Moving to the left doesn’t
always mean supporting civil liberties. That’s the lesson of the latest
piece of positioning from Victoria’s new Liberal leader, Ted Baillieu.

Up
to now, Baillieu’s strategy of making news on social issues had mostly
involved supporting individual freedom: ending abortion restrictions,
allowing voluntary euthanasia, permitting condoms in jails.
(Restrictions on gambling are an exception, but the issues there are
complex.) Now, according to this morning’s Age, his shadow cabinet has gone the other way, promising not to repeal the religious provisions of Labor’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

It’s
a minor tragedy that in Australia racial and religious vilification
laws have become a left-right issue. Their most dedicated opponents are
on the hard right, including religious fundamentalists and others who
are not usually fans of civil liberties. Most of the left, apart from a
few dedicated libertarians, has supported the laws, and they have
become a totemic issue for the left within the Liberal Party. After
bitter internal debate, the Liberal Party under Denis Napthine’s
leadership let the laws through the Legislative Council in 2001.

So
it’s not really surprising that Baillieu – whose supporters often think
of themselves as on the left, although Victorian factionalism is mostly
non-ideological – should be presiding over a change of front. But it is
disappointing nonetheless. It needs to be said clearly that there is
nothing progressive about suppressing the views of people you disagree
with.

The case of religious vilification is especially clear,
since (unlike race) religion is something that can – and should – be
changed. Voltaire, Marx and many others would turn in their graves at
the thought of a supposedly left-wing government trying to shut down
debate on religion.

One group that seems to understand this is
the Greens, who are participating in a rally in Melbourne today against
the laws, organised by the “Coalition for Free Speech”. They will have
some odd bedfellows, including, allegedly, a former president of the Ku
Klux Klan. But the defence of basic freedoms requires as broad a front
as we can muster.

Peter Fray

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