One doesn’t need the gift of clairvoyance to know that somewhere in Canberra, in that tricky terrain between principle and practicality, Attorney-General George Brandis is contemplating what to do with the infamous Section 18C. Should he move to have the provision scrapped altogether, as was promised before last year’s election, or might it be safer to tinker merely at the edges — scratch a word here, amend a phrase there — and leave the cudgel wielded against Andrew Bolt largely intact and ready to silence others who dare to ruffle the aggrieved and well-lawyered?
If press reports are to be believed, Brandis is copping grief even from some in his own party, who really should know better. Professional politicians with a professional interest in being professionally re-elected know that placating those noisy and ultra-quotable “community leaders” is a vocational imperative. It would be a brave politician who told the leaders of, say, his local Calathumpian ghetto that while barbarous traditions are revered in their ancestors’ homeland, they themselves have chosen to live at a remove of many thousands of miles and quite a few centuries. If they opt not to embrace the rich legacy of the Enlightenment, which Australia mostly embodies, the international departure terminal is but a short drive down Anzac Parade and, oh, just by the way, would you like a little help to get those bags into the taxi?
So it must be a tough call for poor Senator Brandis, who learnt just a few weeks ago that endorsing free speech can bring down an avalanche of criticism. Even bigots and fools have the right to be heard, he noted, it being the duty of those who detest their words and views to point out why they are so wrong, so wicked, so stupid or, as is very often the case, all three at once. It is not a difficult concept to grasp, this notion that the counter to dangerous ideas is more speech, rather than the legislated gag or ruinous cost of the many learned friends needed to conduct an adequate defence.
But for a professional politician it is a very dangerous one, as a sidelight to this week’s furor over the Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ invitation to Uthman Badar illustrates. If you have been napping under a horse trough, know that Badar’s topic was to be “a moral defence” of honour killings. That’s no infelicitous paraphrasing of his intended speech, for the subject was laid out with exquisite precision in the festival’s programme:
For most of recorded history parents have reluctantly sacrificed their children—sending them to kill or be killed for the honour of their nation, their flag, their king, their religion. But what about killing for the honour of one’s family? Overwhelmingly, those who condemn ‘honour killings’ are based in the liberal democracies of the West. The accuser and moral judge is the secular (white) westerner and the accused is the oriental other; the powerful condemn the powerless. By taking a particular cultural view of honour, some killings are condemned whilst others are celebrated. In turn, the act becomes a symbol of everything that is allegedly wrong with the other culture.
Badar, the media representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned as terrorist front in quite a few less tolerant nations, is completing a PhD in economics at the University of Western Sydney, that august institution of higher learning. He is, you might think, just one more bearded ratbag in the brotherhood of medieval relics who have, over recent years, likened Western women to cat meat, rioted in Sydney’s CBD and, most recently, remained largely mute while enthusiastic youngsters depart for Syria and Iraq to lop heads and butcher captives in ditches. Badar is not the sort of person most of us would invite to a backyard BBQ, let alone an Opera House gabfest underwritten by corporate sponsors and, indirectly and in part, the public purse.
The good news is that this emissary from the seventh century has now been dis-invited, a hasty about-face that illustrates, as Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson points out, why Section 18c is not needed. Badar’s obscene argument, as detailed in the programme’s précis, was countered by the loud and immediate outcry of those who do not believe a woman’s desire to drive a motor car or marry the man of her choice are reasons good enough for cutting her throat. He can now slink back to his studies, let the flap subside and await the next invitation to speak and be quoted. As the ABC notes in its thumbnail biography, Badar is an expert in the “Islamic sciences”, so any gatherings of those on the fringe who oppose vaccinations or are at odds with the findings of modern astronomers would make perfect venues for his tentative return to the limelight.
After that, more and better invitations will surely come, which is the sidebar to the matter of Section 18C that Attorney-General Brandis really should consider in his secondary capacities as minister responsible for both the arts and ABC. There is nothing Brandis can do about Badar’s appearances on Sky News or the fact that his toxic dribble – ANZACS were the scum of the earth etc etc – will inevitably play across the pages of the ink-and-paper press. Nor should he, of course, as those organs are privately owned and what editor can resist a story guaranteed to attract eyeballs and sell papers?
