Chairperson’s Report 2019

Issues and events in NZ

Christchurch Massacre

The most significant event this year in New Zealand was undoubtedly the Christchurch Massacre on March 15th. 51 innocent people were killed and many more injured by a zealot who had become radicalised in online communities where people encouraged each other’s hatred. The horrific nature of the event was a shock to everyone and the ramifications of the event are still being felt.

  • In most countries, events like this inevitably lead to law changes. New Zealand started by tightening its gun laws, with entire classes of firearms now banned and the government buying back the weapons from gun-owners.
  • It also fed into the ongoing discussion about the regulation of hate speech in New Zealand. Our laws are quite limited compared to some other countries and the government was already slowly reviewing them, but this is apparently being accelerated.
  • The live-streaming of the attack was an unpleasant new twist on such attacks. Internet service providers in NZ quickly reacted to block the streams of the attacks, while major international content hosts (such as Facebook) attempted, with varying success, to take down copies of the video hosted on their systems. The NZ censor declared that both the video and the shooter’s manifesto were objectionable and people have been convicted for sharing them online.
  • The NZ government led Christchurch Call is bringing together over 40 other countries and some significant internet companies to develop new standards of online behaviour while finding ways to quickly block extremist content published online.  
  • There have been renewed calls for governments to have easier ways to break encryption to read private communications. 

Many of these developments are of concern to people who value civil liberties. Even those who broadly support the changes must surely feel some concern when they see governments and the companies who control the internet developing protocols and tools to quickly find and remove undesirable content from the internet. It’s not hard to think of scenarios where such facilities could be abused by governments wanting to keep secrets or censor opposing political views. 

I believe that things have changed – that the communications afforded by the internet mean that some of the old truisms and ways of thinking about freedom of expression no longer apply. Governments can’t block ideas as easily as they could, hateful speech is proving to be an effective weapon in the hands of the mob, fake news means we don’t always know who or what to trust. 

But at the same time I still believe in the value of freedom of expression – the freedom to speak, to seek, to impart info, and to listen. It is of benefit to individuals and it is one of the foundations of a free and democratic society. The Council and I are open to change but believe that any changes affecting our rights must, in the words of the NZ Bill of Rights, only go so far “as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. I expect this will be a major focus of our work next year. 

Other events

Other events of significance include:

  • The decision on prisoner voting and the inconsistency of our electoral law with the Bill of Rights being upheld by the Supreme Court, and then this decision being ignored by our government.
  • We wrote to the Prime Minister expressing our concerns about the government’s failings in oversight of the intelligence agencies, as revealed by the IGIS’s reports. We are very disappointed not to have received any answer, and are concerned that the government is failing its role in the oversight system.
  • The government asking for submissions on doing a full review of the Official Information Act, but is dragging out the process of announcing its decision.

Finally, another story not centered here but that may be of importance to New Zealand has been the decay of effective democratic government in the UK and USA. Both countries have an influence on New Zealand and we wait to see what happens while wishing for the best.

Actions of the Council

Some of the activities the Council was involved in this year include:

  • Participating in the initial civil society meeting for the Christchurch Call.
  • Maintaining a watching brief on the consultations resulting from the Christchurch Call.
  • Participating in the IGIS Reference Group.
  • Dealing with correspondence and issues from a range of people who needed advice or someone to speak up for them.

We spoke to the media on multiple issues, appearing in print, on radio and on television. Topics included:

  • Freedom of speech and hate speech.
  • Statistics NZ and their use of data.
  • Surveillance cameras in Auckland and the use of facial recognition.
  • Events surrounding the Christchurch massacre. 

We made the following submissions to government:

  • Zero Carbon Bill
  • Electoral Amendment Bill
  • Abortion Legislation Bill
  • Our support for conducting a full review of the Official Information Act. 

Internal Council Matters

The Council is working well and the monthly meetings are well attended with some lively discussions as we work out our policy positions. The number of people working on preparing submissions and other documents has expanded. We have also seen an increase in membership.

Providing access to the monthly meetings via video conference started well but usage has fallen away and we have stopped offering it.

A new initiative this year has been the semi-regular Civil Drinks – an opportunity for council members and others to get together in a social situation to chat about the issues of the day. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed and our website for the date of the next one.

We have maintained our Twitter account (@civillibertynz) and have established a presence on Facebook too.

Our website needs to be migrated to a new server for technical reasons, and we will probably take the opportunity to move it from Drupal to another platform. This will necessitate reconsidering the structure and appearance of the site.

Thanks to our members and supporters, and thanks once again to Kevin McCormack for his sterling work as treasurer and secretary.

Plans for the Future

It’s clear that we need to keep working to promote civil liberties in New Zealand. We see our mission as to continue to educate people about civil liberties and why they are important.

At the same time we need to do some learning ourselves about how civil liberties and the Bill of Rights sit with the Treaty of Waitangi. We will continue to put the civil liberties point of view to government through submissions and consultations. Finally, we will keep providing advice and assistance to those who need it.

We need your help

The Council does important work but we need to be doing more of it. If you think you can help we would be grateful for your ideas, your efforts, your resources, and your time. Please contact me at or on +64-21-805040

Thomas Beagle
NZ Council for Civil Liberties