White men using media platforms to mock indigenous people, News Corp attacking its critics, cries of free speech, the Coalition trying to find a culture wars angle — we’ve been here before.
In 2011, I found myself in the difficult position of defending Andrew Bolt, who was being prosecuted under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for a deeply offensive, racially abusive and typically wrong column in which he claimed nine indigenous writers, academics and community leaders somehow gained advantage from the colour of their skin.
The sight of Rupert Murdoch’s company defending the right of a white reactionary male with an immensely powerful media platform to attack indigenous Australians made me deeply uncomfortable. But I thought it was even worse that a media commentator was having a judge parse his work for breaking the law, and wondered if the same fate might befall anyone who strayed beyond the bounds of good judgement — something anyone in the media who produces a lot of copy is bound to do at some point.
As is usually the case when it comes to defending freedom of speech, you find yourself sharing the trenches with people you normally can’t stand. I thought Bolt should have been sued for defamation, rather than prosecuted under the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), where his work would be assessed for whether it fell under the subjective and highly problematic concepts of offending, insulting, humiliating or intimidating someone.
After that, 18C became a cause celebre on the right; Tony Abbott had already begun talking about “the sacred principle of free speech” in the Bolt case. The IPA wing of the Victorian Liberal Party also seized on the issue, although Islamophobic climate denialist Alan Moran discovered there were limits even within the IPA to free speech when his Twitter attacks on Muslims resulted in him “leaving” the institute.
Once in government, the Abbott government moved, with its usual sublime incompetence, to try to amend 18C, and put one of its worst ministers, George Brandis, on the job. Within months Brandis, author of the memorable Declaration of the Rights of Bigots, had so badly bungled it, Abbott withdrew the reform proposal under the pretext that community cohesion in the face of the “existential” threat from Islamic State was the greater priority.
Now, News Corp is once again circling the wagons to protect a display of race hatred in the form of a cartoon by painfully unfunny far-right illustrator Bill Leak, while Brandis has attacked Human Rights Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane for suggesting people use the RDA to complain to the Human Rights Commission about Leak’s attack on indigenous people.
At the same time, the 18C issue is being pushed again. And, again, it’s being pushed by old white men, but this time some different ones from 2011: gun nut libertarian David “John Howard deserved to be shot” Leyonhjelm, religious conservative Bob Day, Derryn Hinch, far-right homophobe Cory Bernardi, conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts. Derryn Hinch might not otherwise fit with that clutch of crazies, but he has long been a proponent of free speech. Indeed, I confess — don’t judge — Hinch inspired me as a kid when he risked prosecution to breach the absurd electronic media election blackout.
But in the five years since Bolt was convicted, much has changed — and especially in the last couple of years, since the Abbott government returned us to military interventions in the Middle East. What was once, at best, a lower order priority in the battle for genuine protections for free speech in Australia — which are rather few — increasingly looks irrelevant.
There has been a surge in hate speech directed at Australia’s Muslim communities, and it is no longer confined to the lunatic fringe and its long-time home among far-right News Corp figures. A Nine Network “personality”, Sonia Kruger, has stoked Islamophobia. Pauline Hanson, who has now shifted the focus of her vilification from generic “Asians” to equally generic “Muslims” (while indigenous Australians appear to remain an abiding irritant to her), has returned to federal politics in triumphant fashion.
Jacqui Lambie has also been returned to the Senate. Government backbenchers such as Bernardi and George Christensen almost routinely vilify Muslims. Even former prime minister Tony Abbott last year attacked what he called “a massive problem within Islam”, with the ardent Catholic calling for a “Reformation” within Islam.
And with strong support from an array of politicians and media figures, Islamophobia is now more overt, febrile and violent. The recent arrest of Phillip Galea and his charging with terrorism-related offences reflects growing concern within security agencies about the rising tide of anti-Muslim hate speech and the possibility of right-wing violence.
Galea is reported to be a member of the Islamophobic Reclaim Australia group, which Christensen openly supports. Justice Minister Michael Keenan — himself guilty of a dog-whistling attack on successful Muslim Labor candidate Anne Aly during the election campaign — stated that Galea was linked “to some quite well-known right wing extremist groups”. Galea was arrested and jailed last year for possessing weapons, found before an anti-Muslim demonstration in Melton, Victoria. Information on manufacturing explosives was also found at his residence at that time.
Members of far-right groups have been prosecuted before in relation to violent crimes, but the charges against Galea are, according to Keenan, the first time Commonwealth anti-terrorism laws have been used against right-wing extremists.
What’s now clear is that when it comes to free speech, Australia has no problem with reactionary white men, and some white women, feeling somehow restrained by law from expressing their hatred of Muslims. In fact they seem to egg each other on, each one pushing the boundaries and legitimising ever more virulent hate speech, unrestrained by any concern for legal niceties.
The wording of section 18C encompasses Islam, as well as Judaism — a reason why at least one proponent wants 18C repealed, so he can, with no legal restraint, attack the role of Jewish “international bankers”. Not for nothing have Jewish community leaders worried about the recent upsurge of anti-Muslim hate speech, knowing it could be a precursor to anti-Semitic speech. Indeed, so free is the vilification of Muslims that late last year the head of ASIO raised concerns about the negative impact of public vilification of Australia’s Muslim communities on the ability of security agencies to work effectively with communities to prevent radicalisation.
The return of the debate about whether the RDA inhibits free speech is thus occurring in an atmosphere in which hate speech toward Muslims has become institutionalised in the Senate, powerful media outlets routinely indulge in it and other minority groups are wondering whether they’re next on the hate list.
And as Leak’s cartoon demonstrates, despite the outcome of the Bolt case, no one feels any particular restraint from 18C about peddling mocking stereotypes of Aboriginal Australians that would have been offensive in the 1980s, let alone now.
Far from being a victory for free speech, significantly altering 18C would now occur as part of a descent into the legitimisation of hate speech directed at a number of communities in Australia, a process that is alarming security and intelligence agencies charged with fighting terrorism. If old white men want to campaign for free speech, they should turn their attention to our defamation laws, or think about something that is anathema to some of them — a bill of rights that would establish free speech as a protected aspect of Australian public life. The moment to change 18C has come and gone, as has the point.