Phil Goff –
The Sikh religious tradition of wearing a short ceremonial dagger, the kirpan, has recently come under the spotlight of public debate.
The kirpan is one of the five articles of faith that baptised Sikhs must carry at all times.
This comes into conflict with civil society rules such as not allowing the carrying of anything that may be used as a weapon on an aircraft or at a public event.
Recently, organisers of the Cricket World Cup in New Zealand banned Sikhs carrying the kirpan from attending international matches, though the rule was not equally enforced against all Sikhs who attended.
By contrast, Sikhs were expressly permitted to attend the London Olympics 2012 and carry a kirpan as long as its blade measured 8 cms or less. If security considerations did not require a ban in London, why was it necessary in our country?
Members of the Sikh community in New Zealand have a wider concern that under the Crimes Act, they could be found committing the offence of carrying a concealed weapon in public. In some countries including India, UK, the Australian States of Victoria and South Australia and in some American States, legislation has been passed allowing Sikhs the legal right to carry the kirpan.
I understand that this legislation has been in existence in some cases for many years, without causing any difficulty.
Last August I was approached by a delegation from the Supreme Sikh Council of New Zealand asking whether Parliament would consider passing similar legislation in our country. I took up the matter with the Justice Minister and in September, I received a reply from Acting Minister Chris Finlayson.
He said that under section 202A of the Crimes Act, a kirpan could be considered an offensive weapon only if intended to cause bodily injury or threaten violence.
Mere possession of a kirpan, he added, was not a crime.
Having a kirpan in a public place for religious ceremonial purposes was a defence to the charge of carrying an offensive weapon.
Mr Finlayson concluded that there was no need to amend the law and that the government had no intention to do so.
Since then, however, lack of certainty about what the law has been renewed by the actions of the International Cricket Council.
Asked about this at a press conference, Prime Minister John Key appeared to propose legislation to put beyond doubt the right to wear a kirpan in public.
He even suggested that this would override the rule on not carrying articles aboard an aircraft that could be used as a weapon.
I have heard no public clarification from the government since then of what precisely its intentions are.
If the Prime Minister is serious in his comments about Sikhs being supported by law to carry kirpans, he should introduce legislation to this effect.
That legislation would be referred to a Select Committee for public submission.
People could have their say and the issue would be thoroughly examined.
A decision would then be made on its merits.
Any legislation should be based on the assumption that the carrying of kirpans in public is a legal right. It would then need to clarify circumstances or situations, if any, in which this right might need to be restricted consistent with community safety.
That way, the Sikh community can be given some certainty about the rights they have rather than having to guess how the law might apply in particular cases.
Having created the expectation that the law would be changed, Mr Key should deliver on his promise. Labour will treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves and will not play politics with it.
Phil Goff is former Foreign Affairs, Trade and Justice Minister and has been Member of Parliament for almost 35 years. Elected from Mt Roskill, he is today Labour Party’s Spokesperson for Ethnic Affairs and Auckland Issues.