I'm in favor of free speech sans frontières. That's a business proposition as much as anything else. For those of us who make a living writing, if a book is unpublishable in Canada or the United Kingdom, it's less attractive to a New York publisher. So my free-speech campaign is international, and in that respect what's currently happening in Australia is most disquieting.
No two situations are identical, but Australia's Section 18 is very roughly analogous to Canada's Section 13, with Andrew Bolt and The Herald Sun playing the roles of me and Maclean's magazine and various aboriginal persons in the parts of Khurrum Awan and the Canadian Islamic Congress Sock Puppets. Thanks to Brian Storseth's private member's bill, Section 13 was finally repealed by the Canadian Parliament last year, after a somewhat protracted path to Royal Assent. By contrast, it's not clear our Aussie cousins' efforts to repeal Section 18 will get out of the starting gate.
So one of my favorite columnists, The Australian's Janet Albrechtsen, decided to ask me and Alan Borovoy about the Canadian free-speech battles:
One is a champion of progressive causes, the other is a staunch conservative. One played a critical role in setting up the first of the human rights commissions in Canada, the other was hauled before these same human rights commissions for writing things that caused offence to a few Muslims.
More important, though, is what unites them: a passionate and longstanding defence of free speech in a country that became increasingly comfortable with mothballing humanity's most basic human right. Both men are firmly opposed to laws that allow those pursuing identity politics to leverage the power of the state to shut down views they don't like.
Which is exactly what happened to Andrew Bolt: people who disagreed with him decided they didn't need to mount an argument against him when they could "leverage the power of the state" in the form of a poorly drafted law built on emotive language that essentially makes a plaintiff's claim immune to rational consideration. Being "offended" or feeling "humiliated" is, by definition, in the eye of the offended and/or humiliated. So Janet wondered what lessons Canada's reforms might hold for Australia:
Borovoy warns that the same ambiguities arise from our legislation that uses words like "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate".
Drawing on Canada's experience, Borovoy says: "You wind up losing a lot more than you're trying to nail. That's the guts of it." Steyn agrees. And he warns that you can't be a little bit pregnant on this. "You can't say we are going to take out 'offended' (from section 18C) but keep 'humiliated' … You've got to say this kind of emotional lawmaking is not law — it's phony law, it's ersatz law, it's pseudo law."
One of the most ludicrous aspects of the debate in Canada was the assertion by Warren Kinsella, Bernie Farber and others that without these laws there would be jackboots on the 401. As I said to Janet:
"You have to say 'You're insulting Australians', just as we said: 'You're insulting Canadians saying that.' We're not people who have a dark, fascist totalitarian past — Canada and Australia are two of the oldest, settled, constitutional societies on earth. They haven't gone through third empires and fourth republics, and all the other stuff. People can be trusted to decide for themselves."
A frequent visitor to Australia, and due here later this year, Steyn has watched with disappointment the debate over section 18C. He says that Canada's cultural Left eventually supported the repeal of section 13 in a way he thought would be repeated here. "They said, 'Well, obviously we find Steyn a totally disgusting and repulsive figure and we want to emphasise how much we dissociate ourselves from him BUT this is not compatible with a free society and Canadians should be able to decide for themselves on these matters'.
"I thought it would go that way with Andrew Bolt. That people would say, 'Well, Bolt is a repellent creature BUT …' Yet from my understanding from the debate in Australia no one on the Left has got to the BUT." Sadly, Steyn is right that, for ever larger groups on the Left, identity group rights trump the rights of freedom of expression.
I hope the Section 18 campaign picks up a bit of steam soon. But I did take the precaution of threatening The Australian's readers:
I might have to fly in and do it myself.
I mean that. We're currently mapping out plans for my Aussie tour later this year. In ideal circumstances, I'd fly in in time to attend the Governor General's Section 18 Repeal cocktail party at Government House. But I have the glum feeling that the case for free speech might still be far from won.
In the meantime, here's Janet and me with The Spectator's Tom Switzer and the IPA's John Roskam discussing free speech back in 2012 before a distinguished Sydney audience including the former Prime Minister John Howard and the Great Australian Wag Tim Blair:
~Mark recounts his battles with Canada's "human rights" commissions in his free-speech book Lights Out. Personally autographed hardback copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - but, if you prefer to read in electronic form, it's available in Kindle, Nook and Kobo formats from Amazon worldwide, Barnes & Noble, Indigo Chapters and other outlets.
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