Free speech

A right royal freedom of speech confusion

It was a little over a year ago our esteemed Attorney-General, George Brandis, was defending the right of Australians to be bigots.

People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive, insulting or bigoted.
Attorney-General George Brandis, Australian Senate Hansard (24 March 2014 at 14:16)

That statement was of course made by the Attorney-General in the context of News Limited ‘journalist’ and conservative political commentator Andrew Bolt being found in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) by the Federal Court of Australia in Eatock v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103 over comments about ‘fair-skinned Aboriginal people’. In short, Andrew Bolt asserted they were not genuinely Aboriginal and were pretending to be Aboriginal so they could access benefits that are available to Aboriginal people:

And the Federal Court was having none of that under section 18C of the Act.

However, The Australian was having none of the Federal Court’s ‘nonsense’. Then shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis was having none of it either and promised a future Coalition Government would amend the Act to prevent cases such as Andrew Bolt’s occurring ever again. That promise by the Coalition became one of the many abandoned policy shipwrecks in what turned out to be the Coalition’s post-election victory nightmare, where it seemed every policy the Coalition pulled out of the hat was universally despised …

When it comes to the Coalition’s free speech crusade, what a difference a year makes. And who the speaker involved is. And what the ‘offensive, insulting or bigoted’ message is.

Fast forward to 22 June 2015 to a ‘controversial’ appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program, a program dedicated to discussing controversial political and public policy issues. Enter former terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah into the picture, as an audience member.

Mr Mallah is no stranger to trouble, or Australian TV audiences. He was the first person charged in 2003 under counter-terrorism laws introduced by the former Howard Coalition government. After spending two years in Goulburn jail, he was found not guilty of preparing a suicide attack on a Commonwealth building. In a plea bargain, Mr Mallah then pleaded guilty to threatening to kill ASIO and Department of Foreign Affairs staff.

Nevertheless, in light of recent discussions about the need to engage disaffected Muslim youth to prevent, or reverse, their radicalisation, on one level it did make sense for Q&A to engage with Mr Mallah. After all, if we don’t actually hear what young people like him have to say, if we don’t engage them in discussion, how will we ever be able to understand their thinking, and effectively counter the messages that influence them?

Of course, our old friend Andrew Bolt is not having any of that engagement business. Nor his employer News Limited:

In any event, as one would expect from a young man with his history, it didn’t take him long to have a run in with Steve Ciobo, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It was excruciating television:

The 15 seconds that started the firestorm, even though Tony Jones shut it down immediately, followed a terse exchange between Mr Ciobo and Mr Mallah:

Mr Mallah: The Liberals now have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIS because of Ministers like him.

Tony Jones: Okay, I think, I think that’s a comment we are just going to rule completely out of order.

Sadly, Mr Mallah continues to stand by what he said and, from what I can observe, there has been no real subsequent effort to engage him.

Instead, all efforts have been devoted to pummelling and humiliating the ABC. Nevertheless, antagonising and demonising Mr Mallah and the ABC will achieve … absolutely nothing.

Roast pigThrowing around words such as ‘betrayal‘ and ‘traitor‘ doesn’t help either.

The only response from the Coalition Government so far has been seemingly uncontrolled hysteria, and the announcement of an urgent inquiry into the ABC, ordered by the Prime Minister.

Admittedly, a response limited to hysteria is in line with recent Government practice.

Our Prime Minister also chose to take an extremely alarmist approach about the terrorism threat to Australia after the recent attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait:

This illustrates yet again that as far as the Daesh death cult is concerned, it’s coming after us.

We may not always feel that we are at war with them, but they certainly think that they are at war with us.

Despite the escalation in the goading language used, the Government has no plans to raise the terror threat level.

So far the rhetoric by the Government attracted the usual suspects and brought out right-wing, white supremacists, pushing a roast pig on the spit around the ABC. Hardly the right approach when all experts agree that we need to engage with, and educate, disaffected Muslim youth.

But if you choose to appeal to the lowest common denominator, that’s exactly what you get: the lowest common denominator. It’s a good thing for them they have our Attorney-General on their side: ‘People do have a right to be bigots, you know,’ just as long as the bigotry in question conforms with Coalition policy …

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