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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.

A Modest Proposal for Gun Control That Would Never Get Up

The latest gun massacre in the United States of America, this time in Aurora, Colorado has again sparked debate, within America and across the world about the sense or nonsense of the 2nd amendment right to bear arms. Twelve people were shot dead at a movie screening of The Dark Knight Rises and 58 further were injured by the gunman who burst into the cinema, let off teargas and began indiscriminately shooting at movie-goers.

The scenes of pandemonium that followed, including leaked mobile phone footage and the last tweets of some in the crowd will stick with people for a long time and must translate into at least some change in the gun laws.

Every year there are roughly 10,000 gun related murders in the United States of America out of a total number of murders close to 13,000 per annum. This is a truly horrifying statistic.

From the outset it is extremely important t0 acknowledge that no one “solution” to this incredibly difficult and fraught issue in US politics. Even a complete ban will not result in a massive reduction in gun-related deaths. People will do all they can to try and get their hands on firearms if they really want them and they will always exist in society.

There are two major problems that exist when thinking of gun crime. The first is that the right to bear arms applies to just about any weapon out there, in just about every state in the country. This access to an almost unlimited range of weapons includes some  capabilities that just about any military would be proud of being able to use.

The second major problem is that the ability to acquire weapons in most states in the USA is just way too easy and there are few checks and balances and the process to legally acquire a weapon is just too lax. There is just too little examination of people wanting to obtain a firearm, something that, while still a right, must be highly regulated.

While it is true that it is the person behind the weapon that does the damage, the damage done also has much to do with the types of guns that an American citizen has access to. Since when do everyday Americans need assault rifles and machine guns, even on properties used for farming? And tear gas? Please. Who on earth needs that? Nobody as yet over the years has been able to cogently explain and justify the need for the right to bear arms to translate into access to automatic and in most cases even semi-automatic firearms.

Gun laws, though regulated by the state, separate from the national constitutional right to bear arms need to be made more stringent, perhaps nationally consistent, though this may be constitutionally and politically impossible as any gun reform has proved to be so far.

So here’s a commonsense plan which would maintain the 2nd amendment rights of Americans, still keeping their right to possess such a deadly weapon while at the same time being realistic about the consequences of the more extreme weaponry around.

First, all states must at least ban access to all automatic weapons or guns that have the ability to operate automatically.

Second, access to semi-automatic weapons should at least be limited, though there should ideally be a strong presumption against people having or needing semi-automatic weapons.

A gun buy-back scheme, similar to the one instituted by the Howard Government after the Port Arthur massacre might be a way for honest citizens to hand over the automatic weapons that they frankly don’t need. Such a scheme would result in at least some of the weapons in circulation being taken out of the public and therefore away from the access of criminals.

As far as gun licensing and regulation goes, there should be a move to a stronger, more nationally consistent license and registration framework which takes into account the individual circumstances of applicants and makes purchasing a firearm a lot harder than buying a fast food meal.

But we must be realistic about things when it comes to gun control in the USA. First, it will never happen. The NRA as a lobby group just holds too much sway. Also, the inability of politicians to budge on such a wide interpretation of the 2nd amendment has hamstrung the prospects of any significant crackdown.

At the same time too, we must also be realistic then even the greatest crackdown on weapons will not remove the devastating consequences of gun crime, various examples of this exist worldwide, but it can be restricted.

The fact that even such a modest proposal like this one would never get up is a real shame.

My Kind of Liberalism/Liberal Conservatism is Mixed with a Bit of Big Government

I would like to take the chance today to outline in a broad sense the kind of liberalism/liberal conservatism that I identify with personally and how that translates into my thoughts in different policy areas, be they economic or social.I fully expect to lose a number of followers in the hours after this post gets out as people discover that I am not quite as conservative as I thought I once was.

On economic policy I would consider myself to be strongly of the economic conservative faith, believing that, for the most part, government spending should be kept to a minimum. I also believe in trying to avoid deficit spending, a key facet of fiscal conservatism as well as lower taxes and deregulation of the economy.

In saying this, I do not believe that all government spending is evil and should be avoided, there are some areas where government should be spending, particularly in the area of providing public goods making me also by definition a fan of the theory of economic liberalism.

Although both of these theories argue for limited government intervention in economic decision making and regulation, I do believe it is a political reality that there is and needs to be some level of limited regulation in the economy that provides some kind of protection to the individual. In saying this I, do not believe that regulation needs to be drastically added to, on the contrary, I think in many areas that regulations can and should be eased.

On social issues I consider myself to be a bit of a mixed bag again, combining some social conservatism with social liberalism, though I think that the latter is the predominate issue in my thoughts on social policy.

I firmly believe as social conservatives do, that the family is one of the most important institutions that exist in society along with the courts and other bodies that have long been a foundation of western society and our beliefs.

Where I differ with social conservatives  and where my social liberalism comes in is a firm belief in basic human rights, including freedom of speech, that have for a long time been an important and essential consideration in policy and political discussion.

While I believe that the family is an essential institution, I do not believe, like many social conservatives seem to, that the family is under threat from gay marriage. It is a ridiculous claim in my view, to assert that the family would be impacted in a detrimental way if same sex marriage were to become law in Australia. The family will continue to exist after this inevitable change is made and in any case is more under threat from the incredibly high levels of divorce in many western nations.

There are also areas of social policy where I would also consider myself at times to be a fan of a big government approach. The biggest of those would be disability policy.

I am a firm supporter of the Gillard Government policy of a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) providing that it allows individuals to exercise their own free choice of which particular service or services they need to or choose to access which is best suited to their own individual needs and is not overly influenced by any healthcare practitioner or government regulation.

I also believe that the government needs to step in to strictly regulate areas which impede equality of access for people with a disability that destroy the ability of those of us with a physical or intellectual impairment from participating fully in the day to day activities that any “able bod” is fully able to enjoy at any given time.

For me this means strict accessibility provisions imposed upon both government and private institutions to, wherever possible provide all reasonable access for people of different physical abilities in everyday life. This means widespread accessible transport, buildings and housing.

I therefore think, as I have stated before, that principles of ‘universal design’ ought to be mandated by government, to provide the 1 in 5 Australian’s with a disability and the rapidly ageing population ready access to new dwellings built to these strict construction guidelines.

Furthermore, guidelines for accessibility to buildings need to be much stricter than they are at present and both local and state governments need to stoke up the courage to deal with this important area.

On transport, I believe that all transport  provided by local or state government should be accessible for people whether they are in a wheelchair, on crutches or have a slight physical impairment. No particular group in the community should have to organise for a particular form of transport to be made available to them because they happen to have been born with a condition impacting their ability to move around freely.

On transport infrastructure, where possible, I believe that all possible efforts should be made to transform all possible facilities related to public transport into disability friendly ones. I concede that there is a possibility that, because of the surrounds of some particular transport infrastructure, that because of topography, accessibility may be an almost complete hindrance to accessibility.

Also on social policy, I believe in some form of freedom of movement and therefore am against the fear that conservatives seem to have toward asylum seekers. This by no means indicates that I think people movements should be completely unfettered, they should not. We do need as a nation to discourage, wherever possible the unsafe journeys that people fleeing persecution continue to make.

So let the accusations of me being a “leftie” begin to fly as they inevitably will after this becomes public knowledge, I’m prepared for it. But the simple fact is that I am in wide, almost complete agreement and most of my thoughts completely consistent with the principles which underpin liberal philosophy and that of the Liberal Party which also embraces conservative political ideas. So bring it on.

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