Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sedition: making a case that didn't need to be made

Today I went to Wellington to appear with DPF before the Justice and Electoral committee in support of the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Bill. Like Morgue a few months ago, I found it nerve-wracking (actually, "absolutely terrifying" is my preferred description). I'd been allocated five minutes, and been told that the committee would take my written submission as read, so I should speak for about two minutes on the highlights and leave the rest of the time for questions. So I drafted a short piece summarising what my research on the topic had uncovered - over 40 cases all up, ranging from the dangerous to the absurd - and spent much of my effort working on what to say if I was asked any tough questions on e.g. where the limits lay around inciting violence. But I needn't have bothered. After mumbling my way through while doing my best impression of a stunned rabbit, I was asked only a couple of questions, and the main one (from Hone Harawira) was on the use of terrorism offences as a replacement for sedition, rather than on sedition itself. I guess this is what happens when you make a case that didn't need to be made - the committee was already convinced that the history of sedition was one of persecution and abuse (National's Chris Finlayson called past prosecutions "farcical", and that of Te Whiti and Tohu "disgraceful"), and didn't really need it pointed out to them again.

While there, I also watched the submission of the Maxim Institute. They argued that the sedition law protected an important interest - "legitimate authority" - and that it should be retained in amended form for its "symbolic value". This didn't go down well with the committee, with Finlayson challenging them to name a single prosecution really aimed at protecting democracy, and asking whether, if it was the symbolism that was important, how Maxim felt about the revival of laws banning heresy (something they did not want to discuss). Chris Auchinvole asked whether such a law would protect democracy any more than laws against heresy had protected religion, and suggested that sedition primarily prevented evolution rather than revolution. The overall view was summed up by Finlayson again, when he said that

If our democracy and constitutional system depends on a few silly offences like sedition, then I put it to you that we're in a very bad way

All of which suggests that Maxim's views are likely to get short shrift.

Despite not talking very much, I don't think my trip was wasted. Someone had to front up and support the bill, and I'm glad I did it. Meanwhile, given the low number of submissions and the seeming agreement among the committee, it is likely that the bill will be reported back far earlier than its December 18 deadline. Which means that hopefully this archaic law will be consigned to the dustbin of history by the end of the year.