Australia: a land of free speech, for some

This week, the hateful vitriol for commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied continued to bubble over with fellow commentator Prue MacSween proudly declaring on 2GB radio that she was “tempted to run her over”.

The comments were made as MacSween discussed Abdel-Magied’s decision to move to London, after the 26-year-old penned a reflective essay where she described reassuring her parents her life wasn’t at risk without any solid conviction of the fact. 

Conservative voices have mocked the view that the onslaught of unrelenting abuse aimed at Abdel-Magied – from social media-frenzied citizens up to federal MPs – was motivated by her Islamic faith and cultural background. Their argument has remained that she crossed an unforgivable line by expressing her opinion that all conflict is worth our remembrance and compassion in a seven-word social media post she quickly redacted and apologised for. 

Pondering MacSween’s comment, I recall how the very method she said was used in recent Islamic extremism-related incidents, including in Nice where a truck mowed into celebrating crowds, and in London, where a white van driven over London Bridge ploughed through pedestrians.

Three long months on from Anzac Day, to separate the ongoing public reaction to Abdel-Magied’s comment from Islamophobia is really impossible. Abdel-Magied is a young Muslim woman who chooses to wear a traditional headscarf. Of the almost 250 incidents of Islamic abuse recorded in a recent 12-month report, 70 per cent of victims were women. The chips are stacked against her before she even opens her mouth.

There is also no shortage of irony in that the conservative voices who so viciously attack Abdel-Magied so loudly defend their own right to espouse views under ‘free speech’ and lament political correctness muzzling public discourse. It is clear being white affords you the space to assert your opinion, even if it’s bigoted or murderous, that being of a non-white cultural background doesn’t. 

A recent example is commentator Rowan Dean saying that Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who has Chinese and Laos heritage, should follow Abdel-Magied's lead and leave the country. Dean’s comment was in response to Soutphommasane​ calling for more cultural diversity in Australian media and politics. 

It seems Australia is the land of free speech, but only for some. Entry into public discourse is largely dependent on an Anglo-Saxon heritage and, once in, you’re also afforded the right to banish, or joke about the murder of, other cultural voices exercising their right to free speech – or literally doing their job, in the case of Soutphommasane. This is symptomatic of an entrenched racism that is actively discouraging diverse voices. It creates a generally vanilla mainstream discourse that, for the most part, doesn’t reflect the worthy thoughts and ideas of a rich variety of citizens who wish to make Australia more prosperous for all.

MacSween’s and Dean’s public comments were made with the confidence that their skin colour affords them. They were said with the conviction that the public wouldn’t threaten their lives, call for their sacking, systematically bully them or declare they should leave the country.

One can only imagine the reaction if Waleed Aly had said he considered running over a public figure for asserting their opinion. Funny though – why do I feel more afraid of how white Australia is destroying my society than any other colour or creed? 

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.