The Turnbull government's disgraceful free speech fail

Bookmark and Share Freedom of Speech | John Roskam
Australian Financial Review 26th August, 2016

The spectacle of Malcolm Turnbull arguing passionately for higher taxes on self-funded retirees while saying the reform of laws restricting freedom of speech in Australia was not a priority sits uneasily with what he said on the night he became prime minister.

In the evening of September 15, 2015, he laid down the measure against which his time as PM should be judged. Turnbull said, "This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government. It will be a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market."

Last week the prime minister ruled out attempting to change the law that makes it unlawful to offend or insult someone on the basis of their race or ethnic origin. The law has resulted in three students at the Queensland University of Technology being embroiled in more than three years of legal proceedings. The entire process started after one of the students wrote on a Facebook page the words - "Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation."

Legislation aimed at stopping racist violence is now being used against a 20-year-old who remarked that a university should not be segregating students according to their skin colour.

Instead of the PM deploring a law that is thoroughly illiberal in its principle and application, he said that changing it was not a priority for his government. "With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job ... It's not going to build an extra road."

Indemnify costs

However, if a country is to be judged simply by the quality of its roads then there's nothing to separate Australia from North Korea. A government might make the trains run on time but that wouldn't necessarily qualify it is a liberal government.

Maybe the prime minister misspoke. It is to be hoped that he did. It is to be hoped, too, that in the very near future he rediscovers the commitment to freedom of speech that he put on display before he became PM. Even if Malcolm Turnbull is too timid to stand up for freedom of speech himself there are two things he can do immediately. The first is to have the government indemnify the costs of the three QUT students, which can be easily done at the direction of George Brandis, the Attorney-General.

The second thing the prime minister can do is allow all Coalition MPs to vote for the bill currently in the parliament that will remove from the law its most egregious elements. As things stand, Mr Turnbull has banned frontbenchers from voting to support freedom of speech. It will be an indelible stain on the history of the Turnbull government if that remains the case.

The way in which the Liberal Party has changed in recent years can be measured by its attitude to freedom of speech. When in 1995 - in the last days of the Keating government - the Labor Party introduced the law now being used against the three QUT students, the Liberal Party voted against the legislation.

More eloquent

In the Senate on August 24, 1995, Nick Minchin summed up the Liberals' position. "Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of the philosophy of my party; that is, liberalism. I believe it is a fundamental tenet of democracy itself. In my view - and in the view of my colleagues on this side of the House and of many Australians - this bill is an insidious example of the growing restrictions on freedom of speech, which we are encountering in the name of an insidious philosophy that ... says, 'We shall control what you say and to whom you may say it.'"

Two decades after Minchin said this the Liberal Party transitioned into having one leader (Tony Abbott) who said he didn't want to change the laws restricting freedom of speech because it would complicate the government's relations with ethnic and religious minorities, and another (Malcolm Turnbull) who thinks freedom of speech is not as important as building roads.

The idea that something Phillip Adams wrote in 1995 can be a more eloquent defence of freedom of speech than anything any minister in the Turnbull government can utter demonstrates just how much the Liberal Party has changed: "Around the world, people are dying to get it. And we're giving it away."