Friday, May 03, 2013

Brownlee's office banned the Red Zone protest

Back in March, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority made the news when it banned a small protest from the Christchurch Red Zone. The ban appeared to be completely contrary to the affirmation of freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights Act, and like many people I was wondering what their justification was. Someone else was curious, and used FYI, the public OIA request site, to request information about the ban. The response? Firstly, there was no justification: there are no formal guidelines on the use of the Red Zone, and from the emails provided CERA staff pretty obviously made it up as they went along. Secondly, the protest appears to have been quashed by Gerry Brownlee's office.

The smoking gun is on page 41 of the released correspondence [PDF]: at 10:18am on the morning of the protest, CERA's General Manager emails two people in Brownlee's office (Tim Hurdle, his "chief advisor", and Nick Bryant, his press secretary to inform them that a group from OurWaterOurVote will be visiting the Red Zone. Less than five minutes later Bryant responds. The content of that response has been withheld as "free and frank advice", but its pretty clear what it was, because that's when CERA's approach changes from one of facilitating a visit to shutting it down. The conclusion: Brownlee's office had the protest banned.

CERA cites as justification their statutory power to restrict or prohibit access. But that power can only be exercised for the purposes of the Act, and in any case is subject to the BORA. Protecting the government from criticism of its dictatorial local government policies is not a valid purpose under CERA or consistent with the BORA's affirmation of freedom of expression.

Sadly, it is not a criminal offence for an official or an elected representative to abuse their powers to interfere with the public's freedom of speech, and there is not likely to be any accountability for this abuse of office.