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Dutton's attack on Woolworths shows the weight of words

Reece Harley -

The recent call for a boycott of Woolworths by the federal Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, and the subsequent vandalism at one of its stores in Teneriffe, raises questions about freedom of speech, the responsibility of leadership, and public behavior.

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our political discourse, allowing for diverse opinions and debates to be aired and contested.

This freedom comes with responsibility, especially for those in or seeking high office. When the alternative Prime Minister speaks, his words carry the authority and influence of his position.

In this case, Mr Dutton's call for a boycott of Woolworths, for their decision not to stock Australia Day merchandise, has contributed to criminal vandalism of private property and working people feeling threatened in their place of employment.

These events highlight how social media comments, radio interviews and other public comments can escalate and create an environment where individuals feel emboldened to conduct criminal acts.

History is full of examples where political rhetoric has led to public unrest, or to public support for drastic action by governments. From movements turning violent to supporters of various causes taking the law into their own hands, the pattern is clear: words matter.

Look at the storming of the Capitol Buildings in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, urged on by inflammatory claims. This is not the path we should be walking down. Our national leaders need to carefully consider the impact of their views and words on public behavior.

Woolworths made a decision based on the declining popularity of Australia Day merchandise, in the context of declining public enthusiasm for celebrating the day. Woolworths have acknowledged the complex history of the 26th of January, and as a private business have a right to choose not to stock certain products.

Their decision should have sparked a constructive debate, not vandalism. It is important to distinguish between expressing disagreement and resorting to criminality.

This incident should serve as a reminder to all leaders about the power of their words. It's crucial that in Australia we promote dialogue and understanding, rather than conflict. Leaders should be exemplars of how to handle disagreements with grace and respect, setting the tone for public discourse.

Local Tenerife resident Neil Small has accused Mr Dutton of grandstanding and called on him to "personally apologise for dog whistling and causing this sort of drama".

Fair enough.

Let's work to foster a culture where differences are addressed through dialogue, leaders are mindful of their influence, and vandalism and the threatening destruction of property is rejected. Our strength lies in our ability to discuss, debate, and disagree, while maintaining a commitment to the common good.

Reece Harley is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Indigenous Times

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