Bylaw’s civil rights sting

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A new Queenstown Lakes District Council bylaw endangers democratic public protest.

As worded, QLDC’s proposed “Control of Trading and Obstructions in Public Places” bylaw risks breaching the Bill of Rights, Mountain Scene lawyer Robert Stewart warns.

Despite promoting the bylaw as “more permissive”, QLDC has slipped the word “demonstrations” into a list of other activities in public places such as street vending and busking. Protest organisers will now have to get permits for rallies – and the council better tread warily, Stewart says.

“The issue of the required permit is at the sole discretion of the council,” the Izard Weston lawyer adds. “The exercise of that discretion in an abusive or oppressive manner is therefore a possibility.”

The Bill of Rights gives everyone rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“QLDC will have to be very careful that any decision to decline a permit application is clearly based on safety or nuisance grounds and not simply because the council doesn’t like or approve of what the demonstration is about,” Stewart says.

Even a solitary ratepayer standing outside QLDC offices handing out leaflets complaining of rates rises will need a permit – the bylaw catches “distributing pamphlets”.

But to get a permit, applicants must prove to QLDC their leaflets have “an overall positive community benefit”.

When permits are refused, there’s no requirement for QLDC to give reasons. Permits may also be unilaterally “amended, revoked or suspended” without explanation.

Council quango Lakes Environmental is steering the bylaw through and will enforce much of it.

LE boss Hamish Dobbie first told Mountain Scene “demonstration” means “product demonstration” – he then conceded protests and rallies require permits.

Dobbie also concedes demonstrations aren’t covered in an existing bylaw.

So rather than more permissive, the new law’s more oppressive? “Yes, you could make that [point],” Dobbie says.

And on permits: “I accept there are fairly wide powers for the council to turn people down – because it’s discretionary.”

LE enforcement officers are trained in the Bill of Rights.

“They have considerable coercive powers available to them which they don’t utilise 99 per cent of the time – simply because those powers don’t need to be utilised in that way.”

Newspapers are also caught by the bylaw – permits will now be required for streetboxes, with publishers prohibited from promoting their stories on the front of those boxes.

To get streetbox permits, a newspaper must contain “information beneficial to the general public”, says the draft bylaw.

Whether information is “beneficial” isn’t defined – Dobbie himself struggles to explain it.

So without specifying reasons, a council officer could reject a newspaper’s application for a streetbox permit?
Dobbie: “That’s true – but there’s recourse.”

MS: We could go over your head to the mayor, could we? “Yes – absolutely.”

Dobbie was then reminded that Queenstown mayor Clive Geddes has branded Mountain Scene as: “The single most destructive force in this community.”

Submissions close on February 15.