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Toothless Bill of Rights?

By Steven | December 13, 2010

I think NZ Herald’s John Armstrong is on the money when he lambasts John Key for not fronting up and justifying the decision to hold hearings into the NZ SIS Amendment Bill in private, and for wondering whether there is any real justification.

But his parting shot at the “privacy supposedly protected by New Zealand’s toothless Bill of Rights” is wide of the mark.

For one thing, privacy isn’t protected by New Zealand’s Bill of Rights. The decision was made to leave it out. If John Armstrong is critical of that, then as far as I can tell he’s the only member of the media to take that stand.

As for whether the Bill of Rights is toothless, he might like to reflect on the fact that it has led to significant damages payouts for government breaches of rights (such as for anti-Tibet protesters marched down the street by police so that the visiting Chinese Premiere wouldn’t need to look at them and Rewi Falswasser, who was beaten and pepper-sprayed in a police cell); it has generated a much more principled approach to draft legislation behind the scenes so that officials address and usually iron out rights inconsistencies before legislation is even introduced to Parliament; it has it has changed the interpretation of various criminal laws to make them more rights-consistent; it has pared back the excesses of government regulators such as our censorship agencies and Broadcasting Standards Authority; it has helped remould our defamation laws in favour of political speech; and it has held Ministers to account for the way they use their powers, such as the recent government backdown on the ban on kosher meat slaughter.

If Parliament gets away with passing legislation that’s inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act too often, then that’s partly the fault of the media for not drawing attention to it. It’s there on a plate: the government even publishes the advice it receives labelling particular Bills as rights-infringing.

Here’s a story: of all the occasions during the 20 year life of the Bill of Rights in which government has enacted legislation in the face of advice from its own Attorney-General that the law is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights, one-third have happened in the last two years.

As it happens, that statistic comes from Claudia Geiringer, who was on The Court Report this week, when we looked at the impact of the Bill of Rights Act since it was enacted.

Topics: NZ Bill of Rights Act | 38 Comments »

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