Many years ago I came across A. P. Herbert’s Misleading Cases, a collection of legal spoofs written by Herbert and originally published in Punch. Most concerned a litigious chap called Albert Haddock, who took offence at pretty well anything to do with the Government of the day, and essayed into court to have his say. The judges all had outlandish names, and one of them gave an opinion as follows:

the only right of the subject in a public street is to pass at an even pace from one end of it to another, breathing unobtrusively through the nose and attracting no attention.

I’m pretty sure that Herbert had a similar opinion somewhere about free speech, but I can’t find it. It would be of the order of  an Australian is free to say whatever he or she wants to say, always provided that there is no one else within earshot.

People like me who write for newspapers, write books and write blogs have to ensure that what we write is understandable and interesting, but always within the law. Australia has no constitutional amendment that guarantees freedom of speech, and our Constitution itself is quite silent on the matter. At the moment we have two somewhat separate yet connected arguments going on about freedom of speech. One centres on the Racial Discrimination Act and proposed amendments to it, while the other is about climate change and the feeling by some that others should not voice their own opinions about it, let alone call for real and public debate.

I have an interest in both areas, since I have had the Racial Discrimination Act raised against me over something that appeared on this website, and in ‘climate change’ I have been called a  ‘denier’ for many years and sometimes found it difficult to get my views listened to in the media.

My sense of it is that there is little real support for true freedom of speech or expression in our country. Let me put it as a working hypothesis:  Australians desire freedom of speech when they don’t have it, but are reluctant to give it to others when they do. 

Our public life is full of ‘Shut up, you mug!’ and suggestions that the other side should not ever be listened to on anything. There is very little real debate in Parliament, and the best we get is a set of contrasting arguments on Issue X in the better newspapers by protagonists. The notion of a free and frank engagement of ideas, out of which some kind of better outcome could emerge, seems almost absent from our public discourse.

I don’t know why this is so (always assuming that I am right in saying that it is so), and I don’t recall a time when it was somehow better. When I was young we had political correctness, and it involved deference to Her Majesty, a detestation of Communism, going to church on Sunday, six o’clock closing, and no shopping after 12.30 pm on Saturday. To speak or write against these verities was to set yourself up as a Bolshie, or worse!

Sixty years on we still have political correctness, but it has quite a different focus: the environment is more important than the human beings who live within it, women, gays and indigenous people are oppressed, the Great Barrier Reef is in imminent danger of collapse and destruction, Rupert Murdoch and all miners are villains, and all people who try to arrive here in overcrowded boats from Indonesia are genuine political refugees seeking asylum. Again, to speak against any of these verities is to stamp yourself as a denier, a homophobe, a sexist, a racist and so on.

Senator Brandis spoke out a week or so ago about the way in which those sceptical about the degree and significance of anthropogenic global warming were demonised, and was himself instantly demonised for doing so. One letter in the Sydney Morning Herald asked Brandis was he really saying that people should be able to speak against the warnings of climate scientists, and that the tobacco industry should be able to defend tobacco — as though these were truly awful possibilities.

Of course, Brandis was saying exactly that, and mentioned Voltaire in that context. Now Voltaire didn’t actually say, of a fellow French writer, that he disagreed completely with what the other fellow had to say, but that he would defend to the death his right to say it (the other chap’s book had been ordered to be burned). That famous line was actually coined by his biographer, to summarise Voltaire’s position on the issue.

The dreadful problem about freedom of speech is that it means nothing if no one wants simply to speak in favour of the current political correctness, whatever it is. It is only meaningful when the speech challenges the orthodoxy. Alas, the orthodox dislike being challenged, in part because they depend on the current political correctness to maintain their power. I read yesterday of a petition containing more than 110,00 signatures being delivered to The Washington Post demanding a ban on global warming. And this in the USA, where is a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression!

And so the orthodox do their best to shut up those who disagree with them. I would like to say that our universities remain the final bastion of freedom of expression and the contest of ideas, but I can’t immediately provide an encouraging example.

Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • dlb says:

    Totally agree with this essay. It is rather unusual that the public don’t seem motivated about this issue, perhaps they think this censorship only applies to journalists or high profile people. From my own pesective I find it frightening that a lack of judgement or just an alternate point of view could land you in trouble.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    While I take a reasonable interest in public affairs, now and then as a reality check I question why issues such as AGW and freedom of speech stir me so strongly. The first goes to the heart of intellectual integrity, and frankly, that’s what I expect of academia and those government bodies staffed and managed by the academically trained. But I am hugely disappointed. This criticism is not directed to all of the scientists doing the research, but to those who in writing IPCC summary and policy papers, ignore the researchers caveats, interpolate their own wording, with similarly dire echoes coming from the official bodies such as our Australian CSIRO and Met Bureau.

