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‘Rebalancing’ human rights? They don’t belong to the left or the right

The debate over the need for “rebalancing” of the Australian Human Rights Commission raises fascinating questions about the nature of human rights as a public ideal. Federal attorney-general George Brandis…

Free speech is a fundamental human right, but it cannot be absolute. AAP/Howard Jones

The debate over the need for “rebalancing” of the Australian Human Rights Commission raises fascinating questions about the nature of human rights as a public ideal.

Federal attorney-general George Brandis and others argue human rights need to be reclaimed for the liberal side of politics. The debate over the need to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has a similar flavour. In this debate, free speech is argued to be a more important human right than the right to be protected from the harm some speech may do.

In evaluating this claim, we might turn to the history of human rights to help us make sense of the broader context. This is a lively area of academic research, with a series of competing narratives.

One narrative sees human rights as emerging from deep within the intellectual history of the west, with hybrid origins in many different cultural sources stemming back to Roman law and even ancient Greece.

Another influential narrative sees human rights emerging in the aftermath of World War Two as a normative and legal shield against the atrocities of Nazism and Stalinism.

A more recent narrative argues human rights only really emerged in global politics in the 1970s and with a much more ambiguous legacy – one caught up in Cold War ideology and geopolitical posturing. In that most recent narrative, human rights represent a “last utopia” – to use Samuel Moyn’s evocative phrase – a symbol of the failure of more genuinely progressive political movements. The papering over of deep injustices remains at the heart of the current world order.

The lines aren’t neatly drawn

The history of a concept almost always reveals a much messier intellectual legacy and thus ambiguous guidance for today. Classical liberal rights – freedom of speech, association, property and conscience – are undoubtedly important to the legacy of human rights. But so too are social democratic rights – such as political participation, employment and anti-discrimination.

On the very issue of balancing freedom of speech with protection from racial discrimination, our most important international human rights documents provide more complex answers than our national debate seems to allow. On one hand, freedom of expression is one of the core human rights outlined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

On the other, protection of the freedom from racial vilification is made explicit in Article 4 of the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

What are we to make of such tensions and contradictions?

We should adopt neither human rights absolutism, nor relativism. We should not think that human rights are impervious to historical change or political debate. Nor should we think they are merely the playthings of ideology.

A healthy politics respects rights

Human rights are political, through and through, and ought to be subject to debate and challenge. But they should also set a framework and tone for our most important political debates.

Human rights are a vital threshold for testing the justifications we appeal to, not only for protection against state power but also for how power can be used to protect and support citizens’ most vital interests. A political culture that takes human rights seriously does not refer to people as “queue jumpers” and “illegals”, or seek to prioritise the “rights of bigots” over racial and ethnic minorities.

And a political culture that takes human rights seriously does not simply rush to proclaim rights without providing the underlying reasons for their value and the responsibilities they confer. If our main political parties did more of the latter, our politics would be immeasurably better off. Divisive debates might not be resolved, but they could be transformed.

Our debates would shift onto a level where the inherent dignity of individuals and respect for our common humanity – the heart of the human rights vision – is a starting point for our public discussions, not something lost in the noise.

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71 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    It is interesting that it was a Liberal (Fraser) Government that ratified the ICCPR in 1980, and it is now a liberal government seeking to destabilise the protections against racial vilification, although I note it was the Whitlam government that originally ratified the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

    Would be very good for certainty of the status of rights to enshrine rights through some kind of legal instrument like a federal bill of rights, so that the High Court common law (Teoh, Plaintiff S157, etc) is not left to ambiguously uphold rights when they conflict with legislation in many walks of life.

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  2. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    It is pretty obvious that the conservative Liberal party is no longer he conservative Liberal but is simply hiding behind those words because it gets more votes that way, far more accurately that should be called the luddite Exploiters party.
    For them only their rights and those who pay them count, everyone else is there to be exploited and anything that protects them attacked, from the NBN which would allow the majority the share their ideas and opinions and not restrict public mind space to a…

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    1. Mark Pollock

      Analyst

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      You seem to manage to,share your opinions without the benefit of a multi billion dollar NBN. Are your right being infringed by the government asking that this project be delivered efficiently? I hardly think so.

