LNP notions of "Freedom of speech" are laughable, not laudable

By | 2012/08/06

Today the media made much brouhaha over a speech given by Tony Abbott to the Institute of Public Affairs relating to freedom of speech in Australia. Tony, you see, wants to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination act, which, to quote Tony:

“Prohibits statements that ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ another person or a group of people on the grounds of ethnicity.”

In his speech, Tony states:

Freedom of speech is an essential foundation of democracy. Without free speech, free debate is impossible and, without free debate, the democratic process cannot work properly nor can misgovernment and corruption be fully exposed. Freedom of speech is part of the compact between citizen and society on which democratic government rests. A threat to citizens’ freedom of speech is more than an error of political judgment. It reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the give and take between government and citizen on which a peaceful and harmonious society is based.

He goes on to say:

It’s human nature, of course, to support free speech as long as it’s agreeable. The trouble is deciding which opinions can be censored. The danger is that a government that can censor a free press is quite capable of censoring a free people.

Tony Abbott and the Australian LNP, champions of Freedom of Speech!

Well, until you look at the history of the LNP under John Howard. July 30, 2003, Laura Tingle writing for the Australian Financial Review, stated:

Charities and church groups that criticise government policy could lose their tax-free status under draft legislation released by federal Treasurer Peter Costello.

Treasurer plans gag on charities“, AFR.

Margo Kingston, in “Not Happy John”, summarised it thusly:

Thirtieth July 2003 heart-starter: the Fin Review’s political correspondent Laura Tingle reports that Peter Costello will cancel the tax deductability of donations to, and the tax concessions of, charities whose core activities include ‘attempting to change the law or government policy’.

Not Happy John, ISBN 0-14-300258-9, Penguin Publishing, 2004, page 260.

It seems somewhat difficult to reconcile a LNP call for enhanced freedom of speech in Australia with drafted legislation designed emphatically to rob charities of their voice in Australia.

Perhaps Tony wasn’t thinking of charities when he was making his speech today about Freedom of Speech. Indeed, he seemed to especially single out poor Andrew Bolt (of whom was found guilty of breaching code 18C of the racial vilification act last year), and poor Alan Jones, saying:

Especially in the hands of the current government, any new watchdog could become a political correctness enforcement agency destined to suppress inconvenient truths and to hound from the media people whose opinions might rattle Phillip Adams’ listeners. It’s easy to imagine the fate of Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones, for instance, at the hands of such thought police. Their demise, you understand, wouldn’t be because the government didn’t like them but because they’d persistently breached “standards”.

It seems we must be quite careful to protect the speech of such important men. After all, the great Alan Jones said of the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard:

It is absolutely laughable. The woman’s off her tree and quite frankly they should shove her and Bob Brown in a chaff bag and take them as far out to sea as they can and tell them to swim home.

Media Watch, “Alan Jones’ chaff bag is filling up fast“, 23-07-2012.

Interestingly, Tony Abbott didn’t appear all that interested in protecting freedom of speech on around 23 October 2003, when President Hu of China visited and spoke to the Australian Parliament. In “Not Happy John”, Margo Kingston wrote:

“[Speaker Neil] Andrew defies the rules of the joint meeting agreed to by the Parliament for 23 October, which decrees an immediate adjournment after President Bush’s speech to Parliament, and at Tony Abbott’s request suspends Greens senators Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle for twenty-four hours so they cannot attend the Hu speech in the chamber. The expulsion also breaches the chamber’s rules, which require that a vote be taken on expulsion if two or more people call out no to an expulsion order. (Several voices are clearly heard saying no.)”

“Not Happy John”, page 209.

Yet, Tony implied in his speech today that the LNP would never have stooped to censorship:

Imagine the reaction, for instance, had the Howard government sought to gag naval personnel after “children overboard”. It badly needs re-affirmation now because of the current government’s attempts to bully critics into silence.

It seems Tony is remarkably eager to rewrite history, and the media is all too happy to let him do it unchallenged. So consider then, the whole affair of “children overboard”, and SIEV-X, for that matter:

“the government was taking extraordinary steps to keep information about Operation Relex from the public. Even before detailed planning for the blockade began, Peter Reith had imposed far tighter control of information flowing from the military. The same day in early August that the National Security Committee of Cabinet began to look at a military option to deter people smuggling, Reith called [Admiral Chris] Barrie and the secretary of the Defence Department, Allan Hawke, to a meeting in his office. Reith put before them a sweeping plan to give his office control over the release of all military information to the public. Existing arrangements for the military to brief the press were hardly open and candid, but Reith’s new proposal amounted to a change of culture. The military would now have to clear all media releases with Reith’s press secretary, Ross Hampton. The military PR machine defined the new policy as ‘no surprises for the minster’s office’.

Dark Victory, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 1-86508-939-7, 2003. Pages 133-134.

Is this the same government Tony Abbott referred to in the “children overboard” example? Why yes, yes it is.

Also, we’re not necessarily convinced that the government did its utmost to avoid censoring information in the “children overboard” scandal; after all, it was all lumped together in that tumultuous time where the government accelerated the demonisation of asylum seekers. Referring to the “children overboard” scandal more specifically in chapter 15, “Truth Overboard”, Marr and Wilkinson wrote:

Banks had been deeply affected by the events of the previous 48 hours, and was extremely conscious of the survivors’ welfare … No doubt this was on his mind when he decided to take a call from Channel 10’s Elizabeth Bowdler … Banks described the extraordinary rescue to her in some detail. He would not be drawn on the question of children thrown into the sea, but he was especially keen to talk about the children on the Adelaide, including the three-week old baby still wrapped in a navy towel.

The interview was in clear breach of Banks’ orders under Operation Relex which barred all military officers from speaking to the media without clearance fro the Minister for Defence. He had also, in another breach of the Relex media rules, ‘humanised’ boat people. So when Channel 10 called Defence public relations in Canberra asking for the photos, alarm bells sounded … The minister’s office then demanded an explanation from Rear Admiral Ritchie, commander of Australian Theatre Operations.

Ibid, pages 194-195.

(As anyone aware of the sordid “children overboard” affair would know, the government went on to release photos that would seem to paint the asylum seekers as people willing to throw their own children into the sea to force the issue.)

I don’t trust Tony Abbott claiming to be a concerned about Freedom of Speech. I don’t trust him at all. His speech today, carefully crafted to make him appear to be a champion of the press, is not backed by credible examples of protection of freedom of speech by his party they last time they were in government. The evidence, in fact, would be quite the contrary. Indeed, despite Tony’s attempts to revise history, the Howard government did indeed attempt to control and manipulate the flow of information regarding the “children overboard” scandal.

Instead, Tony seems most concerned with actually protecting the utterers of statements that might, by a reasonable person, be read as hate speech. And let’s be frank: hate speech is not free. It has a devastating effect on those it is levelled at – it dehumanises and demeans them, and causes mental and physical trauma.