Think back to November of last year. It had become widely realised by the public that the so-called hate speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, sections 18C and 18D, were the legal basis on which some Queensland University of Technology students had been put through hell, and wholly unwarrantedly. Likewise the same section 18C had been the basis for the disgraceful pseudo-legal attack on cartoonist Bill Leak. Until then, many in the public saw only Andrew Bolt as a victim of 18C’s bizarre protection of those who feel they have been offended or insulted. Now it was three innocent uni students and a world famous cartoonist for a national newspaper.
If ever there were a time for a right of centre government to make a move against these anti-free speech legal provisions, then late last year was precisely that time. Virtually the whole of the Liberal party base, whether deserters at last July’s election or loyalists, was demanding action against these laws that struck at the heart of the Enlightenment commitment to freedom of expression, and indeed at the heart of the John Stuart Mill understanding of what has made Western civilisation so successful and special.
Yet rather than move late last year to enact legislation that repealed wholly or massively section 18C and then put it to the Senate to ‘make our day’ (do we hear ‘best double dissolution trigger ever’?), the Turnbull Coalition government opted to try to paper over the yawning divide within the party room of the Liberal Party by passing the question of changing 18C over to a joint parliamentary committee. This magazine was at the time incredibly sceptical of such a move. All of the usual left-wing human rights groups – virtually all of whom live off public funding – would come out of the woodwork and make a multitude of submissions in favour of the speech-limiting status quo. The four Labor and one Greens committee members would never budge on 18C. And of the five Liberal committee members, it was plain from the public record that even some of them, so-called Liberals, opposed any weakening of 18C (forget an outright repeal). This looked a lot like some sort of Yes Minister – type ploy to take this issue off the front pages.
Earlier this week, that joint parliamentary committee delivered its report. It was even worse than we had anticipated. The committee failed to recommend one single, solitary change to sections 18C or 18D. Not one. Instead, in so-called ‘Recommendation 3’, it merely listed options that had the support of ‘at least one member of the committee’.
These ranged from‘no changes to 18C or 18D’ to ‘remove “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” and replace them with “harass”’, with others in between. Most of the committee report focused on trying to fix up how the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) deals with complaints. We are supposed to believe that the government (the Coalition government) that only recently appointed Ed Santow – a man of the cultural left who has yet to say a word in support of the QUT kids or Bill Leak – to that same AHRC believes it can tinker with its procedures and all will be well. What rot!
Yet for this magazine, the most dispiriting aspect to this committee report is that no Liberal committee member put his or her name to which option they preferred. They hid behind this cheap procedural trick of ‘here are all the options that got any support at all’. At least the Australian Greens wrote a dissenting report and made plain their unbending support for 18C.
Let us be blunt. This report is such an enervated damp squib that even the four Labor members could sign up to it, with a few pages of ‘additional comments’ to fly the Labor brand. Meanwhile, the five Liberal members clearly are so split on this issue that they have been forced to try to disguise their internal differences with the old ‘here is a range of our beliefs, we can’t agree or bridge the yawning chasm that lies between us, so we’ll just list the possibilities’.
As we predicted: what a waste of time (and more so again of taxpayer money)! It now goes back to Prime Minister Turnbull and his Cabinet to make a call. Yet on the morning of the report’s release, Deputy PM and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was already signalling the sell-out by telling the public that his rural-based constituents have other concerns and never raise 18C. And Scott Morrison next day was intoning that ‘freedom of speech doesn’t create one job’. Right on cue, in chimes Pauline Hanson with an emphatic ‘free speech matters and One Nation will repeal all of 18C’.
There are some things in life that count as deep mysteries – how the universe came into being or how Lennon and McCartney wrote so many hit songs, perhaps. What does not count as a mystery is why the Liberal Party in Australia is haemorrhaging supporters.