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Coalition’s backdown on repeal of section 18c is shameful

By James Allan - posted Thursday, 11 September 2014

Consider the following two quotations.

At least one basic teaching of true liberalism is that the essential right of free people is the right to offend, and an essential responsibility of free people is to learn how to cope with being offended … No consequential idea ever failed to offend someone; no consequential person was ever spared great offence.(Bret ­Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 19.)

People have a right to be bigots you know … In a free country people have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted. (George Brandis, Senate, March 24.)


As readers will well know, the latter words caused all sorts of uproar among opposition politicians, among most of the Human Rights Commission (that body that ought to be wound up tomorrow for its reekingly partisan agenda), among whole swathes of the bien pensants in "our" ABC, and with some members of "Team Australia" who don't seem to have received the memo that they are part of the team.

But notice that both quotes are actually saying pretty much exact­ly the same thing. Isn't it embarrassing to live in a country where Brandis's words are seen as an own goal; where stating the blunt truth about free speech - that it's a concept about protecting people to say things that others don't want to hear - is one of the grounds on which a government caves in, on what is in fact a modest repeal of an awful piece of legislation.

It gets worse. I was speaking recently to a government backbencher. It quickly became apparent that this MP had been one of those not in favour of proceeding with the section 18C repeal. But you know what? This MP didn't even know that Canada's parliament had repealed the Canadian equivalent of our s18C hate speech laws. He didn't have a clue.

When I rhetorically asked him if the social fabric of Canada had unwoven as a result, he had nothing to say. Zero. So in selling the repeal to caucus it would seem that no one had taken the time to point out that they'd done this in Canada? You might think that was a relevant point to make.

Or forget principle and ask yourself why a political party that has at most one seat at risk from the dislike of the "ethnic vote" of a s18C repeal would weigh that as more important than the supposedly core beliefs of the Liberal Party and its longstanding supporters. You know, things such as the party's claimed commitment to free speech.

Who in the Abbott high command thinks it's a better long-term political bet to go with the various special interest groups who favour a "you can't offend or humiliate anyone in this country" outcome than it is to go with the Liberal Party's core supporters' preferences? One feels like yell­ing: "My kingdom for a right-of-centre politician with a backbone!"


Another thing in the whole s18C Vichy-like performance was the lack of any of the big beasts in cabinet resigning in protest. Brandis toured the country for at least two years before the election last year, telling everyone that free speech was a core matter of principle for him and that he wanted to be remembered as the free speech attorney-general.

Yet when he's rolled he can't even summon up the will to resign and move to the backbench? And not a single other cabinet minister resigns? Why did these people go into politics in the first place?

Having said that, the awful ­reality is the Labor Party is worse than the Coalition on free speech.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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