By Chris Trotter*
Jacinda Ardern faces a considerably less daunting task in selling her Hate Speech laws than many of her opponents anticipated. Yes, a clear plurality of New Zealanders either strongly or somewhat oppose the Government’s proposals – 43 percent in total. But, the number of eligible voters who somewhat or strongly support the proposed measures, at 31 percent, represents an extremely solid minority. With 15 percent of voters currently taking a “neutral” stance, the Prime Minister still has everything to play for.
New Zealand owes the newly-formed Free Speech Union (FSU) a debt of gratitude for commissioning Curia Research to find out exactly where the country stands on the Government’s Hate Speech proposals. Prior to this survey, carried out from Monday, 5 July to Thursday, 8 July 2021, those with an interest in this issue were relying upon the responses of 9,000 AM Show viewers, approximately 80 percent of whom declared themselves opposed to the PM’s proposals. While these numbers may have cheered the supporters of Free Speech, they were not reliable. Curia’s scientific poll of 1,000 randomly selected respondents, carefully weighted to reflect the overall voting adult population in terms of gender, age and area, offers a much more accurate snap-shot of public opinion on this issue.
Ardern will be encouraged to discover that 49 percent of those giving their Party Vote to Labour support her Hate Speech proposals, with only 17 percent registering their opposition. This net support figure of 34 percentage points is further bolstered by the Green Party’s net support figure of 55 percentage points. Support for outlawing Hate Speech is clearly emerging as an issue dear to the hearts of left-wing voters.
Significantly, the converse is even more strongly indicated by right-wing voters. The net corresponding figure for National’s Party Vote shows opponents of the PM’s proposals are leading their supporters by a very solid 47 percentage points. Fully 63 percent of National’s backers are either strongly or somewhat opposed to outlawing Hate Speech. Only 16 percent are prepared to back the proposed measures. Predictably, the Act Party is as strongly opposed to the Hate Speech laws as the Green Party is supportive. 74 percent of Act voters are either strongly or somewhat opposed, with a paltry 9 percent in favour. Act voters’ opposition to the proposed Hate Speech laws outstrips their support by a whopping 65 percentage points!
The Hate Speech issue doesn’t just expose a yawning ideological gap between Left and Right, but a significant gender gap between women and men. Curia Research reveals support for the Prime Minister’s proposed law changes skews heavily in favour of women. 51 percent of men either strongly or somewhat oppose the legislation, compared to 34 percent of women. Women’s support for the measures stands at 35 percent, men’s at 24 percent. As Curia itself noted: “Women’s net support is +1% and men are –27% – a huge gender gap.”
Only in two parts of New Zealand does support for the proposed Hate Speech laws outstrip the opposition. Unsurprisingly, it is in Christchurch – the scene of the deadly mosque shootings – that Curia recorded the highest level of support. Cantabrians in favour of curbing Hate Speech are 13 percentage points ahead of those opposed. In Wellington, the most politicised of New Zealand’s major cities, the positive margin – 5 percentage points – is considerably narrower. In Auckland City, opponents outnumber supporters by 10 percentage points. In the provincial cities the negative margin is narrower, just 2 percentage points. Tellingly, respondents’ negativity soars in New Zealand’s small towns and rural communities, registering 26 percentage points and 32 percentage points respectively.
Only among New Zealanders under the age of 30 does the Curia survey throw up a clear preference for legislative action on Hate Speech. Voters over the age of 30 are not convinced of the need for the imposition of criminal sanctions. The negative margin is narrow for the 31-45 age-group, but it opens up spectacularly for those aged 46-60 years. In this age-group the opponents of Hate Speech laws outnumber supporters by 22 percentage points. This is higher than the negative margin of the over-60s, which Curia measured at just 14 percent.
These results will be of particular concern to the Labour Party and their Green allies. Middle-aged and elderly New Zealanders are by far the most reliable participants in the electoral process. If the FSU [of which it is only fair that I acknowledge my membership to the reader] is successful at turning the Hate Speech legislation into a defining issue of the 2023 General Election, then the votes of its staunchest opponents in the upper age-groups could prove decisive. All the more reason for Labour and the Greens to do everything within their power to mobilise the Youth Vote. Easy to say, of course, but notoriously difficult to do.
Could Labour be rescued on this issue by socio-economic factors? Curia’s results indicate that support for the proposed Hate Speech laws is highest among the wealthiest third of the population, where it stands at 33 percent. The next most supportive are the poorest third, at 30 percent. Least supportive are the middle third, with just 29 percent in favour – and 45 percent against – the Government’s Hate Speech proposals. Overall, however, negativity reigns across all socio-economic groups.
Once again, there is little in the way of good news for Labour and the Greens in these numbers. Socio-economic status and ethnicity in contemporary New Zealand tend to be very closely associated. With Maori, Pasifika and Immigrant communities among the poorest in the country, it might be supposed that support for Hate Speech legislation would have been at its highest. After all, it is people of colour and religious minorities who are the principal targets of Hate Speech. That 41 percent of the poorest third of New Zealanders are either somewhat or strongly opposed to the proposed law changes is surprising – to say the least.
It is important to note that across the Curia survey a pretty consistent figure of around 15 percent of respondents declared themselves to be neutral on the proposed Hate Speech laws. It is for the hearts and minds of these folk that the battle will be entered in earnest. Convince the ”Neutrals” of the need to take decisive action to curb and criminalise Hate Speech, and the Prime Minister will be as close to the magic 50 percent as makes no difference. No Government can afford to go out on a policy limb when 80 percent-plus of the electorate is ranged against it. With voters evenly divided on an issue, however, a Government can go for broke.
As things now stand, the Prime Minister can put considerable faith in a young, well-educated woman from the leafier suburbs of Christchurch and Wellington to cast her vote in favour of a Government committed to fighting Hate Speech. For Judith Collins and David Seymour, however, reliable support for freedom of expression can be expected from a white, male, middle-income earner, nearing retirement and living in a small country town.
Curia’s survey does not make it clear whether this free-speaker drives a double-cab ute, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.