'Plain Language Bill’- Another Solution Looking for a Problem
'Plain Language Bill’- Another Solution Looking for a Problem
Parliament: an ironic place where contradictions abound. At first glance stately and formal, but under the surface we know skulduggery abounds. A place of quiet importance and hushed propriety, yet if you’ve ever seen Question Time (or a Caucus meeting), it gives a disrupted kindergarten a run for its money.
It’s fitting then that Rachel Boyack’s Plain Language Bill keeps up this ironic trend- a piece of Government writing filled with lots of big words about why they need to employ people to make sure their writing has small words. And yes, you’d think that government would already be writing in a way so that the people they represent can understand. But, well, there’s that irony again. As the Shadow Attorney-General, Chris Penk, claimed as simply as possible ‘this Bill is not good. In fact, it is bad.’
Frankly, it’s difficult to argue against the claim that official documents should be accessible to the general public. In fact, it’s such a good idea there are already annual ‘Plain Language Awards’ celebrating the public service department which uses the clearest language. But that’s not really what’s up for debate in Boyack’s Bill. Rather, it’s a Government funded structure to employ ‘Plain Language Officers’ (could someone write a ‘use-more-original-names’ Bill?) to peer over the shoulder of each public servant, making sure that their language is not convoluted (that means “tricky”, if it wasn’t plain.) This is the more sinister element of this legislation, and with irony again rearing its ugly head again, Boyack, the sponsor of the Bill, is entirely ignorant to it.
Does this seem a bit elaborate (that means “convoluted”)? Let me put it plainly: given the way this Government has tried to control information, speech, and expression, do we really want a ‘language officer’ signing off on every piece of public comms? What happens when the Government does what I just did there without anyone noticing? Take away the ‘plain’ aspect, and just make it a ‘language officer’… is this sounding a little more Ministry of Truth-esque? Public servants need to be able to give free and frank advice to their political overlords and, more importantly, to speak openly with the public; erasing certain words from their vocabulary is a step in the wrong direction.
Is that clear? To control language is to control the ideas we can communicate.
Opposition to this Bill is split between its absurdly unnecessary nature and the potential for it to be abused and become yet another string in the censorship bow of a Government intent on controlling speech. Just because it is in practice good to write plainly doesn’t mean we need legislation creating a role to enforce this. And just because the intention of the ‘plain language officer’ isn’t inherently censorious, that doesn’t mean it won’t end up silencing provocative speech. Is Boyack’s next Member’s Bill going to address these issues that she’s creating with this one?
Despite what some might say, the public service is not simply a conglomeration of higher beings sitting in great ivory towers in Wellington micromanaging the country through sophisticated decrees. (To put it plainly now) they’re normal people, like us, and can be expected to speak on the same level as the rest of the nation in a way we can all perfectly understand, on their own. Like so many other attempts at restricting and controlling speech, this Bill has proven to be another hopeless solution in desperate search of a problem.
To echo a suggestion from Duncan Garner- perhaps it would be a much better use of Government resources to appoint common-sense officers, perhaps even honesty officers or transparency officials!
(If you skimmed to the bottom of the article for the plain explanation in simple words, you can’t put it better than Chris Penk: ‘this Bill is not good. In fact, it is bad.’)
The Road To Hell Is Paved With (Censorious) Good Intentions
Our Prime Minister has quickly become a polarizing figure on the international stage. Jacinda Ardern is either fawned over and adored or vilified and framed as the smiling face of authoritarianism. Considering that if New Zealand was a U.S. state it would only be the 25th most populated, it is extraordinary that Ardern has such star power.
Her recent speech to an almost empty United Nations Assembly in New York has typically inspired the Ardern lovers and haters to take to the internet to express their heartfelt convictions. Her assertions that mis- and dis-information are ‘weapons of war’ has unsurprisingly gone down like a cup of cold sick with freedom loving Americans, while Western proponents of safetyism have applauded her.
As always, the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the two camps. Jacinda Ardern is not an evil genius hellbent
on the destruction of Western democracy, however that doesn’t mean that what she is doing is right or justified. The road to hell, after all, is paved with (in this case, censorious) good intentions.
