Freedom and the Commissioner

There have been quite a few recent cases raising questions around free speech and freedom of the press. Here are some thoughts, not all final.

First up, the question, raised by the cases of Peter Ridd and Israel Folau of whether employers can discipline or sack workers for their views on a range of issues.

Ridd is an academic at JCU who has expressed (often in intemperate terms) the (wrong and harmful) view that the damage to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change has been exaggerated. JCU sacked him, but his dismissal was found by the Federal Circuit Court of Australia to be unlawful.

This was a straightforward finding under industrial law, which accords no special status to academics. But there are good reasons why universities should adhere to a stronger standard, embodied in the notion of academic freedom. As the NTEU vice-president Andrew Bonnell said it’s clear that JCU breached its commitment to academic freedom.

The Folau case is much trickier. In a sense Folau’s religious views aren’t that unusual. Most Christian denominations hold, at least officially, that all non-Christians and all Christians who hold heretical beliefs will go to hell[1], along with Christians who die in mortal sin, which accounts for nearly everybody. But, as Brian Houston of Hillsong Church (not someone I expected to quote with approval) points out, telling people they are going to hell is not helpful either for religious tolerance or to convert them to the truth as you may see it.

What makes this case difficult is that Folau’s job is, effectively, one of marketing the Australian Rugby League so that it can attract sponsors (notably, in this case, Qantas). Whether or not Folau has a case against the ARL, no one can force the sponsors to renew the contracts, or, for that matter, the fans to show up (I don’t know many rugby fans, so this may or may not be an issue).

As is almost invariably the case, former Freedom Commissioner and IPA alumnus Tim Wilson comes out of this looking bad. Back in 2015, there was a similar case in which Scott McIntyre, an SBS sports commentator, expressed views about Anzac Day that were offensive in their content and even more in the way they were expressed on Twitter Even though McIntyre had nothing like Folau’s public profile, he was sacked. Wilson then “Freedom Commissioner” wrote that, since McIntyre was not legally prevented from speaking, there was no free speech issue

SBS simply decided it didn’t want to be associated with him. No one is guaranteed a job. Employers are not compelled to put up with behaviour that harms their public reputation.”

Now, Wilson is defending Folau against ‘censorship‘, even though, on the views he has previously stated, there can be no question of censorship in the absence of government action.

I wasted a lot of time on Twitter a few years ago, trying to pin Wilson down on this very question. I can now discern his position: if you say something acceptable to conservatives, it’s free speech, otherwise you can take your chances with the boss.

fn1. Just to tie things up neatly, denying the existence of hell is a heresy.

Half right, and all left, on coffee

Back in the Paleozoic era of blogging, I wrote, in relation to a prediction that latte drinkers would soon be in the majority

I would view this prospect with horror, but I think it will not come to pass. Latte is the Cold Duck of the 21st century, and like Cold Duck will be shaken off with a shudder as people realise what real coffee is about.

Recent research from the Australia Institute suggests I was, at best, half right. Latte drinking hasn’t become the norm but it has survived, while real coffee (short black) remains such a minority taste that it has to be lumped in with the watered down long black.

The good news, (that is, the news that confirms my prejudices) is that latte drinkers are more likely to be LNP voters than anything else. The same is true, though only marginally, for chardonnay.

The triumph of Trumpism

The recent chaos around One Nation (including Fraser Anning, reactions to the Christchurch atrocity and the Al Jazeera sting and the reactions to it, show how thoroughly Trumpism has conquered the Australian right. Most obviously, any doubts anyone might have had about Hanson and One Nation have been resolved. She and her party are racists (or in some cases, opportunities riding the racist bandwagon) trading in lunatic conspiracy theories and the rhetoric of the terrorist alt-right. Nothing really new here.

The truly revealing outcome is the reaction of the mainstream right. It’s divided into two groups: those (most notably Tony Abbott and the entire National Party) who have maintained their support for an open alliance with Hanson, and those like Morrison and (Oz columnist) Paul Kelly who have taken the line: Racists are bad, but the Greens are worse.

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Reciprocating Hanson’s boycott (reposted from 2017)

I posted this in 2017. Not many people agreed with me, but I think my positiion has been justified by events. Hanson and One Nation have no legitimate place in public life.

