I don’t like what Steve Bannon has to say. I find Nigel Farrage’s attempts at shrouding his anti-immigration messages in “Judeo-Christian values” abhorrent. But I am also quite certain that neither pose more nor less of a threat to Australia than Chelsea Manning does. The idea of picking and choosing who gets to speak is what we should be afraid of.
Free speech is the foundation on which all our liberties rest. Yet it is a right we enjoy by convention and tradition only. In the absence of a Bill of Rights it has no in principle legal protection in Australia. The Constitution does not mention it.
We have defamation laws and laws against inciting violence and openly encouraging criminal behaviour. We have laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age or disability, and – despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s beliefs to the contrary – laws that protect religious freedoms. The latter is in the Constitution (section 116) which “precludes the Commonwealth of Australia (i.e., the federal parliament) from making laws for establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”.
Pretty clear isn’t it?
But just as our Prime Minister has the right to be ignorant, so do Steve Bannon and Nigel Farrage. Chelsea Manning has the right to talk about why she thinks governments are a threat to the very freedoms they purport to protect.
Free speech means the freedom of having any opinion, promoting any religion or ideology, distorting history and declaring that climate change is a hoax and that earth is not a planet but a pancake.
It doesn’t matter if we like it or not. What matters is that we equally have the right to refute opinions or ideas that we disagree with. We have the right to educate, to inform and to argue our case any way we choose, with passion and with facts. We have the right to ridicule anyone we disagree with if we so choose. We also have the right to be offensive, to swear at and to denigrate. But having that right doesn’t make it right.
Free speech also has consequence. It was not illegal for “shock jock” Alan Jones to accuse members of the Wagner family of being directly responsible for the death of 12 people during the Brisbane floods in 2013. But he has quite rightly suffered the consequences of being guilty of defamation, and I hope – most likely in vain – that he loses not only his job, but his reputation.
It wasn’t illegal for cartoonist Mark Knight to draw Serena Williams in a way that many thought was an extreme example of racial stereotyping, but it was stupid. And the Herald Sun editor demonstrated appalling lack of judgement in allowing its publication. But I will still defend their rights to be stupid and to lack judgement and decency.
I think Williams’ actions were wrong, and although her claims of gender discrimination in tennis may have merit, two wrongs don’t ever make a right; and she probably did little to promote her claimed cause.
Some shout that the criticism of the cartoon is merely “political correctness gone mad”, claiming – in principle correctly – that it’s about free speech. Yet forgetting that, as much as we may have those rights, we also have an obligation to respect our fellow human beings, including those of a different race, creed or gender; as well as appreciating the history of oppression that so many of those less fortunate have or are experiencing.
And if we really want to take freedom of speech seriously, the nine-year-old girl who refused to sing the national anthem should be applauded for being true to her beliefs. By all means, disagree with her sentiment as much as you like, but respect and celebrate that we live in a country where such acts are possible without fear of prosecution.
Celebrate a country where respect for the opinions of others are more important than deference to institutions or religious dogma.
Celebrate a country where history is not rewritten but recognised as a snapshot of a different time when values and comprehension were not what they are today.
Recognise that this fair country will only advance if we embrace change, acknowledge that we are all different and that, to earn respect, you have to give it first.
Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer, blogger and commentator; passionate about free speech, democracy and the politics of change. Author of “Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change”. Follow @ kimwingerei.com