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Freedom’s just another word

Tony Abbott claims freedom-of-expression is hard-wired into the Coalition’s DNA. But is it?

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

Do you tend to judge people by what they say or by what they do? Imagine you and your spouse have neighbours whom you both really like. You’ve invited them over for dinner four or five times in the past and each time they have arrived about an hour late. But they’re great company so you plan to invite them again. They tell you they’ll be there right on time. Do you believe them because they tell you they are punctual people, or do you calculate they’ll be late yet again and so maybe even lie to them about what time people are expected?

I ask this question because Prime Minister Tony Abbott has of late been assuring Australians that a strong commitment to freedom is in the DNA of the Liberal Party. It is in his and this government’s DNA, too, he says. That was his line in the Australian last week.

Now my question is, do you believe him? While you think of your answer let me give you mine. It’s a rather long-winded one. To start, I should make clear that I am probably the most pro-Tony Abbott law professor working in Australia today. Heck, I may be the only one. I think our Prime Minister is smart, as are all Rhodes Scholars. I like him, and the way he stood up against the world’s dumbest tax; the Gillard carbon tax, that achieved nothing at all in terms of, you know, lowering the world’s temperature.

I also like the way Mr Abbott has a commitment to securing our borders. The hypocrisy and cant on this issue from the left of politics, and I include under that description the Australian Human Rights Commission, has been breathtaking. Over one thousand die under the ‘good intentions lead to hell’ Labor Party policies and the whole human rights rent-seeking industry is quiet. Not a peep. Then Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison basically end the boat arrivals, and the deaths, and super pronto enquiries are launched and the self-styled human rights brigade are back. Can anyone take them seriously? If you don’t believe in national sovereignty, which requires at minimum that you control borders, then be honest about it.

More to the point, stopping the boats is all about credibility; the people who run the boat operations need to believe you’ll do whatever it takes to stop them. I doubt they believe Labor and Mr Shorten will, so voters will realise boat arrivals are likely to start up again under a Labor government no matter what Labor promises.


Oh, and I have sympathy with Mr Abbott on the budget battle front. Yes, the Coalition did a terrible job making it clear that this was about lowering the deficit, not legislating fairness. Yes, putting new money into medical research just makes it seem as though we don’t have a budget problem. Yes, the paid parental leave scheme is close to moronic in the present circumstances. All that admitted, only one side of politics is trying to do something about the horrible trajectory government spending is on right now.

I say all that so that no one could accuse me of being yet another ABC-style critic of Mr Abbott.

And that takes us back to freedom, and this government’s commitment to it. And here you just cannot see any evidence, any actions as opposed to words and cheap talk, that this government cares a whit about freedom. If it’s still hardwired into the Coalition DNA, then there must have been a recent spontaneous mutation. The out-and-out broken promise on repealing 18C was appalling. And the justification for it, that a core Western value such as freedom of speech will have to give way to some nebulous desire not to offend a small segment of Australian society – and all the special interest lobby groups clamouring on their behalf – was close to pathetic.

For centuries people have had to do the hard work of trading off free speech against national security. Different people draw different lines on that (though the Abbott government went too far there, too, when it comes to journalists). But trading off free speech against ‘not offending people’, against some wanky social solidarity ideal summed up as ‘Team Australia’? To give people with thin skins a veto over a core Western value? This is laughable, at least if you are remotely from a liberal tradition.

Worse, not a single minister resigned from cabinet over this free speech backdown. You know, the sort of thing people do when concerns about freedom and whole-hearted support for free speech are hard-wired into their DNA. Nor is it clear that all that many Liberal backbenchers care that much about free speech. A few stalwarts here and there? Absolutely. But enough to feel the free speech DNA will be passed on to the next generation of Liberal MPs? Hmm.

Mr Abbott pointed to the government’s university fee deregulation legislation as evidence of actions in favour of freedom. Really? That’s the best you’ve got? Don’t get me wrong – I’m 100 percent in favour of university fee deregulation; our universities are nowhere near as good as top VCs, and governments from both sides, pretend. They are swamplands of over-regulation and too many managers where undergraduates get a bad deal. So bring on fee deregulation!

But that reform is about middle class kids no longer having so much of their tuition paid for by poor working class families, and about tough budget choices in bad times. It’s not about freedom, save in the sense of the freedom of a small coterie of over-paid uni VCs and DVCs and PVCs and AVCs (etc ad nauseum) having sustainable budgets for a while. That’s hardly what John Stuart Mill had in mind when he made liberty, in particular freedom of speech, the pre-eminent Western value. You know, that core value that offends those groups that Mr Abbott felt had to be placated when he broke his promise.

So I am mightily disappointed in Mr Abbott. I will still vote for him, not least because across the board the Labor Party is worse on the free speech issue. Remember their support for the Finkelstein Report? Recall their vociferous defence of 18C: hypocrites the lot of them, and that’s sad to say given that free speech was traditionally a concern of the left side of politics. But today being more pro-free speech than the Greens and Labor does not equate to having it hard-wired into your DNA. It really doesn’t amount to anything more than cheap talk, where freedom’s just another word.

Keep it up, Coalition, and we’ll have nothing left to lose before too long.

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