‘The state should never be the arbiter of what people can think’

Brendan O’Neill meets the Voltaire-inspired attorney general of Australia.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

Ever since Captain Cook set foot here, Australia’s exotic creatures have wowed the rest of the world. Mammals that lay eggs! Marsupials that hop! Well today, Australia contains what must surely count as the most exotic, rarely sighted creature of the twenty-first century: a politician who believes in freedom of speech. Extinct in Europe, seriously endangered in America, this most hunted of the modern era’s political beasts still survives Down Under, and it goes by the name of George Brandis.

‘I’m a John Stuart Mill man’, Brandis tells me, over too much booze and amazing food at one of Sydney’s oldest political haunts, which is called – wait for it – Machiavelli’s. Brandis is the senator for Queensland for the ruling right-wing Liberal Party, a key cog in the government of Liberal PM Tony Abbott, and, most importantly, the attorney general of Australia. This basically means he’s in charge of Australian law and justice. And since taking office with the election of Abbott in 2013, Brandis has doggedly, and often controversially, devoted himself to reforming the section of the Oz Racial Discrimination Act that forbids people from ‘offending, insulting or humiliating’ a person or group on the basis of their racial or ethnic origins. Why has he done this? Why is he so determined to rip up restrictions on insulting ethnic minorities? Why has he allowed himself to be branded by many on the Australian left as a ‘friend of bigots’ who is using his power to help ‘unleash Australia’s racists’?

‘Because’, he says, ‘if you are going to defend freedom of speech, you have to defend the right of people to say things you would devote your political life to opposing. Your good faith is tested by whether or not you would defend the right to free speech of people with whom you profoundly disagree. That’s the test.’

In an era when European politicians are forever battling it out to see who can outlaw the most forms of ‘hate speech’, when Canada hauls so-called hate speakers before its Human Rights Commission to justify themselves, when students in America and Britain ban, burn or no-platform anything they decree to be hateful – whether it’s Zionist politicians or the pop super-hit ‘Blurred Lines’ – Brandis’s single-minded campaign to rein in Australia’s hate-speech laws is quite something. In fact it feels positively weird to hear a mainstream politician, someone whose face you see in the papers and on TV all the time here, talk about the ‘limits of the state to interfere with the utterance of ideas, beliefs and opinions’, and even to say, as Brandis does to me, that ‘people have the right to be bigots, you know’. Try to imagine a British politician campaigning for, effectively, the freedom to hate; it just wouldn’t happen.

Brandis says he’s been a fan of free speech for ages. He reminds me that in his maiden speech to the Australian Senate, given 14 years ago when he was first elected as senator for Queensland, he let everyone know that ‘one of my most fundamental objectives would be to protect freedom of thought and expression’. He tells me he has long been agitated by ‘the cultural tyranny of political correctness’. But there were two recent, specific things that made him realise just what a mortal threat freedom of speech faces in the modern era and that he would have to dust down his Mill, reread his Voltaire, and up the ante in his war of words against, as he puts it, the transformation of the state into ‘the arbiter of what might be thought’. The first thing was the climate-change debate; and the second is what is known down here as The Andrew Bolt Case.

He describes the climate-change debate – or non-debate, or anti-debate, to be really pedantic but also accurate – as one of the ‘great catalysing moments’ in his views about the importance of free speech. He isn’t a climate-change denier; he says he was ‘on the side of those who believed in anthropogenic global warming and who believed something ought to be done about it’. But he has nonetheless found himself ‘really shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate-change deniers’. He describes as ‘deplorable’ the way climate change has become a gospel truth that you deny or mock at your peril, ‘where one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong’.

He describes how Penny Wong, the Labor Party senator for South Australia and minister for climate change in the Julia Gillard government, would ‘stand up in the Senate and say “The science is settled”. In other words, “I am not even going to engage in a debate with you”. It was ignorant, it was medieval, the approach of these true believers in climate change.’ Wong, whom Brandis tells me is ‘Australia’s high priestess of political correctness’, is far from alone in suffering from what the American journalist Joel Kotkin recently described as ‘The Debate Is Over’ Syndrome. Throughout eco-circles, and among the political and media elites more broadly, the idea that the time for debating climate change is over, and now we just need action, action, action, is widespread. And to Brandis, this speaks to a new and illiberal climate of anti-intellectualism, to the emergence of ‘a habit of mind and mode of discourse which would deny the legitimacy of an alternative point of view, where rather than winning the argument [they] exclude their antagonists from the argument’.

