Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download PDFDownload PDF 

Previous Fragment    
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights
01/02/2017
Freedom of speech in Australia

LEAK, Mr Bill, Private capacity

[17:09]

CHAIR: I now welcome Mr Bill Leak. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Leak : I am the Daily Editorial Cartoonist at The Australian newspaper, but I appear as a private citizen.

CHAIR: I invite you to make a brief opening statement.

Mr Leak : I was a bit impressed by the last two opening statements that I heard, given that I have not had time to write one. I read Mr Leeser's submission late last night and wrote a few notes down early this morning, all of which got very wet in the train. Maybe that would be a good point at which to start. Mr Leeser, you provided quite a lot of very interesting quotes from Robert Menzies, all of which I thought when reading them were the sorts of things you really could not argue with at all. Well chosen! What disturbed me about it was that I thought: 'Well, wait a minute. When Sir Robert Menzies wrote all of these things, he could not have possibly foreseen the phenomenon that we call political correctness.' It did not exist when he wrote those things. He could not have possibly foreseen that there would one day be an Australian Human Rights Commission. The last thing that he ever would have been able to imagine is this weird thing that we call political correctness and that this Human Rights Commission would have seen it as its duty to somehow impose that. That is what has been happening.

The law that they have been using as a kind of blunt instrument with which to persecute private citizens for not adhering to the laws of political correctness is the law known as 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. I am quite sure that, when it was drafted, it was drafted for all of the best possible reasons. But now we are seeing that it has fallen into the hands of a body that is being very reckless with it. They have recognised that they have got a weapon there. This is a weapon that they are using against citizens like me, not for having abused somebody or for trying in any way to offend or insult somebody on the basis of their race, their ethnic origin, their religious beliefs or whatever, but for telling the truth. If you have a law in place that enables an agency of the state to haul someone over the coals—as they did me—for having told the truth, there is obviously something wrong with the law.

I noticed, Mr Leeser, that you suggested that a judge could be appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission on a part-time basis, basically to do the job that the commissioner herself is supposed to do, which is to weed out the frivolous, vexatious and trivial complaints from the serious ones so that the trivial, vexatious and frivolous ones—call them what you like—do not get acted upon. Obviously, that is the job of the commission. What we have here is a lawyers' picnic, and your suggestion, with respect, is to invite another lawyer to join in. If the case that I have just been through was not, quite obviously, a frivolous complaint, I'll go heave. The name of the person who made the complaint was Ms Melissa Dinnison. I have seen the form that she filled out, albeit redacted to an enormous extent. It was something that would have taken her a couple of minutes to fill out online. She ticked a few boxes. I cannot remember all the wording, but I can remember the wording of one part of that document. The question was: 'How would you like to see this issue resolved?' Her answer was 'yes'. I ask you: if you were the Race Discrimination Commissioner, that form came onto your desk and someone said to you, 'Are we going to take this seriously?' surely you would take one look at it and say, 'The person who has filled the form out hasn't taken it seriously, so, no, we won't.' I am saying this because I believe that the Human Rights Commission and the Race Discrimination Commissioner went out of their way to actually ask people to complain about my cartoon. I do not know how many complaints he actually did receive. Maybe hers was the only one, and he said, 'Oh well, she hasn't taken it very seriously, but it will have to do. What I really wanted was a complaint about this bloke.' They have acted on this utterly frivolous complaint. I have heard it said today that because of 18D the law actually works quite well. 'Oh, Bill Leak, he got away with it. No harm done.' I think I heard you saying, 'Well, it all resolved itself quite nicely.' Well, yes, it resolved itself quite nicely because I had News Corp paying my legal fees.

I do not know how many of you know this, but at the beginning of 2015 I got myself into strife because I did a cartoon that featured an image of the Prophet Mohammed. Within three days I was advised by the counterterrorism police to get out of my home. I had to move house. I had to have massive security provisions—all sorts of provisions. It was a nightmare. I have got a wife. I have got 14-year-old stepdaughter, and, at the time, of course, she had not even turned 12—she was 11 years of age. I could not tell her why we were moving house because she would have been terrorised. That was their objective. Well, they terrorised me all right. I had to get out of my home because I had done that cartoon. Now I cannot remember why I have gone back to that—sorry, I should have written this down.

