High Court vindicates Climate Voter groups
Organisers of an online campaign aimed at raising the profile of climate change as an election issue, say they have been vindicated by the High Court on crucial points of law.
This morning the High Court released its decision on the Climate Voter website at http://climatevoter.org.nz which the Electoral Commission considered to be an ‘election advertisement’ and therefore subject to a range of legal requirements.
Lawyer for the Climate Voter initiative, Dr Matthew Palmer QC, says the Court’s judgment accepts the core legal arguments made by the Climate Voter groups.
“The ruling confirms the core legal argument that the Electoral Act was not intended to capture normal issues-based advocacy. It upholds the right for websites to promote an issue as long as they do not encourage people to vote for or against a party or type of party,” he says.
The Climate Voter groups say they believed that there was a very real risk that, if this law went untested, it could have had significant and insidious implications for freedom of speech in New Zealand.
“That’s why we challenged it and we’re very pleased the Court has recognised the important role that advocacy groups play in our democracy and agrees that the Electoral Act was not intended to capture non-partisan civil society groups who engage only in issues-based advocacy,” they say.
While the court accepted the core legal arguments of the Climate Voter groups, it pointed to two particular aspects of the website that meant it could not make the declarations sought. The Climate Voter groups will examine these further.
More than 58,000 people have added their support since Climate Voter was launched on July 22 by Forest and Bird, 350 Aotearoa, Greenpeace, Generation Zero, Oxfam New Zealand and WWF New Zealand. Last week more than 13,000 people tuned in during the live stream of The Great Climate Voter Debate. The two-hour event at Auckland’s Q Theatre gave six of the main parties a chance to convince the live audience and online viewers that they are taking real action on climate change.
The High Court also ruled that a parody website at http://simon-bridges.co.nz created by Greenpeace, which the Electoral Commission said was an election advertisement, leading to the site being taken down, could not be considered an election advertisement. The site, which appeared to belong to the Minister for Energy Simon Bridges, was engulfed by swirling oil as part of an ongoing campaign by the organisation against deep sea oil drilling.
“Greenpeace is very pleased that our position on the Bridges parody site is completely vindicated,” says spokesperson Steve Abel.
The High Court ruling can be found here (PDF).
Climate Voter High Court Case Background
The Climate Voter groups, who are six of New Zealand’s leading environmental, climate change and development organisations, are going to the High Court in a freedom of speech test case.
The Electoral Commission recently told the groups – Forest and Bird, 350 Aotearoa, Greenpeace, Generation Zero, Oxfam New Zealand and WWF New Zealand – that the Climate Voter initiative, launched on the 22nd June 2014 and aimed at getting all political parties to address climate change, is an ‘election advertisement’, and is therefore subject to a range of legal requirements.
We strongly believe that Climate Voter should not be captured by this legislation. The Act was intended to target party political promotions, not issues based advocacy and could have implications for many organisations across the country who may be caught up in this far-reaching interpretation made by the Electoral Commission.
If civil society groups carry on as normal without following the requirements designed for promotion of political parties, they could face fines running into tens of thousands of dollars.
The legal requirements include compulsory wording on communications, additional bureaucracy around accounting and restrictions on spending.
Our lawyers have sent a letter to the Electoral Commission, lawyers stating that we ‘disagree with the Electoral Commission’ and ‘intend to commence proceedings in the High Court’.
We're taking this case initially about Climate Voter to the High Court, but this is far bigger than Climate Voter. This is about freedom of speech and could have huge implications for many organisations across the country. There’s a very real risk that, if this law goes untested, many advocacy and civil society groups in New Zealand could be gagged. Some may even be forced to take down entire websites.
And it’s not just advocacy groups that could be caught up in this far-reaching interpretation. Any organisation voicing an opinion could be caught up, down to the local kindergarten supporting policies for children on their website.
That’s why we’re challenging it. We think the law was clearly not intended to capture non-partisan civil society groups. This could have significant and insidious implications for freedom of speech in New Zealand unless it is immediately challenged in the High Court.
It also impinges on freedom of speech in this way. Freedom of speech is not only the right to say what you want but also the right to say it where and in the way you want to say it.
The argument that you can say what you want so long as you put a promoter statement on is a subtle restriction reminiscent of regulations around Speakers Corner in Singapore, where people may exercise “free speech” so long as they have registered with the Government and only speak at Speakers Corner.
This interpretation of the law is very concerning for the Climate Voter groups and could have far-ranging implications for other community groups and non-government organisations wanting to encourage their members, and voters in general, to consider specific issues when they vote – e.g. policies on early childhood, health care, lower taxes, biodiversity, transport, etc.
- 27 June 2014 - Letter to Electoral Commission requesting an opinion on Climate Voter
To Electoral Commission re Climate Voter.pdf
- 2 July 2014 Letter of response from the Electoral Commission
287 Advisory Opinion - Greenpeace - climate voter website.pdf
- 14 July 2014 - Climate Voter response to the Electoral Commission
Letter to Electoral Commission 14 07 14.pdf