Readers of this blog may be interested in the following speech by National MP Simon O’Connor, which I lifted from the Bassett Brash and Hide website.
O’Connor was speaking last week during the first reading of the Education and Training (Freedom of Expression) Bill sponsored by ACT MP James McDowall, under which tertiary education institutions would be incentivised to provide proper protection for academic freedom and free speech.
Of course this shouldn’t be necessary, since McDowall pointed out when his Bill was drawn from the ballot last year that statutes already require tertiary education institutions (including universities) to do exactly that. But as we know, some have sidestepped their obligations by using spurious health and safety excuses – such as the threat of “mental harm” – as pretexts for de-platforming speakers they don't like. McDowall’s Bill would have sought to prevent that by requiring institutions to adopt freedom of expression codes of practice at the risk of being defunded, or having their grants reduced, if they didn’t comply.
Needless to say, the Bill fell at the first hurdle. National and ACT supported it but Labour and the Greens ensured it proceeded no further.
Labour MP Shanan Halbert (no, I hadn’t heard of him either) argued that universities needed to protect students against homophobes, transphobes and racists. His colleague Angela Roberts talked about the need for "safe spaces" (was there ever a more perniciously whiny phrase?) and said Parliament should trust universities to regulate themselves so as to guard against falsehoods and misinformation. Chloe Swarbrick was worried about free speech absolutism and the need to achieve a balance between competing rights. Labour’s Jo Luxton said she believed in free speech, but … (ah, that “but” word again. It’s funny how often it comes into conversations about free speech). You can read Hansard’s report of the debate here.
But back to O’Connor. His speech was a tad theatrical – melodramatic, even – for my taste, but it was notable because here was a vanishingly rare political spectacle: a National Party MP speaking with conviction on a matter of important principle. This sets a disturbing precedent in the party and I can’t see it doing his career any good at all.