Hashtag Free Speech 2014: The Love-In That Wasn't


They say 24 hours is a long time in politics, so two days must seem an eternity for some.

For the organisers of the Human Rights Commission’s one day symposium on freedom of speech, 48 hours meant the difference between a sound track of triumphant marching music and a more dour funeral march.

The reason for this sombre change in tone? The announcement by Tony Abbott that the much-touted amendments to sections 18c and 18d of the Racial Discrimination Act were toast.

In a remarkable volte-face on Tuesday this week the Prime Minister let it be known that national security and keeping the Australian Muslim community on side were more expedient short-term goals than protecting the free speech of folk like Andrew Bolt.

For Attorney General George Brandis it was a humiliating backdown. Brandis was the public face of what became known as the “Bolt amendments” and he is now (in)famous for the extraordinary phrase that people have a right to be bigoted.

It was Brandis’ March 2014 off-the-cuff remarks in Parliament that set the terms of what could have been a very divisive debate about changes to 18c and 18d.

And now, just four short months later, the deal is off the table. It is a pity that Brandis couldn’t make it to the forum. The main organiser of the HRC Free Speech symposium, Tim Wilson, looked suitably crestfallen when he made the unhappy announcement at the start of the day’s proceedings.

Why was the government’s backflip so gutting for the Wilson? Well, he was Brandis’ hand-picked candidate to become Australia’s first “freedom commissioner” and he was an outspoken supporter of abandoning 18c and 18d.

Prior to his appointment to the publicly funded role of Freedom Commissioner, Wilson was a staff member at the Institute of Public Affairs, and a paid-up Liberal Party member.

Yesterday’s symposium was supposed to be the first public embrace of the dynamic duo of robust liberalism. Brandis was to be keynote speaker and, as moderator, Tim Wilson would have been his loyal handmaiden.

But, bugger! It all went pear-shaped at the last minute. Brandis cancelled, citing several other engagements, but most of the 200 or so attendees were in no doubt that the A-G didn’t want to go near the event given what had transpired over the RDA decision.

Perhaps he was mindful too, that his proposed changes to data collection laws in aid of the recently reinvigorated “war on terror” would also not go down well with the conference audience.

He would have been right there, too. Only one or two speakers out of 23 or so supported the idea that “metadata” should be retained for two years and available for law enforcement officials to sieve, sort and select for their own so-called “security” purposes.

During the day, delegates were reminded several times that two-year data retention is highly intrusive. One speaker asked rhetorically, “What sites would you not visit, what emails would you not send, if you knew they were open to being viewed several years later?”

It is a question that George Brandis would not have enjoyed facing, and, given his spectacular meltdown on Sky News when being questioned by David Spears the evening before the symposium, he could have been humiliated again.

Brandis was clearly uncomfortable trying to explain to Spears what metadata is, and he got tangled up in the proposition that a website address might also reveal something of the site’s contents.

Despite the Brandis no-show, it was an interesting day. My disappointment at not being able to heckle Brandis – via the symposium Twitter stream #freespeech2014 – was assuaged later in the day by the speech of shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus.

I normally don’t have a lot of time for ALP politicians and knew little of Dreyfus before I heard him speak. But, I must say I was mildly impressed.

Grumpy IPA types complained bitterly that Dreyfus had given an off-piste political speech, but I loved that he rubbed their pretty little noses in it. He made the point strongly that the so-called “marketplace of ideas” is a conservative myth that bears little relation to reality.

Dreyfus said that Brandis has been a “walking disaster” as Attorney General because he failed to understand how decent Australians would react to his attempt to enshrine bigotry in the Racial Discrimination Act.

According to Dreyfus, Brandis has “clearly lost the confidence of his Cabinet colleagues, not to say the Liberal backbench and a very large part of the Australian community,” over the RDA changes. He also added that the proposed changes to security laws would not only lead to more surveillance of innocent people, but could also lead to the criminalisation of journalists who try to report on the subject in the public interest.

Dreyfus also raised the idea that the current government has a very narrow conception of free speech, pointing out that Brandis has not yet moved on long-awaited shield laws for journalists.

It was a misguided “absolutism” on free speech, Dreyfus argued, that drove the Abbott government into the messy and awkward politics of amending the Racial Discrimination Act.

So while we have had a victory – and I congratulate again all those who fought the government on this issue – the truth is that government’s ideological blinkers are still firmly in place.

They still don’t get it. They still have an undergraduate understanding of political philosophy and of human rights. The Abbott Government still doesn’t understand, as any human rights lawyer could explain, that the human right to free speech has always been subject to the human right to be free from racial discrimination.

Ah yes, that was surely the highlight of the day for me.

But there was another surprising note for me too; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the same ideological page as the new libertarian senator for New South Wales, David Leyonhjelm.

It is difficult to disagree with Leyonhjelm’s observation that data retention laws and more snooping powers for the security agencies mean that the population is becoming more transparent to government, not the other way around.

Though, honestly, who thought inviting NSW Solicitor-General Michael Sexton was a good idea? He was boring and nearly drove the over-pastried audience to sleep. Although, to be fair, his comments made it into The Australian as the only story covering the day’s events. Perhaps it’s something to do with Sexton’s role as a regular commentator in the national broadsheet.

