Freedom of speech

Political donations, free speech and democracy


The Fairfax papers ran a series of articles today on the supposedly insidious nature of political donations, with even Treasurer Joe Hockey conceding the government would fund election campaigns if private donations were forced to be wound back:

[Hockey] said the parties regularly discuss ways to improve the system but warned the public would end up paying if the private sector was banned from donating.

“The bottom line is if you decrease private fundraising then you have to increase taxpayer funded election campaign,” Mr Hockey said.

However, private political donations are essential to a democratic system. As Chris Berg explained back in February 2012, in relation to changes to New South Wales campaign finance laws:

Restrictions on donations hurt the party out of power. It is expensive to compete with the soapbox of incumbency. Stemming the flow of money favours the government.

Compounding this, donors like to back winners. And Labor, reeling after a historic loss, is bound to be a loser for the foreseeable future.

Yet that sort of crude political calculation is par for the course when it comes to donations reform. The truly obnoxious part of the NSW Government’s bill is how it restricts third party organisations from conducting political campaigns.

And on a more philosophical note:

Yet there is a deeper philosophical disagreement here, and it concerns how we understand “democratic” political debate. Broadly, there are two models.

The first imagines democratic debate as a free-for-all…

The second model argues that governments should “manage” the debate… But this second model is puzzling. Free debate informs the decisions made by voters to elect representatives and change governments. Free debate is at the heart of democracy. So what right does a government have to manipulate that debate? How can it legitimately suppress and restrain participants that it has determined are excessively loud, or decide what constitutes a “genuine” – rather than political – campaign?

And when such laws were struck down by the High Court in December 2013:

Mr Berg said it should be legal for trade unions, corporations, environmental groups and individuals to donate money to political parties and participate in the democratic process.

“Any laws that restrict freedom of speech are limitations on our most fundamental rights.

“Campaign finance restrictions are both a restriction on free speech and suppress democratic political participation.”


More than words required to defend free speech

It’s a sad day for free speech with the declaration from the new Charlie Hebdo editor that the satirical magazine will no longer draw cartoons of Mohammed.

One can’t blame the staff at Charlie Hebdo for taking this decision after the brutal attack which saw twelve of their colleagues murdered for exercising their right to free expression. After all, it doesn’t seem fair to expect Charlie alone to keep shouldering the burden of defending free speech. For all the solidarity marches and empty gesture hashtags that flooded social media in the aftermath of the killings, very few media outlets and citizens of the free world were prepared to republish the cartoons and make a defiant stand for freedom.

Our own Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, paid a visit to the Charlie Hebdo offices back in April and described satire as “an integral part of French society” which “offends all religions [and] all political parties”. While Ms Bishop’s comments would warm the hearts of libertarians the world over, Australians could be excused for scoffing at the Foreign Minister’s strong stance from abroad. The Coalition government still shows no signs of honouring its election promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate another person on the grounds of race or national origin. Moreover, it is no exaggeration to note that much of the content published in Charlie Hebdo would be deemed unlawful under section 18C.

From savage acts of criminality abroad, to the long arm of the law in Australia, free speech is under attack. Expressions of solidarity are always welcome but actions speak louder than hashtags. When it comes to defending free speech, one thing is clear: words are not enough. The Government must repeal section 18C.


Opposing coal-generated power is a moral failure


In an important op-ed in The Australian today, the IPA’s Fr. James Grant makes the case for embracing cheap energy for lifting people out of poverty:

[Pope] Francis is very concerned with the wellbeing of the world’s poor. This should be at the forefront of the minds of all Christians, driven by a moral imperative coming directly from the mouth of Jesus: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”

While all Christians will assent to such a view, practical responses are often little above the levels of a Miss Universe contestant and usually end with “the government should do something about it”.

It is time for Australian Christians to take a hard moral and theological look at their responses to world poverty, focus on the truth of the world’s situation, and support viable and practical outcomes, not wish lists with zero real­istic possibilities.

Continue reading here.

