Last year, there was a lively debate in New Zealand about what should, and on the other hand what should not, be banned. This was triggered initially by Phil Goff’s attempt to prevent two Canadian speakers from speaking in Auckland. It turned out that, on being challenged by the hastily constituted Free Speech Coalition (of which I am proud to be one of the initial members), Mr Goff did not have the legal authority to ban the Canadians, so conveniently an Auckland Council controlled body banned them on “safety grounds”.
Then there was Jan Thomas, the Australian Vice Chancellor of Massey University, who banned me from speaking on the Massey campus about my time in politics. Initially she claimed the ban was on “security” grounds, but it was pretty obvious even on the day she announced the ban, and became abundantly clear when her internal emails were revealed, that the real reason for the ban had nothing to do with “security” but everything to do with her concern that I might say something with which she disagreed.
In the middle of March, another Australian murdered in cold blood 50 people praying in two mosques in Christchurch, and injured many more. This was a truly horrific event, and all New Zealanders, no matter their religious persuasion or political inclination, were utterly appalled by it.
But the event has led to some very disturbing reactions. The Chief Censor has banned the “manifesto” issued by the killer, and it is an offence to possess a copy of it unless you are one of the chosen few – approved academics and journalists for example. Anybody is free to buy a copy of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, a document which inspired the cold-blooded murder of millions and the hot-blooded death of tens of millions, but not the manifesto of the Christchurch mosque killer.
There was wild talk about banning hate speech, and the suggestion that the mosque murders were the inevitable consequence of ill-defined “hate speech”. A major book seller briefly banned the latest book by Jordan Peterson, even though to the best of my knowledge Professor Peterson has never advocated violence against anybody. I attended one of his New Zealand lectures in February, and the most provocative thing I heard him say was that the evidence is now overwhelming that children have the best prospect in life if they are brought up by two loving parents. (And of course he is right.) I certainly didn’t hear him advocate violence of any kind.
There continue to be statements by Government ministers, most notably Andrew Little, the Minister of Justice, about the need to tighten the laws around “hate speech”, and strong support for such moves has been expressed by the Chief Human Rights Commissioner.
But what constitutes “hate speech”? A few weeks ago, I was interviewed on Radio Waatea, a Maori language radio station. The interviewer began by asking me how I, as one of two spokespeople for lobby group Hobson’s Pledge, would modify what I have been saying in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. When I replied that I didn’t see the slightest need to change what I have been saying at all, she seemed surprised. I pointed out that Hobson’s Pledge has sought to remind New Zealanders that the Treaty of Waitangi promised that all New Zealanders would have “the rights and privileges of British subjects”, in other words, the same rights.
She tried hard to get me to concede that I would need to change my language, and of course that is utter nonsense. It simply cannot be construed as “hate speech” to insist that all New Zealanders have the same political rights. Or to note that having one Maori great-grandparent simply could not have been intended to grant some kind of political preference more than a century later.
Is it safe to talk about immigration, and immigrants? I have often talked about the need to reduce New Zealand’s total level of immigration, and in my autobiography Incredible Luck I devote a chapter to the idea that it has been New Zealand’s very high level of immigration – greater, relative to our population, than in any other developed country except Israel – that has been a major contributor to our extremely slow growth in per capita income going back decades. This is not the place to elaborate on that argument – perhaps in a future column – but nothing about that view expresses hostility to particular immigrants.
My first wife was born in Kenya, my second in Singapore; two of my three children were born in the United States, and my daughter-in-law in South Africa. Many of my friends were born outside New Zealand. We are quite literally a country of immigrants, with every single New Zealander having at least one ancestor who has arrived within the last 200 years.
But is it safe to talk about the kind of immigrants we want? We don’t hesitate to specify the skills we prefer, and give a preference to immigrants who can bring capital with them. But somehow to suggest we want those with a particular belief system to come – or not to come – is regarded as grossly inappropriate. If it is inappropriate, I stand convicted already. In the autobiography referred to above, I wrote:
Western secular societies are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with those whose world view is fundamentally inconsistent with the values of a modern society, a society where Church and State are separate and where everybody is free to worship God in any way they choose, or indeed not to worship God at all. In no modern society can it be acceptable to have renouncing one’s religion being an offence punishable by death. In no civilized society can it be acceptable to forbid the education of girls, or to murder girls who seek an education.
In a recent survey of Muslim opinion in a wide range of countries, more than 75% of those surveyed in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan favoured execution for those who leave Islam. In the recent Pakistani elections, more than 100 political workers, including several candidates, were killed by the Taliban, who argued that voting in elections was un-Islamic.
And of course since those words were published in 2014 we’ve seen some grotesque examples of what can happen in predominantly Muslim societies – the sentencing to death of a woman in Pakistan on the basis of dubious evidence that she had taken a sip of water from a cup intended for some Muslim women; the imposition of full sharia law in Brunei, involving death by stoning of gays and those guilty of adultery, with amputation of limbs for those guilty of theft; and the sentencing of a female lawyer in Iran to 148 lashes and, if she survives the flogging, 33 years in prison for defending women who removed their headscarves in public.
It can never be acceptable to massacre people at worship, or to massacre people for their beliefs. But it is important that, in reviewing the adequacy of our laws, we do not lurch to the other extreme and ban the expression of opinions just because those opinions are hurtful to some members of the community.