Prime Minister Tony Abbott has less respect for the nation’s public broadcaster, and the value of public debate, than his conservative mentor, television history reveals.
Famously referring to himself as John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop’s ideological love child, Mr Abbott’s response this week to thorny questioning on the ABC’s Q&A program bears no resemblance to that of his ‘father’.
“Heads should roll” was Mr Abbott’s widely reported remark after convicted criminal and Zaky Mallah was allowed to attend and participate in the live show.
Mr Mallah questioned Liberal MP Steve Ciobo on the Q&A program about proposed changes to citizenship laws.
After detailing his acquittal of terrorism charges in 2005, he asked: “What would have happened if my case had been decided by the minister himself and not the courts?”
In part of his answer, Mr Ciobo said he would have no problem seeing Mallah stripped of his Australian citizenship.
In 2010, the ABC made a similar decision. It allowed David Hicks, who was convicted of supporting a terrorist organisation and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, to pre-record a confrontational question for Mr Howard.
The question alluded to Hicks’ alleged mistreatment at the hands of both the US and Australian governments. Hicks’ conviction was overturned by the US Court of Military Commission Review in February 2015.
During the same episode, Mr Howard had shoes thrown at him by an audience member protesting against the government’s decision to deploy troops to Iraq.
Before excoriating the questioner, Howard defended the forum, the question and freedom of speech at large.
“Isn’t it a great country that allows this kind of exchange to occur,” he said.
“This is not the sort of thing that would occur in other countries and dictatorships.
“Whatever your views about my government’s policies concerning Mr Hicks, it ought to make all of us very proud that we live in a country that allows that sort of exchange.”
A terrorism researcher confirmed to The New Daily the wisdom of Howard’s words.
“Until we actually start listening to what they are saying, whether we like it or not, only then can we start helping these people move their opinions away from violence,” ANU radicalisation expert Dr Clarke Jones said.
“He has a right to speak.
“By no means am I saying I support what he said, but then we can provide a counter-discussion to what is being said.”
Howard vs Abbott
Mr Howard’s response is at odds with his Liberal Party successors, especially the current PM.
Much of this week’s criticism of the ABC centred on the fact that Mr Mallah posed a security risk and should not have been allowed in the audience — which the ABC conceded was a mistake.
But some in the Liberal Party seemed to attack the question itself, and the ABC’s independence.
Publicly, Mr Abbott denounced the broadcaster for “giving a platform to this convicted criminal and terrorist sympathiser”.
Inside cabinet, the PM was reportedly even more colourful, calling the ABC a ‘lefty lynch mob’.
“They have given this individual, this disgraceful individual, a platform. And in so doing, I believe the national broadcaster has badly let us down.”
Mr Howard made no such remarks denouncing the ‘platform’ given Mr Hicks. Instead, he praised the exchange.
Abbott vs Abbott
Abbott’s remarks as Prime Minister are also in stark contrast to those he made in opposition.
During a speech to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in 2010, he praised freedom of speech.
The New Daily asked the Prime Minister’s office to clarify Mr Abbott’s position on the following quotes, which it failed to do in time for publication.
“Australia does not need more regulation of the media, it needs a debate about freedom of speech,” Mr Abbott said.
“It is not the role of government to manage the day-to-day practices of journalism; to “mark” commentary and media against unavoidably subjective standards of fairness. The job of government is to foster free speech, not stifle it. It’s to increase the number and the range of people who can participate in public debate, not to reduce it.”
He even defended “bad and rude” comments.
“Still, if free speech is to mean anything, it’s the freedom to write badly and rudely. Speech that has to be inoffensive is not free, just unerringly politically correct.”
No such praise of freedom was evident this week.
Freedom of speech ‘an excuse’
On Thursday night, ABC managing director Mark Scott again acknowledged that Mallah’s physical presence in the audience was an error.
But he defended the public broadcaster’s independence, saying Australians cherish freedom of expression, cherish debate and “cherish the role of the ABC in facilitating both”.
“At times, free speech means giving platforms to those with whom we fundamentally disagree,” Mr Scott said.
Liberal frontbencher Christoper Pyne dismissed these remarks as a distraction.
“[Scott]’s trying to pretend the government is trying to close free speech at the ABC,” he told the Nine Network.
Giving Mr Mallah a “platform” was a “mistake”, Mr Pyne said.
Mallah is a hypocrite
It must be noted that Mr Mallah has betrayed these same principles of freedom of speech by threatening sexual violence against female journalists, with whose opinions and reporting he disagrees.
After Liberal backbencher Mr Ciobo replied to Mr Mallah’s Q&A question, Mr Mallah said he “would be happy to see [Ciobo] out of this country”. He seemed to advocate deportation as the penalty for free speech.
After the show, Mr Mallah posted on Twitter that he would “pay to see that minister [Liberal backbencher Steve Ciobo] dumped on ISIS territory in Iraq” — seemingly desiring Ciobo’s death for daring to speak his mind.
Mr Mallah served time in prison for threatening to kidnap and kill an Australian spy.