Leading article Australia

18C… now what?

12 November 2016

9:00 AM

12 November 2016

9:00 AM

The action of Judge Michael Jarratt in throwing out the prosecution brought by the Australian Human Rights Commission of Queensland University of Technology students Alex Wood, Calum Thwaites and Jackson Powell, who were facing damages of $250,000 plus costs under section 18C of the of the Racial Discrimination Act, is a well-merited humiliation for the Turnbull Government which has refused to consider repealing or amending the Act.

Judge Jarrett ruled that the claim brought against the three students, who had complained that they were not allowed to use unsigned computers reserved for indigenous students, cannot proceed to trial in the Federal Court.

Despite repeated criticisms by some of the best public and legal minds in the country, not to mention this magazine’s finest columnists, Turnbull did nothing as the months went by to remove this infamous piece of legislation from the Statutes. Turnbull is left with no excuse for having allowed matters to proceed to this state under a plainly indefensible law. While Abbott is also not free of blame, he has recently expressed regret he did not repeal 18C when Prime Minister.

Some supporters of 18C will claim the decision actually justifies it, as it allegedly suggests the Section does not need to be changed to prevent injustice and that frivolous, vexatious or deluded claims will be struck out. This is mere perversity and flies in the face of common sense. The AHRC plainly considered the complaint ought to be pursued, and did so with all the resources of the Australian Treasury behind it. While 18C stands, it may well, given its record, feel the same about future complaints.

Before the judge’s decision, the Queensland students had been heavily punished for nothing at all, and were faced with the prospect of ruined lives. Further, a decision widely considered to be patently unjust was reached by a different court in the Andrew Bolt affair, and the truly shocking Bill Leak case, reminiscent of totalitarian States, is yet to be decided. The lawyer for two of the students, Tony Morris, said outside the court that if Gillian Triggs (head of the AHRC and this week’s cover girl) had any decency she would resign.

Judge Jarratt’s decision is a shot in the arm for defenders of liberty, as well as throwing a glaring light on one aspect of Turnbull’s shortcomings as the Prime Minister of a liberal democracy. Turnbull has seemed quite indifferent to both the assault on freedom of expression, which means the assault on liberty generally, posed by the legislation, but also its role in the progressive infantilisation of the culture, treating us all as children who cannot bear to be criticised or insulted, but must be kept wrapped in cotton-wool. Others have made the point that it is a patronising and racist view of Aborigines that they cannot bear any criticism and must be protected from it by the law.

Already in Britain, under similar legislation, there have been prosecutions for kindergarten children exchanging playground insults and the arrest of a political speaker for quoting Winston Churchill’s 1899 strictures on Islam. A school-girl was arrested and spent time in jail for asking her teacher if she could do a group assignment with English-speaking students. Can we rely on all our courts to be no less stupid or vindictive whilst fortified by 18C?

The QUT case has taken away three and a half years of these young people’s lives at a time when those years are particularly precious; the process is the punishment. There are reports of 18C cases where the luckless defendants have paid to settle out of court to avoid the ignominy. The potential for abuse of process is clear.

Mr Turnbull did not lift a finger to prevent the QUT prosecution, or to reform the legislation or the AHRC before the decision, claiming that the government was too busy to be concerned with such a triviality as freedom of speech. Even if, in the face of growing public outrage, he now moves to do something, such as referring 18c or the whole AHRC to a committee of enquiry, he cannot wipe out his past record of public indifference to the issue. Coalition back-benchers in the Senate are reported to be nearly unanimous in their opposition to 18C. If they can muster the gumption to do something about it, it may be a step towards the Liberal Party regaining its honour.

Trump wins

Alone among the Australian media, this magazine (and its readers) anticipated and looked forward to the likelihood of a Trump victory, depsite the smug certainties to the contrary of the ABC, the mainstream media and all other expert commentators. So forgive us this moment of self-indulgence, but we told ya so.

The post 18C… now what? appeared first on The Spectator.

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