In the weekend, Act leader David Seymour relaunched his party in a way that will polarise the electorate, triggering both hate and respect. At the centre of this latest attempt to reinvent the party is a firm concentration on political freedoms and "freedom of speech" – which aligns Seymour's party with a variant of rightwing populism and an anti-Establishment Zeitgeist that is resonating widely in other parts of the world.
It's a change that could well end up ensuring Act's survival – and maybe even its growth – at next year's election. By repositioning the party as some sort of antithesis to what Seymour sees as the "woke" liberal establishment that is now recasting New Zealand politics, Act is possibly making itself more relevant than it's been for a long time.
The issue has a growing potential to win votes. As Graham Adams argues today, "In hitching his wagon to the star of free speech, Seymour has no doubt calculated that it is a sleeper issue that will draw a swag of new voters — even from among those who would normally have to hold their nose to cast a vote for Act in the light of other policies they may find distasteful" – see: Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fortunes?.
Adams also argues that a focus on political freedoms fits with Act's traditional libertarian philosophies: "It's a no-brainer for Seymour to stand up for free speech. Act has always been a party dedicated to keeping the long arm of the state out of our lives (and pockets) in a way that National often only pretends to be. It is a topic — like assisted dying — that is perfectly suited to Act's liberal philosophy."
Of course, at its core, Seymour's new-look Act Party is still the same economically rightwing party it has always been. At the conference in the weekend we saw the usual re-assertion of those values and principles with the return of Roger Douglas style policies around flat-tax, education vouchers, and talk of reducing the bureaucracy. The splash of pink that's been added to the party's logo shouldn't be taken to indicate much more than an attempt to soften the party's old-fashioned image.
There's some reason to be sceptical about Seymour's motives for Act's re-orientation towards the Zeitgeist issues of free speech and hate speech. In the past, Act and Seymour have certainly descended into political desperation and opportunism at times. Their last annual conference in August was embarrassing in how much the party pandered to populism and social conservatism. At the time, I wrote that the party was in danger of losing the last semblance of any coherent appeal or political soul – see my column, The death throes of the Act Party.
However Seymour's stance on free speech appears to be genuine. He's been pushing such positions on political liberty for quite some time. Furthermore, there's something very different about this latest reorientation. Partly it's because the ideological landscape has changed so much in the last few months. This is a response to the Christchurch massacre, but also due to the growing "culture wars" and debates over personal behaviour and speech.
Of course, the Government has also announced its intention to bolster hate speech laws. Clearly Seymour is aware of a growing divide around issues of political freedoms and is strongly positioning himself on one side. Such divides relating to the "culture wars" need to be taken seriously, as they could yet have a big impact on New Zealand politics.
In Seymour's view, which he expounded at the weekend, the political left has actually become quite illiberal and authoritarian in nature. This is best conveyed in Nicholas Jones' article, 'Intolerant left' wants to censor your thoughts and speech, Act Party leader David Seymour says.
In this, Seymour suggests the political left has now given up on the principles that they used to hold on political freedoms: "For a long time, we could rely on the liberal left to uphold freedom of expression. They may have wanted to take your property, but at least they'd let you have your thoughts and opinions."
As this article explains, Seymour has announced a new "Freedom to Speak" policy to reform the current laws around hate speech. Apparently, a member's bill "would repeal parts of the law that makes some speech unlawful if it is threatening, abusive or insulting and likely to 'excite hostility' against a group of people or bring them into contempt on the ground of their colour, race or ethnicity. Today, Seymour said the bill would remove from the Human Rights Act the words 'abusive' and 'insulting' and leave only 'threatening' as a crime."
Seymour explains: "It should never be a crime to insult or abuse someone with language because nobody should ever be punished on the basis of subjective opinion."
Seymour also went on Newshub's The Nation on Saturday to explain his new "Freedom to Speak" legislation that he intends to submit to Parliament as a private members bill – see: Nazis and racists 'offensive' but shouldn't be arrested – David Seymour.
As the article accompanying this interview explains, "David Seymour wants Kiwis to have the right to be offensive without having to worry about getting arrested. Instead, he hopes 'contempt and ridicule' will stop racists from spreading their poisonous views."
In the interview, Seymour also takes aim at the Human Rights Commission, explaining that he would abolish it, saying "As an electorate MP, I have been to the Human Rights Commission and asked them to help with constituents, and they've run for the hills".