But the ABC? Well, that is a different matter. As Managing Director Mark Scott’s minions are under no obligation to help their self-declared “editor in chief” record an end-of-year profit, there is an implied responsibility to serve the truth rather than the bottom line.
Such has not been the case. Consider how Osama bin Laden’s comeuppance saw Badar scribbling away for The Drum, regurgitating the standard lines against the West in an essay that began “My phone ran hot last week with calls from the media”:
One, Western Governments have committed far greater acts of terrorism than any individual. Two, the issue is not the person of bin Laden but the context of his struggle being a struggle of resistance against Western imperialism in the Muslim World – a resistance which Muslims globally relate to. Third, the killing of bin Laden was no real victory, it would make little difference on the ground, and the ‘War on Terror’, on the whole, was in fact a resounding failure…
It is the usual boilerate, fabricated in accordance with the standard po-mo owner’s manual: clichés drawn from Edward Said, riveted with a bit of neo-Marxist jargon and polished to a pseudo-intellectual sheen by a gratuitous shot at the ever-evil whitey. But give Badar some credit for hitting the nail with the last of those points, of which he happens to be the very proof. While many billions of dollars have been spent on recent efforts to see jihadis introduced to their 72 virgins, as a spokesman for their cause his words were given not only a publicly funded podium but also the services of an ABC moderator to remove all reader comments, leaving Badar’s thoughts to stand alone and unchallenged. Wouldn’t want to ruffle the multiculturalists, not at the ABC. Heavens above, suppose an assortment of prospective suicide bombers was to claim offence and drag the ABC into court in accordance with Section 18C. Why, the legal costs would be immense, leaving little in the kitty for other needed defences — like, for example, delaying for the better part of a year an apology and an undisclosed, and undoubtedly expensive, settlement with a conservative columnist depicted in flagrante delicto with a dog.
The Dangerous Ideas’ folks represent another aspect of that cuddly embrace of the appalling. As might be expected, this year’s guest list consists mostly of fixtures on the publicly funded left, including Chip Rolley, ex-director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, current Drum editor and swain of Anne Summers, who this week in the Sydney Morning Herald somehow overlooked Badar’s rationalisation for murdering women in order to focus on the real enemy: papists
“When I heard the news that Elsie Women’s Refuge was to be handed over to St Vincent de Paul, I simply did not believe it … what government would be foolhardy enough to give to the Catholic Church, of all organisations – especially right now (Royal Commission, anyone?) – the ‘poster girl’ of the women’s refuge movement, the place that was established by women’s movement activists (I was one) 40 years ago…..”
Summers, her beau and their ilk no doubt find Catholics an easier and safer target than misogynist Muslim firebrands, but can anyone countenance the notion that Badar might have persuaded anyone at the gathering of his argument’s merits? We can assume, safely, his invitation was a miscued marketing effort, a cynical bid to sell tickets, garner headlines and bathe the left’s likeminded in a wash of self-regard for their tolerance of, ahem, free speech. The truth of this sad and shameful episode is otherwise, as the full and frank exercise and exploration of free speech and its possibilities are what the organisers pointedly chose to neglect.
Had they been genuinely interested in thrashing out “dangerous ideas” a counter speaker would have been recruited to refute and demolish Badar’s obscene defence of gender-driven homicide. Instead, Badar was to have been given another pulpit, with no objections from the congregation anticipated or allowed.
As Brandis mulls the fate of Section 18C he might spare a thought for Badar’s real audience, which most certainly was not an assembly of Opera House luvvies. Out there in Australia’s multicultural enclaves, radicalised Muslim youngsters would have heard his words and noticed his pride of place amongst the kuffur elite.
“See our brother up there on the stage, praise be to Allah! He speaks for us and the infidel Westerners want to listen to his message.
“We are winning, brothers, we are winning!”
Brandis should bear that in mind as he grapples with his conscience and, if he finds the strength to tap his conservative convictions, to animate the same spirit in the souls of Coalition colleagues.
“Free speech is a wonderful and sacred thing,” he might tell them, “so I propose that the luvvies’ pet loons continue to enjoy the unfettered right to put the case for the odious and obscene.
“But I also propose in my capacity as the Arts Minister that, where taxpayer funds are involved, it must be genuine and true free speech, with the right to respond and refute given equal billing.”
Praise God, or Allah, and pass the ammunition of genuine free speech.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online