Media review by Pia White
Over the past month, a slew of human rights issues made news headlines including mainstays such as the government’s policies on asylum seekers and gender discrimination, as well as the topical March in March protests.
Despite competition from such newsworthy issues, Attorney-General George Brandis successfully maintained the media spotlight throughout March thanks to his freedom of expression agenda, and two related issues.
The Right to be bigots
Senator Brandis followed through on earlier promises to repeal the Racial Discrimination Act by releasing an exposure draft of legislation for a month of community consultation in the Senate on 25 March 2014. This came one day after the Attorney general defended in parliament the right of Australians to be ”bigots” in response to a question from Labor Senator, Nova Peris.
The proposed amendments would remove the prohibition in Section 18C of the Act of behaviour that is reasonably likely to ”offend, insult or humiliate” someone because of their race, colour, nationality or ethnicity. However, it will retain the prohibition on acts which “intimidate” and will introduce one on those which vilify.
Senator Brandis defended the removal of protections against humiliating, insulting or offending, arguing that it is not the role of the state to “ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”
Political correspondent Sabra Lane pointed out on the 7:30 report that under the proposed revisions, an act will need to incite racial hatred or cause fear of physical harm in order to qualify as vilifying or intimidating. This would seemingly render lawful behaviour causing psychological harm as falling within the gulf between “hurt feelings” and actual threatened violence.
Further criticisms came from shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus who asserted that the proposal was giving the “green light to racist hate speech” and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who described it as a “colossal mistake.”
Concerns have also been raised about how the amended section would apply to Holocaust denial, while Australia’s first indigenous lower house MP, Ken Wyatt initially threatened to cross the floor over the plan.
Senator Brandis has maintained that the amendments to the Act are justified, as Section 18C in its current form is “unreasonably restrictive on freedom of speech” and amounts to “political censorship.” However, commentators have pointed out that limits to free speech already exist (such as defamation laws) and that Section 18D already creates an exception for acts done reasonably and in good faith in the course of academic, artistic or scientific debate.
Those who do not consider Brandis’ reform proposal necessary to the protection of free speech would appear to be left with scarce alternative justification for the plan other than the unpersuasive assurance that “what happened to Andrew Bolt won’t happen again.”
George Brandis also created a media stir in relation to his commentary on the boycott woes plaguing the 19th Biennale of Sydney.
The arts festival faced pressure to drop long-standing corporate sponsor Transfield Holdings after nine artists decided to withdraw from the festival. The artists argued that they could not reconcile their objection to the government’s policy of mandatory detention with participation in the festival given Transfield’s links to detention centres on Manus and Nauru islands.
The festival’s ultimate decision to sever ties with Transfield Holdings and accept the resignation of its chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis prompted outrage from Brandis – this time in his role as Arts Minister – who described the board’s move as “preposterously unreasonable.” Brandis followed up these comments with a letter to the Australia Council requesting the development of a policy that would allow for the denial of government funding to arts organisations that refuse sponsorship from the private sector on “unreasonable grounds.”
Sussan Ley defended the Attorney General’s actions on QandA as necessary considering the “scarce resources” for arts funding and the importance of the role played by “corporate philanthropy.” However, many in the arts community have criticised the perceived politicisation of arts funding and the threat to the autonomy and integrity of artists and their work.
Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus suggested that the proposal’s aim of discouraging the “unreasonable refusal of funding” should really be interpreted as a view to dampen disagreement with government policy and the expression of political views. Additionally, comparisons have been drawn between the policy requested by Brandis and the efficiency study of the ABC announced last month. It has been argued that both are devices designed to put their respective targets on notice that that their actions are to be subject to close scrutiny.
It is difficult to see the logic in Brandis’ concern over the “shameful insult” to the Belgiorno-Nettis family on the one hand and his commitment to removing legislative safeguards that protect Australians from acts that may ”offend, insult or humiliate” on racial grounds on the other. Similarly irreconcilable is his preparedness to stand up in parliament in defence of the right to be bigoted, and his condemnation of political expression by artists. It seems the only consistency in respect of the government’s approach to freedom of expression is their selectivity when it comes to defending it.