Then, 18 months later, I do a cartoon. All my intention for that cartoon was to draw attention to the fact that one of the underlying reasons why 97 per cent of the children in the Don Dale detention centre are Aboriginal—97 per cent of the children in that juvenile detention centre are Aboriginal—is that they come from shocking circumstances, the sort of circumstances that none of us would put up with, none of us could even endure. It is perfectly obvious that that is the case. I say that in my cartoon and I finish up being charged under section 18C. What for? For telling the truth. Not for maligning anybody.

I have got to tell you, that morning, the day that cartoon was published, which was 4 August last year, I received a call at 11 o'clock in the morning from Colin Dillon. Colin Dillon is the father of a very close friend of mine, Anthony Dillon. Colin was Australia's first Aboriginal policeman. He gave pivotal evidence at the Fitzgerald inquiry. He is one of the finest men you are ever likely to meet. Col Dillon rang me, personally, at 11 o'clock that morning to thank me for doing that cartoon and to congratulate me on it. He said, 'Mate, that was such a great cartoon. What you have said in that cartoon is something that has to be said.' He said, 'But, I tell you what, there are a lot of people out there that just don't want to know about it.' He said, 'They don't want it said to them.' Well, I discovered that he was right. I do not tweet and I do not face—I do not do any of that stuff because I am quite busy enough without it—but, at 11 o'clock that morning I had Colin Dillon personally ringing me and thanking me for what I had tried to draw attention to in that cartoon. Then, by the time I went to bed that night, I was Australia's leading racist.

CHAIR: Mr Leak, I might open up for questions.

Mr Leak : Thanks very much.

Mr PERRETT: Thank you for appearing before us, Mr Leak. For the cartoon you talked about that came out in August last year, the complaint against you was discontinued, so there was no finding one way or the other whether it offended section 18C or whether any of the defences that no doubt your lawyers told you about were available to you for that cartoon.

Mr Leak : They did not have to tell me. I could read it. But clearly that is my point about why the Human Rights Commission upheld the complaint, because they are lawyers. If you go through section 18D you go tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Mr PERRETT: Mr Leak, I just want to be clear: the complaint was never upheld because it was discontinued. Is that a fact?

Mr Leak : It was withdrawn.

Senator REYNOLDS: What date was it withdrawn?

Mr Leak : I do not know. Sometime in December. But they actually went out and found two more complainants.

Mr PERRETT: Are you able to talk about the advice you got from the lawyers? Were they pretty certain that the 18D defences would be available to you and—

Mr Leak : Yes—rock solid. As I said before, I read them myself. I just went through: tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. That made me even more puzzled as to why they had upheld the complaint. They knew it would be thrown out.

Mr PERRETT: Do you think there should be any limits to what you—or other cartoonists, for that matter—can lawfully express in cartoons?

Mr Leak : No, I do not. I think you either have freedom of speech or you do not.

Mr PERRETT: I asked another witness—I cannot remember which one—what is political correctness? I think you almost gave us a definition in that melding of Menzies and the words of section 18C. I ask for your definition of political correctness.

Mr Leak : It is a very difficult one to answer.

Mr PERRETT: Would it be: 'not offending, not insulting, not humiliating or not intimidating'? Is that what you are suggesting?

Mr Leak : Not really. I do not think that quite defines political correctness, but it is an interesting question. If you want to know about racism, try this on the size: my wife is Thai; as a Thai woman, she gets very subtle and sometimes more overt racism directed towards her all the time. I cop it too. As a white man of a certain age with a Thai wife, it is immediately assumed that I went to Thailand on some sort of sex-tour and went shopping for a new wife. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, but try and tell it to most people. That is the assumption that is always taken. I copped this stuff all the time. But I cannot regulate—and I do not expect legislators to be able to legislate—to change the way people think. This is what I think the objective of section 18C is. They talk about eliminating racism. Restricting freedom of speech to the point where you are not allowed to go around abusing people racially on the bus—but you are not allowed to do that anyway.

Mr PERRETT: Why are you not allowed to?

Mr Leak : That is just making a public nuisance, isn't it? Surely there are lots—

Senator PATERSON: It is against the law. As Professor Twomey was talking about earlier, it is in fact a crime.

Mr PERRETT: I do not think that is the bus rule in Queensland.

Senator PATERSON: It is here in New South Wales.

