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Free Speech Monday in Australian Politics

Monday, after the early morning victory by Jamaican runner Usain Bolt and aside from the other action that has been and has continued to occur in England has been pretty much all about freedom of speech. The discussion about free speech today arose from a speech that Tony Abbott made to the right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. The Opposition Leader’s speech took on the topic of free speech from two separate, but linked directions.

In one instance it was about regulation of the media in general as far as government plans post-Finkelstein and Convergence Review. Those changes proposed in both inquiries would seek to place unwanted and unnecessary restrictions on our media in the future, stifling their ability to provide fearless criticism of dreadful governments of both political persuasions.

The second front in which freedom of speech was tackled was in relation to the recent Andrew Bolt racial villification case and the appropriateness or otherwise of having a Racial Discrimination Act with a very loose definition of wrongdoing. Section 18C of the Act was singled out for treatment. The broader narrative of the talk on free speech was also applied to the case of Andrew Bolt.

Among the proposals advocated for in the recent Finkelstein and Convergence Review’s are a News Media Council which would be a new regulatory body to oversee media outlets and an ownership test.

By far the most worrying recommendation and one that is reportedly being seriously considered is a public interest test on media stories. This would be an horrific encroachment of the government into regulating what kinds of stories a particular news outlet would be able to report on. No government should be able to determine what is news or otherwise, whether that be by direct government oversight or by legislation with an intent to limit the content journalists can put out. Access to a wide array of information from a variety of sources is extremely important.

As for a new regulatory body, well that too is problematic. Surely any new organisation proposed to oversee the media would have much more beefed up powers to punish certain perceived wrongs. This again is not a sensible move in seeking to make it difficult for a robust and diverse media to be frank and fearless in their reporting and commentary on particularly thorny issues.

An ownership test is just ridiculous. Anyone, from any background should be free to engage in journalism or commentary and equally should be freely available to criticism from others. Everyone should be free to take the entrepreneurial risk involved in establishing a news media company across all forms of communication. No government too should have the power to ever be able to say who can or cannot involve themselves in journalism and commentary because they might not be liked by that particular government for some reason or other.

But now to that more controversial aspect of Mr Abbott’s speech today and that was his announcement that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to repeal s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This section of the Racial Discrimination Act deals with behaviour which is deemed to have offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated someone based on their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

This is likely to be an uncomfortable move for many with the Act in one way or another, despite the suspension of it during the Northern Territory intervention, having some level of bipartisan support or at least a political unwillingness of either side to touch it. That is until now.

But Mr Abbott did not advocate for there to be no law in the area of racial discrimination. Indeed he went on to say in his speech to the IPA that “any prohibitions on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups should be akin to the ancient common law offences of incitement and causing fear.”

In advocating this stance the Opposition Leader did not say or imply that Andrew Bolt in writing the offending column he penned was right with what he said. Indeed Tony Abbott acknowledged that it was “almost certainly not his finest” and he also admitted “there may have been some factual errors.” Well it’s not a case of there possibly being factual errors in Bolt’s writing, there was, but as Mr Abbott has pointed out on numerous occasions, that is not the point.

Indeed with the Bolt case, you’ll find a number of people born early in the 20th century, even since then that have the wrong impression on various aspects of the indigenous issue, but should they all be subject to court action for holding fallacious views? No. Should they be corrected upon making such silly uninformed claims? Certainly, yes.

Just as someone should be free to say what they truly feel, providing it doesn’t incite hatred or cause fear, people who disagree with something should feel able to absolutely slam and demolish something which they disagree with and believe may have serious factual errors. Politics is about competing ideas. This is also something that the leader of the Opposition acknowledged.

Just as there is a case for only offences relating to incitement and causing fear, there is also a case for a much higher threshold test than the completely subjective one that exists under s18C of the current Racial Discrimination Act. This would be sensible middle ground whilst still allowing people to seek remedy within reason. Indeed it would be quite similar to the Abbott proposal today.

The most important thing is that our rights are at the very least not limited to unreasonable extremes and at absolute best, our freedom of speech is fully guaranteed save for when it causes incitement and fear.

That was free speech Monday.

Consistency on Rights Please

The Newman Government in Queensland is less than two months old, but already the hysterical claims of a return to the Bjelke-Petersen era have emerged. These loopy claims started just days a matter of a week or two before the election, when it became clear a landslide was on the cards, which did eventuate and was above and beyond the expectations of just about anyone, serious pundit or not.

Alas, these claims have again been unearthed over the last 24 hours with a furore over a tent embassy, this time in a Brisbane park- it’s certainly been quite a year for those types of establishments/protests.

The tent embassy, based in Musgrave Park has been established for just a couple of months and was began as a protest for the sovereign rights of the indigenous people

Today, Queensland Police were dispatched to the park in West End to evict the demonstrators who ignored an eviction order that was put forward by Brisbane City Council ahead of the Greek Panyiri Festival which has regularly been held in the same park that the protesters have occupied.

It is unclear what stance both parties are taking over the matter, the protest group and the festival organisers, with conflicting claims being aired over whether or not the Panyiri Festival administration were happy for the indigenous protesters to remain in the park while the festival goes ahead this weekend.

Like the protest on Australia Day, the demonstration, this time involving a short-term protest, compared to the decades long Tent Embassy in Canberra raises some questions about rights in Australia and whether or not they are or should be limited.

But first to the hilarious claims of a return to Bjelke-Petersen era politics in Queensland. This is utterly ridiculous and should be laughed at. In the Bjelke-Petersen era protesters were barely even allowed to organise before they found themselves the victims of completely abhorrent laws that were so draconian that Queensland, because of its history, has a terrible reputation around rights and freedoms.

