David Seymour Interview: Freedom of Speech’s Thin Line

ACT Party Leader David Seymour to Express about freedom of speech, the End of Life Choice referendum and why he hosted the Feminism 2020 event for trans-exclusionary group Speak Up For Women at parliament, despite having been a member of the cross-party Parliamentary Rainbow Network and regularly attending Pride parades.

At 37 you are one of the youngest MPs in Parliament – how well do you think the voice of New Zealand youth is represented in our parliament? 

I think the voice of youth has always been poorly represented and for as long as we’ve had politics that has generally favoured older people. I mean you have a look at the decisions that various governments have made to push problems into the future and to restrict the construction of homes pushing up the prices of it. And now to basically inflate and borrow our way out of this crisis everything’s relatively comfortable now because it’s going to be difficult in the future. So when you come to fiscal and economic policy, generally politics has preserved the present at the expense of the future and that’s not a dig at any particular generation, you know, the Boomers found themselves for the hell of a mess to clean up when they came of age, but unfortunately, I think that the next generation will find that too. So sadly politics has always been an old man’s game.  

You first became involved with ACT in your university days. Why was it ACT for you, as opposed to National or Labour?

Two things. First of all, I’m interested in actual public policy improvements. So I don’t see it as a job. I don’t think it’s a particularly glamorous job. I don’t want to be an administrator of the status quo. I want to actually make policy. Every other party to different extents and I include National in this, promise to take other people’s money and give it to you in return for votes and restrictions on other people to enforce your particular prejudices on them. And so we see examples of Labour being very good at giving money to University students, even though they generally upper-middle-class people or about to be that’s where Labour likes to give money. Similarly, when we see proposals to restrict hate speech, what we are really saying is if you don’t like what other people are saying, we will ban them and there are many other examples. On the other hand, ACT stands for individual freedom. The right of people to be who they want to be and live how they want to live so long as they’re not harming anybody else. That’s much harder to campaign on because you can’t promise other people’s money or to beat on other people, but we do know that a free society is a much richer and more rewarding one and it’s worth taking on that counterintuitive challenge of seeking political power in order to not necessarily use it as much as others do. 

Its recently come back into the media following an episode of Alice Sneddon’s Radio New Zealand show, Bad News, which was dedicated to the topic of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). On 15 November, you hosted an event Speak Up For Women at parliament after it had been banned from happening at Massey University– why? 

Because I think one of the biggest challenges that we face at the moment is not health, education, welfare or COVID. The biggest challenge is the inability to have a civil disagreement. And when it comes to taking away people’s platform and saying ‘your words are so hurtful they can’t even be spoken.’ I think that’s a real problem.

One of the requirements for hosting an event is that you have to be present. I was there and I didn’t see people who were hateful. I saw people that had some real concerns. If people are in the camp of ‘I disagree with what Speak Up For Women’ have to say, yeah sure, I don’t agree with everything they say. If people are in the camp of ‘they should not be allowed to have a voice’. Well, guess what? I’m going to give them a voice in Parliament.  

Did you see Speak Up for Women as being a genuine feminist group as opposed to an anti-trans group?

Yeah, that’s right. All of the dealings I’ve had with them that’s been very much the case. I’ve never had them express that to me and I didn’t see them express that at the conference… If I did, I’d be the first to say that’s wrong. 

When we researched Speak Up for Women, I thought it was odd that as a feminist group, there was no mention of being pro-choice or lobbying for gender pay gaps, or any of the other issues that I would expect a feminist group would be interested in. The only things they were lobbying for, was trans-women being excluded. Do you feel you researched them well enough and did you have any concerns that many of the speakers [at the event] had been banned from Twitter?

I disagree with your sanitation check. ‘If you don’t stand up for x or y, I don’t think you’re a legitimate person’. That kind of attitude is part of the problem. Second of all, I’m not here to defend every aspect of every group. I just think that they have the right to be able to speak. So my hosting was not because I wish to support it, it was because I thought it was wrong that people were being silenced from speaking at a public institution, so I gave them an alternative.

This is what legitimate debate is about. You can decide what your priorities are. Some people think it’s the gender pay gap and other people think it’s poverty. Just because you do don’t agree with those issues doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have a view on another one. Ultimately, what you’re trying to tell me is that because they only care about one issue that you disagree with, they’re not a legitimate group. I don’t think that’s a constructive way to engage in public dialogue. 

The point I was trying to make is that Speak Up For Women’s agenda seems to be ‘anti-trans’ as opposed to being particularly-pro anyone else.

I don’t think that there’s really any question of that. They’re not pretending to be about anything other than, they have an issue about the relationship between gender on the one hand and sexuality on the other. I think that’s a legitimate thing to debate and I might add that, ACT has had candidates with kids who are trans, ACT had a candidate who’s subsequently transitioned, so this is not unusual to us. You can actually have the debate without being hateful of the people.

And one final point. I am vaguely aware of this Alice Sneddon thing. I gather she released a video. She came [to Feminism 2020] and just acted like a complete dickhead. We don’t need that. We don’t need her standard of conduct. She was eventually evicted by security and I think she wanted to be evicted by security. I’m sure she thinks she’s incredibly clever. I think she’s an idiot.

When freedom of speech gets debated the question is do you need to draw a line, for example, with racist or Nazi or white supremacist groups. Do you draw a line on that and, if so, where?

First of all, I’m interested in what the law says. There’s no law against those groups now. I’m not aware of any Nazi groups in New Zealand because it’s just so distasteful, we wouldn’t want it. But in the law, there is a line. It’s wrong to incite violence. It’s wrong to threaten violence. It’s wrong to be a criminal nuisance. Aside from threats, there’s also liable which is a more contentious area. So there are actually lines.

Freedom of speech is something that is only helpful to minority groups. Majorities don’t need freedom of speech. Popular, cool people in the mainstream don’t need freedom of speech because their beliefs are already widely accepted. The people that need the protection of freedom of speech, the right to say what they want, so long as they’re not inciting or threatening violence, the people who often were actually maligned and marginalized in history and used freedom of speech to earn the respect that they’ve always deserved.

People who want to go against freedom of speech better be awfully careful about understanding the history of it and why it’s important.

You marched in the Ponsonby Pride Parade last February – What are your hopes for Pride Parades in Auckland?

I’m interested in this constant atomization of society and identity politics. We seem to keep fragmenting and finding new reasons to object to each other and I think that what’s happened with pride is a really sad narrative of that issue. I want it to be as big and great as it was. 

How would you End of Life Choice bill affect the queer community particularly?

I’ve had people from the queer community say to me that HIV is still a reality and for some people and they want choice if they’re going to die badly. They want to choose how they go and when they go.

The queer community are people who have lived life on their own terms often against the odds and against the judgment of others and if you believe in individual determination, then whose life is it? Whose choice? It should be yours.

We know that a small percentage (probably between two and five per cent based on overseas research) will get to the end of their life and they will be suffering badly. The question is, do we say to them, ‘sorry bad luck, it happened to you. You have just got to suffer on, or do we say, actually we’ve taken an enlightened approach, and we know from studying laws around the world that it’s possible to give you a choice and compassion. It’s your life, you choose how you go and when you go, on your terms. That’s really the choice and one of those societies is frankly fucking barbaric and the other one is enlightened and compassionate and I know which one I want to live in, and it’s ticking yes.

Article | Oliver Hall.