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Dr Muriel Newman

Defending Free Speech

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Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear – President Harry S Truman.

Every New Zealander who cares about our democratic right to free speech should be concerned about the Labour Party’s dangerous new bill on election financing. As John Armstrong, a senior political journalist at the Herald wrote: “Wake up to what Labour is doing with its shabby, self-serving Electoral Finance Bill. Or let it be on your conscience that you stood back and watched your right to free speech being flushed down the drain.”

While the Bill was ostensibly introduced to overhaul the law around election funding, the key target is the New Zealand public. Such draconian new restrictions are being proposed – extending the regulated period to the whole of election year, widening the definition of election advertising to cover any issue being promoted by a politician or party, forcing almost anyone who wants to advocate for change to register with the state providing details of donors and spending – that the end result will be the effective muzzling of public criticism of government policy for the whole of election year. That means that in New Zealand the freedom of speech will not exist for one year out of three. (To read the Bill click here )

The Bill will force all third parties engaging in “election advertising”, which will encompass issues like tax cuts, child abuse, or tougher sentences – with which a party or candidate is associated – to either make a statutory declaration that their spending is under the $5,000 limit, or if it is over, to register, appoint a financial agent and file an election expense return showing that they kept within the $60,000 threshold. They will also have to provide details of all donors or risk confiscation of any anonymous donation of over $500.

The proposed changes will not address the hypocrisy whereby on the one hand the government imposes draconian regulations to restrict public criticism of government policy during election year, while on the other hand leaving itself free to direct public sector bodies to spend millions and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money advertising and promoting Labour Party policy.

Graeme Hunt, journalist and author of a new book “Spies and Revolutionaries” has blamed MMP for the Government’s Electoral Finance Bill: “MMP is responsible, among other things, for the two most self-serving bills in history to enter the House – one to validate the Government’s deliberate election overspending at the last election and the other to give it an unfair spending advantage in future polls”.

Bernard Robertson, Editor of the New Zealand Law Journal roundly criticised the Bill in his latest editorial: “This Bill is fundamentally obnoxious and should be scrapped. It will penalise private citizens who have the temerity to interfere in politics, while doing nothing to deal with the major electoral funding issue we face: the misuse of taxpayer’s money on a huge scale to ensure the re-election of the incumbent government”.

Labour plans to gag third parties which engage in advocacy during election year. Yet in a healthy democracy, community groups advocating for change play a vital role in keeping issues of concern in the forefront of the public eye, thereby forcing politicians to engage and respond. News stories, advertisements, letters, emails, leaflets, placards, videos, CDs, websites, petitions, marches, protests, and other forms of campaigning all form part of the rich tapestry of public opinion which, in New Zealand, drives political change.

Bernard Robertson, this week NZCPR guest commentator, in his article Regulating Freedom of Speech explains that the way the law is drafted, the ban could affect us all. According to the Bill:

Election advertising includes anything that takes a position on a proposition with which one or more candidates or parties are associated. Think about this carefully. It means that if you in your private or work capacity send letters to clients, or to parishioners or to the parents of the children at your school and mention that the remaining tariffs adversely affect your business, or that some form of regulation imposes a burden for no benefit, or encouraging people to think when voting about the plight of the homeless, or the need for money to spent on education, then you will be engaging in election advertising. If you wish to deliver a leaflet or send out a letter like that then you will have to register as a “third party” unless you can prove that you spent less than $500 between 1 January 2008 and the election date. So in order to exercise your right to free speech on political issues during election year you will have to register and then expose yourself to having to produce sets of accounts, having to have them audited and being investigated. So if you want to exercise a right supposedly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act, you have to register with the state.”

So what does the Attorney-General Michael Cullen – who assesses whether Bills introduced into Parliament have Bill of Rights implications – have to say about a bill that bans free speech in election year? Astonishingly, this is his conclusion:

Some of the freedom of expression issues, particularly those related to the regulated period within which advertising restrictions apply, are finely balanced. I have concluded that the Bill is not inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. In reaching my conclusion I have taken into account that the regulation of the electoral system ultimately depends upon political judgements and is an area in which a wide margin of appreciation is afforded to Parliament. (To read the Judgement click here

In other words, by using examples drawn from overseas, the Attorney-General has delivered the right of New Zealanders to freely engage in the political process in election year into the hands of “Parliament”. That of course, is code for Labour and its support parties.

The Select Committee considering the Bill is the Justice and Electoral Committee, which will have additional members seconded so that all Parliamentary parties are represented. During the first reading debate, the parties that supported the Bill were Labour, the Greens, NZ First, United and the Progressives, with National, the Maori Party and the two Independents opposing the Bill. ACT did not vote. (To read the Hansard of the first reading speeches, click here )

With the Attorney-General handing the Electoral Finance Bill to restrict the public’s right to free speech to a Select Committee that is effectively controlled by the party that proposed the restrictions in the first place, public pressure is now the only way to stop this bill from becoming law. No matter which side of the political fence a person’s interests lie, all New Zealanders should unite to oppose this Bill that gags free speech in election year. And, with public submissions closing on September 7th, there is not much time to lose.

I am asking everyone who reads this newsletter to do three things: firstly, make sure that all of their contacts are aware of the threat to the freedom of speech posed by the Electoral Finance Bill; secondly, help prevent the Bill from being rushed through Parliament by sending in a submission and asking to be heard; and thirdly, signing the New Zealand Centre for Political Research electronic petition opposing the bill so that when I make my submission to the Select Committee I can say that I am speaking on behalf of the thousands of New Zealanders who support the NZCPR petition.

In his speech to the Press Club on Wednesday, National Party Leader John Key reminded us that:

“Only 27 countries, encompassing only 13% of the world’s population, are full democracies, with universal suffrage, with free and fair elections between competing parties, with freedom of association, and with freedom of speech. New Zealand is one of those countries and New Zealanders are part of that 13% minority.”

That democratic freedom, that we all too often take for granted, has been hard won. Our forefathers fought and died to protect it. Right now a central tenet of our democracy – the freedom of speech – is under attack. This time that attack is not coming from foreign governments but from our own. Surely we owe it to past generations – and future ones – to engage in this fight for free speech with as much vigour as we can muster.

“Our natural, inalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation from government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment” – President Ronald Reagan.

The poll this week asks: Do you believe there should be any restrictions on the public’s right to free speech either before or during an election campaign?