The Liberal’s long insistence that it is the party of freedom in Australian politics is being rapidly undermined on multiple issues. Indeed, it’s now hard to see the claim as anything other than a rhetorical fiction.
Yesterday the Prime Minister, Education Minister Christopher Pyne, and Environment Minister Greg “I am the walrus” Hunt all joined Treasurer Joe Hockey in attacking the Australian National University’s policy of divestment of fossil fuel investments. ANU’s decision plainly alarmed a resources sector already struggling with falling prices — and a major onslaught has been launched on the university via The Australian Financial Review, which has attacked ANU every day over the last week And those attacks now come with the imprimatur of the most senior levels of the federal government.
You might think the party of freedom, “the side of politics which has in its DNA to keep governments small and to keep freedom large”, as Attorney-General George Brandis put it recently, would support any investor’s right to invest where they see fit. Indeed, in 2010, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott encouraged investors to divest from Australian resources companies, saying “it is safer to invest in Argentina, in Tanzania, in Zambia, in Ghana and in Botswana than it is to invest in Australia”.
Then there’s the ongoing campaign being led by Senator Richard Colbeck and other Tasmanian Liberals to extend competition laws designed for commercial conduct to individual activists and environmental and consumer groups that criticise businesses. This would enable the prosecution of groups like GetUp or consumer advocates to shut down criticism of, or campaigns against, industries or individual companies.
The theme of both examples is that freedom should only be used in ways deemed appropriate by Liberals — that is, it should never be used to threaten the interests of the Liberals’ business constituency.
This is the soft underbelly of the modern Liberal Party’s “commitment” to freedom: it’s a commitment that ends the moment freedom is used in ways with which it disagrees. That’s why, during the Howard years, that government repeatedly attacked freedom. It passed an absurd law purporting to outlaw online gambling, which merely had the effect of preventing Australian companies from competing for revenue from Australian gamblers. It passed a law to restrict online freedom of expression aimed at preventing discussion of euthanasia, and even banned Philip Nitschke’s Peaceful Pill Handbook, as well as overriding Northern Territory laws to permit euthanasia.
“What does the party’s commitment to liberty extend to? Well, to people like themselves, people who can be relied on to use freedom responsibly … and not express opinions, or wear clothes, deemed threatening or offensive.”
Those interventions were all exactly the kind with which the paternalist Left is traditionally associated, reflecting a mindset that government knows better than individuals how they should live their lives. That interventionist spirit lives on in the Abbott government: the same government that is in the process of abolishing Labor’s wasteful, nanny statish Australian National Preventive Health Agency also blocked same-sex marriage legislation in the ACT. Some Liberal MPs even want to dictate how Muslim women dress. And this government is no friend of free speech either: it abandoned its commitment to overhaul the draconian and subjective free-speech limitations of the Racial Discrimination Act and is proposing to criminalise the mere act of speaking in favour of terrorism and perhaps even outlaw groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir that threaten no one and nothing except the sensibilities of the easily offended and, if they do, are already covered by existing law.
Indeed, if the conditional nature of Liberals’ conception of freedom is its soft underbelly, their inability to have any perspective on national security is the carapace that prevents it from growing properly. Liberals talk a lot about freedom when in opposition, but in government it’s a different story: in the last two terms under Howard and now under Tony Abbott, national security has been used by Coalition governments to attack basic legal rights, including instituting detention without trial, and undermine free speech. Former attorney-general Philip Ruddock ignored advice to dump the absurd crime of sedition from his anti-terror laws; Brandis has given us laws that will enable the jailing of journalists and whistleblowers and proposes a mass surveillance regime that will significantly strengthen the hands of governments and their security agencies against journalists, whistleblowers, activists and politicians seeking to hold them to account.
The history of the last 13 years is that, under the Coalition, the “delicate balance between freedom and security” has constantly ratcheted toward the latter. Brandis, indeed, boasts of his transition from a supporter of civil liberties to a law-and-order hardliner once he became Attorney-General — something that suggests the intellectual foundations of his philosophy of freedom are so weak as to be unable to withstand five minutes of lobbying from the dedicated opponents of freedom who make up the Attorney-General’s Department.
This isn’t to let Labor off the hook: it was Labor that first toyed with the idea of data retention in government, and it, like the Howard government, significantly increased the powers of ASIO and the AFP while in government, as well as their budgets. The days of Labor being reflexively hostile to, or at least sceptical of, the national security apparatus have long passed, although in retirement, former attorney-general Nixola Roxon whinged about her colleagues’ lack of enthusiasm for implementing ASIO’s agenda as quickly as she would have liked. But Labor’s endorsement of the Brandis reforms — Albo notwithstanding — is of a piece with its generally docile role in support of the Coalition’s anti-terror laws during the Howard years. However, Labor does not badge itself as the home of freedom in the Australian polity; indeed, according to the logic of Brandis, as the party of larger government and government intervention, you’d expect Labor to support less freedom and more powers for national security agencies.
So if the Liberals’ view of freedom is curtailed by their unthinking embrace of national security and a paternalistic antipathy to the use of freedom for purposes with which they disapprove, what does the party’s commitment to liberty extend to? Well, to people like themselves, people who can be relied on to use freedom responsibly, in ways that will promote the interests of resources companies, for example, and not express opinions, or wear clothes, deemed threatening or offensive. In the spirit of the Howard years, let us thus no longer talk of the Liberals’ commitment to freedom, but instead to “practical freedom”, freedom shorn of the inconvenient bits that don’t fit the preferred agenda.