The great irony to this new ‘habit of mind’, he says, is that the eco-correct think of themselves as enlightened and their critics as ‘throwbacks’, when actually ‘they themselves are the throwbacks, because they adopt this almost theological view, this cosmology that eliminates from consideration the possibility of an alternative opinion’. The moral straitjacketing of anyone who raises a critical peep about eco-orthodoxies is part of a growing ‘new secular public morality’, he says, ‘which seeks to impose its views on others, even at the cost of political censorship’.

The second thing that made him sharpen his pen and open his gob about the importance of freedom of speech was the case of Andrew Bolt.

Bolt is one of Australia’s most widely read journalists. He writes a column for the Herald Sun in Melbourne. He riles the hell out of lefties and people who work at the ABC. For British readers, think Richard Littlejohn, but better-read and more cultured. In 2010, he wrote some blog posts for the Herald Sun website criticising the fashion among ‘fair-skinned people’ to claim Aboriginal heritage, under the headlines: ‘It’s so hip to be black’, ‘White is the New Black’ and ‘White Fellas in the Black’. He was sued by nine individuals and was hauled off to court, where he was found to have contravened Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – the bit that forbids ‘offending, insulting or humiliating’ ethnic groups. In a 57,000-word ruling, the judge said Bolt’s articles were ‘insulting’, causing a ‘loss of esteem’ among the people criticised in them, and also slammed ‘the manner in which the articles were written’ and their ‘inflammatory and provocative language’. The Herald Sun was forced by the court to publish a notice declaring that publication of the articles had been ‘unlawful’.*

Brandis is stinging about this case. The judge ‘engaged in an act of political censorship’, he says, with a journalist ‘prohibited from expressing a point of view’. The reason Brandis is so keen to ditch the bit of the Racial Discrimination Act that allowed such a flagrant act of ideological censure to take place in twenty-first-century Australia is because while it is justified as a guard against outbursts of dangerous racism, actually it allows the state to police and punish legitimate public speech and debate. ‘And the moment you establish the state as the arbiter of what might be said, you establish the state as the arbiter of what might be thought, and you are right in the territory that George Orwell foreshadowed’, he says.

So currently, Brandis is on a mission to reform Section 18C. He wants to remove the words ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’, but he is willing to leave in the stipulation against ‘intimidation’ of a person or group on the basis of their ethnic origins. He’s receiving colossal flak from what we might call Australia’s chattering classes. They accuse him of standing up for bigots. He didn’t help himself when he said in the Senate a couple of weeks ago that people do have the right to be bigots. That unleashed a tsunami of ridicule, even from some of his supporters. But he tells me he has no regrets. ‘I don’t regret saying that because in this debate, sooner or later – and better sooner than later – somebody had to make the Voltaire point; somebody had to make the point [about] defending the right to free speech of people with whom you profoundly disagree.’

Brandis says there are two reasons he’s bent on overhauling Section 18C. The first is because it expands the authority of state into the realm of thought, where it should never tread, he says. ‘There is a deeper question here, about the role of the state. To what extent should the state be the arbiter of what people can think? Now of course, the state is the arbiter of what people can do. The state, to use the most straightforward example imaginable, prohibits murder. It is the role of government to protect the weak from the strong. But this is about whether it is the role of government to tell people what they may think. In my view, freedom of speech, by which I mean the freedom to express and articulate beliefs and opinions, is a necessary and essential precondition of political freedom.’

And the second reason he wants Section 18C massively trimmed is because he believes censorship is the worst possible tool for tackling backward thinking. ‘As you know, Brendan, John Stuart Mill, particularly in chapter 2 of On Liberty, made the case better than anyone has made it before or since that the best way for the public to be enlightened, for wicked opinions to be exposed for what they are, is to get them out in the cold light of day and let there be a contest of ideas. Let people judge, having heard the contest of ideas, what views are right and supportable, and what views are wrong.

