Sunday, June 10, 2012

Aussie monarchy support hits 25-year high

AUSTRALIANS have thanked the Queen for their long weekend with a poll showing support for the monarchy is at a 25-year high.

According to the Roy Morgan poll conducted during the regent's Diamond Jubilee celebration, 58 per cent of Australians support the monarchy, a six per cent increase compared to October.

Support for a republic slid two points to 35 per cent.

Tasmanian Liberal senator and avowed monarchist Eric Abetz said the week of celebrations had confirmed Australians' affection for their sovereign.

"This shows that Australians understand the value of stability of the monarchy as a unifying institution," Senator Abetz said.

"As Australians celebrate the Queen's birthday and Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, we should give thanks for the monarchy as a stabilising and enduring institution and for Her Majesty's life of dedicated service."


Tony Abbott announces tougher asylum policy

ASYLUM seekers who are believed to have destroyed their documents before arriving in Australia will have a presumption against refugee status under a coalition government, Tony Abbott says.

As part of three policy "enhancements", which the opposition leader would immediately be put into place under his government, Mr Abbott said there would be a "strong presumption that illegal boat people who have destroyed their documents not be given refugee status".

Mr Abbott said the government would also ensure that his Immigration Minister "uses the right" to appeal against affirmative decisions.

"This right has never been exercised under this government," he said.

He wants to know why 90 per cent of refugees who arrive illegally by boat receive successful asylum applications.

He says other countries have "heavier rates of rejection" and wants to know why this situation exists in Australia.

It is not the first time the opposition has flagged a crackdown on asylum seekers entering Australia without proper documentation.


Catholic bishop who rejects Catholic treachings finally exits

The church did well to put up with him as long as it did

A DISSIDENT Catholic bishop who criticised the church's "authoritarian" nature and doctrines on celibacy and female priests has resigned.

Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Patrick Power, an auxiliary bishop of the Canberra-Goulburn archdiocese, on Thursday, five years before he reached the church's mandatory retirement age of 75.

Bishop Power had criticised the church's response to sexual abuse scandals and called for its systemic reform.

"Bishop Power was one of the most progressive, reformist bishops that Australia has seen," the editor of the Catholica website, Brian Coyne, said.

Yesterday, Mr Power reiterated his concerns that the church was moving away from the modernisation inaugurated by the Vatican II reforms designed to make the church more accessible.

"It's not just the Pope," he said. "In the whole life of the church, that there's been a move away from the Second Vatican Council and that's been a great disappointment."

In a 2010 article on sexual abuse cases and the church, he wrote: "I wondered aloud if the church would be in its present state of crisis if women had been part of the decision-making in the life of the church."

The NSW chairwoman of the group Women and the Australian Church, Bernice Moore, said Mr Power's legacy was "one of true commitment to people".

Mr Power denied his retirement was prompted by frustration with church hierarchy. "I'm 70 and I'd always intended to resign," he said.


Bound and gagged: freedom of speech and the Finkelstein report

On December 29, 1819, the young Earl of Ellenborough addressed the House of Lords in defence of the Tory government’s Newspaper Stamp Duties Bill. The bill substantially increased the taxes on cheap newspapers and pamphlets. It was a controversial measure, in no small part because it was transparently directed at the government’s radical critics in the press. Ellenborough had taken his seat just a year earlier and he sought to calm his fellow peers.

The bill was not directed against the “respectable press”, Ellenborough told the House. It was targeted at the “pauper press”– cheap publications that were “administering to the prejudices and passions of a mob”. These newspapers and pamphlets “only sent forth a continual stream of falsehood and malignity”. So, he proclaimed, “in the best interests of the country” his government must extinguish the “gross and flagrant abuse of the press”. Against Whig protest, the bill passed.

