Australia’s race commissioner Tim Soutphommasane is taking on an Orwellian mission this week, telling members of parliament they need to keep free speech restrictions in place to protect liberal values.
The debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is heating up ahead of a parliamentary committee report into the law due to be released later this month.
Soutphommasane is not in favour of any change. He believes the law is working as it was intended, and that it does not place an unacceptable limitation on freedom of speech. Despite Andrew Bolt. Despite Bill Leak. Despite the Ashfield Uniting Church. Despite Alex Wood and Calum Thwaites.
Soutphommasane has been touring Parliament House this week arguing: ‘It’s clear we can no longer take liberal values of tolerance, equality and non-discrimination for granted.’
It is true that values cannot be taken for granted. If you think your values are important and worthy of promotion you must be ever-vigilant.
But tolerance, equality and non-discrimination are ideas. They are mindsets. And laws can’t change people’s minds. Only individual liberty can facilitate that kind of change. Because when we have the freedom to express our own opinions, we are able to convince others of the truth of our own position.
Arguing for a law to shut down those with whom you disagree is an admission that your arguments are insufficient. It is a public confession that you are incapable of using reason to convince another person of something which you believe to be true.
Australia’s race commissioner should have more confidence than to fly the white flag in the face of actual racism, and he should also have the fortitude and honesty to acknowledge that where a section 18C complaint is brought in a context in which no such sentiment exists the law restricts legitimate public debate.
But it’s even worse than that.
Soutphommasane’s argument is not just that section 18C should not be repealed – he goes further by arguing there shouldn’t even be a debate about whether the provision should be repealed. He was explicit about this in comments reported by The Guardian this week: ‘It causes immense anxiety for many to be having this debate when the times are so challenging for race relations.’
Advocating retreat from debate in the face of ‘challenging times’ reveals an extraordinary degree of impotence. If you’re passionate about your values, have the confidence to debate them.
Simon Breheny is director of policy at the Institute of Public Affairs.
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