Bill of rights would provide shelter for scoundrels

WHEN I was a young bloke in the dying days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland you would have been hard pressed to find a more passionate advocate of free speech than me.

Anti-street march legislation in the late 1970s banning public demonstrations (and, later, the notorious Queen Street Mall Act that outlawed the distribution of flyers critical of the government) permanently committed me - and countless of my generation - to genuine liberal democracy.

Watching peaceful pensioners and quiet clergy members being pushed into paddy wagons for merely standing in silent protest outside Parliament House during the SEQEB strikes has been forever etched on my mind. The lesson was clear: even in democratic Australia, basic civil liberties can be lost and the separation of powers and rule of law ignored if good citizens allow it.

But, as fearful as I was of Bjelke-Petersen's absolutism, at no time did I ever believe - as so many on the alt-right and hard left now do - that all government is bad or that unrestrained free speech is good.

I knew even at a young age that democratic rights (freedom of speech, assembly and worship) come with democratic responsibilities (voting, paying tax, being informed). I knew that none of us can live the good life unless we acknowledge civil society is not just a random bunch of individuals but an organised collective bound by common goals, common rules and common decency. Break those bounds and everyone's happiness is diminished.

A 1978 right to march protest at Brisbane’s King George Square. (Pic: courtesy Fryer Library)
A 1978 right to march protest at Brisbane’s King George Square. (Pic: courtesy Fryer Library)

Even young children know there are limits to what one can say in public. Free speech, as American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes so elegantly put it, does not include the freedom to falsely yell fire in a crowded theatre.

But NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm, of the Liberal-Democrats (and there's a misnamed party if I've ever heard one) seems never to have learned this. Whether blinkered by a blind loyalty to an ultra-libertarian - or, more likely, right wing anarchist - ideology, or the result of some long-past ugly run-in with authority, Leyonhjelm appears to have been on a one-man mission to petulantly "prove" anyone should be able to say anything, regardless of consequence, all in the glorious name of free speech.

Sadly, the political times suit Leyonhjelm. In an age of faux outrage at so-called "elites", dangerously untrained amateurs from Donald Trump to Pauline Hanson can be elected to high office. Courtesy of the hate-filled echo chamber of social media and our Senate's proportional representation voting system that elects mavericks on a handful of votes, political fringe-dwellers are now empowered to spew insults in their phony war against "political correctness".

But "political correctness" doesn't even exist. It's merely an arbitrary line - drawn differently in each person's mind - dividing decency from indecency. Where one person feels gender-neutral pronouns cross the PC line, another feels gagged by an inability to shout racist epithets at passers-by. What you think is "political correctness" gone mad may well be what your best mate thinks is just common courtesy.

A bill of rights would only benefit fringe dwellers, such as far-right Hitler fan Blair Cottrell. (Pic: AAP Image)
A bill of rights would only benefit fringe dwellers, such as far-right Hitler fan Blair Cottrell. (Pic: AAP Image)

And it's Leyonhjelm's failure to observe a base line of public behaviour that's found him in his most recent, and potentially career-ending, trouble. In June, Leyonhjelm made derogatory comments about the alleged sex life of South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The fact Leyonhjelm repeated those comments outside the parliament - and his refusal to apologise and retract despite many opportunities to do so - has now seen Hanson-Young commence defamation action against Leyonhjelm.

For libertarian ideologues this is democratic blasphemy: nothing should impede free speech, they say, because free speech is as unimpeachable as motherhood. But ideological purity means nothing when real people get emotionally, financially or physically hurt.

That's why Hanson-Young is dead right to pursue this lawsuit. It's time we draw a line in the sand and stand up to workplace harassers and internet trolls before we slip further into the gutter of public discourse. In that sense, Hanson-Young's rationale is noble: "No woman, whether she be working behind a bar, in an office or in the Parliament, deserves to be treated this way, and it needs to stop," she said.

That's why I'm sceptical of any Queensland or Australian Bill of Rights potentially protecting almost all speech, including injurious insults and abuse, from defamation law. Sensible centrists won't benefit because we already operate within the bounds of human decency. But if a Bill of Rights provides legal protection to fringe-dwelling racists, sexists and homophobes, the very tenets of our civilised liberal democracy - which David Leyonhjelm purports to represent - will crumble.

Then, we'll be living under a different kind of dictatorship.

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University's School of Humanities.