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Tova O'Brien interviews Act Party leader David Seymour

Tova O’Brien: The ACT Party will unveil its grand rebrand at the party conference this weekend, complete with a suite of new policies. David Seymour, the ACT Party leader, hopes it will transform his minor party into a major political force. David joins me now. David, kia ora. Thank you for joining us.

David Seymour: Kia ora.

What policy changes can you reveal on Newshub Nation this week?

Well, we’re going to talk a lot more about freedom of speech. That’s something that at the start of the year, you might not have thought would be a major issue, but you now the government seriously putting in place new rules that may actually allow people to be punished on the basis of opinion.

Now, you’ve always been able to be punished by the state on the basis of fact. You take something like burglary - Did you enter the premises? Did you commit a crime while you were there? etcetera. Those are all facts. The idea that you could be potentially punished for saying something that was offensive or insulting as they have in the UK is something that worries a lot of Kiwis and so we’re going to talk about that a lot.

So, what changes are you proposing?

So, we’re going to put down a Private Member’s Bill. Obviously, from opposition, your power to affect parliament is limited to that. But it’s actually going to take out the few parts of our legislation in the Human Rights Act and the Summary Offences Act that make people potentially subject to prosecution for saying things that are judged to be insulting or offensive.

And I think that’s important because at a time when the government wants to go the other way, one of the roles that ACT has started to play in parliament recently is that we stand up for things that are sometimes unpopular at the time but important to New Zealanders long-term values, and in this case, freedom of speech.

You want part six and section 61 of the Human Rights Acts scrapped. That’s the bit of the law that protects against racial disharmony. Are you saying that abusive or insulting speech that incites racial disharmony is okay?

What’s not okay is to incite or threaten violence. That’s a crime in the Crimes Act. It always should be. It’s been a crime for a long time.

But insulting or abusive speech that incites racial disharmony?
That’s right because-

That’s fine by you?

No, it’s not fine by me. And this is a really important distinction. I’ve got a strong record of standing up against racism in parliament, such as Labour’s Chinese-sounding names. I was the first to come on this show and stand up to that.

But you want people to have the right to do that?

Well, I don’t even want them to have the right – and this is where it gets important. I don’t want the state to have the right to punish people.

To prosecute.

And so, you look at some of these examples that we’ve seen recently of people saying rude and horrible things. Do I think that’s okay? No, I don’t. But what’s more important is that we don’t go down a path that the UK has been down where people can have the police come around to their door and potentially arrest them and have actually detained people is for sending a Tweet. I think that’s something that we need to avoid.

As you say, the governments looking at going in a different direction, strengthening those parts of the Human Rights Act – perhaps include gender, religion, sexual orientation. Is that not where the public appetite is after Christchurch? And who are you trying to appeal to here?

Well, I’m trying to appeal to people who see that freedom of speech is the foundation of all freedoms. If you can’t express yourself, it’s very hard to stand up politically for important causes. And just remember, a lot of the causes that we now think are totally normal are things that were expressed initially because people had the right to say things that are unpopular. And I would say the most important person in New Zealand history who’s done that is Kate Sheppard.

Okay. Are you going for the racist vote with this?

No, not at all. I think that there’s a problem where to stand up for freedom of speech, you have to stand up for things that you don’t agree with. And I’ve stood up for people on the left and the right of the political spectrum in the last few years that I completely disagree with. But if you only stand up for people who share your views, you're not standing up for freedom of speech, you're doing the opposite.

I think it’s really unfortunate that some people in the political debate, try to conflate me with the people I’m standing up with. I think a more respectful way to look at it is to say, ‘David Seymour doesn’t necessarily agree with these people.’ I don’t agree with racist people.

But you’d be quite comfortable for white supremacists to vote for you and the ACT Party?

Well, I can’t stop people voting for me, obviously. I mean, I think that’s an absurd question. But I think it’s unreasonable for you to try and conflate me with a particular cause because I’m standing up for freedom of speech.

Let’s work through some potentially everyday examples, not necessarily whether you’d be comfortable with it. But do you think it’s fair people could walk down the street using the N-word?

Look, I think that’s completely offensive, and I think there would be a whole lot of sanctions from that from the wider society.

But you don’t think that should be enshrined in law?