What Ardern and her advisors on these matters are guilty of is incredible arrogance and historical ignorance. They presume that the Government is best placed to decide what is true and what is right and that the populace needs to be shepherded towards righteousness because they are easily corrupted. The inverse is true.
Governments are often wrong. It isn’t necessary to be a professor of history to understand that Government mistakes have had terrible consequences historically. The existence of our own Waitangi Tribunal and the continuing settlements between Crown and iwi is evidence of that. Ardern herself delivered a state apology to Pacific Island communities for the Dawn Raids – a terrible policy that existed under both Labour and National Governments.
It is governments who need to be monitored by the people lest they become self-interested and infatuated with their own importance. What is true and right should not be decided at a Cabinet Meeting or by public servants. The Enlightenment taught us that reason is argued for and debated, springing from the process of collective discernment. It is through the percolation of ideas and knowledge in society that truth is established. We appeal to authorities and experts at times, but ultimately the collective wisdom of the sum of our experiences is what gives legitimacy to beliefs and thought.
Whether Ardern intends it or not, her rhetoric on free speech and mis-/dis-information is advocacy for the might of the state. She is calling for Government to expand its powers to empower thought and speech control. While I doubt that it is her intention to imbue herself with the power of a dictator, these ideas are authoritarian. The Ardern Government would do well to remember that the power of persuasion through compelling argument and community engagement is much more likely to ensure long term support for an idea than wielding the hammer of the state and the justice system.
Just like governments, people have bad ideas all the time. There are people around today who still think the world is flat! Thinking something and even espousing something that is incorrect is not evil and should not be treated as a threat so dangerous that it must be forcefully stamped out. Free speech is fundamental to the monitoring of bad ideas that come from our governments. Without it, women wouldn’t have the vote, homosexuality would still be illegal, and any number of racist laws would never have been overturned.
Governments change, but the powers we allow them to grab are passed to the next. One person’s misinformation is another person’s deeply held belief and, no offence, but I don’t trust Jacinda Ardern or Christopher Luxon to determine which is correct.
Understanding what really drives censorship
Given the fight we’re in, it’s important that we really understand what actually drives censorship.
On a recent episode of the Free Speech Union podcast, I got to talk with David Gregory, the co-owner of Severin Films, an L.A. based restoration and distribution company that rereleases classic horror, fantasy, and exploitation titles.
OK, full disclosure: I’m a massive horror fan and have been since I was a kid. So, on that level, it was a thrill to engage with a kindred spirit (another former horror kid). But be assured, I wasn’t abusing my office at the Free Speech Union. The topic we discussed was right in our wheelhouse. Censorship. Or, more specifically, British Film Censorship in the 1980’s.
But that was bloody decades ago, I bet you’re thinking. And in another country. We’ve got real free speech concerns now, right in front of us, like cancel culture in media, hate speech laws, and deplatforming at universities.
I admit, I wasn’t expecting much more than a fascinating history lesson on a topic that interests me. But David and my talk was seriously enlightening as to what type of people censors are, their modus operandi, and what, ultimately, they are trying to achieve.
Trust me. It’s a great episode, so I don’t want to give too much away, but in a nutshell the explosion of home video in the early 80’s led to a type of moral panic in the UK. The difference between this medium and those that came before was you could press pause on the dirty or violent bits, rewind, and watch them again. And again.
The Chief Censor at the time was a man named James Ferman. Ferman’s 24-year tenure extended through the birth of home video. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was created to ensure commercial video recordings offered for sale or for hire within the UK carried a classification that has been agreed upon by an authority designated by the Home Office. This led to many outright bans, including of films that had previously been available (though not on the new medium of home video) such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the 1971 Dustin Hoffman film “Straw Dogs”.
Commenting on the “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Ferman explicitly stated that he was specifically worried about the film’s affect on the “car worker from Birmingham” and would also speak of the danger of “people in their bedsits”, utilising their revolutionary new pause and rewind buttons, whipping themselves into a frenzy with a flood of uncensored exploitation films.
