Deep lack of fundamental constitutional awareness revealed: Ipsos MORI poll


An Ipsos MORI poll released over the weekend showed a number of revealing figures. As the IPA’s James Paterson noted here yesterday, 39% of Australians aged 16-64 years believe that the right most under threat in Australia is the right to free speech. This was the most popular response to that question, which should highlight the importance of repealing speech-infringing laws such as section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Other results from the survey are not as optimistic. Question one of the survey listed a number of different historical documents, and asked respondents to indicate which they had heard of before taking part in the survey. According to the results, 65% of respondents had heard of the Australian Constitution, 53% had heard of Magna Carta, and only a slim 14% had heard of the Statute of Westminster (1931). When one remembers that the threshold was merely having heard of these documents, it is a very disappointing result, and a damning indictment on the education system in this country.

The Australian Constitution, passed in 1900, provided for the federation of the British colonies on the Australian continent to form a unified nation. Indeed, Australia would not exist, but for the Constitution. The Statute of Westminster (1931), which Australia signed in 1942, provided that the British parliament could no longer pass laws which would bind Australia. Its effect was to make Australia a sovereign nation. That only 65% and 14% are aware of these documents is disturbing.

Finally, the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 is a fundamentally important historical event which established (or re-established) the rule of law in mediaeval England. Its principles, such as the freedom from arbitrary arrest and to be governed by the law of the land (or the common law), permeate our modern democracy. A lack of awareness of these principles, and where they come from, makes it easier for those in power to dishonour them.

See the poll results from Australia, and other countries, here.

New poll reveals Australians believe free speech under threat


Australians believe that freedom of speech is the human right most under threat today in Australia, a new poll has found. Asked to choose which right they felt was most under threat, 39 per cent of Australians chose freedom of speech.

“With anti-free speech laws like section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act still in force, it is no surprise that Australians are worried about freedom of speech,” says James Paterson, Deputy Executive Director of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

“When Australians see journalists like Andrew Bolt hauled off to court for simply writing an article which offends someone, they are right to be concerned that their own free speech is under threat.

“This result demonstrates there is widespread community concern about freedom of speech in Australia. The federal government should reconsider its decision to abandon Tony Abbott’s pre-election promise to repeal section 18C,” says Mr Paterson.

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Australia’s moral authority at risk over section 18C

Legal affairs editor at the The Australian Chris Merritt has written a terrific piece on the debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and the broader implications for free speech in Australia. Here’s the most important part of the article:

Despite promises, [Tony Abbott] dropped a reform plan for section 18C that would have wound back provisions that had been used to punish columnist Andrew Bolt for hurting people’s feelings.

Those restrictions — championed by opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus — mean anyone can seek retribution whenever they say they have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated on the basis of their race.

This has weakened Australia’s moral authority on free speech and handed a key point to the Islamists: in this country it is perfectly acceptable to bypass the marketplace for ideas and simply punish those whose opinions hurt your feelings. Debate? Why bother?

The weakness of Australia’s position is exacerbated by the fact that the test for liability — as outlined by judge Mordecai Bromberg in his ruling against Bolt — has nothing to do with community standards.

Bolt was silenced because the case against him was judged from the perspective of a hypothetical reasonable representative of those who claimed that his words caused them to feel offended, insulted, humiliated and intimidated.

Normally, when people go to court, they expect a result that is broadly in line with community standards. Because section 18C rejects that approach it remains the greatest threat to freedom of speech and community cohesion.

As applied by Bromberg, it means Australian standards are irrelevant. It encourages particular groups within the community to demand retribution for subjective grievances about what is said or written — even if those grievances are ludicrous when measured against community standards.

The whole piece is well worth your time.

Anti-smoking bureaucracy embroiled in another scandal

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Healthway, the Western Australian anti-tobacco government body, has found itself in the news again for all the wrong reasons. In October of last year, it was revealed that that as a result of its sponsorship deal with Western Australia Opera, a performance of Carmen was to be cancelled because it was too unsavoury for audiences to see. Not for the murder, or even the bull-fighting, but because an unavoidable aspect of the story involves smoking.

At the time, the IPA’s Simon Breheny, called it a horrible intersection of the nanny state and freedom of speech, and the IPA’s Chris Berg noted it revealed the workings of the nanny state advocates.

It’s a very, very revealing illustration of their censorious nature: the idea that they cannot tolerate artistic expression that is contradictory to their political message… That is a very powerful reflection on them.

Now, it has been revealed that in addition to being tools for censorship, Healthway has diversified into the realm of corruption. A report released yesterday by the Western Australian Public Sector Commission found the upper echelon of Healthway has been misusing sponsorship contracts and “derived a private benefit in the form of tickets or seats for their family in corporate boxes” to the value of $220 000. The report politely called these arrangements “excessive and inconsistent with the obligation to be scrupulous in the use of public resources”.

However, it would be more appropriate to say that a public body conducting these arrangements in the manner described, is grossly improper. Generally speaking, it highlights just how inappropriate it is to task almost unaccountable bodies such as Healthway with dispensing large amounts of taxpayer money.

After the Carmen episode, FreedomWatch lamented that perhaps the Barnett government missed a perfect opportunity to abolish an unnecessary public agency. The same government should now take advantage of this same opportunity.


Senator Day’s bill a step in the right direction


The IPA’s Simon Breheny has been featured in today’s The Australian, on the topic of Senator Bob Day’s Racial Discrimination Amendment Bill 2014.

“Section 18C is a significant restriction on freedom of speech,” Mr Breheny said.

“Senator Day’s bill is an important step towards the restoration of free speech. It seeks to repeal the very worst parts of section 18C.

