Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Political crimes

The man responsible for the axe attack against the Prime Minister's electorate office has been charged not just with criminal damage, but also with "seditious conspiracy". For a taste of the dubiousness of this law, it was last used in 1914, to prosecute conscientious objectors who refused to fight and die in a struggle between two German monarchs.

"Seditious conspiracy" is an explicitly political crime, criminalising people gathering or planning to "excite disaffection against... the Government" or encouraging "violence, lawlessness, or disorder" in the abstract. It is a ridiculous and archaic law, as can be seen from its underlying assumptions: "exciting disaffection" is a crime, so by implication we should all feel affection towards our rulers. But since when the fuck have we been expected to love the government?!? And why, other than sheer naked self-interest on behalf of our rulers, should it be any sort of crime to encourage people to be discontented or resentful towards them?

This is nothing more than a holdover from the paternal attitudes of feudalism. It is fundamentally incompatible with modern conceptions of relations between citizens and the state. It is also grossly contrary to the affirmation of the freedoms of conscience, expression and association in the Bill of Rights Act. Worse, it contradicts basic ideas of justice; whether a crime is actually committed is entirely a matter of interpretation, one man's "exciting disaffection" being another man's political protest, thus giving the authorities wide leeway to punish whoever they please. For all these reasons, it should be stricken from our books.

Sticking an axe through a window is a crime, and can be prosecuted under laws against property damage. It should make no difference who the window belongs to, or what political opinions the attacker espouses or propagates. Otherwise, we open the door for the police to engage in political persecution (which is exactly what they are doing here). It's a timely reminder of the danger of letting such archaic laws survive; their existence is an invitation to use, which is why they must be repealed.

And OTOH, this is also an opportunity. It's hard to imagine the current law surviving any challenge under the Bill of Rights Act, and if one is made, it is likely to be gutted in the same fashion as the law against flag-burning. So the police may be doing us all a favour after all.