      The problem with your argument is that you are very keen on the "sharing" bit but you have no idea on how to produce anything to share. That bit of the magic pudding is left to the people who parasites like to call selfish and greedy.

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    2. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Mark Pollock

      The selfish and the greedy are the parasites they just love to credit for all the efforts of others via main stream media and claim those efforts most deceitfully as their own, to attempt to hide their parasitical nature. Note that I will sink to a personal attack to expose who you are, you have quite adequately done that yourself, just as you have demonstrated your political alignment and how it publicly expresses itself, claims ownership on everything and anything that opposes it has no value, no worth and no idea.

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    3. Mark Pollock

      Analyst

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Did I really say all that? What a lot of lines to read between.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Also, given that the Bolt case is really the only significant penalty that has yet been meted out under this legislation - with most of the other cases brought either mediated or settled very modestly in court - this also seems to be a completely constructed problem. It would be fair to have a serious debate about weighing rights to protection from discrimination against freedom of speech if there were actually any meaningful evidence that the present legislation has in any real way restricted anyone's rights. Bolt was essentially "convicted" on the grounds of journalistic incompetence, negligence and apparent malice - had he done basic research and avoided publishing things that were not only offensive but also knowably inaccurate he would almost certainly have been safe behind the (broadly very sensible) public debate safeguards.

      As is, we're merely squandering social capital debating a non-issue.

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    2. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      There is also the case of the 2 Christian pastors who made factual statements about Mohammed in their own church and were taken to the cleaners by 2 Muslims sitting in the gathering.

      And yet Muslim minorities making similar claims are allowed as the Christian groups are not minorities

      This is a rule to stifle debate for some and not others

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    3. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Sam Han

      Yea, It's great isn't it Sam that we have people who'll break whatever laws or contracts they've agreed to in order to tell us the 'truth'. No government needs to keep any secrets at all do they? All information should be freely available to whomever wishes to obtain it for what ever purpose. The naivety is nauseating.

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  3. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Although the article claims that human rights are neither of the left or right, as soon as this line is stated, '...or seek to prioritise the “rights of bigots” over racial and ethnic minorities., it shows the author doesn't get free speech.

    The stupid bigot should have the same right to say something as the quietly spoken, thoughtful and educated professor, no more rights and no less rights.

    Just like the true test of democracy is not voting someone in to office, it is voting them out, the true test of free speech is allowing someone to say something that you don't like and then you don't sue or shoot them.

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    1. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Should cartoons depicting Mohammed in an amusing way, in the same way as Christians have to put up with their symbols being mocked, be restricted?

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    2. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      We Christians, being commanded by our Lord to practice long-suffering patience and forgiveness etc., really should restrict ourselves as far as mocking the symbols of other, inferior faiths is concerned. We should lead by example, without expecting that example to be followed immediately. 'Do onto others bla bla bla...! I'm sure you've heard it before!

      From a purely secular-law point of view, the principle of equality before the law should apply: if someone spoofing The Prophet can show that The Saviour has been spoofed in a similar fashion without legal recriminations, the he should remain beyond legal reproach.

      Muslims (Baha'is, Jews, Zoroastrians...) living in Australia thinking about getting upset just will need to get with the program, and, if they don't like the program, try and change it through constitutional means - calm public discussion, persuasion of legislators etc.

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    3. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

      But this is the point.

      The current act gives them the power to stop any acts (spoofing or otherwise) which are likely to offend their group.

      Statements about Mohammed and the age of his wives and so the age at which he had sex with them has been the subject of Muslims taking offence under this act. How can such factual statements be deemed out of line?

      As to your point about getting with the program. They have done that already. These groups have convinced the previous government to treat them as exceptions and have curtailed free speech as a result.

