Act Leader David Seymour says the Government’s proposal to criminalise hate speech will have a chilling effect on political debate within New Zealand, with proposed laws containing penalties of up to three years imprisonment.
“That's a harsher penalty than we have for male assaults female, assaulting a child or even participating in a riot – is going to be very damaging for New Zealanders’ belief in their ability to express themselves and for our country's ability to solve problems.”
In response to recommendations by the Royal Commission into the March 15 attacks, the Government is considering laws, under the Crimes Act, that will change the definition of “hate speech” and protect a broader range of groups and communities.
Speaking to Q+A with Jack Tame the MP for Epsom argued that increasing limits on speech would hamper political debate, and the ability for the country to tackle complex and challenging issues.
“We’re actually, for the first time in many generations, seeing freedom, civil liberties, political rights going backwards around the world, and some of these authoritarian regimes are looking more competent than they have for a very long time. I think that's a real problem, and it reflects the fact that democracies are struggling to digest difficult problems."
Seymour agreed that some, such as Asian New Zealanders, wanted more protections because they feel threatened and that “hate speech is wrong”.
“This is not a question of whether that behaviour is wrong or whether we want to stop it and move to a more civilised level. The question is whether giving the state the ability to prosecute people for opinions is going to get us there. What's different about hate speech laws is that the motivation to prosecute, the motivation to sympathise is actually highly politically charged.”
But political commentator Lamia Imam, argued that Seymour's characterisation of the proposed laws as throwing people in jail for expressing an opinion were inaccurate and unfounded: “It’s doesn’t say that.”
“Essentially what the Royal Commission has recommended is that we come up with a piece of legislation that stops hate speech from going into hate crimes. And they are very clear about it, that hate speech leads to hate crimes. And if you’re a member of the minority groups, like a religious minority or a gender minority, you are in great danger, we know this. Those folks are subject to much more violence than the rest of us, so we should be protected.”
PR consultant Ben Thomas said that while the discussion was centred on proposals, and not a final version of the legislation, the penalties for hate speech would be significantly increased.
“The Royal Commission was quite clear that it wanted a higher standard in legislation because if felt that the current low standard meant that it was impossible to prosecute. So the clear signal from all of these things would be more prosecutions … that the Government wants the police and the Human Rights Commission to be more active.”
He called for greater clarity about what was being proposed.
“I think if you’re going to jump into creating a criminal offence with a three year imprisonable penalty you actually can’t afford to not be clear … particularly if it's language you are criminalising.”