Apparently, Pauline Hanson and One Nation are refusing to vote for any government legislation until the government intervenes on the side of canegrowers in a dispute with millers and marketers*

Coincidentally, I was considering the question of how to deal with Hanson’s presence in the Senate and came up with the opposite way of implementing the current situation. The major parties should refuse Hanson’s support, and should show this by having four Senators abstain on any bill where One Nation supports their side. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen with the LNP. However rude they may be about Hanson and other ONP members when they say something particularly appalling, ONP is effectively part of the coalition and is being treated as such.

But for Labor, I think the case for shunning One Nation is strong. The arguments for a complete rejection of One Nation’s racism are obvious. The costs would be

(i) In votes where Xenophon went with the LNP and Hanson with Labor and the Greens, this would turn a win into a loss (I think – can someone check)

(ii) Open hostility to One Nation would probably shift some ONP voters to change their second preferences

I don’t think either of these points have a lot of weight. But the self-styled Labor “hardheads” whose brilliant moves have included putting Family First into Parliament and abolishing optional preferential voting in Queensland, just when would help Labor most, will doubtless disagree.

* These disputes have been going on for decades, reflecting the fact that, because sugarcane is costly to transport, growers are very limited in their choice of mills, and millers similarly depend on a relatively small number of growers to keep them in business.. I haven’t looked into the merits of this one

Closed borders

Reversing its position for the second time in about a week, the Morrison government has refused entry to Milo Yiannopoulos, known, among other things, as a promoter of “ironic” Nazi trolling of the kind practised by the Christchurch murderer, whose actions he implicitly endorsed, describing the victims as practising a “barbaric and evil “religion.

This isn’t a free speech issue: Yiannopoulos’ repulsive statements are still freely published here, and there has been no attempt to suppress them. If he were in Britain (his home country), the thorny question of “no-platforming” would arise.

Since he wants to come to Australia, however, the issue is simply one of freedom of movement. Yiannopoulos is a supporter of closing borders to large groups of people of whom he and his political allies disapprove. It seems entirely fair that this policy should be applied to him and others like him, before being considered more generally.

We should extend the ban on Yiannopoulos and apply it to any foreigner belonging to an organization or social media group that wants to close borders on the grounds that particular religious and ethnic groups are undesirable, present risks of terrorism and so forth. It’s grimly obvious that Yiannopoulos and his fellow racists are just such an undesirable and potentially dangerous group.


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Is Queensland different?

It seems to be taken for granted in political commentary, particularly on the political right, that the Liberal and National Parties face a geographical problem in which pro-coal policies are an electoral loser in wealthy city seats in Sydney and Melbourne, but a winner in Queensland, and particularly in regional Queensland. The key issues are the proposed Adani coal mine and the idea of a publicly-funded coal-fired power station.

No one seems to have mentioned an obvious problem with this analysis. Queensland held a state election in 2017, in which the Adani proposal was a key issue. Labor won easily, holding the regional seats where Adani was supposed to create thousands of jobs, and picking up seats in the south-east corner.

Following the election, the state government announced that it would set up a publicly-owned renewable generator (rather unimaginatively called CleanCo). It remains well ahead in the opinion polls (53-47 as of last November)

Obviously, not everyone is happy. The mining division of the CFMMEU has joined the Queensland Resources Council to campaign for Adani. But there’s no sign that this move has had any real impact on public opinion.

The great majority of Australians accept mainstream science and want action on climate change. Denialism is a loser everywhere, including in Queensland. It’s only a winner with the right wing “base” amounting to perhaps 20 per cent of the population, but dominant within the Liberal and National parties.

Scandal

I’m not a big fan of political scandals. Still, it has to mean something when there are too many simultaneous scandals going on for anyone to keep track. Rather than attempt a summary, I’ll list some of the government figures currently involved in one or more scandals that would normally be expected to produce a resignation from office or Parliament: Cash, Cormann, Dutton, Hockey, Keenan, Wilson, Price [feel free to challenge these names, or add others, in comments]. The only comparable situation I can think of is the dying days of the last NSW Labor government.

In these circumstances, policy catastrophes like banking, the Murray-Darling Basin and climate change barely get a look in.

Despite all of this, the government and their media cheer squad are convinced they can eke out a win by demonizing refugees. We shall see.