Chelsea Manning’s visit to New Zealand next month now represents a “free speech” test for everyone in politics, and already National have failed. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University of Wellington argues that this latest chapter in the free speech wars indicates a disturbing intolerance and hypocrisy across the political spectrum.

The National Party didn’t take long to show themselves as hypocrites on freedom of speech. Michael Woodhouse’s call to deny Chelsea Manning a visa to enter New Zealand shows that his party is willing to clamp down on political freedoms based on the politics and ideologies of the individuals involved. Manning, a former US army intelligence analyst, served seven years in military prison for leaking thousands of documents and videos to WikiLeaks.

But it’s impressive to see that many on the political right are calling National out on this issue – especially on Twitter. For example, rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton‏ (@MatthewHootonNZ): “Chelsea Manning is a thief, a traitor and a disgrace. And she should be welcome to come to New Zealand to speak, including at @AklCouncil premises. And @WoodhouseMP should be sacked as @NZNationalParty immigration spokesperson.”

Similarly, Alex Penk‏ (@alex_penk) of the Maxim Institute tweets: “For crying out loud, can we please stop trying to ban speakers. If you don’t like what they have to say, ignore them or debate them.”

Now the pressure is on the Government to do the right thing and allow Manning into the country. Associate Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi is going to have to show some courage on this. If he denies Manning a visa, then it will be a case of an important and progressive whistleblower being shut down in an atmosphere of intolerance.

No victory for the left

Recently the political left has generally been illiberal on questions of political freedoms – especially on the case of the visiting alt-right Canadian speakers. And the actions of those opposing Southern and Molyneux from speaking in Auckland have contributed to an illiberal atmosphere in which Manning might now be banned.

In fact, progressives and leftists might be suddenly re-thinking their stance now that one of their own is under threat of being banned from New Zealand. Unfortunately, the New Zealand left has been working hard to convince the public that it is okay to ban people based on their politics and backgrounds.

In seeking to curtail some less than savoury individuals, the left have handed over to the right the ideological ammunition to then attempt to do the same to those that the left might favour speaking here.

The conclusion, therefore, seems to be that many on both the left and right have been less than honourable in the current “free speech wars”. Blogger Martyn Bradbury‏ (@CitizenBomber) has put this well in a tweet: “Watching those on the woke left demanding free speech when barely a month ago they were screaming censorship while those on the right are now preaching the exact opposite shows the intellectual bankruptcy that has overcome so many in the debate”.

Defending Chelsea Manning

Of course, Chelsea Manning is not a New Zealand citizen, and she has no automatic right to come and speak here. But the call by Woodhouse and others to effectively ban Manning from coming by pointing to her criminal record is a red-herring. Most people will see that it’s really about banning certain anti-establishment and dissident ideas. That should disturb us.

And as we know, there are plenty of other individuals who are allowed visas despite having criminal records – often musicians and entertainers. It seems that the visa exemption rules are simply run on the basis of the sensibilities of the politicians and officials with the power to decide. And we now know that if National was in government, Manning would be denied entry – so the system is simply based on the subjective inclinations of the day.

Ironically, many other unsavoury individuals have been welcomed into New Zealand. For example, just two years ago the infamous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was allowed to stopover in this country.

In fact, the New Zealand Government has invited top level figures and officials who have carried out wars and occupations that have been ruled by the international community to be illegal or without legal basis – such as the invasion of Iraq.

So while, for example, Condoleezza Rice was welcomed here by the Labour-led government in 2008, we now have a chance to hear from an important whistleblower who actually played a more morally-positive role in terms of the war in Iraq. Not only did Manning help the world understand the reality of the Iraq occupation, but her actions in leaking video footage of atrocities also led to a major review of policies and procedures of war.

I would be interested to hear the National Party trying to explain why the video Manning released of the US shooting civilians should have been kept from the public. After all, even President Obama ended up commuting Manning’s prison sentence. He knew that what she did was ultimately defensible. Obama knew that sometimes people fighting for change have to break laws. Manning did this for the greater public good. And it is important to have her story told more widely – which is why Labour should let Manning into the country to speak.

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