Thanks to a petty official in a politically-correct administrative unit buried deep in the bowels of the Queensland University of Technology, there’s been yet another periodic eruption of that Vesuvius of conservative causes, section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act.
This time, it wasn’t a column by Andrew Bolt that led to trouble at t’race relations mill. Hell no. It was just a few intemperate Facebook posts by some uni students who were turned away from a computer room reserved for Aboriginal (sorry, Indigenous) students. The complainant was the room attendant who told the boys to bugger off.
The poor, poor woman was so sickened and distressed by these posts, including one not unreasonably wondering whether such segregated facilities are appropriate in institutions of higher learning that loudly proclaim themselves bastions of equality. It seems that the complainant, one Cindy Prior, was shocked to the point she claimed they gave her cause to suffer ‘offence, embarrassment, humiliation and psychiatric’ injury that only can be mollified by using 18C to extract $250,000 compensation from the university.
Putting aside the absurdity of a computer room being a safe haven for Aboriginal students, however, there’s no doubt the Facebook posts were written in the heat of a moment and presumably regretted by pimply youths who forgot that in cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream.
Almost certainly the Facebook venting arose from frustration with petty officialdom, as yielded by a functionary so low down the totem pole that her taking action under 18C seems almost a proof to herself that she really, really matters. Frankly, she doesn’t.
But if you read the torrent of righteous indignation erupting from the 18C volcano you’d be forgiven for thinking she matters very much indeed. Last week, the Australian ran no less than three articles in two days about Ms Prior’s conviction that she had been hard done by: the Institute of Public Affairs’ excellent Simon Breheny, Oz columnist and conservative warrior Janet Albrechtsen, and Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson all weighed in, condemning the absurdity of Ms Prior’s complaint and calling for the reform or repeal of hated section 18C. The most famous 18C victim, Andrew Bolt, blogged Mr Wilson’s article approvingly as well.
They all have prior convictions about Ms Prior’s moral convictions. No doubt the Speccie’s own 18C man, University of Queensland professor James Allan, is also champing at the bit both to add his clarion call and to ridicule (with great justification) the political correctness rampant across the river at QUT.
There’s no question that these all very sound libertarian and conservative thinkers are right about the inequities, and iniquities, of the reviled 18C. It should never have made it to the statute book, let alone become the plaything of every Tom, Abdullah and Cindy who take real or imagined offence at the slightest provocation, losing all perspective and proportion in the process.
But directing their anger against a hapless nobody misses a very fundamental, and more disturbing, point.
This is not about the folly of section 18C and the motives of people who either believe it has a social purpose or it’s there to try and extract a quid. Free speechers should really be directing their anger at those so-called conservative politicians who claim to believe in free speech and the rights of the individual, yet do nothing because they’re afraid of electoral backlash or don’t really believe in any free speech other than their own. Or both.
After almost three years, it’s clear personal freedoms have never been high on the Coalition government’s priority list. Before the 2013 election, Tony Abbott made a big thing of repealing 18C and upholding freedom of speech, because that’s what his conservative supporters wanted to hear and he wanted to contrast himself from the oh-so-politically correct Labor-Green rule of Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Bob Brown.
In government, Abbott first prevaricated and then washed his hands of it. He cited the risk of inciting ethnic and religious tensions while grappling with the appalling threats of Isil and Islamist terror. But, in reacting to events like the Lindt café atrocity as well as Isil’s barbarity in Iraq and Syria, Abbott let himself be overzealous about restraining free speech, and winding back personal liberties in his Churchillian conception of national security. He and his advisers forgot what they were defending: the very rights of freedom of speech, thought and association that make our tolerant, pluralistic society what it is.
As for Malcolm Turnbull and his ‘don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’ rhetoric, he wants to be PM for the centre-left progressives with whom his personal values most align. In Turnbull World, freedom of expression is for artists like Bill Henson, not the rest of us. One may think that, riding high in the polls, Turnbull will go where Abbott feared to tread on 18C, but he won’t offend the luvvies.
The unwanted continuance of 18C irritates, but isn’t the real issue. It, and episodes such as l’affaire Prior are merely symptoms of an intellectual and political courage disease infecting centre-right politicians. Rather than giving legitimacy to petty grievances of an insignificant university employee, conservative commentators instead should be decrying the dying of truly conservative values under a nominally conservative government.
That freedom of speech, thought and expression aren’t defended by many of our elected representatives is the real shame of 18C. That the conservative side of politics is proving anything but sound in upholding these fundamental freedoms is what most needs highlighting by conservative commentators and thinkers. Because of their standing and influence, because they get listened to, it’s the Bolts, Albrechtsens and Wilsons who best are able to hold to account those in power who curtail those – our – freedoms.
Instead of directing their outrage at those seeking to take advantage of the grievance industry, they should shame the politicians whose masterly inactivity keep it there.
Terry Barnes is a regular contributor and former adviser to Tony Abbott
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