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What Can I Say? »

As I have written elsewhere, in this age of political correctness, meaningful communications is mired by an unfortunate asymmetry. Those delivering a message must do so in a very constrained and unemotional way to minimise the likelihood that they will be called out for giving offence. Consequently contentious issues are skirted around and some not mentioned at all to minimise the likelihood of an attack by the PC police.

Those receiving the message are however are nowhere near as constrained and seem to have the freedom to respond as aggressively, irrationally and objectionably as they seem fit. The only excuse they seem to need for such appalling behaviour is to confect “hurt” and “offence”.

Unfortunately the person or the group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place. Via this exceedingly manipulative strategy many opposing views are shut down. In this way voices that should be heard are silenced. Those of us who seek to put politically incorrect points of view are accused of “hurting” those fragile souls who disagree with us and this is often enough, under the PC rules of engagement, to silence us.

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University and one of America’s premier cultural critics, speaking of the erosion of free speech in a recent edition of the London Review of Books wrote:

Reproach from a traumatised listener admits of no answer, only apology, even though apologies are only interesting in proportion as they are spontaneous and warranted. The apology that is demanded and forked out has the moral stature of hush money: it makes a fetish of insincerity. With some help from the jargon of political and religious heresy, one would say these are not so much apologies as formal acts of self-criticism and recantation.

In fact, what we are seeing is an avoidance of having to contend with ideas that are different to our own. There is no attempt to debate the issues but merely to shut down opposing points of view. Much of the social and moral development of Western society has come from the contest of opposing ideas. But it would seem that the politically correct believe they have a monopoly on morality and wisdom and the rest of us just need to shut up and do as we’re told.

As British author and journalist, Mick Hume has written:

In short, without the willingness of some to insist on their right to speak what they believed to be true, we might still be living on a flat earth at the centre of the known universe, where women were denied the vote but granted the right to be burnt as witches.

As I pointed out in a previous essay, the curtailment of our ability to discuss contentious issues for fear of being shouted down by the politically correct, is causing a large cohort of Australians to feel politically disenfranchised.

For example, I don’t want to ban Muslims from migrating to Australia, but in light of what is transpiring around the world it should still be a legitimate issue for debate.

Bill Shorten and Penny Wong state that a plebiscite on gay marriage is just a stimulant for “hate speech” which is merely a pseudonym for opinions that they disagree with. The underlying motif here is that it is hurtful for you to express a point of view we disagree with and consequently you should just shut your mouth and let us make your decisions for you because we know better! It beggars belief that in a modern democracy such a major change to the traditional institution of marriage should not be openly debated.

We are starting to forget what is the nature of true free speech. Free speech must be accessible to all. It can’t be confined to just those with particular views. It has to be the right of all citizens whatever their politics, whether they are learned or not and indeed even whether they are polite or not. As soon as we seek to be selective as to who should have access to free speech it is no longer a right but becomes a privilege.

The ultimate danger of this approach is again well-described by Hume.

… restricting the free speech rights of those you detest, you weaken your own and everybody else’s rights. You deny others the right to listen and argue, to test the truth and judge for ourselves. You effectively condemn yourself to being locked in your bubble cell, with only your own and similar opinions to listen to, like a solitary prisoner with only one book to read (and even that is his own boring diary).

But let us get into another emotive issue that political correctness is preventing us from properly discussing. I believe the move to indigenous self-determination and the necessity to preserve indigenous culture and kinship at all costs has been tremendously damaging to indigenous people. Are we prepared to discuss that? Well it appears to me that we are not.

Let us drill down a little further here and look a little more closely at a particular issue associated with indigenous disadvantage, viz. the problems associated with indigenous children. Indigenous children are massively over-represented in the child protection system, due to the extraordinary levels of dysfunction and disadvantage found in many indigenous families and communities. To properly understand this human tragedy we need a little historical context.

It cannot be ignored that prior to the 1980’s thousands of indigenous children were removed from their families with the aim of attempting to assimilate them into mainstream Australian society. Notwithstanding the fact that many such children grew up to live successful lives in mainstream society, it was nevertheless a cruel process that had negative impacts on many indigenous families.

Jeremy Sammut, in his fine book The Madness of Australian Child Protection, writes:

Past child removal practices often had a devastating impact on the identity of Indigenous people, and this contributed to a sense of loss, confusion and isolation resulting from the separation from families and communities.

This was the creation of the so-called “stolen generation”. When we realised the hurt and the indignities resulting from such practices, Governments and welfare agencies moved to stem such an approach to child protection. When dealing with indigenous children that weren’t being given appropriate family support, resulting in the necessity of removing them from their family environment, the maintenance of kinship connections and cultural practice was to be given the highest priority. This resulted in the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ACPP), which as described by Sammut is “a nationally agreed policy which makes placement with relatives, local community members, or other Indigenous people the preferred option for Indigenous children in need of care.”

While this might have been a policy with a noble ambition, it has produced disastrous results. In the last decade and a half the number of Indigenous children removed from their families for safety and welfare reasons has sharply escalated. (If you want to be depressed just read the meticulously compiled statistics in Sammut’s book!)

