Friday, December 20, 2013

Foundation must be principles, not worthy aspirations

It's time to reassert the importance of human rights as universal, consistently-applied principles, not increasingly diluted worthy aspirations.

Australia's Human Rights Commission should specifically focus on advancing Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

That Article primarily focuses on the right of free expression and free speech.

Of course, there are many human rights other than free speech.  The human rights commission should also stand up firmly for the human rights of movement, association, worship, private property and the right of people to decide how to live their lives.

But it is the views on free speech that seem to have drawn the most attention, particularly relating to the call for the full repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Section 18C has drawn significant public ire because of how it was used to shut down the free speech of Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt, through the courts.

At times it will appear inappropriate to defend free speech.  After all, no one is required to defend the principle from the excessive use of the words "please" and "thank you".  Free speech needs to be defended only when someone says something that does offend.

Section 18C limits free speech when it may offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate an individual or group of individuals.  Bolt was found to fall afoul of this provision in articles published in this newspaper about the racial identity of some indigenous Australians.

That case made Section 18C famous, but this debate is not just about Bolt.  His views receive plenty of oxygen in public debate through his columns, radio appearances and his television program, The Bolt Report.  Those platforms give him the opportunity to broadly respond and defend himself.

But it should be noted that because laws have been used to shut him down, it is a reminder of how important free speech is to defend all human rights.

This debate is about the human rights of every Australian — those who don't have the same platform as Bolt either to make free comment or defend themselves against attacks on their speech, including by government laws.

Many people have pointed out that there are get-of-jail-free cards in the law.  They are right;  the subsequent section of the law provides a series of exemptions based on whether the speech is exercised in "good faith" and in certain circumstances.

But they are not sufficient.  One of the most insidious developments of those who want to keep the law is that Bolt would have got away with his argument if he was accurate in his article.

The gateways of free speech don't open and close based on accuracy.

Should people seek to be accurate?  Absolutely.

But free speech is only an extension of thoughts and thoughts can be built on an incorrect understanding or assumption.  The best way to deal with inaccuracies is have them expressed, heard, challenged and exposed for their faults.

The solution is not to shut down speech.  The solution is more speech, much more, particularly for different voices.

That's why Section 18C should be repealed totally.  The extent that speech harms people's reputation is better dealt with defamation laws rather than subjective tests that benefit one section of the community over another.

Preserving these human rights should not be an endorsement for how people exercise them.  Exercising traditional human rights also provides a mechanism to address behaviour many of us do not like through voluntary codes and social convention.

Even if people have the right to say almost anything they want, that does not mean a free-for-all.

For example, workplaces are well within their rights to adopt codes for how employers and employees should conduct themselves to make sure everyone is respectful.

The same can also be applied to associations based on membership.  And we should all exercise our freedom of association to engage with or distance ourselves from people we think express vile and repugnant views.

I want to inform and promote a traditional human rights-based approach to the laws that govern our lives.  In many cases it will not be simply adding or removing a law, but how we can positively reform them, and our institutions, to achieve change.

There are many important human rights issues being debated around Australia.  Some people argue that religious schools should not be able to discriminate against employees or students, especially when they are funded with public money.

But then how do we reconcile the human right to worship, or free association, with the aspiration that religious institutions that provide public services should not discriminate?

What I know is that with innovative thinking, we can advance society and promote aspirations we all share to unleash the maximum potential of every Australian and preserve and protect the integrity of traditional human rights.

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