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Malcolm Turnbull, once the urbane thinker, now listens to the mob

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…[In] private life we converse without diffidence of damage, while we not dare not on any account offend against the public, through the reverence we bear to the magistrates and the laws, chiefly to those enacted for redress of the injured and to those unwritten, a breach of which is thought a disgrace” –  Pericles

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might like to reacquaint himself with Pericles’ Funeral Oration. The Athenian statesman, Pericles (495–429 BCE), in his memorial to the dead of the Peloponnesian War between a liberal Athens and a militarist Sparta tried to place value on death of Athens’ citizens. He did not evoke the afterlife or a higher religious authority, but instead talked of Athenian democracy, the rule of law, the opportunity to hold office which is open to all citizens regardless of their class.

Pericles underscores the importance of free and responsible speech. Foucault in Fearless Speech stressed that ancient Greeks considered fearless speech, parrhesia, παρρησία, to be a presentation of the truth using rhetoric once permission is given to speak in the Ἀγορά, Agora, or assembly. The Greeks distinguished various forms of parrhesia, the most negative being when one is allowed to say anything, “even the most stupid and dangerous things for the city”.

Rule by the mob was Athens’ greatest enemy.

What is distressing now in Australia is the push by the right to say “stupid and dangerous things”. Parrhesia allows for truth with others’ full knowledge that the speaker is saying the truth. Not evidence based truth, but rhetorical truth. So, 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act allows for truth. Someone’s ‘truth’ may be offensive to some, but a “reasonable person” may not find that same ‘truth’ offensive.

In the distant past, when Mr Turnbull was the Opposition Leader, he gave an interview to the English edition of Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos, of which I was editor. He impressed all of us with his support of multiculturalism, his love of liberalism and his philhellenism.

On many occasions Mr Turnbull has turned to Greece to express his love of democracy, to link the west to our past. He is an urbane thinker and someone who in the past has defended cultural and artistic freedom. He was, indeed, the only major politician to defend photographer Bill Henson in 2008 from attacks by the puritans, which included then prime minster Kevin Rudd.

The Turnbull Government’s latest multicultural statement with its focus on “security, safety, shared values of democracy”, “freedom of speech” and the abeyance to the nation’s laws, cohesion and integration, coincided with the announcement of proposed changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.


The multicultural tagline “Multicultural Australia – united, strong, successful” is a statement seeking to limit the pricklier bits of pluralism. But when I hear ‘unity’ I hear the bolstering of defences against unseen enemies.

For some, these enemies are Islam, the extension of Aboriginal rights, the pursuance of same sex marriage, and other contemporary western, liberal values.

The proposed change to 18C is evidence of the Prime Minister’s yield to the right, just as he has done in regard to climate change, same sex marriage, and border security. Has he no core values as a liberal? No wonder his popularity has plummeted since he became PM.

Nowhere does the Act stop people from expressing their prejudices in private; it works against those, who as Pericles said, “offend against the public”.

I understood his predecessor Tony Abbott. As prime minister he stuck to his obscurantism, as antithetical as it was to liberalism. These proposed changes to 18C reflect how many of our leaders, (and I include Labor’s) are incapable of leading. The disgrace of our refugee policy is a prime example of the dearth of leadership in Australia.

Both major parties have been undermined by the mob; by their irrational fears and xenophobia. Rule by the mob was Athens’ greatest enemy. Leaders such as Malcolm Fraser, Jeff Kennett, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke would have shut down the fear, whereas our current crop of leaders run focus groups on how to exploit it.

So what if 48% of all Australians according to a Galaxy Poll commissioned by the right think tank the IPA, are seeking change to the Act? Pericles said, “The laws, … enacted for redress of the injured and to those unwritten, a breach of which is thought a disgrace”.

All ethnic community and Aboriginal leaders are against the proposed change; do their opinions not carry any weight?

The recent Parliamentary enquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act did point in part to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) ‘soliciting’ of complaints and vexatious litigation. It underscored that; “The most prominent instance of this is the complaints made against Mr Bill Leak in relation to a cartoon drawn by him. This case study is useful for illustrating the arguments for and against the AHRC’s actions in respect of ‘soliciting complaints’.

Nowhere does the Act stop people from expressing their prejudices in private; it works against those, who as Pericles’ said, “offend against the public”.

The proposed amendment to Section 18C changes statements that are “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” to “harass”.

