Come hear Australia’s free speech commissioner

June 22nd, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Oliver Hartwich of The writes:

In today’s society, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone to object to human rights. Even the nastiest dictatorships still try to maintain at least the semblance of a human rights culture, even if they violate these rights constantly.

What is far more difficult to ascertain, especially in Western, liberal democracies, is what human rights mean in practice. They have a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about them. The term ‘human rights’ means just what you choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

Freedom of speech is a good example. Who would be against something as noble and sacred as the freedom to say what you want? But dig just a little bit deeper, and the responses become far more nuanced.

You may be all in favour of free speech, but some people believe allowing tobacco companies to freely advertise their products requires an exception, as might donations to political campaigns, or statements that might impinge upon another person’s reputation. The devil is in the detail.

The problem gets even worse if you are trying to define what a human right is, and what is not. There are two schools of thought and they can be broadly defined as negative/liberal and positive/socialist.

The classical liberal approach views rights as a defence against the power of the state. Rights are negative in this way because they are negative freedoms, meaning you are free from something, rather than free to do something. It is the human right not to be interfered with, eg not with your views and beliefs, not in the enjoyment of your property, not in who you associate with.

The socialist approach goes beyond this. It sees human rights as a positive right to something. Rather than averting the interference of the state, it requires the state to deliver on these rights. Human rights, rather than being the birth rights of the individual, in this sense, become entitlements granted by government.

That’s a good way to differentiate between the two sorts of human rights.

In a couple of weeks, The New Zealand Initiative will be hosting Australia’s new Human Rights Commissioner . He has triggered a debate across the Tasman on what human rights should be, and he strongly advocates a return to a much narrower definition with the focus on freedom of association, religion, expression and property.

This leaves freedom as the fundamental human right. Incidentally, this is also the title of Tim Wilson’s lecture. We hope to see you there and look forward to a robust debate.

Tim Wilson will be speaking to The New Zealand Initiative in:

  • Auckland, 30 June – register here.
  • Wellington, 1 July – register here.

These should be excellent.

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17 Responses to “Come hear Australia’s free speech commissioner”

  1. mike tan (491 comments) says:

    I am interested to see what people think re: cultural relativism (rights are culturally contextual and its therefore immoral to judge another society by the codes of the society one lives in) v universalism (there are some basic rights that extend to all).

    “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris is an interesting read.

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  2. Harriet (5,102 comments) says:

    “……The problem gets even worse if you are trying to define what a human right is, and what is not…….”

    No kidding! :

    “…….“society as a whole is now being invited, or rather coerced, into the double life of the big lie – to pretend what is, is not: and what is not, is. There is something worse than disease; there is the denial of its existence . . . The worst thing, Socrates warned, is the lie in the soul about what is.”

    Following on from the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers, Reilly closes his important volume this way: “Evil is particularly contagious when it is institutionalized. The institutionalization of immorality leads to more moral disorder, not to its attenuation, and then to political disorder and eventual collapse. There is a kind of Gresham’s law of morals: just as bad currency drives out good currency, so bad morals drive out good morals.”……..”

    http://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/06/21/a-review-of-making-gay-okay-how-rationalizing-homosexual-behavior-is-changing-everything-by-robert-reilly/

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  3. IC5000 (118 comments) says:

    From Wikipedia

    “Tim Wilson is a public policy analyst and commentator.[1] He has been for seven years policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs and in 2013 was appointed Australian Human Rights Commissioner.

    The IPA funded by its membership which include both private individuals and businesses. Among these businesses are ExxonMobil,[6] Telstra, WMC Resources, BHP Billiton, Phillip Morris,[7] Murray Irrigation Limited,[8] and Visy Industries.
    IPA donors have also included Clough Engineering, Caltex, Shell and Esso.[2] Other donors were electricity and mining companies, as well as British American Tobacco (BAT).”

    Even funnier…

    “While Wilson was working for the Institute of Public Affairs, they called for the Human Rights Commission to be abolished.”

    http://www.ipa.org.au/publications/2146/ipa-australian-human-rights-commission-should-be-abolished

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  4. PaulL (6,036 comments) says:

    Yup, very amusing when he was appointed human rights commissioner. Basically when at the IPA he argued that the Human Rights Commission in Australia was taking rights away from people, not protecting them, and was focussing on lower value rights to the detriment of big ticket rights like freedom of speech. On that basis he suggested they be abolished.

    After the election the Libs instead decided to try to even the balance on the HRC, and appointed Tim a commissioner. This offended the left greatly, as the right aren’t supposed to appoint people to “cultural” institutions, and they thought they’d “Abbott proofed” lots of them. They were also upset when Abbott suggested that, since he couldn’t change the people on the Fair Work Commission (newly created body, all appointed by Labour, quite union dominated) he’d instead create a right of appeal/review to a higher body, and he’d stack that with whomever he liked. It was quite upsetting to them to discover that they hadn’t done as good a job Abbott proofing as they thought.

    I’d expect this to be a great speech.

    And, by the way Harriet, the right not to be discriminated against just because people don’t like what you do in the bedroom is a very important right.

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  5. Danyl Mclauchlan (1,070 comments) says:

    The classical liberal approach views rights as a defence against the power of the state. Rights are negative in this way because they are negative freedoms, meaning you are free from something, rather than free to do something. It is the human right not to be interfered with, eg not with your views and beliefs, not in the enjoyment of your property, not in who you associate with.

    The socialist approach goes beyond this. It sees human rights as a positive right to something. Rather than averting the interference of the state, it requires the state to deliver on these rights. Human rights, rather than being the birth rights of the individual, in this sense, become entitlements granted by government.

