In a move that shocked Andrew Bolts everywhere, Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week announced that he was no longer pursuing a repeal to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
He framed the decision to give it up as a “leadership call”, making him sound strong and principled even though that was pretty much the opposite of what it was. (Try using that phrase in your real life! “I made a leadership call to trip over that bit of floor.” “I made a leadership call to have my identity stolen and my bank accounts cleared.”)
So why all the fuss? Or, more accurately, why all the media articles about people-being-fussed-even-though-we-can’t-really-find-anyone-who-doesn’t-have-a-nationally-syndicated-column-and-television-show-and-whose-name-rhymes-with-Shmandrew-Jolt-who-cares-about-it?
18C of the Racial Discrimination Act says that it is unlawful for a person to perform an act in public that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person or a group of people on the basis of their race, colour, nationality or ethnicity.
This is, of course, a massive blow to free speech, much in the same way that not being allowed to accuse your business competitors of being child pornographers, or shout “fire” in a crowded theatre also impinges on our ability to say whatever we want whenever we want.
The Abbott Government was determined to repeal 18C because it was apparently a “complication” in the Government’s relationship with the Australian Muslim community in a time when it’s trying to strengthen counter-terrorism measures. Which is odd, because as Waleed Aly pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, Muslims are just about the only group not protected by the law. It would be interesting to hear more details about how exactly this negotiation took place: “If you guarantee you won’t repeal this law that doesn’t protect us, we won’t directly oppose your efforts to protect Australia which, as Muslims, is our wont. Also, if you could mention us in your speech to give bigots more of a reason to fear our growing influence in Australian politics, that would be aces.”
In truth, repealing the law would have been costly and unpopular, and there are only so many costly and unpopular things you can do as a government before you have to start some curating.
But to Abbott’s credit, he took the feelings of the electorate into consideration when he chose not to repeal the section. He called each and every person who would be negatively affected by this decision, taking the time to speak to each of them on the phone before he announced it publicly.
I’ll save you the trouble of googling the punchline: he phoned Andrew Bolt.
Bolt then published his reaction to Abbott’s speech before Abbott had given it, raising a lot of eyebrows in the media, to which Chris Kenny, Australia’s own Edward R Murrow, responded with typical calm reason. When a Labor leader gives a chummy ABC reporter advance warning on a policy shift, you can bet Kenny won’t stand for any conservative numpties getting all Watergatey! But I digress.
As someone who lost a court battle over 18C, Bolt was understandably upset when he heard about it before anyone else.
Naturally, he is angry that Abbott went back on his promise. I haven’t had time to check, but I think we can assume that Bolt was equally furious about other broken promises by the Abbott Government, such as “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”, “we will not shut down Medicare Locals”, “no cuts to education, health or pensions”, and “no, seriously, it doesn’t matter what condition the budget is in when we get into office, we’re not going to break our promises, LOL”.
Enough about Bolt, even though he’s really the only one apparently suffering here. The decision on the part of the Abbott Government to repeal 18C was less about promoting free speech as much as currying further favour with the conservative writers who are already the government’s biggest cheerleaders. Realising that it would take too much political capital for too little gain, it was quickly abandoned, and now Abbott is paying the ultimate price: Andrew Bolt is criticising the Muslims who are holding Abbott to ransom.
What does this mean for you? If you’re a columnist, you still can’t accuse Aboriginals of not looking satisfactorily black enough. If you’re someone who faces regular vilification for your race, colour or ethnicity, then your problems are solved forever. If you’re neither of those things, then you’re probably not really concerned with any of this, and are probably doing something more entertaining like going to the theatre, in which case FIRE! LOOK OUT! FIRE! RUN!
Hahaha, there was no real fire. I was just having some fun. Now if you’ll excuse me, the police are here to impinge on my freedom of speech.
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