The change, while seemingly minor, can open the door to Holocaust denial or indirect vilification of any cultural group. Online posts, blogs or comments on radio about people of a certain race, which previously would be netted by the “offend” or “insult” tests, would now be acceptable. ‘Harass’, a technical legal term, is different as it can’t be a single act, it has to be persistent conduct.

I am a good wog now. I am ‘privileged’ but god forbid if there’s a financial crisis in Greece and I morph back into a corrupt one.

As a child I was called a “wog” and beaten up. My mother was abused for not speaking English when I was a teenager. My woodwork and rowing master at high school regularly sprayed our feet because we were “smelly little wogs”. My father and I were kicked off a bus for not having paid the right tariff and the driver shouted at us: “Fucking dirty wog c-nts”.

Those last two incidents events have stayed with me. In the first case, the  teacher was cruel enough to humiliate teens in front of his Anglo students. In the other, a father was humiliated in front of his son in public and I could do nothing. In both cases 18C would have worked well.

But I am a good wog now. I am ‘privileged’ and a left leaning, small ‘l’ liberal. I made it through and I love being Australian as well as Greek, but god forbid if there’s a financial crisis in Greece and I morph back into a corrupt one.

I agree that some ‘PC’ narratives are ludicrous, such as the inability to critique undemocratic regimes for fear of being seen as racist, regardless of their attacks women, indigenous minorities, homosexuals, and other faiths; or the call to create new genderless pronouns. These things irritate me the way I imagine they do many across the mortgage belt.

But I still believe that the western democratic system, however imperfect, at times even dark, is the best. It seeks to harness what is best in people. It’s not always successful, but it’s much more successful than other systems.

The cause celebre for changing 18C was the court finding that columnist Andrew Bolt “implied light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal did so for personal gain.” Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg found Mr Bolt had breached 18C of the Act “because the articles were not written in good faith and contained factual errors.

I welcomed the finding. His attack of these Aboriginal professionals was a prime example of negative parrhesia, and I think the Athenian courts during Pericles’ time would have been found Mr Bolt equally lacking in his defence of his free speech.

Andrew Bolt, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, these soldiers of the right against 18C, are men born of migration who may at times have felt racial and religious intolerance towards them. They should know better.

I still feel the events from my adolescence. I worry that my son may be called a ‘wog’ with malice, not just as banter. I often ask him if he wants to take his mother’s surname, a Spanish one, as I feel the long Greek one may impact his future.

If I feel like this I can only imagine how Aboriginals, Africans or Muslim Australians might be feeling now. I have seen sickening racist comments immediately after Mr Turnbull’s announcement of his decision to change 18C.

No doubt these citizens now feel that their Prime Minster, once a liberal, has truly abandoned them for a vocal minority.

[box]Featured image: Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede), Philipp Foltz, 1852[/box]

27 responses to “Malcolm Turnbull, once the urbane thinker, now listens to the mob

  1. You would think there no big issues to focus on and we are continually fed this type of bunkum, so we forget that taxes, housing, education and health will not raise their head. Malcolm Turnbull has been a huge disappointment. But if he was challenged for the job who would have the ability to take over? My mind boggles. Worst Government we have ever had.

  2. Weak people in positions of power are extremely dangerous, and Malcolm Turnbull is weakened by his need to please those he perceives as powerful. Probably stems back to his mother deserting him as a child.

  3. Hello Fotis,
    I think this law which attacks free speech needs to change – not so I can start slagging off people who don’t share similar ancestry to mine, but rather that I don’t appreciate being told what may not may not insult/humiliate/harass/(whatever it is) by someone else.
    And do you really think whatever the law states would change the people you mention who insulted you & your father? Do you really think that if any changes go ahead that suddenly everybody is going to start racially abusing anyone who looks different?
    You also state ‘The cause celebre for changing 18C was the court finding that columnist Andrew Bolt..’ I don’t think so; I think you will find that the most outrage has been towards the case against QUT students being asked to leave a computer lab and the ensuing debalcle.


    1. Hi Shane, just wrong mate. Taking your position then all Defamation Law should be scrapped so everyone can say or publish anything racially, personally or professionally insulting offensive or derogatory about anyone. Let your absolute free speech reign. Except……

      Of course, the majority of Australians would find this unacceptable. So why are Australian minorities being asked to accept something the majority of Australians would find unacceptable if it applied to them? Really is shocking hypocrisy on stilts….

      Oh, and if the RDA and 18C & D were around during the disgustingly racist incidents inflicted upon Fotis & his family, these laws would have been useful & if used at least two of the described racists would have faced criminal charges.

