Who’s the me­nace?

The Northland Age - - Opinion -

I was asked about Green MP Gol­riz Ghahra­man’s stance on free speech. In her own words, “It is vi­tal that the pub­lic is in­volved in a con­ver­sa­tion about what speech meets the thresh­old for be­ing reg­u­lated, and what mix of en­force­ment tools should be used.”

I be­lieve that such an idea, and by ex­ten­sion politi­cians who pro­mote it, is a dan­ger to our free so­ci­ety. When asked about Ghahra­man’s po­si­tion, in the mid­dle of a 15-minute ra­dio in­ter­view, I re­sponded that I thought she was a ‘me­nace to free­dom.’

What has fol­lowed has been ex­traor­di­nary. It has been a les­son in how beat-ups and witch-hunts oc­cur, and why it’s so im­por­tant that we re­tain laws that al­low us to ex­press our­selves freely. By Tues­day af­ter­noon I was be­ing asked by me­dia if I was re­spon­si­ble for Ghahra­man re­quir­ing a se­cu­rity de­tail. It was clearly a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.

Politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and other estab­lish­ment fig­ures have lined up to de­nounce my com­ment.

Na­tional’s po­si­tion is that be­ing nice to peo­ple who threaten free speech is more im­por­tant than de­fend­ing free­dom it­self. The Greens have said it’s my fault that a few nut­cases are threat­en­ing an MP. The Com­mon­wealth Women Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans wrote, ask­ing me to apol­o­gise for my com­ment. I should have known it was not a sin­cere ges­ture be­cause the let­ter was duly released to the me­dia, who hap­pily pub­lished it with barely a re­sponse from me. Other women MPs told me they’d known noth­ing about it.

Sur­pris­ingly, Trevor Mal­lard went on TV and said I was a bully. The Speaker is sup­posed to be Par­lia­ment’s neu­tral ref­eree.

A num­ber of jour­nal­ists have at­tacked me. The me­dia should be the loud­est cheer­lead­ers for free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Their job re­lies on free­dom of ex­pres­sion, and free­dom and democ­racy rely on the me­dia do­ing their job.

Were it not for Act, Par­lia­ment would be sleep­walk­ing to­wards tighter speech laws. The me­dia wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Only a few brave aca­demics might raise their heads above the para­pet.

There is some­thing not right about this sit­u­a­tion. If my com­ment en­dan­gered Ghahra­man, then the re­sponse of me­dia and politi­cians has mul­ti­plied its airplay ex­po­nen­tially. That re­sponse has been driven by the very peo­ple ac­cus­ing me of en­dan­ger­ing Ghahra­man.

Be­cause I do not think any­one should be en­dan­gered for en­gag­ing in po­lit­i­cal de­bate, I am re­luc­tant to re­spond any fur­ther, but it’s dif­fi­cult when the very peo­ple who say they’re con­cerned are us­ing the sit­u­a­tion to at­tack me po­lit­i­cally. Af­ter all, the me­dia cited a ‘source,’ then Ghahra­man her­self, when re­port­ing the new se­cu­rity ar­range­ments and at­tribut­ing them to me.

My de­trac­tors be­lieve that ex­press­ing a gen­uinely held view on an im­por­tant is­sue makes me re­spon­si­ble for threats of vi­o­lence. They are wrong. My com­ments do not come close to giv­ing me such re­spon­si­bil­ity. And the cur­rent law is eas­ily on my side.

This be­lief ab­solves the real per­pe­tra­tors — those mak­ing the threats — of re­spon­si­bil­ity. It also in­tro­duces the wor­ry­ing im­pli­ca­tion that some MPs are un­able to fully par­tic­i­pate or be crit­i­cised be­cause there are vi­o­lent threats. It’s a be­lief that al­lows vi­o­lent thugs to set the agenda.

The re­sponse to my com­ment proves we can­not trust govern­ment to en­force hate speech laws. Imag­ine if the state had even greater pow­ers to pun­ish speech at its dis­posal. Some state agency would now be us­ing that power to in­ves­ti­gate and pun­ish a sit­ting MP’s gen­uinely-held views.

Hate speech laws turn de­bate into a pop­u­lar­ity con­test, where the win­ners get to si­lence views they don’t like by us­ing the power of the state. Tighter re­stric­tions on speech can only mean giv­ing some agency the power to pun­ish peo­ple for say­ing things that do not in­cite harm but are merely of­fen­sive or dis­taste­ful. In other words, what you can think is de­ter­mined by what is pop­u­lar.

Act will con­tinue to de­fend the crit­i­cal prin­ci­ple that no­body should ever be pun­ished by the power of the state on the ba­sis of opin­ion.


Leader, Act

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