Catholicism can be ridiculously simple. Confess your sins in a spirit of true repentance and — te absolvo — you are forgiven. Politics, alas, is more complicated.
After George Brandis uttered his famous “People do have a right to be bigots, you know” in March 2014 in response to a question on proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act in March 2014, a conspiracy theory arose. The remark was a deliberate move to sabotage the process by indulging in high school debating level theatrics.
It was ridiculous, of course. The learned Attorney does not like to be the subject of mockery for starters. But from that moment on the reform process was as good as dead and all the efforts of Coalition parliamentarians such as Dean Smith, crossbenchers BobDay and David Leyonhjelm, the Institute of Public Affairs and a compendium of columnists and commentators have been unlikely to revive it.
Enter Tony Abbott, Captain Catholic.
On Friday night, in Adelaide, while addressing the Samuel Griffith Society, he had a confession to make. His government had been too ambitious with its changes to the RDA. It should have simply focussed on the most contentious clauses, section 18c.
“Section 18C … prohibits what might ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on racial grounds,” he said.
“This is a troubling law. At its worst, it limits free speech merely to prevent hurt feelings.
“John Howard opposed it when Paul Keating introduced it but didn’t repeal it in government.
“After the successful prosecution of Andrew Bolt, I promised to ‘repeal it in its current form’ but reneged after fierce criticism from Liberal premiers and a wall of opposition in the Senate … Perhaps the cause of free speech would have fared better if my government’s initial bid had been merely to drop ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ while leaving prohibitions on the more serious harms.”
It was Abbott at his best; a full and frank admission he had blundered.
It was also Abbott at his most exasperating. If he could see his error now, why was it not apparent two and a half years ago?
As his speech continued, the consequences of his blunder became clearer. “As things stand, there’s no real prospect of change – even though several young Queenslanders are now facing official persecution merely for questioning reverse discrimination on social media and the Race Discrimination Commissioner is now itching to prosecute our best-known cartoonist.
“As things stand, there’s no real prospect of change – even though several young Queenslanders are now facing official persecution merely for questioning reverse discrimination on social media and the Race Discrimination Commissioner is now itching to prosecute our best-known cartoonist.
“The decency and fair-mindedness of the Australian people will always be a better defence against hate speech than a law administered by ideological partisans – yet our parliament prefers to tolerate over-the-top prosecutions than to upset thin-skinned activists.”
Abbott has confessed. I suppose we must say “Te absolvo” — if we have proof of true repentance. This is usually demonstrated with an act of contrition.
Captain Catholic confessed his 18c sin in Friday’s speech. Now he must make his act of contrition. He must demonstrate his admission of error was only the beginning. He must make amends. He must continue to use his position as a former prime minister to press for an end to an ugly stricture on free speech.