Senator RYAN (Victoria—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) (16:30): I have said before that I am a first amendment type of guy. I have long admired the American culture that values freedom of speech as a critical, non-negotiable and—I think even more importantly—virtually un-conditional component of a free society. Senator Wong talks about people being attacked. I should probably declare at this point that I am a longstanding member and a former research fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs. What we have heard from the other side of this chamber—and from my good friend, Senator Cameron, who has just left—over and over again is the vilification of people merely by virtue of the institute at which they work. There is a reason why the Greens and the ALP hate the Institute of Public Affairs—it is because it is not part of their public sector mentality. It challenges the precepts that they put up, and it cannot be bowed by the fact that it is not on the public sector drip, the way they wish all civil society was.
What we have just heard from Senator Wong and what we have heard constantly from those opposite, including the Greens, relies on a profound misunderstanding of what our society is. They seem to view our rights, particularly our right to speech and our right to discuss—our right to participate in democracy and in a free flow of ideas—as coming to us via a licence from politicians or judges. They seem to think that, somehow, the laws in this place determine what we are allowed and not allowed to say. That is a profound misrepresentation of our constitutional and legal history. It is only in recent times that there have been such limits on things like speech. This is a profound fissure in what we view as the role of the state, and what we view as the role of the government and its relationship with the citizens of this country. Senator Wong accused Senator Brandis of celebrating the rights of bigots. What I will say is that I condemn the bigot, but I celebrate the rights of every citizen. And that is important, because a commitment to freedom of speech only really counts when it is tested. A commitment to freedom of speech only really counts when it comes to defending something you profoundly and viscerally disagree with—and that is where my commitment to free speech lies.
It is not about the public funding of artists. I do not have to fund someone to support their right to say something. There is a profound difference between the allocation of taxpayers’ resources to give someone the right to do something, and the question of whether or not they are allowed to say something. I will defend the right of someone to speak, but that does not entail and should not be confused with the idea that I should resource them to speak.
We have heard the constant complaints of those opposite over the last 48 hours about ethnic community leaders, multicultural community leaders, and their views on this particular proposal. I said at the start that I was a first amendment type of person: I view the proposal put up by the government and Senator Brandis in the exposure draft as a compromise. I accept that my views are not typical of all those in this place, or indeed all those in this country, in supporting a very strong and almost unlimited commitment to freedom of speech. The problem I have is that those opposite seem to see us as a nation of tribes; as a nation where self-declared leaders of communities—communities defined by race—should somehow should have a special place in the consideration of legislation that any other Australian citizen should not. Every Australian’s view has an equal standing in this place—every Australian’s view, no matter what community they declare themselves to be from; whether it be one or many; and whether or not they declare themselves to be leaders of communities. The elected bodies in this country are the elected representatives of the Australian people. We don’t believe in a corporatist society, or in one where there are a series of tribes where, somehow, some people have more rights than others.
The ALP and the Greens seek to define this as a debate about racism when it is not. It is a debate profoundly about speech, its limits, and the role of governments, politicians and judges in limiting the rights of our fellow citizens to express ideas. How is it our role to empower certain people in Australia, in this case judges under the current law, to determine whether another opinion is arrived at or expressed in good faith? That is the current provision in section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. What happened to Andrew Bolt was that a court said that his opinion was not expressed in good faith. It did not just ban the expression of that opinion; it banned its re-publication. It had to declare an Orwellian moment—that it never happened.
The point being that, of all those in this place, it was once the centre and the left of Australian politics who campaigned against censorship, yet it is the left of Australian politics who are now its greatest advocates.
Those opposite are confused between legality and licence. To not make activities illegal is not to approve of them. The great problem with speech being banned is it denies people—community leaders, as Senator Wong pointed out, and people like me, you, and others in this chamber; it denies us the opportunity to repudiate. Some speech should be repudiated. Some speech should be humiliated. Some speech should be ridiculed. But by banning it, it goes underground. In this technological world, where we cannot control the sources of news, that threat is even greater than when these laws were first passed just under two decades ago.
Those opposite confuse this with defamation law. It is an attempt to fudge the point, because defamation law often deals with issues and imputations of fact, not opinion. But this law can ban opinion. They ask why we are concerned that one journalist who they say is powerful had their opinion banned. I say, the idea that a court said that an article had to be stripped from a major newspaper’s website, and banned the expression of an opinion, is something we should all be concerned about. I remember the days when we would all have been concerned about that.
The most extreme left-wing activist lawyer in the United States’s ACLU would not tolerate this legislation. It shows how far the Labor Party and the Greens have moved from respect for basic individual rights for this law to even be considered, to say nothing of the laws proposed by the former Attorney-General Nicola Roxon which were going to expand the grounds for legal action of one citizen against another to an almost limitless number. Again, she confused our role of setting the boundaries as to what is illegal with regulating and proscribing the expression of opinion and expression of ideas.
I am proud to say I know Andrew Bolt. I would not necessarily describe him as a friend, only because I do not know him that well. The vilification to which he has been subjected by the professional left in this country over the last two years and the use of the law to ban him from expressing his opinion has been unprecedented. It is unprecedented in Australia to ban people from expressing political opinions. I know Andrew, and he does not have a racist bone in his body. But those opposite who disagree seek to use the law to suppress his views.
More harm was done to the views of those who oppose racism by this case and the ruling by Justice Bromberg that a member of the victim group shall be the standard by which racism is measured. So there was no arbitrary test that any Australian could be certain of to know when their opinion would be legal and when it would not be legal. More damage was done by the professional left activists and the legal censors who think it is their right to regulate speech in Australia. While I have always opposed these laws, they were not on the public agenda until for the first time the court was going to ban the expression of opinion. We were going to censor newspapers—and we did, because republication of Andrew Bolt’s views was banned.
I was invited a couple of years ago to give a speech to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry on this point. I know Colin Rubenstein and Jeremy Jones. I know their work against racism is profound. I know they have done a lot of good work, but I respectfully disagree with them on these laws. I cannot recount all of my reasons in the time available today. But one is that in places where these laws exist, particularly in the old world of Europe where there are speech codes, there are things such as, for example, the armoured personnel carriers that I saw outside the new synagogue in Berlin just over a decade ago. They are the places with all the racial problems. It is the new world—such as Canada, which has recently repealed some of these laws, Australia, New Zealand and the United States—which has provided a home, refuge and sanctuary for people from all around the world. In particular, the communities that have been oppressed in those countries of Europe have often found refuge in the country with the freest speech on earth—and that is the United States. I have faith in my fellow citizens that we will debate and come to the right resolution. Those opposite, sadly, do not. I do not know where it went.
That is a very powerful speech by our good friend Scott Ryan (Liberal Senator for Victoria).
I find it quite ironic that the opposition and the media have been challenging the government to name any community leader who has come out in favour of the changes to 18c. It seems to me that the leadership of the largest Australian community group has done just that. The elected government of the Commonwealth of Australia is the leadership of the largest community group in the country – also the only community group that actually enjoys widespread legitimacy.