Why are the claims of a return to the dark days of the Bjelke-Petersen era ridiculous in this case you ask? Well that has a lot to do with the fact that protesters in this case were free to commence their protest and have been allowed to since March. The protesters were also able to march on parliament, a n0-no under Sir Joh that would’ve attracted arrest.

What is different about this protest is that an eviction order was issued by the Brisbane City Council and this was flouted, regardless of what you think of the rights or wrongs of the lawful direction asking people to move on from the park facilities. Those involved defied those orders, again whether or not they are right or wrong.

This then still raises the question of whether or not rights should be limited.

We have found, particularly in recent years that freedom of speech in this country, an implied, not legally or constitutionally expressed right does have its limits and is at the whim of a subjective test in the courts.

There are many people that have supported the limited right to freedom of speech that we have in this nation. In this stand-off today, what we have are the same people who supported limiting freedom of speech, protesting against a limited right to freedom of assembly.

What this debate requires is some consistency across all fundamental human rights, whether they have been expressed in law or have been implied. If one right is limited, then we should not be surprised if others are too and should allow all to have limitations.

However, rights and freedoms should ideally be absolute or, where practically possible, with little or no limitation which impedes the rights and freedoms of the individual.

One right should not take precedence over, or be held to a different standard as other basic rights and freedoms accorded to the individual in a democracy. Can we please have some consistency on rights across all groups please?

 

Why Oh Why a Media Inquiry?

As you may well be aware, the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation chaired by Ray Finkelstein QC and supported by Doctor Matthew Ricketson begins hearings tomorrow in Melbourne. The inquiry will chiefly look into the issue of ownership and privacy, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. However, there is also the scope for the inquiry to look into the issue of content, particularly as it applies in relation to the regulations of the Australian Press Council. The question becomes: Is all this inquiry necessary in Australia?Approximately 70% of the Australian print media is said to be controlled by one media outlet, News Limited, owned by Rupert Murdoch, for some raising the question: Should there be more balanced ownership of the media in Australia?

The answer to this question is quite simple and lies embedded in the ideology of choice. In other words, any company, large or small are welcome to seek capital and enter the newspaper market. There are no stumbling blocks to entry in the market for print media, nor should there be. Any individual or company should and must have the opportunity and choice in a free society to print a newspaper.

In response to this fact about ownership percentage, a quota must not and should never be the answer. Freedom of speech and opinion and free market ideology should prevail when it comes to the ‘Fourth Estate’. A quota would mean an artificial cut-back in already existing business for existing outlets. The market should have the ability to decide what share any individual outlet has. A quota would in some way stifle the individual’s right to what he or she produces and/or reads.

There is also in Australia a contest between what should be labelled ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ from all media outlets, print and otherwise. It would be ideal if ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ were made more distinct in any individual newspaper. This is perhaps the only area of media in which stronger regulation is required, as long as it does not put the media on the ‘slippery slope’ where newspapers do not feel able have an opinion of their own. Surely there is nothing wrong with different op-ed’s in a free press stating a clearly distinguished from fact and opinion?

The next thing to say is that newspapers follow public opinion in regards to the opinions they express in their writing. Media outlets like all businesses are appealing to a specific market which has been pre-identified. It really is that simple, if there was not a market for a certain angle in opinion pieces then respective leadership levels would not exist.

The media inquiry will begin in earnest tomorrow with public hearings commencing in Melbourne and it will be interesting to see as the inquiry begins to progress and then goes beyond recommendations, just how much the media landscape will evolve. At the moment it looks as if we may be headed towards broader and greater regulation of our reporting institutions. The answer to my initial question is self-evident, much of what I argue can be achieved without the need for a media inquiry as it requires little or no government action, but the blinkers are on.

The Report on Bolt and Its Implications

Yesterday, as you should be aware, Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun was found guilty of racially vilifying a group of indigenous Australians in the newspaper. The articles argued that the complainants used their aboriginality to gain employment. The case has been controversial not just for what was said, but also the potential implications of the guilty verdict, for the media and perhaps even for the broader public.

First of all I would like to say that I do not agree with what Andrew Bolt said in the article in relation to the identified group. I think it was incredibly stupid and perhaps misinformed at best. There is a perfectly good reason for what is called ‘positive discrimination’ at times in society, particularly when such striking disadvantage exists between indigenous Australia and the rest of the population. At the same time I do believe that merit is the most important feature in employment and as long as educational opportunities exist for all, then a culture largely based on merit should prevail.

Second, I must point out that freedom of speech is not a right enshrined into our Constitution or our laws. It is however, implied through our common law, but this perhaps is not strong enough in the face of the court result yesterday.

It is quite ironic, that a Bill of Rights, which Andrew Bolt spoke against, could have possibly saved him from losing this case. A Bill of Rights would do no more than provide for the most basic and fundamental of human rights, including freedom of speech to be enshrined in law more forcefully. Yes it could be changed by an Act of Parliament and if put to Constitutional referendum would likely result in failure.

I cast no aspersions on the court for the decision that was made. It was obviously made with due regard to existing legislation and common law. What the decision, in my opinion does is to make it harder for people to voice an opinion on racial based issues, in print, on the airwaves and online. Furthermore, I am concerned as to the implications it has for private citizens, if any (I am not a lawyer).

Whether or not you agree with what Andrew Bolt said, if you believe in free speech you should accept his ability to voice an opinion that is not hateful. A Bill of Rights should now be discussed more openly and as a matter of priority, not to usurp anyone, but to guarantee the fundamental human rights of all. Allow opinions to be be aired and leave it to bodies such as ACMA and the Press Council to decide whether or not it is based on fact or not. As Voltaire said ‘I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. I hold this to be true insofar as the speech involved is not hateful, inflammatory or discriminatory.

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