The state of debate over the amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act suggested by Attorney General George Brandis continues to be bleak.
Most recently, two people from the Human Rights Law Centre happily wrote that while they opposed bans on street preachers in Rundle Mall in Adelaide they supported bans on protesters harassing women seeking abortions. They allowed that this ‘seems contradictory’; they preferred to think of their position as nuanced.
It seems to me that those who claim to support freedom of speech (and the authors are dismissive of ‘simplistic’ claims about the value of freedom of speech) often do little more than advocate for the rights of people with whom they agree. Like the abortion picketers, Max Brenner protesters may also harass those who seek to buy goods, citing what they claim are links to Israeli human rights violations. Equally, opponents of abortion literally think that they are protesting the murder of babies. Their protests may be offensive, but it is in the nature of freedom of speech to involve defending the freedom to express views that are considered shocking by others. For those who hold moderate, politically-mainstream views, it is easy to forget that the category of ‘shocking’ and ‘appalling’ included opponents of the First World War in Western countries – and at various times advocates of communism, the Wobblies, anarchists and so on.
On the other side of the debate are other ‘nuanced’ supporters of freedom of speech. These include Brandis, Andrew Bolt and so on – people who who have no objections to our defamation laws (which were introduced in the Howard administration, under which Brandis served).
Those of us who believe in freedom of speech need to defend that freedom, even when we are not great admirers of the people (like Bolt) whose rights we defend. At the same time, the corollary of opposing legal restrictions and penalties on speech is a duty to criticise the very speech that we would leave unpenalised.
When one has a look at Bolt’s blog, one sees that section 18C does not appear to have induced greater sensitivity or compassion on issues relating to racial minorities. Consider the post that begins ‘parts of Sydney now seem to have the disorder we’d expect in a Beirut.’
Oh? Beirut? What an odd choice of city! He links to a story noting the shooting was in Sydney’s South West. His blog goes on to observe. ‘I do not know who police are looking for in these latest shootings so leap to no conclusions about their ethnicity. Unrelated, then, is this comparison, provided by reader Sasha.’ The comparison shows two maps, one of where Muslims are concentrated in Sydney, and one of Sydney gun crime. As the ‘ethnicity’, number of Muslims and gun crime are unrelated, it is surely a coincidence that Bolt happened to mention Beirut. On an unrelated note, I was whistling when I was walking my dog the other day.
Meanwhile, there’s Bolt’s continuing dark references to how he would like to defend the articles that the Federal Count held to have breached the RDA, but, sadly, he cannot. The implication is that, actually, he was right, if only he were allowed to say why.
Yet Bolt has not explained why, if he is so sure his articles were actually right, his legal team only cross examined three of the plaintiffs.
Indeed, it is useful to consider what was and was not disputed:
65. By their pleadings both Mr Bolt and HWT have admitted that each of Ms Heiss, Ms Cole, Mr Clark, Dr Wayne Atkinson, Mr Graham Atkinson, Professor Behrendt, Ms Enoch, Mr McMillan and Ms Eatock are of Aboriginal descent; that since each was a child, at the times of publication of each of the Articles, and at present, each person did and does genuinely self-identify as an Aboriginal person and did and does have communal recognition as an Aboriginal person. It is admitted that each of these persons has fairer rather than darker skin colour. That each was reasonably likely to be offended and was offended by the Articles or parts thereof is denied.
Okay, so in court, Bolt admitted that all those discussed are Aboriginal, but have ‘fairer rather than darker skin colour’. That was before he was silenced by that awfully oppressive Federal Court ruling.
Nevertheless, once again, on his blog, he refers to a Guardian article critical of him by Bindi Cole, one of the plaintiffs in the RDA case. More exactly, Bolt refers to a reader of that article at the Guardian, and links to a comment. Bolt’s blog notes:
a Guardian reader of an article by one of the “fair-skinned Aborigines” who successfully sued me identifies an error I am said to have made about her – one of the errors which is said to justify the banning of two of my columns arguing for an end to “race”-based division. I’d like to say more in response to the article but the legal danger is now too high
His link is here. And if you scroll down, you see what he’s talking about. A commenter refers to this Quadrant link. It reveals a picture of Bindi Cole’s grandmother, with a quote from Cole above it with the words ‘because she was black’ in bold. Presumably, readers are invited to chortle that the woman does not look particularly dark-skinned.
Let us return to what Andrew Bolt originally wrote. Yes, his articles are still online. In one, Bolt wrote:
Meet, say, acclaimed St Kilda artist Bindi Cole, who was raised by her English-Jewish mother yet calls herself “Aboriginal but white”.
She rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father, and could in truth join any one of several ethnic groups, but chose Aboriginal, insisting on a racial identity you could not guess from her features.
She also chose, incidentally, the one identity open to her that has political and career clout.
Let us pause, for a moment, and consider Bolt’s apparent conviction that being Aboriginal delivers more ‘political and career clout’ than a white or Jewish identity would. According to Justice Bromberg, Cole discovered her mother had Jewish heritage after her mother died (para 75). Justice Bromberg held that her father was Aboriginal, her mother was not. But was Cole raised by her mother? The judgment notes (paras 76-78:
In her early childhood and until she was seven or eight years old, Ms Cole lived with her mother, who was a single parent, in St Kilda. Her father had been a part of her life until she was about six years old. When her mother became unfit to look after her from the age of seven or eight, Ms Cole lived with her father for a year before living with, and being looked after by, her paternal grandmother. She lived with her paternal grandmother for the next four years. She lived in the country with her grandmother, her grandmother’s eight children, cousins, aunties and uncles who were and who all identified as Aboriginal persons. She later returned to Melbourne and continued to live with her grandmother. She was always surrounded by family who identified as Aboriginal. She moved back to live with her mother at about the age of 13, but regularly visited and maintained strong ties with her maternal grandmother. Ms Cole’s mother died when Ms Cole was 16. Her Aboriginal father had come back into her life when she was about 14 or 15 and she had been in regular contact with him. She continued to maintain strong ties with her maternal grandmother until she passed away when Ms Cole was 18. Ms Cole grew up in quite disadvantaged circumstances.
It was Ms Cole’s Aboriginal grandmother who instilled in her a sense of pride in her Aboriginal heritage. However, Ms Cole was aware of her Aboriginal heritage before she went to live with her grandmother. Her mother always told her that she was Aboriginal. Ms Cole has always regarded herself to be Aboriginal. She did not choose to be Aboriginal.
In 2008, Ms Cole learnt about her maternal heritage from her maternal grandmother. At about that time she began to describe herself as of English, Jewish and Wathaurung descent. She agreed that there was nothing to have precluded her from deciding to identify more closely with her Jewish heritage but said that this was something she had not explored because she does not feel a connection to her Jewish heritage.
As for all the opportunities supposedly only available for Aboriginal people, Cole
has never applied for any positions designated exclusively for Aboriginal people. She has worked hard for everything that she has achieved. She works for herself and does not claim social security benefits. She applies for grant funding which is available to support artistic work. She probably applies for more non-Aboriginal funding than funding available to Aboriginal people. She applies for funding because it is there and available irrespective of whether the funding is designated for Aboriginal people.
Meanwhile, while ‘Ms Cole was cross-examined … in the main her evidence was not contested’. But now that Bolt has discovered that her grandmother’s skin wasn’t dark enough for him, he thinks that perhaps … well, who knows? Bolt has, he says, been silenced. One might almost forget that Bolt’s article was not about Cole’s grandmother, but about her mother, who Bolt falsely claimed raised her – and that Bolt falsely said that Cole rarely saw her father.
Indeed, when one reads about the actual upbringing of Bindi Cole, one can only be appalled at Bolt’s shocking misrepresentation of the facts, and his scurrilous insinuations about Cole.
But if he changes the subject – or if certain writers at Quadrant are willing to do so for him – well, so much the better for him. Cole’s grandmother is dead, which perhaps makes it less risky to imply that she is the fake white Aboriginal person choosing an identity for convenient political and career clout. And what evidence does Bolt have that Cole chose her identity for that clout? Perhaps Bolt’s lucky that he’s been so silenced that all he can do is smear, mutter, and hint darkly about the real truth on the matter.
Oh, and why didn’t Bolt refer to Cole’s grandmother in his original article where he made his claims about Cole? According to the judgment (para 403), Bolt explained that this was because of a lack of space. Justice Bromberg regarded this as disingenuous.
It is interesting to reflect that much of this controversy would have been avoided if Bolt had simply been sued for defamation. For now, it suffices to note that there is a very long and excellent judgment that found that Andrew Bolt’s journalism breached the Racial Discrimination Act.
In regards to freedom of speech, it is a lousy judgment.
But for those seeking a guide to the factual reliability and moral worthiness of what Bolt writes, it is a treasure. Whenever one wants to write about Bolt, one can simply begin by noting that he was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act by the Federal Court of Australia. And whenever Bolt insinuates in his writings about things he would say about this case if he were free to do so, review the factual record of what he actually did say when he had his day in court.
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