    Freedom of speech is critical in ensuring integrity. It’s our best tool. I think it’s perhaps our only tool, a means to challenge, to question, to pose alternative views, and to be proved wrong, or right, or partly wrong and partly right.

    With AGW, I think that many scientists are being denied freedom of speech. Peer pressure, pressure from superiors, not so much threats to funding but rather the threat of not being funded – these all constrain them from presenting their full and honest views. So what gets me about the whole AGW scam (because it has become a scam by quite a number of people in positions of influence), is that it is symptomatic of a fundamental attack on integrity and freedom of speech.

    • David says:

      “So what gets me about the whole AGW scam (because it has become a scam by quite a number of people in positions of influence), is that it is symptomatic of a fundamental attack on integrity and freedom of speech.”

      Peter this statement is a real stretch! Skeptics are free to submit scientific articles for publication. And examples of their research can readily be found in the scientific literature. It just so happens that the vast majority of scientifically competent research supports AGW. Don’t shoot the messenger! 🙂

      • Peter Kemmis says:


        Yes, they are free to submit for publication, and many still succeed. But as I hear it, journal editors are far more willing to accept pro-AGW papers. And what is the common claim that “the science is settled!”, made for example on The Conversation (a misnomer if ever there was), other than an attempt to shut down debate? Sure, it’s not a direct attack on free speech; it’s denial of opportunity. How many proper debates between pro-AGW supporters versus sceptics do you know of? The former won’t engage! They haven’t the courage to debate their position, they haven’t the courage to engage in free speech. That in itself is an indirect attack on free speech.

        Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking more deeply at the alleged “consensus”, and found it is indeed nowhere nearly as solid as presented – in fact, it has been mis-represented. For example, the Doran and Zimmerman conclusion of “97% of climate scientists support AGW” was actually 75 of 77 climate scientists (selected from some 2833 respondents) who over the prior 5 years had published 50% or more of their work on climate science in the peer reviewed literature. And what were the questions that were asked? Only two:

        1. “Do you think temperatures are warmer now than in the 1800s?”

        2. “Do you think humans are a significant contributor to a warming temperature?”

        I would answer in the affirmative to Q1, and query a definition of “significant” for Q2. Hardly an indepth survey, and based on a very narrow selection, don’t you think?

        But the result is nevertheless trumpeted as “97% of scientists support the AGW thesis”. Can you blame me for taking a pot shot at that particular messenger? And what about the 31,000+ scientists and economic and policy experts who supported the Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change? If you haven’t read the paper that was associated with that open letter, I suggest you have a look at it. Even though it was published in March 2008, it is highly relevant today, and very much supported by the current trends in the climate. I would encourage you to read it, and also do some digging on the consensus papers, examining those in favour and those offering critiques. Very enlightening. I’m not posting URL addresses here, as at times I feel it can be like arguing theologians throwing religious quotations at each other to prove one point or another! You’re quite able to do your own searching, and will know if you’re being even-handed about it.

        If you do have a chance to review as I suggest, I’d be very interested in your comments. And as ever, I’m looking forward to your answers to my earlier questions.

        • John Morland says:

          Also David, there are many many “peer reviewed” papers on the NIPCC which put an non-Apocalyptic or non-Catastrophic AGW view forward and do not accept the IPCC’s view. Take Peter’s advice, have a look at the alternatives and think. Better still, first think critically about this whole CAGW scare, think up some questions (a good one is why the weather is not as warm as it was predicted, say, 10 years ago? Or; how long must the pause continue before you start questioning the CAGW hypothesis (especially only 2% of the models predicted a possible pause, but none predicted, so far, a 17 year 8 months pause)? Or why is it so many past climate change events have wiped out civilizations or changed them forever before the industrial age – eg climate change was one of the main reason stone age Britain ended quickly, or 2 lots of (2x 30 year massive El Nino) climate change finished of the South American Moche society (long before the Incas) in the 8th century; or why did the Vikings settle in Greenland and then had to pack up and leave.

