Feb 6, 2013

Labor, discrimination laws and a space for speech

Janet Albrechtsen might have a point -- Labor's draft anti-discrimination laws are a worry. The battle has ideological tents camping in strange places, says Crikey's man-at-large.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Nicola Roxon has been an industrial lawyer of some distinction, a shadow immigration minister, an MP of 15 years’ tenure, and latterly Australia’s first female Attorney-General. But none of that mattered much to Planet Janet Albrechtsen yesterday, who used her sinecure column in The Australian to deliver a great “don’t let the door bang your arse on the way out” on the occasion of Roxon’s departure.

Roxon, she noted, was going out on an epic fail — the failure to sell the full version of the new human rights and discrimination legislation, with its legal sanctions against speech likely to “insult” or “offend”, on the basis of close to 20 separate social categories, from race, through nationhood, to breastfeeding. The “racial vilification” section includes physical “race”: colour, ethnicity and nationhood; a mishmash of received categories if ever there was one.

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8 thoughts on “Labor, discrimination laws and a space for speech

  1. N.A.F.

    Great article as always, Guy. Not sure I’m convinced though. Is the reductio ad absurdem of the dignity/CCTV part of this thesis that there should be no discrimination laws at all? How may speech and action be distinguished in this context?

  2. Christopher Nagle

    This is a nicely reasoned argument. It has been tossed at a constituency that has turned taking ‘offence’ and moral high dudgeon into not just a political artform, but a substitute for genuine intellectual engagement; something this article actually achieves.

    I don’t like seeing people like Andrew Bolt being turned into right wing martyrs by silly laws.

  3. Coaltopia

    Roxon did well with “fags” – a nanny-state provision for some – but with her gung-ho push for increased ASIO power, it’s easy to get jaded. Of course “The Right” loves giving spies more power – so “freedom” here is pretty inconsistent.

    Perhaps if ACMA and the Aus Press Council had more power to rein-in inflammatory language – from the likes of Bolt and Jones – we wouldn’t need these laws. Perish the thought we have a higher standard for widely disseminated media than the average bigot on the street.

  4. Warren Joffe

    Yep, duties talk beats rights talk and it is surely the duty of a citizen to attempt to be a net taxpayer and not to whinge about local government philistinism or ocker insults. (Reply robustly but play the victim no).

    Of course speech which is intended or fairly obuviously likiely to run the risk of subjecting anyone (but especially the less powerful) to the kind of hatred or anger which can readily lead to physical harm or serious long lasting harm of any kind is a matter for community concern. (Still, before one allows that to lead to legal restraints, one has to recognise that catch-all definitions can easily go too far. Thus being branded vociferously as stupid so as to give up on education could be said to result in “serious long last harm” but hardly inspires one to support laws that give the resolution of such problems to judges, magistrates and other such worthies). So defining the duties of those, of various degrees of semi-literate ockerdom and even the kind of higher learning that some Nazi supporting professors enjoyed, who should refrain from damaging use of the privilege free speech is too difficult for legal purposes, at least criminal or quasi-criminal. Nothing wrong with community shaming or a stern word from the uncle/priest though even then one has to recognise that suppression of freedom of speech may occur by community pressure, including most often that of one’s occupational or religious peers, and that all that can be said about that is that it is better than using the heavy hammer of the law because one can, because some lot got the votes some time.

    Shane, GR, that your eloquence may help trim the legislation so that my 85 year old Uncle Bert (and I as his successor eventually) won’t have the pleasure of provoking test cases galore with totally unacceptable 1940s bush language (and contemporary adaptations for situations not then even thought of) until he can eventually win a gaol term for contempt and start a blog based on his fame. As for me, I am afraid that I won’t be bothered to attempt to humiliate and intimidate you for your political opinions if it will not get me before a worthy bench but only amuse you.

  5. robert milne

    Excellent article Guy, you make a very valid point.
    more articles of this calibre please Crikey

  6. Mike Smith

    Janet channeling Lady Bracknell, how delicious.

    Oh, and Janet? – “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”

  7. shepherdmarilyn

    It’s funny how the right and left of both major parties love trashing the law, the constitution and all human rights for some when it suits.

  8. David Hand

    You say, “But the Left does (need measures that protect dissent). For, if the root of your politics is the argument that inherited institutions and rights are not necessarily legitimate then, by definition, you support a form of civil society in which public speech is not under scrutiny by the very fact of it being public speech.”

    You are circling towards the Bolt problem that the left has. Such was the glee at his humiliation by the court last year, lefties in general have chosen not to acknowledge the very real danger that 18c in the Racial Descrimination act has to our free society. Indeed, Roxon’s problem and subsequent backdown on speech that offends was most likely caused by this dubious element of the race act being spread across all forms of descrimination and its weakness sharply exposed.

    The left’s vitriolic hatred of Bolt has blinded it to the significant issues you discuss here.

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