’s highly selective interpretation – you might say perversion – of its own name?

The commission says it’s frustrated that planned amendments to the Human Rights Act won’t go as far as it would like. As it stands, the law quite properly makes it unlawful to incite ill-will or hostility against people on the basis of their race, colour, or national or ethnic origins. The commission wanted these protections extended to “other groups who are vulnerable to harmful speech, such as women, disabled people, and the rainbow community”.

Women? Really?? They make up half the population. There are now more of them in Parliament than there are men. They occupy the three most powerful positions in the country. Does the HRC really expect us to believe they are so vulnerable to “harmful” speech that they warrant special statutory protection? Come to that, couldn’t the same argument be made in respect of men – especially those who feel picked on by being disparaged as male, stale and pale? If so, don’t the two cancel each other out?

And note the “such as” in the commission’s statement. This leaves room for other groups – transgender people, for argument’s sake, though for the life of me I can’t imagine why I would choose them as an example – to also be protected against statements that might offend them. Who knows where the list of protected groups could end? It could be extended ad infinitum as political whim dictates. But Justice Minister Kiri Allan, pulling back from Labour’s original sweeping but vaguely defined proposals (and no doubt taking note of mounting public opposition), now says protection will be extended only to religious groups.

This is a nod to the royal commission that investigated the Christchurch mosque massacres and recommended tougher hate speech laws, no doubt with a view to protecting Muslims – a worthy aim but an ineffectual one, given there’s no evidence that the absence of such laws was a factor in the atrocity.

The government’s retreat from its original intention is clearly a blow and a setback to the HRC, which is so obsessed with identity politics and the supposed menace of hate speech that it completely ignores its bigger responsibility to protect New Zealanders’ freedom of expression. The commission is silent on this most crucial of democratic rights, despite it being enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by New Zealand in 1978) and our own Bill of Rights Act. 

You’d think the commission’s own name was a bit of a giveaway, but no; its interpretation of the phrase “human rights” is selective, self-serving and unfailingly woke. Rather than concern itself with upholding and promoting New Zealanders’ rights generally, it directs its energies toward protecting us from racism, islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and white supremacy. These endanger all of us, according to chief human rights pooh-bah Paul Hunt, arguably the most useless bureaucrat on the government’s payroll (in fact worse than useless, since the effect of his job, if not its purpose, is to promote a sense of division and drive wedges into the community).

To put it another way, the commission thinks it’s okay in a democracy to sacrifice the free-speech rights of the majority in order to protect supposedly vulnerable minority groups. It justifies this by arguing that restrictions on speech are needed to counter “violent extremism”. This is worryingly similar to the spurious pretexts – such as public order and public safety – routinely cited by authoritarian regimes that want to control what people think and say. Iran and Xi Jinping’s China come to mind.

Reconciling free speech with the interests of minority groups calls for a balancing act, but the commission doesn’t even attempt it. It solves the problem by simply ignoring the free speech side of the equation altogether.

All this adds up to a compelling case for abolishing the commission, as urged last year by David Seymour. It has been captured by ideologues and morphed into an extravagant travesty, endlessly haranguing and seeking to shame the public that funds it. Even Meng Foon, who as mayor of Gisborne seemed sensible and grounded, comes across as a tiresome, shouty nag in his role as Race Relations Commissioner.

The commission is a $13 million-plus per annum deadweight on the economy – money that could be redirected to any number of more worthy projects. Teaching dogs to ride bikes, for example. 

Seymour called for the commission's abolition after it was revealed that Hunt, a refugee from the barmy socialist Corbynista wing of the British Labour Party, made a $200 donation to the Waikato chapter of the Mongrel Mob as koha for his attendance at a gang hui.

The ACT leader should now go further and insist that the axing of the HRC will be a bottom line in any coalition negotiations with National after next year’s elections. It would be better still if National decided for itself that the HRC has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had, but the party of Christopher Luxon would run in fright from anything so bold and radical.

