RNZ’s Morning Report yesterday led us to hope we would hear something about the attractions of a flat tax, an idea once promoted by Roger Douglas when he was Minister of Finance in the Lange government.
A flat tax – adopted in some American states and European countries – is among the tax reforms favoured by the Act party as it tries to refresh its image.
We were led to believe the Morning Report team would kick this around with Act leader David Seymour just before 8am yesterday because they mentioned it in their introduction to an interview with him.
Presenter Corin Dann said Act is targeting free speech “and radical tax reform” as it works to lift voter support heading into next year’s election.
The party had re-launched with the slogan ‘Act for freedom’.
Seymour was proposing a new members bill, “Freedom to Speak”, that would repeal parts of the Human Rights Act and the Summary Offences Act to make insulting and offensive speech lawful so long as it doesn’t incite violence.
One absurd reaction was reported by Newshub Nation on Saturday:
David Seymour faces backlash from civil liberties groups after he reignited the hate speech debate.
Are civil liberties groups seriously troubled by a Freedom to Speak Bill, which would prevent the state from punishing people for saying something that was offensive or insulting?
“I think it could be a dangerous approach because there’s a lot of speech out there which is very harmful for people, and when we look at laws around changing that we need to worry about the harm as well as the freedom of expression,” says Thomas Beagle, chairperson of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties.
For Morning Report purposes, Corin Dann asked Seymour to answer questions focused almost entirely on the freedom of speech aspect of the Act party’s overhaul and policy package.
Dann referenced the critics who say Act is pandering to racists and the alt right and demanded: “Are you?”
Seymour replied it was bizarre to think that if you believe in freedom of speech you must be a racist.
“It belittles and trivialises an important issue.”
He believes freedom of expression is the wellspring of all freedoms and insists no-one should be punished under the law for expressing an opinion.
“You can be punished on the basis of fact – that’s how the law works – but you should not be punished by the state…”
We were eager to hear the rest of the answer. But Dann is among the myriad of modern-day radio interviewers who seem to think they are doing listeners a favour by truncating responses and throwing in the next question before the previous one has been answered.
He asked why we should not leave it to the courts to decide whether someone’s offensive language deserves to be punished.
Seymour said if the government wants to move to more criminalisation of speech (which Justice Minister Andrew Little is exploring), then the Act party will take the debate the other way
There are few restrictions on speech right now, he noted.
“But let’s make it clear that we are a country where you can say whatever you like and so long as you are not inciting or threatening violence then you have the right to say that … “
To say what?
Damn. Again Dann interrupted to assert that going down this track would attract racists and the extreme alt right to the Act party.
“Are you comfortable with fascists and Nazis joining the Act party?”
Seymour could only wryly chuckle and scoff that this was a ridiculous question – and one that was
” … quite offensive to the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders who aren’t in that category”.
He suspects there only a couple of hundred people who hold “those detestable views”. He is not interested in them; he doesn’t want them as members; and he had had some advice for them:
“Don’t bother voting for us”.
He said he was batting for the great number of New Zealanders who believe that free expression is important as a fundamental value of our society that the current government is not taking seriously enough.
“The price of a free society is that people will sometimes say rude and offensive things.”
Dann stuck to the racist question line before getting around to Seymour’s talk of getting 14 MPs into Parliament.
“Is that being optimistic?”
Seymour responded by saying Act
” … has refocused as a party for freedom , a party that wants to make the tax rate low and flat at 17.5%, a party that wants to give parents control of the quarter of a million dollars of … “
A quarter of a million dollars of what?
Alas, time was up.
“Mr Seymour, I have to interrupt you there – we are just coming up to the 8 o’clock news.”
“Just getting on to policy…”
He was assured:
“We’ll get there another time.”
But as well as calling Seymour back for a chance to discuss his other policies – and the concept of a flat tax – RNZ might get Thomas Beagle, civil libertarian, into the studio.
In its report, Newshub said civil liberties groups do think there’s room for a wider debate around the free speech issue – but they say that has to be aimed at improving freedom of expression rather than simply allowing people to say what they like.
At Point of Order, we are curious to learn how to distinguish between the two. Dann could help enlighten us.