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Questioning the limits to freedom

  • 30 October 2006

Author and former priest Paul Collins put himself on the line earlier this month while talking about his new book, Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia. Usually known for his left-of-centre views, Collins openly advocated draconian, anti-civil libertarian measures to control pyromaniacs, who are believed to start a large proportion of bushfires.

"Part of the problem has been that I think many people tend to take this therapeutic approach. You know, something must have happened to them in childhood or whatever," he said. "So basically what I'm suggesting is that the police, if they suspect that a certain person is a fire lighter, in periods of high fire danger they need to go to a judge and get permission to have that person tagged with a GPS bracelet of some sort."

Last Wednesday, Clive Hamilton of the progressive Australia Institute raised a few eyebrows when he told the ABC's Stephen Crittenden that it is the churches—long regarded as bastions of conservatism—that offer the best hope for progressive politics in this country.

"I think the error of post-modernism which is so dominant, is that it has no metaphysical foundation for a moral critique," he said in an interview which prompted a longer essay in this issue of Eureka Street.

He remarked that the Institute's traditional supporters were puzzled when one of its reports criticised pornography not only from a factual basis, but a moral basis. The supporters saw the Australia Institute entering "territory that's more often associated with those of the moral right". But Hamilton believes that the ideology of the left is not equipped to help Australians "transcend the individualism and materialism and selfishness of modern affluent societies".

Over the past week, the al-Hilali comments controversy has demonstrated that there must be limits to free speech. As far as we know, no advocate of democratic freedoms has defended al-Hilali's right to compare immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat". The message from these examples is that freedom is not an end itself, but that upholding it often—but not always—a valid means of recognising values that enhance individual and collective humanity.