          Do your own research. By all means ask questions and refine them. At least harness a modicum of doubt and, dare I say it, consider applying a (mild) skeptic outlook – after all that is science. We don’t just accept it at face value (just because a “scientist’ says), we question, we learn, understand and research more. You might say this made me a climate skeptic or even denier, or even worse a heretic- but I say to you its been a journey of discovery and continues to be.

          Is this not what “science” ,rather than “faith”, all about?

          I am an amateur astronomer, at every point in the evolution of the big bang model I questioned leading astronomers to justify their position – I was skeptical and still am. Does that make me a Big Bang denier -off course not. Until a better model comes up I go along with it, but I still remain a trifle skeptical and prepared to look at other theories – such as the steady state or even the plasma universe (which I do not accept at all by the way)

          At least ask: why is it so? Or, why it is so?

        • DaveW says:

          Duh, I was not queried, but if so I might have been suckered into the 97% because ‘significant’ is vague enough I may have said yes (significant is a statistical term, at best, and is not equivalent to ‘important’). Probably not, though. I do think it is an open question as to how much we may have contributed to any recent warming. Some for sure, but a lot? Maybe, but maybe not. Other than posturing, no one seems to have any real data.

        • David says:

          Peter “the science is settled!”

          To say that scientific fact is settled does not mean that a given scientific fact is immutable and could never change.

          Think of a new medication for a disease. The drug company will conduct tests to demonstrate that based on the current science the benefits outweigh the costs. Of course they can’t know the long term consequences of a taking this new drug. But based on current information about the drug, “the science is settled” and if the benefits appear to outweigh the costs the drug will be approved for use.

          If however, the drug is demonstrated to have some serious long term consequences a new scientific consensus will be established and the drug may be withdrawn from sale.
          Conceptually AGW and our response to it is no different.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Exactly, David, an excellent example. However, in the case of the AGW claims, important and very substantial evidence has been ignored or brushed aside by its supporters, and is still being ignored, and therefore the science is far from settled.

            Incidentally, I accept your objection to my “stretch” in calling such intransigence an attack on free speech. Thank you for challenging me – an example of free speech leading to clearer thinking. As I rode my bicycle yesterday (exhaling copious amounts of carbon dioxide and making the trees and grasses I passed beam with delight), I recast my definitions. Upholding integrity is paramount. Freedom of speech is an essential means to encourage and ensure integrity. Many supporting the AGW case are careless of integrity, fixed by their convictions that we humans are the primary cause for changing climates.

            They are exemplars of integrity loss, second cousins to those denying freedom of speech when they ignore substantial evidence. And they directly attack freedom of speech when they try to shut down sceptics with cries of “denialist” and “the science is settled”.

    • John Morland says:

      Hear hear. Being an ex-believer in CAGW, I realise the whole scare is based on a such a weak (although essentially true) physical property of CO2. Scare? No, a scam. Having studied Voltaire many decades ago, I recognise Voltaire’s views can be applied to this new Gaia religion.

      Just aside, I thought Voltaire’s famous saying was in one of his many letters to Rousseau (the famous letter wars Voltaire v. Rousseau) or even to Helvetuis but now I think its more akin to a Voltaire maxim

      Some Voltaire quotes to clarify the current CAGW madness:

      To the new priests (prophets?) of this new religion “… struck by his ideas, first presented them in good faith, strengthened them with fantasy,
      fooled himself in fooling others, and supported through necessary
      deceptions a doctrine which he considered good.”

      For the petiton to the Washington Post and those ardent CAGWers who advocate climate “deniers” or even “sceptics” should be jailed, this is the begining of the “…return to those scoundrels of old, the illustrious founders
      of superstition and fanaticism, who first took the knife from the altar
      to make victims of those who refused to be their disciples”?

      To explain this attitude, “…into what horrible excesses fanaticism, led by an impostor, can plunge weak minds”.[45]

      As for trying to convince CAGWers that there is no “C” -“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere”

      I could go on but I think that will do for now.

  • DaveW says:

    Even if Australia had a First Amendment, we would only have Free Speech if we insisted on exercising it. Personally, I have no idea what is happening with the ‘Climate’, but what I am convinced of is that neither do any of the global warming alarmists. I have to admit that even if I thought that anthropogenic CO2 emissions were worrisome, I would not support the CAGW meme. The exaggerations, hysteria and out-and-out lies that parade under the meme of CAGW cry out for rejection. In fact, they demand that anyone with principles not determined by politics reject them. There is no science here, only herds of (often vicious) sheep herded by wolves.

