Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (12.45 p.m.)-The term ‘freedom fighter’ conjures up images of flag-waving revolutionaries marching through the streets, or perhaps brightly coloured and costumed superheroes, the stuff of comic books and cartoons. We almost certainly do not picture a well-groomed, neatly dressed, moustachioed gentleman of a century ago. Yet that is what Bruce Smith was. He was a freedom fighter who devoted his life to advocating for individual freedom, not because it was popular but because it was in society’s best interests. Bruce Smith is not exactly a household name in Australia, nor has he been graced with a parkland statue, but his unassuming name masks his legacy as one of Australia’s significant and early liberal thinkers.
Arthur Bruce Smith was born in Surrey, England, in June 1851, educated in England and then at Wesley College in Melbourne. He studied law at the University of Melbourne before returning to London, where he was called to the bar in early 1877. Later that year, he returned to Melbourne and was admitted to the Victorian bar on the same day as Alfred Deakin. The two men would be prominent figures in Victorian and federal politics for the next couple of decades.
Bruce attempted to make his first foray into politics when he stood for the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Emerald Hill in February 1880. He was unsuccessful. That was in fact the first of five attempts he made to enter Australian parliaments. He moved to Sydney the following year and practised at the bar. But Bruce’s political ambitions remained strong and, on 23 November 1882, he won a by-election for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly seat of Gundagai. As luck would have it, parliament was dissolved that same day, so Bruce again went to the polls and was re-elected 20 days later, on 13 December.
An issue of the Bulletin that year praised Smith, saying he added ‘the strong common sense of the experienced commercial man to the acumen of the practised advocate’. Smith resigned that seat in 1884 and returned to Melbourne to become joint managing director of his father’s shipping company, WM Howard Smith and Sons Ltd. He went on to found the Victorian Employers Union in 1885 and served as its first president until 1887.
Bruce enjoyed writing and over the years contributed to several journals, including the Victorian Review, Melbourne Review, Centennial Magazine and the Sydney Quarterly Magazine. He returned to Sydney in 1888 and founded the New South Wales employers union.
Smith made a fourth run at parliament and re-entered via the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, this time in the seat of Glebe in 1889. He joined with the free traders and served in Parkes’s last ministry as secretary for public works and then colonial treasurer. The turbulent politics of that time took their toll on Bruce, and his commitment to his immediate family saw him again bow out of politics in 1894. In 1901 Smith made his fifth and final attempt to enter parliament, becoming the first federal member for Parkes, a seat he would hold for 18 years and be re-elected to six times before being defeated in 1919.
Smith never wavered from his enduring belief in the values of liberalism. During his parliamentary career he was one of the most fervent opponents of immigration restriction, the White Australia policy, compulsory arbitration and the new welfare liberalism espoused by some of his colleagues. He was also a vocal supporter of the women’s movement, advocating equal rights and opportunities for both genders. He continuously argued that freedom and liberty were the most effective instruments to ensure societal wellbeing, not ‘meddling legislation’, as he termed it. Smith retired to his home in Bowral in 1925 and died there in 1937, aged 86.
Smith penned a number of works including Our Commonwealth in 1904 and the brilliantly titled Paralysis of a nation, attacking socialism, in 1914. But his most important contribution was his documentation of his political philosophy in the aptly titled work of 1887, Liberty and liberalism. One hundred and twenty years later, the principles that underscore Smith’s commentary are still relevant. His work has stood the test of time.
Throughout his life he remained true to his belief in championing the rights of individuals and the value of free enterprise-as he coined it, ‘true liberalism’. Perhaps the most important message Bruce Smith left is the reminder that governments have limited capacity to improve the welfare of individuals. Australians are better off when encouraged and nurtured to work on improving themselves rather than turning to the state for answers. One of Smith’s ideological allies, John Bright, spoke in this same vein when he observed:
… there is a danger of people coming to the idea … that a government can do anything that is wanted-that, in fact, it is only necessary to pass an Act of Parliament to make any one well off. There is no more serious mistake than that.
Liberalism is often shouted down by the Left as an instrument of the wealthy, but Smith knew that those who suffer most from loss of liberty are actually the poorest members of society. Smith reminded those of us charged with the responsibility for legislating that acts of parliament remove ‘a liberty from somebody, because it must of necessity speak of something which shall or shall not be done, where before it was optional’. As the federal member for Parkes, Smith stunned other members of the House when he addressed them stating:
I have not that exalted opinion of the powers of Parliament. It can transfer things from one person to another, and it can do a great deal of harm.
Bruce Smith held freedom as sacred and recognised legislation as potentially its greatest threat. It is fascinating to compare the ideas of Smith with the opposing ideas of the political Left. Though the Left claim the battleground for women’s rights, they forget that classical liberals like Bruce Smith stood strong for their equality. In a speech to the House in 1901, Bruce Smith argued that women should receive equal workplace pay. And it was not the Left but rather proponents of liberalism like Bruce Smith who were the most fervent critics of the White Australia policy.
