Our seditious history
Where does one draw the line over the liberty we give society’s antagonists? Should free speech really have limits?
One of the first European settler antagonists in Australia was Ballarat Times editor, Henry Seekamp. As the only person to serve jail time for the Eureka Stockade in 1854, he was arrested and charged the day after the event with seditious libel. A petition by the town, however, reduced his sentence to three months from an original six. The prosecution brief – which can be found at wiki.prov.vic.gov.au – contains transcripts of the offending material, which was heard in the supreme court of the colony of Victoria. And what a hotbed of radicalism it was.
Seekamp advocated an Australian congress, ‘meaning an assembly governing Australia independently of the government of the United Kingdom’. He called the Queen’s ministers ‘dishonest’ for ‘dictating obnoxious laws,’ over expensive gold mining licences.
In more recent times, sedition laws were used against members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) around the cold war.
It serves as an interesting insight into how ideas can become problems for governments. The online parliamentary library – www.aph.gov.au – highlights a few sedition cases. General secretary of the CPA, Laurence Louis Sharkey, said he would support a Soviet invasion in certain circumstances and might use force to allow workers to gain power. His sentence? Eighteen months’ imprisonment and hard labour in 1949.
The last federal prosecution and jailing for sedition was in 1960, when department of native affairs officer Brian Cooper was prosecuted for urging ‘the natives’ of Papua New Guinea to demand independence from Australia. He was charged under the Criminal Code (Qld) which at the time extended to Papua New Guinea. He was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
Sedition can have positive effects on society, as is the case with the Eureka Rebellion. Even australia.gov.au says the Eureka Rebellion was ‘a key event in the development of Australian democracy and Australian identity.’ Seekamp remains an original European settler dissenter. According to the online Australian dictionary of biography, Eureka rebellion leader Raffaello Carboni described Seekamp as a ‘short, thick, rare sort of man, who hated humbug and yabber yabber... His energy never abated, though the whole legion of Victorian red-tape wanted to dry his inkstand’.
Outside The Echo chamber
As editor, it’s important to spend time outside The Echo chamber. Validating your own opinions, while a human trait, must be resisted at all costs. So this week I asked myself, who are the top conservative intellectuals that have influenced the West? Unsurprisingly, Australia hasn’t produced any real heavyweights; much of our cues come from the US and the UK.
It’s fair to say that the pronouncements of Australian pundits such as Bolt, Laws, Jones and Akerman are like car accidents that the police and ambulance are attending. You slow down, look in pity, then drive on.
No, an intellectual – by definition – must excel in topics such as philosophy, not just politics and economics. Art too... and music... and comedy... wait a minute! Are there any renaissance Liberals? Is Malcom Turnbull our only hope?
One popular conservative ‘thinker’ that comes to mind is the late author Ayn Rand.
Despite being atheist and very much anti-fascist, she spurred the iGeneration in the 60s – way before Steve Jobs – with books such as the The Virtue of Selfishness. Her best known work is of course Atlas Shrugged – the neo-con bible for selfish individual rights activists.
What is most impressive about her brain was her theories
on objectivism and critical thought on philosophical matters. She didn’t toe any political party line either and challenged the more conservative conservatives.
William F Buckley is another, and is famous for his verbal sparring. Spats with Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Carl Sagan are legendary. As a journalist he founded the political magazine National Review and went on to host political TV talk shows and write spy novels.
Interesting fact? This Catholic son of a New York City lawyer and oil baron famously made the distinction between the lowercase c and the capital C for conservatives. The latter
‘C’ being what he believed to be ‘true’ conservatives: fiscally conservative and socially conservative/libertarian or libertarian- leaning.
Like Ayn Rand, he was also a free thinker and didn’t fit political moulds.
Finally, Christopher Hitchens is on this list, and is again a political outsider. He plays nicely into this Winston Churchill quote: ‘If you’re not a liberal [ie socialist] at twenty you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.’
Despite a life devoted to ridiculing God botherers for sadistic sport, Hitch eventually warmed to the idea that the West is best.
The Hitch switched from Socialism and later in life believed that invading and colonising other countries is a just cause. His interview on death’s door with UK journalist Jeremy Paxman explains it all.
So where is the lesson in this, I wonder...
Language of mass distraction
Governments tell us that suspicious behaviour should always be reported, so as Echo editor I dutifully submit the following.
I firmly believe that bureaucratic language – for the most part – is used against the populace for self-serving and nefarious reasons.
The aim of this style of writing should be to create a readable legal document; however, it tends to be largely incomprehensible to the public. Poor bureaucratic language serves no function other than to create division and the illusion of power.
The subtext of course is that, ‘Well, if you can’t understand what we are saying, you are obviously not bright enough.’ What bullshit. Even though everyone has different cognitive and comprehensive abilities, the general principle of good writing is based on simplicity, not complexity.
Whether legislator, bureaucrat or journalist, it’s imperative that words are not misused to obscure intentions. Words are written to say what you mean.
Poor bureaucratic language also results in low participation by the public. It’s just one of many reasons behind the poor standing of politicians and bureaucrats in the public eye. The suspicion, of course, is that unnecessarily complex language is written in an effort to hide something. Why else go to so much trouble?
The following excerpt is from Byron Council’s Draft Amended Code of Meeting Practice. It is by no means the worst piece of bureaucratic waffle ever written, but is a current example. Essentially it’s a document to encompass policy for all Council’s meetings and committees.
‘5. The decision of the [Planning Review Committee] is to be that the application is or is not to be dealt with under delegated authority. No directions are to be given, formally or informally, as to the evaluation of the development application. Where the Committee determines that an application is appropriately dealt with under delegated authority that application may be determined at a time after the Committee meeting.’
It should be a simple code of practice, but instead it’s confusing, time consuming and treats us like idiots.