      1. Defamation is an entirely different thing and is covered by other laws. Defamation is stating something that is demonstrably false, not something that the subject may have found offensive.

        1. Defamation is something that someone feels has tarnished their reputation. Courts rule something is not defamation if it is a. True b. Fair comment plus some other stuff. At present defamation laws make it overly difficult to legitimately hold the wealthy and poweful to account, which is why the news media exist!

        2. Hi Shane, wrong again mate. The very two people people presented as the’free speech’ case studies have recently used either the threat of, or taken defamation action against individuals not parties to their complaint- to shut down those opposing or challenging speech. Kinda’ reinforces the hypocrisy of such free speech ‘champions.

          So also scrap Defamation Law. Simply let them also be subject to potential insulting, offensive or derogatory speech about their person, race or professionally – with no legal consequences. But that would be completely unacceptable to the majority of Australians, yet they expect Australian minorities to somehow find that an acceptable situation…..Flip, flop…..

        3. Thanks Shane for identifying that if speech is ‘demonstrably false’ it may be potentially subject to legal challenge & consequences. Please read the Judges ruling against Andrew Bolt in which the Judge makes it very clear Bolt’s published articles were ‘demonstrably false’ and this formed the basis for the ruling against him. In other words, 18C-D did exactly what you are saying it should do for speech that is ‘demonstrably false’…. Interesting…..

  4. Multiculturalism – is a divisive concept – it should be uniculturalism the AUSTRALIAN culture which evolves contribution of many cultures and as us wogs grow up and be soaked up in the amorphous mass of this continent the only continent on earth where one language is spoken.
    As we grow up and become successful all we can do is become more tolerant from our past experiences
    We don’t need laws on how to speak, pseudo equality for the patently abnormal, how to brush one’s teeth- we have more regulations than Stalinist Russia ever had and punish those who seem to offend by requiring them to spend thousands of hard earned dollars to defend themselves from the unhinged who feel they have been insulted. It is not valid comparing the unicultural ancient Greek Athens to our situation – a more valid comparison would be ancient Sparta – instead of warriors we have the Thought Police & us Helots.
    Abolish MULTCULTURALISM and the thought police.

    1. Yes, ‘multiculturalism’ was the perverted pipedream of fantasists like Keating et al. We’ve seen how successful that has been in the Balkans, Africa inter alia. We’re either one nation in Australia or many nations. If the latter then let’s prepare for the inevitable battle.

  5. I don’t agree with Desmond and his explanation. Many people have not had an opportunity to get an education, but are not backward in putting across their point of view, with out considering the repercussions Some people just need to be protected from themselves of what they have said. What offends me may not offend you. When it’s directed at a, Christian, Muslim, Greek, Italian, when can they do to protect themselves? Retaliate and get their head punched in? Or put their head down and ignore the hate.No we need to wipe out this type of bigotry and hate. Even Pauline Hanson sends shivers down my spine when she classes all Muslims as terrorists. Where do normal people learn that type of hate?

    1. Leone. Level of education is a poor guide to the ‘quality’ of people’s opinions.
      The very well educated Tim Flannery declared publicly that ‘…even the rain that falls isn’t actually going to fill our dams and our river systems.’- Landline, 2007.
      A well educated neighbour told me once that the aboriginal people sit somewhere between Cro-Magnon and Homo Sapiens which is ridiculous, but because he is well educated do you suggest it is more valuable that an ‘uneducated’ person who doesn’t agree with this view?

      What are you suggesting? The suppression of free speech? Do uneducated people need to be segregated from democracy?

  6. 18c is a failure and Gillian Triggs’ AHRC has been a distaster for freedom of speech in Australia.
    If major reforms are not in place our children will pay a very heavy price indeed.

    We already find ourselves with a bureaucracy and even politicians who are remote and unresponsive to the legitimate concerns of the people.

    My father and his brothers demonstrated a number of times that I am aware of, their willingness to intervene and stop bullies in the course of their normal lives. There was no fuss about these actions; they were simply a part of how they believed decent people must behave. Long before I heard these stories, as a 10 year old, I tried to intervene and stop a kid being bullied by about half a dozen bigger kids (just because he was different). Must be in the genes. Perhaps my antecedents, farmers, were informed by their experienes fighting the two world wars. In any case, these people would never call you or your son a wog. If they heard it, they would likely quietly put a stop to it.

    The problem with 18c is that apart from the abuses of this law in the QUT and Bill Leak cases (and probably the Bolt mess at least) is that people start to self censor unecessarily and thereby repress the free exchange of ideas and beliefs. Left are the screaming nasties from Twitter controlling what gets aired and accepted in public debate.

