Freedom of speech (if you’re a boss or a bigot)

Hard on the heels of the fiasco over the “Bolt clause” in the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act[1] comes the news that the government is prohibiting public servants in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from criticising it in any medium, even anonymously, and urging colleagues to dob in violators. Except for the handful of people who took the government’s talk about free speech seriously, there’s no surprise here. But I’d like to respond to this from the “Freedom Commissioner”, Tim Wilson of the IPA, who says

“Ultimately public servants voluntarily and knowingly choose to accept these limits on their conduct when they accept employment”.

On the contrary, it seems clear from the report that, at a minimum, the interpretation of existing rules (allowing free comment in general, but not on matters related to your own work) is being tightened. For example, the kinds of comments made by Greg Jericho under the pseudonym Grog’s Gamut, which were considered acceptable in the past, now appear to be proscribed.

More generally,it’s important to remember that Wilson, like all propertarians, is no friend of free speech. Propertarians may oppose governmentally imposed restrictions on the speech of people who have no dealings with the government, but the standard position is that any employer, or landlord should be free to sack or evict, anyone they don’t like for any reason, including their political views. Of course (echoing Anatole France) the position is one of majestic equality. If you don’t like the views of your boss, or landlord, you’re entirely free to quit your job, or move out (but not of course to sleep under a bridge).

As for the government, the principle applying to public servants apply equally to pensioners, road users, beneficiaries of national defence and so on (that is, everyone). You knew what you signed up for when you decided to stay here, rather than doing the decent libertarian thing and seasteading or moving to Mars. So, if the government chooses to impose conditions on your political activity, you’ve got no right to complain.

Update It’s been pointed out in comments that the directive, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet applies only to staff in that department and not, as I originally read it, to the Commonwealth Public Service as a whole. It appears to be a tightening of existing restrictions, but not, as I suggested above, a wholesale removal of freedom of political opinion. I’ve edited the post accordingly.

Even though the original post was overstated, the general trend is clear, as Jeff Sparrow points out here. The government is seeking to remove any restrictions on the speech of its powerful friends, while tightening restrictions on its enemies, in keeping with its general tribalist approach to politics.

fn1. So-called because the aim was to create room for racially offensive lies by people the government likes (such as Bolt) while ruling out lies the government dislikes, such as the Holocaust revisionism of Fredrick Toben. It turns out that drawing a legally watertight distinction between Bolt and Toben is more difficult than the government expected.

87 thoughts on “Freedom of speech (if you’re a boss or a bigot)

  1. @kevin1

    From your later evidence of knowing a thing or two about Kevin Rudd I wonder if you have some Rudd characteristics in mind for the verbal selfie as he apparently was an enthusiastic user of the merely visual form and clearly fancied himself as a verbal athlete of some stamina.

    Your later reference to a brain snap (just one of several) during the 2013 election campaign is a reminder of his totally cavalier way with matters requiring careful attention to numbers. The NBN decision was as frivolous as Abbott’s Knights and Dames nonsense and several billion times as expensive. Now we are learning just how flawed the decision making processes were for the insulaltion scheme and the school hall program was far worse in terms of waste because there were many better ways of getting money circulating quickly and apparently no brakes to allow the scheme to be curtailed immediately it became apparent that there was no recession or not one to need further stimulus given what China was doing in a much bigger way.

  2. @P.M.Lawrence
    You are right that not caring about people doesnt necessarily mean not caring about truth .My point is a more general one about basic personality types of Left and Right and how that affects the the Left -Right public debate over time .I think the basic message of the Conservative Libertarian Right [that the best way to help others in the long run is to maximise your own consumption and resist the temptation to help in more immediate ways – ie;be selfish and ignore cries for help ,the market sorts it out best] attracts the type of people who arent as likely to value good faith in debate . With that as their truth it is easy to feel that the end justifies the means -that the process isnt the most valued element . Generally, Rightists feel that some people are just better than others -Leftists dont think like that .

    Different personality types are attracted to each side. Maybe Im just a Leftist who refuses to grow up ,feeling like I’m on the losing end of history, but I think on average over time this has skewed the playing field significantly against the Left .The Lefts trademark ‘good faith’ , ‘benefit of the doubt’ ,and ‘concern for the other’ have been taken advantage of. In general both sides often arent using the same rules and standards. To me there seems to be 100’s of examples of this- one is that the ABC is so paranoid about looking biased that they allow free market extremist corporate lobbyists who refuse to say who is paying them onto their panel discussions . Also the Right seem to want the complete extermination of all opposition (witness the Royal Comm into unions) but to the Left annihilation of minority views is to violate an axiomatic belief .The Right is happy to play winner takes all .

    If your truth is that it is best not to care about others you will be less likely to fight fair.

  3. Talking about bigots. Bob Carr gets labelled a bigot today because he gently suggested the Israel lobby in Aus exerted too much influence on the Gillard gov. Wow. Projection much!

  4. I notice Mark Liebler on TV last night continually talked of the Jewish lobby, when Carr in his 730 interview pulled up the interviewer on that, and said it was the Israel lobby. Leibler’s conflation of the Jewish view with the defence of Israel is a sleight of hand to back critics into a corner where to criticise Israel is to be anti-semitic. Antony Loewenstein, criticised as not a “real Jew”, reported on this at The Conversation last month in “Silencing BDS supporters in the land of the free.”

  5. And I find it weird that the ABC got Mark Lielber on to talk, but did not seek a Palestinian representative. Bob Carr’s criticism of the Israeli lobby was in relation to Israeli/Palestinian issues, and he said that they had too much influence.

    Clearly, if the ABC want balance in this story, they should find a Palestinian representative and ask about the access they had to the PM’s office, and whether they thought that the Israeli lobby had too much influence.