National, after all, is the party that signed us up to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and was in the process of appointing an Indigenous Rights Commissioner when the Labour-NZ First coalition took office in 2017. Far from resisting the advance of wokery, it has enabled the process.

In any case, half-baked, rinse-and-repeat policies bereft of imagination or political courage (army boot camps for teenage offenders come to mind) are more National’s style.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Rowan Dean and that Sixty Sixty poster

I was vaguely aware last week that someone in Australia had caused a stir over a poster for the New Zealand band Six60; something to do with the band’s use of the Maori language. I didn’t bother to acquaint myself with the details, concluding that it was just another tedious skirmish in the culture wars. There are so many it can be exhausting trying to keep up with them.

I took a closer interest, however, when I found out a couple of days ago that the ruckus was triggered by Rowan Dean, a man with whom I have had dealings in his capacity as editor of the Spectator Australia, to which I occasionally contribute. 

Dean presents a show on Sky News called The World According to Rowan Dean, and it was on this programme, while talking to Jonathan Ayling of the New Zealand Free Speech Union, that he drew attention to the Six60 poster.

Noting New Zealand’s “push for inclusivity” and promotion of the Maori language, Dean brought the Six60 concert poster up on screen and pointed out that it was entirely in Maori; “not a word in English”. Maori appeared to be supplanting English, Dean said, and he wanted to know how New Zealanders who don’t speak Maori felt about it. 

The subject arose in the context of a rather confused interview in which Dean and Ayling sometimes appeared to be talking at cross-purposes. The recently passed Plain Language Act, the recently revived proposal for hate speech laws and the use of te reo all got tangled up together when they are separate and largely unrelated issues, the only unifying factor being Labour’s hell-bent drive to leave an indelible stamp on New Zealand before it gets jettisoned from office.

The confusion wasn’t helped by hyperbolic and not entirely accurate captions running across the bottom of the screen, such as: “NZ government hiring language officers”, “NZ passes Orwellian plain language bill”, “One step closer to the thought police” and “Concert poster excludes half of New Zealand”.

I felt sorry for any Australian viewer trying to make sense of it – but then, Australians have never been well served by news media purporting to explain what’s going on in New Zealand, which Australian commentators routinely portray as a slightly more remote, quaint and incomprehensible version of Tasmania.

All this happened two weeks ago, but it wasn’t until last week that controversy erupted on this side of the Ditch, and then only because of the Six60 poster which took up a relatively small portion of the interview. Predictably there was fury that a conservative Australian talk-show host was making what appeared to be disparaging remarks about the increasing usage of te reo in New Zealand. Dean’s offence was compounded in the eyes of his hyper-sensitive New Zealand critics by his failure to name the band correctly, as if by dismissively calling them “Sixty Sixty or whatever” he was delivering a further gratuitous slight against the nation.

In fact Dean appeared as much bemused by New Zealand’s adoption of te reo as critical of it. In common with many Australians, he fails to grasp the place of Maori in New Zealand culture.

His incomprehension highlights a crucial distinction between the two countries. In Australia, Aboriginal culture has historically been marginalised, despite belated attempts to give it greater recognition. In New Zealand, by contrast, Maori influence runs wide and deep.  It’s accepted – in fact valued – as an essential element of mainstream society. No one watching the Black Ferns play England last Saturday could have been in any doubt about that.

If I wanted to appear learned and profound, which I’m not, I would speculate that this difference between the two countries arises at least in part from a striking contrast between Maori and Aboriginal cultures and their relationships with the European colonisers. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that whereas the Aboriginal reaction to the arrival of Europeans was to melt into the bush, Maori confronted the colonisers head-on. They weren’t over-awed or intimidated; they demanded to be engaged with on equal terms.

And so it has continued. Pakeha New Zealand has absorbed Maori culture in a way that many Australians just don’t get. Maori are an ineradicable and invaluable part of our national character. They help make New Zealand the unique place that it is.