    The QUT and Bill Leak cases vivdly demonstrate how dangerous it can be to speak the truth now in Australia.
    Two days after ‘that’ cartoon was published, the Western Australian Police Commissioner stated publicly that the situation Bill Leak described in his cartoon was one his ‘officers have to deal with every day’ especially in remote areas. Of course he was criticised and hated for it. Pathetic when he and his officers are trying to intervene and prevent the horrors alluded to in the cartoon.

    The QUT case shows how an innocuous comment can wreck three years of your life. What is the lesson here? Stay cowed and don’t speak up?
    What is the lesson from the Andrew Bolt case? Don’t question the motives of people in minorities? Don’t make a mistake?
    What is the lesson from the Bill Leak case? Don’t raise an inconvenient truth in public? Don’t question religion?
    The truth in public debate is now at the mercy of the best haters.

    Anyone thinking that 18c and the AHRC are worth the price of loss of freedom of speech need to read George Orwell’s ‘1984’.

    1. Hi Brett, the QUT case showed that the the processes can be improved, not that the law is ‘wrong ‘ – in the same way that defamation processes can be improved and made much less costly for those defending such action.

      The Andrew Bolt case showed how well 18C-D works to highlight published articles that are ‘demonstrably false’ which was the factor for ruling against Bolt. The articles being insulting or offensive did not form the basis for the adverse ruling, it was that they were ‘demonstrably false’ – please read the Judge’s ruling.

      The Bill Leak case dragged on mostly due to his employer’s refusal to present a formal response to the complaint in a timely manner – just as a defamation action may drag on if a party seeks & achieves delaying any formal response. Once Bill’s formal response was submitted, the 18C-D ruling actually found in favour of Bill Leak & the complaint was dismissed – a lot quicker than the potentially excruciating and costly defamation processes.

      1. Hi Christos. My expectation is that no-one should feel they can’t speak their minds without state sanctioned oppression.

        The effect of 18c on the general public is that some legitmate opinions can be aired and some cannot; the important thing is to make sure ones’ utterences conform to the prevailing view of those with real power such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

        Andrew Bolt may or may not have got one or two of his facts wrong. In either event that doesn’t make him a rascist. If he was wrong those opposing him can make their point and if correct tarnish his reputation. Fine. But if wrong, let those who labelled him as such have their own reputations tarnished.

        Leftie evangelists and others have labelled the late great Bill Leak as a rascist (perhaps someone should tell his Asian widow and his aboriginal friends this)
        Where was the case before Gillian Triggs and the AHRC, that they should have sought, to protect his human rights?
        18c has lost it’s integrity and legitimacy because it only cuts one way. That is a rank failure of justice. It means we can no longer be sure that any case relevant to it will be handled with objective legal integrity. In fact we know it often won’t be.

        The truth is the truth no matter how unpleasant. Please read 1984.

  7. I’m glad that he listened to the right ‘mob’ this time. Not that it’ll save his smarmy arse, he’s still seen by many conservative voters as a sell out to decent conservative values. Next time around we’ll hopefully have people in the Senate who won’t block the total repeal of 18C and D and be done with fettered speech and opinion.

  8. Turnbull is just a rich opportunist. If the poles said we should kill all red headed dwarves he’d be up there with the best. Someone has pointed out to him that lots of people really did come from somewhere else and if you shit on them, or let your friends do it, they wont vote for you. Hes been pulled two ways, the neo Nazis in the party want to be able to insult anybody, back to the 50’s when wogs knew their place, and the slightly progressives who want to be nice to most people so we re elect them.
    The press and electronic media have created this strange unquiet about Muslims. If I beat the crap out of somebody they don’t pre phrase me as a lapsed Catholic but Ali Ben Dingbat in the same situation will ALWAYS be described as a Muslim. Is the guy in London a Muslim or a loony ?

  9. My forbears arrived here in the 1850s.
    I’m half Irish (Celtic), half English (Anglo-Norman) by ancestry. Not one identity or the other. Mixed up. That’s what our Australian ‘multi-culturalism’ is.
    The Irish had a chequered history indeed, in the old country. — invasions, civil wars, famine, ‘troubles’, etc. And copped plenty of violence, prejudice, insults and bullying here, too . Prod & Mick. Orange & Green. Both sides. Still evident right up into the 1980s.
    Though not going back as far as the Greeks, whose immigrant experience has been otherwise pretty much the same.
    Likewise for those coming — and still coming — from everywhere else — even the Poms.
    Different for a while. And made to feel it.
    And then, the same.
    So, Fotis, we’ve all been there, 18C-wise. As Bill Leak might well have said, ‘suck it up , snowflake’.