    • David says:

      The hysteria is not limited to one side of the debate

      “Whyalla will be wiped off the map by Julia Gillard’s carbon tax. Whyalla risks becoming a ghost town, an economic wasteland, if this carbon tax goes ahead and that’s true not just of Whyalla, it’s also true of Port Pirie, it’s true of Gladstone, it’s true of communities in the Hunter Valley and the Illawarra in New South Wales, it’s true of Kwinana in Western Australia, it’s true of the La Trobe Valley, Portland, places like that in Victoria. There’s not a state and there’s hardly a region in this country that wouldn’t have major communities devastated by a carbon tax if this goes ahead….” Tony Abbott

      • Peter Kemmis says:

        You’re quite right, David, it occurs on both sides. I know you’re not arguing that therefore hysteria is useful or justified – I believe you think the contrary. Otherwise we’re reduced to the schoolboy’s lame excuse: “but Sir, Smith there, he stole some peaches too!” That’s why I look at the data, look at the evidence, consider the arguments. I notice but set aside the hyperbole and the emotion, whether it be on skepticalscience or wattsupwiththat. The recent “debate” between Trenberth and Curry provides an interesting contrast. Have you had a look at the slides on that? They’re referenced on Judith Curry’s site.

        Another example of calm analysis is in today’s “The Australian” newspaper – an article on the cost of renewables submitted by Bjorn Lomborg.

      • DaveW says:

        David – Isn’t your example of a politician who claims to believe in AGW arguing against a tax he thinks (quite rightly) will not solve the problem but will put a burden on everyone? Seems to me Abbott is about to waste several billion more dollars on climate change. So, I think your example does not support your contention.

        • David says:

          “David – Isn’t your example of a politician who claims to believe in AGW arguing against a tax he thinks (quite rightly)
          will not solve the problem but will put a burden on everyone?”

          Mostly correct.

          “Seems to me Abbott is about to waste several billion more dollars on climate change.”

          Totally correct

          “So, I think your example does not support your contention.”


          • DaveW says:

            Hi David – Your logic escapes me, but here’s an example you can use (from Wikipedia, so not necessarily true, but probably):

            ‘When [US Congressman Georgia 10th] Broun spoke in June 2010 to the John Birch Society, he said that the entire concept of man-made global warming is a conspiracy perpetuated by certain members of the scientific community to “destroy America.”‘

            That’s what a hysterical anti-CAGW politician sounds like. He’s not fond of evolution, embryology or the Big Bang either – but he is an MD.

  • Gus says:

    Yes, when I lived in Australia, I always had this impression that Australians were not truly dedicated to freedom of speech, and this went for both sides of Australian politics. Both sides had their taboos and were more than willing to impose restrictions and censorship on those who questioned them.
    But it reflects, I believe, different history, different from that of Australians’ American brethren, who, in their day, had to fight for their independence and amongst that struggle’s weapons was to be free to express one’s opinions on the government, on the British Parliament and on the Prince, in speech and in writing, whence the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution hail, later fortified with the Bill of Rights.
    It is interesting that the Constitution did not, originally, grant freedoms of religion and speech and these had to be codified additionally in the First Amendment of 1791, alongside with the other nine, that together formed the Bill. It is just as interesting that the institution of slavery continued, even though it so obviously violated the Bill.
    Alas, political correctness made its way into just about every corner of American life. I must say I have never seen people as muzzled as Americans are today. This is because Americans are a suing nation, as one of my Australian friends pointed out, warning me to watch my step. Indeed, over every careless utterance you may be dragged to court. Even if you’re in the right, you may end up ruined in the end, having to foot exorbitant bills for your defense.
    This was not the case in Australia, where people would often say horrible things to each other in private, with total impunity. Similarly, the kind of jokes and language that I saw on Australian TV frequently, would lead to legal action in the US today, or, at the very least, to outcry in the country’s media.
    All this shows that what Constitution gives, courts and people with money to burn may easily take away, while in a society in which freedom of speech does not officially exist, it may actually thrive because people, in the end, are more liberal.

  • Dasher says:

    I would also add that there is not only an indifference to the meaning and importance of freedom of expression in Australia but the arguments against are generally astonishingly superficial and easily debunked…but no one is listening (and yes I do try) It is worth googling the late, great, Christopher Hitchens debating this subject. If he were in our midst today he would scarify the censorious tendencies of rather too many people who should know better. The pity is we have no one with his strength of character, contrarian nature and debating skills who is up to the challenge. Sad really.

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