No-go topics are shaping our politics

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty | John Roskam
Australian Financial Review 2nd October, 2015

We know that Australian politicians and journalists care about freedom of speech for people such as Peter Greste. We'll soon discover whether they care as much about freedom of speech for the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous.

What happened to Greste was terrible. In 2013, working as a reporter in Egypt, he and two other colleagues from the Al Jazeera network were arrested for the alleged crime of treason. Greste was sentenced to seven years' jail. He was released a year later after a campaign that ranged from installing a mural of Greste on the headquarters of the journalists' union in Redfern to the then prime minister Tony Abbott personally lobbying the Egyptian president. Abbott told the president that Greste was simply doing his job.

Just last week, the doyen of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes, delivered the keynote address to the inaugural Melbourne Press Freedom dinner. Oakes pointed out the federal government had a double standard as on the one hand it called for freedom for Greste while at the same time criminalising journalistic activities in Australia.

It's not only the federal government that has double standards. Members of Australia's media are all too inclined to advocate freedom of speech only for people they like, on topics they approve of - as we found out when Andrew Bolt was on trial in the Federal Court. There was no mural on the journalists' union building then.

Now we have the case of Archbishop Porteous. A candidate for the Greens at the next federal election has lodged a complaint with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner claiming a booklet Don't Mess With Marriage explaining the Catholic Church's opposition to same-sex marriage is insulting and offensive.

ISSUE GOES BEYOND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

There's a number of things to note about the case.

The first is that the booklet does little more than set out a position that was, until a few years ago, the settled policy of all of the country's major political parties.

The second point is that the complaint has been brought under new legislation introduced in 2012 by the then Labor/Greens government. At the time, the government specifically said the new laws would not inhibit discussion about same-sex marriage. Either by accident or design, something has happened that politicians promised would not happen. Yet again, the intended consequences of a law have little resemblance to how the law actually operates in practice.

What's happening in Tasmania goes beyond a debate about the right to express a religious viewpoint. Malcolm Turnbull has promised a plebiscite on same-sex marriage after the next election. Same-sex marriage is therefore now both a religious and a political question. If the complaint against Archbishop Porteous succeeds, one side of the debate on the same-sex marriage plebiscite will be shut down.

Anti-discrimination laws aimed at preventing people from being offended are chilling freedom of speech in Australia. Such laws are a bigger threat to freedom of speech than outright regulation or control of the media because they're so insidious and because they affect everyone, not just journalists. Anti-discrimination laws are now also chilling this country's political process.

The plebiscite on same-sex marriage is one of two significant and contentious votes to take place in the new few years. The other is the referendum on Indigenous recognition that looks likely in 2017. Again, it's entirely legitimate to have a debate about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution, but if there is a chance for it to be regarded as legitimate, it must be the outcome of a free and open debate between two sides. Under Australian anti-discrimination legislation, if someone participating in the debate on Indigenous recognition says something deemed by the authorities to be "insulting" or "offensive", they will be breaking the law.

A vote in a plebiscite or referendum, in which one side is not allowed to present its case, is not a legitimate vote. That's why both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage should be concerned by the complaint against Archbishop Porteous and the Catholic Church.

Freedom of speech is fundamental to liberal democracy. Freedom of speech confers legitimacy on political outcomes. That's the difference between Australia and Egypt. In one country the election results are legitimate, in the other they're not.