It was incredibly sad this morning to receive my first text message telling me that Bill Leak had died. Then another. Then another. And so it went. The man was a lion on behalf of freedom in this country. And that is more than you can say about most of the political class, and virtually all of our journalists.
I only really got to know Bill Leak in the last half year or so. I had contacted him once or twice to give my moral support during his ‘troubles with the Human Rights Commission’ – more honestly described as the state-sponsored solicitation of complainants to hound him for a cartoon a few Commissars happened not to like and the ridiculous initial accepting of one of those complaints.
But when I was asked to edit Making Australia Right and was looking for writers it hit me driving home one day that the best person in the country to do the cover for our book was Bill. So I called him up and asked him late last year. He was all class and generosity and immediately agreed. After that I texted and called him pretty regularly. We shared the same despair about the state of free speech in this country. We both lamented the pathetic lack of commitment to free speech principles in the current manifestation of the Liberal Party in this country. (Forget Labor. Sure, free speech has historically been a left-wing concern but not in these days when identity politics trumps all else.) And both of us knew that it had to be a total repeal of Section 18C – no equivocations, no wimping out, a total repeal – or we would keep fighting. If anything, Bill was even stronger on this front than I.
When Tony Abbott did the Sydney launch of our book in late February, Bill Leak was there. When the enervated joint committee report on 18C came out we both were amazed at how Liberals on that committee could agree with Labor and Greens’ anti-free speech position, and we both marvelled at the way a once great party no longer seemed to believe in anything – just get re-elected, forget standing for principles and defending vital values.
Then, only a little over a week ago, he called and asked me to come to the launch of his book in Sydney. To my great regret I had to say ‘no’, as I couldn’t get away from Brisbane for the night. He told there was going to be a surprise visit from Barry Humphries. He was delighted about that.
Yesterday, having watched the clips of speeches and read the news coverage, I texted to congratulate Bill on the great success of his book launch. In his typically generous way he promptly texted me back to say he was sending me a signed copy of his book. This morning the bitter news about his sudden death started pouring into my cell phone.
And let’s be clear. Bill Leak died of a massive heart attack after being dragged through a kangaroo pseudo-court by a bunch of jumped up, overpaid taxpayer-funded officials — paid by you and me, offered a nice cup of tea by Malcolm Turnbull. One of them had set out pretty clearly to help make life as easy as possible for those who were ‘offended’ by one of Bill’s cartoons and who might want to launch a complaint. On a number of occasions Bill told me how stressful he had found the whole saga, but that he’d never give in to these cretins.
I have no idea what the various causal pathways were that led to Bill Leak’s death at the age of 61. But I liked the man. I admired the man. I liked his guts and willingness to stand up for principle. His newspaper, The Australian, won’t be as good without his cartoons each morning.
None of those things can be said with a straight face about this Coalition government. No guts. No principles. A value-free vacuum the lot of them.
Now I’m no religious believer but I sure would like to think that Bill will be looking down at Team Turnbull as they formulate what to do about 18C and maybe, just maybe, ethereally he will an iota of backbone into what otherwise looks like a party room of invertebrates. But I’m not holding my breath.
One day, though, Bill’s commitment to free speech will prevail. It took over 30 years in my native Canada for the federal parliament to repeal their national equivalent of 18C. (Note: Canada is still a tolerant place and not one of the scaremongering predictions has come to pass. Are you listening, Julian Leeser?) It will happen here one day. Alas, Bill won’t be around to see it.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland. His submission to the recent, and entirely pointless, inquiry into Section 18C can be read here