A few reactions to Tony Abbott’s speech at the IPA

Tony Abbott’s speech to the Institute of Public Affairs is highly significant. (The video will be up shortly is here, and the transcript is here.)

First, he completely ruled out any new regulation of the media from the Finkelstein review, and any new “public interest” test on media ownership. He also stated his opposition to the coercive “self-regulation” the government is trying to impose on the press. (The IPA condemned the secret negotiations between government and media bosses.)

And second, he committed to repealing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was the section Andrew Bolt was found to have breached and the focus of the IPA’s Repeal 18C campaign earlier this year.

It’s a bit ambiguous exactly what will remain: the opposition leader said that “prohibitions on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups should be akin to the ancient common law offences of incitement and causing fear”. Parse that sentence as you will – we probably won’t know exactly what it means until the Coalition offers up full legislative detail, and that detail will be crucial. Until then, the position of the Australian delegation when we opposed limits on free expression in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights remains true: “people [cannot] be legislated into morality”. (More on this fascinating story in my book.)

But for some reactions to Abbott’s speech, I recommend Paul Kelly’s column in The Australian today, or Jennifer Hewitt’s column in yesterday’s AFR. Both are behind paywalls, but I’ll excerpt Hewitt:

…no short-term tactical advantage for either side can justify the willingness to restrict freedom of expression, especially when it comes to the performance of national leaders. Or indeed the ability to put unpleasant views. (See Voltaire).

Abbott’s argument that free speech is an essential foundation of democracy is not just convenient rhetoric. It has the advantage of being true. So does his corollary.

“The price of free speech is that offence will be given, facts will be misrepresented and lies with be told,’’ he declared yesterday. That’s a high price – whenever and however it happens. Sometimes that is quickly self-correcting, sometimes not. But the price of trying to prevent it is always far higher.

Somewhat less sympathetic takes were offered by Joel Fitzgibbon (“this free speech argument is a furphy”) and Penny Wong.

And finally, this piece in the Conversation by a professor of sociology worries that “Removing Section 18C without any replacement will open Australia to an even more thorough critique than that offered in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.” Well, perhaps it would! But why should the United National Human Rights Committee be the ultimate word on what constitutes human rights? See, again, my book’s account of the embarrassing history of hate speech in international law.

After all, it ought to take more than a fetish for Cold War-era UN treaties to make the case against freedom of speech.


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