“Only a full repeal of the provision will restore freedom of speech but everyone who values free speech must support Bob Day’s bill.

“Making it unlawful to offend or insult a person equates to a ‘hurt feelings’ test. The removal of these words is a very modest proposal,” Mr Breheny said.

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WATCH: Chris Berg criticises data retention on The Drum

The IPA’s Chris Berg joined Wednesday nights episode of ABC’s The Drum, to discuss mandatory data retention, broadening the base of the GST, food labelling and the ‘Freedom Rides’.

Watch the segment here, as Mr Berg slams the cost, usefulness boundaries of the governments proposed mandatory data retention scheme.

And here is a transcript of the same segment.

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Tim Wilson’s professionalism bewilders Fairfax journalist

It used to be that reasonable people could disagree about issues, and agree to disagree. Unfortunately it looks like those days are long gone. There are so few reasonable people left to disagree with. Consider the case of Jenna Price – senior lecturer at UTS in the Journalism School. She is a columnist for the Canberra Times. This week she suggested that former IPA Senior Fellow and current Freedom Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission be sacked.

To be entirely fair there are very good reasons why Tim Wilson should be sacked. Having highly intelligent policy entrepreneurs working for the government rather than in the private sector is a massive misallocation of scarce societal resources. Tim Wilson could and should be deploying his vast talent to making the world a better place, rather than doing … well, whatever it is he does for the government. Then there is the argument for simply shutting down the entire organisation – after all it isn’t clear what any of them do.

Those sorts of arguments were not what Ms Price had in mind. Rather it was a hysterical tirade against Tim Wilson because he had answered his phone on a Sunday but then declined to be drawn into a political dispute.

Now, I rang Wilson on Sunday because I wanted to ask exactly what involvement he had in The Forgotten Children report. I rang him because I thought he helped write it.  In the report, it says: “The Inquiry was led by Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Commission, with assistance from Megan Mitchell, the National Children’s Commissioner and Tim Wilson, the Human Rights Commissioner.”

Seems rather strange that Ms Price didn’t call Professor Triggs – who did write the report if she wanted any clarification on the report itself. So having phoned Tim Wilson on the pretext of his having written the report – he didn’t – she then proceeded to ask him about the on-going political stoush between Gillian Triggs and the federal government.

Unsurprisingly Tim didn’t want to comment on that matter, neither on the record nor off the record.

It is entirely inappropriate for Tim Wilson to comment on that matter. In the Australian Human Rights Commission hierarchy he would become the acting President should Gillian Triggs stand down from her position. Further it is not his place to comment on why the government may be displeased with Professor Triggs’ performance – Ms Price should have phoned the Attorney-General, or even Professor Triggs herself for commentary on that issue.

As a public servant Tim Wilson could only comment on the report – I would be surprised if he approved of children being in detention and I hope he said so. But for his trouble, Jenna Price launched on an ad hominem attack:

… the person who should be removed from the job is Tim Wilson … Mr Wilson’s appointment to the Australian Human Rights Commission last year was really just a way for the Attorney-General, George Bigot (sic), (and it’s on the record that he and Wilson are friends) to have someone from the right deep inside the Commission, with the ability to chat to other neoconjobbers. … Tim Wilson, who could show some leadership among conservatives by standing up for what’s right, rather than what’s Right, is strangely silent.

Hardly strangely quiet at all. It’s called “professionalism”, it’s called “avoiding conflict of interest”, it’s called “staying out of political conflict when you’re a public servant”.

Tim Wilson at the National Press Club

After his first year in the position, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson today addressed the National Press Club. Among other issues, he detailed the nature of liberty, the importance of the Magna Carta, property rights, religious freedom, censorship and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

It is comforting that there is at least one supporter of freedom in the Human Rights Commission.

UPDATE: Mr Wilson’s address can be viewed at the following link.

The transcript is reproduced below, from the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

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Cyber-bullying proposals miss the mark


One of the unfortunate things about Australia’s political system is that for all the effort given to hold inquiries into new laws, those inquiries do little to affect how politicians understand the issues at hand.

We’ve seen this very clearly in the discussion over the government’s cyber-bullying legislation, which was debated again in the House of Representatives last week.

Bear in mind that this debate is occurring before the Senate committee scrutinising the bill reports in a fortnight.

As Simon Breheny and I argued in our submission to the government – and, indeed, in the submission to a previous discussion paper, and in a larger paper on cyberbullying – the government’s approach completely misunderstands the social problem that is “cyber” bullying.

Yet again and again we hear the same old claims, like the idea that cyber-bullying is more worrisome than traditional bullying because there “is no opportunity for escape” in social media – even though it is far easier to block or unfriend someone online than it is to leave a classroom or playground.

Bullying is a serious issue. It is distressingly common and can cause immense harm. Yet the government’s proposal is unlikely to do anything to prevent bullying. If the government is truly interested in action on bullying, it would drop the technopanic, and turn all our attention to what goes on in schools and playgrounds.

Triggs criticism well-deserved

Last week, Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs released a report into children in detention. It’s an explosive issue at the best of times but the timing of the release of the report has also come under scrutiny.

The prime minister criticised the release of the report, saying: “This is a blatantly partisan politicised exercise and the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself.”

Triggs responded by rejecting claims that the report was political: “This is not a politicised exercise. It is a fair-minded report.” Triggs is either being misleading, or she’s daft. The document is deeply contentious and goes to the heart of one of the biggest public policy debates of the last decade. Of course it’s political.

But what has been most interesting is the way that Triggs and others have responded to the avalanche of criticism that now threatens to envelop the commission.

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