Mr Leak : I read a quote from Tanya Plibersek today where she used words very similar to what Mark Dreyfus used late last year and Bill Shorten used in the parliament late last year, where they basically said, 'What sort of vile things do these horrible people who want to get rid of section 18C want to be allowed to say that they are not allowed to say now?' I think this assumes that the people out there who they are talking to, or who they want to hear their comments, do not actually know what freedom of speech is. Put it this way: if I believed freedom of speech was a legal right to abuse people on the bus, I would think, 'Gee, you would have to do something about that, wouldn't you?' Take Mr Shorten, for example. He is a person who fancies himself as the next Prime Minister. I am a cartoonist. I am not even a very well educated person; I never went to university. I studied painting. But at least I have read my John Stuart Mill, because I want to know about it. I comment on society; I want to know what society is all about. I want to know where our society came from. I have taken the trouble to find out what freedom of speech means—that concept—and why it is so important not only to the maintenance of our society but for the development of it. We have freedom of speech to thank for the fact that we are sitting here in nice, comfortable chairs in nice, comfortable Sydney and nice, comfortable Australia. I cannot believe that our politicians would stoop so low as to characterise freedom of speech as the legal right to go around abusing people. It has nothing to do with that.

Senator PATERSON: Thank you, Mr Leak. I appreciate you making the time to be here today and share your experiences. You point out that, although you are unfortunate to have gone through this, in some ways you are fortunate because you had the backing of a large media company that could help provide lawyers for you. Are you aware of what the cost was to News Corp for acting in your case?

Mr Leak : No, I do not. I wish I did—no, I wish I were able to help you. That is what I mean. But, no, I cannot.

Senator PATERSON: How do you think people in your circumstance—say, a freelance cartoonist or a cartoonist who operates online or on social media who does not have the backing of a company like News Corp—would feel having watched the experience that you have been through?

Mr Leak : You have raised what I think is one of the most important points about this. I think that that hypothetical person working for some magazine that might be online—goodness knows—or whatever but does not have the backing of an organisation like News Corp is going to look at what happened to me and say: 'That bloke really got into a lot o trouble for telling the truth. I better not tell it myself.' If that is not a dampener on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, I do not know what is. To me, I think it is extremely sinister. I think it is downright sinister what the AHRC did in my case because that is precisely the message that it sent out to everyone: do not tell the truth; do not take a risk; speech is not free in this country.

Senator PATERSON: Sometimes we call that the chilling effect—

Mr Leak : Well, that is what it is.

Senator PATERSON: and we have been asking people about this this week, none of whom who have been subject to a complaint like you have. They say they are unconvinced that a chilling effect exists or that if it does it is pretty small. Do you agree with that view?

Mr Leak : No, I do not, because it might be for a whole lot of people for whom this is not a matter of immediate interest. And, let's face it, that is probably 99 per cent of people. Most people do not go around thinking about these sorts of things. Similarly, they do not think about the wording of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act if they want to use racist slurs. Changing the wording of it is not going to make any difference. It simply has to go. If you look at the Human Rights Commission and the Race Discrimination Commissioner, you might think, 'Are they supposed to be protecting human rights?' I was concerned with the human rights of Aboriginal children. I am concerned about the human rights of Aboriginal women. They suffer from the most appalling levels of violence. They are 34 times more likely to finish up in hospital than white people in our community, but to mention that makes me a racist! For mentioning the shocking statistics that go along with sexual and physical abuse of children within Aboriginal communities, I get labelled a racist. It is absolutely absurd. It has nothing to do with racism at all. It is trying to stamp out truth.

Senator PATERSON: One of the virtues that advocates of the current system talk about is that it is quite a harmonious system and that it results in both the respondent and the applicant being happy with the outcome. It does not sound like that is how you feel.

Mr Leak : No, it is not. It is simply not. I drew that cartoon on 3 August. I know that in late September and up until about 10 October I was on a holiday with my family, so that was a couple of months. I can actually give you the sequence of events that happened when I came back. My wife's dog died three days before we left America to come home, I got hit with the 18C complaint the day after we got home and the next day the Thai King died. It was a series of catastrophes in the Leak household! I had no idea that the AHRC even had a complaint in their hands. The first time I found out about it was when they decided to do something about it. And I know that in the case of the QUT students the AHRC actually had that in their hands for—what was it? Fourteen months?

Senator PATERSON: That is right.

