Council asked to stop 'aiding and abetting' Covid-19 misinformation meet

Hamilton City Council deputy chief executive Lance Vervoort.
Christel Yardley/Stuff
Hamilton City Council deputy chief executive Lance Vervoort.

The Hamilton City Council is likely to be caught between community opposition and the law by allowing an anti-vaccine speaker to use a high-profile public meeting venue on Monday night.

The council’s deputy chief executive Lance Vervoort said staff were not aware a meeting room booking made for the Hamilton Gardens was in fact for Billy Te Kahika.

Te Kahika has peddled a range of conspiracy theories and misinformation around Covid-19 and vaccines.

“The booking was made on Thursday by someone else and my understanding is that staff became aware it was for Billy Te Kahika after some supporters of the Gardens pointed out he was advertising it [online].”

One councillor, Dave Macpherson, has called for chief executive Richard Briggs to cancel the booking but Vervoort said the meeting would be allowed to go ahead.

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Hamilton City Council councillor Dave Macpherson says the council’s booking process for meeting venues needs a review.
Christel Yardley/Stuff
Hamilton City Council councillor Dave Macpherson says the council’s booking process for meeting venues needs a review.

“There is the New Zealand Bill of Rights to consider and we’ve had a close look at that, we’ve had some legal advice and it says there is no reason why we should not accept the booking.

“Our only area of concern was whether there would be health and safety issues and we believe those risks are currently low around staff and the public.”

The meeting was booked for about two hours on Monday evening in the Chartwell Room, which could accommodate about 150 people.

Vervoort said council staff would work to manage the room and there would also be a security guard outside.

Hamilton City Councillor Mark Bunting said the council’s role was to make sure the public and staff were safe.
Tom Lee/Stuff
Hamilton City Councillor Mark Bunting said the council’s role was to make sure the public and staff were safe.

“That’s not unusual … to ensure the safety of the public and staff in the unlikely event something happens.”

He pointed to a similar situation recently where the Speak up for Women group held an event at the Waikato Museum.

A security guard was present, and an opposing protest occurred peacefully, Vervoot said.

But he admitted the council’s policy around hiring public meeting venues needed some changes.

Western Community Centre manager Neil Tolan plays his part helping families like the Ruakeres.
Tom Lee/Stuff
Western Community Centre manager Neil Tolan plays his part helping families like the Ruakeres.

“We will have a discussion with elected members, I would say it would be more of a tweak than a full review.

“The gnarly thing is the freedom of speech aspect of it and what we can actually control.”

Macpherson said Monday night’s meeting wasn’t about limiting freedom of speech but about protecting the health and safety of the community, when it came to sharing messages around anti-vaccination.

“You only need to look across the ditch to see what happens with a population that has only been half vaccinated.

“We can’t stop people from speaking in a public space but we don’t need to be aiding and abetting by hiring out one of our meeting facilities.”

Macpherson said he had asked for policy changes after the Speak up for Women event a month ago and the most recent booking by subterfuge showed changes needed to be made.

Councillor Mark Bunting, who has the community facilities portfolio, said he wanted to make it clear he did not agree with the views of Billy Te Kahika.

“But we’re in that position where we are uncomfortably, comfortable for the meeting to go ahead.

“The hate speech and censorship issue is the Government’s responsibility, our role is to make sure the public and staff are safe.”

Bunting agreed the rules needed a review but the council could be moving onto “dangerous ground” if it tried to determine what content should be shared at a meeting.

“Our job is to provide a facility for respectful dialogue and that is better than trying to suppress discussion.”

The council may be reluctant to cancel the booking but the Western Community Centre did not hesitate when it was in a similar situation in December 2020.

The centre's manager Neil Tolan​ cancelled a booking for Beyond Politics because it “didn’t fit with what the community centre is about”.

Tolan said the group threatened legal action and attempted to try him “in the court of social media” but nothing eventuated.

“We did get a lot of support about our decision from people around New Zealand. There was a lot of goodwill and it felt like we had done the right thing.”