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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 5439

Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (19:30): I rise tonight to speak about something I believe should concern all Australians. It is, in my view, one of the fundamental underpinnings of our society and something that, if allowed to erode away, will lead to a wall of silence across our nation. I am talking about freedom of speech. The right to voice our opinions is under increasing attack by protection mechanisms that were put in place by well-meaning people, but I consider that those mechanisms are now being abused, and I think it is getting worse.

Australians are becoming burdened by the weight of political correctness. It hovers over every word we say and increasingly it almost determines what people are allowed to think. Of course, no-one wants to cause unneces­sary offence, but unless we can continue as individuals to advocate for freedom of speech and the right of others to express their opinions in the public sphere, however much we may disagree with those opinions, and if we cannot encourage Australians to speak their minds, our country will remain on a path I think we would do better to avoid.

There are a number of examples of this and they highlight what I will come to a bit later, which is the hypocrisy of those who use these laws and intimidatory tactics for their own ends, and it seems to be very much one-sided. Take the case of the art photographer who has been defended for taking photographs of pre-pubescent or adolescent children while they were naked. There were complaints about this and yet there were so many vigorous defenders saying it was artistic freedom. Contrast this with Sergio Redegalli, an artist with a studio in Newtown who painted a 'say no to burqas' mural on his own walls. Mr Redegalli had to defend his building from repeated attacks and had to defend himself against a complaint in one of the vilification tribunals, in which accusations of racial and religious vilification were made. What is amazing about this is that Mr Redegalli engaged a lawyer and a QC to defend his right to freedom of speech. Ultimately, the complain­ant was funded by legal aid and later withdrew their complaint. Mr Redegalli then sought compensation for the costs he had incurred. This was considered by the tribunal and rejected. When he said, 'No, I really think you should do this,' they said, 'Well, you now have to pay the costs of the complainant resulting from your claim for costs.' So they added an additional $500 bill to Mr Redegalli's costs. This is simply preposterous. It is preposterous because someone has taken offence to a piece of art on a wall that was not gratuitous, or nasty, or rude or anything else. You might not agree with it but it was there. This man has been forced to incur thousands of dollars in costs while the other side was funded by legal aid, and then he has to pay for the tribunal's time for having asked for costs. That is just one example.

We also have a circumstance where a radio presenter, Mr Michael Smith of Radio 2UE, is being investigated under a complaint to ACMA for a comment he made on-air about the age of the wife of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. His statement was simply that his wife was nine years old when they married and 11 years old when they consummated the marriage. This statement is incorrect, and I will get to that in a moment. It resulted in a complaint being made because, apparently, the statement was racist—I reject that in its entirety—and it asserted that Mohammed was a paedophile. It did nothing of the sort. It simply stated—incorrectly I might say—some tenets of the Koran. The significant Islamic text states that Mohammed 'wrote the marriage contract with his wife when he was six years old and consummated the marriage when she was nine.' That statement stands as it is and yet Michael Smith is now having to defend himself against a complaint for religious vilification and inciting hatred.

We also cannot forget the case of the two Christian pastors who were hauled before the courts and accused of breaching religious vilification laws simply for quoting the Koran. They were convicted of being hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people. This was despite the fact that it was reported that the pastors encouraged people to love Muslims even if they do not agree with their beliefs. I think that is a belief that most good people in this country embrace: love others and celebrate their diversity. You do not have to agree with them, but love them. Ultimately the verdict was overturned, five years later. They had been subjected to media ridicule and large financial costs.

Another journalist, Andrew Bolt, has been taken to court under a claimed breach of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act for questioning why people who have a mixed racial background chose to identify as Aboriginal.

In the end it seems that under the burden of these stifling laws people are now prohibited, effectively, from questioning things, from quoting from particular books and from discussing matters of importance in our society. Effectively, these laws seek to silence free speech. They shut down legitimate opinion. It is no wonder that we are being cowed into silence if every time someone takes offence at something one person or another says people are hauled before the court for some type of vilification or discrimination.

Quite frankly, if someone says something I disagree with, no matter how offensive I find it, I consider it to be an engagement in the battle of ideas. It makes me wonder: if these laws are so essential for the smooth and harmonious running of our society, how did we survive and prosper and have such a harmonious society when we did not have them? How did our society not crumble without these sorts of restrictions on what we are allowed to say, when we could say it and in whose company we could say it. We are a nation that should be embracing this battle of ideas; we should not be seeking to shut them down. In saying that, I do not condone incitement to violence, racist comments or anything else like that, but they are now the slurs attached to any difference of opinion. It has got to a stage where expressing opinions shared by millions of ordinary Australians can lead to an individual being branded as racist or a bigot, or some other epithet which really has no place in debate. It has got to a stage where Australians are afraid to discuss and debate issues which may indeed have an impact on our country's future.

   As I mentioned before, it seems that offence is clearly a one-way street. There are many examples to illustrate this. Christians are meant to accept the mockery of their faith, whether it is on TV, through art or anything else. Other recognised religions are expected to put up with it. They are deemed fair game and are pilloried. We have seen that in this chamber on occasions in the example of Scientology. I do not embrace Scientology—I am not going to defend it; that is not what this is about, but it is recognised as a religion. Yet sometimes you cannot even draw a cartoon without invoking the wrath and the worldwide riots attached to fundamentalists and extreme points of view. The question is: how did we get to this point? It seems we are slaughtering some of the sacred cows of our society, some of the sacred cows of our democracy, one by one, with free speech being the latest casualty.

    On more contemporary issues: only a few days ago at the front of this building a number of people demonstrated voicing their protest against the attitude of the govern­ment. This is a time-honoured practice. It has been done against numerous and successive governments. People have every right to protest. I do not have to agree with the positions they are taking, I do not have to agree with what they are doing but they have every right to protest when they do so in a law-abiding and respectful manner. Yet it disappoints me that those people were mocked, derided and attacked by members of the media and some by our own government simply for daring to speak their mind. Listening to the slurs that were flung, one journalist labelled them 'a caravan of crackpots' and some members of the government called them 'a convoy of no consequence' and 'a convoy of no confidence'. What a terrible reflection on everyday Australians who were seeking to voice their views. People do not have to agree with them but how dare they think that the views of these people are not entitled to be heard and that they should be mocked and derided in such a way.

   Senator Bob Brown was insulting ordinary Australians by calling them 'the moaners brigade' and 'a smorgasbord of whingers'. It is simply unbelievable that someone like Senator Bob Brown, who has been involved in so many protests and complaints and whingeing would dare to say that without blushing. It comes down to this: if this is the pattern of attack being launched by governments, the media and religious or racial vilification tribunals, they do not seek to legitimately protect; they seek to stifle and they are being used in a single way. What are we doing to our country? That is a question we need to embrace and to consider.