Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill – First Reading

The Greens will be supporting this bill to remove the sedition laws from the statute book. Those laws are not consistent with a vibrant democracy or with our New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. They prevent us from “exciting disaffection” against the Government of the day, and of course that is something that we MPs could be accused of doing in Parliament most days when we sit here. Those laws were put on the statute book to constrain dissent against the Government, and have been used for that purpose. For example, they were used to convict Māori leaders in the 19th century, notably Te Whiti and Rua Kēnana. Then, in the earlier part of the 20th century, a Catholic bishop, Bishop Liston, was charged for making supposedly seditious statements when he hinted that he supported the Irish nationalist cause. We have also had the example of three leaders of the Labour Party — Harry Holland, Peter Fraser, and Walter Nash — who were convicted of sedition for supporting workers’ struggles, for being against conscription, and for selling left-wing books.

The Greens have been pushing for an end to the legislation on sedition for years. We have been asking written questions, etc., but were getting no change out of the Labour Government. However, two events have given the sedition issue, and the getting of these undemocratic laws off the statute book, some momentum. The first was the decision in 2004 by the police to use the sedition laws, after those laws had been in abeyance for decades, really — since the first half of the 20th century. In 2004 there was the Tim Selwyn case, where a man who lodged an axe in the Prime Minister’s office window was convicted not only of criminal damage, which is a normal charge, but also of sedition because of what he wrote in a pamphlet at the time. He called, in that pamphlet, for others to take similar symbolic actions against the Government’s then Foreshore and Seabed Bill. He did not, in the pamphlet, talk about violent acts or vandalism, or ask for people to use an axe in the way he had used one; he just talked about symbolic actions, which clearly could have been of any type. But the sedition laws were so flexible in their application that he was actually convicted.

Then there was the case more recently where the police charged a Dunedin man with sedition after he put out a little pamphlet advertising the swap of a petrol-soaked couch for a crate of beer. Clearly, although no one would support the idea of burning couches, that was a student prank. Yet that Draconian law, which had been in abeyance for many years, was brought out again. The charge against the Dunedin man was later dropped, but we saw the real problem of the police starting to use that repressive law, perhaps again and again.

The other event that has propelled change was Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s Law Commission report entitled Reforming the Law of Sedition, which called for the law’s repeal and provided all the reasoning as to why it should be repealed.

The Green Party is particularly pleased with this bill, because for once we are running against the tide of what has been happening in some other like-minded countries, as they are often called, such as Australia and Britain, both of which have made their sedition laws even worse than they had been. Those countries have not taken them off the statute book; they have made them even worse, under the cover of the so-called war on terror. In most other cases where New Zealand is compared with those two countries, we have had legislation flowing in the same direction as theirs, which has been restricting our freedoms to some extent and undermining due process in the judicial system. It is great that in this case we are running in the opposite direction of Australia and Britain, and are expanding our human rights by getting rid of the sedition laws.

Australia still has seditious laws that, I think, prevent people from — again that funny phrase — “exciting disaffection” against their Government. Actually, the Howard Government in 2005 brought in some laws that expanded the sedition provisions in a worse direction than previously. One of the new offences brought in by the Howard Government makes it a crime to “assist an organisation at war with the Commonwealth”. If that Australian law had been in during the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of Aussies could have been charged, because huge numbers of them supported the Vietnamese struggle against the American, Australian, and New Zealand invaders, and marched with banners declaring such things as “Victory to the National Liberation Front” — the National Liberation Front being the body that was fighting for freedom in South Viet Nam. Today, parliamentary delegations from Australia and New Zealand honour the leaders of that very same National Liberation Front, visit Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, and generally accept that the freedom struggle of the Vietnamese was a just cause and that the Australian and New Zealand troops, along with the Americans, were among the aggressors.

There is also in Australia a new and rather vaguely worded piece of legislation against advocating force and violence, which could be used against dissenters. For example, if the Australian Government advocates and uses force and violence against Iraqis — as it is actually doing today — I do not think that John Howard would be brought before the court. Yet if an ordinary Australian advocates violent resistance by Iraqis against the foreign occupying troops, he or she may end up being charged under that law.

In Britain new laws prohibit the glorification of terrorism. Well, no one in this Parliament, I am sure, supports terrorism, but we can see that the British laws enter dangerous territory in making such a prohibition on people’s speech. Firstly, I think it is much better that if anyone is glorifying something we greatly dislike, such as terrorism, they do it out in the open so that we can deal with it. We can combat it and we can argue against it vigorously, rather than drive it underground where it becomes even more dangerous. Secondly, as we all know, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and Nelson Mandela is often mentioned as a case in point. There is a film in our theatres right now called Catch a Fire, which is the story of an African National Congress fighter who blew up an oil refinery. That would clearly be a terrorist act under the anti-terrorism legislation we have in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, but at the time of the apartheid regime some New Zealanders defended, publicly and in writing, such African National Congress actions. Should they have been imprisoned for doing so? I think that most people would say no. Talking about what other people are doing overseas thousands of miles away from here, or expressing a point of view or an opinion, should not in themselves be crimes. That should not be put on the same level as actual terrorist acts committed by New Zealanders.

The Green Party supports this bill, but we would have liked it to go a little further than it has gone. We would have liked it to also include removing the blasphemy provisions from the Crimes Act. Perhaps the select committee could even do that, because the blasphemy laws are just as much a breach of free speech as the sedition laws are. If we look at the origin of those laws, we see that they are often intended not only to protect religion but to protect a particular denomination — in the British tradition, the Anglican denomination — from criticism. Today, I think we are in a situation where there are many denominations within Christianity and many other faiths, and where some people are not religious at all, and they should be able to have a free exchange of ideas about each other’s beliefs and religions. Hopefully, that exchange will not be done in a hateful way; of course, we are against that. But there should be freedom to have that exchange, and we are operating in an environment where there is a carry-over of the traditional State religion. I was just looking at the title “Queen of New Zealand”, which has a much longer version: “Queen of New Zealand and Her other Realms and Territories … [and] Defender of the Faith”. That is the final phrase in the Queen’s official title, the “Faith” not being the Christian faith but the Anglican faith. The Queen is head of the Anglican Church.

So our blasphemy laws go back in history, as do the sedition laws. Both are archaic and both should be abolished, but it is great that this bill will do that in relation to sedition. The Green Party fully supports the bill. The way that the four MMP parties — United Future, the Greens, ACT, and the Māori Party — have worked together to establish the momentum to get rid of this law is wonderful. We had a joint press conference, and then quickly after that Labour, when it saw the game was up, moved this bill into the House, and we have progress on it today.