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The Right to Free Speech is Also A Responsibility

By Robert Wood 

Historians of tomorrow might look back at this moment and see it as a turning point, not only for the United States and the Global North but also in its peripheries. This week alone, there were three pieces of news in Australia that are noteworthy when read together. These were the Australian Federal Police raids on a public servant’s home; a fundraiser event for the government in the studio of a morning show; and a high profile lawyer’s warnings about changes to the proposed religious discrimination bill.[1] When it comes to politicians involved, we have to note the respective influence of the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and two of his high profile cabinet members. But, they are simple ciphers for a wider movement, which we can assume would have hoped that this news would fade into the fog of apathy. Australians could console themselves with sport, and, the feeling that if the world was falling apart that it was far worse elsewhere. In former Prime Minister John Howard’s phrase, people here just wanted to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’.[2]

Yet when we consider this news only a little, it does not bode well. To use the words of high-profile whistle-blower and current member of Parliament, Andrew Wilkie said four years ago, Australia is currently in a ‘pre-police state’.[3] That sense has only grown over the years and now it is at decibels we have not heard. At the very least, it suggests an attack on the right to free speech, which we take for granted here. The Australian government today is instituting a regime that inhibits free speech through police intimidation, big money donation, and insidious legislation. The AFP going through underwear drawers? Dinners for $10,000 a head? Passing hate speech laws when no-one is looking? These actions represent a government emboldened and radicalised. It is changing our very discourse and threatens our democracy just as Hong Kong loses its independence, just like Kashmiri citizens are blinded, and all while the Brazil forest is burning. This is a free speech issue, and, it is fits with the global trend.

Most local free speech proponents take this right as sacrosanct in and of itself. It is not. Like other rights, the right to free speech comes with responsibilities. The greatest responsibility includes opposing hate speech, and, this is what Arthur Moses was at pains to defend because of the proposed changes to 18C. The government’s changes would overturn protection from discrimination for the LGBTQI community by privileging religious views, and, one can muse that this is an outcome of the Israel Folau event and a groundswell of support from its rightward fringe. The responsibility of free speech also means protecting our media, including journalists and public servants that have a duty to inform the public, especially when there is a campaign of misinformation about national issues, especially on border security and defense. This is what matters when we think of Cameron Gill. And, it also means holding to account news corporations that would become propaganda machines as the government becomes more draconian everyday. In one of the world’s most concentrated media markets, it is worrying to see a television station auction off its space to the highest bidders and pretend to remain non-partisan. People are talking about this, particularly in regard to Rupert Murdoch’s political influence but this is not often seen through the lens of free speech.[4]

Free speech does not mean you forgo your responsibilities as a citizen. It does not mean you get to troll women. It does not mean you get to demean minorities. It does not mean you get to slander people that oppose your views. Or, even to peddle sensationalist and fake news because it benefits your shareholders. That we are left to defend these basic forms of responsible freedom of expression also takes us away from pressing issues that are ongoing and not intractable.

There are so many concerns in Australia, not least the rights of linguistic minorities. In this United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages, surely we should be talking about the lack of access to translators in court, the failure to provide materials in languages other than English in prisons, the fact that people are accidentally pleading guilty to charges simply because they do not have the capacity to understand legal language.[5] When we think of those issues, we think of our most vulnerable, and that is the responsibility of people who care about freedom of speech issues. The state has already marginalised and attacked those people, left them to rot far from public view. Now it has begun to shamelessly target ordinary people in Canberra suburbs, multicultural citizens and LGTBQI people, all while courting media corporations that should have a moral compass and only talk about ‘regrettable’ incidents without putting their money where their mouth is. What is next is anyone’s guess, but I for one do not want to find out, to remain relaxed and comfortable, consoled by sport and events elsewhere to convince us that life in Australia is just.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/sep/04/australian-federal-police-raid-home-of-commonwealth-official-in-canberra; https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/sep/04/religious-discrimination-bill-could-legalise-race-hate-speech-law-council-warns; https://www.smh.com.au/national/nine-s-liberal-fundraiser-is-a-serious-blemish-for-independent-journalism-20190904-p52nw4.html

[2] https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/essay/2005/08/relaxed-and-comfortable/extract

[3] http://andrewwilkie.org/pre-police-state-speech/

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/06/democracy-overboard-rupert-murdochs-long-war-on-australian-politics

[5] https://theconversation.com/the-english-only-nt-parliament-is-undermining-healthy-democracy-by-excluding-aboriginal-languages-105048; http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-27/aboriginal-defendants-pleading-guilty-by-accident/10129268; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-09/lawyers-missing-from-nt-bush-courts/10981920

Dr. Robert Wood is Chair of PEN Perth and Creative Director for the Centre for Stories. He was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in 2017-2018.

