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Dog Biting Men: Wedge Politics

Wedge Politics

Ben Thomas writes…

Below is a piece written for Craccum, the University of Auckland student magazine, about the Tim Selwyn sedition case.

It is reprinted for two reasons: at the bottom were contact details if you wish to become involved, handing out the disputed ''seditious'' material at the District Court in Auckland at midday tomorrow (Thursday 17 March), to protest the charges under such an archaic law. If anyone wants to be involved, or if any media types would like a seditious soundbite, email for contact details.

Secondly, according to one source, a man protesting at Prince Charles’ visit in Auckland last week was arrested on suspicion of, that’s right, sedition (just as the Monarchist League suggested). Which means that we have gone from no arrests for sedition in 80 years, to two arrests in 80-years-and-three-months. Thin end of the edge, anyone?

(It’s not clear whether the charges were dropped after the guy was released from holding cells, but in any case this demonstrates the following article's eery Cassandra-like prescience in warning of such vaguely defined laws being used to “harass political opponents or nuisances”).

Acknowledgements to No Right Turn for the exhaustive and excellent research.

Ben Thomas wrote…

On 18 November an axe was lodged in the window of Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Sandringham Road electorate office. After an anonymous tip-off to a radio station, flyers were found on the corner of Ponsonby Road which purported to explain the attack. The flyers said the axe was a protest against “the Government's attempts to steal, by confiscation, Maori land in the form of the Seabed and Foreshore Bill”. A group of “concerned Pakeha” claimed responsibility, and called on “like-minded New Zealanders to take similar action of their own”.

In December, Auckland man Tim Selwyn was arrested and later charged with making a seditious statement, seditious conspiracy and conspiracy to commit criminal damage.

Whatever one thinks of Selwyn (a student media and C4 enfant terrible), or the axe through Clark’s window, or any possible connection between the two, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that Police have resurrected the long-dormant offence of sedition.

Although media interest has focused on the literal hatchet job in November, the more sinister sounding charges of sedition actually relate to the leaflets Selwyn is alleged to have authored. Writing political flyers may land Selwyn, who appears in Court to plead this Thursday, a two year prison term.

A seditious intention is defined in section 81 of the Crimes Act as intending:

- To “bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against, Her Majesty, or the Government of New Zealand, or the administration of justice”;
- To “incite the public or any persons or class of persons to attempt” to change the laws of the country by unlawful means;
- To “incite, procure or encourage violence, lawlessness or disorder.”
- To “excite such hostility” between “different classes of persons as may endanger the public safety”.
- To “incite, procure or encourage the commission of any offence that is prejudicial to the public safety or to the maintenance of public order.”

On the face of it, these seem like reasonable prohibitions. Nobody likes “hatred or contempt”, particularly the Queen, who is even quite bothered by “impoliteness” (not yet a criminal offence).

But the seditious offences don’t prohibit otherwise lawless behaviour. The reason certain actions are lawless, after all, is because there are already laws forbidding them. See: assault; see: murder; see: throwing axes through windows. Each of these is a crime in and of itself.

Sedition, on the other hand, outlaws the idea of these offences, and outlaws ideas which may be uncomfortable to the government of the day. The seditious intentions are framed in language sufficiently broad that in fact what is prosecuted as seditious can be anything that the authorities (in this case police and courts) do not approve of.

It is not treason. Treason is a separate, very serious, offence under the Crimes Act, which involves taking concrete steps to overthrow the government by force.

Sedition is a thought crime. Criminal sentences of up to two years in prison attach to not only anyone who makes a seditious statement, but anyone who publishes the statement, or even reproduces it in print (like a newspaper, or, er, website).

The left wing website No Right Turn has compiled examples of previous prosecutions under the sedition laws in New Zealand:

- In 1921, a 19 year old University student, for possessing a Communist newspaper (she was also known to associate with “anti-militarists and revolutionaries”).
- Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana, who allegedly said in 1916 he had influenced 1,400 of his tribe not to enlist, and that “This country belongs to us the Maoris.”
- Bishop James Liston who, during an address in Auckland on St Patrick’s Day 1922 about Irish independence, made the mistake of detailing the numbers of his countrymen killed by the English (and New Zealand) Crown.
- Future Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser, for calling for an end to conscription in 1916, and saying “For the past two years and a half we have been looking at the ruling classes of Europe spreading woe, want and murder over the Continent, and it is time that the working classes of the different nations were rising up in protest against them.”
- Harry Holland, President of the Labour Party between 1919 and 1933, was convicted in 1913 for leading a strike and encouraging employees to down their tools.

The salient feature of this potted history is that none occurred in what could fairly be described as recent times. Charges under sedition laws, as Selwyn pointed out to TV3 News, are a feature of wartime governments. They have also, ironically, been leveled mainly at Labour movement leaders (Helen Clark has often described Peter Fraser as the politician she most admires). And, less ironically, Maori rights activists.

Come back fashions, such as new wave 80s music and police-state style oppression, catch on fast. The Monarchist League recently issued a press release suggesting that anyone who advocates republicanism (that is, excites disaffection against Her Majesty) may be guilty of sedition. And technically they are right.

South Island bar owners who called upon other publicans to ignore the smoking ban are potentially guilty, as are Maori independence supporters, and countless talkback callers, and letters to the editor writers who venture an opinion inconsistent with the political status quo.

Many political texts, for example the Communist Manifesto (required reading for Politics 109), contain seditious statements (Marx believed bloodless revolution was impossible). Prosecution against Karl Marx is obviously impracticable, but prosecution against UBS, which sells copies for $8.95, would be entirely consistent with the charges that have been laid against Selwyn.

While this may seem laughable, six months ago it would have seemed laughable to suggest that archaic laws would be revived to punish leaflets opposing an unpopular government bill and calling for peaceful civil disobedience.

Ideally, the Court will throw out the charges, on the grounds that political expression under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1986 cannot be seditious (as when, last year, a school teacher was found not guilty of “disrespecting the flag” when he burned one during an anti-war march in Wellington).

So long as the law remains, the problem is not solved. Even a prosecution doomed to failure can be used to harass political opponents or nuisances – Tim Selwyn’s bail conditions constitute a semi-house arrest, with no hope of a substantive trial for months.

The only solution is for the sedition laws to be repealed. A protest is planned outside the District Court on Albert Street this Thursday, handing out its own seditious leaflets to the public to expose the hypocrisy of what is an outmoded, unjust and unevenly applied law. For more information email

The text of Selwyn’s leaflet:

Confiscation Day

This morning concerned Pakeha vented their anger and disgust at the Government’s attempts to steal, by confiscation, Maori land in the form of the Seabed and Foreshore Bill that is currently being disgracefully rammed through Parliament as part of a desperate back-room deal.

By attacking the electorate office of the chief instigator, the Prime Minister – who is due to abandon the mess she created by fleeing the country today – we signal that a threshold has been crossed.

The broken glass symbolises the broken faith, broken trust and shattered justice, our axe symbolises the steadfastness of our determination.

The ruthless Prime Minister will leave behind a vindictive law that will haunt this nation should the M.Ps be mad enough to pass it. Maori M.Ps complicit in this farce will never live down their betrayal.

If this is destined to be Confiscation Day, then we have marked it.

We call upon all like-minded New Zealanders to take similar action of their own to send a clear message that such a gross, blatantly racist injustice to the Maori people will never be accepted.

Ake! Ake! Ake!


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