What's the difference between a repressive totalitarian state and a state with liberal democratic laws whose citizens do not respect the freedoms that such laws guarantee? Nothing.
A country can have the most liberal freedom of speech and association laws in the world, but if its citizens are not animated by the spirit of the laws, if they do not believe in them, then these laws are a dead letter.
This is nicely shown in the attempt by Syed Murtaza Hussain, of the Council for the Prevention of Islamophobia Inc, to intimidate Festival Hall in Melbourne into cancelling its booking to host anti-Islamist speaker and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali this week. Hussain threatened Festival Hall that he would disrupt the evening with 5000 protesters.
Hirsi Ali has not engaged in any incitement to violence. She has not engaged in obscene abuse. She has not tried to incite anyone to hatred. Yet there are citizens in Australia - 5000 in Melbourne, according to Hussain - who would thumb their noses at our liberal democracy and try to prevent her from enjoying her right to speak freely.
And that's the distinction on which we need to be clear: between the right to freedom and the ability to enjoy that right. Only politicians can curtail our rights to freedom as embodied in our laws. Yet our fellow citizens can make sure that those rights are more costly to enjoy - so costly that we cannot afford to enjoy them.
That's precisely what is happening in Australia with Hirsi Ali's aborted speaking tour, not to mention pro-traditional marriage conferences across the past 18 months where citizens have tried to intimidate venues into cancelling contracts to host events.
Yes, the right to freedom of speech still exists, but the cost has become too high for speech that falls foul of Muslim and LGBTI identity politics.
This is one of the dangers facing freedom of speech and association in Australia.
Sure, we have section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and its vague threats against "offensive", "insulting" and "humiliating" speech.
But 18C is merely a symbol of civic decay - a decay brought on by the repressive tolerance of human rights discourse in liberal democracies and thoughtless immigration laws creating communities with a strongly illiberal dynamic.
Human rights discourse is fine within the context of countries with flagrant disregard for human rights. It is sorely needed in African countries, most of the Middle East and much of Asia. But human rights advocates in Australia clearly have found themselves with next to nothing to do. Scrambling for some justification for their existence (and ridiculously high wages) they start human rights ambulance chasing.
Take, for example, Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, who drummed up business by tacitly encouraging Australians to lodge complaints against the late Bill Leak for his cartoon on troubled indigenous communities.
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About the Author
Stephen A Chavura
is a historian and political theorist. He teaches history and politics
at Macquarie University, Campion College, and the Lachlan Macquarie
Institute. His work has been published in journals such as the Australian Journal of Political Science, History of European Ideas, and Journal of Religious History. His first book, Tudor Protestant Political Thought, 1547-1603,
was published in 2011, and he is working on two other books, one on
secularism in Australia (ARC-funded) and another on freedom of speech.
He lives in Sydney's Inner West.