Picture credit: Martin Ollman/Getty Images
Artillery Row

For we are one and unfree

Australia doesn’t care about free speech, and it doesn’t want to

Throughout 2021, Australia’s overbearing approach to the coronavirus pandemic was a punchline among those who favour liberty within the West. Footage of lockdown protesters being brutally beaten by police officers were widely denounced and daily press conferences from politicians announcing the increasing COVID cases and deaths have enhanced the image of the island country as a “nation of convicts and wardens.” 

Yet perhaps, the most surreal part about this event is how much Australians approve of this. The state leaders who implemented these policies received skyrocketing public approval, earning them election victories and allowing them to cement further emergency powers the next time another pandemic happens. The country’s pro-freedom reputation has been shattered by the fact that neither the public nor its elites care about freedoms — not least the freedoms left largely unfettered in America, thanks to the First Amendment.  

Free speech in Australia is being tested again, as the eSafety commissioner Julie Iman Grant brings Twitter/X to Federal Court, ordering them to hide the footage of the Wakeley terrorist attack, when a young teenager stabbed the Eastern Orthodox Bishop Mari Mari Emmanuel during a live-streamed sermon. Previously, Grant had a bitter legal battle with X over a tweet that gender-critical activist Chris Elston, aka @BillboardChris, published over a trans activist who spoke at a WHO panel, to which he filed a legal challenge. 

Except for a few politicians, leaders of every stripe were eager to embrace Grant’s initiative to take Elon Musk to court again. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese called the chairman of X an “arrogant billionaire”. Senator Jacqui Lambie says Musk should go to jail, resulting in the Tesla boss’s rightful ire. Meanwhile, Grant was praised by the Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley, despite being slammed by the Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. But Dutton is also stuck in a rut, as the previous Government under Scott Morrison implemented the Online Safety Act that brought the role of the eSafety Commissioner in the first place. 

Grant’s goal with taking down the livestream is part of her bid to get rid of terrorist activity on social media platforms, putting out notices left and right to every tech company operating on Australian soil. While her belief that the footage could inspire copycat attacks or incite further violence might be defensible, there are many problems with her order, beginning with the fact that the footage can be found on many platforms, as well as many other videos that could be deemed problematic. Will she take on public broadcasters that have aired it? Are they responsible for creating a slippery slope of unneeded violence. If so, then it will take a lot of commitment to remove it at every possible angle, despite Bishop Emmannuel’s request not to take it down, after he survived the attack. 

Currently, the role of the eSafety commissioner is more of a symptom than a feature of the neglected conversation surrounding Australia’s free speech culture. Anytime I spoke to anyone about freedom of speech here, many always preface it with “we don’t have legal free speech”, compared to the Americans and their First Amendment. To paraphrase Megan Davis, one of the architects of the failed Voice referendum, that’s because Australia does not share America’s values of freedom. Unfortunately, almost everyone in Australia’s cultural elite, including Davis believes that it’s a good thing, because if freedom prevailed, then it might threaten their goals minimising bigotry and protecting the marginalised.

If the outcome from the Court case does lean in favour of Musk and X, unfortunately it will not significantly change the way people here view freedom of speech. This is due to the fact that many laws relating to “hate speech” and national security are unfortunately tied to the concept, distorting what free speech could be. One example is Section 18C, which is found in the Racial Discrimination Act, and became a source of contention when Andrew Bolt, a columnist, was sued by nine individuals in 2011 over two blog posts where he claims that fair-skinned Aborigines are more likely to gain entitlements and career-based privileges than dark-skinned Indigenous Australians. Bolt lost the case and was found to have breached the Section. For some, this represented the withering of free speech, but to others in the progressive political elite, it was an uncontroversial matter of justice being precisely delivered.

Freedom of speech appears broken in Australia because of the apathy of its public, which enables the state to increase its powers

Many, like journalist Paul Bongiorno, are more than happy to claim that freedom of speech is not an absolute right in Australia, because “there are constraints that go to truth, safety and respect.” This is an example of bogus nuance, as it assumes they are mutually exclusive with free speech, that free speech doesn’t allow people to speak truthfully, or protect them from any harm. To people like Paul, freedom isn’t the enemy of tyranny, it begets tyranny. But then again, what kind of sentiment would you expect from the same person who said the week before that “hate preachers beget hate”, implying that Bishop Emmanuel enabled his own stabbing.

The battle between Elon Musk and Grant is a classic case of the entrepreneur up against the big government. More importantly, it’s a battle in unlocking the true nature of free speech as a bedrock of liberal democracies, whether or not it’s unfettered. Freedom of speech appears broken in Australia because of the apathy of its public, which enables the state to increase its powers. 

Albanese expects Musk to follow the country’s law, but as the legal academic James Allan points out, when Victorians rioted during the second lockdown in 2021, the “law is one thing and one’s moral evaluations of it are another.” If everyone follows the laws being implemented, that should not limit the debates into whether or not it is ethical.  

Sadly, the federal government has plans to expand the role of the eSafety commissioner, which includes fining companies for not obeying take-down orders. This would mean a stern humourless ombudsman would be the image of Australia that it deserves.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover