Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Left goes missing in defence of free speech Editorial The Oz 19/12

The Left goes missing in defence of free speech

THERE is, sadly, only a small and quiet constituency for press freedom and free speech in this country.
It is probably smaller in number and softer in voice than the inner-urban hipster brigade, with its advocacy for bicycle lanes, graffiti-artist festivals, bushy beards, single-origin coffee and the playing of nuclear-free whale music.
Whatever the price-tag, there are niche support groups for faster internet pipes via the National Broadband Network, for the public broadcaster to push boutique green-Left propaganda and for tougher anti-discrimination laws.
But where are the champions, many of whom are leaders in the academy, media and social movements, when the most important human right of all, free speech, is under an all-out assault?
That question naturally comes to mind following the appointment by Attorney-General George Brandis of Tim Wilson to the Human Rights Commission as "freedom commissioner", a novel promise made in opposition. On Tuesday, Senator Brandis said the move would "restore the balance" to the commission, which under Labor had become "increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights".
Certainly when the former Labor government proposed tough new media regulations, the HRC did not spring to the defence of the press. Nor did the rights-seeking political Left, which chooses the freedoms it likes and the boutique groups it believes should be protected.
Senator Brandis told The Australian that human rights is "core business" for the Abbott government and has instructed Mr Wilson to focus on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which outlines freedom of expression.
"It is my firm intention to ensure that the real human rights, in particular the fundamental human freedoms, are restored to the heart of the human rights debate where they belong," the Attorney-General said.
Mr Wilson has established a public profile for his libertarian opinion writing and research on climate change policy, intellectual property and free trade at the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne.
He was also at the forefront of opposing the Gillard government's aggressive attempts to limit press freedom (in the wake of its misguided and malign act to have a media inquiry). Mr Wilson spoke up against the unhelpful amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act by former attorney-general Nicola Roxon that nobble free speech and the muddle-headed attempt by former communications minister Stephen Conroy to introduce an internet filter.
As well, he has supported artistic expression in the face of censorship. Writing on our opinion page yesterday, Mr Wilson argued that free speech was the human right most being neglected: "It is the human right necessary to protect and defend all other human rights." Naturally, we could not agree more.
Mr Wilson's appointment has aroused protest. He was a member of the Liberal Party. The IPA is a strong supporter of business, advocating less regulation, lower taxes and smaller government, promoting individual liberty rather than collectivist values. Mr Wilson has previously called for the abolition of the HRC. Bizarrely, which means true to form, the Greens have said the Abbott government cannot be trusted to "look out for all Australians" because it has highlighted the importance of free speech.
Yet Senator Brandis has erred in this appointment, but not for giving primacy to freedom of expression. It is highly provocative. Choosing Mr Wilson has been a red rag to the bearded bulls of the twittersphere, progressive causes and leftist media spruikers at the ABC, Fairfax Media and the web publishers.
Just as the previous Rudd government made a mistake in July when it named political philosopher, Left activist and Labor staffer Tim Soutphommasane as Race Discrimination Commissioner, the Coalition has chosen a high-profile and effective partisan warrior as freedom commissioner. The opposition's legal affairs spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, said the move displayed a "blatant political agenda". It's hard to disagree. Still, both new commissioners are in their early 30s and their lives have been spent in the rarefied worlds of academia, party politics, policy think thanks and media celebrity, across every platform. Surely attorneys on both sides of the political divide could have opted for men or women of broader life and career experience in these instances? That aside, the reaction to Mr Wilson's elevation is in sharp contrast to the way Dr Soutphommasane's appointment was greeted, particularly at the national broadcaster.
The ABC reported Senator Brandis being on the defensive about his choice of Mr Wilson, who was "from one of Australia's most conservative think tanks". The IPA is hardly conservative and, in any case, Mr Wilson is a classic liberal, who is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage. Five months ago, Dr Soutphommasane was described in an ABC report as a mere "political commentator" and an award-winning writer, while being praised by HRC president Gillian Triggs as an "influential thinker".
His previous role at a progressive think tank was reduced to "a fellow of Per Capita". So far, there's no sign of creating a hypocrisy commissioner, although in the spirit of Voltaire, The Australian will always stoutly defend the right of Greens, Labor, Liberal and Nationals politicians, even stray ABC broadcasters, to freely express themselves

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