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Senator Edwards speaks out for free speech


Senator Sean Edwards

In a newsletter to subscribers, Liberal Party Senator Sean Edwards (South Australia) made these strong comments on the importance of freedom of speech, and the inappropriateness of laws which restrict speech that “offends” and “insults”:

If we consider what most fundamentally distinguishes Western Civilisation from the cultural cavemen of the global islamist movement, it’s the free and forceful exchange of ideas and the way those ideas influence the evolution of our society. The recent Liberal Party Federal Council raised once again the issue of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and its impact on reasonable debate in Australia.

It’s the public debate of ideas and values that leads to social change and it’s their debate in Parliament that enshrines those changes into law.

But while the latter is protected by Parliamentary Privilege, public debate in Australia is threatened by an overbearing Racial Discrimination Act and its hypersensitive Section 18C. If free speech is muzzled, we can’t be sure our society evolves in the direction the community wants it to.

The Government plans to specifically recognise Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders in the Constitution but discussion of who is and is not an Aboriginal person for the purpose of this amendment may well fall foul of the law. So Section 18C may literally prevent Australians from commenting freely on changes to their own Constitution.

Section 18D was envisaged to provide a number of exceptions to the sanctions of Section 18C for scenarios like journalism, art and academic debate. However in doing so it invites a judge to decide whether you hold your view “in good faith” and whether or not it is “reasonable” of you to do so before he or she decides whether they’ll let you off.

Australia did not become the civilised, culturally advanced society that it is by chance or by having our thoughts vetted by the judiciary. We got here through an evolution of ideas, values and beliefs and having them validated or otherwise by the best test there is: public debate. That Federal Council passed a motion calling for removal of the words “offend” and “insult” from the Racial Discrimination Act will, I hope, inspire further attention to the matter from in the Parliamentary Liberal Party.


New Zealand’s “anti-trolling” bill parallels our own e-Safety legislation


I’ve just returned from a speaking tour with the excellent free market think tank the New Zealand Initiative. Many of those I met in that country expressed their concern about a new “anti-trolling” bill, which passed the New Zealand parliament earlier this week.

I can understand why. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill, like our Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act which passed earlier this year, is dangerous state over-reach. The New Zealand bill creates a new offence of sending harmful messages or posting offensive material – on any website, not just major social media sites – with a penalty of up to two years jail.

A new dedicated government agency will investigate complaints about digital communications that violates ten “communications principles”. You can see the list of ten here. They include everything from ensuring that material posted is not denigrating on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation and so forth, to not making false allegations. As an editorial at points out:

As those with experience of defamation law know, that can be an area of endless argument, and the new statute has none of the safeguards provided by two centuries of development of defamation law. A similar risk arises from the prohibition on a communication that may be “grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual”. It does not take much imagination to see how that provision could be used by a deeply religious person to resurrect blasphemy laws that have largely (and properly in a secular society) fallen into disuse.

The problem that the New Zealand parliament wishes to tackle is the same as that in Australia: bullying can cause real harm. But as David Seymour, the ACT MP for the Auckland electorate of Epsom, said last Friday, “we can’t judge policies and programs by their intentions. It is results that matters. Bad legislation with good intentions is still bad legislation.”

Unsurprisingly, anti-cyberbullying activists in New Zealand have echoed the concerns the IPA raised when the Australian bill was passed: without proper educational support, “what we are doing is criminalising children as young as 14 rather than enabling them to understand the impact their actions and words have in an online environment”.


Grass-roots Liberals affirm support for section 18C changes


Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking at the 2015 Liberal Party Federal Council

Great to see grass-root Liberals at their party’s Federal Council pass several positive motions over the weekend, asking the Liberal leadership to honour its commitment to liberal values such as freedom of speech:

Tony Abbott faces grassroots Liberal resistance to indigenous recognition in the Constitution and renewed calls for changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act on grounds for taking action.

In moving the motion on Section 18C, delegate Tom White of the West Australian branch said he respected the government’s right to make the decision to shelve changes but this did not inhibit the federal council’s right to explain its own view.