Ferman’s unashamed classism - that the uneducated and unskilled worker was more susceptible to influence from controversial material – was also confirmed in the fact that high brow artistic films were treated more leniently by his office. They were for the educated, of course! The wealth class are incorruptible!
There was no science to any of this. For example, Ferman had a thing for nunchucks and demanded cuts of a “Teenage Mutant Turtles” film accordingly. Blood on breasts was another big no-no, despite no study affirming that viewers became instantly inflamed by exposure to such imagery. Ferman, it seems, was totally going off vibes – as most censors do - and was potentially revealing his own idée fixe in the process.
So, how is this relevant to us?
Because these same haughty impulses are driving our own government’s current censorship push. The classist idea that the unwashed are more susceptible to misinformation is indistinguishable from Ferman’s pitifully low expectations of the British working class of the 80’s.
The UK retained a strong class system through the 70’s and 80’s which is why censorship there was so prevalent: It is a tool for denying the working class. New means of communication, from the translation of the Bible through to the printing press, and the internet, have always troubled society’s most powerful. We are living through such an age, where a power-class are once again fearful of unfettered speech and information threatening their position.
You will often hear our government speak of wanting societal cohesion when they try to justify their censorship agenda. But order would be a better word to use, and by order I mean the top remaining on top, and those on the bottom rung equally staying put. We may be looking at a restructuring of society through censorship to ensure adequate measures for suppression exist for when the real financial pain hits. Surely, it’s no coincidence that censorship has returned to the West at a moment when inequality is so pronounced.
Who would have thought it would be a Labour government that saw as a central project the firm establishment of a new caste system? But this is what censorship seeks to entrench. I don’t need to tell you that this is not the Kiwi way.
Introducing Dr. Roderick Mulgan, new Free Speech Union Council Member
I have had political antennae since my early teens. It was years before I read anything about the Enlightenment but early on it resonated with me that one of life’s most basic rights was saying what you thought.
Philosophical justifications like the Marketplace of Ideas were decades away for me, but life threw me in with close friends who had diverse politics and enjoyed arguing. The 1981 Springbok tour was an early influence and I was largely at odds with my student peers for preferring the libertarian view that the Rugby Union could host whoever it liked. I made it as far as the New Zealand University debating team at one point when we were wheeled around High Schools doing performance debating for secondary students. It was a stimulating phase of life but I do not recall at any point doubting that expressing different opinions was the way the world worked.
We all know things are now more complex. The concept of personal liberty has been developed to the point that many seriously believe they have the right to not be offended, and the right to define offence as anything they do not agree with. For some years I have absorbed the message from overseas media – phone apps are wonderful things – that the Northern hemisphere is well down the path of groupthink, and personal bravery is now called for to say what would once have been routine.
For me, the contagion reached these shores when the Mayor of Auckland took it on himself in 2018 to bar two speakers from council venues because of their controversial views on immigration. The reverberations of that episode are still wending their way through the justice system, but we are on notice. The ground has shifted. Settled principles of free speech can no longer be relied on.
In a short time, we have arrived at the point where certain points of view, particularly once touching on race and gender, can’t be expressed, no matter how reasonable or well founded.
Recently a friend posted a piece on early Maori history that looked interesting and deleted it before I could read it. When I asked why she told me the abuse wasn’t worth it. Have we really come to this? Yes, and it goes well beyond online abuse. You can now lose your job or professional registration for expressing a reasonable and informed opinion. Highly regarded organisations are not immune. Universities were early casualties but more recently The Royal Society – a bulwark of the science community - ripped itself apart publicly rather than stand up for its own core principles.
The parallels with dark periods in recent histories, like McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, are glaring. The worthy citizens of those eras also thought they were progressive and enlightened. They too thought their insights were so vital that other opinions should permanently give way to them, and eventually common decency as well. Universities, professional bodies and trade unions cooperated. We are well embarked on the same journey and it didn’t end well last time.
I have been a member of the Free Speech Union since it was first conceived and I am honoured to have been accepted onto the Board. It is difficult to see how any other issue that matters to society can be progressed if the principles the Free Speech Union stands for cannot be relied on.