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      No, I don't think so. But this is primarily because they are obviously satire and not pretending to be factual or fair, unlike the Bolt articles.

      What made you imagine that I would?

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken they do NOT have the "power to stop anyacts" - that is a gross misrepresentation of the legislation - they have the power to bring what amounts to a civil complaint - if that is found to be valid under the law, as it was in the Bolt case, then there may be some recompense and a requirement for an apology. As far as I can see, none of the Bolt material has ever been formally removed or expunged - it's still pretty easy to access it - so it's hardly been 'stopped'.

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    6. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken, I have not followed this subject to any great extent - I'm trying to get a more rational approach to economics sorted - so I can't really comment. Maybe if you could link to any specifics? If there is demonstrably differential treatment, then from a secular point of view that would be unacceptable and ought to be rectified.

      From a Christian point of view? Well, you know the dictum warning from arguing with a fool, because people might not know the difference? Let me reframe it for you: Never argue with a Muslim! People might not know the difference!

      I am not saying never talk to them, never engage in conversation - I'm not against respectful exchanges of views or debate - just not this indeterminate argy-bargy of I'm right - No I'm right - it serves no purpose and invariably creates more heat than light!

      And we shouldn't need the Law to stop us.

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  4. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    I think Human Rights can be best summed up as
    "Treat people as You yourself would wish to be Treated."

    Surely that's enough.

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    1. Sam Han

      Lawyer; LLM student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      It would be nice that was true!

      Unfortunately, the prevailing approach seems to be: "do unto others whatever you can get away with".

      :(

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Again and again people passionately argue for improving human rights by assuming that human rights and free speech are essential, but only free speech they like.

    I put that it is an infringement of my rights to free speech that I am not allowed to refer to refugees who refuse to apply through the correct channels and arrive by boat as 'queue jumpers.' (using the author's term)

    I have expressed an opinion that you may not like, but surely I have the right to say it.

    In fact, a US Marine said it best when asked what he thought of anti Vietnam war protesters who were yelling and spitting at him. He answered that he did not agree with what they were saying but would defend to the death their right to say it.

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    1. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Yelling and spitting are not the kind of expression of free speech that should be protected under the law - quite the contrary!

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    2. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      "I put that it is an infringement of my rights to free speech that I am not allowed to refer to refugees who refuse to apply through the correct channels and arrive by boat as 'queue jumpers.' (using the author's term)"

      I contend that you would be pushing the limits of acceptability. In the context of sober, respectful debate (such as we try to practice on TC), you would open yourself to questions about the actual existence of orderly refugee queues, which seem to be, by and large, a fitment of the imagination of anti-refugee advocates. Thus the term 'queue jumper' seems to have a very clear, tendentious, and derogative quality.

      Whether you should, as a result of the use of such words, open yourself to legal prosecution, is yet another question. As Anarchist, in pursuit of a revolutionary agenda that includes the conversion of the (coercive) 'Rule of Law' into the (non-coercive) 'Rule of Reason', I would strongly argue against!

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    3. Sam Han

      Lawyer; LLM student

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      What makes you think that you are "not allowed" to use the term, "queue jumpers"?

      Have government authorities fined you, jailed you, gagged you in some way? Has someone sued you for civil damages?

      You are free to describe unauthorised boat arrivals as "queue jumpers" if you wish, even though the term is factually wrong.

      Defamation laws and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are not about curbing "free speech". They are about deterring people from abusing free speech. With rights come responsibilities.

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    4. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Sam Han

      Just because nobody has yet been pursued through the courts for using clearly inaccurate, misleading, incendiary and vilifying terms such as 'queue jumper' or 'illegal', doesn't mean that it can't or shouldn't be done in the future.

      As long as the sovereign nation state of Australia remains a signatory to the relevant UN refugee convention, refugees are entitled to arrive in Australia by any means they can, and ask for political asylum.

