The Abbott government’s culture war is on the road, with the announcement of a symposium on “free speech” by new freedom commissioner Tim Wilson. The Free Speech 2014 symposium will take place on August 7 in Sydney. The conference strap line is stirring enough — “free speech is fundamental to a free and democratic society. But … is it adequately protected and promoted in Australia?” The one-day symposium will contribute to a “road map” for the future of free speech in Australia.

The conference will be opened by Attorney-General George Brandis, addressed by a score of luminaries, and streamed and tweeted live. Who could object to a major discussion on the place of free speech in Australian society?

Well no one, if that’s what this were. But it isn’t. It’s a subtly slanted conference, consented to in its current form by the Australian Human Rights Commission to, I suspect, keep Tim Wilson happy and therefore keep the government at bay, and designed to produce a one-sided discussion of the role that free speech plays in social life — and most importantly to limit and marginalise a more expanded view of rights, in which competing and contradictory individual and collective rights must be adjudicated between by, ohhhh, I don’t know, something like a human rights commission.

For classical liberals such as Wilson, freedom is purely “negative” in the sense defined by the English social liberal T.H. Green — they consist in restraining the state from interfering with our free activity. For social liberals — the tradition from which the labour movement, the Green movement and practices like multiculturalism spring — freedoms are also “positive” and involve a set of arrangements in which all members of a society can flourish. Positive freedom applies to things like material want — you’re not free if you work 80 hours a week for subsistence wages — but more recently it has applied to more complex social arrangements. Are you free to flourish if you can be bullied and berated with racist bile without any sanction?

Freedom Boy’s Free Speech Day is structured to exclude any real advocacy of that second idea of freedom, and indeed of any notion that there may be major contradictions between differing rights at all.

Thus, in the session “accommodating rights” we have IPA gunslinger Chris Berg talking about “free speech in a liberal democracy” (spoiler: he’s for it), with no speaker who might offer a contrary view to the one Berg will offer.

The question of whether we should consider who owns what and how they get to speak — “is the media playing field level?” — is addressed solely by Megan Brownlow of accounting/management giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. Maybe she’ll devote the second half of her speech to a Marxist analysis of control of the means of information, but somehow I doubt it. “Open and transparent government” is the topic to be addressed by libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm, but there is no one to talk about the role government might play in enabling freedom through the funding of multiple media sources, as occurs in many European countries, for example.

“What are the limits of free speech and how should it be protected?” is a doozy of a session. Note the weighting in the topic, and then personnel — Gary Johns, ex-IPA and Centre for Independent Studies, and now head of his own Right think tank, the Australian Institute for Progress, Professor Suri Ratnapala, who has addressed the IPA and the CIS, George Williams, who is a centrist, and Spencer Zifcak, who is of the Left, but whose current gig — head of Liberty Victoria — predisposes him to advocate in a certain direction.

As the author of a draft human rights act, Zifcak obviously represents an alternative voice in favour of a robust idea of positive freedom. But he’s also constrained in that he’s speaking in an official capacity, as head of Liberty Victoria, which has competing demands, and is, by its nature, oriented to advocacy of negative freedom. No one really balances the phalanx of freewheeling right-wingers on display here

What’s missing from such a session is a Larissa Behrendt, a Waleed Aly, or any number of other speakers who would have been the complement of the right-wing liberals who have relatively free rein here. Missing also: anyone from the Left, such as an Antony Loewenstein or a Katherine Wilson — presumably because they would give an account of free speech that combined a commitment to it with a critique of material media power.

The discussion around online freedoms is also skewed towards property rights and away from citizenship rights. Thus “combating online harassment” is being addressed by the head of global content policy for Facebook, Monika Bickert, but there is no one from The Pirate Party or similar to give an alternative view to the official pronouncements of the world’s largest online corporation — save for a representative of the very moderate Australian Digital Alliance. Of the other players, Augusto Zimmermann (on vilification laws) publishes in Quadrant and with the CIS, Anne Twomey (donations as speech — answers on a postcard please) has the IPA/CIS/Quadrant hat-trick, while poor old Kesten Green (on “the commercial environment”) has only IPA and Quadrant connections. Mark Dreyfus of the ALP and the poor old Bret Walker, who is representing Kevin Rudd in the pink batts inquiry, round out the constrained and very moderate “alternative” viewpoint.

None of this is to slight the non-right-wing activists who are appearing in this thing, but this really is a classic stitch-up — utterly cynical, and somewhat cowardly. Rather than argue out the role of “free speech” in a complex society, and what other rights might have claim, the symposium is being used to give academic gloss to a whole series of things the government wants to do anyway. This insular approach to cultural politics has already landed the government one disaster — when they tried to push through with the evisceration of 18c without having any real idea of how committed the mass of Australian people were to an idea of collective and “positive’ freedom” — and I’m sure they can screw it up again. In the meantime registrations are still available for a one-day conference in which you get the chance to hear Freedom Boy Tim Wilson speak twice. You’ll have to pay for it — but then, you already are.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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