    The story, after all, is not about Bob Carr. Allowing him to say his bit and the Israeli lobby to criticize him did not address the issue, and was false balance.

  6. @John Brookes

    Well yes, of course it’s false balance, but that’s pretty much SOP at #theirABC, which more often than not functions as Murdoch’s laundromat. Until the last couple of years, balancing perspectives on climate change in which some delusional nutbag would be wheeled out were common.

    And on Israel, this rule is especially strong and still current.

  7. @John Brookes

    If it’s any consolation, I didn’t bother to answer because all I could think of was “Excellent point. Spot on”.

    And that seemed a bit trite.

    And I’m sure the ABC (in some obscure corner) had a lone Palestinian voice on recently when Israel’s Bill Shorten called for even more ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

    …Bishop George Browning calling on him to clarify Labor policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank after the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, suggested to the Zionist Federation that only “some settlement activity” was illegal.

  8. No surprise if I confess admiration but also frustration and irritation and hopelessness when considering Israel. But let is always be noted that, however (guiltily”) loyal and party line Jews in the Diaspora are concerning Israel the best and most cogent and most clear sighted criticism of Israel and, not least, Biblical claims – to anything, but especially to being accurate history – are to be found amongst Jews in Israel. And when the Melbourne Jewish lobby is looked at hard you won’t find total unanimity about Israel. For example Isi Leibler always a died in the wool Likud and Netanyahu supporter, not so his brother Mark. It would be interesting to hear such a smart lawyer as Mark Leibler on the international law aspects including the legality or illegality of the settlements.

    I have heard it suggested that the settlements are (at least in some subtle Israeli politicians’ minds) a bargaining chip in the end based on the gloomy, but well informed Israeli view that the Arabs belong to a shame and honor culture an where nothing but total victory in a negotiation is acceptable. What Sharon did for Gaza would be nothing of course compared with telling the settlers they either had to move again or be some kind of protected citizens in a Palestinian state!

    Point of discussion. Do we not tend to speak of international law misleadingly as though we were speaking of domestic law. After all there is no police force to enforce it, nothing like a court system to help enforce it as reliably as in the First Word for domestic law, and the strong are still in much the same position (even those who nominally submit to international law which is another big problem) as the kinds in Medieval days. (Remember it was only yesterday, so to speak, that it became possible to sue the Crown here or in the UK without the Crown’s own leave!). And it is arguable that Israel’s existential problem is such that it is ridiculous to prate about international law in relation to their and the Palestinian’s situation…..

  9. You seem to take issue with the idea of people being asked to abide by certain standards of the host…

    Of course (echoing Anatole France) the position is one of majestic equality. If you don’t like the views of your boss, or landlord, you’re entirely free to quit your job, or move out (but not of course to sleep under a bridge).

    Yet from your own blog policy…
    “8. Comments are welcome from anyone willing to abide by these rules. Those who don’t like these rules are free to comment elsewhere or to publish their own blogs.”

    You should be free to restrict posts to better focus your communications, but a government department just has to suck it up?

  10. Mathew :
    You seem to take issue with the idea of people being asked to abide by certain standards of the host…

    Of course (echoing Anatole France) the position is one of majestic equality. If you don’t like the views of your boss, or landlord, you’re entirely free to quit your job, or move out (but not of course to sleep under a bridge).

    Yet from your own blog policy…
    “8. Comments are welcome from anyone willing to abide by these rules. Those who don’t like these rules are free to comment elsewhere or to publish their own blogs.”
    You should be free to restrict posts to better focus your communications, but a government department just has to suck it up?

    What host?

    Perhaps it would be clearer looked at from a different perspective in an unrelated example, in which different preconceptions are more likely to be engaged.

    In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are coming out with the line that they are guests of the Afghan people (as if there even were a “the Afghan people”!), hoping that local traditions will make them respected as guests. But the Afghans aren’t buying it, because they know perfectly well that they never invited the U.S. forces in. This confuses the poor soldiers, who were told that they were indeed there for the locals.

    In the same way, people posting here have indeed come freely and there really is a guest-host connection. But that’s not simply because people are here, any more than for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it’s because of that freely entered into connection. And, to the extent that any connections are formed out of duress, such connections go out of the window. So the issue for constraining (say) the speech of public servants is, they may very well be in that connection through duress – which is what Anatole France’s comment was about, in a similar context. (By the way, that’s why I made my earlier remarks about it being desirable to free people up and resource them to the point where alternatives were realistic and meaningful rather than hollow and vacuous mockery.)

    Of course, similar reasoning applies in many other situations, e.g. asylum seekers arriving by boat; there, the illegality or otherwise does not rest on their seeking asylum as such (contrary to much misreporting) but to the illegality or otherwise of the actions they took that were incidental to seeking asylum (and even if the actions were essential to it, that still might not authorise those as opposed to mitigating guilt). I am being careful not to judge or pre-judge matters in this, whether generally or for individual cases; rather, I want to bring out that it is wrong simply to stop at the issue of whether or not the surface pattern is that of guests or hosts, as there is more to be looked into. With asylum seekers, just as with stationing of troops, blog commenting policy or public service speech constraints, it’s the separate stuff that changes things from being a guest-host relationship – or not. The cases should be looked at on their merits.

  11. Speaking of which…..and since there isn’t a ‘weekend’ post this week…so I’ll put it out here:

    Most people would have heard about the recent news from Ukraine.

    But, because our establishment media is not really functioning as the true fourth estate but as a propaganda megaphone, you probably haven’t heard about the US mercenaries.

    “Blackwater” (working under whatever new name it uses) has 150 US mercenaries in Ukraine wearing ‘special forces’ uniforms.

    This is US fascism.

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