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Mar 26, 2014

Government risks looking out of touch as it clumsily sells free speech

Labor believes it can hurt the government on racial discrimination and the government is making its job easier with its poor selling.

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Labor plainly feels it’s onto a winner with the government’s changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Six times in question time yesterday in the House of Representatives, Labor members — mostly Mark Dreyfus, but Laurie Ferguson, Michelle Rowland and, finally, Bill Shorten, too — rose to demand that the government explain, in essence, why it was encouraging bigotry. Unusually — highly unusually, given how biased she usually is — Speaker Baroness Bishop of Bayview allowed questions about such matters as how “the Abbott government wants to give bigotry its blessing in Australia” in the name of free speech, even overruling a Christopher Pyne Point of High Dudgeon trying to block questions.

For Labor, this is a big opportunity to lift its vote in seats with strong multicultural demographics — seats like Banks, wrested from Daryl Melham by Nine executive David Coleman, who may have trouble convincingly explaining the government’s position to his large Islamic constituency.

Labor’s questions were directed to the Prime Minister, and Tony Abbott’s responses were equal parts defensive, pleading and moral high ground. “I accept that this is a difficult issue,” he said. The government was “collegially “and “consultatively” trying to “get the balance right” — although not so collegially as to rule out accusing Labor of “dog whistling” (insert standard pot, kettle reference here). “What we have proposed today is an exposure draft of legislation,” Abbott said, to little enthusiasm from his backbench. “Let us see what various community organisations say in response to the exposure legislation that we are making available.” “Members on this side of the chamber are serious about wanting to ensure that there is no place for racism in our society,” he insisted.

It was lacklustre performance, but then, it’s not exactly a subject on which one can go on vigorous attack. And Labor didn’t hold back in its questions, with Dreyfus invoking infamous Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben, among other examples of vileness. Labor wilfully blurred the issue, suggesting that the government was encouraging bigotry and racism rather than encouraging free speech. Nor had the government helped its case the day before when Attorney-General George Brandis accused Labor Senate Leader Penny Wong of bigotry (then again, maybe she’s lucky he didn’t call her a “crook”) and said that people had the right to be bigots.

In terms of presentation, it was a debacle — it’s hard to hold the moral high ground against the claim that you have given the blessing to bigotry when the first law officer of the Commonwealth announces in Parliament a right to it.

The fact is, people do have a right to be bigots. There, I said it. And people should have a right to hold and articulate any views they like, no matter how offensive or batshit crazy they may be, as long as in expressing their views they don’t cause demonstrable harm to others, or in some other way break laws such as those relating to anti-discrimination. But that’s a nuanced argument hard to articulate clearly in the face of opponents throwing Holocaust denial at you, particularly when the issue of demonstrable harm isn’t a simple one.

“Neither is likely to convince voters that this is a government with its eye on real priorities.”

Moreover, in the hierarchy of impediments to free speech, the Racial Discrimination Act ranks pretty low, and the government has shown no interest in encouraging free speech elsewhere in the Commonwealth’s statute books, leaving itself wide open to the charge of inconsistency. No consideration is underway on trying to fix our appalling defamation laws, or remove prohibitions on discussing euthanasia online, for instance. Indeed, the government shows all the signs of wanting to curtail free speech with internet censorship schemes and threats to cut funding from artists who boycott corporate sponsors.

For an amendment the Coalition has apparently been contemplating for so long, it’s done an awful job selling it — it’s reminiscent of the how the Rudd and Gillard governments would suddenly announce controversial solutions to problems they hadn’t actually drawn to the attention of the electorate beforehand. Abbott and Brandis appear to have assumed that the Andrew Bolt case was sufficient as an example of why the RDA needed fixing, when it was only that to the free speech “absolutists” and the echo chambers of News Corporation.

And Brandis’ exposure draft isn’t exactly perfect. Stripping section 18C back to intimidation enables a more verifiable and objective assessment of the impact of someone’s words; adding vilification, however, doesn’t add much in the way of clarity, given the idea of inciting hatred falls somewhere between causing offence or humiliation and actual harm. Most particularly, as a number of commentators have noted, the exemptions cover anything communicated “in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”. It’s difficult to think of any public statement not covered by the exemption, thereby rendering the entire section a dead letter. Perhaps that’s the government’s intention, but it would be more honest to be upfront about it.

In yesterday’s Essential Report results on party attributes, Labor had edged ahead of the Coalition on “understands the problems facing Australia”, 49% to 47%. The Coalition had also increased its lead on “out of touch with ordinary people”, to 59% to Labor’s 49%. Your average voter, if she tuned in at all to federal politics yesterday, would have seen a government apparently defending the right to bigotry and reinstituting a bizarre system of mediaeval titles that even John Howard didn’t bother with. Neither is likely to convince voters that this is a government with its eye on real priorities.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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