‘It is much better that we arrive at a community position on difficult social issues that way than some bureaucrat or human-rights commissioner or politician or public servant tells us what we’re allowed to think and say. Political censorship is always wrong, not just because it is an assault on liberty, but because it is actually ineffective. The best way to popularise a political opinion is to censor it!’

In short, he wants restrictions on speech lifted because they both prevent people from expressing themselves and also rob the public of the right to discuss and pass judgement on various ideas; because they both censor the individual and disempower the demos. I can get behind that. It remains to be seen, of course, how successful his agitation against the worst parts of Section 18C will be – the pressure on him to shelve his plans is intense.

As befits a Liberal attorney general who loathes PC, Brandis is scathing about the left. And that’s understandable. After all, what passes for the left in modern Australia, in both journalism and campaigning circles, has been angrily slamming as dangerous and bigoted his plans to reform Section 18C, with GuardianAustralia (yep, they’re down here now, too) accusing him of ‘giving racists a free rein’. ‘The left has embraced a new authoritarianism’, he says. ‘Having abandoned the attempt to control the commanding heights of the economy, they now want to control the commanding heights of opinion, and that is even more dangerous.’

However, he’s sussed enough to know that this is something new, that the left’s turn against freedom of speech is a pretty recent thing: ‘It’s a complete inversion. The right, until maybe the 1970s or 80s, used to be on the side of censorship, and the left used to be on the side of liberation. That has inverted in the last 20 or 30 years. Now it is the left, in the name of political correctness, in the name of this kind of new secular public morality, which seeks to impose its views on others, even at the cost of political censorship. And it is the right, traditionally more authoritarian than the left, which has become the custodian of classical liberalism.

‘The idea of there being a public morality which the state should at least endorse, if not enforce, used to be associated with the Tory point of view, the right-wing point of view. The idea of non-conformism and free speech used to be associated with the left, and particularly the radical left. Now, the left has adopted a reasonably comprehensive secular morality of its own, which it now seeks to impose upon society. And it’s prepared to impose that secular morality on society at the cost of the freedom of speech which it once espoused. So there has been a very profound change in intellectual history in our lifetimes.’

Brandis is generous enough to recognise that ‘most of the great social causes in the years since the Second World War were led by the left’. ‘Women’s liberation, gay liberation, wars of national liberation in the Third World – the language was the language of enlarging freedom, for oppressed groups or individuals or countries.’ But now, he says, ‘the left has abandoned the discourse of liberation… because they have a new construct which is all to do with power relationships in society. They are so concerned with rearranging power relationships, so as to disempower the empowered and elevate the disempowered, that they are prepared in the service of that end to sacrifice liberty. Nowadays, they regard liberty as the defence mechanism of the empowered.’ Indeed, in a recent TV discussion here about Section 18C, one firebrand leftist described free speech as something that only serves ‘old white rich men’. That’s how much of the left now views free speech – as a tool of the empowered, a cynical con that allows pampered folks only to say what they think. With such a deeply cynical view of perhaps the most important political value, one which earlier leftists fought tooth-and-nail to defend, it is little wonder that the right can now claim supreme moral authority over freedom of speech – that authority has been ceded to them by a left that has ditched its old free-wheelin’, state-suspicious beliefs in favour of seeking to control thought and speech in the name of protecting the environment, pacifying the public and maintaining social order; something the right was once obsessed with doing.

Brandis isn’t defending racists, as his illiberal critics claim; he’s defending the Enlightenment-era principle that the state shouldn’t get to determine what people can think and say. As another bottle of wine arrives, he returns to Mill: ‘He said the only limitation on the freedom of the individual should be when he causes harm to others. Hearing views that you find offensive or outrageous or insulting is not a form of harm. If it is admitted to be a form of harm, then freedom of speech, freedom of discourse, intellectual freedom and political freedom become impossible.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and currently scholar-in-residence for the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

*This article originally said that Andrew Bolt’s controversial articles on Aboriginal heritage have been removed from the Herald Sun‘s website. In fact they remain on the website but are preceded by a court-ordered notice informing readers that publication of the articles had been ‘unlawful’ because the articles did ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate some Aboriginal persons’. This has now been corrected.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today