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Issue #1624      January 29, 2014

Undermining democratic rights

The Abbott government is positioning itself to cut back democratic rights while claiming they are protecting basis freedoms, particularly freedom of speech.

The first step in this attack is likely to be the attempted repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits offending or insulting people on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

The government has trivialised the significance of Section 18C, arguing that speech should not be limited because someone might be offended or insulted.

However, as a result of the government’s stated intention to dump this section Attorney General George Brandis and other cabinet ministers have received protest delegations from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and other organisations representing people from Chinese, Greek, Cypriot, and Arabic backgrounds.

In describing their position Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley pointed out:

“Making offensive statements about someone is categorically different to offending someone over (for example) their religion, they say. Skin colour is not a matter of belief or choice. If you insult or offend a black person for being black, you are attacking their dignity as a human, not their choices or beliefs (which in a free society are up for genuine discussion, even if that discussion is offensive).”

But the government has strong support in other quarters.

The elimination of 18C would be welcomed by the nation’s “shock jock” radio broadcasters, who consider that it removes their God-given right to freedom of speech, i.e. their presumed right to say whatever they like about whoever they want, regardless of the social division or damage to individuals or groups this may cause.

Reproductive rights at risk

Another area that could be in the government’s gun sights is the right of women to terminate unwanted pregnancies: the right of women to have control over their own bodies. This right has been attacked by South Australian Senator Cory Bernadi, who once equated gay marriage with the eventual legalisation of bestiality.

In his recently-published book, Bernadi condemned termination as a “death industry”. He declared that some women use it as a means of contraception, and called for a reduction in the rate of abortions.

He praised families in which the children are raised by both biological parents, and associated the increased rate of child delinquency with single parent families, families with step parents and “blended” families.

In reply, Abbott merely commented that Bernadi is entitled to say whatever he likes. Abbott is a fundamentalist Catholic, who also opposes abortion. As the Howard government’s Minister for Health he attempted to prevent the placing of a new “morning after” contraceptive pill on the national Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

It seems unthinkable that the government would consider interfering with legislation that enshrines women’s reproductive rights. Yet there are already indications that this may happen in Victoria, where the Coalition government is desperate to gain the support of MP Jeff Shaw, who holds the balance of power and is a bitter opponent of abortion.

And in July the Abbott government may also find itself beholden to newly-arrived Senators who were elected last year, some of whose views may correspond to those of Shaw.

The government is also likely to reintroduce new industrial laws similar to the Howard government’s “Work Choices” legislation. The Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss has already stated that Toyota employees should “choose” to give up their entitlements in order to ensure the profitability of the company.

That would certainly appeal to newly-elected MP Clive Palmer and the Senators who have formed an alliance with him.

Whose interests are served?

The government’s intends to eliminate Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act partly because the extreme right-wing shock jock radio broadcasts command vast audiences and therefore draw lucrative advertising contracts as part of the major corporations’ marketing campaigns. It’s all about profits, not freedom.

Some people advocate the right to free speech over all other considerations because they see it as an inviolable element of human civilisation. However, all rights are accompanied by responsibility, and this is already implicit in civil laws against slander and defamation.

These laws generally relate to individuals. However, the right-wing broadcasters who seek the total repeal of Section 18C of the Act, and their supporters in parliament, appear quite willing to accept the slander and defamation of entire groups within the Australian community that would inevitably result from such a move.

The government has given a clear indication of its intentions by its recent appointment of Tim Wilson to the Human Rights Commission. Attorney-General Brandis has argued that Wilson’s opposition to the Queensland government’s anti- bikie legislation demonstrates he is a “free spirit”. But in fact he’s exactly the sort of person the government wants in the Commission.

As former head of policy for the ultra-conservative Institute of Public Affairs, Wilson called for the Commission’s abolition. After his appointment he declared with supreme arrogance: “The Commission has not sufficiently focused on human rights, particularly the right to free speech. By accepting this role I have taken on the challenge to help the Commission refocus its work.”

And what would this “refocus” involve?

According to barrister and journalist Richard Ackland: “(Wilson) decries restrictions on cigarette advertising and the plain packaging legislation (a free speech issue for the tobacco industry), attempted regulations on poker machines, taxes on alcohol, moves to control the intake of fatty and sugary foods, and (the) banning (of) tanning beds. All of this is, in Wilson’s view, paternalistic nonsense, along with global warming and the tax on carbon.”

For its part, the government has indicated how much it wants to “help” the Commission by deciding that Wilson’s $320,000 Commissioner’s salary will have to come out of the organisation’s program budget. To date the salaries of commissioners have been separately funded.

The loss of funds to pay for Wilson’s presence will probably mean that two programs, one of which concerns education for the elderly and the other opposition to bullying, will have to be cut.

Moreover, the precedent set by this funding arrangement may mean that in future all the Commissioners’ salaries will have to come from the program budget. There would be little money left for the Commission to actually do its work.

Labor and the Greens have indicated that they will oppose any amendment to Section 18C. The government will be in a better position to pass the amending legislation in July, when the Coalition candidates who were elected last year are entitled to take their places in the Senate.

That also depends on the position taken by the representatives of the Senate “wildcards”, i.e. the Palmer United Party, the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Australian Sports Party.

However, when the chips are down, their voting patterns are likely to be conservative. Defeating the government’s agenda will still depend on the strength of community objections, as expressed in large-scale demonstrations that are part of well-organised and passionately-supported campaigns. Over to you and me.

Next article – Welfare “reform” – Divide and conquer tactics

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