First published March 27
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honour, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” Joseph Heller Catch 22
“Bat poo crazy”, sneers loyal Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. “Just plain stupid. Just plain dumb.”
A dab hand at restoring sanity to the national conversation, Joyce takes time out from urging the export of edible donkey skins to China, the next big thing logically, now returns on iron ore and coal are down a bit, to jeer at Pauline Hanson for her call, Friday, for ‘Straya to be “vaccinated against Muslims”.
The 18C law is an ass. Imagine if Putinista Pauline and other Islamophobes could say what they really think. Yet Barnaby’s Hanson slap-down applies equally to his PM’s own bat-shit maniacal mission to drop energy, budget preparation – everything – to make Australia bigly bigot-friendly this week.
Nothing special is required. No trick. All you need to turn hate speech into free speech is no character.
Turnbull sucks up to the 18C brigade. Next he’ll be rewriting the national anthem: “Australians, all let us rejoice in our dem-o-cracy. O-ffend, in-sult, hu-mil-iate; for these deeds make us free.”
Mad as a March Hare, the PM darts about the national stage. A lot of shouting is involved. He exceeds even his Shorten-bashing, in forsaking decorum. And it works. Sort of. It impresses the odd critic.
Mark Kenny, National Affairs Editor for Fairfax, writes inscrutably of a “growing sense around the halls of power that Malcolm Turnbull is finally starting to get somewhere.”
All week, Turnbull extols the nation-building virtues of racial vilification, the acid test of free speech.
... a retail politician who sold his soul to the National Party ...
It’s an extraordinary contortion even for a practised back-flipper, a retail politician who sold his soul to the National Party and who hasn’t looked back since. Or forward. Just sideways. But now he’s hydro-pumped. Free speech, he blows all week, is not just intrinsic to insult and injury, it’s a core Liberal value. Somehow he’s persuaded by his Snowy 2.0 propaganda that he’s nation builder and elder statesman.
“Our freedom of speech is the foundation of our great democracy that has caused people from every corner of the world to join ours, the most successful multicultural society in the world,” he honks loftily, rashly cramming three lies into one canard. Vapid, pretentious nonsense enchants him. Becomes him.
All week he pretends he doesn’t know that the Racial Discrimination Act’s section 18D protects freedom of speech. It goes down well. The Australian’s Paul Kelly and gang gush thousands of words in applause.
Turnbull’s performance reminds us free speech in Australia is a ruling class privilege. He intends to keep it that way. If he were serious about free speech for all, he’d repeal the secrecy provisions of section 42 of the Border Force Act 2015. These led the UN special rapporteur on human rights to abandon a planned visit to Australia that year. The Act would prevent workers from providing any information.
Free speech? Anyone is free to report on Nauru if Dutton approves of you and you can pay an $8000 fee.
If he were serious about protecting free speech, Turnbull would stop Centrelink divulging personal details of clients to silence those victims of Roboclaw extortion who dare criticise its operations.
He’d rescind his government’s permission for ASIO to trawl through journalists’ metadata to discern sources. He’d be outraged at the way the ABC, our national broadcaster, has had its independence destroyed through budget cuts and government interference. He’d recall Michelle Guthrie.
... defamation laws exploited by rich individuals ...
A government committed to free speech would establish a bill of rights to protect this inalienable human right, article 19 in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would reform our defamation laws exploited by rich individuals and corporations who successfully threaten to sue to silence critics.
It would repeal the 2014 law which allows the Attorney General to define a “special intelligence operation” making it a crime for journalists to report on the operation.
The government would also persuade to its cause State governments, who restrict free speech.
In 2014 the Tasmanian government enacted new anti-protest legislation to prevent anti-logging protesters from objecting to clear-felling of native forests in January 2016. Bob Brown has launched a High Court legal challenge. WA and NSW also have laws to muzzle protesters.
Beyond the law, there are countless informal ways freedom of speech is denied Australian people because of their colour, class or gender. Despite Turnbull’s week-long harangue – and partly because of it – our nation excludes the voices of those who do not belong to the dominant elite.
Of course he doesn’t want free speech for all. The PM’s performance is a stunt to divert an insatiable, rabid right wing. Yet the right will simply want more. Accordingly, Turnbull duly receives praise from Tony Abbott, another bumper sticker orator; Abbott knows an empty slogan when he hears one.
Yet Abbott, who’s busily alarming an adoring media about Victoria’s power crisis, ups the ante. He asks Turnbull to keep Hazelwood Power Station open until Snowy 2.0 starts pumping its hydro.
... another U-turn from his catastrophising over renewables ...
