My first action, after the initial wave of nauseated disbelief had passed, was to check on Google to see if the story could somehow, possibly, be true.
It was true. Something called the Australian Japanese Community Network is bringing an action under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act against a monument at the Ashfield Uniting Church commemorating the 200, 000 women – mainly Korean – forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese for the benefit of their troops during World War II.
The AJCN claims the memorial evokes hatred against Japanese. It said in an earlier statement: “We … have a very serious reason to oppose the statue but it appears that neither the Korean group nor [Ashfield priest] Rev [Bill] Crews is prepared for a rational discussion.” Yes, I’m sure they have serious reasons, and it is surely rational that they would wish the women’s suffering to be expunged from public memory.
Reverend Crews, in whose church the memorial is erected, said he would fight “with every fibre of my being” to keep the monument. “If they want to take me to court let them, I don’t think they have a case at all,” he said. “Dreadful things happen during war and we need to remember those things so that they don’t happen again.” I am as a rule no fan of the Uniting Church but in this case he is dead right.
Section 18c is a toxically bad law, breaking all the rules of good draftsmanship. The Andrew Bolt, QUT and Bill Leak cases have already shown its shortcomings, but the Comfort Women case shows just how grossly bad and how opposed to the public interest it is. Now like a cancer, it has metastasised.
18c has been condemned by some of the best legal brains in Australia, and some of the country’s best writers (including the Spectator’s stable). But I doubt even they guessed in their most pessimistic moments that it would come to this. I certainly didn’t, though I foresaw the wide-ranging banning of books if the legislation was allowed to stand.
It is conceivable that the action will succeed. Judge Jarrad’s action in booting out the complaint against the Queensland University Students was a shot in the arm for the beleaguered cause of freedom of speech, but, as Professor James Alan and others have pointed out, it was the decision of a junior court and does not affect the principles behind the legislation.
Nor did Judge Jarred have freedom to find the law was actually wrong. His decision was based on reasoning that a prosecution could not, on the facts, succeed.
The law can only be thrown out by parliament, and Prime Minister Turnbull, with hundreds of senior lawyers at his disposal in the public service and in parliament itself, who could easily have the amending legislation drafted, has refused to act.
This case emphasises just how indivisible freedom is, and the consequences for freedom in Australia while this law remains on the statute books.
If it is found to be illegal to mention the Japanese mistreatment of women in World War II – a historical fact, not a matter of controversy or dispute – there seems no reason why it should not be made equally illegal to mention the Japanese mistreatment, starvation, torture and massacres of Australian prisoners-of-war, including nurses, in the same war.
Will it become illegal, for fear of hurting Japanese feelings, to mention that out of about 22,000 Australian Prisoners of War, more than 8,000 –well over one in three – died in captivity, apart from other Allied POWs with comparable death-rates and literally countless natives? Given the latest case, this hardly seems far-fetched.
If it becomes illegal to mention Japanese atrocities, the process would seem to be open-ended. As John Updike put it: “In bins of textbooks, holocausts lie stacked … “
In Canada, on the way to the Toronto airport, there is a large black marble monolith, a memorial to the thousands of Polish officers massacred by the Russians at Katyn. Would such a monument be illegal in Australia if the Japanese case is upheld? And if not, why not?
Then, of course, there might follow the outlawing of what is referred to as “Islamophobia.” This is by no means far-fetched. Already in Belgium a leading politician and party leader, Gert Wilders, has been prosecuted and convicted for this “crime.”
I have not yet mentioned what is probably the most egregious example of all: the Nazi Holocaust. Several countries, including Germany, have made denying the Holocaust a crime. Is Australia going to criminalise mentioning it?
What would the moral and legal difference be between an action seeking to ban a memorial to Japanese sex slavery and one seeking to ban a memorial to those who died slaving on the Burma Railway – or in Auschwitz? Presumably were it located in Australia instead of Jerusalem, the Jewish museum and memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, might also be the target of a Section 18c action, should the family of some Auschwitz guard encouraged by some bureaucrat in the human rights industry with an eye to empire-building have the … er … chutzpah … to launch one.
Of course, it needn’t stop with memorials. Even films and novels – what about Biggles’s talk of Huns? – as well as histories, memoirs and biographies, set in World War II or the Cold War, might attract the attention of plaintiffs with an eye on hefty damages for insulted feelings.
Must the greater part of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra come down?
Several leading members of Australia’s Jewish community, including good friends of mine, have argued strongly against abolishing 18c. With the greatest respect to them, and with full understanding of and sympathy with, the historical reasons for this posaition, I believe that by pressing for its retention they may be making a rod for their own backs. It can be used to prevent the criticism of things which are fully in need of criticism, such as the multi-faceted attack on Israel. Defending a country like Israel necessarily means criticising groups sworn to its annihilation.
The Japanese case has graphically demonstrated how huge is the potential for censorship and how widespread is the threat to freedom. With every day that passes with 18c remaining on the Statute books, the more settled the habit of unfreedom becomes and the more deeply Australia is disgraced and its people threatened.
Illustration: Paramount Television