WHERE do the Liberals stand on freedom of speech? Where do they stand on our basic freedoms?
ACT Opposition Arts spokesman Brendan Smyth screams about the funding of a group that runs the headline “Kill Climate Deniers”; earlier this year his federal colleague Attorney-General, George Brandis, was forced to back down in his attempt to remove racial vilification laws in the name of freedom of speech and, more recently, there’s political agreement on a 10-year jail sentence for naughty journalists.
The Liberal Party doesn’t have a consistent, well thought out, shared view on how freedom is achieved. Instead, political opportunism drives an inconsistent approach.
David Marr, writing in “The Monthly”, quoted PM Tony Abbott telling the Australia Institute that he had taken up the cudgels for freedom.
“We stand for the freedoms which Australians have a right to expect and which governments have a duty to uphold. We stand for freedom and will be freedom’s bulwark against the encroachments of an unworthy and dishonourable government”.
On the one hand the Liberals would love to think freedom means there should be no interference, especially when it comes to business. On the other hand, its more conservative elements have no hesitation interfering with freedom when it comes to protecting government secrets, the freedom of women to control their own bodies, the right of people to choose to end their own lives or the right of same-sex couples who are in love to be able to marry.
When Smyth attacked “embattled Arts Minister Joy Burch” in a press release saying she “has presided over yet another example of bad judgement and appalling taste by granting over $18,000 to a theatre group to develop a work with the completely inappropriate title of ‘Kill Climate Deniers’” he raised a fundamental question about the role of government. He went further, complaining about using “taxpayers’ money to fund a work entitled ‘kill’ anyone is clearly both stupid and irresponsible”.
Perhaps the real stupidity is in not having a consistent approach on the question of freedom.
Burch was in a lose-lose situation. A very similar attack would have been mounted by Smyth if she had interfered. The Abbott concepts would have been brought to the fore with accusations of “political correctness” and interfering with the role of the public service.
In reality, the role of the minister is to make sure the process is open, fair and consistent. Perhaps the more important area of debate was around whether the minister had put the right processes in place.
Tony Abbott highlighted the issue: “If we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we’ve got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company. We’ve got to allow people to think things that are unthinkable in polite company and take their chances in open debate”.
Where is this more important than in the arts?
It is time the Liberals looked seriously for consistency on the notion of freedom. They would do well to learn from political philosopher Philip Pettit who provided a brilliant insight into freedom. In his book, “Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government”, he challenged the popular notion of freedom as meaning no interference and explained: “My aim in this book is to try to identify the main features of freedom as non-domination”.
The ideal of freedom as non-domination provides a very different appreciation from interference in our lives. It provides the tools to regulate against monopolies, or harmful industries such as tobacco and to ensure a fairer society. Unlike the Liberals’ politically opportunistic approach to freedom, it provides a principled stance.