With the rise of libertarianism the Liberal Party are becoming rather fond of getting back to their supposed roots in classical liberalism. One of the problems they have in doing this is that they are not very good at it.
In 2010, now treasurer, Joe Hockey gave a speech to the Grattan Institute in which he lauded John Locke and John Stewart Mill and spoke at length on his avaricious reading of everything they had to say. While there is no reason to doubt his reading of them, given his actions since, there is room for considerable doubt as to whether he had a clue as to what they were on about.
George Brandis is better in his actions on freedom of speech, but in an interview with Brendan O’Neill quotes John Stuart Mill as his inspiration while maintaining that the government has a right to be the arbiter of what people can do:
So currently, Brandis is on a mission to reform Section 18C. He wants to remove the words ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’, but he is willing to leave in the stipulation against ‘intimidation’ of a person or group on the basis of their ethnic origins. …
… Brandis says there are two reasons he’s bent on overhauling Section 18C. The first is because it expands the authority of state into the realm of thought, where it should never tread, he says. ‘There is a deeper question here, about the role of the state. To what extent should the state be the arbiter of what people can think?
Now of course, the state is the arbiter of what people can do. The state, to use the most straightforward example imaginable, prohibits murder. It is the role of government to protect the weak from the strong. But this is about whether it is the role of government to tell people what they may think. In my view, freedom of speech, by which I mean the freedom to express and articulate beliefs and opinions, is a necessary and essential precondition of political freedom.’ …
… As another bottle of wine arrives, he returns to Mill: ‘He said the only limitation on the freedom of the individual should be when he causes harm to others. Hearing views that you find offensive or outrageous or insulting is not a form of harm. If it is admitted to be a form of harm, then freedom of speech, freedom of discourse, intellectual freedom and political freedom become impossible.’
Brandis deserves kudos for his effort to reform the racial discrimination act, even if he fails to go far enough. There is no real reason why section 18C (the hurt feelings law) should not be repealed in its entirety, however he seems to be hung up on keeping the section relating to intimidation of a person or group on the basis of their ethnic origins.
There are already adequate laws against intimidation in Australia which apply whether there is any racial aspect or not, thus making this section unnecessary. To suggest that there should be a special one to handle complaints where a racial aspect is claimed means that the court is required to decide what an offender was thinking at the time. This appears to go against his assertion that the state should not be the arbiter of what we think.
To have special laws, either for or against particular racial groups is a form of apartheid and have no place in a free society.
The problem with George though, is his assertion that the state should be the arbiter of what people do. He offers no ifs, buts, nor even maybes on this.
His statement on the right to regulate murder is a no contest, but harks back to the arguments of the religious right that were the state not to enact the ten commandments in full, then murder and theft would be legal.
The state has a right and function in preventing coercive acts in society but that is where the right to regulate human actions ends. From a libertarian perspective, we are OK with laws that prevent murder, theft, or the bearing of false witness, but we would have problems were it to enact them against adultery, graven images, or working on the Sabbath. This does not indicate that we support such behaviors, but they are moral decisions that are not the place of the state to govern.
The Brandis/Hockey state sees no reason to steer clear of regulating our personal behavior. The mere fact that someone somewhere can do something without a license and without breaking a law, is seen as a compelling reason for an act of parliament to correct this.
Brandis is moving in the right direction, but needs to totally reevaluate his commitment to classical liberalism and try to go the whole hog.