The Coalition Government has only been in power a month, but despite professing “freedom of speech” as a core belief, and The Australian declaring that Tony Abbott PM would “champion free speech”, our right to freely discuss the government, foreign governments and business is being hit from several angles.
Academics wishing to freely criticise the Coalition government may be hampered by a new policy of defunding research it deems “ridiculous”. Catriona Jackson, chief executive of peak research body Science and Technology Australia, said that, “Australians should ask: Do we want politicians picking and choosing which grant proposals deserve funding?” Indeed, how is our government to be kept in check if our best minds are afraid to criticise it lest it hurt their livelihood?
Australians wishing to speak freely about other countries’ governments may also face serious consequences. To impress Indonesia, for example, Tony Abbott announced that his government “will do everything that [it]possibly can to discourage” those campaigning for West Papuan independence. Few doubt that Indonesia has committed human rights abuses against West Papuans, and the independence movement is a response to a situation that some have compared to genocide.
The Coalition government has also promised to cut funding to anyone who merely expresses support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. This is a campaign aimed at ending Israeli apartheid in a similar way to how boycotts, divestments and sanctions were used to end South African apartheid in the 1980s – non-violently through economic pressure.
Australians should not be punished for non-violent methods of protest. Indeed, three eminent Jewish-Australian academics, who themselves oppose the BDS campaign, have come out in support of BDS campaigners’ rights to free speech, labelling the Coalition government’s policy “outrageous’ and “anti-democratic”.
Consumers will also be penalised for promoting secondary boycotts of unethical companies. Initially the focus will be on environmental campaigns, but the ban could well extend to other types of boycotts. The details so far are unclear. We can vote out bad governments. Bad companies, however, only respond to hits to their bottom line, and bad PR. As Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs suggests, “Sometimes the way we spend our money is literally a form of speech”.
The Coalition’s asylum seeker policy, Operation Sovereign Borders, has put information about refugees and asylum seekers under military strictures. Asylum seekers’ access to legal support will also be cut, limiting their access to our tribunals and courts and the ablity of our legal representatives to speak for them.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are being silenced in their own communities (with the planned abolition of “scores of statutory indigenous governance bodies") and in the courts (with the planned cuts to Aboriginal legal services). Debate on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement has been conducted secretly, but leaks reveal it might infringe on Australian internet users’ rights. Tony Abbott’s own ministers have also had their permission to talk to the media without approval from the Prime Minister’s office curtailed.
Even the Prime Minister seems to be self-silencing by keeping media appearances to a minimum; he has fled the media when quizzed on boat sinkings and shuts down when questioned. How can the public be properly informed on important issues if the players involved cannot be heard?
So after all these free speech attacks, why did News Ltd claim Tony Abbott would “champion” free speech? At least one reason is the Coalition government’s plan to scrap section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which offers legal relief to people who are offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated based on their race or ethnicity where the speaker was not acting reasonably or in good faith. News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached this section in a 2011 Federal Court decision.
If, after putting limits on Australians’ right to engage with the business of government, the main feather in the Coalition’s free speech cap is their willingness to allow the majority to demonise minorities, it seems fair to conclude that the only speech the Coalition is interested in protecting is that of the rich, the white and the powerful.