Why Israel Folau playing lower level footy may be a bigger problem

You might think that Israel Folau’s latest attempt to play football, for a club in the Queensland state league, is too obscure to worry about.

It’s not like he is going to play at the top level in the NRL, right?

But the free speech issues might just be greater.

The Israel Folau issue is becoming even less about him and more about whether people are allowed to express unpopular views.

Let’s go back in time. When Folau was sacked by the Australian Rugby Union, the messaging – by those who thought the sacking was justified – was that Folau was such a high-profile player that he was a brand ambassador for the game, and so could be asked to be “on message”.

A second argument was that any employer has the right to control out-of-work activities, social media in particular – this was the case put by Rugby Australia’s then CEO Raelene Castle.

So the question is, how low a level of footy does Folau have to sink to, to be low enough to leave alone?

The state league? A suburban competition? A grade suburban or D-grade suburban? Park footy? Touch?

Folau is still famous enough to get headlines. But after a few weeks playing for the Southport Tigers in the Gold Coast’s A-grade competition, the rugby league writers will drift away and cover whoever is playing the Gold Coast Titans in the NRL.

Which means the argument becomes more about the right of an employer to impose sanctions on more ordinary employees rather than only top-flight players. Should the QRL control the social media life of any rugby league player, no matter how lowly?

“The Queensland Rugby League will seek a written assurance that Israel Folau won’t publicly express his divisive religious views when it considers his registration request,” according to Nine newspapers’ Adrian Proszenko.

Only him?

The Israel Folau issue is becoming even less about him and more about whether people are allowed to express unpopular views, whether about LGBTIQ issues, or the possibly potentially more divisive views about sin and judgement that are part of the Christian message. And then there’s the issue of unpopular and non-Christian views.

A more-nuanced view of what employees should be able to express on social media is that they should not post anything that prevents them from being seen to be able to do their job.

Something similar is going on with ABC journalists …

Here’s how one writer sees what would happen if Israel Folau was a public servant:

“I asked Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott to play this game: to judge the comments of imaginary Border Force officer Folau. Unsurprisingly, his spokeswoman said the commission couldn’t comment on hypotheticals.

“She instead replied: ‘Determining whether publicly expressed views are a breach of the code of conduct is a matter of careful judgment, having regard to all the circumstances, rather than a simple formula … [The] final determination of whether any public comment, or series of comments, made by an APS employee would be considered a breach … would rest with the agency head.’

“She also said APS staff have the right to take part in public, political debate, but that right isn’t unlimited. ‘In general, APS employees must not make public comment that may lead a reasonable person to conclude that they cannot serve the government of the day impartially and professionally.'”

Something similar is going on with ABC journalists whose current guidelines simply say they should not post anything that prevents them doing their job.

Two key clauses state “Do not undermine your effectiveness at work” and “Do not mix the professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.”

Reasonable guidelines for online communication are more important than the fate of one footballer.

The Australian’s media writer Nick Tabakoff puts it this way, “Seems like common sense: if you wouldn’t say it on TV or radio, don’t say it on Twitter.”

So for one key journo to tweet “government ideological bastardry” about the PM, probably undermines her effectiveness to do her job.

Reasonable guidelines for online communication are more important than the fate of one footballer.

There are some other loose threads in this discussion.

  • Folau’s weird theology: Queensland minister Nathan Campbell makes the case that Folau’s theology lies outside orthodox Christianity in recent articles here and hereEternity has run commentary on “Israel Folau’s problem with the Trinity.”
  • Legal issues: Prof Neil Foster believes that Clive Palmer, who is assisting Folau, will experience uncertainty mounting a discrimination case. “Whether or not a direct or indirect discrimination claim under s 351 of the Fair Work Act, or Queensland discrimination law, on the basis of Mr Folau’s religious beliefs, would succeed is unclear.”
  • Ideology: whether one backs Israel Folau’s free speech rights or not has become entwined in whether one is a conservative or progressive, and what one thinks of those campaigning for Folau. Should Folau be the main (or one of the main) campaigns for Christians is a good question. But it should be separated from the question of whether Folau should be able to express his opinion.

Editers note: The paragraph on legal issues has been clarified.

Comments