i have to say i'm laughing a little at all the complaints lodged with the human rights commission regarding comments from mr hone harawira. not that i disagree with the complaints - i totally disagree with tarnishing a whole race of people because of the actions of some. if nothing else, it's a stupid move because it pisses off your allies within that group.
it surprises me though, that all of the complainants weren't aware that the commission is unable to act in this case. that's because we don't have laws against hate speech, and the commission is very limited in what it can do. the only time you can take legal action against speech is in the case of incitement to violence, and that comes under the crimes act, not the bill of rights nor the human rights act. and say what you will about mr harawira's words, they weren't a direct incitement to violence. they weren't even the coded messages inciting violence that we're hearing from the likes of mr beck and mr limbaugh these days.
there is also s61 of the human rights act 1993, which provides protection against any publication, broadcast, or speech at public places or meetings which are threatening, abusive or insulting “being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or national origins of that group of persons.” there are a couple of problems with this though, one being that the threshhold for a successful complaint is really high and secondly that it doesn't really cover the internet very well. mr harawira's "speech" was in a private email, although he knew it was going to be publicised.
the closest we've ever come to even considering the laws around hate speech was the select committee inquiry in 2004(ish). that inquiry arose out of the inquiry into the films, videos and publications classifications act, because there were some issues raised that couldn't be dealt with under that act and the MPs on the select committee wanted those issues investigated further.
how do i know this? because i submitted in written and oral form to both inquiries. and i had a spot on eye-to-eye against judith collins (and a couple of other guests) about the hate speech issue, arising directly as a result of my submission. but the select committee that inquired into hate speech never reported back to parliament. so all those submissions are still sitting there somewhere, gathering dust.
there was actually quite a lot of response to the inquiry. there were many people opposed to any legislation or regulation on hate speech, quite a few of them from the right-wing churches. their main concern (though they didn't quite put it that way) was that any such legislation or regulation might hamper their ability to speak out against muslims or homosexuality. they wanted to be free to discriminate in their public speech, and resisted any moves that would stop them.
others objected on the grounds of civil liberties and the freedom of speech provisions in the bill of rights. the supreme court had already ruled that freedom from discrimination did not over-ride freedom of speech (which in effect means that freedom of speech over-rides freedom from discrmination). this group had the stronger argument, in that limitations to freedom of speech had ramifications that could be oppressive.
so, there was a lot of opposition, particularly in the media, to this inquiry and it was quietly sidelined. but i just wonder, how many of the people who have lodged complaints against mr harawira would be the same people who would be opposed to any regulations against hate speech? and if that inquiry were to be opened up again today, would they support it? would they have supported my submission? i just wonder about that, and that's what makes me laugh. because i suspect (and yes, i admit that it is only wild speculation) that some of these complainants want to have discrimination against themselves penalised, but want to also be free to discriminate against others in their own public speech.
there's one point though, that these complainants may be missing. the impact of mr harawira's speech will, in actual fact, have little effect on them other than the emotional distress it causes them. no-one will hurl abuse at them in the streets as a result of that speech. they will not face barriers to employment, nor find it difficult when trying to get a rental house to live in. they won't face fear or restriction in their daily life.
compare this to hate speech against minorities. let me compare it to a direct and personal example, to make it more clear. the danish cartoons depicting mohammad were published by some fairfax newspapers on a friday. in the next 48 hours, i had 3 incidents of strangers shouting abuse at me or making rude gestures. i had no say when it came to those cartoons being published. none of these people bothered to ask me my views on the matter. but i was punished, and became afraid to go out because of resulting public speech by commentators and talkback hosts and callers that denigrated muslims as lacking humour, unable to take criticims, etc etc. that speech affected the public mood, which affected my ability to function.
what mr harawira said was wrong. but it's not the same. it's will never have the same effect as public speech that denigrates a minority group. and a minority group will never have the same ability to speak back in the way that the majority group does.