Friday, June 09, 2006

Sedition - Cause celebre!

I must admit to some concerns regarding this decision in our Auckland District Court yesterday.

The guy is probably a nutter, but even so he does have a point.

The question in my mind –

If he had put his axe through any window other than one belonging to the PM’s Electoral Office, would the charge have been “sedition”? I strongly suspect not. Far more likely he would have been facing “intentional damage” or something like that. That he pled guilty to such an offence shows it was brought.

This is how Herald defined "sedition"-

* Tim Selwyn took part in a protest which put an axe through the window of Prime Minister Helen Clark's electoral office.

* He wrote a press release encouraging others to follow his example.

* For this the jury found him guilty of sedition, which is defined as "speech, writing or behaviour intended to encourage rebellion or resistance against the government".

OK, so the heart of the matter is the "speech, writing or behaviour intended to encourage rebellion or resistance against the government" is it?

The freelance writer, from Grey Lynn, Auckland, earlier admitted to conspiring to commit wilful damage when an axe was embedded in Prime Minister Helen Clark's electoral office window in November 2004.

He had admitted in court to "having a hand" in two separate statements claiming responsibility for the axe attack and calling for others to commit acts of civil disobedience.

One bundle of pamphlets was left outside the Mt Albert electoral office, and the second on a powerbox in Ponsonby Rd, 2km away, on the same night as the axe attack.

The jury found material in the second statement to be seditious.

It was designed as a press release and called for "like minded New Zealanders to take similar action of their own".

The first statement had called upon "like minded New Zealanders to commit their own acts of civil disobedience".

His actions were in protest of the Government's foreshore and seabed legislation, which he said was being rushed through Parliament at the time.

Is freedom of expression as repressed in NZ as it is in the various countries that he lists? Well, watch this space because I believe that we will find out in the next few weeks.

There have been accusations in the past of Government (specifically Auntie Helen) involvement in the direction of Police investigation and charges. Those accusations have been turned away by the Police Commissioner as unwarranted and untrue. It is fortunate indeed that the Police succeeded in their charges this time around. Had the sedition charge not been found by that jury then the hounds of hell would have been after both. As it stands, the decision makes any attempt to point to that possible link and to answer my question above difficult to sustain.

For the record, here is Herald’s list of previous convictions for “sedition” –


* 1913: Maoriland Worker editor Henry Holland and unionist Tom Barker were charged with sedition during the 1913 waterfront dispute. Holland was sentenced to prison for a year, of which he served 3 1/2 months. Barker received a three-month sentence. Seamans union leader William Young was jailed for two months for sedition and inciting violence.

* 1916: Peter Fraser, later Labour Prime Minister, was sentenced to 12 months, which he served, for calling for an end to conscription through repeal of the Military Service Act. Fraser's defence was that in arguing for the repeal of the law rather than disobedience or resistance to it, he was acting within his constitutional rights.

* 1916: Hubert Armstrong was sentenced to a year's imprisonment after he told a street-corner meeting that conscription was more about controlling and intimidating a disaffected proletariat than about beating Germany, and would be unnecessary if soldiers were adequately paid.

* 1918: Hiram Hunter campaigned against compulsory service as secretary-treasurer of the United Federation of Labour. In 1918 he received a three-month prison sentence for sedition, but was released after 19 days.

* 1942: The Rev Ormond Burton, editor of the Christian Pacifist Society newsletter, was convicted in the Supreme Court in 1942 for "editing, publishing and attempting to publish a subversive document". Burton argued for his democratic right to think and speak as conscience dictated. Justice Archibald Blair disagreed, telling the jury it was a time when the mouths of cranks would have to shut. Burton was sentenced to 2 years' prison.

Sources: Caslon Analytics (, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (

Yes folks, the probligo is worried; very concerned; paranoid e-fen!!

Further questions –

If "speech, writing or behaviour intended to encourage rebellion or resistance against the government" leads to the crime of sedition then how many cases in the past have been passed over and not charged? Is incitement to disobey a lawful request of the Police "an act against the government"? How about incitement to disobey Government demands to return to work? Or how about the illegal occupation of land, and the incitement of others to do the same in other locations? Would Ghandi's "civil disobedience" be considered "sedition" - for example incitement to smoke marijuana in a public place would seem to fall into that category...


Joe Hawke and the occupation of Bastion Point.

The leaders of the Waterfront Strike 1950.

The occupation of Moutua Gardens.

The Norml demonstrations in favour of decriminalising recreational pot...

Auntie Helen, you got one hellava lot of ‘splainin to do.


Idiot/Savant said...

Ghandi was in fact prosecuted for sedition, though it was for speaking out against British rule in India rather than the tactics he used. That's the key point - this is primarily a political crime.

The probligo said...

Yeah, and in at least two of the examples I gave there were strident and explicit calls for civil disobedience and the overthrow of the government of the time.

Hence the examples.

And in none of those cases were sedition charges put.

And one of those who might have been charged, is now a MP. One, by the way, for whom I have a lot of respect for his history.