Nazis and racists 'offensive' but shouldn't be arrested - David Seymour

David Seymour wants Kiwis to have the right to be offensive without having to worry about getting arrested.

Instead, he hopes "contempt and ridicule" will stop racists from spreading their poisonous views.

The ACT Party leader is proposing a Freedom to Speak Bill, which would repeal parts of the Human Rights Act.

"You've always been able to be punished by the state on the basis of fact," he told Newshub Nation on Saturday morning.

"The idea 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."

There are two parts of the Human Rights Act Seymour wants gone.

The first is Section 61, which makes it unlawful to publish, distribute or broadcast "threatening, abusive or insulting" language "likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons". It's also against the law to use such language in a public meeting, or at any time or place where it's reasonable to expect the words might get picked up by the media.

"I'm trying to appeal to people who see that freedom of speech is the foundation of all freedoms," said Seymour. "If you can't express yourself, it's very hard to stand up politically for important causes."

The second is Part 6, which makes it a crime to incite racial disharmony with a potential punishment of a $7000 fine or three months behind bars.

Asked by host Tova O'Brien if that means he'd be happy with Nazis performing 'seig heil' salutes on the grounds of Parliament or walking down the street using the N-word, Seymour said no.

"That's completely offensive and I think there would be a whole lot of sanctions form that form the wider society, but I don't think the state should be there trying to punish people," he explained.

"I think those people are complete idiots. It is freedom of expression, but it will get exactly what it deserves - which is total contempt and ridicule from all of New Zealand society."

Tova O'Brien and David Seymour.
Tova O'Brien and David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

O'Brien pointed out that contempt and ridicule won't necessarily protect vulnerable groups. Even Facebook now bans white nationalist content which doesn't directly call for violence, on the understanding it's only a small step from there to the kind of white supremacy that led to the Christchurch mosque attack.

Seymour dismissed this view.

"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."

Instead he said debate was important so "bad ideas" could be thrown out.

"Once you have mob rule and you allow the state to punish you for unpopular opinions, that is a dangerous place to go."

As a Member's Bill, Seymour's proposed changes will go into the ballot, and will only be discussed in Parliament if they're randomly drawn.

Other changes

Seymour is also calling for the abolition of the Human Rights Commission, saying it's useless.

"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," he said.

"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... 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."

Seymour also wants to amend the Summary Offences Act so it's no longer a crime to behaving offensively in public, and the Harmful Digital Communications Act so it only applies to under-18s.

"Newsroom - a very important establishment in New Zealand journalism - has already had to face off a threat under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. I don't think that adults should be able to use it to litigate disputes with other adults. Protecting kids from bullying? Sure."

Rebranding the party

ACT's share of the vote has fallen at every election since 2011, but remains in Parliament due to an arrangement with the National Party, which encourages voters in wealthy Epsom to give their electorate vote to Seymour.

The plan in the past was for Seymour to bring in extra MPs under MMP's coattail. That hasn't worked out over the past few elections, but Seymour remains hopeful.

"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."

The party will stick with the ACT brand, but Seymour hopes a new focus on "unpopular" issues like freedom of speech will attract new voters, saying the party's role now is to "stand up for things that are sometimes unpopular at the time, but important to New Zealand's long-term values - in this case, freedom of speech".

Asked if he'd be happy if that stance attracted racists, Seymour said the question was "absurd".

"I can't stop people voting for me, obviously."