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Jonathan Biggins

Platform Paper 10

The Threat to National Insecurity

Jonathan Biggins

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The introduction in late 2005 of the reinvigorated sedition laws provoked an angry response from a wide coalition of civil libertarians, authors, publishers, artists and performers, who saw them as an invasion of the creator’s right to criticise. In this essay Jonathan Biggins, one of our favourite creators of satirical revue, examines the threat to free speech in the light of these events and claims that the demand for political satire has been fuelled by an increasing audience need for an oppositional viewpoint. He illustrates his argument with songs and sketches from the Wharf Revue for which Biggins, Phil Scott and Drew Forsythe are famous, and concludes that while the defences against charges of seditious intention are as narrow as the definitions of the offences are broad, ‘the greatest and most immediate threat lies in self-censorship’. ‘Good satire,’ he writes, ‘can reawaken a desire for change, because in the hearts of all satirists is a belief in the worth of the institutions and customs they regard as being mismanaged, or, even worse, degraded or corrupt.’


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About the Author

Writer, actor and broadcaster Jonathan Biggins is director of revue for the Sydney Theatre Company. As It Were, his satirical take on world history, is published by ABC Books.



For a brief, frightening period, the right of the theatre to speak freely about issues of social and political importance was directly challenged. It was only after an intense campaign by this wide coalition that amendments to the proposed laws were made. Even then, the laws retained worrying implications for the writers and performers of satire. Furthermore, for us, as for other artists who work within a subsidised-company structure, does there not still remain an implicit threat of self-censorship?



Responses to Jonathan Biggins' Platform Papers no. 10, Satire-or Sedition? The Threat to National Insecurity

Professor george Williams and edwina Macdonald are based at the gilbert + tobin Centre of Public law, University of new South Wales.

We enjoyed reading Jonathan Biggins' discussion of the role of satire in political commentary and the threat posed to satire by the new sedition laws.

On 13 November last, at a forum hosted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock indicated that the sedition offences were not intended to capture artists and media commentators. He pointed to the requirement that a person must intend to urge another person to use force and violence, and the existence of good faith defences as factors that limit the application of the offences. However, as Biggins and the Australian Law Reform Commission point out, there is no requirement that a person intend that the violence actually occur. Further, the good faith defences are limited to situations where a person is trying to engage in reform or point out errors in laws, policies or actions. It is possible that some satire-for example, a parody of Osama Bin Laden, where a person intentionally urges particular action but does not intend that anyone follow that action-would risk contravening a sedition offence.

While it is unlikely that an artist or satirist will be prosecuted for sedition, ultimately it comes down to the discretion of the prosecutors and the Attorney-General as to whether to lay charges. This is not satisfactory. It is unacceptable to rely on the selective application of a law by politicians and others to ensure that blameless people do not become criminals. As well as being bad law, the risk of breaking the law-even if it won't lead to prosecution-can result in self-censorship, an issue Biggins discusses in detail in his essay.

Hindsight was not necessary to identify that there are problems with the sedition law. When the law was passed by Parliament in late 2005, people from all sides of politics believed it to be flawed. In spite of this, the law was still passed but the government agreed to have the law reviewed by the Australian Law Reform Commission. The Commission released its final report on 13 September 2006 with recommendations along the lines of those in the discussion paper referred to by Biggins. Two months later, as we write, the government is yet to respond. However, Ruddock has indicated that he does not agree with the recommendation that an intention that the urged force or violence will occur should be a part of the offences.

Australia needs anti-terror laws, but they must be the right ones to ensure our security and to protect our fundamental freedoms. The object of new terror laws cannot be national security at all costs. They can only be justified to the extent that they protect our democratic freedoms and way of life, something that is made more difficult by the lack of a national charter of rights.

Like the sedition law, many of our anti-terror laws have been enacted and amended with great speed with little time for public or parliamentary debate. Reviews of the law can provide a way for us to examine our anti-terror laws and ensure we have the best laws possible. But the government must be prepared to consider and implement the recommendations from such reviews. If they refuse to do so, we may be left with laws that unnecessarily erode our freedoms without protecting us from the threat of terrorism.

Robyn nevin is Artistic director of Sydney theatre Company.

In 1999, in the euphoric moments after my appointment to the Sydney Theatre Company, I called Ruth Cracknell. I knew I wanted to start a political revue, had lit upon Jonathan Biggins as the possible front man and wanted to offer him the chance to develop it. But first I checked with Australia's undisputed queen of comedy. 'He's perfect', Ruth offered. Perfect seemed good enough. Jonathan was appointed as Artistic Director, STC Wharf Revue. And so it came into being.

My early references were the Phillip Street Revue, TV's The Mavis Bramston Show and That Was the Week That Was, and more recently, back in a live space, Kinselas' revue shows. I was around when Leon Fink's entrepreneurial genius excited into life that former funeral parlour in Taylor Square, making it a buzzy, relevant restaurant bar and cabaret room. For five years Sydney flocked to the room upstairs where Patrick Cook cartooned live; Max Gillies outed Bob Hawke, Russ Hinze and the Queen; Los Trios Ringbarkus barked; Garry McDonald's awful creation, Phil Stein, was born; the Globos spawned Mark Trevorrow's comic persona Bob Downe. Barry Humphries sent a letter of support. David Williamson took his cast there for supper after his latest premiere, Max Lambert and Linda Nagle played and sang. Brett Whiteley ate there. It felt immediate, a place to be, a kind of artistic nerve centre. Very Sydney.

That was the inspiration for my Wharf Revue. But I wanted a consistent team, to offer, through sharp writing and performance, an immediate sense of our political climate now. I believed 'the boys', Jonathan with Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott, had the talent to make it work. And they always added a fabulous woman to the mix, Genevieve Lemon, Valerie Bader, Linda Nagle…

The opening Revue set a tone of glorious silliness, The End of the Wharf As We Know It, and we knew that our Wharf, the site of serious theatre in Sydney, would never be the same again. It had been invaded by a comic satiric virus. Fine by me. But fun though the early ones were, it took a few shows before they began to gain confidence in their collective abilities to offer serious political satire. Once the more risky stuff started we kept an eye on the legal implications, led by our board director and legal expert, Henric Nicholas. Our board was emphatically supportive of the team's freedom to satirise, but the Revue sailed close to the wind a couple of times, and inevitably incurred wrath in certain quarters.

Over seven years it has evolved into a real force, a brilliant satirical revue team, confidently shining its collective light on our political leaders and commentators, and anyone or anything they reckon needs attention. In 2005 and 2006 our audience observed the increasingly dark tone of the Revue content. They are glad of the deepening and darkening focus of the writing. They say with satisfaction, 'This is in response to our times'. What greater praise than that they reflect the nation's tone?

The legislation which Jonathan examines in his essay unnerved us, admittedly. Not for fear we would be prosecuted but for fear we might slip into self-censorship. As a theatre company we have a responsibility to our artists to facilitate their need to express themselves in their own voices, and to our audiences to let them hear those diverse voices. This is a fundamental responsibility for free speech which I am confident will prevail.