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. 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’.
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’. 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.
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. 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.
 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
 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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