By Stephen Chavura
In the seminal textbook of liberalism, On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill depicted a Victorian England full of prudishness and prejudice, describing social convention, rather than the government, as the greatest threat to freedom of speech.
In some ways little has changed, for it is not the government that has sought to punish Israel Folau for his public Christianity. Yet at the same time it is not society either, at least not in the sense of a grassroots movement to see his contract terminated. Indeed, many fans in lower-middle-class multicultural suburbs would find nothing offensive about the sentiments on homosexuality that he expressed in his infamous tweets.
Folau’s enemy is neither the government nor the people but corporate activism. Large corporations are rapidly increasing their territory. They have been more than 12 times as effective in creating jobs than small businesses, the Australian Bureau of Statistics informs us, and 30 per cent of the private sector workforce is employed in large businesses.
Corporations inhabit a zone between state coercion and civil liberty: they can coerce only if people agree to work for them. The problem is that increasingly people are finding themselves unable to avoid them in their quest for a livelihood, yet corporations are not subject to the same liberal democratic constraints as the government. This is why corporate activism is so dangerous to real-life liberty, as the Folau case demonstrates.
Folau publicly quoted the Bible, a book that many MPs swear on and which is recited at every sitting in federal parliament. Folau incited no violence and expressed no gross obscenity, notwithstanding the offence that many people would have taken at the views expressed on homosexuality.
You can live under the most liberal democratic state in the world, but if your employer can sack you for speaking your mind outside of your workplace or if a colleague can lodge a complaint because of a social media post, and your only alternative is another corporation with the same speech regulations, then your freedom of speech is an empty right. You are free to speak so long as nearly no one hears you.
Rugby Australia is not a huge corporation responsible for the livelihood of tens of thousands of citizens. Still, its actions are significant for the future of freedom of speech and religion in an increasingly corporatised economy.
The last thing we need is for Rugby Australia, not to mention Qantas, to encourage more corporate boards and chief executives to impose speech penalties on thousands of employees who, ironically, appear far more diverse than the gaggle of boards and chief executives schooling them in diversity and inclusion.
Having said that, it is not necessarily desirable that corporations have no right to sack employees whose private conduct brings a brand into contempt, or which costs a corporation in terms of sponsorship or customer base. This would also be an intrusion of the state into a corporation’s right to associate freely and to protect its own image. Must Rugby Australia keep Folau even if it means losing sponsor after sponsor? There is no simple solution.
The Folau case is generally analysed in terms of freedom of speech or freedom of religion. We can have freedom-of-speech-and-religion commissioners who look into such instances of speech punishment and make binding judgments. Or we could rely on the public to launch counter-campaigns against politically correct corporate activism, making such activism far more costly to the brand than anything a single employee has said or done.
The first option will sound ideal to many religious freedom activists until they consider the possibilities that this could have for sharia in Australia once a progressive leftist becomes the commissioner. We forget that there are movements around the English-speaking world pushing for “voluntary” limited sharia or legal pluralism in liberal democratic countries precisely on the basis of pluralism, freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
The second option will likely generate more social division and civil hate, as groups of zealots take sides in the war — although this is not inevitable in a land of political and ideological indifference. You can count on the zealous religionists and liberals to defend the likes of Folau, but few things are as unpopular in our Land of Nothingness as principled zealotry, outside of the causes of Anzac Day, Australia Day and non-Anglo-European immigration.
The Folau case and similar cases of speech punishment before it, show how determined progressive leftists are to cleanse any institutions under their control of the wrong kind of diversity.
Yet if more cases like this occur and corporate censors get their way without so much as a peep from ordinary Australians, then our nation stands as condemned as the progressive ideologues. For then it has gone from a country that could produce and celebrate a Henry Lawson, with his larrikin cynicism about moralistic wowserism, to a nation of complacent submissives before a kind of progressive sharia — a characterless nation happy to be told what to think and say, so long as there is enough Coopers in the fridge and footy on the telly.
This article first appeared in The Australian and has been republished with permission from the author.