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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

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21 thoughts on “Government risks looking out of touch as it clumsily sells free speech

  1. Will

    Sad to see Keane exhibit such defensiveness around the Holocaust denial, as if he was Godwin-special aimed directly at his idiosynratic views rather than the lackadaisical views of the Abbott Government.

    These attacks on the Government in Parliament were perfectly warranted based on obvious and legitimate questions that arise organically from how Brandis has chosen to redefine vilification and exclude extreme racial language from consideration under the Act.

  2. pinkocommierat

    It’s going well, innit? Anybody would think they’d won a forty seat majority.

  3. Jan Forrester

    We have a wealth of history that shows how words, burning books, vilifying particular groups has turned to murder. Europe et al within living memory. Chinese miners at Lambing Flats anyone? We pretend it’s different now. The question is: why do humans need to do this and why brandis/h it. More attempts by a throwback government minister to focus us inwards defensively when we need more leadership to focus on a complex neighbourhood with which we need to engage on all levels confidently. Watch it Sir Abbott, Mr Turnbull must be quietly sharpening his tactics if not his sword. I saw him perform on diversity at Chinese New Year and I think he knows how to out-perform dragons.

  4. Hunt Ian

    Bernard subtly insists that operable DO have a right to be bigots. Well, Bernard it depends on what you mean. Certainly no one deserves the death penalty for being a bigot. Is this what you mean? Most people mean that no one has a right to make bigoted attacks on others. You can BE a bigot so long as you don’t harm others in what you do. What’s the harm in a little bit of abuse or denigration directed at gays, lesbians, racial minorities, religious minorities and so on? What one individual does will not necessarily amount to much harm but what many do may be significant harm. Bernard, making people feel like outcasts in their own land can be highly harmful. It can lead on to greater harms than bigotry on its own. Some people don’t notice these harms because they are not subject to them. Glad to hear that you feel that bigoted remarks are water off a duck’s back, Bernard, but there are others who can’t feel so comfortable in their own skins

  5. Bill Hilliger

    A perfect example to illustrate that Blandis is now owned by Blot and master at Limited News.

  6. drmick

    BH it looks as thought the author of this article also has his hand out on pay day at the murdochracy. His “politician of the millenium” Sir Pository, is performing as everyone, except Bernard, expected.
    If “politician” means inability to tell the truth, out of touch narcissistic fascist psychotically anti social religiously fanatical unstable despot; then he was an inspired choice.

  7. Ross Carnsew

    Hard to see why the gov is pushing this stinking cat so hard. Ideology is one thing, but when sections of your own party and just about everone else who votes is protesting… well.
    This is losing the government votes on what most agree is a non issue. So why are they doing it? What could possibly justify alienating so many af there own, for the sake of defending bigots?? Why is no one in the media asking this question?
    Move away from bigots v minorities for a minute and ask yourself the question: Who benefits? This whole “free speech for all’ thing, came out of the think tank IPA. The IPA will run any line, paid for by big business that feels it’s own marketing or government influence isn’t working. See them write in the News Corp Press.
    I wonder if there’s a Multi National who puts money into both the IPA and the Liberal party who can see a long term benefit from “Freedom of speech” legislation. You know …. ‘Freedom to package and advertise any way we want’ as laid out in the ‘free speech’ legislation.
    Just a theory, ofcourse. But everything the government has done so far, makes a lot more sense if seen through this light. Protection from bigotry? Collateral damage.

  8. Graeme Richardson

    The new 18C has already been written for George Brandis,
    Chapter 11 – Race and People – Mein kampf

  9. Scott Grant

    As is often the case, this is not about free speech or bigotry, it is about power. Andrew Bolt was offended so the government will change the law.

    Defamation law will never be changed because that protects the wealthy and the powerful from the plebs.

    I reckon, if the government was serious about this as a “free speech” issue, they ought to enshrine in legislation a right-of-reply. One that mandates the same prominence and distribution as the original offense.

  10. Electric Lardyland

    Looks like the government are going into bat for the likes of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, to keep up a constant diatribe of bigotry. Strange, to me they seem able to already manage that under the current system.

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