Flat White

Where’s the Prime Minister on the free speech crisis?

26 June 2019

12:55 PM

26 June 2019

12:55 PM

GoFundMe’s shutdown of Israel Folau’s fundraising page for “violation of … terms of service” is a troubling development for religious freedom and has disturbing implications for freedom of speech. GoFundMe has basically declared Folau persona non grata due to his religious convictions and the right to express such convictions.

As correctly noted by the Human Rights Law Alliance managing director, John Steenhof, in the Nine Network tabloids, “GoFundMe’s conduct should alarm all Australians interested in fair and equal access to justice. Anyone who wants to fundraise to have their day in an Australian court now has an extra barrier”.

Apparently, however, the newly re-elected Coalition still does not fully appreciate the fight we are in.  When asked about the closure of Mr Folau’s fundraiser, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “I think that the issue has had enough oxygen.”

By contrast, NSW Legislative Councillor Mark Latham, who defended Mr Folau in his maiden speech to parliament earlier this year, said GoFundMe’s decision was “excessive use of corporate power”. He tweeted: “Lefties scoffed when I said the absence of religious freedom protections would lead to a reign of terror against Christians. In all aspects of the Folau matter, it’s easy to see what’s happening.”

This is a rather interesting situation. The agnostic Latham defends freedom of religion and freedom of speech for Christians, but the Christian PM cowardly refuses to make a comment.

As Paul Collits correctly puts it in, ‘The Prime Minister failure to see the Folau case as a flagship freedom-of-speech issue is chilling for anyone with a modicum of understanding of how and why freedom is important’.

This is the same Prime Minister who previously stated that Folau’s comments were unacceptable. “I thought they were terribly insensitive and obviously that is a matter for the ARU and they’ve taken that decision,” Morrison said.

Here you have a “Christian” Prime Minister who appears to have no regard for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He is literally throwing a fellow believer under the bus – joining the lynch mob against a brother in Christ who simply dared to exercise his freedom of religion by freely manifesting his opinion.

Folau was simply quoting the Bible. What is next? The Bible banned in Australia?

After all, GoFundMe has shut down the fundraiser of thousands of Australians who want to support a religious person who has been punished for simply expressing a mainstream Christian viewpoint. They were charged a fee to use this disconnected service.

And yet, as correctly stated by Christian activist Bernard Gaynor, ‘it is illegal to discriminate in the terms on which goods or services are supplied… And, just to make it clear, it is even prohibited to treat another person unfavourably in any way in connection with the supply of goods or services”.

Our Prime Minister not only needs to know better what the law says, but also to realise that he has been returned not because he has done anything particularly good for our country.

To the contrary, he is still a Prime Minister only because the opposition leader was truly appalling and not a feasible option. Indeed, Bill Shorten is an old-fashioned socialist who has absolutely no regard for individual rights and freedoms.

This is why, and only why, Australian citizens decided to return the Coalition into power. It was the best of two rather undesirable options.

Curiously, the Prime Minister has a long track record of disregard for free speech.

During a press conference, on March 1, 2017, a journalist asked then Treasurer Scott Morrison: What do you make of the report regarding the Racial Discrimination Act and specifically 18C? Do you think it should be changed?’ His answer was rather disquieting:

As Treasurer I am focused on how people are going to afford the price of energy. I am focused on how people are going to afford to get into the housing market and afford their rent. I am focused on trying to reduce people’s taxes and ensure that people can get into jobs. That is my focus.

In an interview with the then Fairfax Media, in December 2017, the now Prime Minister expressed his support for further restrictions to free speech on religious grounds. Morrison commented:

It all starts when you allow … mockery to be made of your faith or your religious festivals — it always starts innocently and it’s always said it is just a joke — just like most discrimination does. And I’m just gonna call that out …  I’ve just taken the decision more recently, I’m just not going to put up with that any more, I don’t think my colleagues are either. Where I think people are being offensive to religion in this country — whichever religion that might be … well, we will just call it out and we will demand the … respect that people should provide to all religions.

One should remind our Prime Minister that, in a pluralistic society, people of different faiths and of no faith should avoid being “uncomfortable” in robust conversations about religion.

Further, it is simply not acceptable in a true democracy to protect any religious group from being “offended” without grievously infringing on the constitutionally implied freedom of political communication of others who strongly disagree with them.

The last thing we need in this country is for a Commonwealth parliament to introduce any further anti-discrimination laws based on religious grounds.

As for the Folau affair, once again, the Prime Minister has decided to not stand for the basic rights of a fellow believer.

What does it tell us about Morrison’s commitment to basic human rights, if he cannot even take a strong stance for a fellow believer enduring such a terrible persecution?

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Augusto Zimmermann is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. He is also President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), a former Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (2012-2017) and was the 2012 recipient of the Murdoch University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research.

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