That was brought home to me last weekend at a friend’s funeral. Neither she nor her late husband were Maori, but they had adopted a Maori daughter and in doing so had become part of her whanau and had gladly embraced tikanga Maori (or perhaps I should say it had embraced them, because it works both ways). The funeral, which our friend had planned down to the last detail, seamlessly fused Maori and European influences – the former represented by a spirited, moving and beautifully sung waiata, the latter by Alison Krauss singing the gospel song I’ll Fly Away. Oh, and a piper as the coffin was carried out. It couldn’t have happened anywhere but New Zealand.

Dean’s difficulty with the use of te reo in New Zealand came as no surprise to me. In 2020 I wrote an article for the Spectator Australia about the relentless promotion of biculturalism in New Zealand, with particular reference to the increased official use of Maori. I also referred to the unlawful roadblocks set up by Maori activists, ostensibly for the purpose of preventing Covid-19 from being spread to remote and vulnerable communities.   

Dean subsequently invited me to take part in another Australian Sky News talk show he’s involved with, called Outsiders. I initially agreed, but on learning more about the likely tone of the show I backed away. Outsiders presents a conservative perspective and the subject was to be Maori influence in New Zealand life and politics. I was concerned that the other participants in the show, who were Australian, would be dissing an aspect of New Zealand society that they didn’t understand, and I didn’t want to be a party to it. 

At this point readers of this blog might wonder whether I’m going all woke here and indulging in a bout of virtue-signalling. Not a bit. It’s possible to value and take pride in the enormous Maori contribution to our national character while simultaneously being deeply concerned about the promotion of divisive, race-based policies that threaten to drive a wedge between Maori and Pakeha. In fact I’d like to think that in this regard, I’m not far out of line with mainstream thinking.

In any case, I’m allowed to criticise New Zealand because it’s my country. But I become defensive when it’s attacked by Australians (or Poms, for that matter).

Anyway, back to The World According to Rowan Dean. I thought Six60 reacted to Dean’s remarks exactly as they should have, with characteristic New Zealand good humour. Resisting any temptation to ramp up an already overheated war over wokery, they offered Dean free tickets to one of their shows and issued a new promotional T-shirt bearing the slogan “Sixty60 or whatever”. Perfect.

For his part, Ayling quietly pointed out to Dean that te reo is officially a New Zealand language and people should be free to use it. That’s a free speech issue. Use of te reo becomes problematical only when people feel compelled to use it or discriminated against for not doing so. That’s a free speech issue too.


Friday, November 11, 2022

A great free speech conference - but where were the journalists?

As noted in a blog post earlier this week, I attended the first annual conference of the Free Speech Union at Auckland’s Aotea Centre last Saturday.

I thought it was an outstanding success, not so much in terms of the number of attendees – roughly 150, although I understand several hundred more watched online – as for the quality of the speakers and the ideas they put forward.

The keynote speech was delivered by Jacob Mchangama, a Danish lawyer, human rights advocate and author of the book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. (His father came from the island of Comoros, off the coast of East Africa – hence the very un-Danish surname).

One of his key points was that historically, free speech has been a vital tool for the oppressed. He cited as an example the American civil rights movement, which without free speech would have been, in his words, “a bird without wings”. Conversely, controls on speech have been used throughout history to serve the interests of those in power, as in apartheid-era South Africa.

Mchangama sounded a warning that’s highly relevant in the current New Zealand context – namely, that a common argument in favour of limiting free speech is that it’s necessary to protect minorities. But the supposed cure can sometimes be more dangerous than the ailment. The Nazi Party was heavily censored under hate speech laws during Germany’s Weimar Republic but turned that suppression to its advantage, claiming it was proof that the people in power were protecting Jews, Marxists and other groups the Nazis despised. 

What follows, in no particular order, are a few other points that I scribbled in my notebook during panel discussions that featured, among others, economics professor Ananish Chaudhuri, Jewish community spokeswoman Juliet Moses, ACT MP Karen Chhour, Victoria University academic David Bromell, history professor Paul Moon, National MP Paul Goldsmith and Michael Johnston from the New Zealand Initiative.

