The Senate’s blocking of the government’s attempted modification of Section 18C indicates that there is something drastically wrong with the whole governance of Australia. For the first time since it became a nation, Australia can no longer be called a free country. The Senate has betrayed the fundamental principle of liberty.
There can be no excuse of ignorance as to the toxic nature of 18C, or its great capacity to harm our political culture. In the last few weeks there has been a massive outcry against it by people of high calibre, and a series of outrageous and well-publicised cases, as well as the heart-attack death of Bill Leak. It may once have been possible, for example in the time of John Howard, to support 18C innocently, or at least to disregard it as being unimportant. Not now.
18C has brought Australia some international recognition. Canada’s incomparable Mark Steyn called it ‘a squalid and contemptible law incompatible with free society’. He added, in a brilliant column: ‘Last October, [Leak] woke up to find that, after a cartoon arising from a then current controversy on Aboriginal policy, he was to be investigated by the Australian state’s thought-police. Indeed, the government’s Race Discrimination Commissar, Tim Soutphommasane, was so anxious to haul Leak up on a charge of “racial stereotyping” that he was advertising for plaintiffs’.
I wrote last week that simply modifying 18C, rather than abolishing it altogether, though undoubtedly much better in the short term than no change, might lull libertarians into a sense of complacency – scotching the snake while leaving it potentially full of venom. There is no danger of that now. Defenders of free speech have been pushed into a corner, and they know now that they are in a fight to the finish. Now expect the next Labor Government to tighten the strait-jacket on free expression of opinion and thought. Labor is already talking of making ‘Islamophobia’ an offence (a ‘phobia’, properly speaking, is an irrational fear. How can a fear be an offence? And is so-called ‘Islamophobia’ irrational, anyway?).
How many of those who voted to keep 18C in all its pristine squalor, knew of or cared about the utterly disgraceful and indefensible case of Kyran Findlater, a student who was bullied into paying $5,000 as an alternative to being sued for $250,000 (another case, like that of Bill Leak et al. in which Mr Turnbull was conspicuous by his absence). The present dire situation for liberty in this country may evoke for the defender of free speech a state of mind rather reminiscent of G. K. Chesterton’s epic poem, ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, telling of how in Dark Age Britain, civilised men gathered to resist the tide of encroaching barbarism under the injunction:
I bring you naught for your comfort,
Naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher.
This was not a cry of despair but a call to arms: a statement that things will inevitably get worse and the forces of freedom had better fight before that happens. (Towards the end of the poem the victorious King Alfred warns that the next onslaught of barbarians may be with books rather than warships).
Turnbull’s handling of the matter has been worse than inept. After first losing the Senate, and stating in effect that ensuring freedom of speech by modifying or abolishing 18C and the anti-discrimination legislation, would not build a single road or create a single job, he suddenly (by some strange coincidence just after Bill Leak’s death and the resultant outcry), reversed his position and announced 18C needed to be improved after all. He did not elaborate on why, if the situation needed improving in 2017, it had not needed improving in 2016 when he had refused to act or treat it as important. In fact, he did not explain this change of heart at all, but anyone can guess the reason, and is unlikely to hold him in greater respect because of it. His behaviour has cast him in a terrible light, as a politician eager to grease a squeaky wheel, but before that showing no interest in the principle of freedom of speech, the freedom on which, it is said, all other freedoms depend. This is the leader of the party that is supposed to be the tradition-bearer in Australia of both the conservatism of Edmund Burke and the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. Who knows what he intended to gain by his attendance at the memorial service for Bill Leak, who he had failed to support or defend when he was alive. Was it a cynical, clumsy and hopelessly belated effort to establish credentials for himself as a true friend of freedom?
The voting of Labor, the minor parties and the Independents in the Senate was not very surprising, and simply confirmed their established positions. Supporting unaltered (and presumably ‘strengthened’) 18C the Greens proved again that they are only concerned with taking the most left-wing position possible on all issues, whether or not those issues have anything to do with the ideals with which they were founded, such as preserving wildlife. The Green’s ideology has settled into a very nasty combination of Marxism, neo–Luddism as expressed in opposition to cheap and practical energy that takes no account of the human cost, and authoritarianism and bullying, with a large pinch of anti-human nihilism, adding up to the stuff of some dystopian novel. The One Nation senators, to their credit, defied political correctness and supported the amendment.
Turnbull of course won’t do it, but there is one thing friends and defenders of freedom could do now, apart from keeping up lobbying of MPs and senators. In the months remaining for the Liberal Government, hold a constitutional referendum that will lock freedom of speech, apart from obvious exceptions such as unjustified libel and crimes like sedition or incitement of murder and violence, into the Constitution. (Given the facts of history and of contemporary politics, there may well be a special case for laws against anti-Semitism). Drafting this while there is yet time so that it is entirely positive should not be beyond the wit of some of the legal brains on the Government benches. Free speech is in a beleaguered position around the world. For its Australian defenders I recommend the advice of Sir Winston Churchill, who had some real credentials as one of its champions: ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’
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