Turnbull quickly dismisses his rival’s latest mischief. It’s too expensive and unnecessary. He’ll put Abbott back in his box even if it means another U-turn from his catastrophising over renewables and his love of coal-fired power a week or so ago. At least the truth is out. He doesn’t seem to have told Josh Frydenberg.
Turnbull also will tackle 18C – something Abbott failed to do – even though it was on his IPA-led agenda. What the PM proposes, however, has nothing to do with free speech and everything to with appeasing a few old, white, ruling class warriors feeling hard done by who love to beef about being bound by law; men whose privilege and power mean they will never suffer vilification or discrimination.
Or be overlooked. In a virtuoso display of duplicity and indirection, the Coalition devotes all Tuesday to diluting section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, 1975, a section added in 1995 to make it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of a person’s race, colour or national or ethnic origin.
It’s a big back-flip. Leaving 18C alone was a Turbull campaign promise. He once told the IPA’s John Roskam “About 100 people care about 18C and there are about 16 million people on the electoral roll.”
The RDA helps the Australian Human Rights Commission, (AHRC) resolve conflict. Fewer than five per cent of complaints go to court. Yet critics claim fear of being dragged through court stifles free speech.
Never one to overshare, fearing leaks, or with his team plan still a work in progress, the PM neglects to mention the 18C changes he has planned when he addresses the full cabinet on Monday at 6:30pm. Oddly, MPs come to feel excluded; slighted. Those in electorates with large ethnic communities fear that the issue will lose them votes. Some would cross the floor if they thought it would save their seats.
Turnbull’s timing is impeccable: 21 March is Harmony Day and the International Day of Eliminating Racial Discrimination. Harmony Day, moreover, is a Howard invention, a day and a campaign dedicated to a truth self-evident to Howard’s band of reality deniers: racism could not possibly exist in Australia.
... his One Nation dogwhistling ...
There’s a hint of this self-delusion in the statement on multiculturalism which the PM releases. It’s been doctored a bit to ensure that migrants know they have to assimilate. It’s almost no trick at all. Greens leader, Richard di Natale, however, calls him out on it; his One Nation dogwhistling:
Di Natale nails it. New arrivals should adopt so-called “Australian” values?
“The new multiculturalism statement is an attack on multiculturalism,” Di Natale says in a statement.
Julian Leeser, David Coleman, Julia Banks, Russell Broadbent and Craig Laundy, oppose the proposed 18C re-wording. Only news that the law will go to the Senate first, where it will surely be lost, persuades them not to cross the floor.
The group’s dismay illustrates how the PM wooing of his right wing is alienating the middle. It remains to be seen if the right will be appeased by a process where the new bill is set up to be lost in the Senate. It’s too tricky by half.
A snap Senate inquiry Friday by the legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee, to report back by Tuesday, is announced. Attorney General, George Brandis, whose previous reform proposals were ignored, has his submission quietly incorporated into Hansard. Also invited are the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Human Rights Law Centre and Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
The inquiry allows Liberal senator Ian Macdonald to continue his bullying of the Commission’s President: “You’re here to answer questions, Professor Triggs, not to go off on a frolic of your own.” His belittling harassment of Triggs is a case study in freedom of speech at work in Senate committee.
Triggs has been pilloried and accused of political bias since her 2014 report on children in immigration detention centres, The Forgotten Children was critical of government policy. Attacks have been mounted in parliament and Triggs’ findings have been howled down in Newscorp media.
Media attacks include accusations about her personal life and a piece by Piers Akerman alleging that she was an unfit mother. It’s an insight into the real constraints on our freedom of speech which the Prime Minister’s rhetoric ignores, and an illustration of the cruelty inflicted by the Old White Male brigade.
Macdonald is a veteran of the Coalition’s long-running war on the Human Rights Commission, begun by Tony Abbott and capably assisted by George Brandis who has insulted and demeaned Triggs mercilessly. He chaired the committee which looked into her Forgotten People report but he didn’t bother to read it.
“I haven’t bothered to read the final report because I thought it was partisan,” he told the committee. It is an insult not only to Triggs but to the nation. Macdonald doesn’t get it.
“unfit to hold the office of Attorney-General”
In March 2015, the Senate passed a motion declaring Brandis “unfit to hold the office of Attorney-General” over the Government’s criticism of the Human Rights Commission president. As Penny Wong noted at the time, Brandis failed as AG not merely to defend the AHRC as an institution but he actually led the charge attacking Gillian Triggs on charges that her report on children in custody was political.
Somewhere in the excitement, MPs misrepresent the change as sanctioned by the AHRC itself. It’s not.
“It’s very, very clear that we do not approve the changes to the substantive provision of the [act],” Gillian Triggs, AHRC President says on Friday.