The other over-arching thought I had by the end of the day is that I want an Institute of my own. Being able to say, “I’m from the Institute,” lends a certain gravitas to any pronouncement one might make after that. The conference room was full of Institute folk.

The most lunar was the dynamic duo from the Adelaide Institute, home of holocaust denier and wacky conspiracy theorist, Frederick Toben.

By far the largest contingent was from the Institute for Public Affairs, which was not surprising given the pedigree of the Freedom Commissioner. The venue was crawling with IPAns, and most were glum that their shining light Brandis was not there too.

Former ALP parliamentarian Gary Johns was on the podium representing the Australian Institute for Progress, but there is no digital footprint for this august association. However, Johns has had a long association with the IPA. Perhaps they just got the initials the wrong way around.

Johns certainly fits the IPA mould. Like the rest of the organisation’s heavy-hitters, he has turned on Tony Abbott with the fury of a lover spurned. Johns’ critique of the decision to abandon “reform” of the RDA was that Abbott didn’t believe enough that the Act was an impediment to free speech.

Johns seemed, in his speech, to be agreeing with Bolt’s discredited view that the “light-skinned” Aboriginal people he was attacking were not entitled to what they were claiming.

Johns described Justice Bromberg’s decision as a “literary critique” of Bolt based on the “awful” provisions of s18c and d of the RDA. It was an extraordinary performance, seemingly powered by anger, rather than reason.

For the record, I agreed with Bromberg’s decision and still find it difficult to get more than a cigarette paper between the concepts of “vilify”, “intimidate”, “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate”. They are all forms of bullying and the degree or severity of each is measured in millimetres, not miles.

Of course, no trip through the troubled recent history of free speech in Australia would be complete without a hat tip to the old masters. And true to form, the philosophes got their turn.

It was the daily duty of Professor Spencer Zifcak of Liberty Victoria to remind us of the limits imposed on freedom of speech in a capitalist democracy and there are many: National security, public order, enforcing the law, public morality, public health, the right to reputation (defamation), privacy and the right to a fair trial; plus other “public interests” that are not so clearly “enumerated”.

All well and good, but the first three are in place to protect the interests of the State, not the people. Morality is a social imposition, not a political one and the right to privacy is under even more threat today than freedom of speech.

The most confusing issue of the day was perhaps the distinction (if there is one) between racism and religious bigotry. Of course this is very topical and the subject of Mike Carlton’s dummy spit resignation from the Sydney morning Herald was top of mind for many attendees. But what did Carlton actually do?

By describing some of his Zionist trolls as “Jewish bigots” he seemed to earn the ire of many. But is such a description racist? I tried to get to the bottom of this with my only question of the day, but somehow it got elided in the responses it elicited from the panel.

The IPA’s Chris Berg fell back onto the trope of the market making the decision – the SMH being punished for Carlton’s outbursts by losing subscribers. No one else took the bait.

But the confusion is everywhere. In the papers an attack on synagogues, or on Jewish property is described as “racist” and “anti-Semitic” in the same story. The Jewish Board of Deputies describes anti-Semitic jibes as being “racist”. Even Dr Augusto Zimmerman from the School of Law at Murdoch University seemed unable to give clear answers at the symposium. So, what is a racist taunt in the context of the Gaza conflict?

Well, while the panel could not provide any answers, good old Dr Google can.

“Jewish” is a religious identity, it is not an ethnicity and it is not a nationality, despite attempts by the Zionists (supporters of a “Jewish” “homeland” in Palestine) to fudge an answer, or dodge the question entirely.

To make the issue even more complicated, the Arabic Palestinians are also Semitic people. So, the whole shooting match around Mike Carlton and an allegedly anti-Semitic cartoon in the SMH must also take into consideration an anti-Semitic cartoon published in The Australian.

I’m going to leave that whole mess right there. Any curious New Matilda reader can easily Google up the references and context for this. My final word is that next time a Jewish bigot accuses you of being an anti-Semite because you support Palestinian self-determination, just say, “Right back, in your face, dude!”

I want to leave the final word on this ultimately pointless gabfest to one of my favourite IPAns, Chris Berg.

Mr Berg is Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs and is one of the organisation’s leading cultural warriors. His contribution was a 10-minute walk through his book ‘In defence of freedom of speech’, from ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt, published in 2012.

Of course the IPA led the cheer squad for Tony Abbott in the 2013 election and Abbott was a keynote speaker at the Institute’s recent 70th birthday celebrations. However, relations between the once close friends have soured this week and as Chris Berg lamented: “What is left of the government’s freedom agenda?”

Thankfully, in my view, not a great deal, and I am much heartened to see in today’s Australian a full page advertisement from the IPA torching the government for abandoning the “fight” around repeal of 18c and 18d, and vowing to continue the struggle.

The backdown on repeal of these sections is another broken promise from Tony Abbott, but unlike his others – on cuts to the ABC, no new taxes, etc – this one is a breach of faith to the hard-core conservative supporters of the neo-Liberal Party.

It might not be the end, but it might well be the beginning of the end for Tony Abbott.

In that sense perhaps Free Speech 2014 was a watershed moment.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.