The Act leader reckons the Prime Minister is already backing away from a law change. Graham Adams reports from David Seymour’s national tour on the regulation of speech, and the possibility of a citizens-initiated referendum on the topic.Former PM Rob Muldoon was fond of saying he was a “counter-puncher” who only attacked when provoked but David Seymour has obviously realised that when you’re dealing with a government with a penchant for passing laws under urgency and minimal consultation it’s best to get your retaliation in first.
On Tuesday evening, with a howling wind and rain buffeting the Takapuna Boating Club on Auckland’s North Shore, around a hundred people turned out to hear the Act Party’s leader speak about the Government’s proposal to move existing hate-speech laws into the Crimes Act and to expand protected groups to include religious minorities, rainbow communities, and anyone who feels targeted because of their age or disability.
Penalties would also be sharply increased, with the possibility of a jail term of up to three years — which Seymour noted is a heavier penalty than for a male assaulting a female.
Act’s leader is currently engaged in a three-week “free-speech tour” of the country that will see him hold 13 public meetings from Whangarei to Invercargill before it wraps up on 7 May.
Publicity around Seymour’s tour has been heightened dramatically since details from a Cabinet paper proposing expanding hate-speech laws were published in the media last week and Ardern expressed her displeasure at his campaign.
At her weekly press conference on Monday, Ardern said: “I’m really disheartened to see the Act Party has started a campaign on something that has not even been concluded by the government yet.”
She also alleged the free-speech campaign showed that Act wasn’t willing to engage in discussions around the proposed new laws.
In response, Seymour declared himself to be equally “disheartened” with Ardern, pointing out he had written a comprehensive letter to the Minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi, in March setting out his party’s views and offering to engage. In fact, the opening paragraph of his letter includes the sentence: “We certainly welcome the opportunity [to engage] and would like to meet with you whenever convenient.”
He has described the letter as a “pretty substantial conversation starter”.
Furthermore, he wasn’t buying the Prime Minister’s line about the unformed, tentative nature of the new laws. “Decisions have been made. Changing the hate-speech laws was in Labour’s election manifesto and the proposed laws have gone to Cabinet,” Seymour said.
However, the real sting in the tail of his comments was: ”New Zealanders deserve to be able to have a proper debate on this issue. That’s why Act has launched its free-speech tour.”
The obvious subtext is that Seymour’s tour has been undertaken as a pre-emptive strike because the Ardern government has already shown itself willing to push through contentious legislation with the bare minimum of consultation — most recently when removing the right for voters to petition for a referendum to veto a council decision to set up a Maori ward. The select committee process was reduced from the usual six months to less than a week.
The immediate aim of Seymour’s national campaign is obviously to persuade the Government to abandon any attempt to widen existing hate-speech laws by showing how unpopular and contentious they would be. But, in the event the Government presses ahead, the campaign will also help drum up support for the citizens’ initiated referendum he has promised.
As he put it last November in his Address in Reply: “Let me be very clear that Act will fight any move to restrict freedom of speech in this House. We are outnumbered here. The Government could choose to force such restrictions through Parliament but they are outnumbered in New Zealand. If the government restricts free speech, Act will campaign to the people for a citizens’ initiated referendum to overturn the restrictions.”
Seymour knows the value of old-fashioned town-hall meetings to stir interest on contentious topics. His battle to introduce assisted dying laws proved the value of such grass-roots action when he conducted a similar series of meetings the length of the country before last year’s successful referendum.
Anyone can start a petition asking for a (non-binding) nationwide referendum if they can get more than 10 per cent of eligible voters nationwide to sign in support. There are roughly 3.5 million enrolled electors in New Zealand so Seymour would have to gather 350,000 signatures. With more than 219,000 people voting for Act alone at the last election, getting sufficient numbers seems eminently achievable.
The referendum must be held within a year of the date it is presented to Parliament (unless 75 per cent of all members of the House vote to defer it).
The run-up to such a referendum and all the attendant publicity in gathering the signatures to overturn the law would be a nightmare for Ardern. The topic would rarely be out of the news and she would be obliged to robustly defend her legislation. So far, when questioned, she has shown herself to be ill equipped to marshal a convincing case.
As Seymour pointed out on Tuesday evening, the closest Ardern has come to a definition is in an interview in 2019 with Duncan Garner on The AM Show where she identified the “threshold” between reasonable criticism and hate speech as: “You know it when you see it.”
Seymour says the Cabinet paper admits there is no definition of hate speech. “The problem is that if you have something that the Prime Minister, the government departments and the Cabinet can’t define but you can be put into jail for three years for it, then you have no rule of law. You have tyranny.”
He reckons Ardern is already backing away from implementing new laws. He told his audience: “I think the government will back off. I can see it in the way the PM has said in the past couple of days, ‘Oh, we haven’t made our decisions yet, and we’re disappointed that Act’s not engaging.’”
With his whistle-stop tour to thwart a law change and the possibility of a citizens’ initiated referendum as a backup, it appears Seymour has the Prime Minister snookered one way or another on hate speech.
Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom. This article was first published by the Democracy Project HERE.