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6 comments

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  1. John Ward

    Leading up to the ‘1978 WRAN SLIDE’
    Royal Dutch Shell,(with Queens’ Elizabeth the 2nd of England and Queen Juliana of the Nederland) and in 1978 fifinanced the closure of refifining operations in both Shell at Granville and Caltex at Botany refifineries, with millions of dollars provided by the Royal Dutch Shell head office in ThThe Hague.
    ThThe Dutch were attempting to destroy the fifirst term Wran Government (which had refused to permit a rise in the price of petrol), by provoking an industrial dispute and forcing a strike by the FEDFA and the AWU. ThThis led to the shutting down of the Granville refifinery.
    Shell Corporate Headquarters in ThThe Hague, also paid the projected operating losses for Caltex to shut down the Kurnell refifinery. ThThis joint action by two international corporations was designed to have the soveriegn NSW Labor Government go to the polls with the voting population totally off side, having empty petrol tanks.
    At this time, I was a part-time union secretary but still a middle manager working for Shell and was therefore privy to the management briefifings of all salaried officers in the staff canteen where Shell outlined their strategy and tactics.
    ThThese bastards; were going to interfere in my country to bring down a democratically elected government.
    Accordingly, I became angry to pass all this detail onto Barry Unsworth who was Secretary of the Labor Council of NSW at the time, in Sussex Street.
    I spent the next two weeks sitting in the adjoining, room next to his Ministerial Office with another member of my union named Albert H*****n providing the NSW Minister for Industrial Relations Pat Hills, with answers each time the Shell managers tried to prolong the stoppage they had deliberately provoked.
    ThThe workers voted to go back to work after their union secretary Jack Cambourne, alerted them to what the game was. Once they returned to work “ready willing and able to take up their duties”. Management told them to stay in the meal rooms until called, but not to start up any plant.
    ThThe management then ordered key parts of the refifinery dismantled. ThThe Government used its authority to order them to reverse that process. ThThe corporation raised ‘technical matters’ and the government rebutted those with answers provided by Shell’s own salaried employees in the next room (unknown to Shell). ThThese employees had the knowledge and skills to start up and shut down refifineries all around the world (a complex and difficult process taking days) as the need arose.
    Shell fifinally ordered operators to deliberately poison huge tanks of fuel with far too much Tetra Ethyl Lead. ThThat should have been a crime deserving jail time.
    To make sure the refifinery would stay off-line, the corporation had arranged to import a workforce of 700 South Korean construction workers who normally worked as refifinery task force in the Arab oil countries under supervision of armed staff. ThThe AMWU led an industrial dispute objecting to these workers coming into the country via New Zealand on tourist visas to circumvent immigration laws. ThThe Koreans were housed in Wollongong and bussed up to the refifinery early one morning in a military style operation.
    ThThe proverbial then hit the fan.
    ThThe Labor Council called an emergency meeting in its Sussex St Board room chaired by Barry Unsworth. ThThis meeting of all affected unions also included the Australian Government Immigration Minister Ian McPhee. To his credit he came and listened to people’s concerns without putting any politics into the mix.
    However, Barry Unsworth gave him a bit of a harangue when Ian McPhee read a report from his department claiming “ThThere are only 70 South Korean tradesmen registered with the department with special visas to do this type of work”, to which Barry retorted, “Well we have something like

