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Tony Abbott: friend or enemy of free speech?

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Tony Abbott quotes Robert Menzies the way a 16-year-old quotes his first serious crush: at every possible opportunity.

In 2012, announcing his intention to amend the Racial Discrimination Act to make free speech even more free, he rolled out his object of adoration for support.

“If truth is to emerge, and in the long run be triumphant,” the two prime ministers proclaimed in unison, “the process of free debate – the untrammelled clash of opinion – must go on.”

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There was a stunning example of untrammelled clashing on Wednesday night as Lateline host Emma Alberici interviewed Wassim Doureihi, spokesman for radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Lateline host Emma Alberici
Lateline host Emma Alberici. Photo: ABC

Alberici gave Doureihi repeated free kicks, peaking with this: “Are you outraged by the image of an Australian-born child of seven years old holding up severed heads like trophies in Iraq or Syria?”

Doureihi could have condemned ISIS, or their tactic of beheading non-combatants. He didn’t.

Seven minutes in, the spokesman finally roused himself to condemn the killing of innocent civilians as a general principle. But this was a small offer, made too late. A picture had been painted of the group he speaks for, and it wasn’t pretty.

This is exactly what public debate at its best should do: dig out truths, expose broad statements to interrogation, before leaving the public to make its own mind up.

Which is exactly what the Tony Abbott of 2012, friend of free speech, would have said. But as time marches onwards a worrying trend is emerging: a PM who tells free speech one thing to its face and another when he thinks it’s not listening.

A fair-weather friend. Maybe even a frenemy.

In an interview with Alan Jones last week Mr Abbott said he was looking at laws to proscribe groups “promoting” terrorism – perhaps including, he suggested, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Personally, I wouldn’t shed a tear if this group never said another word. While they are sometimes clear in their condemnation of violence, they are also sometimes less clear.

But governments must govern both for this moment and for the years to come. The problem with giving any government the power to ban a group on the basis of what it says is that its discretion to act against groups it simply deems unwanted is enlarged.

burqa-banAnd while this government may not abuse that power, a future government might. It is hard to see how this possibility would not have a chilling effect on free speech.

But these are arguments for free speech the Prime Minister doesn’t seem much interested in.

The same puzzling approach is on display in the government’s intention to impose up to 10 years’ prison time for anyone who knowingly or recklessly discloses information about a special intelligence operation.

Even The Australian’s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan, acknowledging it “would be difficult for a commentator to be more pro-national security than I am”, came out strongly against, pointing out it would give government huge discretion to crack down on reporting it doesn’t want. He’s right.

Once again the PM was caught out undermining free speech behind its back.

With the glare of the cameras back on him, it seemed for a second as though Mr Abbott was again in favour of open debate, praising Alberici’s interview, until you look at the words he chose: “I think she spoke for our country last night.”

This in turn was a marked departure from the PM’s last notable comments on the ABC. It “appears to take everyone’s side but [Australia’s] own”, he said in January, calling on it to have “some basic affection for the home team”.

The problem in all this is not simply that Mr Abbott is startlingly inconsistent. The greater problem is that he doesn’t appear to have cottoned on to the fact he is in possession of the greatest soapbox in the nation, with every word he says magnified a thousand-fold.

In his position, it’s not acceptable to state your belief in a solid principle then undermine said principle whenever it’s not politically helpful. There is room for nuance, but there is no room for equivocation or thoughtlessly clod-footed language.

If the PM truly believes in free speech, and in a robust media, then make that case. If he believes there is a case for exceptions, then make that case, with the clarity and subtlety it deserves.

The same approach should have applied to the unfortunate debate over the burqa – or, more accurately, the niqab. If the Mr Abbott believes that Australians have the right to wear what they want and it’s not the job of government to intervene, then he should have said that and left it there.


There was no need for the hopelessly confusing addendum that he personally finds the garment “confronting”. The fact he had said it before didn’t mean he needed to say it again.

It is true that Australians expect prime ministers to be themselves. But we also expect them to unify the nation, especially in uneasy times such as this. Mr Abbott’s gratuitous expression of a personal viewpoint was at odds with this responsibility. At best it was self-indulgent. At worst it was cynically divisive.

Mr Abbott does things someone in his position just shouldn’t do. It is not the job of the Prime Minister to hand out gold stars for patriotism to the national broadcaster, whose funding he controls, or to award them an ‘F’ when he believes their reporting is un-Australian.

Alberici wasn’t speaking for the nation. She was (rightly) pushing an interviewee who refused to answer some basic questions.

“Team Australia” is similarly lumpy, as both Peter Costello and Malcolm Fraser have noted.

The Prime Minister began the discussion over Iraq and ISIS well. He was careful to repeat on several occasions the message that “the threat is extremism – not any particular community. The target is terrorism – not religion”. It was a clear statement of principle, much needed, with no equivocation.

In that moment we had a fleeting glimpse of a calm, lucid leader, striving with his language to create a united community in a time of fragmentation. It was all too brief.

Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He is on twitter @mrseankelly

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