It’s heartening that, since the end of August, Australia’s economic and fiscal challenges have apparently been solved. That’s when Scott Morrison correctly observed that changing the Racial Discrimination Act “doesn’t help me pay back one cent of debt, it doesn’t help me reduce the deficit, it doesn’t help me get one more person in a job, it doesn’t help me get welfare under control or improve the tax system.”
Now, seemingly, revisiting section 18C of the RDA is a much higher priority for Malcolm Turnbull and his government. “There’s a lively debate,” the Prime Minister said this morning, and said a parliamentary committee might be the government’s way of pursuing that debate. One wonders which crossbench senator the government would like to chair such a committee, given Labor, NXT and the Greens are opposed to any change and Senate references committees have non-government chairs. Perhaps there’ll be a House or joint committee inquiry — which will disappoint the host of 18Cistas in the Senate who’ll miss out on a spot. Maybe, in their disappointment, they can go hold another inquiry into windfarms or fluoridation.
In fact there is no “lively debate”. Not in the community, which is not merely uninterested but most likely unaware of the issue, and certainly not in the pages of The Australian, which is obsessed with the issue — all it runs are op-ed attacks on 18C (almost invariably failing to mention s.18D), supplemented with hostile stories by its journalists.
But it is, by and large, an exercise in grand, sickening hypocrisy from privileged white men.
Section 18C remains highly problematic from a free speech point of view, not to mention from a simple common sense point of view. But it’s also so far down the list of threats to free speech in Australia — what little that we have — that you need binoculars to see it. Our defamation laws — and the efforts of some conservative parties to extend them to corporations — remain the greatest example of a chilling effect on free speech and a free press. Mass surveillance laws have bolstered the capacity of security agencies like the Australian Federal Police to pursue whistleblowers — to the extent of raiding Parliament to track down leaks to politicians and journalists. The chilling effect, again on both free speech and a free press, is palpable.
In contrast, there’s little evidence of any chilling effect from 18C. Nothing prevented One Nation — a party whose raison d’etre is racial vilification — from electing not one, two or three but four senators and nearly a fifth. Nothing prevented the re-election of Jacqui Lambie, a serial Islamophobe. No evidence of any chilling effect on bigoted cartoonists — who in any event are protected under section 18D. No evidence of any deterrent effect on TV “personalities” who attack Muslims.
Where are the 18Cistas on the much greater threats to free speech of defamation law and data retention? Not merely silent but — David Leyonhjelm excepted — complicit in the much greater threats to free speech. Any government minister opining about the threat of 18C was part of the Abbott government, which introduced mass surveillance — led by Turnbull and George “people have a right to be bigots” Brandis. Let’s also not forget Brandis’ role in the harassment of Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, for the important revelation that ASIS illegally bugged the East Timorese cabinet. So too, Tony Abbott, born-again advocate for 18C amendment, who presided over mass surveillance laws and the regular referral by his ministers of leaks to the Federal police, whose job of tracking down whistleblowers is made significantly easier by those very laws.
Nor is there a murmur about fixing Australia’s draconian defamation laws, around which every media industry employee must carefully work, suppressing facts and entire stories for fear of litigation — litigation an increasingly unviable media industry fears more than ever.
But it is privileged white males who mainly benefit from those defamation laws, enabling them to shield themselves from scrutiny by the media. And it is primarily privileged white males who occupy positions of institutional power within government that benefit from mass surveillance laws and the shield from scrutiny that those laws help afford them.
Conversely, 18C doesn’t benefit privileged white males. We don’t endure racial vilification or religious intolerance — in fact we’re usually the ones dishing it out. If we do experience racial or religious abuse, it has minimal relevance for us — our privilege, our status, protects us. Even in 2016, western societies are still structured around the needs and desires of people like me. Vilification? We couldn’t care less about being vilified.
And yet which threat to free speech does the Right, and its cheerleaders at The Australian, seize on to demand change? Which one does the Prime Minister nominate as a “lively debate” worthy of parliamentary investigation? The serious threats to free speech from which white privileged males benefit, or the more minor one that benefits people unlike us?