      Looked at through this prism - and that is the only legitimate prism there is for anybody serious about the integrity of the Rule of the Law - even the term 'unauthorised boat arrivals" is factually wrong and quite possibly denigrating in a way open to punitive sanctions.

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    5. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

      And when these arrivals turn out to be economic refugees who had no legitimate right to be treated in such a kind hearted way and so are returned to their country of origin, can we then start calling them liars, scammers, con artists, leaches on the public purse. Can we also refer in to those who have advocated for them as being agents of lies, partners in crime and words to this effect.

      Because these descriptions would be factually correct. Or will these people go to Gillian Triggs and commence a discrimination action for hurting someone's feelings.

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    6. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, in what way in any place vaguely resembling the real world have you ever been 'not allowed' to refer to refugees as queue jumpers. You hav exercised your right to freedom of speech to use the term. Others - and I'd be happy to include myself in that list - have exercised their right of free speech to argue that your use of the term is incorrect.

      This is called debate.

      If you show on eiota of hard evidence that you have been actually restrained from using the term you might have a case, but, as you can't, you merely have a whinge because somebody disagreed with you!

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    7. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

      Except, Arndt, under the current legislation, there would be no basis on which to make such a complaint.

      There are no punitive sanctions for misrepresenting things or misusing terms - otherwise the whole of the IPA and Tim Wilson himself would be serving long terms for deceiving people about science.

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    8. In reply to Ken Swanson

      Comment removed by moderator.

    9. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken..........??!?!

      This is going to be a rather long post, and you, Ken, made me do it...

      If you, perhaps with your wife's encouragement, walked into a bank branch (perfectly legal), applied for a bank loan (perfectly legal) and had that loan application rejected due to insufficient credentials (which does happen, you know), would you be happy for me to denigrate you as "liar, scammer, con artist, and leech on honest bank customers". Would you also be happy for me to refer to your wife as "an…

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    10. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix, that's kind of what I said further up - if we were to really clamp down on allowing 'factual' speech only, it would all of a sudden become very quiet indeed.

      Look, I'm not a lawyer - thank heavens - but I work on the assumption that a skilled lawyer can make the law do just about anything, and that many lesser lawyer might be tempted to waste a lot of everybody else's time and money trying - so it is, in my view, best to keep the law on a short leash.

      I apologise for starting to sound like a broken record. I think I'll shut up now.

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  6. Alex Wiseman

    SAHM

    Firstly, a small bone to pick: "Federal attorney-general George Brandis and others argue human rights need to be reclaimed for the liberal side of politics." it should either real "Liberal side of politics" (proper noun for Liberal) or "conservative side of politics". Liberal in Liberal Party is a misnomer - if you look at American politics, the Democrats (almost the equivalent of the ALP) are referred to as "liberals". The Australian Liberal Party policies look far more like the Tea Party ideals…

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    1. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Alex Wiseman

      If we tried to prevent all bigoted and/or factually wrong contributions to public debate through legal intervention - well, either Australia's legal system would collapse, or it would all of a sudden become very quiet indeed.

      As long as certain, very wide, parameters of (good?) taste are not blatantly violated, I think we are better advised to keep the law out of it as much as possible.

      It puts the responsibility on us non-racist members of the general public to jump on examples of racism ourselves instead of abrogating this responsibility to the legislator and the judicative.

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    2. Alex Wiseman

      SAHM

      In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

      Unfortunately, that's a nice idea but doesn't work in practise. Bolt is hardly going to change what he writes because we tell him that what he says is offensive. He may change what he writes if he keeps finding himself in court. People like Bolt, as horrible as this is to say, lead opinion to some degree. Not that the people who follow need much incentive to follow his dog whistle :/

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    3. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Alex Wiseman

      I also note that there was no appeal by a News Ltd or a Bolt himself. If poor Andrew felt so aggrieved he could have put his money where his very big mouth is and appealed.

