Current attitudes are evidence of Australia’s historically sour relationship with the right to freedom of speech. It is high time this relationship was mended.
As seems to be the case on a daily basis, contrarian views in Australian public debate receive such considerable outrage in response that claims to freedom of speech generate a collective roll-of-the-eyes, if not outright contempt. Views considered to be offensive are somehow beyond the right of free expression and are thus promptly struck down in the court of public consensus.
Sometimes, they are even struck down in real courts. The somewhat overused but nonetheless salient example of this was the Andrew Bolt case, pursued under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for a series of articles in which Bolt made claims about widespread indigenous opportunism in the seeking of positions of privilege. As bizarre and ill-conceived as the articles were, their contents should have been no matter for the state.
I can picture readily the vexation of many readers at the mere mention of his name. Other causes of such public irritation include the reverberations of the Hanson camp and remarks on immigration from TV host Sonia Kruger. (and, inevitably, Israel Folau – Ed). Their right to speak is challenged on the grounds that their views are divisive or unacceptable and, well, because like your parents always made you remember: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Even if one does not agree with the views of commentators and public figures, one is nonetheless obliged to offer a throat-clearing before speaking at all. This is precisely because of the incredibly trigger-happy nature of the opposition to freedom of expression in Australia.
Over twenty years ago, across the Pacific but in a remarkably similar context, Christopher Hitchens defined this controlling attitude as the “politics of the permissible”. Out of this attitude comes the curious assertion that freedom of speech somehow does not exist in Australia because the state has not enshrined such a right into law. Ironically enough, this is from the same people who look to the International Declaration of Human Rights when laying claim over other topics about which they are so passionate.
But such astounding opposition to the free exchange of ideas in Australia has not always prevailed.
At the close of the 1950s, and for some time after, a group of students gathered nightly at the Royal George Hotel in Sydney with the intent of having rows for, well, their own sake. Known as the Sydney Push, the topics for exchange were broad but invariably political. The late Robert Hughes described the Push as a “sceptical, anarchist, free-thinking, free-loving bunch of students” with whom he often shared a stiff drink and stimulating cigarette. Its members were, among others, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Les Murray, Eva Cox, and Hughes himself.
The consequences can indeed be offensive, but that is a necessary part of the democratic process. There is much to take from the tradition that supports this principle, and we would do well to apply its lessons.
The values espoused by these rabble-rousing students all those years ago still matter as much today as they ever have. Why? In short: in the margins of its history, Australia has a small but valuable tradition (popularised by those students and their beloved University of Sydney philosopher, John Anderson) that recognises the necessity of free speech in the checking-and-balancing of power and in elevating the quality of public discourse. Unfortunately, this tradition is seldom acknowledged and respected even less.
It would be nice to be optimistic about the state of this tradition, but the facts must be faced. Despite its emergence as a leading liberal democracy, Australia has not had a warm relationship with the notion of rights, and freedom of speech is no exception. The attempt to pass a United States-inspired Bill of Rights at the 1898 Constitutional Convention, just three years before our Federation, remains but a footnote in history. Indeed, every attempt to pass such a bill has failed, always emerging from the political margins with little support. Closer to our time, former Prime Minister John Howard repudiated any attempt to bring forth a referendum on a Bill of Rights for the Constitution and added further restrictions to speech by expanding sedition laws in 2005 (Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials – Andrew Lynch with Nicola McGarrity and George Williams, Sydney: Newsouth Publishing, 2015, p3).
Howard’s peculiarly illiberal approach to freedom of speech is no doubt an irony that divides his cherished party. Some have tried to advance policy in the other direction. With Attorney-General George Brandis alongside him, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott attempted to water-down the Racial Discrimination Act for the purpose of protecting free speech rights. As expected, their amendment was defeated very quickly – in part, due to an effective no-rights-for-bigotry campaign by Bill Shorten.
But as divisive as they may be, even the most extreme opinions have a right to be expressed. This means that yes, bigoted opinions can be voiced; it is the humble task of the rest of us to counter such views in open debate. As German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1917, freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means “freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
It is high time for freedom of expression to be given its rightful place in Australian public discourse. The consequences can indeed be offensive, but that is a necessary part of the democratic process. There is much to take from the tradition that supports this principle, and we would do well to apply its lessons.
As Hitchens remarked, “It is not enough to ‘have’ free speech. People must learn to speak freely.”