The Conservative Crusade Against 18C Was Never About Free Speech

It was a tedious inevitability, given the circumstances, but it’s finally happened: Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that his government will seek to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which outlaws speech which “insults” and “offends” people on the basis of race.

Of course, the first thing to remember here is that there’s a very small subsection of people in this country who actually give a shit about changing the law. Most people in Australia – even the racist ones, yeah – are more preoccupied with more immediate material concerns than a law which mostly pestered media types who make six figures. You’d think they were the only people affected, given the media attention. If you’re struggling to pay a mortgage or pay your bills, the “chilling effect” of the law on the columns of Andrew Bolt probably isn’t your biggest immediate concern.

The precise wording of a race hate law is the kind of moral crusade only really appealing to the people who have the time and inclination to deeply ponder the precise wording of race hate laws: the old, the wealthy, the white.
It speaks to the priorities of a government who are incapable of addressing very real problems in this country, and seem only capable of fecklessly waging culture war. Clawing back some support from the kind of mutants who believe their right to insult on the basis of race is somehow fundamental to a functional civil society feels like the last fetid breath of policy energy this Coalition government has in it.
The death of Bill Leak two weeks ago was followed by the most moronic discourse imaginable – the idiotic conservatives who demanded a change to the law on the basis that the stress generated by its existence somehow killed Leak. Colossally moronic letters to this effect splashed across the pages of The Australian, recommending that changes to 18C be called Bill Leak’s Law. 
The very same people who believe that racist abuse and the kind of dehumanising expression exemplified by Leak’s later work are ultimately harmless free speech were very quick to suggest that it was the wording of a law which ultimately killed him. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me – unless, of course, that word is ‘racist’.
Completely shocking, isn’t it, that the scattering of cases lodged under 18C are so odious that they require immediate and drastic action to change the law – but when a 13-year-old boy takes his own life due to homophobic bullying, no systemic or legal action is required. When an Indigenous person is subjected to “unprofessional and inhumane” abuse by police leading to her death, no structural or legal changes need to be considered. Funny, isn’t it?
If conservatives and politicians really wanted to address a “chilling” effect on free speech, they’d invest their time and tireless campaigning into reforming Australia’s absurdly restrictive defamation law, which is often wielded by those wealthy enough to go for it. Legal commentator Richard Ackland wrote that Australian defamation law had “descended into this terrible dead end of technicalities and complexity” and decisions that had “wiped out whole areas of defence, such as comment or opinion”.

Even George Brandis, who stood beside Turnbull as he announced the effort to reform 18C, has in the past argued that people ought to be able to put an injunction on media stories they believe defame them before they are even published. Somehow that’s perfectly fine, but two words in a race hate act are a catastrophic restriction on speech. Even when the case law establishes that ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ only apply the cases with ‘severe and profound effects’.

That’s where we’re at. A legion of cantankerous conservatives with far too much time on their hands arguing that a race hate law is the deepest intrusion upon free speech imaginable, a Prime Minister who aids and abets them, and a whole bunch of minorities in Australia who have to put up with it. It was never about free speech.
What a time to be alive indeed.
Photo: Getty Images.