Hate Speech Laws: The Polling

After the March 2019 Christchurch mosque attack, the New Zealand Government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into matters surrounding the tragedy. The Commission came back with recommendations, including a tightening of laws regarding Hate Speech. The Ardern Government has indicated support for such proposals, but has yet to formally push them through Parliament.

I have previously noted that Gun Laws is not much of a Culture War issue in New Zealand. Hate Speech is something different, being a good deal more polarising. I myself am moderately opposed to the proposed Hate Speech legislation – I feel it a mistake on the part of the Ardern Government, since I do not think this is a political battle worth fighting, and I do not think tighter Hate Speech laws would have done much to prevent the 2019 attack. It’s also a tad hypocritical from Ardern, seeing as it basically brings back Blasphemous Libel by the back door, while for the more historically minded, the New Zealand Left has historically been on the receiving end of governmental censorship. 1951 being only the most infamous example.

On the other hand, I do not think these proposals will Destroy Democracy, or result in harmless people going to prison. The courts are required to interpret legislation in light of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and as such will be interpreting these laws in accordance with the principle of Freedom of Speech. Anyone prosecuted under these proposals will have almost certainly been doing something that is currently illegal… which means that this whole thing is more about the Government thinking it needs to Be Seen Doing Something in the face of terrorism, rather than an effort to force a change in behaviour.

Anyway, the more ardent opponents of this legislation have set up the Free Speech Union to lobby against it. And they have released a poll on the subject:


My immediate thought, of course, is to note the framing of the question:

The Government has proposed new Hate Speech Laws which could see individuals sentenced for up to three years in prison for speech deemed harmful to designated groups of people. What is your view of the proposed Hate Speech laws. Is it strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, somewhat support, or strongly support?

It’s a question more likely to elicit a negative response (naturally. It’s a poll organised by the opposition to the legislation). If a group wanted to elicit a positive response, it’d be something like:

In response to the 2019 attack on the Christchurch mosque, a Royal Commission of Inquiry has proposed measures to tighten laws governing Hate Speech, with tougher penalties for individuals inciting violent hatred in the community. What is your view..

Framing can be a powerful thing.

Anyway, the topline numbers are 43% oppose, 31% support, 15% neutral, and 12% unsure.

Much attention has been given to the apparent gender divide (men are much more likely to oppose the legislation than women), and the fact that the opposition skews more old and right-wing, with support skewing more young and left-wing. Taking a look at the polling data myself, I feel that’s a tad superficial reading.

(The fact that the poll only considers National, Labour, Greens, and ACT, but not New Zealand First is also extremely noticeable. It’s almost like the FSU is freezing out Winston Peters, for some reason… oh wait, David Farrar’s the pollster).

So far as the gender gap goes, it is true that men are more likely to be strong opposers, and women strong supporters, but these account for less than half the population. The gender gap is much smaller among the moderates and fence-sitters. Women are also much more likely to be unsure, which means the topline gender gap gets inflated.

Then there are the age-groupings. Young people are more supportive of Hate Speech Laws, whereas older people are more opposed. True enough. Except that the strong opposers are basically consistent in number across all age-groups until you hit the over 60s. The 46-60 group may be most opposed overall, but their opposition is moderate, rather than strong… and there is not a monumental difference between the percentage of strong supporters in the under 30s (23%) and the over 60s (17%). In short, it’s a foggy correlation.

In fact, a fair number of comfortable assumptions really break down once you take a closer look at the data.

Christchurch and Wellington are considered the hotbed of Hate Speech Law support. Which makes intuitive sense… Christchurch was the site of the 2019 attack, while Wellington has a reputation as the home of Green-tinged social liberalism. Except that Christchurch is also easily the home of the largest number of Neutrals, and Wellington has the smallest number of strong supporters in the country. Auckland is quite polarised, with high levels of strong support and (especially) strong opposed.

(Speaking of Auckland… it’s one of the oddities of New Zealand politics that our largest city is slightly to the Right of the country. Quite alien by international standards).

And finally, there is the support and opposition by party affiliation. As tempting as it is to reduce this to a mere matter of Right vs Left, a la US-style Culture War, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. Just as the 2015 Flag Referendum really became a proxy vote on the Government, I rather think that Labour supporters feel instinctively obliged to support an initiative of a Labour Government, and National supporters feel instinctively obliged to oppose it. In each case, support or opposition tails away the further you get from the designated pole, but there are clearly plenty of ‘meh’ responses.

The weirdest element of the party affiliation data is the Hate Speech Law opposers among the Greens, and the corresponding supporters in ACT. This might be a product of statistical noise – these are small parties, so you are dealing with a comparatively small number of people. Or you might be dealing with people who like to mess with pollsters. However, it is at least worth noting that every Green supporter who opposes the Hate Speech Law is strongly opposed, whereas most ACT voters who support the Hate Speech Law are strongly in favour. Contrarians among the minor parties don’t do things by halves.


So yeah. Outside the people with Very Strong Opinions on this matter, I would be hesitant about reading too much into these polling results. There are some broad generalisations you can make, but they remain just that – generalisations. There are plenty of caveats if you bother to actually look closer, and that’s quite apart from the framing of the initial question. I do feel Ardern is making an error here, however.

One thought on “Hate Speech Laws: The Polling

  1. Hi Daniel, interesting reading although surely a debate around change to the current law….starts with: what’s wrong with the current laws. I don’t know the proposed changes in full, but surely this was the act of a madman…and hence…why are we changing laws…due to the act of an insane person. A better example to my point. Let’s assume an insane person shoots up 50 people in a coffee shop,… should we then make law all coffee shops should security employed at the door,.. yeah you got it…ott


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