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Readers and writers and voters festival. Image: Tina Tiller
Readers and writers and voters festival. Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsSeptember 7, 2023

Could a Dunedin poetry reading fall foul of electoral law?

Readers and writers and voters festival. Image: Tina Tiller
Readers and writers and voters festival. Image: Tina Tiller

A Soapbox Political Poetry event at the writers’ festival is ‘not exempt from the election day rules’, says the regulator. 

The programme for the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, launched last night at the University Bookshop, is a treasure chest of writers and ideas. It opens on October 13 with a gala centred on the mighty Witi Ihimaera and continues into a Saturday schedule sparkling with the likes of Emily Writes, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Emma Espiner. 

At 4.30pm that afternoon, a constellation of top Aotearoa poets will gather at one of Ōtepoti’s most beloved bars for Soapbox Political Poetry at Woof!. The blurb for the free-entry event, presented with the Hone Tuwhare Trust, reads: “Come early for the poetry, stay late for the politics. Hone Tuwhare’s poems punched above their weight in politics. He also loved pubs! On election day, we honour these passions atop a grassroots soapbox. Featuring poets: David Eggleton, Ati Teepa, Chris Tse, Ruby Solly, Coco Solid, Jessica Hinerangi and Michaela Keeble.”

What a lineup, and what timing. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, after all, and what better moment than the afternoon of election day to put them on stage. 

But if Orange Guy is sighted on the stage at Woof! the likelihood is he’ll not be belting out a polemic haiku, but instead playing policeman. Because election day in New Zealand brings with it some arcane – and, to some, archaic – restrictions on political speech, poetry included. 

The Electoral Commission summarises the law like this: “You’re not allowed to campaign, or do anything which obstructs or influences voters, anywhere on election day.” 

That’s a wide net. But surely it doesn’t take in soapbox political poetry sessions at writers festivals? “Public events like these are not exempt from the election day rules,” a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission told me.

“There are rules prohibiting campaigning on election day, or making statements that influence voters before 7pm. It is an offence to influence voters or tell them to vote, or not vote for, a candidate or party on election day … We would advise caution around any type of public event where politics is being discussed or debated that takes place before 7pm on election day, as content could breach the election day rules.” 

“This,” said Andrew Geddis, an Otago University professor, electoral law expert and member of the Independent Electoral Review, “is a potentially curly one.”

He pointed me to the relevant bit in the Electoral Act 1993:

Every person commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $20,000 who at an election … at any time on polling day before the close of the poll exhibits in or in view of any public place, or publishes, or distributes, or broadcasts,—
(i) any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector as to the candidate or party for whom the elector should or should not vote; or
(ii) any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector to abstain from voting; or
(iii) any party name, emblem, slogan, or logo …

So how might this apply to a poetry reading? “On the face of this provision,” said Geddis, “it is an offence to ‘publish’ a poem to an audience that even mentions any of the political parties by name, much less expresses a view on which of the various parties people should vote for.”

But wait. “However, the Electoral Act also defines “publish” to “exclud[e] addressing 1 or more persons face to face“. As such, verbally reciting a poem directly to a room full of avid listeners isn’t “publishing” it in terms of this offence provision. The question is whether reciting a poem could instead be “exhibit[ing] in or in view of any public place … or distribut[ing]” it? Because if so, the recitation still would fall foul of the law.”

He concluded: “I think that the specific definitional carve out for face-to-face communications means that the offence provision likely won’t apply here.” 

The festival itself stressed it was not cocking a snook to the authorities made manifest in the Orange Guy. “Poetry and Politics have been entwined since the dawn of time and in the spirit of public conversation and an exchange of ideas, Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival is delighted to spice up election day by presenting Soapbox Political Poetry at Woof!” said Nicola McConnell, chair of the festival trust.

“When designing the programme we consulted early with the Dunedin electorate manager who advised there would not be an issue as long as the event worked within the Electoral Commission rules for voting day. So we’ve advised the poets not to wear their party political colours and not to influence voting for particular candidates or parties. In the best tradition of pub poetry, our special guest poets will take to the soapbox for a contest of ideas, honouring Hone Tuwhare’s legacy of discussing the big issues with real people in pubs.”

More controversial, arguably, than a political poetry reading on election day is the idea that a political poetry reading on election day might fall foul of the law, especially now that the majority of votes are expected to be cast across the 11-day advance voting period, during which there is no possibility of any prohibition on political poetry readings. 

“The fact that there’s even doubt about this question,” said Geddis, “perhaps illustrates why the Independent Electoral Review has recommended changing the law so as to ‘permit election advertising on election day anywhere except inside or within 10 metres of polling places’.”

Chris Tse, a participant in the event, the New Zealand poet laureate and Spinoff poetry editor, said he thought the rules were bizarre, adding: “I like to think that poetry can change hearts and minds, but anyone who willingly turns up to a political poetry event on election day at a gay bar either won’t be influenced by the poetry or has probably already voted!”

In the meantime, we can only guess at whether it would be lawful to read aloud on October 14 from, say, Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Old Comrade’, a tribute to his friend Jim Jamieson, a former chair of the Dunedin branch of the Communist Party. It ends:

I reckon old Marx would make room for him;
Lenin, throw another log on the fire;
and Mao, like a full moon rising pour a bowl
of tea, offer Jim a cigarette. Bet on it.

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