Good evening, it’s great to be here.
As Treasurer of NSW, I spend most of my working day focused on ensuring we have a balanced budget and a healthy economy.
But these are only a means to an end – and that end is a society that is strong, free and fair.
In that sense, our social and cultural freedoms are just as important as our economic ones.
To put it another way – we believe in free markets for finance, but equally as important is the free market of ideas.
There’s not much point delivering budget surpluses and having a strong economy if we don’t have the ability to speak freely.
Today I believe these freedoms are under pressure – so tonight I want to talk about what I see happening and offer some practical solutions.
Let me begin with a story run by Foreign Correspondent on China.
It covered the rollout of a program called the “Social Credit System”.
This will see – by 2020 – all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens assigned a rating by the government.
To determine your score, data will be collected from a number of sources.
Over 200 million surveillance cameras, government records, financial checks, internet browsing history and even weekly shopping lists.
Those who make the “right” choices – as determined by the government – get more points and special privileges.
Things like VIP treatment, discounted loans and a fast track to the best universities and jobs.
Those who make the “wrong” choices – like speaking out against government policy – will have points deducted.
A low score can result in your internet access being blocked, travel restrictions imposed and being disqualified from certain jobs.
The negative actions of friends and family also affects your score – so be careful who you hang out with.
The ABC calls this the world’s first “digital dictatorship” – big data meets big brother.
The most revealing line was when the reporter noted the Chinese people “place a higher value on community good versus individual rights”.
It’s a euphemistic way of saying government power is more important than individual rights.
But this example demonstrates precisely why individual freedoms are so important.
They act as a check and balance – a great wall against the ever growing power of the state.
They also provide a framework that allows civil society to flourish.
Liberty, tempered by justice – as Edmund Burke put it – allows individuals to pursue their interests, but never loses sight of the common good.
This framework of freedom is also at the core of what the Liberal Party stands for.
But our proud Western heritage – from the Magna Carta onwards – does not make us immune from the abuse of state power.
As Reagan once said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.
Here in the West, we face a different set of challenges when it comes to big government.
There is of course, the ever present threat of the nanny state – where governments legislate to protect us from ourselves.
For example, there are growing calls in Australia for a “sugar tax” to combat obesity.
In Britain, that’s so last week.
After implementing a sugar tax, the government is now moving on to a “calorie cap” – where your friendly local bureaucrats will soon determine the size of your pizza slice and the composition of their toppings.
But more concerning than the nanny state is the rise of identity politics and the weaponisation of political correctness against free speech.
Identity politics is predicated on divisiveness.
It segments people into groups – and sets them against each other. Race is pitted against race. Sex against sex. Religion against religion.
And respect, freedom, and other social privileges are then rationed out according to inherent personal attributes. It’s another fruit from the poisonous tree of political correctness.
Sociologist Jonathan Chait defines political correctness as: “an attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”
In other words, political pluralism is denied as there is only one acceptable perspective on contentious issues – all other views must be shut down.
And we see it everywhere, especially in the policing of our speech.
It’s schools banning Christmas Carols in case they offend.
It’s David Morrison wanting to ban the word “guys” in the workplace.
It’s GetUp activists, telling us not to celebrate Australia Day, because it’s racist.
And it’s a group advising the Victorian Government, wanting to stop the term ‘pregnant women’, because any gender can be pregnant.
Political correctness may have started out with good intentions – to promote equality for minority groups.
But as feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out, it’s now increasingly used as “a weapon to silence those who tell the truth.”
If you want to see this system in action – just visit many of our university campuses.
In recent weeks, our universities have banned controversial speakers, passed on excessive security costs to organisers and allowed protests to escalate to the point riot police had to be called in.
In none of these cases did the universities act as they are meant to – as facilitators of debate.
Much of this can be attributed to the dominance of leftist thinking on campus.
Sydney University’s latest campaign is a masterclass in deconstructionist, left wing ideology.
This hallowed institution of learning has now adopted the slogan “Unlearn”.
It runs ads with taglines like “Unlearn love”, “Unlearn medicine” and – “Unlearn Truth”.
It’s my old uni, but if I was a student there today, I think the word I’d be looking for is “unenroll”.
Meanwhile the ANU in Canberra has famously refused to host a centre for Western Civilisation, funded by the Ramsay Centre.
Our national university happily hosts a Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies
But a serious study of Western Civilisation was a bridge too far.
Unless you’re deconstructing it and tearing down, the civilisation that gave us universities in the first place – is now the culture that dare not speak its name.
I note today that the University of Queensland is in serious talks about this, but I back the calls by our Premier and the NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes the Ramsay centre should find a home at a NSW institution.
The reason university campuses are important is they set the intellectual tone for our society.
And today we’re starting to see the manifestations of this repressive campus culture in other areas of life.
Politically correct bullies now use the power – not just of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office – but of the state to shut down debate.
In Victoria we’ve seen the Minister for Public Transport ban Sky News bulletins from train stations – for editorial comments that weren’t even shown on those screens.
Queensland GP David van Gend has been investigated and threatened with deregistration, because he shared a news article about gender on social media.
Canadian commentator Lauren Southern was slugged by $68,000 by Victorian Police – because violent protesters rioted at her events.
And in Tasmania, Archbishop Julian Porteous faced a human rights complaint because he had the audacity to distribute a pamphlet on the Catholic understanding of marriage in Catholic schools.
These are just a few examples, but they represent a growing trend – the heavy hand of government coming down hard on our individual freedoms.
