I had never met the Minister for Finance in NSW, Dominic Perrottet, and knew little about him when I went to hear him launch Brendan O’Neill’s first Australian book, A Duty to
Offend (Connor Court) in the Jubilee Room of the NSW Parliament House. I am now sure he is a politician to watch. A speaker to look out for. O’Neill said that no politician in the UK is as outspoken as Perrottet in defence of full-on free speech.Certainly no other Australian politician is. The Menzies Research Centre hosted the event. Bill Leak, artist and cartoonist, was there. So were Tim Wilson, Sophie York of Marriage Alliance Australia, and a number of conservative MPs and staffers. What drew them to listen to a ‘British Marxist atheist libertarian’?
The launching followed close on O’Neill’s punchy performance on Q&A when he enraged the Lefties by his skepticism about gay marriage (he sees the Irish referendum as a triumph for State controls); on Dyson Heydon (an absurd controversy about nothing); intrusive taxation, or whatever. But this is his third visit to Australia where he now has a growing following who despair of the mindless orthodoxy of the politically correct establishment and the failure of politicians, journalists and intellectuals to rebut it. His current tour is, as Nick Cater put it: a ‘Brendan O’Neill Festival.’ He pops up and is applauded everywhere – at think-tanks, universities, public meetings, even the ABC. This former editor of Living Marxism has revived the old Marxist enthusiasm for capitalist development and is filling a vacuum in Australian polemics. No wonder the Fairfax media hate him, Perrottet said, to loud guffaws. O’Neill has hit a nerve ‘because he marches into the strongholds of leftwing thought in Australia and does something that rarely happens: he exposes them to another point of view’! It is too much for some to take. The essays in A Duty to Offend will also be hard to take because his ideas are, according to PC dogma, ‘no longer open for debate’! Everywhere we look, Perrottet went on, free speech is being watered down, often in the name a ‘tolerance’ which forbids ‘offensive’ ideas. Mainstream Christian teaching is often denounced as hate speech. Perrottet concluded : ‘My call to conservatives is to be like Brendan O’Neill and not be intimidated by the forces of political correctness. It is important to speak out because you can’t underestimate the ripple effect one voice can have.’
Speaking after Perrottet, O’Neill declared that Australia is losing its edge. When he first came here some years ago, he found the old clichés about Australians were still true. They were outspoken, free and easy, and did not worry about political correctness. But even in the past couple of weeks three incidents have illustrated how all this is changing. One is the monstering of Mark Latham mainly by, as O’Neill sees it, crazy radical feminists. Another is the refusal of Coles supermarket to sell the so-called ‘lads’ magazine’ Zoo Weekly. (Woolworth’s still sells it.) The third straw in the wind is the cancellation of a tour by the Californian rapper Tyler following the charge that he celebrates sexual violence against women. Australia, O’Neill counter-charges, will now use any excuse to close down free speech and is increasingly being run by ‘boring illiberal tossers.’ There are two chapters in A Duty to Offend on Senator Brandis. In one he congratulates the Attorney on his Voltairean fight against the censorship of offensive words under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. (In a free society, Brandis had said, you have the right to be a bigot if you are silly enough.) In the other chapter O’Neill deplores the government’s final capitulation to censorious supporters of 18C. Its about-face, he writes, is ‘a dark day for Australia.’ Censorship doesn’t work. Twenty years ago France banned Holocaust denial; today it has a major anti-Semitism problem.There are several chapters that will surely offend ‘illiberal tossers’. One is about the defenestration of Barry Spurr, professor of poetry at Sydney University, for racist jibes which Stasi-like hackers found in his private emails. Others are ‘Coal Pride’, ‘The Trouble with Gay Marriage’, ‘The Multicultural Conceit’, ‘Kant vs the Koran’.
I do not agree with O’Neill that there should never be any restrictions of any kind on freedom of speech. I am with Perrottet who declares: ‘No one is arguing that people should be gratuitously offensive.’ That is why we have always had libel laws and the benign mandates of civility. But few have spoken so well as O’Neill about not just the right but the duty to offend.
Talking of which, one observer of an earlier age who gave great offence to the politically correct of his day was B.A. Santamaria whose cool but fascinating biography – Santamaria (Miegunya Press) – has just been published by Gerard Henderson. Several labels have been pinned on ‘Santa’. Henderson’s subtitle is ‘A Most Unusual Man.’ One reviewer, Peter Westmore, who worked alongside Santamaria for over 20 years, calls him ‘a remarkable man.’ These labels are correct enough. But they do not catch that touch of genius Santamaria brought
to his political analysis. Tony Abbott labeled him ‘a magnificent failure.’ That is closer to the truth of the matter.
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