Free speech? Sort of . . .

[Green Left Weekly, #838, May 26, 2010]

We supposely live in a free country. But do we actually have free speech in Australia? Well, sort of . . .

Obviously, the situation here is completely different to a military dictatorship where people live in fear of a knock on the door. In some countries there is no Green Left Weekly, no right to protest, and dissidents are jailed and tortured. In Australia we do have some real and important democratic rights. However, there are severe practical limitations on effectively exercising these rights — that is, exercising them in a way that anyone actually hears what you're saying.

Not an absolute right

In the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick Green Left Weekly is waging a fight to regain the right to operate its regular Saturday morning stalls at the Barkly Square shopping centre.

In most suburbs if you want to access people you can either letterbox (which has some big limitations: it is very indirect and there is no immediate feedback) or you go to the malls and shopping complexes. But the latter are surrounded by signs saying 'Private property. Keep out.' — unless you are there to spend money. Shopping complexes are like the old market places where everybody goes — except that they operate solely to make a profit for their owners.

Politics is just a distraction. And it's getting worse. Earlier this year a mall owner was reported as saying that election material wasn't wanted in shopping centres because it only distracted the punters.

Should it be like this? As Venezuelan president Hugo Ch├ívez has said, private property is not an absolute right. That is, the collective — the community or society — has rights (or should have rights) which override those of private interests like a shopping centre. But not under capitalism.

Who actually hears you?

If you are a media magnate and own a TV station, mainstream daily or a chain of local newspapers you won't be worried about such things. Your opinions get broadcast to hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people — all the time, on any subject.

But if you are small campaign group or a socialist organisation it is a different matter. You can freely shout your head off: Down with Abbott! Down with Rudd! Down with capitalism! People before profit! But who actually hears you?

In our campaign at Barkly Square we have tried to reach shoppers with our protest stalls. Almost 900 people have signed our petition calling for our stalls to be allowed to operate as before. We have letterboxed thousands of nearby homes. On May 8, we organised a broad demonstration which focused on the whole issue of community stalls and access at Barkly Square.

On March 3 we were lucky to get an article in the local Moreland Leader which alerted tens of thousands of residents to what was going on. But we can't count on such coverage, especially when we are raising fundamental questions about how the private profit system actually operates to effectively marginalise dissenting opinions.

Insurance racket

One issue at Barkly Square concerns public liability insurance cover. Left-wing stalls actually began at Barkly Square in the 1980s and have continued — with varying degrees of regularity — ever since. To my knowledge no-one has ever impaled themselves on our card tables or tripped over them. But after our 2005 struggle with centre management Green Left Weekly has had to have $10 million of cover. Management wanted to make it $20 million but were forced to back off. Most readers have probably never realised how dangerous a card table can be.

The requirement to have public liability insurance is a real barrier to free speech. Maybe the centre is genuinely worried about the prospect of an accident and being sued and want to protect themselves or maybe the insurance requirement is just a filter to exclude undesirables like Green left Weekly. In any case, such requirements are an enormous imposition on a small group and in practice serve to kill democracy. They flow directly from the madness of capitalism. The next logical step will be to insist that people walking down the street have public liability insurance in case someone falls over them and injures themselves.

No doubt all this is good for the insurance racket but a simpler solution might be to have a society where nobody needs 'insurance' because everybody is properly looked after if they have an accident or their house burns down or whatever.

Other impediments

In building the May 8 free speech rally posters were stuck on light and telegraph poles up and down Sydney Road. Within a day GLW duly received a phone call from the Moreland council threatening us! It would be nice if one didn't have to resort to covering the street poles but what other options does one have to reach out to people? Not many.

Another obstacle to actually realising free speech in practice is the lack of ready availability of cheap venues. There are plenty of places available for hire but generally the prices aren't cheap. But if you are looking for a free or low-cost venue the choices are severely limited. Council facilities are often scarce, booked out months in advance, are expensive or impose conditions such as not charging for entry. In many cases we end up in bars or pubs which are often less than ideal and our welcome depends on how much custom we attract.

1933 . . . and today

Diagonally opposite the Brunswick Town Hall is a monument which commemorates an incident which took place in 1933. (In my opinion it is rather anaemic considering the heroic event it celebrates but, nevertheless, there it is.)

In those days Brunswick was a grim working-class suburb deep in the misery of the Great Depression — unemployment, home evictions and poverty stalked the streets. The unemployed, led by the Communist Party, fought back. The right to hold street meetings was a bitterly fought issue.

A Nationalist government was in office in Spring Street. The extremely right-wing police commissioner, General Thomas Blamey, was on a mission to wipe out working-class radicalism and Brunswick was a prime target. Street meetings were brutally crushed by baton-wielding cops, activists were arrested and many were jailed.

On May 16 the free speech struggle climaxed when young CPA member Noel Counihan (later a famous artist) locked himself in an old lift cage bolted to the boards of a heavy horse-drawn cart, which was in turn chained to a verandah post. From his improvised citadel, with the cops unsuccessfully trying to batter their way in, Counihan spoke for 15-20 minutes to a crowd estimated at 10,000. Eventually he came out and was arrested.

This was a turning point in the campaign. The state government soon backed off and street meetings were more or less permitted to proceed without police interference.

Seventy-seven years later it is not police basher gangs that are the main obstacle to free speech. The main enemy today is the far more indirect workings of modern neoliberal corporate capitalism. (Private property, keep out! Shout your head off, we don't care, because no one will hear you . . . We control the mass media and we won't give you access.)

What can we do?

Speakers at the May 8 free speech rally pointed out that a number of free speech fights are going on around Melbourne. Greens' stalls at the nearby Northcote Plaza shopping centre have been shut down by security. Activists attempting to have stalls at Southern Cross railway station (supposedly public space) have been moved on. A similar situation applies at Federation Square.

All these things must be resisted wherever possible and to the fullest extent. Radicals in the past have always had to battle for free speech and today is no different. Capitalism is leading us to the edge of the precipice. It wants to silence those who are pointing out the looming catastrophe and the need for a sharp turn toward a society where people's needs come before private profit.