■ New Zealanders should have been allowed to read Christchurch mosque killer Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto. After all, we’re allowed to read Mein Kampf. How can we counter dangerous ideas if we’re prevented from seeing them? Suppression can make them more powerful (see the above reference to the Nazis). You don’t want to risk making martyrs out of monsters.

■ Are we safer not knowing? No. We can’t fight ideas that are hidden underground. Criminalising bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. People who are forced off censorious social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are likely to be driven onto secretive channels and echo-chambers where toxic theories can flourish unchallenged.

■ Transgender advocates have been among the most aggressive opponents of free speech. Yet without freedom of speech, many of the gains won by sexual minority groups – for example, homosexual law reform and same-sex marriage – wouldn’t have happened.

■ The dynamics of the debate over free speech are not constant. What is today an accepted mainstream position might in time become an unpopular minority view. Restrictions on free speech that you consider acceptable or desirable now might eventually be used against you. To put it another way, be careful what you wish for.

■ People who propose hate speech laws often do so in good faith (this from Juliet Moses). We shouldn’t always assume they do so for the wrong reasons. But former Wellington city councillor Stephen Rainbow forcefully countered that there is viciousness online and jobs can be threatened by the enemies of free speech. “There are some nasty people out there.”

■ Racial or ethnic groups are not uniform in their opinions, despite pressure to conform to what is seen as the “correct” position. This point was made quietly but eloquently by Karen Chhour, who is of Ngapuhi descent but was rebuked in Parliament by Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis for “looking at the world from [sic] a vanilla lens” and urged to “cross the bridge from the Pakeha into the Maori world”. The presumption was that Chhour couldn’t be a real Maori because she was in the wrong party. (Davis’s slur, for which he later apologised, was an echo of Willie Jackson’s attack on David Seymour for being a “useless Maori”, apparently because Seymour doesn’t support Labour's separatist policies.)

■ The cancellation of so-called “alt-right” Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, followed soon after by Massey University’s ban on former National Party leader Don Brash, was a resounding wake-up call for many conference attendees who had previously taken free speech for granted. The Covid pandemic was another catalyst; Level 3 lockdown restrictions were seen as an assault on civil liberties.

■ Young New Zealanders – i.e. the generation now coming through universities – are incapable of dealing with opposition and the stress of having their ideas challenged. Part of the solution is in raising children to be more resilient. In the words of Michael Johnston, a former Victoria University lecturer, universities should be the nerve centres of free speech. Free and open debate is crucial to a better understanding of society.

■ Incitement to violence is the dividing line between what’s an acceptable expression of opinion and what isn’t.

■ There are bullies in universities and government departments who try to shut down ideas and opinions they don’t approve of, but who quickly back down when challenged (this from FSU chief executive Jonathan Ayling, speaking from experience).

■ Free speech may be under attack in New Zealand, but things could be far worse (Moses again). “In some countries, this meeting wouldn’t happen.” The participants would quietly disappear.

■ How do we promote free speech? By standing up for people whose ideas we loathe.

A disappointing but sadly unsurprising aspect of the conference was the almost total absence of journalists. I sat next to the editor of a high-profile national publication but gathered she was there to observe rather than report. (Good on her for attending, all the same.) Otherwise the only working journalist present appeared to be the freelancer Yvonne van Dongen, who told the conference about the extraordinary obstacles, excuses and deceptions she encountered - despite her well-established credentials - when she tried to get an article published about the free speech debate. No one who heard van Dongen’s account of her travails, for which the FSU honoured her with a special award, could delude themselves that the mainstream media can be regarded as allies in the campaign for free speech.

This perception was reinforced by the fact that although Jacob Mchangama was interviewed on RNZ by Kim Hill, not a word appeared in the mainstream media about the conference. To put it politely, this is odd when you consider that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are inextricably intertwined. Journalists depend on the right of free speech every day of their working lives, both in what they report and in what they say in editorials and opinion columns. Without it they couldn’t function.

My strong impression is that editors are reluctant to align themselves with the cause of free speech, and I have to wonder what they’re frightened of.  