There's been a strong reaction to both Seymour's proposed legislation and his shift to campaign on free speech issues. Newshub has reported the head of the Māori Council, Matthew Tukaki, arguing that Seymour's bill is a "protection racket for those who think it's their right to call me a n****r", and furthermore, "I say to David Seymour if you were black and someone called you a n****r, or a fat black bastard or a black c***, you'd want to have some protection and right of legal challenge" – see: Māori leader 'sick and tired' of free speech advocates looking for 'excuse to call me the N-word'.
As well as Tukaki associating Seymour with racism ("This is not the apartheid-era South Africa where he gets to pick and choose what names people call people of colour, like myself"), this article reports Barrister Thomas Harre arguing that the courts need to be given the power to decide whether certain statements are "freedom of speech or something that should be punished".
Another lawyer, Thomas Beagle, the chairperson of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, suggests that Seymour's reform of the speech laws would be bad for civil liberties: "The problem we're seeing these days is that people are using speech to stop other people speaking, they're using it to suppress certain groups" – see Ollie Ritchie's David Seymour faces backlash over Freedom to Speak Bill.
Beagle also says: "I think it could be a dangerous approach because there's a lot of speech out there which is very harmful for people, and when we look at laws around changing that we need to worry about the harm as well as the freedom of expression".
Plenty in the media have condemned Seymour's stance on free speech. On Twitter, for example, a number of journalists have been showing their disgust and disagreement with Seymour's stance. For example, Stuff journalist Philip Matthews has tweeted: "I don't think David Seymour is a Nazi or a racist but there's no doubt he's trying to (and will fail to) exploit an opportunity presented to him by the murder of 51 Muslims. I wish he'd rethought it."
FWIW, I don't think David Seymour is a Nazi or a racist but there's no doubt he's trying to (and will fail to) exploit an opportunity presented to him by the murder of 51 Muslims. I wish he'd rethought it.— Philip Matthews (@secondzeit) June 16, 2019
In contrast, the AM Show's Duncan Garner has lent support this morning: "I think it's dangerous to have limits to free speech – it's a hot debate right now. Act Leader David Seymour made some good points over the weekend, and I think the state has to be very careful it doesn't pass too many laws and rules around what we can and can't say" – see: Government's clampdown on free speech dangerous for all of us.
An ongoing campaign for Seymour
The weekend wasn't the first time that Seymour has been outspoken or controversial about speech or political freedoms. He's written a number of opinion pieces in recent months about his concerns. For example, last month he explained how Now more than ever we must defend free speech. In this he makes the case that free speech is vital in a democracy, because it helps solves problems and allows open debate. By contrast, he argues that hate speech laws are counterproductive: "laws which criminalise offensive opinions are likely to create resentment and anger rather than cure hate."
He poses three challenges for those in favour of increased hate speech laws: "Here are three important questions for those favouring strong hate speech laws: "How is hate speech to be defined? Who gets to define it? And how can we trust those people not to use hate speech laws to suppress ideas they don't like?"
For another useful example of Seymour putting forward his arguments against an opponent, see TVNZ's Q+A debate: MPs David Seymour and Louisa Wall clash over Israel Folau case during hate speech debate.
A much more contentious clash involved Seymour arguing that Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman is "a real menace to freedom in this country" due to her campaigns on hate speech. This has caused a strong response, not just from the Greens, but also from Judith Collins who condemned Seymour's language – see: Act leader David Seymour taken to task for Golriz Ghahraman comments.
At the time, Ghahraman was being subjected to threats from white supremacists, which required an upgrade to her parliamentary security. For the Act leader's response to all this, see Belinda Feek's David Seymour: I'm not racist, that's 'absolutely absurd'.
Seymour has claimed that the clash with Ghahraman has led to increased offers of help for his party – with a 30 per cent increase in membership and improved fundraising. According to one report: "Seymour attributes his public 'free speech' spat with Green MP Golriz Ghahraman as an unexpected driver of donations. He told Stuff that Act received 'tens of thousands' in donations afterwards. The number of people who joined Act and donated money over that week was the party's best week since he had been leader and likely for a decade before that, he claimed" – see Collette Devlin's Are these the last rites for the Act Party or its rebirth?.
Finally, where is the National Party in all this? And does Seymour also criticise the main party of the right for their stance on free speech? For the best discussion of this, see Graham Adams' Simon Bridges is hobbled in hate-speech debate.