Professionally, I have enjoyed more of a gentle meander than a climb to the top. I graduated from Otago Medical School in 1989 and got out of the hospital system and into the community fairly promptly. For the last ten years, I have been immersed in aged care. I am the principal of a group that attends around a dozen aged-care facilities in Auckland. It is a privilege, to deal with people on the last lap of life, many who no longer remember who they are or the life stretched out behind them.
Age and frailty have drawn me towards what is loosely called Lifestyle medicine, which is the science of staying well as we get older. I am the author of The Internal Flame, an account of how the immune system causes life’s big diseases and how lifestyle manipulations, particularly elements in the diet called nutraceuticals, can hold the line against them. I have a regular column on these themes in Life and Leisure magazine. Occasionally, I have opinion pieces in Stuff and the Herald on issues of the day.
I also practise law. I have a practising certificate as a Barrister sole and I generally stick to lower-level crime. Traffic offences, burglary, whatever legal aid tosses me, in the main. I have enjoyed some headlines over the years with various outcomes and it all makes for an interesting working week. The first half is in front of a judge or beavering away on a submission, the second half wandering the wards of the frail and demented. And writing here and there.
My private life revolves around my spouse Sarah, a daughter who is a solicitor and a second one about to graduate in engineering. Sarah and I live in Auckland, with a weekend retreat at Snellsbeach. During rare periods of downtime, I enjoy walking the beach at Snells, reading and pottering in the garden.
Council Candidates Report
To access the Free Speech Union Council Candidates Report, follow this link to download the PDF.
Free Speech Union update, 16 September
Free speech is crucial, but not enough- we all need to contribute
When recently attending the Free Speech Union’s event at the University of Otago, I was struck by two thoughts: who was there, and who wasn’t.
I have already come to realise I traverse two increasingly separate worlds. As a student, in the shadow of the ivory tower of academia, intersectionality, anti-racism, post-colonialism, and the destruction of anything old, white, and male reign supreme. Yet, among my wider family - and to many others in this country - these ideas butt up against the values which have enabled us to build this liberal democratic society. As an example, in the views of the latter group, co-governance is perceived as an unjustified exception to the principle of equal universal suffrage, which many have fought and died for. Whereas, in uni-land, it is seen as the opposite: a necessity to fix past injustice.
In between these two worlds, day-by-day, tension is growing as they diverge further apart. We are becoming a polarised country. It seems clear to me, that the only way to resolve these tensions within society is dialogue. Robust, critical, unrestricted, and open dialogue - and the fostering of a spirit of curiosity to understand the other’s world view.
Consequently, I find the failure of anyone on the political Left to turn up to the event hosted by the Free Speech Union at Otago University, which sought to both protect and define the limits of freedom of speech, highly disappointing.
If freedom of speech means anything, it means giving others the right to say things you do not want to hear, even if these things appear upsetting or abhorrent. Moreover, up until very recent times the university has, as an institution, held itself out to be the arena in which all and any ideas can be contested - believing that it is only in this contest, no matter how difficult or controversial it may be, that truth can be found.
However, it now seems that many (perhaps most) within the university system refuse to contribute to this contest. Moreover, for the most controversial topics, they even refuse to allow it to occur at all. Then, when those in the other world get louder and more vexatious towards them in reply, they are outraged. They pursue an ideology that seems to censor anyone who rejects their world view. It is ideological hubris in the extreme.
All that said, I equally do not doubt that some people on the political Right simply wanted to use the event as a platform to hurl abuse. Their ad hominem attacks did not focus on the contest of ideas; they played the person, not the ball, and through this stifled genuine debate. I find it difficult to reconcile what I heard at points within the event with what I believe is freedom of speech’s requisite duty; the duty to allow others to speak – and the duty to then listen.
Whilst, to his credit, Peter Williams did guide the panel (of Michael Woodhouse MP, James McDowall MP, and Dunedin Mayoral candidate Lee Vandervis) in fielding difficult questions from the crowd despite these outbursts, it was clear this was not the productive debate it could have been.