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Lauren Southern, Stefan Molyneux and the Streisand Effect

This is a talk I gave last night to the Masterton South Rotary Club.

It started with two Canadians named Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were on a speaking tour of Australia and tacked on a visit to Auckland. Hardly anyone had heard of them, still less knew what their politics were. But when Auckland mayor Phil Goff barred them from speaking at a council-owned venue in 2018, he touched a sensitive nerve.

The banning order turned out to be a classic demonstration of the so-called Streisand Effect, whereby attempts to suppress or hide something paradoxically result in it being brought to wider public attention.

The term comes from Barbra Streisand’s efforts to prevent publication of a photograph showing her clifftop mansion in Malibu, California. The photo was taken in 2003 to show the effects of coastal erosion and was initially seen by only a handful of people. But then Streisand took legal action to remove it from the public record, and in the following months the picture was downloaded 420,000 times. I believe the technical term for this is shooting yourself in the foot.

In the case of Southern and Molyneux, a controversy erupted over freedom of speech which, four years later, is still being played out in the courts. Although they were virtual unknowns, their banning led directly to the creation of a national movement to protect free speech – something no one previously thought necessary in a country with a long history as one of the world’s most liberal democracies.

Most New Zealanders believed their right to free speech was unassailable, but what happened to Southern and Molyneux showed that this was no longer the case. Cancel culture – the phenomenon whereby the enemies of free speech try to shut down any opinion they don’t like – had arrived.

It wasn’t an isolated occurrence, because it followed several years during which free speech had come under increasing attack – in social media, to a lesser extent in mainstream media and even in universities. But the Southern and Molyneux incident turned out to be a tipping point.

Word had gone out on social media that the Canadians were dangerous activists from the far-Right. Valerie Morse, herself a career activist but from the opposite end of the political spectrum, called for them to be barred from entering New Zealand. She said Southern and Molyneux intended to stir up racist violence, a provocative claim for which there was no evidence.

Radio New Zealand reported that the two Canadians had “far-Right, alternative views on feminism, gender, Islam and immigration”, though we were never told what these views were so were unable to judge for ourselves whether they were dangerous.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Lauren Southern had been reported as saying there were only two genders, male and female. This is a view probably shared by at least 99 percent of the population and one that would have been totally uncontroversial a few years ago, but is now apparently evidence of far-Right extremism.

Despite none of the claims about Southern and Molyneux being substantiated, Phil Goff saw it as an opportunity for some political grandstanding. “I have made my views on this very clear,” Goff declared on Twitter. “Southern and Molyneux will not be speaking at any council venues.” This was after the council had accepted a booking for the event at the Bruce Mason Centre, which it owns. The event was subsequently cancelled.

To this day we don’t know what Southern and Molyneux intended to say and so can’t judge whether they were a threat to public order and wellbeing. We were denied the right to hear them and form our own opinions. Goff apparently didn’t think the public was mature and wise enough to be exposed to their views. He took it upon himself to protect us.

The upshot of all this – and here’s the Streisand effect – was that the Canadians suddenly became a cause celebre. Goff’s unilateral action in misusing his power by banning Southern and Molyneux, as if Auckland was his personal fiefdom, was the catalyst for the formation of the Free Speech Coalition, which subsequently morphed into what is now the Free Speech Union. University lecturer David Cumin, one of the coalition’s founders, said that if the mayor of Auckland was allowed to ban people he didn’t like, all sorts of groups would be in deep trouble.

I should stress here that the coalition was formed not because its founders endorsed the opinions of Southern and Molyneux and thought they were worthy of wider promulgation. The people behind the coalition ranged right across the ideological spectrum.

Remember that at this stage, virtually no one knew what the Canadians’ opinions were, so were in no position to either endorse or oppose them. The coalition was concerned with one issue only: protecting the principle of free speech and the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to ideas and opinions regardless of whether people happened to agree with them.

This, after all, is the very heart of democracy. Democratic government depends on the contest of ideas, and the contest of ideas in turn depends on people being able to engage openly in free expression and debate. Free speech is where democracy starts. I would argue that it’s even more fundamental than the right to vote, because people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.

