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’.