The socialists of Smith’s time, much like their ideological kin today, assert moral ownership over the notion of ‘opportunity for all’, but equal opportunity has always been a strong ideal of true liberalism. Many of Smith’s battles were against those who misinterpreted the goals of liberalism or deliberately skewed them for personal advantage. Smith said:
Liberalism does not seek to make all men equal: nothing can do that. But its object is to remove all obstacles erected by men, which prevent all having equal opportunities.
It might at first glance appear odd that a member of a government would be lamenting the influence of the very entity that they are representing. But the spirit of liberalism is not anti government-that amounts to anarchy-but one in which the intervention of government in the private life of a citizen is sought to be thoroughly minimised.
Today Bruce Smith would be turning in his grave. Right around the country, Labor state governments are presiding over a series of emerging nanny states. They tell us what we should say, how we should feel and what we should think, and none is worse than the government of the sovereign state of Victoria, currently headed by Mr Bracks. A case in point is that the Bracks government’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006-the bill of rights-illustrates exactly what Bruce Smith warned against. This is the sort of meddling legislation that purports to advance freedom and liberty but in fact does exactly the opposite. This bill of rights hands to the judiciary the power and responsibility to make laws.
Labor’s bill of rights requires the courts to ensure that every single piece of legislation-past, present and future-must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with human rights. This gives a legislative power to the courts-a power that properly resides with democratically elected parliaments. It does nothing to protect people’s rights; rather, it limits them by prescribing them. As the old proposition goes: to define a right is to limit it. The problem with prescribing rights is that, once you start detailing some, other important rights are omitted. For example, property rights are included in the bill, but the bill’s explanatory memorandum expressly states that the bill does not deal with the issue of compensation for property being taken.
Bruce Smith would be horrified at the perverse implications of this bill. It was the men of his time who decided against a constitutional bill of rights. In a final slap in the face for democracy in Victoria, the Bracks government refused the opposition’s request to put the proposed bill to a referendum. It is, unfortunately, now law. The final word on the Victorian bill of rights should go the author of a personal submission to a parliamentary committee in 2001. It reads:
A bill of rights would pose a fundamental shift in tradition, with Parliament abdicating its important policy-making functions to the judiciary … A bill of rights is an admission of the failure of parliaments, governments and the people to behave in a reasonable, responsible and respectful manner. I do not believe we have failed.
That personal submission was actually penned by former New South Wales Labor Premier Bob Carr. He got it right.
What disturbs me even more is the restriction of freedom of speech in Victoria as a result of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. No-one should ever condone racial vilification. It is completely unacceptable in Australian society to vilify anyone on the basis of their racial background. It was a desire to protect members of our community that prompted the bill. Anti-Semitism was particularly in the minds of the proponents and the authors of the bill, but the act has gone too far. It limits freedom of religious expression, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in a way that is totally unacceptable in a liberal, pluralistic democracy. Religious vilification should be condemned, but the difficulties of legislating against religious vilification have become evident.
Two Christian pastors have been found guilty by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal of making fun of Muslim beliefs and practices. The crime was to quote the Koran and evoke laughter from the audience. No-one suggested that the pastors were quoting the Koran incorrectly, just that the response to quoting passages from the Koran was laughter. In Victoria today, laughter amounts to religious vilification. The core business of clerics is to advocate why they believe-to advocate their world view and why their truth is the right one. Of necessity, this means saying why you believe that another’s belief system is flawed. The battle of ideas, the battle of world views and the battle of beliefs is at the heart of what makes us a pluralistic society. Pluralism is not the housing of beliefs in silos; it is the interaction of those ideas and the tolerance of those ideas. But tolerance does not mean a denial of contestability. All ideas in our society should be contestable.
But there is worse to come. A convicted Wiccan paedophile serving time in jail has used the religious vilification provisions of the legislation to pursue the Salvation Army for allegedly vilifying his Wiccan religious beliefs. The paedophile voluntarily enrolled in an alpha course-a church run course to explain Christianity. The crime? Those conducting the course did not speak well of witches, astrologers and occultists. The Wiccan was unsuccessful in his action, but the fact that this matter could even go to a directions hearing means that the laws are fundamentally flawed. I again turn to Bob Carr for assistance. He had this to say about such laws:
As they are used in practice, religious vilification laws can undermine the very freedom they seek to protect-freedom of thought, conscience and belief.
This is yet another example of meddling legislation. The solution to the articulation of poor ideas, stupid ideas and offensive ideas is not to gag those articulating them. The solution is to rebut them with good ideas-the sort of legitimate exchange of ideas that people like Bruce Smith spent their lives engaging in. I fear that I am giving Bob Carr too much credit, but I will give him the final word on this particular piece of legislation. He said, ‘Leave these matters to the common sense of the Australian people.’
I congratulate the state Liberal leader, Ted Baillieu, and the shadow Attorney-General, Andrew Macintosh, for their stands on these issues of freedom. The Victorian opposition is committed to repealing the bill of rights and to reviewing the religious vilification provisions of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Bruce Smith would be proud. We need to be vigilant and resolute and reject being told how to live our lives. It is always time to stand up for individual freedoms, liberty and equal opportunity. It is time to stand against these new nanny states. It is time to revive the spirit of Bruce Smith.