      Instead, in return for his fawning support for the LNP he has gained a proposed change in the laws to enable him to say what he likes about Thor who do not have his media power or the funds to sue defamation.

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    4. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Alex Wiseman

      I hear you, Alex, loud and clear! On balance, I would still maintain that these kinds of exchanges should as much as possible remain a contest of ideas, and that we should be very weary of escalating them into a contest of legal fire power.

      A significant part of my advocacy against the Rule of Law and in favour of the 'Rule of Reason' is my concern that the former is nowhere near as robust and stable as most people seem to assume it is. We should try and use it as sparingly as possible.

      I have…

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    5. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

      Andrew Bolt has turned his aggressive neocon commentary into a cottage industry, and a fairly lucrative one at that!

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    6. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Roo dan

      Broadly speaking: No!

      The problem arises in defining and delineating unambiguously what is and what is not acceptable.

      The other problem with punitive law is that it, in a rather unexamined fashion, tends to substitute 'genuine insight' with "fear of retribution' as motivational force. 'Genuine insight' is of course much more labour intensive to generate in the first place, but once it is there, it is a much more reliable motivator for good than threat of punishment.

      The third problem is that the law tends to focus almost exclusively on what it is that we don't want.Take it from a motorbike rider: it is vital to pay almost exclusive attention to where you want to go rather than where you don't want to go.

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  7. Mark Pollock

    Analyst

    Do people have really have "inherent dignity"? With the right "tone" what might these "divisive" debates be "transformed" into?

    This is one of the most wishy washy pieces of kumbya, well meaning vapidities that I have read on TC.

    Is the author just trying to say that we should be nice and just get along and wrapping it up in some pseudo- academic jargon or is these something more here?

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  8. Steve Griffin

    logged in via Facebook

    It's obvious to me that this government is engaging in an simultaneous assault on as many "Australian" values and institutions as possible in order to dilute responses and to discourage as many people as possible from involvement in the political process. (shock and awe)

    But giving ignorance a chance to flourish reminds one of the way dictatorships in the past have won the hearts and minds of their citizenry. Asylum seekers are the new Jew and Climate change the Anti-Christ of the god deniers. Get ready for the vilification of anyone that criticizes and opposes this government. Fascism has a habit of creeping up on a society, one small change at a time.

    There is a cultural war taking place that will define this country for at least another 50 years. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

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  9. Roo dan

    Director

    The right to self defense is a human right. The right to assault other people proactively is not a human right, except in case of defense. Is this not the case ?

    It seems to me that "freedom of speech" and "the freedom to abuse" with speech, is being deliberately conflated. This seems to be with the intent of cementing power relationships that are based on abuse. Attorney-general George Brandis has chosen to be deliberately blind to this conflation.

    There can be no human right to abuse. It is perhaps better not to go along with the ideological confusion of this three word slogan ' freedom of speech " when in reality; the Brandis narrative called for in the “rebalancing” of the Australian Human Rights Commission" is a call for the"freedom to abuse"

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    1. Elena Berwick

      Accountant

      In reply to Roo dan

      Agree.
      If people are allowed to say whatever they want, the others shall also be allowed to sue the first group and have a mechanism to do so. Also, people shall be responsible for what they say, particularly in public and when they publish racial and offensive stuff.
      I trust everyone who is against the proposed amendments can submit his/her views to the relevant email or by post by 30 April.

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  10. Hugh Breakey

    Moral Philosopher, Griffith University at Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance

    If we are going to have any hope of engaging in the difficult and subtle business of balancing rights alongside each other, then we need to be really careful about what is and what is not protected by various human rights instruments.

    Professor Ivison says: “protection of the freedom from racial vilification is made explicit in Article 4 of the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.”

    I think this is misleading. ‘Vilification’ is a broad term meaning…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Hugh Breakey

      Hugh, it certainly is a complex set of interwoven problems and competing interests, but do you think the current legislation that is proposed for review is in any sense pushing too far towards protection from offence at the expense of freedom of speech.

      I would have thought that experience suggested that we had the balance reasonably right and there really is no problem and therefore no need to change the law.

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    2. Hugh Breakey

      Moral Philosopher, Griffith University at Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Hi Felix,

      Well, I recall from our last discussion that we hold different interpretations of the Judge's verdict in the Bolt case and the reasons presented for that judgement. So we have different views, effectively, on the current state of the law and what citizens can expect about what they may and may not say.

      But we differ in principle too. Even prior to the Bolt case I still would have had worries about the way the law adverts to the actual feelings of particular groups of people. I'd prefer an objective definition of discrimination. So yes, I do think it pushed a little too far towards protection from offence at the expense of freedom of speech.

      (That doesn't mean I support the current draft legislation repealing those sections! As I read them, they push way too far the other way.)

      If you're interested in my reasons, Felix, you can find them at: http://hughbreakey.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/racial-vilification-free-speech-18c-and.html

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Hugh Breakey

      Thanks Hugh - appreciate the considered response.

      But, surely, the great advantage we have with this particular legislation is that it has been in operation for quite a while now and doesn't seemed to have had much of a chilling effect on free speech.

      I know law needs to be based on sound principle but, given the complexities in practice with so open-ended an issue as this, there seems to me to be something to be said for a kind of 'epidemiological' analysis of the law in action. On that basis, I would still argue that the current law can hardly be shown to have restricted freedom.

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    4. Hugh Breakey

      Moral Philosopher, Griffith University at Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Hi Felix,

      I agree with your general point: if a law has been functioning pretty well that's a good reason to keep it around. New laws will have unforeseen consequences, and many of them will not be good. Point taken.

      I wonder, though, how you can be so confident that there aren't chilling effects? How do we measure this? The whole point with suppressed speech is that the speaker never speaks it in a public setting.

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    5. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Hugh Breakey

      You are right Hugh. I was always under the impression these laws had to be passed as part of our international obligations. But reading the actual international laws, the Australian laws like 18C seem only very remotely related. Article 19 of the ICCPR is very robust as a free speech provision, only restricted by defamation and the need to maintain public order. These restrictions have existed for decades/centuries.
      "On the other, protection of the freedom from racial vilification is made explicit…

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    6. Hugh Breakey

      Moral Philosopher, Griffith University at Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance

      In reply to alan w. shorter

      Thanks Alan,

      The idea that these laws link to our international obligations, or to human rights generally, seems quite widespread. (This is the second recent Conversation article that has made some such claim, and the second to misleadingly link to human rights instruments that emphatically do not create a human right against vilification.)

      I think it gives us a salutary warning about the perils of linking legal harms to felt offence when we consider why there are no human rights instruments…

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    7. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Hugh Breakey

      "misleadingly link to human rights instruments that emphatically do not create a human right against vilification"
      Hugh, you raise a very important point about when/how are "new" rights created. Free speech is an ancient right, or at least much older than the ICCPR and ICERD. It is essentially a limitation of the state, as are other freedoms/rights, such as a fair trial, freedom of religion, the vote, association. The ICCPR very clearly re-emphasises these central rights/freedoms from the state…

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  11. Haydon Dennison

    Student

    It becomes more and more apparent that many of those in government believe freedom to be synonymous with the rights of those with power and wealth to act as they please. Continue down this path and all progress made when it comes to a reasonable and viable definition of freedom in society will be lost to those who use it as a populist tool to cement and to increase their already advantageous positions.

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  12. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    Duncan, you make the statement that human rights are a political construct and open to debate and challenge. You then contradict this by stating the following as an absolute: "A political culture that takes human rights seriously does not refer to people as “queue jumpers” and “illegals”, or seek to prioritise the “rights of bigots” over racial and ethnic minorities." How do you reconcile that apparent contradiction?

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    1. Russ Hunter

      Healthcare Professional

      In reply to John Phillip

      I think he's pointing out this government gives the impression it does not respect human rights and sets a bad framework and tone for political debate in the way it goes about its 'work'.

