Abolishing Section 18C: AKA free speech for the few

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John Passant discusses freedom of speech amid calls from right-wing politicians and the Murdoch media for the Turnbull Government to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

ON FRIDAY, Judge Michael Jarrett threw out a case brought under the Racial Discrimination Act against three Queensland University of Technology students accused of racially vilifying an Indigenous woman.

Indigenous Queensland University of Technology staff member Cindy Prior claimed that the students' (Alex Wood, Jackson Powell and Calum Thwaites) Facebook posts about her after she asked one of them to leave an Aboriginal only area, were reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" her and/or others and constitued a breach of Section18C of the Act.

The Weekend Australian had a front page report, further reports on page four, a long opinion piece and an editorial. Right wing politicians like Senators Eric Abetz, James Paterson and others immediately called for the Turnbull Government to gut or abolish Section 18C. 

"Libertarian" Senator David Leyonhjelm said he would vote for the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) if the Turnbull Government repealed Section 18C. Two weeks ago, Leyonhjelm promised to vote for the ABCC if the Government relaxed import restrictions on the Adler rapid fire shot gun.

Section 18C is the same section under which a complaint has been made to the Human Rights Commission against Bill Leak’s infamous racist cartoon in TheAustralian. That newspaper has been at the forefront of defending the cartoon, draped in the false flag of freedom of speech. Why?

Dr Martin Hirst belled the cat a few days ago when he wrote that the purpose of The Australian in peddling this free speech nonsense was ‘to give voice to offensive and racist opinion’.  

Or, as Attorney-General George Brandis said:

"People have the right to be bigots, you know." 

Apparently, they also have the right to have their bigotry broadcast by The Australian, the largest Murdoch loss-making newspaper in Australia and its even more sensationalist tabloid brothers and sisters.

There are a number of reasons for The Australian’s fake campaign. First, as Hirst argued, if Leak is found guilty of breaching Section 18C, News Corp will be liable under Section 18A.   

Second, racism (an example of "othering") has been an important tool of the Australian ruling class in dividing the working class against each other and uniting major sections of our class with the bosses against a fictitious "enemy". The Indigenous, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Germans, Asians, Muslims, refugees non-whites generally — the list goes on and on.


The brutality of the Turnbull Government towards working people and the poor is becoming clearer to more and more voters – and its support continues to stagnate or drop – that the government has responded with a classic "look over there" response. Banning any refugees who came by boat after 13 July 2013, from ever coming to Australia, is a sign of a desperate government playing to what it perceives is its strength. The Australian is doing something similar — attempting to corral its readers to safety behind its wagons, to provoke hatred of the outsider, those who are not white "Australians". 

All of this is couched in terms of defence of free speech. Yet free speech rights under capitalism are extremely limited. Who has free speech in Australia? At an abstract level we all have free speech. I can rail against capitalism or one of its rotten manifestations every week on I— and I am thankful for that opportunity.

At a practical level, Rupert Murdoch has freedom to promulgate his ideas beyond the wildest dreams of people like me, let alone ordinary workers. Rupert’s free speech depends on the systemic denial of free speech to the working class except, at best, as "acceptable" free speech from left wing "work within the system for little change" parliamentarians.

The campaign against Section 18C is a campaign to allow the privileged even more leeway to spout racism and xenophobia to undermine the possibility of a more united working class fighting for and winning better wages, defending jobs and winning safety at work, especially on building sites.

Bill Leak, like all the others the reactionary right parade in defence of free speech for the rich, is a paid popinjay of profit. That is why the defenders of free speech single him out as their torch bearer. Yet when low income earner Duncan Storrar asked on Q&A why a tax cut for those earning more than $80,000 a year, but not one for people like him to improve his life and that of his kids, the media – especially the Murdoch media – turned on him and tried to destroy him. So much for his freedom of speech.

It is the same too for the free speech of others who might challenge or even indirectly undermine the rule of the Liberal Party. The Australian, for example, has not campaigned for free speech for those health, education and security workers on Manus Island or Nauru who could have been gaoled for reporting on the crimes occurring there in our name. 

The Australian has not campaigned for Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian Kurdish journalist, whose newspaper the Iranian regime shut down and many of whose journalists it has imprisoned. Having escaped the Iranian gaolers, Boochani has been imprisoned on Manus Island for the last three years for the "crime" of fleeing the dictatorship there and seeking refuge. No free speech for him or for any of the other thousands imprisoned on Australia’s concentration camps.

When journalist Wendy Bacon was arrested at a protest recently against Westconnex, The Australian’s defence of free speech fell silent.

The Australian was at the forefront of hounding socialist Roz Ward for her great work on Safe Schools. They went so far as to call for her to be sacked over a Facebook post. La Trobe University suspended her until the union backlash forced them to back down. The Australian led the charge against journalism academic Martin Hirst for calling Andrew Bolt’s very small television audience "masturbating chimps". He eventually left his position at Deakin University after a confidential settlement.

The reintroduced ABCC, if it passes through the Senate or a joint sitting, will take away a worker’s right to remain silent and further erode their democratic right to freely associate as union members. The Australian, along with the rest of the ruling class, has been a strong supporter of the freedom destroying ABCC because its puts profits before people.

Let’s be clear. When the ruling class talks about free speech it means free speech for themselves and for those who echo reinforce their agenda and their system. We ordinary people have won free speech in the past. With the ongoing systemic denial of our voice and the increasing encroachment of rights for workers, we will have to begin the fight all over again.  

Free speech for all, not just the one per cent.

Read more by John Passant on his website En PassantYou can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed, is now available. You can email John at en.passant@bigpond.com to order a signed copy or purchase at Ginninderra Press.

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