Tensions started rising even before the talk started. As I queued for Andrew Bolt’s slot at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, bags were searched, armed police patrolled the crowd and people in backpacks were turned away. His topic, How Many Dangerous Ideas Can One Person Have?, now seemed like a warning — would speaking in public be one of them?
As I grabbed a seat in the second row, surrounded by Bolt supporters, I experienced the unusual sensation of feeling both young and stylish (not in Crocs). The Drama Theatre, with 544 seats, looked to be full.
When Bolt came on stage, with his interviewer Dr Simon Longstaff, he looked nervous and jumpy. Asked about his “dangerous ideas”, he said that “the danger my ideas pose are more danger to me than to anyone else … For instance, the security that have had to be arranged for this event, it’s not for [the audience].”
At the end of the talk, he said, “I am scared even to come here”, adding that when he appeared on the ABC TV program Insiders he was careful to “bone up” to avoid public humiliation.
Then it was off onto his favourite topics — the Enlightenment. Mozart, the wonderful brotherhood of the Masons — “we best express our humanity with reason and freedom, and anything which limits this right sells us very short”.
Bolt then got stuck into Longstaff’s introductory “Welcome to Country”, presenting it as a kind of discriminatory act that demeaned non-indigenous people.
“Everyone here is equally worthy of respect, whether you’ve been here for five minutes or 50,000 years. I have some good friends who have Aboriginal ancestry, but I deal with them as individuals,” he said.
Later, he returned to this topic, saying that the welcome to country was deeply alienating. “It’s telling people that it’s not really your country, that you have to acknowledge a prior claim. It’s telling people that they are not welcome.”
Bolt can be quite wry, giving a few good anecdotes about his Dutch heritage, saying that while he did have a pair of “battered clogs” by the front door, he seldom wore them. “And I rarely eat Dutch food unless I’m forced to … You will not find a single Dutch restaurant [in Melbourne], and there’s a reason for that.”
After he criticised the seeking of “collective identities”, Longstaff asked him about Holocaust survivors — shouldn’t they be allowed to define themselves in that way?
“You are bringing up victimology,” Bolt replied. “The victim industry is so toxic and so limiting.” Try telling that to Anne Frank, I muttered.
Bolt’s success (he is Australia’s most-read newspaper columnist) relies on him continually stirring up his supporters and keeping them angry. On Saturday, he was at it again, saying that there was “always an eternal battle between liberty and the bonds of tyranny.” Asked if absolutism had come back, he said that “certainty really is our enemy”, adding that ideas were always provisional.
“It’s like a red rag to a bull when someone says that the science is settled. In what other field can you say that; ‘I’m sorry, Einstein, the science is settled.’”
Giving the rise and fall of Germany and Austria as an example, he said that “great civilisations” had disappeared and that it was incumbent on us to recognise that “no progress is ever upward, it always has to be fought for. A society that does not fight these challenges is ripe for decline.” The current crop of challenges included the freedom to speak and exercise reason, he added.
He then called for reform of the Racial Discrimination Act (he was successfully sued under this act in 2011) and Australia’s defamation laws, which he described as a way for the rich “to shut up the not-so-rich”.
The 56-year-old columnist also came back to one of his favourite subjects — the left-wing bias of the ABC. “I would like to see the ABC reformed, I’ve said that for 20 years. It’s a place where all points of view should be expressed, with equal weight. It’s clearly not impartial … It does not have one single conservative hosting a mainstream current affairs TV show. How can it be that the ABC has gone so far to the left?”
If the network could not be reformed, it should have its public subsidy withdrawn, he pronounced, adding that its bias was so overwhelming, it was “bad for democracy” (audience members cheered).
He then gave the curious opinion that Fairfax Media could soon stop printing some Monday to Friday newspaper editions because it had exactly the same audience as the ABC — which could be news to both companies.
And, he said, although his wife dreamed of building a swimming pool, it was a point of principle that he never sued for defamation, despite ample opportunity.
“I hope that in time that I won’t be seen as quite the ogre that I am painted.”
To the inevitable question about climate change (he is a rabid denier) he said that he didn’t trust “experts” but only evidence and reason.
Bolt’s final advice to the audience was to follow the biblical exhortation “be not afraid”, adding quickly that although he was not a Christian, he was a good friend of George Pell.
“I say to you, be not afraid and do speak up.”
When the Festival of Dangerous Ideas announced earlier this year that Bolt would be speaking, the protests were deafening. The Sydney Opera House, co-sponsor of the Festival, was inundated with demands to remove him from the line-up — as if his views were simply too dangerous to be heard. But the organisers were right to hold firm. Bolt in person lacks any of the firebrand oratory of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, or even the intellectual firepower of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. People who know him personally say that he can be charming, but this was not in evidence. What we got was a themeless ramble around his usual obsessions: climate change, the ABC, the role of the Enlightenment, etc. The right question was: “Can a person have too many lame ideas?” The answer, surely, is yes.