Subsequent to Goff’s intervention in the issue, Auckland Council, possibly realising the mayor had overstepped his authority, shifted its ground by arguing that there were health and safety reasons for banning the Canadians. This was because protesters, including the aforementioned Valerie Morse, had threatened to blockade any meeting where they spoke.

But that raised an important free speech issue too, because it meant that protesters could force the cancellation of speaking engagements simply by threatening disruption.

Alarmed by these developments, the Free Speech Coalition began legal proceedings, funded by money raised through a public appeal, in the hope that the courts would declare Auckland Council to have acted unlawfully.

Lawyers for the coalition argued that the council’s action was inconsistent with Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

Note that the law doesn’t just refer to the freedom to speak; it gives equal weight to our right to seek and hear alternative views. There’s nothing in the Act that says opinions and ideas must be approved by people in power, such as the mayor of Auckland, before we can be safely allowed to hear them.

That court action has advanced all the way to the Supreme Court and is still in progress. Essentially New Zealand’s highest court is being asked to rule on a specific point – namely, whether Auckland Council was wrong to bow to threats of disruption and therefore restrict the rights of people who wanted to hear the Canadians speak.

Southern and Molyneux weren’t the only speakers to be cancelled on health and safety grounds. The urgency of the issue was reinforced when the vice-chancellor of Massey University barred Don Brash from speaking at an event on campus, again on the spurious pretext that people might be harmed if they attended.

It later emerged that the supposed “threat” came from a single disaffected student who said he never intended to do anything more violent than wave a sign. The real reason for the cancellation, as revealed by an information release under the Official Information Act, was that the vice-chancellor regarded Brash as a racist because of his views on the Treaty of Waitangi.

The vice-chancellor’s banning of a notable New Zealander didn’t go down well. Some people might have felt unsure about Southern and Molyneux, given that they were an unknown quantity, but Brash is a high-profile New Zealander whose opinions are very well known and who represented no threat to anyone. I wrote in the Australian edition of the Spectator that the Massey vice-chancellor, who comes from Queensland, had made herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell instructed his brother to bowl underarm in 1981. Even the leader of the Massey students’ association, himself a Maori, said students had no confidence in her.

The Massey furore was another signal that free speech, which New Zealanders have historically taken for granted, was under attack by people in positions of authority. It was, to use a cliché, a wake-up call. There have been many more such episodes since then, some of which I’ll refer to later.

Events such as these formed the backdrop to an event I attended in Auckland last Saturday – the first annual conference of the New Zealand Free Speech Union, or FSU. As I mentioned earlier, the union evolved out of the Free Speech Coalition. It’s modelled on a similar organisation on Britain, where freedom of expression is also under sustained attack.

As in Britain, the Free Speech Union is officially registered as a trade union – an inspired idea which means it has the right to formally represent members whose free speech rights are threatened in the course of their work. The union has successfully invoked its statutory rights on numerous occasions, some of which I’ll mention shortly.

A vital point to note about the FSU is that while some of its critics dishonestly try to portray it as a right-wing front or an arm of the ACT Party, ideologically it’s very broad-based. Prominent figures in the union include Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten, both lifelong leftists. Members of the union’s council include a Maori university lecturer, a member of the Jewish community and a lesbian feminist.

Thinking people on the left side of politics have a very good reason to defend freedom of speech. They understand better than most that suppression of free speech has historically been used most often against the powerless and the advocates of change. Trade unionists, communists and campaigners for racial equality from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela all suffered under repressive controls on speech and recognised the importance of free speech as a weapon against oppression.

From the other end of the ideological spectrum, former ACT MP Stephen Franks and conservative blogger David Farrar have both been key players in the formation of the union and its precursor organisation. It follows that the FSU doesn’t take ideological positions on the left or the right and recognises that to be effective, consistent and credible, it must be politically non-partisan. Its only commitment is to freedom of speech.

