First they came for the Racial Discrimination Act.
Wrapping himself in the banner of ‘free speech’, our Attorney-General, George Brandis, proclaimed the equivalent of ‘let bigots be bigots’. Our Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson (he of right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs fame), stood shoulder to shoulder with Brandis and condemned the current laws as ‘bizarre’. Wilson – whose appointment was supposed to deliver ‘balance’ to the Human Rights Commission – claimed that, as things stand, members of any given ethnic group could racially abuse each other without consequence, but if the abuse came from outside the group, it was illegal. Curtailing one person’s freedom of speech like that was just plain wrong.
The solution? Remove virtually all of Sections 18c, d and e of the Act, and replace it with incredibly narrow language. Instead of it being an offense to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’, the proposed changes would replace those words with ‘vilify’ and ‘intimidate’. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too terrible. But then we get to the definitions.
‘Vilify’ is defined as ‘to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons’. That sounds very strong, but there’s nothing in the act that might indicate exactly how that might manifest. It wouldn’t be enough, under the proposed changes, to show that you were insulted or humiliated – you would have to prove that something was said that actively caused others to hate you.
‘Intimidate’ has been changed even further. The proposed definition means ‘to cause fear of physical harm’. Not emotional or psychological fear. It wouldn’t be enough to be so terrified of constant verbal harassment that you no longer dared to go into certain places. It wouldn’t be enough that your mental health was affected. Unless you could show that you were going to be attacked, the Act wouldn’t apply.
To make matters worse, the proposed changes are bound about with a raft of exemptions that render them all but useless. The current Act provides exemptions for artistic, academic or scientific purposes, or reporting a matter of public interest – but what Brandis announced would protect almost every form of public discourse:
‘This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.
It’s hard to envisage any arena in which hate speech would not, therefore, be protected.
And what about that pesky ‘balance’ issue? Wilson’s claim that the current Act allows people of any given ethnic group to abuse each other doesn’t stand up under even the most cursory inspection. There’s no exemption on those grounds; anyone who contravenes the Act commits an offence. What Brandis proposes would do nothing to change that. In fact, it would simply become easier to entrench racism in public discussion.
But hey, it’s all in the name of freedom of speech, right? We can warm ourselves with that thought. Maybe we’ll upset a few people (but it’s not like they’re Aussies, not real Aussies), but we’ll be champions of the right to free expression. And it doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ – everyone has the right to their opinion. After all, we’re a ‘robust society’, we can handle a bit of public criticism, surely?
Oh, but wait.
Then they came for so-called ‘environmental boycotts’. You see, companies need ‘protection’ from those pesky greenie pinko lefty commos, who have this annoying habit of identifying products and practices that harm the environment. And then they have the audacity to suggest that people not buy from those companies, with the aim of pressuring them into changing the way they conduct themselves. It worked with Tasmanian timber company Ta Ann; they not only embraced green certification, but also now speak out in favour of co-operation with environmental groups. And currently, those groups are protected by the Consumer and Competition Act.
According to the government, however, this isn’t freedom of speech, though. This is what amounts to sabotage. How dare those greenies have anything to say about businesses?
The inconsistency is baffling. And it only gets worse.
Then they came for the public servants. Specifically, those who work in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Under new regulations, anyone who works for the PM & C would be gagged from making any form of political comment on social media. A specific case study concerned criticism of the Prime Minister, but the rules extend to comments on any MP or party, or their policies.
In other words, if you work for the government, you can’t talk about the government.
And don’t think you can get around it by anonymising yourself, either. If your mate in the next cubicle at PM & C knows your username on Twitter, he’s supposed to dob you in. That’s right, folks, the government actually encourages public servants to effectively conduct surveillance on each other.
It’s not just at work, on work computers. These regulations apply any time. anywhere. Whether you’re lying on the beach in Kuta, posting about how happy you are not to be back in Australia at the moment because you’re so upset at the government’s asylum seeker policies, or you’re at the pub and see a funny political gif showing Clive Palmer twerking that you want to RT on Twitter, you’re breaking the rules. Even if you happen to work for PM & C and write a ‘Mummy’ blog in your spare time, you don’t get to say anything about the government.
And if you happen to like writing book reviews about, say, Quarterly Essays, the latest offering from David Marr, Annabel Crabb, or the like, you definitely don’t get to speak. Maybe if you gave Battlelines a favourable review, you’d be okay, but I guess that would depend on your ability to sell out.
One wonders if standing in front of banners screaming, ‘DITCH THE WITCH!’ would count. And just how far criticism of non-government MPs would be punished. But surely not. This is about fairness, isn’t it? Certainly, Tim Wilson thinks so.
So let’s get this straight.
Freedom of speech for all – unless you’re an environmental activist group or a public servant. Then they’ll throw the book at you.
Protection from public criticism for all – unless you belong to an ethnic group and are being subjected to hate speech. Then you should just suck it up and learn not to be so thin-skinned.
Yeah. Sounds fair.
By now – seven months after the last election – the comment that the Abbott government has its priorities completely skewed is getting to be a tired old saw. Whether it’s paid maternity leave for rich women at the expense of the School Kid’s Bonus and welfare for orphans of war veterans; claiming ‘green’ credentials while moving heaven and earth to abolish organisations that encourage green energy development; or appointing astonishingly biased critics of the National Curriculum to ‘review it’ and ‘restore balance’, the government has shown itself to be riddled with hypocrisy. One suspects it’s even proud of that.
These proposed speech laws and regulations are just one symptom, but they are among the most dangerous. Freedom of speech is not absolute; we don’t have the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, about whoever we want. We can’t publish lies in the media – hello, Andrew Bolt. We can’t rouse a riot and endanger lives – remember Cronulla, anyone? We cannot falsely advertise. We must tell the truth in court. All of these restrictions serve to aid social cohesion. At the same time, we can speak out if we have knowledge of wrongdoing. We can bring reasonable criticism to bear on our government.
Arguably, this last freedom is the most important. A government that attempts to make itself exempt from criticism, that punishes its citizens for speaking about its own policies and actions, edges close to the very dangerous territory of fascism. And that’s not something anyone should simply dismiss as completely impossible.
Gosh, it’s lucky I don’t work for the government. I would have lost my job before the end of the first paragraph.