During the debate that raged around section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Coalition MP and walking outrage generator George Christensen was a staunch advocate for repeal. But even before that, he has had a consistent line about freedom of speech: any society that calls itself a democracy simply can’t regulate the way people express themselves to protect people’s sensitivities. And true to his word, he has said a lot of things, particularly about Islam, that don’t betray a lot of concern about hurt feelings. Or, on occasions, facts.
Let’s take a journey back through some of his public statements on the issue.
September 25, 2014: Protesters are terrorists
In a speech to Parliament, Christensen said, with typical deftness and restraint, that “the greatest terrorism threat in north Queensland, I’m sad to say, comes from the extreme green movement”. He was referring to opposition to the extension of the Abbot Point coal terminal. The statement was criticised for insensitivity, coming as it did within days of the stabbing of two policemen and the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old terror suspect a few days earlier (you know, actual terror). It wouldn’t be the last time he would compare the tactics and aims of protesters to those of terrorists.
July 16, 2015: Free speech is amazing, unless it’s a protest, then it’s terrorism
Online activists GetUp ran a petition trying to convince then-prime minister Tony Abbott to prevent Christensen from speaking at an event organised by far-right anti-Islam group Reclaim Australia in his Queensland electorate of Dawson. Christensen took to Facebook to call the petition an act of “intimidation” undertaken by a group that “wants to shut down free speech and the right to peaceful assembly and protest in this country”.
November 30, 2016: Protesters must be disciplined
Skip forward to late 2016, and he had an interesting (and slightly different) take on a speech issue — in response to the protests in Parliament House on November 30, where protesters glued themselves to the railings and shouted pro-refugee slogans during question time, Christensen tweeted an image of a whip (something he would become synonymous with a few weeks later …) with the caption “say hello to my little friend, hippies”. Asked by a follower whether the protesters didn’t have the right to be heard, he replied “not in Parliament. If you want to talk in the chamber, get elected.” Well, perhaps that’s not inconsistent? He’s not arguing against the protesters’ right to express their opinion, just that they should face violent reprisal for that expression, unless they successfully pursue a career in politics.
February 11, 2017: Free speech is sacred/protest is violence
Because, obviously, he hates intimidation when it comes to free speech — in February 2017, he was booked to speak at an event organised by another far-right anti-Islam group, the Q Society. Again, he took to Twitter, calling the attendant protests “violent intimidation by [the] Left against free speech event attendees”. He went on to dedicate a post on his website to the evening and the issues around free expression it illustrated.
March 2017: a broad church
Twice in March he took to social media to re-affirm his commitment to free speech, first paying tribute to the late cartoonist Bill Leak, calling him “a true warrior for freedom of speech,” on March 10.
Then on March 21, he showed he was happy to reach across the aisle, so to speak, in the name of free speech by approvingly posting a Noam Chomsky quote: “… if you’re in favour of freedom of speech, you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise”. Displaying admirable consistency, Christensen concluded the left-wing academic was right, adding “that’s why Section 18C needs reform” and chiding Labor for their opposition to such reform, saying they “obviously don’t believe in the democratic fundamental of free speech.”
April 25, 2017: the Anzacs fought for your freedom to say a very limited number of things
On Anzac Day this year, when ABC presenter and outspoken Muslim Yassmin Abdel-Magied wrote on Facebook “LEST. WE. FORGET.” with the addendum that what we ought not be forgetting was Manus, Nauru, Syria and Palestine. Following the attacks she faced, you would expect Christensen’s response to be unequivocal. And it certainly was. Within hours of Abdel-Magied’s (since deleted and apologised for) tweet, Christensen leapt into action.
Surprisingly though, this free speech warrior — who extols the right of people to express themselves as a “democratic fundamental”, who rages against “intimidation” that curtails that right, who recognises that freedom of speech is meaningless if it doesn’t include the right to speech that one might personally find abhorrent — did not defend her right to say what she believed. Instead, he got really offended and called for her to be sacked because of what she said. He added that “self-deportation should also be considered.”
If we don’t know better, we might suspect that Christensen’s stance isn’t entirely about freedom of speech. But one thing is for sure — he is “sick of politically inspired faux moral outrage in parliament“.