Mr White backed an amendment proposed by Family First senator Bob Day of South Australia which would remove “offend” and “insult” from Section 18c as a “sensible reform”.


Peter Walsh on free speech and political correctness


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of a great article published in the Australian Financial Review from the former finance minister, Peter Walsh.

In the piece, titled ‘Free speech is under threat’, the former minister in the Hawke Labor government laments the shift of his party away from freedom of speech:

Those of us who were active in the ALP through the ’60s should remember how angry the Left – genuine that is, not its bourgeois contemporary mutation – was about the Menzies Government proposals for draconian amendments to the Crimes Act. The Left also harboured deep suspicions about the misuse of secretive D notices to cover up government chicanery. How things have changed.

In the ’50s, the Left vociferously defended freedom of association and of speech by opposing the Menzies Government’s Communist Party Dissolution Bill. The Parliamentary Labor Party, on instructions from the federal executive, allowed a slightly amended bill to pass the Labor controlled Senate. But the Left, Labor and otherwise, continued to oppose the act with ultimate success when the High Court declared it unconstitutional and the people rejected Menzies’ attempt to amend the Constitution.

The drift away from free speech and toward authoritarianism has been apparent for some time. As the cult of political correctness – imported from the United States – became entrenched in the media and taxpayer funded institutions operating on the fringes of government, many potential dissenters have been intimidated into silence.

Unfortunately, the article isn’t available in full online. However, FreedomWatch readers might be interested to read some more Peter Walsh excerpts collected by Chris Berg here .


Internet filter 2.0 given the green light

The Abbott government’s online piracy legislation has been given the go ahead by the Senate committee examining the proposed regime. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday:

The Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on Thursday recommended that, subject to some minor amendments, the controversial Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 be passed.

Central to the government’s policy is a website-blocking mechanism – i.e. an internet filter. I’ve previously explained why implementing such a regime is a bad idea.

The IPA’s Chris Berg and I made a submission to the government on these proposals. Our research demonstrated that:

  • ISP-level blocking is easy to evade, through widespread and easy to use technologies that will make injunctive relief ineffective;
  • The ‘dominant purpose’ test is vague, arbitrary, and dangerous given Australia has no fair use copyright exception; and
  • The policy resembles the previous Labor government’s internet filter, and, like the internet filter, represents a threat to freedom of speech and digital liberty.

Chris Berg’s detailed submission on the bill itself is here.

And credit where credit’s due. As reported in The Australian today, the Greens have used a dissenting report to oppose the bill:

“There is a substantial weight of evidence showing that it will be relatively easy to evade the Bill’s provisions, that it does not contain appropriate safeguards, and that it may result in legitimate online sources being blocked,” Greens senator Scott Ludlam wrote.

“Most importantly, there is also a significant weight of evidence showing that the Bill will not meet its aims, as it does not address the underlying cause of online copyright infringement: The continual refusal of offshore rights holders to make their content available in a timely, convenient and affordable manner to Australians.”


Preacher arrested, held for 11 hours for made up offensive speech complaint

This story from the UK just goes to show that you don’t even have to say the “wrong” thing to fall on the wrong side of offensive speech laws.

As the Daily Mail reports, Rob Hughes, a Christian preacher, was arrested in 2013 after a member of the public complained to police of his ‘homophobic and offensive speech’.

The problem? Aside from the absurdity of complaining to the police for offensive speech, the complaint itself was completely made up. In Hughes’ own words:

I was interviewed by the police, they asked me a number of questions – “why were you out”, “what were you saying”, “did you say what the people said” – I said “no”, of course. I was polite and courteous.

I did say that “you have my dictaphone in your possession, you can listen to the recording, the audio, if you like”. They dismissed that. Not sure why, but I just continued with the interview, finished the questions.

Remarkably, despite having a recording of the incident, Essex police still required 11 hours to dismiss the unsubstantiated complaint and conclude that no offensive speech had taken place.

Even more remarkable is that the police saw this event as a reasonable use of police resources at all.