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Issue #1760      December 7, 2016

Government of bigotry and deception

The Turnbull government intends to launch an inquiry into freedom of speech, with specific reference to Article 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, under which penalties may be imposed for statements that attack people for their racial or ethnic origins.

Dignified, courageous and highly capable, Professor Triggs has been a thorn in the side of the coalition.

Various members of the government have expressed opposition to Article 18C. Attorney-General George Brandis once remarked that “people do have the right to be bigots, you know”. There is now widespread suspicion that the government wants to emasculate the current provisions of the Act to permit offensive statements, while simultaneously suppressing the right to freedom of speech by critics of government policy.

A prime example involves the treatment of asylum seekers. The government has now banned use of mobile phones by asylum seekers detained on Manus Island and Nauru. This is just the latest in a long series of attempts by the government to maintain secrecy and silence criticism over the asylum seeker issue.

Speaking at a public meeting in the Blue Mountains last week, Human Rights Commissioner Professor Gillian Triggs described the ban as a cruel violation of the rights of the detainees, many of whom rely on mobile phones to maintain contact with family members from whom they are separated, and with their supporters and legal representatives.

Professor Triggs pointed out that despite bitter denials by the government, the tragic conclusions of the Commission’s “Forgotten Children” report on detained asylum seeker children were verified by the subsequent Moss Inquiry, and by other statements from teachers, medical personnel, social workers and others who had worked on Nauru or Manus Island.

Dignified, courageous and highly capable, Triggs has been a thorn in the side of the coalition. The Abbott government suggested it might offer her a tempting position overseas, but she made it clear she had no intention of resigning from the Commission.

People working in the detention centres have now been threatened with prosecution if they speak out about conditions there. The only exception is for doctors, who threatened to contest the ban in the High Court.

All freedoms are relative

According to the Australian Law Reform Commission 176 pieces of primary and secondary legislation already limit freedom of speech. They include the recently-introduced Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters Act), under which anyone who “praises” terrorism, or associates with someone who does, can be prosecuted.

The National Security legislation also enables the government to prosecute journalists or others who report on any matter which the government declares is a “special intelligence operation”.

The government can make such a declaration retrospectively, and prosecution will result even if there is a public interest in disclosure because the matter involves illegal or corrupt activity by the government.

ASIO’s activities are, of course, conducted in secret, and the joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has stated: “... without a direct confirmation from ASIO it would be difficult for a journalist to accurately determine whether conduct by ASIO is pursuant to a [special intelligence operation] or other intelligence gathering power”.

The inevitable result will be that journalists and others will be increasingly reluctant to investigate government activities

Of all the legislation that limits freedom of speech, the proposed inquiry would only deal with the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Federal Circuit Court recently dismissed a case under the Act which involved a dispute by Queensland students over special rights to college premises for Aboriginal students. The Human Rights Commission had provided advice for the plaintiff, and the government is now claiming that Professor Triggs was at fault for supporting a case which was “vexatious” and which, according to the government, had no chance of success.

However, as Professor Triggs replied, under current law the Commission cannot accept or reject a case on its chances of success or failure, but must advise and assist the plaintiff if they insist on proceeding with the case.

The government is intent on suppressing criticism and operating in secrecy, while simultaneously promoting a climate of fear about certain groups in the community, in order to distract public attention from the negative aspects of government activity.

The most blatant example is the recent statement by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that the Fraser government made a big mistake when it admitted some migrants into Australia from Lebanon in the 1970s.

Like much of the government’s propaganda, Dutton’s statement falsely links the Muslim religion with terrorist acts committed in the name of that religion, in order to justify certain policies, particularly the government’s servile commitment of Australian troops for US wars in the Middle East.

Dutton’s statement was highly dangerous and irresponsible. The infamous Cronulla riots in 2005 followed anti-Muslim broadcasts by some of Sydney’s “shock jock” commercial radio commentators.

Lebanese community leaders say Dutton’s statement has belittled their community and set back years of dedicated work by people of Lebanese origin and other Australians to restore social cohesion and goodwill.

Despite public demands by Lebanese community leaders for a meeting with Dutton, a spokesperson for his office claimed he had not received an invitation to meet with them. A representative of the Lebanese Muslim Association commented, “Mr Dutton is clearly not interested in having an open and honest discussion on the topic”.

Extreme right-wing forces are gaining increasing power within parliament. The government is now doing deals with the One Nation Party. Within the coalition’s own ranks Dutton’s career is on the rise, George Christensen is now chief whip for the National Party, and Tony Abbott is demanding a cabinet position.

The Turnbull government is sliding ever-further to the right. Its tendency to demonise sections of the community while concealing its repressive activities is alarmingly reminiscent of one of history’s most ruthless regimes.

After the Nazis took control of the Reichstag is 1933 they operated in the utmost secrecy, and convinced citizens of Germany and other countries that the camps where their opponents and racial scapegoats were being imprisoned were just like holiday camps.

We’re not, of course, in that situation in Australia. Nevertheless, the government’s tendencies are so disturbing that removing it from power requires our most urgent attention.

Next article – CPA Statement – In defence of workers’ rights

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