    And that, kids, is why prior to the development of the modern nation-state humans lived in a utopia in which the individual human rights bestowed on them at birth by (?) were universally respected, and why, today, we see that countries without centralised governments are beacons of human rights and freedom, while the distopian hell-holes of the OECD states sink deeper into ruin.

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  6. Yoza (1,906 comments) says:

    Funny:

    In today’s society, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone to object to human rights …

    So far so good.

    What is far more difficult to ascertain, especially in Western, liberal democracies, is what human rights mean in practice. They have a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about them. …

    Too true Ollie!

    Freedom of speech is a good example. … But dig just a little bit deeper, and the responses become far more nuanced.

    You may be all in favour of free speech, but some people believe allowing tobacco companies to freely advertise their products requires an exception …

    This is where the “Alice in Wonderland” thing comes into play, the tobacco companies basic human right of free speech is not being impinged as tobacco companies are not human beings.
    Silly Ollie

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  7. Harriet (5,102 comments) says:

    IC5000

    ‘…..Even funnier…

    “While Wilson was working for the Institute of Public Affairs, they called for the Human Rights Commission to be abolished.”….”

    I believe one or two from the NZ Initutive have contributed to the IPA over the years [ i don’t know if it was on the above matter though]

    “It is immoral for a government to return children to dysfunctional parents – only to be removed again and again.”

    I got that quote from the IPA a few years back , as I used to read a lot of their stuff in the NZ section – and it’s pretty solid stuff.

    eg. The law that National put through just this week on removing neglected children from their parents is the above arguement that I read there. There were very strong reasons in support of what national is now doing.

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  8. PaulL (6,036 comments) says:

    @DanylMC: Because those nation states in the past granted their subjects freedom from interference by the state? Not bloody likely. That’s why parliaments, and limitations on the powers of the state like constitutions, were such great inventions.

    And many of the third world countries that have the worst growth rates have egregious state intrusions against human rights. Look at some African states and their current treatment of those with different sexuality.

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  9. IC5000 (118 comments) says:

    Also more amusing is that he is openly gay yet still beholden to the Liberal party despite their line on gay marriage. Well it’s probably not surprising considering the donors to the IPA and their stance on particular economic issues. Tim Wilson appears to be only too willing to take anyone’s 30 pieces of silver and act as their mouthpiece.

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  10. PaulL (6,036 comments) says:

    @IC5000: Some gay people don’t allow that to define their entire life. They may have opinions about the desirability of individual responsibility and a growing economy that are at least as important to them as whether or not they can marry (which is pretty much the only missing right for gays in Australia). But I know that some on the left think that the only reason that anyone would have right wing views is that they’ve been paid off. Must be expensive to pay off 51% of the electorate though.

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  11. ChardonnayGuy (1,211 comments) says:

    To be honest though, PaulL, those libertarian lesbians and gay men who espouse giving conservative Christians the “right” to discriminate are deeply unpopular within LGBT communities. It’s a bedrock issue within our communities and those who diverge from that basic premise of LGBT legislative reform tend to be ostracised and seen as self-hating, fanatical ideologues. And at some point, Ayn Rand’s own unfortunate stance against the “morality” of homosexuality comes into focus, although I concede that this is a subject of debate within libertarian circles, and that most libertarians/classical liberals also support civil unions, inclusive adoption reform, marriage equality and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and sex work. In any case, this isn’t up for debate- most western nations do include sexual orientation within their antidiscrimination laws, with the current exception of the United States. Gender identity, on the other hand…. :(

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  12. ChardonnayGuy (1,211 comments) says:

    On the other hand, ‘hate speech’ is a different issue altogether. I oppose censorship on ideological grounds and that is no exception. In any case, such vituperative rhetoric tends to boomerang back on its initiator, while mainstream onlookers ask why civil discourse between parties isn’t occurring in this context.

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  13. IC5000 (118 comments) says:

    PaulL (5,807 comments) says:
    June 23rd, 2014 at 12:33 am

    “But I know that some on the left think that the only reason that anyone would have right wing views is that they’ve been paid off. Must be expensive to pay off 51% of the electorate though.”

    No not all but some. There is a big difference between holding ideological right wing views and simply being a corporate mouthpiece and I think in Tim Wilson’s case it would be the latter. As to paying off 51% of the electorate no its not expensive because you don’t actually tell them your agenda but simply appeal to their baser instincts by demonising a vulnerable minority e.g. refugees or single mothers and then implementing your policies afterwards. Of course this means you’ll drop 20% in the polls and your rival will pollng higher than you are as preferred PM but nothing in life is easy when you’re doing god’s work.

    BTW Is there are gay version of an ‘uncle tom’?

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  14. PaulL (6,036 comments) says:

    Yeah, my point exactly IC5000.

    I don’t think Tim Wilson is a corporate mouthpiece, I think he has quite strong views and he’s living by them. I don’t see any evidence that he’s paid to espouse those views, I see evidence that he has those views and he was given jobs and/or funding because people agreed with them.

    Ultimately I think that what you’re saying about him is quite offensive, and a classic case of playing the man and not the ball.

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  15. gump (1,659 comments) says:

    Why does every conversation on Kiwiblog become a discussion about gays and/or gay marriage?

    It’s becoming a running joke.

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  16. IC5000 (118 comments) says:

    Because in this case we have an actual homosexual who is prepared to to take cash from corporate backers and act as the puppet for a political party whom many of those who belong to actually hate homosexuals?

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  17. ChardonnayGuy (1,211 comments) says:

    Not all the Liberal Party do so, certainly. And judging by the rate that Tony Abbott is haemorrhaging support, it’ll only take the Victoria state election setback in November to trigger Malcolm Turnbull’s long-anticipated Canberra party room coup and Australia will get a more mainstream and salvageable Australian centre-right PM with a new set of more saleable policies.

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