Nearly 200 years later, the report of Australia’s Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation in 2012 struck remarkably similar notes. This report, commissioned by the Gillard government and written by former judge Ray Finkelstein, claimed that freedom of the press – and freedom of speech in general – has resulted in “inequality, abuse of power, intellectual squalor, avid interest in scandal, an insatiable appetite for entertainment and other debasements and distortions”. Finkelstein’s proposed solution was a regulatory agency that would enforce “standards” on newspapers, magazines and virtually all Australian news or opinion websites.

Ellenborough was frustrated by the disruptive, anti-authoritarian journalism of radicals such as William Cobbett. The spark for Finkelstein’s report was the hostile relationship between Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in Australia and Julia Gillard’s Labor government. Both purported to be concerned with questions of taste and press ethics, yet these lofty ideas were scant cover for their true concerns: political antagonism between government and press. The same rivalry, two centuries apart.

Certainly, the similarity of Ellenborough’s and Finkelstein’s complaints obscures the great changes that have occurred in the development of freedom of speech over those centuries. The mid-20th century saw a concerted legislative push to remove the limits on expression that had built up over the past few hundred years. Blasphemy laws were eliminated. Restrictions on obscenity, from racy novels to picture postcards to pornographic films, were substantially reduced. The scope of legitimate political opinion was widened; contrast, for instance, the repressive penalties for sedition during the First World War and much freer debate over the Vietnam War or the First Gulf War at the end of the century.

Yet that liberal tide is receding. In Australia, the laws against blasphemy that were eliminated in the 20th century are back under a new guise of racial and religious vilification. “Hate speech” has filled the void of the obscenity laws of the past: a steadily increasing set of statutory rules and case law has created a “right not to be offended” which directly competes with the right to freedom of speech. The voluntary press councils that were introduced in the middle of last century to ward off newspaper regulation seem certain to become mandatory bodies in the wake of the British phone hacking scandal. With campaign finance laws and election restrictions, political speech is being regulated – “managed” – in order to suppress voices that are considered too loud.

Commercial expression is the subject of an increasing number of restrictions in the service of public policy – particularly in the field of public health. Outright bans on advertising certain products are increasingly common. The addition of privacy into human rights law has also thrown up new, and substantial, restrictions on speech, such as the UK’s “super-injunctions”, where courts now routinely place gagging orders on the very existence of a gagging order. Even anti-sedition laws have experienced a resurgence as part of the War on Terror.

Virtually everybody says they support freedom of speech. But in every single debate over the new wave of speech restrictions there have been intellectuals, commentators and activists smugly claiming that freedom of speech is not “absolute”, or that their pet issues raise no free speech questions at all. Neither the 19th century’s Ellenborough or the 21st century’s Finkelstein believed they were damaging the liberties of their subjects when they proposed legislation to target “intellectual squalor” or “falsehood and malignity”. In liberal democracies, the importance of freedom of speech has been downgraded. It is a value which is no longer central to our self-image, and one which is apparently easy to discard if other goals present themselves. The news that the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders had dropped Australia’s position on their Press Freedom Index from 18 in 2010 to 30 in 2011-12 went without much comment.

But freedom of speech is not merely one value among many.

In the US, the First Amendment of the Constitution demands that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. This apparent stridency has generated a small genre of scholarship in that country trying to define the appropriate limits – if any – of free expression. In no other area of the law is the relationship between philosophy and practice so well-studied, or so highly theorised. This makes sense. As the American jurist Harry Kalven wrote in the 1960s, “free speech is so close to the heart of democratic organisation that if we do not have an appropriate theory for our law here, we feel we really do not understand the society in which we live”.

I argue that the liberty to express an opinion is at one with the liberty to hold an opinion. In a very real sense freedom of speech defines the relationship between the state and the individual. As Benedict Spinoza wrote in the 17th century, “The most tyrannical governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right over his thoughts.”

