Jim saw the trending topic on Twitter along with hundreds of thousands of others: ‘Salman Rushdie stabbed’. Five minutes earlier, Jim would have thought this was about a type of fish; a few Google searches and now Jim had informed opinions.
This is an attack on freedom of speech, he thought and tweeted. We must never let violence threaten freedom of speech, he thought and tweeted. If they can stab Salman Rushdie, he thought and tweeted, what’s to stop them from coming for the rest of us?
Jim knew exactly who they were. They were Muslims. Jim didn’t like to think of himself as a racist because Jim didn’t think of Muslims as a race. Jim was certain that Islam isn’t a race and therefore he was entitled to be as critical of Islam has he liked. Religious people need to accept that freedom of speech means that we need to be free to criticise religion, he thought and tweeted. Jim voted for the ALP and so definitely wasn’t racist, like Coalition voters; he just wondered why more Australian Muslims weren’t on Twitter condemning the violence towards Rushdie.
The big ticket items are, of course, the ones that are going to get the most attention. Minimum standards are only going to affect landlords who have properties that do not meet the minimum standards. The Real Estate Institute of the ACT (REIACT) will claim that this will make it harder for landlords but, clearly, this will only make it harder for landlords who have properties that do not meet minimum standards.
Indeed, the reasoning that REIACT uses to show that ‘properties are leaving the market’ (as if landlords carry their properties around on their backs like shells and that, if it weren’t for their properties, they would merely be slugs) is faulty: they try to match up the number of bonds held by the Territory with taxation data. What they show is more likely non-compliant landlords failing to lodge bonds with the Territory.
In this post, I wanted to give my views on some of the less obvious parts of the Bill. And I give these views knowing that the ACT has an extremely good Residential Tenancies Act and that the ACT has been extremely lucky to have had several generations of extremely good legal policy officers working on its development.
[This is a heavily redacted version of my original draft]
Australian academics were given a free kick in the research funding policy debate recently. The acting Minister for Education, Stuart Robert, rejected the recommendation from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to fund a handful of research proposals.
Unlike nearly everything in research funding policy, it became headline news. People from beyond the academy had more than a passing interest in what was going on, and it was an opportunity to bring the public on board for extremely overdue reforms of the ARC.
Instead, we blew it. Describing the decision as a use of a ‘veto’ (which it isn’t, but poetic licence for advocacy is forgivable), Australian academics began describing the Minister’s decision as using ‘God-like’ powers, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, and–most surprising of all–a threat to liberal democracy. It was embarrassing, and academia made itself look unnecessarily feeble, pathetic, and precious.
If making decisions on funding recommendations is a ‘God-like’ power, we truly have reimagined the Lord as a mere conjurer of cheap tricks. And if deciding funding outcomes is a ‘God-like’ power, do we really want the ARC making those calls instead of an elected official? More importantly–as I’ll argue here–do we really want either Ministers or government panels telling universities how to spend research funds?
At some point we should ask if something that looks like an unhinged, irrational obsession actually is an unhinged, irrational obsession. After all, holding inquiries into media companies that say things that we don’t like is usually more familiar in repressive autocracies rather than liberal democracies…
Forget ICAC and the Register of Member’s Interests, for a moment. Let us distract ourselves from questions about Gladys Berejiklian and Christian Porter. The recurrently anachronistic King Arthur sits at his round table with knights whom he has appointed for their outstanding character, noble virtues, and exceptional integrity. King Arthur himself feels that he can govern only if he maintains unimpeachable moral authority, and it is on this basis that he has been able to resist challenges from those who wish to claim the throne.
One day, a meeting of the Round Table is suddenly interrupted: a man bursts into the room and makes astounding allegations about Sir Lancelot. Should Sir Lancelot resign his position? Should King Arthur sack him?
It’s the end of the first week of lockdown in Canberra, and I have developed an unhealthy relationship with my phone. It keeps wanting to tell me things, and I now have a lot of time to be told things. It tells me all kinds of news happening in the world; news that has absolutely no utility to me except for influencing whether or not I’ll go to the other side of the apartment for a bit of a cry.
I had already started to put into place some supports to make me feel better about the world. The first was unfollowing a bunch of accounts on social media who spent every waking hour of the day spewing out partisan nonsense about the pandemic. At some point, I realised that public debate about public health had become a frictionless, zero-gravity environment: media companies publishing opinion pieces that cite other opinion pieces as evidence that the Government made a terrible error when it failed to appoint us as the Public Health Czar. My feed was overwhelmingly a few (usually Baby Boomer) voices constantly telling everybody that they should feel constantly outraged and miserable that Australia was not living up to its recently imagined expectations.
But the other thing I did was train a bunch of my websites to give me the most trivial possible news: pop culture news! Escapism is exactly what the doctor ordered to treat the symptoms of the public health directions.
This has worked too well, and I’m now deep frying my brain in a new genre of literature, steeping my mind in a new form of art, and roasting my imagination until it’s fork-tender. Rip in piece, thesis-writing day. Questions about national security law are going to need to answer themselves. Today, I have only one question on my mind:
I have been playing around with how to communicate legal concepts via video. After getting over my nervousness about actually seeing my face on things, I think I’m getting happier and happier with these.
Enjoy my quick explainer of the law underlying the question of whether the ABC identified the Attorney-General even though it didn’t name him, a quick discussion of a difference between US defamation law and Australian defamation law, a quick discussion of why the Federal Court is involved and why that might be a problem, and the social media habit of sledging lawyers based on their past clients.
The reaction so far has been surprisingly positive, and has resulted in people asking questions about other aspects of the case (like how the truth defence works), so I might do another in this sequence.
And a shout out to Dr Joe McIntyre from the University of South Australia who wants to beef up the problem of the Federal Court perception. The version covered in this video was the far more common version presented on social media (but argued at its highest so that it wasn’t a mere strawman). As McIntyre points out on Twitter, there’s a way to construct the problem so that it’s not about actual or perceived bias in this present case, but instead so that it is about perceived bias in the system overall: if, say, Jagot J presides over this case and find in his favour and then–for extremely good reasons as she is an eminent and excellent judge–is appointed to the High Court next year, won’t the public reasonably perceive that there is preferential treatment here? I think there’s an answer to this, but it draws upon theories of courts more broadly…
It’s important that people seeking justice are, to the greatest extent possible, given the ‘No wrong door’ option. It is more appropriate for Federal politicians to contact the AFP, who can then manage the details with State counterparts, than for Federal politicians to approach State police. It smells like interference, especially when you’re filing complaints about political opponents.
One reason why it was important to report these matters–even in the situation of the historical sexual assault that’s been a topic of interest this week–is that people who aren’t very across the details of the allegation don’t know if there’s more to the issue than what it says on the tin. Sure, you might not be able to establish the elements of the sexual assault without a witness, but there might be other options (subject to whatever limitations apply in the jurisdiction).
It’s like saying ‘Beetlejuice’ three times in a row. Somebody has decided to fly a swastika from their flag pole and now I get to write yet another blog post about why the freedom of speech is a terrible idea. Living my best life.