“The current language has worked extremely well.” Inserting the word “harass” instead is “curious”, “an entirely circular process” and “highly unsatisfactory”, she says.
The Coalition’s amendments include substituting “harass” for the words “insult and offend”, a weakening which the PM pretends will make the law stronger, clearer, fairer. Inserting a reasonable member of the community test will discount minority experience. It’s a disingenuous double-bluff.
In reality, the changes will weaken the law to “… give a free pass to ugly and damaging forms of racial vilification which do not satisfy the stringent legal criteria of harassment and intimidation”, say Greek, Armenian, Chinese, Indian, Aboriginal and Jewish communities in a signed statement to the PM.
Silence from the Kiwi migrant community, a whopping 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population, does not equal consent. New Zealanders, along with the South Sudanese report highest levels of discrimination in Australia, in a survey of 10,000 respondents, conducted by the Scanlon Foundation and Monash University and reported in August last year. Yet the Sudanese are twice as happy to be here.
It’s a report Zed Seselja, Minister for Multicultural Affairs, channelling John Howard “simply cannot understand”, exposing an inherent flaw in the “reasonable community member” test.
The Kiwi underclass is not asked to comment. Some may even be on Christmas Island awaiting deportation at Peter Dutton’s pleasure, courtesy of the character test an amendment to the Migration Act, of December 2014 which provides for mandatory cancellation of visas of anyone who has served a year in prison or who, “in the minister’s judgement” is a known associate of a criminal organisation.
... detainees report violence, abuse by guards ...
Our immigration detention centres now hold more New Zealanders than any other national group. Kiwis are often held in detention for months awaiting “processing” of their deportation or appeal. Cut off from families and legal support, detainees report violence, abuse by guards, and a lack of medical treatment.
The government has no hope of getting its bill through the Senate. At best, Turnbull’s bluff buys off bigots in his own party as well as those in the Murdoch press who deride his government for not making it easier for privileged white racists to abuse persecuted minorities. It is common knowledge now that 18C killed freedom fighter St Bill Leak, a racist cartoonist whom the PM has helped canonise.
“Political correctness did not silence Bill, any more than terrorists did, every cartoon he drew was an exercise of freedom.”
What the PM really hopes to do, however, is forestall a budgie smuggler putsch he fears is out to get him. Crazy? He’s read Catch 22. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Tactically, Turnbull’s batshit crazy; deluded. Every inch he yields, every capitulation he makes to his party’s right merely increases their demands and weakens his lame duck leadership of a government overwhelmed by such basic tasks as taking charge of its agenda. Yet after his cunning plan; his brilliant double dissolution disaster he lacks the political capital to defy his bullies.
Appeasing racists ought to be low down the list for a government with so much else that is pressing. It has yet to formulate a coherent energy or environment policy. It has yet to end Abbott era hangovers; zombie measures. It is racking up a massive deficit. It has no idea of what to do with the 854 asylum seekers on Manus Island once PNG closes the camp.
The refugee people-swap deal with an inept, crisis-ridden US administration appears flakier by the week.
Above all there’s the war on the poor, a crusade on behalf of the rich to cut up to $7700 per annum from the wages of our lowest paid earners by axing Sunday penalty rates, a move which The McKell Institute reports, accelerates the mass casualisation of the Australian workforce which is now spreading, inexorably, into other workplaces and occupations.
The PM cannot bring himself to publicly announce his support for the pay cuts on the floor of the house but finds ways to announce that he’s in favour of a decision which he blames on Labor and the FWC.
Turnbull’s 18C stunt demeans the work of the bipartisan parliamentary committee which recently advised against any change and is yet another offence against democratic process committed as this government and its predecessor have sought to abrogate power into the office of the Prime Minister.
Increasingly, as one wag puts it, what is good for the country is what is good for Malcolm Turnbull. His decision to devote himself to the repeal of a law he knows won’t get past the Senate has to be the ultimate in cynical political manoeovreing.
In the process, his attempt to puff his posturing into a stand on free speech is likely to backfire and illuminate the extent to which his government is the catspaw of mining, business and media groups who are motivated only by the narrowest short-term, self-interest.
The PM’s hollow rhetoric this week is no substitute for vision or policy or leadership but is instead the desperate posturing of a hollow man intent on appeasing his right wing critics at any price.
Turnbull’s attempt to dilute the RDA’s section 18C to save his political hide, under cover of a fog of lies about freedom of speech and high-sounding lies nonsense about our multiculturalism makes Barnaby Joyce’s edible donkey skin trade with China honest and virtuous, a tangible public good by contrast.
*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.