Act leader David Seymour is currently touring the country to build opposition to proposed hate speech law changes. Alex Braae went along to see rather a lot of free speech take place in Takapuna.
The thing about campaigning on free speech is that it’s something of a meta issue. At their heart, free speech debates are about staking out the terms, rather than necessarily arguing about specific topics. And at a roadshow event with Act leader David Seymour in Takapuna, it became clear that such debates can quickly turn into being about something completely different.
Seymour is currently spending the parliamentary recess touring the country. His ‘Free Speech Tour’ aims to build up public opposition to proposed changes in hate speech laws, which Seymour believes will put unacceptable restrictions on free political expression. Advocates for the law changes say that current hate speech laws leave people in minority groups vulnerable to discrimination and abuse.
The proposal has so far taken the form of a cabinet paper, rather than a bill being introduced to parliament, so we don’t yet know the final form any legislation could take. Under the proposals, hate speech would be moved out of the Human Rights Act and into the Crimes Act, and in the process the maximum sentences would be increased from three months to three years. The proposals also suggest the existing law could be extended to include hate speech against religious groups, those in the rainbow community, and on the grounds of age or disability.
It is into this argument that Seymour has stridden, buoyed with the confidence of suddenly having a lot more MPs at his back. In the middle of a dramatic Auckland storm, he managed to entice more than a hundred people out to see him on a Tuesday night at the Takapuna boating club.
The first 20 minutes or so of Seymour’s speech was fairly uncontroversial. It would be quite wrong to cast him as one of those grifter provocateurs who occasionally wash up here, such as white nationalist Lauren Southern. Even in front of an audience of supporters, Seymour seemed to much prefer talking about high-minded concepts in the liberal political tradition over serving up red meat.
At the end of the speech, the livestream was turned off, and the Q&A part of the evening began. It was probably what many in the audience had really come to see. Things got a bit weird, and it was also where my observations started to diverge from Seymour’s own interpretation of the event.
He told me afterwards that in his view, there were half a dozen people in the audience who wanted to ask more questions about the Covid response, which they were perfectly entitled to do. In my view, his event got hijacked, in a takeover that was fairly enthusiastically supported by about half the room.
The questions (and perhaps more accurately comments) came from people who associated with the anti-lockdown group Voices for Freedom, who believe the government’s Covid response is an authoritarian power-grab. Anti-vax views were a particular focus, specifically the proposition that the Covid vaccine is being forced on the population. At one point, a visibly uncomfortable Seymour asked for a show of hands – who wanted to get back to talking about free speech, and who wanted to talk about the Covid response? It was impossible to count which got more votes.
Through conversations with conspiracy theorists over recent months, it’s clear that many believe the public health experts who have become prominent in the media are being controlled. That they’re not using their free speech to express expertise – rather that their credentials are being wielded to burnish the legitimacy of the government’s takeover.
Seymour doesn’t buy into those theories. But it raises the question – does he accept that some self-described advocates for free speech are really using it as a Trojan horse to get their more extreme views into the public domain?
“Well, yes, but you’ve got to be very careful about what you’re saying,” said Seymour. “I think free speech allows views that will be viewed as bigoted – there’s no question about that. Whether or not those people with bigoted views also claim the defence of free speech while they’re doing it is neither here nor there for the validity of the concept.
”I think the other danger is that someone like me, who has pretty tolerant views on just about everything – it would be easier never to defend free speech. Because one of the criticisms people will make, in my view quite disingenuously, [is] to associate you with people you’d rather not have over for dinner, just because they speak, and therefore you’re defending them, and therefore their ideas.”
Another major theme of Seymour’s speech at the boating club was that controversial ideas should be debated – on the face of it not a controversial position. But that isn’t necessarily true for many people in the groups that would be protected under the proposed hate speech laws. For some people, the “free speech” of others can be actively inciting and dangerous – a point made repeatedly by Muslim community representatives both before and after the March 15 terrorist attacks.
Seymour brought up the debate on the self-sex identification bill, which would allow trans people to easily change the registration of their sex. Many in the trans community say those debates put their very humanity on the agenda, and can be dangerously dehumanising as a result. Is that really something that should be put in the category of free speech?
On the specific point about the self-sex ID bill, Seymour argued that position was being taken by people on both sides. He pointed to the Speak up for Women group, often characterised as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, who say that their identity as women and lesbians is threatened by the conflation of sex and gender. Seymour has been happy to associate with SUFW, notably hosting one of their events at parliament.
On the more general point, Seymour said, “If there is a definition of hate speech, it’s saying someone shouldn’t exist. And I think they’re both in a position to make that claim, and I don’t think it’s going to help for the state to come in and put one side or another in jail depending on which side they think deserves it most.”
The point about jailing people is an interesting one, in terms of what has been proposed. Seymour has been making the argument that people could face that sort of jail time for “unpopular opinions”. Victoria University law lecturer Eddie Clark wrote recently that “the proposed laws would not cover (for example) the unkindness and rudeness implicit in casually mis-gendering a trans person.” And with what we know about how maximum sentencing tends to be used, surely Seymour’s argument is disingenuous?
“You’ve got to remember the role of the lawmaker. It’s not to say, well, this thing’s full of loopholes but I’m sure people will interpret it generously. Our role is to pass laws that protect the freedoms of New Zealanders. And what does the law say? That you can go to jail for three years,” he said.
For the Act party itself, internal debates about free speech – and more specifically who gets to use it as representatives of the party – could become very interesting in the coming years. The party has grown rapidly in the past two years, going from a long period of having one MP to now 10, and that comes with risks. In parliament, the party has centralised all their communications and advisor staff – a relatively unusual move that could be interpreted as a way of keeping their many rookie MPs in line and on message. Seymour said that’s more a matter of pooling resources so that they’re used to best effect. So far none of the new intake have dropped any massive clangers, or really said an awful lot in public at all.
But with such a big influx of new members to an organisation that was previously moribund, there’s a strong possibility some issue groups will attempt an ‘entryist’ approach – perhaps even those from groups like Voices for Freedom. Seymour said he had considered the possibility, but it hadn’t yet been a problem.
“Let’s see what happens with the next board elections, and if there are people seeking board positions with agendas. Probably the fact that it really was a one person operation for so long has allowed me to define the organisation quite strongly,” said Seymour.
Perhaps uniquely among opposition politicians right now, David Seymour can fill a room. His party is clearly growing at a rate not seen since it was formed. But as a political strategy, the upside of campaigning on free speech might end up being limited. It’s all well and good bringing together people with disparate views on a unifying cause, but it could be much harder to get them speaking with one voice.
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