False Liberalism

Tony Jones: “Can I just ask…when you say people are entitled to their views…”

Tim Wilson: “Of course they are.”

Tony Jones: “I’m just saying.”

*audience laughter*

And with that Tony Jones exposes the hollowness of the Institute of Public Affairs – the ideological backbone of the contemporary Australian Liberal party.

After a week’s savage onslaught from the Abbott Government and from the right wing News Ltd media, the Q&A host clearly wasn’t cowed into avoiding the exposure of the great contradiction at the heart of the Right. Here, with ‘Freedom Commissioner’ (appointed by the Abbott Government) Tim Wilson to his right and journalist for The Australian Paul Kelly to his left, Jones was subject to a torrent of complaint about ‘giving a platform’ to Zaky Mallah in last week’s episode.

Never mind, as Jones pointed out, that The Australian had run an article in 2012 praising Mallah for his – to borrow Kelly’s expression – ‘repentence’ from Islamic radicalism. Obviously hypocrisy within the Australian commercial media, run largely by Rupert Murdoch, is par for the course and hardly worth debating.

But the furious reaction from Freedom Wilson was indicative of just how successfully Q&A, a show that is often frustratingly non-partisan, has got under the skin of the Right now they are in government.

For the duration of the Gillard years I was, as a member of the ALP, infuriated when Jones and Q&A would give airtime to baseless criticisms of the Labor party, without exploring policy in the depth that might reveal how effective carbon pricing had been, or how necessary Gonski is for schools, or how efficient Gillard was at carrying legislation.

Instead, the show allowed its guests from the other side of politics to repeatedly sledge the government, and pile on the criticism of the internal strife that Labor generated for itself. No complaints then from Freedom Wilson (regular panelist) or any of the Liberal members that the show wasn’t pursuing ‘policy substance’.

Fast forward to last night’s episode, and the enraged response from Freedom Wilson is indicative:

Wilson: “And once again, Tony Jones, you have used this platform to make a snide remark and aside rather than actually addressing the fundamental issue.”

In fact, what Jones raised at that point was the fundamental issue in this debate about Q&A. The objection to Zaky Mallah has been couched in terms of ‘giving a platform’ to ‘objectionable views’. Mark Scott, quite perceptively, defended the ABC arguing:

“…free speech arguments would be easier if you were always defending Martin Luther King. At times, free speech principles mean giving platforms to those with whom we fundamentally disagree.”

He is correct. The whole affair reminds me of the outrage directed last year at Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, over the scheduled talk “Honour Killings Are Morally Justified”.

Then, as now, the political right worked itself into a frothing fury over the potential harm this sort of ‘platform’ can do when given to ‘the wrong sort of people’. Contradiction number one: the same army of people who defended Andrew Bolt’s right to publish all manner of insulting and offensive ideas on the grounds of ‘freedom of speech’ suddenly feel the need to restrict the freedom of speech of those with whom they disagree.

The point made then, and the point made again last night, is that these kind of shocking views need to be aired in order for them to be challenged, exposed as ridiculous, and expunged from the culture.

The problem with the ‘platform’ argument is that it positions the Australian citizen as someone so vacuous that simply seeing Zaky Mallah – a “guy with a stupid hat” as Anne Aly put it – or Uthman Badar, or whoever, would instantly radicalise them and erode any pre-existing moral sensibilities they had.

Contradiction number two: despite insisting on the supremacy of Judeo-Christian civilisation and Western enlightenment thinking – embodied in Liberalism – the right is terrified that these ideas might not stack up to a challenge. It was on display a few weeks back when Bronwyn Bishop magnificently retconned the Magna Carta to support state-sanctioned secrecy and surveillance, even when confronted by the formidable intellectual might of Bret Walker and Gillian Triggs.

The idea that enlightenment thinking won’t stand up to scrutiny is also patently ridiculous: nobody is seriously going to suggest that honour killings are morally justified or that ISIS is more civilised than the West. Both are barbaric, broadly accepted as such, and giving a platform to people who express these views – which Mallah quite clearly did not – only serves to reinforce their absurdity. Western ideas are as deserving of critique as others, and they should be critiqued in order to test our faith in them.

But rather than actually embrace the principles of liberalism in order to defeat these illiberal opponents, the Right instead opts for silencing, monitoring, excluding and denying speech to these individuals. Freedom Wilson even tried to make the case that Mallah – should he have been expelled from Australia per Steven Ciobo’s whim – would not be denied ‘freedom of speech’ because he could practice that freedom somewhere else.

So we have come full circle on the Right’s hemorrhagic understanding of liberty: you are free to say whatever you want, but if you don’t agree with us you should say it in another country.

Australia. Convict by heritage, imprisoned by choice.

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