Federal Attorney-General George Brandis SC wants to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to make it harder for people to make a legal complaint about race hate speech. The provision was introduced in 1996 during the last days of Paul Keating and with the full support of then-opposition leader John Howard.
When in opposition and during a speech to the Sydney Institute on May 7, Brandis proclaimed: “Who defends freedom of speech in Australia today? Is it really to be left to a few conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen; a couple of think tanks like the Sydney Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs; and the Liberal Party?”
But at an IQ2 debate in Sydney last night, St James Ethics Centre executive director Simon Longstaff reminded us of another area of free speech that needs protection: insulting and lampooning religion and religious figures is still a criminal offence in most Australian states and territories. Laws allowing prosecution for blasphemy still exist in 21st century Australia, though under the common law such laws only protect the sentiments of Christians.
True, like the laws used to prosecute Andrew Bolt, blasphemy laws are hardly ever used. You’d think that the mere possibility of blasphemy laws being enforceable would be something for Brandis to immediately address. But then that would take away the chance for Tony Abbott’s favourite priest to seek injunctions against art galleries.
Longstaff chaired a debate entitled “God and his prophets (or his prophets for the less devout) should be protected from insult”. Malaysian Opposition Leader and former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim was supposed to speak in favour of the motion, but he had to pull out at the last minute after prosecutors decided to appeal the quashing of his conviction under Malaysia’s medieval sodomy laws.
Julian Burnside QC was a last-minute replacement for Anwar. Joining him on the affirmative team was Uthman Badar, a PhD student in economics from the University of Western Sydney and a man whose freedom of speech our erstwhile government wants to take away by banning Hizb ut-Tahrir (“the Party of Liberation”), the organisation Badar represents in Australia. On the negative side was engineer Yasmin Abdel Magied and the awesome Thomas Keneally.
Believe it or not, the affirmative were not arguing that blasphemy should be an offence. They weren’t interested in using the law. Their focus was on what should be socially acceptable. Badar argued the starting point of any discussion on this topic should not be free speech — which he claimed was not a universal value but rather an ideological fetish often used by Western pseudo-liberals to brandish those regarded as inferior. Instead, the starting point should be civility. Unless you are rude and depraved, you don’t go out of your way to insult others. All too often freedom of speech is not about freedom of expression but rather the freedom of the powerful to offend others and incite discord.
Badar argued that, in Australia, Jesus is fair game but not the Anzacs. When you insult someone by attacking things they hold dear, you aren’t just screwing social cohesion; you’re also making a fool of yourself by projecting your own insecurities. Rupert Murdoch must be paying Bolt top dollar to go through all that.
Badar’s argument appeared sound enough, but it missed the point. The topic was about protecting G/god and H/his P/prophets. Yasmin Abdel Maguid pounced on this weakness by asking how pathetic creatures like us could protect so mighty and perfect a creator. And she argued that how you respond to an insult is really up to you. Free speech and religion must never be seen as mutually exclusive. None of the prophets (including Muhammad) insisted on protection from insult.
Burnside cited one of his law lecturers: “Your freedom to swing your fist stops at my nose.” My humble criminal law lecturer at Macquarie Law School would have argued that punching someone in the nose was not just a matter of offence. Burnside also spoke about anonymous letters he received which offended him, even though they were directed at Muslims. The same letter writer would claim Muslim extremists supported the ALP.
In response, Keneally argued that one man’s criticism is another man’s insult. OK, I admit there was more to the arguments of both Burnside and Keneally than that. They both argued that Muslims and other minorities needed protection from collective insults. But I wondered whether they were both underestimating the ability of minorities to form alliances and take the fight to the bigots. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic.
Plus I have to wonder what is more offensive — a 12-minute amateurish YouTube clip, or Murdoch claiming Muslims have lower intelligence because they marry their cousins? And should I be offended? Or should I just laugh it off as the idiocy of one businessman and not reflective of the editorial line of his powerful newspapers?
Around 80% of the audience supported the negative argument. I’m not sure how God voted, but then I couldn’t see Him anywhere amongst the crowd.