From the Left, there lacked the courage to front up and listen to those who think differently the courage to present their views on freedom of speech (and its limits) reasonably and rationally despite what they might have construed (probably correctly) as a hostile crowd. And from the Right the wisdom to control their emotions – to focus on reason – and give the debate the creditability it deserved.
Thus, instead of leaving with a concept of freedom of speech befitting of both worlds, I was left in a relative quagmire. I agreed with what was said by the panel for the most part – but it was unchallenged – and I am the poorer from it. Moreover, the outbursts unfortuantely justified the Left’s refusal to attend. The steady march of polarisation within our country carries on.
Free speech has been the foundation on which liberal democracy has been built. In all its imperfectection, I believe it remains demonstrably the best option available. The work of the Free Speech Union to protect the crucial liberty of speech, from both the Left and the Right is thus crucial. Yet free speech is in itself not the full solution. It takes each of us to show up and respect the other side for the peace and stability we enjoy in our country to be maintained.
*Tomas O’Brien is a supporter of the Free Speech Union and law student at Otago University
In the end, the alternative to free speech is violence. Is this what we want?
We're told that democracy dies in darkness. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say democracy dies in silence. And it is a violent death that comes by the hands of those who would try to control your speech and beliefs.
The attack on Salman Rushdie over the weekend is a horrifying wake-up call to something we must never forget: no matter how much our would-be-censors deny it, free speech is the safest, most peaceful, and most inclusive way for us to live together.
Rushdie was attacked Saturday by an assailant with a knife while speaking in upstate New York and remains in a serious, but stable condition. He had spent decades in hiding after publishing ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1989, a novel that saw Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, put a bounty on the author’s head for insulting the Muslim prophet. The book's Japanese translator was murdered and Rushdie has known a day like this could come.
Rushdie and ‘The Satanic Verses’ were an early signal that the liberal West could no longer be relied upon to uphold progressive values such as freedom of speech. Incredibly at the time, even some authors suggested Rushdie at least partially brought the dire situation on himself.
The attack isn’t the result of Rushdie’s free speech. The blame for the fear Rushdie lived under for decades, and this attack, must be placed on those who seek to use violence to control others. They alone are responsible for their actions.
The most intolerant in our societies do not have a special right to silence those they disagree with.
Those who wanted Rushdie and other authors to self-edit are kowtowing to absolute thugs. Whenever authors, no matter who they are, are threatened with violence over the words they write and art they create, there should be one response and one response only: solidarity with the author.
Yes, words can harm. They harm the ideas we cling to, the concepts we hold sacred, the ideas we consider unassailable. Words must be able to 'harm', or our society will become static. But this harm is not the same as violence, and the campaign to link the two, in order to justify speech restrictions, is false, cynical, and anti-democratic to its core.
"Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Violence in the name of ideology is the polar opposite of free speech. It is the ultimate attempt to silence those who do not share your worldview.
Differences of political and religious opinion must be navigated with reason and dialogue. Never through violence. Never through fear.
Those who refuse to resolve ideological differences with words are the ones who turn to violence. Those who refuse to respectfully engage in civil dialogue with those they disagree with are the ones who become hateful extremists in the first place.
Freedom of speech — the fundamental human right to peacefully express one’s opinion — is an inherently non-violent principle. This is why we seek to protect it.
"[Rushdie] is the opposite of silence. Writers are the opposite of silence. If you want us to be silent, you want us to be dead" - Scottish novelist Al Kennedy
I want to finish with something I read over the weekend in The Atlantic that resonates with me as a writer (you can read the whole article here):
Writers represent the part of our culture that engages with humanity through ideas, whose passion is expressed through sentences and paragraphs and pages. It’s a realm we should not just preserve but defend. May it never be eroded by the brute force of an arm wielding a knife. We should all hope that Rushdie survives. And not just because a writer should never have to give his life for what he has written. But because we need him to keep reminding us of the worst of what can happen—the violence that can happen—to someone who has used nothing more than his words.
We do the work we do, and Rushdie spoke out in the way he did, not because we believe all speech is helpful or that it is never harmful. This is clearly untrue. It is because history is crystal clear. The alternatives, whether they be well-intentioned legislation, regulatory overreach into our lives (either by the Government or Civil Society), or self-censorship, are far worse.
