BY assistant Prof Bruce Baer Arnold
OPEN government and free speech are the hallmarks of “electionspeak” and the decision to open the books on the Mr Fluffy houses and the Abbott government’s attacks on the ABC illustrate, in the same week, the complexities around these hallmarks and highlight some of the hypocrisy.An incoming government with a different ideology invariably finds the opposition screaming about secrecy and interference of government just as it did while in opposition.
The reality is that there are many reasons for not having completely open government – the most significant being the protection of personal privacy, such as medical records. Similarly, freedom of speech is modified to limit calumny, slander, libel vilification and defamation.
The ACT Government constantly refused to publish the list of affected homes under freedom of information. But Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced in January that the list would be made public and now it has been. He explained the conflict when originally announcing the decision as balancing “the need to respect the privacy of homeowners as well as obviously a community interest.”
At the time he was not offering a completely open publication, arguing “there’s an important distinction between those that need to know, such as tradespeople and those associated with emergency services, and those who might be interested to know in the broader community” and that “my primary concern is for the privacy of those affected households”.
Things change. Last week his concern extended to well beyond just privacy with the revelation that around 10 per cent of all Canberrans may have been affected in some way or other with the Mr Fluffy houses. With just over a thousand homes identified as Mr Fluffy residences, there are 4000 people directly impacted. Add those adjacent to the homes, the tradespeople that have worked on them and others who may have been former owners or have rented the properties.
Barr has danced through the complexities of the Mr Fluffy politics with the opposition, recognising the suffering and pain, taking a bipartisan but “not enough” stance.
Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson has argued for “a fairer and more flexible” approach including a $5 million emergency fund to provide immediate assistance to those affected.
Hanson has also put pressure on his Federal counterparts calling on them to recognise their responsibility and “stump up” with “the hundreds of millions of dollars” needed to help the households. He is on solid ground as the Federal Government was managing the ACT at the time when, despite the dangers being known, this toxic insulation was installed in Canberra homes.
Meanwhile, the champion of free speech, Attorney-General George Brandis, who attempted to remove the racial vilification sections of the human rights legislation, is part of a government lambasting the ABC for allowing someone with whom they disagree to present his view on the Islamic State. The argument levelled again and again by senior ministers was that giving Zaky Mallah a voice undermined their work on national security.
While I disagree with Mallah and his violent approach, I have also objected to the Brandis approach on racial vilification. Interestingly, sitting in my comfortable middle-class lounge with an Anglo-Saxon heritage I find it hard to believe that Mallah’s very few words would have done anything other than get up the noses of almost all Australians and harm his own cause.
Tony Abbott’s blistering attack on the ABC asking “whose side are you on?” seems to have lost sight of the push by Brandis for free speech. It was a week when the smell of hypocrisy permeated the political agenda. However, the distraction was politically brilliant. In general, the media completely lost sight of what was happening in parliament in the last sitting week before the winter break while pandering to the Prime Minister’s greatest strength – the political attack.