David Marr
David Marr on race, votes and free speech

Yes, George, people do have a right to be bigots. And political parties have a right to harvest their votes. That’s what’s going on here. 

Gutting the Racial Discrimination Act isn’t about free speech or vindicating a star News Corp columnist. Not really. It’s a clever gambit to persuade a slice of the electorate that Tony Abbott is running a government after their own hearts – one that understands, even respects, what they feel about Aborigines, immigrants, Muslims and boat people. 

It’s the race vote. Both sides of politics are keen to recruit and careful to hold the affection of the Australia of old race fears. It’s not a small constituency. 

Whose heart wouldn’t leap to see a government going all out for free speech? How wonderful it is to hear George Brandis and Abbott singing psalms to liberty. Their enthusiasm seems to herald a profound change of thinking for the Coalition. 

In John Howard’s time, dissenting NGOs were terrified of losing their funding; the national museum was turned over for honouring black deaths on the frontier; armies of police were mobilised against demonstrators; the press was barred absolutely from the battle against the boats; parliament passed sedition laws of unprecedented severity; and the ABC endured more than a decade of abuse for not thinking the way the government wanted it to think.

What’s changed under Abbott? The ABC is under attack again. So great is the secrecy surrounding the boats, his government is backing attempts by PNG to shut down judicial inquiries into the conditions on Manus and plans never to release police reports into the recent mayhem and death on the island. 

In his other guise as minister for the arts, Senator Brandis has told the Australia Council it must punish demonstrators against the government. “Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions,” he assured the chairman of the Australia Council Rupert Myer. But he denounced as appalling and shameful the Sydney Biennale turning down money from a private sponsor enriched by the running of prison camps on Manus and Nauru. 

Brandis bluntly threatened Myer: he must either promise that “Australia Council funding would no longer be available” to an arts body under these circumstances or he would intervene as minister to impose the rule himself. “You will readily understand that taxpayers will say to themselves: ‘If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?’”

It doesn’t feel like a fresh dawn of liberty. 

Yet Brandis and Abbott are claiming that in the noble cause of free speech, the Racial Discrimination Act is to be gutted to allow unrestrained attacks on blacks, Jews, Chinese and the rest in the course of “public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”.

The present act has to be changed – a little. Hurt feelings should never attract the law as they do now under section 18C. Offence and insults are the everyday reality of free discourse. But this proposal goes so much further. What was once excused in private would be licensed in public. The law would set no brake on racial vilification in almost any imaginable public discourse. 

Why would a government propose such a thing?

It would save Andrew Bolt. His was not a freedom of speech problem but a problem of shoddy journalism. He didn’t come a cropper under the act for examining a delicate subject – the aboriginality of those who claim to be Aboriginal – but for getting it spectacularly wrong. 

Even before he appeared in the Federal Court, Bolt and the Herald and Weekly Times had to admit that nine of the 18 pale blacks he mocked and derided for adopting Aboriginality late in life had grown up from childhood regarding themselves and being regarded as Aborigines. 

These facts were readily available, said Justice Mordecai Bromberg, “including by Mr Bolt contacting the individuals concerned. Mr Bolt presented evidence of having undertaken some online research about the individuals, but it was not evidence upon which I could be satisfied that a diligent attempt had been made to make reasonable inquiries.”

Bromberg clearly despised Bolt’s language, but getting the facts so wrong lost the columnist the free speech protections of the act. The Abbott/Brandis solution is to get rid of 18D’s demand for fairness, accuracy, good faith and reasonableness. With those consigned to the dustbin it doesn’t really matter what a new 18C might have to say about vilification and intimidation. It would be a new era of anything goes in public discourse on race. 

But Bolt is a constituency of one. True he is a great friend of the prime minister and the Coalition, but blaming the gutting of the Racial Discrimination Act on a highly protected columnist of News Corp gives him too much credit. There are big numbers in play here: the millions in this country who, like him, are troubled by race. 

Brandis might call them bigots but his party wants their vote. So does Labor. The temper of public life in this country is often determined by the answer to a single question: what are politicians willing to offer this constituency to win its vote?

Mapping the Australia of old race fears is one of the tasks of the Scanlon Foundation’s impeccable annual surveys of social cohesion. The 2013 survey found 25 per cent of us have “negative sentiments” about migrants from the Middle East. That’s the national figure. In suburban Brisbane add another 10 per cent. On the Atherton Tableland dislike edges up to 42 per cent. 

Polling in a handful of centres in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia shows 28 to 45 per cent of those living in these rural and suburban communities troubled by Muslims. 

Pollsters don’t call the issue race. They call it cultural diversity. Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University who conducts the surveys for the Scanlon Foundation says of Australia: “There is a core of 10 per cent and a wider group around 25 to 30 per cent with strong negative views towards cultural diversity.” And those numbers seem to be growing. 

This is a tolerant country that absorbs migrants with astonishing success. But politics in Australia cannot be understood unless we face the fact that strong minority resentments remain in play. Harvesting them is a matter of constant concern for strategists on both sides of the House. 

These are the people Abbott is after by promising to free race speech from irritating restrictions of restraint and accuracy. Meanwhile, the Minister for Education Christopher Pyne is making his pitch to the same constituency with familiar promises to strip indigenous issues from school curriculums. 

The figures are with him: research conducted by Auspoll for Reconciliation Australia in 2012 shows about a third of us don’t think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are important to our national identity. Nearly 20 per cent of us don’t think it’s important even to know about them. 

Good pickings there. 

But the trick here is never, no matter how distasteful the strategy, to disgust the wider, more tolerant electorate. Howard was a master of the art of staying this side of the contemptible, always so carefully disguising what he was about: “We will decide who comes to this country…”

The cry of freedom has not given Abbott’s strategy a cloak of invisibility. It’s looking disgusting. Abbott appears to have misjudged. 

News Corp is campaigning full throttle on his behalf. So are many with a pure commitment to absolute free speech. An Essential poll this week shows the prime minister also has a good chunk of the public on his side: 38 per cent are for and 44 per cent against changing the Racial Discrimination Act.

Yet he is at an impasse. He has made some implacable enemies along the way. The Jewish community will not let this issue go. Nor will key leaders of the black community. The senate is opposed. Even a few Liberal backbenchers are in open revolt. 

But even if Abbott is forced to retreat, he will have done his work. Out there in every town and suburb of this country are voters pleased to think that in Canberra there’s a man and a government happy to let them say what they really think about darkies and slopes and Muzzies. They will call this what Abbott calls it: freedom.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 5, 2014 as "Race, votes and free speech".

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David Marr is a reporter, commentator and biographer.

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