It is in the battle for liberty of conscience that we find the first buds of Western liberalism. In our secular age it is easy to forget that for much of our history, religious freedom was the first, and most important, liberty. The case for freedom of speech did not sprout fully formed in the mind of John Stuart Mill as he wrote the famous On Liberty. Nor was it an innovation of the American founders as they drafted the First Amendment. John Milton – whose 1644 tract Areopagitica is commonly cited as the first argument against censorship – was drawing upon 2000 years of thought.

We cannot understand the importance of free expression without knowing how this vital liberty was born; how thinkers and societies throughout history have developed the idea that individuals have the right to express themselves without fear of sanction by the state.

Freedom of speech is a liberty that has been defined and refined for more than two millennia. The greatest thinkers in Western civilisation have explored its tenets and debated its foundations. In ancient Greece, the father of philosophy, Socrates, was executed for heresy. Yet his student, Plato, believed the ideal state would be one that banned all poetry which did not either praise gods or famous men. Cicero and Tacitus saw freedom of speech as the keystone of Roman liberties. Augustine and Calvin punished their fellow Christians for mere doctrinal disagreements. Spinoza, Milton, Locke, Voltaire, and Mill have all defended, to greater or lesser degrees, the right of individuals to believe and speak views of which governments disapprove. Even Karl Marx – no icon of individual liberties – was a passionate defender of press freedom. Yet the communist states that were his legacy have been among the most rigidly opposed to free expression. And it was the Soviet bloc that promoted the concept of hate speech – a concept which has spread throughout the liberal democratic world.

Our modern liberties are the result of a great dialogue within Western civilisation. Intellectual and legal developments made on one continent or in one country ricochet across the Western world. Australian ideas about political and social freedom are drawn from the history of Greece, France, the US, Rome, the Dutch Republic, and, of course, Britain.

And it is only by understanding that history that we can resolve the confusion about free speech in our time. Both ancient Rome and ancient Athens had a philosophy of free expression. But the two differed in an important way. The Athenians imagined freedom of speech as a foundation principle of their democracy. The Romans imagined freedom of speech as a foundation principle of their liberty. The difference is subtle but significant. If we believe that freedom of speech is an instrument, deployed for democratic purposes, we will find it sometimes necessary to restrain certain speakers – that is, to violate their free speech – in order to pursue a higher democratic goal. By contrast, if we believe, as the Romans did, that freedom of speech is a right held by individuals, then any attempt to restrain speech, for whatever reason, will be anathema.

These two competing ideas – free speech as a democratic instrument, and free speech as a right – have echoed through history and still define the contemporary debate.

I argue that only the Roman tradition of individual rights provides a stable and coherent case for free expression.

The reason for this lies in the intellectual origins of speech freedom – the relationship between liberty of conscience and liberty of expression. The free, morally autonomous individual is one who can construct their own identity, form their own beliefs, and pursue their own desires while tolerating the identities, beliefs and desires of others. This idea is the core of liberalism. And its foundations were first articulated in the debate over religious toleration, and later freedom of speech. In this, Rome, with its tradition of scepticism and individualism, casts a brighter light over Western civilisation than Athens.

In the 21st century, it is the very idea of freedom of speech that is now being challenged. Benjamin Constant, an early French liberal, wrote in his Principles of Politics that:

One habitual ruse of the enemies of freedom and enlightenment is to affirm that their ignoble doctrine is universally adopted, that principles on which rest the dignity of the human race are abandoned by unanimous agreement, and that it is unfashionable and almost in bad taste to profess them.

We must show there is no such unanimous agreement.

It is easy to support freedom of speech when we agree with the content of that speech. So we need to ground our support for free expression in something more than platitudes – a resilient foundation that can cope with both the pleasing and the offensive. Freedom of speech has been, and still is, one of our most vital liberties. If we discard it, we critically undermine the moral foundations of liberal democracy, and lose our basic human individuality.


1 comment:

Paul said...

You (and Bloggers like you) have more to fear from Finkelstein than Murdoch ever will, in fact I doubt Murdoch is the real target here. Murdoch and the Fink have a surprising amount in common.