The memorial service for Bill Leak at Sydney’s Town Hall on a grey and rainy day was a moving, entertaining, politically-charged and above all poignant event. For the family, the presence of three prime ministers was a fitting indication of the high esteem mainstream Australia has for its larrikin artists and truth-tellers. The presence of Barry Humphries served to underline this point. Only just managing to disguise his alter-egos, Mr Humphries delighted the audience with spontaneous Edna-esque quips, and a touch of Sandy Stone, whilst getting to the heart of the 18C matter: that Australia, in his words, is not safe for artists.
The Australian’s two Pauls, Kelly and Whittaker, delivered excellent speeches on Leak the man, and on 18C politics, whilst fellow cartoonist Warren Brown told an hilarious, rollicking (and off the cuff) tale of his adventures with a young Bill struggling to get a giant portrait to the Archibalds in time – in the back of a refrigerated meat truck. Then came the incredibly moving stories of Bill the father from his two talented sons, Johannes and Jasper.
Whether it was the tears, the anger, the love or the laughter that pricked Malcolm Turnbull, the memorial service appears to have had a galvanising effect upon our Prime Minister. To the delight (and trepidation) of all who have fought so hard for the repeal or amendment of the insidious section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government announced this week plans to finally act on this stain upon our democratic and enlightened values.
‘18C has lost its credibility!’ thundered Mr Turnbull passionately in Question Time, in what was his finest day yet in the top job. The press conference beforehand with Attorney-General (and Speccie contributor) George Brandis was a powerhouse of principle and persuasion. As Mr Turnbull made clear, echoing the sentiments of Mr Humphries, a law that silences our creative people, or our students, by forcing them to constantly look over their shoulder in fear of the hand of authoritarianism has no place in Australia.
Much of the ‘sell’ of the 18C amendments relies on the credibility of the concept of ‘harassment’ being a more serious misdemeanour that the unlamented ‘offend’, ‘insult’, and ‘humiliate’. Critical to this is the notion that the latter are all subjective terms – basically hurt feelings – whilst the former surely requires an objective assessment of intent and possibly even repeat behaviour from the alleged perpetrator. Whether that is the case remains to be seen.
Speccie columnist and staunch free speech advocate Brendan O’Neill is reasonably positive about the new proposals, but sounds a warning: ‘I think these proposals are pretty good, better than expected. I’m very worried about the addition of the word “harass” though. In the British legal context at least that word has become incredibly flabby in recent years, and basically means meanness or extreme offending. It’s possible harass will play the same role as offend, and then we’ll be back to square one. So, vigilance is still required! And of course this all still accepts the idea that agents of the state have a role to play in the realm of thought and speech. That idea hasn’t been defeated yet, and it must be.’
The Speccie’s James Allan is also cautiously optimistic: ‘If this is the package, it’s not bad. So long as the Libs refuse to bargain down and reject some craven reinsertion of “humiliate” when dealing with Xenophon or other Senate types and go to the wall for this package, I’d support it as a big improvement. Not as good as full repeal, but clearly a better state of affairs for free speech. It would be better to take the HRC wholly out of the picture. But better than I expected. B, or maybe a B+.’
Or as our columnist Gary Johns wryly puts it: ‘Good enough to kill one part of the grievance industry, good enough to restore some of Malcolm’s standing, good enough to “out” some of the very wet and weak “liberals”…’
But it is James Allan who, again, pings the biggest warning: ‘I can’t live with “humiliate” going back in. I have yet to find anyone who can tell me what the difference is between being humiliated (a subjective sense of unhappiness with what was said) and being offended – or insulted for that matter. You can’t put a piece of paper between them and Ms Triggs et al could surely do just fine with “humiliate”. That goes back in and this is pretty much worthless in my view.’
Over to you, Prime Minister. Stick to your guns, for Bill’s sake.