    700 out there at Granville refifinery, there is something wrong in your department”. He went on to say in an exasperated tone, “If people are able to come in under the radar like this, pretty soon we’ll have drugs, stand-over merchants, corruption and prostitution all over Sydney”.
    I joked from the other end of the table “But Barry, that’s how we got the country started”. Other representatives around the table had a chuckle, but Barry was not amused. He pulled me to one side after the meeting and said roughly, “what was that? ThThe empire striking ******* back?”
    I liked Unsworth in lots of ways in those days, because he allowed the mongrel in him to be on display and he pushed the agenda of working people without let. Later, when he was Premier, his minders had him take on a softer face, had him wear a cardigan and the voters saw this as false. He should have stuck to being a driven leader and the bastard he often showed when he was the Trade Union leader.
    ThThe next day, when Unsworth (a good Catholic) came to the refifinery on an inspection with the NSW Industrial Arbitration Commission relating to the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union dispute, he asked me about the contents of the huge petrol storage tanks. He said, “ Shell is telling Pat Hills that they don’t have petrol available for sale, so these tanks must be empty, right?”
    I informed him that the tanks were full of perfectly good ’On Grade’ petrol, that had been deliberately poisoned the night before with lead to make it illegal and therefore impossible to distribute this so called, ’country petrol’ as fuel in urban environments under the State Governments health regulations. I thought Barry was going to have a stroke, he was absolutely livid.
    ThThat was when Pat Hills issued an emergency order to Shell to put ‘country petrol’ onto Sydney streets, and fuel began to flflow after an historic, internationally inspired, two week corporate strike. Royal Dutch Shell (Queen Elisabeth the second And Queen Juliana of the Netherlands sitting on the board) fifinally caved in when it became apparent to them that the population was awake to their dirty deeds.Knowing the lengths an international corporation will go to, the voters delivered their verdict and returned the Wran government for a second term, in what was to become known as a ’Wran slide’.
    Labor under Neville Wran winning the Earl wood by-election in 1978, in his fifirst term, defeating the political aspirations of the Liberal candidate one Alan Jones.
    We should never be bluffed or coerced by these corporate psychopathic bullies. ThThese large corporations will always get their pound of flflesh. To quote the late Joh Bjelke Petersen “don’t you worry about that”.
    ThThe same Corporations are now pulling out of Australia, leaving us in extreme jeopardy if war breaks out. ThThese are the same Corporations who fifinance the Liberal Party, the climate change deniers and Prime Minister Abbott’s attack on the conservation movement, I hope you now understand the real world truths we are dealing with. ThThe corporate Personhood that created these relationships have no interest in being LNP mates.ThThe reality is they simply make or dismiss conservative governments only as long as they ‘behave,’ if a Labor Government moves too far to the left the will go out in disfavour.Corporations hate the unions because they stand up and resist the harm being done the LNP and the National rump carry out their master’s wishes, ThThey cannot afford to have the rabble at the gate realise what power the working women and men have when they unite in common cause. ThThis is why women still don’t get equal pay. Imagine the spending power and the circulation of more cash and more taxes paid if wages were paid on Skills, Knowledge and Competency. Don’t forget the ‘Job’ was only invented 150 or so years ago. Many women are actually more skilled and capable than their male counterparts we have to look after each other. ThThese private school boys are content when the rifts and resentments are obvious in the work force. stop playing into their hands.
    A majority vote does not necessarily mean rule by the people. What we do have is elections once every three years and “democracy” one day every three years. We are told if you don’t like what we do, then throw us out in three years. No input in between so called elections.

    ThThis last election was so deadly boring for six years of Abbott campaigning, that of 14 million eligible voters, 400,000 failed to register. 1 million registered voters, voted informal (a record).
    Finally, and signifificantly the registered youth voters almost militantly did not vote. ThTheir numbers were 2 million! So more than 25% of the electorate surrendered in apathy their right to use their vote, in the once every three-year chance at least to express their right to be heard.
    Abbott won on AAA of Apathy. Look at the result.
    AND it is happening again this time. ThThe Liberals are playing at being stiffly boring, the cunning swine.
    When you combine the ruthlessness of Oil Corporations with the self-serving, corrupt and criminal behaviour of the former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. ThThe way Australia spied on the Timorese Government, for their masters in the Oil Industry. ThThen set international boundaries to steal Oil fifields from that impoverished tiny nation we allowed that behaviour by our Government. We should repair the damage at the soonest opportunity.you can see we owe Timor Leste a debt of honour, for their unflflinching support of us as the Japanese came for us. ThThe confounding, absence of scolding, when they were brutally occupied for 25 years while we looked the other way. It was, if you remember, the people who clamoured for action until we forced John Howard, to act with President Clinton standing slightly back and holding our coats for us.
    John Ward
    johnlward010@gmail.com
    03 62921211 20 Grosse Road Gordon Tasmania

  2. Phil

    Great burst But, no surprises for me though. The Patricks’ dispute had the same machinations, only it was the Labor party that sold out the Seaman’s Union then . A union now that is more or less become defunct. Both party’s are now just different cheeks of the same arse. The so called workers party died with the likes of Hawke, Keating, Beazley, Rudd and Gillard. And now keeping up the fine tradition of not knowing which party you should be in, Albanese has now started the biggest exit of the rank and file from the Labor party in it’s history. His comments ref Vegans and Adani will go down along side of ‘ Let them eat cake ‘from history . Of course anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the ALP know that if they get a fire brand lefty among their ranks, they are treated like the real enemy, the Tories. I guess we will just have to suffer until another Dunstan comes along. I despair.

  3. David Fitzpatrick

    Turgid and beside the point. Assange and the disenfranchised people of Hinckler need to be defended before these pitiful gestures towards people’s preferred cultural forms of births, deaths and marriages.

  4. David Fitzpatrick

    Put the horse in the right place and the cart can safely carry any old iron.

  5. RosemaryJ36

    Why should people be free to promote their ‘faith ‘ when their beliefs are founded on ignorant misinformation?

  6. Paul Davis

    Watching The Drum on My ABysmal. Author Jane Gilmore versus Jennifer Hewitt (Sydney Institute, AFR) and Stephen O’Doherty (ex LNP troughsnouter and CEO of Hope Media). Good on you Jane, keep fighting the good fight. Hard to believe the two fascists defending the media over their use of victim shaming headlines re murdered or assaulted women. Always thought Hewitt to be a self obsessed freeloading cash for comment airhead…..opinion unchanged. O’Dougherty presents as a another self absorbed neocon overfed gasbag, coronary in waiting…. would be perfect for 2GB when Jones goes.

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