Pollies and elite media are finally getting the message: when it comes down to the views of ordinary Aussies, freedom of speech matters — and we don’t want to be told what not to say.
Last year saw a tipping point. Bill Leak was attacked for drawing a cartoon intended to highlight indigenous disadvantage. Students at QUT got caught up in a silly computer-lab spat.
And then the Race Discrimination Commissioner appeared to be out and about touting for business by getting people to expand the meaning of racism. Finally, even the PM saw it was becoming a joke.
How did we get into this mess? For years, so-called ‘progressives’ have been telling us that Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is all that stands between us and civil collapse.
Added by the Keating government in 1994, the new section made it an offence to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate someone on the basis of race, colour or ethnic background.
It was originally intended to stop acts inciting hatred or contempt, but not relatively minor things such as “a light-hearted racist joke”, the then Attorney-General said in his 1992 Cabinet paper.
But history took a different course. Aided and abetted by the Human Rights Commission, 18C has become our greatest threat to freedom of speech: a weapon used by anyone claiming hurt feelings.
Parliaments pass laws with the best of intentions; but some laws are applied in very different ways to what parliament intended. 18C was never intended to silence students and cartoonists.
Nor was it intended to prevent sensible debate about social issues such as the plight of indigenous youths in custody, or what drives some disaffected Muslim youths to try to kill police officers.
Politicians kept telling us freedom of speech was a fringe issue. Tony Abbott flunked his chance to reform the law. Malcolm Turnbull tried “jobs and growth” to distract us from reform.
Then late last year, the Prime Minister finally set up a parliamentary inquiry about reforming 18C. It has received several thousand submissions. Not all are to be welcomed.
Australia’s Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Mohammed, wants to see 18C extended to protect religion — a bad idea that would create a new blasphemy law. Picture what could happen…
Many submissions call for major 18C reform, some call for repeal. New research commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs indicates as many as 95 per cent of us rate free speech highly.
Yet 18C is already stifling serious public discussion about pressing social matters. When we want to express opinions about culture or immigration, 18C can be used as a gag to silence debate.
Advocates for reform of 18C are scolded for defending bigotry. But if real hatred or real violence is incited, the criminal law stands ready to intervene and to prosecute.
When I tell American friends that in Australia it is unlawful to offend someone, they look at me with utter disbelief. They say using law to protect how I might ‘feel’ about something is a fool’s errand.
And they are right. Freedom of speech has never been about bigotry and offence: it is about a basic freedom underpinning our democracy — the freedom to speak openly.
We’ve had enough of that freedom being curtailed and patrolled. 18C needs serious reform — now.
Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
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