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.
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.