Grant Smithies: At Her Majesty's pleasure

Sunset of democracy? Nelson City viewed from the Centre Of New Zealand lookout.

Sunset of democracy? Nelson City viewed from the Centre Of New Zealand lookout.

OPINION: By the time you read this, I may be in prison, double-bunking alongside some of our society's most desperate.

Picture me, if you will, banged up: a vulnerable jailbird, eyed by long-termers in the exercise yard with a mix of lust and disgust.

While the rest of you are skiving off over Queen's Birthday Weekend, I could be "At Her Majesty's Pleasure", a justice system euphemism for "no release date in sight".

Nelson's main drag, Trafalgar Street.

Nelson's main drag, Trafalgar Street.

You see, it may soon be illegal to protest about anything in my town. Even the mildest civil disobedience might see you apprehended by the fuzz, slapped in handcuffs and deprived of your liberty.

* Sir Geoffrey Palmer calls on Nelson City Council to drop City Amenity Bylaw
* A tough three years ahead in Nelson
* Bylaw debate causes chaos in Nelson City Council chambers
* Protest to highlight freedom of speech threats in NCC bylaw

If I wanted to assemble a few mates and chant "What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now!" outside the local council offices, I'd be wise to bring an overnight bag and a change of clothes, for I'd be in breach of a new law council is trying to push through.

Former Prime Minister, Queen's Counsel and Nelson ratepayer, Geoffrey Palmer.

Former Prime Minister, Queen's Counsel and Nelson ratepayer, Geoffrey Palmer.

Amazingly, Nelson is proposing to follow in the footsteps of forward-thinking societies such as North Korea by banning spontaneous public displays of dissent.

Depending on the outcome of a call for submissions that closed this week, my town could become a place where you need to anticipate disgruntlement weeks in advance, then apply to the council for permission to protest.

Known as the City Amenity Bylaw, the proposed amendment stinks like last week's fish, contravening our hard-won rights to free assembly and peaceful protest.

Nelson Cathedral.

Nelson Cathedral.

I'm appalled such a bylaw would even be considered, though not entirely surprised.

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As part of the same global swing to the right that gave us Brexit and Donald Trump, Nelson's most recent local body elections became a forum in which the confused, the angry and the overlooked made their presence felt.

Unhappy their rates money was being "squandered" on arts festivals and cycleways rather than new roads, disaffected elderly conservatives voted in droves.

This was, of course, their democratic right. But as a consequence, this once-progressive town now has a council top-heavy with wrinkly reactionaries who haven't had a good idea since the mid-70s.

A council statement says the new bylaw is intended to "protect, promote and maintain public health and safety and amenity". But a lot of locals aren't so sure.

Former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, a QC and Nelson ratepayer, wrote a submission urging the Nelson City Council to withdraw the bylaw, saying it threatened "the rights and freedoms of New Zealanders" and was probably in violation of the NZ Bill Of Rights.

And a protest convened near Nelson Cathedral last Saturday, attended by around 150 locals. That such calm and orderly public gatherings might need a permit in future was lost on no one.

A local lawyer reckoned the proposed bylaw was "vague, technically faulty and potentially dangerous". Other speakers noted that a law like this could have been used to criminalize the 1981 Springbok Tour protest and the women's suffrage movement.

One punter held a crudely-painted placard reading "Resist NCC bullies bylaw!". Yes, I thought. Good man.

He looked like my kind of guy. If unlicensed protests like this ever become a criminal offence, we might perhaps share a cell. I bags the top bunk.

 - Stuff


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