But I don’t think that the state should be there trying to punish people.

What about people Sieg Heiling at rallies on the parliament?

Well, I think those people are complete idiots, and they’ll get all their-

Is that freedom of expression, though, and that should be protected?

It is freedom of expression, but it will get-

Sieg Heiling at parliament?

It will get exactly what it deserves, which is total contempt and ridicule from all of New Zealand society, from the media-

Contempt and ridicule doesn’t necessarily protect people from the harms that those kinds of actions can perpetrate.

Actually in the long-term, state punishment of expression hasn’t protected people from harms at all, it’s the places where the state can punish you for your opinion that you’re in most danger. The way that we have become the society that we are is not by punishing people for their opinions, but by debating and throwing out bad ideas in the contest of debate, and that’s what you do every night at 6 o’clock on Newshub.

Is there such-?

You should be worried about the ability to say things that people often find-

But there are other ways of doing that. There are ways of fortifying freedom of expression without removing some of the protections in the Human Rights Act, which could enable destructive free speech. But let’s talk about another law you want changed – the harmful- Actually, is there something that you would like to be able to say now that you feel you can’t say because of the current laws?

No. All the things I say are things that a lot of people agree with, and I certainly don’t like discriminating against people on the basis of their race or their gender or their sexuality or their religion. I’m just not in that. You won’t find me anywhere at any time discriminating against anyone on these kind of basis, so I’m not a person who is in any danger, I don’t think. On the other hand, I’ve often said things that I think are perfectly legitimate that people have tried to twist, and people have tried to persecute me. I mean, you yourself on Newshub have left the impression-

Poor David Seymour.

Exactly. I mean, you know-

We don’t have a lot of time. Let’s-

And this is the thing. You might not be saying something that is unreasonable, but once you have mob rule and you allow the state to punish you for unpopular opinions, that is a dangerous place to go.

A couple of the other things that you want changed, the Harmful Digital Communications Act, which protects people from online bullying, revenge porn and other forms of digital abuse, you want that to only protect 18-year-olds and under. Why not adults as well? Why not protect them from digital harms?

So, first of all, with regard to revenge porn, that should apply to everybody. That’s a particular crime that when the Crimes Act was done in 1961, of course nobody could foresee the internet, so that should remain for everybody. But when it comes to what the Harmful Digital Communications Act says, you’re not allowed to say things that are offensive. If you think someone said something offensive, then you can actually go and have that litigated through the courts. Now, just remember Newsroom – a very important establishment in New Zealand journalism – has already had to face off a threat under the Harmful Digital Communication Act. I don’t think that adults should be able to use it to litigate disputes with other adults. Protecting kids from bullying, sure. I’m an electorate MP. Principals and parents tell me all the time that’s an important issue, but it shouldn’t be enabling adults to use the state to win debates.

What about the Human Rights Commission – you want that abolished. What records will people have against discrimination?

Well, about as much as they’ve got now, because I can tell you, 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. Meanwhile, whenever there’s a political issue, the previous Human Rights Commissioner, Susan Devoy, was happy to wade in with all sorts of opinions that were completely unreasonable and outside her role. Paula Tesoriero, one of the commissioners for Disability Commissioner, has waded into the debate about the End of Life Choice Bill in the most unprofessional way. These guys are highly politicised, and when it comes to actually helping people with human rights, they don’t help at all, so I don’t see any purpose for them.

We have to leave it there, unfortunately. I would like to talk a bit about the re-brand. Is it significant, the re-brand tomorrow for the ACT Party?

Oh, absolutely.

But no new name.

No, we’re keeping the name ACT. After 20 years of investing in it, we thought we’d keep it. But, look, if you look across the political spectrum, people are saying we need something more. National are voting with the government almost half the time. People are saying we need some real opposition.
You’re on 0.5%. You think you’re going to - Last election, you thought you were going to get five MPs in, right?


Yeah. Are you delusional?

(LAUGHS) No, not at all. I’m ambitious. And people like you should have more admiration for ambition and not be so mean. I think that actually there is a place for ACT. I think that as we refocus our brand, our policies become more sharply distinguished, then we can do better than the last time. That’s a great story.

That’s a good place to leave it. Thank you very much for joining us, David.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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