Jacinda Ardern promises to close 'gaps in hate speech legislation'

10:31 am on 9 December 2020

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's hope for political consensus regarding hate speech law is looking doubtful as the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack reignites the debate.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The 800-page report includes a recommendation to create a new offence under the Crimes Act, making it illegal to intentionally stir up hatred against racial or religious groups.

In a speech in Parliament on Tuesday, Ardern promised to work with all parties to try to close "the gaps in hate speech legislation".

"I know this is a contentious area, and we will work with determination to try form that consensus if we can."

But soon after, National leader Judith Collins told reporters Ardern would have to provide "a very compelling reason" to win her MPs' support.

"As a party, we certainly do not support people being criminalised for unwise statements when they should be basically spoken to," Collins said.

"You can't legislate people's thoughts ... we wouldn't want to drive underground thoughts or statements that could then lead to ... violence."

She told Morning Report the issue was previously explored by a select committee inquiry chaired by former Labour MP Dianne Yates in 2005.

"What we do not want to end up with in New Zealand is UK-style hate speech legislation that has ended up with people being criminalised and even imprisoned for foolish and silly comments on social media."

ACT leader David Seymour also reiterated his party's long-held opposition to hate speech legislation.

"It would be wrong to introduce British-style hate speech laws without even the exemptions for free and fair debate that those laws have in Britain."

In its report, the commission recommended repealing existing hate speech provisions in the Human Rights Act and creating a new offence under the Crimes Act.

The law change would make it a crime to intentionally "stir up, maintain or normalise hatred" against racial or religious groups through the use of "threatening, abusive, or insulting" language.

Offenders would face up to three years in prison.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said the proposed offence would not significantly expand the type of speech currently criminalised.

"The Royal Commission's proposal is actually quite a mild and conservative one. In large part, it's about moving around bits of law, rather than seriously expanding its coverage," he said.

"I don't know that there's anything in the Royal Commission's report that we should be extraordinarily worried about."

Victoria University of Wellington law lecturer Eddie Clark too considered the recommendation to be a "reasonably minimalist" one.

He said he wished the commission had been bolder and also considered matters of gender and sexual orientation.

"It looks slightly once-over-lightly," Clark said.

"They didn't engage with the idea that people have a right to be free from discrimination and live openly as themselves in society without fear of being abused in the street."

The commission's report was also critical of the the state of the country's intelligence and security agencies, describing them as being in a "fragile state" in 2014.

"A rebuilding exercise did not get underway until mid-2016 and was still unfinished when the terrorist attack took place in 2019," the report said.

Speaking on Morning Report, Collins defended the former-National government's oversight of the spy agencies over that period.

She said National ministers found it difficult to take action in the aftermath of the Urewera Raids.

"We were trying to get through search and surveillance legislation, we had people marching in the streets against our security agencies... there was also no real consensus across Parliament to support the government in moves that it took.

"If you are looking for any particular party to blame, have a look at the people who are busily marching the streets, the MPs, the parties who were doing that at a time when National was trying to do the right thing for the country."

Collins said the National Party, under her leadership, would work constructively with the government in search of improvements.

"We will make sure that we do not put our own interests before our country."

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