For the first time in five years, the Government has managed to excite almost unanimous outraged opposition from both the political left and right. Its publication of a discussion document, "Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination", has resulted in angry criticism rather than the more anodyne "discussion" it hoped for.
A large part of the problem was an apparent lack of understanding by the Prime Minister of the document's details. Jacinda Ardern told a post-Cabinet press conference that the Government had removed political opinion as grounds for prosecution under a proposed hate-speech law. Ah, no, Prime Minister, I'm afraid you didn't.
Initially, she appears to be correct, because on page 17 of the document, which talks about the areas where hate speech may apply, there is no reference to political opinion. Yet, if she turned back to page four, she would find: "Under this proposal, more groups would be protected by the law if hatred was incited … This may include some or all of the other grounds in the Human Rights Act." In Section 21 (1) (j) of the Human Rights Act, she would find "political opinion, which includes the lack of a particular political opinion or any political opinion".
Lack of a political opinion? Political apathy could become a crime?
What is hate speech? Well, it's not just incitement to violence, which is covered by other existing laws. The discussion document says, "The law would change so that a person who intentionally incites, stirs up, maintains or normalises hatred against any specific group of people based on a characteristic listed in Proposal One would break the law if they did so by being threatening, abusive or insulting, including by inciting violence." Uh oh.
From time to time, columnists and commentators write stuff that is "abusive or insulting" to many groups that have incited our bile. It is part of free speech and debate. We had better be careful once the woolly definitions of hate speech come into force.
Think about the current international furore over the inclusion of a transgender weightlifter in the New Zealand Olympic team as a woman. It has sparked ferocious argument from many people who were born as female and who object to the move. Under the hate-speech law, such comments could be prosecuted because they pertain to a person's sexuality or gender.
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Of course, that is a hypothetical example and the Prime Minister has already dismissed the use of hypotheticals as "trivialising" the issue. Yet, when you are trying to define the effects of proposals that have yet to be enshrined in law; "hypotheticals" are all you have to work with. It is important because someone may face up to three years' jail or a $50,000 fine if they get it wrong and cross the legal line.
The proposed hate-speech law is a long-delayed response to the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings and the recommendations of the royal commission that followed. Yet the murderous Australian (who shall remain unnamed on this page) who slaughtered so many wasn't inspired by hate speech, he was motivated purely by hate itself. Hopefully, he will remain isolated in prison forever. Although, under the proposed law, that sentiment might be considered hate speech against him.
Ardern is increasingly displaying the ability to gloss over weaknesses in her argument with a toothy smile as she ladles soothing words on her critics' claims.
In a month's time, the "discussion" will have been held, the bill will go on to be drafted and the public can have more input at the select-committee stage. Hopefully by then, the Government will have a clearer idea of what it wants than it has right now.