Why I can’t quite stop worrying and learn to love the Prime Minister’s UN speech

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
7 October, 2022

Our Prime Minister is a real star on the world stage. Capable, articulate, and charismatic, it’s no surprise that her latest foreign trip has won her further plaudits.

So, why did I feel more worried than proud when I listened to her recent UN speech?

The Prime Minister was as measured as ever, making sure to refer to ‘values of free speech’ in the same breath as she targeted online ‘disinformation.’

The modern internet does present some dangers. Authoritarian states use social media as a weapon. The Prime Minister clearly had Putin’s Russia in mind when she asked how we can end wars that combatants have come to view as ‘not only legal but noble.’

So far, so good – if Ardern is signalling a renewed effort to think hard about Russian bots and other online dangers, balancing our desire to do something about the problem with long-established rights to do with freedom of expression.

It was the next couple of questions that gave me more questions about what Ardern really has in mind.

‘How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists?’ she asked. ‘How do you ensure the human rights of others are upheld, when they are subjected to hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology?’

Dealing with nay-sayers and holdouts can definitely be frustrating, especially when the need for change seems urgent. But disagreement is part and parcel of the democratic process, not to mention something that’s protected by the fundamental liberal right of free expression.

As the Christchurch massacre made clear, there is also a very real danger of ‘hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology’ prompting horrific acts. But as the government’s recent efforts to frame new ‘hate speech’ laws showed, attempts to set limits on speech invariably raise a host of complex issues to do with where those limits are placed, and who patrols them.

The Prime Minister is reportedly working on some new suggestions for online content regulation with her cabinet. Hopefully they will take the issue with the seriousness it deserves, and make a genuine attempt to deal with online risks while also preserving the benefits of online expression. They should also make sure any major new limits on free speech have significant buy-in from New Zealanders.

Until we get more clarity on exactly what they have in mind, though, I’m going to go on feeling more worried than proud.

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