Perceptive voice of reason on freedom of speech
By Michael Sexton,
Connor Court, 315pp, $39.99 (PB)
review by ROSS FITZGERALD
Michael Sexton has been Solicitor-General for NSW since 1988. A specialist in defamation law, he has published widely, including one of my favourite books, On the Edges of History (2015).
As Sexton notes, the phrase from which his new book takes its title, Dissenting Opinions, is normally used in the law to describe the judgments of those members of appellate courts who take a different view in a particular case from their colleagues who form the majority and effectively decide the question before the court.
In this fine collection of his articles and book reviews, Sexton uses the phrase to connote his opposition to the “chilling effect” that the “climate of conformity” has had on public debate.
This increasingly applies, he argues, to much of Australia’s media and also to our universities, which historically “were places where established ideas were always open to challenge”. Sexton argues that these days many young would-be academics are frightened of expressing unconventional opinions.
This book is divided into 10 sections, the best of which are Free Speech or Hate Speech, The World of Political Correctness, Prime Ministers and their Rivals and This Sporting Life. His opening essay, Defend to the Last Their Right to Say It, powerfully advocates the unpopular position that free speech means letting all opinions, no matter how offensive, be heard.
As he points out several times, incitements to violence have always been a criminal offence and still are. What supporters of section 18C of the federal Racial Discrimination Act describe as “hate speech” are often no more than statements with which they do not agree. As Sexton writes, “Almost everyone would, if asked, say that they were in favour of freedom of speech. But what they often mean is speech that they do not find offensive in any way.”
How true is that!
In seven interconnected essays, Sexton deals adroitly with what, in the 1960s, John Kenneth Galbraith termed “the conventional wisdom”. This is now more commonly known as political correctness.
In a perceptive article, Writers Festivals an Echo Chamber of Opinions, Sexton agrees with Gerard Henderson, who pointed out that there is little diversity in the social and political views of those appearing in recent Sydney Writers Festivals. Sexton says our literary festivals are “a product of a part of Australian society — publishers, writers, bureaucrats and the media — that largely shares a common view on most social and political questions”.
On politics, Sexton is highly critical of Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser during their respective prime ministerships. He is wrongheaded about that, in my opinion. In a revealing piece on Catholic activist BA Santamaria and his mentor Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Sexton explains that he was “in the unusual position of growing up in a Catholic family, but one that did not support the Democratic Labor Party”. Instead, they stayed true to the ALP.
Although there is still dispute as to the importance of Mannix and Santamaria in the great Split in the ALP in the mid-1950s, Sexton makes the valid point that if Labor had won the 1954 federal election, which it nearly did, the Split may well have been averted.
He is also correct in claiming the erratic HV (“Doc”) Evatt “was probably the worst possible person to be Labor leader at the time and contributed in large measure to the breakdown in relations between the various groups within the party”.
Unlike Santamaria and Mannix, who supported Carlton in the Victoria Football League, Sexton is a lifelong fan of Geelong. However, this does not prevent him from arguing that the Essendon Bombers were unfairly dealt with in a doping scandal that wiped them out of the 2016 AFL season.
Dissenting Opinions makes engaging reading. It represents a considerable contribution to promoting the shy hope of Sexton and other advocates of free speech and freedom of expression, including myself, that the immediate future might witness a “full-blooded public debate of social, economic and political issues in Australia”.
But for that to occur requires considerable and concerted courage on all our parts.
Ross Fitzgerald’s latest book is Fifty Years Sober. an update of his memoir, My Name is Ross :An Alcoholic’s Journey, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
The Weekend Australian, December 19-20, 2020, p 18.