The union is fighting across a very broad front because attacks on free speech are constant and come from multiple directions. But in its short existence, and despite extremely limited resources, the union has chalked up some notable victories. I’ll mention just a few.

■ It took legal action that forced city councils to back down after they refused to allow council venues to be held for meetings organised by a feminist group called Speak Up for Women, which opposed men being able to legally redefine themselves as female.

■ It took up the case of seven eminent academics who were threatened with expulsion from the Royal Society after they wrote a letter to the Listener challenging the scientific validity of Matauranga Maori, or traditional Maori knowledge. The professors were effectively subjected to a modern heresy trial and vilified in a letter from 2000 fellow academics who accused them of condoning something called scientific racism. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril. But after being subjected to an embarrassing storm of international criticism and ridicule, the Royal Society backed down and concluded the professors had not breached its code of conduct. In fact I understand the society copped a furious backlash from many of its own members for betraying principles of academic freedom.

Sadly, the need for freedom of speech is nowhere more evident than in academia, where groupthink prevails and any deviation from approved ideological orthodoxy is likely to incur punishment in one form or another, whether it’s simply ostracism by colleagues or actual disciplinary action.

■ Speaking of academic freedom, the FSU also defended a Waikato University history lecturer’s right to describe people as cranks for believing, on religious authority, that the earth is flat and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. The university threatened disciplinary action against him but backed down after the union pointed out its obligation to uphold academic freedom. Interestingly enough the Tertiary Education Union refused to support the lecturer while at the same time it was organising a conference on … academic freedom.

■ The FSU has supported several members who found themselves under attack in the workplace for opinions they had expressed in a personal capacity. In one case the union obtained an apology and retraction from a senior district council manager who harassed and intimidated a schoolteacher at his place of work for writing a submission in a private capacity in which the teacher expressed an opposing view to the manager on the issue of Maori wards. In another case a nurse was the subject of a complaint to the Nursing Council for expressing views on Facebook about transgender issues. You can probably guess what those views were.

■ In another recent case, a hospital doctor laid a complaint against a mortuary worker who used the pronoun “he” to refer to a deceased person who was biologically male but had identified as a woman. As I understand it, the employee avoided a disciplinary hearing only after the Free Speech Union intervened.

■ The union also met with the board of NZME, publishers of the New Zealand Herald, after the paper refused to publish an ad that consisted simply of the Oxford Dictionary’s incendiary definition of a woman as an adult human female. Just those words – nothing more. Newspapers, like universities, have traditionally been defenders of free speech but now seem frightened to upset transgender activists by publishing an ad that did nothing more than state a previously uncontroversial truth. You have to wonder, how did we get to this point, and where will it lead unless we resist?

These are cases that the FSU took up, but there have been plenty of others. There was the cancellation of a Harry Potter quiz at the Featherston Booktown Festival because someone objected to J K Rowling’s views on transgenderism and thought the quiz might distress the transgender community.

There was the British publishing firm that suddenly changed its mind about publishing a book by the world-famous Otago University professor the late Jim Flynn because the book raised “sensitive topics of race, religion and gender”. The book’s title? In Defence of Free Speech. So a book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence was itself cancelled for fear of causing offence. I think that’s called irony.

There was the bulldozer owner in Marlborough who painted the words “ALM Equal Rights for Kiwi Whites” on the blade of a bulldozer parked on his private property. This was at the height of the Black Lives Matter furore following the murder of George Floyd in the US. The letters ALM stood for All Lives Matter, but a neighbour complained that the words were racist and the bulldozer owner received a visit from the police who persuaded him to paint over them.

The concerning aspect here is the involvement of the police. There’s a very real prospect that with the proposed criminalisation of so-called “hate speech”, which I’ll come to shortly, it would fall to police officers to determine what opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what words are “safe”.

On a slightly lighter note, there was a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about a Street’s ice cream sign that said “Ice cream makes you happy”. The complainant said the sign promoted an unhealthy relationship with food. Now it seems absurd that the authority would take the complaint seriously, but sadly I have to tell you that it agreed with the complainant and the sign was removed. The enforcers of free speech are not noted for their sense of humour.

