A month away from current politics does help to compose one’s mind. After only intermittent glances at television news in hotel rooms, I have returned to find that nothing much has really changed.
In relation to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, none of the numerous logical arguments for its repeal seems to have the slightest impact on the soft totalitarians from the Labor Party and the Greens and their allies in the ABC and Fairfax Media. I will not repeat the cogent arguments for repeal from the IPA, James Allan and others, too numerous to mention in a short article. The defenders of Section 18C, such as Opposition spokesman Mark Dreyfus, have been reduced to intellectually dishonest sleight of hand, conflating advocacy of the right of bigots and cranks to free speech with support for their opinions. It is a measure of the widespread intellectual corruption that smearing Senator George Brandis in this fashion attracts applause in supposedly educated circles.
I have just re-read Section 18C, and the standout feature is its total subjectivity. In other words, an “unlawful act” can be defined by the current ideological fashion. As in the Andrew Bolt case, guilt or otherwise is a matter of judicial discretion. Objectively, there is no limit to the potential application of this section. Maybe, quoting crime statistics in relation to people of “Middle Eastern” or “African” background could be deemed offensive. Possibly, the tone of expression in quotation might be the key. Who knows? What is accepted as lawful today might be deemed in some future case as unlawful.
If the purpose of this section was to intimidate then it has succeeded. Andrew Bolt has his lawyers close at hand to advise if there is any risk of crossing the line. The media practices self-censorship. Fairfax Media is careful to bowdlerise police descriptions of wanted offenders, thereby limiting the ability of readers to assist in their apprehension. All of this is in the name of social harmony in multicultural Australia. The truly frightening aspect of this section of the Act is that you will not know you are committing an unlawful act until some minority group chooses to take offence. This is not the rule of law. The very nature of law in a free society is that one knows in advance what is lawful and unlawful. However, under 18C, political correctness is the key to keeping out of trouble. The “law” becomes the weapon of ideology.
How astonishing it is to reflect that this section was tacked on by the Keating Government, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. No sooner had we celebrated the end of Communism in Eastern Europe than we began the long march away from individual freedom under the rule of law.
Just over twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we in the Western democracies feel less free to express our individual opinions than back during the Fifties and Sixties. Indeed, 18C is emblematic of a more general progression in Western democracies towards group “rights” and grievance politics at the expense of personal freedom and responsibility.
The truly frightening aspect of this whole controversy is the realisation that a large section of the political class, media and professional multiculturalists do not really believe in personal freedom.
Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online