The Passion of Andrew Bolt

Sean Gleeson / September 20, 2013 11:37 AM

The Abbott Government looks set to repeal part of the Racial Discrimination Act after it was famously wielded against the Herald Sun's most prolific columnist in the Federal Court. 

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Andrew Bolt addressing the 70th Anniversary dinner of the Institute of Public Affairs earlier this year. (Picture: IPA)

The Abbott Ministry spent its first proper day in government abolishing the Climate Commission and dispatching senior public servants perceived to be too close to the previous government. Elsewhere, Prime Minister Abbott has absorbed ministerial responsibilities for the Status of Women into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, after more than a decade of having his attitudes towards women questioned by his political opponents, prompting warnings of a rejuvenated “culture war” by Overland editor Jeff Sparrow in Wednesday's edition of The Guardian.

If yesterday is anything to go by, the new government certainly appears to be marshaling its troops for a seismic shift in Australia’s cultural fabric. It begs the (slightly foreboding) question: what other changes we might expect in the three years to come?

One of the little-noticed commitments by Tony Abbott in opposition was to repeal part of the Racial Discrimination Act – specifically section 18C, which outlines when it is unlawful for someone to make a public act which is likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” based on race, colour or ethnic origin.

Sound familiar? Possibly because 18C was in the news back in 2011, when nine Aboriginal Australians brought a Federal Court action against Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt and his employer for breaching the Act.

Andrew Bolt addressing reporters outside the Federal Court in Melbourne (ABC News

Now, it’s worth noting that the Racial Discrimination Act has exemptions from its “offensive behaviour” clause in section 18D, which outline amongst other things that anything “said or done reasonably and in good faith” doesn’t qualify as unlawful under the Act.

Bolt’s case was not helped by the fact that his articles did not seek comment from any of the plaintiffs, were researched through Google, incorrectly claimed that academic Anita Hess received financial benefit from identifying as Aboriginal in an unpaid voluntary position at Koori Radio, and made what can only be described as sneering references to Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt’s skin colour and her decision to identify as Aboriginal given her part-German heritage.

Bolt duly lost the case and was ordered to pay costs for the plaintiffs – who didn’t seek an apology or financial restitution – but not before issuing a statement claiming the country had just experienced a “terrible day for free speech”.

Here’s where it gets interesting. During the trial, the Liberal Party-aligned think tank, the Institute for Public Affairs, ran a full-page advertisement alleging that “the Andrew Bolt case shows freedom of speech in Australia is under threat”, expressing its alarm that a columnist expressing their opinion was taken to court.

In the ad were more than 1200 people who donated to have the ad run in The Australian. Listed among the names are several current members of the Abbott Ministry, including Andrew Robb, Mitch Fifield, Jamie Briggs, Michaelia Cash, Matthias Cormann and Scott Ryan, along with the pre-eminent Victorian Liberal powerbroker of old, Michael Kroger.

Last year, Prime Minister Abbott used an address to the Institute of Public Affairs in Sydney to announce that the next Coalition Government would seek a repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Repeal of 18C is also on the IPA’s wishlist for the incoming government, according to a recent article in the institute’s Review.  

In a speech to the IPA’s 70th anniversary dinner this year, Andrew Bolt thanked the new Prime Minister for paying him a personal visit during the case to lend his support during the trial. Just in case you forgot, without suggesting any sort of untoward quid pro quo, Andrew Bolt has been the single most trenchant critic of the last Federal Labor Government for the last six years.

It’s worth noting as well that 18C was added to the Racial Discrimination Act back in 1995 as one of the last acts of the Keating Government. At the time, the Labor Party and its factional heavyweights therein were criticised for using allegations of racism as a blunt object to silence critics and engaging ethnic leaders to stack local branches and secure desired candidate preselections, something documented extensively in Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan’s stinging book, Among the Barbarians.

Some of these criticisms were taken up by the Howard Government, which all the same never sought to repeal this section of the Act, even when it had a Senate majority during its last term.

What about the Coalition’s chances of repealing 18C? Labor and the Greens are sure to oppose any changes to the Act, which means that the Coalition will have to try its hand once the new Senate comes into effect in July next year. At this stage, it looks like the Coalition will need five votes to get any legislation through the upper house.

It’s hard to say at this stage which way Nick Xenophon, the Democratic Labour Party’s John Madigan or the Palmer United Senators would fall on a vote on 18C. However, there is one thing that will make Abbott’s task easier. The Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm is a certainty for a Senate win in NSW, as a result of a convoluted preference deal through feeder candidates and name confusion caused by the Lib Dems’ pride of place on the Senate ballot.

If you take another look at the IPA’s advertisement in defence of Bolt, you may just happen to notice that David Leyonhjelm is one of the petition’s signatories.

Where does this leave us? The day Bolt was found guilty by the Federal Court, plaintiff and disgraced Aboriginal activist Geoff Clark celebrated by telling the assembled media: "The sword of justice has struck, and cut off the head of the serpent."

Unfortunately for Clark, come July next year he may find the hydra head is back with a vengance.

 

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