Jacinda Ardern has never really understood free speech

Dr James Kierstead
The Australian
19 January, 2023

Updated Jan 19, 2023

It was an exciting night in New Zealand politics. With bated breath I waited for Winston Peters, the perennial kingmaker in the country’s proportional representation system, to announce which of the two major parties would govern.
This was 2017, and Peters went, as we now know, with Labour. Soon I was listening to a cheery, chipper speech by our new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

She seemed like a pragmatist. My only concern was whether she would keep the far-left at bay – or be driven by them herself. A further possibility – that Ardern herself didn’t understand some very basic principles of liberal democracy, including free speech – hadn’t even occurred to me.

The first test came in 2018, when two far-right Canadians were prevented from speaking in an Auckland Council-owned venue. The PM would seize the opportunity, I thought, to underline the principle that open societies allow for the expression of all types of views – no matter how noxious we might find some of them.

Instead, though she did bring herself to issue a reluctant defence of the principle of freedom of movement under the law (“They’re here because there were no grounds to block them being here”) she couldn’t resist adding that “their views are not those that are shared by this country” and that she herself was “quite proud of that.”

Of course, the whole point of making free speech a basic human right (as the UN did in 1948) is to protect it from threats, threats that may sometimes come from other citizens and politicians. That the Canadian speakers’ views weren’t shared by most was irrelevant, as was Ardern’s own attitude to them.

This basic misunderstanding was a sign of things to come.

On March 15th, 2019, a lone gunman killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch. In the days that followed, Ardern was at her compassionate best, donning a headscarf in honour of the slain and making doubly clear that, as she put it, “they are us.”

Two months later, Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron together launched the Christchurch Call, in which governments and tech companies signed a pledge to tackle online extremism. It was an understandable response to the horrific events in Christchurch. But did Ardern understand the delicacy of the issues involved, and the importance of balancing regulation with the value of free expression?

Not if her attempt to introduce new “hate speech” laws was anything to go by. In 2021, Ardern’s government set out proposals to ban inciting hatred against any group defined by sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, employment status, family status, religious beliefs, ethical beliefs, or political opinions.

The proposals quickly collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity. An opposition politician pointed out that the maximum penalties (three years in jail or a $50,000 fine) were harsher than for some categories of assault. A journalist asked the Justice Minister if millennials would be liable for prosecution if they hated on Boomers for owning all the houses – Boomers being, of course, a group defined by age. Amazingly, he couldn’t say.

If that version of the boosted “hate speech” laws were quietly put on the back burner, though, that doesn’t mean New Zealanders now have nothing to fear from their government when it comes to free speech.

Ardern’s recent speech at the UN, where she compared online expression to a weapon of war, sent shivers down the spine of true liberals everywhere.

“How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists?” she asked. It’s a reasonable question for a politician intent on tackling climate change, but anyone who understands free speech knows the answer can’t be “You limit some people’s rights to free expression.”

That’s a response Ardern seems to find rather tempting, though, and that means that New Zealanders will need to remain vigilant on the free speech front at least until the next election. Ardern’s government looks eager to move forward with changes to online content regulation inspired by the Christchurch Call, and Kiri Allan, one of her ministers, has introduced a new, more modest revamp of New Zealand’s “hate speech” laws to parliament.

Though some of the loopier segments of the Kiwi blogosphere may beg to differ, Jacinda Ardern is not a tyrant. As even Winston Peters has now realised, though, nor is she the level-headed centrist that so many once took her to be. Has she allowed the far-left to drive her after all?

Perhaps. But there’s an even more worrying possibility – that for the past five years, New Zealand has been led by someone who has never really understood what free speech is, or why it’s so important.

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