The biggest setback for free speech this week came from, alas, Australia. Tony Abbott's ministry has decided to abandon plans to repeal Section 18C, which is the Aussie equivalent of Canada's now deceased Section 13 "hate-speech" law. Section 18 will not be joining Section 13 in the graveyard of discredited thought-crime legislation any time soon. Mr Abbott is in other respects perhaps my favorite head of government in the world today, so his climbdown on this is ...disappointing. I enjoyed sharing a stage with the Prime Minister in Melbourne a couple of years ago, so I'm endeavoring to be more restrained than my friends at the IPA, who are not happy about this at all. Nor is London free-speech champion Brendan O'Neill, who took George Brandis, QC, Australia's Attorney-General, at his word.
A few weeks back, I addressed the topic of free speech in The Spectator, and remarked en passant:
As your cynical political consultant sees it, a commitment to abolish Section 18C is more trouble than it's worth: you'll just spends weeks getting damned as cobwebbed racists seeking to impose a bigots' charter when you could be moving the meter with swing voters by announcing a federal programmne of transgendered bathroom construction.
The above was a mordant observation, not a recommendation to Mr Abbott. But the Prime Minister seems to have bought my rationale wholesale. The ABC reports:
Changes to 18C were a 'needless complication': Abbott
"More trouble than it's worth", indeed. In this case, the PM is seeking to move the meter not with the transgendered community but with the Muslim community:
The PM said he had made a "leadership call" to abandon the changes, because they had become a "complication" in the Government's relationship with the Australian Muslim community.
Mr Abbott's ministry has a lot on its plate right now:
TONY ABBOTT: Well we have a very serious home-grown terrorist threat. Anyone who has been looking at the internet images of born and bred Australians holding up the severed heads of Iraqi police and military personnel, would know that the last thing we want is to have people like that coming back to our country, militarised and radicalised and walking the streets, able to do whatever they want here.
So the Government is very concerned about these things. We have promised substantially increased resources to our security and intelligence agencies and we are introducing new legislation to make it easier to charge, to prosecute and to jail people who engage in terrorist activities overseas...
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Sure, sure, we'll get to that in a minute, but what has that got to do with the changed circumstances around 18C?
TONY ABBOTT: Well I want to crack down on the kind of incitement to terrorism which we are now seeing in our community. I want to crack down on that. And the changes to 18C were a needless complication. I want the different communities of Australia to be our friends, not our critics, when it comes to cracking down on terrorism and cracking down on things that aid and abet terrorism.
And as I said, the 18C proposal was becoming a needless complication. And as Prime Minister, my first responsibility is, at least on the essentials, to maintain the unity of our country.
In other words, pandering to the professional identity-group grievance-mongers will ensure their cooperation in fingering would-be head-hackers with Aussie passports. In fact, the opposite is true. A culture in which you can be hauled into court for "offending" persons of designated groups is one in which everyone quickly becomes adept at reflexive self-censoring. This is where we came in, 13 years ago - Portland airport in Maine at five in the morning on a Tuesday in September, as Mohammed Atta checks in for his flight:
Atta's demeanor and the pair's first-class, one-way tickets to Los Angeles made [US Airways ticket agent Michael] Tuohey think twice about them.
"I said to myself, 'If this guy doesn't look like an Arab terrorist, then nothing does.' Then I gave myself a mental slap, because in this day and age, it's not nice to say things like this," Tuohey told the Maine Sunday Telegram. "You've checked in hundreds of Arabs and Hindus and Sikhs, and you've never done that. I felt kind of embarrassed."
So he let Mr Atta board the plane. And, if he felt "kind of embarrassed" after thousands of people died in New York a couple of hours later, on balance it's probably less embarrassing than if he'd stopped him and been consigned to sensitivity-training hell by US Airways for six months. Laws like 18C are part of the sustaining culture of constraint in which anyone tempted to exercise human judgment quickly "gives himself a mental slap". If you really want to identify the excitable young lads itching to behead Iraqi Christians and Yazidi, then you have to be able to talk honestly about Islam - and everything else.
The alternative - which the Aussies seem to be opting for - is an enhanced security state. It's nice to have the choices laid out that starkly because it gets to the reality of the situation: a society in which people cannot speak freely will inevitably require closer monitoring of movements, financial transactions and all the rest. To go back to that piece of mine from the Speccie I quoted above. The sentence immediately following goes:
But, beyond the shrunken horizons of spinmeisters, the inability to roll back something like 18C says something profound about where we're headed: a world where real, primal, universal rights — like freedom of expression — come a distant second to the new tribalism of identity-group rights.
Free speech is never a "needless complication" - and certainly not compared to all the other "complications" you'll be burdened with in lieu of it. I hope Aussie readers will support the IPA's campaign for freedom of expression - at least until I get down there in a few months to kick up some free-speech dust all over again.
In the meantime, here's the video I made for the IPA when Andrew Bolt fell afoul of 18C:
We're gonna need more plaid.
PS My chums at Quadrant are inviting Aussies to participate in a mass hate crime. The government may have to open up another offshore island just to hold 18C offenders.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: