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One voice on free speech

AS Australia debates the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, let me introduce you to two Canadians.

One is a champion of progres­sive causes, the other is a staunch conservative. One played a critical role in setting up the first of the human rights commissions in Canada, the other was hauled ­before these same human rights commissions for writing things that caused offence to a few ­Muslims.

More important, though, is what unites them: a passionate and longstanding defence of free speech in a country that became increasingly comfortable with mothballing humanity’s most basic human right. Both men are firmly opposed to laws that allow those pursuing identity politics to leverage the power of the state to shut down views they don’t like.

Now in his 80s, Alan ­Borovoy, the  founder of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, helped push for the creation of human rights commissions in Canada in the 1960s and 70s in his then job at Canada’s Labor Committee for Human Rights. In ­recent years, Borovoy has also ­become a critic of how these commissions have overreached.

A Canadian-born writer on everything from theatre and music to politics and demog­raphy, Mark Steyn was the subject of complaints made to three human rights commissions in Canada for 18 articles he wrote about Islam in Maclean’s magazine between 2005 and 2007. Those actions against Maclean’s led the Canadian federal government to support a private member’s bill to repeal section 13, the hate laws provision, of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

If it sounds familiar, it is. In 2011, when the Australian federal court ruled Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt was prohibited from publishing a view that contravened section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a similar push to defend free speech began here. In opposition, the Coalition promised to repeal section 18C. Now in government, keeping that promise is proving more difficult.

Debate in this country has ­become polarised between those on the Right who regard the individual right to free speech as more important than identity group rights and those on the cultural and political Left who cannot bring themselves to genuinely commit to free speech of opponents. And somewhere in the mushy middle, some Coalition members, especially in marginal seats, have gone wobbly about ­repealing section 18C. No matter where we sit, it’s worth noting what two very different men, who both supported the repeal of ­Canada’s section 13, have to say.

First, some background. Why did Canada, a country with a long history of political correctness ­cemented into its laws, repeal its federal hate law? Borovoy told The Australian that human rights commissions started falling into disrepute: “I don’t like quoting Karl Marx with such approval,” he laughs down the phone from Canada, “but the legislation (that set up the HRCs) contains the seeds of its own destruction.”

Whereas HRCs started out ­applying fairly well-defined prohibitions against certain types of discrimination, when hate laws became part of their ambit, and hurt feelings became the meas­urement of laws, it turned into a “very risky ball game”, says Borovoy. “You are running a terrible risk that someone’s thin skin could be the limit of someone else’s free speech.”

Sure enough, Borovoy says, human rights commissions overreached in very public cases. Steyn agrees: “No one minded this stuff when it was just being applied to some Holocaust denier sitting in his bedsit writing some unread screed that he was Xeroxing and sending out to his friends.

“But when those same laws are suddenly being applied to ­Maclean’s magazine — it’s mainstream, it’s big-selling, it’s the dentist’s waiting-room magazine; Maclean’s magazine is basically analogous to Andrew Bolt’s ­Herald Sun — then people here went ‘Wow, this is crazy stuff’.” Borovoy says that defining what is hate speech became an impos­sible task. While he would have taken a different position about laws that targeted incitement of imminent violence, “ ‘hatred’ was too fraught with ambiguity”.

And Borovoy warns that the same ambiguities arise from our legislation that uses words like ­“offend, insult, humiliate or ­intimidate”.

Drawing on Canada’s experience, Borovoy says: “You wind up losing a lot more than you’re trying to nail. That’s the guts of it.” Steyn agrees. And he warns that you can’t be a little bit pregnant on this. “You can’t say we are going to take out ‘offended’ (from section 18C) but keep ‘humiliated’ … You’ve got to say this kind of emotional lawmaking is not law — it’s phony law, it’s ersatz law, it’s pseudo law.” While Borovoy says the Left “didn’t surface very hard to try to rescue section 13”, Steyn says you have to distinguish between the cultural Left and the political Left.

Left-wing newspapers and novelists eventually became offended by the reach of the federal hate law when it started to impinge on their rights. Steyn recalls one of the complaints against him involved a book review he wrote where he discussed fictional characters in a novel. “The novelists didn’t like that,” he laughs.

But he is scathing of the political Left’s opposition to repealing section 13. He notes one exception, Liberal MP Keith Martin, who describes himself as the “brown guy”, meaning a person of colour. “Martin was the only member of the Liberal Party caucus who took a principled political stand in favour of freedom of ­expression.” Steyn says Martin was mocked and jeered: “Why are you — the so-called ‘brown guy’ — getting into bed with not only extremist right-wing nutters like Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, but also a bunch of anti-Semites and white supremacists?”

Alas, the point of free speech is not that the brown guy and the white supremacist are on the same side. As Steyn says, “It’s that the brown guy recognises that the white supremacist is allowed to have his own side. Nobody needs freedom of speech for people we agree with.

“He (Martin) was the only ­Liberal member of the House of Commons to say this is crazy stuff, we shouldn’t live in a world where, if you disagree with a newspaper columnist, it becomes a court case,” Steyn says.

Steyn then makes a point aimed squarely at our debate in Australia: “You always need a couple of individuals like that to break the institutional position which says we need these laws, that without these laws there will be jackboots marching up and down the highway.”

That argument was made in Canada. It is also made in Australia, as critics of the Abbott government describe repealing section 18C as a fillip for bigots and a ­retrograde step for human rights.

But where are those brave ­individuals? Is there just one Labor MP with a genuine commitment to free speech? Where are the cultural warriors on the Left willing to defend Bolt’s right to free speech? Where is our own Borovoy, a man who understands that “freedom of expression is the grievance procedure of the democratic system”?

While we wait for intellectually honest members of the Left to emerge, Steyn says we must also relentlessly push back against the jackboot bigotry claims. “You have to say ‘You’re insulting Australians’, just as we said: ‘You’re ­insulting Canadians saying that.’ We’re not people who have a dark, fascist totalitarian past — Canada and Australia are two of the oldest, settled, constitutional societies on earth. They haven’t gone through third empires and fourth republics, and all the other stuff. People can be trusted to ­decide for themselves.”

A frequent visitor to Australia, and due here later this year, Steyn has watched with disappointment the debate over ­section 18C. He says that Canada’s cultural Left eventually supported the repeal of section 13 in a way he thought would be repeated here. “They said, ‘Well, obviously we find Steyn a totally disgusting and ­repulsive figure and we want to emphasise how much we dissociate ourselves from him BUT this is not compatible with a free society and Canadians should be able to decide for themselves on these matters’.

“I thought it would go that way with Andrew Bolt. That people would say, ‘Well, Bolt is a repellent creature BUT ’ Yet from my understanding from the debate in Australia no one on the Left has got to the BUT.” Sadly, Steyn is right that, for ever larger groups on the Left, identity group rights trump the rights of freedom of ­expression.

Once the campaign in Canada to repeal section 13 had won over the people, only then did politicians feel comfortable in following. Steyn says free speech is not something people demonstrate in the streets over. “It’s not one of those visceral issues. It can seem dry and abstract. The success we had was that by the end it didn’t seem dry and abstract. It seemed real and something with practical consequences.”

In Canada, the defenders of free speech also succeeded by turning the tables on the Left. Steyn praises Ezra Levant, ­another writer hauled before a human rights commission, for the strategy.

“The Left tried to de-normalise us, to marginalise us,” he recalls. Levant and others succeeded on putting those who supported the laws — who were, by and large, part of the establishment, people appointed to HRCs, people who wore Orders of Canada on their lapels — on the ­defensive. The ­debate was won by arguing the hate laws were not needed.

“The success we had in Canada was in putting those in favour of the law on the defensive — ­making them look like the ­weirdos and the control freaks and against genuine human rights.”

Steyn says that’s where the meter must move in Australia, too. “I might have to fly in and do it ­myself,” he says, pointing out the ridiculous irony in a group of establishment grievance mongers thinking they are vulnerable if contrarian columnists can say what they want about them. “The idea that they represent a state ideology that should be protected from criticism ought to be absolutely repulsive to people.”

So, has Canada become a haven for bigots without section 13? Of course not. Which makes the retreat by some Coalition MPs even more disappointing. While Steyn understands that Coalition MPs are worried about being depicted as anti-human rights, he, too, laments that “on the squishy Right there is a fear that identity group rights are more fashionable and you risk making yourself look like an old squaresville if you get hung up on free speech”.

And that’s the real danger in Australia. Between a Left that is utterly indifferent to free speech and an opportunist, unprincipled Right, there are not a lot of people willing to take a stand for free speech these days.

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