In addition to those individual cases I mentioned earlier, the Free Speech Union has been grappling with some much bigger issues, and none bigger than the proposed adoption of so-called hate speech laws.

This issue arose following the Christchurch mosque massacres and the subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry. Recommendations for revised hate speech laws formed a small and relatively insignificant part of the commission’s recommendations. Deficiencies in existing laws were not identified as a cause of the massacres and there’s no evidence to suggest that tougher so-called hate speech laws would have prevented the atrocity. But there’s a saying in politics that every crisis presents an opportunity, and the government seized on the massacres as justification for the introduction of new laws restricting what we can say or write, ostensibly to protect vulnerable minorities. This is the era of identity politics, and Labour wants to look good to minority groups seeking protection from adverse comment. But history shows that hate speech laws can be weaponised to crush dissent – just look at Iran, which tried to have Salman Rushdie killed because he dared criticise Islam.

The problem with so-called hate speech laws is that they could impose unreasonable and undemocratic limitations on public discussion of legitimate political issues. Hurtful is different from hateful. Someone might feel insulted or offended by a statement but that doesn’t mean it’s intended to incite hatred or harm, and the courts have traditionally been liberal in recognising people’s right to express opinions that upset others – with good reason, because judges are reluctant to interfere with the fundamental right to free speech.

In any case, offences such as incitement to violence are already criminalised under existing laws and there’s no evidence to indicate those laws are inadequate. It’s an offence under the Human Rights Act to publish anything likely to excite hostility against, or bring into contempt, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of colour, race or national or ethnic origins. There’s a sound argument for adding religion to those categories, but you get into trouble once you move beyond that point by trying to define what is hateful, especially in a society where people are primed to take offence on the basis of sex, gender identity, race and religion. You then risk introducing what lawyers call a chilling effect which makes people reluctant to discuss issues for fear that they might be breaking the law. It becomes safer to say nothing at all.

As an aside, I was astonished to learn recently that according to the New Zealand Police website, a hate crime is an offence perceived by the victim to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or age. So it’s down to victims to decide whether they’ve been the subject of a hate crime. This goes far beyond what the law says and shows that the police have already been well and truly politicised.

I mentioned this to my wife and she asked whether it meant that if I called her a silly old bag (not that I ever would, you understand) she could make a complaint to the police. I had to agree that it meant exactly that. This is how free speech rights are insidiously eroded, inch by inch. I'm not disrespectful toward the police, but I would have no confidence whatsoever in them exercising control over what I can say. That’s not their role.

The difficulties in defining hate speech were illustrated last year when neither the then minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi, nor the prime minister were able to explain how tougher hate speech laws would work. The Free Speech Union campaigned vigorously against a law change – 20,000 submissions to Parliament, 80 percent of them opposed – and the government quietly consigned the proposal to the too-hard basket.

Job done, the union thought. But now we have a new justice minister, Kiri Allen, and suddenly hate speech laws are back on the agenda. Not only that, but the prime minister recently delivered an address at the United Nations in which she talked about the need to combat threats from so-called disinformation – a word that seems to mean whatever the user wants it to mean.

All this points to the possibility of the government seeking to control the dissemination of information and opinion that it disapproves of, perhaps even relating to issues such as climate change, Covid vaccination, transgenderism and immigration. Hate speech and the right to dissent could become crucial issues in next year’s election, in which case it will be interesting to see whether the National Party takes a stand or leaves it to ACT to be the standard-bearer for free speech.

I want to leave you with a couple of quotations. The first is from the poet John Milton, who in 1644 wrote a famous defence of free speech called Areopagitica that included the stirring lines: “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” In other words, it’s only through free and open debate that society tests competing ideas and chooses which ones to adopt.

The other is from the left-wing American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who said that if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, then we don’t believe in it at all. In other words we must defend the free speech rights of people we disagree with, because whoever tries to silence them might also one day try to silence us.

Thank you.

You can find the Free Speech Union website here: Free Speech Union (