They may be bigots, but here’s why we can’t gag Israel Folau or Margaret Court

He’s baaack! Just as we had gotten used to the idea that a so-called religious bigot had been awarded Australia’s highest honour for being Australia’s greatest ever tennis player of any gender, another religious figure, with a similar antipathy for homosexuals as Margaret Court AC, is in the news.

Yes, Izzy Folau, having been banished by Rugby Australia, is looking for the honour of playing NRL. How dare he seek the adoring roar of the crowds and the big bucks again with views like his, you may well ask.

Return as a Dragon … Israel Folau.Credit:PA

Margaret Court may have been the female equivalent (and more) to Don Bradman for at least a generation of Australian women, who, like me, knew of only two other famous women: the Queen and Dame Pattie (Menzies). Mysteriously, Court had never received the same recognition as the wondrous but silent Ken Rosewall or Rod Laver. Not for we girls of the 1950s were there female government ministers, world-leading scientists, a dazzling array of sporting stars or even women reading the news on radio, let alone television, to admire and emulate. But there was always Margaret Smith, as she was then.

I haven’t heard the outcry from political leaders who want Israel Folau removed from public life again, or threats from famous fans to tear up their NRL membership tickets if he’s allowed back with St George Illawarra – albeit with a gag order in his proposed contract – in the same way others have rejected their honours over Margaret Court, but no doubt they’re warming up in the wings.

For all I know, Izzy has been in isolation at a re-education camp for the past 12 months, contemplating his reduced income and the attractions of discretion; we have heard little of his views since he was dragged from the scene, taking with him the head of then Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle.

Eddie McGuire was in danger of being condemned in the same way over his, in my view, much more ill-judged remarks about racism at Collingwood Football Club but, since he had attached no theological belief to it, recanting was painless and swift.

Now we are flagellating ourselves yet again, wondering aloud how Australia could allow two people as undeserving as Court and Folau to prosper on our watch.

Australians love having the biggest – the Big Merino (my hometown), the Big Crayfish, Banana, Apple, whatever. Are we the world’s biggest bigots? It’s a very Australian question. The rejoinder: Why do you ask?

The country that finally threw off the shackles of religious convention in the ’60s, when the pulpits ruled and unspoken sins were roundly condemned (they never were spelt out by the preacher, or more of us teenagers might have tuned in for the naughty words) has gradually replaced it with another sort of equally religious puritanism, with exactly the same effects: silenced debate, silenced freedom of speech, reduced tolerance, reduced trust.

Maybe it’s a post-COVID trauma and will pass. The emergent parochialism of the states (except our own) has been breathtaking and premiers have clearly fed off opinion polls that told them their electorates enjoyed seeing other states as the enemy far too much. In 2020 we found out what cancel culture really meant, and it wasn’t great. But we’re at it again, seeking to cancel people we don’t agree with.

Calls to disgrace people who offend us were the warm-up acts of dictators and the early warning signs of totalitarianism in places as disparate as the old South Africa and the Soviet Union.

It is not as if people have an unfettered licence to insult and defame individuals or groups; unlike the United States, Australian human rights law is very clear on vilification and the inciting of others to commit crimes or acts of terror. Our defamation laws are extremely tough by the standards of other democracies.

While I share Julia Gillard’s “murderous rage, really” – her description of how she felt about those men who attacked her with snide references to gender – and while I have a large group of male dolls in my head I regularly stick pins into, to cancel them is a dangerous descent into censorship which must be fought until there is no breath left in the frail body of democracy. That goes for Wednesday’s refreshingly basic biffo over vaccine “crazy conspiracy theories” between Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and the Liberals’ Craig Kelly.

Recall Martin Niemoller, the Lutheran pastor who survived Nazi concentration camps to write the famous, haunting and confessional words about Germans’ failure to speak up to protect others:

First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew.

And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Today, we could add another verse to precede that final line:

Then they came for the bigots and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a bigot.

Pru Goward is a former sex discrimination commissioner and NSW Liberal minister. She is a professor at Western Sydney University and a director with Taylor Fry, data analysts and actuaries.

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