NZ Election 2020: David Seymour fears for freedom of expression as Jacinda Ardern plans to beef up hate speech laws

ACT leader David Seymour fears for freedom of expression after Jacinda Ardern confirmed plans to beef up hate speech laws if Labour is re-elected to power. 

Ardern was in Christchurch on Thursday to unveil a plaque at the Al Noor mosque, one of two Muslim places of worship targeted in the March 15 terrorist attack of 2019. 

Ardern was asked at the site about progress on updated hate speech laws, after the Government fast-tracked a review of hate speech legislation in the wake of the terror attack, which was fuelled by anti-Muslim sentiment.  

Following that review, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Commission presented Justice Minister Andrew Little with options, and in March he said they were "working their way through Cabinet". 

But Little confirmed in June that Labour was still in talks with its Government partners about the options and said the legislation would probably have to wait until after the election, and it's understood NZ First had some concerns. 

Ardern confirmed on Thursday that Labour is keen to progress with beefing up hate speech laws if it wins another term in Government. 

"We do have within our legislation in New Zealand provision that deal with hate speech, discrimination around people's identities, but religion hasn't been included in that. My view is that does need to change," she said. 

"I just think in a modern New Zealand everyone would agree that no one should be discriminated against for their religion and so it makes sense that we add this to the other suite of things we say is just not OK to discriminate people over."

Ardern said she couldn't understand why there would be resistance from other political parties.  

"I don't see why there should be, and so that's probably a question for every political party, but that's certainly our view and that's the view that I'm putting forward."

By law in the Bill of Rights Act, everyone in New Zealand has the right to freedom of expression, including the "freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form".

But New Zealanders are prohibited under the Human Rights Act from inciting racial disharmony, and Ardern is keen to extend it to discrimination against religion, and even sexual orientation and disability. 

"It is fair to say that when it comes to religion, that is not the only area that's been identified. We don't have complete legislation, so we believe that's something that needs to be resolved too," she said. 

But Seymour is concerned it will take away people's freedom of expression. 

"Hate speech laws are divisive and dangerous, turning debate into a popularity contest where the majority can silence unpopular views using the power of the state," he said on Thursday. 

Seymour has previously proposed repealing parts of the Human Rights Act, including section 61, which makes it unlawful to distribute or broadcast "threatening, abusive or insulting" language "likely to excite hostility" against people based on colour, race, or ethnicity.  

Ardern has recognised the need for a balanced approach. 

"This is an area where we have to be really careful about balancing the importance of freedom of speech but also where that speech tips over into a space where it becomes potentially violent and harmful," she told The AM Show in 2019. 

"There's a very big difference between criticism and even sharing views that people wouldn't necessarily agree with. There's a very big difference between that and language which is designed to try and incite harm against others."

But Seymour thinks it's too subjective, highlighting the response Ardern gave in her interview when asked what kind of speech would be targeted. 

"It's kind of examples where if you see it you know it. There is a threshold there. But we will be very cautious going into this space."

Seymour said ACT will "continue to defend the critical principle that nobody should ever be punished" on the basis of opinion.