Globally states are introducing new instruments to limit speech rights, and a new terror research centre in New Zealand looks to be a back door to do just that.
The lockstep march to shut down free speech across the west took another step forward last week, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the creation of a new National Centre of Research Excellence to counter violent extremism.
The centre, tasked with fostering social cohesion, has appointed as its director an academic known for her participation in cancel culture and woke takedowns, as co-director. The decision to appoint someone with such censorious tendencies has sparked a backlash.
Despite being framed as a way of preventing future terror attacks like the tragic mosque attack in Christchurch in 2019, He Whenua Taurikura (A Land at Peace) is seen by many as a cover for censorship and the potential criminalisation of those whose views run counter to the Government and woke politics. The centre will be used to provide high-level advice to the Government about which groups pose an extremist threat.
Like the covid-19 modelling unit Te Pūnaha Matatini, a glorified PR unit that has been used to generate dubious modelling to justify draconian policy, He Whenua Taurikura is the baby of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which led the recruitment process. It’s understood the directorships were not advertised.
Ardern talked about the risk from the far-right during the announcement, appearing to preclude the possibility of far-left extremism. This in particular made ears prick up, as the protesters at Parliament earlier this year were disingenuously cast as ‘right-wing extremists’.
Half of the parliament protesters either voted Labour, Green or Te Pāti Māori in the 2020 elections, with Labour voters being the largest majority, followed by National and Green voters, who were equally represented. Māori, hardly known for their hard right views, made up 27% of the protesters.
Increasingly, established figureheads from the left are now also being cast as right wing for opposing trans ideology and other woke positions, so the fear that the research centre will be used to pitch political dissent as extremism is a valid one.
In the current era, it is abundantly clear that it is the ‘left’ that is shutting down speech, engaging in discrimination against minorities and exhibiting authoritarian tendencies – all things we might have expected from the far right. It is surprising to see those traits coming from the left, which has traditionally been the bastion of open-minded, politically progressive people, willing to discuss anything in good faith without taking offence.
One of academics heading up the new research unit, Professor Joanna Kidman from Victoria University, is a controversial appointment, as she is not widely viewed as impartial. Kidman is a professor of Māori Education at Victoria University of Wellington and a sociologist, researching indigenous sociology, Māori youth, higher education, decolonisation studies and comparative education.
Her appointment is viewed as political, and her academic background as inappropriate for a role advising security services. The immediate backlash to the announcement included comments pointing out Kidman’s public record of attacking people online for views that are not politically correct and retweeting racially divisive material.
In a recent newsletter The Free Speech Union pointed out that Kidman has already directed the accusation of extremism at the FSU for its work on promoting academic freedom and free speech at universities.
In a report from Chris Lynch, Free Speech Union chief executive Jonathan Ayling underlined Kidman’s right to air her views but said “this appointment is absurd and reveals the ideological capture that is pushing forward an anti-speech agenda. Professor Kidman has claimed that words are equivalent to violence and has been at the forefront of numerous attempts to silence others.”
Similarly, left wing blogger Martyn Bradbury, commented that the unit will be used to clamp down on free speech and restrict civil liberties along woke lines.
“It is half social engineering and half Identity Politics Stasi.“
Despite this being a bit rich coming from someone who condescendingly categorised the parliament protesters, people with legitimate grievances, as the ‘dumb lives matter’ crew, his observation is astute.
We’ll have to wait and see if the unit will be used to justify clamping down on free speech and which groups will be cast as a risk but the indicators don’t look good. We’ve already seen The Disinformation Project’s attempt to pathologise dissent hailed by the media (indeed lead researcher Kate Hannah spoke at a He Whenua Taurikura hui last year), and the Government’s attempt to introduce hate speech laws without even being able to define what hate speech is. The research centre appears to be another attempt to push speech controls.
‘Hate speech’, ‘extremism’, ‘misinformation’ and ‘conspiracy theory’, are a moveable feast in the current environment – the terms are deployed against whatever and whoever those in power want censored – even while power-holders embody the very qualities they claim to be fighting against. For example, the Government’s continued campaign of medical misinformation regarding the safety and efficacy of the covid jab.
The timing of He Whenua Taurikura’s announcement lines up with other state moves to clamp down on free speech using various instruments. In the United States, Biden announced a Disinformation Governance Board, which was canned after a forceful backlash, with detractors calling the board ‘Orwellian’.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau is introducing censorship legislation to regulate what can be said on social media and other online spaces. He has said he wants more tools to tackle online misinformation. Trudeau violently put down freedom protests earlier this year, as did Ardern, and suspended the bank accounts of ordinary citizens who had donated to the cause – hardly a paragon of democratic virtue. Russell Brand did an ingenious takedown in the video above.
“Justin Trudeau, I think, lost the right to be the boy band member …of truth when he started banging up members of his own country for beeping a horn on a truck and started shutting down the bank accounts of people who donated to a legitimate protest, when he vilified people who were concerned about taking new medicines and created division in his own country. I don’t think Justin Trudeau can just roll up his sleeves and seem a bit friendly, like a good looking substitute teacher and expect that we’re all not going to remember what’s been going on for the last couple of years.”
And in the United Kingdom the Online Safety Bill threatens free speech. Civil liberties campaigners Big Brother Watch says in fact the bill is a censor’s charter, that invents a whole new category of ‘legal but harmful speech’ and trashes the long tradition of protecting free expression in Britain.
“We only need to consider how such a bill could have been weaponised in the pandemic, to think about the kind of censorship that could happen, and unfortunately will happen under this bill,” says Big Brother Watch founder Silkie Carlo.