LOUISE ROBERTS
LOUISE ROBERTS

Free speech is in grave peril in Australia

"IT'S a free country."

Or at least that's what I was told as a child growing up in the suburbs in an era when there was still a belief in the importance of free speech.

But today we're hypocrites.

That's because some thoughts are more equal, more palatable and more comfortable than others. Race, religion, sex are all dangerous topics, as is the perennial minefield of abortion which has recently cost one woman her job and this week brought us to the heart of the issue.

Across our nation today, is a personal opinion really ours to give? I hope I am right in saying that you can disagree with someone's views but still 100 per cent support their right to have and express them.

But I'm not so sure anymore. These days, who can be confident they won't be shot down in flames for saying what they think, even if it is not legally problematic?

Cricket Australia, an institution that really should just zip it and just focus on sport, has caused an uproar for sacking a mum-of-three Angela Williamson.

Her crime as their employee was to campaign for abortion reform on social media. Williamson wanted a pregnancy termination and tweeted her outrage at having to travel to Melbourne for the procedure because in her home state of Tasmania, the only clinic had closed.

She publicly expressed her private view but, as manager of Cricket Australia's public policy and government relations, hers was deemed a step too far, and she lost her job as a result.

Cricket Australia of course is still on high alert following the cheating scandal that engulfed the national team this year in South Africa.

Nonetheless, Williamson got the chop because her bosses said she had insulted the Tasmanian Government and this has led to an even more extraordinary claim that a shadowy figure from said government leaked news of her abortion to her employer.

Angela Williamson was dismissed from her position at Cricket Australia after sharing her personal opinions about abortion on Twitter. (Pic: Luke Bowden)
Angela Williamson was dismissed from her position at Cricket Australia after sharing her personal opinions about abortion on Twitter. (Pic: Luke Bowden)

Williamson was fired for non work-related tweets. Sacked for having the wrong point of view, you could say. And Cricket Australia gave her comments on her personal Twitter account as the reason.

It all sounds like something out of The Handmaid's Tale, but in fact it's real life in ordinary Australia and the case, now mired in a tangle of lawyers and the Fair Work Commission, represents a pathetic and bewildering turn of events.

And all because Williamson chose to speak out in support of other women and their right to access safe abortion services.

It also stinks of hyprocisy. Cricket Australia, a self-described "endorsed employer for women", sacks a woman who offers an opinion not to everyone's taste. Is this good leadership? No.

"Cricket Australia respects an individual's right to their opinion. However, it expects that employees will refrain from making offensive comments that contravene the organisation's policies," a leaked letter revealed.

Last year rugby player Israel Folau was memorably not sacked after offering an opinion which clashed with many views. Naturally instead of civilised debate, trolls took to social media to abuse and conjecture. As we know, usually they don't have an idea to express and don't even read the entire story.

The lynch mob was out in force after Folau replied to an Instagram question asking what he thought God's plan was for "gay people'.

A devout Christian with a faith-based conviction, he replied: "HELL. Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God." Folau remains unrepentant and unsanctioned.

He also publicly said: "I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions but personally I will not support gay marriage."

As it happens, I don't think Williamson should have been sacked for speaking her mind and it was right that Folau was not booted for expressing his opinion because I still believe in free speech.

But there is a double standard here. Folau survived, Williamson has not. And neither Williamson or Folau were hired on the basis of their opinions, as sincere as they may be about them. I am willing to bet that neither was asked their positions on abortion or homosexuality during recruitment.

Football player Israel Folau faced weeks of criticism after sharing his opinions on same-sex relationships on Instagram. (Pic: Matt King/Getty)
Football player Israel Folau faced weeks of criticism after sharing his opinions on same-sex relationships on Instagram. (Pic: Matt King/Getty)

The other issue is whether we are willing to accept that a company has a moral authority to enforce its views instead of focusing on core business.

I fail to see how a sporting body could be irrevocably harmed by a woman's comments about access to abortion services. Perhaps it is a smokescreen to draw attention away from any actual disarray plaguing Cricket Australia.

If this is the case, is it fair to make Williamson or any man or a woman, a scapegoat?

You can disagree with someone's view but draw the line at vilifying them for it. It's called tolerance.

But what sort of society are we brewing for younger generations if we only sanction opinions and comments we agree with?

Corporations should not be able to dictate the opinions of their employees. Diversity in race is what we pride ourselves on but that must extend to diversity of opinion too.

Your beliefs are your right and so it is crucial we maintain a distinction between work life and personal opinion.

Or as a friend's son, 20, said to me last night as he offered his view on an individual's opinion on an individual's issue as being theirs and theirs alone: "Sacking a woman for expressing her opinion on a legal practice trumps all the stupid stuff that Cricket Australia has done in the last few years."

So inclusion and tolerance is OK in Australia as long as you agree with us. Is that really where we are at?

The lawyers will debate it for Williamson and it will be a fascinating test case for free speech.

Either way, I need to tell my children: brew your opinion now because when you're a grown-up, who knows what heinous thought crime you will be committing.



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