If we refuse to learn from history, to learn from attacks like this on Rushdie, and insist on trying to control each other's speech and beliefs, our would-be-censors condemned us to a future that is less free and more violent.
As Kenan Malik wrote in his Guardian column, 'We can only hope for Salman Rushdie’s recovery from his terrible attack. What we can insist on, however, is continuing to “say the unsayable”, to question the boundaries imposed by both racists and religious bigots. Anything less would be a betrayal'.
That's why we do the work we do. Thank you for standing with us in this fight.
Truly Tolerant Campaigning Guidelines
Last week, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), in association with Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, released their Inclusive Campaigning Guidelines — a series of recommendations on how local government candidates are expected to conduct themselves during upcoming local elections.
On its surface, it would appear to carry good intentions, promoting principles such as inclusion, diversity and respectful debate. However, under closer scrutiny the façade crumbles and the guidelines reveal themselves for what they really are: an attempt to suppress debate around crucial issues.
The Free Speech Union doesn’t doubt that this year’s local elections could prove divisive; many transformational policies have been put on the table. But the idea any controversy can be mitigated by censorship would be laughable if it didn’t point to an alarming trend that can only undermine democracy.
In a message that kicks off the guidelines, LGNZ chief executive Susan Freeman-Green is open that her goal is to “shift what’s acceptable” in local government debate, as if it is those in power who should set the agenda, not voters. Who gifted Freeman-Green this right, exactly?
As soon as power stops taking their lead from the people, we no longer have a democracy.
The author’s partisan motives are barely veiled too. The guidelines call out the framing of debates around Māori wards and Three Waters as “racist and derogatory”. We would agree that there has been some unfortunate commentary, but in a recent interview Foon asserted that opposition to Māori wards and co-governance was “saying Māori shouldn’t be participating in anything, that they should be subservient” and that “Māori should not be participating in the decision-making of Aotearoa”. This is to classify all opposition to the policies as racist, which is not only untrue, it is counterproductive.
In the same interview Foon added “any candidates that actually in my view fall out of line — they will be held to account”. Does this mean that any candidate who disagrees with Foon on these policy questions could soon be forced to weather a smear campaign?
In response to these actions which undermine democracy, we have put together our own set of guidelines which we are calling the Truly Tolerant Campaigning Guidelines, in the hope candidates are encouraged to be themselves on the campaign trial, and to show leadership rather than running for cover from even the most divisive debates.
For starters, our own guidelines make it clear that proposed Government policy must never be a “no-go zone” for political debate. How communities are governed and how their local assets are managed is of critical importance to ratepayers, and candidates have every right to facilitate frank discussions about what this may look like, and how it will impact on New Zealanders. If we are standing, as some have said, at a crossroads for race relations in this country, we need to have as thorough and as far-reaching a debate as possible on the issues.
Will feelings be hurt? Will people overstep the mark? Without doubt. But narrowing the parameters of debate won’t make any ill-feeling go away. It will just make the already embittered feel they were conspired against and denied a voice; and they would have a case. We hear plenty of talk about how to involve more people in the democratic process, and yet LGNZ and Foon seem more than happy to drive (certain) people away.
We also make it clear in our guidelines that while respect is critical to healthy debate, what one person calls “respectable” is often subjective so cannot be imposed on political candidates. In fact, political debates already have a measure for what is considered respectable and worthy of representing our communities — it’s called voting.
This all isn’t to say we feel the LGNZ’s Inclusive Campaigning Guidelines aren’t completely without worth. The importance of Te Reo Māori as an official language in New Zealand is a point we completely agree with. But, in the main, Local Government New Zealand and Meng Foon’s guidelines prioritise power over the people. In the case of Foon, he clearly just wants policies he is fond of waved through.
We urge this term’s cohort of local government candidates and voters to reject this antidemocratic screed published by LGNZ and to make themselves familiar with the Free Speech Union’s Truly Tolerant Campaigning Guidelines. Accountability for politicians should not come from unelected, unaccountable commissioners, but from those who call the shots.