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Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fortunes?


Act leader David Seymour. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty.

The policies announced at Act’s relaunch are mostly standard party fare, but freedom of expression is an issue that could pull in new voters.  

A splash of magenta added to the party logo and policies of raising the age of eligibility for superannuation, lowering taxes and regulatory reform were dutifully covered in the media after Act’s conference on Sunday with a barely stifled yawn.

The question of free speech, however, elicits an immediate and impassioned response — which is no doubt why Newshub Nation was happy to devote an interview with David Seymour on Saturday to the topic after he had gazumped his own official launch by announcing he would be introducing a new bill to protect freedom of expression. 

In his interview with Tova O’Brien, Seymour was staunch in his defence of free speech as “the foundation of all freedoms”.

He defended himself against the suggestion that by wanting to repeal parts of the Human Rights Act he is angling for the racist vote, as well as pointing out he has often spoken out in Parliament against racism — including when the Labour Party attempted to gauge the number of foreign house buyers by counting “Chinese-sounding names”.

Seymour also took potshots at former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy and Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero for being “highly politicised”, which will be music to the ears of those who think the commissioners tend to be partisan and far too willing to insert themselves into debates that lie beyond their remit.

The Newshub interview and party relaunch in Auckland’s wealthy suburb of Parnell showed yet again how successful Seymour is at gaining publicity, whether for frivolous or serious reasons. He certainly punches well above his weight on the publicity circuit for the leader of a party that gained a mere 0.5 per cent of the vote at the 2017 election.

After becoming a household name in 2018 with his turn as a seriously unco man on Dancing with the Stars, Seymour repeated the horror in a recent cameo on the show, once again twerking himself into the nation’s living-rooms.

Seymour made it to the final rounds of Dancing with the Stars last year. Photo/Now to Love.

For those interested in weightier issues, his advocacy for his End of Life Choice Bill has kept him in the public eye ever since it was drawn from the parliamentary ballot in June 2017.

And it will again this month. The next step in the long journey of the assisted dying bill is likely to come on June 26 when a vote will be held at its second reading in Parliament to determine whether it will proceed further.

However, no matter whether it passes or fails, Seymour will again be in the news.

The issue of free speech will also likely keep him in the public gaze for some time given he has staked out a position as the principal antagonist to Green MP Golriz Ghahraman and Justice minister Andrew Little as they follow the lead of the Human Rights Commission and push for an expansion of our hate-speech laws.

His announcement that he will lodge a member’s initiative  — the Freedom to Speak Bill, which would include repealing part of the Human Rights Act and the Summary Offences Act that make insulting and offensive speech unlawful — is mostly symbolic, of course. There is no guarantee the bill will be drawn in the next few months or years — or, indeed, ever.

And even if it is, it will be swiftly voted down. But drawing up a bill represents a dedication to the cause of free speech more tangible than merely criticising the push by Ghahraman and Little for tighter restrictions on speech or what he sees as the Human Rights Commission’s eagerness to interfere in political issues that are outside its role.

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.

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The free-speech debate has been raging in New Zealand since Canadian provocateurs Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern were denied a platform to speak in Auckland last July followed by Don Brash being told he couldn’t speak at Massey University.

The debate erupted again even more vigorously after the Christchurch mosque killings in March.

In April, it was further inflamed by the case of Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia for posting his fundamentalist views on Instagram that those engaging in homosexual acts are headed for Hell unless they repent and turn to Jesus.

Now, Seymour has added more fuel to the fire.

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 (such as the three strikes law or charter schools).

The hundreds of supportive comments on a recent Facebook post in which Seymour defended himself against allegations made by Golriz Ghahraman that he was dog-whistling to white nationalists after he declared her to be a “real menace to freedom in this country” may have also helped convince him that it’s a vote-winner.

In fact, Seymour has claimed that the spat between him and Ghahraman resulted in a surge in memberships and donations of “tens of thousands of dollars” to Act — which would mean the free-speech debate really could be his party’s money shot. 

Of course, by defending free speech, Seymour is not only distinguishing his party from parties on the left. He’s also distancing Act from National. And that’s essential for a minnow.

Like any small party, Act has always done better when it has distinguished itself from its heavyweight political patron and free speech offers a perfect opportunity.

The truth is that National is completely hobbled on the issue of free speech. It can’t convincingly do much more than make well-meaning noises on the topic after having proposed and passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act in 2015 — with the unanimous (albeit reluctant) support of the Labour Party. 

The only members to vote against it were Seymour and four Green MPs (Gareth Hughes, Russel Norman, Julie Anne Genter and Steffan Browning).

When Judith Collins tried to claim on Magic Talk last month that she was a champion of free speech, Seymour immediately took the wind out of her sails by reminding her of National’s recent legislative record.

The HDC Act — which was first mooted by Collins — is seen by some as an overly broad piece of legislation that, despite its good intentions in trying to curb cyber-bullying, should have been more narrowly targeted to deal with specific problems such as revenge porn.

Ironically, its wide-ranging provisions may yet come back to bite National given that the police are investigating one of its MPs, Sarah Dowie, over a text allegedly sent last year from her phone to her estranged lover, fellow MP Jami-Lee Ross, that included the words, “You deserve to die.”

If Seymour had his way, that law wouldn’t apply to Dowie. He says he would amend the act so it only applies to under-18s in order to protect young people from bullying, which he recognises — like revenge porn — is a serious problem.

Between standing up for bullied kids, free speech and the rights of the dying, it’s not impossible that Seymour will do much better at the 2020 election than the 13,075 votes he gained in 2017.

After all, he was so popular on Dancing with the Stars that the judges couldn’t get rid of him until the final rounds.

And who in their right mind would have predicted that?

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