How Bolt Sets The Government's Agenda

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Andrew Bolt writes a lot of articles. The prolific right-wing columnist and blogger is famously diligent, often filing stories well past midnight, adding a TV show in recent years.

But of all the columns Bolt has typed in recent years, few have had the impact of two 2009 columns, both on the topic of Indigenous identity. Not only did they become the subject of one of the most controversial legal cases of recent times, they appear to be driving the legislative agenda of the Abbott government in 2014.

The two articles were entitled “It’s so hip to be black” and “White fellas in the black,” and they’re worth re-reading, if only to briefly immerse yourself in the noxious atavism of Bolt’s imagination.

Read, say, “It’s so hip to be black”, helpfully reprinted here by the ABC’s Media Watch. The article’s key contention is that a group of successful artists, writers, academics and public officials enjoyed success by faking their Aboriginality.

First named was the artist Bindi Cole, “who was raised by her English-Jewish mother yet calls herself 'Aboriginal but white’.”

“She rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father, and could in truth join any one of several ethnic groups, but chose Aboriginal, insisting on a racial identity you could not guess from her features,” Bolt wrote. “She also chose, incidentally, the one identity open to her that has political and career clout.”

Other targets included artist Annette Sax, writer Tara June Winch, academic and writer Anita Heiss, academic Pat Eatock and lawyer Larissa Berhendt.

“This self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality,” Bolt intoned.

Bolt’s article, in and of itself, was a typical example of his shock-jock fare. A farrago of half-truths, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods, its logic played to thoroughly discredited ideas of racialism, social Darwinism and eugenics, with a characteristic reference to Enlightenment ideals in a half-hearted attempt to cover up a set of personal smears.

The idea at the heart of his piece — that you have to have black skin to consider yourself Indigenous, and that if you have light skin, you must be using your Aboriginality for self-interested reasons – is not greatly different to the sort of half-baked racialism that used to pervade Australian life.

I’m talking about the sort of colour-based analysis that underpinned decisions by Australian authorities to separate inter-married Indigenous families, such that so-called “half caste” children were taken from parents and placed in institutional care (a historical reality, by the way, that Bolt has long attempted to deny, despite being unable to produce any decent evidence).

Skin colour, Bolt clearly implied, is what counts when it comes to defining race and ethnicity, despite half a century of biological science that has comprehensively demolished such ignorant canards.

Pat Eatock, Bolt wrote, “only started to identify as Aboriginal when she was 19, after attending a political rally.” But, he sneered, “she looked as white as her Scottish mother, or some of her father's British relatives”. Leeane Enoch had stood for Queensland Parliament as “its first Aboriginal candidate … despite looking as Aboriginal, or not, as Premier Anna Bligh”.

As Justice Bromberg later wrote when he passed judgment on Bolt’s article, Bolt was asserting an idea of race based on “biological integrity”, primarily based on physical appearance: “skin colour and other physical features”.

“Extensive reference is made to the colour or other physical features of the individuals,” Bromberg noted. The year was 2009, but we could just as easily have been in 1839, accompanying Samuel George Morton’s measurements of cranial capacity.

At the very end of his article, Bolt tried to square this reheated scientific racism with some half-hearted injunctions to “go beyond racial pride”.

“Let's be proud only of being human beings set on this land together, determined to find what unites us and not to invent such racist and trivial excuses to divide,” he concluded.

As it turned out, many of the people named in these articles were proud of their Indigenous heritage. A group of them, including Pat Eatock, decided to sue Bolt and the Herald-Sun, not for defamation – a suit they would almost certainly have won, and which would guaranteed them considerable pay-outs from News Corporation – but under the Racial Discrimination Act.

And so began the famous case of Eatock versus Bolt.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful in Australia to “do an act” if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

Eatock won. Bolt lost.

In case you’re wondering what the current flap about section 18C is all about, look no further than Justice Bromberg’s full judgment on the case. It is a devastating indictment of Andrew Bolt’s journalism.

Bromberg found that Bolt had not acted in good faith. He had got his facts wrong. His evidence in the witness box was called into question. Bromberg slammed the conservative columnist’s “derisive tone”, his “provocative and inflammatory language” and his “inclusion of gratuitous asides”.

Crucially, on Bolt’s central assertion that the people he wrote about had “chosen” to be black, the court found that it was untrue. All of those who gave evidence at the trial “had been raised to identify as Aboriginal and had identified as such since childhood,” Bromberg wrote. “None of them made a conscious or deliberate choice to identify as Aboriginal.”

The Herald-Sun was ordered to apologise. Bolt was humiliated, although of course he has suffered precisely zero repercussions in terms of his career.

The right-wingers were furious. Ever since the Federal Court’s decision came down, Bolt and his cheer-leaders have been champing at the bit to repeal section 18C of the act, on the spurious grounds that they restrict free speech.

It doesn’t matter that defamation law, of which Bolt’s article would also fall foul, is arguably a far tougher curb of the exercise of free speech than anything in the Racial Discrimination Act. The public singling out of a champion of the conservative right made this personal.

All the predictable mouthpieces for privilege and wealth came out in support of abolishing 18C — most notably the Institute for Public Affairs, which was so successful in pushing the marginal issue to the top of the political agenda, it succeeded in getting Attorney-General George Brandis to appoint telegenic IPA policy wonk Tim Wilson to the Human Rights Commission.

Which brings us to this week. In a sure sign of Bolt’s widespread influence in the Abbott government, Brandis has released a draft for a new Racial Discrimination Act, in which, you guessed it, section 18C is repealed.

Brandis hasn’t stopped there. He is also seeking to repeal sections 18B, D and E, and replace them with a vague and extremely permissive test of vilification, which gets rid of the ideas of offence, insult and humiliation altogether.

And intimidation is expressly ruled in, as long as it is part of public discussion — for instance, in a Herald-Sun column by Andrew Bolt. As ANU Professor Simon Rice wrote yesterday, “This throws out the baby, the bathwater and the bath.”

This is what politics in Australia has come to. A powerful newspaper commentator racially vilifies a group of prominent Aboriginals: members of our community I would like to celebrate for their achievements in arts, letters and politics. His article is scientifically ignorant, racially prejudiced and socially inflammatory. He also gets his facts wrong. When the subjects of his article sue, his defence of good faith collapses in court.

Three years later, the elected government of Australia decides to change the law to make sure that he could, if he chose, write that article again – and escape any legal sanction for racial vilification. The Attorney-General defends his conduct (or conduct like it) by saying “people do have a right to be bigots, you know.”

Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs was on the ABC’s Lateline last night, discussing these draft amendments. “One of the phrases one learns in Law school,” she told Tony Jones, ”as I did many decades ago, is bad cases make bad law.”

“I'm afraid that Mr Bolt was successfully prosecuted under civil law and he failed to meet the defences because of inaccuracy and lack of good faith,” Triggs continued. “To try to change the law to deal with that one case is probably, as a matter of legislative drafting and law reform, not a wise approach to law.”

Triggs is right. These amendments have nothing to do with free speech. They are all about the power and influence of one man. A man who was found by the federal court to have racially vilified eighteen prominent Australians, for the most cynical of motives: political point-scoring, and personal notoriety.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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