All of this paints an ugly picture for the West today.
Mob violence shutting down debate.
Ideology strangling academic inquiry.
Aggressive policing of speech and behaviour by the state.
Unelected government bureaucrats enforcing ideological beliefs.
And elite interests dictating to the people what they must think and how they must live.
Underneath it all is a fundamental loss of respect for freedom, human dignity, and the equality before the law.
But there is another way.
We all have an interest in ensuring everyone’s rights are respected – including those of our political opponents.
It’s the only way real debate and meaningful dialogue can take place.
The state too has an interest in ensuring the free exchange of ideas – because that’s how progress happens.
And so rather than be a suppressor – or censor – of ideas, the state must act as a facilitator of our freedom.
Where there is a clash between individual freedoms and protecting people from perceived offence, the state must err on the side of freedom.
And I want to suggest a number of practical ways it can do this:
Firstly, authorities – be they police or universities, should cease charging organisers excessive amounts for the security of their events.
This appears to be the latest trick in the far Left’s playbook – threaten enough disruption or violence, and the event won’t go ahead.
The organisers can then wash their hands of dealing with a difficult issue.
It is the height of moral cowardice to claim you support free speech – but then make it impossible for an event to proceed.
All this does is encourage the far Left to threaten violence against events they disagree with, knowing the tactic works.
And let me be clear: I don’t think protesters should be charged for security either – the right to peaceful protest is fundamental.
It is the job of authorities – universities or police – to ensure they provide a safe environment for the free exchange of ideas.
Secondly, I want to see universities embrace free speech.
They should guarantee the right of people to express an opinion, even if it’s one they disagree with.
Our universities were once bastions of enlightenment thought – and guaranteeing free expression should be their number one priority.
It’s clear a new approach is needed.
In 1932, there was outrage after students at the University of Chicago invited the US Communist Party Presidential candidate onto their campus.
The university president at the time defended the decision saying “universities exist for free inquiry and without it, they cease to be universities.”
The University of Chicago’s commitment to freedom continues even to this day.
Tom Switzer wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald recently about their Freedom of Expression Principles – which have now been adopted by 47 major American institutions.
One of them is this:
“Faculty, students and staff are free to criticise, contest and condemn views [but] may not interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
To her credit, the UWA Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater has also called for Australian universities to adopt the same principles, saying they had a responsibility to foster debate.
Labor’s response to our free speech crisis at universities shows the gulf between our parties.
Labor Senator Louise Pratt recently said that while universities “have a role in promoting debate”, their primary responsibility is “for the welfare of their students and their academic staff”.
This is modern Labor – where protecting people’s feelings is more important than the pursuit of knowledge.
Lastly, I want to sound a note of caution about the current debate on religious freedom.
I believe religious freedom is important.
It is a fundamental right that flows from our inherent human dignity.
The Left have always argued for the separation of Church and State to limit religious perspectives in political debate.
But this separation is a two way street.
It also means people have the right to practice their faith free from government interference.
I agree with Prime Minister Morrison – people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their sexuality.
But I also agree people must respect the deeply held ethos and values of the institutions they are joining.
Many parents choose a religious school for their children, not despite its religious commitments, but because of them.
The school’s beliefs, values and worldview are what makes the school the school.
Yesterday Bill Shorten released a video talking about “the values we teach our kids.”
He may not like it, but in a diverse, multicultural, multi faith society such as Australia, people have different values.
My kids are not his kids.
And the Labor Party, with its socialist objective may not like it – but my kids are not the state’s kids either.
It is becoming increasingly clear the more militant elements of the Labor party have an underlying contempt for parental rights.
They believe the state knows better.
We can see this in their attempts to mandate the so-called Safe Schools program – despite parental objections.
The Liberal party acknowledges parental rights are important, which is why our government has pulled the program in NSW.
It is no doubt a challenging issue to balance competing freedoms and rights.
Much smarter legal minds than mine argue this positive right of religious freedom needs legislation of its own.
But I’m not so sure enacting laws is the answer.
Our inherent rights are not dependent on a piece of paper from the government.
The real strength in our system is that is has been essentially a cultural compact – live and let live.
Religious freedom laws create the impression freedoms are given at the pleasure of the state.
And what the state gives, the state can take away.
The day the government enshrines your freedoms into law is just a countdown to a future government taking those freedoms away.
In fact, the more governments use the word freedom – the less free you probably are.
A bit like the way countries which use the word Democratic in their name tend to be more totalitarian.
I also don’t see a problem where people have different views on controversial subjects.
It’s called celebrating diversity.
It ensures our society is a rich and vibrant tapestry of ideas and beliefs – not the bland grey conformity mandated by the Left.
The Left’s commitment to diversity is skin deep – based on race or sex.
But diversity of views is the most important diversity of all.
And I have full confidence in my fellow Australians to live and let live.
I said at the outset, our cultural and social freedoms are just as important as our economic ones.
They are what matter most in our day-to-day lives, when it comes to what we say and think, what we believe, how we raise our families and how we take part in the great democratic project that has made our nation such a success.
Today, Australia remains prosperous, harmonious, and with a few exceptions, open to new and challenging ideas.
That’s something we must never take for granted.
We can see, around the world, what a future without freedom looks like.
And as I have argued tonight, there are real challenges on the horizon here at home.
But there is a great deal we can do and I believe we are up to the challenge – in the big battles and the small ones – to keep the flame of freedom alive and the light of liberty shining on all who call Australia home.