  10. What a joke. These laws have worked brilliantly for the last 20 yrs and served our multicultural society with respect. I see no reason to change them. KEEP YOUR FILTHY RACIST HANDS OFF THESE LAWS!

  11. The right-wing don’t like progressive ideas and so they stay mired in the “good old days” which never were. They are basically very boring people.

    I think Bill Leak became racist and nasty towards the end of this life; he probably worked at The Australian newspaper for too long. It’s a shame because I think he was an excellent cartoonist in his earlier years.

    1. Really? Bill Leak became a racist? Perhaps you should tell Bill Leak’s Asian widow and his aboriginal friends.

      If you can’t handle the truth, suppressing free speech and free speakers is not the answer.

      1. Oh, the “how can he be racist if he married an Asian/has Aboriginal friends” gambit. Never read that one before. Thomas Jefferson not only wrote the words, “…all men are created equal”, but repeatedly impregnated a black woman, so how could he have been a racist?

  12. Leaving aside some factual inaccuracies, let us focus on the underlying premise that the opinion of Pericles, an Ancient Greek is seen to carry more weight, indeed absolute weight as opposed to more recent opinions. The word democracy is indeed of Greek origin, but the practice of western democracy is far removed from that observed in Ancient Greece. Contrary to what is stated in the article, it was a self defined meritocracy, and ironically enough women and foreigners were excluded. The exhortation to protect the city and its citizens really can be interpreted as an exhortation to protect the privilege of the self styled elite, precisely the motivation of the self styled intellectual elite here and now. One cannot be an advocate of free speech unless one is prepared to defend the rights of those who say things with which you fervently disagree. 18C attempts to muzzle debate on topics which a minority find uncomfortable. Adequate laws already exist to deal with subversive speech and that calculated to incite violence and civil disobedience. 18C seeks to prevent debate on ideas. If the ideas expressed are without merit, the majority will rapidly dismiss them. Defenders of the suppression of free speech confine to themselves the right to decide what is right and proper to discuss. This is totalitarianism . It is worth noting that even Barack Obama, a darling of the left, refused to suppress the racist uttering of basketball team owner, on the basis that if he sought to make idiotic statements it merely revealed him for what he was.

    1. Paul thank you for your comment. However maybe editing is at fault here, but there are no historical innacuracies in the piece, prior to editing, I made it clear that the notion of citizen was confined to men and not foreigners, women, or slaves. I also underscored that we have universalised democracy’s franchise. Nevertheless at its time, it was the only democracy, the only space ‘citizens’ had freedom of speech and could debate. It also the basis upon which British, French and other models were based on, albeit somewhat mythologically, when considering their versions.

  13. If the context of the “free speech” debate and its relationship to the proposed changes to 18C were equally weighted between the definition of “free” being its adverb as well as its adjective and the value of the speech is measured – by whether it is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate , or intimidate or harass – it is in principle demonstrably and inherently not “free” for it comes at a cost.
    No-one of any “colour or national or ethnic origin” (N.B. I have purposely omitted race for as contemporary molecular biology has shown there is no such thing and the sooner this becomes part of the common vernacular the better), whether they be part of the majority or the minority, appreciates or deserves paying the price of this speech by being threatened or abused.
    The fact that those who are least effected by the changes to 18C (“the majority”), who probably would in concert wholeheartedly consider the concept of a “fair-go” to be a core tenet of our supposed egalitarian society, and have probably never had to bear the brunt of threatening or abusive words based on nothing more than baseless discrimination ne xenophobia regarding their colour, nationality, or ethnicity are attempting to steer the debate about whether 18C should be amended, while not only ignoring but ridiculing the protestations of the very members of that same egalitarian society (“the minority”) it was designed to protect, is something any fair minded Australian should find hypocritical if not abhorrent.
    The proposition of the 18C debate should not be whether the wording be amended or even what the amended wording should be. Rather it should be whether the cost of the speech it allows will be truly free of rancour or hate and will not make those at whom it is aimed pay by being threatened or abused.
    If the outcome of the 18C amendment debate in this context is that the level of protection provided in law is at least equal if not greater than that which the law currently provides, and most importantly this involves active engagement with and endorsement by those in our society it is designed to protect (i.e. national / ethnic minorities), then, and only then, should 18C be amended.

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