Riff-Raff are people too

The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties is alarmed and dismayed that a bunch of business people can think they have the right to determine whether and which people can be stopped from using a public right of way adjacent to their shops. They plan to buy or lease the land from the council so that they can issue trespass notices to any ‘riff-raff’ that might congregate there.

While the NZCCL has some sympathy with the retailers, other solutions need to be found that do not themselves circumvent the law and people’s rights.

There are many questions regarding the rights of private interests over rights of the public.

1.                  If any person is breaking the law, then it is the role of the police to intervene. What is intended here is for private people to have the right to intervene even when nobody is breaking any law. And to intervene using their private security staff.

2.                  Councils have limited rights to restrict access to certain places – but these need to have public scrutiny and regulation (for instance in the case of liquor bans) or even enabling national legislation (in the case of gang regalia). In any of those cases there are clear determinations about the specific behaviours that are not permitted. No council is permitted to ban people who are acting lawfully, even where people may object to that behaviour.

3.                  That business people can by sleight of hand turn themselves into the moral guardians of our public places is unconscionable.  Trespass orders may be given on any grounds at all determined by the businesses.  The purchase or lease of the land can then be seen as a way to circumvent the legal safeguards placed upon the rights of individuals, and so render the law itself in disrepute.

4.                  The fact that the meeting to discuss the issue is not open to the public is in itself an affront to legal process.  All cases where councils have placed limits on people’s rights have been subject to wide public scrutiny and comment.  As Catherine Place is a public space it is owned by the public (through the council) and the public have every right to be involved in decisions about its future. Any process to limit public scrutiny shows an arrogant disregard for people’s rights. There is a strange irony that the people who are set on this path are doing it in the name of the public they exclude from their discussions.

5.                  The concept of ‘public space’ is an important affirmation of our democracy.  It is a space where all people can go and behave how they like as long as it is within the law.  There are no moral guardians there, specifying who is respectable and who is ‘riff-raff’. If local business people were permitted to privatise public spaces so that they are the ones that determine who may or may not go there, then we are in danger of changing our democracy into a ‘meritocracy’ where those with power and influence determine acceptable and unacceptable public behaviours.

We create our ‘riff-raffs’.  We have created a society where many people are marginalised, without jobs and without meaning to our lives.  A much more positive and rewarding solution to the problem created by symbols of affluence, such as shopping malls, in areas of poverty, may be for the shop owners to engage the people they have dismissed as ‘riff-raff’ in discussion about what their aspirations might be.  They might consider employing some of them.  That might be a simpler and more cost-effective solution. 

They may then find that there is not much difference between ‘riff-raff’ and respectable people like you and me.

See Stephen Forbes article at