Mr Leak : They had it for 14 months, and then they notified all of the people who had been complained against and gave them something like three working days to prepare themselves to front the commission. They gave themselves 14 months to prepare a case against them. This is a rogue outfit. It is a totalitarian outfit. They have found this law and they are using it as a weapon.

Senator REYNOLDS: Thank you very much, Mr Leak. One of the things that dismayed me about your treatment by the Human Rights Commission, notwithstanding the flimsy nature and that it was not bumped out in the first place, is that you were clearly, as you said, commentating on an important social issue. The police commissioner in WA came out pretty much on the next day on the front page saying: 'This is the truth. This is the reality that my police officers work with every single day.' And then we had Marcia Langton, Jacinta Price and Josephine Cashman—three amazing Indigenous women—who came out and supported what you said and actually called it, I think, not political incorrectness but reverse discrimination because the inability for people like yourself to raise these issues meant that the discrimination and the human rights abuses that they and their children suffer are left unaddressed and silent. And yet the Human Rights Commission still did not act to withdraw your complaint. Clearly people have come out and said that it is actually the truth. That Western Australian police commissioner was not hauled before the commission. Certainly, these three Indigenous ladies were not hauled before the commission. You say it took you four months—is that right?

Mr Leak : Before they contacted me—in August, September or October, so it was maybe two months and one week or something before they contacted me and I realised I was in strife—it took about two months or about nine weeks, I suppose. And then it took up until Christmas before the whole thing was resolved.

I also must mention that at a certain stage—I am not terribly good with dates; sorry about that—which must have been in November or October, there were two lawyers from the Western Australian legal service who happened to be in Fitzroy Crossing because of some kind of a problem or complaint that had come from local Aborigines in Fitzroy Crossing who were being breathalysed upon entry to the pub. They went up there to resolve that. These two lawyers from the Western Australian legal service went up there to resolve that issue. They took it upon themselves to go to a home where two men lived and show them my cartoon. This is at least three months after it had been published. These blokes had no idea what the cartoon was about. They had never seen it before. They went in there and presented it to two Aboriginal men and said, 'Do you think that's racist?' 'Yeah, I do,' they said. They said, 'Righto, sign here.' They provided them with already made complaints and asked them to sign them. These two poor men were being, in my view, really shabbily treated by these people who claimed to be standing against racism as expressed in my cartoon.

Senator REYNOLDS: Mr Leak, just on that, in terms of what you do as a cartoonist—to shine a light sometimes on very uncomfortable truths in society—from your experience of the issue you were talking about there, do you sometimes need to offend and insult people to get people to shine a light on things that we do not want to look at?

Mr Leak : Senator Reynolds, put it this way: I work as a cartoonist. You could almost say I am a humourist. I think of my job as having to sit down and amuse the nation. It is not easy. Ask any comedian and that comedian will tell you that every time they tell a joke there is a possibility that someone somewhere will take offence at what that person said. Of course I understand that someone somewhere might be offended by one of my cartoons. Frankly, if I did a cartoon and I could safely say with 100 per cent surety that no-one would be offended by it I would throw it away and start again because the point of a cartoon—the point of satire—is to point to something that is true and do it in such a way. First of all, there is the effect that humour has. When you see something and it is funny there is a sort of slight cathartic release and that release sort of drops all your defences and the message goes straight through. It is a way of conveying a message. And, if a work of satire does not have a kernel of truth, the satirist is wasting his time.

So, yes, I understand that people are going to say, 'I'm offended.' But what I would say to you is that a lot of people rather enjoy being offended. It is actually rather cool to be offended these days. In my work as a cartoonist—I have also worked as a painter most of my life—and when people sit down or commence work as painters, as artists, the objective is to do something that is uplifting, something that is inspiring, something that rises above petty concerns like whether somebody over there is offended by a joke or not. Great art rises above everything. Well, it doesn't anymore, because these days the orthodoxy is conceptual art, and conceptual art is by definition indistinguishable from illustration. It is a visual means of conveying an idea or concept, which is what illustration is. So people look at my cartoons and, instead of looking at them knowing that there is a cartoon which is a bit of fun—or it might be an illustration; and then there is art, great art, uplifting, transcendent art: it is all the same now. You have to understand this. It is something that took a long time to get my own head around, and suddenly I realised that people are not looking at my cartoons with the intention of being amused; they want to be offended.

