Beware seditious artists

Sydney Morning Herald
October 22, 2005

By Robert Connolly

THE courageous stand of the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Jon Stanhope, in putting the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005 on the web has given us the time the Prime Minister, John Howard, and a complicit line of Labor premiers didn't want us to have.

At 107 pages, the proposed legislation isn't easy going and the Government's crib notes as disseminated via the media make for a more easily digestible read, although they fail to give any indication of the scale of what's to come.

I had hoped it was a "grin and bear it" response from each of the state leaders following their meeting with the Prime Minister, but on reflection there really was just too much backslapping as they gathered for their group photo to mark the moment.

As a filmmaker, I see the Anti-Terrorism Bill's explicit definition of "seditious intent" as another nail in the coffin of an already compliant industry ground down by the marginalising of the "elites" and their often left-leaning views. Let's take a closer look.

According to the proposed bill, those guilty of seditious intent fall into a handful of categories many filmmakers proudly inhabit. You tick the box by attempting to "bring the Sovereign into hatred and contempt", and take care if you choose to "urge disaffection against the constitution, the Government of the Commonwealth, either House of Parliament", which is my favourite and easily perceived as the ambition of a film on the drawing board about the Balibo Five. Most importantly, do not "promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between different groups so as to threaten the peace, order and good governance of the Commonwealth".

Only one point in four mentions breaking the law, and all of the above fall within what most people would consider to be basic rights in any democracy, although they are not defined or protected under an equivalent of the US Bill of Rights.

Certainly the right to express contempt for the place of the sovereign will come to the fore as we head down the path to a republic.

Of greater concern is the perceived seditious intent in urging disaffection with the Government of the Commonwealth. For the record, this was clearly a large motivation for my last film, Three Dollars, and I'm kicking myself for not having a go at the monarchy while I was at it.

Dramatists throughout history have voiced dissent and opposition to the politics of the time. As chairman of the Australian Council for the Arts in 1973, Dr H.C. "Nugget" Coombs clearly knew this, insisting on an arms-length relationship with government and encouraging influences that "run counter to the establishment".

How far we have fallen, with the Government now insisting its funding is acknowledged with the Australian coat of arms; already it sits side by side with the logos of the Australian Film Commission and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Wait for it next in the credits of Australian films. Imagine the coat of arms at the end of Chopper or Three Dollars, or in the published text of Stephen Sewell's play Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America or Hannie Rayson's play Two Brothers. Perhaps this is a more refined version of the covert censorship evident in the aggressive political outcry over the Australia Council-funded computer game Escape from Woomera.

One can only hope there will be individuals on both sides of politics who value the contribution of the great dramatists who have voiced dissent in the past: the work of Athol Fugard under apartheid, Vaclav Havel writing under communist rule, David Hare and his magnificent Stuff Happens, Arthur Miller's attack on McCarthyism in The Crucible. A few examples only, writers that we are better off because of, working in countries that have without a doubt benefited significantly from these creative voices of dissent.

Of course, seditious artists won't be locked up yet. It will be argued that mechanisms will be in place to defend acts done in "good faith" and without "force or violence", but the definitions remain for all to read, evidence of this Government's failure to comprehend the place for dissent in a democracy, and its hatred of it.

This point alone, among so many other erosions of basic civil liberties demanding scrutiny, stands as evidence enough that a day-long inquiry into the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005 is far from adequate.

Robert Connolly is the director and writer of The Bank and Three Dollars.


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