      Demonising asylum seekers is unneccessary, regardless of your policy on boat arrivals. And ministers should never be seen to give bigotry a green light the way Brandis did in parliament. It's terrible behaviour from those in leadership who should be setting a good example for society.

      By all means debate and challenge things but don't drag our nation down in your effort to 'win'.

      It's why this government is on the nose, to me. They've forgotten the endgame; or they have a bad one.

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    2. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Russ Hunter

      I agree with your assessment of the author's views. It doesn't change the fact that it is entirely contradicted by his following sentence. The assumptions you've made in your response are also open to debate and challenge, no? You see them as a factual interpretation of the given actions whereas someone else might see them differently. Either way, they are value judgements rather than absolutes.

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    3. Russ Hunter

      Healthcare Professional

      In reply to John Phillip

      So what it if is a value judgement. Surely we need values. I think that's kinda the point of having human rights conventions.

      And the trouble with this government is they are going out the window. Condoning torture? Flagrant disregard of the UN refugee convention? I never thought I would see these things from a government of Australia.

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    4. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to John Phillip

      "We do need values but why should yours be 'rated' more highly than mine?"

      That is an interesting question, and very close to the heart of the discussion on this thread.

      John, where do you go from here? Surely, we can't just have a totally unrestrained 'anything goes' attitude, but must somehow collectively settle on some sort of common denominator>

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    5. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

      I guess that's one of the problems with moral relativism. I agree that there should be rights and wrongs but where do you draw the line. Look at all the harm that has been caused throughout history by people who honestly believed they were doing the 'right' thing. I don't have an answer for your question, Arnd. All I can do is give you my perspective: As I've gotten older I am generally more convinced that my interpretation of what is right and proper is pretty sound. (That's not to say that I haven't had a couple of monumental shifts but it was only a couple). On the other hand, my 'sphere of application' of those values has decreased fairly dramatically. I guess this latter point is an acknowledgement that different contexts sometimes require different definitions of right/wrong and that the guidelines that I choose to live my life by might not be suitable for someone else. Don't know if that helps - don't really think it dies, ut there you have it. Cheers.

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  13. Russ Hunter

    Healthcare Professional

    The actions of this Abbott government so far show they have no concerns for "free speech" (or, perhaps, any other righteous ideal). Brandis bleats about RDA 18c's capacity to limit free speech and says nothing about the bikie laws in QLD; he wants to censor the internet; attacks whistle-blowers as traitors. This government has shown an absolute aversion to scrutiny and obsession with controlling information. Look at the secrecy around asylum seeker "operations" wherein the government has no qualms…

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    1. Russ Hunter

      Healthcare Professional

      In reply to Russ Hunter

      I must also say I am increasingly sensing an undercurrent of fascist / totalitarian tactics in the behaviour of this goverment, and I don't like it.

      We definitely need more mature debates about things but I get the sense that doesn't suit Abbott or NewsCorp's agenda.

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    2. Arnd Liebenberg

      self-employed carpenter and joiner; exploring the possibilities of post-capitalist society

      In reply to Russ Hunter

      I disagree.

      I think that Abbott, Brandis et al absolutely love distracting us with this debate over exactly how many racists can dance on the tip of a flag pole, whilst behind closed doors they facilitate the sale of Australian pay dirt, farmland and real estate to overseas interests, thus feathering the nests of their post-political careers - all part of the evil plan, and we swallow it, hook, line and sinker!

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  14. Chad Swanson

    logged in via Twitter

    I have to disagree because the type of Human Rights that are valued reflect ideological beliefs that are reflected in politics. You write,

    "Our debates would shift onto a level where the inherent dignity of individuals and respect for our common humanity – the heart of the human rights vision – is a starting point for our public discussions, not something lost in the noise"

    This would suggest you are a liberal with a bias towards the individual and thus in conflict with our current Human Rights…

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