NZ’s new PM suggests shift from identity politics. So can Kiwis relax?

Dr James Kierstead
The Australian
1 February, 2023

As readers of The Australian will be aware, New Zealand has a new prime minister. The new man, Chris Hipkins, has seemingly signalled a move away from the identity politics beloved of Ardern.   Does that mean that Kiwis concerned about free speech can now chillax?

It doesn’t look like it. Justice Minister Kiri Allan’s new ‘hate speech’ bill passed its first reading in parliament on December 13th last year.

The statement Allan made in support of her bill shows how little Labour has learned from the debacle of its first package of ‘hate speech’ proposals. They were hastily withdrawn after widespread public blowback and after Ardern and some of her ministers proved incapable of defending (or even accurately summarizing them) on air.

That package sought to criminalise the incitement of hatred against any group defined by sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, employment status, family status, religious beliefs, ethical beliefs, or political opinions.

Allan’s new bill would, much more modestly, extend current protections in the Human Rights Act only to groups defined by religious belief.

Allan defended the bill with an argument that comes straight out of our universities (and I regret to say that’s not a compliment). ‘Speech that incites hostility or contempt,’ she asserted, ‘causes significant harm to both those specific groups and to society as a whole.’

One problem with this approach is that most of us think that our political opponents’ proposals will cause harm, so introducing bans on ‘harmful’ speech will inevitably lead to more and more restrictions on legitimate political debate.

Another is that speech that undeniably causes harm may well be justified by other considerations – of truth or of justice, say. Speech exposing the misdeeds of Lance Armstrong, for instance, clearly caused him harm, but who would argue that we should have clamped down on that?

Perhaps most importantly, to treat speech as equivalent to violence is to forget one of the main advantages of open discussion. Free speech is valuable in part precisely because it isn’t violence, and allows us to conduct our political disputes largely free of the horrific conflicts of the past.

Labour claims that this bill will reduce violence. It claims to be acting on the recommendations of a royal commission into the Christchurch massacre in 2019. Allan in her statement presented her bill as a response to an ‘association between hate speech and terrorism’ established by research and to ‘evidence [that] the spread of this type of speech’ could be ‘a precursor to violence.’

But claims of an association between speech and violence are, to put it mildly, debatable. As Jacob Mchangama points out in his recent book Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, ‘studies suggest that, on the whole, free speech is associated with less rather than more violent extremism’ in democracies, and that ‘the preventive effect of free speech on terrorist attacks seems particularly strong.’

This is probably because suppressing speech only convinces extremists that they violence is their only recourse. A 2017 study found that recent far-right violence in Europe has been motivated partly by ‘extensive public repression of radical right actors and opinions.’

‘Victims’ of hate speech, according to Allan, ‘can experience the loss of their right to feel safe, freedom of movement and expression, and, at the right extreme end of the spectrum, the right to life, if someone is killed as a result of incitement or hostility.’

The most peculiar assertion here is that opinions are on the same ‘spectrum’ as homicide. Allan’s argument is, unfortunately, all too familiar to me from my time in academia. Take something very serious – racism, say, or even murder. Next, find something else extremely common – obviously jocular expressions, cartoons, off-hand remarks, social media posts, and so on.

Then, present them as ‘on the same spectrum,’ and you have a ready means of denouncing perfectly ordinary behaviour as if it’s only a step away from something atrocious.

A number of MPs from the opposition National and ACT parties opposed the bill, . But with Labour holding an absolute majority , it looks almost inevitable that this more modest ‘hate speech’ bill will soon become law.

New Zealanders from across the political spectrum have until February 2nd to make submissions to the select committee in a last-ditch attempt to shoot down this ill-thought-out bill.  

What’s most disturbing here isn’t the bill itself, but the trend it represents. Hyper-illiberal views which were once fringe even on university campuses are now deeply embedded in the political class across the English-speaking world.

And that is bad news for free speech everywhere.

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