Free speech is for us all to use and defend

We are not a nation of tribes. Free speech is for us all to use and defend

Andrew Bolt

Senator Scott Ryan gives a great speech on free speech.

Senator RYAN (Victoria—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) (16:30):  I have said before that I am a first amendment type of guy. I have long admired the American culture that values freedom of speech as a critical, non-negotiable and—I think even more importantly—virtually un-conditional component of a free society. Senator Wong talks about people being attacked. I should probably declare at this point that I am a longstanding member and a former research fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs. What we have heard from the other side of this chamber—and from my good friend, Senator Cameron, who has just left—over and over again is the vilification of people merely by virtue of the institute at which they work. There is a reason why the Greens and the ALP hate the Institute of Public Affairs—it is because it is not part of their public sector mentality. It challenges the precepts that they put up, and it cannot be bowed by the fact that it is not on the public sector drip, the way they wish all civil society was.

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What we have just heard from Senator Wong and what we have heard constantly from those opposite, including the Greens, relies on a profound misunderstanding of what our society is. They seem to view our rights, particularly our right to speech and our right to discuss—our right to participate in democracy and in a free flow of ideas—as coming to us via a licence from politicians or judges. They seem to think that, somehow, the laws in this place determine what we are allowed and not allowed to say. That is a profound misrepresentation of our constitutional and legal history. It is only in recent times that there have been such limits on things like speech. This is a profound fissure in what we view as the role of the state, and what we view as the role of the government and its relationship with the citizens of this country. Senator Wong accused Senator Brandis of celebrating the rights of bigots. What I will say is that I condemn the bigot, but I celebrate the rights of every citizen. And that is important, because a commitment to freedom of speech only really counts when it is tested. A commitment to freedom of speech only really counts when it comes to defending something you profoundly and viscerally disagree with—and that is where my commitment to free speech lies.

It is not about the public funding of artists. I do not have to fund someone to support their right to say something. There is a profound difference between the allocation of taxpayers’ resources to give someone the right to do something, and the question of whether or not they are allowed to say something. I will defend the right of someone to speak, but that does not entail and should not be confused with the idea that I should resource them to speak.

We have heard the constant complaints of those opposite over the last 48 hours about ethnic community leaders, multicultural community leaders, and their views on this particular proposal. I said at the start that I was a first amendment type of person: I view the proposal put up by the government and Senator Brandis in the exposure draft as a compromise. I accept that my views are not typical of all those in this place, or indeed all those in this country, in supporting a very strong and almost unlimited commitment to freedom of speech. The problem I have is that those opposite seem to see us as a nation of tribes; as a nation where self-declared leaders of communities—communities defined by race—should somehow should have a special place in the consideration of legislation that any other Australian citizen should not. Every Australian’s view has an equal standing in this place—every Australian’s view, no matter what community they declare themselves to be from; whether it be one or many; and whether or not they declare themselves to be leaders of communities. The elected bodies in this country are the elected representatives of the Australian people. We don’t believe in a corporatist society, or in one where there are a series of tribes where, somehow, some people have more rights than others.

The ALP and the Greens seek to define this as a debate about racism when it is not. It is a debate profoundly about speech, its limits, and the role of governments, politicians and judges in limiting the rights of our fellow citizens to express ideas. How is it our role to empower certain people in Australia, in this case judges under the current law, to determine whether another opinion is arrived at or expressed in good faith? That is the current provision in section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. What happened to Andrew Bolt was that a court said that his opinion was not expressed in good faith. It did not just ban the expression of that opinion; it banned its re-publication. It had to declare an Orwellian moment—that it never happened.

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