Sammut writes:

The increasing number and increasing over-representation of Indigenous children in care reflects the fact the Indigenous children are almost 8 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be subject of substantiated reports of harm/risk of harm. This reflects the high levels of social problems and dysfunction in the most disadvantaged metropolitan, rural, and remote Indigenous communities – associated with welfare dependence, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic and community violence and concerns about child welfare.

However you might view this state of affairs, the one thing you can categorically assert is that the application of ACPP is not working, and in particular it is not working to the advantage of indigenous children.

When welfare workers detect children who are at risk in their family environment and subsequently remove them to be placed in the protection of members of the kinship group they often have to contend with the fact that the placement will more than likely leave the child no better off because the new environment that the child has gravitated to is little better from the one he/she came from. In the more dysfunctional indigenous communities we now have a couple of generations who have not experienced good parenting and therefore have few role models to demonstrate how to go about it. The grandmothers and the aunties who once could provide such succour are now either dead or too old and frail to play a meaningful role in the upbringing of these troubled children. Often this results in temporary placements and children are shuffled back and forth between families. In many cases the children move of their own volition from one family to another thwarting the efforts of case workers to establish particular family connections.

So my controversial recommendation is that it is time to put the child’s welfare above political correctness. No child, indigenous or otherwise, should be moved into out of home care unless the new carers have proficiency at parenting or the children are in institutional care that can provide well for them. I am sympathetic towards providing a cultural platform for these troubled children, but surely not at the expense of their welfare. (Well, there you go – despite my best intentions I have now no doubt offended people!)

Let us take stock then. We have a growing problem with indigenous youth. A recent Four Corners program featured purported mistreatment of such young people in the Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. (Malcolm Turnbull in a knee jerk reaction committed to the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate the issue.) But some of those with intimate knowledge of indigenous affairs pointed out that the conditions the youth encountered in detention were no worse than what many of them encountered in their own communities, particularly those from remote communities.

Those from the Aboriginal Industry protest that the disproportionate number of indigenous youth in detention is a failure of the justice system. Again other credible commentators dispute this pointing out that indigenous youth, particularly those from remote and other disadvantaged communities, do indeed offend substantially more and have little respect for the law.

In the face of this evidence it is obvious that the commitment to the ACPP is a discredited strategy. What’s more, there is abundant evidence to suggest in these dysfunctional communities many indigenous families are failing in their parental responsibilities. These facts are difficult to dispute.

Yet when Bill Leak published his controversial satirical cartoon in The Australian on 4 August, seeking to make just this point, he was vilified as racist. None of his critics seem to want to argue the facts of the matter, they were just seeking to shut Leak down for confronting them with material they would prefer to avoid seeing. It is, they argued, a racist cartoon because Leak was “stereotyping” indigenous parents.

In Leak’s defence, indigenous researcher, Anthony Dillon wrote the following:

A casual glance back at the hundreds of cartoons Bill Leak has drawn for this paper shows he has stereotyped many white people. We’ve seen white people portrayed as hipsters, gangsters, bogans, and other not so desirable citizens.

Of course, the political cartoonist needs to work with the most salient features of the group he or she is illustrating, but where is the white outrage? Can we expect a mass law suit? As someone with indigenous ancestry, I have been deeply unoffended by his offerings.

And Anthony is entirely right. Bill’s satirical cartoons often caricature people in order to bring to our attention social issues. But whilst it appears that might be tolerated as a device to make a point in society in general it is taboo once it comes to exposing indigenous issues.

I titled my essay this week, “What can I say?” In the current environment, under the restrictive provision 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act and the politically correct activism of the Australian Human Rights Commission, it is getting difficult to answer that question. But let me in concluding make two points.

Firstly free speech is the major underpinning of our democracy and as we gradually allow it to be whittled away we are eroding the opportunity of citizens to be heard. Political correctness is making free speech now more of a privilege than a right with all the downsides Mick Hume identified in the quote above. What’s more, those using this strategy to silence us are not representative of society as a whole and are manipulating the system to preserve their own particular interests.

Secondly, if we look at the specifics of the Bill Leak case we should be especially concerned. Indigenous disadvantage is one of Australia’s major social failures and must be put to rights. What chance have we got of properly addressing that disadvantage when anytime someone raises issues that make the vested interests in the Aboriginal Industry feel uncomfortable, they are shut down? The issues Leak has raised are real and important and need to be openly confronted.

I suspect I have little ability to influence decision-makers in such matters. But what I can and will do is that when people have the courage to confront these difficult issues in the way that Bill Leak has, is to support them.


Since I wrote this essay, the volume of support for Bill Leak seems to have grown. One particularly compelling endorsement came from the West Australian Police Commissioner, Karl O’Callaghan.

O’Callaghan is reported to have said, “From my perspective, Bill Leak’s cartoon is actually an accurate reflection of what our officers see on a day-to-day basis when they’re dealing particularly with kids from Aboriginal communities or Aboriginal families who are in trouble.” O’Callaghan goes on to relate how when his officers apprehend Aboriginal children and youths, their families often refuse to take responsibility for them.

I wonder if the Human Rights Commission will be able to find a voice as authoritative as the Police Commissioner’s to support their case as they rush to vilify Leak. It is gratifying that Commissioner O’Callaghan had the courage to lend his support to Bill’s case.