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Issue #1777      May 17, 2017

Lest we forget

There are no absolute freedoms

Since the government announced its intention to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the proponents of “free speech” have mounted virulent campaigns against people who made public statements with which they vigorously disagree.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Sydney radio “shock jock” commentator Andrew Bolt and Murdoch press journalists have attacked Human Rights Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs, over the prosecution of seven University of Queensland students who lodged a Facebook message about having been asked to leave an Aboriginal students’ computer room.

The post read: “I just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer rooms. QUT stopping segregation with segregation?”. Another post referred to “niggers”, but the court later accepted a statement by one student that the words had been placed by someone else in his name.

The case was not resolved for nearly three years, and the complaint was dismissed. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph held Professor Triggs personally responsible for the delays and legal costs, even though she had to proceed with the case because the complainant insisted on her rights.

Professor Triggs was also attacked for the prosecution of the late Bill Leak over his cartoon in The Australian newspaper, in which an inebriated Aboriginal man asks his delinquent son what his name is.

The cartoon was highly offensive to Aboriginal people, one of whom made a complaint to the Commission. In their defence, Leak and The Australian were entitled to formally lodge a claim that the cartoon was published in good faith, which would probably have been accepted as grounds for dismissing the complaint.

The defendants notified the commission that they intended to do so. However, the complainant ceased proceedings before the case reached the courts, so no formal defence claim was lodged. Nevertheless, federal Attorney-General George Brandis attacked Commissioner Triggs because she hadn’t ceased the proceedings when informed that the defendants intended to lodge the claim.

Limits to free speech

The Australian constitution contains no reference to free speech, and the nation has no bill of rights.

Freedom of speech is also relative, not absolute. If a person is free to say something, the person to whom the statement is directed is not “free” from its effects. Where those effects could be damaging, society limits the right to free speech.

Laws against slander are intended to protect people from unfounded attacks on their character, and Clause 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is intended to protect people from insult, offence, humiliation or intimidation based on their race, colour or national origins. (Clause 18D defines exceptions to 18C’s requirements.)

Some legal experts say 18C’s current wording is not strong enough to deal with cases of discrimination. However, the government proposes to replace “insult” and “offend” with “harass” which would emasculate the Act and negate its original intention.

The current legislation is valued by many communities, including Aboriginal people, Jews and Muslims.

Regarding clauses 18C and 18D, Dr Colin Rubenstein recently noted “... since their inclusion in 1995, organisations monitoring racism have witnessed more circumspection and less harm by openly racist groups in Australia. ... statistics maintained by the Jewish community show ... there was a substantial decline in incidents of anti-Jewish harassment in Tasmania and South Australia following judgements ... under Section 18C”.

Naturally, the Racial Discrimination Act doesn’t suit those politicians who seek the electoral support of bigots or racists. Government members claim 18C violates their right to free speech, but they themselves strive to suppress statements by others with which they disagree.

For example, immediately after bushfires last year, a government minister told a Greens MP he shouldn’t discuss climate change, even though it is associated with an increasing number of bushfires.

A few years ago a member of the audience in an ABC program said the government’s anti-terrorism policies were counterproductive and would actually persuade certain young men to become terrorists. It was good advice, but the government suggested that the audience member, who had criminal convictions, was a terrorist himself, and that the ABC should terminate the program.

On Australia Day we’re encouraged to join in national celebrations, but the government rejects calls for the event to include interpretation of it from the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians.

After Anzac Day ABC commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied placed a Facebook post that read: “Lest. We. Forget. Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine ...)”.

Bolt and the Murdoch press immediately accused her of an outrageous violation of a sacred institution. Abdel-Magied later removed the words from social media, and publicly apologised.

But the anti-Muslim media hysteria had done its work. Afterwards she was publicly harassed, and received a flood of abusive messages, stating she was an “Islamic piece of s***” and a supporter of genital mutilation, that she should be stripped, beaten, sodomised, publicly whipped, stoned in the street, or deported to Yemen, or that she should commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.

So much for freedom of speech!

The real “problem” with Abdel-Magied’s statement is that her implied criticism was spot on. On Anzac Day, rather than simply paying tribute to fallen soldiers, we should discuss ideals of compassion or equality, for example, regarding our treatment of the victims of war, including asylum seekers, and we should certainly question our involvement in wars, past, present and future.

And that includes WW1, the subject of widespread uncritical public reverence. Former ambassador to Japan, John Menadue, recently commented: “The most important and just war in which we have fought was WW2, in defence of our own people and land. But WW2 is rated by the Australian War Memorial and so many others as of much less significance. WW1 is the Holy Grail.”

Conservative politicians claim Australia “came of age” in WW1. However, Menadue points out that the nation was by no means united in support of our participation in that war.

Many subjects are taboo for current advocates of free speech. That includes the question of who profits from the wars in which we participate, one of the most important of all public issues. In the struggle for free speech, the issues the government is most reluctant to discuss are the very ones that are most important for the nation to consider.

Next article – Budget 2017-18 – No care for aged care

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