By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
For many Australians, the ideals of freedom and democracy took another turn for the ‘worse’ last week when a nine year old girl was threatened with ‘suspension from school’ and criticised by politicians for daring to act in accordance with her convictions when it comes to the Australian national anthem.
The story so far
In case you missed it, Harper Nielsen, refused to stand for the national anthem at Queensland’s Kenmore South State School because, in her view, it fails to reflect Australia’s Indigenous history.
The school had demanded the year 4 student either stand or leave the building – she refused to do either. As a result, she was told she would have to sign a written apology or risk suspension.
So much for encouraging Harper to think for herself and stand up for her beliefs.
It was a peaceful protest, and yet the young girl has been criticised from many factions of the community.
Liberal politician Tony Abbott indirectly criticised her actions as impolite. Jarrod Bleijie, the Queensland shadow minister for education, tweeted:
“Stop the silly protest and stand and sing proudly your National Anthem. Refusing to stand disrespects our country and our veterans. Suspension should follow if she continues to act like a brat.” #qldpol
Senator Pauline Hanson went further, saying that she’d give the young girl a “kick up the backside.”
Shut up or ship out
The incident seems to confirm that many of the values we thought we displayed as a democratic, multicultural nation – values such as tolerance, respect for diversity and freedom to have a personal opinion – are in decline.
This is most notably espoused in the vilification by our politicians and some sections of media for anyone who doesn’t display their unquestioning loyalty to all colonial or otherwise ‘Anglo’ symbols of ‘Australia’ – including the flag, the anthem, and the controversial celebration of ‘Australia’ Day.
While these emblems and traditions certainly are strongly embedded in our culture, many believe there should be room for Australia to grow and evolve and be a nation that reflects who we really are – a mixture of races, religions, beliefs and opinions. And there should certainly be room to express ones views.
The ability to express view can make a country great, and many feel that once upon a time Australia did this.
In fact, the national anthem is a case in point. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was instituted in Australia in the early 1970s as a mark of Australia’s growing independence from the Commonwealth. Prior to that, school children had to sing ‘God Save the Queen’.
RIP Freedom of Speech
Unfortunately, the denigration of Harper Neilson by politicians and educators, as well as some media outlets, only serves to show that in Australia there is a growing threat to our free speech when it doesn’t accord with the views of the majority, as well as our ‘right’ to peaceful protest.
There is no bill of rights in Australia to protect us. Even the Australian Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to free speech, although judges have found there is a limited, implied freedom of political communication.
In 2015, the Australian Government passed laws forbidding people working in detention centres to speak out against abuses they witness. In doing so, these whistleblowers could face prison under the Defence Trade Controls Act.
Metadata laws passed also in 2015 give the Government greater access to what we’re sharing and accessing online, and new mobile data laws, yet to be introduced will also give the Government and some law enforcement agencies access to our encrypted messages.
In 2016, the New South Wales Government introduced legislation to impose harsh penalties, including the possibility of up to seven years in prison, for protesting against mining operations, effectively reducing the ability of ordinary Australians to stand up to ‘big business’ and save the land in their communities.
Laws such as these, which ultimately restrict our privacy and our freedoms, keep being passed with bipartisan support, and basic freedoms that we believe we’re entitled to are slowly but surely being eroded under the guise of ‘public safety and patriotism,’ in favour of greater Government control.
If there’s one bright side to be taken from the fact that Harper Nielsen made headlines, it’s that although her critics were loud, there was another strong collective voice supporting her: encouraging her to continue to carefully consider issues of importance to her and applauding her for taking a brave, lone stance, even in the face of controversy.