2012: Year of the Boiling Frog

“The number and variety of threats to civil liberties of Australians during 2012 approached almost unprecedented levels,” says John Roskam, head of the Institute of Public Affairs. When commentators from all sides of politics start sounding warnings, it’s time our MPs started to listen. Traditional freedoms, and the Aussie ‘fair go’ way of speech and life, are under siege from politicians who have abandoned principle for point-scoring.

2012: Year of the Boiling Frog

By John Roskam, Executive Director, Institute of Public Affairs

The year 2012 should be remembered in Australia as the year of the boiling frog. Much of the analysis about the past year will concentrate on things like the nastiness of Parliament, whether the boom is over, and the condition of the federal budget.

What will be missed in all of the discussion about 2012 is something that isn’t talked about too much these days, namely civil liberties.

The number and variety of threats to the civil liberties of Australians during 2012 approached almost unprecedented levels.

If next year the Gillard government succeeds in its aims of regulating the press, imposing surveillance over the personal electronic communications of every person, and making it against the law to offend someone because of their political opinion, Australians will be substantially less free next year than they were this year.

The Canadian writer and commentator Mark Steyn talked about boiling frogs on his visit to Australia earlier this year. A frog put into a pot of boiling water will jump out. But put a frog in a pot of cold water, gradually turn up the heat and the frog won’t notice until too late it is being boiled to death.

As Steyn said, so it is with personal freedoms. When civil liberties are taken away, gradually and bit by bit, few notice what’s happening. During 2012, no less than eight separate pieces of Commonwealth legislation removed the right to silence for individuals accused of committing an offence. The erosion of basic legal rights now passes without comment.

However, there’s something even worse than the laws the government wants to pass. What’s more dangerous is the way that, during the year, the Gillard government stepped up its efforts to inculcate in the community a particular set of attitudes. Australians are now urged to find sexism, racism, and discrimination at every turn.

The Prime Minister’s misogyny speech was noteworthy because it revealed the sense of grievance the Gillard government wants Australians to experience in all walks of life, not just in politics.

Where no sexism, racism or discrimination is obvious, we’re now actively encouraged to go looking for it, and if we can’t find sexism, racism or discrimination, the government will find it for us. This is the approach found in a host of legislation ranging from the Fair Work Act, to the Workplace Gender Equality Act which was passed last month (November 2012), to the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill which will go to Parliament next year.

The irony is that while schoolchildren are encouraged by their parents and teachers to be resilient, a generation of grown-ups is told by government to take offence at the drop of a hat.

There’s a variety of motivations for the Labor Party’s assaults on civil liberties during 2012. In part, there is what has always existed in the Left, namely the preference for social control, and this is most apparent in the ALP’s efforts to control the press. Also at play is the desire to impose equality.

But equality comes at the expense of freedom. Making it illegal for a Christian, Jewish or Muslim school to discriminate, and give preference to job applicants who are of the same faith as the parents at the school, ensures all applicants are treated equally regardless of their religion, but it also means that parents do not have the freedom of choosing who should teach their children.

Why Labor is persisting with its plans to give the security agencies and the federal police practically untrammelled surveillance powers over every Australian’s computer and telephone is more of a mystery. Most likely the Gillard government has been snowed by the security agencies, just as every other government has been.

The Coalition thankfully, after some initial hesitation, did finally say it opposed Labor’s plans to restrict the press. But on internet surveillance and the changes to the anti-discrimination laws, the Coalition has gone missing in action. As yet the Coalition has refused to say what its position is on these issues, and whether it is appropriate in a free society for someone who claims they were offended by a comment about their political opinion to be able to take the person who made that comment to court.

Budget deficits are serious, but they can be fixed. Civil liberties, on the other hand, once they’re gone are not easily won back. And civil liberties are even more difficult to recover when the mindset of people is changed so that people don’t care whether or not they regain what they’ve lost.

This article appeared first in the Financial Review on 7 Dec 2012, and is also available on the Institute of Public Affairs website: http://tiny.cc/giv9ow

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