Has the free speech horse Bolted?

Whatever one’s personal opinion either of News Limited’s columnist Andrew Bolt as a person or, of the case now before the court — and it’s clear opinions vary widely on both, the unfolding story has occasioned much worthwhile and important debate on the subject of free speech in a democracy. Regardless of the immediate outcome of the case, and of whether a high court appeal follows, modern Australia needs the discussion to continue.

Crikey.com’s Margaret Simons has today published a defence of an earlier blog post, arguing that Bolt’s loss in the case would be ‘obnoxious’ to us all. I tend to agree with her and other free speech defenders more than with exponents of the contrary view. However some careful nuancing will be needed throughout. Of the many qualifications that might be appended to the free speech argument, one which we hear a lot is incitement. The public expression of opinion, whether by prominent journalists or by local pub patrons, ought not to be hedged with fear of prosecution, provided that such expression does not have a fomenting effect on the kinds of extremism that threaten public safety.

It’s not a simple matter, of course. For who can predict which comment or which commentator will win the wrong kind of following, whatever their intent? Nevertheless the question of incitement must remain at the fulcrum of this essential discourse.

Westminster warring

In an ABC Lateline (22/6) debate on the so-called “Ute-gate” affair, Tony Abbott averred that

it’s the job of the Opposition Leader to attack the Prime Minister based on credible evidence

Therein lies one feature of the Westminster parliamentary tradition which has not served us well, however well-intentioned its origins. If it’s the “job” of the Opposition Leader to attack the Prime Minister, then presumably it’s also the latter’s “job” to fight back. Granted, our parliament has produced some colourful characters whose question time performances are entertaining. But a meeting of two collectives, one titled “the Opposition”, face-to-face across a chamber is adversarial by nature, and has not by and large brought out the best in human character or discourse.

In consequence, Australians have witnessed a spectacle this past week which has portrayed neither side of Federal politics well. There are no discernible winners, and 21 million losers. And yet it stands in a “proud” tradition where heckling, jeering, insults and character assassination are a daily occurrence.

There are times when a one-party state doesn’t seem such a bad idea afterall. This week has been one of them.

Call it quits

I shan’t pretend to understand the economic or national security implications of the Defence Minister’s friendships. Such things are far too wonderful for me. But lately democracy seems to have degenerated into something far from wonderful for any of us. By all means let’s set high standards of transparency and accountability for those entrusted with weighty responsibility. But for goodness sake, can we include some humanity and realism as well.
When did we decide that the human beings who represent us should be infallible? And when did we decide that those who prove otherwise should resign or be dumped? Australians are tiring of governments setting unrealistic standards and then trying to duck the consequences, and we are positively worn out with oppositions baying for blood over every breach. So how about it, Kev and Mal? Let’s call it quits. Let’s just admit that we all miss the mark occasionally, and let’s put an end to the political frenzy over every slip. Let’s reserve the sackings and lynchings for the truly corrupt and dangerous. Then maybe we can all get on with what actually matters.

A senator just the same

In company with others, I’m perplexed by Senator Fielding’s parliamentary record. (And I speak as a fellow Christian, in substantial agreement with Family First’s platform.) But whenever the Senator does something seemingly at odds with the left agenda (and I tend leftish myself), we’ll hear the familiar whining chorus beloved of letter-writers and bloggers: “a conservative trojan, elected on the thinnest of margins, and it’s Labor’s fault.”
In the wake of the alcopops tax debacle, even The Age’s Shaun Carney (Opinion, 21/3) chimes in for a few bars, though ending slightly off-key with a salute to democracy. Fielding, he observes, is punching far above his weight, given his electoral marginality. Well maybe, but so what? To my perception, one is either elected or not elected. If the electoral process lands a person in either chamber, then they are simply a member. When did either house become class-based? When have we challenged a party vote on the grounds that some MPs or senators were barely elected? Fielding is not the only parliamentarian to have “just made it.”
The real “problem” may be that we insist on electing frail human beings to lead us. The Senator is in good company.