Senator REYNOLDS: In relation to your comment about the truth, it appears to me that, in your case and also that of Dean Alston, even though it was a cartoon satire social commentary, the truth was actually irrelevant. In Dean Alston's case, it took five years to go through the 18D process; and, in your case, the truth, even though it was self-evident right at the beginning that what you were saying was demonstrably true, did not matter.

Mr Leak : It did not matter. But it was not only that. My big problem here is with the Human Rights Commission, because right from the word go, if you looked at the provisions of 18D, they meant that any action would not be successful. I think there are five points in 18D, four or five. If you just go through them and say, 'Okay, I tick that one, I tick that one, I tick that one,' I tick the lot. And all I can say is: what is wrong with the Race Discrimination Commissioner? How come he did not just tick the lot and say, 'There is no way that this would ever be successful, so we'll throw that one in the bin'? No, he did not, because it gave him the possibility of publicly persecuting someone who has a reasonably high profile and works for News Corp—namely, me.

Mr LEESER: Mr Leak, I think you have hit upon the key point there, which is that the process of the commission here failed massively. I do not know if you were alerted by your lawyers to a case called Bropho and the Human Rights Commission in 2001.

Senator REYNOLDS: That is the Dean Alston one.

Mr LEESER: It is the Dean Alston one.

Mr Leak : Was that Dean?

Senator REYNOLDS: It was Dean's case, yes.

Mr LEESER: It is almost the same fact set, and it seems to me to be very strange that the commission's processes, and the commission itself in the exercise of its powers, did not move it on, particularly with such a strong precedent.

Mr Leak : That is right.

Senator REYNOLDS: But, even when they did, it took four years in the courts—five years in the courts.

Mr LEESER: You have that now as a very clear precedent.

Mr Leak : But, Mr Leeser, it took five years in Dean Alston's case—but your suggestion about putting another judge in there—

Mr LEESER: Well, no, it is not another judge. With respect, Mr Leak, it is actually replacing the president—

Mr Leak : I see.

Mr LEESER: with a part-time judicial commissioner, because it is not the Race Discrimination Commissioner who deals with the conciliation or the complaints; it is actually the president of the commission who deals with complaints.

Mr Leak : I would have thought it was the president's job to decide whether things were frivolous or not.

Senator PATERSON: It is their job.

Mr Leak : Well, clearly, what we have here then is a rogue president, and what is to say that there is not going to be another rogue president? And, if you put in a judge, who is to say that we are not going to one of these days finish up with a rogue judge? The problem is obviously the wording of this law. It is entirely subjective. Even this whole nonsense idea of what a reasonable person would expect—I am a reasonable person. I do not sound like a very reasonable person, but I had to file a cartoon by two o'clock this afternoon to be here! It is art. There is obviously something wrong with this law. How do you define 'insult' or 'offend'? Why does it apply to some people but not to others?

I told you before that I do not do social media—I do not have the time for it—but a lot of people sent me links to things and said, 'You better look at this, you better look at that'. There was one mob called VICE. It is very hip, very edgy. With a name like VICE, you know it is going to be very cool. They invited Australian artists to draw cartoons or artistic representations of me. There they were, one after the other, each one trying to be more offensive than the last. The very first one, who tried to emulate the style of Robert Crumb, had gone to all the trouble of drawing me with my brains falling out—because I had a bad accident about eight years ago and bumped my head—and there was blood and guts everywhere. There were other ones full of the foulest language and the most violent imagery. Then I was directed to a whole lot of the stuff that was going up on Twitter, and it was one person after another trying to outdo the previous person for pure offensiveness, all directed straight at me. I looked at some of these things and thought: 'Do I care? No. Does it hurt me? Am I supposed to be offended? Yeah, that's a bit offensive—so what?'

Senator PATERSON: You did not go to the Human Rights Commission, Mr Leak?

Mr Leak : I did not go to the Human Rights Commission. I could spend the rest of my life doing that; I have enough of them there.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Leak. We have to conclude the proceedings there—

Mr Leak : Thank you, Ian.

CHAIR: but I have one final question. Throughout this process, were any monetary demands made of the newspaper in return for dropping the case?

Mr Leak : Not that I know of, and I do not think there were.

CHAIR: Thank you. I want to thank all the witnesses who have appeared before the committee today for giving their evidence and time. Thank you to the Hansard and broadcasting team and the secretariat.

Committee adjourned at 17 : 41