The Irony of Free Speech in a Democracy
There has been a lot of discussion this week over comments made in Parliament by One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson about Senator Mehreen Faruqi of the Australian Greens. While the Tweet in question was posted on September 9th, the story continues to develop as the Greens have put forward a motion to censure Senator Hanson.
Twitter on both sides of the political spectrum has gone wild. On the right, people have come out in support of Senator Hanson. On the left, there has been strong support for Senator Faruqi. In recent days, I have seen an increase in the number of people who have criticised Senator Faruqi for trying to infringe on Senator Hanson’s right to free speech.
Unfortunately, these people are mixing up their political systems.
We do not have freedom of speech in Australia. It is one of the fundamental aspects of our political system that many people don't understand - we don't have a bill of rights. Freedom of speech does not exist here.
In Australia, we have freedom of opinion. This means you can think whatever you want to think. The government or any other institution should not come between you and your right to think what you like.
We also have freedom of expression, which means you can say what you like. However, this freedom is limited, meaning it is not absolute. There are conditions on your freedom of expression.
Many argue that in order to have a democracy, everyone deserves to say what they want. In principle, this is true. Democracy is about everyone's right to govern through electing representatives to do so; therefore, everyone gets to have their say.
However, where this system falls down is when what people say makes others feel unsafe in having their voices heard. True democracy can only exist in a place where everyone feels safe. Racist comments do not make people feel safe in standing up in Parliament, on the news or on social media and expressing their opinions. It takes a very strong person to be able to stand up in the face of racist comments and share their views.
Our Parliament has been severely lacking accurate representation of our population since its inception in 1901.
Our population is 50% female, but our Parliament isn’t.
Our population is 30% migrants, but our Parliament isn’t.
Our population is 18% people living with disabilities, but our Parliament isn’t.
The business of our lives is carried out 100% on land originally stewarded by First Nations people, but still to this day, the First Nations voice in Parliament is underrepresented.
Our aim as a nation should be to have a Parliament representative of our population. That is what a democracy looks like. However, this true democracy cannot be achieved if people from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds are being made to feel unsafe. It doesn’t matter how freely one person can speak if it silences thousands more.
The discussion about this one tweet is not just about what was said to Senator Faruqi; it is also about what was implied to every other person who sees themselves in Senator Faruqi. Every young person born overseas with a dream to one day run for Parliament, every young person of colour who wants to climb the corporate ladder, every young Muslim person who wants to make change at the level Senator Faruqi does - they were the people who had their democratic freedom impacted by Senator Hanson’s tweet.
Democracy is about everyone having a voice. True democracy is about everyone feeling safe to have their voice heard.
We cannot confidently say we have a democracy when it is only a small segment of the population who feels comfortable speaking out.
This motion to censure is not about silencing Senator Hanson for the sake of it; it is about allowing everyone else to be able to confidently express their opinions without fear of physical or verbal violence.
2021 was a difficult year for all Australians as we were confronted with the kind of behaviour that happened in our Parliament, making thousands of staff and visitors feel unsafe in the building that is meant to be the home of creating a better future for all.
It is time we see further progress in creating a safe Australian Parliament for all. There is no democracy without equitable representation.