Committees | Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

My home state of South Australia and my residents in Boothby face a range of pressing challenges. We have the most unreliable and most expensive electricity in the nation, one of the highest unemployment rates and the highest cost of doing business.

We also have historic levels of state government debt. These issues go to the core of what we believe as the Liberal Party and as a government—the importance of keeping the power on, balancing budgets, letting business get on with employing people, providing health care and education and being able to afford to do so, and protecting the most vulnerable in our society. These
are some of the obvious roles and responsibilities of our party and our government. Our party also has a great responsibility when it comes to the issue facing us today—that of the fight for freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of our core Australian values and beliefs. Overwhelmingly we are a tolerant, respectful and polite society. But we exist at a time when the culture of victimhood and taking offence has overrun common sense and people resolving their issues by themselves without the need for government interference. In a very real sense, I feel that we are witnessing a weakening of our social fabric. Wrongs or perceived wrongs are no longer remedied by talking it out or seeking support and assistance from your neighbours or your friends or your colleagues or your boss or your community but by lodging a complaint with a government agency or the courts. Far too often we are turning to government to fix all of our woes, and far too often government is responding with legislation and agencies, and in this case human rights commissioners who are so far removed from the reality of Australian life and society that their decisions are too often ridiculous or of very serious concern. We are no longer self-sufficient and we no longer harness the power of our communities to help us solve problems when they arise. I think this leads to some terrible social outcomes.

I do not believe there is anyone who can honestly say that the QUT case has resulted in good outcomes for any of the parties involved. When you get a body like the Human Rights Commission involved in a case like this, problems become amplified and lead to a breakdown of social and human relationships. Lives have been ruined. The evidence presented by Mr Alexander Wood to the committee is quite heartbreaking. What this student went through at the hands of an agency of the state is utterly and absolutely inexcusable. For a two-sentence Facebook post, Mr Wood's life was turned upside down for several years, and even though he was exonerated he was left with a $41,000 legal bill, and his legal team were left out of pocket.

Mr Wood's compelling evidence to the committee, on pages 77 and 78 of the report, is a must-read, and I encourage everybody in this place to do so. That the process occurred as it did—that students in addition to Mr Wood had years of their life and their reputations destroyed, that they faced significant financial penalties of between $5,000 and potentially $250,000, and, as it turned out for Mr Wood, a $40,000 legal bill—is an outrage. Leaving aside the appalling processes that Mr Wood and his fellow students were subjected to, there is a broader point here, to my mind.

If there is a section of society we expect to exercise their freedom of speech and to push its boundaries the most, it is our students. A society that silences its students is a society in a very dangerous place. For centuries students have been at the centre of new ideas, thoughts, student protests and even revolution, although I would refer any students contemplating revolution to the 19th century Russian Narodniks for a warning about the prospects of revolutionary success—or lack thereof.

A society that seeks to silence its cartoonists, I believe, is also in a very dangerous place. In my experience, our cartoonists are often also our artists and teachers. They are our thinkers and our philosophers. My year 9 high school art teacher was the late Michael Atchison OAM, who taught me the importance of the classics, art history and theory and the art of letter writing. He made us draw our art exams from still-life compositions in the appropriate gradients of lead pencil, and in his spare time he drew The Advertiser's editorial cartoon most days, in addition to his Word for Word cartoon, which explained the origin of a different word every day. He was, I think it is fair to say, deliberately provocative and one of the most inspiring teachers I had.

The magnificent Bill Leak is another stellar example of the cartoonist as a provocative thinker and artist. We are blessed to have a national cartoonist who pushes the boundaries and challenges us to reflect on society, on politics and on policy decisions. His work is informed by his brilliance as a portraitist, and he deserves national treasure status for having made a contribution in the press, to the Archibald Prize and to our National Portrait Gallery, which holds his portraits of Gavin Campbell, Sir Donald Bradman, Richard Woolcott and—one of my personal favourites—another national treasure, Robert Hughes, titled Nothing If Not Critical—which seems to be the problem of those opposite as well. In fact, Mr Leak's portraits of former Labor leaders Bob Hawke and Bill Hayden hang on the walls of this place, and I hope those opposite realise that. Perhaps they do not.

When we disrupt our cartoonists with threats of censorship or with court cases threatening censorship and possible financial ruin, their creative processes and confidence are disrupted too. Just look at what several cartoonists said to the committee, including Mr Leak. The committee report says:

2.32 Mr Bill Leak, an editorial cartoonist at The Australian newspaper who was subject to an 18C complaint, shared his concerns about the impact of his case on other cartoonists:

I think that that hypothetical person working for some magazine that might be online—goodness knows—or whatever but does not have the backing of an organisation like News Corp is going to look at what happened to me and say: 'That bloke really got into a lot of trouble for telling the truth. I better not tell it myself.' If that is not a dampener on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, I do not know what is. To me, I think it is extremely sinister.

2.33 Mr Paul Zanetti, also a cartoonist subject to an 18C complaint, shared this concern:

I am more exposed than Bill because I am an independent syndicator. It is a concern because it is designed to stifle freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. It is a form of thought police, where if you dare to step outside certain boundaries we have this law where anybody is entitled to come after you and drag you in front of a government institution. It could send you broke. You could lose your house—the ramifications of the rest of it where you are held personally liable. There is no protection for anybody who wants to exercise real freedom of speech or expression.

When we silence those who tell uncomfortable truths or provoke us to reflect on ourselves and our actions, we are poorer as a society. We know from bitter past experience what happens to nations that silence their artists and critics: soon they silence large parts of their society too.

There is another sector of our society that we need to protect as well to enable them to continue to provoke debate, and that is our columnists. A society that seeks to silence its columnists and commentators is also in a very dangerous place. I worked as a columnist before entering this place. I worried about defamation. I worried about ending up in a section 18C style dispute or an Andrew Bolt like court case and, as such, determined not to write about certain topics, because they were just too dangerous. This is a common fear, as the committee heard:

A number of submitters, particularly journalists and lawyers employed to represent them, argued that section 18C had a 'chilling effect' in relation to freedom of speech.26 For example, Dr Augusto Zimmerman identified that, as an academic, he has come across people 'who are intimidated and afraid of expressing their opinions', and further:

… even on radio interviews that I have given I have asked the person conducting the interview if he feels comfortable to say certain things. People are getting really worried these days about making comments.

I have not yet had time to fully consider the recommendations of the committee's report and what our best course of action to fix this terrible problem is—this terrible problem that sees some 71 people currently subject to other section 18C claims and goodness knows how many before them who have settled claims and at what financial and personal cost to the alleged offenders. What I do know is that the freedom we take for granted must be protected. Where laws constrain our freedom of speech they must be fixed. We should aim to restore the role of community and civil society in addressing the problems of racism. We must take power back from the bureaucrats and encourage our citizens to assume responsibility for their actions and reactions.

As Sir Robert Menzies said, 'We are the custodians of great freedoms, whether they be in enterprise or speech. We are charged with protecting the freedom to do our best and to make that best better; a freedom that goes deep into the very dignity of man.'

We must protect freedom of speech.