On freedom of speech and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act: if it’s broken and you look away, it’s still broken
January 15th, 2015 at 10:06am
Tony Abbott’s decision last year to abandon proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act whereby the silly and restrictive section 18C was to be removed, was a disgrace in my view, and an absolute betrayal of the mainly conservative voters who trusted him ensure that freedom of speech, a cornerstone of any free society, was protected.
So it was with a small amount of pleasure in recent days that I saw something good come out of the awful terrorist attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo…the calls to scrap this section of the law were renewed, mainly because it is quite clear that the magazine would almost certainly be in contravention of this section of the law if it was an Australian publication. Simon Breheny from the Institute of Public Affairs summed this up very well the other day:
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) makes it unlawful to “offend, insult humiliate or intimidate” a person on the grounds of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. Section 18C was the provision used against News Corp Australia journalist Andrew Bolt in 2011 for two columns he had published in 2009.
“This week leaders from around the world have united to defend the right of publications like Charlie Hebdo to publish content that is offensive to some,” says Mr Breheny.
“But a publication such as Charlie Hebdo would struggle to survive in Australia, due to laws that censor offensive, insulting, humiliating and intimidating speech. Section 18C could be used against the publishers of cartoons that satirise figures based on their race or ethnicity. Content not caught by section 18C would almost certainly be censored by current state religious vilification laws, which are specifically designed to target the kind of content published in Charlie Hebdo.”
“The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom of expression. And as Prime Minister Tony Abbott rightly noted in response to this atrocity, ‘Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a free society.'”
For a little while there I thought there was some hope that sanity would prevail, and the silly idea to abandon the plan to repeal section 18C would be washed away by a renewed effort to enshrine freedom of speech in law, in an effort to show that we won’t kowtow to attempts by terrorists to intimidate us in to silence. Alas, instead, I found myself screaming at the radio yesterday when clips of Tony Abbott being interviewed on 3AW were played.
“I would prefer that 18c were not in its current terms but we made an attempt to amend it, it was obvious that that attempt to amend it was generating a lot of division in the community,” he said.
“The government made the decision not to proceed with it at this time and that remains the government’s position.”
Well that’s just silly Tony. The main reason for abandoning the changes was a perception that it was upsetting the Muslim community. Since the atrocities in France last week, the Muslim community and pretty much every other group which appeared to oppose the repeal of 18C have come out in support of freedom of speech, and in particular the type of speech which Charlie Hebdo published…this amounts to supporting the repeal of 18C. To not take advantage of this rare solidarity in favour of freedom of speech is either a boneheaded decision, or indicative of some other agenda…I honestly don’t know which one I’d prefer it to be. On the one hand one doesn’t want boneheaded decisions from governments (but they’re not uncommon), but on the other it can be very difficult to trust a government which has hidden and unknown motives.
But Tony wasn’t done.
Mr Abbott made his pledge [to repeal section 18C] after the laws were successfully used against News Corporation commentator Andrew Bolt in 2011 after he claimed a group of prominent Aborigines used their skin colour to seek professional advantages.
The Prime Minister said the Andrew Bolt prosecution was an “aberration”.
“I don’t believe that we are likely to see an Andrew Bolt prosecution again. If we do, let’s rethink things,” he said.
This is what really had me screaming at the radio. The law is broken and people who oppose freedom of speech know that it can be used to silence people who say things which offend anyone. Everyone in the country knows this law is an assault on freedom of speech (even if some would characterise it as some sort of necessary protection), and there is an opportunity to fix it right now. This is a rare opportunity which probably won’t last for long. It is inevitable that somebody will offend somebody else at some stage in the future and end up being silence by a court under this law…it might not be as high-profile a case as Andrew Bolt’s case, but it will happen. There is an opportunity to prevent this travesty of justice from happening, but it seems that Tony Abbott is comfortable to let it happen and only consider fixing it after the damage is done once again.
Ignoring a broken law will not magically fix the law.
Tony Abbott’s promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was one of the core reasons for him having my full support, and was more important to me than some of the policies with which I took issue (such as Paid Parental Leave and Direct Action when Tony knows as well as I do that global warming does not require a government response). While I’m pleased with the work on stopping the flood of illegal immigrants and am seeing some slow progress on repairing the budget, I feel very betrayed by this unwillingness to do the right thing and follow through on the common-sense promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
This sort of betrayal makes small parties look appealing. Perhaps Tony Abbott should think about that before he next complains about his policies being obstructed by the small cross-bench parties.