Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Don’t kill free speech to kill hate speech

Monica Wilkie

27 September 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Flawed ‘hate speech’ laws are a threat to free speech. The best way to protect minorities – while also properly protecting free speech – is to ensure the criminal laws prohibiting incitements and threats of violence are effective.

Inciting and threatening violence has long been against the law. Liberal democracies, such as Australia that have strong traditions of valuing free speech, accept speech that endangers the safety of others should be illegal.

However, there has been a push to expand legislation to ban anything deemed ‘hate speech.’ The United Nations has said they want to ‘scale up [their] response to hate speech.’ Although wanting to stop hatred and bigotry is admirable, such statements should be viewed with caution.

‘Hate speech’ is a broad, vague, and ill-defined notion that would simply catch in the legal net the kinds of contentious speech that some people find offensive or hurtful — or simply do not like.

There is a fundamental difference between speech that criticises ideas and threats of violence.

But as my research shows, protecting community safety and free speech is possible. Most state and territory governments are reviewing their vilification laws — they should adopt the model NSW introduced last year.

The NSW parliament passed the Crimes Amendment (Publicly Threatening and Inciting Violence) Act, which criminalises incitements and threats of violence against an individual or group who possess a protected attribute.

In addition to setting a high threshold for proving an offence, these laws vest investigative powers to the police as opposed to the anti-discrimination board of NSW. This allows for a more thorough investigative process, minimising the risk trivial complaints will be brought.

These laws passed with bipartisan support, and the support of community and ethnic lobbies, satisfying an objective of these laws that they are required to ensure minorities feel safe in their community.

Any law that restricts speech needs to be scrutinised and the NSW approach is obviously not perfect. But it presents a workable model — akin to the old criminal laws against incitements and threats of violence.

Free speech cannot be sacrificed by flimsy and unnecessary ‘hate speech’ laws.

This is an edited extract of an article that appeared on Online Opinion.

Turning clock back

Simon Cowan

27 September 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

California has passed legislation to significantly restrict the ability of businesses to use independent contractors. This is part of a seemingly global push against the rise of casual jobs (that don’t pay benefits), including the so-called ‘gig economy’.

It is no surprise that the biggest driving force behind legislation like this is the union movement. It is exactly the same here in Australia, where the unions and affected industries have campaigned on the evils of long-term casual work and strongly opposed the introduction of ride-sharing apps like Uber.

In particular, union leaders condemned the Fair Work Ombudsman’s decision in June that Uber Australia drivers were not employees – with the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union saying “these laws are hopelessly broken and the government must act urgently to put in place rights that protect all workers”.

It’s important to understand that the push to impose strict IR regulations on these ‘gig work’ businesses is as much about protecting old-tech incumbents from competition as it is about protecting workers from unscrupulous bosses.

Nor is it clear that all casual or gig workers are unhappy with their lot. For example, a survey of workers on the staffing platform Sidekicker in 2012 found that three out of four workers thought job flexibility and work life balance was more important than job security.

Arguably of equal importance are the longer term implications for workers and the economy. Australian businesses are competing on cost with overseas firms with far more flexible labour markets.

Many businesses are not in a position to offer permanent positions – even if they wanted to – either because their work is inherently unsuited to it, or because they don’t have the financial security or stability to take on full-time staff.

Generous working conditions might satisfy union concerns in the short term, but at the cost of business viability. Far from ensuring that all workers get greater protection, strengthening the industrial relations system may result in some workers losing their jobs – and others not getting jobs at all.

Moreover, what’s wrong with businesses and staff being allowed to negotiate terms? That some businesses treat casuals poorly is no reason to upend the whole system.

An Australian Industry Group survey from 2016 found thousands of casual workers would lose their jobs if changes were made to give casual workers the absolute right to convert to permanent employment.

Such restrictions also drive businesses towards technology that can replace their workforce. After all, a robot will be happy to work casual shifts.

Blinded by the money

Lukas Opacic

27 September 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

The Solomon Islands recently decided to ditch its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favour of China, irritating the US and ruffling feathers in Canberra. Meanwhile, at Australian universities, academics are increasingly cautious about saying anything that might offend their increasing numbers of Chinese students. What do these two things have to do with each other?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The Solomon Islands government was offered $500 million by China to replace aid previously received from Taiwan. And if $500 million can buy the allegiance of a small Pacific nation, imagine what similar amounts could do at a university.

Our imaginations needn’t roam far. Australian universities already receive hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from Chinese students — as well as further funding from Confucius Institutes and other partnerships with the Chinese Communist Party. The University of Sydney alone received $500 million in fees from Chinese students last year.

Hypnotised by these rivers of cash, universities have become oblivious to the dragon’s coils slowly strangling academic freedom in the shadows of new business schools, research centres, and museums paid for by Chinese money.

Universities typically hold themselves out as bastions of academic freedom. But there is a difference between the freedom to publish uncensored ideas in academic journals and the freedom to speak candidly about political issues in the classroom. Academics may have the former, but increasingly they do not enjoy the latter.

One reason for this is that the large numbers of Chinese students at Australian universities are starting to turn their financial clout into political power.

Australian academics have been forced to apologiseor worse — for remarks made in the classroom about Sino-sensitive topics like Hong Kong and Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and border disputes with India. In some cases, these apologies are extracted at the behest of the Chinese consulate.

While more egregious incidents are now reported in the media, the myriad acts of academic self-censorship in classrooms are not. You might dismiss those as trivial. After all, does it really matter if a few academics don’t show that slide about Taiwanese independence?

Well, yes it does. When this kind of self-censorship is practised en masse, it is anything but trivial. It turns pedagogy into propaganda, while real education dies the demise of a thousand cuts.

Chinese ‘soft’ influence has been gnawing away at the integrity of our universities for some time. We must be vigilant lest they sacrifice what’s left of it, for fear of offending their plutocratic benefactors.