– by Liam Carter
With the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo in France, freedom of speech is again on the frontlines of political debate in Australia.
Freedom of speech has hit the headlines, with the Liberals, the Murdoch media and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) leading the charge for the right to say whatever one wants – or as Attorney-General George Brandis so eloquently put it, “the right to be bigots”.
This has been characterized by the campaign to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits acts that “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on the basis of race or skin colour. This was a campaign taken on board by the government due to right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt facing prosecution after making comments about Indigenous Australians actionable under 18C. The government’s decision to not make changes to 18C provoked outrage from the IPA and The Australian, normally staunch cheerleaders of the Abbott government.
Bolt was acquitted for a number of reasons. Section 18D provides numerous exceptions to the previous clause, such as “publishing a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.” Aside from this, immense factual errors in Bolt’s work were also found.
All of this begs the question: to whom does freedom of speech belong? The expected official answer, of course, is that it belongs to everyone.
But does ‘everyone’ include Australian journalists who will now be jailed for up to ten years if they report on the activities of Australian spies? Does ‘everyone’ include asylum seekers on Manus Island who are currently sewing their lips together in protest against their detention and lack of voice? And does ‘everyone’ include protestors in Tasmania who are now banned from demonstrating against mining and timber projects under pain of imprisonment or fines?
Australia has no statutory or constitutional laws that specifically guarantee general freedom of speech. Our freedom of speech is inherited through the British common law system, dating back to the Magna Carta in 1215.
What is worth noting is that the origin of this document was the fight against an absolute monarchy, for the right to criticize the king without fear of arbitrary detention. Freedom of speech is fundamentally a protection against the authority of the state.
But the government and the likes of Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson (who conveniently ignores the aforementioned rights abuses committed by the government) are crusading for unrestricted freedom to insult and humiliate not just absolute monarchs, but ethnic minorities as well.
The question that needs to be asked is whether we really want or need the sort of bigoted behaviour that 18C seeks to restrict in Australia. Wilson argues that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would not be published in Australia due to 18C. First of all, he is probably incorrect, as cartoons would fall under the wide exemptions of 18D. Secondly, and more importantly, is this the altar that our great southern civilisation will sacrifice itself upon? Fighting tooth and nail to defend the right to slander someone based on their race or religion?
Those who support free speech would do better to support a bill of rights for Australia which would include freedom of speech, rather than pursue the abolishment of a single, high-profile clause that provides meagre protection against racial hatred.
At the end of the day, if our protections against racial hatred were weakened, it is not a matter of people like Andrew Bolt benefitting. It is the racial and religious minorities of Australia that would suffer.