What freedom of speech?

IN HIS OWN WRITE

GORDON BROWN
Last updated 09:21 06/10/2012

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Often it is a Labour government that is associated with finding new ways for the state, in all its omnipotent forms, to take over more and more aspects of our lives.

Naturally, each move, almost always for our own good, results in us losing yet another freedom.

The worst came in the lead-up to Her Royal Helen's demise in 2008, when her government was too closely associated with the Greens' policies. We were going to be told what sort of light bulbs we were allowed to use, how much water we could use in the shower, what school tuck shops could stock, and so on. The social engineering on the agenda was endless.

After nine years, it was time for a change, but for many there was a small sigh of relief as John Key quietly put those proposed changes where they should be - in the round filing basket called the rubbish bin.

In many ways it was reminiscent of Rob Muldoon way back in the 1970s when he repealed a silly regulation banning cats from corner dairies. It's probably gone the full cycle by now and poor old tabby has long since been removed. Although let's face it, there aren't that many dairies left these days. Now that we have John Key and his National government approaching their fifth year in power, it is time for all New Zealanders to stop and reflect on the laws that are being passed - for our own good, of course.

Top of the list has to be the Search and Surveillance Act that came into effect earlier this week. It will let more government agencies carry out surveillance operations, allow judges to determine whether journalists can protect their sources, and changes the right to silence.

That's pretty heavy stuff and while Justice Minister Judith 'Crusher' Collins defends it, saying it is only clarifying outdated laws, it goes far beyond that. It is a concern that it is a National government making these changes, which could have some unintended consequences. In the bitterest of ironies, the new act does not affect the two agencies that have most recently been exposed as incompetent - the Secret Intelligence Service or the Government Communications Security Bureau. They have their own laws and can pretty much do what they want, as long as you are not a New Zealand resident or citizen. But even if you are a German expat with a funny name whom the FBI wants to fit up.

As 1960s singer Janice Joplin once memorably sang, 'freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose . . ." (Never mind that it was the only good one she ever sang, and was much better when someone else sang it).

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Even the Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverley Wakem, has got stuck into the Government for trying to pass a raft of laws designed to keep information secret by drafting them in a manner to avoid the Official Information Act.

When Dame Bev says she is concerned at the increasing number of officials in government agencies who fail to understand the constitutional importance of the legislation, you know we've got a problem. She has long been a favourite of the Nats, wheeled in to sort out all sorts of problems, so she is no bleeding-heart liberal.

Disallowing Official Information Act requests for drafts of legislation, in particular on partial state asset sales, charter schools and changes to mining permits, were just some of the activities she labelled as "highly dangerous".

That is a worry to all of us, no matter what side of the debate you're on. In fact, I suspect Citizen Ross on my left may well agree with me. Mind you, if there is one area Mr Key and Co could well turn their attention to, it is the increasingly bizarre notion that we actually do have free speech in this country.

There is no better example of that than the intrusive, and quite silly, Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Stacked with Those Who Know Best they rule on all sorts of things that simply shouldn't be the business of any quasi- government agency.

In the latest flexing of its muscles, Radio Live was ordered to apologise after an interview by talkback host Michael Laws in which he asked an American Pit Bull Terrier Association spokeswoman "can you wear a muzzle".

The comment amounted to unacceptable personal abuse and Laws' over-aggressive approach breached the standard of fairness, the authority found. Oh please, get a life, and better still get out of ours. Like him or loathe him, Laws should not be subject to that sort of second- guessing that amounts to little more than censoring speech.

The Americans, for all their imperfections, cherish their right to free speech and so should we - except we haven't got it.

- Taranaki Daily News

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