RSA Webinar: Margaret Simons laments lack of debate on the balance of rights

Si Gladman / 24 September 2021

An “impoverished” public debate on the balancing of individual rights with the duty to protect the wider community during Australia’s COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to unrest, the latest RSA Webinar heard.  

In presenting to Wednesday’s RSA Webinar (watch the video below), Margaret Simons, a renowned journalist, author, political biographer and academic, said she had been “truly frightened” but not surprised to witness violent demonstrations in Melbourne this week.

While having little sympathy for the demonstrators, Dr Simons (pictured) said it was understandable that many citizens were concerned about the impact of lockdowns and the prospect of mandatory vaccinations to participate in the economy.

She said some limitations to freedom were necessary in times of crisis, but noted that the nature of the pandemic meant that the typical democratic processes and public debate had been bypassed. 

Pointing to Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), she argued that while people have individual rights they also have “duties” to the larger community, with limitations placed on individual freedoms “for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

“It seems to me, in our current situation, we are really navigating the area between those first articles [of the UDHR] which talk about everybody’s right to life, liberty and security of person, and the last bit, which is about their duty to the community,” she said.

“It’s a really difficult conversation to have. And we have had no time to have the conversation.”

She lamented that polarisation meant there was little space to question government policy or to debate the balancing of rights. 

“If you question public health orders, you get immediately dismissed as some anti-vax idiot – and I hope you can see that I’m not that. On the other hand, if you support them then other people will say you’re a fascist and Dan Andrews is a dictator, and all the rest of it, which is also ridiculous,” she said.

“Our public debate on these issues has been so impoverished that it’s impossible, really, to be heard…making what I hope is a more subtle point, which I think will become very important as we move from this stage of the pandemic to the next stage.”

Dr Simons also spoke about how the transfer of power from traditional media operators to social media giants had significantly changed people’s understanding of freedom of speech to be equated with the right to be heard. 

“When [the social media giants] refuse to amplify speech, people say this is an attack on freedom of speech. That’s a really significant and technology-driven change to how we think about freedom of speech.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.